A week ago, I was involved in an online discussion that was, in part, political. In order to make a point, one of the participants compared mask mandates to “Hitler’s making Danish Jews wear yellow stars.” In his view, both were equivalent means of “social control.”
Although I’ve been teaching the Holocaust for almost 50 years, I did not respond to the grotesque comparison as such. I had already learned that would be futile. But I did point out that, in fact, Danish Jews never wore stars. The notion that they did is tied to the legend that King Christian wore a yellow star in solidarity. King Christian was a good guy, and the Danes, in general, showed unusual solidarity with their Jewish compatriots. But the yellow star and King Christian story is mythology.
In my response, I included a link to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website which makes the same point. And I noted my own background in teaching this history. Nevertheless, the other guy — I’ll call him “Stargazer” — responded: “I don’t believe what you’re saying. I am sure that the story of Danish Jews and the yellow star is true. So I will continue to believe it.”
What does it mean when documented history, confirmed by one of the foremost research institutions in the world, becomes a matter of personal “belief”? When she was a Trump adviser, Kellyanne Conway coined the memorable “alternative facts” explanation to explain why Trump’s lies about the number of people who attended his inauguration was, at core, a matter of opinion. In that frame, counting actual numbers is only one way to count actual numbers. Two plus two may be four. Or it may be five. It depends.
To the extent that definitively verifiable facts become matters of belief, we are in deep trouble indeed. Absolutely anything, without exception, may become a set of facts in which some, perhaps a great many, believe. It is not simply a “big lie.” It is rather that the whole concept of truth, in any meaningful sense, itself becomes a lie. Verifiable truth becomes, as Stargazer might say, a means of “social control.” Facts become an “infringement of liberty”—the liberty to take as truth anything one feels like believing. And nothing else matters.
There has been no shortage of commentary on post-truth society, but I am not sure we have fully confronted how chilling are its implications. In such a society, rational discussion becomes impossible—not because of fervor or ideological commitment—but became rationality itself no longer means anything. There is no engagement because there is nothing to engage. It is simply a world—a nightmare world—in which any beliefs are true simply because they are beliefs. They are connected to nothing outside themselves. They are connected to no one beyond the believer. There are only clouds blown about by the prevailing winds. Disconnected from anything “on the ground,” it is entirely meaningless to suggest any assertion is, or is not, “groundless.” In this world, there is no ground. There are only puffy, gassy things in the air.
In such a world, even referring to “conspiracy theories” misses the point. “Theories” suggest a view of the world, however perverse, which understands itself as a view of the world. As long as something is a “theory,” there is at least the theoretic possibility that its holder could discover that the theory does not hold up. In a world of pure beliefs, pure clouds, there is not even that theoretic possibility. There is, in effect, nothing.
I grew up with a psychotic parent. My sisters and I learned early enough about the futility of rational discussion. At best, we stayed out of the way and carried on.
The world we are all now in reminds me of my family.