Monday, August 15, 2016

Mandela Effect--Or Disinformation?

Yesterday, I went to a family gathering for my cousin's 60th birthday party (my father was the youngest of ten children, and so I not only have cousins that are borderline elderly, but I have a few that have died of old people conditions. Damn, just another reminder that I am on the back nine of life). Three of my sister's four children were there, and all of them are young people, more or less adults now, and I actually found myself enjoying the conversation at the table immensely. A small digression here: while I am generally tolerant of other people's children, and have become more tolerant of other adults, too, for that matter, there is still a part of me that chafes badly when I am confronted by unmistakable evidence of near-complete ignorance of the world around them in other people, young and old. You don't have to be a Jeopardy contestant to gain my respect in this matter, but I find a basic inability to hold even semi-meaningful conversations on most matters that aren't TV shows or pop music very irritating. And when young people actually show that they are consumed with curiosity about politics, or science, or even sports, and actually hold and present opinions on those subjects that indicate that they've actually taken the trouble to accumulate information, sort through it all, and come to a reasonably informed decision about their own beliefs--well, it doesn't take a whole lot to make me ecstatic in middle age. Because there are far, far too many people out there that are oblivious to anything important in the life that we lead, that might as well be turned out into a field to eat grass every morning, for all the use they make of the capacity for rational thought that is supposed to make homo sapiens the jewel of the animal kingdom.
Anyway, I digress. My niece showed an unexpected grasp of the Mandela Effect, a phenomenon long noted by sociologists; basically, it is a piece of information almost universally believed to be true that is not. It is derived from the curious fact that although Nelson Mandela only died three years ago, something like 90% of Americans believe that he died in prison sometime before the turn of the century. There are many examples of this scattered throughout American culture. She used it to make a point about this year's political landscape, but it got me to thinking about a few other examples that many of us believe to be true that are not. And while many are more or less harmless, some are not, and those that are not beg the question: is it merely coincidence, or is it the result of a sustained disinformation campaign by powers that benefit from the incorrect beliefs?
There kinds of things are everywhere, and the answer, unfortunately, is that in the overwhelming majority of cases, the beliefs are the result of somebody and somebodies working very diligently to shape opinions. I ran into an example of  perhaps the most insidious long-term example in American history this morning, while paying my auto insurance, of all things. The guy that owns the agency is a very genial man, one I am glad to know, and a man that has been very good to me and many others. He was asking Sabrina about her college plans, and the conversation meandered onto a discussion of the Civil War. And he disseminated at some length, repeating the biggest piece of bullshit in American historical discourse--that Robert E. Lee was a great general, who made a difficult but conscientious decision to follow his home state's decisions, and that if only he had had more men and more time, the South would have won the Civil War (and as a corollary, Ulysses Grant was a butcher and a drunk that only won the war because he had an endless supply of men and material to work with). I've written about this a few times over the years, but in the interest of accuracy and decency, here we go again:
1) Lee was a general of some talent, to be sure. But he was not great, and his supposed tactical brilliance was limited at best. He did very well when on the defensive, but his attempts at offensive campaigning failed miserably, and his limited competence was the direct reason the rebels lost the Battle of Gettysburg. Those pushing the idea that Grant was a butcher ignore the facts: casualties on the Confederate side were proportionally higher than on the Union side. Lee threw away more of his manpower than Grant did in futile actions, and he didn't have the manpower to lose. Lee's Army was routed in the end; the last army that the rebels had in the field was Joseph Johnston's, which was probably doomed anyway but was still intact and capable of fighting at war's end.
2) Lee's decision to side with his state over his country was not some major moral decision based on principle. It was treason. Period. A lot of the same people that lionize Lee over his choice to rebel against the country he was born into want to incarcerate and kill a lot of people that either do not look like them or share their beliefs, people that are uncompromisingly loyal to the country they supposedly love and fiercely protect... The Civil War was an act of rebellion, caused and fought by traitors who were fighting to retain the ability to own other human beings as property and to deny the basic humanity of millions of people. There was nothing noble about that then, and there is even less nobility involved now in somehow investing this choice with a sense of dignity and morality.
3) Grant's campaigns in the West belie the belief that he was merely a butcher and lucky to be on the winning side. Grant's Vicksburg campaign is one of the most brilliant conceived and carried out by any general in history. Grant salvaged the Chattanooga disaster after Vicksburg and before taking over in Virginia, a disaster which could have prolonged the struggle for years if the rebels had been able to take out the army they had trapped.
And actually, the Lee hagiography is a subset of the basic propaganda lie that has been foisted on the American people for 150 years. And the main point of the propaganda has been to denigrate and blacken Grant's name by those he defeated. Grant's generalship has been belittled and diminished, and more importantly, his Presidency has also been portrayed much more negatively than it actually was. Why? Because the Southern aristocracy and power structure was allowed to continue to exist, and has basically continued the Civil War by other means for generations. Grant as President was not some clueless buffoon that let his cronies rob the country blind; he had the temerity to try to implement and enforce Reconstruction, after defeating his foes in their rebellion.
And they hated him for it then, and they continue to hate him for it now. This Noble Cause horseshit surrounding the Civil War infuriates me, because it is the root cause of many of our current issues. The Southern elite mindset informs much of today's Republican "values" and legislative agenda, and it is testimony to how effective and efficient the disinformation campaign that begun when Lincoln was assassinated has been. We are living in a culture that has been shaped and infused with the values of the Confederacy--and we are all, except for a small minority of us, the worse off for it. And the worst thing about it is that the bullshit narrative has been promulgated for so long that many of us believe it to be true.
The "culture warriors", silly as they may seem at times, are right. It is a fight about who controls the culture, the education, the appearance of reality. The generation of my nieces and daughters are the ones that are taking up the struggle, and I am mildly encouraged that they seem to have an idea of what the true enemy is. My own generation failed miserably; they bought into the Sun Belt chimera, allowed ourselves to have the momentum toward a truly egalitarian society reversed by the giving credence to the prejudices and calumnies of those that have always sought to defend their own privilege by any means necessary, and most of galling of all, were driven like lemmings over a cliff over hysterical fears of a threat to our security that was gigantically overblown. The lights are starting to go on for those of us that came of age in the 1970s and 1980s--but it's too late to materially change our circumstances.
But we can encourage our children to not accept the illusions, to eat the bread and watch the circuses without succumbing to the blandishments of those promoting them. And while I get frustrated at times by how ignorant many young people are of the world they live in, there are growing numbers of them that are not--and my kids and my sister's kids are part of that growing number. And maybe their generation will finally start beating back the forces of reactionary politics and unwarranted privilege.

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