A Defense of Truth in the Post-Truth Era
It seems possible to know that a child has lived and died. There's a birth certificate, death certificate, coroner's report, school records. Those attending the funeral view the deceased's body. Friends, family, neighbors, and school officials are aware that the child is gone. Friends and family see the grief of the parents. It can be stated as a matter of fact that the child has died.
In 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School 20 first-graders died at the hands of gunman. One of those was 6-year-old Noah Ponzer. His parents have suffered deeply, and their suffering has been compounded more than they could have imagined, thanks to Alex Jones.
In his live-stream broadcasts and YouTube videos, on his InfoWars website and Facebook page, and on his radio show, he has called the Sandy Hook massacre a hoax. His legion of followers has promoted this idea widely, and when parents insisted that, no, the tragedy was real, the followers of Alex Jones began making them targets.
They accuse the parents of being actors, of participating in a ruse intended to turn sentiment against the ubiquity of guns in the U.S. And for this reason they harass them.
In the past six years Noah's parents have moved seven times in an attempt to get away from the harassment and death threats. Each time they've moved, Alex Jones's tribe finds their location and posts it online. His parents are now living in high-security community hundreds of miles from where the tragedy took place and are unable to visit their son's grave.
Noah's parents have sued Jones for defamation, and I write this on the day that the trial has begun.
To deny the truth of the Sandy Hook massacre is to deny the experience of hundreds of people, the experience of officials who were on hand, the experience of the media who were witness to the tragedy. To deny the truth of the massacre, one must conjure an extraordinary fable. That's what Alex Jones does.
We now have a president who appeared on Alex Jones's show during the campaign and praised his reputation as "amazing." A week ago as I write this, our president told a rally in Kansas City not to "believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news." And he went on to say, "Just remember: what you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening."
We're living in the post-truth era. The fabulists congregate on the internet, in forums on Reddit and 4Chan, on websites such as InfoWars. They broadcast their "truths" on platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and Periscope.
Critical thinking and challenging accepted wisdom aren't necessarily bad, but abandoning common sense is. Jones has reported that special counsel Robert Mueller is involved in a child sex ring. He reported Hillary Clinton was part of a group sexually abusing children in satanic rituals in the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC. His InfoWars website has reported that the U.N. has plans to flood the U.S. with 600 million migrants. His Periscope broadcast claimed that top Democrats were calling for a military coup against President Trump.
Jones is one of many.
Why is this happening? The best answer I've come across is the 2017 book Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra. Our way of life in the earlier eras of subsistence agriculture and hunting/gathering was uprooted in the wake of industrialization, globalization, consumerism, and the rise of Western concepts in the 18th-century such as individualism, secularism, and capitalism.
In the preindustrial era, most people were farmers. Their role was defined. They worked hard, had children, provided for their families. They prayed to their God and accepted a life of hardship.
Then the world changed. In one country after another, industrialization created a class of people who were educated, professional, and wealthy. And it created a class of people who were, in a sense, useless. Resentment festered.
A 20-something millennial living with his parents feels a lack of dignity, a lack of respect. He takes on an online persona, joins a tribe of conspiracy theorists, becomes a vigilante, feels powerful, makes death threats. It gives meaning.
Timothy McVeigh, America's most lethal domestic terrorist who in 1995 killed 168 people when he bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, found it difficult to get a job that reflected his sense of dignity. He railed against the government and the false promise of the American dream.
When reality doesn't match up to one's sense of self-worth, the tendency seems to be to create an alternate version of reality. Truth suffers.
I say, trust that mainstream media is doing their best to report truth, biased as it may be. And I say, use common sense and be skeptical of the conspiracy mongers. Believe in truth, and pursue it.
[Shortly after I wrote this article, Apple, Spotify, YouTube, and Facebook removed content and accounts of Alex Jones and InfoWars, due to hate speech and glorification of violence.]
© 2018 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.