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Chain of fools: in chain emails, the right has found its natural medium.

Although the Internet is often heralded as a tool of the political left (cf. the Dean campaign,, at least one form of online politicking has come to enjoy far more favor on the right: the chain email. A prime example is this "soldier's letter to Kerry," which since February has been so widely forwarded that its author now receives several phone calls a day concerning it; other popular subjects of such emails include the left's insufficient spending on defense, its coddling of terrorists, its corrupting wealth and cosmopolitanism. The medium of the chain letter--from its beginnings a century ago as a proselytization tool to its continuing use, today, in circulating tales of kidney thieves and of flesh-eating diseases spread by Costa Rican bananas--has always succeeded by playing to certain weaknesses in its readership, chief among them paranoia and gullibility. In this way is the medium perfectly suited to the contemporary right.

Frequently these emails circulate above the name of a U.S. military veteran. Often these attributions are fictitious; this email is exceptional in that its listed author was easily located, and confirmed he had written the piece. Real or no, most of the veteran-authors are relatively unknown men--they are anonymous soldiers, selfless everymen, who emerge to remind us of self-evident truths: that liberals are wimps, are disloyal, are naive; that liberals loathe servicemen, defund the military; that a liberal commander in chief could not adequately defend America. These happen to be precisely the points that are most difficult for the right's current presidential and vice presidential candidates, both of whom avoided real service, to make themselves against a decorated war-hero opponent. These "soldier's letters" also help to advance the myth that veterans and the military are united behind the G.O.P., when in fact the demographic, which typically has favored Republicans, is in the latest polls equally split.

This is a startling phrase, the effectiveness of which is little diminished by the fact that John Kerry never said it. It was, in fact, spoken by Republican John McCain during a 1994 Senate debate. Like other chain emails, this missive is a long string of fictions and half-fictions, with a few accepted facts that serve to head off suspicion. (Sociological studies of urban legends have found that purely fictional or purely true stories tend to succeed far less often than hybrids of the two.) When the letter claims that Kerry "repeatedly voted against funds to supply our troops with the best equipment,!' it is no doubt referring to a 1991 Senate vote against an omnibus bill so bloated that many of its appropriations were opposed by the then-defense secretary, Dick Cheney. But few readers of this email will ever discover that fact: rarely are corrections or clarifications forwarded afterward.

The letter affects the polite, earnest tone of a man who has never before in his life held a political opinion. "I simply wanted to know if you possess the necessary qualifications to be trusted in that respect." "You see." "I found myself." Michael Connelly, Esq., in fact is a lifelong Republican who has volunteered on at least eight political campaigns and written several other partisan tracts. But he pretends to begin his investigation of Kerry from an agnostic, even hopeful position, and so his letter reads like a journey into disillusionment, meriting a final outburst: "Not just no, but Hell No!" Chain emails often deploy a little salty talk, to demonstrate that the writer, normally the forbearing sort, has finally and justifiably lost his patience with the childish left; that this time, there is nothing the P.C. liberals can do to hold him back the same reasoning, perhaps, that led Dick Cheney recently to tell a Democrat on the Senate floor to "go luck yourself."

To write this letter, Connelly told me, he did "quite a lot of research, adding that his research began at the website of Vietnam Veterans Against John Kerry--a stew of misinformation, including this particular canard. (Kerry's Silver Star was awarded for his command of a six-man swiftboat in a dangerous raid, of which his own pursuit of a fleeing enemy soldier was--for better or for worse--merely the final act.) Typically the "facts" in these chain emails have been cribbed directly off right-wing websites, after which the emails themselves are posted to even more websites. Soon, lo and behold, a lie is so widespread that it can, with plausible deniability, be disseminated by a more established source. For example, a chain letter about Kerry's supposed Senate votes on military spending was recently repackaged as a "Research Briefing" for the website of the Republican Party. Thus are voices in the wilderness ventriloquized by the G.O.P. machine.

Like talk radio, chain email creates an illusory world in which the people, finally given their say, speak in unison for the right. At their ends, the emails often retain a hint of their evangelical roots, exhorting readers to guard against leftist false friends, against redistributionist devils in disguise. Asked why he wrote this, Connelly replied, "Well, the national media, the New York Times and the Washington Post and NBC News, were never going to report the inconsistencies about his story." Polls show that Republicans, stoked by superstitions of "liberal bias," are abandoning newspapers and network TV; more so than Democrats, they have begun to put their trust in partisan fare like this. In truth, precisely to ward off unfounded suspicions like Connelly's, all three outlets he mentions have devoted far too much time and space to the nonstories mentioned in this email. A paranoiac might conclude this to have been the G.O.P.'s strategy all along.
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Title Annotation:Annotation
Author:Lackman, Jon
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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