Sunday, February 18, 2018

I don't want to believe

I have a family member back in Kentucky who is very close to me. I'm not going to say which one, to protect her identity.

This family member is not stupid - in fact, professionally, she's my idol. The way she has approached her work is the way I try to approach my work. She has read newspapers and watched 60 Minutes all of her life, and encouraged me to do so as well. But she is easily swayed by urban legends. It affects her worldview, her social interactions and how she votes. I didn't worry about it too much - until November 2018. Now I know there are millions and millions like her.

When I was a kid, this family member told me that a woman had been bitten by a poisonous snake in her Aigner coat pocket, and that it had turned out snake eggs had been sewn into the lining of her jacket in the Asian country where the coat was made. Years later, in my Urban Folklore class at Western Kentucky University, I heard this story again - as the entirely false urban legend it was all along. She made comments implying that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a communist or, at least, a sympathizer, despite his staunch and frequently espoused Christian beliefs. She thought the Beatles were Soviet sympathizers and communist sympathizers, despite their songs like "Revolution." All of those stories and more were obviously bollocks to me, a pre-teen and then a teen. I would sit quietly as she espoused this stuff and think, "Wow. That's just SAD."

She was terrified I would become a communist or, worse, a cult member. She saw my explorations of other religions and frequent questions about the Bible's origins as a danger, not as a comforting sign that I was not swayed by the this-is-just-how-it-is-believe-it philosophy.

I remember how disturbed she was when I latched on to the horror of the McCarthy era. She would note that many of the people that were blacklisted were, indeed, communists or former communists, or had attended a meeting of such, and that many had complimented the Soviet Union. And while I knew that was true, I also knew, even as a teen, that I would have too, if I, too, hadn't known the horrific reality. She couldn't see the bigger picture: people were persecuted because they wanted social justice, not because of communism.

I didn't become a communist. I didn't join a cult. By the time I was 16, I had realized I was an Atheist, and, even worse: a skeptic. I question every philosophy, every diet - every commercial. If anything sounds too good to be true, I automatically think it is.

It's now decades later, and I'm sorry to say this family member is still oh-so-easily swayed by fake news. For instance, she doesn't believe that climate change is caused by humans - a difference in her long-held belief that climate change wasn't happening at all.

But it's a conversation I had with her when I was last in Kentucky a few months ago that really illustrates the danger of her, and those like her:

A friend was with us and talked about how she missed the Crazy Tomato, an Italian restaurant in Evansville, Indiana that was run by group of men from Egypt. It was a beloved restaurant - I heard about it many times from family and friends, but never had time to try it when I visited the area. But almost immediately after September 11, 2001, the Crazy Tomato's four Muslim restaurant workers and five of their Muslim friends were paraded in prison stripes, leg irons and manacles across the front page of the Evansville Courier Journal and newspapers across the country, in a photo opportunity arranged by law-enforcement officials. They were flown to Chicago for questioning in another show of SWAT-team force. They had been arrested as alleged terrorists plotting attacks against the United States.

The roundup, in fact, had been brought about by a lovers' quarrel: out of anger, the angry woman told the police that one of the nine had talked threateningly of suicide and terrorist acts. They never had done such a thing, and when the truth was revealed, the men were, eventually, released. No charges were ever filed. But the damage was done. The restaurant floundered. Two years later, at an October 2003 meeting with more than 100 people in the Muslim community in Evansville, the FBI offered a rare public apology. "The situation that happened to you was horrible," Thomas V. Fuentes, the FBI's agent in charge in Indiana, said during a meeting at the Islamic Center of Evansville. "On behalf of the FBI, I will apologize. . . ." Later, in an interview, Fuentes said, "They were wrongly accused... This is something that has affected them in every possible way. Anybody being accused falsely of something that serious is like a teacher being accused of molesting a child. It's hard to come back from that. You can see . . . months later, the tears are still ready to flow."

The restaurant limped along, but the customers didn't return. The owners and staff were ridiculed and shunned by people who assumed their guilt. Whispers about flying lessons and money trails from Evansville to Egypt continued to be repeated and believed. The restaurant closed.

My family member is one of the people who still believes these rumors even 17 years later. She started talking knowingly about money trails and flying lessons - her exact words - when my friend mentioned the Crazy Tomatoe. So I called up this Washington Post story on my phone and read it to her.

She stiffened and looked away. "Well," she said, "I never heard that." The conversation was over.

Did she hear me then? Did she really hear what I read to her? Or, in her mind, is it just "fake news", and the truth is, in fact, the rumors she's heard from people in the town where she lives? If I cannot get her to believe this truth, if one of the most respected newspapers in the world cannot, what hope do we have of fighting against Russian trolls that delight in swaying her beliefs?

I do not know how to fight this. She doesn't want to believe the truth. And I can't make her.

In response to this blog, three people on my Facebook page have commented to the effect that I shouldn't try anymore: "People believe what they want to believe. It is a losing battle to argue or try to convince those people..." and "Make peace, you will never change her, not she you..", etc. And I just want to say, NO! The takeaway from this blog was not supposed to be, "It's no use, stop trying." I was trying only to show what we're up against and how frustrated I get. Please, please, KEEP TALKING. Keep debating. Keep showing those newspaper articles and facts. Because repeated exposure to a narrative does make a difference - it's why Russian trolls are so successful! The point of this blog was to say, "Our counter narrative MUST be stronger." The point of this blog was to say, "Keep trying!" The point of this blog was not, "Give up." If you think this is a losing battle and we should just "make peace", then we should just welcome Donald Trump as President for eight years. And I'm not doing that.

No comments:

Post a Comment