Benjamen Walker is one of the pioneers of podcasting, producing creative and provocative audio programming for radio and the Internet for more than a decade on WFMU and now as part of PRX’s Radiotopia team. His show, Theory of Everything, considers questions of how the Internet is reshaping our lives and worlds, using everything from interviews with academics and authors to short stories, documentation of public performance, and protest and conversations with people who are not who they claim to be. (Or are they?)
Benjamen connects the dots between apparently disparate phenomena better than anyone else I know, and I’ve listened to his recent series, False Alarm!, with fascination and admiration. Is there room to mix nonfiction and fiction, reality and unreality, on the radio (or anywhere else for that matter) at a moment where unreality has become a political strategy? I invited Benjamen to reflect on lessons learned during his series, and the conclusion he ultimately came to.
— Ethan Zuckerman
On January 22, 2017, Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway went on television and insisted that Americans could easily understand the truth about crowd estimates for supporters vs. protesters during Donald Trump’s inauguration if the media wasn’t so biased against alternative facts. Sales of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four skyrocketed. Americans turned to the source to make sense of this chilling Orwellian phrase “alternative facts.”
In The Ministry of Truth, Dorian Lynskey’s incredible new history of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, we learn that Orwell was not the only pseudonym Eric Blair was considering when he published his first book Down and Out in Paris and London in 1933. There were others, including H. Lewis Always. What a missed opportunity! Had Blair gone this route we might all implicitly understand that our political reality is by definition always Orwellian.
Our current situation might feel new, but recent history is filled with Alwaysian moments when truth and lies merge. In his book Hitler’s Monsters, historian Eric Kurlander explains how in the 1930s the Nazis made use of the Supernatural Imaginary — a mixture of pseudoscience, folklore, and conspiracy theories — to seize power. The Supernatural Imaginary is what technology and social change expert Ethan Zuckerman calls a “big tent conspiracy theory”: there was room for werewolves, world ice theory, and pagan magic. Some of these ideas made no sense on their own, some were in conflict with each other, but together they made a cohesive mix because every idea rejected the notion of empirical validation.
In the 1880s, millions of American and European spiritualists believed that it was possible to communicate with the dead. Spiritualist mediums were powerful authorities in ethics, morality, philosophy, and politics. The phenomenon began in 1848 when 10-year-old Kate and 14-year-old Maggie Fox convinced their family that they were communicating with a spirit through “rappings.” When Maggie confessed to the world in 1888 that she and her sister were faking it all along by simply cracking the bones in their feet, there was no reckoning; in fact, the movement continued to grow. The politicians and leaders who’d ridden spiritualism to power denounced the sisters’ confessions as fake news and continued preaching spiritualism to their followers.
Both the Fox sisters and the Supernatural Imaginary show up in the maxi series (it seems unreasonable to call a fifteen-episode arc a “miniseries”) I produced for my podcast last year. One of the reasons I called the project False Alarm! is because I wanted to remind my listeners that this moment we are going through right now has happened before.
Listen to a segment from a conversation with Eric Kurlander on the Supernatural Imaginary
I have been mixing both fiction and nonfiction in my audio work for over a decade but still I was taken aback to see how quickly this blurring of reality and imagination, truth and fabulism, went mainstream. And it really threw a wrench into my own practice: Now that conspiracy theories are everywhere and now that everything is a mix of the real and the fake, what was I to do? I heard from a number of listeners that a podcast in which they could never be sure of what was real or not was the last thing they wanted to listen to after 2016. For me the alarm was personal and I set out to use my show to find a path forward.
The False Alarm! series is long. Fifteen episodes, nine-plus hours: It contains interviews and profiles. Some are real while some are imaginary. (I truly believe both the very real Hitler and the fictional Big Brother can help us understand our current situation) I also turned to fairy tales. One of the main ideas of False Alarm! is that the story of the boy who cried wolf has crossed streams with the story of the emperor with no clothes:
Listen to the first chapter of a fairy tale from False Alarm!
Donald Trump shows up a few times in False Alarm!. He has most certainly changed America’s relationship with the truth (10,0000+ lies as of July 2019!) but he’s also not new. He’s been a “yuge” part of American life for decades. A few months ago, the artist Andres Serrano filled a former nightclub on 14th Street in New York with $200,000 worth of Trump memorabilia and opened it up to the public. Walking around this nightmare funhouse filled with Trump airline menus, Trump university binders, Trump ties and Trump steaks was both disorientating and illuminating. There was a wall of magazine covers dedicated to the man. One from the 1980s quoted The Donald talking about his future Presidency.
"Everybody knows, just like the Leonard Cohen song." Actually it’s worse. Everybody knows that everybody knew about Donald Trump.
Despite the overabundance of Trump commentary and discussion, there is one underreported, misunderstood and extremely alarming fact about Trump that I focused on in my series. I believe that this fact explains something very important about our current Unreality: Trump’s relationship with The Power of Positive Thinking. Donald Trump was only 6 years old when Norman Vincent Peale’s best seller came out in 1952, but his parents, Fred and Mary, were already members of Peale’s flock. When it came to The Power of Positive Thinking, the Trumps were all true believers. Every Sunday, they drove into Manhattan to worship at Marble Collegiate Church, where Peale was the head pastor. Donald has gone on the record many times saying that, besides his father, Peale was the only man he looked up to.
In False Alarm! I investigated this story in depth because this is where Trump’s technique of repeating things that are not true until they become real originates. I also believe that a study of Trump’s mastery of The Power of Positive Thinking helps us grasp that the dissolution of facts and empirical criteria is only the first step in creating a new reality; what follows is actual world building. This is what Karl Rove meant when he called Ron Suskind a member of the “reality based community.” “When we act,” he said, “we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities.” Replace the word “act” with “build” and the quote takes on a whole new relevancy. Trump’s lies aren’t just denials of facts — they are also building blocks for a new reality.
Gary Lachman, a celebrated historian of the esoteric and occult, tells us in his book Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump that the power of positive thinking also has a lot in common with chaos magic. When reality is up for grabs, Gary told me, “chaos magick” encourages us to go for it and bring about the reality we want to exist. Chaos magick is The Power of Positive Thinking with a decidedly less Christian bent.
Listen to a conversation with Gary Lachman on Trump and Magick
In False Alarm! I also speak with a magician who believe we can use magic to push back on these unreal forces. Inspired, I took a trip to Trump Tower and rode the famous escalator while playing Neil Young’s Rocking In the Free World” backwards. (To understand my spell — and its apparent failure — you will need to listen to the whole episode.)
Orwell, like many writers during World War II, found it impossible to write fiction during the war. “Only the mentally dead are capable of sitting down and writing novels while this nightmare is going on,” he wrote in April 1941. Orwell was an incredible journalist and essayist but he was best able to articulate his thoughts and beliefs on totalitarianism in his seminal works of fiction, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Readers are still turning to both to better understand the fragility of consensus reality, and the ease with which bad actors can manipulate it.
In False Alarm! I speak with a number of historians, academics, artists, and journalists in the pursuit of making sense of our current nightmare. But the most illuminating conversation I had was with Deep Fakes, the eponymous author of the face-swapping technology that (depending on which news article you read) is threatening to upend society, identity, or reality itself. I’ve read a lot of these pieces but none of them get as close to the dark misogynistic heart of the matter as my fictional interview with the creator himself:
Listen to an interview with DEEP FAKES
Trust in our institutions is at an all time low. This vulnerability, I fear, will only be exploited more in the coming years. I’m also convinced this vulnerability is the root of my own problems and it’s why I’m shifting my focus to alternative facts. The temptation at this moment is to cling to consensus reality for dear life. But facts aren’t a powerful enough tool for these fraught times.
False Alarm! was my effort to wrestle with the challenges of mixing fiction and nonfiction at a point of low trust in the media, and perhaps in reality itself. Was it responsible for me to blur the lines between fact and fiction when those lines are already being obliterated? My conclusion: This is a moment that requires more fiction, not less. We need Orwell the novelist as well as Orwell the journalist. Theory of Everything will mix nonfiction and fiction, just as the president does, because there’s really no other way to address our contemporary reality.