The scapegoating of Alex Jones
Jones is a symptom of the American crisis, not its cause.
This is not a defence of Alex Jones. You’ll have to go somewhere else for that. What Jones inflicted on the families of the slaughtered Sandy Hook kids is unforgivable. On his Infowars platform he ranted about the school massacre being a ‘false flag’ operation. It was a hoax, he said. The grief-stricken parents of the 20 murdered children were ‘crisis actors’. His purple-faced, jowly bluster about this horror was repellent, even for him.
And yet questions must be asked about the trial of Alex Jones. Not about the fact that it took place. Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, parents of six-year-old Jesse Lewis, who was killed at Sandy Hook, were within their rights to sue the man who lied about them, and whose lies caused them to suffer so much boilerplate abuse online. No, we need to talk about the cultural elite’s projections on to the trial. Their treatment of this defamation suit as a reckoning not just with one man’s lies, but with the pox of ‘fake news’ more broadly. It is these opportunistic extrapolations that could set a dangerous precedent – for free critical thought, not just unhinged conspiracism.
What has become clear is that the elites view Jones as the principal threat to reason in America. He has ‘poisoned US politics’, says the Washington Post. This echoes CNN’s headline claim that ‘Alex Jones is a threat to democracy’. A writer for the Guardian says the truth has finally caught up with Jones, and with all the ‘scammers, bullshitters, fanatics and demagogues’ who are doing grave harm to ‘truth’.
‘Like millions of my tribe, I watched Jones’ humbling with relish and relief’, says that Guardian writer, summing up the elite’s view that our reason has just enjoyed a wonderful victory over their lunacy. That the court case in Texas was about more than Infowars and Sandy Hook – it was a showdown between us mainstream liberals who defend democracy and those foul web people who ‘poison’ it.
This is unconvincing. First, it is arguable that the so-called liberal ‘tribe’ has spread misinformation that has proven to be far more destructive than Jones’ misinformation. Whether it’s their WMD myths – how many people died over those lies? – or their promotion of the Russia conspiracy theory in relation to Donald Trump’s presidential victory, the Jones-hating elites do disinformation too, and, in my view, it has hurt life, limb and democracy more than the output of Infowars has.
Secondly, treating Jones as a singular pox on reason overlooks the fact that conspiratorial thinking is now completely mainstream. It has been for decades. Jones is not responsible for this. He’s merely a beneficiary of the corrosion of moral and epistemic authority that laid the groundwork for the rise and rise of paranoid thought. Jones is ‘the most paranoid man in America’, says Rolling Stone. That’s debatable. Paranoia is rampant in the US. In the UK, too. Jones’ paranoia is of a piece with the derangements that infect the entirety of Anglo-American public life.
Consider some of the unhinged claims he’s best known for. A 2018 profile of Jones in the New York Times summed up his worldview as follows – ‘that the government and other big institutions are out to get [people], [and] that some form of apocalypse is frighteningly close’. Doesn’t the liberal elite believe something very similar? Just last month the NYT itself published a piece titled ‘Another Step Toward Climate Apocalypse’. One of the most viral clips of Jones shows him describing how he will eat his neighbours in the event of a post-Covid apocalypse. It is very much like the ramblings of one of the founders of Extinction Rebellion, who says climate apocalypse will lead to ‘a gang of boys [breaking] into your house… They will see your mother, your sister, your girlfriend, and they will gang rape her on the kitchen table. They will force you to watch… [Then] they’ll take a cigarette and burn out your eyes with it.’ And yet XR’s apocalypse porn is lapped up by the elites, while Jones’ apocalypse fears are denounced.
Then there’s paedophiles. One of Jones’ most common claims is that a ‘Satanic paedophile, globalist New World Order’ is secretly governing our lives. He’s late to this show. Who can forget the ‘Satanic ritual abuse’ panic of the 1980s, which was promoted by cultural luminaries like Oprah Winfrey and by radical feminists in the UK? That was also a fact-lite theory about powerful networks of Satanists corrupting society. Jones would have been about 12 when it was at its height. Members of Britain’s ‘tribe’ of reasoned liberals also promote paedo conspiracy theories. LBC’s James O’Brien helped to platform deranged lies about a powerful network of paedophiles in Westminster. Did that ‘poison’ democracy, too?
They’re all Alex Jones now. Apocalypse, paedos, faceless networks that control everything – you don’t have to watch Infowars for this shit, it’s everywhere. From the Oxbridge elites who claim Putin puppeteered Brexit to those Ivy League Democrats who think Moscow put Trump in the White House, conspiracism is rife even in the establishment. Jones is rightly slammed for his anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. There are some ‘really evil, wicked Jews… out there’, he says. Even this bile is no longer uncommon – witness the ravings of the Corbynista left on the ‘Zionist lobby’ that took down their man.
It is 60 years since Richard Hofstadter wrote his seminal essay, ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’, which explored conspiratorial thinking through the ages, from the anti-Catholic movement of the 1830s to anti-Communism in the 1950s. Since then, conspiracism has moved from the fringes into the heart of public life. No longer just ‘marginal beliefs’, conspiracy theories have become the means through which significant numbers of Americans try to understand ‘how the world works’, argues Robert Goldberg. This isn’t down to Jones’ supposed allure. Rather, it reflects a crisis of authority in modern society, where there has been a hollowing out of trust, reason and the very idea of truth, leading people to search for meaning elsewhere. Often in the shadows.
One of the key contributors to the fall of epistemic authority has been postmodernism. As one analyst of conspiracism puts it, postmodernism’s relentless onslaught on the ‘totalising metanarratives’ of history and politics has led to a ‘decimating [of the] unified frame from which to interpret meaning’. In short, the more that history, knowledge and the idea of universal truth have been dismantled, dismissed as white-supremacist impositions on society, the more people feel compelled to doubt everything they are told and to invent their own narratives about why things happen.
Alex Jones is not some all-powerful conspiracist leading the charge against truth and reason – he is an opportunist making money in the rubble of truth and reason left behind by Anglo-American society’s turn against Enlightenment values. He is postmodernism’s crybaby, the monetiser of the West’s abandonment of truth. In a dark irony, Jones-bashing has become its own conspiracy theory, with this one loudmouth being talked about as the poison in the political well, the enemy within that we must take extreme measures to counter. This is why the ‘relish’ of the elites in the face of Jones’ troubles is a problem: because it is about seeking a censorious quick fix for the problem of paranoid thinking rather than asking what birthed this paranoia and why it is so widespread. Shutting people down, even people like Alex Jones, is always a poor substitute for thinking critically about what the hell is going on.
Picture by: Sean P. Anderson, published under a creative-commons licence.
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