The Critical Mass

When facts don’t get in the way of a good story

LAMPOONIt used to be that, when Mad magazine or National Lampoon printed a satirical story, it didn’t show up somewhere else as news. But that’s where we are now, folks. Most recently, it was reported last week that half-term governor Sarah Palin supposedly said on Fox and Friends that we should be celebrating Easter just like Jesus did, by gathering his disciples to discuss the meaning of Easter. Except, of course, Easter being a Christian holiday marking the crucifixion of Christ, that tale was logistically impossible.

The Palin story followed a revelation that, during the government shutdown, President Barack Obama himself had written a check to keep open a museum celebrating the Muslim heritage.

Both stories: false. What does this tell us?

It’s not that we’ve lost our sense of what’s humor, and what isn’t humor. First and foremost, we can blame the Internet. That vast windbag of rumor, where truth’s gatekeeper has gone off and gotten drunk, allowing anyone’s craziness access to millions of people. It’s an insatiable vortex of information and bullshit. And it’s up to you to sort out the truth. Unfortunately for The New York Post, it wasn’t able to detect the fallacy of a 2005 Internet story that claimed 43 members of the Cambodian Midget Fighting League had been mauled in the ring by a lion.

But there’s more to these stories than simple hi-jinks. The funniest jokes often have a spark of truth to them. There are lions and short people in Cambodia. The Palin fake news report took off because it’s believable that she could say something that dumb. She does so with laughable regularity. Dozens of lists of her bizarre comments are available on the Internet.

And the Obama story resonated because it is also believable. At least it was to Fox News, which excitedly reported it as so, and to the crowd that’s convinced that our president was born in Kenya and reads the Quran. They’ve likely confirmed that for themselves as well on the Internet.

But let’s take the fake Obama story one step further. Yes it would be politically uncomfortable, but what if it were true? What would be wrong with someone stepping up and paying out of his or her own pocket the expenses of keeping open a museum of Muslim heritage? People donated significant money to programs like Planned Parenthood and Head Start during the shutdown. The joke that Obama had supported a Muslim cause is funny only if you think there’s something wrong with that action. And there isn’t. In the days after 9/11, Muslim leaders expressed outrage at the attacks, and Muslim people rushed to donate blood. In this hostile world, seeing Obama or one of the cheerleaders of the private sector lending a non-judgmental hand to someone in need would have been a moment of healing in a world that sorely needs a few.

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