“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” —Hannah Arendt, political philosopher, 1951
If you would have told me a few years ago that some people believe the Earth is flat, and that their numbers are growing, I would have slapped you in your filthy, lying mouth. Now, a full year into the Trump Presidency, the existence of a growing flat-Earth movement simply seems par for the course.
On a daily basis the White House, their accomplices at Breitbart, Fox News, et al., and Trump’s obstinately loyal base inundate traditional and social media with disingenuous spin and demonstrable falsehoods: “alternative facts.” Any information painting the administration in a poor light is derided as “fake news,” sowing distrust in our journalistic institutions and casting doubt on the very notion of empirical reality. In short, I’d say that we’re living through an epistemological crisis, in which there is little distinction between justified belief and opinion. Which brings us to the flat-Earth movement.
My first run-in with a genuine flat-Earther was on a Facebook post I wrote about punching Nazis. I had suggested that while it may be emotionally satisfying to punch Nazis, that’s exactly what they want, to play victim to left-wing violence (Hitler wrote that violent clashes with Communists helped the young Nazi Party garner sympathy and rise to power, but that’s another story, I hope). Before long, a friend of a friend, a 28-year-old German I’ll call Hans, chimed in, “Nazi Ideology includes Evolution, you are all Nazis.” I tried disabusing him of the notion that evolution is an ideology, but I soon gave up, because it was futile—his wall was cluttered with dank flat-Earth memes. I had heard tell of their existence, flat-Earthers, but I’d remained incredulous, preferring to believe them trolls. He could not—no one could—truly believe this, could they? “I am not the one who believes,” Hans responded. “YOU believe the world to be a ball. I know it to be a level plane which is a fact. Not a Theory like the ball.”
How is this possible? People have believed in nonsense since the dawn of civilization, no doubt, but our accumulation of scientific knowledge has, historically, relegated our magical thinking to the realm of religion. It’s impossible to disprove a claim for which there is no direct physical evidence, forcing even the staunchest atheists, like noted evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, to admit their philosophical agnosticism. Is a God likely? No way. Is a God possible? Sure, a God is possible, but it’s just as possible that deranged dinosaur ghosts violently masturbate over us while we sleep. Both are dodgy propositions, wholly unsupported by observable data; yet they’re impossible to disprove. It’s a matter of blind faith. But the religious fervor of the modern flat-Earth movement is unique.
The ancient Greeks deduced the spheroidal nature of our world 2,500 years ago. Despite the myth, even the least-educated among Columbus’s contemporaries knew the world was not flat. Since then we’ve been to the moon and taken iconic photos of our pale blue dot. Hell, right now, anyone with an internet connection can watch a live video feed of Earth from the International Space Station. Astronauts post videos of our quite obviously round planet on Twitter. There’s no mystery. There’s no doubt. There’s simply no room for agnosticism or subsequent leaps of faith. The flat-Earth movement is fueled purely by wholesale disillusionment and delusion.