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Heeding the Warning from the Future

The Bulwark

February 23, 2023

It’s fun to laugh at flat earth theory and similar conspiracist nonsense. It’s less fun to consider the implications of the movement’s resurgence.

In case you weren’t aware, America is in the midst of a dramatic, internet-driven resurgence of the fanatical belief that our beautiful, oblate spheroid is in reality a flat plane whose edges are rounded up by an ice barrier hundreds of feet high, topped by a dome. Those who hold this view believe that we’re all living in The Truman Show, the subjects of a massive, all-encompassing conspiracy to deprive all eight billion of us of the most basic truth about physical reality.

In Off the Edge, out this week in paperback, Daily Beast reporter Kelly Weill offers a very capable survey of the resurgent flat earth movement. Her book is insightful and sympathetic, meeting conspiratorial doctrine with sympathy and without condescension. In places, its attentive and deeply amusing observations of human folly evoke the work of the master himself, P.G. Wodehouse. And it is very pithy. Off the Edge gives the reader a fine, detailed overview of one of humanity’s oldest and most venerable delusions in a little under 250 pages.

It also provides plenty of prime comedic material. The book’s lively tone, by turns flummoxed, frustrated, and amused, comes through in Weill’s account of the “The Man Will Never Fly Memorial Society.” Founded in 1969 by a group of engineers with the motto, “Birds Fly, Men Drink,” this association of the incredulously outraged gathered for weekend reunions where they “got drunk and pretended to believe air travel was impossible,” exchanging mock arguments that mirror those of flat earth theory. Why not? It used to be natural and salutary to disbelieve in such outlandish things as human flight. The editor of the Wright brothers’ hometown paper, for instance, was deeply skeptical of reports of their achievement, allegedly saying, “Man will never fly. And if he does, he will never come from Dayton.”

There’s plenty more where that comes from. One of the most successful flat earth entrepreneurs was Wilbur Glenn Voliva, who, through a combination of fierce commitment to flat earth theory and blatant election intimidation and fraud, managed to gain control of Zion, Illinois, where he ruled as a local dictator for 20 years. The Moline Dispatch got in a jab typical of the amused response from local papers, saying, “If Voliva finds the earth is flat . . . his discovery may solve the mystery of lost golf balls.” It wasn’t all fun and games: Voliva put forward a plan to require Zion schoolchildren to take an oath of loyalty to him and his theory. “I learned that from Hitler,” he said. As we’ve had many occasions to observe over the past several years, conspiracy thinking and authoritarian politics are symbiotic; they require one another to thrive.

But in the pre-apocalyptic period in which we live, conspiracism can provide a lot of entertainment. Weill tells of one attendee at a recent flat earth conference who asked, “If the Earth is round, why don’t we hang from our feet in Australia?” Even YouTube scoundrel-phenom Logan Paul has seized the comedic opportunity. Weill met up with Paul at the International Flat Earth Convention (IFEC) a few years ago; he’d come as an invited guest speaker with plans to troll the movement from the inside. Feigning complicity, he asked the audience, “Don’t you think if the Earth was round, our shoes would have a curve in them?” It’s a perfect way to parody the movement, which is built entirely on “asking questions” and then changing the questions once they are answered. The footage Paul taped at IFEC was later used in his own flat earth mockumentary. This was doubtlessly a major disappointment to the conference sponsors, who had entertained a fond hope, à la the Church of Scientology, of landing their own flat-earth Tom Cruise.

As Logan’s foray suggests, social media plays a huge role in flat earth evangelism. Advances in communications technology—from the printing press to the internet—have always been disruptive to social peace. Weill argues, as others have, that the structure of social media and its recommendation algorithms are among the chief culprits in the spread of conspiracies and disinformation more broadly. “There’s big money in distrust,” she says. YouTube, in particular, has become a major platform for key flat earth theorists, such as Mark Sargent, a Puget Sound man who leans into media ridicule as a way to gain attention for the theory. For all his childlike guilelessness—you’ll see what I mean if you watch Behind the Curve, a 2018 Netflix documentary on flat earthism—Sargent is also a savvy media operator.

Weill’s story moves from comedy to pathos when she details the human and interpersonal costs of conspiracy thinking. Most of the time, it appears, becoming a devout flat-earther entails the loss of friends and family. One pastor was summarily fired when the church elders got wind of his plan to come clean about his beliefs in a forthcoming sermon. And the ostracizing works both ways: You are with us, or you’re with the “globers.” If anyone in the community expresses doubts about the faith, they are said to have “spherical tendencies.” (Here, as often happens on this subject, the comic and the sad intertwine.) Weill spends a good deal of the book recounting these conspiracy-driven relational disasters and the social alienation that results from them. In the case of Mike Hughes, who launched himself into the lower atmosphere in self-designed, steam-powered rocket, the effort to prove the earth was flat cost him his life.

Hughes built other rockets that worked as designed, lifting him as high as 2,000 feet into the air—which is to say: These are not stupid people. Rather, their contrarian tendencies have ensnared them in a skepticism-gullibility paradox. In rejecting received knowledge and wisdom and insisting on firsthand verification of established science, they end up going out backwards. It’s not that they end up believing in nothing but that they have made themselves susceptible to believing anything, the more outlandish the better.

The way out of the conspiracy crisis, Weill argues, runs along the entrance path but in the opposite direction. What’s necessary is the re-establishment of normal social connections and interpersonal relationships with those whose fringe beliefs have isolated them. The deprogrammers she cites say that at the individual level nothing is gained and much can be lost via ridicule or shunning of conspiracy-minded friends and family. You can’t argue anyone out of a conspiracy belief, but with some luck and patience, you might be able to love them out.

Ultimately, there’s a need to get on the prevention side of conspiracism. That probably means keeping the pressure on social media companies to sacrifice some profit by reducing the addictiveness of their online products. However, it’s also true that the mental habits of conspiracy are probably as old as the human species, and may be rooted in certain evolutionary advantages (e.g., pattern-seeking, symbolic language, cooperative skills) that have betrayed us. The erosion of traditional authority, namely religion, and the transition away from small, intimate communities in favor of large, impersonal urban settings has been rattling us emotionally and psychologically since before Charles Darwin posited evolution over special creation.

It’s not that we haven’t been here before. It’s that we arrived and never left. We are caught in a recurring cycle of acute identity crisis (Are we a divine creation or a cosmic accident?) with our sense of our own dignity locked in a war against scientific and technological progress.

Weill calls conspiracy theories “warnings from the future.” We laugh at flat earthism or the stipulation of lizard people just as many nineteenth-century Germans mocked spiritualism, theosophy, and World Ice Theory. But it bears remembering that these esoteric views formed a good part of the intellectual scaffolding on which an overarching antisemitic “Volk theory” grew and which helped lead the world into catastrophe. We may not be on a similar path, but lest anyone feels too comfortable, we did just elect (or re-elect) a non-trivial number of QAnon and QAnon-adjacent members to Congress, as well as a whole host of cynical pols willing to use whatever passions are at hand to secure power.

The long-term lesson of conspiracy is that the convergence of social forces under extraordinary economic and social pressures can split the atom of esoteric theories and lead to critical chain reactions. If you don’t believe me, consider those who have suffered through post–World War II pogroms—the Rwandan Tutsis massacred in 1994, for instance, or the southern European communities ravaged in the 1992-95 Bosnian war. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to envision an unscrupulous politician in this country welding a majority out of conspiracists and a beleaguered suburban middle class by focusing public anger on an imaginary “other.” Teachers, university professors, drag queens, and “pedophiles” come to mind as such a figure’s potential targets. It has happened before, and it can happen again.