Truthers then and now

The Liberace ladies vs. Alex Jones

© 1973 Allan Warren, used under a Creative Commons license

I was thinking about what makes dull people dull, and settled provisionally on the theory that it’s because they have no taste. They eat frozen dinners, they watch contemporary sitcoms, they read Entertainment Weekly, they’d rather save up to see Hamilton once than spend the money on four good Shakespeare productions.

Actually it doesn’t even matter to the dull what they consume. If you told them that by the decree of heaven they would be forced to listen to 21st Century country music, the absolute worst kind that makes Billy Ray Cyrus sound like Jimmie Rodgers, for the entire remainder of their lives, they’d say, that’s okay, I like that L’il Nas, maybe Old Town Road will come around every 48 hours.

The same goes for the conspiracy theories they adopt, when they adopt them — not interesting conspiracy theories like Dead Paul McCartney; I mean the bad, dumb, not-even-trying conspiracy theories like vaccines make you autistic or the army is covering up an alien invasion or that JFK Junior is still alive.

Seriously, have you even know anyone genuinely interesting who believed these things? Conspiracy theories are often what they have instead of personalities.

The latest trend in not-interesting conspiracy theories believed by dull people seems to be that masks are bullshit and that COVID-19 is bullshit and that if we could just get together and breathe on each other then we could get this thing over with and if some people die that’s life and you should just be grateful that you aren’t one of the dead, unless you are, in which case thank you for your service (loser).

Well, actually, this new crop of conspiracy theories is more interesting in a clinical sense at least. You’ve seen the videos of anti-lockdown protestors being assholes or seen Bizarro gotchas like a reporter took her mask off after a press conference therefore it’s all a fraud. It’s imbecilic, like all the other conspiracy theories, but it also has this weird edge to it — a belligerence, even a hysteria that you only see in the hardest of hardcore QAnon and FEMA Camp freaks.

Maybe it’s because the associated lockdowns have us all on edge and some people are just too poorly socialized to restrain themselves. But I think it has to do with a wider change in the way ordinary Americans do conspiracies, and perhaps ordinary Americans period.

When I was kid, there was this woman up the street — let’s call her Dorothy — a sorrowful looking woman with olive skin and dark rings around her eyes and hair that looked like she hardly took a brush to it. She was a little defensive looking, like life had done her a bad turn and she was on the lookout in case life tried the same shit again.

Dorothy would come over and talk to my mother, and I was glad for the comfort they were able to give one another, and she was always very nice to me, genuinely and not fake nice. (Kids notice those things. She didn’t fake-smile, or smile at all. She just took an interest in how I was doing and was obviously concerned — though she was too polite to say it out loud — because she knew, when I said that I was okay, that I was lying.)

Anyway Dorothy had one weirdness in her life: She was in the Liberace Fan Club.

Now I’m not doing a euphemism here, Dorothy wasn’t gay, at least so far as I know. She just loved Liberace. Loved seeing him on TV, loved his records, loved his glitz, loved his patter, and loved his rich romantic piano stylings. And folks, this was not like today where you can stream whatever pop garbage you want; no, back then you had to wait and watch. Liberace might not be on TV for weeks. He might not put out a new album for months and he might not roll his big ol’ gleaming Steinway and candelabra stage show into the area for years. But along with her TV Guide and entertainment sections Dorothy had a mimeographed newsletter to which she and thousands of other women subscribed. And she would talk to my mother about this and my mother, good soul that she was, would pay attention.

After I grew up and moved away my mother would tell me about how upset Dorothy would get when once again those people in the cheap magazines would go after her Liberace saying he was what everyone back home still called a queer.

And worse yet, they said that he had the disease that the queers got, when clearly he was just run down from all his hard work or had a heart condition or maybe a mysterious disease that no one knew the name of but which was definitely not sexually transmitted.

And to the end — or at least until she moved away and ceased to grace my mother's kitchen table — Dorothy and everyone in that newsletter, which I believe was by then desktop published and dot-matrix printed, held out stubbornly against the million voices that said Liberace was living with, and then dead of AIDS. They weren’t cranks about it; they just didn’t let it go. They knew they were right, and they were glad to know that some other people knew it too, even if the world did not.

I imagine that if Dorothy had the internet and social media resources we have now, she might have been able to spread her message further, and might have been pleased to hear more quickly from more people who agreed with her. But I’m going to make a leap of faith here and say that it would never have occurred to the Dorothy I knew to get together with her fellow Liberace ladies and march around CBS headquarters or the State Capitol and denounce the people who slandered Liberace and denounce the reporters who came to cover them because they were all in on it too, and then run to support and praise and give money to whatever ancillary grifters turned up to tell her yes, Dorothy, they’re all lying about Liberace just like they’re lying about JFK Jr. and Pizzagate and Michael Flynn, but stick with us and we’ll make them rue the day, maybe by hurting them or by hurting people they care about, but in any case we’ll cause them pain because we both know that pain should be the price of their disagreement.

Dorothy wasn’t that kind of person. And these people are.