Sunday, November 02, 2008

Slander, Lies and Videotape

Woke up with thoughts of a “Hitler Youth” retitled video of little kids singing a song in support of Barack Obama. When searching for inspirational (and fun -- wait until election day) political music videos for this blog I came across several videos people had taken from other sites, downloaded and then re-uploaded with a different title. The Manifest Obama video I put up earlier was one of them. It was retitled “Creepy”. But the Hitler Youth videos -- and there were several of different sorts -- were a lot more insidious and upsetting.

A group of families who support Obama filmed their kids singing a song while wearing Obama campaign T-shirts and innocently offered it on the Internet to support their candidate. The fear-mongerers of the Right snatched it up and have been using it as "evidence" that the Obama campaign is some kind of Nazi-Socialist indoctrination movement. Similar to how the intention of the Manifest Obama video was treated.

Since when does coming out in force for something you believe in warrant a title related to Hitler? Hitler wasn’t about equality for all people. Hitler would not have supported a black man, never mind a mixed race -- half white, half black --person! What on earth is going on with this? And why is it SO prevalent and insidious on the Internet?

Because it works. Oddly enough.

One of my favorite comedians, Craig Ferguson, likes to joke sarcastically that he found such and such a thing on the Internet and that means “it must be true!” Same thing could be said for things found in the newspaper.

More than 20 years ago I wrote a book about the origin, history and folklore of the Christmas Tree that focused, primarily, on what the tree meant before Christianity. I’m no longer a practicing Jew -- my faith can best be described as eclectic -- but having grown up Jewish I’m very sensitive to not wanting to say or write anything that might be offensive to Christians. I worried long and hard about publishing this book, especially because I felt the chapter about pagan myths that were similar to the story of Jesus and Mary might be seen as controversial.

Interestingly enough, NOBODY has ever mentioned it. The book came out to practically no attention at all. I was interviewed for maybe 18 little 2-3 minute sound bites on obscure radio stations around the country and had two more in-depth interviews locally. I spent several depressing weekends of my life doing booksignings and talks for whopping crowds of 4-5 people at most, and gave up thinking about it. Then, about two years ago, USA Today wanted to do an article about a new fashion trend of hanging Christmas Trees upside down from the ceiling and called me up.

The reporter was very funny and congenial. He had a particular angle he wanted to do the story from and, because I supposedly wrote the “definitive book” about the origin of the Christmas Tree, he wanted me to talk about what the symbolism of the tree meant and whether hanging the tree upside down might reverse it. I thought that might be the case if people thought about it too much so when he jokingly said “So, Sheryl, would you agree then that hanging the tree upside down might be seen as ‘sinister’? “ I laughed and said that it probably could. I also talked about the tree as having had great significance to pagan people.

Next thing I knew I was “quoted” in USA Today saying “The upside down Christmas Tree is sinister because it’s pagan.” I said no such thing! But before I knew it my supposed quote was spread all over the Internet and my email box was inundated with upset Pagans who wanted to string me up for insulting their religion. And to make matters worse, I thought of Pagans and Neo-pagans as my primary market for this book.

I had to come out swinging about this, got USA Today to print a correction (which was no small feat), printed a large notice on my website to stop the barrage of criticism coming at me, and printed something on this blog as well. The controversy faded away but every year since, starting a few weeks ago this year, I still get inquiries from reporters around the country wanting to follow suit on the USA Today article and get some new quotes for upside down Christmas Tree articles of their own. I always turn them down.

The power of the press to twist an innocent comment into a big “news story” has been part and parcel of the business from the beginning. It even featured strongly in the Frank Capra film “Mr Smith Goes to Washington” in which the idealistic new senator played by Jimmy Stewart is tricked into saying something and is then misquoted in the press exactly the way it happened to me.

But done on the Internet such tactics are more powerful. Reputations can be ruined in a matter of hours and completely slanderous things can be said -- and are said-- on blogs and forums all the time.

Don’t type in “Hitler Youth and Obama” in your search engine if you want to sleep well and digest your dinner tonight. And if you’re ready for a change in Washington don’t think it’s not important to come out and vote just because Obama appears to be still leading in the polls.

There’s a seamy underbelly to American politics...and it’s alive and well on the internet.

1 comment:

Chris Stone said...

Great post. It is depressing the amount of misinformation out there. And how perfectly reasonable people can become sound bite mongering quotitarians. A friend of mine was upset after a recent visit home. She told me something her mother told her in all seriousness... I forget what the statement was but something like Obama is muslim or a communist or something idiotic.

One problem is... unless people are asking questions there is only so much information you can give them. Its good to see well thought out posts like yours. Keep up the good work!

It would be nice to hope that hateful wrong headed posts like the ones you describe collapsed under the weight of their own ignorance.... But. Progress is not a given.