Saturday, April 19, 2014

Two Stories That Weren't. Sort of.

Two stories that caught my attention this week turned out to be wrong. Sort of. Both involve confirmation bias of a sort, but I’d argue that I wasn’t a complete idiot to have been deceived.

The first story came out of the Ukrainian city of Donetsk. USA Today reported that Jews in that city of nearly a million residents (and another million in the metropolitan area) had received a leaflet demanding that they “register” with local authorities. Here’s the center of Oren Dorrell’s article:
Jews emerging from a synagogue say they were handed leaflets that ordered the city's Jews to provide a list of property they own and pay a registration fee “or else have their citizenship revoked, face deportation and see their assets confiscated,” reported Ynet News, Israel's largest news website, and Ukraine's Donbass news agency….

The leaflet begins “Dear Ukraine citizens of Jewish nationality” and states that all people of Jewish descent over 16 years old must report to the Commissioner for Nationalities in the Donetsk Regional Administration building and “register.”
It says the reason is because the leaders of the Jewish community of Ukraine supported Bendery Junta, a reference to Stepan Bandera, the leader of the Ukrainian nationalist movement that fought for Ukrainian independence at the end of World War II, “and oppose the pro-Slavic People's Republic of Donetsk,” a name adopted by the militant leadership.

The leaflet then described which documents Jews should provide: “ID and passport are required to register your Jewish religion, religious documents of family members, as well as documents establishing the rights to all real estate property that belongs to you, including vehicles.”

Consequences for non-compliance will result in citizenship being revoked “and you will be forced outside the country with a confiscation of property,” it said. A registration fee of $50 would be required, it said.
The article quotes US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt as calling the leaflets “the real deal,” and Secretary of State John Kerry’s response certainly sounded as if he took the situation seriously. Kerry called the threats “beyond unacceptable” and “grotesque.”

There was a denial on the part of the leader of Donetsk’s pro-Russian movement, Denis Pushilin: he acknowledged the leaflets were published under the name of the organization he heads, but denied any knowledge of their publication or distribution. Still, the situation in Ukraine is anything but stable, and the leaflets aren’t really a whole lot more outrageous than what the Russian government under Vladimir Putin routinely does to gays. Why should it be difficult to believe that a reasonably good-sized splinter group might adopt a different and time-honored bogeyman?

But, for all the seemingly careful sourcing of the article, the situation doesn’t seem to be as dire as we believed. Oh, the leaflets are real enough. But the folks at PolitiFact, who do good research even if their conclusions are often wackadoodly, smelled something fishy. According to their report,
Reporters on the ground quickly found that no one was actually being registered.
PolitiFact exchanged emails with Ari Shapiro, an NPR international correspondent reporting from Donetsk, who said there is a real flier, but it went ignored until the media caught on. Shapiro himself went after the story and shared his reporting with us….
Donetsk chief rabbi Pinchas Vishedski acknowledged the flier’s existence, but called it a provocation, Shapiro reported. U.S. media outlets like Vox and the New Republic have also questioned its validity. A New York Times report from Donetsk said that militants never intended to set up a registry, and the room designated for registering Jews sat empty Thursday.
Even Julia Ioffe’s New Republic article, however, while attributing the story to the “Ukrainian rumor mill,” nonetheless points out the anti-Semitic tendencies by at least some on both sides of the turmoil in eastern Ukraine. She quotes independent Russian journalist Vladimir Fedorin as saying “I think the fliers are fake, but the anti-Maidan crowd is a collection of the hardcore ‘alternative’ variety and criminals, so it’s possible some of them are capable of this.” Indeed, the consensus seems to be that the pamphlets and the masked men who distributed them were, in the words of Abraham H. Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, part of “a series of cynical and politically manipulative uses and accusations of anti-Semitism in Ukraine over the past year.”

In other words, everything about the story is real except the story itself. Anti-semitism exists in a sufficiently significant way—quantitatively and qualitatively—in Ukraine that this kind of stunt could gain traction. And the distribution of the fliers actually happened, and was more than a little creepy. But the people on the ground, foremost among them the overwhelming majority of Donetsk’s Jews, seem pretty much unfazed by the whole affair.

Were Curmie of cynical disposition, he might wonder about the competence of American intelligence forces and/or Secretary Kerry that a little problem was treated like a big one. The press didn’t help, of course, but there’s a difference between a few cranks trying to embarrass the other guy and Holocaust 2.0. It would be nice if the people responsible for knowing the difference actually… you know… knew the difference.

The other story that “got” Curmie this week was a satire piece that seemed credible because yes, those people are that stupid. They just didn’t manifest it in quite this way. Yes, it is true that Texas governor-in-waiting Greg Abbott, whose mental abilities rank somewhere above Louie Gohmert’s and somewhere below those of a butternut squash, does indeed base part of his education policy on the ideas of the even more appallingly moronic Charles Murray.

That would be the Charles Murray who is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “white nationalist,” who argues that it benefits women to be paid less than men, and who said this week that he had found no “evidence” to prove that any woman had been a “significant original thinker in any of the world’s great philosophical traditions.” One would have thought that as a self-described libertarian, he might have found a little room in his pantheon for Ayn Rand, at least, if not for Simone de Beauvoir, Hélène Cixous, George Eliot, Emma Goldman, Hildegarde von Bingen, Julia Kristeva, Susanne Langer, Rosa Luxemburg, Iris Murdoch, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, or Simone Weil… to name but a few.

But even Murray and Abbott aren’t quite as dim-witted as an article on the satire site Newslo reported. Curmie confesses he skimmed instead of read the article and therefore missed the first “tell”—the line so preposterous that not even a moron could say it with a straight face. Generally, there are at least two per story, so you know something is up with the story when you get to the second one. Missing the first, though, messes up the interpretative process. In this case, that first “tell” was:
“It’s not that I have anything against women. They’re nice enough, but it’s just a physical fact that their brains have developed [notice our tendency to insert “not” into that phrase] to the same degree that men’s brains have developed.

“I’m not a doctor,” he added, “but it may have something to do with their need to develop breasts. The human body can’t do everything.”
And I missed the Newslo banner. Result: I trimmed a couple more IQ points off both Murray and Abbott than they deserved, and trust me, they don’t have a lot to spare. This one is on me, however. I could argue—with reason—that confirmation bias is actually healthy: that treating what some people say with skepticism if not disdain is the only way to survive. Fool me once, blah blah blah. There’s a point at which that’s true, but really, I screwed up. The satire site played by the rules, and I just missed it.

These two stories tell us something about natural skepticism. I actually distrusted the legitimate news story (“legitimate” in the sense of reporting actual facts, however distorted the view might have been) more than the parody piece. I desperately didn’t want to believe it, for one thing, so although I did post a link to the USA Today story on the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page, I did so with a voice in the back of my head suggesting that there’s more to the story than meets the eye. But I guess the leap from suggesting that there have been no female “significant original thinkers” to asserting that women’s brains are smaller (a well-played homage to the once-prevalent argument concerning racial differences in cranial capacity) just didn’t click as significant. Whether that’s because I’m getting too smug or because yahoos like Abbott and Murray make satire redundant is a tough call.

I’ll try to do better. They won’t.

No comments: