The voice mail message came first. The caller -- she declined to identify herself -- thought we needed to know what's happening in her office.
Her co-workers, whom she described as "smart, well-educated, intelligent people," were a-buzz over claims that President Obama's academic credentials were invented -- part of a conspiracy that got him elected and threatens to destroy America from within.
The e-mail message came next. It's a photo of Obama, on an airport tarmac somewhere, carrying a book.
"THIS WILL CURDLE YOUR BLOOD AND CURL YOUR HAIR," declared the e-mail. "The name of the book Obama is reading is called The Post-American World, and it was written by a fellow Muslim.
"'Post' America means the world after America! Please forward this picture to everyone you know, conservative or liberal. We must expose Obama's radical ideas and his intent to bring down our beloved America!"
Stop the presses! The 2012 Silly Season is underway.
In politics, the Silly Season marks the preliminary rounds of the next election cycle, a period in which wannabes and neverwases will say the darndest things and make the most outrageous claims -- often without a shred of evidence or decency -- just to grab the media spotlight.
There's never really an off-season for this malarkey anymore, but you can bet it's going to intensify over the next 14 months, leading up to the 2012 presidential election.
So let me give you a head start on your civic-minded, pre-election research: The two "conspiracies" detailed above are bogus -- fiction crafted out of small kernels of truth.
Snopes.com reports that most of these rumors feed off a statement -- included in a Wall Street Journal editorial (now, there's an unbiased source!) -- that "Fox News contacted some 400 of (Obama's) classmates and found no one who remembered him."
Moreover, Wayne Allyn Root, the Libertarian Party's 2008 vice presidential nominee, was quoted as saying he attended Columbia at the same time as Obama and "I don't know a single person at Columbia that knows him, and they all know me."
As Snopes points out, the statements may be true, but "they don't prove" Obama never attended Columbia -- "at best they demonstrate there was nothing particularly remarkable or distinguished about him at that point in his life that others found memorable 25 years after the fact."
Not surprisingly, the conspiracy e-mails conveniently overlook interviews with classmates who remember Obama. (Visit Snopes for more details.)
The brushfire over Obama carrying a copy of The Post-American World shouldn't be laughed off, however. It's particularly repugnant because it reflects a bigoted, xenophobic undercurrent aimed at our Muslim neighbors and friends.
In case you're not familiar with the book, it was written by Fareed Zakaria, Time magazine's editor at large and host of CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS -- hardly the Muslim radical the e-mail implies.
Moreover, as Zakaria himself writes, "This is not a book about the decline of America, but rather about the rise of everyone else."
With growth of countries such as China, India, Brazil and Russia, Zakaria explores what he describes as a truly global era and how the U.S. should understand and thrive in it. A radical Muslim manifesto?
And yet...look at the photo. Look at how Obama is carrying the book? In his -- gasp! -- left hand. That's a dead give-away, isn't it? Left hand! See, he's truly a leftist! He can't be trusted!
I get lots of these e-mail chains, many from relatives. In fact, I've responded to so much of this nonsense -- usually by attaching a Snopes' link that debunks them -- that some have removed me from their e-mail lists, refusing to be confused by the truth.
This is not unusual, believe it or not. According to journalist David McRaney, who posts his work at youarenotsosmart.com, when deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, individual beliefs get stronger. He cites as evidence a 2006 study by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler at the University of Michigan and Georgia State University.
Case in point: Evidently, some still believe Obama wasn't born in the U.S., meaning he is not qualified to be president. A Washington Post poll in May found 10 percent clinging to the belief he was born abroad, despite the fact he released a certified copy of his State of Hawaii birth certificate.
You may laugh at such silliness, but the Oklahoma Legislature came within a whisker this year of enacting a new law that would require future presidential candidates to produce a certified birth certificate when filing to run in this state.
Irony: The House approved the measure on the same day Obama released his official birth certificate. Mercifully, the conspiracy-driven idea died quietly in a House-Senate conference committee -- sparing the state even more embarrassment over the actions of the Legislature's growing wingnut caucus.
In an attempt to explain the willingness of so many Americans to accept these harebrained theories, Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay spent two years on "a journey through America's growing conspiracist underground" that resulted in his book Among The Truthers, published earlier this year.
("Truthers" don't accept the official story that Muslim terrorists masterminded and carried out the 9/11 attacks. In fact, many believe the U.S. government used strategically-placed explosives inside the World Trade Center towers to bring them down -- providing the motive for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some even refuse to believe a jetliner hit the Pentagon.)
Despite his research, Kay couldn't quite put a finger on what propels so many otherwise average, normal, productive citizens to veer into a parallel universe. But he notes that many live in a conspiratorial echo-chamber of sorts in which their reality is a daily dose of RSS feeds, e-mail newsletters and Facebook groups that reinforce their twisted worldviews.
Kay quotes Internet pioneer Andrew Keen as saying the "9/11 Truth movement is a perfect example of the disappearance of truth -- or even a general agreement of what truth is. If you throw enough garbage at the wall, some of it is going to stick. It reflects how media-illiterate people are.
"Even if you put a clear lie out there, it will be picked up and spread by the mob, virally."
That is the challenge facing Oklahoma -- indeed, American -- voters in 2012: How to wade through the baloney, much of it generated on the Internet and calculated to deceive, and latch onto the truth.
We thought the Internet would further democratize politics. In reality, it's made the task of all civic-minded Americans even harder.
--Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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