Let there be truth
At first glance a jury’s verdict against Alex Jones, awarding eight Sandy Hook families nearly a billion dollars in damages and, on the same day, my daughter’s return to the United States for a long weekend would seem to have nothing in common. And by the time this commentary ends a few minutes from now you may have convinced yourself that they still have nothing in common.
But I’m trying to get at something that tells me they do. Let’s start with Alex Jones. I’ve often found it puzzling that people would go to such lengths to spread lies, but sort of gave them the miniscule benefit of the doubt: perhaps they actually believed the lies they were spreading.
That was obviously naïve on my part. The reason somebody would claim that people whose children were killed in their elementary school classroom are so-called “crisis actors” is because of money. Jones expertly leveraged lies to build an audience and sell survival water filtration systems and dietary supplements that earned him millions. As Deep Throat said to Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men,” follow the money.
But if only it were that simple. Money explains a lot but not everything. We now live in an Orwellian world – the book’s title, 1984, proved a few decades premature -- facilitated by the Internet and social media; where lies have become the truth and truth lies, the former with equal or greater currency. I used to think, and sometimes still do, that, as Mark Twain succinctly observed, “If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.”
What I didn’t really account for is that people often prefer the lies. It better conforms to their malignant, conspiratorial view of the universe. They want to believe that the moon landing was a hoax or that a president who lost an election by seven million votes actually won. And they’re willing to go to great lengths to support those delusions, including storming the Capitol and contributing millions in small dollar contributions to abet Donald Trump’s comeback.
But when I thought about what I’d address on a Saturday – a charmed time of week, as any kid or former kid can tell you -- I was initially considering a topic I’ve contemplated before: the ridiculous pleasure my wife and I take in picking up our grown children at the airport.
There are few other reasons – indeed none instantly come to mind – when I’d gladly awake at the crack of dawn and brave rush hour traffic coming and going to JFK as I did Wednesday afternoon; except for the happiness I experience (it’s more like joy) when one of our kids comes through the terminal’s doors with an unrestrained, if sleepy, smile on her face; especially, Gracie reported, after the baby two rows back didn’t stop crying all the way from Vancouver to New York.
So what then is the connection, or at a minimum the segue, between birthers and conspiracy theorists and the smile on my daughter’s face? It’s that love and hate, prejudice and acceptance, good and evil, are currently engaged in a struggle as stark as anything we’ve experienced since World War II.
I’m as susceptible to its allure as anybody else; as willing to demonize and as prompt to click on stories that validate my point of view. But the uncomplicated love one has for one’s children, of which those Sandy Hook parents were so ruthlessly deprived, transcends the outrage of the day. I suppose that’s what makes Alex Jones money-raking enterprises so vile and taboo. It wasn’t enough that these poor parents had to suffer the violent loss of their children. It was that their grief was exploited to enhance Jones’ wealth and celebrity. If you want to know what true obscenity looks like, look no further.
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war,” Lincoln wrote in the Gettysburg Address, “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
We’re engaged in another civil war today. This one is slightly different. It’s not between the North and South. It’s between the truth and fiction. Lincoln’s answer to the problem was that the living rededicate themselves to the cause those left on the battlefield at Gettysburg died for. In our case, we need to rededicate ourselves to the truth.
In a political sense it starts with supporting candidates who don’t shave the truth for personal gain. But the personal and political can’t be so easily separated. The happiness, the love I feel when I spot my daughter materializing from the tumult of a Jet Blue passenger terminal, is proof of the power of our better angels.
Love isn’t an aberration. It may not provoke as many clicks or Facebook “likes” as hate does, it may not stimulate the primitive regions of the brain where fear lurks. But it’s the fastest way out of this mess. The love one feels for ones' children ought to be, to use a popular buzzword, scalable.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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