Of Tea Parties, Terrorists and Civil Discourse

Carolyn Kaster/ AP

As you may have heard, the media made a rising star out of Ryan Rhodes, the founder of the Iowa Tea Party, when he spoke out of turn at an appearance by President Obama, yelling at the president and confronting him about Joe Biden calling Tea Partiers terrorists. If you want your 15 minutes of fame, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get it by being rude and disrespectful toward this particular president. (Remember the “You lie!” craze?) In a more genteel time, Rhodes’ conduct would have netted him a rap on the knuckles from Miss Manners, but in this era, it makes him a national hero.  The grotesque irony of a teabagger lecturing anyone about civil conduct seems to have been quite lost on the media; it’s rather like Bill Clinton lecturing someone on marital fidelity.

Rhodes was referring to a remark supposedly made by the Vice President in a private meeting with fellow Democrats. Or maybe someone else said it and he merely implied his assent. Or maybe someone else said it and he failed to pummel them senseless. In any case, there’s no confirmation it actually happened, and the veep flatly denies it. But who needs confirmation when you have Internet rumors? As teabaggers have demonstrated repeatedly, the only proof they need of a rumor’s truth is that it’s been repeated by Fox and/ or Drudge.

To his credit, after Obama had finished addressing the inquiries of people who observed appropriate protocol, he circled back and attempted to engage Rhodes in an actual dialogue. (If you don’t grasp how extraordinary that is, try to visualize  George W. Bush or even Ronald Reagan -aka The Great Communicator- allowing hecklers to go head-to-head with him.) He first denied the Biden rumor, then tried to have a civil discussion about the issues. Rhodes, however, was really just interested in hurling the same accusation over and over.

He was reinforced by an unidentified woman who zoomed in to confront the president with the accusation that another member of his administration, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, had also called them terrorists. That’s also untrue, but at least it has a tenuous basis in reality. But just for good measure, the lady added another assertion that she seems to have just pulled out of her ass: that 90 percent of domestic terrorist attacks are carried out by “left-wing environmental radicals”.

Among other things, she seems to be confused by the cute and trendy trick of classifying eco-saboteurs as terrorists.  While eco-saboteurs may destroy property by what could be considered violent means, their objectives do not include taking lives – in fact, they’re motivated by a reverence for life that may cloud their judgment about how best to express it.

Even the most extreme and violent of left-wing organizations, the Weathermen (who were politically and not ecologically motivated) were responsible for at worst a handful of deaths, which were accidental or coincidental to their operations. (They detonated bombs to damage property, but gave advance notice so the property could be evacuated.) When a terrorist kills someone accidentally, it’s the accident part that’s accidental, rather than the killing part.

Decades later, a former member of the group, William Ayers – now a respected professor and (peaceful) political organizer – made headlines because at some point in the more recent past he’d crossed paths, however tangentially, with an aspiring politician named Barack Obama.  This sixth-degree separation was enough for one Sarah Palin (who’d later become the Tea Party’s de facto figurehead) to proclaim that Obama had been “palling around with terrorists”. Hey, it’s no problem if someone says it about him. It’s only when he, or someone he works with, returns the favor that it becomes an outrage.

Well, suppose the favor really has been returned. Suppose both Obama and Biden are lying (they are politicians, after all). Suppose Biden, or someone in that room, or the mother-in-law of an acquaintance of someone in that room, really did say that Tea Partiers are terrorists, or behave like terrorists, or begin with the same letter of the alphabet as terrorists. Whatever might have possessed a person to say such a thing? Well, hmmm….

“If you have the unalienable right to be armed, then you have the right to kill government agents who try to disarm you.” (Jeff Mattox, Tea Party activist)

“If ballots don’t work, bullets will”  (Joyce Kaufman, speaker at a Tea Party rally in Florida)

“We are all becoming slaves to our government”  (Alabama Tea Party candidate Rick Barber, whose campaign literature depicted an armed “army of voters”)

“People are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness, what can we do to turn this country around. I tell you, the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.”  (Sharron Angle, Tea Party candidate in Nevada)

“I’m going to use my training and become one of those domestic terrorists you’re so afraid of in the reports”.  (Charles Alan Dyer, former marine and Tea Partier arrested for raping a 7-year-old girl)

“Political power comes from the barrel of a gun. They’re pushing us to our limits.” (Speaker at a New Mexico Tea Party rally)

If we had our guns [during the time of the Nazis’ reign in Germany], we would have fought a bloody battle. So, keep your guns, and buy more guns, and buy ammunition. Take back America. Don’t let them take the country into Socialism. And I refer again, Hitler’s party was National Socialism. And that’s what we are having here right now, which is bordering on Marxism.” (Kitty Werthmann at a” How to Take Back America” Conference in St. Louis)

(The Second Amendment) “was clearly intended for self defense as well as, and more specifically, to keep the government on notice of an armed citizenry.” (Katherine Crabill, Tea Party candidate in Virginia)

These, mind you, are just a FEW utterances from individuals KNOWN to have DIRECT Tea Party affiliations.  There are many, many other such declarations by others of the same stripe, some of whom have actually carried out violent and even deadly acts.  You can read about some of them here.

Of course, in promoting the defensive meme that “both sides do it” (which, as we’ve previously noted, is a gross exaggeration at best), people often quote Obama’s comment that “If they bring a knife, we bring a gun.” To which perhaps the only appropriate response is… “Are you fucking kidding me???” Obama was very obviously using a metaphor. (Look it up if you slept through English class.) He wasn’t expecting anyone to literally bring a knife or a gun. But when Tea Partiers say “We come Unarmed… This Time”, they’re clearly NOT speaking metaphorically. And they’re sure as hell not being metaphorical when they actually BRING guns. It may be a stretch to call the Tea Party a terrorist outfit, but the potential for violence which could be classified as terrorism is very much present, and it’s not surprising that Napolitano et al are being vigilant.

Consider the late Timpothy McVeigh, who by any standard was a full-blown terrorist. He killed 168 people, none by accident. And he was by no means a “left-wing environmentalist radical”. In fact, he was about as far away from being one as you can get. In his views, his attitudes and his words he would have blended right in at a Tea Party rally, ranting about “Second Amendment remedies”, “patriotism” and defense against the “tyranny” of the ballot box.

Rhodes, by the way, demonstrated later that same day just how sincere he was about “civil discourse”. By suggesting the president is a socialist.

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Devil’s Knot Untied: The WM3 Are Free!

There’s some very good news this week on the legal front, and it comes from, of all places, Arkansas. The West Memphis Three, after spending 18 years in prison (one of them on death row) were finally freed, putting an end to one of the most shameful witchhunts of the Twentieth Century.

In 1993, the bodies of three 8-year-old West Memphis boys were found in a ditch in a wooded area; they’d been brutally murdered and their bodies mutilated. The local police department, which had been plagued with corruption, ignored the trail of evidence pointing toward the stepfather of one of the victims (with whom they had some ties), and instead focused on three teen misfits: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley, Jr.

This troubled trio had been known to dress in black, listen to heavy metal and engage in other activity that was considered oddball in their conservative community. But what really sealed the deal was that Echols had been known to experiment with different religious practices, such as Catholicism, Buddhism, and even (shudder) Wicca.

In their community, there were plenty of people who were living in the Fourteenth Century rather than the Twentieth. They believed that the earth was created 6000 years ago, that science is evil, that God punishes nonbelievers, and that neopaganism equals “devil worship”, complete with human sacrifice.

Police badgered Misskelly, who was mentally handicapped, into confessing to the crime and implicating Echols and Baldwin – he apparently was under the impression that if he just told them what they wanted to hear, they’d let him go. Accordingly, he changed his story several times under their prompting, and got significant details of the crime wrong. Nonetheless, his “confession” was good enough to establish their guilt unless they could prove themselves innocent.

The “trial” was held in the nearby city of Jonesboro (which later would gain further notoriety as the site of a deadly school shooting) but that didn’t really improve the odds of the accused. With proceedings that  trumped the best efforts of Saturday Night Live, the prosecution introduced an “expert” in the occult whose credential turned out to be a certificate obtained by mail order. There was speculation that the victims were chosen in part because of their age: 8 is supposedly a number with mystical significance. (Anyone who follows occultism will tell you that ANY number is a number with mystical significance.) They even introduced a stick found in the woods because it looked like something that MAY have been used as a murder weapon. Seriously.

And so, in a nation where those accused are supposedly presumed innocent unless guilt can be shown beyond a reasonable shadow of a doubt, these three boys were convicted of a capital crime without a single shred of credible evidence. They’ve now spent half their lives behind bars, without ever having used such commonplace conveniences as the Internet or a cell phone. Their eighteen most vital years, gone forever.  While the Bible Belt certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on judicial rape, it’s hard to imagine that this kind of outrage could have occurred anywhere else. Let’s hope not.

And this week, suddenly, there was a surprise hearing. And after agreeing to a rotten deal that basically says that even though they’re not guilty they still have to be branded as guilty because otherwise they might sue the ass off the state, they’ve been released. Progress is two steps forward and one step back. Or maybe sometimes it’s the opposite. In any case, these three victims of mass hysteria and southern fundamentalist bigotry are, at long last, free men.

NASA Data, Computer Projections, Opinion Polls and Them Dang Libruls

Three interesting news items about global warming in the past week or so. One is that Al Gore dropped the Mr. Nice Guy routine and called out the climate science deniers in a blunt and fiery speech, addressing the dishonest campaign against scientists by its rightful technical terminology: “bullshit”. Good for him.

Except that, as you might expect, this occasion was then spun into further shoot-the-messenger attacks on him. How dare he warn us about global warming when he travels on airplanes and lives in a big house? Never mind that just about everyone at his level of success travels on a plane and lives in a big house (which in his case doubles as office space). He’s a “liberal” so unless he lives in a cave and recycles toilet paper, he’s a hypocrite.

The second prong of the usual attack against him is that he’s not qualified to speak about science since he’s not a scientist himself. Never mind that he’s been closely following and faithfully relating the work of people who ARE scientists for about four decades. He’s a “liberal”, so we should instead listen to the anti-scientists, even if they have less scientific background than he does.

Polls Apart

Another news story was about a Rasmussen poll in which 69% of respondents believed it was “at least somewhat likely that some scientists have falsified research data” on global warming. The right-wing punditocracy had a field day with this, touting it as proof of their long-held assertion that global warming is a “liberal” hoax – as if no one but “liberals” are concerned about, or affected by, the crisis. Rush Limbaugh, keeping with his usual playground antics, declared “we win”.

Most of us realize that opinion polls are not necessarily a gauge of reality. But if roughly 2 out of 3 Americans did prefer tasty new bullshit to science, it really wouldn’t be surprising, given the lengthy and intensive propaganda that Limbaugh and company have waged on the topic. But the poll didn’t conclude that 69% swallow the claim that global warming is a hoax; it concluded that 69% believe that SOME scientists MAY have fudged data. Even if that assumption is perfectly true, it wouldn’t negate the abundance of honest and sound research on the subject.

And notice that troubling little word “some”. Exactly how big a sum is some? If I knew of 2 or 3 scientists who had dishonestly distorted the facts to support the global warming model, I might be inclined to answer that question in the affirmative myself. But I’m not aware of even ONE who’s done so – despite persistent and pervasive media rumors to that effect. And those rumors have a lot of people fooled. So for once I guess Rush is actually right – “we” (the merchants of misinformation) have won, or at least are winning, the PR battle.

NASA vs. NASA

A case in point is our third news story, which went viral on the Internet: data collected by NASA over the past decade allegedly suggest that much more heat is escaping the atmosphere than global warming “alarmists” have predicted through computer models. Do a Google search for “NASA data computer simulations” and you’ll get an endless parade of links proclaiming that this new report “debunks” or “blows a hole in”  the “alarmist” global warming “theories”. Pages and pages of them. You have to dig through a Mount Everest of bullshit to unearth the facts.

Where to begin?

First, this revolutionary paper is itself based on a computer model, but one concocted by only two people – primarily Dr. Roy Spencer- and using a far more limited range of data (10 years, a mere blip when it comes to climate science) than the “alarmist” model that diagnoses global warming.

Second, Spencer himself has tweaked this data mercilessly.

Third, his paper doesn’t even deliver on the claim promised by its title.

Fourth, although data gathered by NASA were indeed used, it would be dishonest to suggest that NASA itself concurs with Spencer’s findings. The vast majority of climate scientists not only refute his conclusions (which hinge on the thesis that warmer temperatures are caused by…CLOUDS!) but are disgusted that his paper was ever published at all.

It might be construed as shooting the messenger if we merely reported that Dr. Spencer is affiliated with a creationist (“intelligent design”) organization that believes climate change is all part of a divinely ordered process and we shouldn’t worry about it. But let’s add his own words about his objectives: to “save our economy from the economic ravages of out-of-control environmental extremism” and “protecting the interests of the taxpayer.” Do you suppose that has any bearing on how he reports the information he’s amassed and mutilated?

The misinformation machine continues to churn furiously, but global warming remains a very real problem. And we’ll have to find some other grounds for demonizing libruls.

Shooting the Messenger: More on Stewart/ PolitiFact/ Fox

One of the occupational hazards of telling people what they don’t want to hear is that it invites attacks. Particularly if you’re telling them that certain beliefs they cherish, and perhaps have cherished for years, are erroneous. I’ve already fielded a few attacks on this rather young and mild-mannered blog. So as you can imagine, a public figure like Jon Stewart is going to receive his share of harsh backlash. And when he dared criticize fairandbalanced Fox “News”, it’s not surprising that there were people out there who wanted to question his credibility. It’s worth taking a look at some of the techniques they used, since this is by no means the only time you’ll ever see them.

The Singular Standard

For one thing, some of his critics seem to have forgotten that Stewart is a humorist, and instead treated him like a journalist. Which is to say that rather than looking at his larger point that Fox “consistently” misleads viewers, they focused on whether his claim that this is reflected in “every poll” on “every issue” is literally accurate. Perhaps this is because they were under the mistaken impression he was speaking on a bona fide news program, rather than as a guest on Fox, where anything goes. In any case, fair enough, I guess. After all, Stewart, though he (to the best of my knowledge) has never painted himself as a journalist,  is considerably more accurate than many who do. And if you think I’m nodding in particular toward the TV network he was commenting on, you must be psychic.

Bait and Switch

Trouble is, PolitiFact’s criticism didn’t exactly address the same thing that Stewart’s remark did. Stewart said Fox’s viewers were the most MISINFORMED. Politifact cited polls to establish that they are not necessarily the most UNINFORMED (or “ill-informed”, which they were using in the same sense).  Two different things. Uninformed is not knowing things that are true. Misinformed is “knowing” things that are not true. Fox may correctly tell its viewers that Lincoln is the capital of Nebraska, but it also tells them (far more often) that global warming is a liberal hoax, and scientists can’t be trusted. An uninformed/ ill-informed person might not know who the president of the United States is. A misinformed person may know, but also may believe he’s a socialist/Nazi/Muslim/satanist.

Selective Reading

In addition to a misreading of the word “misinformed” there was a selective reading of the word “every”, which can be interpreted in at least a couple of different ways. I call them the comprehensive (Every state has its own flag.) and the cumulative (Every time I forget my umbrella, it rains.).  In other words, “every” may mean either “all” or “each”. Did Stewart mean all polls on all possible issues? Not bloody likely, since he surely realizes that it would be virtually impossible to devise a poll covering every possible issue – and if you did it would be so damn lengthy no one would sit still to answer it. Most likely, he meant that each poll conducted reveals Fox viewers to be among the most misinformed on each topic covered. But some, apparently having intimate knowledge of the inner workings of his psyche, insist that not only did he mean the first sense, but he was deliberately misrepresenting the facts; in other words HE was the one lying! It’s somewhat like saying, “Every skunk I smell causes me to throw up”, and then me saying, “Liar! You haven’t even smelled every skunk.”

Sleight of Hand

As you well might expect, another ploy has been to question the credibility of the polls themselves. Well hey, that’s not such a bad idea. Sometimes polls are untrustworthy because of faulty methodology or deliberate bias or both. But this becomes considerably less likely when a number of polls stack up in the same direction. One critic of Stewart found one poll particularly questionable because it gauged Fox viewers’ misinformation on the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But, notes this commentator, Iraq did possess such weapons once upon a time, and furthermore, they still had some just before the U.S. invasion. (How do we know this? Because he says so!)

It turns out, however, that the poll he references actually asked whether WMD’s were FOUND in Iraq AFTER the U.S. invasion. The correct answer, I suppose, is that it depends on what the definition of “is” is.  I suppose that if the Iraq Survey Group had found thousands of skeletons in body armor, Fox could have argued that they constituted a mighty army. What they found was nothing that qualified as an active WMD, nor as evidence that a WMD program was still in place. They only found impotent remnants of chemical weapons that had been stashed for a decade or so, and which the ISG and the CIA determined were of no military value. But Fox, of course, knows better, and so do its viewers.  Just as they do on numerous other issues, including some covered in that very same poll.

Red Herrings and Straw Men and Tangents, Oh My

Oh yes, and there was even the suggestion that Fox shouldn’t be given credit for the lies it relentlessly promotes if someone on its payroll didn’t actually originate them. C’mon, do I really need to comment on that??? True, Fox didn’t invent the Death Panel rumor. Nor, for that matter, did one of Fox’s specific components, one Sarah Palin. That honor apparently belongs to Betsy McGaughey, a former director for (Surprise!) medical supply corporations. But she only said it a few times, and how many people have even heard of Betsy McGaughey? Fox has repeated it dozens if not hundreds of times, and how many people are familiar with Fox?

This is probably not an exhaustive list of the smear tactics used against Stewart, mind you. It’s just a suggestion of a few things to look for as you hear this thing they call a debate.