Last week, Alex Jones, the prominent conspiracy theorist and owner of far-right website InfoWars, was ordered to pay $49.3 million as part of a defamation lawsuit brought against him by the families of children killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting – an event that Jones claimed was faked.
Using television, radio and the internet, Jones has peddled disinformation for years, promoting conspiracies which are now grimly considered classics of the genre – that the 9/11 attacks were staged by the US government, or the idea that pizzeria Comet Ping Pong in Washington, DC is a front for a paedophile ring.
In 1999 he founded InfoWars, a website that publishes fake news and conspiracy theories. Having long been sceptical of any government regardless of its political stripes (there’s footage of a young Jones challenging George W. Bush when he was governor of Texas), he fell into line behind Donald Trump during his 2016 bid for the presidency – who said in 2015 that Jones’ “reputation is amazing.” Back then, both traditional media and social media platforms were in the early stages of grappling with preventing the proliferation of outright lies while also making sure that freedom of speech was upheld. Then the biggest liar of them all was elected to the most powerful office on Earth.
It wasn’t until 2018 that the bans began. First, Facebook removed all of Jones’ and InfoWars’ content, for “glorifying violence, which violates [their] graphic violence policy, and using dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants, which violates our hate speech policies.” It came after Jones addressed the special prosecutor Robert Mueller on his show saying “You’re going to get it, or I’m going to die trying,” and imitated firing a gun. Apple, Spotify, YouTube and Twitter followed suit. Commercial platforms like Paypal and Mailchimp removed his accounts. While Trump’s social media ban in 2021 sparked a global debate over freedom of speech, Jones was getting thrown off these platforms before it was cool.
But there’s another, more traditional means of dispersing information which has so far remained immune to the trend of banning Bad Alex. On 27 October, Jones’ book, The Great Reset: And the War for the World, is due to be published. Despite asking for a preview copy, I haven’t actually received one, so I don’t know what the exact contents of the finished edition might be. Perhaps it will be full of well-researched assertions that, when readers flock en masse to fact-checking sites, will turn out to be completely true. But going by Jones’ track record, I doubt it.
The book’s description gives us a glimpse into what will be inside. It promises to give “a full analysis of The Great Reset, the global elite’s international conspiracy to enslave humanity and all life on the planet”, making references to the “new world order” and “the self-appointed controllers of the planet”. It looks set to be a distillation of Jones’ paranoid, conspiratorial worldview which led to him being thrown off the mainstream digital platforms.
And it’s that worldview, combined with the Sandy Hook legal ruling, which makes it all the more peculiar that, in the UK at least, The Great Reset is still available to pre-order on the websites of Waterstones, Foyles and Blackwells.*
The book is being published by Skyhorse Publishing – once dubbed by the Los Angeles Times as “a publisher of last resort” – and is being distributed by Simon and Schuster, the third-largest publishing company in America, as part of an international distribution agreement. As well as The Great Reset, Skyhorse has published The Real Anthony Fauci, Vax-Unvax and The Wuhan Cover-up – all by anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr (for more about him, do check out Tortoise’s excellent Slow Newscast from 2020 – ‘What the RFK Jr?!’), and Woody Allen’s book, Zero Gravity. (Tortoise reached out to Simon and Schuster and Skyhorse Publishing for comment, but did not receive an immediate response.)
Simon and Schuster has experienced turbulence before when it comes to making controversial publishing decisions, opting to publish former US vice president Mike Pence’s memoir in 2021, despite concerns raised by its own staff. But while it was Pence’s conservative politics that the S&S staff objected to last year, Jones is someone who has now been found in court to have espoused outright lies. His book will, presumably, be on sale in the non-fiction section.
“The first amendment protects the right to free speech but it does not require that those who spread disinformation be given a major audience and a profit from a publishing company,” Susan Corke, director of the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s Intelligence Project, told Tortoise. “It seems reckless and dangerous for S&S if they continue down this path.”
There are numerous arguments for publishing Jones’ book. The periods of history that include books being banned rarely cover the respective societies in glory. One could also argue that books are vessels for a variety of competing arguments, and it should be left to the readers to cast judgement on their strength and accuracy. Within the context of this particular example, there is always the danger that censoring Jones will only strengthen his following. As Fox News host Tucker Carlson expresses succinctly in one of the reviews being used to promote The Great Reset, “If Alex Jones is just a crackpot, why are the most powerful people in the country trying to silence him?”
Closing remarks in an issue as knotty as this will always be fudged and unsatisfactory. It should be up to the publishers and the booksellers to make the decision on whether or not to distribute it, and up to the customers whether to buy it – pressure from the latter will influence the decisions of the former. But that’s not to say that booksellers and publishers should take a totally laissez-faire attitude to publishing a book like Jones’. One responsible thing to do would be to stick content advisory labels with links to fact-checking websites on the covers, much like Spotify has done with podcast episodes which feature dodgy guests (a lot of episodes of The Joe Rogan Experience are subject to this).
Ultimately, Jones’ book will, in all likelihood, be published by Skyhorse in October. Simon and Schuster will probably still distribute it. Whether booksellers like Waterstones choose to stock it is harder to predict – by then the media furore around The Great Reset is likely to have grown louder. The book will be devoured by its author’s disciples, decried by his critics, and a few of the non-aligned may stumble across a copy and become overnight converts.
But in the end, Jones came up against cold, hard reality in a place where it mattered most – the courts. “It seems absurd to instruct you again that you must tell the truth when you testify,” the judge told the InfoWars host last week. “But here I am: you must tell the truth while you testify.”
Jones will be hoping his book does go on sale in the autumn – and that it sells well. Because he now has $49.3 million to pay.
*Waterstones replied after this article’s publication, saying: “This is a forthcoming publication for which we received bibliographic information for our database through an automated feed from Nielsen Book Data, the main data aggregator for the UK booktrade. Titles are notified to Nielsen by publishers and distributors in the UK. It is a simple listing and does not imply any approval by Waterstones of the title by dint of this listing, nor does it mean that the title will be physically stocked in our shops.”
Here are this week’s recommendations.
Tom Daley – Illegal to be me (iPlayer)
Olympic gold medal-winning diver Tom Daley first came out as gay in December 2013. Although he received foul abuse online, he was still able to compete as an athlete and live freely in the country he calls home. That’s not the case for the people he meets in this documentary. To coincide with the 2022 Commonwealth Games, Daley attempts to find out what life is like for LGBTQ+ people in some of the association’s other countries. Speaking to people from Nigeria, Pakistan and Jamaica, Daley is told disturbing stories of abuse and persecution – sometimes from their own parents.
Daley proves a gifted presenter, one who seeks out the deeply moving stories of those who’ve been persecuted, tries to look at potential solutions – and wrestles with the complexity of the problem. Culminating with Daley’s appearance at the 2022 Games’ opening ceremony this is an important, moving documentary which lays the groundwork for more action.
Thanks to Mark St Andrew, Tortoise’s head of ThinkIns, for this review of Jack Absolute Flies Again (the National Theatre until 3 September)
In this new comedy at the National, the team behind One Man Two Guvnors has transported the plot and the characters of Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals to the Sussex Downs in the middle of World War Two. Caroline Quentin dominates as the local widow Mrs Malaprop, whose house is requisitioned to house a team of RAF pilots. She’s clearly having a ball with the malapropisms, and seeing her in action is to witness a masterclass in physical comedy.
All the characters are chasing the affections of another – Lydia Languish (Natalie Simpson) and Lucy (Kerry Howard) are fighting over Dudley Scunthorpe (Kelvin Fletcher), the northern mechanic with muscles queuing up behind each other, while the squadron’s dashing hero Jack Absolute (Laurie Davidson) finds he’s his own rival for Lydia. Meanwhile Mrs Malaprop is chasing Sir Anthony Absolute (Peter Forbes), the maid is reading everyone’s love letters… you get the idea. With all the hallmarks of farce, executed by a cast at the top of its game, this is a play you need to see now – take a friend and a hanky.
In May the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted that the Biden Administration was not seeking a new Cold War with China. Ian Williams thinks it’s a little too late for that. In this fascinating new book the former foreign correspondent, who’s covered China for Channel 4 and NBC News, asserts that the West is already engaged in a new Cold War with Xi Jinping’s regime, and that economic integration and Beijing’s arms buildup make this one far more dangerous than our frozen stand-off with the Soviets. While a decent portion of The Fire of the Dragon is understandably focused on the dispute over Taiwan, the book also covers China’s movements in the arctic, its cyber capabilities, its frosty relationship with India and its ever-closer friendship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. A fascinating, accessible guide to our new geopolitical reality.
And thanks to Tomini Babs, the presenter of Tortoise’s Sensemaker Daily podcast, for this review of I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy (Simon & Schuster)
In this bravely unfiltered memoir, former child star Jennette McCurdy (best known for her role in Nickelodeon’s iCarly) exposes the extreme pressure she was put under by her “narcissistic” mother who passed away from breast cancer in 2013. The book’s provocative title is quickly justified. Detailing the physical abuse and emotional manipulation that began when she was just two years old, Jennette McCurdy emphasises that she “was not the one who dreamed of being famous”. Instead it was her mother, who went to horrific lengths to make that dream a reality, with Hollywood’s toxic work environment only adding to the suffering. If McCurdy’s mother “were still alive,” she writes, “she’d still be trying her best to manipulate me into being who she wanted me to be”. Grief is a difficult emotion and often we’re typically not expected to speak ill of the dead. But this is not a typical tell-all celebrity memoir; it’s a vulnerable, gut-wrenching account of McCurdy’s time as a child star.
The Alchemist’s Euphoria – Kasabian (12 August)
On this, Kasabian’s seventh album, and their first since former lead singer Tom Meighan was kicked out of the band for a domestic abuse conviction, they’re faced with the problem of whether they can still deliver after drafting in the guitarist, Serge Pizzorno, as the frontman. The answer is: they can – and do so while managing to make something far more interesting than the standard “lad rock” they’ve historically been known – and written off – for in the past.
Country music, through its deep association with the white south of the US, also has an association with conservative politics. All the more impressive then that singer-songwriter and fiddle-player Amanda Shires has consistently fought against that stereotype; in 2020, for instance, she released a duet with her husband, ‘The Problem’ about a couple having an honest conversation about abortion; in the wake of the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, she urged more artists to stand up for reproductive rights. On this, her seventh album, she demonstrates that vulnerability can be still be a form of strength – the song’s opener, ‘Hawk for the dove’ is, according to one interview with Shires, about “emotions that turn prey into predator.” Come for the raw lyrics drenched in heartache. Stay for the fiddles. (Thanks to Tortoise editor Keith Blackmore for pointing me in this direction.)
And another contribution from Mark St Andrew, this time commemorating the late Olivia Newton-John
Olivia Newton-John established herself as a force to be reckoned with when she represented the UK in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest. In retrospect, she never stood a chance against four Swedes called Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn and Anni-Frid with a number called ‘Waterloo’. But it didn’t matter. ON-J had forged a successful line in country-flavoured pop, which in the 1970s exploded into the charts (check out her smash hit ‘Have You Never Been Mellow’ and ‘Please Mr Please’, the best song ever written about a jukebox.) In 1978 Newton-John took on the career-defining role of Sandy in Grease, the innocent high school senior who falls for John Travolta’s bad boy Danny Zuko, transforming her into the sex symbol of the decade.
After barrelling through the 80s with a series of successful singles and albums – including 1981’s ‘Physical’ – she was diagnosed with cancer in the early 90s, and shifted her focus to campaigning and fundraising for breast cancer research. After beating the disease again in 2013, it returned again in 2017 and metastasized to her lower back. She died at her California home aged 73.
For me, the indelible image of Newton-John is in Xanadu (1980), in which she plays Terpsichore, a muse sent by Zeus to persuade Gene Kelly and a handsome B-list actor nobody remembers to open a roller disco for reasons that never become entirely clear. While it doesn’t make a great deal of sense, there’s a lot to enjoy with acrobats and cheerleaders, everyone on wheels, and an exhilarating ELO-composed soundtrack. In the film’s thrillingly ridiculous finale, she disappears into the heavens on the high note at the end in a blaze of light and colour. “A million lights are dancing, and there you are, a shooting star,” they sing. It’s the only way for a goddess to leave the dancefloor.
That’s all for now. Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Photographs Getty Images, Briana Sanchez/Shutterstock, BBC, Netflix, Brinkhoff Moegenburg/ National Theatre