The Battle of the Thames

Back in the Summer of 2016, on June 15th, a naval engagement took place on the Thames. Boats left Ramsgate at 3am and Southend at 6am, heading towards Tower Bridge. Other vessels came from Brixham, Berwick, and Faversham, even some from Scotland. The fleet was prevented passing the Thames Barrier by the Harbour Master, who only allowed through four large boats and eight smaller ones, leaving about twenty behind. By the afternoon the fleet had reached central London, led by Edwardian, a “luxurious river cruiser”, where they were ambushed.

The admiral of the fishing fleet was Nigel Farage, leading boats assembled by Fishing for Leave. Leading the counter-demonstrators on a ‘party boat’ was Bob Geldof. His boat had a large sound system and kept playing a thirty second snippet of classic song ‘The In Crowd’. Again and again. Among the other vessels in this group were ones captained by Charlotte Church and Rachel Johnson, sister to Leave politician Boris.

On his flagship, Farage’s discussions with journalists were drowned out by Geldof, who attacked the UKIP politician’s record, accusing him of being a fraud. He pointed out that when Farage was on the European Parliament Fishing Committee, he attended one out of 43 meetings.

Farage was unimpressed with Geldof’s response to the fishermen. “It’s just insulting to these people. Some of these lads have come from the north of Scotland, communities… where we have seen tens of thousands of jobs lost and a way of life destroyed, and they come here to make their protest and be heard, and they get a multimillionaire laughing at them.”

And, to be fair, Geldof was not the best placed person to be leading the Remain fleet, given his interesting and complicated tax affairs . And raising two fingers at the fishermen and telling them to ‘fuck off’ was not a good look.  A group of activists left Geldof’s boat because of this, with one saying “these fishermen were working-class people with genuine issues and we didn’t think they should be erased by Bob Geldof”

The police did their best to prevent an actual battle. Water cannons were sprayed by the fishermen at their opposition. And Geldof’s boat came under direct attack. In the Guardian’s account of the battle, they wrote “Richard Eves, a fisherman from Leigh-on-Sea, decided to launch a boarding raid on Geldof’s boat using his rusty trawler Wayward Lad… ‘We threatened to ram them first and then they let us on,’ he said afterwards. ‘They shit themselves. I was angry.’”

The Vice magazine article on this is a work of genius, and includes reports of “a spy boat, a secret In boat in with the Out flotilla, which will do a heel-turn somewhere around the Thames Barrier and unfurl “In” banners in amongst the Out fisherman

The engagement is most remarkable for how shambolic it was. The sight of two rival groups shouting at one another, while not really engaging was representative of the whole Brexit campaign. Arron Bank was on the Edwardian and described the event as “Traflagar meets wacky races”. According to his book, Bad Boys of Brexit, he bankrolled the Leave Fleet to the cost of 10,000 a boat, or 250,000 for a fleet of 70.

A map even appeared on social media, showing the battle:

According to Maria Pretzler, the image was based on a diagram of the Battle of Lowestoft.

One of the jokes abut the post-referendum period is that a lot of people have suddenly become experts on customs unions. These were barely discussed in the run up to the referendum. No, we had more important things to be talking about.

Who needs fake news when the real news is so poor?

Does Operation Mindfuck need Operation Mindfix?

I wrote a little yesterday about Operation Mindfuck, a Discordian disinformation campaign with good intentions. As John Higgs described it, “The aim of Operation Mindfuck was to lead people into such a heightened sense of bewilderment and confusion that their rigid beliefs would shatter and be replaced by some form of enlightenment.” The main technique used for this was contradictory stories being placed in the media.

Nowadays, we live in a media environment filled with contradictory stories. The same event can be spun in different ways according to the views of each side. The response of many people to this is to retreat further back into their own prejudices. Psychological experiments have shown that even retractions of lies do not help:

Colleen Seifert, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, found that even retracted information—that we acknowledge has been retracted—can continue to influence our judgments and decisions… This means that when the New York Times, or any other publication, runs a headline like “Trump Claims, With No Evidence, That ‘Millions of People Voted Illegally,’” it perversely reinforces the very claim it means to debunk.

(It’s interesting that certain groups are pre-disposed to reject disinformation. One of the teens in Veles, who ran fake news sites for the 2016 US election, didn’t bother making stories for Sanders supporters: “They don’t believe anything. The post must have proof for them to believe it.”)

Operation Mindfuck appears to have run aground. This playful strategy for making the world a better place seems to have no place in a world where disinformation is common.

(It’s worth saying that Operation Mindfuck is very different to propaganda. Most political lies are made with the aim of furthering a particular goal, rather than undermining belief. However, as discussed yesterday, there are politicians using nihilistic strategies very similar to this).

In January 2017, John Higgs wrote a blog post entitled For Robert Anton Wilson’s Birthday – some words on Operation Mindfix . This discussed the idea that “if  you take the long term, pragmatic view, it could be that the use of Operation Mindfuck techniques in this way are, essentially, a trap.

Higgs compared the state of modern politics to Robert Anton Wilson’s concept of Chapel Perilous, but saw some optimistic developments coming. The designer Amoeba (who worked on the graphics for Cosmic Trigger) had used the hashtag #operationmindfix while suggesting people take more care about what they post. Higgs wrote that “Operation Mindfuck is over for Discordians because it is unnecessary in the post-2016 world. From now on, the ongoing work can be considered part of Operation Mindfix

Daisy Campbell spoke about Operation Mindfix in the Mysterium book, released in October 2017: “Operation Mindfuck failed. Perhaps it’s time to implement operation Mindfix and bring a little objectivity back.

Another response to Project Mindfix came from Dolly Turing. They questioned the idea of fixing minds, and said that to equate fake news and operation mindfuck “completely seems to miss so many layers of possibility, imagination and dimensionality. The most expansive and terrifying and exciting parts of these things… and the silliest and most fun ones.

The question is, if Operation Mindfuck is insufficient in the current climate, what does come next? As Cat Vincent tweeted way back in October 2016, “The Right basically stole Operation Mindfuck from us, weaponised postmodernism. The Discordian response is evolving…

The John Higgs post has some other suggestions beyond Operation Mindfix.

It needs the coming together of people in the real world, because empathy is rarely found online… It understands that social media can be used for finding those who chime with us but that there is no point in using it to shout at the different… It involves the virtuous circle of people being inspired by people being inspired. It centres of [sic] the understanding that meaning exists, but it needs to be self-generated.

In the year-and-a-half since that post was written, the response seems to have evolved beyond Operation Mindfix to something new. And events such as this weekend’s Catch 23 are a part of that, a chance for people to come together in the real world.

More on Discordianism

I’ve been writing a series of posts about discordianism which will be the background to the this pamphlet on Brexit and hiking. The first part, Thatcher in the Rye, is available online.

The Tragic Success of Operation Mindfuck

With  Discordianism, Kerry Thornley and Greg Hill wanted to spread confusion. They created an overtly self-contradicting ‘religion’, with the aim of amusing people while making them question their assumptions. The ideas spread during the sixties, mainly through underground media and the mail, writing about new anarchist systems and inventing conspiracy theories.

One idea they spread was that of the Illuminati. This was a secret society, based on a real organisation founded in 1776 to spread enlightenment ideals. Contrary to historical accounts, it was claimed the group had continued in secret to the present day. This idea has become a major part of modern culture, appearing in the works of Dan Brown, hip-hop etc.

Among the early Discordians were Robert Anton Wilson and Bob Shea, who were working as editors at Playboy Magazine. They were drawn into the movement through various odd pieces of mail, which they replied to. Wilson began messing with his readers by publishing as many of these often contradictory stories as he could.

Wilson says he did not consider this a prank or hoax but “guerrilla ontology”.  He became increasingly exasperated with the fixed views on both the right and left of politics and wanted people to question the information they received, and to stop seeing their beliefs as inherently true. This ongoing mission of disinformation, of anti-propaganda, was named Operation Mindfuck. As John Higgs put it in an article for Darklore Magazine “The aim of Operation Mindfuck was to lead people into such a heightened sense of bewilderment and confusion that their rigid beliefs would shatter and be replaced by some form of enlightenment.”

Over time, the operation grew, with Wilson and his associates beginning to receive letters from outside their group (as far as they could tell –  although they were becoming sceptical of everything).

Now, almost 50 years later, it appears as if Operation Mindfuck is present all around us. We are deluged with contradictory information. Both sides in the recent referendum marshalled statistics, facts and arguments to show how their side was correct. Without a decent amount of political and economic knowledge, there was no way to pick them apart. Rumours were reported as news, and those reports became news elsewhere. Truth became devalued in an era of fake news.

This has not gone entirely well. As John Higgs wrote about the results of Operation Mindfuck in January 2017, “the ideas behind Operation Mindfuck have since become a tool for those with a lust for political power, most blatantly Putin’s advisor Vladislav Surkov”. John linked to a short Adam Curtis film looking at Surkov’s career:

A Russian politician, Surkov came from the world of avant garde art to use the ideas of conceptual art in politics. He would sponsor various different groups and organisations, some of which were working directly against him. He then revealed this was happening, “a strategy of power that keeps any opposition hopelessly confused“. Like the Discordians, Surkov didn’t aim to put forward any particular worldview, rather to bewilder and confuse his opposition. As the economist magazine described it:

As the political mastermind for Vladimir Putin for most of the 2000s, Mr Surkov engineered a system of make-believe that worked devilishly well in the real world. Russia was a land of imitation political parties, stage-managed media and fake social movements, undergirded by the post-modern sense that nothing was genuine.

Operation Mindfuck began as a playful and active response to the world. Now it has been taken to its logical extreme in an increasingly dystopian world. Which raised the question: what next?