MUST READ: Deconstructing hysteria: the witch hunt rumor cycle
by Charles McAlpin
On Sunday, May 19, Tim Graham of the Media Research Center(MRC) continued the conservative attacks on military civil libertarians by likening Sally Quinn of the Washington Post to King Herod. Graham’s article for the MRC-founded blog “Newsbusters” is one indicator that the publicity campaign against the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) may have reached the “everyone knows it’s true” phase. By turning the attack against a reporter sympathetic to sexual harassment victims in the military, Graham was able to propel forward themes that originated with the Family Research Council (FRC) without directly quoting the false statements from FRC itself.
The campaign of misinformation about the MRFF is following the now-familiar rumor cycle of that popular human bloodsport known as a witch hunt.
Whether metaphorical or literal, witch hunts begin during periods of sustained uncertainty.
- A false story arises, seeming to confirm the worst fears of a powerful segment of the population; the very identity and well-being of this segment is seemingly endangered by the actions of a despised minority.
- If the original false story captures the public imagination, wild rumors spread that both embellish the story and amplify the fears of the subject audience.
- Eventually, the original sources of misinformation are forgotten due to a self-perpetuating mill of new and ungrounded stories in which ‘everyone knows’ what the truth is, even if they can’t explain or remember how they know it.
- A crowd of angry and frightened people demands that the authorities take action.
At this point, ‘successful’ witch hunts follow one of two paths, based on the actions of the authorities.
- The authorities may do the bidding of the terrified, and sacrifice someone’s rights, freedom, or life.
- If not, the crowd may attempt to suspend the law and take matters into their own hands, lighting the torches and tying nooses.
Eventually, the sun comes up and shines light on the situation, and the fears that seemed so real in the darkness and uncertainty begin to seem silly. The hysteria fades away and memories become hazy. The accused, however, often remains the subject of unwarranted suspicion and vague superstition for a long time.
Witch hunt rumor cycle: The Wild Rumor Phase
The most recent hysteria surrounding civil liberties in the military began when the Family Research Council effectively used its media influence to distort the purpose of a meeting on April 24 between some U.S. military leaders and three military experts. Those experts were Larry Wilkerson, the former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell; decorated former U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson; and Republican Mikey Weinstein, a distinguished Air Force Academy graduate, a former ten-year Judge Advocate General for the Air Force, and a former legal counsel in the Reagan White House. Weinstein now heads the MRFF, which defends the religious freedom of military personnel of all faiths from abuse of authority by superior officers.
No one seems to have made a secret of the April 24 meeting or of any previous similar meetings to discuss sexual harassment, misogyny, Islamaphobia, homophobia, and the abuse of authority by officers to proselytize those of lesser rank. A description of the meeting was even published by Sally Quinn in the Washington Post. Although military policy did not change after the meeting, the meeting was nevertheless received as a signal that military policy now opposed the expression of Christian religion. Information about how the Family Research Council’s aggressively worked to distort the record are given in a previous article: Deconstructing hysteria: one degree of separation from FRC.
As bad as the original false statements were, the story quickly took a more ominous turn. In the wild-rumor-spreading phase of its witch-hunt news cycle, the FRC narrative was modified by third parties to involve even more divisive labeling and more specific but equally false accusations.
Articles and podcasts began to make matter-of-fact references to Communism, Muslim infiltration, executions for treason, the end times, demons, and hell. These references to the motives behind the April 24 meeting arose suddenly but consistently, as if writers were referring to factual information that was a matter of public record. The problem was that no one had gone on record making these even wilder accusations, and yet writers treated their validity as beyond questioning.
A headline in the Christian Post and other headlines on conservative blogs sometimes referred to Weinstein as an “Atheist Jew,” as if Weinstein’s Judaism and perceived atheism were somehow critical to understanding what a serious threat he was to the American way of life. (Weinstein does not describe himself as an atheist.) The Christian Post later modified the headline to remove the phrase, but it left the reference in the text.
The articles also included derision of the term ‘tolerance,’ the use of which by non-conservatives is seen by conservatives as both hypocritical and a slippery slope to lawlessness and chaos. Several articles referred to Weinstein as having been hired or appointed by the Obama administration to the role of “tolerance advisor” or “tolerance consultant,” even though he is at odds with military leadership, he has not been hired by the administration, and there is no such title in the military as “tolerance advisor” or “tolerance consultant.”
If there were no on-the-record sources for these recurring references and phrases, where did they come from?
One possible explanation is that they came from a radio or television broadcast listened to by many of the bloggers in question. While there may have been no single source for these especially disturbing themes, many of them were contained in the May 2 broadcast of an end-times radio show called Trunews, which featured host Rick Wiles and a man named Scott Quayle, a self-proclaimed prophet who is no known relation to former Vice President Dan Quayle. Among other claims, Quayle and Wiles asserted that the military had declared war on Christianity and that chaplains would soon be executed for talking about religion.
“The bottom line,” said Wiles of the unchanged military policy, “is that the Obamanistas have criminalized Christianity in the U.S. military…We now live in Communist America…”
“…The new anti-Christian policy is the evil fruit of Mikey Weinstein, the Atheist Jew who founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation…” said Riley, mispronouncing Weinstein’s name (WINE-steen is correct; WINE-stine is not). “…Barack Obama appointed him as the new ‘religious tolerance consultant’ to the Pentagon.”
Elswhere, Wiles says, “Mr. Weinstein demands that Christians in the military be treated as traitors. He knows that in the military, treason is punishable by death.”
“This is what religious tolerance looks like under the Obamanista Communist regime,” said Wiles. “Christians will be persecuted, ostracized, imprisoned, and even put to death.”
Similar language was used by dozens of articles and blog postings from lesser-known anti-immigrant organizations to the American Center for Law and Justice, closely associated with Liberty University. Comparing this language to a particular Christian Post article provides examples of the strange commonalities of language and content.
“Religious Freedom in the Military; This is What Intolerance Smells Like.” Reads the headline. The first paragraph reads (emphasis added):
“President Obama’s new “religious tolerance” consultant to the Pentagon, Mikey Weinstein, wants Christian military service members who openly talk about their faith in uniform to be charged with treason, which is a crime punishable by death according to military law.”
Nor is this an isolated or coincident similarity, given the following additional examples.
“Pentagon hires Jesus-hating atheist Jew as “religious tolerance” consultant” said the headline from “worldforjesus.org” (pdf download)
Over at the “Traditional Catholic Mom and Politics” blog, the following quote was found under the blog heading “Anti-God Communist Obama Declares War on Christianity.”
“This policy is by evil obama appointee godless atheist Jew Mikey Weinstein who founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation,” said the blog’s presumed namesake. “evil satanic obama appointed him as his new “Religious Tolerance Consultant to the Pentagon”.
At moonbattery.com, the article was entitled “Rabid anti-Christian Bigot Mikey Weinstein Called in by Pentagon to Repress Christianity”
“Under Commander in Chief Barack Hussein Obama, the US military has waged only one war that top brass has any intention of winning: the war to eradicate Christianity from its ranks. To advance this goal, it has acquired a new consultant to help it develop policies on “religious tolerance” — Mikey Weinstein”
Witch hunt rumor cycle: The ‘everyone knows’ phase
Enough stories have been broadcast and published on this story to cloud the issue for years. It no longer takes a reference to the original articles by Todd Starnes and Ken Klukowski to support these claims, because they are becoming something ‘everyone knows.’ Or at least everyone knows if they get their news without skepticism from the conservative media and blogosphere.
Witch hunt rumor cycle: the crowd demands that the authorities take action
This phase was reached when angry Republican Congressmen, along with two or three Democrats, announced they were sending not one, but two letters to Defense Secretary Hagel demanding all kinds of information about the April 24 meeting and any others that might have taken place with those who may be, in the opinion of conservatives, attempting to abridge the religious freedom of Christians.
It remains to be seen what happens next in this cycle. Not every witch hunt reaches enough of a frenzy to destroy lives and careers. Will politicians already embroiled in nonstop political crises be persuaded to destroy another organization? Some conservatives have hedged their bets, attempting to claim that they backed the U.S. Military down, reversing a change in policy that never actually happened in the first place.
A more troubling question is what it means that such bizarre and ideas were able to so quickly permeate the blogosphere. The rush to wild rumors was (once again) totally resistant to fact-based reasoning. How far, then, would the witch hunt go if given the chance?