Reflections on “Under the Tinfoil Hat: Understanding Conspiracy in the Age of Populism”, a Futureproofing Anthropology Seminar Event, 20 September 2019 with Mathijs Pelkmans and Paolo Heywood.
This past June, a group of social media users decided it would be fun to publicly discuss the idea of “storming” a US military base in the Nevada Desert, known simply as “Area 51,” a secretive location where some believe the government is hiding, among other things, the remains of extra-terrestrials. Soon, a Facebook event titled “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us” was created. As so often happens on the Internet, the jokes and memes spiralled out of control, spreading across various pages and platforms. In a couple of months, the event had received 2 million signatures listed as “going” and another 1.5 million as “interested.” Scheduled for the 20thof September, it was a call for large numbers of people to gather in the desert and “raid” the base to “see them aliens.” Although it appears the state and military took this threat relatively seriously and the creator of the event eventually came forward to say it was all a hoax, there was a visible degree of apprehension on social media in the days “before the storm.” As luck would have it, on the day this “siege” was to take place, our Social Anthropology Department held its first Friday seminar of the year, titled “Under the Tinfoil Hat: Understanding Conspiracy in the Age of Populism.” As an unknown number of people made their way to Rachel, Nevada, we assembled in our usual location in the Chrystal Macmillan Building, so we could listen to two presentations, the first by Dr. Mathijs Pelkmans from the LSE and the second by Dr. Paolo Heywood from Cambridge.
After a brief introduction, Dr. Pelkmans started off his talk with reference to the title of our event. As it turns out, the tinfoil hat, the object of a popular North American conspiracy theory about how the government and/or aliens might be monitoring peoples’ brainwaves, does not really work. But then again, as he pointed out in his presentation, while it might seem all fun and games when one smirks at those talking about aliens or reptilians, what happens when the “conspiracy theory” cannot easily be branded as “wacky?” Don’t most of us engage in some kind of speculative thinking from time to time and attempt to figure out “what’s really going on” in the world? Furthermore, what does all this mean for us as anthropologists, given that we are supposed to take our informants seriously? And, of course, what does it mean to label someone a “conspiracy theorist?” These were some of the thought-provoking issues raised by the presentation, and as Dr. Pelkmans noted, it is worth remembering that people and groups doconspire, and there arethings that are carried out in secret, with hidden intentions behind them. But the label itself has highly negative connotations, as it is often associated with falsehoods. To call someone a “conspiracy theorist” is––in effect––to call them delusional. The act of labelling here is a way of driving ideas and people beyond the realm of “normalcy” and “respectability” and it seems that the very processes of labelling has to do with power itself.
To contextualise this assertion, he reminded us of what may have been one of the most consequential conspiracies of the past two decades: Colin Powell’s speech in front of the UN Security Council where he waved around a tiny tube, claiming that the Iraqi government possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD’s). Back then, Colin Powell was largely seen as a “respectable” person and few would have called his allegations a “conspiracy theory,” much less called hima conspiracy theorist. It was, so to speak, an “official” viewpoint. Then again, one does recall that there were also quite a few people stating that the actual “conspiracy” was the deliberate obfuscation of facts to justify a war waged for other reasons. At the time, they were the ones believed to be voicing suspicious attitudes of an “unofficial” nature. In any case, Dr. Pelkmans proposed that replacing the term “conspiracy” with, for example, “collusion,” or even “paranoia” could allow us to think about these issues somewhat differently, possibly with more productive results. There seems to be value to this kind of approach and perhaps in the end, one could even say that it all boils down to a question about “suspicion” and “reputability.” Or better put, what kind of suspicion is to be treated as legitimate and what kind of suspicion is to be treated with, well, suspicion.
The second presentation, by Dr. Heywood, was on populism and, more specifically, the role of the “ordinary” in populist politics. He started by talking about the significance of the concept for populism by defining it as a politics of ordinary people led by leaders who are anything but ordinary, yet feel the need to construct ordinary profiles for themselves. But then, he noted, this was not the entirety of the picture, as this mode of political operation also needs “exemplars,” individuals from “humble beginnings” who then make themselves into “models” for society. To elucidate his point, he drew our attention to one of his recent field-sites, the village of Predappio in Northern Italy. A long-time left-wing stronghold until very recently, having elected consecutive socialist or communist mayors, Predappio also happens to be the birthplace of the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. He was born to what might, at the time, have been described as an “ordinary background,” the son of a local schoolteacher and a left-leaning blacksmith. Yet during the years of fascist rule over Italy, the national government took certain measures to remodel the “town of Il Duce” in a manner which emphasised Mussolini’s “humble,” non-bourgeois origins, casting him as a figure with traits characteristic of “all Italians” – “a man like you or me.” As such, there were a series of interventions altering the layout of the town and its architecture, even going so far as to micro-manage the stuffing of mattresses in Mussolini’s childhood home. As Dr. Heywood pointed out, the “ordinariness” seems to have been manufactured and managed rather meticulously, while at the same time, a certain historical extraordinariness was woven into the texture of this regular Italian village. In light of all this “history,” today, the town is a politically contentious site, to say the least. For those on the right who sustain the myth of the great Mussolini, it is “the town of the leader,” while for those on the left it is a “toxic waste-dump of history.” Most of the townspeople, on the other hand, tend to counter this image of a “fascist Predappio,” not by pushing forward an alternative image of a “socialist Predappio,” but instead by emphasising its “ordinary” nature; as a place where fascism itself was never much of a popular ideology, a town that was but an unwilling cradle for the project.
The presentations sparked an interesting discussion, with considerable reference to current political figures in the US and UK, but not without mention of certain other contexts. Points were raised about the role of humour in populist discourse and conspiracy theories, how “extraordinary figures” like to share jokes with “ordinary people,” but also about how there exists a tension between managed ordinariness and perceived extraordinariness. Furthermore, there was mention of the legal definitions of terms such as “conspiracy” and “collusion;” of how their inclusion in specialised discourses (such as the law) implicitly recognises them as parts of everyday life in stratified societies with competing interests. As noted, one could also easily envision two twelve year-olds staring at a burnt hole in a carpet trying to figure out what to do before their parents get home, and that a situation as mundane as this could be the start of a conspiracy. Another comment drew attention to the anti-intellectualism of populist movements and their disdain for expert knowledge of various kinds. Then, the notion of the “ordinary” was brought under a critical light and there was talk about the need to contextualise what the ordinary stands for, what our conception of the “ordinary person” is, and how “the ordinary” is also a domain of cultural specificity. It seems like the discussion struck a very familiar chord with many in the audience and raised more questions than were answered. Not that that’s a bad thing, of course. One thing it got some of us thinking later on (not that we’ve thought long and hard about it) was about a possible point of convergence between the constructed ordinariness of populist leaders and the prevalence of certain forms of what one might call “conspirational thinking” among their bases of support. There seems to be a tendency in the anthropological literature on conspiracy to also mention ideas of “transparency,” of how people who feel they are deliberately being misled yearn for an understanding of how things “really” happen. While conflicted and variously represented, perhaps the invented image of ordinariness serves as a partial substitute for that much desired transparency by tapping into a certain sense of “what’s familiar.” Maybe it partly allows this type of political rhetoric to take that seething, collective sense of suspicion, have it bounce off a few “what about” questions and channel it towards political opponents cast as nefarious elites with murky intentions. So, for instance, maybe “that guy” has a dozen yachts, sure; but if he’s the one laughing at the jokes you laugh at, enjoying the food you enjoy and so on, wouldn’t he be less likely to deceive you? If anything, he is surely not as bad as “the other lot?”
In the end, on September 20th, a comparatively small number of people gathered outside “Area 51.” Not in the millions, not even in the thousands. The enthusiasm online, it seems, could not be easily converted into on the ground mobilisation. Though how this idea of looking for aliens in a military base became an online sensation is perhaps interesting in its own right. Long-standing theories about “alien cover-ups,” as well as vague speculations about other “things concealed,” were expressed through humorous means (mostly images) and widely circulated on social media for weeks on end. It was largely done in a style that is extremely popular nowadays among some online communities: one where people maintain a critical or “ironic” distance from the things they say in one way or another. While this makes it extremely difficult to pin down genuine convictions on the sole basis of discourse analysis, it is also worth thinking about what this style of expression means for the hermeneutics of “conspiracy theory?” If you are sharing something that could be labelled as such, but only for the laughs, are you still a “conspiracy theorist?” Is this attitude a way of pre-emptively deflecting implicit accusations of “lunacy,” perhaps? So, the joke’s on those preparing to call you this or that, because you never reallymeant it. But then again, given the number of people involved, maybe the entire thing was reflective of something bigger, an underlying sense of collective suspicion, probably not directed at any one thing in particular, yet expressed in a number of ways by individuals who have become familiar with various methods of “suspicion management” common in more “reputable” corners of the internet. In any case, while the dominant representation of the “conspiracy theorist” often brings to mind “wacky” people wearing tinfoil hats and talking about aliens, in an age when there seems to be a general dissatisfaction with official explanations for most things, the idea of conspiracy might be one well worth reconsidering.
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