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WHAT are you worried about? Obviously we’re all worried we might get the disease and die, or that our loved ones might get infected and so on. It’s the background thrumming anxiety that makes us alternately irritable, angry, sad or even slightly high.
But there are other things not so obvious that I’m worried about and maybe you are too?
I’m worried about all the things they’re dropping and not doing under the disguise of the pandemic. The extension of early years nursery education has been quietly dropped. Monitoring at the Mossmorran petrochemical plant, which was already completely inadequate, has been cancelled by Sepa.
But the things we really should be worried about we probably don’t know anything about and never will.
I’m worried about government incompetence and that they are not telling us the real truth about the figures involved here. And I’m worried about the impact of that lack of openness and transparency as it leaches out into the public consciousness. Because as we languish in this fourth week of lockdown (with no obvious sight of it ending), the effect of that government secrecy and disinformation is a cloud of distrust.
Covid lands into a world where respect and trust in the political classes is very low. It’s been corroded for years since the expenses scandal and before, as social media feeds a culture of distrust and suspicion.
A tonne of that is a good, healthy thing, a growing lack of deference and a mounting sense that those in power don’t know what they’re doing. But the other aspect of that culture of distrust is a malignant conspiracy culture that allows whacky and sinister ideas to grow arms and legs. In this atmosphere, where people are genuinely both scared and ill at ease, this tendency is supercharged, boosted by a potent mixture of fragments of knowledge and desperation.
The mirror to this phenomenon is the distrust in the media which has been festering for decades. This is both healthy and toxic. While a critical stance on media fault lines and structures is imperative, a blind hatred of all media and journalists is debilitating. Anything can be deemed irrelevant and dismissed as “fake news” without examination if you don’t like it. People openly clamor for news media which just reinforces their existing beliefs.
This fracture, this paradox, runs through conspiracy culture. As one person tweeted this week: “There is a paradox at the heart of conspiracism: its starting point is a radical doubt, but its devotees are highly credulous and susceptible to the trappings of authority.” As Keith Kahn-Harris points out in Denial: The Unspeakable Truth, his brilliant book on “denialism”: “Denialism is a mix of corrosive doubt and corrosive credulity.”
And this becomes circular. Once you go down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theory there’s often no way back. Climate denialists and Moon-landing sceptics, chemtrail-watchers and Flat-Earthers, Assad-apologists and anti-vaxxers, Covid disinformation enthusiasts and 5G tower attackers often feed off each other, citing and cross-referencing each other’s descent into madness. In this culture of paranoia people who distrust “official” knowledge wear it as a badge of honour. Misinformation can be shared virally, if that’s a term we can still use, and gain authority in its presentation even if its starting premise is just ridiculous. In this atmosphere individuals gain cult-like followings and a status despite their peculiar outpourings. The more whacky it gets the more they are egged on, easily dismissing anyone who stands in their path with their “facts” and rationality.
There’s a few reasons for this phenomenon. The first is the spectacular failure of leadership we’ve seen in the west for decades. The spurious distrust of “experts” that manifest itself through the Trump and Brexit years is a displacement effect from those who have very genuine reasons to not trust those in charge. Equally, the toxic attacks on “metropolitan elites” stem from a totally reasonable class-based anger at the society that has been built on gross and disfiguring inequality.
But the main reason for the growth of this phenomenon is that states do act in secrecy, parapolitics does exist, we know this. There is a lot out there to be suspicious about, there are good reasons to be deeply critical of those in power and good reasons to examine the clandestine networks of power that exist.
But, as Robin Ramsay explores in Politics And Paranoia, there was a moment in recent years when the conspiracy phenomenon switched from being one driven by the left as being a critically minded exploration and challenge of the powerful, to one dominated by the right, with wildly irrational ideas – as most recently seen in the convergence of the Trump base and the “Q” cult. This type of thinking is infectious. In recent months we’ve even seen individuals in the Scottish nationalist movement start to talk of the “Deep State” an unconscious mimicking of a key term from Trump supporters.
Conspiracism and populism are almost exclusively a politically right-wing phenomenon.
They are now boosted and given airplay by the proliferation of new media outlets on the fringes of the British and American right, from Guido Fawkes to The Spectator, from Spiked to Breitbart, all seeking the clicks and happy to give space to (almost always) angry white men.
The problem of all of this in a time of pandemic hardly needs stated.
It’s not only that we need to have some collective social control. We also need a cure and we need testing and we need to interact with the state and with each other.
So the coronavirus arrives in a toxic soup of extreme distrust of politics and media at a time when we need leadership and to build trust and solidarity and in a moment where we need to have sources of trusted information. This has gone from being useful to being essential.
The main thing I’m worried about is that people are so concerned and anxious they will buy into theories that are dangerously stupid.
We strongly need in times like this to be rational and to have faith in each other. We urgently need to have good faith and to build trust and solidarity.
This doesn’t mean we have to lose our critical edge. It doesn’t mean we have to be unthinking about power and media. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be angry at the chaotic and the disgraceful governance that surrounds us, because if anything we’re not angry enough.
Conspiracy lands and thrives in a post-ideological world, where the political landscape has become so fuzzy and confused that it is difficult to make any sense, so you will believe anything that’s out before you.
If anything the coronavirus crisis needs a new politics, new political ideas to create the new systems we will need to recover and rebuild our world.
They may look quite different from the old politics as everything has changed completely.
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