With the recent flood of right-wing-talking-points-turned-“news”, from ACORN to birtherism to death panels to Shirley Sherrod to the Cordoba House, I am increasingly reminded of the George Saunders essay “The Braindead Megaphone.” You can read it in its entirety here, but I wanted to excerpt the section that talks directly about the Megaphone concept:
Imagine a party. The guests, from all walks of life, are not negligible. They’ve been around: they’ve lived, suffered, own businesses, have real areas of expertise. They’re talking about things that interest them, giving and taking subtle correction. Certain submerged concerns are coming to the surface and—surprise, pleasant surprise—being confirmed and seconded and assuaged by other people who’ve been feeling the same way.
Then a guy walks in with a megaphone. He’s not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate.
But he’s got that megaphone.
Say he starts talking about how much he loves early mornings in spring. What happens? Well, people turn to listen. It would be hard not to. It’s only polite. And soon, in their small groups, the guests may find themselves talking about early spring mornings. Or, more correctly, about the validity of Megaphone Guy’s ideas about early spring mornings. Some are agreeing with him, some disagreeing — but because he’s so loud, their conversations will begin to react to what he’s saying. As he changes topics, so do they…
His main characteristic is his dominance. He crowds the other voices out. His rhetoric becomes the central rhetoric because of its unavoidability.
Sound familiar? Because these wingnut ideas get aired out so widely, they suddenly become important talking points. News must be devoted to them! First talk radio, then Drudge, then 24-hour-news, then legitimate outfits covering “the controversy,” then a front-page story on the New York Times, then an apologetic op-ed from the ombudsman of the Washington Post for not taking the story seriously enough. Megaphone Guy is just too powerful, too impossible to resist. His dominant noise-making gives him importance, even if his comments are idiotic. We cannot help but debate them, trace their origins, refute them, and deal with the host of new responses.
The worst part is that refuting them sometimes makes the problem worse! Hearing the real facts doesn’t make people any more conducive to believing them; sometimes they get further entrenched in their own views. This dynamic of correcting mistakes only allows Megaphone Guy to use existing tensions to obscure real exploitation and injustice in our system.
I don’t know if there’s anything we can do to solve the problem of Megaphone Guy. So much of the left’s energy is expended in defending itself from untrue attacks or exposing right wing lies, but the lies continue unabated. Perhaps illustrative of this phenomenon, the current Newsweek cover features an image of the wreckage of Ground Zero with the words “War Over Ground Zero Mosque.” Sure, the two main articles actually rebut the Islamophobic intolerance of the mosque-banners, but the damage is already done. Megaphone Guy has done his job. Instead of talking about how to deal with inequality, or how to work with the Muslim world, or how to help those still affected by 9/11, we are talking about whether or not we support a house of worship.
Any ideas on how to solve the problem of Megaphone Guy?