So as I mentioned, I’m writing this book. It’s set in Istanbul, which gives me a practical reason to scheme about, visit, and imagine my favorite city in all its bizarre detail. The other fun part is that it’s a novel about characters caught up in a conspiracy theory, which means I get to play conspiracy theorist — a popular activity in any Middle Eastern country — and plot and plot away. There is always a plot afoot. If you ask any Turkish person about their opinions on any major world event, you are about to get a lot of sinister cabals and plots thrown at you. (I really enjoyed this article which in one part compares 9/11 trutherism from a Turkish guy’s perspective to just straight-up American nationalism as propaganda). I do end up crossing most of the plots out as storytelling impracticalities, but it’s wicked fun to try and come up with them.
What’s more alarming is watching everyone discover or manufacture plots in the real political world, and then acting on them. I watched a gruesome facebook conversation unravel (and managed to not participate, which is a huge personal win for anyone that knows me) about the Kavanaugh hearings, (I am so very sorry to bring them up yet again,) and the one extremely right-wing guy was convinced, convinced, that Dr. Ford was some sort of…operative…planted by the democrats. Or, think about the bizarre conspiracy which appeared a year or two ago that the democrats were running a child porn ring out of a DC pizza restaurant, and someone showed up to shoot the place up. On the left, think back to during the 2016 election when liberals were split between people who were convinced to varying degrees that there was a plot to destroy Bernie’s campaign, and people who were convinced to varying degrees that everything the DNC had done was totally ethical. And, of course, the really evil plot of climate change, hanging over our heads like a secular doomsday.
Umberto Eco argued that “central to the psychology of the authoritarian is the plot.” That way you can dismiss any criticism against you as just some of the faceless schemers out to get you. This is what Trump of course is doing now, but interestingly, it is also what Nixon did fifty years ago. I’m currently listening (just finished, actually) the Slow Burn podcast, about what it was like to live through the Watergate scandal. Did people think it was a partisan scheme to seize control of the government? How was it all covered up for so long? I mean — in the very first episode, they talk about how the Comittee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP, you cannot make this shit up) sent FBI agents over to imprison and sedate a woman who had overheard her husband, CREEP campaign chairman John Mitchell, talking about how the president had sent dudes to install bugs at Watergate to spy on the Democrats. (YOU CANNOT MAKE THIS SHIT UP.) At first, during the most recent election, when all the stuff about Russia tampering with elections* in multiple ways came out — I did my best to resist talking about those ideas because they just sounded too insane. But once more evidence for an insane thing was uncovered, it made sense that other insane things might also be true. During the Watergate scandal there was a huge uptick in conspiracy speculation. That’s when the idea of JFK’s assasination being a government operation really took hold. Nixon’s VP Spiro Agnew got convicted of taking bribes and resigned just ten days before the Saturday when Nixon fired the Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General, and the Special Prosecutor investigating him for obstruction of justice. The real things happening in politics were so unbelievable that it just became way easier to accept the previously impossible. History has gone in a great cycle.
So how do you filter through everything that’s going on and pick out which plots are real and which are implausible? We’re all measuring each other up these days, and you’re lying if you’re not — we’ve all got friends who have gone deep down the rabbit hole and consume weirder and weirder theories.** We’ve got friends who believe absolutely none of it. Most people try and place themselves in the middle. It is unbelievably easy to get swept up in the tide of crazy news. I’ve consciously disengaged and don’t — can’t — follow the news as hard. But I think swimming in this atmosphere has made me want to write this kind of book as a way of channeling that feeling into something productive, rather than gripping my wonderscreen phone with fear as society shudders towards what feels like collapse. Not to fault the people who can follow the news: I’m personally just losing my ability to do it. But I am still gripped, just like everyone else is, driven to find out what the hell is going on and why everything’s gone totally bonkers. Believing in conspiracies and plots that I know are fictional, at least, scratches the itch enough so that I’m able to maintain some perspective. I hope.
*Far more damaging than Russian propaganda news stories, by the way, is fucking fucking Fox fucking News publishing the most bullshitty bullshit for years and years. A book recently came out showing that left-wing media coverage at least had, like, a much higher probability of getting fact-checked or investigated at each level before it got picked up in higher and higher news outlets. Right-wing media tended to find stuff way on the fringe at put it on blast without really scrutinizing it. Which, while illuminating, is pretty exhausting. (Russian hacking to find kompromat in the DNC headquarters, and then releasing it, was hugely damaging, as it dominated the election from that point on. Please, please, I never want to have a conversation about that again.) It is absolutely not just right wing media though spreading unfactchecked stuff! Anyone else have boomers in their news feed throwing liberal-slanted memes up on facebook without taking a good hard look at them? I’ve called out former high school teachers something like twice in the last month for posting questionable memes. This is very uncomfortable for me to do. (Sorry if you are one of them now reading this. Know that I still like you and have a high opinion of you, and I forgive you for being taken in by a sophisticated cabal of web developers who have engineered a brain-chemical feedback loop of outrage and vindication in order to paralyze us to our screens. I am also paralyzed to my screen. Help. Please let me out. This is not a dance. My body is dying in a vat.)
**Some of them alarmingly become modern fascists — thankfully, almost nobody I know — but they describe it as getting ‘redpilled‘, the terminology of which is taken from that one scene in the Matrix where Neo’s offered the choice of taking the blue pill and going back to dreamland, or taking the redpill and ‘going down the rabbit hole’ to learn the truth. I think this trend of consuming progressively weirder news and getting radicalized has a lot to do with social media algorithms. I would highly recommend this Zeynep Tufekci article, and this long piece about how youtube uses AI and bots in a feedback loop to cannibalize children’s TV characters and make mass-produced cartoons which bear little resemblance to entertainment.