The pundits in the corporate media speak with indignant contempt of the conspiratorial culture in the United States, evidently ignorant of their own indispensable role in producing this atmosphere of paranoia. For as long as any living person can recall, the corporate media has served the ruling class by disseminating its mendacious messaging, by deliberately misinforming the peasantry. The arrangement has been supremely lucrative, and therefore agreeable, to the so-called journalists and editors of the mainstream press. Alas, like most of the devious schemes practiced to perfection by the neo-capitalists of the twentieth century, the marriage of media and state has begotten monstrous offspring, including a benighted electorate that seeks impractical solutions to problems that it does not understand. Continuously abused by the political establishment and the media that defends it, the electorate rejects the official narrative, promising to create, or accept, another.
The conspiracy theory is the electorate’s first attempt to free itself from the cerebral fetters that the corporate press has forced it within. Taught to assess and to reason incorrectly, the electorate now tries to teach itself wisdom. Predictably, it will make countless mistakes, some of them comically primitive, before it obtains understanding. The establishment searches obsessively for these errors and, once it has discovered them, accentuates them, and repeatedly reminds the other peasants of them, as if they were unconscionable crimes born of the most unforgivable sins. We are taught that the pursuit of intellectual freedom, irrespective of the pursuant’s intent, inevitably ends only in the crassest form of stupidity—and therefore, in the unerring wisdom of the establishment, to pursue is to be stupid.
In other words, to defy the establishment is to be stupid. The consequence of such a perspective is the discrediting, a priori, of quite literally all criticism of the establishment. Clearly, this outcome would be perfectly agreeable to the establishment, but it betrays, in its marked departure from the establishment’s purported principles pertaining to the freedom of expression, an insecurity on the part of the ruling class. Why does the ruling class suddenly believe it is necessary to use its many resources to stigmatize every criticism of its policies and to informally prohibit the establishment media from voicing that criticism, except to condemn it unambiguously? Such a procrustean policy suggests a bourgeoning concern that this criticism—or the skepticism that engenders it, at least—is spreading too rapidly. For decades, the establishment has labored to convince the peasants that the mainstream opinion invariably reflects the common opinion, but the intellectual intolerance of “the mainstream” raises uncomfortable questions about the definition, and the validity, of that most institutional term.
Consider the fervid intensity with which the corporate media and the political establishment have discountenanced the claim that Hunter Biden profited from brackish business dealings in Ukraine. For more than a year, the unnamed, uncredentialed, and often unseen arbiters of truth in the United States have cautioned us against investigating any of the interesting reports that Joe Biden’s sole surviving son may have performed unvirtuous deeds while he was pocketing $50,000 monthly on the board of Burisma, a natural gas producer. We don’t know what he may or may not have done, but we do know that his father, in his time as Vice-President of the United States, bullied Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into firing Victor Shokin, the nation’s General Prosecutor, lest his government lose out on a $1 billion loan through the IMF. Might the elder Biden have been looking to Burisma when he wielded his might? Certainly not, and suggesting contrariwise is an ignominy punishable by suspension from social media (for the staff of the New York Post) or impeachment (for the President of the United States).
For all of the pallid pageantry of the impeachment proceedings, I was interested only in the frigid neurosis of the corporate journalists. Twenty-four hours daily did they write with unaffected mirth of Trump’s imminent expulsion from the White House—the deserved consequence for “spreading baseless rumors” about Biden—but at no point could they bring themselves to describe or explain these rumors, even for the purpose of informing their readers. They kept their readers in the dark, presumably to protect them from the ruinous effects of processing malignant misinformation; there is a tangible fear among the neoliberals that misinformation corrupts the mind and warps the soul, not unlike witchcraft, and that one must not apprehend this material, even in an academic context, lest one succumb to mental poisoning. Only professionals ought to handle these volatile contents, and we must trust the good judgement of the respectable gatekeepers of information, who will do the hard work of thinking and reasoning for us.
We are learning to defer to intellectual authority for fear of injury or exploitation, menaces from which we tend to seek protection by appealing to physical authority. If the government ever successfully criminalizes the act of publishing misinformation, or that which the intellectual authorities regard as misinformation, then the physical authorities shall complete the work begun by our intellectual acquiescence. Indeed, the government appears to be progressing rather rapidly to this end: eighteen months removed from the arrest of Julian Assange, the largest social media platforms are curtailing discussion of “hacked materials”, including the New York Post’s recent release of Hunter Biden’s emails, correspondence that suggests his profitable activities in Ukraine could very well have been less than wholesome. For this disclosure, Twitter has suspended the Post, much to the pleasure of the neoliberals, but only to the mild displeasure of the neoconservatives.
Contemporaries of the Post have declined to rally to the publisher’s defense. Most of the prominent corporate outlets are describing the “controversy” or the “claims of bias”, granting at least as much time and space to the argument for censorship as to the criticism thereof, criticism that, until very recently, was believed to be self-explanatory. In an article published last week, the BBC focused on Twitter’s failure to explain its decision to censor the Post, while leaving the policy of censorship unquestioned. The technocratic implication is that the policy cannot be intelligently challenged, as its virtue should be clear to any adequately educated person. Only a reckless, unreasonable zealot would cast doubt upon the reverence and reliability of the “fact-checkers”, as the reinforcements of the intellectual authorities prefer to call themselves.
One such “fact-checker”, who lives up to the crude childishness of her title, is Marianna Spring, a BBC reporter specializing in “disinformation and social media”. In the aforementioned article, she frames the Post affair as an episode in “social media’s fight against misinformation”. She believes in the necessity of this fight, and because she accepts censorship as a permissible, even honorable, method of war, she cannot interpret the suppression of the Post as anything worse than an innocent error. “Republicans have been left outraged,” she writes, not because of censorship’s contemptible function, but because Twitter’s “reasoning was not explained immediately”. We will notice, also, how she reduces the “outrage” to a particular political faction, one that is doubtlessly disreputable to her decidedly neoliberal audience. The converse, however, she does not believe: when she writes of the “pressure [that] has been growing on Twitter and Facebook to tackle political disinformation and interference”, she intimates a widespread pressure, considerable pressure, popular demand to halt the flow of misinformation—or disinformation, as she uses the terms interchangeably.
The embarrassing convolution of this system of control exposes the impracticality of revoking the freedom of expression, especially in a digital culture such as ours. Electronic communication is an integral feature of modern American life, and although it is possible to return to exclusively passive means thereof, it would be difficult to do so without sacrificing the original appeal of social media. More importantly, the authoritarians cannot prohibit the individualism of the American peasantry without startling and frightening them, without inspiring them to dread repressions more severe. It is then, or now, that questions arise as to the true purpose of these ominous measures, and it is out of such questions that conspiracy theories form. Not all conspiracy theories are alike, and many of them are elementally absurd, but the endurance of the conspiracy theory as a cultural phenomenon is indicative of some prevailing potential for intellectual independence. It also reveals the strength of the authoritarian force that threatens it, and it can only foreshadow the extensive work that will be required to defeat it.