Occupation: Foole

jester

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.)

A few less clowns, please.

Remember the class clown? The kid in school that you could count on to say or do something outrageous… obnoxious even… to become the center of attention. We’ve all known at least one. Maybe it was the boy who chugged his carton of milk then burped the alphabet. Or the girl who could make the infamous armpit noise. Usually the entire class got in trouble for laughing. All because someone wanted to be noticed.


It’s not limited to goofy juveniles in the classroom. How often do you hear about a young actress who experienced a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ and suddenly exposed herself, coincidently just when the photographers were there to capture the moment? Or the singer who became involved in a minor scuffle with a fan, and the incident conveniently occurred right when a new album was about to be released? A few personalities have taken it much further, signing up for their own ‘reality’ television show, though more often than not what you’re shown is scripted and rehearsed.


Sadly, the phenomenon isn’t limited to those we would normally refer to as entertainers. More and more, our political world has become dominated by the type of scandalous behavior one shouldn’t expect from adults given the weighty responsibility of operating our government.


Radio and television personalities are well-known for stirring up their followers with one conspiracy theory after another in an effort to boost ratings. Glenn Beck, Alex Jones, Michele Malkin, the list goes on and on. They claim to have evidence of secret plots by our government to confiscate our guns or establish internment camps or purposely collapse the economy. They’ll chatter about the creeping influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and Sharia law… or how you should fear George Soros and Saul Alinsky  It’s all fantasy designed to gather and maintain an audience to whom they can then market products like books, freeze-dried foods, virility pills, and gold.


You’ve got Ted Nugent, a one-time big name in rock who is known today more for his off-the-rails remarks against President Obama. I can’t blame poor Ted for trying to make a living doing something, since his music isn’t really bringing in a flood of cash anymore. The Nuge performed last week in Kansas City for a crowd of less than a thousand in a theater that easily seats three times that many. On a side note: why is Nugent so beloved by the Right for his outlandish (and usually profane) attacks on President Obama but the Dixie Chicks were subjected to protests by talk radio hosts and a nationwide radio boycott for their opposition to war a decade ago?  


It’s one thing when these entertainers and pundits spread their tales of imagination. It’s another when the politicians decide they also want to play the game.


Recently we’ve heard Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, breathlessly claim that the influx of children at our southern border is part of a secret plan by President Obama to: “put at risk the American people, our culture, our way of life, our economic standing, and also he’s willing to allow a pandemic of disease to come into our country.” Mind you, the congresswoman provides no proof to back up her remarks.


Bachmann isn’t alone in the Congressional Cavalcade of Clowns. From the great state of Iowa – land of that coveted prize of presidential hopefuls, the Iowa Caucuses – you get Rep. Steve King, who can be counted on for either making snide comments that are offensive to Hispanics or suggesting that the president be impeached for… well, something. Out of Texas we have Rep. Louie Gohmert who claims to know that terrorists want to have their babies born in the USA to gain citizenship, then whisked off to another land to be: “raised and coddled as future terrorists” so that they could return, programmed I suppose, as adults bent on destruction. Louie must think “The Manchurian Candidate” was a documentary.


And then there’s that reservoir of wack-a-doodle speech, former Gov. Sarah Palin, who looked around the political landscape and decided that what the world needs is a subscription-funded website that, for $9.95 a month ($99.95 for a year), gives you the opportunity to watch a video in which she stands in her kitchen talking about vegetables. No, I’m not kidding.


This is probably where some readers will say, “There he goes, picking on poor Sarah.” Look, I know she was once elected the governor of a sparsely-populated state and was handed the opportunity to be the number two name on a losing presidential ticket… but that doesn’t insulate her from criticism when she serves up her typical word salad of nonsense. Sure, she’s popular… but so is Honey Boo Boo, and I wouldn’t seek out her political meditations either.

Let’s be clear: all of these people have a right to voice their opinions. But we have the responsibility to filter what they say, separating fact from fiction.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald, 8/7/14)