Obviously, conspiracy theories have been pushed in recent years to irresponsible and deadly extremes.
But I can’t help but wonder if some of the pushback comes from the way equivocation has been used in power. Particularly in recent years.
I was legally able to vote for the first time in 2008. For my generation, ending the Middle Eastern wars and the national security state were essential priorities. Obama ran on a promise to close Guantanamo Bay and I believed him. Others did to. We also believed him when he said he’d make Roe v Wade the law of the land.
Then he started hemming and hawing with “maybe we shouldn’t leave the Middle East until we set up a Western-style democracy.” And then he sicc’d the Feds on Snowden, Assange and Manning when they blew the whistle on American air strikes targeting civilians and emergency first responders in Iraq. Eight years later, Trump is elected and Guantanamo Bay is still open.
Trump won populist sympathy with claims of bringing jobs back to America and courted the religious right with a promise to overturn Roe v Wade. He did neither of those things. What he did do was host Saudi nobility at his DC hotel chain where they dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars. Jared Kushner received two billion dollars from the Saudi crown prince for a documentary that was never made. When an American journalist was murdered by the Saudi court, he ignored it. While outsourcing even more American labor needs overseas.
Most Americans fell for one of those celebrity politicians or the other. And those who voted for either Trump or Obama were not rewarded for their trust. Both Obama and Trump stopped short of their campaign promises while claiming that their hearts were always (and remain) in the right place.
Saying one thing and doing another is hypocrisy. Saying one thing, doing another and claiming that you were serving the same ends in both instances is equivocation. Many younger people came of age under Obama or Trump. Even before then, American voters were long familiar with their values being dangled just out of reach.
If “woke” activists appear to fly off the handle over mere words and ideological nit-picks, I think it is easy to see why. It follows that a history of equivocation would engender a suspicion of vague, interpretive language. For a people who are tired of the abuse of language and good will, conspiracy theories are a ripe target. Any body of ideas in which appearance is taken for confirmation will not be treated charitably. Especially when one side of the political spectrum is more willing to weaponize conspiracy theories.
On the subjects of broken faith, double standards and recent politics, there is something else we must necessarily mention.
In 2018, on Sam Harris’s Waking Up podcast, he interviewed a guest with a compelling theory on the origins of the MeToo movement and the 2016 election.
For the sake of clarification: I’m aware that #MeToo was started by Tarana Burke as a means for victims of sexual violence to legitimize their overlooked experiences. Burke has also said that outing individual predators is a quick fix compared to the work of systematic reform. Burke writes that healing the wounded must matter more than punishing the guilty.
With that out of the way, back to the Waking Up episode: Harris’a guest theorized that the election of Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault innumerable times, was a galvanizing event. Weinstein and R.Kelly were exposed, but how much could that actually mean if someone like Donald Trump could become President?
A common rebuttal at that time was that lasting change is incremental and must take time. For recent generations of American voters, who grew up hearing “incrementalism is the only way”, this smacks of equivocation. While dissidents are being told that change must be incremental, the powerful and the privileged are free from self-restraint.
The dynamic reminds me of the ancient Peerages of France and Britain. A Peer (like nobility in general) received fortune-sized salaries. For occupying their office. For simply being a Peer of the nobility. Peers were protected from certain laws. Victor Hugo had an affair with a married woman who was convicted and imprisoned for adultery. Hugo was a Peer, and therefore could not be charged. The attention paid to the marginalization of women in his work suggests that the incident stayed with him. To say nothing of his novel l’homme qui rit, which villainized the Peerage.
These legal and social protections were afforded, presumably, for the same reason as their salaries: simply existing as Peers.
Similar privileges were common among ancient nobility in general. But the Peerage represented a particular relationship with feudal power. A Peer was a social equal of the monarchy. It was a relative distinction.
The modern day concept of a ‘celebrity’ is also a relative distinction. A Peer was a peer of a royal family and a celebrity “celebrates” something. To celebrate is to bestow legitimacy with your witness. An officiant for a ceremony is a kind of celebrant. The term has made a comeback in modern paganism for clergy who perform marriages, cleansings and other rituals. Andy Warhol’s concept of the superstar was a personality who simply embodies something. The films Warhol made with his own cohort of self-proclaimed superstars consisted of the actors doing ordinary, day-to-day activities. The project was inspired by Warhol’s obsession with the early years of Hollywood where the face of an actor, alone, was an almost archetypical embodiment. Marilyn Monroe simply existed as feminine beauty and John Wayne simply existed as rugged masculinity.
This method of embodiment is where I see the connection between the ancient European Peerages and the modern celebrity. John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe, as celebrities, are celebrants of aesthetic ideals. A less specific function is apparent in modern pop culture, though: the famous are seen by others. They are celebrated by others, whose witness gives them power, while at the same time they represent the power of being seen. Modern celebrities are celebrants of visibility. The only trait required for visibility is to be visible. Beyond this, that which is visible need only exist.
Like the European Peerage, a modern celebrity’s existence is treated with reverence. If an outsider demanding change has to carry the burden of high-minded stoicism and restraint while the powerful can get away with anything, they will feel like they are being told to stay out of the way. This can explain why privilege has drawn so much anger in recent years. Just lately, this double standard is even harder to miss with the followers of Donald Trump making accusations of government overreach with their criminal investigations. Immediately after the 2020 election, Andrew Yang was asked in an interview whether or not Trump should face criminal prosecution for insurrection, assassination of Soleimani, emoluments or anything else. Yang said that to do so would be to join the ranks of third world dictatorships where heads roll between administrations. After the illegal, offensive wars of George Junior and Obama’s double taps and whistle-blower prosecutions, giving Trump a pass would send a clear message that an ex-President is free from prosecution simply for being an ex-President.
A gap between the restraint of outsiders and the freedom of insiders invites suspicion of vague language. When the vagueness is weaponized through conspiracy theories, it becomes even more suspect. Ironically, it becomes harder to think of that gap as anything but conspiratorial.