Gossip About Obama (and McCain)
[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.