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Thursday, December 16, 2004


Merry F-ing Christmas To You
The alternate title for this post is "Memes, Media Webs, Operant Conditioning, and Anomie."

Right before Thanksgiving, a media myth was created alleging that school officials in California banned the Declaration of Independence. Let's look of the dynamics of the creation of this meme:

1. Inciting Incident: [Stephen] Williams is a fifth grade teacher in Silicon Valley and practicing Christian who fell foul of his school principal because he was overeager to emphasize the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers in his history classes. So far, so banal. He wasn’t suspended or fired. The principal at Stevens Creek Elementary School in Cupertino simply became a little alarmed when Williams distributed a handout entitled “What Great Leaders Have Said About The Bible,” which quoted a handful of Republican presidents (all pro!) alongside Jesus himself. She became more alarmed still when he asked his class to read a chunk of St. Luke’s Gospel to help them understand the meaning of Easter. So, at the end of the last school year, she asked him to submit his lesson plans to her in advance to make sure his classes didn’t violate the separation of church and state.

When Williams edited down the Declaration of Independence to include only its references to a higher being, or when he reproduced chunks of George Washington’s prayer journal to the exclusion of the Father of the Nation’s more obviously political reflections, the principal drew the line and told him to take the discussion in a different direction.


2. Williams contacts the sectarian right group The Alliance Defense Fund (also click here).

3. The right's media spreads rumors and falsehoods. Click here, here, here, and here. Click here for another case study of the right's media web.

4. The mainstream media picks up the phony story (e.g., click here).

5. Millions of people are led to believe the false meme that "secularist" school officials in California banned the Declaration of Independence. In addition, millions are led to believe that an antidemocratic and sectarian group like the Alliance Defense Fund is fighting for the constitution and that conscientious school administrators are God-hating secularists. As a consequence, the school has been the recipient of hate emails and letters, as well as threats during the Christmas season. Great fucking holiday spirit.

ANALYSIS: Who are the winners in this flap? The Alliance Defense Fund, Drudge, Limbaugh, Hannity, Fox News. Who are the losers? School officials who were doing the right thing. Americans who wanted the truth. There's a term to describe a situation in which bad behavior is rewarded and good behavior is punished: anomie.

When people do the wrong thing and not only don't pay a price but are rewarded, it encourages them to engage in further wrongdoing.


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