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BERNSTEIN: Spread of QAnon comes as response to social instability

Column: Mind You

While QAnon takes advantage of vulnerable, misinformed populations, the rest of the U.S. is left to wonder how the country can find its way out an age of conspiracy theories.  – Photo by Wikimedia

Recent American politics and general hubbub have exceptionally mirrored the narrative trajectory of a television series in creative decline.

No sooner had the 45th president shuffled out of D.C. and into obscurity — signaling the apparent end of a five-year era in which the whole of our news cycle revolved around the blunders and misadventures of a single man — than the entire country erupted in a bizarre smorgasboard of socio-economic fissures both grand and microcosmic.

Most notably, Redditors declared open war on Wall Street, briefly sending the price of Gamestop stock skyrocketing. But other indicators of social unease also abound. Congress now wrestles with the fact that QAnon and those who would shamelessly subvert the democratic process skulk its ranks. The role of social media in enabling extremism has sparked a new stage in the saga of post-truth America.

Crawling out from the weight of our own national psychosis requires a two-step approach. 

The first step is confronting the common root among the varied issues we face: a country critically saturated by populism. QAnon is not merely a locus of conspiracy theories — it is a cult. In its rise to popularity, we are literally watching the birth of a new, modern-day religion.

If you do not think that QAnon could morph into an organized, recognized faith, then I encourage you to consider what a religion looks like at its inception: widely rejected by the mainstream, fringe and extremist in its preachings and defined in great part by the prominent figures of its canon — its prophets, messiahs and devils. That sums up QAnon right now quite well. 

Fortunately, most religions collapse upon themselves. I would not rule out the possibility of the internet fast-tracking QAnon's course as a movement, whether that trajectory be growth or decay. If the latter occurs, we may not need to suffer through its death throes for very long.

But the very fact that such a group emerged — with such a deeply-rooted ideological pulse and such a fixation on a singular cult figure — tells us how desperate citizens of this country are for a narrative, even a delusional one.

Fearmongering and misinformation, inflamed by the objectively terrible situation in which we find ourselves on account of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), has created a need for a story that will tell people who the bad guys are, who the good guys are and how things can get better for them. So if current events seem biblically catastrophic, it is because they kind of are.

And while most of America is not wrapped up in a venomous mass hallucination, the sense that people feel a profound lack of agency across the country is palpable. So too is the feeling that the people (whoever they, or we, exactly are) want a villain upon whom to pile their sins, a Satan to exorcise so that we may call ourselves, for a brief and shining moment, pure.

Surely countless retail investors would not have risked their hard-earned savings for the sake of giving hedge funds brief nightmares if they did not possess a collective desire to defy the perceived ruling class.

I am not in the least bit surprised that the market shakeup happened on the heels of President Donald J. Trump's departure from office. Without an unhinged and incompetent president against whom to levy our grievances, an urge to lash out against some other maligned establishment manifested from the vacuum.

So what to do about all this?

It might sound cheap, but the best thing we can do for our country is to focus on concrete, manageable policy solutions. Yes, there will be a time for sweeping and comprehensive reform. But what will dig America out of its quagmire of learned helplessness and defeatist attitude is proof that policies work and that they can alleviate our pain.

Complex, multi-parameter policies can take a lot of fine-tuning, and in the meantime, they are nearly as reassuring as an experiment with confounding variables and no clear path from effect to cause. But stimulus checks do not need much fine-tuning, nor does raising the minimum wage or offering debt relief to struggling students. Just because the theory behind policy-making can be deep does not mean the execution has to be convoluted. 

The best way to discredit a false prophet's claims is with better, clearer explanations. QAnon can malign Democrat lawmakers with bizarre, knotted accusations all it wants, but if the people see their wages go up, their debt go down and some temporary economic relief during this disaster of a pandemic, then the truth speaks for itself.

Daniel Bernstein is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore looking to major in cell biology and neuroscience and mathematics. His column, "Mind You," runs on alternate Mondays. 

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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