How to assess a wingnut’s urban legend
Urban legends: They’re the lifeblood of right wing nuttery. Liberals crunch facts and figures, demonstrate inequalities and propose policy solutions rooted in core values such as believing that nations as wealthy as ours shouldn’t have the streets clogged with orphans begging for food. Conservatives talk about how they heard somewhere that someone did something they don’t approve of, such as make an irresponsible decision or get a benefit/salary that someone with that skin color/gender/family background somehow doesn’t deserve. These stories can be conversation stoppers, because they both have questionable veracity and they smuggle in a bunch of assumptions that liberals don’t agree with. So how do you handle it when presented with a wingnut urban legend?
Well, I have a three-pronged approach I’d like to share with you. These are offered not in the order they should be used—often you only need one of these approaches, or you need to bring in two or all three, but not in the same order. These are more questions you ask yourself to get you to place to argue this crap down.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour(R) said states should also be free, for instance, to compel Medicaid patients to pay for part of their medicine, saying, “We have people pull up at the pharmacy window in a BMW and say they can’t afford their co-payment.”
This has all the markings of a wingnut urban legend. The big red flag is what urban legend researchers call the FOAF, i.e. “friend of a friend” aspect.
In some social sciences, the phrase is used as a half-joking shorthand for the fact that much of the information on which people act comes from distant sources (as in “It happened to a friend of a friend of mine”) and cannot be confirmed. It is probably best known from urban legend studies, where it was popularized by Jan Harold Brunvand.
Barbour doesn’t actually mention the relationship he has with the person who told this story, but it’s implied that it’s pretty far removed. Barbour certainly isn’t an eyewitness to this event; he’s not working a pharmacy drive-through. He probably also doesn’t know the person who filled the prescription. At best, Barbour knows the guy who owns the pharmacy, which means that this story is 4 to 5 people away from the supposed event. One should be skeptical of stories that happened to friends of friends. Even if the person claims to be only two relationships removed from the person being discussed, it’s well-known in the urban legend world that every time a story is passed, the number of people it had to pass through to get to the person retelling it drops. So, I hear a story that supposedly happened to a friend of a friend of mine. When I retell it, it just happened to a friend of a friend, when actually, I was led to believe it happened to a friend of a friend of a friend. So you see the problem here.
Anyway, here’s the three-pronged approach when I hear a wingnut urban legend.
1) Is it even true? As noted previously, many stories get circulated as wingnut urban legends that literally cannot be true. If you’re in the pro-choice world, you run up against this a lot, with urban legends about abortion and birth control that are physically impossible or disproved. (My favorite is a story that circulates about a baby being born holding an IUD.) Much of the time, a cursory examination of “too good to be true” wingnut urban legends will demonstrate that they’re not true, which is why, believe it or not, my best weapon in arguing with conservative friends online is Snopes. In fact, Ronald Reagan’s story about “welfare queens” driving Cadillacs—which is the direct precursor to this story—has been demonstrated to be completely untrue. Did Reagan himself make it up? Maybe. But it’s also possible he heard it from a friend of a friend of a friend, and each telling—as it was in the hands of people who believe that there shouldn’t be welfare at all—was one where it got exaggerated and exaggerated. Maybe there was once a woman who had a bicycle and was on welfare, and it turned into a garage full of Cadillacs when Reagan heard it. Which leads me to the next point.
2) Are there details being left out? Say you want to give this story the benefit of the doubt. Maybe there’s a grain of truth. Maybe you can’t marshal sufficient proof that it’s a lie. Maybe it sounds plausible, which in this case, it does. It’s plausible that there are people who have BMWs and no source of income, especially with 10% unemployment. But are there details being left out? For instance, let’s say there is a pharmacy worker that saw this somewhere. Do we know how old the BMW is? Do we know how much the person paid for it? Do we know if they bought it when they thought they had a secure job, and then they lost that job a year ago and haven’t found one since? Is that BMW the only thing they own? Are they living in the BMW? If you’re working a paycheck-to-paycheck job that makes it impossible for you to save up three years worth of living expenses, buying a BMW might still be the most fiscally responsible thing you can do. Let’s start with the assumption that you need a car, which you do in Mississippi. Here is a 2001 BMW for $10,000. Here’s a 2004 BMW for $12,000. Both of those are cheaper than even the cheapest new car you can buy, and they’re BMWs, so it’s quite likely you’re getting more car for your money, and possibly saving yourself repair costs down the road, especially if they’re still under warranty. But needless, to say, the car payment for these falls well into what can be afforded by someone with a lower middle income. Now, imagine that person losing their job. They don’t have any income and can’t pay for their medication. Should they sell the car? They’re not going to get what they paid for it, and what they could buy off the profits probably breaks down a lot, incurring more costs. Could they go without a car? Maybe, but that means they can’t go to job interviews that would lead to them not having to be on Medicaid anymore.
This sort of shit happens all the time. It’s more likely than not this is what happened, if this even happened at all. What Barbour wants you to believe—that this is a rich person making payments on a brand new Beamer—is far less likely, since you have to be making below a certain amount to qualify for Medicaid.
3) Do the conclusions the conservative wants you to draw follow from this anecdotal evidence? Imagine, if you will, that a single bank concocts a scheme to make a bunch of money by signing off a series of really bad loans, and then using fancy accounting, paper-shuffling, and selling those loans to other people to keep from showing the emptiness of their investments on their books. Does the conservative in question believe this requires shutting down the banking system? What if pretty much every bank in the system did it? What then?
So why should it follow that Medicaid should be torn up and everyone on it forced to come up with money they don’t have because you heard that one person somewhere may have been cheating the system?
Let’s assume for a moment that this story is exactly what Barbour is selling it as—some guy somewhere makes enough money to pay for a BMW that’s brand new, but he frauded Medicaid to get his monthly supply of Viagra for free. Let’s assume the worst about a man we don’t know and have never met. Does it follow that because this one man cheats Medicaid that all the thousands of desperately poor people on Medicaid in Mississippi should be forced to pay for his fraud? Should, for instance, a single mother who feeds her three kids on food stamps because she can’t find a job die and leave her children orphans because she can’t afford the new requirement that she pay for her heart medication/insulin/whatever lifesaving drug you can think of? Should her children go into foster care and develop many of the emotional and psychological problems that often accompany being bounced from home to home, which makes them less likely to get an education and pull themselves out of poverty? Should the taxpayers take on the further burdens all this creates? Should all this happen because someone heard from someone who heard from someone that they saw someone through a window who may be cheating the system, but could also just be down on his luck?
These are the questions I ask myself when confronted with a wingnut urban legend, and I try to craft my response accordingly. Like I said, sometimes you can shut it down simply by disproving the story, or by complicating it with realistic possibilities they haven’t thought of. And sometimes it’s good to attack the conclusions. Or all three. Depends on the situation.