Sunday, November 06, 2005

Latest Fashions in Tinfoil Headwear

One of the great websites, both informative and fun, is the Urban Legends Reference Pages run by Barbara and David P. Mikkelson (apparently mainly Barbara). It's also known as, a reference to the family of misfits featured in William Faulkner's series of Yoknapatawpha County novels (who knows why?).

Meticulously researched and constantly updated, examines familiar and unfamiliar legends in categories ranging from Crime, History, and Religion to Disney, Racial Rumors, and Hurricane Katrina. If you've heard a story that sounds too good to be true and have wondered about its veracity, chances are good that you can find it here, rated on a clear three-level truth scale, from green (true) through yellow (partially true or unverifiable) to red (false), together with as much background information about the origin, spread, and evolution of the legend as the Mikkelsons could gather.

One of the prime sources of material for is the Internet, which of course disseminates vivid anecdotes, dubious factual assertions, and news images (genuine or doctored) with unprecedented rapidity and anonymity, making it an ideal vehicle for spreading disinformation. And although most of the myths analyzed on the site are apolitical (Was actor Walter Matthau born "Walter Matuschanskyayasky"?--no; Do fisherman on Reunion Island employ dogs as bait for shark-fishing?--sort of), a regular visitor to the site soon notices a large number of legends that are designed to launch or reinforce right-wing themes.

For example, one current item (featured along with other recent discoveries on the What's New? page) is an email being circulated on the Web under the heading "North Dakota News Bulletin." It purports to offer a comparison between the response to Hurricane Katrina and a surprisingly early, heavy snowstorm that struck several northern states in October. What's the point? That the self-reliant, hardy (and overwhelmingly white) residents of the Northland took care of themselves, unlike the indolent darkies of New Orleans: "We did not wait for some affirmative action government to get us out of a mess created by being immobilized by a welfare program that trades votes for 'sittin at home' checks." (Racial references supplied by me; racial overtones present in the original.)

Barbara Mikkelson's analysis of the email is typically restrained, logical, and fact-based. After providing basic data about the severity and impact of the blizzard, she writes:

Midwesterners hit by this storm appear to have overcome their short-lived catastrophe without federal assistance. However, in comparing response to that weather-related disaster to what overwhelmed New Orleans, it needs be pointed out that the bulk of the digging out from under the snowfall and rescuing stranded motorists from snow-entombed cars fell to the state's police and emergency service workers and the National Guard, not (as the e-mail would have it) to rugged individual citizens who hadn't been "immobilized by a welfare program that trades votes for 'sittin at home' checks." The nature and severity of the two disasters were different--the one could be coped with locally, but the other could not.

Other current myths that inculcate right-wing memes include an email presenting a series of blatantly false assertions about the history of Social Security (beginning with the lie that FDR intended the program to be "completely voluntary" and going on from there), a rumor about gun-toting Katrina evacuees forming gangs in Utah, and a corny joke based on a "news account" of a press conference at which Jesse Jackson denounced appliance makers because "all the washing machines are white" (yes, really).

The picture of Internet misinformation isn't completely one-sided. Occasionally folks on the left will also spread untruths or semi-truths, often originating in the form of jokes (like this doctored photo showing Bush holding a phone receiver to his ear upside-down--he's dumb, get it?). But my strong impression from years of scanning is that the right far outstrips the left in circulating misleading and downright phony "information" in support of its positions.

It's easy to list possible reasons:

1. Large number of right-wing news outlets in the MSM (from Rush and Fox News on down) that help to circulate fake stories (as for example the exaggerated tales of violence in New Orleans after Katrina).

2. Hostility/contempt by the right for "liberal elitists" in the media, academia, science, etc., which translates into a willingness to disbelieve "experts" when they present facts that contradict preferred assumptions.

3. Generations-old tradition of conspiracy-mongering on the right, from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to water fluoridation to commies-in-the-State-Department to the Trilateral Commission to Bill-and-Hillary-are-murderous-drug-dealers. There are some parallels on the left, but they never gained the traction or the enormous just-out-of-the-mainstream following that the right-wing myths achieved.

Whatever the reasons, it's good to have available as a handy source of facts with which to undermine the fakitude of the wingnuts. It's a phenomenal public service that the Mikkelsons provide just because they are fascinated by idiocy and dedicated to the truth. Pretty cool.

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