In trying to understand how this happens over and over again (weren't way too many people talking about Michelle's vacation in Spain just last weekend?), I can't help but go back to the genius of Steven Colbert in giving us the word truthiness (video). Wikipedia defines the word this way:
a "truth" that a person claims to know intuitively "from the gut" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.
All of the recent hysterias we've been subjected to started out this way. The right wing finds something that trips people's emotional wires...connects to their feelings, and grabs them before any look at evidence, logic, or historical context has taken place. Once its been cemented in their "guts," it becomes almost impossible to challenge because that narrative has been set. Reason can't challenge those deep places where emotion attaches and won't let go.
The next step is to spread this truthiness through something we've long called the bandwagon effect.
people often do and believe things merely because many other people do and believe the same things.
This is where the media comes in. When people start talking about something - especially if it stirs up conflict and emotions, it spreads like wildfire. People hear others talking about it - so it must have some validity.
At that point, you have the ability to argue in favor of the hysteria via argumentum ad populum.
a fallacious argument that concludes a proposition to be true because many or all people believe it
Of course, all of the polling firms are making millions off of this one. The minute a particular hysteria hits fever pitch, we get polls saying that the majority of the country agrees with the wingers. Apparently there is even an old Chinese proverb about this one called three men make a tiger.
So now you have a majority of the country demanding that something be done about the latest hysteria. Shoot...swish...score.
I had hoped that the country had decided to step off of the bandwagon created by the manipulation of our emotions - especially our fears - when Bush/Cheney were repudiated. But it seems like we were just getting over the raw emotions of 9/11 (that provided the fodder previously) when the economy tanked, people got scared, and that gave fuel to a whole new round of manipulations.
I think its important to keep combating this kind hysteria with facts and reason. But I also suspect that people need to be called to the higher nature of our emotions like compassion, justice, unity, and empathy.
Last weekend I took a look again at Obama's speech at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on January 20, 2008. I really recommend that you go read the whole thing. But I'd like to provide a few excerpts.
And on the eve of the bus boycotts in Montgomery, at a time when many were still doubtful about the possibilities of change, a time when those in the black community mistrusted themselves, and at times mistrusted each other, King inspired with words not of anger, but of an urgency that still speaks to us today:
"Unity is the great need of the hour" is what King said. Unity is how we shall overcome...
Unity is the great need of the hour - the great need of this hour. Not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it's the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country.
I'm not talking about a budget deficit. I'm not talking about a trade deficit. I'm not talking about a deficit of good ideas or new plans.
I'm talking about a moral deficit. I'm talking about an empathy deficit. I'm taking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother's keeper; we are our sister's keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny...
So we have a deficit to close. We have walls - barriers to justice and equality - that must come down. And to do this, we know that unity is the great need of this hour.
Unfortunately, all too often when we talk about unity in this country, we've come to believe that it can be purchased on the cheap. We've come to believe that racial reconciliation can come easily - that it's just a matter of a few ignorant people trapped in the prejudices of the past, and that if the demagogues and those who exploit our racial divisions will simply go away, then all our problems would be solved.
All too often, we seek to ignore the profound institutional barriers that stand in the way of ensuring opportunity for all children, or decent jobs for all people, or health care for those who are sick. We long for unity, but are unwilling to pay the price.
But of course, true unity cannot be so easily won. It starts with a change in attitudes - a broadening of our minds, and a broadening of our hearts.
It's not easy to stand in somebody else's shoes. It's not easy to see past our differences. We've all encountered this in our own lives. But what makes it even more difficult is that we have a politics in this country that seeks to drive us apart - that puts up walls between us.
We are told that those who differ from us on a few things are different from us on all things; that our problems are the fault of those who don't think like us or look like us or come from where we do. The welfare queen is taking our tax money. The immigrant is taking our jobs. The believer condemns the non-believer as immoral, and the non-believer chides the believer as intolerant...
So let us say that on this day of all days, each of us carries with us the task of changing our hearts and minds. The division, the stereotypes, the scape-goating, the ease with which we blame our plight on others - all of this distracts us from the common challenges we face - war and poverty; injustice and inequality. We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing someone else down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It is the poison that we must purge from our politics; the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late.
Because if Dr. King could love his jailor; if he could call on the faithful who once sat where you do to forgive those who set dogs and fire hoses upon them, then surely we can look past what divides us in our time, and bind up our wounds, and erase the empathy deficit that exists in our hearts.
Does that touch you emotionally? It does me. It calls me to a higher place beyond all of the pettiness in which I sometimes engage - asks me to move towards the better part of who I am. Do you suppose we could start a new bandwagon effect in that direction?