Whenever somebody assures me that everything happens for a reason, it's normally my practice to tiptoe quietly away.
People are only trying to be nice. The notion that every kind of personal misfortune – each terrible accident or harrowing diagnosis, every pious wide-receiver rehabbing a bad knee – is part of God's plan to test our individual faith and resolve is most often a well-intentioned sentimental gesture.
Have faith, is all they're really saying. You're strong enough to handle it.
It's when people start getting specific about exactly what God's plan consists of and where fate and history are taking us that all the trouble starts. Folly and madness invariably follow. Once they bring the unintelligible prophecies of the Book of Revelation into it, it's too often a one-way trip to Crazytown with no return ticket.
So it is with the burgeoning religio-political cult calling itself QAnon, as described in an extraordinary piece of journalism in The Atlantic by Adrienne LaFrance. She correctly notes that "[t]he power of the internet was understood early on, but the full nature of that power – its ability to shatter any semblance of shared reality, undermining civil society and democratic governance in the process – was not."
Can I get an amen?
I would argue that the historically unprecedented capacity of Froot Loops and lone dementos of every kind and description to wind each other up online constitutes as grave a threat to the republic as anything since the Confederate States of America. In his 1704 satire "A Tale of a Tub," Jonathan Swift depicted the religious zealots of his day gathered in a big circle, each with a bellows inserted into the posterior of the fellow in front of him, first pumping each other full of hot air and then discharging it in each other's faces.
QAnon's exactly like that, except online.
Remember that sad sack from North Carolina who shot up a Washington, D.C., pizza joint in December 2016 because he'd convinced himself that Hillary Clinton was operating a child sex and torture ring in the basement of a building that didn't actually have a basement?
Well, it turns out that he was a prophet.
LaFrance quotes University of Miami political scientist Joseph Uscinski, who studies conspiracy theories. Whether of the left or right, what they all have in common, he says, is "acceptance of the following propositions: Our lives are controlled by plots hatched in secret places. Although we ostensibly live in a democracy, a small group of people run everything, but we don't know who they are. When big events occur – pandemics, recessions, wars, terrorist attacks – it is because that secretive group is working against the rest of us."
In October 2017, see, somebody calling himself "Q" began posting cryptic comments on sites where right-wing zealots gather. Posing as an intelligence professional embedded deep in the "deep state," he predicted the imminent arrest and conviction of Clinton in the aforementioned child molesting conspiracy.
Needless to say, this hasn't happened, nor ever will. Also needless to say, however, millions of gullible nitwits obsessed with Hillary's multiple supposed homicides began wetting themselves in anticipation. (It's occurred to me that the manufacturers of Depends adult diapers could be behind the whole thing.)
Supposedly, special counsel Robert Mueller and Boss Trump himself were secretly working together to destroy Hillary's evil cabal. Also participating is the late John F. Kennedy Jr., who was either foully murdered by Hillary in 1999 or is Q's secret identity. Initiates differ on this question.
Seriously, they do.
Others believe that Q is none other than Trump himself. I remain agnostic on the question. But either way, Q kept dropping online clues, and nothing kept happening. The cult grew steadily larger. Then came the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, with its intimations of apocalypse, and a whole new cast of international malefactors got added to the suspect list: George Soros, Bill Gates, Rep. Adam Schiff and Dr. Anthony Fauci.
And now Joe Biden, recently accused of being a "child molester" by no less an authority than Donald Trump Jr.
Two and a half years on, LaFrance summarizes, and the "QAnon belief system looks something like this: Q is an intelligence or military insider with proof that corrupt world leaders are secretly torturing children all over the world; the malefactors are embedded in the deep state; Donald Trump is working tirelessly to thwart them. ('These people need to ALL be ELIMINATED,' Q wrote in one post.) The eventual destruction of the global cabal is imminent, Q prophesies, but can be accomplished only with the support of patriots who search for meaning in Q's clues. To believe Q requires rejecting mainstream institutions, ignoring government officials, battling apostates, and despising the press."
Well, I suppose everybody's got to have a hobby.
How seriously to take this particular threat to public sanity? Come November, we may find out.
Gene Lyons is an author and a columnist with the Arkansas Times.