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Amused Muse

Inspiring dissent and debate and the love of dissonance

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Location: Surreality, Have Fun Will Travel, Past Midnight before a Workday

Master's Degree holder, telecommuting from the hot tub, proud Darwinian Dawkobot, and pirate librarian belly-dancer bohemian secret agent scribe on a mission to rescue bloggers from the wholesome clutches of the pious backstabbing girl fridays of the world.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Gossip About Obama (and McCain)

I can't even believe I'm writing this, but either certain Americans are more gullible than P.T. Barnum imagined, or there's a concerted effort by McCain supporters to plant stories of "Clinton supporters now voting Republican" because they think Barak Obama is an Arab/Muslim/from the Middle East. (Being cynical, I tend to think both could be true.)

[UPDATED: McCain has just pulled ads from allegedly pro-Hillary sites that compare Barak Obama to - you guessed it - Adolf Hitler. I remain skeptical about the reports of these "sour grapes" Hillary supporters, although from what I've seen of them they could very well be as crazy as the "agents of intolerance" McCain is now saddled with, and who he used to denounce. Andy Warhol had it partly right - in the future, everyone will have 15 minutes of fame being compared to Adolf Hitler.]

The fact that these alleged "sour grapes" voters make equations between the three astonishes me. What does being an Arab have to do with being a Muslim? Arabs are an ethnicity; Islam is a religion. As a matter of fact, most Arabs in the United States are Christian, and most Muslims in the world are Asian. And don't make simple equations between these and the Middle East, either. They are three different sets that can, but don't always, overlap. (Did people know that there are Jews in Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey? Do people know that Arab-speaking Christians and Jews also pray to "Allah," which is simply the Arabic word for "God"? Do they know that there is no religious test for the Presidency? I hope so.)

When I hear (or read) questions like, "How are we supposed to know what's true?" I just cringe and remember all those passed notes on the schoolbus ("So-and-so in such'n'such state was ARRESTED for PRAYING IN SCHOOL!!!") and everything that people repeated mindlessly from television ("Pedophiles are SACRIFICING BABIES to Satan!" or "Bottled water causes CANCER!"). I remember clearly the day that I had a "snake pit" moment amidst all the false drama that people in a small town invent to have something to do, and realized, "If I listen to these people, I'll never get anywhere."

This is a fine time for a 70-year-old Citizen Joe to ask how we are supposed to know what's true. You should have learned that long ago. This is why we need sound science education in our public schools! Critical thinking is not a "choice" between rumor and fact, any more than it a "debate" between science and pseudoscience. Whatever happened to the adage, "Don't believe anything you hear, and only half of what you see?" But unfortunately, our education system has become so politicized by special interest groups like creationists and abstinence-only wingnuts that people can be easily swayed by even the most outrageous rumor (in fact, the more outrageous the rumor, the more likely that it will be believed), while simultaneously believing that they are the ones digging deeper at some hidden truth. It's the same with Obama.

So where do I begin?

1. Start by becoming curious; climb out of that shell, switch off the idiot box, and start living. Meet people; do things. As a result Citizen Joe/Jane will feel less insignificant and helpless, and the world will be a much less scary place, factors that are probably the greatest contributors to gossip.

2. Talk to your librarian, check some books out of the library - for example, Obama's autobiographies (or McCain's) - look at a few maps and read about the history of Islam, Arabs, the Middle East, and Africa. You live in a country that allows you the freedom to inform yourself about the world. Take advantage of it! Consider travel, too - another freedom that much of the world doesn't enjoy.

3. Ignore all the rumors you hear at the water cooler, the barber shop, in church, on radio or television, and in those fucking forwarded e-mail hoaxes - and be prepared to experience in response a massive amount of peer pressure, exhortations to be a "part of the group," which should confirm that what you're hearing is a crock. (The pressure to gossip is overwhelming, in part because if you don't succumb you will likely become the next target. I know.) The best response is to delay any action. Even if what you're hearing turns out to be true, in all likelihood there's nothing you can do about it that cannot wait until you've confirmed it from a credible source. (In all likelihood there's nothing you can do about it anyway.)

4. Be suspicious of any statement that plays to your emotions, especially fear and vanity - be aware that these rumors always have a "hook, a threat, and a promise," which alternately scares the target and flatters him/her with the power to "save the world," usually by forwarding an e-mail to "all of your family and friends," or by signing some "petition" (what a great phishing scam!) or, in this case, by not voting for Obama.

5. Ask for specifics - for example, where in "Africa" was Obama supposedly born? Africa is a huge continent, after all. Who was his doctor/midwife? Where is his birth certificate? Where is the birth certificate of McCain's "love child"? (To which I must ask, "Who cares?" I tend to feel relieved when people, Republicans especially, show a bit of tarnish. There is a puritanicism that lurks beneath all of this talk.) Where specifically are people getting their information? Ask for the original author of the information - and if no one can name a name other than their neighbor who passed it on, or some e-mail or talk show host, it's a rumor and should be dismissed immediately. (Likewise for this crap about McCain "not being a U.S. citizen" or being "too old" to run for President. Spare me.)

6. Learn to recognize logical fallacies, and dismiss any argument that uses them. Start seeing the contradictions that will arise, inevitably, from gossip. (Isn't it strange that Obama can both be "from the Middle East" and "from Africa", or both "have that awful pastor" and be a "Muslim"?) Get into the habit of assessing websites for accuracy and objectivity.

7. When in doubt, check out Snopes.

Don't get caught up in the "drama" of spreading the rumor - which is what this phenomenon is really about, if the participants were to be honest with themselves. Gossip is Nobody's Friend:

My name is Gossip.
I have no respect for justice.
I maim without killing.
I break hearts and ruin lives.
I am cunning and malicious and gather strength with age.
The more I am quoted the more I am believed.
My victims are helpess. They cannot prove themselves against me because I have no name and no face.
To track me down is impossible. The harder you try, to more elusive I become.
I am nobody's friend.
Once I tarnish a reputation, it is never the same.
I topple governments and wreck marriages.
I ruin careers and cause sleepless nights, heartaches and indigestion. I make innocent people cry in their pillows.
Even my name hisses. I am Gossip.
I make headlines and headaches.
Before you repeat a story, ask yourself:
Is it true?
Is it harmless?
Is it necessary?
If it isn't, don't repeat it.

P.S. Do belly dancers also have "Arab tendencies"? Call the Department of Homeland Security! Stop me before I dance again! I think I just invented a slogan for a t-shirt.

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Blogger jeffox said...

I've always said that the only good rhumor is the one that's a Fleetwood Mac album.

Well, usually always.


Maybe. :)

Seriously, the apparent schism between Obama and Sen. Clinton is strictly a right-wing media made-story and represents wishful thinking on their part more than any reflection on U.S. mass opinion. The right knows it's going to lose and lose big in November, and they're literally running scared. These stories demonstrate that.

Anyway, my 2c.

July 02, 2008 2:34 AM  
Blogger Kristine said...

I go back and forth on whether it's media hype or not. Some of the behavior I've seen has been outrageous, whether or not this is a false story.

I almost don't care - I know who I'm voting for and why, and it has nothing to do with all this noise. Americans say, in poll after poll, that they want candidates to discuss the issues, and yet here we are in the midst of another mediawash again, talking about more melodramatic crap.

I blamed the media partly, not for being liberal or conservative, but for simply having rolling deadlines in a 24-hour news cycle, and needing to compete with sensational one-upmanship. It's profiteering at its worst, contributing to mass hysteria.

This panic over salmonella in tomatoes - although now maybe it's not tomatoes - is another example. Most tomatoes are safe but farmers have reported a huge loss. All you have to do is buy certain kinds (such as with the vine attached), or in a cleared state, but no, people panic.

We've become a nation of panickers.

July 02, 2008 8:39 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

We've become a nation of panickers.

Become? I think there's always a tendency toward panic in any large group, but you're right that the development of the 24-hour news cycle and one-upmanship hasn't helped. One of my favorite SNL sketches was Jerry Seinfeld playing a news anchor, saying in a complete deadpan, "Tonight we'll tell you about a common household item that can kill you. More about that later." After talking about a few other things he said, "And now for another hint about that common household item: you don't have to be using it for it to kill you. We'll reveal what it is later after the weather."
It sounded almost exactly like my local news.

July 02, 2008 11:09 AM  
Blogger Rev. Barking Nonsequitur said...

I would have no problem with sacrificing bottled water to Satan.

July 02, 2008 12:29 PM  
Blogger Bjorn said...

There is an interview in the latest NewScientist about Lee Siegel, who responded to trolls on the New Republic site, by posting praising comments about himself on his own articles. He was caught, and fired. He's written a book called Against the Machine which criticizes the internet's dangerous influence on our culture.

I think that's a bit of fear mongering, and sensationalism, but that was one of the points of the interview. He bemoans the practice of major media's presence on the internet of using "most popular", "most emailed", and "most read" lists, because the focus was to get your piece on one of those lists. Not that the same isn't true of other forms of media, but on the surface, the internet magnifies the effort because of immediate tracking available, such as hits to an article.

How does this tie into gossip? The more sensational, the more forwards get sent around. Fortunately, most people know better then to send me forwards.

The scale of credibility is important when verifying claims. The number of first hand accounts is small, but the number of second and third hand accounts can be huge. Then it becomes a game of how well do you trust your source of information. How many times have 24 hour news sources jumped onto something which was on a blog, only to be duped, and losing their own credibility?

Are we always doomed to gossip? Is news just glorified gossip?
What sources would exist without bias? The weather? But what if a town wanted to seem more appealing, and so temperatures were rounded in such a way to appear less extreme, say 79 degrees, rather then 79.9?

July 03, 2008 10:50 AM  
Blogger breakerslion said...

Most Popular: "Paris Hilton wets self."

Most Relevant ..... ?

I think the technique was named by the Romans. "Bread and Circuses".

You've got to tell me what this deadly household product is. The suspense is killing me! Is it bleach? Water? Electricity? Those clothespins that senile granny snuck into the sponge cake? WHAT? WHAT? WHAT? Help me! I'm paranoid and I don't know what to focus on!

July 03, 2008 3:40 PM  
Blogger Jojo Chintoh said...

I read an article on Yahoo! News (hardly a font of objective info) about people moving from Clinton to McCain. I was expecting to read, perhaps, commentaries about experience, about strength against terrorism, etc. Things I don't agree with but at least credible opinions. All I got was crap like "Mrs So-and-So of Somewhere, NY says she won't be voting for Obama because his name 'sounds Muslim'" or whatever.

I couldn't understand if it was written by a Clinton supporter who was trying to wage a smear campaign or written by an Obama supporter trying to paint Clintonians as racist rednecks.

Either way, however, it looked bad on the Democrat Party. Since the main goal here ought to be getting rid of Bushites by any means possible, I found it quite disheartening.

July 10, 2008 8:32 AM  
Anonymous AJ Milne said...

The Snopes page on Obama rumours is... actually disturbing. I may just be naive about how politics is played in the US, but some of what they're debunking seriously amazes me. Open question in my mind is: is this normal? Do these kinds of rumous *normally* circulate about political opponents in an election like this? Or is this unusual, and several more steps over the top even from the usual level of bizarre and inflammatory for some reason--that reason maybe being race. 'Cos geez, there's some nasty, nasty BS up there. That's the kinda stuff in my innocence I'd have thought *anyone*, regardless of political leanings would be careful about forwarding--the kind of shit you could get all over yourself even for repeating, I'd think... And yet there it is. I can think of some folk and certain organizations I really, really don't like, and about whom my inclinations might tend to make me believe such stuff briefly--at least, sans confirmation--but there's no way in hell I can imagine just casually repeating such a thing about anyone--that'd be subject to serious checking it out. So I find myself wondering: what the hell is going on here that this stuff percolates all the same? Some serious hating going on, looks like to me.

July 16, 2008 7:45 AM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Remember Willie Horton? Remember McCain’s “black love child” during the 2000 campaign? Does this go on all the time? You’d better believe it. Gossip at all levels—national, local, community, personal—what else do you do in a country where a significant percentage of the populace (18%) believes that the sun revolves around the earth?

Snopes is disturbing for more than just presidential campaigns, because of all the other crap that gets forwarded in e-mails, the same crap that was repeated on the schoolbus and in church in my day – did you know that NASA "discovered the lost day of Joshua"?

Or that there is “more evidence for Jesus Christ than for Julius Caesar”? Or that Albert Einstein “proved God exists”? (Wow! "And if Einstein believed in God, why can't you, smarty-pants? Think you're smarter than Einstein?") Or that some kid freaked out his atheist teacher with a “proof God exists”? Or that some atheist teacher freaked out because he said, “If God exists, then this piece of chalk won’t break when I drop it,” and it bounced off his toe, and blah, blah, blah...

Americans really are a rural people in that we have this “just folks” mentality, “I’m just a country boy from Alabamy” even if you’re running for the U.S. Senate (in fact, especially if you’re running for the U.S. Senate). It’s disappointing to me, having left a small town in which I could not be myself, to discover what a nation of gullible doofuses we are.

No one talks about the real social class structure in America—which has less to do with money but everything to do with who watches hours of television daily and who does not, who trusts commercials (and talks about them as if they were little entertaining movies) and who does not, who attains higher education and who does not, who saves money and who does not, who regards the media critically and who does not, who allows every aspect of their life to be commercialized (Nike, Coke, Lean Cuisine, Disney, etc.) and who does not, who shops at Rainbow or Cub or at convenience stores versus who shops at co-ops and specialty stores, who eats fruits and vegetables and who does not, who vacations at attractions (Disney World, Valley Fair, Wisconsin Dells, etc.) and who vacations in America’s national parks or in foreign countries, and, finally, who believes utter BS and who does not.

There is a lot of peer pressure to be a loveable, gullible doofus—“one of us,” an “ordinary American,” instead of being an “elitist,” a “pointy-headed intellectual,” and a “communist.” You’d better believe it goes on all the time. Here is the most honest book about America that I have ever read.

July 16, 2008 10:38 AM  
Anonymous AJ Milne said...

I guess I get that... sorta. Anyone half-bright who's spent any amount of time in a small town should, I guess. Peer pressure, I buy. But then I look at the sheer bizarreness of some of that stuff, and it's like: huh? Doesn't the 'don't wanna look stupid by saying somethin' so obviously incredulous' anxiety count for anything, here?

But then, apparently not. And I guess I can sort of picture that scene. Like you say: peer pressure. It does work that way here, too, to a degree...
Maybe it's a smidge less polarized, maybe that's why it seems so bizarre... Maybe. Guess I'm far from sure of that, actually. I do know I can cross that line: I've been able to debunk spoon bending (with demonstrations) at a party once when someone was going on about Gellar, was able to explain cold reading and the things everyone is happy to believe about themselves once when the hostess was handing around horoscopes written that way. And I can mock crazy uncles going on about September 11 'n black helicopter stuff without being tossed out of the room (usually)... But it's true, it's probably about context. Who else is there, the spirit of the occasion., even how you do it (it's usually only even worth a shot if you can keep it entertaining). And probably, at a gas station in Nowheresville, Middle Of, if a burly guy started piping up about the same stuff and had six friends of his with 'em, I'd be a lot less likely to do so, anyway...

And now that you mention it: the spoon bending was at a cocktail party (no, I'm not a regular at those, but they do happen). The horoscopes, no kidding, were at a wine-tasting session. Upper class cover, y'know? So you're probably right about the class thing. Where it's not so much a 'just folks' vibe, so you can get away with being the snotty guy wearing the ascot, a bit, anyway. Hell, maybe there's even a bit of pressure that way. As in: 'somebody say somethin'... this rube is making us look too much like the great unwashed...'

I'd say it's another argument in favour of a little elitism, here and there... but really, what'd be so much nicer and saner would be if that could somehow be made a more respectable and common value. Saying 'okay... that's hayseed BS... grow up, yer never gonna get out from under the thumb of anyone by staying stupid' should be a safer thing to say in gas stations.

July 16, 2008 12:49 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

AJ - look here. "God help your fagot communist ass..."

Perfect example.

July 16, 2008 2:32 PM  
Anonymous Colin Purrington said...

A great list.

August 17, 2008 10:34 AM  

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