Before Christmas, I had a conversation with a French man who I had gotten to know reasonably well over 2017. The conversation threw me somewhat, in clarifying the true character of mon ami with an unpleasant jolt. He had always seemed to me to be laid back and liberal, but there was one subject that transformed him into the very pinnacle of indignation. Santa Claus.
It was, he maintained, simply lying to children and taking advantage of their credulity. He suspected that the deceits perpetrated upon children with regard to Santa Claus do irreparable damage to their relationships with adults and their trust in authority. I am seldom lost for a comeback but this time several of them got stuck in my throat all at once. I was going to say that, “I believed in Santa and I’m okay.” But maybe, the horror was dawning on me, I am not. Maybe my own psychology has been put back years in all sorts of imperceptible ways. My stance as a Brexiteer, for instance, might have been determined by some faltering in the normal development of the brain, which had resulted from the shock of being corrected about Santa.
So if you are perchance one of those few child readers who I am always warning to stay away from my website, then this has to end immediately. Santa isn’t real – you have to get out while you can. Before it’s too late. Likewise, whatever they’ve told you about babies is more bull from the same farm. You were never delivered to your parents’ rooftop by a kindly stork or found somewhere in the garden. Your father squirted a sort of disgusting slime straight into your mother’s front bottom. It is squalid and grotesque and, I imagine, immensely disillusioning.
You have to love with your heart, kids, and when it comes to everything else, such as the precise source of babies and Christmas presents, then you must use your head. This is the battle cry of Captain Disillusion, one of my favourite YouTubers. The Captain’s videos are so much fun that it might take you some time to clock that he is actually a sceptic. He typically debunks viral footage of phenomena that look a bit too good to be true, such as skiing ostriches or a city floating in the clouds. But he is careful to avoid the priggish, superior tone that is characteristic of “new” atheists, this cult that has sprung up across campuses waving manuals on belief by Richard Dawkins. His videos will remind you of various things, with a streak of Monty Python being particularly evident to me, but they are so lovingly designed and produced that there is nothing like them anywhere on traditional television. They essentially start from scratch with the possibilities that are afforded by YouTube.
In his latest video, the Captain debunks the “Dear David” ghost story that has been recently unleashed upon Twitter by the cartoonist Adam Ellis. I also wrote about this story before Christmas, though my feeble, moth-like attack is probably not rigorous enough to merit the term “debunk.” Yet I am not sure that I am ever really on the same page as the Captain. We are not so much brother sceptics as different denominations within the same brethren.
The Captain takes down “Dear David” alongside two other viral paranormal videos, but we have enough to go on with David. After tearing this ghost into shreds, the Captain turns to address the common objection that, “People GET that everything on these channels is fake AND THEY LIKE IT.”
It looks like the Captain was initially trying to compile a handy statistic that would show how many of the comments below Ellis’ videos were “credulous,” but he admits that, “I got bored and threw my computer out of my window.” The Captain’s faith in this mass credulity was perhaps tempting him to here abandon his habitual terra firma of rationality and evidence. For example, 1.2 million people have watched the “Dear David” footage that features in the Captain’s video, but a mere 760 have posted comments. My own faith in human reason leads me to attribute any “credulous” comments to an unrepresentative, self-selecting minority. This can only ever be an article of faith of course.
The Captain is on surer ground with the line that viewers “GET” the fakery, but all of a sudden he is telling us off. It is quite horrible. Before our eyes the Captain grows almost schoolmarmish:
… don’t you know, it’s a cool new ironic form of social media infotainment, letting a little bit of fear-based fiction bleed into reality for fun or profit. But I don’t think it’s cool. In art or health or politics, in any aspect of life, this blurred line is how you get confusion and mistrust and $22 million fruitless Pentagon UFO-threat research programmes. It’s how you get 2017.
It is equally how you get any “found footage.” In contributing to this genre, which at its best includes the BBC’s glorious reality-horror show Ghostwatch (1992), the horror movie The Blair Witch Project (1999), and the YouTube series Marble Hornets (2009), “Dear David” is unique only in using Twitter. And before found footage there were found stories. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) are ostensible travel narratives that would have taken some of their original readers on quite a ride.
My own dissection of “Dear David” had assumed from the outset that the story was fictional. I was never going to play the game:
You might notice that most other online commentators are either referring to the ghost as if it is a real phenomenon or angrily spluttering that it is “fake” and “a hoax.” These responses come across as rather plastic to me. I do not believe that anybody could have ever believed in David to begin with, or, alternatively, that it is possible to approach this ghost with any sceptical seriousness.
I do not know whether Ellis is a sincerely devious fraudster or whether, as the Captain speculates, he is hatching a bit of “ironic” fun. If it is the former, then the best attitude to take is not that of the Captain’s, which is to interrogate the evidence and to come to no conclusion unless it is sternly underpinned by proof. Proponents of the paranormal love to argue about the evidence because the evidence can prove any old nonsense. They are far less keen on a relaxed application of common sense.
As Friedrich Engels observed in his essay “Natural Science and the Spirit World” (1878) “mere empiricism is incapable of refuting the spiritualists.” He noted damningly that, “in recent years English empiricism in the person of some of its representatives – and not the worst of them – should seem to have fallen a hopeless victim to the spirit-rapping and spirit-seeing imported from America.” And indeed the history of science can cite many big names, ranging from Isaac Newton to Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of literature’s greatest scientific superman, Sherlock Holmes), who had lapsed into embarrassing irrationality towards the end of their lives. Newton became an alchemist and Conan Doyle a fervent spiritualist. This was because, in Engels’ analysis, empiricism “[in] relying on mere experience, treats thought with sovereign disdain and really has gone to the furthest extreme in emptiness of thought.”
Supposing that it was impossible to explain how a particular ornament had been moved in Ellis’ apartment. Would this mean that we are forced to accept that a future state exists and that we can contact any loved ones who are now in this state? Well, according to somebody who believes whatever the evidence tells them, we would have to. Despite this, we know from our own lives and from using our common sense that we cannot talk to the dead. We also know that something like “Dear David” can never come into it. Nobody in possession of common sense would let some triviality on their Twitter feed factor into such profound questions.
I think that most viewers “GET” this, if not all of them at some level of understanding. If a handful of viewers remain adamant that David is real, the sheer context of clickbait and the fast-moving banality of Twitter mean that they are hardly going to bring their lives to a stop and launch some new religion. At the very worse, they might, if they were crazed beyond all reason, purchase a T-shirt with a witless motif from the online emporium that just happens to be linked to Ellis’ Twitter account.
As a found narrative, “Dear David” will recruit viewers and readers who are less passive and ultimately more critical. You can luxuriate in the shivery possibility that the story is real even as your mind drifts into wondering how Ellis has pulled it off. This is chance material to sharpen your scepticism upon in moments of repose.
Many things are called “phobias” these days, but the fear that ordinary people are credulous is genuinely an irrational panic. It can lead to a fear that charlatans, be they Adam Ellis or Donald Trump, will carry off huge swathes of people, a fear that can transform insects into monsters. It can lead to the sinking feeling that democracy is unreliable. It can lead you to attribute democratic decisions to faulty information-processing amongst the voters rather than to clear-eyed moral preferences. It can lead a grown adult to worry that his own reason is hostage to the historical trauma of learning about Santa as a child. It can lead, in other words, to 2017.