Magical thinking and modern conspiracy are moving into everyday life
Let’s get weird and talk about magic. Not Penn and Teller stuff either, I’m talking dyed-in-the-wool, witches and demons, divine circles and ancient spells magic.
Right... why? Why talk about something so patently ridiculous? Because I claim we live in a magical time, and not necessarily in a good way. We live in a time when magical and occult thinking has become something of the norm and while that’s insanely cool, it’s also pretty dangerous.
Plenty of ink has been spilled (or pixels switched on) talking about the far-right wing obsession with occult practices and ideas, especially as regards the internet. This is just one example, but there are plenty more.
What I want to do is to take a broader look at magic and magical thinking and I want to show that this way of interpreting the world is not limited to the fringes of the internet, but rather, has become pervasive.
I want to do this through the lens of internet conspiracy theorist and all-around crank Alex Jones.
A magical state of mind
First though, let me say a few words about magic. Historically, magic hasn’t been anything like Harry Potter. It has been largely a religious, or quasi-religious affair.
Frances A. Yates, in her book on the hermetic tradition, gives an account of some of the original, and influential magical texts. She highlights how early followers of this tradition saw themselves and what they were doing, and traces that lineage through to the Renaissance.
Practitioners of magic, from the ancient world onwards, generally thought of themselves as calling upon the power of nature, viewed as a living force. The sun had power, the earth had power, the moon had power, etc. But humans also had power, and were themselves infused with the divine nature of the world. This was what allowed humans to become magical vessels (an important magical principle here is that like attracts like, the divine nature of the world is attracted to the divine in man).
Already we’re beginning to understand how magical thinking works:
- The world is surrounded and permeated by a vital mystical/divine force.
- That mystical/divine quality is also present in human beings.
And there’s a third crucial aspect of magical thinking that really ties everything together. The secrets and mysteries of the world can be uncovered, not through experience, but through revelation. This is called Gnosticism.
A critical look at Alex Jones will show that he embodies every single one of these principles, in one form or another.
Of gay frogs, breakaway governments and inter-dimensional beings
It’s impossible to watch one of Jones’ rants and come to the conclusion that this is a well-adjusted, intelligent man. His latest appearance on comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan’s show confirms that beyond all doubt.
SPOILER ALERT: The following video contains bad language, veiled racism and declassified state secrets. It is not suitable for sane viewers.
Whether he’s talking about chemicals that can alter the sexual orientation of frogs, or lamenting the existence of animal-human hybrids, Jones always has something strange to contribute.
But what’s fascinating here is that the lens through which he sees the world is strikingly similar to that of Renaissance mages.
For Jones, the world is most certainly filled with a mystical or divine force and human beings absolutely partake in that divinity.
This is why Jones can speak in such clear moral terms about Good and Evil, and why, whether it’s the Globalists, the Elite, the Satanists or the New World Order, the people who make up these forces are described in explicitly inhuman terms (as “goblins,” “vampires,” etc.).
As for Jones’ gnostic worldview, it’s pretty clear. Jones never has direct evidence to back up his claims. His audience trusts that he’s seen it, or more often, that Jones has spoken to some well-connected figure who knows all. Someone who can reveal the secrets of the world to Jones and, thus, to his audience. The revelatory nature of Jones’ conspiracy outlook doesn’t take much to dig up.
Fortunately, Jones takes all the guesswork out of it for us anyway. He constantly invokes magical themes in his rants. From Satanic and occult rituals to cosmic battles, souls, inter-dimensional beings and aliens.
Jones is a useful tool here because he directly connects magical thinking to modern conspiracy.
Witchcraft and the meaning of life
I came across a YouTube video recently that blew my mind. It’s a 15-second snippet of a much longer interview with someone who believes that the earth is flat.
Give it a watch, it’s hilarious. It’s also immensely interesting, because, as the flat-earther says, his belief in the flatness of the earth really comes down to 9/11.
And that sounds insane, just totally stupid. But, for my part, I 100 per cent believe it. For these people, and really for culture in general in North America, 9/11 was the last time the world made sense.
After that event, suddenly the world was a big black box. Anything was possible, anything could be real, anything could be fake. The frameworks that allowed us to derive meaning from the world around us suddenly collapsed in on themselves.
After something like that, how do you reassert meaning?
We might want to say, ‘Well, the healthy way of getting meaning back after a massive collective trauma might be to, say, accept it, try and look for root causes, such as why this attack happened, and what can be done to ensure it doesn’t happen again.’
This is not the route the major powers of the world took. Instead, there was the Iraq war.
For these people, and really for culture in general in North America, 9/11 was the last time the world made sense.
Similarly, many individuals decided not to take that route either. They retreated into fake worlds, magical worlds, where there were secrets everywhere and only quasi-divine revelation in the form of figures like Alex Jones, or the Loose Change documentary, could be relied on.
I think one final magical example should highlight what I’m trying to get at.
In the late 17th century, philosopher Henry More wrote the preface for a book on the evidence for witchcraft, written by his friend, and fellow scholar, Joseph Glanvill. More writes:
“I look upon it as a special piece of Providence, that there are ever and anon such fresh Examples of Apparitions and Witchcraft … the Confession of Witches against their own Lives being so palpable an Evidence … that there are bad Spirits, which will necessarily open a door to the belief that there are good ones, and lastly that there is a God.”
In other words, the proof that there is a God comes in the form of proof that there are evil spirits and witches.
Context is crucial here. More was writing at a time when material, mechanical thinking was beginning to come to the fore, and non-religious, atheistic explanations for natural phenomena were being proposed and defended.
In order to reassert a meaningful (religious) framework, More had to defend the existence of witches.
Is this not exactly what is going on with modern conspiracy theories? A breakdown in meaning has caused a need to reassert meaning through magical thinking.
From Russia, with love
As for my claim that magical thinking is dominant, well, look around. Conspiracy culture has moved well beyond the fringes of the net. It’s everywhere.
From our pitched fervour about secret Russian agents that want to destroy our democracy to wide-eyed panic that China is out to control us all, the world is suddenly filled with secrets and mysteries.
And since the enemy is already among us (anyone might be a Russian agent on social media! Which of our followers are really propaganda bots?) we can’t view this phenomenon in the old-school sense of an enemy at the gates.
Rather, this dark potentiality fills both the world and us.
But instead of our gnostic heroes being Alex Jones or other fanatical lunatics ranting about government cyborgs, they’re respected, vetted individuals.
They’re news anchors and government officials, celebrities and experts. They’re people who know.
And crucially, it doesn’t matter whether or not these claims about Russia and China are actually true. I have no reason to think they’re not.
What matters is where it is in our cultural understanding of these events that the magical thinking slips in.
Magical thinking slips in at exactly the point when these events are allowed to do our interpretation for us — when they allow us to view the world as a black box of mystery where only some set of sages can become the arbiters of capital T Truth.
So, when these claims are invoked to explain away strange or traumatic phenomena in culture or politics, keep your guard up. Someone’s trying to cast a spell on you.
Jesse Scott is a writer and cartoon-watcher who spent too much time and money in school. He lives in Halifax with his cat.