I first heard the name Alex Jones about a dozen years ago. The now infamous radio provocateur came to my attention via email rants forwarded to me by progressive friends. Jones was alleging, loudly, that the George W. Bush administration had planned and implemented the 9/11 attacks. To a certain species of left-winger, this made Jones a national treasure, a speaker of truth to power.
Fast forward to the recent Presidential election. Jones once again inserted himself into the political narrative, but this time on the side of Republican candidate, Donald Trump. Jones repeatedly and effusively praised Trump while simultaneously marketing “Hillary for Prison” t-shirts. It’s safe to say Jones has lost the love of most on the left.
So what happened over the course of 12 years? Did Jones radically change his view? Did he swing from ultra-left to far-right? Hardly. He has the same beliefs he’s always had: a bizarre mix of radical, anti-state libertarianism and unceasing paranoia.
Any confusion on this matter arises not from Jones himself, but from viewing Jones through a lens popular for analyzing politics. A lens that reduces everything to two choices, left or right. This view is what I call the binary narrative.
Consider another situation observed through the binary narrative: Russia. When I was a kid, Russia was viewed by those on the right as a malicious enemy intent on destroying western democracy. Meanwhile, many of the left downplayed the Russian threat and argued that the real threat of nuclear obliteration came from the deranged mind of President Ronald Reagan. Even after the Berlin Wall collapsed and Russia fell into a kind of corrupt, neo-capitalist quagmire, these views didn’t change much. Yet, we now live in a world where Republicans wave away concerns about the threat of Russia while Democrats demand investigations into whether Russia meddled in the election.
Or consider FBI director James Comey. He was vilified by Democrats for reviving the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails at the 11th hour of the Presidential election. It was alleged that he was trying to tilt the election towards Trump. And that narrative worked… until Comey appeared before Congress and argued that Russia had meddled in the electoral process with the goal of damaging Clinton. He noted that the FBI was looking for any signs of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian in its investigation into the matter. He also took the time to mock Trump’s assertion that Obama had “wiretapped” him. Is Comey a FOT (Friend of Trump) or antagonist?
Why is it we humans insist on seeing things as pairs of opposites (as opposed to groups of three, five or more?) I don’t think anyone can say for sure but I suspect it has something to do with our form. We think spatially and we have two hands into which we can “hold” opposing viewpoints. Additionally, most living creatures can be bisected from top to bottom into two mirror image forms. Perhaps these limits of our design control our thinking.
We are also tribalistic and instinctively group the world into friend or foe. For our friends, we can excuse egregious and incompetent behaviors. Unto our enemies we can attribute the darkest of motives and deeds.
The problem, however, is that reality is not a world of opposing pairs. And when we force ourselves into that mold, we lie to ourselves. A libertarian radical like Alex Jones becomes a liberal freedom fighter. An overbearing nation-state like Russia becomes an unobtrusive friend. The actions of an FBI director following the protocols of his job become political meddling. (In truth, I’m not even sure my descriptions of these actors---Jones, Russia and Comey---are correct. The strongest blow one can deliver to the assurances of the binary narrative are to simply say, “I don’t know.”)
In their book, “The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind” psychologists Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban performed a detailed analysis of the American political landscape. What they found does not neatly fit into a simple map of left and right. They discovered anti-tax, pro-choice advocates. They found God-fearing, social conservatives in favor of the welfare state. They unearthed latte liberals ill at ease with affirmative action. The political views describes by the book could not simply be cast into two competing silos but into many.
This should come to no surprise to us. Most people in their candid moments will confess to views at odds with certain orthodoxies of “their side.” But the binary narrative demands that we wrap up those inconstancies, those cognitive dissonances and hide them away. Lest we be revealed to be not what we claim to be.