May 12, 2010


Filed under: Observations,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — sbj @ 9:31 pm

The opening scene of Idiocracy has always cracked me up.  It’s that scary kind of funny though, because, it (or something like it) could actually happen.  In fact, in a different way, I kind of think it is happening.

The land of the free is in trouble… that’s trouble spelled h-y-p-e-r-b-o-l-e.  We are being “dumbed down” one grandiose, yet remarkably obscure, reference at a time. So as not to be confused with or accused of doing the same, I will explain.

Democrats are “socialists;” Republicans are “fascists,” we all “know” (meaning, we all have heard) this.  However, when pressed on the point very few people are actually able to substantiate their sweepingly general claims.  I have recently begun asking people what they mean when they say such things, and the overwhelming response is something to the effect of “it’s obvious, how can you not see it” which, of course, actually says nothing.  Or worse, they offer absolute fiction in response.

And that’s the problem…

We, as a nation, are becoming less and less informed and more and more susceptible to “fluff” and “propaganda” every day.  The more we allow simple vague concepts to form our opinion on important issues, the more vulnerable we are to being led.

Completely false or intentionally misleading email propaganda pieces are being passed around as fact, and those “facts” are being inserted into daily dialog and becoming “facts.” These emails take about 5 minutes of research to debunk with credible sources, however people continue to blindly pass them along without any vetting at all.

As dangerous (in fact probably moreso) are what I call “factional messages” (fact wrapped in fiction).  This is where a ribbon of fact is woven through a web of misinformation or speculation to create a new and completely different set if circumstances.  Because the small sample of fact can be confirmed, or may actually be common knowledge, people believe the entire construct around it to be true as well.

Further, it is apparently bad form to let someone know they are passing around a false statement.  Three times in the past month I did what I thought to be a favor for a friend.  They were forwarding information that was incorrect, so I let them know (completely with citations) what the actual facts were… with a nice note explaining how I’d certainly like to know if I was saying something that was wrong, and figured they would like the same courtesy (cause… it’s better to hear it from a friend, right?).

Nope, I was read the riot act each time.

I surveyed my social network with the following question “unofficial poll – Can you name a freedom that is uniquely present in the United States, some freedom we alone enjoy?”  From Plurk (115 friends) I received a handful of responses (more on the few responses I did get momentarily); from Facebook (117) one response; Twitter (601) and Google Buzz (31)… crickets (to be fair, I got one Gchat response that was to the twitter query, so twitter was not technically completely shut out).

Lets talk about the results I did get from that “survey.”  I’ll take them one at a time (in the order I received them), because, well there are few enough of them to do so.

  • Due Process – Due process was actually established in England.  The term was first used verbatim in a statutory version of the Magna Carta in 1354.  Due process is a right currently held in many countries.
  • The right to carry arms – This is also an English carry over, from the English BIll of Rights of 1689, and is also enjoyed in many other nations today.
  • *Freedom from adequite state-sponsored health care (this may or may not be the case, but is clearly not a serious answer)
  • *Freedom from a well-run state-funded education (ibid)
  • Freedom of religion – This has been a freedom globally, in various forms and fashions, for centuries.
  • Freedom of expression without government interference – Once again, this freedom goes back at least to the English Bill of Rights in 1689 (like the right to bear arms and others above, it may go back further, this is just the information I happen to know off hand)
  • *Asshattery (yes, that is a quote)
  • *Entitlement
  • Freedom to ask such a question – While vague, I’m pretty sure this one is meant to be freedom of speech/expression… see above, or, English Bill of Rights, 1689.
  • *For all our blustering about how “free” we are, our populace is pretty well hobbled (unless you’re rich).

Clearly, half of these responses (the ones indicated by asterisks) were sarcastic.  This is telling, in and of itself, because not a single person who contributed a wise crack balanced it with a serious response.  Note, though, that not one of the responses (at least the serious ones) are actually a correct answer to the question…. not one.

Obviously, there is nothing scientific about this survey, or its results; it is what it is, and… isn’t.

The bottom line, though, is that people are willing to fight and sacrifice for the idea of freedom*, and it appears (from the “survey” above and numerous individual conversations) a measurable portion of these folks either don’t know what “freedom” actually is or have a distorted view of how it applies to their own country.

*This is where I would say, if I were going to contribute that that which I am pontificating against, “Patriot Act anyone???” … a completely unsubstantiated pot shot at Bush et. al. based on what I know has been planted in peoples minds regarding the Patriot Act.

I’m not blaming the people… garbage in equals garbage out.  Political campaigns, advertisements and media coverage has become a blur of stereotypes and hyperbolic sound bites.  The ever decreasing attention span of the typical U.S. citizen demands executive summaries; and executive summaries lend themselves to judgmental errors.

Yesterday I saw this from Roger Ebert (yes, that Roger Ebert) on Twitter: “Josh reminds me: If we went back to what the Founding Fathers wanted, as Sarah Palin desires, she wouldn’t be able to vote.”  Funny, and, taken literally it is true; however, clearly that is not what Sarah Palin wants*, and for my money, Roger knows it; he is, I believe, deliberately using paradoxical irony to make a point.

*Did I just defend Sarah Palin… somebody shoot me now!!! (yep, that was another “softer” example, guilt by association with Sarah Palin, and if I’m guilty for being associated with her, clearly… she must be bad).

It is a funny and effective way to make a point, however, increasingly, I don’t think it is “safe.”  More and more I hear people parroting things that are clearly wrong, misleading, or simply misunderstood.  But these things are being repeated as gospel and used as foundations for reasoned debates.

The bottom line is that people are becoming less and less able to discern fact from hyperbole and in a world where buzz words and catch phrases are being propagating at an alarming rate, that has got to be a cause for concern.

I included the two passages in bold above for a reason.  Those are things I would normally be completely inclined to say while composing this blog, or in conversation.  In other words I am directing this at myself as much as anyone else.

I believe it is time to get back to factual straight shooting.  We, as a nation and as individuals have to challange ambiguity when we see or hear it, and demand information.  When the facts are not provided, we need to treat it as a personal responsibility to seek accurate answers out for ourselves.  We need to fact check, debunk, and most importantly reject propaganda.

It will be boring, and droll, and seem like a waste of time, but, when you think about what is at stake… how can it not be your top priority*.

*Yep, one more for the road – a vague intimidating yet undefined consequence meant to call you to action out of fear.

For the big finish, I would normally put another clip (or at least a reference) from idiocracy here, but, instead I will simply say this…

I believe that the more informed you are, the better prepared you are.  It’s the reason firemen do drills putting out staged fires, football teams practice all week for one game, actor rehearse their lines over and over again, etc. etc. etc.  The better prepared you are, for anything, the better you will perform when the time comes (especially if it involves facing adversity). By the same token, any coach, general, or director will tell you that the more bad or “mis” information you have, the less effective you will be.

If you are reading this blog, you have the ability to fact check and inform yourself, my advice to you (and me) is… make use of it.


ps… none of this is to say that the people who responded don’t know what they are talking about.  I have surrounded myself with very sharp friends.  When I was talking of the disconnect, I was more refering to the lack of response per capita than the quality fo the responses I did get :)

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  1. Actually, while my comment (“…hobbled…”) was sarcastic, it wasn’t meant as a throw-away. I don’t think there *is* a single freedom *unique* to the United States, at least not any more. In fact, there may never have been one. “Freedom” itself is such a nebulous term that it virtually lacks any meaning these days. When the nation was being founded, certainly, the “freedom” the Founders meant to embrace was fairly novel, but it wasn’t as pristine as we’re led to believe. Women were disenfranchised and, along with children, were basically chattel. Non-whites were either considered less than human or fit for extermination. Freedom of worship didn’t really include freedom *from* worship. Democracy certainly wasn’t unique, and I think an argument could be made that the foundation of the nation was really more for economic reasons than philosophical ones. Had Britain not taxed the Colonies so aggressively, we might not have broken away.

    Back to my comment, though; I think it’s fairly widely accepted these days that if you are rich, the rules that the rest of us have to live by don’t apply. Get caught committing a crime? Buy your way out of it. Don’t want to pay taxes but still want to enjoy the fruits of their application to national infrastructure? If you’re rich, there are myriad ways to hide your assets so that you pay a microscopic fraction of what the rest of us do. Want to buy political office? That’s easy, as long as you have the cash on hand. Heck, you don’t even need to be a HUMAN to buy office now; thanks to the conservatives on the Supreme Court, companies have the same right as natural humans.

    “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” are generally considered freedoms Americans enjoy, but do we really enjoy them moreso than in other nations? Most European and Asian countries have far superior healthcare that covers a much greater portion of their populace than we do. Liberty? I don’t see us cornering the market there, either. Pursuing happiness is a great idea, except that “happiness” largely means “stuff” these days, thanks to unfettered capitalistic greed and ubiquitous advertising. Happiness and Liberty are nebulous concepts, anyway; my happiness might match your pain, and my freedom may come at the expense of your indentured servitude (especially if your skin is brown and you originate from another country).

    Comment by David O’Donnell — May 12, 2010 @ 9:51 pm

  2. Good points…thank you…

    Comment by Abimbola Akanwo — May 12, 2010 @ 9:56 pm

  3. Thought provoking and definitely needed. It does upset me that we are so polarized and that there is little attempt made to LISTEN to each other. I’ve always thought of myself as middle-of-the-road, but any more that’s not a tenable position. I guess as long as there are people like you and David around, I can continue to hope that things will improve.

    Comment by mehitabel — May 12, 2010 @ 10:18 pm

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