Occupation: Foole


Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Most of us are familiar with that proverb which assures us that we can blame the trickster who catches us in a con the first time, but the fault belongs to us if we allow ourselves to be misled by the same deception a second time.

But what if we still don’t learn from our experiences? What does it say about us if we fall for the fraud over and over again? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me yet again, shame on… Facebook?


The real “fake news”

Perhaps nowhere today is there a more prolific source of foolishness than social media, particularly those websites that encourage users to share pictures and videos but without the benefit (or, some would say, hindrance) of a guide or editor, someone who would guarantee that the information posted for our viewing entertainment is also honest and truthful.

It’s one thing if we start off with the knowledge that the thing we’re about to see is a work of fiction. After all, no one really believes that there really are little orange men who work in a chocolate factory or that an evil clown with a red balloon is hanging out in the storm sewer. That’s just make-believe, and we can tell the difference between fantasy and reality, right?

Or so we think.

And hope.

Sadly, we’ve all heard stories of sweet little old ladies who received a phone call from the “police” with the news that their “grandson” was in trouble and were conned into giving credit card information to the caller to pay a hefty fine. It’s along the same lines as those random email requests from a so-called Nigerian prince who needs your help to pay a routine transaction fee to help release several million dollars from a locked bank account for which you will be handsomely rewarded.

Those and many other stories are nothing new. People have been cheated and swindled since the dawn of time. What’s changed are the methods used and the motivation. What once was an effort to steal money and property from the unsuspecting now is often replaced with seeking to confuse the victim in order to spread rumors. Much of the time, the goal seems to be to provoke fear and anger, often tied to politics. 

Not surprising. These days, everything is tied to politics.  


It’s really not that hard, people

What’s truly surprising is how quickly people can be convinced to believe the most outrageous claims. Take for example the multitude of tall tales that flooded the internet before, during, and after the 2016 presidential election. (You KNEW I was going down that path, didn’t you?)

You probably heard the story claiming that there was a certain pizza shop in Washington DC tied to a child abuse ring and that there was a hidden tunnel leading from the restaurant’s basement to various locations around the city. Without reading any further, most people would call such reports utterly ridiculous. Unfortunately, the story was amplified throughout social media, embellished with even more lurid details. Major media outlets joined in — Some, perhaps, treating it as a joke but others? Not so much. — and repeated the story enough that many people started to accept it as truth. It didn’t help that some reporters labelled the story “Pizzagate”, thus giving the public an easy title for the non-existent scandal. Of course, it only takes one lunatic with a gun who believes the lies and decides to play judge and jury, and that’s what happened in this case as an armed man who was motivated by the news reports fired several shots inside the restaurant. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but it wasn’t the first time that innocent people were placed in danger over a foolish prank. And it wasn’t the last.

That’s just one example of the misuse of the internet to quickly spread a lie. If you want to see more, just open up your favorite social media site. There’s probably a few in your timeline right now.

(SIDE NOTE: I strongly urge my friends in the news media to stop thinking they have to give every little thing a cutesy name ending in “-gate”. Watergate was a real criminal event that disrupted our nation and led to the embarrassing resignation of an American president. Let’s stop trivializing real news stories by making these phoney tales sound legit.)

A matter of choice

Let me be clear: I’m not calling for the elimination of social media. But I am saying that we need to be more responsible about what we say and what we post online. Look at it this way: we pay entertainers to lie to us. We expect them to tell us a story, to pretend they are someone they’re not. That’s the kind of lie that’s harmless. 

It’s when we allow people with bad intent to flood our brains with lies in order to manipulate our lives and the way we vote, that’s when things go downhill. Unfortunately, it’s up to each one of us to prevent propagandists from controlling our thoughts and actions with false information. As Mark Twain once said, “How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and how hard it is to undo that work again!”

*A special tip of the hat to the late George Carlin whose work provided this month’s title.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald September 5, 2019.)

Words that never were true

…just spoken to help nobody but you.

word cloud

In our 24/7/365 news cycle, there’s never a moment when the world stands still and gives us a chance to get caught up on the events of the day. For a newspaper columnist the challenge is to try to keep up, knowing that the next blockbuster headline is just around the corner. So, while they are fresh in our minds, let’s explore some recent events.

Seeing is believing?

After much speculation, we now know that members of the Trump presidential campaign were in direct talks with Russian contacts who were seeking to influence the 2016 election. This isn’t speculation. All parties who attended, including Donald Trump Jr., have come forward to admit that the meeting occurred, though there have been conflicting stories about the topics that were discussed.

Now, in a normal world, you’d think that we could agree on most of the facts. But since last November, it’s not as easy to call things ‘normal’. Take for example this excerpt from the results of a recent survey by Public Policy Polling. (This is insane.)

“On Russia related issues we find a certain degree of willful ignorance among Trump voters that can possibly best be summarized by this finding: only 45% of Trump voters believe Donald Trump Jr. had a meeting with Russians about information that might be harmful to Hillary Clinton…even though Trump Jr. admitted it. 32% say the meeting didn’t happen and 24% say they’re not sure.”

Notice that? Junior admitted that the meeting occurred, and he even released the emails that prove his intention was to obtain materials from the Russians that supposed would be harmful to Sec. Clinton’s chances in the presidential race.

Nearly a third of Trump voters deny the meeting occurred… EVEN THOUGH JUNIOR SAID IT DID. The facts are undeniable, yet most Trump voters can’t allow themselves to see the truth that’s right before their eyes. That’s much more than willful ignorance. That’s self-imposed destructive stupidity.

It’s not the crime, it’s the…

Even more mind-boggling than the average Trump voter’s inability to grasp reality is the public’s quick and easy acceptance of any wrongdoing by the president’s inner circles. Part of Donald Junior’s rotating fairy tales about his secret chat was an effort to make it seem like it was all about trying to help Americans adopt Russian children. Now we know that President Trump dictated Junior’s official statement, trying to give it a spin of innocence. Does the elder Trump have no trust in his oldest son’s ability to speak for himself, or is twisting the story part of a plan to hide something nefarious?

By taking charge and re-directing the narrative, President Trump took the lead role in an attempted cover-up. This could be the opening special counsel Robert Mueller needs in his investigation into the Putin-ordered hacking and other efforts to help win the election for Trump.

Maverick? Meh.

As one of three Republican senators who voted against an Obamacare-killing bill, John McCain has been hailed as a hero by many on the political left. But let’s not rush into that. Senator McCain may have been standing up for what he thinks is right, although he’s not shown any previous love for the Affordable Care Act, so I doubt he’s suddenly decided that President Obama’s big achievement is worthy of his support.

It could be that McCain truly wants to see Congress return to the days of bi-partisanship on major issues, and thinks that his vote will convince others to regain a bit of sensibility. Then again, McCain may just have wanted to deny President Trump a victory.

For me, I have strong doubts that Senator McCain can be seen as an advocate for expanded health insurance coverage. That would take much more political courage than I’ve seen from him in many years. Now, if he were to go on Meet the Press and apologize to the American people for making Sarah Palin famous, then I might be convinced that he has honorable intentions.

How much is too much?

One final thought: as President Trump wrapped up his first six months in office, his administration saw many internal shake ups. His press secretary resigned under pressure, his newly-named communications director was hired and fired in just eleven days, his Chief of Staff was replaced, and numerous attorneys and spokespeople have come and gone. You have to wonder if the well will run dry. I was asked, “How long until Trump has alienated a critical mass?” That is, will we reach the point where no one else will work for him?

I think not. Considering the players that have been members of this administration so far, I’d say this:

There’s plenty of evil, untalented fish in the ocean.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald August 3, 2017.)

No matter what

A road sign with the word Choose and arrows pointing left and right

In America, we like to choose sides. We make a decision and then stick to it. Nothing you can say or do will convince your buddy to change his ways.

Take for example the Cola Wars. There’s been a rivalry between the drinkers of Coke and Pepsi for generations, with both sides insisting that their favored beverage is better. While I’m sure you know somebody who has no preference, most of the people in my circles are dedicated to one brand over the other. One side insists that Coke is the only soda worth drinking, while the other will select water rather than accept a cola other than Pepsi.

It’s the same thing with sports teams. Or Ford vs Chevy. Or those old commercials with a bunch of guys yelling “Tastes great!” and “Less filling!”

In most cases it’s all in good fun. But often we invest so deeply in our devotion toward one side over the other that it’s no longer trivial. Eventually, these disputes become much more heated when the loyalists on the two sides face off on a political issue.

The Truth, the Whole Truth

If you’ve been following this column for any period of time, you know that I have no patience for liars. If your argument is built upon a foundation of falsehoods, I want no part of it. I wouldn’t want to stake my reputation on something I know not to be true, and I can’t conjure up the desire to have a conversation with someone who deals with fantasy rather than facts.

We have a world of knowledge at our fingertips. Our computers and smartphones can lead us to the answers to just about any question imaginable. But we have to be willing to use discernment. We have to take precautions, to make sure that what we hear and what we read is honest and trustworthy.

Sometimes the lies are obvious. Others, though, are partially shadowed. Whether these are half-truths or unspoken realities, we can count them as lies because of how they’re presented. We may be told a less than complete story or, quite often, we just don’t listen well enough. We hear the things we want, and ignore the rest.

If you always believe what you’re told without doing a bit of investigating on your own, you’re taking a big risk. You could end up putting your trust in a person or an ideal only to be greatly disappointed in the long run.

Take for example the woman in Indiana who counts herself as a supporter of President Trump. She voted for him because, among various reasons, she liked his tough stance on undocumented immigrants. But she didn’t think that her husband, who came to the States illegally from Mexico nearly twenty years ago, would be deported. She heard Trump talk about kicking out criminals, but never suspected he was talking about people like her husband. And yet, he was detained, then sent to Mexico on a one-way trip.

Or the mother in Tennessee who told the Washington Post that it was tax credits from Trump that made her unemployed son’s health insurance premiums drop by nearly 85 percent. In reality, those savings were the result of subsidies from the Affordable Care Act, which is still the law. Ironically, repeal of the ACA – a key talking point of Trump’s campaign – will cause those subsidies to end, thus causing her son’s insurance premiums to skyrocket.

In both cases, and a multitude of others, overwhelming loyalty prevented these people from seeing and understanding basic truths.

It becomes part of you

Dan Pfeiffer, who served as Senior Advisor to President Obama, recently said, “Being for Trump becomes part of someone’s identity.” While he is clearly partisan, Pfeiffer’s words ring true. Trump himself made the claim that he could shoot someone and not lose support. Based on the enthusiastic attendees at Trump’s rallies, he’s right. There are a lot of people who are willing to accept anything Trump says or does and remain on his side.

It didn’t matter to them when Trump reversed his campaign promise to label China a “currency manipulator”. They seem okay now that Trump has changed positions on NAFTA and NATO, and that he has flip-flopped on several health care issues. They stand by their votes for him, and they eagerly sign up for tickets to his rallies where they laugh at his jokes and feel good about the choice they made.

They refuse to be convinced otherwise, perhaps because they just don’t want to admit that they fell for a con.

I wonder what it will take, what abuse of power or act of greed, before they see clearly.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald May 4, 2017.)

That does not compute

adding machine

Love them or hate them, there’s no escaping computers. They’re all around us… a constant part of our lives… even if we don’t realize it. They are marvelous tools when used correctly. The laptop, desktop, tablet and the smartphone are the most obvious examples of computers we tinker with daily. They may be the only ones you think of when you hear the word “computer”.

The first computer wasn’t electronic, nor was it connected to a power source. Essentially, a computer is, by definition, “a device that computes”. In addition to your Mac or PC, a calculator fits that description. So does an adding machine and an abacus.

Years ago, I had a cool coin bank that had four tubes, one each for pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. When I dropped a coin in the slot at the top of the bank, it would roll down a chute until it fell into the proper tube. Markings on the sides of the tubes told me how much money was collected. This was an ingenious and accurate machine that computed the amount of cash I had saved.

But let’s say I purposely dropped a fake coin in the slot, a piece of metal that was the same size and shape of a quarter but not a product of the US Mint. Although it was worthless, it would take the place of a real coin and mislead me into thinking I had saved more than was actually on hand.

In that case, I provided false data to a computer. I lied. I told the device that I was entering a quarter although I knew that was not true. There’s a common phrase to describe that action: “garbage in, garbage out”. In other words, if you, dear human, put in the wrong information… the computer will give you the wrong answer. But then, a computer is nothing more than a tool created by the ultimate device: the human brain. Our brains work on the same concept. Given false information, we are likely to repeat it, often without realizing that the data is incorrect.

Charles Babbage, the 19th century mathematician and inventor who is called the “father of the computer” because of his pioneering work envisioning a programmable computing device once said, “On two occasions, I have been asked [by members of Parliament], ‘Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?’ I am not able to rightly apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.”  In other words, if you start with a lie, don’t expect anything else at the end.

Nowhere is that more obvious than the internet, especially on places like Facebook. There, you can tell a lie and your friends will not only “like” it, they’ll repeat it, often with a few embellishments of their own.

Politics and current events seem to be the most common topics of those who spread these wildfire stories. If it weren’t for the world wide web, I doubt any of us would have heard that President Obama was born in Kenya (false), that Vince Foster was murdered by the Clintons (not true), or that Oprah Winfrey has endorsed Donald Trump for president (not yet… and not likely). But there are plenty of people who hate Obama and the Clintons and, for reasons that defy all known boundaries of common sense, support Trump. For them, these and similar stories reinforce their closely held beliefs. Trying to convince them otherwise is a monumental task. It would probably be easier to convince Niagara Falls to flow uphill.

A recent article in Scientific American magazine explored the difficulties of changing minds. People with long-held beliefs resist information that conflicts with their already established opinions. We tend to settle into a comfortable narrative and refuse, possibly aggressively, to accept anything that doesn’t fit the pattern. So, if you have a history of partisan politics — maybe you’re a lifetime member of a party and usually vote for its candidates — you’ll tend to accept as fact anything that reinforces your stance and looks bad for the other side.

It’s our instinct, our human nature, to strive for success… to win… to be right. When faced with the chance of being proved wrong, we often avoid even the most logical facts and focus instead on a storyline that makes us comfortable. Over time, we feel more at ease accepting as truth anything that conforms to our beliefs, no matter how ludicrous. And if the guy on the radio or the lady on television says out loud what we already believe, even better.

Con men and cult leaders — am I being redundant? — gain the confidence of their victims by telling them what they want to hear. Is it any wonder that many political careers are built on the same foundation?

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald June 2, 2016.)

The truth is…

How can you tell when a politician is lying? His lips are moving. Yeah, it’s an old joke… but it’s accurate.

Here we are, seventeen months away from the next presidential election and I’m sick of it all. Maybe disgusted is a better word. Or frustrated.

I’m old enough to remember when these campaigns generally lasted about a year and a half. That was before the internet and 24-hour cable “news” and satellite radio. Now, with all these different sources offering political chatter, the campaigns never really end. You could see it in 2012 when, as soon as the Republicans nominated Mitt Romney, the rest of the crowd was jockeying for the best spots on the TV talk shows so they could keep their names circulating for 2016. You could see it in early 2011, when Secretary of State Clinton let it be known that she wasn’t interested in continuing in that post during a second Obama term, with the unspoken but very clear message that she would be making another run for the White House.

So, yes, I get weary sometimes with politics. And yet, here I am writing on that subject. One of these days, I’ll submit a column on a completely different topic… just to see if you’re paying attention.

But back to the campaign trail.

Since we’ve got no choice but to be flooded with political blather on a daily basis — except for the occasional breaking news from the Kardashians — I thought I’d offer a few thoughts on some of the most common themes and buzzwords we should expect to hear from the candidates and the commentators.

Let’s start with “small government”. Dedicated readers will recall that I touched on this phrase in a column last July. (You can find it and a host of others archived on my blog; follow this link to read it.) Feel free to ho-hum any candidate who trumpets that he wants to make the federal government smaller or slash regulatory agencies. They only say that until they get elected, then turn around and realize that they kinda like all the power.

How about “tax and spend”? That line is nearly always used to attack Democrats, but there hasn’t been a politician invented yet who didn’t enjoy taking some of the revenue stream from Americans’ pockets and throwing it at his own pet project. Of course, they try not to make it too obvious lest they be accused of being too much in love with pork… so they’ll call for massive increases in things like defense spending.  

There’s “government overreach”. That’s one from the “small government” category, where the politicians decry some particular regulation or agency and how it needs to be eliminated. Those same officials waste little time inventing other ways the government can be a thorn in your side, like making it harder to vote. Believe me, once a politician is sworn in, the last thing he wants is to make it easier for the public to vote him out.

A similar line is “legislating from the bench,” referring to court rulings in high profile cases. We’re hearing that a lot now, especially with the Supreme Court’s highly anticipated ruling on same-sex marriage. Of course, it depends on the subject. Those who attack a court decision on one matter will expend the same amount of energy applauding another. If you like the ruling, the judges are heroes. If you don’t, you want them impeached.

Here’s one I’d love not to hear: “So-and-so is coming to take your guns!” Let’s be honest: more Americans own more guns now than ever before. If any politician was really trying to disarm you, clearly they’ve been going about it all wrong.

That one dovetails nicely with the one you hear about how someone has a “secret plan”. While that one is often used by Second Amendment profiteers, we also hear about hidden schemes to build internment camps, force us to switch religions, and take away our retirement. One thing that bugs me: if the people spreading these claims know all about these “secret plans”, they’re not all that secret, are they?

(By the way… that one about the plan to take our retirement? That one is real… at least, for anyone who is counting on a pension for their golden years. But that’s a topic for a later column.)

I could go on… but you get the point. Honesty takes a back seat when it’s time to run for office.  

There I go again… acting all cynical. That’s a common theme in my writings on these pages and on my blog. Trust me, I’m not always a Downer. But when you’re a realist, it’s hard to see many silver linings in the political cloud cover.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald on June 4, 2015.)