Living in a conspiracy theory in Trump’s America
Today conspiracy theories have become the true 'opium of the masses'.
By: Hamid Dabashi
Who ordered the brutal assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and why? Did you know there is a link between Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and Princess Diana? Who really sent pipe bombs to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, CNN in New York, and half a dozen other Democratic opponents of Donald Trump and why?
Was this not a Democratic conspiracy to distract attention from the midterm elections? Are there “Middle Eastern terrorists” hiding among the caravan of thousands of migrants making its way through Mexico towards the United States? And while we are at it, who killed JFK anyway? And who is behind 9/11? Wasn’t that “an inside job?” And more importantly: Is Donald Trump an alien in a human body – sent by some evil extra-terrestrial monster to destroy the earth?
I walked into New York’s Met Breuer museum of modern and contemporary art one chilly October morning to see their extraordinary exhibition Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy, wondering whence this penchant for conjuring up bizarre conspiracy theories?
“For the last fifty years,” the curators of this new exhibition at the Met Breuer inform us, “artists have explored the hidden operations of power and the symbiotic suspicion between the government and its citizens that haunts Western democracies.” We need no convincing of that in Trump’s America, or Europe after Brexit, or the Arab World after the Jamal Khashoggi murder, or Iran after British colonialism, or Turkey after the most recent attempted coup.
We in the Arab and Muslim world live and breathe conspiracy theories. It is a sigh of relief, a measure of our defence mechanism against the frightful sight of the cannibals of ISIL, butchers of Saudi Arabia, the Zionist conquest of Palestine and daily genocide of Palestinians, Erdogan taking selfies as the champion of free press, the ruling clergy in Iran happy no one is paying closer attention to the butchery of their own political opponents. Of course, this is all a conspiracy – how else can one explain all this dance macabre of fact and fiction?
The hidden hand of history
“Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy, the first major exhibition to tackle this perennially provocative topic.” Citizens of the republic at the heart of the US Empire, lo and behold, are as much prone to such delicious theories as the rest of us mortals at its colonial edges. It is good to know.
This bizarre, ingenious, mesmerising exhibition is divided into two parts – its curators tell us: “The first half of the exhibition comprises works by artists who hew strictly to the public record, uncovering hidden webs of deceit … In the second part, other artists dive headlong into the fever dreams of the disaffected, creating fantastical works that nevertheless uncover uncomfortable truths in an age of information overload and weakened trust in institutions.”
In this exhibition, we learn much about the history, and the sociopathology, of such conspiracy theories, only to walk out and step into Trump’s America – the real, much larger, asylum of such theories wreaking havoc on our fragile planet. Climate change, Trump believes, is a Chinese conspiracy.
“An avowed Donald Trump supporter in southern Florida was charged … with sending pipe bombs to critics of the president, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Thirteen of the devices were mentioned on a federal criminal complaint. A 14th device was reported by the billionaire Tom Steyer, who has called for Trump’s impeachment.” No, this is not from the exhibition I just saw at the Met Breuer. This is from the CNN reporting on something that just happened in the United States.
“Cesar Sayoc was arrested at an auto parts shop in the city of Plantation … His white van, which was covered in stickers celebrating Republicans and denouncing the president’s opponents, was parked outside. Sayoc, 56, has an address in the Miami suburb of Aventura and an extensive arrest record. According to his social media accounts, he works as a booking agent for a live events company and is a former wrestler and cage fighter.”
“Cage Fighter?” What is that? I thought I was better off walking back to the conspiracy theory exhibition. Things looked much saner there, more stable. There I was watching and reading history. Here history was watching and reading us.
Flights of fancy
I have had occasions and reasons to suggest, “conspiracy theories are flights of fancy and delusional fantasies run amok. But they are also a healthy sign of a public defiance against the establishment media and their conventional opinion-makers left, right, and center.”
That assessment, however, is by and large for when people reject the governmental explanations of something, like the official account of the assassination of John F Kennedy, or the official report of the events of 9/11. Distrust in government, in the state narrative, triggers when and how people revolt into flights of fancies.
But under Trump, we have a whole new brand of conspiracy theories. Here, the presidential office itself, the president’s tweets, and by extension his spokespeople, and down all the way to his base – they all actively and relentlessly peddle conspiracy theories, now most notorious among them this character who went around trying to harm the people who were opposed to Trump’s militant lunacies.
Conspiracy theories are not peculiar to the American culture of course. Every nation in Asia, Africa, or Latin America has had reasons to resort to such flights of fancies. In Iran, much of these theories has to do with the British colonial designs. A literary masterpiece of modern Persian fiction, Iraj Pezeshkzad’s My Uncle Napoleon (1973), is entirely rooted in such fanciful attribution of power to British colonialism.
Set during the Allied occupation of Iran in the 1940s, My Uncle Napoleon is narrated around the delusional patriarch of a family, with a negligible military career, who deludes himself, aided by his Sancho Panza-like servant Mash Qasem, to believe that like Napoleon he has been a bulwark of battling against British imperialism.
The ingeniously satirical novel was so deeply rooted in the history of Iranian xenophobic paranoia holding the British responsible for every iota of mishaps in their lives that the term “Uncle Napoleon” became proverbial to the whole conspiratorial trait in the modern Iranian character. The way the novel works is the fusion of fact and fantasy – the fact of the British interference in Iranian affairs yielding to delusional absurdities.
Historical subconscious of the world
Conspiracy theories are signs of helplessness, the total collapse of any trust in the ruling states or the civic discourses that could hold them responsible. But with the reign of Trump, conspiracy theories have entered a new phase, when the state of mental siege of the white racist delusions sees itself outmanoeuvred by history. They resort to conspiracy theories not to subvert the ruling regime, but to sustain their own losing grip on reality.
As Kathryn Olmsted points put in her excellent essay in the catalogue accompanying the Met Breuer exhibition, History and Conspiracy, the distrust of Americans in their government is a relatively new phenomenon and begins in earnest after the assassination of John F Kennedy on 22 November 1963, when people did not believe the official explanations of the Warren Commission. This was exacerbated in the 1970s with by Watergate scandal, and soon after that by the Iran-Contra affair, later to be capped by the events of 9/11, which many believe to have been “an inside job”.
As the two main authors of the catalogue, Douglas Eklund and Ian Alteveer, tell us in their learned introduction, the very term “conspiracy theory” is in fact “dismissive by design”, for “in 1967, the CIA devised and promulgated it in response to widespread scepticism about the Warren Commission report on the assassination of President John F Kennedy.” They charge the US government with intentionally having “promoted … a paranoid version of reality, one that fractured the national psyche at home and, when put into practice, shaped global conflict.”
That “paranoid version of reality” has today become the modus operandi of US politics all the way to the White House. Today, in fact, conspiracy theories, both for and against the ruling states, have become the functional equivalent of a religion in its sociological functions.
Karl Marx in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843-1844) famously wrote: “Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.”
Conspiracy theories have today become the general theory of this world, its logic in popular form.
Today Marx’s famous quip, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature,” very much applies to these conspiracy theories. It is much easier to believe Donald Trump is an alien from the outer space whose UFO is parked somewhere in a basement in the Kremlin than to think critically through the factual evidence underlying the rise of democratic fascism.
Conspiracy theories are “the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” They are “the opium of the masses” – their overdose driving some racist paranoid thugs to pure acts of murderous lunacy, while in healthy small doses give the vicious acts of state violence a perfectly plausible explanation.