My life as a fake Internet “War on Christmas” meme
December 28, 2014 1:55 PM   Subscribe

Mr. Levy: I want to personally thank you for having the courage to share this with the world. Outstanding commentary and so true. You hit it right on the money. . . I thank Jesus every day for my life. Thank you again. We need more loving and thoughtful people in this world such as you.
Every year around the holidays, Steven Levy gets appreciative email about his "deranged rant" about the "war on Christmas". There's only one problem: he didn't write it.
posted by MartinWisse (46 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
What a story! I agree that the Snopes folks deserve some awards for their services to journalism.
posted by emjaybee at 2:06 PM on December 28, 2014 [6 favorites]


If he is going to get blamed/credited for a Ben Stein rant, he should at least get Ben Stein's Money.
posted by 724A at 2:12 PM on December 28, 2014 [34 favorites]


Here's the Snopes article in question, titled "Ben Stein's Confessions for the Holidays."
posted by filthy light thief at 2:16 PM on December 28, 2014


Serial circulators have seen fit to alter it to their tastes, excising or appending certain passage, evolving it in the mode of an Appalachian ballad or a Greek epic poem. There are probably more variations to it than the text of one of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
Huh. Isn't there another more relevant book that had a lot of tellings and retellings that led to very different versions of the original stories?
posted by tonycpsu at 2:18 PM on December 28, 2014 [32 favorites]


If he is going to get blamed/credited for a Ben Stein rant, he should at least get Ben Stein's Money resign from the Presidency in disgrace.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:49 PM on December 28, 2014 [15 favorites]


How fascinating. Both the mindsets behind the original rantings and the continued linking of his name with their idiocies.
posted by jaguar at 2:59 PM on December 28, 2014


Why choose him to misattribute it to of all people? It's a good story though, and I liked the part at the end about the Parisian orphan.
posted by codacorolla at 3:17 PM on December 28, 2014


Mr. Bumble could not be reached for comment.
posted by clavdivs at 3:26 PM on December 28, 2014


This is the way of the world now though, huh? When everything is political, the truth goes down the memory hole, and all that remains is the lie.

Just like none of the Usual Suspects seem to know that "Witness 40" was a liar who made up essentially every detail of her testimony. They only remember that "Brown charged like a football player" with the implicit addition of "so he got what was coming to him." This process hasn't taken years. It's only been a few weeks since the grand jury report came out.
posted by ob1quixote at 3:33 PM on December 28, 2014 [6 favorites]


When everything is political, the truth goes down the memory hole, and all that remains is the lie.

Not true. To the first approximation, everything is already political, and has been since time immemorial. Great mischief is done by marking certain subjects as apolitical and thus something not to be questioned.

Politically motivated disregard for what's true or not is a real issue, but "politics" is not a dirty word that leads directly to that.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 3:54 PM on December 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


Has anyone ever copped to creating/embellishing one of these Internet fables? I'd be interested to read about their motivations.
posted by pipeski at 4:00 PM on December 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


Back on alt.folklore.urban we often determined that the attribution of one thing to another person was basically coincidental and/or technological illiteracy -- on USENET, particularly, the forwarder of something would get their name attached to it forever, and other times it might be simple proximity on a list. Many other misattributions were apparently someone's attempt to relate it to a more famed personality, much as the "Wear Sunscreen" rant, although that may have itself been originally some confusion.
posted by dhartung at 4:08 PM on December 28, 2014 [8 favorites]


where did the idea come from that we should worship Nick and Jessica and we aren't allowed to worship God

While this statement is unusually out there even by wingnut false equivalence standards, taking it at face value just for fun, I'm pretty sure there is at least evidence that Nick and Jessica actually exist.
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:11 PM on December 28, 2014 [23 favorites]


I'm pretty sure there is at least evidence that Nick and Jessica actually exist.

I remain unconvinced.
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:41 PM on December 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


It's telling that the people who believe that the "War on Christmas" is a thing, and the people who take mass-forwarded emails at face value, are the same people.

Serial circulators have seen fit to alter it to their tastes, excising or appending certain passage, evolving it in the mode of an Appalachian ballad or a Greek epic poem. There are probably more variations to it than the text of one of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

This is what gets me about these email fables. Some of their genesis and spread can be attributed to ignorance or honest mistakes, but there's almost always some deliberate misrepresentation of the truth: shifting the framing from "this is a fictional parable" to "this is a factual account of actual events", or altering details to make the story better support a given agenda, or just outright making shit up.

And, like...who does that? Who spends their free time writing pettily fraudulent missives to mass-forward to all their relatives and business associates?

These fables are presented as true stories – but even when they begin with a kernel of truth, they quickly mutate into something else. They're stories about what their authors and readers want to be true – stories that condense the real world, in all its complexity and confusion, into a neat narrative with clear heroes (who just happen, in every case, to be older, white, straight, Christian, middle-class American conservatives) and clear villains (who just happen to be everyone else). Stories that excuse them from reconsidering any of their pre-existing beliefs, or thinking too hard about difficult ideas. Stories that allow them to deal with any (real or perceived) threat to the status quo with a minimum of cognitive and emotional effort.

Seconding pipeski, though – I'm totes curious about the sociology of how these things evolve.

sorry if this comment is slightly incoherent; I'm pretty fucked up on NyQuil right now
posted by escape from the potato planet at 5:00 PM on December 28, 2014 [8 favorites]


MetaFilter: sorry if this comment is slightly incoherent; I'm pretty fucked up on NyQuil right now
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:04 PM on December 28, 2014 [29 favorites]


And, like...who does that? Who spends their free time writing pettily fraudulent missives to mass-forward to all their relatives and business associates?

False Witness
If a person is smart enough to comprehend this story and then to repeat it, then that person is, by definition, not stupid enough to really believe it.
I used to believe that maybe some people were that stupid. They were acting that stupid, so I went along. I believed that the people I was sending that dossier to were merely innocent dupes.
But in truth they were neither innocent nor dupes. The category of innocent dupe does not apply here. No one could be honestly misled by such a story. The only way to have been misled by it is dishonestly — which is to say deliberately, willingly and willfully. They are claiming to believe a foolish thing, but they are not guilty of foolishness. They are guilty of malice.
False Witness 2
Are you afraid you might be a coward? Join us in pretending to believe this lie and you can pretend to feel brave. Are you afraid that your life is meaningless? Join us in pretending to believe this lie and you can pretend your life has purpose. Are you afraid you’re mired in mediocrity? Join us in pretending to believe this lie and you can pretend to feel exceptional. Are you worried that you won’t be able to forget that you’re just pretending and that all those good feelings will thus seem hollow and empty? Join us and we will pretend it’s true for you if you will pretend it’s true for us. We need each other.
They Need Help
But OK, I said, let's look it up. And we went to Snopes and there it was. Snopes explains that this rumor is not true. They provide the background of the rumor and trace its history back to a single e-mail from a single person. They cite that person and his retraction and apology. They cite official statements from Target and evidence of the company's support for veterans' causes. They cite veteran's groups gratefully attesting to that support. This is all sourced and linked back to sources and in general a devastatingly thorough and altogether Snopes-like job of debunking and rebutting the rumor.
The result of this, of course, is that the acquaintance still does not shop at Target because he still chooses to believe that they hate veterans, and now he no longer believes anything from Snopes.com because, he says, this proves they can't be trusted.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:18 PM on December 28, 2014 [31 favorites]


There is virtually nothing as convincing as something that we want to believe is true because it confirms our view of how the world works -- better still if it confirms our superior virtue. Some people are more prone than others to this temptation but none of us are immune to it.

Consequently, it is most important to cultivate a habit of skepticism particularly about things that you are inclined to agree with -- they deserve every bit as much, if not more, deliberate scrutiny as those items you are already inclined to disbelieve. Otherwise you are practically begging to be misled. You may swallow -- hook, line, and sinker -- lies that are deliberately concocted to deceive you. You will make decisions or form opinions based on them. You may repeat them to others, poisoning them similarly and/or discrediting yourself or the cause you represent.

They say "a lie gets halfway 'round the world while the truth is still putting its boots on," and (to an extent) that's because a lie has help from the part of our brains that want to believe. We're bombarded with more information today than ever before, much of it false (whether accidentally or deliberately.) The natural impulse when reading a story like this is to chuckle in amusement at the rubes who were taken in by such a trivially falsifiable story. My advice to you is to instead spend a few minutes wondering what kind of whoppers you have swallowed and then repeated. It's not nearly as comforting but it'll be a better use of your time.
posted by Nerd of the North at 5:56 PM on December 28, 2014 [12 favorites]


This is the way of the world now though, huh? When everything is political, the truth goes down the memory hole, and all that remains is the lie.

I don't know about this being the way of the world now. I think that the politically convenient redefinition of truth has been going on since at least since the consignment of Akhenaten to the memory hole some time in the late 14th or early 13th century BC. (We have always been at war with the worshippers of Aten).
posted by firechicago at 6:14 PM on December 28, 2014


From False Witness 2: those who suspect it might be false, but spread it anyway. The[y] may be dupes, but they are not innocent.

I found myself in that category not long ago. It was a link posted by a writer I generally trust to a short news story about outrageous behavior on the part of a corporation. I read it and reposted the link to my own twitter account. There were a couple statements of fact in the article that didn't match information I had previously read, but I sort of assumed either I remembered wrong, there was new information, or the old source (likely wikipedia) I read was mistaken before. So I ignored that dissonance, and posted it anyway.

Read a couple tweets up, and I see the correction that that was a link to a non-funny "satire" news website he'd been fooled by, with mea culpa. Since it was so soon after I posted the link, I just deleted my own tweet with some embarrassment, and then confirmed that yep, those parts I thought contradicted information I thought I knew did in fact do so.

Anyone's susceptible to this failure mode. I rather like Fred Clark's description of it as an ethics motivated by pride rather than love - it feels good to name your enemy and feel outraged by them, and that's no small amount of what's going on there.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 6:14 PM on December 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


> ethics motivated by pride rather than love - it feels good to name your enemy and feel outraged by them

So, this sounds like a manifestation of kitsch: "Look at me experiencing this thing; isn't that beautiful?"
posted by I-Write-Essays at 6:30 PM on December 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


I don't know about this being the way of the world now. I think that the politically convenient redefinition of truth has been going on since at least since the consignment of Akhenaten to the memory hole some time in the late 14th or early 13th century BC. (We have always been at war with the worshippers of Aten).

I agree. Reading through Eco's Prague Cemetary and Eisner's The Plot really solidified this idea for me. Both are books about the original viral forward from your Uncle: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It's a purely fabricated tract of antisemitism cobbled together from several hundreds of years of popular racist myths about Jewish people, and in various forms its been used as "evidence" for the maltreatment of those people.

I was also thinking about the decision to attribute the rant to an obscure journalist instead of a more notable person, and it really does make sense. Ben Stein is going to come out and say that's not his work, which is much more believable than someone who actually does exist in real life, but is so small in comparison that you're much less likely to have the forgery cross their path and be publically discredited. However, being someone that you can look up if you want to instead of Dr. Fakersten, also gives at least a little bit of polish and authority to the hoax.
posted by codacorolla at 7:52 PM on December 28, 2014


I was also thinking about the decision to attribute the rant to an obscure journalist instead of a more notable person, and it really does make sense. Ben Stein is going to come out and say that's not his work, which is much more believable than someone who actually does exist in real life, but is so small in comparison that you're much less likely to have the forgery cross their path and be publically discredited. However, being someone that you can look up if you want to instead of Dr. Fakersten, also gives at least a little bit of polish and authority to the hoax.

I doubt it's really a "hoax," in that sense, though. Someone named Steven Levy probably forwarded the email at some point to someone who forwarded the email to someone who... etc... and people often don't delete all the garbagey header info on forwarded emails, so someone in the chain saw the name "Steven Levy" and thought he was the author. Then someone farther down the chain probably googled "Steven Levy," found this author's bio, and added it as an attribution, and then the email with the attribution got forwarded to other people.
posted by jaguar at 8:07 PM on December 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


Or it's simply part of a deliberate disinformation campaign run by the CIA, Koch Bros, Murdoch, or any number of other forces of evil.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:33 PM on December 28, 2014


My right-wing relatives send me crazy stuff, or post on it Facebook, all the time. If I bother to send them a snopes.com link calling out their BS I get a reply along the lines of "It just a story about how great God is" or "But it makes a point."

Facts, apparently to many, are irrelevant details.
posted by cccorlew at 8:50 PM on December 28, 2014 [8 favorites]


Facts, apparently to many, are irrelevant details.

You're right, of course – but that's just fuckin' bananas. It betrays an abject ignorance of the most fundamental elements of critical thinking. Telling a made-up story doesn't make a point, because it doesn't have any connection with the real world that you're trying to make a point about.

It's like cargo-cult argumentation. People noticed Ivory-Tower Elitist Intellectuals telling stories about the real world (journalism, scientific papers, critical essays) to make their points, and figured "hey, I can do that too". So they started telling their own stories, but without the crucial element of grounding the story in the real world.

It's not the telling of the story that makes it true or meaningful; it's how accurately and faithfully it illustrates physical reality.

And, like, if you need someone to explain that to you, I mean, I just can't even

just can't

no

sob
posted by escape from the potato planet at 9:10 PM on December 28, 2014 [13 favorites]


Many other misattributions were apparently someone's attempt to relate it to a more famed personality

Pseudo-StevenLevy
posted by XMLicious at 10:53 PM on December 28, 2014


If god existed then surely he'd protect me from these incurious fuckwits.
posted by fullerine at 1:21 AM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


Telling a made-up story doesn't make a point, because it doesn't have any connection with the real world that you're trying to make a point about.

I suspect there may be fiction writers who would disagree with this. If being faithful to physical reality is the criterium for making a point, you may have just obliterated most of literature.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:23 AM on December 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


You're right, of course – but that's just fuckin' bananas. It betrays an abject ignorance of the most fundamental elements of critical thinking. Telling a made-up story doesn't make a point, because it doesn't have any connection with the real world that you're trying to make a point about.

Isn't much of this precisely religion in action? Steven Levy's Confessions for the Holidays is developing in the same way that older stories developed into chunks of the bible.
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:28 AM on December 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


cccorlew: Facts, apparently to many, are irrelevant details.

These days more than ever, facts are what you choose to believe. Whomever on Colbert came up with "truthiness" deserves a Nobel prize for describing this phenomena with such breathtaking accuracy.
posted by dr_dank at 4:49 AM on December 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


Huh. Isn't there another more relevant book that had a lot of tellings and retellings that led to very different versions of the original stories?

Yes, but then Metafilter would be criticising him for using a hyperbolic simile.
posted by howfar at 9:09 AM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


If being faithful to physical reality is the criterium for making a point, you may have just obliterated most of literature.

Sorry, I know this is a derail, but my students do this too, and I'm curious. Does "criterium" have a meaning in English besides "bike race"? Is it an acceptable variant of "criterion"?
posted by rodii at 9:26 AM on December 29, 2014


Facts, apparently to many, are irrelevant details.

"Facts are stupid things." Ronald Reagan
posted by jonp72 at 11:07 AM on December 29, 2014


Does "criterium" have a meaning in English besides "bike race"?

It's a false singular of "criteria", misspelled or misspoken
posted by RustyBrooks at 11:33 AM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


Does "criterium" have a meaning in English besides "bike race"?

It does now!

(crit-EER-ee-um) n. Slang. A state of incoherence elicited by an accurate assessment of one's flaws. [Portmanteau of criticism + delirium]
posted by Sys Rq at 12:06 PM on December 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


And, like...who does that? Who spends their free time writing pettily fraudulent missives to mass-forward to all their relatives and business associates?

One of my theories is that there are folks scattered out there, here and there, part of whose job and/or serious hobby is to put together newsletter type things and send them out regularly or irregularly to groups large & small. It might be partly inspirational messages, partly 'that's outrageous' type anecdotes.

They made be unpaid or only paid a little, but they have a platform and an audience, and there is a very specific type of thing that both they and their audience are interested in. And they are **always** on the lookout for the type of message that is really going to hit home with their audience--that will make their audience share the message with their friends.

I've been (accidentally) subscribed to a couple of church and political type e-newsletters over the years that definitely fall into this category.

Now here's the thing: These folks are sort of half-way between Uncle Joe forwarding a message to his list of friends and actual trained/responsible journalists. Uncle Joe is likely to just do a straight 'forward' of the message, maybe with a witty rejoinder added at the top or bottom.

But these slightly more sophisticated folks put things together, they fill things out, they do a bit of googling and fill in some missing details, or re-write/combine to fill out an article. They want to give some attribution so they google for the author and the photo. But, they might not be very meticulous in their research. All of that.

They simultaneously have pressure to produce a continual stream of content, by whatever means works for them and their audience, some skill in writing, editing, and putting stories together, and no particular need to thoroughly 'fact check'--especially not things that 'just make sense' and fit the message they're wanting to convey.

Examples would be something like a church newsletter or the newsletters of relatively small-time political groups or politicians.

Ministers/sermons are another source. Ministers often have to produce-produce-produce new and interesting material weekly, are great story-tellers, (often) don't mind amalgamating a few different sources to make a coherent story (or rant) that makes they point they are after, don't necessarily cite sources, and often distribute their end product as a text file via email or otherwise. They don't mind re-telling a story they heard from somewhere it if makes the point they want to make. (Keep in mind that 'minister' might be anything from lay minister to highly trained, working for a large organized church or a neighborhood group. They have to have some degree of talent as a storyteller to survive, but may care far more about making a point than citing their sources.)

Anyway, my theory is these types of sources are the missing link between original and "Uncle Joe" mass forwards. They edit, they put stories together, they re-combine, they are trying to reach an audience with a particular viewpoint, they have a particular (strong) viewpoint themselves, they often have distribution lists in the thousands or even tens/hundreds of thousands.
posted by flug at 12:57 PM on December 29, 2014 [4 favorites]


I like your theory, flug. I suspect that the breeding grounds are not just email but Yahoo message boards and other low-level hangouts where there is never any moderation.

I caught my mom's minister out when he tried to push that stupid "Candycanes represent Jesus' spilled blood," story when I went to church with her. Went home, checked Snopes, told my mom it was bushwah.

She was irritated with me, because now I'd ruined the story.

Which is why this stuff spreads.
posted by emjaybee at 1:13 PM on December 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


(crit-EER-ee-um) n. Slang. A state of incoherence elicited by an accurate assessment of one's flaws. [Portmanteau of criticism + delirium]

That is now stuck in my head to the tune/rhythm of the "Activia!" jingle. (Is it a jingle if it's one word?)
posted by jaguar at 5:52 PM on December 29, 2014


Here in Oz we get variations on these forwarded stories/rants/glurge but with Australian details substituted in. So a rant about why don't we have a White History Month as well as a Black History Month gets peppered with references to Vegemite and the Sydney Opera House and forwarded by my mum and her friends. Pointing out that Black History Month, or MLK Jr. Day or whatever are only in the USA and we don't have anything similar here just gets me a shrug and a "I just thought it was funny/made a good point".
posted by harriet vane at 10:01 PM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


The one thing I don't get is why anyone would assign this shit to Steven Levy? He's not a cultural authority conservatives know or trust. Ben Stein isn't a figure they would want to disavow. Stein wouldn't be embarrassed about the popularity of the chain email. He's more famous than Levy and his words carry more weight with the intended audience.

It's like the emailers picked a name at random from the NYT bestsellers' list. The only way this is related to Levy at all is tech-culture phenomena like viral emails are in the sphere of things he might write about. Either he made up his involvement or pranksters injected his name into the stream as a joke.


I caught my mom's minister out when he tried to push that stupid "Candycanes represent Jesus' spilled blood," story when I went to church with her. Went home, checked Snopes, told my mom it was bushwah.

I broke up laughing when the minister at my family's church pulled this out last week. I'd never heard it before. It was surreal how ludicrous it was: especially when he started in on the stripes symbolizing blood and torture.

Keep 'em comin', pastor!
posted by clarknova at 11:10 PM on December 29, 2014


Ben Stein is just plain creepy and unpleasant. I understand wanting to associate a message you like with anyone-other-than-Ben-Stein.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:30 PM on December 29, 2014


In the alternate universe where "creepy and unpleasant" is a turn-off for the War on Christmas crowd, populist conservatism would be unrecognizable to those of us living here.
posted by clarknova at 11:46 PM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


The one thing I don't get is why anyone would assign this shit to Steven Levy?

The sort of low-level unthinking antisemitism that perceives all Jews as essentially the same, anonymous Other, an antisemitism present even in many of those who would express shock and anger if it were suggested to them?
posted by howfar at 3:19 AM on December 30, 2014


That's a stretch. Sounds like "original sin" and doesn't explain why him.

I'm going with pranksters.
posted by clarknova at 6:15 AM on December 30, 2014




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