RUMORS, GOSSIP, LIBELS and the like have been woven into the fabric of society since humans began grunting at each other for firewood. But with Donald Trump’s attempting to extort the President into forking over his college transcripts for 5 million dollars, and Shashank Tripathi’s sewing discord during hurricane Sandy by tweeting lies about trapped Con-Ed workers, I’m beginning to feel as if our greatest cynics are correct. That no matter who ends up prevailing, bullshit sticks to the mainstream quicker, harder, and longer than the truth. There’s something sexy about a lie, anyway. Something so fantastical we cling to it dogmatically. Conspiracy theories are little more than complex rumors woven from conjectures, and now with the advent of social media, even certain major news networks (Fox—cough) have to be sifted for verity with the same attentiveness as amateur blogs and Twitter feeds. There’s a reason why an unreasonable amount of this country believes that Obama isn’t an American citizen, that Jews control the media, or that gays are medically infirmed. Because when you’re caught up in a national game of telephone, and you don’t have to interact with whomever started the message, you can change the story to suit your fancy.
I say all this not merely as an observer of rumors in the American social landscape, but as a survivor of one myself. On the cusp of eighth grade, in a sub-par middle school south of Denver, Colorado, I was netted by a canard so effectively cast it may as well have eventuated from the C.I.A. What was that rumor, you might ask? The aspersion that crippled my childhood? Namely, that the Dean of students suspended me for masturbating in the boy’s bathroom when he caught me in the bathroom stall. In reality, I’d been home sick with a sinus infection for two days, but the truth didn’t matter once the seed was planted. When the rumor gained speed, it snowballed and grew until it was a rumor no longer.
Instead of laying out the details of that grim business, however, let’s first think about how to properly define a rumor. Rather than being something that’s substantiated by actual knowledge, or even a flat-out lie, a rumor isn’t total nonsense. It feeds off omission. It takes what is not known about someone or something, and based on that unknown, proceeds to fill in the blanks.
Here are some of the most notorious rumors spread by the GOP and their followers during what turned out to be a failed campaign against President Obama and his administration:
-Obama denies emergency brain surgery for patients over 70.
-Obama cancelled the May 6th National Day of Prayer.
-Michelle Obama’s brother’s job was directly saved by money from the stimulus act.
-Obama issued a policy saying “no U.S. servicemen can speak at any faith-based public event.”
-Obama is giving away Alaskan islands to Russia.
-Obama is exempting Muslims from mandatory health insurance.
-Obama passed a secret law saying that it’s a crime to ask him a question he doesn’t like.
-Obama sold Star Wars to Disney (okay, I made that one up).
But anyway, I’m not only interested in what rumors end up as, but how they start. Obama cancelling the National Day of Prayer, for example. What allows a sizeable chunk of society to buy into such an easily disprovable pseudo-factoid? If you look at the President’s actual record, the only thing he did differently from Bush concerning prayer was not holding regular services in the White House. He didn’t make any moves to quash the Christian faith. But still, there are millions of people in this country who think Obama went back in time to kill Jesus. Maybe the reason this rumor grew so strong, or that so many people believe it is because it lets people feel power in small numbers. The lack of information keeps lies thriving healthily, keeps people confident in their ideals.
Like Obama with his birth certificate, when I came back to school after my sinus infection and was labeled, notoriously, The Masturbation King of Laredo Middle School, I tried immediately to defend my alibi. I flashed my doctor’s note around class. I had my teachers announce the truth one by one. And when that didn’t work, I tried to bribe away the danger with candy. But sadly, no dice. The damage had been done. According to the unofficial Laredo Middle School polls, I was obsessed with my winky, and that was that. The reason why my attempt to set the record straight didn’t work? I wonder the same thing to this day. Maybe it was because I was quiet, awkward, because I wasn’t into sports and I read a lot of fantasy books. Maybe it’s because when I walked through the halls I left behind empty space. A sense of not being able to belong. But one’s thing for sure, once the rumor began, I, as me, ceased to exist. The rumor took on a life of its own, and went stomping across town in search of blood.
All stories and storytellers lend themselves to embellishment, but rumors take on phenomenal dimensions. The 9-11 Truth Movement, for example, has taken a silly postulation that the American government took down the World Trade Center, and turned it into a vast conspiracy of bomb vectors, phantom planes, CIA agents, evil Jewish bankers, and New World Order. All because the facts behind what actually happened on September 11th don’t line up with some people’s beliefs about the nature of reality, about the nature of government, about the nature of truth and political justice. So as opposed to seeking facts, they create their own, and keep them thriving on a diet of self-satisfaction, an idea that by othering the truth, you can gain the keys to an exclusive club of like-minded people. Essentially, make some friends.
I say this only because my rumor took on similar permutations. At first, official doctrine was that I’d been in the act when the dean came into the bathroom. But less than a few weeks later, the story had morphed into something far more grandiose, where the dean, depicted as some hard-boiled detective, knocked on the stall and sternly commanded, “Sam, stop masturbating. Right. Now.” In this version, I then responded in the voice of a dime-store criminal, “Never, Dean Veltry, you bastard!” After which he burst down the stall and tore me from the toilet. As he carried me away towards the exit, apparently I still couldn’t stop tugging. Another version of the tale had the police detonating explosives at a barricaded bathroom door. One even made mention of a S.W.A.T. team. But as opposed to embellishment lessening the severity of the rumor, death threats began showing up in my locker grill. Nothing lined up. The facts didn’t matter. My identity had been fed to the mob. And, I noticed, that mob had turned thick as thieves. I’d united them under a common banner.
Like any popular belief in the diabolical nature of others, rumors never truly die. They can be contained, sealed and locked away in a Pandora’s box of ignorance. But as long as there are pissed-off and confused people out there, they will continue to survive. Eventually, in order to escape physical harm as the death threats increased, I was forced to change school districts, leave the school a half-mile from my house to find solidity fifteen miles across the reservoir, in a different county where, it so happens, masturbation wasn’t such a big deal (in high school, it was kind of the thing to do). But to this day I still find it amazing how I became a sacrifice, in a sense, to a deity, not only of budding sexuality and pre-adolescent naiveté, but the primeval art of fabrication. For once someone or something is targeted by conspiracy, no matter the scale, that conspiracy attaches itself like an alien parasite. Your body and mind are reformed in the retina of the observer and you, as a person, cease to exist. You’re upset with being poor and white in America? Well, that’s not because you’re uncomfortable with white poverty. No way. It’s because a militant black Saul Alinsky is taking your rights away. You’re mad at the fact that gas is more expensive? That it doesn’t cost less than a pack of pipe cleaners? Well, that’s not because the science of solar and wind energy make your brain hurt, but because climate change is a big dirty hoax cooked up by Fidel Castro and Michelle Obama’s illegitimate son, Barasto.
Any lonely kid could have taken my place as the Masturbation King of Laredo Middle School. Any lonely kid at all. But the rumor, the rumor had to come from somewhere much deeper. Little can compete with the human need to belong. Including truth, compassion, and intelligence.