The Scourge of Self-Flagellating Politics

When politics becomes about tallying sins, it ceases to accomplish meaningful change…

From the gospel according to Luke, “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” If we are to take Luke at his word, then there must be plenty of heavenly exaltation in store for Jeopardy contestant turned social justice columnist caricature Arthur Chu who once tweeted: “As a dude who cares about feminism sometimes I want to join all men arm-in-arm & then run off a cliff and drag the whole gender into the sea.” Or for those who, on the morning following the election of Donald Trump, took to social media to publicly humble themselves to their followers, expressing their intense inward-turned shame and self-hatred. Typical of the style, New Statesman editor Laurie Penny wrote: “I’ve had white liberal guilt before. Today is the first time I’ve actually been truly horrified and ashamed to be white.” Others expressed their self-disgust at being straight white males and assured followers that while they of course did not vote for Trump, merely looking like those who did required some readily self-inflicted penance.

Every time a liberal conducts one of these performances of self-hatred, a predictable reaction cycle is set off. A ragtag army of nasty nihilistic right-wingers (a mixture of quasi-ironic anime-loving Nazis, celibate male separatists, and those who make it their duty to observe and report creeping Cultural Marxism) react with a flurry of anonymous retaliations. To the alt-right, this ritual confession of guilt is further proof of Western civilizational suicide. The self-flagellator is then met with a deluge of racist and/or misogynist abuse, which leaves them even more assured that their own dismal view of the West as white supremacist, misogynist, and essentially evil was correct all along. Online, stuck in an endless loop and unmoored from the cultural mainstream, niche online subcultures from right and left both reinforce their opposed but similarly depressing views of society.

All of which would be a mere curiosity, if it kept itself confined to the darker recesses of the Internet’s fetid bowel. However, since the mainstream media is always struggling to keep up with whatever the kids are into, the discourse of white self-criticism has gone somewhat more mainstream. It is now fairly typical to see ritualized confessions of white guilt. As Fredrik deBoer describes it:

“[There is] an entire cottage industry devoted to it. Similar arguments calling for white people to own their privilege have been published in places like the Huffington Post and Salon. Popular sites like YouTube and Tumblr play host to hundreds of earnest white people, eagerly disclaiming white privilege and their complicity in white supremacy. White rapper Macklemore recently released his second track concerning his own white privilege.”

Even Donald Sutherland recently felt compelled to describe his feeling “ashamed” for being a “white male.” Sutherland apparently had a moment of breakthrough when Helen Mirren, Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, informed him “You are the most privileged person on Earth… You are a white male.” Damning men for their crimes and defending purest womankind, Michael Moore, author of titles such as Stupid White Men, recently tweeted, “No women ever invented an atomic bomb, built a smoke stack, initiated a Holocaust, melted the polar ice caps or organized a school shooting.’ (This is false. The Manhattan Project had its unsung female heroes, there are plenty of female oil and gas executives, and female school shooter Brenda Ann Spencer inspired the 1979 Boomtown Rats hit “I Don’t Like Mondays.” Ironically, Moore erases women’s history by neglecting its greatest villains.)

With its obvious channeling of original sin, this style also has parallels in more traditional forms of radical politics than those one might associate with Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren. One of the stranger incarnations has been the German tendency known as Anti-Deutsch, which has built an entire politics around self-criticism and national collective guilt about the Holocaust. In 1995, to mark the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, which killed up to an estimated 25,000 people, anti-Germans demonstrated in praise of the bombings on the grounds that it killed people who supported Nazism and was therefore a victory. One year, to mark the event in Dresden, the demonstrators held a sign reading “Bomber Harris, do it again!” in reference to RAF Bomber Command Chief  Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, who, asked if he felt any guilt at the enormous loss of life, said that he would have destroyed Dresden again. Interestingly, despite its strongest roots being in radical ultra-left politics, the movement’s anti-German thinking has led them to support the Israeli state and by extension the United States, especially after 9/11.

In what felt like significant timing, right before Donald Trump’s election, the film adaption of Philip Roth’s masterpiece American Pastoral was released in cinemas. In it, the daughter of the central family who is consumed by hatred for the white America that her ideal bourgeois family exemplifies, bombs the local post office before disappearing into a fictionalized version of the Weather Underground. On her bedroom wall hangs a fictionalized Weatherman motto:

We are against everything that is good and decent in honky America. We will loot and burn and destroy. We are the incubation of your mothers’ nightmares.”

The Weathermen used a style of “criticism-self-criticism” sessions, also called “Weatherfries,” which were described by the author of Bringing the War Home as “the most harrowing aspect of life within the collective.” Based on Maoist struggle sessions, these were used to root out subconscious racism and sexism within their own psyches. Individuals were reportedly hazed for up to twelve hours without a break until the white radicals confessed their deep white supremacism, homophobia and misogyny to their fellow white radicals thus achieving catharsis through their own admission of guilt.


The most famous case of white self-hatred leading to full-scale self-delusion was probably that of Rachel Dolezal, the Africana studies instructor and president of a local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who turned out to be a natural blonde white woman in pretty convincing disguise. Dolezal had so successfully persuaded herself that she was black that she seemed unable to understand what she had done, as she struggled to answer interview questions about her motivation. In sympathy with Dolezal, a white female college professor writing for the Huffington Post, Ali Michael, later admitted:

“I couldn’t have biological children because I didn’t want to propagate my privilege biologically.” She went on to say: “…like Dolezal, I wanted to take on Africanness. Living in South Africa during my junior year abroad, I lived with a Black family, wore my hair in head wraps, shaved my head… I didn’t want to be White, but if I had to be, I wanted to be White in a way that was different from other White people I knew… But the lesson for me is remembering how deep the pain is, the pain of realizing I’m White… The pain of facing that honestly is blinding.”

Watching the suicidal levels of secularized self-flagellation in the aftermath of Trump made me recall the famous scene in the movie Malcolm X, in which a young white woman momentarily blocks Malcolm X’s path and asks what she, as a white person, can do to help his cause. He answers with one coldly served word – “Nothing.” The scene was based on a real encounter he had with a “little blonde co-ed” after which he wrote, “I’d never seen anyone I ever spoke to before more affected than this little white girl… Her clothes, her carriage, her accent all showed Deep South breeding and money.”

“Nothing” could certainly be a succinct one-word summation of what exactly anyone seems to be benefiting from much of the contemporary online performance of self-criticism. But then, Malcolm X went on to regret being contemptuous of the white girl depicted in the scene. Years later, it affected him quite profoundly, and he said:

“Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument… I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me twelve years.”

Malcolm came to feel that the strict racial nationalism preached by the Nation of Islam had been fundamentally mistaken. By the end of his life, his political thought was becoming more sophisticated and nuanced, as he thought through the question of how to fight racism without reproducing a crude nationalism.


Could there be a more sympathetic analysis also of today’s political self-criticism? The Weathermen were, after all, motivated by the extent to which they despised the racist Vietnam War, and their own culture for enabling it. Spend a little time in Berlin going from grim Holocaust memorial to grim Holocaust museum and you’ll soon get a sense of why a tendency like Anti-Deutsch exists, however wacky it may be. In its easily parodied but relatively benign form today, you could interpret the current wave of online self-criticism as youthful emotion and hyperbole with wholly good intentions. In the age of Trump, who is already making boastful threats of unconstitutional punishments for flag burning, perhaps this kind of self-criticism could be an antidote to the excesses of aggressive and unchecked nationalism and the dark forces it has historically whipped up.

Yet, the Weathermen’s deeply degenerate and cult-like internal politics didn’t do anyone any good. In fact, they seemed far more a product of neurosis and narcissism than of revolutionary strategy–they couldn’t stand to be seen as part of the white bourgeois society they came from and so they found entirely negative ways to purge themselves in the presence of other white radicals.

The relatively harmless tweeting of today certainly leaves fewer human casualties behind. But it is still based on a common impulse – the expression of total contempt for one’s own society expressed through progressive language. In this internal psychodrama the oppressed appear as purely symbolic, rather than as real people for whom one is trying to generate real material gains. It is difficult to think of any positive political movement past or present that has changed the lives of human beings for the better based on misanthropy and radical performances of self-hatred.

Even the cruelest alt-right critics tend to regard extreme forms of liberal social media self-hatred as simply pathetic, a sign of a lack of self-respect. But in my own more ungenerous moments I wonder if it is something worse. Rather than merely being of benefit to no one, it could be of quite a significant benefit to just one person – the self-flagellator themselves. Publicly declaring your sins makes you appear a better person than those who have not declared them. It is not really a put-down of oneself, but a put-down of others, who are less morally worthy for having been less forthcoming in their confessions.

Online, many liberal commentators and internet personalities have built fame and careers purely through trading in the currency of virtue. As more seek to mimic this, they rely upon the value of this precious currency, even as it is constantly devalued by its own abundance. So the rituals escalate in absurdity. Suddenly denouncing Trump is not enough, he must be “literally Hitler.” Soon denouncing all of society as literally Hitler is not enough; one has to turn inward and denounce oneself with the same ferocity. Others climbing the greasy pole of liberal virtue to careers in academia or ideological listicle-writing must seek to outpace and dethrone those taking up their spot in the limited room available at the top.

But beneath the performance of humility and self-criticism may lie something thoroughly self-interested and entirely without real virtue. I’m reminded of the very un-virtuous Nietzsche’s scathing inversion of the Christian formulation in Luke’s gospel, instead suggesting, “He who humbleth himself wishes to be exalted.”

The Great American Chemtrail

Understanding one of the country’s most bizarre paranoias…

Earlier this year, after Prince was found dead on the floor of an elevator in his Paisley Park recording studio, some strange headlines appeared through Google News. These included “Did The Chemtrail Flu Kill Prince?” and “Special Report: Was Prince Murdered By Illuminati Record Execs?” These articles suggested that Prince had not been killed by excessive indulgence in opiates, as was the default hypothesis at the time and as the autopsy would eventually confirm. Instead, Prince’s death was allegedly related to “chemtrails,” – airborne chemical agents released by planes as part of a global conspiracy.

In fact, the singer himself had been a believer in the sinister influence of “chemtrails.” On the Tavis Smiley Show, Prince explained:

“You know, when I was a kid I used to see these trails in the sky all the time and ‘Oh that’s cool—a jet just went over.’ And then you started to see whole bunch of them and next thing you know everybody in your neighborhood was fighting and arguing and you didn’t know why.”

When Prince died suddenly at the age of 57, some believed the late star was assassinated for speaking out. Others theorized, as swivel-eyed Infowars editor Alex Jones suggested to his two million radio listeners, that he was killed by a “weaponized flu” caused by the trails.

To believers, the “chemtrail” is like any ordinary plane condensation trail (or “contrail”) in the sky, but one with suspiciously long-lasting features. Chemtrails, they say, persist for as many as 12 hours, and contain a mixture of ominous particulates such as aluminium, pathogens, and even desiccated blood. To denizens of online chemtrail forums, the trails have all manner of sinister purposes. Believers speculate that the trails may be part of a secret geo-engineering project involving solar radiation management or weather modification. Some on chemtrail forums also insist they have seen changes in the moon’s orbit, or claim to possess information that WiFi frequencies could be changing our DNA. They suspect some kind of government attempt at either social manipulation, human population control, or biological/chemical warfare (perhaps even all three). One frequenter of the GeoEngineeringWatch site writes:

They are altering the weather and sunlight to cause a seemingly “natural” global famine to depopulate human beings to numbers of their choosing. They are committing perpetrated democide, depopulating exactly as they said they would do, and they are using “global warming” as their cover story for mass murder.

Some believe, as Prince evidently did, that the trails are causing illnesses and social problems, part of a plot to spread disease in order to create future markets for powerful pharmaceutical corporations. A few claim to have acquired the symptoms of “Morgellons disease,” a delusional non-ailment in which a person believes herself to be infested with insects, parasites or fibers. Chemtrail forum-dwellers call the whole phenomenon a part of “the largest crime against humanity in human history.”


It is fair to say that scientists have universally dismissed (and repeatedly, exasperatedly debunked) every single one of the chemtrail theorists’ claims. However, this only provides further proof to believers of how deep the conspiracy goes! Believers post photographs depicting the interiors of planes, in which the cabin is stocked with large containers connected by tubes. The photos are accompanied by the exclamation that “This is the spraying equipment!” In fact, the pictures merely show planes filled with ballast barrels, water tanks that are used to simulate passenger loads during the flight testing of new airliner designs. (The tubes allow water to be pumped from tank to tank, simulating passenger motion in the cabin.)

The theory’s proponents insist chemtrails are a new phenomenon, but when confronted with photographs of long-lasting condensation trails from as far back as World War II, they refer to the military’s long history of weather modification plots. As for so many faiths and cults, every piece of contradictory evidence is seen to further bolster the theory. Moon-landing conspiracies work similarly—every additional photograph of human beings literally standing on the moon is just more evidence that the whole thing was faked.

The allegations of chemtrail theorists are pretty easily dealt with. But the belief has proven impressively persistent. A search for chemtrails brings up 5.5 million Google results and a 2011 study found that 16.6% of a sample of 3105 people in the US, Canada and the UK believed either “entirely” or, more often, “to some extent” in the existence of a conspiracy involving chemtrails. Prince was not the only celebrity to issue expostulations against chemtrail doubters. Aging TV martial artist and right-wing paranoiac Chuck Norris also plugged the theory, insisting that chemtrails regularly appear in the skies over his Texas ranch. Joni Mitchell has publicly claimed to be a sufferer of “Morgellon’s disease.” Mitchell was among those condemning the CDC for treating the syndrome as imaginary, insisting she had contracted a “weird, incurable disease that seems like it’s from outer space” in which “fibers in a variety of colors protrude out of my skin like mushrooms after a rainstorm: they cannot be forensically identified as animal, vegetable or mineral.”

The origins of the chemtrail conspiracy narrative can be traced back to the late 1990s when a piece by “investigative journalist” William Thomas suggested that “Contrails spread by fleets of jet aircraft in elaborate cross-hatched patterns are sparking speculation and making people sick across the United States.” From there, the idea spread to late-night talk radio, where “UFOlogists” and paranormal investigators have long found a sympathetic ear. But the chemtrails conspiracy also coincided directly with the early rise of the Internet forum as a venue for the sharing of ideas, and it was on exhaustively-compiled, garishly-designed websites that the theory was most successfully promoted.

The success of the chemtrails theory in the online world shows the particular conduciveness of the platform to conspiratorial thinking, though the Internet has also always been the perfect platform for making fun of such thinking. Richard Hofstadter’s famous description of the “uncommonly angry minds” that made up the “paranoid style” in American political thought could be a description of just about any contemporary online forum on even the most mundane and uncontroversial of topics. Add to that mix an all encompassing theory of government geo-engineering, population control and a global apocalyptic conspiracy raining down from the sky, throw in Big Oil, Big Pharma and the Jews and Hofstadter’s description becomes something of an understatement.

Chemtrail activists frequently attend events and conferences on geo-engineering, and many academics working in the area have been subjected to threats and verbal abuse for their alleged role in the conspiracy. Pilots and weather reporters receive harassment and threats from anti-chemtrails activists. While conspiratorial paranoia may generally be America’s harmless national pastime, in the case of chemtrails, online forums are full of justifications and fantasies of violence toward those seen to be involved in the plot. On a generically populist site titled “,” one writer says, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fantasized about firing a missile at the jets laying chemtrails over our skies.” Other commenters on chemtrail forums warn, “There’s only one answer. Kill them before they kill you” or “Why won’t they tell us there [sic] plan and leave us and the world we live in alone.” Another wonders, “Am I the only one that is considering picking up a gun and shooting these people dead before they get my mother, my father, my sister, my brother, and even my garden?” (First they came for the begonias, and I said nothing…)

Perhaps needless to say, Jews are often implicated. One believer posted a video on YouTube called “Star of David chemtrails/persistent contrails” in which he films criss-crossing trails in the sky, grimly observing off-camera that “They create the Star of David… speaks for itself.”

There is a genteel approach, sometimes found in academic writing, to consider the ill-written and baseless ramblings of conspiracy theory forums as kinds of “counter-knowledges” or as different “ways of knowing.” Indeed, such beliefs often do come from seemingly politically disenfranchised people with possible mental health issues.

But the only thing more patronizing than to deride such beliefs would be not to do so. One also has to wonder if such a sympathetic reading would be given if the racial conspiratorial undertones were against any group but the Jews. And in practice it’s hard to be patiently open-minded while reading typical communiqués like this on an anti-chemtrails YouTube video:



if You don’t say no and stop this, we all will suffer and die

THANK YOU FOR STOPPiNG NewWorldOrder/NATO/Chemtrails/RFiD Powder/Smart Dust!!!!!!!”

The 1990’s saw an explosion of conspiracy theory culture in the United States, in the reverberations from decades of the paranoid Cold War years. Beginning in the 1990s, the era-defining TV show The X-Files featured Russian nuclear sewer monsters, U.S. government alien cover-ups, secret geo-engineering, population control projects and domestic terrorism (back when the term “terrorism” conjured up nightmare visions of rampaging Southern hillbillies instead of bearded jihadis). And it is worth remembering that many of the conspiratorial domestic terrorists of the 1990’s had in fact experienced terrible crimes at the hands of the state. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was subjected to cruel CIA experiments during his time as a Harvard undergraduate. The so-called “MK Ultra” research of the ‘50s and ‘60s, which used LSD and psychological abuse on unsuspecting subjects, is now a notorious chapter in the agency’s history and as horrifying as anything alleged on anti-chemtrails forums. Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing, killing 168 and injuring around 600, was a veteran who had witnessed the horrific violence of the Gulf War. McVeigh had become fixated on the Clinton Administration’s needless massacre at Waco, in which 76 people were shot and burned alive after a siege by the FBI and ATF went horrendously awry.


As in Hofstadter’s 1964 analysis, the online  world of the chemtrails conspiracy is not recognizably right or left wing. There are elements associated with the fringe of U.S. ultra-conservatism, such as fear of Big Government’s statist dastardliness. The overlap between the militia movement and the conspiracy crowd is significant. But there are also elements of the more Romantic-tinged Green left, such as an opposition to the industrial plunder of nature and a fear of being poisoned by sprayed chemicals. There are echoes of ideas also found in the Unabomber’s manifesto about the evils of industrial society. Conspiratorial notions also tend to find a sympathetic audience among the socialistically-inclined during times of real political weakness. The Left Forum in New York (a prominent annual gathering attended by what Amber Frost called “bitter old codgers,” “Maoist Third World-ists,” “sanctimonious Trotskyists,” and “adherents of similarly esoteric ideological traditions”) hosts conspiracy theorists on its panels. These include 9/11 “Truthers”, who remind the assembled radicals that jet fuel can’t melt steel beams.

The cultural critic Fredric Jameson argued that conspiracy theories are used as an improvised guide to our overwhelmingly complex social landscape. It is often easier to imagine sinister cabals and physically impossible phenomena than it is to accept the open and known injustices of the world. Who needs the Illuminati when almost the entire British government went to the same schools? One only has to read Yanis Varoufakis’ accounts of the internal workings of international financial bodies or look at the dynasties and tiny elites that run the world of government and capital to wonder if the paranoid person is just, as William Burroughs put it “a person in possession of all the facts.” The paranoid impulse is not so much wrong as too often misdirected and it is often not a particularly distant leap from the truth to the fiction. People are right in their intuition that there are dark forces arrayed against them but they’re more likely to find the information they seek in the dull finance section of any newspaper than on chemtrails forums that weave more compelling narratives.

In fact, chemtrail believers have a paradoxical mixture of rationalist skepticism and dogmatic faith. They spend their time carefully parsing documents with a scrupulousness worthy of the IRS. Like committed scientists, they quest after “truth,” they want to know what’s “really” going on. They see unexplained horrors in the world around them, and they are persistent askers of “Why?”

Yet they are fundamentally religious in their outlook, insofar as they believe on faith in something that others cannot see. The online conspiracy world speaks of “sheeple” and issues commands to “wake up.” This is one expression of an entire online discourse of waking up, also shared by the “men’s rights” online community “RedPill” (a reference to the film The Matrix, in which by taking the “red pill,” one become aware of the truth about one’s fabricated reality.) There is a quasi-spiritual dimension to the born-again experiences people describe when they “woke up” to reality. Although unlike Christians, who awake to something they find beautiful and fulfilling, the online rebirth tends to involve plunging into darkness to see the truth.

Chemtrail conspiracies are, to some extent, just another incarnation of the human search for meaning, albeit one that is irrational and occasionally threatening. Today most of us live at the mercy of unknowably complex and volatile economic forces whose inner financial workings are entirely opaque to all but a few. The all-encompassing chemtrails conspiracy may appeal because it orders a chaotic world. As a replacement for religious traditions and political projects which both contained beautiful and redemptive ideas, individualism as the only surviving ideology has turned out to be thin gruel for some. In the absence of anything else to have faith in and so much to try to understand, why not chemtrails?