Last week I used a clip from the AMC series "Rubicon"¹ (re-posted after the jump) to illustrate what I felt could be interpreted as a parable about film criticism. Since then, it has come to my attention that "President Obama is a secret Muslim" and somebody is planning to build a "terror mosque" at Ground Zero. OK, those notions have been floating about for a while, but people have very, very strong opinions about them. I haven't seen any evidence that the president is a Muslim, secret or otherwise, and I'm not sure what a "terror mosque" is, but I know that the proposed Park51 Islamic cultural center (at the site of a defunct Burlington Coat Factory outlet) isn't at Ground Zero because I used Google Maps to look it up. The Pussycat Lounge, a strip club one block south, is closer, but people aren't expressing their opinions about it, maybe because it's been there for many years, like some of the other mosques in the neighborhood. So, I'm wondering: Where are all these opinions coming from and what are they grounded in? Mostly, it turns out, they have sprung from other opinions. Which are, in turn, based on disinformation or just something somebody heard somebody else say they heard from somewhere.
Fortunately, facts do exist independent of anyone's opinion about them. They are verifiable. Once you know what they are, you might be able to form some opinions. But, to return to the parable, until you know what the tie actually looks like, your position regarding it (whether you approve or disapprove, like or dislike) is worth, as Edwin Starr once said of war, absolutely nothin'.
Here's something from an Opinionator column by Timothy Egan, a National Book Award-winning nonfiction author, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and writer for the New York Times (and a former colleague of mine at the University of Washington Daily!) called "Building a Nation of Know-Nothings" that ought to be read by anyone who thinks they have an opinion about something.
Egan begins by remembering that moment at a McCain rally in 2008 when the candidate corrected the confused woman who said she'd "read about" Obama and that he was "an Arab."
That ill-informed woman -- her head stuffed with fabrications that could be disproved by a pre-schooler -- now makes up a representative third or more of the Republican party. It's not just that 46 percent of Republicans believe the lie that Obama is a Muslim, or that 27 percent in the party doubt that the president of the United States is a citizen. But fully half of them believe falsely that the big bailout of banks and insurance companies under TARP was enacted by Obama, and not by President Bush.
Take a look at Tuesday night's box score in the baseball game between New York and Toronto. The Yankees won, 11-5. Now look at the weather summary, showing a high of 71 for New York. The score and temperature are not subject to debate.
Yet a president's birthday or whether he was even in the White House on the day TARP was passed are apparently open questions. A growing segment of the party poised to take control of Congress has bought into denial of the basic truths of Barack Obama's life. What's more, this astonishing level of willful ignorance has come about largely by design, and has been aided by a press afraid to call out the primary architects of the lies.
The Democrats may deserve to lose in November. They have been terrible at trying to explain who they stand for and the larger goal of their governance. But if they lose, it should be because their policies are unpopular or ill-conceived -- not because millions of people believe a lie.
In the much-discussed Pew poll reporting the spike in ignorance, those who believe Obama to be Muslim say they got their information from the media. But no reputable news agency -- that is, fact-based, one that corrects its errors quickly -- has spread such inaccuracies.
I wish I could find a way to distill the essence of those five paragraphs (and there are plenty more) into a simple, memorable slogan that could be inscribed on all public buildings; announced before all press conferences, newscasts and talk shows; printed as an epigram in all works of nonfiction (reminder: if it doesn't have source notes and an index, it's not nonfiction); emblazoned on bumperstickers; and tattooed on the foreheads of anyone who appears in public to offer an opinion on something without acknowledging the basic facts. (I have a UPC tattooed on my leg to remind me of my insignificant place in the marketplace of disposable commodities.)
But what could that condensed nugget of wisdom be? "If you don't know what you're talking about, only people dumber than you will pay attention"? Too long. "Know your facts before you yap"? Too colloquial. How about just "Don't Be Stupid"? Maybe that's too obvious...
Anyway, Dr. Laura Schlesinger (whoever you were), what I mean is that you are allowed to completely misunderstand what First Amendment says, and even to assert, as you did, that it applies only to you and not to anybody else. It also means we are all allowed -- nay, compelled -- to laugh at your ignorance and hold you accountable for it. Personal responsibility. Take it, own it, live it.
Could any talk show on television, radio or podcast stay on the air if it had an independent panel of judges, like the ones on "Jeopardy," to buzz in and correct basic factual errors each time a host or guest made them? I mean the whole spectrum, from "Meet the Press" to "Rush Limbaugh." And Charo... wait, compared to talk shows (and I mean all talk shows, given what people are allowed to get away with saying on them), Charo deserves respect. At least "cuchi-cuchi!"² is an opinion (I think it's an opinion) that does not require factual verification.
But back to the Islamic community center with a prayer room (technically, that makes it a "mosque") a few minutes away from the cleared site known as "ground zero" from which no construction has risen in nine years (which, if you ask me, is the real outrage). It is a mosque roughly in the sense that 30 Rockefeller Center is a Magnolia Bakery. It is located at Ground Zero in roughly the same way that the Museum of Modern Art is at Rockefeller Plaza.
We owe thanks to Justin Elliott of Salon for the single most revealing account of this controversy's evolution. He reports that there was zero reaction to the "ground zero mosque" from the front-line right or anyone else except marginal bloggers when The Times first reported on the Park51 plans in a lengthy front-page article on Dec. 9, 2009. The sole exception came some two weeks later at Fox News, where Laura Ingraham, filling in on "The O'Reilly Factor," interviewed Daisy Khan, the wife of the project's organizer, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Ingraham gave the plans her blessing. "I can't find many people who really have a problem with it," she said. "I like what you're trying to do."
As well Ingraham might. Rauf is no terrorist. He has been repeatedly sent on speaking tours by the Bush and Obama State Departments alike to promote tolerance in Arab and Muslim nations. As Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic reported last week, Rauf gave a moving eulogy at a memorial service for Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter murdered by Islamist terrorists in Pakistan, at the Manhattan synagogue B'nai Jeshurun. Pearl's father was in attendance. The Park51 board is chock-full of Christians and Jews. Perhaps the most threatening thing about this fledgling multi-use community center, an unabashed imitator of the venerable (and Jewish) 92nd Street Y uptown, is its potential to spawn yet another coveted, impossible-to-get-into Manhattan private preschool.
In the five months after The Times's initial account there were no newspaper articles on the project at all. It was only in May of this year that the Rupert Murdoch axis of demagoguery revved up, jettisoning Ingraham's benign take for a New York Post jihad. The paper's inspiration was a rabidly anti-Islam blogger best known for claiming that Obama was Malcolm X's illegitimate son. Soon the rest of the Murdoch empire and its political allies piled on, promoting the incendiary libel that the "radical Islamists" behind the "ground zero mosque" were tantamount either to neo-Nazis in Skokie (according to a Wall Street Journal columnist) or actual Nazis (per Newt Gingrich).
These patriots have never attacked the routine Muslim worship services at another site of the 9/11 attacks, the Pentagon. Their sudden concern for ground zero is suspect to those of us who actually live in New York. All but 12 Republicans in the House voted against health benefits for 9/11 responders just last month. Though many of these ground-zero watchdogs partied at the 2004 G.O.P. convention in New York exploiting 9/11, none of them protested that a fellow Republican, the former New York governor George Pataki, so bollixed up the management of the World Trade Center site that nine years on it still lacks any finished buildings, let alone a permanent memorial.
It is so easy to spread rumors on the Internet, and that meme always gets a lot of play, but it's not as significant as how much easier it now is to absolutely, definitively, incontestably prove when information is false or someone is just plain wrong. In 2002 and 2003, I single-handedly published a site called Phantom of Liberty (then at phantomofliberty.com) devoted to debunking most mainstream media reporting about 9/11 and the circumstances surrounding the Invasion of Iraq (before and after) with links to source documents, transcripts, and other declassified material that was already available on the web. So, while Judith Miller was reporting about WMD in the New York Times, official reports from intelligence agencies, the State Department and the Department of Defense already showed that these reports had been disproved or were so old that they were no longer of any use.
That happened over and over again. Soon, it got even easier to disprove what you read in the Times or saw on TV newscasts (NPR, Knight-Ridder and PBS's "Frontline," history has shown, were perhaps the only consistently reliable sources of information -- and Paul Krugman was the only one fact-checking the Times -- right there in the Times!) because George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condaleeza Rice, Colin Powell all contradicted themselves from day to day and maintained "opinions" that their own sources had long since discredited. All you had to do was know where to look on the .gov web sites. It was there.
Which, at long last, leads me back to "Rubicon." What happened on September 11, 2001, was indeed a conspiracy -- by the people who flew the planes and carried the box-cutters, and the people who funded them and their training and research (for a few thousands of dollars -- not a financially significant operation). It's so easy, and so tempting (especially for those who consider themselves "anti-government" or "libertarian") to believe, without any solid evidence, that everything is an intricate conspiracy put together by people you are predisposed to dislike. None of that matters at all. Prove it.
Look at the tie. Accurately describe the tie. Then explain what it is you like or don't like about it and why.
Besides, you know what it says in the bible: If you build your opinion on sand, it's just going to crumble and blow away. But if you build it on a rock-solid foundation of fact, it will stand up to scrutiny, criticism, just about anything. You remember that part in the bible, right?
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¹ Five episodes in, it's still early, but I'm becoming more and more interested in how "Rubicon" is using the long-form series format to explore "connect-the-dots" conspiracy questions, and the psychologies of those whose jobs are to find and make those connections. Just about everybody on this show is looney tunes, either because their work has driven them bonkers or because you have to be crazy in order to see the world in the ways they need to, day in and day out. Stephen King gives the show his endorsement in the latest Entertainment Weekly:
Not as luxuriously nutzoid as "Persons Unknown" [which King describes as "'Twin Peaks' meets 'The Prisoner'"] but James Badge Dale is a magnetic leading man, and, well... we know they're out there, don't we? Watching us. Let's all put on our tinfoil hats.
And did I mention the whole thing starts with Harris Yulin? Anything with Harris Yulin is already exponentially greater than even the same thing without Harris Yulin. AND somebody on this show has a love for Bill Evans, who is my god. At least two or three shows have featured Evans' trio as "background music" -- which, of course, it isn't because the fact that it's Bill Evans, one of the greatest pianists in recorded history, at the keyboard.
² I just want to say that I have great respect for Charo's persistence, ambition and longevity. And she means to be funny.