Thursday, October 30, 2008

Lies and Bullshit: On the Campaign Trail, '08


Will it be Sen. Barack "Hussein" Obama, the shadowy character who has emerged out of nowhere, whose birth certificate no one can find? The Marxist, Muslim terrorist sympathizer with ties to political dissidents in Kenya and whose father might even be Malcolm X?

Or will it be Sen. John "Maverick" McCain, the cranky old Navy pilot who calls his wife the "C-word," abuses vacationers in Fiji with William Faulkner performances and whose hobbies have included crashing fighter jets?

Well, you read it here first, folks: the answer is neither, because neither of the two men described above exist.

Phony stories about presidential candidates are nothing new. Rumors circulated about the Clinton family in the lead up to the 1992 election, and George W. Bush was the subject of much fantastical speculation in 2000.

But in a world of news driven by sites like and the Drudge Report, these idiotic fictions are getting harder and harder to keep out of the mainstream discussion. It's end users who determine what the news cycle is -- they click on stories, moving them up in the "most viewed" list, or they forward vicious emails around the country. Phony news makes it from coast to coast before the first pot of breakroom coffee has percolated.

For anyone interested, it's usually easy enough to demonstrate these "email forward" stories as blatant falsehoods -- you've just got to wander over to or, both non-partisan sites devoted to identifying blogospheric baloney. But as easy as it is, and as much time as I've spent trying to convince people that Obama probably isn't the antichrist, these stories persist.

First and foremost, I think a large part of it has to do with wish-thinking. We are, by nature, not particularly scientific when it comes to things we want to believe. If I were a McCain supporter (I'm not), my initial reaction to a story that painted Obama in a negative light would be to believe it, and the same would go vice-versa. We seem tuned to filter out information that doesn't fit nicely with the worldview we already have, and anything we find that supports what we already think is automatically attractive.

So I do understand that element, but only to an extent. Some of these phony campaign stories are getting ridiculous -- beyond the point where it's easy to explain them away as simply fitting into existing worldviews. Questions about Obama's citizenship are still circulating -- even though there's plenty of evidence to show he was born in the United States, and none that he wasn't (for a great run-down of a few of these "unreported" stories, check out this item on Politico. My buddy Brad sent it to me). Attacks on McCain's military record are similarly out of order -- you can disagree with the guy, but there is simply no call whatsoever to question the integrity of his service in the Navy.

And I don't think it's the candidates themselves who are responsible for these slurs against each other -- in some cases, it's the people working on their campaigns, such as the McCain campaigner who scratched a backwards "B" in her face in Western Pennsylvania and claimed she'd been assaulted by a black man "enraged" by her McCain/Palin sticker.

But in most cases, it's just the "Joe Six-Packs" around the country, trying to weigh in on the election, thinking he or she has just found the next big story. We've arrived at the world Andy Warhol promised us, where everyone gets to be famous for 15 minutes. Normally, we seem content with viral YouTube videos, but during an election year, the contest seems to be finding out who can create the biggest, baddest meme about the election. And if it takes off, you're guaranteed press coverage... once something gets emailed enough, apparently there's no way for the networks to ignore it.

Maybe, though, it isn't about fame -- maybe it's because political campaigns are, considering the amount of hype and attention they get, perhaps some of the most boring things that go on in the world. Sure, there are the buses, the conventions, the whistle-stops and the stump speeches (and let's not forget the nail-biting debates). But to really get down to the nitty-gritty, what you're looking at is hundreds of pages of proposed tax plans and budgets. And who wants to read those? What these lies and exaggerations people are sending each other might be is a way they've found to superimpose a dramatic narrative onto something that actually bores them to tears. It's not as if everyone is making up their own stories -- but a lot of us are emailing them to all our friends. And maybe that just goes to show that we do want to participate in the election -- but that we've found the actual meat of it about as exciting as eating a bottle of Ritalin and then watching The English Patient.

Personally, I'm burnt out on it. I can't wait for Nov. 5. And I decided to STUDY this shit!