#FakeNews, Memes, and US History

September 5, 2017 § Leave a comment

Sometimes I think that memes are going to be the undoing of all of us.  They tend towards the stupid.  I have written of this before, here and here.  This weekend on Facebook, I came across this meme:

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And once more we have a stupid meme.  The quotation from Lincoln is out of context, and it would appear that Robert E. Lee never said this.  Let’s start with Lincoln.

The quotation here comes from a letter he wrote to the prominent New York City abolitionist Horace Greeley, on 22 August 1862.  Lincoln wrote to Greeley in response to the latter’s editorial in his influential New York Tribune, calling for the emancipation of the Confederacy’s slaves immediately. Here is the full text of that letter:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, August 22, 1862.

Hon. Horace Greeley:
Dear Sir.

I have just read yours of the 19th. addressed to myself through the New-York Tribune. If there be in it any statements, or assumptions of fact, which I may know to be erroneous, I do not, now and here, controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here, argue against them. If there be perceptable in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right.

As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.

Yours,
A. Lincoln.

In other words, for Lincoln, his primary duty was to uphold the Union.  And, as any American historian will tell you, every action he took during his presidency was directed at exactly that goal.  Slavery was not an issue for the Union, it was not why it went to war.  That, of course, changed on 1 January 1863 when Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation came into effect.

As for Robert E. Lee, there is no evidence whatsoever he said this.  It is most likely that this fake quote is a mangling of something he did say or write, but I even have my doubts about that.

Lee, of course, was the the Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia for the Confederate States of America, a failed statelet that existed from 1861-65.  During its short lifespan, the CSA did not gain the official recognition of any other state.  And it ended with the massive defeat of the Confederacy’s army.  At any rate, Lee fought to preserve slavery.  Full stop.

Slavery was the primary reason for the secession for each and every of the Confederate states.  It was also the primary reason for the existence of the Confederacy.  Not states’ rights. Not taxation.  Slavery.  And this was what Robert E. Lee fought to preserve.

So even IF this line from Lincoln could be extrapolated to mean something, and even IF Robert E. Lee said what this meme claims, it is irrelevant.  One man ultimately ended slavery, the other fought to preserve it.

But, the meme is not correct.  It is FAKE NEWS.

Post-Truth Is A Lie

November 18, 2016 § 7 Comments

Liberal news media sites are all a-gog with the rise of the ‘post-truth’ politician.  Donald Trump is the most egregious example, nearly everything that comes out of his mouth is a lie.  But Boris Johnson.  Nigel Farage.  Marine Le Pen.  I could go on.  It’s so bad that the venerable Oxford Dictionary has named ‘post-truth’ its word of the year for 2016.

I do not like the term ‘post-truth.’ I believe this is a case where a spade is a spade.  These politicians are liars. They’re lying.  They tell lies. Untruths. Fibs.  Fiction.  Calling it ‘post-truth’ normalizes their lying.  It makes it seem ok. Like, we’re all in on the joke.  Like none of this matters.

It matters.  Deeply.  In the country I live, the United States, we have just elected a president who has determined that Donald Trump speaks the truth exactly 4% of the time. Four per cent.  A further 11% of his public utterances are ‘mostly true.’  And 15% are ‘half true.’  But half-true is still a lie.  I learned the term from a lawyer friend, who notes lawyers love terms like this, because it means something is essentially a lie, but because there’s some factual veracity to it, it’s copacetic.  So.  Even if we want to be generous to Trump, 30% of his public utterances contain factual veracity.  The other 70%, the overwhelming majority of what he says?  Well, they’re ‘mostly false’ (19%), ‘false’ (34%), and the remainder, 17%, are  what PoliFact calls ‘pants on fire,’ as in that children’s rhyme: ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire!’

Yes. The United States has just elected a man who speaks God’s honest truth 4% of the time he opens his mouth in public.

This is not ‘post-truth.’ This is lying.  Donald Trump is a liar. Boris Johnson is a liar. Marine Le Pen is a liar.  Nigel Farage is a liar.  We need to call this what it is if we wish to combat it. The decisions people like Trump and Johnson get to make as head of state and government minister, respectively, impact the lives of millions of people, and not just in their own countries.

A lie is a lie is a lie.

Margaret Sanger Was Not Who You Think

August 29, 2016 § 3 Comments

Margaret Sanger might be the least understood, most slandered person in American history right now.  Everyday in my Twitter feed, I see arguments over her, her beliefs on birth control, abortion, and African Americans.  She has been latched onto by many on the right as an example of what is purely evil with liberals in the US.  The problem is that the historical reality does not bear out this demonization of Sanger.

Nonetheless, the Twitter warriors persevere:

This isn’t limited to Twitter.  New Hampshire Representative William O’Brien (R) said that Sanger was a KKK member.  Herman Cain, in his run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2011, claimed that the whole point of Planned Parenthood, which Sanger founded, had a genocidal mission to prevent black babies from being born. Last fall, Ben Carson, on his own run to secure the GOP nod, declared that Sanger’s goal was to eliminate African Americans.

The belief that Sanger was a white supremacist and a member of the KKK is a particularly popular one on the American political right  This photo in particular has been circulating for years, after it was uploaded to the white supremacist site Stormfront in 2008:

sanger-kkk-2

While it is true that Sanger gave a speech to a women’s auxiliary of the KKK, both this photo and the supposed message of her talk are lies (she talked to the KKK women about birth control and called it “one of the weirdest experiences I had in lecturing.”).  But, like any good lie or meme, this one is careful to be specific, even offering us a location.  This photo is a photoshopped version of this:

sanger-kkk

Very different, no?

Yes, Sanger was a believer in eugenics.  So, too, were Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, H.G. Wells.  Even W.E.B. DuBois believed in aspects of the eugenics, though he was vehemently opposed to the racist viewpoint of many eugenicists, for perhaps obvious reasons.  And, let us not forget that the eugenics movement was one predicated on classism, racism, and almost every other -ism you can imagine.  At its purest, it was a movement devoted to purifying the human race of the disabled, criminal, addicted, and many others.  And that also included racism.  And, of course, eugenics is part of what drove the Nazis and the Holocaust.

Eugenics, however, was a mult-faceted movement.  In the United States, it was not simply a belief in sterilization of ‘undesirables’ and other medical horrors.  Rather, it also included a larger public health movement that sought to make Americans healthier through exercise, the creation of parks, eradication of STDs, clinics for maternal and infant health, immunization, and other aspects of healthy living.  And this is where Sanger’s beliefs largely lay. In a 1957 interview with Mike Wallace, Sanger stated that

I think the greatest sin in the world is bringing children into the world — that have disease from their parents, that have no chance in the world to be a human being practically. Delinquents, prisoners, all sorts of things just marked when they’re born. That to me is the greatest sin — that people can — can commit.

Moreover, a belief in eugenics did not necessarily equate racism in the United States.  To take the case of Sanger: she did not believe in segregation, she opposed Jim Crow in the South.  She was a firm believer in birth control, and she thought all women, not just wealthy, white women, should have access to it.  That includes poor white women, hence the talk to the KKK auxiliary.  But this belief also brought her into African American neighbourhoods in New York, Chicago to open clinics there so African American women would also have access to birth control.  She also worked closely with African American ministers in her attempts to educate black women.

In her actual organization, Sanger would not tolerate racism, and fired people for racism.  More to the point, in 1966, Planned Parenthood honored Rev. Martin Luther King with its Margaret Sanger Award, which is granted to people who work to ensure reproductive health and rights.  King was unable to accept the award in person, sending instead his wife, Coretta Scott King.  She read his acceptance speech, which included this passage:

There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life. Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist – a nonviolent resister.

Thus, in the end: Sanger was not a racist, she did not advocate mass sterilizations of anyone, let alone African Americans. She was not a member of the KKK.  In reality, she was a rare person in the early 20th century: she believed in racial and class equality when it came to reproductive health.  And she was dead-set opposed to racial segregation and Jim Crow.

 

 

Agnotology and Obama’s Religion

February 26, 2015 § 15 Comments

Jeff Jacoby is the resident conservative columnist at the liberal Boston Globe, the main Boston newspaper.  Jacoby is a very intelligent man and while I rarely agree with anything he writes, his column is usually well worth the read (as long as it’s not about climate change; he is delusional on this matter).  But yesterday, Jacoby set a new low.

In yesterday’s column, Jacoby ponders President Obama’s religion.  He takes to task reporters who asked Wisconsin Governor (and Republican presidential hopeful) Scott Walker about whether or not he thought the president was a Christian.  I agree with Jacoby thus far.  I don’t see the relevance of any of this to either Obama as President or to Walker as a prospective candidate.

Walker, of course, couldn’t resist.  He said he didn’t know if the president is a Christian.  This is a disingenuous response if there ever was one.  Jacoby then notes that Americans as a whole seem confused on the matter:

[Walker] has plenty of company.

During the president’s reelection campaign in the summer of 2012, the Pew Research Center polled a national sample of registered voters: “Do you happen to know what Barack Obama’s religion is?” More than one-third of the respondents — 36 percent — said they didn’t know. Only 45 percent identified the president as a Christian; 16 percent said he’s a Muslim.

That was the seventh time in a little over four years that Pew had measured public awareness of Obama’s religion. The first poll, back in March 2008, had yielded almost identical results — 36 percent couldn’t name then-Senator Obama’s religion, while 47 percent said he was Christian and 12 percent answered Muslim.

Indeed.  But this is where Jacoby goes right off the rails:

Over the years, the president has made numerous comments on religious topics, and his messages haven’t always been consistent. It isn’t hard to understand why a sizable minority of Americans, to the extent that they think about Obama’s religion at all, might be genuinely puzzled to put a label to it. Honest confusion isn’t scandalous.

This is NOT honest confusion.  Obama’s religious beliefs aren’t that complicated, he’s a Christian who doesn’t go to mass often, like most Christians.  What this is is racism.  This is the same racism that drove the Birther movement.  I severely doubt if John McCain had won in 2008, or if Mitt Romney had won in 2012, their religious beliefs would ever be a topic of discussion.  I seriously doubt that 36% of Americans would have no clue about the president’s religious beliefs.  As for the discussion that Obama is a Muslim:

public opinion polls show that despite liberal denial, at least one in five or 17% of Americans recognize that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.

This is the first sentence of an entry on Conservapedia on “Obama’s Religion” (the bold is in the original).  Note the “is” after the word “Obama” and before the word “a.”  Jacoby is dead wrong to go down this road, because this is exactly where he is going.

Agnotology is the study of deliberate ignorance.  Deliberate ignorance is easy to spot in our culture.  Examples include the insistence that Hitler was a communist because he led the National Socialist party. Or that because Lincoln was a Republican and he freed the slaves Republicans cannot be racist.  These are both fallacies.  Clearly.  Yet, there are people in the United States who will argue to their death that these are truths.  These kinds of beliefs are easily perpetuated in the so-called Information Age.  Scrolling through my Twitter feed on any given day, I can find any number of un-truths passed off as truths (especially by “facts” accounts, that claim to only tweet fact).  These un-truths get re-tweeted for all sorts of reasons, of course, but an un-truth repeated often enough eventually becomes believed as truth.  Thus, the editors of Conservapedia can, with a straight face, claim that “17% of Americans recognize that Barrack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.”  And how did 17% of Americans come to believe that Obama is a Muslim?  Because this lie has been repeated often enough that some people have come to believe it.

Jacoby disingenuously opens this can of worms in yesterday’s column.  Jacoby is smart enough to know that the “confusion” over Obama’s religious beliefs is irrelevant.  He is also smart enough to know that this confusion is a fine study in agnotology.  But, instead he appeals to the lowest common denominator and uses his column to perpetuate ignorance.

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