The Baader–Meinhof phenomenon. I had to do a bit of reverse engineering to arrive at the phrase, but it’s a term used in psychology to describe the experience of, say, learning a new word and then suddenly seeing that word everywhere. It’s also called the frequency illusion, a name that, while lamentably less impressive and Germanic than Baader–Meinhof, at least has the benefit of clearing up its meaning. By calling it an illusion, the implication is that what’s changed in learning a new word or in studying up on a new model of car that you might one day purchase is not the actual environment you inhabit, but your awareness of that environment. It’s not that the word bumfuzzle is literally appearing more often in your day-to-day life. It’s just that you know to look for it.
I went searching for this phrase because lately I’ve been having a similar experience and wanted to know what to call it. In my case, the word is “looter,” as well as its derivatives, and although it’s not the case that I just learned what the word means, it is true that I have been paying more attention to it. Nevertheless, against the advice of psychologists (or at least of Wikipedia and the various websites I consulted while researching for this post), I’m not convinced that looter’s increased presence in my life is the result of a newly expanded horizon of awareness.
I encountered the word most recently in an article published by The Guardian. Written by Jason Wilson, the news story traces the on-the-ground consequences of conspiracy theories that, in the last few weeks, have gained traction in response to the devastating forest fires now burning through the west coast. A proxy for the U.S.’s larger political and culture wars, these conspiracy theories do what just about all conspiracy theories do: they swap out less spectacular and harder-to-narrativize explanations for the cheap but sexy thrills of paranoia and easy blame. So it’s not—or at least it’s not just—droughts, heat waves, and lightning strikes that have caused the fires. Nor is it (just) the way that these droughts, heat waves, and lightning strikes have been compounded by the increasingly certain uncertainty of weather under global warming, which is itself inextricable from centuries of fossil-fuel economies; the racialized theft of bodies, labor, and land; and the so-called “developed” world’s fundamentally extractive relation to the planet.
No, it’s the Proud Boys that did it.
In any case, the article goes on to highlight how these conspiracy theories have complicated rescue and evacuation efforts in Oregon. Meanwhile, bracketing Wilson’s reporting is the terrifying story of a photojournalist named Nathan Howard, who was run out of town—at gunpoint—by militia-types who’d become convinced he was a “looter.” And in case that word should strike anyone as coincidental, it’s not. The word also figures prominently in Wilson’s follow-up article on the surging presence of militias in Oregon. This second article was published a few days after the first; it’s from that article (and from photographer Robyn Beck particularly) that I borrowed the cover photo for this essay.
Yet it’s not just in these articles that I’ve run afoul of the word looting. Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “to plunder, sack,” to loot implies a military endeavor. Looting is something that brigands do. It’s something that empires do. Spotlighting the violence that ultimately underlies all our many and often silly adjudications about who gets to own what, looting names the theft that a conquering people enacts against a conquered people. Yet, oddly, it’s not that definition that the armed men in Wilson’s article seemed to evoke when they accosted that photojournalist on the side of the road. If anything, their use of the word more closely aligns with the parlance of today’s talking heads and Very Concerned White Citizens, who trot it out whenever they want to decry Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland or in Milwaukee or in Chicago.
Or, before that, in Ferguson circa 2014.
Or, before that, in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Or, before that … and so on.
The racialization of the word is, I hope, hard to miss. And so too should be the perverse projection it entails. By transforming a population that has been—and continues to be—marked out for plunder and looting into agents of plunder and looting, the racialization of looter serves, in reality, as justification for further plunder. For a prison-industrial complex that is hellbent on reducing bodies into profit. Or for police crackdowns that would sooner break bodies, and break more bodies, than submit to abolishment or reform. Or for a long and ongoing history of predatory housing practices and redlining that has not only stolen Black wealth but has also contributed to the continued immiseration of many Black people.
And even that’s not all of it.
For there’s one other place where, recently, I’ve encountered the word looting. It was in my research for my dissertation. Specifically, it was in my research for a chapter on survivalism and disaster-preparedness at the turn of the millennium—a chapter that, in particular, brought me into the orbit of a white survivalist named James Wesley, Rawles and of his postapocalyptic novel Patriots: Surviving the Coming Collapse (1999). A story that imagines the fallout of a global economic catastrophe, the novel features gems like this one: “[T]hese federals are no better than looters.”
And like this one: “There’s nothing lower than looters.”
Indeed, there are three things that merit summary execution by the novel’s heroic protagonists, a group of survivalists holed up in a retreat on stolen (indeed, looted) land in rural Idaho. Cannibalism is one. Rape is the second. And looting is the third.
So. What then? What should we—what should I—make of looting’s apparent resurgence within the lexical ecologies I inhabit? Is it just, as the Baader–Meinhof phenomenon would suggest, a product of my own heightened awareness? Consistent with the misapprehension at the heart of the frequency illusion, is it merely the consequence of some newfound sensitivity of mine to a word—to one word that among a near-infinity of possible words attracted my attention?
Or might it not be something else?
Might it not be a reflection—unintended, perhaps—of the contingency that makes possible the present? Might it not be an index of that oft-denied, oft-disavowed contingency that underwrites so much of the injustice and plunder and looting that defines this present? That defines our present?
The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
For my part, I hope it is the latter possibility. For God’s sake, for Christ’s sake, I pray it is the latter.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.