smell test


In our run-up to the election (and after) our next guest blogger is the most excellent Mark Rizzo. Mark used to live about fifteen feet from us, and could poke his head out almost into our house, thus leading Lucy to believe that all neighborhoods were basically Sesame Street.

Friends may also know Mark as the subject of the most rare of all surprise parties: yes, the Surprise Wedding. Billed as a baby shower for his girlfriend Christine, guests were shepherded onto the beach where Mark, Christine and The Right Reverend Yours Truly were waiting to perform the sacred rites of gettin’ hitched.


Good thing, too, because six days later:


Needless to say, they and baby Jack are simply the best. And here’s Mark in his own words…


Last week I received an email forward from my uncle Jim. He sent the message to over 50 people, the vast majority of whom live in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. His preface to the forwarded material began with “This kind of rhetoric makes me and my fellow veterans sick.” My uncle served heroically in Vietnam and received a Purple Heart.

The offending rhetoric was a series of quotes from Barack Obama. The quotes touched upon his desire to replace the too-martial “Star Spangled Banner” with “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing” and how he and his wife Michelle have attended several flag-burning ceremonies because “we as a Nation have placed upon the nations of Islam an unfair injustice.” These quotes were attributed to a September 7, 2008 “Meet the Press” appearance by Obama.

Sounds like a joke, right?

Because it is. This rhetoric that so sickened my uncle and his fellow vets was actually from a column called “Semi-News – A Satirical Look at Recent News” that appeared on a website called The Arizona Conservative. It was meant to make fun of Obama. Though I earn my living writing comedy, I’ll forgo the opportunity to render a professional judgment on the quality of the satire. But I will say that the figure being satirized more resembled a fantastical Liberal Straw Man than Barack Obama himself.

Now, I imagine most of the folks reading this, regardless of political affiliation, quickly concluded that the email was bunk just from the two sample quotes I pulled. Even if you weren’t quite sure, a startlingly quick fact check reveals that Obama was not on Meet the Press that day (the guests were Joe Biden and Thomas Friedman). It also unequivocally attributes the quotes to the satirist. Not to be too much of a priss, but the text of the email forward itself was festooned with multiple large fonts in bright colors, the kind of Crayola aesthetic that always raises my suspicion that the ideas contained therein don’t stand up to scrutiny in good ol’ black and white. We all have a “smell test” — that common sense reflex that helps us discern what is Shit and what is Shinola.

What happened to Jim’s?

Jim’s an intelligent guy. Really. He trained as an engineer and is currently the Vice-President of Operations for a regional commercial carpentry firm. Though his life experiences have led him to be slightly more hawkish than the rest of our family, he has voted for a Democrat in every presidential election dating back to the ’60s, straight through the Reagan Revolution and right up to the Bush Restoration.

So I was absolutely flabbergasted that he would fall for this. And even more dismayed that he would circulate it so widely. He’s a guy with a lot of friends who respect him greatly. How in the name of G-d could he have lost his smell test?

The email forward sent a little shockwave through our family — not because it offended any political orthodoxy, but rather that it offended our notions of what is fair and frankly led us to be concerned about Jim. The first volleys came quickly — first, a terse reply from one of us containing the fact check info and a reminder that spreading abject falsehoods made him a “political tool.” Jim quickly responded in an unusually defensive manner — he had done a fact check of his own and “one article to the contrary” did not refute the fact that Obama is “phony” who would “sell us out in a heartbeat.” Jim asserted his right to send any email he chose because he and others had bled and died for that right.

Whoa. A dispute over facts was quickly becoming very emotional. No “fact check” could change satire into journalism. Jim was in the wrong. But our family did not give up on the truth, nor did we give up on Jim. We could have written him off as a tool, a dupe or a closet racist. Instead we kept talking.

Three more emails were sent, each more compassionate than the last, pleading the case of fairness and truth, reiterating the gross factual inaccuracies and stating that our veterans did not fight for our right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, but to preserve our right to peacefully agree to disagree. The overriding sentiment was, “A vote for McCain is not inherently offensive, but a vote for McCain based on horseshit is.”

It took awhile but Jim came around. He sent us an apology for spreading the falsehoods and then went on to explain his real reason for voting McCain. It was centered on a single piece of legislation that Obama supports and McCain opposes. Jim feels that its passage would cripple the company that employs him and thereby threaten his economic survival. It was an admirable act of humility to back off the phony allegations about Obama. And it was the one of the most thoughtful and reasoned appeals to vote McCain that I have read to date.

I’ll admit, it’s a very narrow one, but at least it doesn’t appeal to prejudice. In the end, no one in our family converted anyone. As far as I can tell, we’re all still voting the same way we were before this little kerfuffle. But I do believe that we all have more respect for one another. And we’re a stronger family for it.

That’s our story, but there were 50 other people on Jim’s forward of the bogus email. I still don’t know if he heeded our call to send out a correction to these folks — that would be another, even more admirable act of humility. This phony forward has been circulating for a year and I can’t imagine how many folks have closed their minds and hardened their hearts with its help. It is jarring to me that there is such a level of ignorance and, yes, prejudice in this country that would allow such obvious absurdities to be mistaken for the truth.

Gullibility of this tragic scope leads me to wonder if it is not the result (or at least the byproduct) of a systematic manipulation of the feeblest American minds. When sharpies of any political stripe knowingly represent daylight to be nighttime or masquerade “up” as “down,” they are softening up our already-tender brains for knockout punches like “Barack Obama is a socialist Muslim who casually burns the American flag.”

My outrage is fresh and perhaps it obscures Schlegel’s old “axiom of the average,” which is a fancy way of saying, “’twas ever thus.” Or in David Byrne’s formulation, “same as it ever was.” Big deal. Propaganda’s been around for a long time and surely we can make a grim parlor game of finding countless antecedents of this latest demagoguery. But I do wonder — if it was ever thus, was it always so very fucking thus? Are we losing our smell test?

It’s my fear that our smell test is mutating in a dangerous direction. For most of us, the smell test is no longer, “Does this stink of bullshit?” but rather “Do I find this interesting? Does this ‘information’ support my prejudices?” If it jibes with our opinion, our preferred “narrative,” we run with it. And run fast.

My uncle Jim was feeling frightened about what an Obama presidency would mean to his family’s economic well-being, so he was eager to believe that Obama is “anti-America.” Though my prejudices lead me to believe that the Republican Party as presently constituted is a more steady supplier of this fertilizer, I’m beginning to think that all of us are guilty in some way. The Netroots Left’s conspiracy theories surrounding the origins of Trig Palin were embarrassing. But, good G-d, they were entertaining! And they supported the frustrated Left’s prejudice that the Right is always up to some shady business.

Perhaps it comes down to speed — so much information comes to us so quickly that we feel forced to make snap judgments about it just to keep up. Absent deliberation, we simply decide based on our prejudices. When our pulses quicken it would behoove us all, whatever our particular rooting interest, to take a beat and consider, deliberate, fact-check, discuss and then decide. In the process we might even learn that we’re all playing for the same team.