Recently, Adam Lewental wrote an article for Salon, in which he alleged that Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is somehow linked to the rise of QAnon. While in ordinary years, it seems odd that anyone would have to write a response to this, 2020 has been no ordinary year. At the moment, I am bored and have nothing better to do with my time than writing. I guess I might as well respond, for there is a lot here to respond to.
It has often been said in various forms, even before the succinct phrasing of Carl Sagan I give here, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. “Dan Brown turned my parents into QAnoners” is an extraordinary claim, and as such requires extraordinary evidence to prove. Unfortunately, the evidence that Lewental provides is not only not extraordinary, but rather poor, mainly being a list of ostensible similarities between the plot of Dan Brown’s novel and the ramblings that comprise the QAnon conspiracy, together with completely unsubstantiated statements claiming a causal connection. Furthermore, Lewental makes some rather generous assumptions and more than a few leaps in logic, and many of his statements are rather troubling on close inspection.
Lewental opens with a correct (if quick) description of QAnon’s basic defining beliefs—a description which no sane person could have any serious complaint about—and the somewhat less verifiable assertion that QAnon “continues to accrue members at an alarming rate”. Lewental mentions “[a] recent article” stating that one-third of Republicans believe QAnon “has merit”. While Lewental does not link to this article, it appears to be one describing the results of this poll from September 2020 which in one of its questions asked Republicans about their beliefs regarding the veracity of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Lewental’s next passage, unfortunately, is not so airtight:
“How can so many disregard the clear and obvious facts printed in mainstream media in order to believe in an improbably vast conspiracy? For the same reasons that they fell in love with “The Da Vinci Code” 17 years ago. A palace intrigue of epic proportions. Codes and puzzles hidden in plain sight, with a a mysterious man acting as the augur. A shadowy organization involved in dark rituals with global stakes. And you, reader, are breathlessly tasked with solving the riddle in real time, using the clues, your natural intuition, and perhaps your internet search engine of choice.”
Here is the first problem with both this passage and Lewental’s argument as a whole: similarities aside, Dan Brown was neither the first to use such ideas in literature, nor the most famous. Other people have released media with similarities to QAnon thought patterns, and some of this media is of equal or greater cultural impact than Dan Brown’s novel:
National Treasure — more conspiracies and puzzles and riddles, but more America-centered, and probably vastly higher-profile than Dan Brown’s novels.
The Bible Code — not as high-profile, but popular among fundamentalist Christians, whose membership coincides heavily with QAnon believers, and which also is an ostensibly non-fictional work which requires at least a little work involving statistics and probability to debunk properly.
Ancient Aliens — conspiracy theories about aliens mixed with misrepresentations of science and archaeology.
Left Behind — bad Christian eschatology mixed with global government conspiracies and other nonsense, also targeted to the aforementioned QAnon-prone audience of fundamentalist Christians.
Another problem is the issue of blame. Dan Brown’s work (unlike some of the works I have just mentioned) is fiction. If some people who are unable to distinguish between fiction and reality, end up believing an explicitly fictional work, the blame lies with whatever caused those people to lose that distinction, not the author of said work.
Lewenthal later writes:
“Beyond that, Dan Brown asked plausible questions about familiar aspects of Western culture. Take, for instance, the lady on the iconic cover: I dare you to name a more renowned painting than the Mona Lisa. With a few pieces of obscure trivia or alleged historical interpretations, he could make compelling arguments that "things aren’t always what they seem," especially when it comes to Catholicism. This struck me hard: a teenage boy trying to reconcile my own lack of faith within a pervasively theistic culture, as well as a burgeoning alienation from a power structure that seemed so self-serving. As my fiancée put it, "I think . . . I think Dan Brown taught me critical thinking."”
First, being taught critical thinking by a novelist is neither normal or desirable, and is not something I myself would like to hear on a date, let alone someone I was planning to marry. Second, the degree to which an argument is compelling or emotionally moving, or to which it resonates with one’s own personal circumstances, has no bearing on its veracity or plausibility, and I find the fact that the words “compelling” and “critical thinking” are in the same paragraph to be less-than-favorable indications of the author’s own logical abilities.
After discussing the resounding success of Brown’s novel, Lewental discusses something I completely agree with: the fact that said novel is, from a literary standpoint, trash. Lewental discusses the issues that occur on every level, from the quality of the writing itself, to the ridiculous plot, to the pacing; all of which are major issues, and all of which have been noted time and time again by other people online and in print. Lewenthal closes this string of on-point remarks with a paragraph in which he expresses confusion as to why the book became so popular:
“What confused me is how "The Da Vinci Code" became a cultural phenomenon in its own right … Take "Harry Potter," … I think you’d be hard pressed to find a primer on traditional English magic practices with any of your friends’ copies of "Harry Potter." Of course "Harry Potter" spun up a cottage industry of its own, but these were all dedicated to the world J.K. Rowling built, not the one she referenced. If "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" didn’t feature the guy’s name in the title … there would have been as much interest in it as in any "Harry Potter" fan fiction, which is to say, marginal and within a very specific community of "Harry Potter" fans. Yet the lowercase "Da Vinci code" became a standalone icon – the very idea that the art and institutions around us are filled with clues that have secret meanings (look at the eye on the dollar bill!). Dan Brown was just a cipher. …”
Here’s a question with a very similar answer to the one Lewental asks in the first sentence: why were Independence Day or Armageddon popular movies, if they were such trash as cinema? It’s not because they are good cinema or perceived as documentaries accurately describing reality; it’s because they are escapist popcorn flicks. The same thing applies to The Da Vinci Code.
Here Lewental goes from finding similarities to making unsubstantiated causal assertions. Aside from failing to demostrate that Dan Brown was not relevant to the success of his own work, or that any proportion of fans took the work as being more than a well-researched piece of fiction. Thus, when Lewental says “We still bought into the idea that Dan Brown’s book revealed some sort of truth”, his “we” seems to be a stand-in for “Lewental and his parents”; in any case, it does not include myself or my parents; and in particular does not include my mother, who, despite being a Baby Boomer who thoroughly enjoyed Dan Brown’s novel, voted for Biden (and for Clinton before that) and rightly sees QAnon as the insane nonsense it is.
Additionally, having read parts of Brown’s novel (up to a point, as it is bad) and having seen the movie, and given that, to the best of my knowledge, the prequel does not feature the Illuminati as being an extant organization, I feel confident in remarking about the fact that it seems that Lewental misattributed the mention of the “all-seeing eye” / Illuminati link as being from Dan Brown’s work, presumably having seen it either from National Treasure’s opening scene or having found it elsewhere. This is a lesser but still rather sloppy mistake, and Lewental should be more careful when relying on memory.
Lewental continues to speculate that two factors—the marketing campaign for the book and the rise of Google as a source for information—were to blame for Brown’s work planting the thought patterns that would later give rise to QAnon. To call the first of these claims speculative would be an understatement: there is little if anything in terms of scholarly research to justify it. The second (the one regarding Google and misinformation) does merit research — there have been studies of older generations and their susceptibility to misinformation online — but it does not in itself involve Dan Brown, and so would not validate the author’s claims even if there was a causal link.
Lewental closes with a line in which he suggests that Dan Brown should come out with a statement regarding the connection the article has purported to demonstrate. I close this article with the following notion in response: blaming fiction for QAnon is akin to blaming violent video games for real-world violence; it is a tempting, easy, and comforting explanation that in the end has little, if any, ultimate bearing in reality and does nothing except raise the specter of censoring art to placate misplaced fears while letting actual issues go unaddressed. If one wants to find a cause, one would be better off looking into the cultural institutions that are taken seriously by, and which actually influence, QAnon adherents — educational systems, political movements, and religious congregations among them — and examining how these may have affected their users’ ability to discriminate between fiction and reality.