Thursday, September 30, 2010

One more on O'Keefe

I've been thinking about James O'Keefe and why it is that everybody looks so incriminating on his videos, yet nobody gets prosecuted when the situation is investigated.

It's because they go along.

We all do it. In the part of DC where my law school is, people coming up to you and yelling at you about their issue of choice is pretty much chronic. And do you argue? Of course not.

When a guy comes up to you and tells you how, say, the Army implanted a signaling device in his leg in Vietnam in 1978 and has been controlling his actions ever since,* you don't say "What motivation would the government have to do that?" You don't even say "We pulled out of Vietnam in 1975."

You just smile and nod, or furrow your eyebrows and nod in that specific case, act like you are interested in this person's drama and would help if you could because that's the quickest way to get someone like that to leave you alone.

Similarly, when I was a political fundraiser, I heard "I'm giving this to your candidate because his opponent wants to..." followed by some crazy rumor all the time. At that point, my job was not to evaluate the person's reasons for giving my candidate money, it was to take the money and smile and nod and validate their reasons for giving it.

So when James O'Keefe shows up dressed like a fratboy pimp wannabee says he wants advice on opening a prostitution ring that he has no apparent resources to open or well thought out plan for opening**, people (except for that one guy) don't think "oh, my gosh, this man is a threat to society" they think "how to I get this whackjob out of my office?" No ACORN staffer ever actually helped them at all. Some staffers actually gave them bad tax advice that would attract IRS attention. One staffer screwed around with them and claimed to have killed people herself.

Mostly, they smiled and nodded and went along.

And when O'Keefe called up Planned Parenthood and offered them a donation to be expressly used on aborting minority babies, the fundraising person thought "A donation's a donation" and took the money.

Nobody actually did anything wrong, but because smiling and nodding looks like agreement, they looked terrible on video and they all got fired.

I think one reason why this story bothered me, and keeps bothering me, as that I've dealt with this situation both as a fundraiser and as someone who is supposed to help the general public. I worked for a government agency at one point and I got all those calls all the time. I would patiently explain that if the Post Office was discriminating against them because they were Italian*** that they should call 888-EEO-USPS and speak with the Post Office's EEO officers, who were specifically tasked with dealing with that sort of complaint and could talk them through the process of filing a formal complaint that would get the Post Office's attention. I would say there was nothing anyone in my office could directly do to help them because USPS cases weren't in our jurisdiction. When they said, no, no, I had to help them because calling the EEO office never worked, I would ask if they had tried the Post Office's EEO office.

They would then ask to speak to my boss, who would listen to their complaints about how I was incompetent. He often then gave the call to the most shameless person in our office, the guy who liked to tell people they were describing the worst human rights violation he'd every heard and give them the number to the United Nations.

They loved that guy. My boss was, all things considered, very understanding about the fact that I kept trying to give them information that actually helped them, rather than being the sort of encouraging-but-unhelpful that they wanted to hear and that made them happy.

My weasel co-worker spent a lot less time on the phone. But if O'Keefe had ever called, he's the one who would have ended up on the video. Of course, I'm the one would would have taken the check from the crazy person as a fundraiser.

These days we really have to consider the O'Keefe factor, even in our churches. If a pregnant teenage girl comes to a UU minister and asks for help because her older boyfriend got her pregnant and she wants an abortion but feels like she can't tell her parents, we could be the next ones on the news accused of promoting child rape if we give her the help she's asking for. I honestly don't know if at this point I would advise people to smile and nod or to actually be helpful or what to do. In some jobs, just telling people what they want to hear is by far the best way to get through the day, but the person on the other end of the line could always be James O'Keefe.


* Actual claim made by guy on street to CC at one point.

** Oh, and most of the time he didn't even say that. In the transcript at the link, he is asking ACORN about the best way for his prostitute girlfriend to pay taxes. That's all, no prostitution ring even came up.

*** Not an exact claim I ever heard, but representative.


Joel Monka said...

"... followed by some crazy rumor all the time." Reminds me a story a party oldtimer told me from the Eisenhower campaign. One lady told him she would never vote for Eisenhower because he was against TV. "No," he said, "That's the TVA- the Tennessee Valley Authority." "Well, I'm not taking any chances."

I agree with all the factors you list here, but editing alone can also produce such results- look at this ad from Rep. Grayson

Chalicechick said...

I'm glad that guy isn't as good at getting on the National news as O'Keefe is because using that footage in a misleading way was wrong. That said, most of his claims about the other guy are just politics. Calling people who managed to get out of Vietnam through a combination of deferments and sudden medical problems "draft dodgers" is nothing new.

Saxby Chambliss, who escaped service through a bunch of deferments yet won Max Cleland's senate seat partially by questioning the patriotism of Cleland, who lost his legs in Khe Sanh, was a champion of having it the other way, somehow.

who still doesn't understand that one.

Desmond Ravenstone said...

If O'Keefe's shenanigans have done any good, it's to keep our guard up. Yes, arguing with a wackaloon is generally a waste of time. But now we have to ask whether the wackaloon has a camera.

Sometimes the best response is to raise your eyebrows and say: "Are you serious!?"