April 23, 2020

From moral panic to conspiracy riffing, as excitement cycle shifts from vulnerable to warm-up phase

I still have yet to write the all-encompassing post on how moral panics erupt during the vulnerable phase of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle, but they do. Everyone feels vulnerable in their refractory period, and all external stimulation feels unwelcome and painful, leading them to feel victimized by society itself, and to dwell on the theme of trauma.

One facet of moral panics is the political -- feeling that they are so big that they require a political solution, and therefore a political leader finds himself hoisted up by the morally panicked crowd as their potential savior. I've already detailed this process before, and pointed out how we've seen the popping of the latest leftist bubble, which lasted from 2015-2019 along with the vulnerable phase, but has suddenly fizzled now that we've entered the warm-up phase. No more emo background, no more moral panics, no more longing for a political deus ex machina (McGovern, Jesse Jackson, Nader, Bernie).

OK, so what's going to happen to all of that stuff -- is it going to completely vanish? Not quite. Just because the emotional landscape has changed, doesn't mean the topics will disappear from sight, and doesn't mean that all the previous ideas, claims, opinions, etc., will get flushed down the memory hole.

On the whole, the general public doesn't resonate with the emotional themes of trauma and victimization anymore, but that doesn't mean the same topics can't be treated with a different emotional tone, one more resonant with the restless warm-up phase that we've just entered.

And although we no longer feel refractory, vulnerable, emo, painfully over-stimulated, victimized, and traumatized, we still have not entered the manic phase when we feel invincible, carefree, high, and happy-go-lucky. We're in an in-between phase, where energy levels have left the refractory state, have recovered to baseline, and are capable of a some excitation, but not a sustained spike.

So trying to take a highly emotional tone won't work in either direction, whether appealing to negative or positive emotions.

Rather, it will shift to a more emotionally neutral tone -- more clinical, analytical, factual. It doesn't mean a serious tone, just more analytical than emotional. The popular mood won't be so academic, but informal -- just tossing ideas out there, just riffing, just mixing things up, just experimenting around out of mild curiosity. Conspiracy "theories" for the obsessives, conspiracy "riffing" for casuals.

What do you get when you take an emotionally charged moral panic, drain it of its emo themes of victimization and trauma, and channel the discussion in a more clinical and fact-obsessed direction? Conspiracy theories -- something that is still trying to make sense out of a phenomenon that had traumatized masses of people, but without indulging, rehashing, or reliving the trauma, as happens during a moral panic (to keep everyone emotionally engaged through a sense of urgency).

Rather, conspiracy theories shift toward explaining how the traumatic phenomenon came to be, perhaps to let us prevent a similar trauma in the future -- or to at least let us understand the forces that caused it, so we can have epistemological closure, rather than live out the rest of our lives feeling victimized by some totally random and chaotic enigma.

Conspiracy theories shift the discussion away from the emotionally charged realm of "good vs. evil" and into the clinical realm of "cause and effect". Now people become concerned more with facts, evidence, clues, leads, witnesses, sources, testimony, history, logical reasoning, common sense, skepticism, and so on and so forth.

If there is any characteristic emotion, it is cynical and jaded -- like a clinician who's seen a million cases like this one, and it's only a matter of time before he solves the puzzle, whose pieces will surely fit together in an all too expected configuration. Still, emotionally numb does not mean lacking in motivation or drive or energy -- it just means he will be motivated by a search for the deeper hidden truth, the one that the official story's writers have tried to obscure from public view. Solving a puzzle is motivating for its own cognitive rewards, despite not tapping into a strong emotional vein.

* * *

While not attempting a full overview of these conspiracy periods for now, I'll point to the most salient examples from the most recent warm-up phases -- today, and the late 2000s. I'll cover earlier warm-up phases, and their correlated conspiracy booms, in another post. (As a reminder, that will be the early '90s, the late '70s, and the early '60s.)

Starting with the current warm-up phase, we're already seeing lots of conspiracy riffing around the coronavirus pandemic -- the virus itself, government responses to it, its relation to the economic depression, international relations, and whatever else it's affecting.

No one devoted this much analytical effort to all of the myriad traumas that they experienced from 2015-2019. I don't mean emotional partisan stuff like QAnon, or Russiagate, I mean someone actually trying to explain how things are unfolding, albeit in a conspiratorial way. Look at how minimal the clinical effort was to understand the Stephen Paddock mass shooting of 2017 -- but now that we're entering a less hysterical phase, maybe people will start looking into that in a "truther" way.

The most we saw of the analytical, rather than hysterical, approach during the vulnerable phase came in the very last year of the phase, when Jeffrey Epstein was first arrested and then murdered in prison before he could testify. Still, I recall the reaction being heavily hysterical and emotionally traumatizing to the people paying attention, so it wasn't a primarily clinical tone at first. Maybe toward the end of 2019, when "Epstein didn't commit suicide" reached meme status, it took on a more factual / evidential tone than a moral / emotional tone. It was a factual claim, laying the foundation for a whole bunch of conspiracy riffing for the current year and the next several to come. Assuming coronavirus doesn't occupy too much of the conspiratorial mind, Epstein could easily become one of the main topics for this warm-up phase.

The last major wave of conspiracy theories and riffing was of course 9/11 trutherism, which contrary to intuition did not erupt until the second half of the 2000s, during the warm-up phase, not right after 9/11 itself, during the vulnerable phase, when the atmosphere was one of emotional trauma porn and moral panics. In Wikipedia's overview of the 9/11 truth movement, only one organization started before 2005 -- 9/11 Truth launched in June 2004, still pretty late into the vulnerable phase, akin to the Epstein interest spiking during the summer of 2019. The media output of the truthers also came mostly in 2005 and after, with only one book (The Terror Timeline) being published before (and very late in the vulnerable phase at that, in September 2004).

This was all after the hysteria and emotional trauma of the early 2000s had subsided. Their tone was more clinical, analytical, empirical. Not that their conclusions made sense -- but their tone was decidedly not one of a moral panic. They may have been angry at what they saw as governmental negligence, complicity, or whatever -- but their main effort was not to stoke moral outrage over being victimized, but to incite the public to investigate and research as unemotional detectives, to discover the hidden truths of the cause-and-effect mechanics that brought down the World Trade Center. Learn more about previous CIA plots domestic and foreign. And so on. Its goal was more focused on knowledge than emotions.

But they prioritized esoteric knowledge and abstruse reasoning, not the simple truth -- i.e., to the extent the US system was involved in 9/11, it was our military and intel agencies having partnered with jihadists for decades, as both sides battled the Russian sphere of geopolitical influence (whether as the Soviet Union or Russia today). They were dear allies to the US elites, and that's why they were left unsupervised on US soil, as they learned how to fly planes. If our allies stabbed us in the back to the level of 9/11, well, that's a price the elites don't mind paying -- since they paid very little themselves -- in order to maintain their alliance against the Russians in the Middle East and Central Asia.

This history and explanation was extremely easy to explain to normies -- just remind them of how much the Rambo and James Bond movies of the Reagan years valorized the Mujahadeen of Afghanistan, as proud freedom fighters against the Soviet commie invaders. Those jihadists were the guys who blew us up on 9/11, and their common geopolitical interest with us against the USSR was the reason why our elites opened the door so widely to them, allowing them to attack us from inside. Doesn't matter if they were in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion, or in Saudi Arabia against the secular Arab nationalists who were not hostile to the Soviets.

But common sense does not allow elaborate riffing, jam sessions, or intellectual one-upsmanship. So it was rejected by the theorists and riff artists, who are trying to please an audience and gain social status. Most normies probably never heard much about the true truth (geopolitics), only the stuff about Building 7 and whether jet fuel can melt steel beams.

9/11 trutherism fizzled out during the early 2010s manic phase, and was not replaced with any other conspiracies. When people feel invincible, there's no such thing as victimization and trauma -- and so, no need for moral panics to indulge those themes, nor for conspiracy theories to explain empirically how such traumatic events are caused.

(Obama birtherism was not a conspiracy theory, as it did not try to explain how some traumatic event came to be, such as his election to the presidency, for conservatives. It was just a longshot attempt to disqualify him from office.)

* * *

If you think this can't happen again, just remember how easily it happened before, from a leftist bubble centered on the Nader campaign in the early 2000s, to 9/11 trutherism in the late 2000s, as the phases changed from vulnerable to warm-up.

If you think that pivot could not happen among leftist online media -- guess again, again. There weren't too many podcasts back in the early 2000s, it was mainly streaming Democracy Now via Pacifica Radio on the Real Audio Player, or going to a dedicated Chomsky site and downloading mp3s of him talking in the '90s about NAFTA, the New Left, etc. But there was one podcast that caught my attention during the early 2000s heyday of anti-globalization, anti-imperialism, and the Nader campaign -- Unwelcome Guests, originally hosted on an anarchist-oriented radio site, Radio 4 All.

After I left the left bubble, along with most of the others who had wandered into it, I totally forgot about the show. Just recently, out of curiosity, I decided to check back on its history, in order to see where the leftist podcast bubble will be headed this time around. Check out their episode list -- in the early 2000s, it's the usual topics about free trade deals, Palestine, free Mumia Abu Jamal, profits over people, biotech corporations patenting indigenous seeds, and so on and so forth.

Then in the summer of 2004, an episode titled "9/11 as a False Flag Operation" -- wow, wouldn't have seen that one coming from my campus activist days! Honestly. There are a whole shitload more episodes throughout the second half of the 2000s. I knew one anarchist guy who leaned in a conspiracy direction in the early 2000s, but it was marginal. I figured things would remain mostly the same after I left. Nope: this podcast that had formerly centered on anti-globalization themes had suddenly pivoted to 9/11 trutherism, focus on the deep state, etc. No point in protesting the next de-industrializing trade deal, I guess -- the CIA controls too much, and we've already seen what they can do in 9/11.

This was the off-ramp they needed after the leftist bubble of the early 2000s popped, in tandem with the shift from the vulnerable to warm-up phase in the excitement cycle. I described the vulnerable phase's bubble as "parapolitical," because it only piggybacked on top of politics, was cosplaying as politics, was group therapy in place of actual politics. But it was at least pretending.

When the second half of the 2000s came, there was no longer any pretense. It was pseudopolitical, given the lack of any figures running for high office -- and if the problem is as big as they say, they'll need to take over the White House to get anything done. Only there was no Nader for the 9/11 truthers, no Truther Party, no campaign whose main themes would be 9/11 related. Nor will there be, this time around, any candidate, party, or campaign that is the vehicle for whatever the next big conspiracy movement turns out to be (coronavirus, Epstein, etc.).

These various conspiratorial off-ramps will serve to de-politicize people, retaining a pseudopolitical veneer to make them feel like they have the power to change things. They may found organizations, attend meetings, march with signs, hold conferences, publish a variety of media -- just like the truthers -- but they will not run candidates, found parties, or structure campaigns for elected office around their preferred conspiracy themes -- also just like the truthers.

Once the manic phase arrives in the late 2020s, there won't even be this pseudopolitical stuff. It'll just be an excuse to party in public, like Occupy Wall Street of the early 2010s, or the student movements and Summer of Love during the late '60s.

It's incorrect to view this shift from leftist bubble to conspiracy boom as a lost potential for political change. The whole point of it being a bubble is that it had no real chance to change things -- it was just group therapy for traumatized people. Nothing was there, so nothing was lost. The pivot toward conspiracies is just their way of decompressing back to a normal emotional state, after having spent so much time wallowing in the emotional depths of a refractory phase.

At least now they won't be hysterical, emotional, or morally panicking. No more of this dumb shit about Nazis hiding under everyone's bed, or kids in cages within concentration camps at the border, bla bla bla. That's all gone. Soon all that'll be left is riffing on Epstein and coronavirus -- and who knows, maybe a revival of earlier truther movements like 9/11, JFK assassination, and the rest of it.

Most people aren't going to participate in it, though, moving out of parapolitics and pseudopolitics altogether. I'm just talking about what the rump left will be focusing on.

Hopefully, though, we get some cool conspiracy thrillers from the entertainment industry like we have in previous warm-up phases, with the late '70s being the best case in point. That's harmless enjoyable fun, not tedious para/pseudo-political "engagement" (obsession).


  1. I may have to agree with you on that.

    Even the woke seem to be getting analytical already.

    Take this video hosted by Kimberle Crenshaw, founder of the concept of "Intersectionality". Her weekly online meetings of fellow wokesters are about as close to the "Inner Party" of SJW-ism as you can get. Although the participants view their "marginalized groups" as disparate victims of the virus, it is quite analytical frequently bringing up statistics:


  2. Conspiracy riffing will be more common out West, esp. TX and CA, as with 9/11 truthers.

    They're less historically rooted in their land, compared to back East, and have weaker / less developed traditions and worldviews that pre-structure their interpretation of current events. So they're more open to experimental or novel or other strange views to help make sense of things.

    I wonder if the leftist podcast capital will shift from Brooklyn to Austin, Denver, or anywhere on the West Coast?

    And the right-wing version would have its capital in Houston (or maybe Austin as well), Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Las Vegas, or Orange County.

  3. 9/11 truthers were non-partisan, and so will be today's corona / Epstein / China truthers. That's already taking shape, in fact.

    This is the difference between conspiracy theories and moral panics. Moral panics tend to be more partisan, since they touch on the themes of good vs. evil, which are more naturally suited to political contests between rival factions.

    But investigating cause-and-effect does not necessarily fit into a social frame of team rivalries, let alone along existing political partisan lines. At most, it's the open-minded investigators and researchers on one side, and the unaware dwellers of Plato's cave on the other side.

  4. A 2008 video showing many aspects of 9/11 truthers and conspiracy movements in general:


    Takes place during a warm-up phase (late 2000s), and out West (Santa Monica, in the LA metro).

    Mostly young people, for a political-ish event. Looks like everyone's under 50. No old people like a Tea Party or QAnon or Russiagate event -- too political, too partisan, and therefore too representative of old people (the main voting group). It's more de-politicized, therefore younger (least active voters).

    That will be true of today's truthers as well -- it's mainly 20 and 30-somethings, with a handful of 40-somethings. Again, referring to the actual truthers, and not the kneejerk partisans who are just whining about the virus being fake news to take down Trump.

    There's both a right-wing logo at the end, for Infowars.com, as well as a cameo appearance by left-winger Abby Martin around 2:05. She says she got into the topic in 2005, not during the vulnerable phase of the early 2000s when 9/11 initially traumatized the nation.

    She looks cute with her short hair and large sunglasses and dangly earrings. None of the other people look weird either -- it's not a parapolitical social dynamic, so there's no strong visual team markers (whether clothing, hair, or grooming), no revolutionary gestures or affectations, or in-group sloganeering, a la the Black Bloc from the early 2000s leftist bubble, or the DSA freakshow of the late 2010s leftist bubble. The conspiracy people look, talk, and act in an emotionally neutral or normal way.

    She uses words about knowledge and information behind a cause-and-effect series of events -- not emotion, morality, victimization, trauma, etc. "Investigate", "research", "evidence", "propaganda", "belief", and so on. She's a detective, not a jihadist.

    She also attended a meet-up with Alex Jones himself at Bilderberg in 2008. That's just how the atmosphere was at the time. (AJ and Infowars, of course, being from Texas, still out West.)

    Who knows, in three years maybe they'll be meeting up again over corona or Epstein trutherism? They had to have lost contact during the manic phase of the early 2010s, and certainly during the vulnerable phase of the late 2010s when moral panics erupted again and polarized everyone.

    But with energy levels recovering to baseline, and the tone shifting from emotional / moral to empirical / cause-and-effect, the two sides might start talking to each other again. To compare notes, to debate, to offer critique, etc. That's what researchers do, if the project is big and important enough in scope. It's no longer a Team Good vs. Team Evil environment.

    I was blissfully unaware of all this stuff when it was happening back then. But it makes sense looking into it now, with the excitement cycle in mind.

    1. "Mostly young people, for a political-ish event. Looks like everyone's under 50. No old people like a Tea Party or QAnon or Russiagate event -- too political, too partisan, and therefore too representative of old people (the main voting group). It's more de-politicized, therefore younger (least active voters)."

      The PMRC dust-up of the later 80's was spearheaded by 40-ish Tipper Gore, but the vast majority of uh, the Moral Majority were Silents. And Boomer "values" voters weren't really acknowledged until the 1990's, when they'd been greying for a while. But back in the mid-80's, most Boomers and X-ers thought that the moral panic over pop music was a joke.

      This also gets me to wonder if "youth culture" is most celebrated (to the extent that demographics allow it) in manic phases, than hits the skids in vulnerable phases. Silents seemed to hate Boomers in the early 70's (Bob Newhart once said, looking back on his 70's sitcom, "I wanted to get the damn kids off of TV", and the late 80's saw a revival of 60's culture while late 80's youth culture was derided as "junk". (Stand by Me charted in the late 80's, and it's not even a cover, but the original 60's recording!); hell, you might think that Gen X wouldn't allow the 60's nostalgia craze to happen, but lo and behold it did.

  5. *Sk8er Boi plays in checkout line*

    Me to cashier girl: "Crazy that this song is like 20 years old..."

    Cashier girl: "I'm almost that old!"

    Me to myself: Is it the mask that makes her look so much older? I could swear she's 27.

    Me to cashier girl: "Huh, well there you go."

    Me to early '90s births reading this: You're now officially over the hill.

  6. Regarding historical "rational detective" themes, the late 2000s was also the Golden Age of New Atheism with the Four Horsemen, Bill Maher's "Religulous" and the like.

    By the early 2010s, it also fizzled out


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