Did you hear about the guy who was driving his Winnebago, set the cruise control after getting on the freeway, then calmly left the driver's seat to fix himself a cup of coffee? The RV crashed, so he sued Winnebago for not informing him in the owner's manual that he wasn't supposed to do this. He won $1.7 million and a new Winnebago.
Outrageous, isn't it? Argues for tort reform, right?
Not really. You see, it isn't true. Not the story, not the lawsuit, not the award.
Yet, even though it seems that those who might see such a thing in their inboxes might be a tad skeptical of its truthfulness (psst - some emails contain misleading information!), the story is swallowed whole by a certain class of people who might be said to be, um, gullible when it comes to the right-wing's talking points and their accompanying agenda. That's right: They are not aware that some things that their talk show hosts, politicians and various apologists say AREN'T TRUE!
The Winnebago story is just one example. It's circulated every so often as part of the "Stella" awards, named after the woman who sued McDonald's after burning herself with a McDonald's coffee. These urban legends are meant to justify the urgency for tort reform, because you know, everyone's getting rich by suing each other for no reason and the danged Democrat lawyers are getting all those legal fees!
By the way, the vilified Stella Liebeck, for whom the Stella awards were named, suffered third-degree burns over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, buttocks, and genital and groin areas; her lawyers proved McDonald's had ignored other, sometimes serious complaints of blistering coffee, and it refused to settle with her before she sued.
But facts don't matter to those who want to believe what they want to believe. Walter Williams famously wrote a column about the outrageousness of the Winnebago story (he wrote this five years ago, people); the next week he half-heartedly apologized for lack of "due diligence to fact-checking." But Williams used the "sounds-like-it-could-be-true" defense, what with all the outrageous lawsuits there are going around. He then cited four examples, including that of Stella Liebeck, and in at least another one of those cases, the jury award was thrown out on appeal. Another was decided on the basis of percentage of fault, and the victim was found to be partially at fault. Kind of sounds like the system works, doesn't it?
But that's not the only urban legend that clogs the brains of the dittoheads. Some examples:
1. "Ronald Reagan cut taxes." Well, yes. But a year after his huge tax cut that mostly helped the wealthy and ballooned deficits, Reagan signed a huge tax increase that hit the middle class. He also hiked gasoline taxes. And, by the way, even after the current tax cuts for the wealthy expire, taxes on the richest will still be less than they were under Reagan.
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2. "Obama's spending makes Bush look like a piker." Really? Obama's budget projections look so alarming because of the retirement of baby boomers and the growth in entitlement programs. Oh, and he doesn't lie about how much things cost the way George W. Bush did - i.e., taking the cost of an optional war and placing it off budget.
3. "Global warming is a fraud." Well, it's cold outside now, you know?
4. "Evolution is a religion." Have you heard that one? It's funny because some of these same people believe deeply in their religions, but think it's an insult to call evolution a religion.
5. "Death panels."
These beliefs just scratch the surface. "Obama is a secret Muslim and was born in Kenya." "Welfare queens are stealing our tax money!" "Liberals control the media." "Saddam Hussein was linked to 9-11." For a while now, Rush Limbaugh has been saying that Obama wants destroy the capitalistic system and replace it with socialism. This is the same guy who has Goldman Sachs rescuer Tim Geithner as his Treasury Secretary.
In his book "The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right," David Neiwert argues that it is no accident that lies are believed by the extreme right wing. In fact, for them it doesn't really matter whether an assertion is true; any belief, whether it is based on fact or not, is legitimized as long as the left is demonized by it. That is because the goal, for many of the extremists, is to eliminate the left as political opponents. Neiwert says that in America, this impulse to exterminate the opposition is almost uniquely confined to the right.
Thus, lies become part of the narrative of the authoritarian thinker. One would think that those in the Republican Party would discourage lying by their talk-show and Fox News brethren. When their assertions are repeatedly exposed as false, one tends to disbelieve everything they say. That means that even good arguments and true assertions may be dismissed by casual listeners - not a good way to build a political base. Are you listening, Republican leaders?
In response to this habit of indiscriminately believing and spreading falsehoods, as long as they are aimed at liberals, I would propose the "Winnebago Awards" to catalogue the ridiculous distortions, frauds and whoppers perpetrated by the extreme right. Trouble is, someone would take that list of falsehoods, copy it into an email, and distribute them as truth. It's hard to counter those who just don't care about the truth.