Urban myth as campaign talking point?

By: - May 7, 2010 5:24 pm

N.C. congressional candidate tells a whopper

American politicians of all ideological persuasions have been spouting misleading statements, half-truths and bald-faced lies since the beginning of the Republic. We've also always had our share of plain old kooks running for office. Remember Lyndon LaRouche?

Still, there's something especially startling and pernicious about the way a combination of cynicism, irrational fear and widespread gullibility seems to have infected so many people on the modern far right – candidates and citizens alike.

Consider for a moment the long and growing list of patently false and utterly irrational claims (especially about President Obama and his administration):

  • The abjectly crazy "birther" and "Obama-is-a-Muslim" movements,

  • The allegations about health care reform "death panels,"

  • Last year's absurd claims that, by addressing American schoolchildren, Obama was trying to "indoctrinate" them and spread a "socialist" ideology,

  • The myth that the Obama administration was "coming to get" the guns of law abiding citizens,

  • The claims that plans to expand the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps were part of an effort create a "civilian national security force" and to herd young people into "re-education" camps.

  • The claim that Obama was launching a nefarious plot to mandate circumcision!

It would be one thing if these moronic assertions were merely the flotsam and jetsam of the blogosphere – wacky urban myths that occasionally "go viral" on the Internet at the hands of spammers and other troubled souls who spend too much staring at computer screens. It's quite another, however, when these claims are repeated as fact by supposedly serious politicians affiliated with supposedly responsible political parties.

Recent examples

Here in North Carolina, we have been "blessed" of late with a rich and blossoming assortment of delusional politicians who seem to get their "news" from places like World Net Daily. Chris Fitzsimon has written at some length recently about the leading Republican vote-getter in this past Tuesday's primary in the Eighth Congressional District, Tim "Christ's War" D'Annunzio. Mr. D'Annunzio, you will recall, is the body armor magnate turned crusading politician (and I do mean crusading) who has promised to essentially dismantle the federal government and whose Internet ravings give new meaning to the word "troubled."

And then, of course, there is the tag team of State Senator Andrew Brock and State Representative Bryan Holloway who run the website "WakeupAmerica.com." As Chris has noted:

"[The site] calls ‘Barack Hussein Obama' the ‘face of socialism' and says that he is intent on destroying the Constitution. Brock says Obama is a ‘radical left-wing socialist with a hidden agenda that could destroy the America we know….Wake Up America produced television ads that accused Obama of freeing terrorists, hiring communists, and dignifying dictators, all as part of his socialist agenda…."

In a related (and more amusing vein) of delusion, defeated Democratic State Representative Earl Jones of Greensboro (perhaps best known for his avid defense of the video poker industry) told reporter Mark Binker this week that he's thinking about starting the "Earl Jones Institute for the Advancement of Human Society."

The club gets a new member

The newest member of the Delusional-politician-repeating-nutty-urban-myths-as-political-talking-points Club is the Republican nominee for Congress in the Second District, Renee Ellmers. Ms. Ellmers is a trained nurse who helps her husband, a physician, run a "wound care center" in Harnett County. Unfortunately, she does not appear to be a trained reader of the news or reality.

Ms. Ellmers' "positions" on the issues are well-stocked with the kind of shallow tea bagger malarkey that you might expect (e.g. health care reform is "unconstitutional," "liberals" are coming after people's "guns and fishing poles," etc…).

But she doesn't stop there. Here, in this brief video, you can hear Ellmers repeat with a straight face another absurd urban myth – namely that "President Obama gives cell phones to welfare recipients."

What could make a supposedly serious politician say such a thing? Does she really believe that President Obama has some kind of secret stash of Blackberries in the Old Executive Office Building that he and Michelle are passing out to shiftless alcoholics and drug dealers every other Thursday night? It almost sounds that way. Whatever her motivations, Ellmers' prevarication is a classic example of the way the anti-government right has helped to poison our public debate and delude millions of disaffected and frustratingly gullible Americans into believing scads of harebrained conspiracy theories.

Setting the record straight

The apparent impetus for Ellmers' absurd allegation is a venerable and highly effective federal program that traces its roots to the early part of the 20th Century when Ma Bell was first constructing the nation's telecommunications infrastructure and federal officials were seeking to promote the concept of "universal telephone service."

The idea, in short, was to enact rules and programs that would make basic phone service as widely available and inexpensive as possible so that even the poorest of Americans – rural and urban – could enjoy the security, peace of mind and access to opportunity that comes with having a phone. Moreover, such a policy would enhance the overall value of phone service for all other phone subscribers by expanding the network of which all were a part.

Over the years, the principle of "universal service" has given rise to numerous rules and regulations and programs. In recent decades, elected officials of both political parties have worked with hundreds of private telephone companies to develop programs known as "Lifeline" and "Link-Up." Both programs provide very modest subsidies toward the cost of establishing (up to $30) and maintaining basic local phone service (up to $13.50 per month) for very poor people. While rules and details vary from place to place, the basic idea is that people poor enough to qualify for the most basic, safety net programs (like Food Stamps) are eligible to apply for the subsidy.

Here's where we get to the apparent source of Ellmers' urban myth. In recent decades, as telephone service has rapidly evolved, many Americans have come to use cell phones as their local phone service. In some places, some cell providers (not wanting to miss out on an opportunity to compete with traditional phone companies and to woo potential customers) have opted to simply give away cheap cell phones in lieu of the $30 "Link-Up" connection subsidy. After this, the customer is eligible for the $13.50 monthly service assistance, but remains liable for all other charges.

Got that? President Obama is not "giving cell phones to people on welfare." Large corporations are and have been providing phones of all kinds (much like they do with middle class consumers now) in an effort to gain customers who will be eligible for a very modest monthly subsidy. The program has been around for decades and several presidents. As an attorney, I represented the North Carolina Justice Center in proceedings to modernize North Carolina's Lifeline and Link-Up rules back in the 1990's when President Obama was just starting out in the Illinois state senate.

Going forward

So what are we to make of Ms. Ellmers' ridiculous assertion? Whatever the explanation (that she knew of her wild exaggeration and proceeded anyway or that she simply got some bad information and was too lazy and/or too uninformed to even think to question it) neither is very flattering or encouraging. Both speak to the intellectual sloth and dishonesty that seems to be metastasizing in this era in which Palin and Limbaugh and Fox News are each available "24/7."

With luck, the flipside to the widespread availability of lies and misinformation – namely, the fact that we can all see them and shine a light on them will, in the long run, be enough to counteract and deflate them.

Let's hope Renee Ellmers' urban myth/talking point is the next to be permanently debunked.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.