Thursday, August 26, 2004

An Urban Legend Enters the Presidential Campaign

John McCain no doubt speaks for a lot of us when he says that he has been disgusted by the turn the presidential campaign has taken in recent weeks. But now some purveyor of urban legends has gotten into the act.

You know what
urban legends are. They're those myths that have so much resilience that even the truth can't kill them off. These days they usually come to us via forwarded email. A credulous friend, having received the email from another friend whose credibility they don't doubt, passes it on to you.

In the past few years, I've fallen for two of them.
One was about Mel Gibson and was circulating at the time The Passion of the Christ was in movie theaters. It palmed off the story line of one of his movies as Gibson's biography, claiming that his face had at one time been horribly disfigured, that a Roman Catholic priest had convinced him not to commit suicide, and that this life-changing experience had opened the actor to faith in Christ. Stunning stuff. So stunning that I couldn't resist telling the story in a sermon during last Lenten season. I'd received it from a credible source. I was even informed that Paul Harvey had told the story. The only problem is that none of it was true.

Then there was the story that Eric Clapton (or, the late Jimi Hendrix) had
declared Phil Keaggy the world's greatest guitarist. I shared that one with my congregation too. Keaggy may very well be the planet's best guitar-player, but neither Clapton or Hendrix declared him so. Yet that urban legend persists.

But the mother of all urban legends, one that used to circulate via snail mail and of which I first became aware back in the mid-1980s, deals with the late Madelyn Murray O'Hair. It's still making the rounds. This myth has gone through several permutations over the decades, but it
basically claims that O'Hair had brought a complaint to the Federal Communications Commission (even citing an official-sounding case number). O'Hair was supposedly trying to stop people from talking about God on the airwaves. A later version, extant after O'Hair had turned up missing and was presumably dead, said that O'Hair (from the grave, I guess) was trying to stop the airing of the old CBS series, Touched By an Angel.

Today I got a forwarded email from my mom. I don't know who sent it to her. No doubt it was some well-meaning person. It claimed that
in a speech "last week," Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry spoke about the importance of his faith and had cited "John 16:3" as his favorite Bible verse, while quoting John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life." The email concluded that this slip-up reflected a lack of faith on Kerry's part and implied that he was a hypocrite.

I remembered that Kerry gave a speech about his faith and its impact on his life a few weeks ago. It was covered in the press and I had seen snippets of it. I hadn't remembered his referencing a favorite Bible passage. I smelled a rat. So, I checked some of the urban legend web sites, places where people track down frequently-forwarded emails and report on their veracity.

Kerry never made any statement about a favorite Bible verse. In fact, about a month ago, an email circulated that said
George W. Bush had been guilty of the identical faux pas. The same thing was alleged in another set of emails about Al Gore a few years ago. It turns out that a major political figure did make this mistake: George H.W. Bush, the president's father, some time ago. (At least, he did, according to a conservative columnist: Cal Thomas.)

But even if Kerry, Bush 2, or Gore had said "John 16:3," only a religious legalist would pounce on it as evidence of faithlessness and hypocrisy. As someone who routinely inverts digits when I repeat telephone numbers back to people, it seems to me an easy (and innocuous) enough mistake to make.

What bothers me in all of this is that someone has to take the time to make this stuff up. What exactly do the manufacturers of urban legends do? Do they wake up in the morning and say, "I think I'll use the Internet to trash someone's reputation"? Maybe they do and though we're all capable of sins, it bothers me when I encounter such brazen and deliberate personal savagery.

Sadly, I've come to expect ambitious politicians to engage in "trash and burn" tactics. But I hate the thought of ideologically-driven cybercruisers palming destructive fiction off on the rest of us.

Anyway, if you get the same email my mom got, at least now you know the rest of the story.


Dave King said...

Part of the reason those things spread is people don't spread the truth once they learn it nearly as fast as the original story. It makes them look bad to say they got taken.

- Peace

Fred Vincy said...

I'm afraid that we know where a lot of the recent set of lies started -- with Karl Rove and the Bush campaign.

Phyllis said...

I got "taken" by a few myself, so I now look it up on before I even react, much less send it on. The one that really got me was the one about a missing 10 year old girl "Penny Brown" with her picture on the internet! What kind of sick person would do something like that?