BOB GARFIELD Now, when it comes to nourishing paranoia beliefs through pop culture, one of the most iconic works would have to be the 1999 sci-fi political parable "The Matrix."
[CLIP OF THE MATRIX].
BOB GARFIELD The Matrix is not a complicated story. A computer hacker, Neo, played by the ever effervescent Keanu Reeves, journeys into a reality he didn't know existed and must battle the system of machines controlling all of humanity. The plot of the movie hinges around a choice neo makes to take a red pill and to wake up from his blissful ignorance.
[CLIP OF THE MATRIX]
LAURENCE FISHBURNE AS MORPHEUS You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole comes. Remember. All I'm offering is the truth nothing more. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Truth. Not a trivial promise. Max Read is a writer and editor at New York Magazine and a frequent viewer of "The Matrix.".
MAX READ A scholar of The Matrix.
BOB GARFIELD Haha.
BOB GARFIELD So what's red pilling in the movie exactly? And what has it come to signify?
MAX READ At this point probably the most famous scene in the movie is the scene when Morpheus, the kind of, sage profit hacker approaches Neo, our protagonist, and essentially implies that there's a big secret that he's got.
[CLIP OF THE MATRIX]
LAURENCE FISHBURNE AS MORPHEUS The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window. Or when you turn on your television. You can feel it. When you go to work. When you go to church. When you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Now if you ask me. It's just a movie version of the Illuminati, black helicopters, that deep state and other silly reductive notions of sheeple in the thrall of unseeable malign forces.
MAX READ I mean, I would go even further back then black helicopters and Illuminati all the way to the second or third centuries A.D. I mean, what this is essentially is Gnosticism, which is a religious movement that arose originally a couple of hundred years after the birth of Christ that offers almost exactly the same proposal that the Matrix does, just they didn't have gel caps then so there weren't pills. But the idea is that there is this truth it's hidden from the, as you say, the sheeple.
[CLIP OF THE MATRIX]
LAURENCE FISHBURNE AS MORPHEUS You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up. Ironically, this is not far from the truth. [END CLIP]
MAX READ You know if you are adequately intelligent, if you are a truth seeker, if you are one of the chosen people, you can see that truth and you can seize it. And the Internet has really seized on this as a particular kind of way of thinking about and looking at the world. In particular, YouTube has this real affection for red pilling as a concept and as a paradigm.
MALE CORRESPONDENT The question is what does it mean to be red pilled in today's society? Well, quite simply, it means that you no longer believe the mainstream narrative in so far as events are concerned. And instead look for yourself for an actual explanation as to what's going on. [END CLIP]
MAX READ You know if if you watch the news this week you might have seen the congressional hearings about white nationalism on social media and a woman named Candace Owens was speaking.
CANDACE OWENS They blame Facebook, They blame Google, they blame Twitter, really they blame the birth of social media which has disrupted their monopoly on minds. They call this hearing because they believe that if it wasn't for social media voices like mine would never exist. [END CLIP]
MAX READ She spent a lot of time making YouTube videos. I believe the title of her channel was Red Pill Black.
CANDACE OWENS I want to be very clear on the takeaway here. Left thinks black people are stupid. [END CLIP]
MAX READ And her idea was that black Americans are being blue pilled into following Democrats and they need to be red pilled to awaken to the truth. The Democrats are bad for African-Americans and that Republicans would be much better. You know, by and large red pilling has a sort of conservative a right wing tinge online. Maybe the most famous instance is there's a forum on Reddit called just the red pill. In this case red pilling is discovering that feminism is a lie that's allowing women to take advantage of a bunch of poor 14 year old boys who are being lulled into complacency. But it doesn't necessarily have to be right wing, you know, when I wrote a column about this I looked into it and I found veganism was a red pill to a blue pill of some other diet. Anytime you feel like you are the sort of rebel speaking truth to power and especially speaking truth to power that is hidden that people can't see or understand, you might think of yourself as a kind of red pill warrior.
BOB GARFIELD I don't want to lied too quickly over that sub Reddit, the red pill, because it's pretty vile. This is one of the foundational elements of the alt-right, the anti feminist, misogynist, supposed men's right cohort and for them red pilling can get positively violent. No?
MAX READ Yeah absolutely. One thing to think about is, if you take the logic of red pilling to its absolute conclusion, you know, as the matrix itself kind of demonstrates, you become justified to take whatever action is necessary to wake people up from their sort of status as sheeple.
[CLIP OF THE MATRIX]
LAURENCE FISHBURNE AS MORPHEUS The Matrix is a computer generated dream world built to keep us under control. [END CLIP]
MAX READ So you know it becomes a place where other people are dehumanised, where other people are understood to be slaves or zombies or not understanding. And I don't think that The Matrix itself makes people violent. I don't think that even thinking this way is a guarantor that people are going to act violently or negatively. But you can certainly see how, if you are disturbed yourself, if your unhinged, if you are alienated and otherwise sort of on the fringes, that taking up a philosophy that tells you that you're the only person who gets it is going to lead you down some very dark paths.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT What is it about the online universe that allows this kind of pseudo philosophy to flourish?
MAX READ The structure of YouTube is such that you sign on to watch influencers and vloggers and YouTuber talk to you about their days, their worlds, to react to the news.
MALE CORRESPONDENT This very channel is called Coach Red Pill. Why do you think it is? It’s because I am telling you things that I know that are radically different from what the mainstream is saying. [END CLIP]
MAX READ And you develop what researchers call para-social relationships with these people. Where you have this kind of paradoxical distant intimacy with them, where you know them really well, where they're uploading videos once or twice a day, two or three times a day.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT As many of you guys know with my dog, Mr. Marbles, who is a chihuahua--[END CLIP]
MAX READ They feel like friends, they feel like people who are giving it to straight as compared to the sort of boring institutional newspapers or magazines that have this kind of mediated view on the world.
BOB GARFIELD But there’s also, you know, reality because concentrated power in politics and Wall Street aren't delusions. The Matrix came out in 1999. Pretty soon, because of actual events, it would be seen as especially prophetic.
MAX READ Yeah if you think of yourself as a sophisticated consumer of the news, I'd never fall for this red pilling stuff, you have to remember that the media has failed over and over and over again over the last several decades. Representative government has failed. A lot of the institutions that we think of as representing us and representing the world who us have not done their jobs. So there is sort of an open marketplace for people who can speak directly in a way that makes sense, that is comforting. I think you don't just see this in YouTube because I think you see this in the White House right now.
BOB GARFIELD What about Trump himself?
MAX READ Yeah. I mean, I think a huge part of the president's appeal to people who vote for him is the sense that he is a knowable person because you don't ever feel like you are getting something different when he is speaking in the dark smoke filled rooms versus when he's out there on stage. I mean, I think thats the exact same appeal of YouTubers. You have people like Trump or like PewDiePie or like Jake or Logan Paul, the people whose relationship to their viewers one way of putting it is that they derive their authority from charisma rather than from appeals to fact or empirical reporting. That it's really all about the kind of personal relationships that they build with people and those personal relationships make them seem trustworthy in ways that it's much harder for big institutions to maintain.
BOB GARFIELD So you know when you watch in pharma commercials and this is going to cure or treat such and such disorder and then come the disclaimers and say that if you take this you're almost certainly going to start bleeding through the eyes and your brain is going to melt and you're going to have sexual dysfunction and you're going to die.
MAX READ Haha.
BOB GARFIELD What's the disclaimer for the red pill?
MAX READ Well I mean, look in the context of The Matrix, itself the disclaimer is the red pill has hard. That you don't want to know the truth because the truth is going to be difficult. You now know how bad things really are. You now are obligated to fight against, you know, the bad guys. I think in the context of the real world, if you red pill yourself, you know, you get socially isolated. That's certainly one of the side effects because you're going to become almost insufferable to spend time with for most people. You are going to become obsessed with conspiracy theories and the ways in which the world has wronged you. You're going to spend way too much time online almost certainly. And you know, worst case scenario you're going to end up friendless and alone.
BOB GARFIELD Friendless and alone I think, I think I'll just take the erectile dysfunction to tell you the truth.
MAX READ Haha.
BOB GARFIELD Max, thank you very much.
MAX READ Thank you so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Max Read as a writer and editor at New York Magazine.
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BOB GARFIELD Coming up, the prince of darkness or maybe just Earl of darkness. Steve Bannon the movie. This is On The Media.