Post-election rumor and divisiveness


Springfield Fire Department Photo by Dennis Leger

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch site carries news of a black church being set ablaze yesterday, the day after the election. Not in Mississippi or Georgia, but in Massachusetts.

[MA] Post-Election Church Arson Investigated As Hate Crime
The Republican / November 5, 2008
The torching of a black church a few hours after Barack Obama was elected president is considered a probable hate crime by federal investigators. [Read full article]

The second comment on this article (on the Hatewatch site) was notable:

ManchurianC said,

ON NOVEMBER 6TH, 2008 AT 12:04 PM

Gee, what a surprise. Way too many Obama supporters were threathing [sic] riots in the streets if their god lost the election so to me this is tame even if it is an anti-Obama burn.

I don’t recall there being Republicans hanging at voting places in this country with clubs threatening voters on the 4th as occurred in Philly by Black Panters [sic] dudes.

Payback can be quite rough, folks. Welcome to America. I am sure it will get much worse before it gets better. And that’s an optimistic view of things.

When I investigated this person’s claims I found much mention on partisan websites, but the factual basis was small or nonexistent. No one else had yet replied to ManchurianC, so I did, and reproduce it here in an effort to help defuse this sort of counterproductive discourse.


These are dramatic charges. Can you provide some links to news coverage of these threats? Such comments can provide a basis for susceptible people to engage in counter-violence of their own, pre-emptive violence, or just harden their demonization of the other party. Without substantiation, these are just dangerous rumors.

In searching for the Black Panther news I found an account: 2 guys threatened voters, cops came, end of story. Bad, criminal, but not some kind of major movement. And, based on our observation of the Obama campaign all through this long time, the candidate and his staff would have condemned such actions (and may have done so, if asked, I don’t know). If 2 skinheads showed up at a polling place and tried to intimidate some group of voters, would we assume it was planned or condoned by McCain or the Republican Party? I hope not.

When I googled the threats of riots I found one article
where a blogger used a comment by James Carville and led it off with a “riot” headline that did not represent what Carville said. Carville said he thought the election was going to go to Obama, based on polls, then added:
“But you stop and contemplate this country if Obama goes in and he has a consistent five point lead and loses the election, it would be very, very, very dramatic out there.” No mention of riot. Had the lead belonged to McCain, and a Republican talking head had said the same thing, would we be accusing McCain and his party of encouraging riots?

Another blogger cites an AP article with the headline “Obama warns of ‘quiet riot’ among blacks” but goes on to give Obama’s actual words, which were as follows:

Many of the folks in this room know just where they were when the riot in Los Angeles started and tragedy struck the corner of Florence and Normandy. And most of the ministers here know that those riots didn’t erupt over night; there had been a “quiet riot” building up in Los Angeles and across this country for years.
If you had gone to any street corner in Chicago or Baton Rouge or Hampton — you would have found the same young men and women without hope, without miracles, and without a sense of destiny other than life on the edge — the edge of the law, the edge of the economy, the edge of family structures and communities.

Those “quiet riots” that take place every day are born from the same place as the fires and the destruction and the police decked out in riot gear and the deaths. They happen when a sense of disconnect settles in and hope dissipates. Despair takes hold and young people all across this country look at the way the world is and believe that things are never going to get any better. You tell yourself, my school will always be second rate. You tell yourself, there will never be a good job waiting for me to excel at. You tell yourself, I will never be able to afford a place that I can be proud of and call my home. That despair quietly simmers and makes it impossible to build strong communities and neighborhoods. And then one afternoon a jury says, “Not guilty” — or a hurricane hits New Orleans — and that despair is revealed for the world to see. [end quote from Obama]

The blogger who quoted Obama’s speech goes on to say,

Obama is actually making a subtle and interesting point. He’s not saying that “quiet riots” are actual riots or that the quiet riots inevitably produce the actual ones. By contrast, he’s saying that “quiet riots” aren’t riots — they are things that devastate communities, such as crime, joblessness, localized violence, and inner-city despair. He’s saying that we shouldn’t need high-profile events like Katrina or the Los Angeles riots to alert us to the “quiet riots” that have been going on in the background for years and years.

Nor is Obama saying, as the AP claims, that the quiet riot currently “threatens to erupt” into new riots comparable to the ones in Los Angeles. That idea simply isn’t in the speech. The AP just dreamed it up. As a result, Obama suddenly sounds like he’s trafficking in the sort of rhetoric that conservatives love to get outraged about: That we’d best minister to inner city problems lest we have another big riot on our hands. Obama just didn’t say this at all.

Shameful, profoundly incompetent garbage. Just awful.

Please, everyone, our country has more than enough problems without putting a vicious meaning onto innocuous words. And it is highly irresponsible to write words that seem to accept arson of a church as not so bad, because the other side had (allegedly) threatened or done worse things. It’s easy to hold yourself aloof and be condemnatory, with or without facts to back you up, but at this point the election is over and the best American tradition is to come together and work together for the mutual good, not try to stir up anger and thereby undercut positive action that benefits us all as a nation.

President Bush’s approval ratings, and the results of “Do you think the country is on the right track?” polls, indicate that most Americans think our country is not doing well and not on the right track. We had an election, it was nowhere near as close as the last two, and now it’s time for positive action. Help shape the actions that are taken by making your thoughts known but don’t try to paralyze us with rumors and divisiveness. Don’t be Nero, fiddling while Rome burns: you’ll have to live in the charred ruins just like the rest of us.

Rumor has wings, Truth doesn’t

A lie travels round the world (with winged sandals) while truth is putting on her boots.


And that proverb dates from before radio, television, or the internet!

This is a topic getting a lot of discussion lately with reference to Obama’s campaign (see Doonesbury) but lately I’ve had local instances.

I’m on a couple of local e-lists where a single person forwards items of interest to the area. One’s pretty much limited to prevention of wildfires & news about nearby fires; the other is more freeform, and occasionally includes forwarded emails of the sort that spread across the net like wildfires.
One of those caught my eye last week. It had to do with the Bakken formation oil deposit in Montana and North Dakota, and the gist of it was that the formation contains 503 billion barrels of oil which we shouldn’t let anyone prevent us (as Clinton allegedly did, in the 90’s) from extracting right away to solve our high gas prices.

For the net-savvy and many others, I think the subject line should have been a clue: “Where is the oil? Take time to read this one!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Another clue was that various specific numbers were given, references were made to government reports–even described as being online, yet there were no links to see the originals. Not even any complete footnote-type citations. In an apparent gesture of bona fides, the author said he/she had googled this information and invited the reader to “(GOOGLE it.) I did, and again, this BLEW my mind.”

Photo: Hermes/Mercury lacing up his winged sandals. For this discussion, he represents Rumor–he was both the fleet messenger of the gods and a thief and maker of mischief. Sculpture by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, 1744. Photo from Encarta.

In well under five minutes I’d established to my satisfaction that this was one lie after another. Wikipedia and Google both helped me find out that the Bakken formation is a shale-oil formation which does contain a lot of oil. But the amount of “technically recoverable” oil, in the latest report [3 to 4.3 Billion Barrels of Technically Recoverable Oil Assessed in North Dakota and Montana’s Bakken Formation—25 Times More Than 1995 Estimate. U.S. Geological Survey (April 10, 2008)], is less than 1% of the 503 billion barrels hysterically described in the email. To put this in perspective, the US in 2007 imported 3.6 billion barrels of crude oil according to the US Energy Information Administration.

In addition, recovering oil from oil shale requires temperatures of at least 1000° F. and/or solvents, and is much more damaging to the environment than good old oil wells. Not to mention greenhouse gases from mining, extraction, and use.


Squeezing oil from stone is not an easy proposition. Photo of oil shale from US Dept. of Energy.

I put all this into an email reply to the list-person, beginning with a sincere thanks

I really appreciate your local emails and the time you take to provide them.

But for non-local stuff, the email-o-sphere is just full of sensationalist misinformation. Some of it is “disinformation,” deliberately scattered to serve some political agenda. Please take time to check emails before forwarding them. If you check online you’ll find that…

Then I suggested that he might forward my email to the list, giving him permission to do so over my name as long as the entire thing, which wasn’t too long, was included.

The reply I got back was brief: “Thanks for the information.” In the week since then, nothing has appeared on the list about his previous forwarded post, nothing even suggesting there might be another point of view.

In rural areas such as ours there’s already heavy distrust of the government, so I figure the appeal of the false information will be strong. Politicians who deny that

a recent technological breakthrough has opened up the Bakken’s massive reserves… and we now have access of up to 500 billion barrels. And because this is light, sweet oil, those billions of barrels will cost Americans just $16 PER BARREL! That’s enough crude to fully fuel the American economy for “41 years straight”.

are going to be condemned as part of a conspiracy to rob the American people through high oil prices. Of course there may well be such a conspiracy, but it probably has more to do with the Iraq War and Cheney’s closed-door energy-policy meetings that he is trying to keep secret from Congress. See, I can be a conspiracy theorist too, and frequently I am! But I do like to have a little factual basis for my paranoid fantasies. Like these news stories about no-bid oil contracts being granted by the Iraqi government to US companies like Exxon Mobil and Chevron. These contracts are short-term but are widely expected to give an advantage, to those who receive them, in planned later bidding. With oil prices like these, the Iraqis are giving no-bid no-auction contracts? Oddly, an article from al-Jazeera doesn’t jump on the bandwagon of condemning the US, but quotes Iraqi officials as saying that companies in other smaller countries will also participate (how much? token participation?) and that the big American companies want a share of the profits, not just a fixed fee, which may be a deal-breaker for the Iraqis. (Brief general background here.) Anyway, that can be my conspiracy for today.