Lies keep going, even after the truth catches up

Almost 10 years ago, I wrote a column about malicious lies about Congress and presidents being spread on the Internet.

Tonight, I came across one of the very lies I wrote about still being spread on Facebook, albeit in a slightly different form.

That decade-old column began:

Mark Twain said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” And that was before the Internet.

Apparently, even after the truth has put on its shoes and caught up with the lie, the lie still wins the race.

Look, I am no defender of Congress, especially this particular Congress. But nothing is served by criticizing anyone or anything with lies. There is enough real crap to indict Congress on (especially the current one) without dragging up discredited material from more than a decade ago.

I’m running my column after the jump. Compare the middle section to the link above to see exactly what I’m talking about.

Publication: THE CHARLESTON GAZETTE
Published: Friday, May 09, 2003
Page: P4A
Byline: Dan Radmacher

Mark Twain said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” And that was before the Internet.

Lies permeate the Internet. Some are malicious, like the e-mail purporting to be a virus warning that has you search for a particular file and delete it. The file is not a virus, though luckily it is also not an important file, unless you are a programmer working with a particular programming language.

Some are relatively harmless urban legends, like the e-mail that says you can earn money by forwarding the e-mail to everyone you know so Microsoft or AOL can test their new e-mail system.

I don’t know what motivates whoever originates these things. But there is a particular class of Internet lie that especially intrigues me.

One alleges that members of Congress are guaranteed their salary for life. The e-mail goes something like this: “Our Senators and Congressmen don’t pay into Social Security, and, of course, they don’t collect from it. The reason is that they have a special retirement plan that they voted for themselves many years ago. For all practical purposes, it works like this: “When they retire, they continue to draw their same pay, until they die, except that it may be increased from time to time, by cost of living adjustments. For instance, former Senator Bradley, and his wife, may be expected to draw $7,900,000, with Mrs. Bradley drawing $275,000 during the last year of her life. This is calculated on an average life span for each.

“This would be well and good, except that they paid nothing in on any kind of retirement, and neither does any other Senator or Congressman.” This would be all well and good, except that not a word of it is true.

Members of Congress pay into Social Security just like everyone else.

Before 1984, they did not, because they were part of a separate program for civil servants called the Civil Service Retirement System.

They paid into that system. When it was ended, all members of Congress had to pay into Social Security.

Members who had been paying into the old system could stay in that plan in addition to their Social Security coverage, though benefits from the old system would be offset by any Social Security benefits they received.

A good place to check out something that appears fishy is a Web site called snopes.com, which is where I got the information debunking the congressional free pension e-mail.

But lots of people who get that e-mail or see the accusation repeated on some Web site or as a letter to the editor won’t bother to go to Snopes. They might believe it’s true.

Which can only further erode their respect for Congress.

And that, I suspect, is the idea behind this e-mail and others like it.

Like the one that tells of a company with over 500 employees, of which 29 have been accused of spousal abuse, seven have been arrested for fraud, 19 have been accused of writing bad checks, 117 have directly or indirectly bankrupted at leased two businesses and a host of other violations.

The “company,” of course, is Congress. The numbers apparently come from a series of articles published in an anti-establishment newspaper called Capital Hill Blue in 1999. Since no names are mentioned, and no real distinction made between accusations, indictments, arrests and convictions, confirming or debunking the piece is all but impossible.

I’m sure you’ve heard that Bill and Hillary Clinton are charging the Secret Service “rent” for the protection detail at their Chappaqua home, and that the rent happens to be just about the same amount as their mortgage. Outrageous, right? Well, if it were true.

According to Snopes, The Washington Post snuffed this one out. Yes, the Secret Service pays rent for space used for the protection detail, but that is standard practice, not one begun by the Clintons. And, no, that rent does not come close to covering the cost of the Clintons’ mortgage. The amount is set by the government, not by the Clintons.

And, finally, despite regulations calling for the payment, the Clintons have not accepted any of the money.

There are, of course, countless other falsehoods circulating around the Internet. There’s one, for example, listing a set of outrageous lawsuit verdicts (a criminal winning a jury award because he became stuck in the garage of a home he was burglarizing, etc.). None of the lawsuits happened, though that didn’t stop the list from appearing in an editorial in a newspaper in West Virginia.

I’m not suggesting these lies are part of a vast right-wing conspiracy. But many of them seem intentionally designed to create disrespect and erode public confidence for government institutions.

If it exists, the vast right-wing conspiracy could only be pleased by the spread of these lies.

Radmacher is the Gazette’s editorial page editor.

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