Leonard Pitts Jr.: How do we handle the facts-challenged among us?
So what should we say to Robert Ussery?
He’s an antagonist in a story of breathtaking emotional cruelty that unfolded Monday. It seems Pastor Frank Pomeroy was sitting in his car near his church in Sutherland Springs, just east of San Antonio, when, he says, a man and woman approached the building. He says the woman, later identified as 56-year-old Jodi Mann, began defacing a poster left for well-wishers to sign.
Pomeroy intervened. He says it took a moment for Mann and her partner Ussery, 54, to recognize him as the pastor of First Baptist Church, where a Nov. 5 gun massacre left 26 people, including Pomeroy’s 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle, dead. But he says that when they did, they began to harangue him that the tragedy never happened.
Pomeroy told the San Antonio Express-News that Ussery yelled at him. “He said, ‘Your daughter never even existed. Show me her birth certificate. Show me anything to say she was here.'”
Sutherland Springs is not the only massacre Ussery denies. His website, whose name you won’t read here, also describes as “drills using crisis actors” dozens of other mass casualty events, including the shootings in Parkland, Las Vegas, Charleston, Orlando and Newtown, the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris and the concert bombing in Manchester.
“NO DEAD, NO WOUNDED,” the website crows. Actually, 219 people died in the attacks listed above.
But how do we get Robert Ussery to see that?
The question arises from a recent online discussion with readers after a study reported that 42 percent of Republicans and 17 percent of Democrats regard as “fake news” information they know to be accurate if they don’t like what it says. In a column on media distrust, I wrote that I have no interest in being trusted by that large cohort of us from whom facts command no respect and for whom truth is just a speed bump on the road to crazy town.
The issue is not ideology. Rather, it is America’s vanishing ability — and willingness — to reason. And that raises a question: What is the obligation of thinking, moral people in a nation and news cycle increasingly dominated by the demented and controlled by the conspiracist? How do you reason with those who can’t or won’t? Should you even try?
One reader, Paul N. Calmes Jr., responded sharply on Twitter: “Serious people have to stop worrying about appearing fair to those who aren’t interested in facts.”
I tend to agree, but even that’s problematic. It is, after all, a short hop from dismissing people because they are facts-challenged to dismissing them just because they disagree with you. “Facts-challenged” can too easily become an excuse for shutting down a challenging debate. If Calmes’ “serious people” are not careful, they might become what they abhor.
On the other hand, what’s the alternative? What I call the stupidification of America crept upon us over the course of a generation. The road back will be at least as long. In the meantime, our only option is to endure this unraveling of the American mind and try to minimize its damage.
What else can we do?
How do you reason with the person who thinks nobody died at Parkland? Or that Barack Obama was born in Kenya? Or that the U.S. government blew up the World Trade Center?
And really, now, what should we say to Robert Ussery? How do you talk to a man who allegedly stood before the grieving father of a murdered girl and screamed at him that his daughter was not real?
Sorry, but there are no words.
He’s not listening, anyway.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald.