The Conspiratorial Mind03-19-2023
The Conspiratorial Mind
Democracy requires trust. Not just democracy. Living together requires that we agree on some basic facts and beliefs about the world. It requires what Hannah Arendt called the common or the shared world, the ground upon which we walk and the sky above us. The common world is not obvious or natural. We are all different. Arendt always reminds us that the fundamental plurality of persons means that we are all unique. We have our opinions, our ways of seeing the things in the world from our own perspective. She calls this the dokei moi, from the Greek, meaning how it appears or shows itself to me. The world shows itself to all of us differently. And yet somehow, we must also find ways of seeing the things of the world in common. For Arendt, the path to the common world is through politics, through talking with others. The institutions of politics—be they town halls, debating societies, congresses, or courts—are designed to bring a plurality of people together—each with their own ways of seeing the world—and encourage them to see something new that is common, that they share. But what about when the fundamental trust that allows such institutions to function fails? Phil Christman explores our snowballing sense that the “wrongness is pervasive.” At this moment of wrongness, we turn to conspiracy theories and paranoia that makes the exploration of a common world with others well nigh impossible. If you want to understand the conspiratorial mind of our moment, Christman is an able guide. He writes:
It’s all wrong. The wrongness is pervasive; you could not, if asked, identify the it or the its that went wrong. Wrongness leaches into everything, like the microplastics you read about, which may or may not be reducing sperm count in men, which may or may not be good, in the long run—it’s something to do with the environment. Someone wanted you to feel one way or the other about it, but you can’t remember who or why or whether you agreed with him. Everyone speaks so authoritatively, whether it’s on the evening news or a podcast, in an Internet video or a book, or even in one of those Twitter threads that begins (irksomely, you once felt, but now you don’t notice) with the little picture of a spool. Authority makes them all sound the same; it crosses all their faces and leaves many of the same furrows. Only afterward, trying to add it all up, do you half-remember that none of them agreed with each other. But the wrongness you can be sure of. It is like God, undergirding all things.
One day, you stumble across something—a long video, an article, a conversation (How rare those are! You must make more time for them…) with a learned friend. The same self-righteousness of authority crosses his face, the tinniness of certainty issued from his mouth too, but this time what he says sticks. It seems to explain the wrongness. Or not even explain it, really—just make it stand still. It was this thing that was wrong. The monster disclosed himself. He was something small and definable—a vaccine, a chemical—that spreads until it can’t be isolated, or he was something large and indefinable—“wokeness,” “CRT”—that terminates in many small, sharp wrongnesses. Or maybe it was the second sort of thing, but epitomized in a single image, so that it sounds like the first: The Cathedral. The cabal. But for a second, you could see the wrongness. How clarifying, simply to see it. You felt something like desire.