Believe it as a primary source or don’t, but The Bible is pretty clear and specific about the details of Jesus’ death: Arrested, tried, convicted and crucified by the Roman Empire. But ask Americans who killed Christ and a not insignificant share would point their finger directly at another group: The Jews.
Was it the forerunner of Facebook — FaciemLiber? — that spread the word of the “real” story in groups named “JudasWasFramed” or “Not Saying Just Saying It Was The Jews”? No. Did the Jerusalem Tribune run an expose showing that, in fact, Pontius Pilate neither gave the order nor washed his hands? No. Did those shitposters from DeadSeaSliver start a narrative that caught fire online? Again, no.
So why are we so damn sure that if we just bottled up social media and chastised the media and fixed up the Internet a little bit, we’d have a better informed society?
History is often taught in narrative beats, A leads to B, to C, and so on. It makes sense as a teaching method for kids — you truly can’t spend the time required to unpack every historical event from every angle — but it leads to narrative frameworks that don’t always hold up, and a false sense of certainty over how things happened.
It has never been easier to ennumerate a major historical event. I just Googled the Civil War: It started with the secession of South Carolina, lasted for four years, and the North won in 1865. Easy peasy! But that gives you absolutely no sense of what it would have been like in 1863 when nobody had any idea who was going to win the war.
I admit that sounds like such a dumb, obvious statement. And yet, over and over again, every generation believes it’s the first to stare into the void wondering what the future holds because history has been laid out to them as an orderly narrative.
In 2004, noted asshole Karl Rove schemed to get anti-gay marriage statutes on the ballot in several states as a way to juice turnout for the GOP. At the time, I remember being so discouraged that even the relatively small fig leaf of marriage equality seemed a million miles away.
And yet, by 2016, even a vile charlatan with white dog shit for a soul — obviously I mean Mango Unchained here — was pimping his LGBTQ bonafides Just 12 years later, I was rolling my eyes at Trump trying to sound moderate and holding a position popular with moderates … and yet in less than a decade and a half after being considered electoral poison — it was a position popular with moderates. Gay marriage today polls considerably better than Trump ever did!
Now of course his administration was a disaster for LGBTQ rights, but he also named an openly gay man as director of national intelligence. That was lost under the crushing wave of criticism that Richard Grenell was yet another loyalist hack (correct) with no business being in the post (also true). Still, the history there is fascinating: Most people know about the Red Scare of the ’50s. Less known is the so-called “lavender scare” after President Eisenhower signed an executive order in 1953 barring anyone suspected of “sexual perversion” from holding federal jobs or getting security clearance. Some historians say more than 5,000 federal workers were affected — which is actually more than were impacted by the red scare. Seventy years later, a Republican nominated a gay man to run the CIA, and there were no riots or editorials going after his orientation … just his lack of qualifications (complete) and his horrifying anti-democratic loyalty to President Shitbag McGoo (enormous).
This is not to whitewash the hatred that plenty of right-wingers feel for anyone who’s not straight and cisgender. It’s real, it’s deep and it’s dangerous. But again, in less than two decades, that position has become so wildly unpopular that they’ve had to invent the very idea of “cancel culture” as an explanation for what happened!
(And to interrupt myself with a quick note to that transphobic piece of shit Dave Chappelle: You say you can’t say things about trans people and yet you made “I’m Team TERF” a laugh line. Pretty sure Netflix would take issue with Hannah Gadsby saying “I’m Team KKK!” in her next special. Dave, go see a therapist, girl.)
This is also another problem with the steady drumbeat of history model: Lots of people simply don’t accept the reality of what’s happening around them! This is currently blamed on social media — and it does allow like-minded individuals to flock together in their own shared unreality — but it still doesn’t explain why lots of people think the Jews killed Jesus. Or back to another example: It doesn’t explain why lots of people simply disagree with my earlier statement that the North won the Civil War and have for about 150 years now.
While I’ve mostly stuck to right-wing lunacy thus far, I must say here that not accepting reality is not a partisan issue. Millions of seemingly right-thinking liberals believe that Big Pharma has a cancer cure just collecting dust in a storage room somewhere. A cure that would boost their stock price to a trillion dollars but they don’t use for … uh … reasons or whatever. Though it’s been co-opted now by the right for Covid-related idiocy, the far left was the hotbed of the anti-vax movement first. And let us not get started on the perils of centrist brain, in which “let’s kill all the minorities” and “let’s have health care for all” are considered equally dangerous ideas.
No, the reality is everyone has things they believe for reasons they can’t entirely explain that probably don’t hold up to even the slightest scrutiny. I worked in newsrooms for many years, and over that time I got many, many, MANY calls about my newspaper being biased about x, y and z. Most of them were that we were insufficiently right-wing (I worked in a reddish county) but we also got called out for being too right-wing at times. Every now and again, we’d get both complaints about the same fact in the same story, which some people in the newsroom saw as a point of pride that we were neither.
But one call that I never received in all my years in local newsrooms was one in which a reader called to say: “You know what? You’re right and I’M biased.”
Not to go full Yeats — “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity” — but when the time comes to look reasonably at a belief in the face of mounting evidence against it, most people will close their eyes and hold fast to their own biases. Yes, I grant that there’s more misinformation now than ever before; but by the same token, there’s far more good information than ever before, too. At some point, a person chooses which path they want to take, and then it becomes increasingly difficult to nudge them in another direction (and nearly impossible unless you have a real, deep connection with them.)
And it’s always been that way. Henry Ford didn’t invent anti-Semitism; he just modernized the Protocols and Passion Plays the same way he did for vehicle production. QAnon didn’t invent paranoid right-wing thinking; it just brought the John Birch Society into the Internet era. Hell, Orange Wannabe Julius is just a Reagan impersonator who swapped out a genial fake smile for crude schtick. It’s all been done before, and the people who want to believe in it always have and likely always will.
That doesn’t mean to accept this as a sunk cost and, like, give Facebook a pass on its utterly cynical bullshit. No, fuck Facebook. But it is worth remembering that every generation goes through this and that blaming the tools of the time has thus far never cured the problem. I wish I had a simple answer on what that cure might be, but a good place to start is to stop pretending it hasn’t always been this way.