“The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.” — Erich Fromm, The Sane Society
Social psychologist Erich Fromm, in The Sane Society, suggested that a whole society could become insane, by which he meant that it could possess values that were deeply mentally unhealthy, even if those values were considered “normal” within the society itself. Fromm was critiquing societies like ours that valued possession, consumption, and status, even when the pursuit of these ends destroyed our well-being. I thought back to his book recently, after hearing one of the most delusional things I’ve ever heard another human being say.
Laurence Fox is an actor from an esteemed family of English thespians. Fox has a lot of mainstream screen credits, although he also played Hunter Biden in the Breitbart-distributed right-wing film My Son Hunter. Fox is also a political commentator who currently hosts a television program on right-wing British news channel GB News. I was recently invited on the program to discuss (or rather, be ambushed about) my article on masculinity.
My own discussion with Fox was asinine and went nowhere, which is what I expected. (At one point he called me “Jim” and wrongly claimed that I own a Glock handgun and have a wife!) I was more interested in his segment about climate change with the guest who appeared before me. Fox introduced the segment with a bizarre monologue, which began by telling viewers that “there is a theatrical device, often used to keep an audience gripped to a play they’re watching,” in which a “malevolent force manifests itself offstage” and then “encroaches ever closer into the seemingly banal, everyday drama being played out on the stage.” The “dread fear” that builds over time, perhaps through an offstage fire glowing brighter and brighter, changes the characters’ behavior and leads them to “actions they would never have dreamt of committing in ordinary circumstances.”
It becomes clear that Fox is not telling us about an interesting theatrical device, but giving his theory of the COVID pandemic, which he appears to believe was a hoax, an invisible “dread fear” used by authority figures to manipulate our behavior. He implies (but does not really argue) that the pandemic never happened. (Presumably all those who supposedly died of COVID were just actors, who are now waiting backstage in the dressing room.) Fox then moves to the subject of climate change, and appears to argue (although here, too, he deals not so much in arguments as implications) that climate change is all fake, too, another mere “theatrical device” from the powers that be, meant to manipulate behavior:
All of a sudden, the deadly virus was gone. We don’t talk about hastily removed medical treatments anymore. We don’t mention inconvenient things like excess deaths. God forbid anybody who mentions Sweden. But never fear. The virus may be gone, but we have a new piece of theater and a new “dread fear of”—a new fire glowing behind the curtains on the stage. Whilst we sit here in jumpers in the pouring rain, the sun monster breathes fire across Europe. Or so a blonde lady insists every day on the television. There is some truth to the fact that it is indeed a hot summer, the likes of which we have seen many times before. But after three years of cortisol driving almost every decision we make, people are primed and they’re ready for another potential apocalypse. We may have survived the deadly virus, but the nearly million mile-wide great ball of fire is coming for us now. And this time it means business. Quick! Call the Chinese! Get them to crank up a coal-fired power station so they can knock up a dodgy solar panel. Quick! Wake up those lazy Congolese toddlers. We need some more rare earth minerals for our four-wheeled virtue wagons. Now, look, I’m not a huge one for polling. But one poll I did do about the so-called “climate emergency” was very interesting indeed. I was surprised to find out that about 75% of people do believe that there is an imminent climate crisis. But here’s the interesting part. Also 75% don’t feel they should personally have to do anything about it. This suggests to me that in polite society, to even raise an eyebrow when someone says “the end is nigh” is heavily frowned upon. But then privately, people know it’s not an imminent emergency. And they’re just saying, well, they’re expected to say, they have more important things to deal with. And that is the problem with when you suppress free speech. People tend to go along with things, even if they know they’re ridiculous. It also reveals that if you tell a lie often enough, it becomes the truth. Now, [puts on exaggerated German accent], zee GB News Stasi vould like me to point out zat 97% of zee scientists zays zat zeer is a climate crisis. But I vould like to remind our loyal viewers on GB News zat 100% of zeir doomsday predictions have failed to materialize ever. [end of accent] The climate alarmism, and some might say common garden arson brigade, are hell bent on this being the last summer the few of us who can afford it anymore can go on holiday, our every flight another decimal point on the climate graph to catastrophe. They don’t care that we’ve seen wildfires before. They don’t care that the vast majority of people want a cleaner and more sustainable future for everybody. It will never be enough. They won’t stop, the miserable sods, until there is zero summer. Zero fun. Zero relief from the mundanity of taking a well earned break by the sea after a year of packed lunches, school runs, homework, and unsatisfactory employment. A week or two to read a book, get drunk at lunch and maybe siesta it off. Swim in the sea. Go snorkeling with the kids and fall over while trying to walk backwards in flippers, all with that glorious sun boosting your vitamin D and your mood in preparation for another six months of rain and cold. No! There is a fire burning. So you must stay at home. Protect Mother Earth. Save lives. This time, though, we see the beginnings of another fire. Not much more than an ember at the moment, but a fire in the making nonetheless. It is those who KNOW that this trick has been tried before and it didn’t work. I speak to people every day who said they bought the regime’s rubbish over COVID and they won’t do so again. So I hope as these flames continue to be thrust at us from all angles, an actual fire begins to take hold—one that burns so strong and so brightly, that it’s those who dabble in fake flames generated by lights, shouting, and misleading illusions, you turn and run for the hills when confronted with the real thing. The flames of our refusal to submit to yet another mass delusion. So, tonight I’m asking you: is this the hottest July you’ve had on record? Email me at [email protected] or tweet me…
The transcript doesn’t really do it justice, to be honest. Fox’s delivery is, well, theatrical, and you can definitely tell he’s a product of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Fox then brings on a climate expert to torment. Here’s where things become an utterly demented parody of “30 second soundbite” cable news:
Now, before we kick off with our main event, [German accent resumes] ze Stasi at GB News vould ask me to introduce senior meteorologist from the British Weather Services Jim Dale. Jim, good evening. You heard my monologue. Is there a climate emergency?
I did. I tell you what it is, it’s a crisis. It’s a crisis for you, Laurence, and I’ll tell you why. You’ve had a bad 10 days. First of all you came fourth in Uxbridge…
FOX: [shouting in German accent]
Vat’s zat got to do vith zee climate emergency? It’s a yes or no answer, Jim.
A lot of people know your views. Okay. So let’s start with that one.
Let’s just answer zee question. Is there a climate emergency?
I will get there! Yeah, there’s a crisis. The crisis is…
Thank you, Jim. Good to speak. Good evening. Okay.
Laurence, let me speak!
Moving on. [cuts off Jim, goes to break] I think that was jolly fair. Cass [the producer] is saying that wasn’t jolly fair. But come on. I’m allowed an opinion, surely, still, in this world of communists. Right. Let’s get onto something more interesting than whether the climate crisis is COVID 2.0 and the next biggest fake known to mankind, which is: Are men missing something?
And so begins the pointless segment in which I am asked about masculinity.
As I watched this climate segment, I couldn’t really believe what I was seeing. GB News is disreputable, certainly. But the level of derangement here is stunning. To deny that there’s a climate emergency, it’s no longer enough just to ignore scientists. Now you have to ignore the firsthand evidence that comes from just going outside. The ocean water around Florida is as warm as a hot tub, Antarctic sea ice is “dropping way below anything we have seen in our record,” Mediterranean countries are being scorched by nightmarish wildfires, and in Arizona you can end up hospitalized with burns just from touching the street. And yet Laurence Fox seems completely convinced that the climate emergency is a mere “theatrical device” cooked up by the same powerful forces who previously brought us the hoax of COVID. And I know Fox is not alone. That other ludicrous Fox, Fox News, warns people that globalist environmentalists are plotting to trap them in their homes through “climate lockdowns.” When I recently interviewed Christopher Rufo, architect of the right’s fashionable “critical race theory” panic, he responded to my concern about climate change by saying that leftists want people to talk about “the weather” as a distraction. (He also said the Sunrise Movement is an astroturf movement, funded by some shadowy entity, that pays kids to make people feel guilty.) Every time I make a post on social media about the climate disaster unfolding around us, some people reply to insist that it’s just hot every summer, I’m an idiot who has fallen for a hoax, etc.
A few years back, this magazine published a story about a man who continues to live in denial even after the climate crisis has caused a total social breakdown. Having lost touch with reality entirely, he plays golf alone on a parched, abandoned, overgrown course, convinced that it’s only a matter of time until the clubhouse reopens and his buddies return. I have come to think that the story captures very well what is probably going to happen as the climate emergency gets worse and worse. Some people, like Laurence Fox, will be incapable of accepting facts that contradict their worldview, and will retreat into a fantasy world in which they are right. They will be in a very literal sense the equivalent of KC Green’s “This is Fine” cartoon dog, ever-more-aggressively insistent that things are normal even as the disaster gets more and more out of hand.
Another excellent, insightful piece of climate-related fiction was the film Don’t Look Up, which created a lot of conversation when it came out in 2021. Critics thought it was heavy-handed, and didn’t appreciate how insightfully it captured the way denial works. In the film, the scientists who try to warn humanity about an inbound asteroid are mocked and ignored, just like scientists today. (But the film depicts TV news as a model of civil discourse compared to the actual Laurence Fox show, which is more like ’90s “trash TV” of the Wally George variety.) But where the film really gets it right is in showing what happens when the approaching asteroid finally becomes visible to the naked eye. It’s one thing to disbelieve scientists, after all. That’s a product of the loss of faith in institutions and expertise, which is partly rational and partly paranoid. But surely when you can actually see it coming straight for you, denial becomes impossible, right?
Wrong, according to Don’t Look Up. In the film, the right’s response to seeing the asteroid is to adopt the slogan “Don’t Look Up,” which they delight in because it triggers the libs. Their denial does not disappear. They don’t go “Oh shit, we’d better do something.” They’re locked into their position by that point, so their level of delusion actually escalates. They just completely sever their connection with reality.
I think we can see that Don’t Look Up got this right. In this hottest year ever, with the evidence of disaster now undeniable, do we see the Republican Party finally dropping its climate denial? No, quite the opposite. They are just as hell-bent as ever on destroying the totally inadequate and pitiful measures that have been taken to mitigate it. “It’s Called Summer” is their “Don’t Look Up.” They are actually developing a comprehensive plan to destroy all climate change policy in 2025 should they win back the White House. It doesn’t seem to matter that their kids and grandkids are going to have to inhabit the dried-out hellscape they are making. They know that fossil fuels built this country, scientists are a bunch of power-hungry bureaucrats, environmentalism is socialism, and oil is our future. These are absolutes in their worldview. They will not give them up even if they watch their own children collapse of heatstroke onto a burning pavement.
I have been speaking of the right, which is where I think we will see the total rupture with reality, because they are ideologically committed to such an extreme form of climate denial. But Democrats, too, will cling to their worldview even when the facts plainly undermine it. Some Democrats are joining with Republicans to protect the fossil fuel industry, because they believe in “American energy independence.” Some Democrats continue to stoke conflict with China even when we urgently need to heal the rift between our two countries in order to collaborate on the existential threat facing the world. Instead of our media organizations demanding lawmakers get off their asses and fix the problem, the Washington Post tells its readers they can “adapt” to heat (and calls this a “climate solution”), while the New York Times says that addressing climate change is something you can “do at home.” Some articles about extreme heat don’t even mention the cause of the disaster. As Jag Bhalla has documented in this magazine, many liberal experts vastly understate the peril we are in and refuse to confront the basic facts. We don’t even see our most progressive politicians showing leadership on the issue. They should be occupying buildings and leading marches. Laurence Fox’s rambling dramatic monologue got one thing right, which is that a lot of people say that they’re concerned about the climate emergency, but then don’t act like they’re concerned. As the crisis worsens year by year, the ice caps melt and the crops die, it’s going to be just as much the fault of the do-nothing Democrats as the “It’s Called Summer” Republicans. We have a Democratic administration that, astonishingly, continues to approve fossil fuel projects, refuses to declare a climate emergency, and declines to even mention fossil fuels. The “Inflation Reduction Act” that was supposedly so great for the climate was itself a “boon for the fossil fuel sector.” The last Democratic administration was, somehow, even worse.
We know the climate will continue to unravel. What I think is less understood is that we might see a kind of spiral into worse and worse mass delusion and “social insanity” at the same time, among those who cannot reconcile what needs to be done with their political ideology (a commitment to fossil fuels and corporate profit among Republicans, a commitment to incrementalism and corporate profit among Democrats). We’re going to see more crazy shit like “Greta Thunberg is a psyop.” It will be more and more important to remember Fromm’s dictum: just because a lot of people believe something that is false, doesn’t mean they’re sane. It is the responsibility of everyone who sees the plain facts to work to educate others, to help preserve sanity, to push the necessary action forward. As moral philosopher Henry Shue explains, we all have a heavy moral duty in our historical moment. It won’t be easy. Don’t underestimate the power of demagogues. The right could well win in 2024 on its “burn the whole planet” platform. Laurence Fox’s monologues may seem overwrought, corny, and mad, but great speechmakers can move people to acts of homicidal insanity, even if there’s almost no rational content to their words. We must stay sane, keep our priorities straight, and do our best to steer our species and our planet away from the abyss.