We spoke to Déborah Danowski about the newest versions of the phenomenon of denialism, about neo-Nazism in Brazil, and the confluence of small, seemingly unimportant factors in the origin of historical events.
a perfect storm: Your text “Denialisms” was written at the time of Bolsonaro’s election. Since then, another important denialism has emerged regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. What are the characteristics of this new version of the phenomenon?
Déborah Danowski: The sense of the term denialism that sparked my text was popularized by the French historian Henry Rousso in 1987, to refer to historians who called themselves revisionists of the Holocaust. Denialism was itself a characteristic of the Nazi regime, part of the machine’s method of operation, and showed itself in various ways, such as by the control of language in the camps and in official documents, the ways of hiding what was happening, and the haste to consummate the murders and hide the bodies. Denialism is entirely enmeshed with this huge crime of genocide, the Holocaust. But it existed before, and as the war ended, the disclosure of what had taken place precipitated a new one, the denialism of the historians who began to say that it did not happen, or that it didn’t happen exactly like that, or that the Jews were fueling a conspiracy theory to suit their interests, etc. Denialism has always been a political operation — we are talking about denialism, not negation; negation per se involves a whole other philosophical matter. But precisely because denialism is a negation of reality, it is, of course, a very complex problem. Which has different ways of appearing or not appearing, depending on the different points of view and characters at play. And, from there, a whole history of denialism is born, spawned from the establishment of the term négationnisme in French.
For the past few years, I have been trying to understand the denialism of global warming, and this made me return to the Holocaust. But I was suddenly hit by Bolsonaro. Or rather, by the Trump administration, and then by Bolsonaro’s, and by the spread of all these other denialisms. The first characteristic of negationism is its multiplicity. A second one, particularly remarkable in the denialism of the current pandemic, is the extent and speed of its diffusion. Suddenly everyone began talking about denialism: in the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry of COVID-19, or on the most viewed Brazilian TV channel, Globo. The denialists themselves say, “I am indeed a denialist” or “I am not a denialist.” So today denialism is within everyone’s reach: it spreads through the social networks — which, in Brazil, are of phenomenal importance. Everybody is now a potential agent for spreading denialism and fake news. Apart from this fact of diffusion, there has been a multiplication of types of denialism. The Bolsonaro era provides an exemplary case to think through what this phenomenon is, and how it can shed light on today’s world.
As I said before, the term was coined to name the attempt to falsify the history of the Holocaust. Clearly, this denialism was born already linked to the extreme right, as a practice by Nazi, post-Nazi, and neo-Nazi groups. We already suspected that Bolsonaro tended in this direction, and suddenly we see that he actually brings all of this together: the denialisms of the climate, of the civil-military dictatorship in Brazil, of the genocide of Indigenous peoples; the defense of the “theories” that the earth is flat, that vaccines are ineffective or even dangerous. And then, with the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry, we find out that there was a deliberate effort by the government, acting for example in association with private healthcare companies, to carry out experiments on treatments known to be ineffective, and causing the death of many people — as was the case of Prevent Senior and other healthcare providers. The relationship with Nazism was thus becoming clearer and clearer.
In the midst of it all, it seems hard to understand what is going on; but when you step back, it is possible to see a strong link, a thread that connects all of these denialisms.
Therefore, at the root of this denialism, there is a share of banal, petty interests — profiting from vaccines, selling chloroquine — combined with the idea that the poorest segment of the population is killable, and hence all the propaganda that it is possible to achieve herd immunity. That is, a very concrete interest, the intention of getting certain financial advantages and not committing financial resources to protect the population. And then we came to discover a really Nazi ideology behind Bolsonaro’s actions. Yesterday , in a hearing at the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry of COVID-19, we learned that the doctors at Prevent Senior were encouraged, or forced, to sing the company’s anthem on a daily basis. The lyrics are unbelievable: the company is indeed Nazi, or neo-Nazi — in any case, they are ardent admirers of that regime.
When we step back and look at it from some distance, we realize that this cannot be by chance. The first question is if Jair Bolsonaro has the capacity to think this out for himself. And indeed he cannot do a great deal of reflection on Brazil, or create a major ideology. He doesn’t have a plan. What he does have is an intent to destroy the institutions, to spread hatred — and it is all mixed with private interests involving his sons and other characters that operate at the level of petty corruption. This became clear in the case of his ex-wife, who led a corruption scheme while working as his assistant, or the private healthcare companies and their own financial interests. In the midst of it all, it seems hard to understand what is going on; but when you step back, it is possible to see a strong link, a thread that connects all of these denialisms. And it involves a Nazi or neo-Nazi ideology and practice, as we suspected at the beginning but could not say for certain.
aps: In a way, the refusal to be vaccinated already mirrors or resonates with other forms of denialism. But the rampant prescription of the so-called “COVID Kit” points to yet another denialist aspect. What can we think about these two sides, one that denies the vaccine and the other that affirms death itself through the implementation of illusory and harmful treatments?
DD: To deny, one must replace. When subtracting one part of reality, something else has to be put in its place. This is the perfect game: there is never a pure denial because a pure denial does not hold. In the Nazi extermination camps, there were posters signaling “bath here” or “water here”: people followed the signs and found dirty water. When people arrived at the camps, the officers would ask “who knows how to do this?”, and people raised their hands thinking that this might save them. But those were just evil doings, they led to nothing. They were also attempts to keep tempers under control, with false leads. In the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry of COVID-19, someone said that, besides economic interest, one of the reasons for prescribing chloroquine was to give people something to believe in, a false hope. Something that would make them believe that they were safe and that they could go to work, go on with their lives, open their stores. But it’s not really a plan, there was no elaborate plan.
There is a level at which that petty logic of small gains is at work. That is why the whole scene is so hard to grasp. Bolsonaro would not have the ability to design such a plan, nor would Paulo Guedes, the Minister of Economy. It turns out that the small actions and distributed advantages are slowly creating a framework. Chloroquine emerges somewhat by chance: it first appears in the article by French physician Didier Raoult recommending the use of the drug to combat Covid-19. If this article had not been accepted by the journal, what would change?
You never know which element will join others to become a major phenomenon. An interesting example is the research of Adriana Dias, who has for decades devoted herself to studying neo-Nazi groups in Brazil. She went back to her documents and realized that Bolsonaro had contact with these groups as far back as 2004, but she didn’t attach significance to this at the time. Of course, at that time Bolsonaro was a nobody. She was not mistaken in not giving importance to the fact, for it simply had no particular importance at that time. But we now see that the connection was already there.
It is very hard to keep track of how an event is formed, and the same thing happens with denialism. It reminds me of what Nietzsche said about the invention of high values and the beginning of great events, that they can be petty, derisive, unspeakable. Something enormous, solemn, sublime (but also, one might think, something terrible) can arise from things that, at the moment they occur, are either the opposite of the professed ideal, are unmentionable, or seem to have no particular importance: and, as Foucault would say, it is up to the genealogist, or the Nietzschean philosopher, to find those small relations of forces, of power, the denials, the lies that are hidden in their origin.
aps: There is something mysterious about neo-Nazism, about how certain decantings and outcroppings happen. The case of Prevent Senior may be emblematic of how fascist ideology persists as something diffuse, and not necessarily as a consistent political movement.
DD: Yes, it seems to come in waves. Adriana Dias has been talking about how these neo-Nazi groups have remained active in Brazil; more recently they have gained strength, and even more so after the election of Bolsonaro. The phenomenon remained half-dormant, but it never ceased to exist. It has always existed as a potential, a virtuality, everywhere. Something curious, in this regard, is that it was believed not to exist in Brazil. Brazil has been presented in the propaganda as a place where there are no hurricanes, no earthquakes, no wars (the Paraguayan War doesn’t count), and where Nazism and fascism have disappeared, just like the racism and Indigenous genocide that have always permeated our history.
It is hard to know when and what to pay attention to. Some years ago, Olavo de Carvalho was just an idiot who called himself a philosopher. He got a column in the newspaper O Globo: should one pay attention to that or not? What about the flat Earthers? They just put forward an apparently harmless, absurd conspiracy theory. But then this theory ends up being connected in some way with other elements. Conspiracy theories, especially in the United States, are a phenomenon with aspects just as interesting as they are terrifying: the impression is that the country could at any moment become the land of The Handmaid’s Tale. All it takes is one little thing, and before you know it you are living in another world.
A recent article by Rodrigo Nunes touches on an important point and adds another little piece to this picture. Conspiracy theories seem to proceed by recognizing a problem and then twisting the problem. For example, a problem in capitalism is recognized, but it is formulated as follows: “The problem with democracy is not the state colluding with big business and big capital, but the communists…” An issue is acknowledged and slightly displaced. The problem is rewritten as concerning something else, something that can never be achieved.
Why deny that the earth is spherical, deny the evolution of species, deny the Holocaust, deny global warming? There is a monstrous mass of evidence and explanations of global warming, ranging from temperature measurements, at the most empirical level, to models that are being confirmed — models of the past, such as those of the paleoclimate, and models of the future. There would be no room for denial, and yet mistrust persists.
Professional denialism is largely responsible for this situation. In each case, there is an industry actively working for denial. The fossil fuel industry acts to deny global warming in the same way that the big tobacco companies have long denied the well-established relationship between tobacco and cancer. These companies have learned much from Holocaust denialism. By raising some uncertainty in the very process of scientific knowledge, or by saying that there was doubt among scientists, the tobacco industry was able to delay the action against smoking by 50 years. Then there was the asbestos industry, but one could go on and mention sugar, pesticides, or flame retardants. The book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Orestes and Erik M. Conway retraces this whole path, finding the actual conspiracy behind the conspiracy theory.
Robert Kenner’s film of the same name focuses on an analogy between these techniques and how magic tricks are performed by professional illusionists to distract the audience. Each sector, each company, whether tobacco or fossil fuel, finds opportunities to delay measures and create the impression that there is no urgency. The population then gets the idea that something will be done to solve the problem. To a large extent, it is not that people are not facing the situation; there is also a heavy commercial investment behind denialism.
aps: You have claimed that our lifestyle will change, will have to change, either because of a catastrophic effect of climate change or because we will need to adapt to it and anticipate it. To what extent does the reception to this argument involve some degree of denialism?
DD: The term “cognitive dissonance” was coined by Leon Festinger after a study of members of a sect in the United States who thought that the world would end and only they would be saved. The world did not end on the scheduled date. The sect members, instead of recognizing that the rest of the world was right, claimed that the world did not end because of their own actions. Reality is transformed, and this can take place backward in time (“the world did not end because….”), or it can be a displacement of ideas in the present itself.
Another interesting idea to think about is the so-called “five stages of grief”: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Individual solutions to the problem of global warming fit into the bargaining stage. It’s a thought such as, “if I stop smoking, will my cancer go away?” People try to negotiate, try to find some way out. In conversations with my students about global warming, I notice these different stages. Sometimes they react with anger, sometimes they seem depressed. Of course, this would not account for the whole phenomenon of denialism, no attempt at explanation seems capable of that. But there is something that these stages seem capable of describing. I just don’t think that everything necessarily proceeds in order, as if in the end everything will stabilize in acceptance.
If we think of the reaction to climate change as a mourning process, it would not necessarily be related to death, or at least not to individual death. Perhaps it is a mourning for the death of our current lifestyle, a recognition that there is no negotiation possible. Isabelle Stengers wrote that there is no sense in composing with capitalism; it is only possible to negotiate with capitalism. And conversely, negotiating with Gaia is meaningless; it is only possible to compose with Gaia. Perhaps our mourning is for modernity, or for progress, in addition to the mourning for dead animals, plants, and people. Perhaps all of this goes together.
It is possible to find different characteristics of this mourning process, and of the forms of negation that it encompasses, in different groups. There are several means of denial described by psychoanalysis: Verneinung, Verdrängung, Verleugnen. Behind each of these is a psychic mechanism, and associated psychic disturbances. Such psychic mechanisms can help us to understand mechanisms of denial, not only individual and subjective but also social.
aps: At the beginning of Ends of the World, you and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro make a reference to the famous “no future” of the punk movement. Does the very idea of the future as we conceive it (of timeline and progress, economic growth, evolution, etc.) contribute to climate collapse? Paradoxically, perhaps now is the time when we can least abandon it…
DD: It is possible to think of temporality differently, in a way that does not involve an arrow of time. If we start from Deleuze’s notion of event, we can think of the present itself as something that is continuously becoming. The present is conjugated by becoming. There is an event that renews itself all the time.
Arun Saldanha says the following: “[…] the people is a potentiality of the population itself, insofar as the latter is a heterogeneous multiplicity that is yielding becomings-minoritarian as expressed in art and philosophy. The to-come is already coming, not forever deferred as in messianism.” I believe we can think of the present itself as a time that does not cease to come. I see a problem in trying to discard the idea of the future. Without the future, we are left only with facts, and with destruction. But if there is something such as a permanent virtuality, constantly happening, this prevents you from paralyzing thought and action. Otherwise, there is no way out, neither by thinking in a distant future, in the Kingdom, nor in the total absence of a future, which would be death, the end of the world itself. Perhaps, then, instead of changing the notion of the future, we need to change the notion of the present.
If we keep the modern idea of the future, we will remain with the conception of temporality as an arrow of time. I don’t usually believe in proposals that discard ideas; it is not a matter of discarding the future, but perhaps of not insisting on the idea. Then we avoid the dead-end that is to find a notion of future different from the modern one, a notion that would allow another way of living. Maybe it would be enough to think of the present in a different way. The present time, and the present space. There would be no opposition between space as something already given and time as that which promises what is not given — an opposition that also defines Modernity. For example, the discovery of the New World is processed as the opening of a new space of possible action, and the future appears concurrently as another kind of promise. These are two promises of Modernity. One of them is certainly over, since there is no other new world to be discovered, from a spatial point of view. On the other hand, the future suddenly appears to us as possibly ending, as we reach the end of the world. The future may not come to pass. This creates an impossibility of thinking and living.
We can otherwise think of a different conception of space, taken as inseparable from time. I am thinking here of the Deleuzian images of nomadic space and smooth space, which has its own temporalities, and its own speeds, infinite speeds, as he says. With the arrow of time, Modernity has created the notions of progress, of ascendancy, and of Human History, that also depend on a notion of space (a striated space) and, at the same time, on the promise that there will always be space to continue producing, space for modernity to throw its garbage on. Will it be possible now to dump our garbage on the moon? Billionaires like Elon Musk fall into this conceptual trap of looking for other spaces since there is no space left here on earth. It may not be possible to get out of this trap while maintaining the modern concepts of time and space. In the case of billionaires planning the conquest of space, there is a negation of our spatial finitude and our temporal finitude. The fact that we are also subject to death, that the human species can end — a realization that is both spatial and temporal — seems to be completely absent.
Interview by Camila Caux and Eric Macedo