No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

The Glass Hammer / A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy

 The Glass Hammer, by KW Jeter, bears the stamp of Jeter's mentor Philip K Dick, both thematically and in a character that seems very much like a stand-in for PKD. There are some thoughtful idea about reality and media scattered throughout the science-fictiony tropes and Dickian paranoia of post-whoops America, psychic computers (or are they?), new religions, and the messiah (or is he?).

The book makes the case (pretty well) that what we're seeing now, most notably typified by Trump, but by no means confined to him, is a changing nature of conspiracies in modern political life. And that it is corrosive to democracy and the nation and the very idea of that 'knowledge' and 'expertise' are possible.

The new conspiracism is something different. There is no punctilious demand for proofs,4 no exhaustive amassing of evidence, no dots revealed to form a pattern, no close examination of the operators plotting in the shadows. The new conspiracism dispenses with the burden of explanation. Instead, we have innuendo and verbal gesture: “A lot of people are saying …” Or we have bare assertion: “Rigged!”—a one-word exclamation that evokes fantastic schemes, sinister motives, and the awesome capacity to mobilize three million illegal voters to support Hillary Clinton for president. This is conspiracy without the theory.

For JFK and 9/11 conspiracy theorists, there was always a lot of talk about the evidence. Magic bullets, grassy knolls, the melting point of steel and so on. Now it's just smoke and bluff and bare assertion. Millions of illegal ballots? What's the evidence? At best you get allusions to affidavits that assert millions of illegal ballots. Referencing the claim itself is now tantamount to evidence for the new conspiracists. Obviously, this allows for a free-floating phantasmagoria of fraudulent claims. That lead to people shooting up pizza parlors or storming the Capitol.  Anyway, more quotes that resonated with me.

The most striking feature of the new conspiracism is just this—its assault on reality. The new conspiracism strikes at what we think of as truth and the grounds of truth. It strikes at what it means to know something. The new conspiracism seeks to replace evidence, argument, and shared grounds of understanding with convoluted conjurings and bare assertions. Among the threats to democracy, only the new conspiracism does double damage: delegitimation and disorientation.

the new conspiracists call for repeating and spreading their claims—“liking,” tweeting, and forwarding. Repetition takes the place of organized political action. What Trump, for instance, wants is not the architecture of an organized political party or even an organized movement but a throng that assents to his account of reality. “You know what’s important,” he said about his fantasy of illegal Clinton votes, “millions of people agree with me when I say that. Affirmation of his reality is the key act

Representative Bryan Zollinger perfectly capture the ethos of true-enoughness in his suggestion that the Democratic Party might very well have brought white nationalists to Charlottesville in 2017 to create a violent clash: “I am not saying it is true, but I am suggesting that it is completely plausible.” The new conspiracism sets a low bar: if one cannot be certain that a belief is entirely false, with the emphasis on entirely, then it might be true—and that’s true enough. 

When it comes to true enough, what matters is not evidence but repetition. Participation in conspiracist social networks triggers assent. Echoing, repeating, sharing, liking, and forwarding a conspiracist claim is a show of affiliation with others who are angry and confident that things are not as they seem. Conspiracist narratives refresh these passions by reminding members of the group of what they feel with renewed energy.

modern democracy depends on expert knowledge. This comes to bear especially in what has come to be called the administrative state, which comprises the myriad agencies staffed by career professionals who rely on specialized knowledge they create or draw on from research institutions and from civil society groups outside government. This is the basis for formulating, implementing, and enforcing public policy touching everything from safe water to consumer protection to interest rates and banking rules. These scientists, statisticians, economists, and ethicists are not elected; they are insulated to a reasonable extent from political controversies and partisan influence. They are “disinterested” as a matter of professional discipline and seek to apply impartial standards in the general interest.

These experts, of course, are the focus of a lot of the ire of the conspiracy-minded. Climate scientists, Dr. Fauci, our intelligence agencies, ivory tower academics

It turns out that conspiracist claims are easy to create, and easy for officials to embellish, endorse, or just allow to play out. What lies behind complicity by insinuation, equivocation, or silence? As we detail in chapter 7, representatives are vulnerable to angry constituents who subscribe to conspiracy. When reelection is in jeopardy, or an official is haunted by the specter of a potential primary challenge, silence or coy encouragement seems a safer posture than correcting the record and offending one’s supporters.

Closed to the world of shared understanding, conspiracism distorts what it means to know something. At a deeper level, the new conspiracists claim to own reality, and in doing so, they assault our common sense of reality. We experience a special form of anxiety and disorientation. We have been unwillingly drafted into a contest over who owns reality.

if the community in which we place our trust gets it wrong or is corrupt, then what we take to be knowledge may be unjustified and erroneous. Some put their trust in a community of scientists and public health officials who affirm that vaccines do not cause autism; others put their trust in an internet community of anonymous conspiracists who affirm that Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman is running an international child sex-trafficking ring out of a pizzeria. What is the difference? At the level of the individual who gets his or her knowledge from others, there is not much difference.

The difference is found at another level, in the characteristics that define the community whose authority we accept on trust. In one case, these communities are defined by their commitment to publicize the evidence on which their conclusions are based, and thus to subject them to the scrutiny of others. In the other case, the community is defined by access to private knowledge that is unsharable,

When we decide what community is worthy of epistemic trust, we are implicitly also deciding what it means to know something.

Tags: anger, book, nonsense, pkd, politics, skepticism

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