If you happened to be thinking that the one thing the tumultuous year of 2020 has been missing is arguments over demon sperm, then all I can say to you is this: I’ve got good news.
Enter Dr Stella Immanuel. A Houston-based pediatrician and pastor of a church called Fire Power Ministries, Immanuel made internet history on Monday after she spoke on the steps of the US supreme court with a group of rightwing physicians who refer to themselves as America’s Frontline Doctors. (The group is supported by the conservative Tea Party Patriots.) In comments that were live-streamed by the far-right Breitbart News, Immanuel brashly stated that “Covid has a cure” in hydroxychloroquine, a claim that has been roundly rejected by the medical establishment. She also said that, with hydroxychloroquine, she can “stop Covid in its tracks in 30 days”. Then she invited the world to look her up.
And look her up is exactly what the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer did. It turns out that the good doctor has some views that have not, shall we say, been endorsed by the American Medical Association. Sommer read her articles posted on her website, and watched her YouTube sermons, to discover that Dr Immanuel believes that serious gynecological problems are caused by women having sex with “spirit husbands” (ie demons) while the women are in their dreamworlds. Sommer explains Immanuel’s views this way: “Real-life ailments such as fibroid tumors and cysts stem from the demonic sperm after demon dream sex.”
Wait a second. Let’s pause here briefly to note that Immanuel is likely referencing incubi and succubi in her sermons. Such ideas of spirits seducing humans in the dreamworld, with consequences for the waking, are found in many cultures around the world, including in west Africa (Immanuel was born in Cameroon), and date back as far as the 4,000-year-old Sumerian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh. People should, of course, be able to believe this story if they want.
Then again, no one in Gilgamesh’s family was prescribing hydroxychloroquine, either. The difference is important.
Late on Tuesday, Immanuel responded to Sommer’s article on Twitter. “The Daily Beast did a great job summarizing our deliverance ministry and exposing incubus and succubus. Thank you daily beast,” she tweeted. “If you need deliverance from these spirits. Contact us.”
Score one for the doctor?
Immanuel’s ideas are not limited to folk traditions, either. Her sermons reveal that she believes alien DNA is being used in modern medicine, that scientists are currently working on a vaccine to prevent people from becoming religious, and that the American government is partly run by non-human reptilians. (She may be on to something with this one. *cough* Mitch McConnell *cough*.)
Are we still saying “viral” for when things take over the internet? The initial clip of Immanuel in Washington racked up over 16m views on Facebook in a matter of hours before the major social media companies began taking it down. To put that into perspective, Immanuel’s clip received about twice as many views as the 2020 conspiracy season opener, Plandemic, a polished 26-minute-long scary video that claimed that Covid-19 was engineered so elites would profit from an eventual vaccine.
Immanuel’s comments were also tweeted by Donald Trump Jr, who called the video a “must watch” (and subsequently had his account limited by Twitter for sharing false claims about Covid-19). Madonna called Immanuel “my hero” on Instagram (the post has since been deleted). President Trump also retweeted the video (his tweet was later deleted) and, at a later news conference, called Immanuel “impressive”.
Immanuel may have a medical degree, yet she sounds like a quack to me. But quacks have long had their allure. One writer describing the quacks of 17th-century England puts it this way: “Quackery was pure theatre. The quack would move from town to town and would often appear to the local populace on a raised stage, decked out in eyecatching garb.”
Today, the stage is Facebook and the images move faster than the people, but I suspect the motives – fortune, fame and influence – remain exactly the same.
Quacks see a need and they fill it. The more important question to ask is why so many people want to believe them in the first place. Why would someone like Dr Stella Immanuel be more believable than Dr Anthony Fauci, at least to some Americans? This is a serious question – and significant problem – in the United States. Survey data show that one in four US adults believes there’s some truth to the idea that powerful people intentionally produced the coronavirus epidemic. Quacks and conspiracy theories go together like a succubus and a dream.
Why would someone like Dr Stella Immanuel be more believable than Dr Anthony Fauci, at least to some Americans?
Conspiracy theories are powerful for a number of reasons, perhaps chief among them a feeling that, as an outsider to power, you are constantly being lied to, then tricked into serving the interests of the elite. Especially at times of social or political upheaval, such theories can offer a sense of stability over an environment that seems to be spinning out of control. We must also remember that in this country we have a long history of politicians deliberately lying to get us into their wars.
In other words, one way of thinking about the durability of conspiracy theories is that their subscribers have been so alienated by an ever more powerful establishment that they’re bound to believe their own fanciful stories instead.
But there’s a difference when, say, an anti-vaxxer lauds Dr Immanuel for speaking some kind of “truth” versus the president calling her “impressive”. The former is fundamentally an expression of political alienation. The latter is nothing but political manipulation.
Donald Trump presents himself as an outsider to politics, but that’s the lie. He cannot be outside of politics, because as president of the United States, he literally embodies the politics of the country. Propping up the quacks like Immanuel is part of the ploy to present himself as a brave outsider, and this is the second lie, the purpose of which is to run away from any responsibility for his own policies and his obvious inability to lead.
There are now over 150,000 coronavirus deaths in the USA due, in significant part, to the Trump administration’s continued mismanagement of this crisis. And that’s not quackery. On the contrary. It looks a lot more like criminality.
Moustafa Bayoumi is the author of the award-winning books How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America and This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror. He is professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York