Alex Jones says that his politics can be explained by psychosis. Or rather, something that was “almost like a form of psychosis”, one that made him believe that everything from 9/11 to the Sandy Hook shootings were staged by nefarious government forces. As he testified in a sworn deposition this week:
This week, Jones acknowledged the shooting was real during a sworn deposition he made as part of a defamation case brought against him by Sandy Hook victims' families.
“And I, myself, have almost had like a form of psychosis back in the past where I basically thought everything was staged, even though I've now learned a lot of times things aren't staged," he said. "So I think as a pundit, someone giving an opinion, that, you know, my opinions have been wrong, but they were never wrong consciously to hurt people."
He said it was the "trauma of the media and the corporations lying so much" that caused him to distrust everything, "kind of like a child whose parents lie to them over and over again."
"So long before these lawsuits I said that in the past I thought everything was a conspiracy and I would kind of get into that mass group think of the communities that were out saying that," he said. "And so now I see that it's more in the middle... so that's where I stand."
It may not surprise you to learn that many people find this defense ridiculous. I do too, for the most part. It’s unclear what kind of mental illness would induce nearly two decades of psychotic delusions without much in the way of other symptoms. Jones is no doubt paranoid, and holds fixed beliefs which appear impervious to contrary evidence. He may even have symptoms of a mood disturbance, although it’s difficult to tell what’s sincere and what’s schtick with him. But he does not appear to be a schizophrenic. Where are the hallucinations? The blunted affect? The poverty of speech and thought? If Jones’ behavior is a result of mental illness, then it’s a curious case, and one that reminds me of something Chris Parris-Lamb, a literary agent, said when novelist Dan Mallory attributed years of elaborate deceptions to a bipolar 2 diagnosis: “If [his] deceit is the product of bipolar episodes, then they have been singularly advantageous to his career, and that is unlike any bipolar person I’ve ever encountered. “
So too with Alex Jones. If his behavior is attributable to psychosis, then it is remarkable that this psychosis, rather than cause enormous and evident destruction in his personal and professional life, has won him an immense audience and a lucrative career. Moreover, if Jones was suffering from some kind of psychosis, then what caused it to stop? Is he under the care of a psychiatrist? Has he been hospitalized? Is he currently taking antipsychotic medication? Strange that his symptoms would remit in the face of a lawsuit. Stress is not typically curative.
But despite my skepticism, I’m interested in what it might mean were Jones really ill. Public ridicule of this defense, after all, does not appear to be stemming from any kind of informed medical disbelief; rather, saying “Oh, right, I said all of those horrible things about dead children because I was psychotic”* strikes most people as a lame excuse. It’s too convenient, particularly given the lack of any evidence of prior (or current) diagnosis, and given the appearance of a damaging lawsuit, but it also just feels wrong and silly to most people. Alex Jones is an asshole, not a lunatic. That’s the consensus. And I think that consensus is motivated as much (if not moreso) by an attachment to the belief that Jones must be a willful bad actor, as it is by any particular disbelief in his mental instability. We want Alex Jones to be crazy and bad, but we don’t want him to be Crazy, and therefore morally ambiguous.
I have two instincts about why this might be the case. The first is just that we fear being found out as fools more than we fear the existence of bad actors. If Jones is an opportunist and a crank who must be fought by sensible people everywhere, then that’s fine, and justifies the degree of seriousness with which he’s held in contempt. But if he’s just insane? Well, how did we all become so worked up trying to defeat the immense influence of a crazy person? It’s straight out of Richard Wright’s “I Tried to be a Communist”:
One night a Jewish chap appeared at one of our meetings and introduced himself as Comrade Young of Detroit. He told us that he was a member of the Communist Party, a member of the Detroit John Reed Club, that he planned to make his home in Chicago. He was a short, friendly, black-haired, well-read fellow with hanging lips and bulging eyes. Shy of forces to execute the demands of the Communist Party, we welcomed him. But I could not make out Young’s personality; whenever I asked him a simple question, he looked off and stammered a confused answer. I decided to send his references to the Communist Party for checking and forthwith named him for membership in the club. He’s O.K., I thought. Just a queer artist.
After the meeting Comrade Young confronted me with a problem. He had no money, he said, and asked if he could sleep temporarily on the club’s premises. Believing him loyal, I gave him permission. Straightway Young became one of the most ardent members of the organization, admired by all. His paintings — which I did not understand —impressed our best artists. No report about Young had come from the Communist Party, but since Young seemed a conscientious worker, I did not think the omission serious in any case.
At a meeting one night Young asked that his name be placed upon the agenda; when his time came to speak, he rose and launched into one of the most violent and bitter political attacks in the club’s history upon Swann, one of the best young artists. We were aghast. Young accused Swann of being a traitor to the worker, an opportunist, a collaborator with the police, and an adherent of Trotsky. Naturally most of the club’s members assumed that Young, a member of the party, was voicing the ideas of the party. Surprised and baffled, I moved that Young’s statement be referred to the executive committee for decision. Swann rightfully protested; he declared that he had been attacked in public and would answer in public.
It was voted that Swann should have the floor. He refuted Young’s wild charges, but the majority of the club’s members were bewildered, did not know whether to believe him or not. We all liked Swann, did not believe him guilty of any misconduct; but we did not want to offend the party. A verbal battle ensued. Finally the members who had been silent in deference to the party rose and demanded of me that the foolish charges against Swann be withdrawn. Again I moved that the matter be referred to the executive committee, and again my proposal was voted down. The membership had now begun to distrust the party’s motives. They were afraid to let an executive committee, the majority of whom were party members, pass upon the charges made by party member Young.
A delegation of members asked me later if I had anything to do with Young’s charges. I was so hurt and humiliated that I disavowed all relations with Young. Determined to end the farce, I cornered Young and demanded to know who had given him authority to castigate Swann.
“I’ve been asked to rid the club of traitors.”
“But Swann isn’t a traitor,” I said.
“We must have a purge,” he said, his eyes bulging, his face quivering with passion.
I admitted his great revolutionary fervor, but I felt that his zeal was a trifle excessive. The situation became worse. A delegation of members informed me that if the charges against Swann were not withdrawn, they would resign in a body. I was frantic. I wrote to the Communist Party to ask why orders had been issued to punish Swann, and a reply came back that no such orders had been issued. Then what was Young up to? Who was prompting him? I finally begged the club to let me place the matter before the leaders of the Communist Party. After a violent debate, my proposal was accepted.
One night ten of us met in an office of a leader of the party to hear Young restate his charges against Swann. The party leader, aloof and amused, gave Young the signal to begin. Young unrolled a sheaf of papers and declaimed a list of political charges that excelled in viciousness his previous charges. I starred at Young, feeling that he was making a dreadful mistake, but fearing him because he had, by his own account, the sanction of high political authority.
When Young finished, the party leader asked, “Will you allow me to read these charges?”
“Of course,” said Young, surrendering a copy of his indictment. “You may keep that copy. I have ten carbons.”
“Why did you make so many carbons?” the leader asked.
“I didn’t want anyone to steal them,” Young said.
“If this man’s charges against me are taken seriously,” Swann said, “I’ll resign an publicly denounce the club.”
“You see!” Young yelled. “He’s with the police!”
I was sick. The meeting ended with a promise from the party leader to read the charges carefully and render a verdict as to whether Swann should be placed on trial or not. I was convinced that something was wrong, but I could not figure it out. One afternoon I went to the club to have a long talk with Young; but when I arrived, he was not there. Nor was he there the next day. For a week I sought Young in vain. Meanwhile the club’s members asked his whereabouts and they would not believe me when I told them I did not know. Was he ill? Had he been picked up by the police?
One afternoon Comrade Grimm and I sneaked into the club’s headquarters and opened Young’s luggage. What we saw amazed and puzzled us. First of all, there was a scroll of paper twenty yards long — one page pasted to another — which had drawings depicting the history of the human race from a Marxist point of view. The first page read: A Pictorial Record of Man’s Economic Progress.
“This is terribly ambitious,” I said.
“He’s very studious,” Grimm said.
There were long dissertations written in longhand: some were political and others dealt with the history of art. Finally we found a letter with a Detroit return address and I promptly wrote asking news of our esteemed member. A few days later a letter came which said in part: —
In reply to your letter, we beg to inform you that Mr. Young, who was a patient in our institution and who escaped from our custody a few months ago, had been apprehended and returned to this institution for mental treatment.
I was thunderstruck. Was this true? Undoubtedly it was. Then what kind of club did we run that a lunatic could step into it and help run it? Were we all so mad that we could not detect a madman when we saw one?
I made a motion that all charges against Swann be dropped, which was done. I offered Swann an apology, but as the leader of the Chicago John Reed Club I was a sobered and chastened Communist.
Would that be the trouble with an insane Jones? That we all devoted years to “resisting” a man on sabbatical from an institution? Or is that not the trouble at all? Because my second intuition here—the one I think is far more plausible—is this: if Jones really is crazy, then it’s no longer a simple matter to hate him. And Jones is a pleasure to hate. Hate in general is a pleasure. It is far, far more satisfying than confusion, pity, or even mercy. Alex Jones is a villain, and I don’t think many people would be willing, even if doctors lined up and swore to the seriousness of his condition**, to give up on the great fun of loathing and mocking and destroying such a perfect figure of scorn.
* I ought to say that, in fairness to Jones, he isn’t quite saying that he suffered from actual psychosis. He suffered from something “like” psychosis. Mental illness is the metaphor for explaining his behavior here, not (as if often the case) the thing that needs to be explained by way of metaphor. But the line between actual psychosis and something “like” psychosis isn’t entirely clear. Jones says that he came to have irrational beliefs as a result of a mental error beyond his control. That may not be psychosis precisely, but it does sound indistinguishable from some form of mental illness. How much “like” the symptoms of insanity do some set of behaviors need to be before they qualify as a symptomatic basis for an insanity diagnosis? After all, many symptoms—even genuinely bizarre ones—are not so much total departures from ordinary human experience so much as they are extreme and persistent versions of those experiences. We all come to hold beliefs for bad reasons and then cling to them in spite of contrary evidence. We all sometimes believe we are seeing and hearing things which are not there. We all, from time to time, enter a kind of “mood episode” detached from rational causes. The difference with mental illness is often that these experiences cease to be passing phenomenon, easily swatted down by our reason, and instead come to dominate our thoughts and behavior. If Jones had something “like” a delusion here—that is, if he came to believe a paranoid fantasy about political violence, and that fantasy persisted for years and years despite evidence to the contrary, and during that time motivated quite a lot of what other people perceived as bizarre behavior—then in what sense is this merely “like” a delusion? It is one.
** The reason I don’t believe that doctors (and therefore confirmation that Jones really is insane) would matter is pretty straightforward: In cases where there are doctors, and cases where the illness hasn’t been advantageous, and cases where there is no pre-existing political cause for skepticism (say, a case where a father threw his own child off a bridge in view of a police officer), we still tend to prefer hating an easy villain to entertaining the consequences of madness.