Inflation May Be Under Control, But Watch Out for Conflation

brangelinaAs a 22-year-old cub reporter for a music magazine, I freaked when my boss assigned me to interview “‘The Strawberries,’ a very important group,” which, it turned out, didn’t exist.

But this boss didn’t do well with protestations from underlings, so I was on my own to deduce his meaning. I began by eliminating produce-related acts. Strawberry Alarm Clock , Moby Grape and the Electric Prunes were over as hitmakers, even my boss couldn’t possibly consider the 1910 Fruit Gum Company important, Peaches and Herb weren’t a group, Bananarama hadn’t been planted, Red Hot Chili Peppers hadn’t reached adolescence and besides, they were vegetables). Then it dawned on me that the Strawberries were a conflation of Brit folk-rockers the Strawbs and pop overnight sensations the Raspberries.

Unintentional conflations like the above — and my uncle Marty’s go-to phrase “Quote me if I’m wrong” — tend to be harmless, though they may reveal something about the conflator’s relationship to reality. Some purposeful conflations — e.g. Brangelina (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) and Bennifer (Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez) — are annoying but also benign, though I wish I’d never heard the creepy “TomKat.” And fictional conflations, such as the “Beard-Einstein Conflation,” Nobel-winning creation of the pretentious protagonist Michael Beard in Ian McEwan’s 2009 novel Solar, can be downright hilarious.

But the lies politicians perpetuate with their cynical conflations — linking disparate elements in such a way that crucial differences seem to disappear — are too often destructive and even deadly.

The most successful and most toxic example of recent times, of course, was Bush/Cheney’s purposeful confusion of 9/11 and Saddam Hussein, a conflation that helped sell the American people on the Iraq war. Once that connection was firmly embedded in the American consciousness, the Right had found it easier to link terrorism with torture, Islam with terrorism and Nazism and immigration with criminality. During the presidential election, when they weren’t criticizing his Christian minister, Republicans connected Barack Obama and Islam and, from there, to terrorism.

Just last week, Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer almost got away with conflating immigration and beheadings. When it became crystal clear she’d made it all up, she reached an Orwellian summit of non-apology-apology, acknowledging only that “If I said that, I misspoke.”

The day before Pastor Terry Jones canceled his Koran-burning, orange-tinted Republican House leader John Boehner and Facebooker-in-chief Sarah Palin created an absurd false equivalence between that non-event and the proposed lower Manhattan Islamic community center.

First Boehner told Good Morning America that the two are similar in that “Just because you have a right to do something in America does not mean it is the right thing to do.” Then, like an adolescent who can’t stand to be left out of a party, Palin — who earlier this summer conflated “refuse” and “repudiation” to coin “refudiation” — chimed in with, “People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation — much like building a mosque at Ground Zero.” That’s a conflation with a conflagration.

Meanwhile, someone calling himself an “Internet evangelist” — a brand-building conflation (“intervangelist”?) is undoubtedly in the works — vows to build a 9/11 Christian center at ground zero. New York Times columnist Gail Collins reports he got around 60 people to show up for his big meeting. Add that to Pastor Jones’s 50-person congregation, and — in the bizarro world of the conflationists — you have a platform from which to insult a billion and a half Muslims.

Once big lie conflations worm their way into people’s belief systems, teasing apart their elements to get to the truth is a bitch. And according to Brendan Nyhan, political science professor at University of Michigan, it’s not just know-nothing yahoos who cling to their conflationary beliefs. In fact, Nyhan says his research shows, educated people are more inclined to defend untruthful positions — even when presented with proof they’re wrong — than those less in the know, because they’ve already marshaled sophisticated, hard-to-dismantle arguments to support their point of view.

Nyhan cites knowledgeable liberals’ stubborn acceptance of John Kerry’s bogus claim during the 2004 Presidential campaign that W. was for banning all stem cell research, when in fact Bush had had simply limited Federal funds for research on new stem cell lines.

As campaign 2010 achieves ubiquity, we’ll hear plenty about the threats of inflation, deflation, stagnation and immigration. But if we’re not careful, conflation may be our greatest challenge.

Michael Sigman

Michael Sigman is a writer/ editor, media consultant and the president of Major Songs, a music publishing company.

Crossposted from Huffington Post with the author’s permission.


  1. says

    Politicians, Journalists and Powerful people have always twisted the truth to manipualte people.
    If the media had not catapulted Jones and his tiny congregation in to the worldwide spotlight, then a bunch of idiots could have done what they liked with no-one noticing. Why give idiots the publicity that encourages the next one?

  2. Elaine says

    Holder & Obama need to either get that fence finished & leave get help for Brewer with these illegal immigrants. Remember they are not all Mexicans. So they need to get off her back & help her with this problem because they are not only hurting the American People but hurting the legal residents of Arizona. That is what is Obama’s problem he does not know or understand anything except what the very radical, socialist, communist, fascists, Marxist & all the rest that he studied so hard to learn about & made them his friends.

  3. Mad Jayhawk says

    What is wrong with these statements?

    People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation.

    People have a constitutional right to build a mosque at Ground Zero if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation.

    All conflation is bad unless it is done by Democrats?

    Further, Gov Brewer did not specify where the beheadings took place – in AZ or Mexico – and certainly gave the false impression that the beheadings only took place in AZ which was not true. People in AZ knew what she was talking about. The elitist idiots in NYC and Atlanta did not. She has said on many occasions that the terrible violence, that included beheadings, in Mexico could very easily come across the border into AZ unless something was done to halt the illegal immigration that the Democrats favor. She, as she said, misspoke. The heart of her argument remains no matter where the beheadings took place. I guess she should have said something like that President doesn’t speak with a trace of Negro dialect unless he wants to and the Democrats would have rushed to her side and immediately without question forgiven her. Keep trying to demonize Brewer. Polls show that AZ and the rest of country agrees with her no matter where the beheadings took place. Supporting illegal immigration is a losing issue for Democrats. In AZ Democratic candidates are getting pummeled with their and their party’s and president’s support of the lawsuits against SB1070 and of illegal immigration in general. The residents of AZ resent being called bigots and resent having to foot the bill for all the problems illegal immigration causes.

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