No schedule could be imposed on church services in our spirit-filled Assembly of God tabernacle. Sermons and singing and spontaneous prayers and prophesies continued as long as God, through Pastor Gall, willed. It was a space beyond the reach of time, lunch, and football. We were prisoners of the Spirit.
Wooden pews smelled of lacquer and resin, an odor that still lingers in my memory. Mom always had gum or mints, something to keep us going through the interminable sermons and stave off the scourge of hungry-breath. Filling those hard pews week after week meant keeping this East Texas crowd engaged. And keeping us engaged meant telling stories. Truth existed on a plane beyond the reach of mere facts. Some of Pastor Gall’s best stories were howlingly false, but no one ever checked or cared.
A detail from one of these sermons stands out in memory. Pastor Gall shared news that our corrupt media had failed to report. In faraway Brussels, capital of the dreaded European Common Market, scientists had built a computer which would be key to the Antichrist’s reign. This computer would read barcodes tattooed on every human being. We would all be catalogued, our loyalty to the Antichrist made a condition of legitimate commerce. And what were the first three numbers, the standardized prefix of that code that would soon be stamped on every human being?
Wait for it…
Every barcode number would begin with the prefix, 666.
Even as a child soaking up the show, that claim made me start for a moment. Beyond the titillating horror of the thing loomed a logistical challenge even a 5th grader could appreciate. We had only just gotten barcode scanners down at the fancy Safeway and they didn’t work very well. If there was a massive computer whirring away under gray Belgian skies prepared to mediate all global economic activity, who could keep that a secret? And if it was a secret, how did Pastor Gall know about it? Where was he getting this information?
Fake news isn’t new. No one questioned Pastor Gall’s bizarre assertion that day, or any of his other claims in other sermons. Years later when that assertion, like all his others about the looming apocalypse had proven patently false, I never asked him for an explanation. None was necessary. That’s not how this works.
There is a stark difference between objective, verifiable facts and common-sense “truth.” Facts are established through a process. That process is often complex, requiring specialized knowledge and equipment. Truth, as the currency of pastors and grandmothers and bar-stool prognosticators, rises from common sense. It is folklore, accessible to anyone, attainable by anyone, readily understood and appreciated.
It is a fact that human activity has triggered a greenhouse effect that is heating our planet. Very few human beings possess the training and specialized knowledge required to understand why this is happening and judge the veracity of that factual claim by review of the source data. Being college-educated, or a geologist, or a brain surgeon or rocket scientist does not prepare one to evaluate climate research. The rest of us are left to make a judgements based on the credentials and arguments of credible professionals who have evaluated the data.
Meanwhile, anyone can grasp the claim that climate change is a hoax ginned up by the Chinese to hobble the American economy. Even our incoming President is smart enough to grasp that “truth.” No lengthy experiments or computer programs are necessary to detect the hoax. There is no math required. It is folklore. All one needs to grasp and evaluate folklore is a mind shaped by millions of years of evolution.
Facts are elite. Folklore is available to everyone; free, independent of so-called experts, and easy to grasp. Fake news is a rebellion of “common sense.” It is an effort to restore the power of folklore, and by extension, the power of ordinary people over their lives.
The best fake news includes a tinge of truth. Perhaps not facts, but something Stephen Colbert once described as “truthiness.” Pastor Gall’s claim about shadowy Belgians rose from our efforts to grasp real events around us. Absolutely no one in our community understood how the new barcode scanners at the grocery store functioned. And we never would. Little stickers with prices written on them make immediate sense. Bar codes and lasers and computers make no intuitive sense whatsoever. They do not fit into folklore.
In a sense my pastor was relating a truth while speaking a falsehood. The folklore truth in this case was that our everyday lives, down to the smallest details of a visit to the grocery store, were being transformed by technological advances with implications we could not see or evaluate. There were bound to be winners and losers in this process and we lacked a strong sense of where we might fall in that great sorting. No one would have understood or expressed their concerns in such clear terms, but our pastor encapsulated them successfully in a narrative. That narrative was eerily real.
No one at the time had ever heard of a credit score. None of us had used a computer. No one I knew owned a credit card. Credit was premised on relationships, and those relationships were cemented by our character and our standing in the community. This new technology would introduce a novel new standard of commerce, mediated by faceless powers every bit as foreign to us as a Belgian bureaucrat.
Jesus wasn’t coming back and our stories about the Antichrist never quite panned out. Those stories were not factual, but they were in a sense true. Our world was experiencing an apocalypse. Whoever failed to get on board with this emerging new reality would fail in spectacular fashion. Leaving behind our folkloric faith with its demons and angels and spiritual healing and speaking in tongues would in fact be a condition for successful commerce in this new world. No one would prosper without taking The Mark.
Science and technology were conquering faith to an extent never before experienced. Only by gaining specialized knowledge, available exclusively through an advanced education, could anyone hope to participate gainfully in the economic system being born around us. And that advanced education would expose impressionable youngsters to The Beast: doubt, questioning, and fact-based investigation. A mental shift away from folklore toward measurable reality was a precondition for success in the New World Order. The Antichrist was moving among us.
Folklore may be comforting and enjoyable. It may offer a buffer against the advance of elite interests into ordinary people’s lives. But when it conflicts with measurable reality it fails. The only way to make it work is to use mass opinion to stifle the exploration and spread of facts. As the people of Tennessee discovered in the Scopes Monkey Trial, facts are remarkably persistent even against overwhelming public hostility.
Though grifters find ample opportunity in fake news, dismissing the genre as mere deception is an error. There is a philosophy of fake news, a populist ethic of folklore versus facts. That ethic doesn’t legitimize fake news, but it provides an explanation for its reach and its persistent appeal, even in the face of consistent failure. Fake news is never defeated by fact-checkers. You overcome the power of fake news by delivering a better story.
No one tore the barcode scanners out of our local grocery store, and strangely, no one ever pointed out the oddity of our compliance with that technology. We were won over. Suddenly we had accurate receipts and faster check-out. Those bar scanners delivered results. Eventually they were written out of common folklore of the Apocalypse.
We do not innately understand or relate to facts. We understand stories. Tell a better, more appealing story about issues that matter to ordinary people. That’s how you beat fake news. Don’t hate the player…