The Counter-Enlightenment

His pockets were stuffed with fifty different kinds of conflicting literature – pamphlets for all seasons, rhetoric for all reasons. When this man handed you a tract you took it no matter what the subject: the dangers of atomic power plants, the role played by the International Jewish Cartel in the overthrow of friendly governments, the CIA-Contra-cocaine connection, the farm workers’ unions, the Jehovah’s Witnesses (If You Can Answer These Ten Questions ‘Yes’, You Have Been SAVED!) the Blacks for Militant Equality, the Kode of the Klan. He had them all, and more, too. [Stephen King, The Stand]

The man (although not really a man) in the extract above is Randall Flagg, an agent of chaos and destruction who brings down a plague on twentieth-century America.

If Flagg (or is it Walter O’Dim?) stalked our land today, the tracts in his jacket would be different. He would offer you a DVD explaining how 9/11 was arranged by the US government, a pamphlet revealing how reflexology can cure cancer, another that let you know that condoms cause AIDS (or one that said that AIDS doesn’t exist); a leaflet picking at the holes in the theory of evolution; a pamphlet from Gillian McKeith (‘YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT!’) claiming that human beings are capable of photosynthesis; a newspaper report linking the MMR vaccine to autism; an article challenging the historicity of the Holocaust.

Damian Thompson demolishes all these snake-oil merchants and more in his fantastic book Counterknowledge – perhaps the nearest thing we have to Hemingway’s fabled bullshit detector.

Yet his work sounds a little like a Louis Theroux-style giggle at the fringes of society, and indeed Thompson does have his laugh-out-loud moments. Here’s his account of a tour of Ohio’s creationist museum:

[Daily Telegraph journalist] Russell was shown animatronic children and dinosaurs playing together in the Garden of Eden. His guide, Ken Ham, from the fast-growing Young Earth organisation Answers in Genesis, explained that dinosaurs survived Noah’s Flood and roamed the earth until quite recently. ‘There are dragon legends all over the world. Why? Because they have a basis in truth, a basis in real animals. So, even though the word dinosaur wasn’t coined until 1841, we would say that it’s very possible that what people today call dinosaurs were known as dragons.’ But how did they manage to fit such gigantic creatures onto Noah’s Ark? ‘They only took young dinosaurs on board.’

But the joke is on us sceptics, because fringe ideas are taken increasingly seriously. The British government spends millions of pounds on building homeopathic hospitals, despite the fact that homeopathy has no medical value; charalatans like Gillian McKeith are given their own TV series and treated as experts in their fields; London houses publish books explaining that China discovered America in 1421 and that Jesus’s descendants are alive and well in France; a former UK government minister, Michael Meacher (also a onetime candidate for the governing Labour Party leadership) subscribes to 9/11 conspiracy theories.

The enhanced status of counterknowledge makes it dangerous. This is especially true in the field of ‘alternative medicine’ (i.e: not medicine). If you take the advice of quack nutritionist Patrick Holford and give your child a homeopathic vaccination for meningitis instead of an actual vaccination, you are exposing that child to a deadly disease. Putting alternative medicine on a level with actual medicine takes us into a world we thought was gone: the medieval age, where millions died because the alternative was all there was.

And that is just in the developed world. 5.5 million South Africans are HIV positive, yet its government refuses to distribute the antiretroviral drugs its people need. The administration’s insane arguments are bolstered by Western AIDS denialists, who take a Gillian McKeith-style approach to the condition.

The world’s leaning denialist is Peter Deusberg, a molecular biologist who argues that to prevent AIDS, and even cure the disease, it is necessary only to eat properly and abstain from toxic drugs. The American government’s top AIDS adviser, Anthony Fauci, takes a different view, as the New Yorker reported in March 2007. After hearing Deusberg speak at an AIDS research conference, the normally mild-mannered Fauci erupted. ‘This is murder,’ he said. ‘It’s really that simple.’

Thompson adds that Deusberg was appointed to a South African presidential panel in the late nineties.

Why counterknowledge? Conservatives would say that its popularity is caused by the decline of traditional religion, and I think this is Thompson’s view, too:

Consider the following statistics. Between 1980 and 2005, British church attendance fell from 4.7 million to 3.3 million… The number of weddings in the UK dropped from 480,000 in 1972 to 284,000 in 2005. Each of these trends reflects the fragmentation of traditional authority structures – churches, political parties and the two-parent family – that previous generations rarely questioned… The subjective side of human experience takes over from the objective.

Humans have an innate need to believe, and in the absence of churches they will turn to cultic superstitions. The fevers started in the 1960s when social revolution destroyed the authority of the family and the church. As the old saying goes, if you don’t believe in God, you’ll believe anything.

Personally, I agree with Francis Wheen: if you believe in God, you’ll believe anything. State-sanctioned faiths (and what is a religion but a very successful cult?) don’t keep the lid on popular delusions: they set a precedent, ripping open the lining at the edge of rational thought. Let’s face it, if you can believe that a virginal woman gave birth to the son of God, who is later killed only to be brought back to life – then acupuncture and healing crystals will be quite easy to get your head around. Why favour one form of counterknowledge over another?

In any case, the phenomenon is indulged by conservatives as much as leftists. (If you don’t believe me you should read a copy of the Daily Mail, a newspaper whose mission is – in Ben Goldacre’s words – to divide the world’s inanimate objects into those that either cause, or cure, cancer.) As Thompson says, the free market loves counterknowledge. The idea underlying quack healthcare, that you can beat disease by cultivating a spiritual purity (or ‘SAY NO TO CANCER!’ as Patrick Holford puts it) is more than compatible with Victorian conservatism and social Darwinism. If all ailments are preventable by looking after the inner harnonies and eating the right foods, then people who get sick have only themselves to blame. There’s no need for governments to spend money on universal heathcare because if anyone becomes ill then they must jolly well deserve it.

But across the political spectrum there is widespread disillusionment with rationalism and Enlightenment values, which are now associated with the Iraq project and seen as concepts of a purely Western elite determined to impose ‘our’ idea of democracy and human rights across the world. (The quotemarks are an essential part of the argument.) The Enlightenment is for hopeless idealists, conniving politicians, fuddy-duddy Oxford professors and militant atheists.

Above all the Enlightement is mainstream, and people despise the mainstream. The mainstream is McDonalds and Ian McEwan and George W Bush. The mainstream is hated above all else, which explains the strange convergences of thought between ostensibly opposed fringe groups like the SWP and Hamas, between American creationists and fundamentalist Muslims, and between leftwing 9/11 deniers and Neo-Nazi Holocaust deniers. This happens even when their theories mutually contradict each other. As Thompson says:

An author who believes that Stonehenge was built by Aztecs will cheerfully recommend the work of someone who thinks it was built by the Priory of Sion, because they both recognise their real enemy as orthodox scholarship.

Anything that’s against the mainstream can’t be all bad: and having rejected the mainstream, intellectuals then throw themselves behind another. Gavin Menzies, who wrote a book claiming that China discovered America (it didn’t) now does speaking tours of Chinese universities and has senior-level friends in the regime.

Thompson quotes the writer and editor Michael Shermer on the roots of counterknowledge: ‘I think the problem lies deeper than this. To get to it we must dig through the layers of culture and society into the individual human mind and heart.’ And indeed, people trying to explain the appeal of irrationalism will inevitably turn to psychological analysis.

Imagine being a 9/11 Truther or a believer in homeopathy. You have unearthed a vast, hidden conspiracy that most of the world has completely missed. Either it is the conspiracy of PNAC engineering the Twin Towers demolitions as a pretext to declare war against the Middle East, or a secret plan by the medical/scientific/pharmaceutical establishment to cover up the healing powers of alternative medicine so they can carry on selling useless drug treatments.

You can dismiss the testimony of most doctors, scientists, physicists or engineers because their very experience and qualifications show that they are part of the elite and therefore have an interest in covering up the scam. Indeed, any contradictory evidence can be ignored – it will have been planted. Your own lack of evidence doesn’t bother you; obviously, the conspirators are going to cover their tracks. The absence of proof is proof. Ignorance is the smoking gun.

Most people reject your explanations because they are brainwashed by the corporate media. Only you, and a handful of fellow Truthers, are smart enough to see through the lies. What a boost! And presumably, when the conspiracy is found out, your greater intelligence and heroism will be recognised and you will be given the power and rewards such qualities accord you.

Finally, I think that the conspiracy minded are people in need of reassurance. They can’t handle the random, the chaos of life, the disasters that can come out of a clear blue sky. It is more comforting to believe that George Bush destroyed the Twin Towers than Osama bin Laden. It’s more comforting because we can vote Bush out, and put him in jail. At the heart of conspiracism is a message of subliminal succour: don’t worry, your government is in control. Go to sleep. Sssshhh

Purveyors of counterknowledge are not revolutionaries. They are reactionaries, seeking comfort and status from dark dreams.

Counterknowledge, Damian Thompson, Atlantic 2008

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