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Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist

  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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God Bless America: Land of the Great American Conspiracy Loon

Posted by James McPherson on September 27, 2009

Moammar Gadhafi got some attention (his apparent primary goal in life) this week with a rambling United Nations speech in which he alleged a number of weird conspiracies. It’s good to remember, however, that most of the nutball conspiracies that Americans deal with are hatched right here at home, by the likes of “birthers,” “deathers” and “truthers,” among others.

One of the latest came to me via email today. It starts out: “Did you know that the ACLU has filed a suit to have all military cross-shaped headstones removed and another suit to end prayer from the military completely.  They’re making great progress.” After a few other distortions and some nice photos of soldiers praying, it urged each recipient to pray for the troops and then pass on the message.

As a member of the American Civil Liberties Union and a thinking person, I was relatively certain that claims had to be false. Less than a minute of research–which could have been done by any of the dozens of people whose email addresses showed up in the oft-forwarded message–showed four quick references discounting the fable. Though I probably had much more important things to do, I then took the time to send a message to each of the 30 or addresses on the list. It read:

I find it ironic that [name deleted] includes the words, “Think, Act, Survive” after his name. If he and others would do more of the former, we’d have fewer of these sorts of inflammatory lies whirling around the web, and we might actually pay more attention to the many real problems we face. Automatically forwarding myths that happen to support one’s preconceived biases do nothing but harm one’s credibility.

I’m always in favor of more prayers for those who serve in the military, but the claim made in this viral email is a blatant lie, perpetuated by people who don’t know, don’t care about and/or don’t bother to check the truth. Considering how many people receiving this are in education (judging by the email addresses), it seems more critical thinking would be in order.

Four sources I used to check this, in far less time than it took someone to write the original: http://www.snopes.com/politics/religion/cemetery.asp, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2009/jul/02/chain-email/no-aclu-lawsuit-over-cross-shaped-headstones/http://www.factcheck.org/askfactcheck/print_is_the_aclu_suing_to_have_cross-shaped.html and http://www.aclu.org/images/asset_upload_file399_26244.pdf. You might also check out http://www.snopes.com/politics/religion/marines.asp.

Now I trust that all you Christian people of integrity will pass on the truth as quickly and widely as you helped spread the falsehood.

I was kidding about the last part, of course. I assume that few if any of them will pass it on. I did get two responses back. One with a single word–“yea”–and a longer one, which tickled me enough that I’ll share it here (minus information that might identify the sender):

Mr. James McPherson thank you for kind rebuttal and quick checking of the facts. Also I commend you for noticing my many years of volunteer service to my community,  my Church and faith.

As to the forwarding of this important and patriotic email message. I can not speak for the many individuals cc’ed on this uplifting message, but I do speak for myself. This message is about supporting our troops not about the Anti-American Communist Liars Union (ACLU). It is about a love the awakened majority feels for our great nation.

It is understandable that persons of your ilk have no love for America, our Constitution, or our long history and way of life. Be forewarned, “We the People” are awake and we are coming for you, and your perversion of our country.

Lastly I do not give a Rat’s Rear End what these fine email messages of support for our American Patriots say, they will continue to be forwarded to all I know. Why because it is GOOD and RIGHT, something an educator like yourself knows little about. See, these people you sent your reply to are the backbone of our great nation. You Sir are an corrupter of young minds, and we the “backbone” count you with politicians, lawyers, used car salesmen, and journalist. Oh and I forgot pond scum.

As a Christian it is my obligation to call you to repentance, get with the program and forget your anal retentive fact checks.

Gee, how unChristian of me to check facts and to counter lies with truth (and grammar). And now that I know that the Backbone Brigade is “coming for me,” I’m not sure what to do in response. Flee in my black helicopter?

Of course I have to admit the fleeting unChristian notion that crossed my mind when the writer referred to himself as part of a “backbone”: I thought he was aiming a few inches high.

Same-day update: The guy mentioned above sent me a follow-up email, after I responded to his. Though it’s becoming increasingly tempting to do otherwise, I’ll still not include his identity, but will share part of his latest missive (I’ve simply copied and pasted, leaving spelling and grammar alone):

As to Whitworth University of Spokane Washington, a liberal arts institution, I’m sure they would be proud to know one of there own is picking fights with strangers, (who receives and forwards emails to their friends and family), over the web.

Your exhustive pursuit of this issue clearly puts you in the ranks of liberal zelot or those truly disturbed folks with and ax to grind…

Mr McPherson STOP your elitist little fingers right now. SEND no further emails. I’m sure this will be making a wide round on the web tomorrow. Either you will look foolish or I will. And like the content of the email that started this I don’t care what you think or find true. Have a pleasant day.

He also copied the message to my university’s human resources department, asking that they “forward this to your Deans to show what your faculty does with their free time.” But as I told him in response, the deans (and the university president) know about my various political activities. I suspect it may make them uncomfortable at times, but I don’t pretend to speak for them (you’ll notice the disclaimer at the top of this page), and they understand the role of political discussion in a free society.

Same-day update #2: I had emailed my new friend back, despite his request for me not to write again. I apologized for offending him, pointed out the relatively small number of people who had received my original message (with his name on the list), and noted that I had assumed his name had been passed on to me with his knowledge or permission. I also promised not to write him again, except at his own request. He promptly offered a most pleasant two-word reply: “Thank you.”

There are many lessons to be remembered regarding civility in this viral age, eh?

14 Responses to “God Bless America: Land of the Great American Conspiracy Loon”

  1. I see hate mail runs in the family. Getting it, that is.

    On the other hand, it appears your hate mail only comes from general-purpose whack-jobs. A bunch of mine came from university administrators before I threw in the towel.

  2. James McPherson said

    Good point. Having supportive administrators and a pleasant work environment makes life much easier and more fun.

    As for getting hate mail from outside, I suppose we both ask for it and maybe even take a perverse pleasure in it. I think I learned that as a reporter–what’s your excuse?

    Come to think of it, perhaps it came for both of us even earlier, in our days as athletes: another argument for fewer video games and more school sports.

  3. What’s my excuse? Too much reality, not enough reality TV 🙂

  4. James McPherson said

    Sadly, something not many Americans can say.

  5. Gabrielle said

    “As a Christian it is my obligation to call you to repentance, get with the program and forget your anal retentive fact checks.”

    i’m not sure if i want to laugh or just find a nice corner and cry for a bit.

  6. Remarkable how people will discredit a message just as quickly as they’ll discredit the messenger. People like this joker are only interested in what they consider the end goal, and they’re remarkably tolerant of using whatever means necessary to get there (interestingly similar to findings that the more one leans toward the religious right in this country, the more likely one is to support torture).

    Anyway, I had a similar experience on facebook last week when someone posted a video link to something by Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron. It was basically an attempt to discredit Darwin’s most famous book by attacking his character in a series of ad hominem attacks (and “the undeniable link between Hitler and Evolution”).

    I started by saying that, while I’m all in favor of criticizing evolution – and every other theory – as that is the nature of science, these guys were going about it the wrong way. In response, I got a barrage of “We’ll pray for you… Hell is a terrible place, you know” comments along with several “I don’t think they’re wrong and I support their message, so this is not up for discussion with me.” Yikes.

  7. James McPherson said

    “Remarkable how people will discredit a message just as quickly as they’ll discredit the messenger.”

    Indeed. I “know” a regular on another blog (a different one than above) who justifies his anonymous ranting by maintaining that “ideas” are all that matter and that various means of establishng one’s credibility (education, experience, truth-telling, being right more often than wrong, etc.) apparently are meaningless. So apparently we should all fall down before whatever he, a chosen few of the Founding Fathers, and his version of the Bible say is truth.

    He no doubt takes pride in the fact that he has managed to impress a couple of other regulars on the blog and is able to “converse” back and forth with them (though it seems Facebook would be more efficient for them), while no doubt driving away uncounted others.

    Not that there’s any shortage of places for those others to go for more rational arguments. Like maybe the Comfort/Cameron video? Are there any bananas in it? 🙂

  8. Well, this sort of thing just reminds me of a quote I heard recently (wish I knew to whom it is attributed): Think of how dumb the average person is. Then realize that half of them are dumber than that.

    But I think your email exchange with this guy is worthy of a submission to http://emailsfromcrazypeople.com

  9. Morgan Feddes said

    Oi. E-mails like that almost make me want to change my religion and my political affiliation. There are some serious nutjobs out there.

  10. Hey Jim,

    Have you heard any teachers weigh in on this? Yikes. How does a senior – especially a writer on the Whitworthian staff – maintain this kind of viewpoint? And is it ok for teachers to lend their perspectives to the fracas?

  11. http://www.whitworthian.com/opinions/opinion-intolerance-is-not-always-a-bad-thing-1.1939956

  12. James McPherson said

    I haven’t heard any teacher comments (of course that may be because I was in Alabama for a week), but teachers (or administrators, alums, or interested outsiders) are welcome to respond to the Whitworthian any time, and I obviously disagree with many of the viewpoints offered there (including the one you’ve linked).

    As the newspaper’s formal adviser, my position obviously is somewhat different from that of other faculty. I view my role as primarily that of helping the newspaper maintain its independence, advising before the fact (if asked) and criticizing after the fact (whether asked or not).

    But the criticism is not for publication in the paper itself, nor in regard to writers’ opinions. There are others who more appropriately can–and should–do that. Feel free to do so, if you feel so inclined. Thanks, Grady.

  13. […] course I hear in various forms from an assortment of crazies; it goes with the territory. But one particularly vile and cowardly crew has apparently decided to […]

  14. […] been won over by the conspiracy theorists. Admittedly, in the past I’ve made fun of birthers, truthers, gun nuts, Islamophobes, homophobes, Rush Limbaugh, the Texas Board of Education, PUMAs, lying […]

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