Friday, November 23, 2007

Bread and Circuses

My older brother lives on the other side of the country. He often sends me email "forwards" that he receives from his friends and clients. I suspect he does it not because he agrees with their messages so much as he knows they'll get a rise out of me. They usually do.

A disturbing number of them are transparently designed to prey on our emotions, targeting our sense of patriotism while promoting ugly and distinctly un-American agendas, all gift-wrapped in blatant lies. Frequently the goal of these emails is to stir up antagonism toward "foreigners" (read: non-whites), both at home and abroad. The messages are passed from inbox to inbox without hesitation, each recipient-turned-sender secure in the knowledge that the person who sent it—their friend!—can vouch for its authenticity.

But with everyone in the chain thinking like that, no one is checking the facts. So these transmissions are "grandfathered in," accepted and shared unquestioningly—though none of the recipients have any more reason to regard them as truth than they would the rantings of a loudmouth at a bar.

This week I was sent one that featured a series of photographs purporting to show

"An 8 years (sic) old child...caught in a market in Iran for stealing bread... In the name of Islam he is being punished, his arm will be crushed by a car. He will loose (sic) forever the possibility to use his arm again. Is this a religion of peace and love?"

Under the photos, in the body of the email, one sender concluded:

"No religion can ever justify such hideous crime... Pass it on... let the world know what's happening in the name of religion... Pass this to all for public awareness"

Others, earlier in the chain than my brother, had added their thoughts:

"Such a really really gross and disgusting act!! Poor boy... How can this happen..."

"Should be compulsory viewing for the politically correct mob. The atrocity..."

"I think these people are out of their minds. How could they do this to an 8-year old child."

Reading them, I couldn't help but feel like I was in an uncomfortably warm room, surrounded by pasty old ladies in Sunday hats as they fanned themselves into a righteous indignation.

But it wasn't their indignation that bothered me. It's that none of them took the time to do just a little poking around to determine whether or not the alarming information in this email was even remotely true.

My own fact checking took all of 30 seconds, and I easily found the information I was looking for at the first place I looked:, where I usually go to sort out this kind of thing. If you don't know it already, Snopes is an exhaustive, non-partisan resource designed to confirm or debunk all manner of rumors and urban legends. It's very simple to use: simply type a few relevant keywords into their "search" field (I entered "bread," "Iran," and "truck") and you'll get a full listing of possible matches from their extensive archives. If they can confirm it's true, they'll tell you—just as they'll tell you if they can confirm it's false. And if they don't know for sure one way or the other, they'll even tell you that. I have never not found what I was looking for, and they haven't steered me wrong yet.

I sent my brother the link to the Snopes article, which clearly explains the photos were not documenting a public punishment, but a recently-developed approach to panhandling I call "Extreme Begging," in which people appear to do alarming and distasteful things to themselves in an effort to separate passersby from their money. Whatever the stunt is—whether it's fire-eating, glass-walking, sword-swallowing, or being run over by a truck—it's just that: a stunt. And this was also a stunt. The little boy's pained expression? Showmanship. The child is apparently fine.

...Or at least as fine as a child can be, when he's so destitute his family makes him stick his arm under the wheel of a truck a few times a day in an effort to shake down tourists for spare change.

I added this to my response, because it also seemed worth saying:

There is plenty about Islam that doesn't fit in neatly with our sensibilities here in the West (and is therefore frightening/threatening to us from the get-go), and barbarous behavior is barbarous behavior and inexcusable, no matter where you live or what religion you follow. But I think you'd be hard-pressed to find any organized religion (or culture) that isn't guilty of acts of extreme barbarism and brutality—acts that very often are at odds with their professed religious and/or moral codes. It doesn't make it right, but it is far from uncommon, and to behave as though any one religion (or culture) is "worse" than another is to deny the facts.

The only worthwhile thing about this email is the one line of the text after the final panel that recommends everyone take a long hard look at religion in general; unfortunately, the deliberately misleading explanation of the photos makes it obvious that this is clear anti-Islam propaganda, being shared for the sole purpose of making people from another culture seem like alien monsterswhich then makes it that much easier for us to not give a fuck when we invade and begin killing them, even instilling a sense of moral outrage (false, but who cares?) to somehow justify our actions.

So yes, it's more xenophobic bullshit.

Certainly there are a lot of these emails floating around. Probably you sent a few of them to your Trash folder even today; I don't blame you. But the next time you get one of these, why not start a habit of taking a moment to visit a site like Snopes to confirm the truth or falsity of what your friends and family are circulating. If what they sent you is untrue, take another minute to pass your link back to the friend or family member who emailed you in the first place. While you're at it, why not include everyone in the chain who passed it along to them?

As strongly as I believe these emails are created and started by people with a very ugly agenda, I also believe that the majority of people who pass them along do so because they truly feel they are doing a good and noble thing. The only question is, does this streak of nobility that compels us to forward an email run deep enough that we'll spend an extra minute confirming whether or not we're spreading lies?

There's no shortage of bullshit being tossed around. That's the way of the world. But now is as good a time as any to share a little truth where you can.

copyright, © 2007 Wyatt Doyle

Plato Jesus responds:

If you can't win wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, then sanctimoniously feel good in the fiction that the horrors produced by the US do not overshadow the con games of poor people in less developed countries.

The child in this picture is victimized by poverty and likely manipulated by those around him. His participation in a world where there is monetary enrichment in perpetrating physical sacrifice is forced.

Those who view the picture and make judgments about inherent tendencies of certain cultures are manipulated at another level to a whole other effect. And who forces their participation? No one.

Everyone has basically become aware that many people say things online they would absolutely never say face-to-face. But there is no equal appreciation of how this extrapolates to online political representations. Point-and-click political statements such as these have destroyed our appetite and ability to challenge narratives that comfort the powerful.

copyright, © 2007 Plato Jesus

more on this topic here:

and here: