The holidays with my extended family tend to be subtly tense affairs, generally speaking. For the most part, we expertly avoid talking politics and tip-toe around ideological fissures that threaten to bring a writhing mass of partisan bickering to the surface. Conversations are usually held quickly and in hushed tones between the politically like-minded in what unoccupied rooms or corners the space allows. But throughout an evening of party games and drink, and the cautious observation of wrapping paper maelstroms birthed into existence as the kiddos tear into gifts, someone always manages to say something pointed enough to make at least a few people red-faced and anything but jolly.
But things calm eventually. The spirit of Jesus re-enters our hearts or we get too drunk — whichever comes first — and the cycle repeats. This is, I’m certain, a cookie cutter snapshot of the holidays for most Americans. And, if you have in-laws or spend time between families, then you might get a different treatment — decidedly conservative or liberal — at different households. There are, I’ll say, stark differences between the two experiences, the study of which makes for some entertaining navel gazing exercises, if nothing else.
One Christmas at a liberal enclave in Southern California, I listened to a family friend admire my aura — a radiant shade of blue I’m told — and on that basis I was invited for a discounted crystal therapy session to align my chakras, which I accepted, through some combination of curiosity, politeness, and the disorienting fumes of Catholic guilt carried over from my youth. Sometime during the next week, I spent an hour covered in purple quartz in a little room and emerged smelling of sandalwood and in need of whiskey — though my third eye remained firmly closed. The discounted price of three hundred dollars was revealed to me at the front desk — a steal, but for whom? — and in perhaps my finest Larry Davidian moment I begrudgingly obliged to pay for services rendered, and theatrically exclaimed that my crystals must have been “antiques, or something, for that kinda cash.”
My experiences with conservative family members and family friends have been less expensive, no doubt, but equally strange. During another Christmas I can distinctly recall, a relative of mine nodded knowingly as we discussed the space program — hazards of a father and grandfather in STEM. “A hoax” the relative said, with conviction. Before we had a chance to challenge that conviction, we heard an entire diatribe about aliens, government conspiracies, chem-trails, cover-ups, and assassinations. Here again, I was in dire need of a drink, but mercifully absent was the overwhelming effusion of sandalwood.
For me, a lifetime of experiences like these has confirmed one thing: liberals and conservatives, forgive the convenience of that demarcation, can be equally unscientific and irrational, but the flavors of these more outlandish beliefs lend themselves to different causes and have wildly different implications. Let me explain:
When I think of scientifically-heretical or irrational liberal beliefs, I think primarily of things like the anti-vaccination movement or organic food fetishism. Despite my radiant aura, or perhaps because of it, I’m equally compelled to throw things like crystal therapy and homeopathy into the mix. Likewise would follow hysterical and unproductive social justice initiatives, or the almost ritualistic support of emotion-based academic idealism in the face of contradictory empirical evidence.
What’s to follow isn’t meant to let liberal-foolishness off with a smile and a shake of the head, but rather to point out that there are some rather obvious differences between the nature of irrational beliefs self-identifying conservatives and liberals might adopt. I would contend that the nature of conservative irrational beliefs make them more directly accessible to focused political weaponization, which is likely the reason why we’re seeing the fringes of conservatism leech into and evolve within mainstream thought. Further, I think that whenever any fringe irrationality, especially if anti-scientific, threatens to pollute a larger discourse, that it is our responsibility to challenge and relegate those beliefs back to a dark, lonely corner. At the moment, in my estimation, I feel that it would be more politically meaningful to focus efforts on the intrusion of conservative irrationality into territory that should belong, by rights, to intellectual conservatism.
Whereas liberal irrationality strikes me as, forgive me, a more “diverse” collection of beliefs, outlandish conservative thought appears to be primarily focused on conspiracy as a rule and, typically, the suspected architect of any given conspiracy is either liberals (generally), or the government, or the liberal government. Within this paradigm of conservative thought, there exists a defined enemy to confront whereas in a similar liberal paradigm, the “enemy” is instead a nebulous, undesirable norm or ideal which requires correction.
If we are to look at some examples of “fringe” beliefs in popular conservatism, I think my point become more clear. I can’t, for instance, come up with a liberal counterpart to someone like Alex Jones who, to his two million weekly listeners, has touted theories like the use of the US’s “gay bomb,” a souped-up vaccine conspiracy suggesting that vaccine side effects are intentional, or the suggestion that the Sandy Hook shooting was orchestrated. Jones once hosted a guest on his show who claimed that NASA was operating a child-sex ring on Mars. Jones says this all, of course, while he peddles his wares, a major source of income for his show: male virility supplements and apocalypse preparedness kits.
Rush Limbaugh, a similar personality, maintains that hurricane tracking is a liberal conspiracy designed to sell climate change. Pat Robertson, among his many accolades, suggested that sexual harassment allegations against Fox News were a conspiracy. Roy Moore, graciously, immediately suggested that his loss in the Alabama election was due to voter fraud.
This is all interesting in isolation, but with Donald Trump, himself a prominent Obama “birther” who rode into office behind the now ubiquitous banner of “fake news” designed to discredit the media, and a wealth of new personalities in the public eye who’ve pushed forward narratives such as Pizzagate and DNC assassination plots — this points to something more fundamental, and something much more serious about the mindset of “popular” conservatism.
The difference I see, and the difference I think that should be clear to anyone who has an eye out, is that outlandish conservative thought isn’t so much a fringe as it is now a rule. Deciding to cover your body in crystals doesn’t have immediately apparent political implications, but it seems obvious that conservative populism is ravenously hungry for directed conspiracies that are not only detached from reality, but that are downright strange. This may make more sense if we consider that many conservatives view government as a shuddering, hulking behemoth and prime destroyer of personal liberty. The tragedy is that whatever salient truth American conservatism holds is fast becoming utterly lost in this wave of fanatical populist fervor, and we should all lament this fact.
A healthy skepticism of authority is advisable and commendable, but I can’t see the benefit of the growth of things like the flat earth movement, a decidedly conservative (and religious) movement, adherents of which maintain that everyone since the Greeks were either just wrong about the shape of our spherical planet or have been bamboozled by the Illuminati. I see the growth of movements like this as proof positive that the conservative fringes are blossoming and growing, emboldened in an era where reality appears to be dealer’s choice.
This is all, in a word, bizarre, and I can only hope that the trends I see trouble you as much as they trouble me. I won’t for a moment claim that I find anti-intellectualism of any flavor more palatable than the next, but I do think there is a reason to turn our attention to whichever strain is in vogue. We should be constantly seeking truth, not inventing our own or accepting it from others wholesale.
The truth, after all, is out there.