All the yammering about “conspiracy theories” and “denialism” that emanates from the Left has triggered a memory of a half-humorous, ultimately serious piece I wrote long ago. It first appeared back at the old Palace of Reason, on May 14, 2004. I reproduce it here for your consideration.
When your Curmudgeon was a much younger man, he dabbled in a pastime not many have tried: deliberately concocting and spreading rumors in the hope that, in the sweet rushing fullness of time, someone else would repeat them to him breathlessly as “the latest news.”
Never fear, gentle readers; he’s better now. But he got pretty good at it, back when, and some of the lessons have remained with him to this day.
The first rule of rumor-mongering is that a rumor must be a Twilight-Zone item. That is, it must be sufficiently distant from ordinary news to catch the imagination, but not so deep into the realm of fantasy that people’s natural resistance to the ridiculous would thwart its dissemination. “Elvis was seen at a shopping mall in Nashville” has legs enough to travel; “Elvis was seen on the USS Los Angeles, loading the torpedo tubes with confetti while sharing a joint with Jackie O” does not.
The second rule of rumor-mongering is to respect the “telephone effect.” As a rumor is relayed from one party to the next, it gains luridness and loses plausibility. So the originator can’t make the initial rumor too lurid, nor can one stray too far from the known and acceptable, if he wants it widely spread.
The third rule of rumor-mongering is to avoid entangling rumors. If a rumor is already making the rounds about Elvis, don’t try to start a new one. The two will entangle, which tends to retard the propagation of both. Your new rumor should be about someone or something well apart from Elvis; say, hallucinogenics in the water supply or a new bacon-and-jelly-doughnuts diet that will greatly improve your sex life.
The fourth rule of rumor-mongering is to respect the bounds of the common culture. A good rumor must be embedded in the cultural matrix most persons share. That’s a wide space; at any moment, it contains about 107 discrete facts and assertions of fact. But it most emphatically does not include St. Anselm’s theories about original sin, nor the “Stockholm showdown” between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr over quantum indeterminacy, nor the homosexual liaison between French Symbolist poets Paul Verlaine and Artur Rimbaud.
The fifth, and last, rule of rumor-mongering is never, when originating or propagating a rumor, to tell your “targets” that you believe it utterly. This is a bit like the kids’ game “Hot Potato.” To pass a rumor along in a dark tone of voice, with a bare hint of a suggestion that, as absurd as it sounds, it just might be true, marks one as a sophisticate and a connoisseur of dirt; to state a rumor baldly as an article of faith marks one as a credulous idiot, and stops the transmission of the rumor besides.
Let’s talk about the Nicholas Berg torture-murder for a moment, shall we?
Ever since he posted his article on the murder, your Curmudgeon has been barraged with rumors about that tragic young man. Here’s a sample from the mailbag:
- Nick Berg was an Israeli spy.
- Nick Berg was a Special Forces commando whose orders were to infiltrate the Iraqi cell of al-Qaeda.
- Nick Berg was betrayed to al-Qaeda by Iraqi security forces.
- Nick Berg was betrayed to al-Qaeda by American security forces.
- Nick Berg was betrayed to al-Qaeda by his father Michael Berg, who opposes Operation Iraqi Freedom and the ongoing American presence in Iraq, and who secretly hated his son for holding divergent views.
- Nick Berg was affiliated with al-Qaeda through Zacarias Moussaoui, the “twentieth hijacker” of the Black Tuesday atrocities.
- Nick Berg was an al-Qaeda member who volunteered to be killed, in the hopes that it would galvanize resistance to the American restructuring of Iraq.
- The murdered man was not Nick Berg; Nick Berg is a fictitious persona sleazed together by the Bush Administration to promote the hatred of Islam and to foment “nuke ’em all” sentiment in the United States.
- The videotaped murder never took place; Nick Berg is alive, well, and living under an assumed name in Fairlawn, New Jersey.
Please! Did the folks who concocted these rumors discard all respect for the rules of rumor-mongering, or, as seems more likely, were they complete amateurs at the game, with no mentor of greater experience to guide their efforts?
It is noteworthy that all the above rumors appear designed to discredit American efforts in Iraq, to dampen the rage swelling over Nick Berg’s murder, or both. In a way, that’s reassuring. If the enemies of Iraqi liberation are that clumsy about their rumor design, they’re unlikely to have much impact on the decisions that will determine the future of Iraq. On the other hand, it’s hard to decide what the proliferation of all these rumors means about the credulity of politically engaged Americans. Someone is spreading them and suggesting that they might be true, and it ain’t your humble Curmudgeon.
The videotaped torture-murder of Nick Berg and its global distribution as snuff-porn was bad enough, without allowing that young man’s name to be encrusted with so much fatuity.
To paraphrase Rene Belloc from Raiders Of the Lost Ark, we are merely passing through history. Nick Berg is history: a victim of the Islam-powered viciousness that besets the world in our time. His death must not be reduced to chunks of contempt-soaked ridicule, randomly distributed through the world’s data streams. He should be remembered accurately and in the appropriate context, as a young man of energy who went to a dangerous place to do a difficult job, fell into the hands of the worst men in the world, and paid a horrible price for his generosity.
After all, that’s what the murdering savages who made the decapitation video want you to think. Why deny them what they want?
This is on a much lighter note than the Nick Berg story, but it’s Friday, I got up much too early, and the beginning of your post sparked a memory. It’s old enough that the perpetrators have been scattered to the winds, and any statute of limitations must be expired by now.
Cruising Whittier Boulevard was a Friday, and Saturday night tradition. Kids came from all over to jam up traffic, and show off their cars, and maybe even meet a girl. I, and a small group of friends rode our motorcycles up and down there every weekend. One of the guys was in the National Guard. He came back from one of his weekend stints with an ammo box full of emergency smoke canisters. They looked like soup cans with hand grenade pins.
It was Good Friday night. A local church group showed up, set up portable risers, and had some choir members come out to the boulevard to sing hymns for the cruisers. One of our pals got an idea. You can figure what happened next. He casually walked up behind the little choir, set down a canister, and pulled the pin. We stood in the Big Boy parking lot on the other side of the street, and watched it all happen. Within seconds the entire block was enveloped in a thick white cloud. Traffic stopped, the fire department came out with lights and sirens, and the whole episode was over within the hour. This created a minor urban legend.
Many years later, one of the old geezers who hung out at the local Starbucks told me the story. He and his pals put a dozen hits of LSD in a bottle of wine, got totally stoned out, and threw a Molotov cocktail in the back seat of a cop car. It started a riot, the pigs were smashing everyone with nightsticks, but he and his pals burned rubber, and just barely got away…
Stories grow like that.