October 27, 2008

smell test

10/27/08

In our run-up to the election (and after) our next guest blogger is the most excellent Mark Rizzo. Mark used to live about fifteen feet from us, and could poke his head out almost into our house, thus leading Lucy to believe that all neighborhoods were basically Sesame Street.

Friends may also know Mark as the subject of the most rare of all surprise parties: yes, the Surprise Wedding. Billed as a baby shower for his girlfriend Christine, guests were shepherded onto the beach where Mark, Christine and The Right Reverend Yours Truly were waiting to perform the sacred rites of gettin' hitched.

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Good thing, too, because six days later:

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Needless to say, they and baby Jack are simply the best. And here's Mark in his own words...

***

Last week I received an email forward from my uncle Jim. He sent the message to over 50 people, the vast majority of whom live in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. His preface to the forwarded material began with "This kind of rhetoric makes me and my fellow veterans sick." My uncle served heroically in Vietnam and received a Purple Heart.

The offending rhetoric was a series of quotes from Barack Obama. The quotes touched upon his desire to replace the too-martial "Star Spangled Banner" with "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing" and how he and his wife Michelle have attended several flag-burning ceremonies because "we as a Nation have placed upon the nations of Islam an unfair injustice." These quotes were attributed to a September 7, 2008 "Meet the Press" appearance by Obama.

Sounds like a joke, right?

Because it is. This rhetoric that so sickened my uncle and his fellow vets was actually from a column called "Semi-News - A Satirical Look at Recent News" that appeared on a website called The Arizona Conservative. It was meant to make fun of Obama. Though I earn my living writing comedy, I'll forgo the opportunity to render a professional judgment on the quality of the satire. But I will say that the figure being satirized more resembled a fantastical Liberal Straw Man than Barack Obama himself.

Now, I imagine most of the folks reading this, regardless of political affiliation, quickly concluded that the email was bunk just from the two sample quotes I pulled. Even if you weren't quite sure, a startlingly quick fact check reveals that Obama was not on Meet the Press that day (the guests were Joe Biden and Thomas Friedman). It also unequivocally attributes the quotes to the satirist. Not to be too much of a priss, but the text of the email forward itself was festooned with multiple large fonts in bright colors, the kind of Crayola aesthetic that always raises my suspicion that the ideas contained therein don't stand up to scrutiny in good ol' black and white. We all have a "smell test" -- that common sense reflex that helps us discern what is Shit and what is Shinola.

What happened to Jim's?

Jim's an intelligent guy. Really. He trained as an engineer and is currently the Vice-President of Operations for a regional commercial carpentry firm. Though his life experiences have led him to be slightly more hawkish than the rest of our family, he has voted for a Democrat in every presidential election dating back to the '60s, straight through the Reagan Revolution and right up to the Bush Restoration.

So I was absolutely flabbergasted that he would fall for this. And even more dismayed that he would circulate it so widely. He's a guy with a lot of friends who respect him greatly. How in the name of G-d could he have lost his smell test?

The email forward sent a little shockwave through our family -- not because it offended any political orthodoxy, but rather that it offended our notions of what is fair and frankly led us to be concerned about Jim. The first volleys came quickly -- first, a terse reply from one of us containing the fact check info and a reminder that spreading abject falsehoods made him a "political tool." Jim quickly responded in an unusually defensive manner -- he had done a fact check of his own and "one article to the contrary" did not refute the fact that Obama is "phony" who would "sell us out in a heartbeat." Jim asserted his right to send any email he chose because he and others had bled and died for that right.

Whoa. A dispute over facts was quickly becoming very emotional. No "fact check" could change satire into journalism. Jim was in the wrong. But our family did not give up on the truth, nor did we give up on Jim. We could have written him off as a tool, a dupe or a closet racist. Instead we kept talking.

Three more emails were sent, each more compassionate than the last, pleading the case of fairness and truth, reiterating the gross factual inaccuracies and stating that our veterans did not fight for our right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater, but to preserve our right to peacefully agree to disagree. The overriding sentiment was, "A vote for McCain is not inherently offensive, but a vote for McCain based on horseshit is."

It took awhile but Jim came around. He sent us an apology for spreading the falsehoods and then went on to explain his real reason for voting McCain. It was centered on a single piece of legislation that Obama supports and McCain opposes. Jim feels that its passage would cripple the company that employs him and thereby threaten his economic survival. It was an admirable act of humility to back off the phony allegations about Obama. And it was the one of the most thoughtful and reasoned appeals to vote McCain that I have read to date.

I'll admit, it's a very narrow one, but at least it doesn't appeal to prejudice. In the end, no one in our family converted anyone. As far as I can tell, we're all still voting the same way we were before this little kerfuffle. But I do believe that we all have more respect for one another. And we're a stronger family for it.

That's our story, but there were 50 other people on Jim's forward of the bogus email. I still don't know if he heeded our call to send out a correction to these folks -- that would be another, even more admirable act of humility. This phony forward has been circulating for a year and I can't imagine how many folks have closed their minds and hardened their hearts with its help. It is jarring to me that there is such a level of ignorance and, yes, prejudice in this country that would allow such obvious absurdities to be mistaken for the truth.

Gullibility of this tragic scope leads me to wonder if it is not the result (or at least the byproduct) of a systematic manipulation of the feeblest American minds. When sharpies of any political stripe knowingly represent daylight to be nighttime or masquerade "up" as "down," they are softening up our already-tender brains for knockout punches like "Barack Obama is a socialist Muslim who casually burns the American flag."

My outrage is fresh and perhaps it obscures Schlegel's old "axiom of the average," which is a fancy way of saying, "'twas ever thus." Or in David Byrne's formulation, "same as it ever was." Big deal. Propaganda's been around for a long time and surely we can make a grim parlor game of finding countless antecedents of this latest demagoguery. But I do wonder -- if it was ever thus, was it always so very fucking thus? Are we losing our smell test?

It's my fear that our smell test is mutating in a dangerous direction. For most of us, the smell test is no longer, "Does this stink of bullshit?" but rather "Do I find this interesting? Does this 'information' support my prejudices?" If it jibes with our opinion, our preferred "narrative," we run with it. And run fast.

My uncle Jim was feeling frightened about what an Obama presidency would mean to his family's economic well-being, so he was eager to believe that Obama is "anti-America." Though my prejudices lead me to believe that the Republican Party as presently constituted is a more steady supplier of this fertilizer, I'm beginning to think that all of us are guilty in some way. The Netroots Left's conspiracy theories surrounding the origins of Trig Palin were embarrassing. But, good G-d, they were entertaining! And they supported the frustrated Left's prejudice that the Right is always up to some shady business.

Perhaps it comes down to speed -- so much information comes to us so quickly that we feel forced to make snap judgments about it just to keep up. Absent deliberation, we simply decide based on our prejudices. When our pulses quicken it would behoove us all, whatever our particular rooting interest, to take a beat and consider, deliberate, fact-check, discuss and then decide. In the process we might even learn that we're all playing for the same team.

Posted by Ian Williams at October 27, 2008 11:39 PM
Comments
Posted by: Anne at October 28, 2008 4:07 AM

Mark, what a compelling and rather horrifying account of your family kerfluffle. Sadly, I have heard similar sentiments (not the parody per se, but about respect for the flag and the national anthem, business concerns, etc.) from others whom I respect and even love.

I think we can chalk it up to the Fear Factor, which has been consistently evoked by the GOP in this election.

Thanks very much for sharing this personal story.

Posted by: Tanya at October 28, 2008 5:13 AM

Mark,
Fantastic work. I have a sister-in-law who is constantly spreading that kind of "fertilizer" (as you put it) around, and it drives me batty. I love your reasoned, caring and thoughtful response. You're a much better, kinder person than I am, because all I want to do is hit "reply all" and tell her she's a fucking idiot.

Posted by: dean at October 28, 2008 5:54 AM

anne

Take off your rose-colored glasses. I think Mark's main point is that BOTH sides should be completely embarrassed and ashamed at what propaganda and nonsense they spew.

BOTH SIDES

Posted by: Caroline at October 28, 2008 6:36 AM

Fabulous post.

My husband often comes home when I'm in the midst of my TV crush, Keith Olbermann (no need to comment on my taste, I heart Keith and his giant head and I don't know why). And my husband, very much an Independent voter, usually says "Baaaaaaa". I know I'm not watching 'news' any more than people watching Bill O'Reilly are watching 'news'. It's biased and one-sided but it makes me feel better. But at least I know it and I try not to inflict it on other people.

Posted by: Annie H. at October 28, 2008 7:17 AM

Dean's comment, which echoes a comment of Claudia's from a couple of entries ago, begs the question of what similarly misleading propaganda smears the Obama campaign (or Obama supporters apart from the campaign) have engaged in. Seems like I've heard of several distortions of fact coming out of the McCain camp (this email being one--and then there's the robocalls, McCain & Palin themselves comparing Obama to terrorists, etc) but, I don't know of any smear against McCain I "should be completely embarrassed and ashamed" of. For example, there haven't been any TV commercials or mailings I've heard of suggesting that McCain has somehow distorted the record of his service to his country in order to gain votes. As I mentioned several days ago, Obama has even steered clear of the notorious Keating 5 scandal, which I respect him for.

Is there some McCain-smearing viral mailing or robocall campaign associated with the Obama camp that we've all missed somehow?

Posted by: Rebecca at October 28, 2008 7:28 AM

I had a long conversation with one of my oldest UNC friends yesterday. She has morphed into an extreme religious fanatic over the past 10 years, but I still love her and enjoy her company. She told me she was "terrified" of an Obama presidency, and started quoting all the Fox News talking points. It was fear mongering, and her points were not based on facts! Now, in years past, I've let her prattle on, because I know there's no swaying her from her Christian beliefs. But this time, I've had enough with her. I don't mind people supporting McCain for real reasons that affect their family or sync with their beliefs, but buying into all the misinformation about Obama is just unacceptable to me. Anyway, she accused me of "falling for all the liberal media bullshit" and I just had to hang up. It saddens me that we've come to this.

Posted by: CM at October 28, 2008 7:28 AM

Mark's story shows that if you keep up a conversation, minds can be changed, or at least, maybe led to think more carefully. Is it always a winning battle? Clearly, no. But sometimes it's worth trying. If Jim decides not to send out the next bogus e-mail based on this, it did some good.

Posted by: Anonymous Canuck at October 28, 2008 8:10 AM

Fred Clark over at Slacktivist has been writing about this sort of self-perpetuating misinformation in a series of really good postings:
http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2008/09/false-witnesses.html
http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2008/10/false-witnesses-2.html
http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2008/10/they-need-help.html

His take on it is that clinging to these sort of ideas is a way of declaring membership in a tribe, which is why attempts to debunk the specific details of the story results in so much resistance. The response is felt as an attack on the tribe, or the person's position as a member of the tribe, rather than as the factual correction that was intended.

Posted by: Ehren at October 28, 2008 8:12 AM

This is a great post. I am also worried by this. As someone who has lived as an adult in the small-town rural south and Brooklyn, I have seen all sorts of people who seem more concerned about shoring up their belief in their own ideology than actually trying to figure out what's actually going on.

I think that the world has gotten too complex for most folks (including myself) to read enough to feel informed on most issues, so we increasingly rely on the party's platform, which is increasingly diluted down to broad strokes for good sound bites, and then recycled infinitely on 24-hour news shows and the internet. Couple that with the lightning speed of rumor-mongering, and you've got a nation of talking point quoters who have too much invested in their political affiliation to ever challenge it.

Posted by: GFWD at October 28, 2008 8:18 AM

My father-in-law similarly forwards all of those crazy chain negative emails to me and his cadre of email friends. I ignore them all. One time, however, my FIL followed up and asked me my thoughts on one of the emails.

I used that as an opportunity to debunk every one of the ones he had sent to me. To be fair, he doesn't like the campaign double-talk that either one of the candidates spew, but (up until that point) he had only forwarded anti-Obama stuff.

After debunking the silly emails, I started asking my FIL what issues were most important to him and why; then I argued why I thought Obama would better meet his issues over McCain.

I don't know if that conversation had anything to do with how he made up his mind to vote, but he informed me last week that he voted for Obama.

Rebecca, not sure if I would know the Tar Heel from your conversation. (You can let me know, if you want to, in a private email.) But, I've seen the same kind of talk from friends (some close, some not) about Obama and it's nearly jaw dropping. For the folks I've come across with that line of rhetoric, they weren't necessarily even coming from a very religious background. They were just spouting it with no credible basis of support. Like you, I can't really talk with someone like that.

Posted by: Jody at October 28, 2008 8:47 AM

We simply have more access to this now, the mindset has been there for many decades. I think de Tocqueville (sp?) was the last person to travel the country and like what he saw, (1840?).
I suppose Steinbeck was accurate when he observed that Americans were guided by fear...in 1960.
Really personal entry today, can't really say much about that.

Posted by: Claudia at October 28, 2008 11:55 AM

Annie H.,

My comment from a few days ago was more general. No, at the moment, I can't think of any massive smears against McCain's campaign other than the nonsense about Trig's maternity, and the small-scale vandalism that's occurred in my area against property displaying McCain signs or stickers. Then again, I live in a place that is bluer than blue. I can think of plenty, though, against the current administration that had absolutely nothing to do with the merits.

Posted by: janet regis at October 28, 2008 5:26 PM

we ( I) can get so very grounded................... sometimes it hurts........its like the earth hits you in the place that stings the most..........like certain types of homemade soup

Posted by: wottop at October 29, 2008 1:26 PM

Maybe the Dems should try to 'Swiftboat' McCain. Or can only the Reps trash the military record of a man who was under live fire for his country? And this happened when his opponent joined the guard to slide by. Maybe the whole Manchurian Candidate thing would fly.
What they should really do is explain that the VP position is not a throw-away. Holy shit! if Palin ever made it to the Oval Office ... she would make W look like a genius. Of course she would have to spend her time reading ‘All’ of the papers and magazines so she might have a clue about the job. If a man stood at the podium and winked and did a shout-out to a third grade class, he would be laughed out of the room. Why are people letting her slide? Because she is cute? WTF? This is serious business and somehow we are supposed to settle for that?
In the end it is all about energy policy. In ten years we can have drilled for more oil or not need to use as much. I’d rather have the latter. Why is cheaper crack not still crack? The security and strength of our country will be greatly affected by our ability to produce our own energy.

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