Shadowland could be a sequel to USA and the Holocaust

A a psychiatric nurse practitioner repeatedly disrupts school board meetings because she believes mask mandates facilitate child sex trafficking. A once stable husband and father falls down the QAnon rabbit hole, claims to have mysterious visions, and ends up becoming so obsessed that his wife sees no choice but to leave him. A disabled veteran becomes convinced that Americans are being systematically “replaced” by immigrants and announces that he is running for governor of Texas, on a secessionist platform. A restaurateur, whose business is devastated by the pandemic, faces trial for her role in the January 6 uprising. Cameras capture her in the Capitol building, shouting “They must all hang themselves!”

These are some of Peacock’s most disturbing anecdotes shadowland, an uneven but often insightful documentary about the conspiracy theories currently ravaging American audiences. In six episodes, executive producer Joe Berlinger (Conversations with a Killerthe Paradise Lost Trilogy) brings together portraits of the true believers, profiteers, and innocent victims of a constellation of deeply destructive right-wing false myths, including Q, anti-vax, the Great Replacement, and more. The series can be painful to watch. On a human scale, families are destroyed and communities torn apart. Even more frightening is the prospect that, even after January 6, the most cataclysmic fallout from the proliferation of conspiracy theories is yet to come.

Christopher Key in “Shadowland”


For a sense of how serious things are — in a society that rarely lives up to its own crucible rhetoric — look no further than Ken Burns’ latest PBS docuseries, The United States and the Holocaust. Jeffrey Herf, professor of history at the University of Maryland, states it in shadowland: “The most important and famous conspiracy theory of the 20th century was the Nazis’ argument that the Jews had started World War II.” As Germany descended into poverty and factionalism after World War I, Herf says, “That explained things. And the explanation was accompanied by a face. Hitler didn’t have to work hard to sell new versions of conspiracy theories that dated back millennia and which, tragically, would survive the fall of his genocidal regime. shadowland The subjects’ bizarre fixations on the Illuminati and the lizards have their roots in pre-Nazi anti-Semitic traditions.

Some of these illusions were even born on American soil. Burns’ typically textual yet genuinely illuminating series revisits the familiar story of how the Third Reich’s exploitation of its own big lie led to the Holocaust. But his unique contribution is to trace the conspiracy theory’s connection and power to the United States, where Henry Ford had published texts against international Jewry that helped inspire Mein Kampf and a president as progressive as FDR, fearing a public backlash, repeatedly refused to offer asylum to European Jews fleeing Hitler.

One of the most upsetting things about The United States and the Holocaust is his well-supported argument that America’s muted response was not the result of ignorance of what was happening in Germany, but rather an expression of widespread domestic fanaticism too tenacious to debunk. Throughout the series, Burns and her co-directors Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein point out that American newspapers and news agencies reported on Nazi persecution of Jews for years before the United States entered. at war – and that pollsters continued to find most Americans unsympathetic. to their fate, or at least do not want to give them refuge. Government officials up to the White House even entertained the baseless and ridiculous idea that German Jewish refugees could become spies for the Führer.

Party meeting or gathering.  Sign on back reads:

Party meeting or gathering. The inscription on the back reads: “Kauft nicht bei Juden” – Do not buy from Jews.

Heinrich Hoffmann—courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

Watching shadowland next to Burns’ series, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the United States is amassing all the ingredients necessary for a burn of world historic proportions. Of course, America in 2022 is not the Germany of the 1930s, for reasons as varied as population size, diversity, shifting geopolitical realities, and a century of technological advances that have altered little almost all aspects of life in the developed world. Jews are just one of many groups targeted by paranoids and haters. Yet, like Ellen Cushing of Atlantic (whose reporting is the basis of shadowland) says it: “Conspiracy thinking has a body count.” In the United States, it not only resembles 6 January, but also decades of mass shootings and other hate crimes targeting Jews, Muslims, immigrants, people of color, the LGBTQ community and others. minorities. These beliefs are also seeping into mainstream politics and politics (see: the rise of the “QAnon candidate”) in ways that cause material harm to perceived outsiders.

“It’s time to stop a genocide before it happens,” says eminent historian Deborah Lipstadt in The United States and the Holocaust. But when so many Americans are already willing to abandon their families, poison themselves with bogus COVID cures, go to jail, even kill and die in the name of evil conspiracy theories, how can we avoid the tragedy? It seems that this should help to understand what motivates their adherents. shadowland– which all too often sidesteps the ugly biases that so many individual conspiracy theorists endorse – offers a host of strong, if not new, explanations: anxiety, loneliness, narcissism, money troubles, trauma. Some of the subjects of the series exploit misinformation for fame and profit. But many, from a woman who lost her retirement savings when her employer’s stock crashed to a wounded veteran in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, have good reason to resent the rich and the poor. powerful.

Robert Chapman in

Robert Chapman in “Shadowland”


Unfortunately, the two documentaries also illustrate how not only facts, but also empathy can be limited as a tool in the fight against conspiracy theories. If a devoted wife or a worried child can’t lift a loved one from the depths of illusion, what chance does anyone else have? Meanwhile, when the government cracks down or the mainstream media debunks or social media sites ban accounts for harmful conspiracy practices like selling bleach solutions as a panacea, it only convinces more true believers that they are being silenced by a New World Order that does not want people to discover the dark secrets they know. Many people in shadowland really seem to inhabit some kind of inside-out information, where they have discerned the truth and where it is people who trust science, journalism and other factual epistemologies who are irrational and hysterical victims of the wash brain and groupthink.

The series has no obligation to fix the problem it documents, obviously. However, the finesse of the solutions shadowland floats is worrying. In a series finale that addresses the all-important question of the end of conspiracy theories, Herf, the UMD professor, notes that in the past they have been crushed by a unified, non-partisan message from trusted authorities in all sectors of a community’s public life. — politicians and clerics, right and left — that these are lies. But given how many of the show’s characters are already vehemently suspicious of officials from all political walks of life, it seems likely that the United States is past the point where such an effort, which doesn’t seem to be happening anyway. , might work. What happens in America instead may not turn out to be as extreme as the events revisited in The United States and the Holocaustbut it is undeniably the most compelling account of the end of conspiracy theories.

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