by Pat Holt
Friday, November 2, 2001
ABOUT THOSE (NEW) URBAN LEGENDS
Now that we know it was safe to shop at the mall on Halloween (did you get the email about the American woman whose Afghanistan boyfriend disappeared on September 10 and BEGGED HER NOT TO GO TO THE MALL ON OCTOBER 31?), let's take a look at the nature of urban legends these days.
Urban legends are stories that people swear are true - usually initiated by an unnamed "friend of a friend" (FOAF) - but are impossible to pin down.
Perhaps you heard about the woman in California who bought a cuddly hairless chihuahua in Mexico, only to find out it was a big rat. In New York (and probably every city by now) people believe alligators are living in the sewers because years ago they (the alligators, I mean) were dumped down the toilet as babies.
A number of books have been written on urban legends, many of them by professor Jan Harold Brunvand ("The Vanishing Hitchhiker," "The Baby Train"). In his second book, "The Choking Doberman," the title story tells about a woman who found her Doberman gagging and coughing one morning and rushed out to take him to the veterinarian.
When she got home, the vet called to say he had just found two severed fingers in the dog's throat. The woman looked down and realized a trail a blood led to a closet, where she found A WOUNDED BURGLAR WITH TWO FINGERS MISSING. (This one's true! My cousin heard it from her husband's closest friend at work.)
We learn from Brunvand and African American professor Patricia Turner ("I Heard It Through the Grapevine") that urban legends often reflect the kind of fear or hatred we believe can't be discussed openly. Racism is a common theme: In the "Choking Doberman" story, for example, the severed fingers are often black.
Among African Americans, says Turner, a popular urban legend describes a fried chicken franchise that uses an ingredient to sterilize black men; another shared by both races is that Snapple is owned by the Ku Klux Klan.
The point to all of this is that not so long ago, urban legends took years to build up and spread around before they become a reflection of cultural fears, prejudices and hopes.
Today, however, thanks to personal computers and the Internet, urban legends fly around cyberspace with dizzying speed.
Already, for example, Osama bin Laden has replaced the Ku Klux Klan as owner of Snapple; garlic and oregano are now home remedies for anthrax poisoning, terrorists have used "embedded images in oil paintings" as code to launch a "massive germ attack on the U.S."; and American women who see terrorists should take off all their clothes because Taliban men are driven crazy by the sight of any unexposed part of the female body.
As one might imagine, all of the above are NOT true, thanks to Snopes2.com (see below). But how much do they differ, do you suppose, from items such as these:
Bert, the Sesame Street muppet, appears on posters carried by supporters of Osama bin Laden; a United Airlines pilot in a lengthy pre-flight announcement told passengers how to overpower any hijackers that might be on board; the CD cover for a hip-hop album, created long before 9/11, depicted explosions in the World Trade Center towers that look as though airplanes flew into the buildings; the governor of California governor believes "a credible threat" exists of terrorist action on the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge and others for the period 11/2-7/01.
Well, all of those are TRUE, according to Snopes2.com (see below) which is why the entire staff of Holt Uncensored is sitting here typing this column late on Friday instead of attending to business in Oakland as planned.
How to run down the truth of such folklore-in-the-making? Here are a few sites I've found helpful:
http://www.urbanlegends.com/ draws information from its extensive alt.folklore.urban newsgroup, many of whose "residents" are cultural anthropologists, though some "are reputed to have social skills that differ significantly from socially accepted norms" says the site in its not-so-funny irreverent tone. More of the urban legend arcana is found here - for example the possibility that pizza orders for the Pentagon "increase substantially prior to troop deployments," thus making Domino's in D.C. a legitimate news source, was reported by so many newspapers it might very well be true. On the other hand, while taxiing with flaps down does NOT mean your airplane is being hijacked, setting your transponder to "squawk 7500" does (see http://www.urbanlegends.com/misc/hijacking_codes.html).
http://www.nonprofit.net/hoax/ sees little difference between inaccurate rumors, urban legends and out-and-out hoaxes. Its job is to debunk, and it always seems to do so with a sigh: No, nobody sat on a needle in a movie theater and got HIV; no, Procter & Gamble is not run by the Church of Satan; no, the government is not going to tax modems or the Internet (it's not?) . . . http://www.snopes2.com/ - this is the quickest and most reliable way to check on urban legends, I've found. Using colored buttons to show whether a story is correct (green), incorrect (red), unknown as to origin (white) and unknown as to veracity (yellow), the site lists the usual categories, such as business, animals, pregnancy, history (did you know Mussolini did NOT make the trains run on time?), Christmas, radio/tv, love, etc.
The best part of Snopes2.com, though, is its "Rumors of War" page in which the most current urban legends are listed first. So if you hear that garlic and oregano are effective treatments against anthrax poisoning, you can check out Snopes periodically and see when it shows up (10/31).
Beyond the rumors you find in your email, however, Snopes2.com and others play a more crucial role than ever because the United States government's "Terrorist Threat Advisory Updates" are beginning to sound like urban legends themselves.
In warning the nation to go on "high alert," and in announcing that "references to violence" have been discovered in intercepted messages, everyone from the Attorney General to the head of the FBI uses urban legend terminology - the evidence is "credible" but "uncorroborated"; no one has yet "verified" the threats; the intelligence is "unanalyzed," and so forth.
What are citizens supposed to do with such warnings? The government appears unable to offer instructions for practical or personal use. Turning to the press for verification is no help - traditional media serve as channels to spread government warnings, not as investigators to hold these warnings up to scrutiny.
And while reading alternative news websites like Alternet.com, TomPaine.com, WorkingforChange.com and others may help fill in the gaps, sometimes the most salient clues are reported on urban legend websites like Snopes2.com.
I doubt President Bush will ever suggest that ironing or microwaving your mail will protect you from anthrax poisoning. But just in case he says something like, "I can't verify this information, but I'd feel less than responsible if I didn't bring this matter to the attention of the American public," click on over to Snopes.com. They'll know (in fact, they already know) before the New York Times does.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Since a couple of people have wondered aloud why we should be "upset and indignant" about the fact that a member of our armed services wrote "FAGS" on a bomb destined for Afghanistan, perhaps I might offer a personal perspective.
Seeing that word scrawled where no one would have written a racial or religious epithet reminded me that at a time when Americans are enjoined to stand united against the enemy, there will always be someone who will turn to me and say, "Not you."
I have heard it reported only in the gay press that Bush has issued a stop-loss order on discharges for homosexuality. Will the American people be outraged when, after gay and lesbian service members have shed blood for their country, they are summarily discharged when the fighting is over? Will the American people understand how it feels to be told that you are good enough to die for your country in an emergency, but you are not good enough to serve honorably in peacetime? Or will they continue to think that the feelings of a few "FAGS" don't matter?
Some of the terrorists were in this country on expired visas. I recently heard the story of a lesbian couple who have been together for several years. One of them is a foreign national here on a work visa. She recently lost her job when the dotcom bubble burst and is facing deportation if she can't find another within a very short time. How is it that terrorists can stay, while the lesbian spouse of an American citizen cannot? How is it that the feelings of these two women don't matter?
I won't do more than touch on the gay and lesbian spouses of people who died on September 11th, who will not share in social security or pension benefits, who may have no legal right to the custody of children they and their spouse were raising together. Who cares about their feelings?
When I see "FAGS" written on a bomb, I am reminded that America is fighting for freedom and for a way of life in which I still don't have an equal share. My family has lived here for almost four hundred years, and members of my family have fought in every war since the Revolution, yet when this present war is over,I will still have to return to the struggle for my civil rights, for a share in all the good things we fought for.
Catherine M. Wilson
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding the man at the airport who was detained for reading "Hayduke Lives!" by Edward Abbey: "Hayduke Lives" is probably on sale at airport bookstores everywhere!
Ruthanne Lum McCunn
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