I didn’t speak out for a long time but hearing the Skinheads speak was like thunder coming to my brain. And I said ‘Sonia this is why you have to speak out for the people who didn’t make it.’
Those are the words of Sonia Warshawski, a Holocaust survivor and subject of a documentary (Big Sonia). Now 92 years old, she was 13 years old when World War II began. Her father and brother were taken away and her young sister escaped while she and her mother were sent to a concentration camp. All of her family was killed except her sister who hid with others in the forest.
It would be shocking to have someone deny that reality, not only because it is so personal but as history goes there are few events more well documented. This is the territory explored by Kurt Andersen in Fantasyland. And as he makes clear, this isn’t a new phenomenon. America has always been this way, a land of dreams, of fantasies and fictions, a vast canvass to project upon. Europeans were looking for utopian societies, Edenic savages, and demonic wilderness in America before they even got here. “But did it matter whether it was authentic or not?”, asks Karl Ove Knausgård (as quoted by Andersen). “Hadn’t this country been built on the promise of avoiding this very question?”
When I hear alt-righters, Trump supporters, and other similar types, I suspect they don’t believe or disbelieve much of what they claim. Most people want to be told a story, specifically a story that makes sense of the world. For some, the Holocaust is too immense to be made sense of and so it must be denied. It isn’t an issue of true or false, rather sincerity or bullshit. In On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt makes this distinction and explains that sincerity is unconcerned with truth in the world or what is true for others for it is about being true to yourself, being true to your belief system and ideological worldview, true to the story that you tell yourself. It’s about belief disconnected from all else, the cozy and comforting constraints of the moral imagination.
We live in a society overflowing with bullshit, not to say this is a new state of affairs. What has changed, as far as I can tell, is simply we’ve become overly sensitive to it. Travel and media have forced us into contact with more diverse people, cultures, and stories. With so many claims of truth, the war of rhetoric is won through sincerity of belief and story. It is a psychological defense against the onslaught of an overwhelming and dangerous world, as we perceive it in our fear-ridden condition. This phenomenon of bullshit is most blatant among reactionaries. That is because the reactionary by nature is more sensitive, that is what turned them reactionary in the first place. The liberal-minded have more tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, stress and anxiety, but we all have our limits. It’s useful looking at extreme examples, though, for it clarifies the dynamic. So, let me share such an example.
I struggled to make sense of this when I spent a long period visiting the human biodiversity (HBD) blogosphere. As alt-right reactionaries go, racist HBDers present themselves as rational and factually-oriented, as if they were a part of the reality-based community. But it quickly becomes apparent how narrow is their knowledge, how limited their curiosity. It was impossible to have a meaningful debate because I knew the basis of their claims while they didn’t know the basis of mine. Hence, it was a continuous one-sided interaction. HBD ends up being nothing more than a series of just-so stories. The point is that HBDers feel conviction in what they believe or at least act as if they have conviction, a difference that might not make a difference. The point is to make a story feel real by performing the role of a true believer. But it goes beyond this, since they don’t want to be taken as just another group of true believers.
There is one particular HBDer who I had some respect for. She is the cream of the crop among HBDers. And she has a certain amount of intellectual humility or so I thought, until I came to realize that it too was probably a pose to throw off critics. I eventually got the sense that she doesn’t take seriously even her own doubts and hedging, as it is a way of avoiding responsibility for what she promotes. She presents herself as merely speculating, offering morally neutral scientific hypotheses, implying that she can’t be blamed for any consequences of her beliefs in the real world. Others do take her beliefs seriously and she has been a highly influential person. It is because people like her online that we have powerful people like Robert Mercer, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, etc. When I confronted her about this, she defended herself by denying she supports or promotes any specific policy. She pretends to be an apolitical, objective researcher and so she can’t be blamed for what others do. I doubt she believes this nor that she is necessarily lying either. It is irrelevant to the role she plays in being sincere. The story told is the important part and that story takes on a life of its own.
It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around this. Debates and rhetoric are games to be played, but they are serious games to be played with the seriousness of a child playing make-believe. Trump has immense power, but what gives him persuasive influence obviously has nothing to do with truth. Even his own supporters admit that he is a liar and won’t actually do much of anything he promised. That isn’t the point. What Trump does do is tell a story that makes sense of the world, to be a wrecking ball of outrage that smashes against the facade of politics, a better story to replace what came before. It isn’t mere anarchism but the force of declaring something with all sincerity. Trump was raised in the church of Norman Vincent Peale, the famous positive thinking minister. For Trump, he learned from an early age to assert whatever comforting story made himself look good and feel good, no matter the evidence to the contrary and the consequences to others. Then he made sure to surround himself by people who would never contradict him. He is the ultimate confidence man. The con-man has to first con himself.
Let me be clear, though. I want to emphasize that this can be found across the political spectrum. One of the greatest bullshitters who has gained power was Bill Clinton (with the financial support from Trump, by the way). He did more than any other president in United States history to push the political spectrum toward the far right. And having learned from him, Hillary Clinton has always played to the crowd telling them whatever they want to hear. No rational, informed person can take the Clintons seriously in most of what they say. The same goes for Barack Obama, the affable false prophet of hope and change.
The only point that matters to the true believers is that the rhetoric, the stories make them feel good. It is of no concern the millions of people (mostly poor brown people, US citizens and foreigners) oppressed and harmed, imprisoned and killed by the policies promoted and supported by the Clinton Democrats and the Obama administration. Those people simply aren’t real in the moral imagination of the (pseudo-)liberal class. And the moral imagination never has to do with anything so minor as objective facts. All that is required is to be told stories from an authority figure, inspiring speeches about the good that is being done or will be done. People want to be told that they are good people, that they are on the right side of history. Story trumps all else and, in America, story runs deep.
If everyone who claimed to know the Holocaust was real took it seriously, it really never would happen again — yet the reality is that multiple genocides have happened since and these good people have continued to do nothing. Even the Jews in Israel persecute and ghettoize the Palestinians, as happened to them in the buildup toward the Holocaust, with no lesson learned or insight gained. The story of Holocaust, if anything, justifies all else and so the victim becomes the victimizer. But if the majority of Israelis believed their own Holocaust story, they would be overwhelmed with a sense of shame and hypocrisy. A story is to be told and believed, whether to expose or hide the truth.
As people deny the Holocaust, there are also those who deny climate change. But even for those who claim to believe the truth, they don’t act as though they genuinely believe. The majority, when asked by pollsters, state that climate change is real. Yet the looming devastation threatens an unimaginable apocalypse. We don’t have the psychological and cognitive capacity to deal with it and so we don’t. We go on living our lives as though nothing has changed or ever will change. The dominant narrative of our society, that of progress is too powerful for it to be contradicted by mere facts. We know and don’t know, the very soul of our humanity ripped apart in a collective state of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
It’s not about believing in any particular truth claim. The power underlying the moral imagination is belief in belief itself. We seek to ‘will’ our preferred reality into existence. No story gains a hold on the collective psyche without the force of sincerity behind it. We live in a world of bullshit, but utterly sincere bullshit. We tell ourselves what we believe we must. Otherwise, we fear we would fall into despair. And maybe we are right about that. But we need to fall into despair, to admit the dark truths all around us. If there is any possibility of hope, it passes first through darkness.
Driven by fear, our sincerity is insincere, our pose is pretense. Ever more sincerity won’t save us. As Harry Frankfurt puts it, “sincerity itself is bullshit.” We don’t need another inspiring speech, pep talk, or story told with full confidence. What we need is harsh truth and the courageous persistence of those who will speak it.