Albert Camus wrote The Plague in 1947, as an allegory of French society under German occupation. Reading from 2020, however, it also describes with some accuracy the social impact of an actual epidemic. The sense of time suspended, of activity deferred, of relationships interrupted: “As it was a case of marking time, many hundreds of thousands of people were still kicking their heels for endless weeks […] nothing more important happened than this great marking of time.”
And into this space come comparisons, analogies and theories, to fill the empty time and make sense of the chaos and disruption, invented by the mendacious to manipulate the confused. Camus lists the different types and it is impossible not to recognise the stories in the newspapers that blow down our streets, their relevance superseded by new developments.
Some predictions were based on bizarre calculations involving the number of the year, the number of deaths and the number of months already spent under the plague. Others established comparisons with the great plagues of history, bringing out the similarities (which these prophecies called ‘constants’) and, by means of no less peculiar calculations, claimed to extract information relative to the present outbreak. But the ones that the public liked best were undoubtedly those which, in apocalyptic language, announced a series of events, any one of which might be the one that the town was currently enduring, their complexity allowing for any interpretation. Nostradamus and Saint Odile were thus consulted daily and never in vain. What remained common to all the prophecies was that, in the last resort, they were reassuring. The plague, however, was not.
I wrote a while ago about the parallel infodemic coursing through society, as we all struggle to make sense of the senseless, to order the chaotic. Graphs, charts, dashboards, bulletins, maps, timelines: every manner of device intended to help synthesise and distill the rush of events into orderly narrative and discrete data sets. And as Camus said, these are reassuring: not because of their content but because of their form. A viral contagion can be truly controlled only on the page or the screen: every graphic contributes to our sense that because the situation can be described, it can be (or is being) managed. Every rumour, false hope or faked accusation contributes to a sense that the sky is falling.
For this reason, it is unsurprising that conspiracy theories have been part of the year. In March and April, telephone engineers were assaulted and mobile masts set on fire by people who believed the virus was connected to the 5G network upgrade. Paradoxically, they also think that the electronic media is a good place to promote this: I suspect these people are (because things are their opposite) the most fevered users of electronic devices. They seem to patrol the virtual world as they might have once walked the streets, howling about Armageddon and inveighing against the shadows.
I have seen the low-tech versions too, though. Walking through a locked-down Kentish Town, I saw a flyer pushed through the letterbox of a charity shop, its quality print daring the reader to dismiss it for the ravings it contained. I have seen other slogans and warnings, scrawled on signs and bus shelters, painted on doors. They are the inevitable detritus spawned by confusion and despair. And just as surely as the maps of where the virus has taken the greatest toll, they are indicators of deprivation: warnings and fears given venom by resentment. They are the signs (as in Camus) of “those who are looking for reasons and who are afraid.”
In such a context, it was inevitable that antisemitic conspiracy theories should have a resurgence. The Community Security Trust has published a report on the antisemitic tropes and canards revivified by the pandemic. From positing a Jewish conspiracy behind the virus, to using the virus to celebrating Jewish deaths, to using the virus to kill Jews, all the classic elements of the oldest hatred are present. Whether from the right (QAnon) or the left (AntiVaxx) the elements are tiresomely predictable, and make it hard to tell one from the other. As Robert Eaglestone has observed about varieties of Holocaust denial: “these distinctions are rarely fixed, as they demand too much consistency from the world of bigotry and false argument that these people inhabit.”
A survey of the Twitter feed of Piers Corbyn, a notable member of the conspiratorial elite, shows the usual distinctions of politics breaking down. Combining the family pastimes of preaching to the choir and never changing his mind, he at once quotes Toby Young and his band of right-wing “Lockdown Sceptics”, argues that Black Lives Matter is a conspiracy funded by big business, claims that man-made climate change is a myth, and that vaccines are designed to control us; and that George Soros, “Rockefeller” or Bill Gates is behind it all.
The left-wing “commentator” Kerry-Anne Mendoza yesterday peddled a more belt-and-braces version of the way the Holocaust can be folded into these discourses of hatred. Not as a conspiracy theory, but just as a lazy juxtaposition. As though the death camps were a punchline rather than an atrocity.
Similarly, the mural Freedom for Humanity by the artist Mear One has been doing the rounds in meme form. This is an image even Piers Corbyn’s brother Jeremy belatedly acknowledged as “deeply disturbing and anti-Semitic” – some years after invoking “Rockerfeller’s” [sic] attack on Diego de Rivera in its defence. Like Mein Kampf, (a major source text for Jewish conspiracy theories) these ideas always find Jews responsible for the evils of the day, placing grimly-eroticised spectres and fantasies of “Jewish influence” where the facts should go.
Into this volatile mixture of paranoia, half-truth and pure fantasy, the FBI yesterday decided to publish its records on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the antisemitic conspiracy ur-text, without commentary or qualification. When I last checked, the material had been retweeted 16,700 times. By comparison, its belated clarifications (below) had barely been noticed. A lie is, as ever, twice round the world before the truth gets its boots on.
The resurgence of conspiracy theories and panic in a period of intense anxiety and confusion is not a surprise. If you want a funny and informative introduction to why this is the case, follow Marlon Solomon (@supergutman) whose monologue “A Lizard’s Tale” is a chilling and hilarious primer in the back-and forth between claim and counter-claim. Dave Rich (@daverich1) noted in an article published earlier this year that “if it is true that Jews play a central role in conspiracy theories, it is also true that the concept of a conspiracy plays a central role in the history of antisemitism”. Conspiracies and antisemitism are linked by methodology, purpose and personnel.
But nor, it should be underlined, do these theories and fantasies restrict themselves to antisemitism. As documented by the charity TellMama, COVID-19 has prompted attacks and libels on Muslim communities. Stonewall documents the impact of the pandemic on LGBT individuals and communities. As so often, the events of this year show that hatred knows few distinctions and appeals to no logic other than the belief that since the individual is powerless in the face of events, those events must be controlled by the powerful. And since there is nothing more powerful than that which provokes fear, the two must be identical. “It is very tiring to be a plague victim,” wrote Camus, “but it is still more tiring not to want to be one.” And given time to brood, the most illogical solutions acquire the clarity of mathematical proofs. But for the conspiracist, as for their cousin, the perfect Orwellian product of totalitarianism, if the right person says it, 2+2=5.
So what can we do against this tide of reckless hate and thoughtless invective? As Camus recognised, the purpose of these ravings is to provide reassurance against the unpredictable and invisible workings of fate. And like his hero (and unreliable narrator) Rieux, we have to recognise that the answers are not glamorous: “this whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.” We carry on, we do our best, we remember that common humanity and common confusion are often the same thing, and we do our jobs, however small, to make the world better.