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writing for godot

An Obvious and Easy Approach to Holding Each Other Accountable

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Written by Paul Harris   
Wednesday, 08 December 2010 19:08
Years ago liberals made the mistake of simply dismissing extreme right-wingers such as Senator Jesse Helms. While few and far between, most voters in the U.S. viewed such extremists as novelties or crazy old man who were not even be taken seriously except in their home states such as North Carolina. Towards the end of Helm’s tenure though he became the powerful Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

That men like Helms who opposed civil rights, the Food Stamp program, affirmative action, funding for any modern art with nudity, a holiday honoring MLK, affirmative action, integration, the Voting Rights Act, and equal rights for gays and lesbians, as well as proposed prohibiting abortion in every circumstance, could somehow gain such power and prominence should have been a wake up call to liberals who seem to have dismissed him at the time as unique.

Ten years later we are infested by many such right-wingers who are positioning or spinning themselves as representing the majority of Americans. An obvious yet quite effective way they are achieving this prominence is simply put, by stretching the truth about themselves and their opponents, with no repercussions. This can be done easily and at no financial cost through the use of email tales, and comments on news stories and blogs. While most of us Americans claim to decry the negative ads on TV and radio they have become so popular because they are usually effective, and of course the web offers a no-cost, low accountability addition to these negative attacks.

How many times have you been sent one of those emails (usually from conservative friends) who claim such wild assertions as John Kerry’s Vietnam War service medals were earned under “fishy” circumstances or that his version of the Swift Boat ordeal was fabricated? Or remember how so many claimed that Al Gore said he invented the Internet? These same email fabrications continue to fuel the ludicrous rumors that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S., that he’s a radical Muslim in disguise, and that his Supreme Court pick, Elena Kagan dismissed all suits against him that challenged that he was born in the U.S.

These types of emails take on a life of their own and then they are copied and pasted by various people who comment on nation-wide and local news stories and blogs, usually remaining anonymous. If you follow these political stories you will definitely see an overwhelming number of racist, sexist, homophobic, and false comments with lots of clichés and few supporting facts. The danger is that people (especially those who do not tend to question authority) lap up these rumors because they can be almost as exciting to them as the latest developments on Natalee Holloway, Jon-Bonet Ramsey or what Lindsay Lohan, the Kardashian girls, or Paris Hilton are up to. Because people read it online and often the originating email sounds possibly legitimate, signed by someone official sounding, and sometimes even prefaced with “Snopes.com has verified this.” (when in fact they have not.) Americans who thrive on emotions of anger and fear integrate this in to their thinking.

I call on all Americans, no matter what your political persuasion to not operate out of fear and emotion and when you discover a friend, relative, or anyone who forwards you one of these myths about a certain public figure or organization to call them on the carpet. And if you have “sinned” by spreading these falsehoods then fess up to it and correct your mistake.

Before I had heard of the Snopes or Urban Legends websites I had mistakenly forwarded two false tales about the Ford Company and a politician. To me it was like gossiping, as if I was spreading the good word, and helping to save our country. A friend corrected me on my mistakes, and I immediately resent a retraction to all of those who had received my original forward, with an apology. As for many of my conservative friends though, I have yet to see a single retraction and/or apology when I have shown that the email they have forwarded was proven to be full of mistruths. Very often these are the exact same people who call themselves law and order, call for accountability in government, and normally say that lying or bearing false witness is a sin under God’s eyes.

So why not make it a point that every time you find one of these libelous or slanderous statements you hold the person accountable who has spread the lies. I suggest you start off with something like, “So do you consider it immoral to spread lies about another person? Do you believe that an individual should make amends when they bear false witness about another person or organization?” This clearly puts the onus on that person prior to elaborating about their myth spreading.

While the sheer number of false stories about various liberal and conservative organizations and politicians has grown by leaps and bounds, the bulk of these are from right-wingers attacking those they label as liberal or progressive. Just check out the stories on the fact-checker Snopes website. As of this writing, in 8 years we find 231 tales involving “George Bush”. In only 2 years we find 193 tales involving “Barack Obama”. Under “ACLU” are 22 entries while under the “National Rifle Association” are only 12 entries. Former GOP Speaker “Newt Gingrich” is featured in 8 stories while Democratic House Speaker “Nancy Pelosi” earns twice as many at 16. “Hillary Clinton” is listed 65 times while “Sarah Palin” is listed less than 1/3 that amount at 21. Presidential hopefuls “John Kerry” and “John McCain” come in at 85 and 48 respectively. Obviously this is far from a scientific study, nor have I evaluated the veracity of these 700 plus claims above running rampant around the web but anyone who is active online cannot deny this skewing of fairy tales heavily against more progressive-minded individuals and groups.

Thomas Jefferson said, “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight.” Every individual must take the time to fact check the anonymous comments, emails, and blogs we encounter and demand the sender makes retractions as soon as possible and like a good Christian, makes amends or we truly risk a government overrun by Jesse Helms and Sarah Palin-type individuals who are generally elected by folks whose fear and anger is fueled by rumor-mongers who don’t care or want to hear the facts.

Article by Paul Harris
Author, "Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina"

 

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+2 # Rob G. 2010-12-10 05:22
Great article Paul,
I hope it gets alot of attention, as well it should.
ROB
 
 
+2 # Richard Allen 2010-12-10 10:58
While this is a good start, and I will forward it to my friends and family to read, I wonder if it will do much good. Whatever happened to suing when slandered? Some huge slander lawsuits might hold those guilty to some higher standards. And I am talking about suing the originator and those public figures who slander, not the little guy who forwards an email, although a little fear here too might make someone think twice before spreading false rumors.
 
 
+2 # Barbara Grimes 2010-12-10 15:01
Thanks for your article! I am going to do exactly what you suggest, citing the Commandment and all. Great thinking. Keep writing!
 
 
+1 # Carol Strange 2010-12-10 16:42
What a great article Paul. You know I am not very 'political', but I often recieve emails of the very sort you spoke of. Normally I delete them. I go by the old saying "Believe nothing of what you hear, and only half of what you see"! Keep up the good work.
 
 
+1 # David Fisher 2010-12-12 14:37
Enjoyed the article, Paul. Your points are well taken. Aside from the fact that too many of us are driven by fear, too many voters seem never to have learned critical reading/listeni ng/thinking skills. I'm grateful for the professors I had in college who insisted that we support arguments with facts, not logic or common sense solutions. They stand out from the others because they were imparting life skills and not just rote information. I cringe every time I hear a politician invoke a "common sense" solution to a complex problem. The common sense approach is too often belied by the facts revealed by critical, unbiased inquiry. With much of today's press co-opted by corporate sponsorship, opinion-based journalism (Fox/MSNBC), or suffering from just plain poor journalistic skills (CNN/Network news) - the task of critically analyzing political arguments falls increasingly to the consumer - a job many of them seem ill-equipped to handle. For the near term I'm afraid the nation is going to be consumed by ideologies and ideologues.
 

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