Challenging the Anti-Kingdom

The Mortgaging of QAnon’s False Optimism

Theologian Jon Sobrino has turned to the theological-idolactric structure of reality to distinguish the Anti-Kingdom from God’s Kingdom. These two ‘conflictually disjunctive’ Kingdoms are, according to Sobrino, mutually exclusive and stand in stark opposition to one another. Refashioning these terms inside a Freirean thematic universe provides a simple yet timely heuristic for approaching Freire’s work specifically and critical pedagogy in general at a time in which much is at stake for the survival of democracy. Shorn of its religio-supernatural attachments, its self-evident, unchanging, universal, abstract and unsolicitous divinely ordained norms, the Kingdom represents the world of critical citizenship, of literacy in the service of community, critical-dialectical reasoning, civic courage and social justice. The anti-Kingdom represents the socio-cultural realm of political domination, oppression and inequality reproduced early in the schooling process by what Freire designates as ‘banking education’ – depositing knowledge into the minds of learners as one might deposit money into a bank account. Teachers today are finding it especially difficult to survive in the anti-Kingdom where controversy and conflict prevail and where opposing views are put forward for withering debate around the issues of how students are to be taught, for what purpose and in whose interests the production of knowledge should serve. The oppressors use the power given to them by the state to obstruct learners from discerning their lies in order to preserve their political and personal power over the newly minted precariats within the anti-Kingdom.

The anti-Kingdom determines the overall structure of society with its burgeoning neo-feudal capitalist social relations, institutionalised atomism and anomie and structural racism and works to narrowly constrain the liberating praxis of the teacher. In Freirean terms, the anti-Kingdom is functionally structured to ideologically dragoon whatever freedom is made possible by human incompleteness into the corral of compliant servitude, where teachers are thrust into teacher training institutions committed to servicing the empire through pre-packaged curricula, standardised tests, and teaching the history of the nation through lessons bleached of dialectical contradictions. High on the list of the anti-Kingdom’s dictates is preventing teachers from considering critical pedagogy as a viable pedagogical option so that the political and legislative power of the ruling class is upheld.

Critical educators recognise that they must afford their students all the relevant skills that will enable them to unmask the lies that uphold the anti-Kingdom because the truth of history can only be understood when the masters of sophistry and casuistry who protect the anti-Kingdom are unmasked. The purpose of the critical educator is to serve humankind and to denounce those practices which work against its well-being, including opportunities to become ontologically more fully human through the praxis of socio-political transformation that challenges the logic of domination, self-centredness and anthropocentrism and embraces collaboration and co-operation and unity across differences.

And this means confronting the challenge of living in a capitalist society and the geopolitical ramifications of living in a world in which democracy is under siege from capitalism and fascism. Bob Dylan famously warned us that ‘the times they are a-changing,’ but what exactly has this Zeitenwende brought to America’s cities and towns? Will a marriage of convenience between Russia and China – both bent on a political alternation for the West – emerge from the ashes of history to define for North America the ultimate substitution for democracy and a rules-based global order? Will the systemic competition between Great Powers in a multipolar world be a preferable substitution for US unipolar hegemony? Is democracy even possible outside of socialism? These are a few of the questions that are ripe for debate in the public square. What is clear, however, is that US monopoly-finance capitalism is vastly over-reliant on finance overproduction and on short-term investment and high surpluses for the plutocracy accompanied by a lack of profitable investment opportunities. Chomsky writes that this type of neoliberal economics enables ’ riskless scams for quick profits – riskless because the powerful state that intervenes radically in the market to provide extreme protections in trade agreements does the same to rescue the masters if something goes wrong.’ Chomsky cites economists Robert Pollin and Gerald Epstein, who refer to our economy as a ‘bailout economy’ that enables the neoliberal class war to continue unabated ‘without the risk of market punishment for failure.’

This results in a vile tendency towards stagnation and the sabotage of corporate stability, all leading to a massive growth in financial speculation, the appearance of hedge fund slime masters, and the like. In Europe, Ukraine’s working class is currently shouldering the burden of the war with Russia as a result of its marketised economy and monetary policy. After all, worker protections don’t fare very well in a war economy premised on neoliberal-style deregulation and the privatisation of state assets, especially if they are spearheaded by western NGOs. Europe is in for a tough time this winter. And the US precariat will also have many challenges to deal with resulting from the faltering crony capitalism. Clearly, the assaults from the anti-Kingdom are increasing. The kingdom is in danger of falling into what Chomsky calls a ‘form of neofascism.’

Controversy and cover-up are embedded in the everyday politics of teaching. Critical educators are aware that the anti-Kingdom works by manipulating the nature and appearance of scandal and cover-up while at the same time partaking of the ideologising role of religion in the same manner that its right-wing evangelicals have historically sided with the persecutory state against the innocent and have positioned themselves within a heroic narrative of salvation from the ‘woke’ ideology of liberal democrats. Critical educators recognise that this is in stark contrast to the actual teachings of Jesus. Because critical educators cast doubt on the presuppositions of the legislative state and its rituals, compellingly vitiate what they consider to be the intrinsic malice of the judiciary and challenge the neo-feudal exploitation of the capitalist state and its over-extended war economy, they are constantly vilified by the far right as communists and enemies of the state. Nevertheless, critical educators have elected to challenge those plutocrats who inveigh endlessly against liberal values, including the wealthy elites groomed to be esteemed by the world. They do this despite the risks that they face in their workplaces and in the larger public square. They also dodge their way around the QAnon crazies from cuckoo land and the hateful anti-LGBTQ2+ evangelicals who, in some cases, call for the execution of homosexuals and include in their litany of sins abortion, birth control, in vitro fertilisation, feminism, and ecumenicalism. The anti-Kingdom has an easily comprehensible digital liturgy courtesy of the racists and anti-Semites who run the 4chan platform. The anti-Kingdom is widely shareable and functionally exhilarating for those who feel pushed aside politically, those who see themselves as a socially vulnerable Everyman/woman terrified of a world that refuses to address their lives or even acknowledge their existence, and who long to play a major role in saving the country – not unlike the Marvel Comic Book anti-heroes that we all enjoy watching on Netflix.

How thrilling it must be to suddenly be immersed in an occult universe gravely amenable to be mistaken for reality, thanks to modern-day technology, a world in which Republicans can use cell phone apps to hunt down liberal Democrat cannibal paedophiles who shape-shift into lizard people (they’re from another star system, you see) as they lap up the adenochrome from the freshly spilled blood of innocent children – all under the direction of the prime mover of evil, Satan himself. And this adventure is occurring right in their very own neighbourhood schools under their watchful eyes. This global child trafficking ring is expansive enough to include devil-worshipping cannibals such as Pope Francis, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey. Trump is positioned to seize the day and lay claim to victory as he readies himself to free the children and have their antagonists executed in front of an international television audience. Such an outlandish belief system only acts as an accelerant for Trump’s worst instincts, as he embraces the role of the Chosen One of God and berates American Jews for not appreciating him enough. Who said the suburbs were boring – you just have to find the right group of QAnon followers and find new possibilities for adventure rooted in circumstances of group affiliation. As a new follower of Q, you can remain loyal to MAGA, wear your red cap proudly, and through a process of resocialisation consisting of the consistent nurturing of sociality and interdependence, develop new habits of duty and obligation to the MAGA/QAnon in-group, acquire a new range of beliefs to supplant your former virtues and live out your childhood fantasies. This will work only to the extent that you are able to shape your public self to coincide with your private self and merge accordingly with your new collective. Should you experience an interlude from the madness that causes you to falter in your faith in Q (perhaps when your college student offspring return for the holidays and beg you to seek a de-programmer), your fictive kin group of Trump supporters will always be there to reset your felicitous delusions once your children are safely back in their dorm rooms.

After adjusting their jock straps accordingly, QAnon alpha-males, as is their wont, rejoice in their crackbrained bravado and high-octane braggadocio, some even claiming that Navy SEALs, loyal to former President Donald Trump, have already arrested former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for treason and taken her to Guantanamo Bay where she was hanged for the crimes of murder and child trafficking. Her last meal was apparently ‘scrambled eggs with Jalapeno peppers and a strawberry milkshake.’ Was it the strawberry milkshake that was the giveaway?

Post-digital media is exceedingly kind to QAnon, as it enables the creation of a mythological, eco-systemic Wundermärchen that is the modern analogue of the fairy tale digitally enhanced by current technology to enable a willing suspension of disbelief like at no other time in history. Were Marshall McLuhan alive today, one can only imagine what that clairvoyant technological determinist would see in the rise of QAnon. Perhaps he would see the phenomenon as a digitised fusion of our central nervous system to a social universe filled with unsuspecting superheroes, courtesy of the longue durée of the Marvel Comics imagination and craftsmanship, primed to be emulated by those who feel life owes them compensation for the anxiety of being mortgaged to a treadmill life. What else could better account for the fact that QAnon adherents have willingly jumped ‘down the rabbit hole’ and into QAnon’s alternate reality, emerging with a fervid belief that John F. Kennedy Jr.(affectionately known as John-John and who, by the way, has been dead for 20 years), will emerge from the grave and appear at a Rolling Stones concert and then move on to serve faithfully as Donald Trump’s vice president and loyal cannibal-cum-paedophile-slayer when the former president is officially reinstated. With the resurrected Kennedy at his side, Trump will await the appointed ‘Qdrop’ when ‘Q will give the signal, and the people will rise up and join Trump in one final Armageddon-like showdown against the forces of darkness – an event that QAnon adherents call ‘the Storm.’

This QAnon narrative carries with it some of the features of a fairy tale within the larger fabric of an urban legend. Marina Warner writes that the fairy-tale is connected to the ‘pleasure of wonder’ and ‘consists above all of acts of imagination, conveyed in a symbolic Esperanto…. The symbolism comes alive and communicates meaning through an imagery of strong contrasts and sensations, evoking simple, sensuous phenomena that glint and sparkle, pierce and flow. By these means, they strike recognition in the reader or listener’s body at a visceral depth.…’ Trump supporters love spectacle where the fetishism of capitalist commodification has managed to supplant society with an inverted simulacra of itself, dressed in an NFL half-time patriotism, where a dancing and grinning Trump has commodified the Big Lie and has made it the litmus test for being a true American, and where Trump has acquired the power to veil in illusion the truth of this reality. QAnon is a social movement that is also a religion reconfigured by the parameters and precincts of political spectacle. It functions best in the realm of abstraction, where artifice replaces authenticity with a re-enchantment of madness, where humans are able to create a collective mythology that overpopulates the real with images of impossible scenarios and mercurial and truculent accusations, where the floodgates of the imagination that connect everyday life to the political unconscious remain brazenly open and the historical moment is eclipsed by a frozen eternity. According to Bulent Kenes’s comprehensive report on QAnon, some experts maintain that QAnon support ‘is founded in anti-social personality traits and behaviours, like narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy.’ This is personified in the figure of Trump, whom no doubt recognises QAnon for being the scam that it is, but artfully works it as a counterweight to the paralysing banality of public bureaucracy – all to the thrill of the crowd.

The reprehensibly exhilarating mythology and cultural simulations surrounding QAnon cultivated on mainstream social media platforms have so far endured the judgement of reason despite being de-platformed from various social media venues. Its ability to defy its own reputation as the Mad Hatter of conspiracy theories is likely to see it endure the next decade or longer, putting us all in danger of sniffing history out of a bottle of mercurous nitrate.

Michael Peters discusses the ideological development of New Age spirituality in relation to esotericism and Gnosticism, which ‘easily lent itself to the age of conspiracy converting many of its positive ideas into anti-science, anti-state, anti-politics, and some also argued anti-Christian beliefs. In the years following, especially those of the Trump administration, much of the progressive elements of New Age had been stripped of its critical components to expose a malleable and vulnerable core of beliefs that could be recruited for any cause and even forms of violence.’ New age spiritualism has also appropriated far-right conspiracies, and Peters cites Marisa Meltzer, who observes the ‘strange convergence of counterculture and hate’ in ‘Q’Anon’s Unexpected Roots in New Age Spirituality.’ Peters writes:

White supremacists and the ultra-right or far-right conscious use both mysticism from Christianity and racial pagan Nordic mythology based around Odin ‘to justify threats, criminal activity and violence.’ Just as in the 1970s and ’80 s, New Age spirituality was used politically to bolster leftist ideologies of freedom from ‘democratic’ forms of totalitarianism, so today, far-right groups dress up their racism through appeals to aspects of the New Age movement. […] While New Age spiritual encouraged universal peace, hope and love as the basis for spiritual transformation in the 1970s and ’80s, today, aspects of these beliefs have been peeled away from the spiritual heart of the movement to emphasise the ‘dark Enlightenment’ and the organising forces of the European and American far-right, often dressed up with allusions to Nietzsche and embellished with spiritual values of health and self-improvement.

QAnon seeks to acquire the macabre calibre of those fractious and recalcitrant participants in gnostic mystery cults who were burnt at the stake, taking us into different zones of understanding, where its members can remain transfixed by the force of occult powers, embalmed in the cave-like shadows of primitive mysteries, and where they can feel free to hypostatise the deep state as a cabal of Jewish billionaires hidden away in a mountain redoubt and turning the dials of space lasers trained on the dried out forests of Northern California.

‘Q’ has been communicating Trump’s plans to all those brave patriots via encoded online messages. When the time is right, Q will give the signal, and the people will rise up and join Trump in one final Armageddon-like showdown against the forces of darkness. Zeeshan Aleem reveals the international scope reached by QAnon, as it spreads to Europe, influencing a plot to overthrow the government of Germany:

QAnon serves as a useful tool for right-wing movements around the world to promote bigoted conspiracy theories and authoritarianism in thinly veiled terms. Social scientists and intelligence officials say that QAnon is a valuable technology for spreading ideas that naturally get traction on the German far right. As a New York Times report from 2020 explained, ‘the mythology and language QAnon uses – from claims of ritual child murder to revenge fantasies against liberal elites – conjure ancient anti-Semitic tropes and putsch fantasies that have long animated Germany’s far-right fringe.’ As Stephan Kramer, head of domestic intelligence in the eastern German state of Thuringia, told the Times, ‘QAnon doesn’t openly fly the colours of fascism, it sells it as secret code.’ It’s likely helpful for the far right that QAnon mythology can hint at antisemitic conspiracies (such as blood libel claims) without explicitly invoking Jews, avoiding the legal restrictions on hate speech in Germany.

These are times of rapid adjustment to a declining democratic state unable to win the confidence of a highly suspicious and cynical electorate who hungers for the power and the promise of what they remember as a once-great America. But many of these memories, when not steeped in the nostalgia of youthful hope, have been deliberately manufactured by the culture industry to purchase our allegiance to a false optimism. Aleen writes perceptively that ‘at its essence, [QAnon is] a story of the powerful conspiring against the innocent. No matter how abominable and misguided the details of the story are – or how toxic its proposed solutions to the problem – it’s not hard to see how that kind of narrative can be compelling at a time of skyrocketing inequality, plunging confidence in institutions across the West, and rising inchoate anti-establishment movements.’ While it is true, according to Jonathan Price and Noam Chomsky, that both Canada and the United States are witnessing powerful movements of resistance that have arisen to contest domination and oppression throughout the North American continent, the American empire has remained relatively unscathed. Clearly, what is needed is a new communal project that is able to challenge the villainous collectivism of QAnon and its ultimate service to the very deep state to which it has identified as its main target, a new communal zeitgeist that is life-centred, that refuses to reproduce the logic of capital and the commodification of lies, that has the power to make despair unreasonable and impractical, and that can foster the political will for an unremitting commitment to social justice and the political means to achieve it.

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2022). Challenging the Anti-Kingdom: The Mortgaging of QAnon’s False Optimism. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.