Friday essay: ‘me against you’ – Jon Ronson investigates the perpetual outrage of the culture wars

The culture wars are perpetually waged in response to new and imagined threats, but they’ve been around forever. They just keep taking on new forms. In Australia, we’re seeing heated zero-sum disputes about everything from gender and sexuality, and race and religious freedom in schools, to climate change and the right to protest.

Just last week, western Sydney’s Cumberland Council voted to ban same-sex parenting books in eight Australian libraries – a ban that was overturned at a late-night council meeting two nights ago, as police watched over competing protests (for and against), outside the council building.

During COVID, conspiracy theories and related ways of thinking accelerated – helped by social media. But neither COVID nor social media caused this shift. Things were already falling apart, and that event and those platforms accelerated processes already underway. We are reaping the rewards of something toxic that has been brewing for a while, which is perhaps borne out by our tendencies to cast everything in binary terms: me against you, us and them.

Maybe we are whipping ourselves up into a state of perpetual outrage and distraction because, in the end, we desperately don’t want to acknowledge the complexities of how bad things are getting – in a world beset by accelerating climate disasters, humanitarian catastrophes, widening wealth gaps and cost-of-living and housing crises.

In 2024, populist and authoritarian leaders around the world have succeeded by leaning into conspiracy theories, misinformation and disinformation. And the recent introduction of artificial intelligence only makes it easier for these things to spread. How did we get here?

Inflamed passions

Forks, Washington, is famous for being the home of Bella and Edward, the fictitious vampire couple in Stephenie Myer’s popular Twilight franchise.

In real life, it is a place where “nothing much happens”, as investigative journalist Jon Ronson says in the second series of his award-winning podcast, Things Fell Apart, about the origins and accelerants of the culture wars.

This changed on June 3 2020, when an innocent family on a Twilight-themed holiday found themselves trapped in the woods, surrounded by a bevy of heavily armed townspeople with short fuses and itchy trigger fingers.

The word on the social media grapevine was that Forks was about to be swamped by violent leftists hellbent on nothing less than the total annihilation of America. Mistakenly identified as members of the decentralised leftist collective Antifa, the family narrowly avoided a violent confrontation. Passions were inflamed, the situation on a knife edge.

The unwitting, traumatised family had, Ronson reveals, “become collateral damage in a culture war inflamed by a national media that had become too polarised and ideological”.

“It feels to me that for great numbers of people […] ideology and activism have started to matter more than evidence,” he told the Guardian in recent days, emphasising the importance of the “nuanced truth” in his work. He says he’s not against activist journalism, which has done “a lot of good”. But he says “the old rules of journalism – evidence, fairness – still need to apply”.

Jon Ronson says he’s ‘not against’ activist journalism, but evidence and fairness still need to apply.
Jon Ronson says he’s ‘not against’ activist journalism, but evidence and fairness still need to apply.

The stories in Ronson’s podcast – focusing on Qanon, COVID deniers and conspiracy theorists – depict the faultlines of America. We’re not as far down the road, but the culture wars continue to spill into Australia.

The Albanese government has attempted to defuse them. In his response to last year’s Australian Law Reform Commission report on religious educational institutions and anti-discrimination laws, the prime minister was categorical: “Australians do not want to see the culture wars and the division out there.”

However, as the ferocious and damaging culture war over the Voice to Parliament referendum shows, the country has a long way to go.

And in recent days, responding to the Cumberland Council book ban spearheaded by councillor Steve Christou, New South Wales arts minister John Graham condemned “this councillor importing this US culture war into our country and playing it out on the shelves of the local library”.

Culture wars are not new

Ronson offers two provisional definitions of culture wars. In the first series of Things Fell Apart, he described them as issues “people yell at each other about on social media”. In the second series, which focuses on a series of seemingly random events that accelerated the culture wars over 30 days during COVID, Ronson refines his definition: they are struggles “for dominance between conflicting values”.

The historical origins of the term can be traced back to Europe in the 19th century.

On June 29 1868, Pope Pius IX issued invitations for the creation of a Vatican Council. The founding of the First Vatican Council led, in turn, to the Declaration of Papal Infallibility. This edict, which threatened the separation of church and state, went down badly with Europe’s ruling classes.

Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck was one of those who took umbrage. As an empire-builder, Bismarck was perturbed by what he perceived as an attack on his authority and a threat to national sovereignty. A seven-year political standoff between Chancellor Bismark and the Pius IX subsequently ensued.

The German word for this confrontation – which impinged on virtually every sphere of public and social life – is Kulturkampf, which translates as “struggles of cultures”. It has since been taken up by many critics and cultural commentators.

One was sociologist James Davison Hunter, who introduced the term into American public discourse with his 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. Hunter defines cultural warfare

very simply as political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding. The end to which these hostilities tend is the domination of one cultural and moral ethos over all others.

Abortion, education, affirmative action. Religion and the ongoing fight for gay rights. These are some of the polarising social and political issues Hunter discusses in his account of the American culture wars of the late 20th century.

Meanwhile, here in Australia at the time, John Howard and the Liberal Party were embarking on a decades-long campaign against the purported perils of political correctness and multiculturalism – while attacking anyone who had the temerity to criticise Australia’s colonial history. Years later, in 2006, after ten years as prime minister, Howard would literally claim victory in Australia’s culture wars – but of course they’re still raging today.

Within a year of Hunter’s book, “culture wars” were headline news. On August 17 1992, the right-wing politician Pat Buchanan delivered a fiery and divisive primetime address on the opening night of the Republican National Convention in Houston, Texas. He painted a picture of a nation under siege and described “a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America”.

Environmental extremists. Purveyors of pornographic filth. Radical feminists. Bill and Hilary Clinton. The list of those deemed to be attacking and undermining America is seemingly endless and strangely familiar. “My friends,” he implored, “we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country”.

Howard framed Australia’s culture war in similar terms 14 years later, in 2006, claiming his government had seen the end of a “divisive, phoney debate about national identity”. He continued: “We’ve drawn back from being too obsessed with diversity to a point where Australians are now better able to appreciate the enduring values of the national character that we proudly celebrate and preserve.”

Ronson mulls over Buchanan’s proto-Trumpian speech and its mixed reception in contemporary conservative circles in series one of Things Fell Apart.

Journalist Irving Kristol dismissed Buchanan as out of touch, noting: “I regret to inform him that those wars are over, and the Left has won.” During the 70s and 80s in America, Ronson clarifies, the Left had taken control of education, entertainment and the media.

Abortion was legal, school textbooks were becoming more diverse, gay activism was beginning a path to victory, and Hollywood was celebrating those values. “In the early 80s, as conservatives were feeling aggrieved that the culture was running away from them, a strange kind of storytelling began to blossom.”

Did the Satanic Panic birth QAnon?

Ronson illustrates this with a story from the 1980s – the so-called Satanic Panic – that may explain the roots of QAnon, the 21st-century conspiracy theory that essentially revolves around the idea “Democrats and Hollywood elites derive their power from secretly drinking the blood of kidnapped children”.

He traces it back to Bob Larson, a Christian conservative broadcaster in Phoenix, Arizona who was concerned about death metal music, and started to see Satanic patterns everywhere. He encouraged his listeners to reach out if they had ever had firsthand contact with Satanism – and they had.

In regular streets all over America, secret cabals were ritually abusing children in the name of Satan. They told stories of cannibalism and dead cats nailed to pulpits.

A credulous Larson incorporated what he heard into a novel, Dead Air, about a heroic radio host who spends his spare time rescuing vulnerable children from the clutches of devil-worshipping cults. Published in 1991, it was advertised as being based on true events.

Roughly 90% of Americans believed in a higher power in the 1980s. Ronson recounts how “mainstream broadcasters saw huge ratings potential, not by debunking the satanic claims, but by entertaining the idea that they might be true”.

Over 12,000 cases of ritualistic abuse were reported. People were falsely accused of bizarre and far-fetched acts of child abuse, and lives were ruined.

Keep this in mind as we move into the 21st century. On October 30 2016, a white supremacist Twitter user, posing as a Jewish lawyer from New York, falsely claimed local police were investigating evidence from disgraced politician Anthony Weiner’s laptop implicating Hilary Clinton in an international child enslavement ring.

The allegation quickly gained traction across various social media platforms, giving rise to a modern spin on an old antisemitic conspiracy theory about blood libels: the infamous Pizzagate. Online speculation intensified, and the situation eventually spilled over into the real world.

At this point, things turned violent. In a scene that could almost have been lifted verbatim from the pages of Dead Air, a self-styled investigator armed with a high-power assault rifle shot up a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. The assailant, who worked as a jobbing screenwriter and actor, had come to believe children were being held hostage in the restaurant’s basement. The only problem: the restaurant didn’t even have a basement.

Despite having been thoroughly debunked, this particular conspiracy theory persists today. Indeed, as researcher Mike Rothschild outlines, “the sordid aspects of Pizzagate, like the abuse of children and the centrality of the Clintons and their inner circle” constitute an important part of the mythology associated with QAnon.

Rothschild argues “no conspiracy theory more encapsulates the full-throated madness of the Donald Trump era than QAnon.” At the same time, QAnon, which has been referred to as “Pizzagate on bathsalts”, also heralded the arrival of what journalist Anna Merlan has identified as the “conspiracy singularity”.

This was the moment, a few months into the coronavirus pandemic, when a multitude of different conspiracy theories, some of which had been lurking in the darker recesses of the internet for decades, began to bleed into each other in strange and surprising ways. Malevolent reptilians masquerading as humans, chemtrails in the sky, the sinking of the Titanic. Everything suddenly seemed to come together. This convergence, Merlan writes, gave rise to “a grand unified theory of suspicion”.

‘Excited delirium’ and George Floyd

The 2024 season of Things Fell Apart is interested in this strange moment of conspiratorial convergence, and strives to understand, to borrow a term from American historian Richard Hofstader, “movements of suspicious discontent”.

It centres on a number of seemingly unrelated events that occurred in May and June 2020, and accelerated the culture wars. Taken together, these events refute Irving Kristol’s assertion about culture wars being a thing of the past. If anything, we are, as Ronson demonstrates, more culturally divided than ever before, living as we do in an age of violent dispute and rampant untruth.

So, for instance, we see the link between a strange, since-discredited diagnosis given to African American sex workers found dead in Miami in the 1980s (“excited delirium”), the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer on May 25 2020, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

In 1980, Miami’s coroner explained the deaths, later attributed to a serial killer (which the evidence pointed to), by “discovering” a condition that rendered men impervious to pain and caused instant death in women. Excited delirium, the discredited term, continues to be used in some police training programs – and was voiced by a police officer on the scene while Derek Chauvin choked the life out of George Floyd.

Of course, the protests by Black Lives Matter and Antifa that followed his murder “gave rise to a whole new wave of culture wars”.

Cultural critic and activist Naomi Klein describes how, during this incredibly volatile period, it felt like everything started to bifurcate. Society seemed to split into two camps, with “each side defining itself against the other – whatever one says and believes, the other seems obliged to say and believe the opposite”.

The Great Reset

The sixth episode of Ronson’s podcast focuses on the culture war that exploded over the Great Reset, a hastily cobbled together economic recovery plan drawn up by the World Economic Forum in response to the pandemic. “It is our defining moment – we will be dealing with its fallout for years, and many things will change forever,” it read in part.

Launched in June 2020 by Prince Charles and the head of the Davos summit (the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting), the plan took the pandemic as an opportunity to promote several long-favoured ideas that will supposedly save us. For example, artificial intelligence, bio-tech, autonomous vehicles, green capitalism and energy capture.

Conspiratorial placards and chants decrying the Great Reset soon began to appear at anti-lockdown rallies across the globe. If these protesters were to be believed, World Economic Forum CEO Klaus Schwab and his band of unscrupulous Davos cronies were about to strip us of our belongings, make us live in tiny boxes, and force us to subside on a diet consisting entirely of edible insects. (As with almost all conspiracy theories, as Ronson readily admits, there were elements of truth to some of these claims.)

“When they started showing up at the early anti-lockdown protests,” Naomi Klein recalls in her 2023 book Doppelganger, they spoke “as if a great secret was being revealed”. Klein thinks this rather odd, given the Great Reset came with a slick, high-profile marketing campaign. Nonetheless, as Klein writes,

journalists and politicians on the right, and “independent researchers” on the left, acted as it they had uncovered a conspiracy that wily elites were trying to hide from them. If so, it was the first conspiracy with its own marketing agency and explainer videos.

The question Ronson poses in this episode speaks directly to Klein’s droll observations: “why was this happening?” Part of the answer lies in the way people on both sides of the political spectrum were accessing and processing information.

‘Something in us … is waiting to be addicted’

Twitter only exploits and magnifies social problems that are already there, wrote commentator Richard Seymour in 2019. “If we’ve found ourselves addicted to social media, in spite or because of its frequent nastiness, as I have, then there is something in us that is waiting to be addicted.”

It was social media that exposed millions of people to the work of conspiracy theorist Mikki Willis, the former actor and model behind the ongoing Plandemic series, which intimates COVID-19 was deliberately engineered as part of a concerted attempt to murder millions and curtail civil liberties.

Mikki Willis. IMDB
Mikki Willis. IMDB

Released May 4 2020, the first of these slickly produced films – which was independently released on YouTube, at just 26 minutes long – includes an extensive interview with discredited virologist Judy Mikovits. In little over a week, Plandemic accrued more than 8 million views on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. On May 5, a day after its release, a QAnon Facebook group dedicated to the conspiracy movement posted the film to its 25,000 members, imploring them to watch it as quickly as possible.

Four years later, Mikki Willis, who has extensive links to the anti-vax movement, is an established presence on the conspiracy theory circuit, and was recently a guest on culture warrior Alex Jones’s InfoWars. He was also present at the January 6 2021 insurrection in Washington DC. He denies knowing anything about QAnon, but in the same breath thanks the movement’s followers for promoting his work.

Ronson sees Willis’ influence reflected across his series, in culture battles as disparate as the Great Reset and trans rights. “When I watched all his documentaries I noticed he had turned everything we covered through the series into one uber-conspiracy,” Ronson told the Guardian.

But what especially interests him is Willis’ devotion to literary scholar Joseph Campbell and his “hero’s journey”, intended as a way of explaining how narratives work – but taken on by Willis as an inspirational self-help book. It’s the sort of thing we might associate with an alt-right guru like Jordan Peterson: a guide to how life should work.

Willis tells Ronson how he stumbled across Campbell’s work in a secondhand bookstore in Los Angeles. He was particularly taken with the thesis Campbell advances in his most famous work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Published in 1949, this book has inspired countless critics and writers, including George Lucas, who liberally cribbed from it when developing Star Wars.

A work of comparative mythology, Campbell’s book divides the world up into a series of recognisable archetypes. In the end, at least from Campbell’s perspective, it all comes down to an old-fashioned struggle between heroes and villains, between the forces of good and evil:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Conspiracy theorists tend to see patterns everywhere, so it’s easy to see the appeal. Campbell provides a readily discernible framework for approaching and comprehending often bewilderingly complex – and occasionally entirely random – events.

Offering adventure and excitement, Campbell’s schema also comes tantalisingly preloaded with the promise of recognition and eventual adulation. But it also tends towards reduction and oversimplification, and encourages us to understand the world around us in terms of binary opposition. This, I think, should give us pause for thought.

Heroes, villains and the truth

At a glance, Plandemic’s millions and millions of views in a matter of days in 2020 can be explained by clickbait tactics and algorithmical orchestrations. But the more time I spend thinking about it, the more I wonder if we all, to some degree or other, want to believe in binaries, and to understand everything in terms of a clash between heroes and villains.

We do it because it’s easy and, in a way, comforting. Like a balm, this manner of thinking affords us temporary solace and the illusion of respite – at a frightening time, when everything is going from bad to worse. This strikes me as deeply troubling.

The constrictive, ultimately destructive binary thinking that structures much of everyday existence, online or otherwise, only intensifies with the ever-changing and overwhelming media landscape, which continually bombards us with piecemeal fragments of a selectively curated approximation of something that, to the naked eye, passes for reality.

And perhaps, stuck as we seem to be in our silos and personalised echo chambers, we are less likely to try to negotiate an agreed understanding somewhere in the murky middle. I’m not sure how we fix this, or if it can be fixed.

As Things Fell Apart ends, Ronson muses:

When untruths spread, the ripples can be devastating. So it feels more important than ever to hold onto the truth, like driftwood in the ocean, because if not, we might drown.

I agree. But I can’t shake the nagging suspicion that the 20th-century philosopher Theodor Adorno, who is himself the subject of a long-running conspiracy theory with a decidedly antisemitic slant, might have been right all along when he suggested “we live in a world in which we can no longer imagine a better one”.

Read more: Is America enduring a 'slow civil war'? Jeff Sharlet visits Trump rallies, a celebrity megachurch and the manosphere to find out

This article is republished from The Conversation. It was written by: Alexander Howard, University of Sydney

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Alexander Howard does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.