I've long (I guess) noted that our most effective opponent is the slushy, porridge thought process of those who know what's what and support their eternal verities with anecdotal evidence. Decrying "ivory tower" and "book" learning as from "elitists," they think it's time to hear from regular people (and regular people must, ipso facto have no college or book education). I've tried to be sympathetic to the impulses that drive these enemies, even as I less than secretly want to subject them to a potato masher (1).
Steve King of the sainted cantaloupe calf and Louie "Gomer" Gohmert, along with Ted Cruz and Michele Bachmann, are masters of the personal observation. Each has offered up a first hand, eye witness account of extraordinary piquancy, whereby they have learned the Secret Truth that Big Government wishes to suppress and we liberals want to achieve. During the next get together you have with Crazy Uncle Wally, you might hear a recycled e-mail, but you also might hear a personal anecdote that proves "it" (2).
Below, I'll detail the above mentioned right wing stars' shiners, and I'll offer up a way to answer the anecdote. I can't promise that it will lead to peace, but it might lead to quiet. I think most of us would settle for that.
1 $17 for a potato masher? Can you believe that? It's just a wavy doodad, and that's the Mal*Wart price.
2 "It" is that "the government" is out to get "us," except the military, which is a divine force of good, and "we" need to "take our country back," even though it was never ours or it has never not been.
Steve King of Iowa usually just says crazy things and doesn't investigate or observe people. He's like Senator John Kyl in that regard. Sentaor John Kyl of Arizona said, "If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood, and that's well over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does." He was only off by +87%. Therefore, his office tweeted that what he had given in testimony from the Senate floor was, "not intended to be a factual statement." The statement wasn't meant to be true. It was meant to be illustrative, and that's how Steve King usually is. When he said that there were one hundred drug smuggler DREAM Act candidates for each one who became a valedictorian, and each had 75 lbs. of marijuana on his back running across the border daily, it was a true illustration of. . .something (3). However, he did do some amazing detective work at Iowa State University on the newly minted problem of "victimology," as preserved by Mother Jones:
King described how he discovered during an internet investigation that there were 59 student groups at Iowa State University alone promoting the concept: "It started with Asians and it ended with Zeitgeist. So from A to Z. And most of them were victims groups, victimology, people that feel sorry for themselves. And they're out there recruiting our young people to be part of the group that feels sorry for themselves."As I said, Steve King doesn't actually do a lot of talking to people or looking out his car windows for his anecdotes, but he did visit a website to find out that fifty-nine groups at Iowa State were insufficiently conforming to his views on self-reliance (4).
Because I'll come back to it later, I'll point out truth and the method here. The "truth": "White people are blamed for everything, and crazy self-help Californians are seducing our young people into smoking dope and being lazy." The method: "There is a campus group for every possible minority."
Taking a southern turn from Iowa, we get to Louie Gohmert. For a general slashing of the moronia of the man, I recommend the local press here. Most of us know that Gohmert made his first plash in the puddle with "terror babies." What we may fail to realize, as this bit of crazy has spread its ripples, is just how OUTSTANDING a bit of nuts it is. A lovely write up on the man and his myths is here: as martinkich says,
In 2010, Gohmert announced on the House floor that an unnamed F.B.I. agent had told him that Muslim extremists have been entering the United States illegally and raising children who are being programmed from birth to be “sleeper” terrorists in our midst. He himself has described this conspiracy as a “terror-baby plot” to destroy the United States from within.Truth illustrated: "Being born in the U.S. doesn't make you an American. We all know those people aren't real Americans." The method: A science fiction story from the Cold War mixed with a spy novel that fell out of an air port men's room.
When pressed to provide supporting evidence, Gohmert has shifted gears and has talked about “birth tourism” packages being offered in Islamic countries so that babies can be born in the United States and be American citizens, return with their mothers to Islamic nations and there be indoctrinated against everything American, and then, as young adults, return to the United States as citizens in name only who are bent on our destruction.
Louie also gave us the important first hand observation of the man buying up all the Alaskan King Crab legs with SNAP funds. On June 20, 2013, Louie told the Congress that a constituent had personally seen a super-fit, well dressed man buying up crab legs with "food stamps." The Huffington Post reported, Louie went on to say that the constituent "looks at the king crab legs [being bought by a person with food stamps] and looks at his ground meat and realizes because he does pay income tax, he doesn't get more back than he pays in. He is actually helping pay for the king crab legs when he can't pay for them for himself."
Truth illustrated: "People on food stamps are greedy, lazy, and fat, and they have a really sweet deal, while the hard working people do everything for them." The method: A first hand account at second hand, with colorful details and editorial comments so woven in that it's clear that the entirety is fiction.
Truth illustrated: "That Obama is up to something, and he's trying to sneak in terrorist sympathizers. You can't trust nobody." Method: ?
Jumping back north to the little hostess on the prairie, Michele Bachmann has been good with the personal anecdote, but her crowning jewel is her claim that Gardasil causes mental retardation. When she made the claim, it was a la Gomert's King Crab deprived constituent, but we must not forget how entirely tailored the story was. Here is how it was reported in The Washington Post the next day:
“There’s a woman who came up crying to me tonight after the debate. She said her daughter was given that vaccine,” Bachmann said on Fox News. “She told me her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result. There are very dangerous consequences.”"Crony capitalism" quotha? Note the tears. Note that it was right after the debate, too.
Bachmann repeated the allegation on the “Today Show” this morning, adding, “It’s very clear that crony capitalism could have likely been the cause, because the governor's former chief of staff was the chief lobbyist for this drug company.”
The truth illustrated: "Corrupt politicians will allow corporations to poison us for campaign money." The method was the mythological informant who was too prompt, too emotional, and too specific for the truth to stick to her.
Michele lost it on this one. One reason she did, no doubt, was that she was going after a subject that simply is not as politically charged as she believed it to be. Women, conservative, moderate and liberal, were not convinced that vaccination against HPV was bad. The small slice of the Christian base that was upset about the vaccine ("if they can't get the STD, they won't be afraid of sex, so they'll have lots of sex!") was no way aligned with the slice of the general public concerned about blanket vaccination ("vaccination in the absence of an epidemic is, at the very least, introducing a long term unknown"), and that forced people to focus on the vehicle of Bachmann's "truth" -- the invented mother.
So, before we learn how to destroy these noises, let's take at least a few sentences to examine why so many of our neighbors, and all their favorite politicians, resort to these fables.
Why fabricated anecdotes are popular
Aristotle, in Poetics, said that poetry (meaning all forms of fiction and even biography) is superior to history, because history only tells us what did happen, but poetry tells us what must, or should happen. In reality, Henry V might say something stupid before battle, or he might not address the troops at all, or he might have slept through the whole thing and profited from skilled commanders, but in Shakespeare's (Henry V IV, iii), Henry says:
"This story shall the good man teach his son;Shakespeare's Henry is kingly, whatever history's was. (History's was ambitious as all get out.) Shakespeare illustrates the moral truth of the position and moment as it logically must (given assumptions about monarchy) be.
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day."
Why do people go to see remakes of old movies? Do they expect new endings or plots? Why do they go to see films of religious texts? Audiences don't expect that Jesus will avoid the crucifixion this time, after all, or that the Israelites will wait patiently for Moses. The Bible has always been one of the most adapted of all texts, and yet audiences for Bible films probably know the stories going in.
This isn't surprising. Most often, we, like the Greek audiences for tragedies, go not in order to learn what happened but to see the truth enacted, and to experience the truth in action. The experience is affirming and, at its best, expanding, as it not merely creates a coherence of an already established belief but opens a belief to a fuller and more living understanding (7).
The political anecdote is not actually evidence. It is, instead, fable. It is an illustration that serves like a simple piece of fiction that claims to be a curvature of reality into a perfect emanation of the speaker's conventional political beliefs. This is one of the reasons that the political anecdote is so robust. The returning Vietnam vet being spat upon is an indestructible anecdote, despite the fact that not a single instance has been documented. When Gar Alperovitz went to find out where the similarly indestructible notion that the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan to "prevent one million American dead," he found that it, too, seemed to have no satisfactory source (8). Nevertheless, "everybody knows" that invading Japan would have resulted in that proverbial million dead Americans.
How to fight the fabulist
The easiest way to destroy a fable like the ones the politicians above provided is to treat it as true. Since the function of the anecdote is "not intended to be factual," but to be factitious, treating it the way one would a genuine statement of fact will make it evaporate.
Let's start with the usual "Brother-in-law" anecdote. This is the racist or capitalist lie that proves perfectly that "those people" all want one thing, as is evidenced by a perfect example. I'll offer up one from My Brother.
Specimen anecdote: "The reason they don't get married is because the government pays 'em more to have babies without fathers. Guy works for me told me so. He said that his girlfriend was going to get pregnant again by him so she could get to three, because that's where the Welfare money really kicks in. I told him that they should get married, but he said, 'No, man, 'cause then we lose our support.' See they get more money if she's a single mother." (9)Now suppose you had an employee who actually said that to you. What would you do? What should you do? What would you do if you thought that "Welfare" was full of fraud? Would you repeat the story every other day to prove that "they" trust you with the secret and that you are an expert, on account of how you're really cool?
"Brother, did you call the Department of Family Services for this county?"
"They're in a common law marriage and trying to defraud AFDIC, and you hate that, so did you call in to DFS to have the case investigated?"
"No. They never do anything."
Imagine someone hearing Louie Gohmert's story and, instead of accusing him of lying, which is what he expects, and what will not do any good, saying,
"Congressman, do you have the county in which this occurred? Did you call the department to have them investigate? It's pretty obvious that your constituent was reporting SNAP fraud. The man buying King Crab legs with SNAP funds had to have stolen the benefit cards from needy families, and it is your duty as a Congressman and a citizen to help catch such a criminal." Louie Gohmert is from the party of "personal responsibility" and doesn't want to promote "victimology," after all, so I hope he showed that spirit by attempting to have the criminal captured.
Imagine someone saying to Michele Bachmann, "Representative Bachmann, do you have the poor lady's name, so we can follow up and investigate this? The public needs to know about this, and her daughter needs help. Please tell us that you pursued the case so that the woman was not left helpless."
Imagine someone saying to Steve King, "You reported the drug runners with the marijuana to the police and DEA, didn't you? You said that you knew for a fact that they were running drugs, and we believe you would never lie in testimony. We have to catch those individuals and you know of them. The student groups at Iowa State would probably appreciate your support, as well, so I hope that you have contacted them to offer outreach from your office."
When you next get a chain e-mail about an observed lazy worker or plotting terror baby or multiculturalist with a dark design, simply ask if the author has done her or his civic duty. After all, if you really observed four road workers loafing while one worked, it would be more logical to inform the county board of works than to demand that all road construction be stopped in your state. It would be more logical that the people who defraud SNAP be caught than that the hungry and malnourished develop third world diseases, brain damage, and begin dying in our cities.
Just ask, "And what did you DO when you heard about this?" If the answer is, "Eagerly forward it to Facebook," then you have a pretty fair argument.
Remember: when someone offers anecdotal evidence to prove a platitude, that person cannot be dissuaded by hearing that the anecdote is a lie. First, "you liberals" "would" say so. Because the anecdote is there as an illustration and "not intended as a factual statement," the purpose of it is to enliven a dead statement (10). Finding out that the story did not happen will not deter the repetition.
What will deter it, I think, is de-fictionalizing it. If we treat the silly story as if it were a true event, we will have a hundred proper questions to ask. Ask them, and the fabulist will weary of the tale, because it will lose the magic it had of "proving" what "everybody knows."
4 Based on their names. He didn't have evidence from their activities, but any group for any minority was, by its name, a "victim group" a la 1970's sitcom logic ("Maude," probably).
5 Sorry, but that's an example of Ted Cruz humor, not mine.
6 One assumes that Hamas has friends, but I do not know if they are charitable.
7 There were folks who said that "The Last Temptation of Christ" made their Christian faith more robust, when it is difficult to see an orthodox christology as any part of the visual film's fabric. More power to them, of course. I'd hate to know what those viewers would have made of "Godspell" (11).
8 The book was The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of American Myth. I was startled to have someone recently say that Alperovitz was a "liar" and a leftist with an agenda. The book is in a new edition now, and I don't see the objectionable material that people have accused, as Alperovitz is always conditional, hesitant, and tenuous in the face of conclusions. A Frontline episode also went after the "one million dead" estimate and came to a similarly confused conclusion.
9 My Brother really told me that story, in that way, to prove to me how "they" are.
10 "Catachresis" is sometimes used as a term for "dead metaphor." More than a few folks don't think that this is an exact term, but I don't know of a more precise one. Phrases like "milk of human kindness" start their lives as very interesting and powerful metaphors, but they're too successful and get repeated so often that speakers utter them without even thinking that they're figurative. Thus "plow through the room" sounds literal, when it's metaphorical. Anecdotes of the sort we see in right wing chain mail are armor mending; they take dead concepts, like "strapping young buck on Food Stamps," and try to make them live again.
11 Yes, I know: the author of the novel was not being blasphemous. When one films a book, though, we only see the spoken dialog and the action described in a book, and all of the author's voice is replaced by a camera. The visual story is inevitably less ambivalent than a literary one. I'm just saying that seeing the film with nothing else but the pictures is quite overtly not orthodox. Willam Defoe's accent didn't help, either.