Red Book Safe: Student Mortified, Right Wing Mollified

Well, the first official Savage Minds retraction: the story about the student visited by Homeland Security after requesting Mao’s Quotations via interlibrary loan was a hoax. The student began elaborating on the story to the professors mentioned before, and eventually tripped the profs’ BS meters. Dr. Williams visited the student’s home to question his parents, who figured strongly in the story, and discovered they knew nothing about any of it. Confronted with the growing implausibility of his story, the student finally broke down and admitted making the whole thing up — we still don’t know why.

The article makes a pretty good point about why this story moved from a local story to an international one, citing the “perfect storm” of revelations last week regarding government surveillance of citizen actions — the NSA wiretaps, the FBI watchlist of anti-war and other leftish groups, the Pentagon’s domestic monitoring — which made the student’s claim not only plausible but downright likely. With Horowitz’ campaingn against academics, and a general distrust of critical thinking made sharper since 9/11, professors have been waiting for something like this for a long time. Add to that the concern since the PATRIOT Act’s inception over library monitoring — a provision which the government has claimed it has never used but which is desperately needed — and you’ve got a great zeitgeist for just this kind of story, like the organ harvesting tales of South America or vampire rumours of Africa.

Expect to get this thrown in your face by right-wingers desperate to put a presentable face on the allegations of illegal surveillance that actually is going on in the US. Inasmuch as I played a part in the circulation of this story, I feel partially responsible — though I doubt my SM piece was really key to the international attention this story has received. Still, it’s not part of our plan to mislead readers, and if my story has caused any inconvenience or consternation or embarassment to anyone, I am deeply sorry.

“Correct mistakes if you have committed them and guard against them if you have not.” So sayeth Chairman Mao.

[Thanks to Boing Boing for the Mao quote, and Tom Tomorrow for the heads up on the hoax.]

13 thoughts on “Red Book Safe: Student Mortified, Right Wing Mollified

  1. Pingback: The Moderate Voice
  2. Just grabbing this chance to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Colossal Kwanza (insert the holiday of your choice) and a great, great New Year.

  3. The thing is that this is not simly an isolated hoax — it is one of many put forth by the Left over the last few years in an attempt to undermine conservatives and Republicans — especially in the Bsh administration.

    And every time the hoax is discovered we start hearing that while a particular story is false, the “climate” or “Zeitgeist” or whatever else is such that the story could have been true.

    But only if you are already so filled with hate as to be prepared to believe such stories anyway.

  4. While “Rymes with Right” is blind with a political mote in his eye, his point is essentually correct. Oneman and others who pressed this clearly questionable story did much to help the rightwing cabal move their pieces across the board.

  5. Merry Christmas to you too, Rhymes and Velcro. May I just popint out that, iff the story had been true and nobody commented on it, it would be just as troubling — and do just as much to “help the rightwing cabal”. I would love to live in Rhymes’ world, where such things are simply unthinkable, but then I’d like it to be unthinkable that US soldiers would put lightsticks in prisoner’s bottoms, too. There’s a long history of US domestic spying, and nobody can argue that academics haven’t been especially singled out for “doing the devil’s work” the last several years (and at various times over the last century or so) — so that these two great tastes might taste great together is not only thinkable but likely. Like everyone, I wish the story had been better researched, and like everyone, I’ll be a little less credulous the next time the source of such a story is so well-hidden — but I’m certainly not going to hide my head in the sand and pretend that academics simply have nothing to worry about!

  6. The Red Book story is yet another illustration of what happens to normal standards of scholarship when scholars blog. This was a story with unknown sources and serious logical problems that was embarrassed and passed along by scholars who should have used some research skills (or common sense) before accidentally becoming the story. This is as much a part of savagemind as is commenting on books and articles that one has never read.

  7. I was actually struck by the mobilisation of various academic bloggers (particularly library blogs, but also others) to investigate whether the story were a hoax. In this sense, the academic blogosphere did demonstrate its capacity to engage in a kind of peer-review, and to get to the bottom of implausible claims fairly quickly.

    On the flip side, I was also struck by the intense hostility directed toward skeptics on some academic websites. I felt from the beginning that the story had problems (and posted to this effect here and in other places), and was a bit startled at the willingness of posters at some sites to go to the wall for a story with somewhat dubious bona fides… Savage Minds, however, wasn’t one of those sites – this site linked almost immediately to a site debating the authenticity of the story, and also posted a retraction as soon as the hoax was confirmed.

    I’m not necessarily convinced that this story tells us profound things about academic blogging – among other things, this story had obviously circulated among the history deparment at UMass, and been accepted uncritically there, and was also accepted uncritically by the news reporter who originally broke the story.

    I have a particular research interest in why we’re prone to believe certain things, and adopt a critical attitude toward others, and this story is certainly interesting in that light – but I’m not sure, on balance, whether blogging helped or hurt the process of getting to the bottom of this particular tall tale.

  8. Velcro,

    I have a sneaking suspicion you’re trolling now, but in the off-chance you’re actually interested in some sort of constructive debate with *me* (Dustin, aka Oneman) and not “savagemind” (which if you’re at all familiar with the site you will have seen is composed of several people with very, *very* different perspectives, styles, and interests), I will point out that, as noted above, neither I nor anthropologists nor academics nor leftists nor any other category have been the only ones to pick up this story. Bloggers and new outlets from the far right to the far left and across the spectrum of focuses and specialities were fooled by this story, precisely because it seems so incredibly plausible. I personally know students who have been approached by federal agents in the US in the course of their research, and other academics who have had run-ins with CIA and other US agents abroad — this is part of the “package” some of us agree to when we choose topics that may arouse official interest. The story I reported on was important because it seemed to show the extension of this kind of surveillance to less advanced students, students who cannot be expected to understand the issues that might be raised by their educational activities. As I said, this is an important enough concern that it was worth risking the chance the story might have been misinterpreted or even a hoax. I did not hesitate to express my own concerns as more details became available, nor to offer a retraction when the story turned out to be a hoax (I think my retraction followed the original reporter’s retraction by less than 15 minutes). Despite the status of this particular story, however, my original piece on it raises what is still an imp[ortant question: what is the obligation of the professor vis-a-vis his/her students when leading them into topics that, at this particular time, may well expose them to the risk of surveillance? OK, so Mao’s work isn’t raising flags, and maybe there is no book watch list — but what if some enterprising student decided to do research in a mosque that turned out to be affiliated in some way with some group on the terrorist watch list? How should we, as professors, deal with such risks?

    On a different note, I wonder what exactly it is you (and others) expect from a scholarly blog? Obviously this is not a news outlet — I’m not sure whether there’s even an audience for an anthropologically-oriented news outlet, but if there is, I think, Anthropology in the News, and the Topix anthropology page pretty much have it covered. Nor is this an outlet for original research — there’s plenty of those among the academic press. I can’t speak for the other Savage Minders, but for me, there are two functions we can fulfill here: 1) to describe somewhat how anthropological knowledge is created/constructed, as for instance Kerim’s notes from his work in India, and 2) to extract issues of anthropological or academic interest from the regular news media and to comment upon them in that fairly limited scope. The Red Book story was news with an obvious academic importance — as was its debunking. But even more than that, it raises issues that are worth addressing, even if this particular story has been proven false. Likewise, the PBS series on Diamond’s GG&S was an event that merited anthropological attention, and despite whatever shortcomings you may find in the way Ozma treated the story, the comments here sparked intense and critical thinking about Diamond’s work — that seems like something pretty special to me. Savage Minds cannot and should not be the “last word” on any issue — what we can do, however, is raise questions and provide some context for their consideration, at least within the spheres of our particular interests and expertises. If there’s another role you think a scholarly blog should hold, I would be interested in hearing it — and I’d also note that there’s very little preventing you from taking on the project and contributing to the improvement of the handling of academic issues on the web as a whole.

  9. My point is simply that academic bloggers often leave their academic standards and skills behind when they sit down and blog.

    Had anyone involved in this story (including those on savageminds who spread and kept this lie alive) applied basic academic standards academic research to examining the claims made in this story, even the lower standards of journalism, this story wouldn’t have been spread around and damaged Bush’s critics.

  10. Well, hindsight is 20/20 — the story is not, as I think I’ve shown, on it’s face impossible or even unlikely. It deserved a pointer, and we should be talking about the issues it raises. As it turns out, I did research the profs named in the story, and they seem reputable — I did however trust the reporter’s judgement in his assessment of the unnamed source (which is hardly an unusual practice in journalism). The argument seems to be that the story was so unbelievable that anyone should have seen through it in an instant — I don’t buy that. There’s simply nothing about the story, as initially reported, to warrant not paying attention to how the story would unfold.

  11. we still don’t know why.

    hm. could it be that the student felt that this sort of story would attract positive attention and reaffirmation because of common shared political ideals? doesn’t seem too different from christian conservatives who claim that they have seen satanic child rituals, or preschoolers making up stories about child abuse.

  12. Actually there’s something to that — maybe not in this particular case (maybe he was, as others have suggested, jsut trying to cover for a poor or late assignment, or maybe he’sclinically delusional, or…) but there is an important dynamic between people who, for whatever reason, say things others are shocked by, and the others who feed their confessions. The kid’s revised story — which seemed to be spiraling out of control as he grasped for more and more outlandish details — reinforces this, as he struggles to maintain the camaraderie the (fictional, as it turns out) sense of shared persecution created between him and is professors. As with child abuse stories and satanism stories, his story played upon what are very real anxieties in our society, especially among academics who, as I mentioned, have been singled out as particularly dangerous to the well-being of society (e.g. in ACTA’s report on history education, “Defending Civilization”, or Horowitz’s “Network of Terrorism All-Stars”).

    However, in your (Razib’s) scenario, is it just because he is young that he failed to realize that whatever positive attention he generated was going to quickly turn to scorn when his whopper got too big to possibly be true? I very much doubt he could have foreseen the immensity of attention this story would bring, but shouldn’t he have been able to foresee that his claims would eventually be exposed even if the story had remained local? Or am I over-estimating the likelihood of exposure, here?

  13. 1) people aren’t ‘rational actors’
    2) they often don’t look far into the past
    3) the initial lie was less brazen, i doubt the individual anticipated having to embelish it
    4) i have seen people tell stories of persecution many a time, and upon further investigation i often find that said individual could not have experienced the discrimination or persecution they claimed to have experienced. it is a cheap & easy way to get sympathy
    5) i recall several years ago a ‘hate crime’ haox that occurred on kenyon college which actually emerged out of a mild prank which got out of control. students were terrified and there were rumors of townies and drunk frat boys on campus. the hysteria was on some level tapping in preconceptions people had at kenyon, and the consciousness raising is often pointed to as a silver lining of such hoaxes

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