From time to time I see a story on the news or in social media that seems so startling and off-the-wall that I ask myself, “Did that really happen?” And, more often than you might expect, I take a closer look and find that the answer is that it didn’t.
Such was the case with an eye-catching headline one of my relatives shared recently on Facebook: “Kansas Speaker O’Neal asks House GOP to pray for Obama’s death.”
My relative, a highly intelligent, well-educated and thoughtful person, dutifully responded with the shock the headline seemed to call for, commenting, “Among other things, this is treason. Kansans, please vote this man out of office.”
We ought to be careful when we toss around the word “treason.” In America, this means levying war against the United States or giving aid and comfort to its enemies. It does not include wishing, even very publicly, for the death of a leader. Treasonous or not, however, praying for a president’s death is so reprehensible that I found it hard to believe any elected official actually said such a thing.
It turns out the story and headline referred to an email that Kansas House Speaker Mike O'Neal had forwarded (he apparently did not write it) to legislative colleagues. The email purported to offer “a Biblical prayer for our president.” It then cited verse eight of Psalm 109: “Let his days be few; may another take his office.” Alone, the verse could be a benign wish for a change in leadership. However, the next verse, not included in O’Neal’s email, leaves no ambiguity. It says, “May his children be orphans and his wife a widow.”
The use of Psalm 109:8 as an anti-Obama slogan appears to have started in 2009, when Twitter user Cheri Douglas reportedly found it on a website while searching for Bible passages relating to leadership. The pithy “Pray for Obama - Psalm 109:8” was quickly adapted for bumper stickers and other merchandise. Douglas told the Christian Science Monitor that when she posted her tweet she was not aware of the more ominous turn taken by the following verse.
O’Neal similarly claimed he had no idea the verse’s numbered days might refer to days of life, rather than simply days in office. “I respect the President and the Office,” he said in a statement. “The forward contained a single verse and was only intended as election commentary regarding the President's days in office. I have apologized and I am sincerely sorry.”
His apology, however, has not prevented people from calling for his resignation. Soon after his email became public, there were 40,000 signatures on a petition seeking O’Neal’s departure. Meanwhile, liberal organizations and the president’s supporters did their best to disseminate the news in its most provocative, if not its most accurate, form. The organization ThinkProgress, for example, headlined the story “Kansas GOP House Speaker ‘Prays’ That Obama’s ‘Children Be Fatherless And His Wife A Widow.’”
In my view, the most likely scenario is that O’Neal simply failed to think about what he was sending before he clicked the forward button. It was stupid, but it was not an expression of the ghastly sentiment of which he was accused. After all, if O’Neal really wanted to urge people to pray for the president’s death, why would he apologize after his message became public?
My “he’s-only-stupid” theory also draws support from the fact that O’Neal already drew negative attention when he was forced to apologize after forwarding a different email, in which he says he failed to notice a reference to Michelle Obama as “Mrs. YoMama.” But “Stupid Lawmaker Witlessly Forwards Email” is a far less compelling headline for those who want to portray the president’s political opponents as not merely misguided or dumb, but as personally evil.
My relative and O’Neal may fall at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they were victims of the same forces. As “rallying the base” has become an increasingly valued political skill, both sides have scaled up their messages to make them as emotionally freighted as possible. Then they induce people like my relative and O’Neal to spread the word without looking at it too closely.
Political schemers count on supporters to learn just enough to get excited but not so much that they start uncovering any less useful facts. Sometimes this simply generates poorly informed email forwards and Facebook posts. In other cases, it generates entire poorly informed movements. This occurs on both ends of the political spectrum. For Exhibit A, see the vapid slogans of Occupy Wall Street; for Exhibit B, see the birthers, who continue, despite all evidence to the contrary, to insist that President Obama was born somewhere other than the United States.
This process can be neatly characterized through Richard Dawkins’ meme theory. By producing catchy, if flimsily supported, ideas - often those that appeal to people’s deep-seated prejudices - political strategists enhance the chances that their messages will be passed from person to person. People who pass on the messages simplify them even further, removing any clunky nuances that might not fit in a headline or a 140-character tweet. Whether any truth remains at the end of this process is beside the point.
Politicians will continue to try to manipulate us, but we can at least make it more difficult for them. We just need to do more of our own thinking before we hit the send button.