It wasn’t until recently that I realized that paranoia rules the world.
Yes, we all like to think that cheerier concepts like “love” and “altruism” and perhaps even “rational self-interest” guide human affairs, but no – deep down, what really drives society is a profound, nigh-inescapable sense of persecution … the grander, the more complex and the more ubiquitous, the better.
No matter where we go and what we do, we’ve convinced ourselves that something is out to get us. Somewhere, there’s a massive coalition of forces conspiring against us, to screw us over and take from us what’s rightfully ours. Lurking in the shadows, they plot our downfall, our unavoidable ruin, perhaps even our very demises. Unless we are on edge 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we just know they’re going to get us – and when they do, it’s going to be a fate worse than anything we could ever possibly imagine.
This isn’t just a central tenet of virtually every special interests group out there, it’s the very thing that makes modern identity politics feasible in the first place.
Republicans are convinced that a cabal of homosexual communists and ISIS are plotting to overthrow America and Democrats are convinced that Monsanto and the Ku Klux Klan are going to mass genocide every brown person in the country. Black Lives Matter knows for a fact that all policemen are “n-word” spouting neo-Nazi stormtroopers hunting African-Americans like wild game just for the LULZ while the Alt-Right knows for a fact that a consortium of Jewish bankers are in cahoots to make white people go extinct. Donald Trump supporters just know that illegal immigrant transgender socialists tried to prevent red-blooded Americans from participating in the general election and Hillary Clinton supporters just know that Vladimir Putin himself dressed up incognito and cast no less than 3 million ballots in swing states last November.
No matter what goes wrong in their respective lives, adherents of these causes invariably have some kind of great boogeyman to blame all their problems on. If they falter and fail in life, it’s NEVER their fault – it’s ALWAYS the insidious doings of that treacherous force lurking in the shadows. Nothing ever happens by random chance; all wrongdoings in the world – no matter how slight – can always be attributed to its villainous handiwork.
Now, that’s an awfully childish way of looking at the world, but I suppose that’s the allure of the conspiracy theorist mindset. In a way, these grandiose, hyper-paranoid fears of “deep state” actors and Russian hackers and financial institute devil worshippers provide “true believers” with a peculiar sense of comfort. It takes away all ambiguity in life and chalks up everything bad that could possibly transpire as an orchestrated event. The paranoid mentality seeks to eliminate chaos and randomness throughout the universe. It attempts to explain away all the things we don’t like and can’t control, which is much more reassuring than just throwing your hands in the air and saying “well, shit just kinda’ happens sometimes.”
What was once the domain of tinfoil hat basement dwellers has become acceptable mainstream behavior. Alex Jones’ “New World Order” rhetoric – which, really, has its roots in apocalyptic Christian propaganda from the 1970s – has become part and parcel of the American political tradition. Liberals are convinced that covert racists have infiltrated Congress and they’re in bed with Russian spies who want to turn the country into Nazi Germany 2.0. Conservatives are convinced that George Soros – who may or may not be a lizard alien ala the monsters from that old TV show V – is bankrolling a Zionist plot to flood the West with Third World immigrants and eradicate Caucasians from the human gene pool. Trump is a puppet for segregationist autistic racists on 4Chan, says the Democrats. Clinton is a puppet for globalist, pizza-chain owning child molesters, says the Republicans.
No highfalutin conspiratorial chatter, it appears, is insane, outlandish or unfounded enough, just as long as it serves the key function of villainizing your ideological rival even more.
Hardcore isolationists who despise globalization hate federal government foreign policy, so they turn around and say George Bush himself pushed the detonator on 9/11. Anti-government gun nuts who despise liberals for just existing don’t like the cut of their jib when it comes to the Second Amendment, so they just blame Democrats for “staging” the mass murder of 20-some-odd schoolchildren as a way of ushering in new gun control legislation. Radical white identity ideologues hate the entertainment industry for having too many Jews in it and trying to dictate culture norms, so when State Farm airs an ad with a mixed race couple in it they accuse the insurance company of subconsciously promoting white genocide. And radical black identity ideologues hate the cultural construct of the white patriarchy for microagressing them into servitude, so they can’t help but claim colleges of being racist for housing KKK robes in science labs, even when said robes are actually just plastic slipcovers over microscopes.
Maybe this hyperactive paranoia streak can be attributed to our culture’s general bent towards vindictiveness. Maybe we’ve been cooped up in our climate-controlled offices and classrooms for too long and we secretly yearn for a good old-fashioned donnybrook to make us feel alive again. Loving someone can make you feel happy, but hating someone can make you feel more even more energized.
And that, perhaps, explains why cockamamie conspiracy chatter has become so commonplace in the post-Trump era. We’re no longer content with truth, we demand a specific kind of truth that only us and our fellow ideologues realize. We want to feel like we – and we alone – have everything figured out, while everybody else is just twiddling their thumbs and scratching their asses. All of this conspiratorial paranoia gives us a sense of heightened self-worth. After all, WE know the truth about the way the world really is, which by default, makes us better than everybody else. How ironic it is that virtually every contemporary conspiracy theory viciously castigates some kind of perceived elitist enclave when the cult of conspiratorial paranoia itself thrives on the very same sense of intellectual exclusivity.
Modern political paranoia has no tolerance for reality. What happens nowadays is never intrinsically “true” or “false.” Rather, we have to wait for the great arbiters of our personal brand of identity politics to come along and decipher the muddles of meaning for us. What happens is just what happens, but what we think it means – or want it to mean – is now the uncontested truth.
No, this is no longer the cultish conspiracy prattle of yesteryear, where conjecture about the moon landing and Kennedy assassination had more of a weird, relaxed hobbyist ring than a deathly serious, dogmatic one. Today’s paranoid conspiracies almost work like religions, offering its adherents a total worldview that promises solutions to all dilemmas big and small. And not unlike the more standard religious orthodoxies, these secular religions demand blind faith and unwavering commitment to the group cause. The only difference is that instead of guaranteeing people everlasting peace and tranquility, they provide them the one thing they want more than anything else in this world: the total and complete destruction of a common adversary.
Many years ago, I remember reading about people who believed they were the victims of “gang stalking” – i.e., they all suffered from extreme delusions of being followed by some shadowy network of nefarious actors. Like the protagonist of The Truman Show, they thought they were being watched at all hours, and that everyone they encountered was actually clandestine agents of the evil cause. Of course, these sorts of people were also solipsistic to the point of insanity, and their fears of being mobbed by people who literally LIVED to see their downfall was actually a manifestation of their own neuroses of insecurity and existential insignificance.
At the time, I laughed. How could anybody be that gullible, that egotistical and that ignorant of the world around them?
Well, flash forward ten years, and now, nearly all of American society is buying into the same kind of popular mass delusion. Welcome to the golden age of paranoia, folks – where the inmates don’t just run the asylum, they’re trying to get all of us to buy a timeshare.