Our Lies: Jenny Offill and James Plath on Conspiracy Theories in History and Literature
In Conversation with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell
In this week’s episode of Fiction/Non/Fiction, co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan are joined by author Jenny Offill and literary and film critic James Plath. First Offill shares her reaction to the insurrection and attempted coup at the Capitol last week, and discusses her latest novel, Weather, out in paperback next week. Then, Plath explores the origins of conspiracy theories in history and literature and how right-wing extremists have weaponized them under Trump, and talks about editing Critical Insights: Conspiracies.
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With Jenny Offill
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I’d like to ask you how you felt, not as a novelist, but just as a person watching the assault on the Capitol last week.
Jenny Offill: I had been very worried about it. I remember saying to a friend of mine the day before, I just hope we don’t have an armed assault on the Capitol tomorrow. Because some of the people that I read on Twitter are authoritarianism scholars, and they were concerned about it, as were people who study extremist websites. But I thought that was just kind of my doomy mindset running away with me. But when it actually happened, I was with my daughter, and so I wasn’t sure what was going to be seen on the screen. So I actually went and played a game with her instead of watching it and pieced it together afterwards. I was in New York for 9/11 and I kind of have that feeling like I did in the days afterwards, where you’ve just seen something unfold that’s so frightening. This felt like a very near miss for a lot of people. And of course, five people died.
Whitney Terrell: In the middle of your novel, Weather, you have a list of questions that your main character, Lizzie, is asked in her role as a librarian. And while I was reading the novel, I came to think of them as conspiracy questions. I wondered if you could read that list? And then maybe we could talk about how you put it together?
What will disappear from stores first?
Why do humans need myths?
Do we live in the Anthropocene?
What is the cultural trance?
Is it wrong to eat meat?
What is surveillance capitalism?
How can we save the bees?
What is the internet of things?
When will humans go extinct?
WT: So what was your mind frame when you put together these questions that the librarian’s getting? I’m going somewhere with this … but I just want to know what you were thinking when you were writing it.
JO: Well, I was feeling a sense that there were these currents of conspiracy floating around in the ether. And some of them were questions that scholars are addressing about surveillance capitalism, how much of our data is being captured and monitored. And others were about the natural world falling apart, but not with a sense that we have any agency in that—like what’s happened to the bees, as if there were more complicated explanations than the human impact on all sorts of animals and plants. So I wanted to have a list of those where the register changed, but the sense of something falling apart was the same, something larger than we could comprehend at the time.
WT: It’s like poetry. I especially focused on the line, “Why do humans need myths?” I don’t want to in any way downplay the dangerous, villainous bad faith of the conspiracy theories that we talked about at the top of the show, and that we’re going to be talking about later with James Plath, but in the end, myths are like an overarching imaginary explanation for why things are the way they are, and which is often not the way we want them to be. And it’s sort of the same thing as a conspiracy theory, isn’t it?
JO: Well, conspiracy theories feel like they have harnessed a very basic human desire, which is the part of our brain that it’s important to recognize patterns so that we can assess danger, and also the part of our brain that makes meaning out of the patterns we see. But one of the things I think that takes conspiracy theories in a different direction is that almost always there’s a scapegoat that is behind it. But on top of that, too, there’s a sense that you are looking at a series of events, whether it’s the pandemic or an election result you don’t think is the one you should have seen. And instead of feeling, I don’t have control over this, if you amass all this information together, you feel like, oh, actually, I understand it and very few other people do. So you go from having no sense of agency to a lot of sense of agency. And I think in some ways, it’s really similar to this idea that sociologists talk about: the just world hypothesis, which is basically you get what you deserve and you deserve what you get, which often underlies these right-wing ideologies.
VVG: Maybe that’s one of the myths that we live with, the myth of meritocracy.
JO: I think very much so. We all hear all the time about the American dream, but I feel like increasingly that idea has been shown as something that only was an achievable dream for a very small segment of Americans from the beginning.
WT: I also wonder—is it possible that the way conspiracy theories are constructed now is changing because of technology? Some conspiracy theories work really well on Twitter because you can investigate them through pictures, like the way that the electioneering stuff went. People would get film of the people counting votes and they’d say, this chest is being moved, something bad was happening there. And so people are able to be involved in it and feel like they’re doing pretend detective work.
JO: Yes, I think the Twitter detective is a real thing for good and for ill. Right now, we have a lot of people who are trying to identify the people that rushed into the Capitol. But I think that one of the things that we know on some level but can sort of be easy to forget is that when leaders lied repeatedly in the past, they really weren’t able to pass along those falsehoods as quickly. They’ve done some studies where for most people, repetition starts to feel like truth. So the incredible onslaught of social media, the amount of information we have to take in, if that is being manipulated by a bad actor, then we almost have no easy defense against it, because it’s just coming too fast for anything but our most emotional brain to react to.
VVG: It’s interesting to me the way that—and I so appreciated the depiction of that feeling of overwhelm in Weather—Whitney, what you’re saying, it seems like there’s this interesting gray area between the personal and the public. I was reading yesterday this story about an 18-year-old who identified her mother and her aunt and her uncle, and immediately reported it. That sort of intensely personal confirmation was actually so much more reliable than—I also this morning watched a video of a man being arrested who yelled, “You’re treating me like a fucking Black person.” And it was sort of offered as proof on Twitter of the racism of this group of people, which of course, is true. And then someone else said that video was from 2017. And even I—I worked as a journalist, I should have a skeptical mind, I should avoid my own confirmation bias.
WT: I totally 100 percent thought that video was from now.
JO: Or the video of the Trump family cheering on, looking at the screen. Originally, it looked like it was happening while they were rushing the Capitol and turned out to be the rally beforehand. Still quite disturbing, frankly. But you’re right about confirmation bias. I think all of us have it. It’s a normal reaction right now to be terrified and enraged and worried and not have enough information. I feel like I want to seek information all the time, and when we get anything that feels true, that is the part that gets in. Timothy Snyder, who I’ve really been following for years—I used to hand out On Tyranny to people like candy. [In a recent op-ed] he talks about how when information moves that fast, what we end up doing is fixating on what feels true. And not having as many of the layers of fact-checking and understanding that you might when you’re talking as a journalist looking at something.
VVG: That’s fascinating. That piece was in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday. I think it’s called “The American Abyss.”
JO: He talks about Hannah Arendt, too, who I think is such an interesting person to read right now, because she talked about the “great lie.” And that certain things like the virulent anti-semitism that spurred the Holocaust has to be a big lie—has to be like, Jews run the world—and that right now we have this lie that the election was stolen. One of the points he makes is that, interestingly, she said that these can only take root in people when there’s already a level of loneliness. And so the fact that these conspiracy theories have gotten so much worse during the pandemic is something that’s going to be really interesting to try to untangle later. So many people alone at home, looking for answers about an event that they don’t understand, that no one understands.
With James Plath
Whitney Terrell: Growing up in the 1980s and 90s, I thought of conspiracy theory as a tool of the left primarily. JFK assassination conspiracy narratives, including Oliver Stone’s JFK and Don DeLillo’s novel Libra, which are discussed in your book, try to explain the killing of a young, extremely popular Democratic leader usually by blaming the forces of the right. How do we go from that to today, having just lived through a week where a bunch of conspiracy-minded people stormed and took over the capital of our country? I saw a picture of a guy wearing a QAnon shirt in the middle of the rotunda. How do we go from that to QAnon lizard people and Chavez-controlled Dominion voting machines, where conspiracy theories seem like a tool of the right?
James Plath: I think tools is the operative word here. The very idea of conspiracy theory seems to have evolved from the logical to the paranoid, and from individual concerns to group propaganda. Conspiracy theories came into existence because real conspiracies exist, actual exposed and proven conspiracies. Aaron Burr really did try to raise an army and establish his own country in the southwestern United States, and the US really did convince Black men over a 40-year period that they were receiving treatment, when really their untreated syphilis was only being observed and recorded. From assassinations and coups to royal intrigues and mass deceptions, the timeline of history is full of conspiracies. And if those conspiracies are real—and here’s the problem—then anything is possible. Anything could be real. Where there’s suspicion, fear, or paranoia, conspiracy theories rush in to fill the void. The problem of course is that there are plausible conspiracy theories and completely outlandish ones, and it all depends on the quality of mind that’s dreaming up the theory in the first place. And then the quality of minds involved in spreading it. Fiction fuels conspiracy thinking, whether it’s speculative thought that comes from a theorist, or imaginative thought that comes from a novelist.
WT: Is the premise of my question right, that the conspiracy theories used to be more about left politics? The government and the right has a secret that they’re keeping from you and the truth will be found. And now it’s the other way around, where the right, the people who believe that the election was stolen—it looks obvious to me it’s a series of propaganda lies by the President, but people have been convinced by this and watched weird tapes of people counting votes. And they’ve decided that they’ve seen something, but it’s being put in service of the Republican Party. I just haven’t seen that before. When did that switch? There seems like there was some change over the last 30 years, and I’m trying to figure out why that happened.
JP: I really don’t know. A couple of thoughts. One is everyone is paranoid about “big,” right? Big Pharma, big oil, Big Brother, and conservatives right now are basically small town people across America. We’ve heard that said over and over again, that people in small towns vote conservatively. And so maybe there’s a connection there, the whole idea of the bigness of it, the vastness of it is scary in itself. And now when you add fuel to that fire, then maybe you really pump it up. For me, though, I think it maybe traces back to the ’60s. I teach journalism, too, and dabble a little bit in public relations. And there was an old saying, that image precedes essence. Whether that was vocalized or not, that was just the way people thought, right? Well, if we say this, if we say we produce the world’s best burrito, you know, eventually maybe we’re going to get so many customers that we can afford to step up our game. So you say you’re something, and eventually you become it.
WT: Well, Donald Trump understands that.
JP: Yeah. So we elect the business president, and this really does fit right into the Trump mode. I mean, if you look at The Art of the Deal, he’s got two principles that really stand out. One is, tell people what they want to hear. And two, if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes a truth. Both of those are very compatible with that whole idea of selling, of salesmanship.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: To hear you apply the language of capitalism to this makes a lot of sense because I feel like they are trying to sell something. As we were conceiving of this episode, we were talking—the first writer on both Whitney’s mind and my mind was Pynchon, and the conspiracy theory at the heart of Gravity’s Rainbow—why Tyrone Slothrop gets a hard-on every time a V2 rocket goes off—is meant to be ridiculous. The novel uses that as a front to explore a theory that the author regards as totally plausible and sort of is in line with what we’re talking about—that the war effort in World War II wasn’t about ideology, but about the expansion of capital markets. And at the time, that’s an extraordinarily controversial thing for him to have said. I’m curious what you think about, if there are times when conspiracy theories serve some legitimate purpose by providing a useful mask for an underlying truth that is too controversial or difficult to say directly?
JP: I’m reminded of the fact that Trump came to power as a result of espousing discounted birther theories. And then he moved on from that to talking about global warming being a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese in order to make us manufacturers noncompetitive. If that doesn’t sound like a businessman trying to justify what he’s doing, I don’t know what it is. And then of course, we end his reign with a conspiracy again: that the election was stolen from him, that he won in a landslide. And there’s not a single fact that supports that. Eisenhower famously warned us about the military industrial complex. And these days, I think conspiracy theories have become more than theories. They are propaganda tool. People have taken over. I don’t care if it’s bots or if it’s people that are working for political parties—the stuff that you see is memes now and the things that you read. Already, you are seeing posts—and I knew this would happen—saying, oh, but it wasn’t the Trump supporters that started this riot, it was Antifa plants that were egging them on and pushing them into it. “The devil made me do it”—it’s the new version of it. Once it’s out there, there’s no putting it back in the jar again.
Critical Insights: Conspiracies (“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Conspiracy”)
“The American Abyss” by Timothy Snyder, The New York Times Magazine · On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder · Hannah Arendt · The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood · Three Days of the Condor (film) by Sydney Pollack · Utopia (TV series) by Gillian Flynn · “Stop Making Sense, or How to Write in the Age of Trump” by Aleksandar Hemon, The Village Voice · “Jenny Offill: ‘I don’t miss the world as much as, perhaps, I should‘” by Alex Preston, The Guardian · JFK (film) by Oliver Stone · Libra by Don DeLillo · Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon · V (TV series) · Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison · “The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories” by Brielle A. Marino, Psychology Today · Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison · “The Hull Case” by Peter Ho Davies, Ploughshares · “Teen Names Family Who Harassed A Black Woman On Video,” Buzzfeed
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Andrea Tudhope.