Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Metaphor of Qanon


Qanon sounds Onion-esque. Qanon “alleges, falsely, that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are plotting against Mr. Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring.” I even understand that “pizzagate” is still operative in the Qanon canon, which alleges that Hillary Clinton operates the child sex ring out of a pizzaria in Washington, D.C. Right – child sex-trafficking rackets headed by Hillary Clinton, drinking blood, worshipping Satan. Sure. Anyone really believe that?

Well, apparently a lot of people do. The other night I saw TV interviews with “suburban women” who believed it. My mouth got stuck in the open position and my head got stuck in the rock back and forth mode. How stupid can these people be? What on earth could induce anyone to believe this crap? When a “suburban woman” was asked if she believed it was true, she answered “I wish it wasn't,” and Brian Williams reacted on camera by shaking his lowered head in abject disbelief.

Me, after watching those amazing interviews I went to bed and finished up Bob Reich's latest book, The System. (He's an acquaintance, hence “Bob.” Probably the only famous person I know, slightly. Although I did meet Steve Kerr last year and we joked with each other.) He is such a cogent writer. In The System, he makes the familiar observation is that in the last 40 years inequality has skyrocketed, the powerful have become even more so, and the rich have succeeded in persistently changing the rules in their favor. As a result, the working class and the poor have gotten royally screwed.

Among the causal factors he cites are companies adopting the Milton Friedman viewpoint of shareholder power (as against stakeholder power, with the resulting orientation that nothing else matters except the stock price), the shift of power to management over workers as unions decline (under pressure), and governmental deregulation (under persistent corporate pressure). The result is that the very rich garner nearly all of the increasing wealth of our society; hence, the inequality.

What legitimizes the results? One is the belief system of market fundamentalism. Despite all the advantages nurtured by the favored to ensure their success, the belief is promulgated that the market is basically a fair test for all, and if you succeed you must have deserved it. I think Reich mentions the similarity of this belief to the divine right of kings.

The second legitimation comes from bribery. If you are one of the beneficiaries of the system – a highly paid lawyer, say – even though you don't have the power directly, you are hired at a high price and thus quite ready to support the system. While they see themselves as professionals of the highest ethical values, their functions are essentially those of enablers.

The third legitimation is manufactured threats from “the other” – immigrants, minorities, visible enemies to divert attention from the invisible oppressing oligarchy.

It's a very convincing and beautifully written book. I finished it and went to sleep.

I don't know what I dreamed, but I must have dreamed, or dreamily thought about the book and the interviews. Night thinking can be the clearest. I might have thought about the passion of Bob Woodward imploring that Trump supporters must be taken seriously and understood. I might have thought about what Reich says about Arlee Hochshield's book about the intimate lives of the afflicted in society, how they are not necessarily racist, mostly just afflicted.

Whatever it was, when I woke up, I thought I might have an answer of sorts for what had set Williams' head to bobbing. Yes, the Qanon beliefs are more than absurd, who would believe them? Of course it's tempting, and not wholly incorrect, to say that these people must be incredibly stupid and credulous and insulated from the world at large if they harbor Qanon beliefs. But it's also true that when we think people are stupid, sometimes what we think of as stupid thinking can really just be alternative thinking, not alternative facts in the imbecilic Kellyanne Conway assertion, but alternative thinking. I thought that when we “listen to them,” we need to use our imagination to understand what they are saying.

I thought, did the Greeks really believe there were a bunch of gallivanting immortals on Mount Olympus, fighting with each other and visiting earth, seducing mortals and constantly intervening? What about the story of the Virgin Birth – any takers? But while these stories might be fanciful, that doesn't mean they are not powerful. Millions of people find them full of truths. They are metaphors. You might not imbibe all the stories, but you still entertain them, because they are part of a larger perception, a larger orientation.

So I thought, what if we think about Qanon as a metaphor. Reich's book outlines quite well the pressures on the middle class trying to keep afloat as the wealth goes elsewhere, just as Woodward described. The women leave home and work, everyone works longer hours, and families draw down savings and borrow (until 2008, anyway). And they get angry. They can't put it all together the way Reich can, but they sense it. So when they hear a story, they listen. Elites draining the life out of the lower classes? Check. That their dreams have been stolen, and their dreams for their children, and that they have all even been defiled? Check.

They might not be the smartest or most capable people in the world, but nonetheless, they deserve a hell of a lot better than what they are getting. The world is getting richer, there is enough wealth available so that everyone could have a secure and satisfying life, but instead of that, the rich are keeping everything for themselves, and these working class people and middle class people are living very hard, insecure lives with no enticing future to even hope for. So if you were going to have a dream to encapsulate all that, wouldn't the Qanon fantasy fill the bill? The elite is in on it, all of them. They are sucking our blood, they are taking our children.

So, as with The Book of Mormon – it's a metaphor. We can call them credulous and unsophisticated, but we could also just say that people think differently. Everyone doesn't have that big, logical, schooled and drilled left cerebral lobe of logic. Some people think in terms of stories and impressions, in broad brush strokes, in intuition. Of course, pinning the savior button on Donald Trump is, well, more than regrettable. But pinning the conspirator button on Hillary isn't far off, much as she might not be conscious of it. Reich pins it pretty firmly on Jamie Dimon, who might not be aware of it, either.

I just wish their metaphor included, as the poet David Shaddock asserts, identifying him as a less-cunning Milton-esque Satan.

Budd Shenkin

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