Alex Jones At The Tower of Babel

When Different Languages Collide In Court

Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.

Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all.

When Jesus appeared before Pilate, they spoke different languages. I don’t mean that literally — although maybe they did speak different languages and used a translator, or maybe spoke Aramaic, or Latin. I mean that they used language in completely different ways. Jesus was preaching. Pilate was judging. Jesus was talking about truth with a capital T. Pilate was trying to focus Jesus on the practicalities of the case, and perhaps making a mordant quip about the futility of the process when he said “what is truth.” There was no meeting of the minds.

When modern American political culture winds up in court, the effects are similar. The participants are speaking different languages, and using language in different ways. Courts are focused on a taxonomy of words. Are they factual? Are they opinion? Are they literal or figurative? Courts also care about the literal truth of words. That’s central to defamation law — it’s not defamatory unless it was false. Courts are about analysis, and the entire project of the law is about words meaning specific things.

But modern American political culture is emotive and even artistic. It uses language like a musician uses notes or an impressionist uses brush strokes. Whether it’s Marjorie Taylor Greene talking about Bill Gates' efforts to colonize our bowels through "peach tree dishes" or Alex Jones ranting about gay frogs, modern politicians and pundits use language to convey feelings and attitudes and values, not specific meanings. If you demand Alex Jones defend the specific meaning of his words, it’s like demanding your eight-year-old defend his statement that his birthday party was the best day ever when previously that’s what he said about Disneyland. Trump was the Salvador Dali of this movement, his speeches full of melting clocks of ire and resentment. As an artist of lies he was prolific.

I’m offering a descriptive observation, not a positive normative judgment. Truth exists. Truth matters. Even if Alex Jones’ broadcasts are dreamscapes of spleen, they have real-world effects. Some people take them literally and act accordingly, as we’ve seen as the parents of murdered children tell their harrowing stories of the harassment Jones encourages. And a society where words are unaccountable, where language is just us finger-painting with our own shit, is ungovernable and unlivable.

The point is that courts are ill-equipped to deal with people like Alex Jones, and people like Alex Jones are ill-equipped to deal with courts. Jones’ catastrophic testimony in his own defense illustrates this. Jones struggled to fit his bombast within the framework of the law, within the distinction between fact and opinion. It’s a bad fit because that’s not how he uses words. If Jones had been honest — an utterly foreign concept to him — he might have said “I just go out there and say what I feel.” The notion that Sandy Hook was a hoax is a word-painting, a way of conveying Jones’ bottomless rage at politics and media and modernity, and he can no more defend it factually than Magritte could defend the logical necessity of a particular brushstroke.

It’s fit that Alex Jones is held accountable for the impact of his words. He used false statements of fact to paint his picture, and those false statements of fact caused harm. But I suspect that a vast judgment against Jones won’t have much value as a deterrent or proclamation of truth. Jones is loathsomely rich because people want to consume his art. His landscapes of hate and fear and mistrust resonate with a frightening number of Americans. The people who enjoyed his Sandy Hook trutherism didn’t enjoy it because it was factually convincing or coherent; they enjoyed the emotional state it conveyed because it matched theirs. The plodding technicalities of law are probably inadequate to change their minds.

Defamation cases like this one — or Dominion’s case against Sidney Powell, or the parade of defamation claims against Trump — are just, and it’s just that the victims receive compensation. But they don’t solve the problem. America can survive the demagogues themselves, it’s their audience that will kill us.


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