TRACKING THE TWISTED TRAIL OF URBAN MYTHS
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
SAN PEDRO, Calif. -- Do you remember hearing about Government Bill 602P? I remember being warned about it at least twice, each time under similar circumstances.
It was that infamous threat to tack a five-cent tax on each email we send. Sometimes the Post Office was behind it, and sometimes it was a Congressman Schnell who didn't seem to be very bright.
In each case it was a chain email forwarded to me by some friend or colleague who had, it would appear, received it and forwarded it to her own address list. It may still be circulating on the outer fringes of the Internet for all I know.
It's enough to make you scream out in frustration, "Don't you realize that if there were any shred of truth to this, it would be all over the news? It would be the butt of Letterman jokes (Top Ten reasons to tax the Internet?) and it would surely lead off the 6 o'clock news right after the fire/car wreck story?"
In my case, it used to be a real struggle not to type that grouchy response, but there is an alternative that fills the 602P bill nicely. I type in, "Please see www.snopes.com," and hit the reply button.
The Urban Legends Reference Pages, also referred to as snopes.com is the creation of Barbara and David Mikkelson who have been running it as a labor of love since 1995.
It is a compilation of all matter of urban legends and myths, email spams and scams, in short all the detritus that our civilization tosses up on the shores of our Internet in-boxes or that we hear down at the corner store, carefully researched and evaluated.
Some stories are found to be true. Other stories (the vast majority) are found to be dubious or just plain false.
The concept of the modern urban myth was made famous by Jan Harold Brunvand in numerous books such as Choking Doberman and Other New Urban Legends, or The Vanishing Hitchhiker, American Urban Legends and Their Meanings.
The Mikkelsons have taken it a step further by maintaining an ongoing chronicle of all manner of little nasties that land in our email inboxes or get spread around the copy machine.
There is actually a considerable level of similarity between the older urban myths and the latest round, namely their use to express malice, contempt, racism and envy towards convenient targets.
For example, take The Choking Doberman, one of the classic myths described by Brunvand: In this story, a woman goes home to her apartment and finds that her dog seems to be in some distress. She takes him to the vet, who finds two fingers lodged down the poor dog's throat. In many versions of this story, the fingers are from some feared ethnic minority.
Brunvand pointed out that a number of such stories which have had wide circulation manage to communicate racial anxieties and malice in fictional form.
It would appear that the water cooler stories of the past have found new forms and new life on the Internet. Among the most common targets are liberal icons such as the Clintons, Bill and Hillary.
For example, a recent story circulated on email describes how soldiers in Afghanistan were forced to wait for their Thanksgiving dinners because Sen. Clinton and her party jumped to the head of the line. The implicit message is that Hillary is arrogant, aloof, and contemptuous of those who have served their country in the military.
Another Hillary story that went the rounds earlier is that she was the one Senator who refused to meet with Gold Star mothers (ie: women who have lost a son due to death in combat) when their delegation came to Washington, D.C.
Those of us who become aware of such stories (and have a shred of skepticism) take them as the product of malice and ignorance, but it would be nice to be able to have somebody do a well researched and well reasoned refutation. That the Mikkelsons have done. You can look up the Hillary myths and the truth (or generally the lack of truth) behind them.
The Urban Myth Website considers all manner of topics, from autos to weddings, from the less tendentious topics (movies, food, computers) to the socially charged (legal, pregnancy, sports) to the outright controversial (military, politics, racial rumors).
In each case, the Mikkelsons have attempted to research each story or claim. Sources which appear in urban stories (such as Congressman Schnell of Bill 602P infamy) are evaluated - there is no such member of the Congress, there never was any such bill, and there is no similar bill under consideration at the present. The logical integrity of the story is evaluated: Bills that are introduced in the U.S. Congress have titles beginning with S (for the Senate) or H.R. (for the House of Representatives). The particular version of this email hoax presented on snopes.com includes a signature purporting to come from a Virginia law firm. Snopes.com points out that there is no such law firm.
Likewise for the Hillary stories, the Bill Clinton stories, and the email scam which claims that a 15 year old boy had $71,000 hidden away in a closet which he collected using an email chain letter scheme which is, by the way, now available to you so you can make your own pile of dough just by sending a five dollar bill to each of the three addresses listed below.
By now most of us are wise to the fact that many of these spams and scams are churned out factory-like, but it is nice to know that there is a trustworthy source that has done its homework and provides a crystal clear analysis that can be cited to those who are (shall we say) just a little more credulous.
This is particularly important when the newly forged rumor is intended to affect the conduct of our political life, whether it be to discredit the Clintons in particular or to attack the intelligence and motives of whole classes of political thought.
One particularly interesting story (see Tortuous Torts on snopes.com) involves a list of outrageous lawsuits that ended in even more outrageous verdicts or settlements. For example, a woman sued a furniture store because she tripped over a toddler and broke her ankle, whereupon the jury awarded her $780,000 even though the toddler was her own child. Or there was the hubcap thief who absentmindedly managed to get his hand run over by the car he was stealing from, and got $74,000 for his injuries.
The Mikkelsons correctly identify this list (widely circulated since 2001 they point out) as completely fabricated. They find that the purported author and law firm found in the signature footer in some versions are equally fictitious.
Oh yes, all those spam emails you get offering you an international drivers license with all its attendant benefits, those are not credible either.
In snopes.com, we have what has become something of a gold standard in evaluating the modern Internet myth, just as Quackwatch.com is the gold standard for evaluating alternative medicine and nutritional supplements claims.
The problem in writing about snopes.com is that it is just too much fun to read, as you jump from subject to subject. There is a whole American mythology about Coca Cola (remember that story that coke plus aspirin will get you high? It's just one of many.) The section on Love has three subheadings: Love Betrayed, Dating Disasters, and Scorned Lovers Revenged. Apparently our national mythology about interpersonal relationships enjoys a good mean story more than it celebrates happy endings.
To continue a trend of the last few columns, there is a central point here: the Internet, just like so much else in life, contains truth and it contains falsity, and it is up to the more knowledgeable to point out the truthful part and warn about the false.