Pop Rocket, March 2013
Benghazi. Illegal immigrants. Obama's birth certificate. Saddam Hussein. Sharia law. Gun confiscation. Agenda 21. Nullification. The New World Order. Blah, blah,blah.
What these and so many others all have in common is that they are or were, in objective reality, non-issues, topics that look like important public problems but have no rational basis as such. People get hung up on them and can't let go. That's why I call them tarbabies.
Tarbaby issues litter our history, and widespread online access has made them even stickier. It's a lot easier now to live inside an information bubble that reflects and reinforces a point of view, making it harder to let conflicting information in. People are easily fascinated, and once in that state are lulled into "knowing" comfort even as the assertions grow steadily more outrageous to counter impinging reality.
In the version of the tarbaby story current in our culture, Br'er Fox used the tarbaby to trap Br'er Rabbit, a situation clearly evoking the life lessons of Aesop. Traditional cultures tell similar versions of this story worldwide. There's a lesson for us here, and it's about propaganda, a subject I know a little about, since I've been doing it as a living for decades. Goering called this tactic the Big Lie.
We can build our own tarbabies, as any addict will testify, but the kind I'm thinking of are more often built as traps. When an unscrupulous operator wants to distract you from something, relieve you of your money or keep you from getting in his way, setting up a tarbaby is a standard ploy. And we fall for it in droves.
Say you want to impede international cooperation on a social-justice issue, like land mines. Spreading shrill and unfounded rumors that the United Nations is out to take over your military is bound to peel off a large number people who might be otherwise inclined toward progress. Worried that your industry might have to change because it's killing the planet? Spend heavily to plant fake science stories that make it easier for people to ignore the huge, flashing warning signs and sink back into their Barcaloungers. Afraid that voters will do something sensible that will cost you money or power? Focus on governmental inefficiences or political venality (there are always a few), and tell people that the pols are all crooks and voting is for suckers.To some degree it always works.
The bigger the lie, the more effective and long-lasting it can be. The idea that the founders of our nation designed the Second Amendment to support uprisings against the government -- otherwise known as treason -- a patently ridiculous concept, is left over from the secessionist rhetoric of the Civil War, and circulating more widely today than ever. The idea that contrails, the wispy clouds of condensation that high-flying planes stir up, are laden with mind-control chemicals, or that a secret government cabal conspired to blow up the World Trade Center, just will not die the ignominious death they deserve under the "um, that doesn't make sense" test. As a species we've proved endlessly that any investment in a tarbaby can pay off.
Tobacco lobbyists and racists got together in the 1920s to create the "marihuana" tarbaby. Self-serving political sharps and oil interests used doctored "intelligence" to build the Saddam tarbaby. Flim-flam artists in the insurance industry counter sensible progress on national health care with the 'Socialism!' tarbaby. Get a mind stuck to one of these little beasties, anduseful thinking processes cease, zip-zop.
But you may notice that there's an easy defense against the tarbaby, one that works every time and takes practically no effort. Just don't touch it.
Br'er Rabbit's mistake was that he got emotional, tearing into the tarbaby for a supposed slight before looking closely at what he faced. He managed to maneuver the fox into giving him the tools he needed to escape, but the people using this tactic now are a lot smarter than that. Better to simply take a good look before we invest anything in an idea, and keep looking as it evolves. The briar patch that will free you is more and better information.
So when you hear over and over that "Social Security is insolvent" or "Obama wants to take your guns away" or "Donald Trump is a credible presidential contender," you have choices: you can take a little time to look, investigate and learn, or you can walk away. Just be warned that if you bite without thinking, you're likely to be hooked.
Above all we must not let sticky tarbabies distract us from watching and working on the problems that really matter.
Pop Rocket, March 2013