Down the Rabbit Hole

A little while ago, I had a reasonably mild disagreement on Facebook with Bruce, an old buddy from Teaneck, who arrived in The Land about a year before we showed up. He had posted the following message: ‘Whenever a child learns critical thinking, somewhere a conspiracy theory dies.’ While I heartily agree with the sentiment, I had to demur. If it were only that simple. I replied that there was also a therapeutic component that needed to be addressed. Lots of people with impressive educational backgrounds have found their way down the rabbit hole.  Yes, he answered, but they didn’t learn critical thinking. You know what: I’m right, and he’s right. Let me begin with why I’m right. (It’s my article, after all!)

A few weeks ago, I found the following article in my print edition of the International NY Times. The Times reporter, Kevin Roose, had met Valerie Gilbert in 2019. They agreed to keep in touch so that he could do a profile of her for his newspaper. His article begins:

Every morning, Valerie Gilbert, a Harvard-educated writer and actress, wakes up in her New York apartment; feeds her dog, Milo, and her cats, Marlena and Celeste; brews a cup of coffee; and sits down at her oval dining room table. Then she opens her laptop and begins fighting the global cabal.

The article explores Gilbert’s journey, which began in the anti-establishment left, and whose Facebook feed featured ‘Change.org petitions and cute animal photos. Then sometime in 2016, she was introduced to Pizzagate, that ‘powerful Democrats were running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a Washington pizza parlor, and that all of this was detailed in the Clinton emails…’ That did it. ‘The world opened up in Technicolor for me.’ All her questions, all her uncertainties, all her fears were answered, were dealt with, were clarified. There was this guy Q who knew everything, would expose everything, would explain everything. All true believers, unite!

As Roose came to realize, there was more to the story than one woman having everything explained to her out of the blue. QAnon is now a ‘big-tent conspiracy theory community.’ It’s not just a few lone loonies; it’s lots of loonies of all stripes and persuasion – all fixated on the goings-on at a pizzeria whose specific location has never been divulged – who like being with like-minded birds of a feather – to the extent that no amount of fact-checking or debunking will have any effect on their obsessions.

Now Gilbert has never actually met any other QAnoners face to face; it’s all online. Maybe there’s a way out, after all. Suppose we could convince her that this conspiracy theory is itself a conspiracy, and that there really isn’t a Q – that the Russians and/or the Chinese have taken control of her computer. How would you know; you admit that you rarely leave your house. All the people you think are in your chat groups? They don’t exist. All the group texts and tweets? They’re all coming from a network in the Kremlin, and when you answer or re-tweet, there’s no one out there getting the message. There’s not even a Donald Trump. He’s been silenced long ago; there’s an actor taking his place. Think that would work?

However, there’s another side of the story. In another article from the NY Times, Sabrina Tavernise describes a different journey, this one in and, fortunately, out of the rabbit hole. The article begins: In the summer of 2017, Lenka Perron was spending hours every day after work online, poring over fevered theories about shadowy people in power. She had mostly stopped cooking, and no longer took her daily walk. She was less attentive to her children, 11,15 and 19, who were seeing a lot of her side of the face as she stared down into her phone. It would all be worth it, she told herself. She was saving the country, and they would benefit. …She was no longer a lonely victim of a force she did not understand, but part of a bigger community of people seeking the truth… ‘We were finally joining forces to clean house… ‘                                                                      

Unfortunately, while she was ‘cleaning house,’ her family was reduced to a permanent menu of takeout. While she was finding ‘something to explain why we were suffering,’ her own stress level increased alarmingly and, consequently, she had to double the amount of her blood pressure medication.

Fortunately for all of us – especially her three children – something began to not make sense with the conspiracy: important people she had been told were about to be arrested were walking around free as a bird. The people she was connecting with on social media started to look and act stranger and stranger as time went by. The videos she was seeing, all about cannibalism and Satanism, seemed a tad over the top. And so, Perron, who has a master’s degree, was able to break away. Using her own experience as a guide, she now volunteers as a life coach, identifying conspiracy dependence in others. My buddy Bruce has a point: critical thinking has a definite value. Let’s describe it as a vaccine against rabbit hole-ism that’s 50% effective. Not a cure, but better than nothing.

Someone positioned as a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ in my office might point out to me –with some justification – that I suffer from the same debilitating syndrome. You sit there writing at your computer, and when you need a break or can’t decide what to say next, you drift over to YouTube, where you spend precious time looking at videos. From what we understand, what you are directed to is based on what you’ve looked at before or even the things you’re searching for in Google. Since one thing leads to another, can’t we say that you have your very own rabbit hole?

Fair enough, but there’s more to it than that. There are places to go and people to see on Facebook, but it’s not like an octopus grabbing you with all its tentacles and not letting you go, the way QAnon does.  As an example: There was a link from a Facebook group, Readers of Fine Literature, to a short video (5 ½ minutes) about a discussion with a New York literary figure about Jane Austen. It goes without saying that I stopped what I was doing and clicked on the link, only to discover that the one video was part of a series of conversations about Austen’s work held at the Morgan Library in 2010. No surprise, there were lots of similar videos by and for those of us who are (called in the trade) Janeites, hours and hours’ worth. That was one possible pathway to go, but not the only one. At least one of the writers from the Morgan Library group was featured on other videos, part of a series from a host of writers commenting on their craft. I could just as easily go in that direction. Or I could make a mental note of all of these possibilities for future reference and return to ground level, which is what I did. You see, escape is possible.

Much of what I am staring at on YouTube would not interest the average viewer. There’s Agadmator’s chess channel (coming our way from his living room somewhere in Croatia – with his brown dog snoozing on the coach in the background). I’m working my way through his ‘Paul Morphy Saga,’ reviewing the short, meteoric career of Paul Charles Morphy in the 1850’s, going over his memorable games, one by one. But for sheer obsessiveness, few can match David Hurwitz (the executive director of Classicstoday.com), a renowned authority on all manner of ‘classical’ music and recordings thereof. His personal collection of CD’s exceeds 30,000, stored in his Brooklyn apartment and his ‘overflow’ room somewhere else. He recently celebrated his 500th video (average length 30 minutes), fittingly, #14 in his ‘Haydn Crusade,’ discussing the under-valued symphonies of Franz Joseph Haydn, 107 in total (but you knew that). I should mention that he started his channel just last May, meaning he has created over 250 hours of content in seven and a half months! Almost impossible to keep up with him unless one were really in a rabbit hole with only a computer screen for company. (Bring me another bag of carrots, will you…)

Every one of his videos begins with his smiling, cherubic face and the same greeting, HELLO, FRIENDS, this is Dave Hurwitz…… and ends with a reminder to post your thoughts in the comments below. His purpose is not only to share his encyclopedic knowledge of the entire repertoire but also start a conversation with his audience about our thoughts and preferences. No indoctrination here, just a lot of here’s-what-I-think back and forth – as opposed to a one way ticket to nowhere.

Most days, somewhere about noon, I stop what I’m doing, head into the kitchen to prepare lunch for me and Barbara. When I’m done with the food, I measure out exactly twenty grams of the house blend from Power CoffeeWorks, grind it in my new Wilfa grinder, and make myself a pourover, using 300 grams of water poured slowly and carefully over the coffee in a filter, resulting in as perfect a cup of coffee as I can imagine. And then I stumbled on this video, comparing and contrasting four entirely different methods of making the same kind of pourover. They can’t all be right, can they? It’s like saying if I want to get to Tel Aviv, go either north, south, east, or west.

Then I remembered. All the videos that involve food preparation are like that: do this or do just the opposite. Even something so simple as scrambling eggs. Even something as basic as when to add the salt. I’m not referring to videos by Joe or Joan Shmoo in their kitchen. I’m talking about the celebrity chefs, the heavy hitters. They can’t agree on anything. (OK, they all begin by cracking open the eggs; not the same way, of course.)

Because my mind works in strange and wondrous ways, I thought about Nachum’s gemara shiur. We’re on chapter six of Brachot, in which the sages voice their opinions about which bracha to say on various foods. You’d think these guys would have figured it out long before they arrived at the study hall; it can’t be that difficult or controversial. But there it is on the printed page, a lot of here’s-what-I-think back and forth. At least they’re not yelling at each other, and the topic is still of some importance today. (Spoiler alert: no one makes a bracha on salt.)

Which led me back to thinking about the men and women in the QAnon rabbit hole. Or better: the children of the rabbit holers having a reunion in twenty or thirty years. By this time, Q is no longer with us; he faded away as mysteriously as he first appeared. What are these second-generation conspiracy promoters arguing about? Of course! Which pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. served as the headquarters for pizzagate? Was it Pepe’s or Sally’s? Was it Bill or Hillary who was the ringleader? Were Trump and McConnell part of the conspiracy?

We’ll leave them to their disputation, remembering to send in a kilo. of carrots now and then. You’re free to go wherever your fancy takes you. As for me, I have a fresh supply of Brandon’s house blend, and, wait a minute, Hurwitz just posted a video about Haydn’s symphony #16, the latest in his ‘crusade.’ Gotta go; see ya.

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