“The allegation is obviously false,” writes Ben Smith in the New York Times, but that hasn’t stopped a cottage industry on the Left from promoting it. When Kelly Donohue celebrated his third win on Jeopardy! by holding up three fingers for the camera, the liberals watching the show assumed that he’d just flashed a “white power” sign. And despite Donohue’s denials and clear evidence that he did nothing of the sort, Smith notes that the conspiracy theory remains embarrassingly enduring:
Mr. Donohue’s turn over the barrel is hardly a new story. In America, everyone gets to be the main character for 15 minutes. I often hesitate to write about these stories because each is about something different: about deep injustice being brought to light, or an innocent person harassed by trolls, or a random person’s minor sin. Often, the argument is really about keeping things in proportion.
But the “Jeopardy!” story is a remarkable case study for a couple of reasons. First, the participants represent a particular kind of American achievement — the mastery of facts and trivia, celebrated by one of America’s few universally beloved institutions. A turn on “Jeopardy!” is the best credential there is in America. (When my brother, Emlen, lost valiantly in 2017, it generated more familial excitement than his Ph.D.) And I would say, after talking to a couple of dozen former contestants last week, that they are not just smart people but basically nice and sincere ones, too, from diverse backgrounds all over the country, united only by their ability to recall Madonna lyrics and capital cities.
And second, Snopes is right. Mr. Donohue’s case is unusually clear-cut, and the allegation is obviously false.
So the element of this story that interests me most is how the beating heart of nerdy, liberal fact-mastery can pump blood into wild social media conspiracy, and send all these smart people down the sort of rabbit hole that leads other groups of Americans to believe that children are being transported inside refrigerators. And, I wanted to know, how they could remain committed to that point of view in the absence of any solid evidence.
The answer appears to be because they’re human. Thanks to more recent events, media outlets have assumed that conspiracy thinking is limited to the so-called “evidence free” Right. However, there have been plenty of nonsense conspiracy theories on the Left over the years as well, because human beings love to embrace accusations that fit their preconceived notions about their betes noires. Or, for that matter, anything that provides them with a Unified Theory That Corroborates Their Worldview.
The cases of “hand signals” and more broadly “dog whistles” are particular to the Left’s obsession with so-called intrinsic racism. Anyone making the traditional “OK” hand signal is presumed now to be racist, and no amount of explanation is sufficient. In this instance, Donohue was explicitly using it to express his third win, and he had used his hands to celebrate his previous two wins as well.
Smith does a good job in deconstructing the smear in this instance, noting that even a solid debunking by Snopes hasn’t been enough to get liberals to admit they were wrong. Instead, some of them are doubling down by insisting that Donohue must have had some problematic intent, and/or that discussions of this issue shouldn’t include Donohue or his intent. Just the signal by itself and the hurt feelings people had over it — in error, mind you — is enough to demand justice for it.
The real lesson from Smith’s essay is that there really isn’t a partisan or ideological component to human vulnerability to conspiracy theories. And once embraced and affirmed by like-minded people, there’s no partisan or ideological difference in the inability to defeat it through evidence, either. Unfortunately, people like Kelly Donohue end up victims to this phenomenon, especially in the age of social media.
Addendum: As Charles C.W. Cooke points out today, it’s also not limited to social media. After reading Margaret Sullivan credulously pass along the idea that America is about to become “an authoritarian White Christian nationalist state in the very near future,” Cooke calls Sullivan “crackpot-adjacent,” and makes the same point I made about the non-partisan nature of conspiracy thinking and hysteria:
This is sheer lunacy. It is gibberish. It is the sign of a diseased mind. And it matters, because it is being shared by Margaret Sullivan, who is not some random from Twitter, but the former public editor of the New York Times and the current media columnist for the Washington Post. That Sullivan considers these words to be worth spreading around is an indictment of her judgment and of her conception of the world around her.
This is not a left-right thing; it is a question of elementary sobriety. I get absurd emails all the time from people on the right whose grasp on political reality is either tenuous or non-existent. They tell me that the 2020 election was stolen. It was not. They share the QAnon conspiracy theory with me as if it were real. It’s not. They inform me about this or that plot to imprison them or declare martial law in Texas or abolish the U.S. Constitution in favor of a single global government. I read most of these emails, and, occasionally, I reply. But do you know what I don’t do? I don’t publish them in my column as if they are interesting or worthwhile or deserving of attention. “Does she understand — really understand — that . . . the United States is on track to become functionally an authoritarian White Christian nationalist state in the very near future?” is a question posed by crackpots. Sullivan, it seems, is at least crackpot-adjacent.