Snope It Out!

As mentioned previously, wacky rumors are still circulated on the Internet quite frequently these days – perhaps more often than ever. Which is really bewildering since it is easier than ever to discredit them, thanks to a number of online resources, some dedicated especially to deflating myths. One of the best is Snopes.com. They do a thorough, prompt and even-handed job of examining myths, urban legends and rumors, and they do so without partisanship – therefore, not surprisingly, they’re often accused of “liberal bias”. (In fact, the site was founded by a Canadian citizen and a registered Republican.)

Snopes doesn’t just cover political rumors, though, but rumors in 41 categories. So if you read it in a forward, chances are you can see it debunked there. I can’t guarantee that the site is infallible, but I’ve never known it to err yet. At the very least, it’s an excellent place to start.

Since it was an Obama rumor that sparked this whole discussion, it’s worth noting what his coverage on Snopes indicates about the intense campaign of hatred and rumor mongering that has been waged against the current president. It’s especially illuminating to compare his “Snopes index” with that of his predecessor.

George W. Bush governed with an arrogant “my way or the highway”, “you’re with ME or with THEM” stance that is guaranteed to make some enemies. (It was the kind of chest-thumping insolent insularity that has dominated his party as a whole for the past 30 years or so- but ratcheted up a notch or two.) Even though in the 2000 election he lost (at the very least) the popular vote, he admonished congressional Democrats to get aboard his agenda or “be left behind”. After the 2004 election, which itself was rather close, he boasted, “I earned political capital, and I intend to spend it”. (He was referring to both elections, incidentally.) The media spun this hubris as “strong leadership”; and the ever-entertaining National Review, while jumping on that bandwagon, also suggested that perhaps his greatest asset was his modesty. Seriously.

Naturally, this kind of polarizing figure is going to inspire some rumors. Accordingly, after his 8 years in office, Snopes has listed 46 Bush rumors, 20 of which are true and 17 false. (Nine of them are partly true, doubtful, or undetermined.) We should acknowledge that not all of these rumors are negative; one includes the claim that Bush’s house is more ecologically friendly than Al Gore’s. (This is true as far as it goes, but there are additional facts you might want to consider before circulating it – particularly if your aim is to peg Gore as a “hypocrite”.) The vast majority of the rumors, however, are considerably less complimentary.

Now consider Barack Obama, who’s spent less than 3 years in office. Unlike Bush, he’s been quite willing to compromise and work with the opposition -just compare the boldness of the original healthcare bill with the emasculated version that barely survived. (To the spinmeisters this makes him, simultaneously, a pussy and a tyrant.) His Snopes total so far is 103 rumors – more than double that of Bush in less than half the time.  Of these, only 12 are true (11% compared to 43% for Bush) and 69 false (67% compared to 37% for Bush). The number of decidedly false rumors circulated about Obama considerably exceeds the total number of rumors circulated about Bush. All of which solidly underscores the conclusion that the vendetta against Obama is based on something besides his actual performance on the job.

But the purpose here is not to defend or denounce any particular politician. The purpose is to remind you that sooner rather than later, you will be forwarded some breathtaking allegation about Obama. Or Bush. Or Hillary Clinton. Or Jane Fonda. Or somebody. And you may be so outraged that you’re tempted to pass it on, particularly if it reinforces beliefs you already hold. But you might want to pause and snope it out first. It just might prevent you from making a fool of yourself.

 

NOTE: (Added 11/4/11) Some Internet rumors include the claim that the information has been “verified by Snopes” when it hasn’t. In some such cases, Snopes has even discredited it. There’s no substitute for checking it out yourself.

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Michelle Malkin vs. Obama’s Dog

There’s a certain fellow sharing my last name, apparently a distant relative though I’d never heard of him until a few months ago, who just loves to send email. Every day. Sometimes I’ll get five or six a day, forwards of forwards of forwards. Almost all of them contain nutty rumors, vicious smears or childish jokes about one or more persons named Obama. He evidently assumes that (a) I actually enjoy reading such stuff, and (b) I can’t get it anywhere else.

I’ve actually read a few of these to see if they’re as idiotic as they appear. They are. Most are too silly even to comment on, but a few possess the added distinction of mind-blowing stupidity. The other day, he sent me the one about President Obama’s dog; and this one, I just can’t resist.

You may have heard about the Prez’s pooch already. The story has gained traction thanks to the blog of Michelle Malkin, one of an endlessly breeding army of vitriolic pundits who get paid handsomely for ignoring whatever brain cells and scruples they own. You may recall that Malkin impugned the patriotism of those who dared question Arizona’s so-called immigration law – apparently not realizing that under its provisions, she herself could be detained as a suspected illegal because she “looks foreign”.

According to a post on her blog (she didn’t write it herself, but it bears her stamp of approval), the Obama family took a vacation to Maine and the first mutt, Bo, was flown on his own plane. Oh, the shame of it – wasting all that money when banks and oil companies are hurting so much. Accordingly, the right-wing blogosphere went apeshit, and the emails have been flying furiously ever since.

As with many Internet rumors, there is less to this story than meets the eye. And as with many bits of popular fiction, it resonates in part because it’s based on actual events. The Obamas really did take a vacation to Maine. And Bo really did fly on a separate plane. But the key word here is separate. He did NOT fly on his OWN plane. It was a plane that was already being used to transport White House staffers. Landing at an airport too small to accommodate a large plane, the presidential party traveled in two smaller ones instead.  Transporting the canine did not, contrary to Malkinoid rumor, entail any added expense. And the suggestion that it did betrays, at best, an utter lack of research.

This rumor is especially instructive because it illustrates how drastically a fact can be altered by omitting or changing just a word or two – and that’s a tack you’ll  see polemicists using over and over again. Take a perfectly accurate statement like “Michelle Malkin blew it on Obama’s dog.”  We could Malkinize it by omitting just two brief words and end up with “Michelle Malkin blew Obama’s dog.”  Interpreted in one way, this claim would imply an action that we could neither verify nor discredit. Yet read another way, it’s just a condensed version of the original statement, and so is still perfectly true – which makes it more accurate than the Malkinized story about Bo. So hey, why not forward it to everyone on your contact list.

But while rumors often get started with an omission, they tend to get embroidered with  new details as they gain momentum.  The version of the shaggy dog story that landed in my inbox, for instance, included the explanation that Muslims consider dogs unclean. (And we all know that Obama is a Muslim/socialist/NAZI/terrorist/atheist/Kenyan/Anti-Christ.) Similarly, one might embroider the Malkin rumor with the observation that some Asians find dogs very tasty.

Whenever  I hear from my distant relative, I can’t help thinking of him as a useful idiot. I know, it’s not nice to call people names. But the phrase isn’t mine, it’s a very old coinage (falsely attributed to Lenin) to describe a gullible person whose passions are easily aroused to serve a manipulator’s cause. The Malkinizers have a cause of promoting bigotry, and they have no shortage of useful idiots to do their bidding. Combating the misinformation they spread online is like taking on a whole nest full of hydras.

For my part, when it comes to taking the word of Michelle Malkin, or taking the word of Obama’s dog, I’ll take Bo any day.

Taxing Soundbites

Raise taxes on the wealthy? Them’s fightin’ words, mister! Everybody knows it’s positively un-Amurrcan.  And if you dare to even think such a think you’re gonna get pelted with a few soundbites. In fact, you’re gonna get pelted with the same tried and true soundbites that have greeted such a recommendation for, lo, these many years. To wit:

“High taxes stunt economic growth and low taxes encourage it.”

You have to conclude that people who conclude this must be peering into a crystal ball. They certainly haven’t been peering into a history book. History shows that higher taxes on the rich have normally accompanied economic growth while lower taxes on the rich have accompanied economic downturn. Of course, there are ramifications that make such generalizations risky. But if you’re going to generalize, it clearly makes much more sense to do so in favor of higher rather than lower taxes.

“It penalizes success.”  “It destroys incentive.”

These twin soundbites, the Tweedledee and Tweedledum(b) of anti-tax spin, are founded on or at least imply three curious presumptions: (1) that the rich are all greedy bastards who care about nothing but stacking up profits; (2) that increasing taxes means raising them to a level of 100%; and (3) that tax revenues, once collected, are flushed down a toilet. The first of these really ties your brain into a Gordian knot: in hearing arguments in favor of higher taxes, the anti-taxers huff over the suggestion that the rich are all greedy (a suggestion nobody has made) while giving indications they harbor such greed themselves, and then by invoking these soundbites, intimate that the rich are motivated by nothing but greed. Phew.

Well, some of the rich are motivated by nothing but greed – otherwise there wouldn’t be so much resistance to taxes. But there are plenty of exceptions. Bill and Melinda Gates have pledged to give away a whopping 90% of their fortune. (Do you really suppose they’ll ever miss it?) But aside from sheer greed, another major problem is myopia, bred by the Ayn Rand mentality that pictures the wealthy (or successful, if you will) as existing in a vacuum, conjuring money out of thin air utterly independently of the unwashed masses who try to leech off their incentive, and dogged by the socialist government regulations that try to hamper their achievements and drag them down to the level of mere mortals.

The truth is that unless you enjoy a hell of a sweetheart deal with the U.S. Mint, every dollar you acquire came from someone else; and it ends up in your pocket through the exchange of goods or services, the generosity of a donor, or good old-fashioned theft. No matter how you look at it, you become wealthy by obtaining money from other people. Even if you were born wealthy -and it’s especially amusing to hear complaints about penalizing the “success” of George W. Bush or the Walton heirs.  Far from “penalizing” your success, taxes allow you to reinvest in the system that makes it all possible. (True, government officials don’t always use your taxes for the most constructive of purposes. But that’s another discussion.) Paying little or none in taxes might help safeguard your past income, but it seriously jeopardizes your future returns.

Many rich people understand this, including the super-rich Warren Buffet, who in an insightful editorial in the New York Times, urges Congress to raise his taxes and blows a big gaping hole in the oft-repeated assertion that higher taxes will discourage him and his fellow investors from investing.

The highest marginal tax rate in U.S. history was in 1952 and 1953, at 92%.  That’s more than double what Obama is proposing. So if taxing the rich makes you socialist, then you’d have to surmise that Eisenhower was at least twice as socialist as Obama. Nobody is ever going to propose that anybody be taxed 100%, but let’s suppose for the sake of an extreme example that the top rate rose to 99%. Would that “destroy incentive”? Assume that you, a tycoon, derive no satisfaction whatsoever from providing quality goods or services or jobs for your fellow citizens. Just focus on what really matters: the moolah. Can you imagine how much dough you’d have to pull in to be taxed at 99%? Probably not, if you’re like most of us. But suppose it left you a mere million after taxes (in reality, it would probably be much more). Can you conceive that such a paltry sum would constitute any incentive whatsoever? Being a patriotic American, do you think you could bite your lip and bear it?

“It’s class warfare.”

This is the granddaddy of them all, and you can always expect it to be trotted out at the slightest provocation. But what you must always remember is that “class warfare” is waged in only one direction: against the rich. Never, never, never against the rest of us.

When politicians, egged on by wealthy supporters, block increases in the minimum wage, that’s not class warfare. When assistance to the needy is slashed to the bone, that’s not class warfare. When CEOs get millions in bonuses while hundreds of thousands of jobs are cut, that’s not class warfare. When you have an Enron, that’s not class warfare. When you block disaster relief or medical benefits for 9-11 responders, that’s not class warfare. When you cut benefits for veterans, that’s not class warfare.  When Barrick Gold (a major mining concern with ties to the Bush family) bulldozes sacred burial grounds of the Shoshone tribe and allegedly buries alive as many as 50 peasant miners in Africa, that’s not class warfare.

But if you try to restore the taxes on billionaires to their pre-Bush level and bring them in line with those of working stiffs – that, by god, is class warfare.

And here’s the really cool thing. That “conservative” brother-in-law of yours who so predictably spouts these soundbites is almost certainly in the bottom 99% income stratum rather than the top 1%. That is, assuming he still has a job at all.  And yet he will swear to you, with fist-pounding, spittle flecked-fury, that it’s really those poor, defenseless billionaires who are the victims of class warfare.

Ain’t propaganda beautiful?

Michael Moore’s Bum Rap

“The most hated man in America” is how Michael Moore describes himself in his new book Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life. This self-characterization is not an exaggeration. For a time at least, there was probably more hatred directed toward him -from “patriotic” Americans – than toward Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein combined. A good indication is that during the 2004 election season, someone pointed out to him that while there had been one film released that attacked Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, there had been no fewer than six attacking him. The assault on his reputation is a superb illustration of just how successful a propaganda juggernaut can be.

The most intense period of hatred, to which he specifically alludes, is the few months following his 2003 speech accepting an Oscar for “Bowling With Columbine”.  Inviting his fellow nominees to join him onstage (they all accepted), he denounced George W. Bush’s “war” in Iraq. It was obviously a tense moment, because the usually eloquent and unflappable Moore slipped grammatically, saying “fictition” for “fiction” (he’d just used the word “fictitious”), sounding for the moment as linguistically inept as the politician he was referencing.

The reaction, as he recounts in the book, was immediate and WAAAAAY over the top. He arrived back home to find that loads of manure had been dumped in his driveway and signs posted warning him to leave the country. During the ensuing months, he was constantly subjected to threats, harassment and actual physical attacks.

Part of the explanation is that the Bush administration had done an excellent job of exploiting the 9-11 attack for political advantage, invoking it to justify everything from tax cuts for the wealthy to domestic drilling for oil. As Bush himself repeatedly reminded us, we were either with him or we were with the “terrists”. And a large portion of the American public, eager to be angry at someone, bought into it. Anyone who dared question the nation’s leader in even the smallest detail was likely to be branded as anti-American. (My, how times have changed.)

But that’s only part of the equation. Moore was a favorite tar baby of demagoguery even before the Oscar speech, and has continued to be so long after his vindication by the exposure of the Bush gang’s deceptions. As we’ve previously noted, the propaganda technique we call flag-waving requires right-wing extremists to condemn as unpatriotic anyone who does not support their positions. Moore certainly fills the bill, as he frequently criticizes Republicans and Randians. Apparently, he doesn’t even earn any grace points from the fact that he also often criticizes Democrats.

The official spin is that Michael Moore is himself an ideological extremist, a loose cannon, a venomous  polemicist – he has been called, for example, the “Ann Coulter of the Left.”  But nothing could be farther from the truth. Ann Coulter, and just about any other right-wing pundit you can name, revels in ad hominem smears and blanket demonizing of entire groups of fellow citizens – most notably Democrats and “liberals” (the latter often spat upon but seldom if ever defined). I challenge you to find a single example of Moore doing any of this. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

(La, de da, dum de dumm. Hmmmm ho ho…..)

Okay, I’m tired of waiting. Get back to me if you find one.

Moore never even returns in kind the vicious assaults leveled at him. He formerly aspired to become a priest; and unlike many other Christians, he actually practices what Jesus preached – even those annoying little bits about, um, loving your enemies and turning the other cheek.

One of the most vituperative of Moore-bashing websites, moorewatch.com (now apparently defunct) was operated by a fellow who’d harbored an obsessive hatred of Moore for years. When he announced to his readers that the site might go under because he was overwhelmed by his wife’s medical bills, Moore – then working, appropriately enough on “Sicko” – sent him an anonymous donation of $12, 000 so he could go on exercising his First Amendment right to spout hatred. Which he did.

During the 2004 presidential campaign, USA Today took an interesting approach to balanced coverage by hiring Michael Moore to cover the Republican convention (where John McCain made a point of singling him out so the crowd could boo him) and Jonah Goldberg of the ever-entertaining National Review to cover the Democratic convention. (Some day I must tell you about my own amusing brush with Goldberg.)

Moore was up first, and anyone expecting him to indulge in juvenile name-calling against either the convention’s attendees or George W. Bush was sorely disappointed. In fact, he made a point of complimenting Bush as a person, praising him in particular for his apparent success as a parent. His disapproval, then as always, was based on one thing: the man had done a miserable job at the position to which he’d been appointed, and should be replaced. Nothing personal.

Then came Goldberg’s turn, and not surprisingly he painted Democrats with a broad brush as corrupt, incompetent and evil. And of course took an obligatory swipe at Moore.

Taking swipes at Michael Moore, indeed, has become a very profitable industry, and a folkloric image of him has been constructed as a hypocritical, anti-American, socialist, manipulative, grandstanding moron and/or mastermind. Oh yes, and there must always, always be a schoolyard reference to his girth.

In 2008, a group of Hollywood Republicans, all five of them, made a film called “An American Carol” that was intended to be an agitprop spoof of Michael Moore and his work. (Insert comment here about Republicans being habitually a few years behind the times.) The flick often featured such side-splitting humor as the main character, representing Moore, getting whacked in the face. Stop it, guys, you’re cracking me up. Even if its approach to comedy hadn’t been so puerile, it was doomed from the get-go because it was founded on the premise that “Michael Moore hates America” – which, I kid you not, was the actual title of another movie. When asked about his reaction to “An American Carol”, Moore just good-naturedly replied, “I hope it’s funny”.

In the 2005 book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America, Bernard Goldberg (no relation to Jonah, astonishingly enough) lists 100 people (actually a lot more than that, since some of the people are actually groups of people, but what’s a little mathematical imprecision when you have an important statement to make) who, by challenging his beliefs, are destroying his country. Perhaps the most amusing inclusion is Eve Ensler, playwright of “The Vagina Monologues”, which uses the word “vagina” too much for Goldberg’s taste and by talking too much about people who have them, displays an anti-male, and therefore anti-American, bias. Guess who takes the honored spot of public enemy number one in his tome? If Goldberg hates Michael Moore, then Moore must hate America.

With all the propaganda directed at Moore, it’s natural to ask whether he himself is a propagandist by our preferred definition – i.e., whether he deliberately deceives in order to persuade. The short answer, Internet rumors notwithstanding, is no. But it’s a fair question, and we’ll take a more detailed look in the future. The point for now is that he sets a supreme example of civility in an age when it’s an uncommon commodity; and it would be hard to find a public figure having a greater discrepancy between media image and actual character.

(Posted, ironically enough, on Columbus Day – when Americans honor and glorify a greedy, ruthless, murderous conqueror who was also an incompetent navigator  who went to his grave never even realizing that he’d bumbled into a different continent.)

Of Guns and Glamor

Try this little experiment sometime. Go to a movie rental kiosk from Redbox or Blockbuster Express – or browse through one online – and count the number of films that have a gun depicted on the cover. You may be astonished by the results. I recently counted 26 out of a stock of about 150 movies. (There were also a number of other phallic implements of mayhem, such as swords.) Over and over we see the various incarnations of James Bond, Dirty Harry, Wyatt Earp and Luke Skywalker reminding us that guns are cool, efficient and oh so sexy. I enjoy a well-done action flick as well as the next guy, and I don’t mind cinematic violence when it serves the story, but isn’t this–well, overkill?

Hollywood has a well-deserved reputation for being “liberal”, and yet it repeatedly indulges in cheerleading for the ultra-right wing gun lobby with its facile presentations of firearms as the first solution rather than the last.  There is disagreement among experts (no, that category does not include the NRA) about the impact this has on the public in terms of encouraging violence.  But it’s hard to imagine that it could be constructive. It’s unlikely that movie violence in general prompts its viewers to be more violent, and even the glorification of guns in particular might not be especially detrimental. But perhaps the real question is whether it has a significant effect in combination with other elements, such as the ready availability of weapons, ideological extremism, and a general cultural tendency toward confrontation, paranoia and irrational rage.

The gun culture would have us believe that cooler heads will prevail no matter how much hardware is in circulation. But there is often a huge difference between what people say they will do and what they actually do in the heat of crisis. Furthermore, even if we assume that every card-carrying member of the NRA will only use his or her toys in a responsible manner (a tall assumption), it’s staggeringly naive to believe that such a responsible attitude will extend to all gun owners- and the naivete increases as the number of owners increases.  We have the ample example of history to remind us how deadly things get when lead is substituted for brains.

Hollywood is in many respects inaccurate in its portrayals of the “Wild West”, but one thing it gets right is that people lived – and all too often died – by their guns. With few legal restraints, almost everyone had one (or more) and many used one at every opportunity. It was not unheard of for someone to be shot, for instance, in his sleep for snoring too loudly.

In even more recent days, my grandfather spent several months in jail as a young man after fatally shooting another fellow at a dance. He was eventually released when the court ruled it was self-defense. But what a senseless tragedy for him, the man  he killed, and everyone who knew either of them.  Had you asked him about it, he probably would have told you that killing someone, even in self defense, isn’t nearly as glorious as Hollywood and the gun culture would have you believe. But this was far from an isolated incident. It was a time when people brought guns to dances because that’s just what people did. And it’s a time that the NRA is trying to take us back to.

What is to be done about Hollywood’s love affair with the Uzi and the Luger? Probably nothing. On a personal level, I tend to avoid renting any of those 26 movies, though it’s not because I’m trying to make a statement. It’s just that I’ve found that a gun on the cover is generally a tip-off that the film inside isn’t worth my time, because it’s probably a formulaic paean to the simpleminded ideology of violence as a virtue. (There are numerous exceptions to this guideline, of course.) But I don’t expect this to make any difference to Hollywood, and I doubt it would make much difference if a lot of people did it.  The Twenty-First Century American zeitgeist holds guns to be cool, efficient and oh so sexy. And therefore they’re highly profitable.

(Photo: Jason Stitt)