Truth, Rhetoric, and Email Propaganda - Part 2
The proper motto is not 'Be good, sweet maid and let who can be clever,' but ' Be good, sweet maid, and don't forget that this involves being as clever as you can.'
YESTERDAY, I WROTE ABOUT the basic human value of small-t truth: getting the facts straight.
The occasion was an email I received from a friend, an attempt to discredit Snopes.com as a source of information. It began by hinting that Snopes had something to hide, and proceeds:
...over the past couple of years people started asking questions who was behind it and did they have a selfish motivation? The reason for the questions - or skepticisms - is a result of snopes.com claiming to have the bottom line facts to certain questions or issue when in fact they have been proven wrong. Also, there were criticisms the Mikkelsons were not really investigating and getting to the 'true' bottom of various issues. I can personally vouch for that complaint.
The impression is given of a sort of general growing disillusionment over Snopes in the past couple of years. But it's a complete illusion. We are not told who these "people" were, how many there were, or what claims were "proven wrong".
The whole point of the paragraph is to create a completely unsubstantiated context of doubt in order to buttress the one specific claim which is to come:
A few months ago, when my State Farm agent Bud Gregg in Mandeville hoisted a political sign referencing Barack Obama and made a big splash across the Internet, 'supposedly' the Mikkelson's claim to have researched this issue before posting their findings on snopes.com. In their statement they claimed the corporate office of State Farm pressured Gregg into taking down the sign, when in fact nothing of the sort 'ever' took place.
I personally contacted David Mikkelson (and he replied back to me) thinking he would want to get to the bottom of this and I gave him Bud Gregg's contact phone numbers - and Bud was going to give him phone numbers to the big exec's at State Farm in Illinois who would have been willing to speak with him about it. He never called Bud. In fact, I learned from Bud Gregg no one from snopes.com ever contacted anyone with State Farm. Yet, snopes.com issued a statement as the 'final factual word' on the issue as if they did all their homework and got to the bottom of things - not!
Notice how distant we are from the source of the information here. We are supposed to believe "Doctor Steve" whom we have never heard of, when he forwards a message from an unnamed "colleague" reporting what the colleague's insurance agent supposedly said.
All of this is designed to be more believable than the mere report of the insurance agent's claims, but it is actually less reliable. The agent may or may not be telling the truth. The colleague may or may not be reporting what the agent actually said. Steve may have made the whole thing up. Steve may not even exist.
So, does the whole thing boil down to the agent's word against Snopes?
Well, actually, no. It doesn't.
If you do take the trouble to look it up on Snopes, you'll find that they provide a direct quote from the letter sent to them by State Farm. They also report that they tried to contact the agent but that he wouldn't respond.
And they provide a link to a letter to the editor of a separate news publication which carried the story, in which a State Farm representative says that the company made the agent take the sign down.
The email closes by saying that the Mikkelsons are Democrats and liberals, and "liberals have a purpose agenda to discredit anything that appears to be conservative".
The truth, of course, is that the Mikkelsons are well known for taking on liberals—such as Michael Moore when they found his facts to be wrong.
They also have defended multiple conservative candidates (including John McCain) from false attacks. Whatever their politics, they have gained their reputation by being right most of the time and by being quick to admit and correct any mistakes.
So what's going on with this email?
It's an obvious attempt to discredit Snopes to a conservative audience, just as the far right has been trying to discredit the rest of the media for decades.
And why would they want to do that? The answer would seem to be that they think the truth (small-t) is not on their side.
If a movement, or party, can get their supporters to disbelieve sources like Snopes, which have built their reputations on unbiased accuracy, and to believe emails like this one, which tell bald-face lies, instead, then they have control over those supporters, and their votes.
Snopes is just one barrier to that control, but as such it needed to be undermined.
The chief victim, in all of this, is not Snopes. It's the people who believe the email, and are cut off from a valuable source of information.
It's also small-t truth, and, ultimately, our democracy.
No democracy can stand that does not value truth. Voters must have access to the facts in order to vote wisely.
Anyone, conservative, moderate, or liberal, who gets an email like this one should ask themselves why the writer was willing to lie, and why the writer wanted to cut them off from a reliable source of information.
This time the agenda was conservative, and I haven't recently run across any attempts by liberals to discredit reliable sources. But there's no guarantee that someday a similar attack will not come from the left wing, as well.
The issue is not conservative or liberal. The issue is that we must learn how to defend ourselves from this kind of propaganda. If we don't, we are at the mercy of liars.
The job of sifting all the claims that come to us, of even checking on the "facts" presented, is not always an easy one. But if we want to live in a free world, it is essential.
Far too often we think of world events as shaped primarily by world leaders. But the truth (small-t) is much different. History grows, like grass, from roots in the dailiness of ordinary people.
What we believe (small-b) matters, and it is a spiritual and moral discipline to believe responsibly.
As least, that's what I think today.