Outside Reading — The Brain Likes Crazy edition

How Conspiracy Theories Are Shaping the 2020 Election—and Shaking the Foundation of American Democracy by Charlotte Alter

Admitting that there is no shortage of social-breakdown symptoms to fret about right now, I’m beginning to believe that the mainstreaming of nonsensical conspiracy theories is the direst turn with the most wide-ranging disastrous ramifications. Reporting for Time magazine — largely from Southeastern Wisconsin, so it hits a little too close to home for my taste — Charlotte Alter details the alarming prevalence of absolutely batshit speculation among the citizenry. It exists on all spots of the political spectrum, but it is most dominant on the right, where a not insignificant number of people believe the amoral grifter in the White House is some stealth crusader against organized child predation with a vampiric twist. The most extreme grim fantasizing is bad, but tempting to dismiss as the product of crackpots who can be safely ignored. It’s the mildly more plausible fictions a couple more concentric circles out that are the real threat, in part because online algorithms send the curious whirlpooling down to the greater absurdities and mostly because they significantly complicate the ability for responsible citizens and organizations to deal with genuine problems. A news story in today’s New York Times about officials in Oregon needing to divert time away from helping the community through the tragic wildfires in order to confront rumormongering about antifa invaders rampaging through cities is a prime example.

The Mars Room (2018) by Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner’s most recent novel is a marvel of terse complexity. Set largely in a women’s prison, the book is a compelling, fiercely committed cataloging of the many ways society reinforced to certain people that their value as human beings is disregarded. The prose has the jabbing certainty of well-crafted poetry, carrying the narrative forward — and occasionally back and forth or sideways — with an undulating, intoxicating rhythm. What might be interpreted as false avenues in the plot’s path are instead fascinating contributions to the overall texture of the storytelling.

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