Propaganda Versus Evidence
“Are we going to have a moment of silence at eleven o’clock?” asked a student first thing Monday morning before classes started.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“President Obama wants to have a moment of silence because of the shooting in Arizona,” he said.
“Oh. I didn’t know that,” I answered. Later, the principal came over the loudspeaker to announce that the entire school would observe a moment of silence at eleven. The Arizona shooting clearly dominated everyone’s attention and, being responsible for teaching current events, I postponed my planned Monday lesson plan and used the story to reinforce some earlier lessons on the Bill of Rights, propaganda, and the political spectrum.
“Open your books to page 885,” I said when class started, “and look at Amendment 6 at the top. It reads: ‘In all criminal prosecutions, the accused’ - and that would be Jared Loughner, the alleged shooter in this case - ‘shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law . . .’”
“The ‘state and district’ mentioned would be Tucson, Arizona, which is in Pima County. The sheriff of Pima County is Democrat Charles Dupnik, and he made some controversial statements about why he thinks Loughner did what he did.”
“Sheriff Dupnik blamed former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and others for stirring up the shooter,” I explained. “Dupnik accused Palin of saying ‘We have people like Gabby Giffords in the crosshairs.’ Actually, Palin didn’t say that, but had published a map of the US showing congressional districts where Democrats like Gifford were targeted for defeat at the polls on election day. After Sheriff Dupnik said that, other Democrats made statements that it was right-wing conservatives in the Tea Party who provoked Loughner to shoot Congresswoman Gifford and the others.”
We had studied the political spectrum in class, so students knew what was meant by left-wing and right-wing. “Some people on the right have accused Sheriff Dupnik of using the shooting as propaganda to damage right-wing politicians,” I said. “I hope you remember what propaganda is.”
“Spreading information to help a cause or hurt an opposing cause,” said a girl.
“Yes,” I said. “We’ll look online for evidence that Jared Loughner was influenced by either right-wingers or by left-wingers. It’s only been 48 hours, but we’ll see if there’s any actual evidence out there to back up these claims, okay?”
They took out their laptops and started searching. On the blackboard, I wrote “Left Wing” on the left and “Right Wing” on the right. Some students read opinions like those expressed by Dupnik and I explained that opinions were not evidence. Then a student said, “Loughner wrote on Youtube that one of his favorite books was ‘The Communist Manifesto’ by Karl Marx. That’s left-wing,” the boy said.
“Right,” I answered. We had studied Marx as the founder of communism and I listed that as evidence on the left.
“Another favorite book was ‘We The Living,’” he added.
“The author of that book would be Ayn Rand, who was Libertarian. That’s conservative, and some might say right-wing,” I explained as I listed it on the right.
“Another book was ‘Mein Kampf’ by Hitler,” said a girl.
“I’ll put that on the right,” I said, “but some think Nazis were leftist. I guess they could go on either end.”
“Loughner could have been reading those books to study both sides,” said another boy.
“Good point,” I said. “I have books by both Marx and Rand in my own library. That Loughner had them is evidence that he may have been influenced politically one way or the other. A piece of evidence is a clue. It’s not proof.”
“One of Loughner’s classmates sald he was a left-wing pothead,” said a girl.
“Okay. That’s a first-hand account and it’s evidence,” I said as I listed it on the left.
“Another classmate said he had serious mental problems and she was afraid of him,” said the girl.
“That’s not left-wing or right-wing,” I said. “There are nutcases on both sides of the political spectrum, so let’s add another column in the middle called “Nutcase.” I did, and listed that description.
“Has anyone found more evidence that Loughner was influenced by left-wing or right-wing politics?” I asked.
There were no hands.
“Okay. How about evidence that he was a nutcase?”
Lots of hands went up.
“His math professor said he was dangerous,” said a boy.
“His parents said he was mentally ill,” said a girl.
“His neighbor said he was disturbed,” said another girl.
The middle column got longer and longer. “Looks like there’s far more evidence that Loughner acted because he was mentally disturbed than because he was motivated politically,” I said. “It appears Sheriff Dupnik was shooting from the hip with his opinions when he should have been looking for evidence.”