When The High Road Isn't; Or, Yet Another Reason Why Zealots Makes Me Queasy

I'm moderate in my politics --- or centrist or whatever the term is for people who tend to take a balanced view of politics, government, the "process," and so forth. 

It's my view that in a democracy, compromise greases the wheels, which means that most of the time, every "side" gets a little bit of what it wants. (And, heh, it takes forever to get anything done. But hey! You stuff to happen fast? Go live in a dicatorship.)

Which is why I'm skeptical of zealots on both ends of the political spectrum. I'm dead certain people like Glenn Beck twist the facts at every opportunity and are consistently careless with words, not just in choice but in use. 

That carelessness, I assume, is intentional. "Spin" a situation ever so slightly with just the right word and just a little twist of the facts, and voila! You've revved up your followers and convinced them yet again that the "other side" is evil.

But the "right" doesn't have a lockhold on fact-twisting and intentional carelessness. The "left" can be just as manipulative. 

Consider this example. Below is tweet posted a week or so ago by a woman I'll call Madam Food Warrior. She's a Very Big Shot in the "real-and-pure" food movement. A Very Big Shot. She's holds a prestigious position. She's written several books on "food politics." When she speaks, people interested in the food movement listen. 

She's responding to news of a USDA decision to allow unregulated use of genetically modified alfalfa. (That specific context is irrelevant to my point.)

Uh oh. FSN says White House forced USDA to OK GM alfalfa so it would look business friendly. http://tinyurl.com/4h66dao 

Wow. Sounds bad, eh? The White House forced Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack to issue a decision and apparently did so to appease Big Business (which is enemy number one to people in the "real-and-pure" food movement.)  

So I clicked on the link to learn more about this pressure-from-the-top. The link led to an article at Food Safety News that contained more details about the decision about "deregulating" GE alfalfa. 

The report also contained a sentence to which Madam Food Warrior was obviously responding. Here it is:

Sources familiar with the negotiations at USDA, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Food Safety News they believe the White House asked Vilsack to drop proposed regulations so the administration would appear more friendly to big business.

My reaction?: Uh, what? 

I re-read the original tweet. As you can see, it asserts that the WH "forced" USDA to make a decision. 

Now look again at the quotation from the news report itself. According to that sentence, anonymous sources "familiar" with the negotions said that they BELIEVE the White House "asked" Vilsack to issue a particular ruling.

Did I just fall into a parallel universe?

A report from "anonymous sources" "familiar" with the situation who said they "believed" X happened is a loooooooog way from offering evidence that would have enabled Madam Food Crusader to ASSERT that the White House FORCED the USDA to act in a particular way. 

Sources "familiar" could mean janitors cleaning the hallway who overheard part of a conversation. It could mean lower level flunkies who heard something from someone who heard something from someone who heard something from someone who was there. 

The fact that these sources "believe" X happened doesn't mean they KNOW X happened. I can "believe" that Glenn Beck means well, but it doesn't follow that I know for a fact that he means well.

So what's point? 

This: Madam Food Crusader has almost 48,000 followers on Twitter. It's safe to assume that at least half are spammers, marketers, and the like who aren't interested in what she has to say.  (I took a quick look at her followers list. It's full of the usual scammers, spammers, marketers, etc. She obviously doesn't cull her list. I do cull spammers from my list and that amounts to half the people who follow me.) 

So let's say she's got 24,000 legitimate followers. Suppose all of them read that tweet. And suppose, oh, a quarter of them -- six thousand -- retweeted the tweet.

See where I'm going? Her careless (and presumably intentional) use of words created a false impression of a government decision, and thanks to the power of Twitter, that false impression then twisted and spun its way around the web.

If she were any old person, it might not matter. But she's not just any old person. She's a major figure in this movement. When she speaks, people listen. So when she speaks, she oughta be more careful about how she uses language to convey information. And so should the rest of us.

Moreover, the "food" movement portrays itself as traveling the moral high road. A large part of its thrust is that its adherents care about the planet, about poor people, about human health, and so forth, and care more than the nasty farmers and corporations who are only into food for the money. Their embrace of the moral high ground is a crucial part of their message.

But when I read stuff like this, I wonder if they've fallen off the road and into a gutter.

I know, I know: zealots are zealots because they care less about "facts" than they do about their cause. I get that. I know that. 

But in the age of the world wide web, information travels faster than ever, reaches more people faster, and, in the face of an onslaught of information, many people latch on to the easy, already-packaged conclusion. Because, ya know, it's easier to do that than it is to check out the situation for yourself.

But because it is so easy; because zealots on both sides are so ready and willing to manipulate their followers, well, I think I'll just stick with the center. Because I'm not sure that anyone at the spectrum poles can be trusted.