15 December 2023

Gaza and the Left

The open letter For a consistently democratic and internationalist left says so much of what has been driving me bats in this season of having a hard time with people on my side in opposing Israel’s brutality against Gaza.

We are longtime left activists and organisers. In this text, we want to engage with the prevailing moods on the left, and through it let others who feel as we do know that they are not alone. It is also an invitation to other leftists to join us in taking a stand against antisemitism, truncated antiracism, campism, nationalism, accommodation with Islamism and other left-right alliances. We write in the hope that a better internationalist left is possible.

Read the whole thing.

08 December 2023

The Conspiracy Theory

In an important sense, there are not conspiracy theories, plural; there is only one conspiracy theory, singular. I confess to borrowing from (and reversing) this witty joke:

Enough! Don’t listen to this guy. Everything’s conspiracies with him.

Not conspiracies. Conspiracy. Singular. Reaching back to Ancient Egypt, there’s been a single cabal of powerful individuals directing the course of human history. But the common man prefers to believe they don’t exist. Which aids their success.

Global warming? Military upheavals in the third world? Actors elected to public office? The spread of coffee bars? Germs outpacing antibiotics? And boy bands? Come on! Who would gain from all this?

Who indeed?

The particular terms of The Conspiracy Theory are endlessly mutable, but the basic story is the same whether it is QAnon or the New World Order or the Illuminati or whatever:

  • a small homogeneous group, Them, secretly control the world to nefarious purpose
  • simultaneously They are
    • pervasive and hidden
    • seductive and repulsive
    • vulnerable enough to need to act through guile and capable enough to control almost everything
  • They are sexually perverse, including personally abusing children out of cruelty and literal thirst for their blood
  • wars and social breakdown come from Their deliberate efforts, simultaneously
    • to profit materially
    • to make people at large easier for Them to control
    • to satisfy a perverse desire to destroy everything good (which may feed the inhuman source of Their power)
  • most seemingly powerful leaders in politics, business, et cetera are puppets whom They manipulate through Their direct control of
    • banks
    • popular art & media
    • universities

This should sound familiar.

The Conspiracy Theory is a cognitohazard: a seductive, simplistic funhouse mirror version of how power works. By collapsing the frustratingly diffuse mix of people and institutions which enable systemic processes of power into a far less unruly package — an imagined small coördinated circle of villains of pure malice, Them — The Conspiracy Theory offers a paradoxically comforting nightmare. Someone is in control of All This. The world can be made right, simply, by eliminating Them. The quip “antisemitism is the socialism of fools” alludes to this: antisemitism says that our troubles come not the system of capitalism, but from The Jews.

One cannot avoid addressing antisemitism when thinking about The Conspiracy Theory, because the first perfected form of it was published as propaganda in a tsarist disinformation campaign at the dawn of the 20th century: Протоколы собраний ученых сионских мудрецов — the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which cast The Jews as Them.

The Conspiracy Theory tends to feed fascism, in a way that illuminates how fascism works and what it really is. Fascism is not simply authoritarianism, but a way of thinking about politics and society which says We Must Use Violence To Destroy Those Who Have Corrupted The Natural Greatness Of The True People Of The Nation. Since Nazis put The Jews at the top of the list of Those Who Corrupt, drawing on the Protocols and its decendants, it is tempting to imagine that antisemitism is part of the definition of fascism.

But neither fascism nor The Conspiracy Theory are always or simply antisemitic.

One popular variant of The Conspiracy Theory says that They are shapeshifting space lizards.

Many contemporary fascists cast trans people as Them, a frightening and frighteningly effective innovation, since in amplifying fascism’s anxieties about masculinity, in being a small-yet-pervasive population, in and many other ways trans people fulfill the function of Them in fascism and The Conspiracy Theory even better than Jews do. This is not an entirely new development, nor does it entirely displace antisemitism: transphobia & antisemtism were deeply entangled in the Nazis’ eyes, of course, much as they are now.

Since the Protocols cast a long shadow, people who fall deep into any version of The Conspiracy Theory have a tendency to find their way into antisemitism, or at least into alliance with people who do cast The Jews as Them.

Since The Conspiracy Theory is a cognitohazard, its gets into everything, including a lot of things I love like The X-Files and Blade and They Live. That does not mean one has to walk away from them.

Learn the scent.

Build up intellectual defenses.

Lost’s sloppy storytelling was morally wrong

When I call Lost “morally wrong” I’m sort-of engaging in hyperbole for emphasis. But in a small way, I also believe it. A while back I tweetranted inspired by a Film School Rejects post The Evolution of the Mystery Box.

TV shows actively teach you how to watch them. Lost taught its viewers to be hungry, attentive sleuths, rewarding viewers who searched for clues, answers, and easter eggs.


The Lost finale decided to leave a lot of threads open and mysteries unanswered. It focused on character development over plot resolution (a perfectly valid choice). But viewers who were trained to focus on answers – trained to see plot as a puzzle, not as a means to character development – were let down. When the writers infused the plot with ambiguity, viewers rejected it because they were taught that the story was meant to be solved.

I see apologists for Lost saying things like this all of the time. This is not a failing by the viewers — FSR themselves say that the show told viewers to look for answers before refusing to deliver them.

It would be a valid choice for the show to focus on character development over plot. But the show pointed directly to plot all of the time, so the finalé refusing to pay off its promises was a betrayal.

Tactical drama

That quote from FSR compels me to call shenanigans on the way Lost apologists say that the show was “about the characters”. Absolutely not.

Consider Evangeline Lilly’s character Kate. Is she nice, or mean? Smart, or dumb? Brave, or craven? What drives her? What does she want? We don’t have answers, and she got an immense amount of screen time.

The storytelling was structred around the characters encountering a series of daunting dilemmas without enough information to make a clear decision. The characters would yell at each other about what to do, and make desperate moves. The show had very good tactical-level craft in presenting these conflicts — especially in the strength of the actors’ performances.

This kind of storytelling could unfold something about the characters, showing how they change or just revealing who they are. What they want, fear, and value. How they understand the world and themselves. Instead we got only the hand-wave-y-est themes. John Locke “has faith”. Jack Shephard “wants to fix things”. And it kept breaking even this level of thin characterization. Sawyer was “just out for himself” … except when he wasn’t. Ben Linus “understands what is going on” … except when he doesn’t.

These reversals on characterization came from the way Lost sustained interest with twists. Often these picked up a mystery from earlier, hinting that the show had a design undergirding its story, promising the payoff which never came. The twists were a key move in the shows method of focusing on delviering dramatic moments. In order to deliver these transient thrills, anything could happen without regard for the logic of plot, character, theme, our physical universe, or the show’s own world, so nothing ever really mattered.

The show’s craft in constructing powerful scenes sometimes did deliver real magic, like Charlie’s hero moment, Michael’s dedication to his son, the VW bus. But then in pursuit of more moments of drama, the show revisited them until any truth or flavor they had was destroyed.

Mysteries and mystery

One can do a story — even a serialized TV story — which is not a mystery in a detective-story sense but a mystery in a mythic-unto-esoteric sense: unanswerable.

The Prisoner resembles Lost in a number of ways. Our protagonist finds himself in an isolated place which operates by its own unique, puzzling rules, full of characters with mysterious motives: The Village. In the course of an episode, we typically learn both a bit about the characters’ backstories before they arrived at The Village and a bit about The Village itself. Each episode’s opening titles succinctly reminds us how the pilot episode set up that our protagonist was some kind of spy, that he angrily resigned from the work, that the leaders of The Village want to know why, that they refuse to answer when our protagonist asks which side they work for. In the show’s final episode, it steadfastly refuses to answer these questions, and steps up the way in which the fantastical Village is an elaborate metaphorical space for exploring themes about power, individualism, the social order, moral responsibility, human nature. Its rejections of the plot questions from the text of the story are part its point; the show is largely about why they do not matter. It tells us how that the puzzle of The Village’s in-world nature was misdirection rather than breaks a promise.

Even a mystery with a detective can become a mystery in this sense of refusing to answer. According to legend, when in the middle of making the film adaptation of The Big Sleep, director Howard Hawkes telephoned Raymond Chandler because he realized that he did not know who had committed the murder which accelerates the plot in the turn at the end of the first act, and Chandler replied, “Now you get it. I don’t know.” The story challenges the logics of detective stories in which a hero can uncover the whole truth, offering instead a world in which digging reveals questions and corruption faster than it produces answers and justice.

But Lost’s refusal to address the plot questions it raised delivers no such thematic payload.

One may protest that not every story driven by twists & reveals needs such a deep purpose to get away with incomplete plotting. Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and North By Northwest have so much momentum that it does not bother us that do not really hold together on close examination. The Usual Suspects actually makes no sense (which is why one should resist the temptation to watch it a third time) but that does not spoil the charms of seeing things seem to fall into place on a first and second viewing.

But those works do not break a promise, because they do not make a promise to pay everything off. Lost had so many little clues and easter eggs that it invited the audience to speculate what they meant.

The moral problem

I submit that this is more than just sloppy or disappointing, it is dishonest. It did not fulfill its promises badly; it broke them. This does not merely fail the audience; it cheats them.

Lost is hardly the first or only TV series to do this. The X-Files teased audiences with a conspiracy-mythos which never quite added up to anything. Battlestar Galactica told us in in every episode’s opening titles that the Cylons “have a plan”, and ultimately revealed in a story sequence called “The Plan” that no, they did not.

This hurts more than the viewer, it robs other artists by eroding the resource of audience trust, rather than enriching the culture with a touchstone which others can build on. Exploitation.

So yes, morally wrong.


Updated to add

In a very instructive commentary on “plot holes” and trust, Shamus underlines my point:

This trust becomes really important when the audience is presented with something that doesn’t seem to follow naturally. Maybe it’s a plot hole. Maybe not. But something jumps out at the viewer. Hey! This character isn’t acting according to their stated goals, therefore…

  1. …I must have missed something earlier. Or maybe this will be explained later. Maybe this will even pay off in a later reveal.

Here’s the thing: It’s the job of the storyteller to create and maintain that trust. Talking about how to build trust is like talking about how to build creativity or enthusiasm. It’s not really something you can force. Let us agree that it’s a lot of work to get a stranger to trust you, and even harder if you’ve already proven untrustworthy in the past.