Saturday, February 18, 2012

Myths, Lies and True Believers: Why Libertarians Should Be Cautious.

Perhaps you never heard of David Shaw Alexander, and it may be with good reason. Anti-gay Christians circulated the story of Alexander as a counter-example to the Matthew Shepherd murder in Wyoming. You may remember that Shepherd was the young college student beaten and left to die in the cold because he was gay.
According to an email allegedly sent out by David’s mother, poor “Davey” was in a restaurant near his college when “these homosexual men came in” and hit on him. They supposedly refused to take “no” for an answer and became belligerent. Then on New Year’s Eve Davey went to a party and “these same homosexuals were there” and  groped him in public and then followed him when he left. They allegedly attacked him, beat him and raped him in the parking lot. He supposedly died a few days later. The “mother” said, “This is what happens because our society doesn’t treat these homosexuals for the sick and perverse people they are.”
According to the emails circulated by Christians this took place in Edmonton, Canada. The problem was that the Edmonton police say there was no rape or murder reported to them. The university says no student by this name was enrolled, campus security says they never heard a word about such an incident. And, given that the temperature that night was -25 Celsius, pulling one’s privates out in public, a necessity for rape, would be a risky venture. In other words, it never happened.
When fundamentalists and conservatives claimed the Federal Communications Commission was being petitioned to make religious broadcasting illegal the FCC started getting 100,000 letters a month in protest. No such petition was circulated or submitted. It was a hoax.
Harold Hill, not the character from The Music Man, claims he was a consultant to NASA. According to him NASA was “checking the position of the sun, moon, and planets out in space where they would be 100 years and 1000 years from now.” (Do they really worry about the sun moving?) The computers doing this “stopped and put up a red signal which meant that there was something wrong.” According to the email “They found there is a day missing in space in elapsed time. They scratched their heads and tore their hair. There was no answer.” But, then some wise Christian remembered that the Bible spoke of the sun “standing still” for one day in the book of Joshua. That was the answer and it conveniently proved the miracle claimed in the Bible, which still seemed to indicate the sun revolves around the earth and not the other way around. 
Mr. Hill ran a company servicing generators for NASA, nothing more. He was never a consultant. But, he spread his story far and wide. NASA responded to Hill’s claims and said they simply have no need to do these kind of calculations, never did them, and don’t know anything about the “missing day.” They said Hill never had contact with their “computer facilities or teams engaged in orbital computations.” But, the story of Hill and his fictitious claims are widely accepted and still spread.
In 1989 the Trinity Broadcasting Network claimed a well was being dug in Siberia, and that scientists bored down nine miles before breaking through to a cavity. For some unknown reason they lowered a microphone and were horrified to hear screams of torment—they had broken through to Hell and were listening to people who died without Jesus. To this day some Christians are circulating the “sounds” recorded that day—sounds that were pulled from a 1972 horror film. There is no indication anywhere that this story is true. But it is still being circulated and can be found on Youtube.
A few years back I got an email from a libertarian friend that purported to be the account of a retired FBI agent who worked presidential security for Bill and Hillary Clinton. The FBI agent went into a rant about what awful human beings they were and how they routinely mistreated people. He spoke of how he served in this position in presidential security for every president from Kennedy to Clinton and had never seen anything like this.

I decided to look into this and discovered this was simply not possible. First, the numbers of years that the man had to serve, for this to be true, far exceeded the number allowed to agents in this capacity. Presidential security is rotated regularly and no one agent remains in that position for every long as it is considered high-stress. Second, there was a mandatory retirement age, according to the FBI site, for field agents and this man would have surpassed it long before Clinton was elected. The entire article was a hoax.
During the Clinton years I received numerous such hoaxes from libertarians about Bill or Hillary.
More times that I can possibly remember, I’ve had libertarians claim to me that marriage licenses were created recently in human history and their function was to prevent interracial marriage. They usually cite an op-ed in the New York Times as proof. The column itself did not say marriage licenses were invented for this purpose, only that at points in time the license system had been used for that purpose. In fact, marriage licenses are hundreds of years old and were established in nations where, at the time, interracial marriage was of little to no concern. For instance, Shakespeare had a marriage license. One does not make the case for a “libertarian” solution to marriage issues by repeating falsehoods.
Very recently some on the Left spread a story that claimed that Ayn Rand was “literally a sociopath” and that she “worshiped a notorious serial murderer-dismemberer, and used this killer as an early model for the type of ‘ideal man’ that Rand promoted in her more famous books….” Another Left-wing writer ranted, in capitals, “ATLAS SHREIKED: AYN RAND’S FIRST LOVE AND MENTOR WAS A SADISTIC SERIAL KILLER WHO DISMEMBERED LITTLE GIRLS.” The truth was, as you might expect, very different.
What they were referring to was Rand’s notes for a short story about a criminal that she says was “suggested” to her by the case of William Hickman. They claim that Rand biographer Jennifer Burns wrote that Ayn was “smitten” by Hickman. Burns said no such thing. As for Rand’s journals, they don’t support these claims either. What she really said was that Hickman's story suggested a fictional story to her, but that Hickman “is not” the model for her character only “what Hickman suggested to me.” She wrote that Hickman was “purposeless monster” and said her character was one “without the degeneracy” of Hickman. In other words, she wrote  almost the exact opposite of what was attributed to her. It appears that virtually all major Left-of-center websites  repeated this claim. Recent claims about Rand seeking out a social worker to secure her Social Security because of poverty are equally false.
To this day there is no shortage of Left-wing commentators who claim that Milton Friedman was an economic advisor to the military junta in Chile. He was no such thing. He was invited to give a lecture at a university in Chile and agreed to do so. While there, General Pinochet asked to meet him, which happened to Friedman in many countries. He had one meeting with Pinochet, that lasted under an hour and that was his entire role as an “advisor” to the junta. Oddly, while he had longer meetings with the leaders of China he was never accused of being an advisor to “communists.” 
In all of these cases individuals, with deeply held belief systems, perpetuated malicious or false claims that either ripped into opponents or which supposedly verified their weltanschauung. This is the risk of having a firmly held belief, be it religious or political. Ideology has a tendency to shut down critical thinking.

To some degree this is understandable. For instance, if you consider various views and conclude there is an objective reality, you need not reconsider that view for every claim you encounter. One function of principles is efficient thinking. If you have already discovered that price controls on apartments lead to shortages, and understand the principal behind it, you don’t need to waste time considering if price controls will do the same thing for food stuffs or labor. A properly established principle saves time when applied to multiple issues that are related.
The problem is that there are many false assumptions that people make. Two very common assumptions are, 1) that anyone who disagrees with you is either stupid or evil and 2.) your position is unassailable. Both of these lead one to accepting myths and hoaxes very easily.

Conservatives hated Bill Clinton because of his politics—these days they might consider his terms as the “good ol’ days”—so they were predisposed to believe he had to be an awful human being. The FBI story, though false, confirmed a view they already held. They were willing to propagate it because it told them what they already knew.

Similarly, the nonsense stories, that people on the Left spread about Ayn Rand, serve the same purpose. They confirm that she must have been a monster. Who else but a monster would dare disagree with them?
Fundamentalist Christians use both varieties of hoaxes to push their agenda. They readily buy into false stories about homosexuals because of their personal obsessions about gay people. And they happily buy into claims such as the borehole to Hell, and the NASA myth, because they seemingly support their “Bible-based” views of the world and history. I have had numerous fundamentalists tell me of “verified” resurrections as a result of prayer—none could actually produce evidence when I asked for it. At best, they pointed to others making the same claims, but also offering no evidence. Repeating a falsehood doesn’t make it true. Numerous citations of the same falsehood are not proof either.
We usually learn of such hoaxes from people who are friends or family. And, most people tend to hang out with people similar to themselves. We tend to assume that others, who share our views, are trustworthy and reliable sources. We take their word at face value. If they tell us something we already “know” to be true, their claims have to be true. So we don’t hesitate to spread the claims and usually make no effort to verify them.  
The net result is that “true believers,” no matter what their belief is, tend to adopt falsehoods as truth and spread lies or misinformation. They are running into claims that confirm their world-view so they fail to analyze them critically. One libertarian friend was so regular at sending me these hoaxes, which he honestly believed, that I automatically assumed they were fakes when I got them. I would duly check each one and he never disappointed me. I would respond to him with the facts. He stopped sending them to me, though I don’t think he stopped sending them out, or stopped believing in them. He just didn't want his view challenged.
Of course, sending out such verifiably false claims makes one look the fool. Spouting claims about Agenda 21, the NAFTA “Superhighway” or the “Amero,” only makes one look foolish. Falsehoods, even those that appeal to your ideology, help neither your ideology nor you. They only make you and your beliefs look foolish.
Libertarians should remember that people tend NOT to verify something that confirms their beliefs. Since libertarians tend to have strongly-held beliefs they should be even more cautious than normal, lest they bring themselves and their beliefs into ill repute. A good rule of thumb is to check everything opponents claim and double-check the claims of allies. It will not be the untruths that others say about libertarianism that will do us in. Far more dangerous is the nonsense some libertarians spread in the name of the “truth.”And, the more you see yourself as a "hard-core" libertarian, the more likely you are to fall for such false claims.


  1. "Fun" fact. A minister/entertainer came to the church I was attending. His schtick was that he was a (genuine) black belt in karate, and would do demos such as cutting open a watermelon with a sword on someone's stomach (and Baptists call snake handlers weird). Anyway, at some point during his preaching, he referenced a 'periodical' that brought up the borehole to hell. Funny thing was, I had seen that periodical while I was shelving magazines at the bookstore I was employed at at the time. It was the National Enquirer. Rational thought was not high on the list.

    William Cain