I’ve been devouring reports about QAnon. Journalists can’t keep their eyes in their sockets.
The world, Q tells his followers, is “is run by a cabal of satanic cannibal pedophiles who torture children.” They’ve been at it “for centuries.” Trump was tasked by the U.S. military to “take them down” and “execute” them during “The Storm.” It sends its followers down a “rabbit hole.” CNN’s Anderson Cooper, whose mom, socialite Gloria Vanderbilt, was somehow written into the storyline, asked slack-jawed, Did you actually believe this?, to an ex-devotee.
I want to say the problem with all this isn’t that it’s absurd, ridiculous or counterfactual. That’s storytelling, especially when it rises into the realms of myth. It embodies a deep impulse to find hope and meaning in an absurd world, even if it defies reason. We will make something of this beyond the chaos.
Take the Christian narrative. Tertullian, writing in the early 200s (!) about Christ’s resurrection, said, It must be so because it’s ridiculous. That was personalized by the Protestant reformation into: I believe because it’s absurd. The difference from QAnon is these Christians admitted their story was absurd.
And it was. Jesus came as the Messiah, hailed by disciples expecting him to overthrow Roman rule and other demonic forces. He was arrested, tortured on a cross and expired. Three days later he came back to life. QED.
Or take my fave among such myths: Judaism’s false messiah, Sabbatai Zevi, in the 1600s. A “prophet” proclaimed him, many Jews believed, expecting him to depose the Sultan. He was arrested, offered death or conversion to Islam, and converted, leaving his followers much like Q after Biden was sworn in and The Storm failed to break. Some dropped out but others revised the storyline: they said Zevi was still on track, but in a crookeder way. I’ve met Catholics from Portugal who retain Jewish elements in their practise that were furtively passed down through generations, suggesting remnants of Sabbatian faith.
And at the risk of alienating some lifelong comrades, may I cite the mythos of atheistic Marxism (versus its economic and sociological insights). That myth, clung to by believers, says social justice is bound to triumph, via the messianic agency of the proletariat, who have nothing to lose but their chains. History will absolve us, whatever we may do to aid or hinder it. It’s sheer, unproven faith.
So I want to argue that scorn for bizarre plot lines full of absurdity, and the consequent smug self-satisfaction of liberal or left critics, is misplaced. There’s a deep lack in the QAnon account, but it hasn’t to do with ridiculousness per se. It pertains to the nobility of the myth’s components and the resources it draws on to construct its narrative edifice. Whew, that’s a mouthful.
So think of Trump himself, a figure full of hate and bluster, totally self-absorbed and self-serving. Not an ounce of empathy. Jesus said the meek shall inherit the earth and to love thy neighbour; not: I’ve never made a mistake and try swallowing bleach. Jesus’s myth with the resurrection at its core survives not because of its absurdity, but because of his enduring compassion and humanity.
Zevi wasn’t a narcissist, he was manic-depressive, filled with self-doubt and anxious to improve his people’s lot. He was embedded in the mythic imagery of the Lurianic Kabbalah: that the divine essence shattered sometime during creation, scattering sparks of holiness that were trapped by evil husks and shards but that can be redeemed back toward their source by acts of faith and devotion.
These are resources and images that can sustain people in dark times.
Trump reflects nothing but his own vainglory and the degradation of the Republican party that happened well before he came along. The QAnon material reflects the decayed, diminished state of a once proud public education system that often fails to teach how to think and imagine fruitfully. It’s culturally impoverished, and is losing the ability to genuinely nourish its followers.
That’s the problem with QAnon, not absurdity or contradictions: those are embedded in human experience. They call out for recognition and exploration. QAnon, like its threadbare messiah, lacks the capacity to deal with them honestly or productively.
Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.