Friday, December 08, 2006

Pushing My Buttons

The Internet can be a wonderful tool for disseminating information and ideas that never make it into the mainstream American news media, controlled as it is by large corporations with powerful political agendas of their own. It serves an even more valuable function in countries such as China, where governmental power over the media is overt. Unfortunately, the Internet can spread insidious lies just as easily as it can broadcast the truth.

This week, such a lie, entitled “Australia’s ‘Politically Incorrect’ Stance on Islamism,” landed in my inbox. It was sent to me by a nice, if somewhat naïve lady who obviously doesn’t know me well enough to know that this screed, far from meeting with my approval, punched half a dozen of my red-hot buttons (religious arrogance and intolerance, racial bigotry, the distortion of history, fear mongering, etc, etc). Because I was very busy and not in the best of moods (I’ve been reorganizing flooded files and dealing with a year-and-a-half’s worth of important papers that, for lack of a file cabinet, have simply been thrown into bankers boxes), I fired off a rather heated response, and then went back to what I was doing.

I know, I know. After all these years, I ought to be wiser. But it seems I never learn to stop, take a deep breath, swallow my passions, and react calmly and tactfully. Every time I fly off the handle like that, I think, “Next time…” Except of course that "next time" my passions will take over and I’ll react exactly the same way. Those who like me in spite of this fault find it amusing. Those who don’t…well, I guess they avoid me.

After receiving a hurt, indignant reply from this lady, I went back and took another look at what she’d sent me. Skimming this “news report” the first time, I had taken it at face value. I love Australia, but I do not love the present prime minister, who uses racism and bigotry to whip up support for a disastrous foreign policy and has set back multiculturalism in Australia by some 40 years. But on a second, more careful reading, I realized the “news report” was a fake.

I spent a total of 12 years living in Australia: a year in Sydney, 11 years in Adelaide. Australia is a determinedly secular state, so the lines about the country being “founded by Christians” on “Christian principles” whose “words” are “on the walls of our schools” rang a decidedly false note with me. Then a reference to “Our Pledge” made me laugh. Australians don’t have a “Pledge.” So I pulled a line out of the “news article” and Googled it. Up came hundreds upon hundreds—if not thousands—of earnest blogs, all carrying the “news report” and all parroting the same line: Look what the Aussies have said! If only our country would do this!

The problem is that the “news release” is a hoax, a lie. And yet, as we speak, tens of thousands of gullible people are emailing it to their friends as an example of what “we” ought to do. Suddenly, it wasn’t funny any more. It was scary.

Rather than being an official statement of Australian government policy released “last Wednesday,” this hoax was actually cobbled together from random statements made by Howard and three other members of his government last year in interviews held in the wake of the London bombings. Into these cherry-picked and often distorted quotes, our fabricator then added other lines that no Australian (except maybe Pauline Hanson and some of the neo-Nazi lunatic fringe) would ever say. Then he or she sent this lie out onto the Internet, where it has taken on a life of its own.

Although I am a historian who has studied and taught twentieth-century history, I’ve always had a hard time understanding how the mindless hatred, bigotry, and intolerance of Nazism managed to sweep Germany after World War I. I don't find it so hard any more. Some might find that statement outrageous, but please note I didn't say that's where we are; I'm simply saying that today's climate helps me understand what happened, then, a bit better.

And understanding is a good if sometimes scary thing.