Jim Carrey sleeps in movie art for the film 'The Truman Show', 1998. (Photo by Paramount/Getty Images)

Are we trapped in our own version of The Truman Show?

The longer the pandemic and the platitudes go on, the more something doesn’t feel quite right

Artillery Row

In the 1998 genre bending comedy film The Truman Show there is a scene in which Jim Carrey’s character Truman Burbank is sitting on the beach under a full moon that is briefly illuminated by lightning—blink and you could miss it—hinting that the moon is much closer that it should be. It is one of a number of cheeky hints in the film about the truth of the reality within which Truman lives: it is all artificially constructed for a hit television show.

Conspiracy is in the eye of the beholder

Everyone knows it—from the audience watching to the actors and actresses who populate the town in which Truman lives and even comprise his closest and dearest loved ones—apart from Truman. But gradually he starts to suspect the truth, one that the show’s producers go to great lengths to conceal by trying to convince Truman that he is simply succumbing to his own version of what today would be called a conspiracy theory—an explanation for an event or situation that invokes far-fetched and ultimately unsubstantiated evidence. But Truman holds firm and eventually proves the reality of his conspiracy theory (sailing a small boat until it strikes the wall of the dome that encases his artificial world).

Hiking an extended Camino pilgrimage during the latter half of Covid-19-laced 2020 from Bayonne in France to Finisterre in northwest Spain and then pivoting southward toward Lisbon in the south of Portugal—around 2,000 kilometres of stiff muscles, aches, brain-melting language confusions, hangovers and even shingles—I’ve heard a kaleidoscopic range of opinions from both fellow pilgrims and strangers encountered regarding the virus and the reactions of governments. They span the spectrum of plausibility and some stray into conspiracy theory territory if not boldly stride right on in. I’d be the first to acknowledge that the more far-fetched ones push your limits for maintaining a polite response.

An energetic and friendly South African man I bumped into outside a café mid-way down the spine of Portugal, described the government responses to Covid-19 being part of a coordinated long-term global scheme of oppression, of which the condensation tails—so-called “contrails”—left in the sky by high-flying aircraft play a role. For they are in fact, he described, “chemtrails” consisting of chemical or biological agents sprayed for purposes of varying nefarious degrees. Their purposes, for those such as the South African suspecting foul play, range from weather modification—with the trails causing respiratory illnesses and other health problems—to far more sinister modification in terms of psychological manipulation and human population control.

Other conspiracy-esque theories I have heard regarding Covid-19 and the corresponding restrictions range from our government leaders being manipulated by a hidden and shadowy super elite—the 1 per cent of the 1 per cent—to the reshaping of a New World Order in which we obediently live out our lives in isolated bliss while being placated and nursed by the State like the supine populace of E.M. Forster’s 1909 novella The Machine Stops.

The US is the world’s hot house for conspiracy theory culture

One sunny afternoon, I popped into the showroom of a vineyard I was passing and, after setting down my rucksack and walking sticks, found myself sat around a table with the owner and two of his aged friends sharing various bottles of wine. Although most of the conversation flowed in Portuguese, a few choice words that sounded similar to their English counterparts meant it sounded like matters had turned toward a discussion of the Apocalypse and the End of Days. I requested my kind host who spoke some English to confirm with a short summary, after which I went back to stoically sipping on my very decent Portuguese red while pondering if Covid-19 really might be that cataclysm to usher in the end of the world that will precede the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

And all this ribald speculation without even encountering any Americans. The US is the world’s hot house for conspiracy theory culture. Currently, one of the most talked about conspiracy theories is so-called QAnon, which contends that a cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against US president Donald Trump, who is fighting the cabal. But rather than just mock the American penchant for flights of fancy—as tends to be the case—it would be more beneficial if we better analysed why such wild theories emerge in the first place (and why they seem to be emerging more often while gaining more traction).

In his book Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America, Robert Goldberg, professor of history at the University of Utah, points out that Americans have been drawn to conspiracy theories for centuries. The nature of America’s rebellious birth means that—as Alexis de Tocqueville, the great nineteenth-century chronicler of the new nation and author of Democracy in America, also noted—fears about encroachment on individual liberties and an embrace of anti-elitism got built into the fabric of the country from the outset. That in itself doesn’t sound that outlandish to me, even if it has resulted in all sorts of conspiracy theories about aliens and UFOs at Area 51 and Roswell in New Mexico, about the death of JFK, and those chemtrails. It also goes a long way to explain why so many Americans instinctively push back against the coordinated efforts of government against Covid-19, which threaten an individual’s right to decide, for example, whether or not they want to wear a mask. It is also why many Americans associate such government proactivity with the likes of communism, socialism or something more sinister.

While Americans tend to be a bit more vocal and demonstrative about all this, cherishing individual freedoms and the right to decide is a very human attitude that resides in all of us. No one likes to be told what to do, especially if it goes against their self-interest, and people especially don’t like to be told what to think—it’s the most sinisterly violating intrusion in many respects as it ultimately robs us of so much of what really matters—but that is increasingly the case in modern society.

Proof lies not in intellectual argument but in one’s individual experience

In The Critic podcast episode “Does history have meaning?”, the historian and prolific author Jeremy Black notes the shift that has occurred in modern Britain from the traditional pattern of British thought that used to meet the bald-faced assertiveness found in ideologies like communism and fascism with a healthy dose of irony accompanied by a reassuringly questioning raised eyebrow. Not so today in British intellectual life, especially in academia but also in media and a widening range of institutions for cultural and social life.

“We are seeing the same sort of patterns of stark affirmation becoming more significant in British life,” says Black, who also notes how the loss of religion and increasing secularism in modern societies intersects with the human desire to understand past, present and future (all of which, I would argue, pertains to a better understanding of the role and nature of conspiracy theories).

“What we are talking about is the flawed attempt to create a world or a narrative of secular history which is outside a sacral context,” Black says. “A lot of modern historical writing is an attempt to derive meaning in a less religious age, but ironically what it does is create movements, interpretations, approaches to time, which themselves have a quasi-sacral character, whether you are talking about communism, or Nazi ideology or Mussolini’s fascism, all of which of course are different in many respects, but they all have a common attempt toward providing meaning.”

Conspiracy is in the eye of the beholder. So just as how someone can fall into the trap of seeing a conspiracy where there isn’t one, that can be flipped on its head so that there is a danger that a fairly reasonable assertion might be written off as a conspiracy theory when in fact—à la Truman Burbank—there is far more truth to it than being granted by those in opposition or who have vested interests. Hence, I haven’t really known what to counter with in response to all the pilgrims that appeared entirely sane, friendly and certainly intelligent, and who remarked to me on the strangeness of the fact, given the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic, that they either didn’t know anyone who had caught it or, which was more often the case, how they didn’t know anyone who had died of it.

Most of these pilgrims—some of whom have clocked up well beyond 2,000 kilometres crossing various European countries and thus had passed through innumerable towns, cities and Covid-19 “hotspots”—could only conclude that the original virus was far less contagious than we were led to believe throughout 2020. The Dutch owner of a hostel I stayed in while passing through northern Spain told me that, based on his experiences and having read around widely on the issue, he was convinced that initial warnings early in 2020 about the risk of transmission from surfaces—and hence all the accompanying paraphernalia about washing your hands like a brain surgeon and wiping and spraying everything that didn’t move and never touching or hugging anything with a pulse—had been utterly misguided and overcooked, as the virus was primarily airborne, which, he explained, meant it had to be inhaled in high-enough volumes to cause illness and thus could be avoided or mitigated simply through the likes of adequate ventilation. In short, the humble nineteenth-century advice of Florence Nightingale was likely our best bet.

The predicament of NHS workers shouldn’t be used as an emotive sledgehammer to justify quashing civil liberties

Going off my own Camino experiences, I find myself leaning inextricably toward the opinions of my fellow pilgrims and that hostel owner. Admittedly I fidget somewhat self-consciously and uncomfortably in my seat as I write that, given the latest news coming out of the UK regarding increasing infections and the new coronavirus variant. But—and this may well colour the motivations of some conspiracy theory advocates—as Russell E. DiCarlo, author of Towards a New World View: Conversations at the Leading Edge, has commented, a “battery of scientists can get together and tell you about all the scientific proof for the fact that bananas are bitter. But all you have to do is taste one, once, to realise that there is this whole other aspect to bananas.” His point is that, ultimately, proof—or as close as we are likely to get to it—lies not in intellectual argument but in one’s individual experience, accompanied by trusting your heart and gut instinct.

At which point, the nurse or doctor working flat-out on a Covid-19 ward will justifiably raise a hand: How about my individual experience?! Quite so, and those working to save lives from Covid-19 deserve only praise and all the support that can be mustered—but I don’t see how that equates with shutting down our societies, nor should the predicament of NHS workers be used as an emotive sledgehammer to justify quashing civil liberties.

It’s not a perfect or entirely fair comparison but I am reminded of my time in the military—if you send the military to fight overseas, soldiers are going to die. It should come as no surprise; the same with the NHS dealing with a nasty infectious disease; it’s going to happen that those at the coal face get sick and face enormous pressure. It’s sad, lamentable and measures must be taken to prevent staff getting sick and unduly suffering psychologically with the likes of moral injuries—already reports have come out of the US of medical workers who have taken their lives after being overwhelmed by their experiences dealing with Covid-19 and the choices they had to make—but the level of hand wringing and emotive manipulation around the NHS’s situation is causing society and our supposed political leaders to lose perspective.

We appear to be edging toward the territory of Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose bleak novels sought to highlight—and warn about—those forces that “would lead away from freedom into a totalitarian society where the rules for human behaviour were worked out according to scientific formulae and imposed upon the population for their own good,” A. D. P. Briggs, professor emeritus of the University of Birmingham, writes in the introduction to the 2007 edition of Dostoevsky’s The Karamazov Brothers by Wordsworth Classics.

We are not there yet, thankfully, but there are ominous warning signs in the narrowing of debate happening in academia, media and in the overall public sphere regarding Covid-19. One is not succumbing to a conspiracy theory by contending that the longer the “unprecedented pandemic” goes on—with the same words, labels and jargon being repeated and drilled into our little brains—similar to the existence of Truman Burbank, our current predicament generates increasing evidence about which we should all be on our guard much more.

“Even though lockdowns involve collateral damage at home and in the developing world, these effects are more accidental and unintended, whereas not enforcing a lockdown would involve more direct and more immediately reprehensible omission,” the philosopher Mark Sinclair writes in his Critic article How the rise of digital technology facilitated lockdown. “And given that the population can be convinced of the appropriateness of lockdown policies only if they are viewed to be necessary, politicians have to increase the levels of fear, fear which, in turn, demands that government enforce even stricter measures.”

I suspect far more of us will start to feel more like Truman Burbank very soon

Even if the “best case” explanation for the past year’s turmoil is true: governments were simply bamboozled and wrong footed by a particularly shifty and malleable virus happening in a world of 24-hour news cycles and social media hysteria, we mustn’t lose sight of more disturbing elements that are not the realm of conspiracy theories. These include how most mainstream media just couldn’t resist running with and stoking a story with terrifying headlines that would keep on giving forever—it would appear that increasing numbers of editors nowadays have the type of moral fibre of our worst politicians—and there are people and companies out there getting very, very rich from Covid-19, and rich people who are out of touch with the real lives of ordinary people will often do very strange and heartless things to make even more money.

If Sinclair is right—and his argument appears entirely supported by empirical experience—that digital technology is increasing the natural tendency of governments to confine entire populations during pandemics, I suspect far more of us will start to feel more like Truman Burbank.

“If it is true that environmental degradation and disruption of ecosystems are bringing about more viral threats, in the coming decades we therefore risk spending more and more of our lives in lockdown waiting for big pharma to sound the bugle,” Sinclair says. “It is not too hard to imagine, given Hollywood’s more prescient productions or TV shows like Black Mirror, how restrictions might continue to be justified in the future in the name of ‘public health’.”

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover