A Literary Nightmare: A Virus Is Killing Democracy

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Under the Microscope
by Glynn Wilson

A virus is growing like a pestilence.

gwcubamugflip There’s only one way to kill it.

Information is power. Here goes.

In 1876, Mark Twain wrote a short story he called A Literary Nightmare about a virus-like jingle that occupied his mind for several days until he managed to “infect” another person and remove it from his mind.

The funny story was also published under the title Punch, Brothers, Punch.

The story is significant to note today because it is a fairly accurate description of what has become known as a communications meme, which I will define here as a bad piece of information that is repeated over and over again, replicating itself and causing all kinds of problems, like a mutated gene that leads to a biological virus, which results in sickness and ultimately death.

In 1976, biologist and evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins cited Twain’s story when he coined the term meme in his book The Selfish Gene.

He used a number of examples to illustrate his point, including tunes and catch-phrases.

The term was picked up by string theorists and others in science. But it was also picked up by communications scholars in the early days of studying how people use the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Some college professors used it in the early days to infect students with a sense that passing around information on the unedited Web could lead to bad information that could mislead the public. But what they did not realize, at least the one’s I met, was this. Just as a virus contains its own antidote, think flu shots, the Web can also be used to get good information out and thus “kill” the insidious virus.

The point I’m going to make is that enough bad information can lead to the death of democracy. It’s already out there and spreading. And like a plague, it may or may not be too late.

There are many examples of memes we could talk about. But for starters, let’s take the term “jackpot justice.”

I’m not sure who first coined the term, but I know it was used by Karl Rove in his first forays into Alabama politics in the 1990s to take over the Alabama Supreme Court.

And instead of being passed around over the Internet, that term is still being used by reporters working for Alabama newspapers as if they coined it themselves. I guess they find it funny to write, or maybe they know the Republican bosses like it.

That virus led to an Alabama Supreme Court ruling a couple of weeks ago that resulted in all but destroying the jury system that is set out in the U.S. Constitution, when a judge elected with Rove’s help using the meme overrode the jury’s verdict against the oil giant ExxonMobile.

The term was used to make the false claim that “run away jury verdicts” are bad for business and hold the state back in recruiting industries to the state, thus costing the people jobs.

But any serious analysis of the business climate in Alabama will show that businesses do not stay away from Alabama or anywhere else because of large jury verdicts. In fact, the reason industries locate here or anywhere is because of their global search for cheap, non-union labor (also true of Mexico and China, other third world countries).

Alabama has that in spades thanks to a compliant, under educated population that has been successfully conned into believing that unions are more corrupt than management of multi-national corporations. It’s a meme, I tell you. A virus.

The people have also been told over and over again that “big government” is bad, bad, bad. As if big corporations are not worse, worse, worse. You can look at the cost of private contractors in Iraq and see that they do a worse job than the U.S. military and cost the taxpayers 10 times more.

Privatization is a growing trend for everything from prisons to hospitals, but the evidence, and movies such as Michael Moore’s SICKO, show us that government health care systems are far more efficient and provide better health care for citizens than for-profit hospitals, insurance companies and drug companies.

Corporations are also interested in locating in places where there are no enforceable environmental regulations. Since Fob James first set up the Alabama Department of Environmental Management in the early 1980s as a “one stop (pollution) permitting agency” like the Waffle House, that’s what you have in Alabama.

Industries also like places where the press can be counted on to promote them without any so-called “liberal” skepticism. I know this from experience of working on the Gulf Coast back in the day when environmental reporting was new. I no doubt cost the state some business in those days by fighting developments. But I also saved the state business by helping to protect state waters and beaches from pollution.

In fact, I am a firm believer in the fact that democracy does not work without watchdog journalism, where the press plays the role of looking over the government’s shoulder and holding public officials accountable.

CNN and other news organizations now use various slogans to claim they are doing this.

“Holding them accountable for you” and such are simply other examples of memes.

The fact is they rarely if ever actually do anything more than quote two under-informed sources on two sides of an issue.

Now let’s take another meme from Alabama, this repeated by someone who should know better on a large e-mail list just this morning.

“Alabama is a Republican, red state.”

It’s a meme. It’s not true.

The latest poll from the Alabama Education Association’s Survey Research Center shows that 34 percent of likely Alabama voters identified themselves as Democrats, compared to 33 percent who said they were Republicans. The other 31 percent said they were independents, but even this number is misleading.

As we have already reported, the poll also shows that only 12 percent of the people in this state have confidence in the abilities of George W. Bush. Where’s the reporting that reflects this?

You can read about it in the Tuscaloosa News, in a column called Alabama Voters More Undecided Than Ever.

What that poll alone and that story will not tell you is why people identify themselves as independents.

According to an interview I conducted with former Alabama Secretary of State Nancy Worley in Birmingham last week, many people in Alabama are afraid to say they are Democrats and would not register as a Democrat because they are afraid their preachers or co-workers might find out. Better to say you are a Republican or an independent, since all the peer pressure for the past couple of decades has been toward “conservatism,” a trait that the Republican Party is supposed to own – sort of like the American flag and the ability to pray.

It’s mere poppycock. A meme. But it has been spread like a lethal virus and mucks up our political system like mucous from the flu clogs up your lungs.

Where is the outrage from Democrats? You can find it in e-mail if you are on the right list, but that’s about the only place (other than here).

The New York Times has another example worth pointing out in the Sunday paper. Mark Halperin says Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes about the 1988 battle for the White House influenced the way he covers political campaigns.

“If past is prologue,” he writes, describing the meme, “the winners of the major-party nominations will be those who demonstrate they have what it takes to win.”

And he suggests an antidote.

“But in the short time remaining voters and journalists alike should be focused on a deeper question: Do the candidates have what it takes to fill the most difficult job in the world?”

Book Inspires Bad Political Journalism

Alabama voters and others around the country will go to the polls on Feb. 5, a little more than three months from now, and vote for president on “Super Duper Tuesday.”

So who will you vote for? The person the pundits say is most likely to win? Or the person YOU THINK based on critical thinking might be best able to govern?

Nobody said saving democracy was going to be easy. But at least think about it. It’s part of the antidote. Seeing the medicine on the shelf is not enough. You have to buy it and swallow it – and go back to work.

© 2007 – 2013, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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