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Leonard Pitts: If facts cease to matter, consequences do, too

My brother-in-law died of hogwash. Another brother-in-law, a sister-in-law, two daughters-in-law, two cousins and several grandchildren are all recovering from hogwash. My wife spent a week in the hospital with hogwash. I tested positive for hogwash, but had few symptoms.

“Hogwash,” you may recall, was the word a grocery-store owner in Naples, Florida, used last month in dismissing the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic. This, after a viral video showing his patrons and employees going about their business without facial coverings, as if they had time-traveled here from 2019. “I know that the masks don’t work,” Alfie Oakes told NBC News with the serene confidence of the profoundly ignorant.

As we observe our first — and, Lord willing, our last — anniversary of life in a pandemic, many of us are taking stock of the various ways we have been impacted. The most obvious, of course, is the human toll: One American in every 11 has tested positive, one in every 628 has died. But even those who’ve escaped that fate haven’t escaped the virus’ touch. It has transformed virtually every field of endeavor: sports, education, entertainment, the environment, the economy, eldercare, worship, justice, journalism, protest and politics, to name a few.

Its effects have also been felt in an arena you may not have considered, though here it has not so much changed something as revealed it. Meaning: it has shown us the high cost of living in a facts-optional — indeed, an anti-fact — society.

Actually, two events have done that. One was the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by a zealot army drunk on conspiracy theories as laughable as they were deadly. The other is this pandemic, which, though it has killed 525,000 Americans, is still regarded by some as “hogwash.” That apparently includes the governors of Texas and Mississippi, who just lifted mask mandates.

Because of them, people will die. But when facts cease to matter, consequences do, too.

Troublingly, the power of anti-fact will soon increase exponentially, as more so-called “deepfakes” come online: seamless, utterly convincing videos that show people doing things they never did and saying things they never said.

Think about it: If some of us are willing to throw out our masks in defiance of stern warnings from respected epidemiologist Dr. Anthony Fauci, what happens when a false video seems to show Fauci himself ripping off his mask and declaring it time to party? Now extrapolate that beyond the current crisis. The picture that emerges is terrifying.

When everybody has their own truth, and no two truths look alike, we will become — as we are becoming — a society unable to effectively mobilize itself, even to save its own life. If we are to avoid that fate, journalists must disenthrall themselves from false equivalence and stop signal boosting entertaining liars, voters must extract a penalty at the ballot box from politicians who embrace the anti-fact ethos, social media must be more aggressive in denying platforms to anti-fact super spreaders and educators must make a priority of teaching critical thinking, civics and media literacy.

Or else, be ready for more of this: Over half a million Americans dead. “Hogwash,” the man says.

The pandemic has changed many things. But it has also given us a harsh gift, showing us what it means to live in an anti-fact nation. Let’s hope we absorb the lesson. Because in the absence of common truths, our future is chaos.

Believe it or not.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.)

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