The Birdfeeder Allegory ~ An Example of Viral Disinformation

As we become more and more absolute in our convictions, more and more polarized from and stigmatized by the other half of society, we no longer have minds that are open to facts.


April, 5, 2008 — I recently received an email message from one of my more-conservative thinking friends.  It contained a forwarded story, an allegory really, about birds flocking to free food.  The birds in the story were obviously a metaphor for illegal aliens.  My friend invited me to read the story then respond with what I thought of it. The original message, the one passed-on to me, encouraged recipients to pass the story on to others in chain-letter fashion.

My response to my friend began, “Interesting that you should ask this now, Bobby (not my friend’s real name); I’m teaching a lesson to my economics students tomorrow entitled, ‘Social Goals vs. Market Efficiency’.  Social goals include things like equal justice, quality education for all, gainful employment for all who are able and willing to work, freedom from crime, and security in our old age.  I think I’ll share this story with my students and ask them what they think.”

What follows next is the story as it was originally forwarded to me.

The Birdfeeder

I bought a bird feeder. I hung it on my back porch and filled it with seed. Within a week we had hundreds of birds taking advantage of the continuous flow of free and easily accessible food. But then the birds started building nests in the boards of the patio, above the table, and next to the barbecue.

Then came the poop. It was everywhere: on the patio tile, the chairs, the table…everywhere. Then some of the birds turned mean: They would dive bomb me and try to peck me even though I had fed them out of my own pocket. And others birds were boisterous and loud: They sat on the feeder and squawked and screamed at all hours of the day and night and demanded that I fill it when it got low on food.

After a while, I couldn’t even sit on my own back porch anymore. I took down the bird feeder and in three days the birds were gone. I cleaned up their mess and took down the many nests they had built all over the patio.

Soon, the back yard was like it used to be…quite, serene and no one demanding their rights to a free meal. 

Now let’s see… our government gives out free food, subsidized housing, free medical care, free education and allows anyone born here to be an automatic citizen. Then the illegals came by the tens of thousands. Suddenly our taxes went up to pay for free services; small apartments are housing 5 families: you have to wait 6 hours to be seen by an emergency room doctor: you child’s 2nd grade class is behind other schools because over half the class doesn’t speak English: Corn Flakes now come in a bilingual box; I have to press “one” to hear my bank talk to me in English, and people waving flags other than “Old Glory” are squawking and screaming in the streets, demanding more rights and free liberties. 

Maybe it’s time for the government to take down the bird feeder. 

The rest of the response to my friend read as follows:

“The market can very efficiently make some of us very rich while leaving the majority of us in poverty, or it can raise the standard and quality of life for all.  I know that this sounds like socialism, but that’s an extreme I do not advocate.  Neither do I advocate laissez faire politics wherein the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  No serious student of economics believes in laissez faire anymore; that’s survival of the fittest — jungle rules.  So, we can either invest up front in human capital (head start programs, education, health care, etc.) or we can accept the consequences of higher high school drop-out rates, teen pregnancies, declining economic growth, and growing crime rates in our inner cities.  For me, it all boils down to a choice between near-term investments vs. long-term expenditures.

We are not birds — we are human beings, charged by our common Lord to love one another.”

I did share this story and how it came to my attention with my high school economics class seniors the next day and the next (our school is on a block schedule).  I didn’t lecture them or lead them to any particular conclusion about it.  I just read the story then let them respond and discuss their varying attitudes about it.  A few laughed and indicated that they thought the story was very astute, representing as it were an obvious truth about lazy, unethical people in our society, especially illegal aliens.  About an equal number of students argued that it was an ugly, unfair generali- zation about poor people and that it speaks more to a prevailing attitude of selfishness.  Some said they thought most immigrants, legal and otherwise, have come to America, not for a free ride but for opportunities to better themselves. Most students, however, offered no opinion at all, perhaps fearing criticism from me or from their peers.

In retrospect, I see this story, and the way that it has been circulated, as an example of how political opinion is and has been shaped in this country since the advent of mass communications, especially television and the Internet.  I consider this kind of thing to be Viral Disinformation as it is originated and spread from one individual who is infected with biased, adamant, unreasoned beliefs to many others who share or are susceptible to the same frame of reference.  Not willing to discuss our beliefs and doubts with those who disagree with us, we have become intellectually lazy, taking in, first, “sound bytes” and now “video bytes” ala YouTube from entertainers who bill themselves as being well-informed, experts on any number of different subjects.

In the twenties and early thirties, the sound bytes were from entertainers like Will Rogers.  Today the bits and bytes are coming from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Keith Olbermann on the television, radio, and over the Internet… and from charismatic preachers in places of worship too.  In some cases, this can perhaps be the most virulent source of dis- information.  This kind of thing, according to Susan Jacoby in her book, The Age of American Unreason, is “infotainment.” Rather than reading newspaper editorials – point and counterpoint – as our grandparents used to do, then discussing things with our friends and our neighbors in pubs, schools, parks, and other community places, we sit in air-conditioned homes alone after work and on weekends in front of the television or computer digesting only those sides of things that resonate with us.  We become more and more absolute in our convictions, more and more polarized from and stigmatized by the other half of society.

We no longer have minds that are open to facts.  In fact, if the facts conflict with the dogma we have already adopted, we reject them entirely notwithstanding the majority convictions of intellectuals like our scientists, doctors, and academics – the freethinkers.  We choose to believe instead, whichever politician curries our votes by agreeing to something we consider sacrosanct, like the literal, absolute truth found in the Scriptures, for example.  In this way we become victims to pitfalls of objective thinking: biases, loaded terminology, and the fallacies of composition and causation.

Hmmmm… I wonder if I am not playing into viral disinformation myself by writing and posting this article to The World According to Opa. Let me know what you think by posting a comment.

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Published in: on April 5, 2008 at 1:27 pm  Comments (7)  

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Dear Kent,

    I recieved the same email/chain letter from a former co-worker…what appalled me was that she thought I would be interested in this! This former co-worker has a high school drop out son who has a baby whose birth was paid for my Medicaid and is on food stamps…I guess they don’t see the irony.

    Most illegal aliens I have come in contact with were here to better themselves and shouldn’t we try to help them along…isn’t that what we are called to do?

    Carol

  2. Kent, your article was very informative as it relates to the attitudes OR some attitudes of today. This requires lots of deep thinking on our part as we try to work out the illegal immigration mess that we ourselves, as a government, has created. I guarantee you that I do not know the answer but I have just finished reading a biblical scripture bible in James 1:19-21 and I think I can conclude that God wants us to love one another and help others who are so desperate in need. I am a little acquainted with the Acton Institute or rather know a member of this group and I think I will email him to get an opinion on this subject.
    I realize that we as a country cannot sustain ourselves as we go forth with our ever present debts,
    declining jobs, very poor educational system, outsourcing, high cost of fuel, borrowing from other countries, etc. just to name a few. It is time that we sit down (both sides of the aisle) and come up with long-term solutions and please no quick-fixes. First of all, we need to begin thinking for ourselves and I wonder if we have gotten too lazy and fat to do that. It really takes energy, motivation and a love for others to become free-thinkers. The more we sit waiting for someone else to fix the problem, then we become part of the problem. Oh well Kent, I do go on and on. I had intended to pick up Jacoby’s book from the library but have decided to bite the bullet and buy my own copy. After reading excerpts in the news, it sound intriguing and interesting, maybe it challenges us to think.

    Nancy Coleman

  3. Interesting.. I would agree, for various reasons you mention above, our minds are less open to the facts, from both sides. And dogma, as you say, perpetuates, particularly with religion and politics in our media dominated information age. But freethinkers come from all walks of life; all religions or non, all cultures and ethnicity, and all political or economic schools of thought. Partly because of, I actually think that the bird feeder analogy has many useful points to consider. Just one for example, could very easily speak to man’s selfishness, whether you’re a bird, the figurative hand that feds, or the ‘others’ who ultimately and always pay some price in personal liberty and freedom, that is of course when and if we collectively choose that ‘birds’ should be fed. In fact, when I think about it from each perspective, there are actually more than just two sides.

    Accepting something for “free” because birds of a feather flock together, without considering the consequences of others inside or outside the roost is, to me, selfish and not a good example of free thought.

    Assuming the choice is either a Keynesian based model or not (because you believe the majority have accepted, or that individuals or the whole of society would be best served by a mixed economic model) is, to me, not free thought. It could in fact be viewed as either individually or institutionally selfish.

    While complaining about having to pay for, either literally or figuratively, the clean up of bird crap, directly from other birds, or indirectly from the hand that forced the mixed economic model (the hand that fed), I suppose can be viewed as free thought. However, taking no action, either way, can also be damaging and is quite selfish, wouldn’t you say?

    Where I actually do think you’re a right, is that the ‘majority’ or your sense of the collective; intellectuals, scientists, doctors, and academics, should never be consider ‘the’ only freethinkers, lest you’ve fallen victim to the pitfalls of your own bias, loaded terminology, and the fallacies of composition and causation.

    For example, in a recent article, you grouped neo-conservatism and ultra-conservatism. I would free think and recognize that they are in fact quite different.. and further, that there are many other types of conservatives and many choices beyond just those along the spectrum of political thought and belief. And conservatives, in all their walks of life, may be similar to or completely opposed to other laissez faire beliefs, practices, or the protection of personal liberties.

    To advocate your accepted belief in the current mixed economic model, as opposed to laissez faire, but then assume that it is only making the rich, richer, while leaving a majority in poverty is not free thought and is not true. While advocating a greater level of social liberalism, you may think is selfless, others might well believe that it infringes on personal liberties.. the exact opposite of free thought.

    Further stating laissez faire as political practice and not economically or socially viable in today’s world is also not true and speaks to your own dogma, with religious undertone, included. Then to state that no serious student of economics believes in laissez faire (or even simply a bit less government intervention) anymore, is it’s own form viral disinformation.

    And while there are many libertarian schools of thought (having nothing to do with neo-conservatism), there are also various different real believers, institutions and governments that put greater levels of laissez faire into practice, every day. In fact, there are a number of less mixed, more free market societies (for many years rating higher on the scale vs the United States) effectively measuring “the absence of government coercion or constraint on the production, distribution, or consumption of goods and services beyond the extent necessary for citizens to protect and maintain liberty itself” whilst having much lower school drop-out rates, teen pregnancies, and much lower crime rates. However, to simply assume that the still growing economies of these example nations is a result of only positive non-interventionism would also be absent of free thought. There are in fact still “bird feeders” in these societies and there are still government policies intervening and or otherwise regulating certain aspects (to include market trading).

    Finally, while I certainly respect your believes, and while I can even to some extent agree, morally, spiritual, or otherwise, to assume that we are all charged by a common Lord, that the Lord is benevolent, or that he, she or it cares one way or another whether we love one another or simple ourselves, is it’s own dogma, is it not? And an atheist, Hindu, or Buddhist might even think that your simply spreading disinformation yourself, could they not?

    😉

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful response, Tom.

    You suggest that I am “simply” spreading disinformation myself by posting my Birdfeeder article, an indictment on our collective propensity to go along with our chosen herd rather than to think independently. Yes, that is possible, since I did state my view/reaction to the story rather than just report it. I posed that question and admitted the possibility myself at the end of my article. However, I also pointed out that “infotainment” bombards us from both left and right as well as from the pulpit these days. Was that not fair?

    When I say that no serious student of economics believes in laissez-faire anymore, I guess I failed to recognize you. You are serious, I admit. But even the great Milton Friedman admitted that, “We are all Keynesians now.”

    You say in your comment that, “…there are a number of less mixed, more free market societies (for many years rating higher on the scale vs the United States) effectively measuring ‘the absence of government coercion or constraint on the production, distribution, or consumption of goods and services beyond the extent necessary for citizens to protect and maintain liberty itself’ whilst having much lower school drop-out rates, teen pregnancies, and much lower crime rates.” Would you care to name a few?

    Just my bias here, perhaps, but I seriously doubt that there has been any developed nation in modern times that has employed less government involvement in their economy than the U.S. under the two Bush/Cheney administrations. And just look what these years have wrought… more mega-mergers, record-high profits and record levels of corporate executive compensation while middle class jobs have been eliminated, a financial sector run amok, the collapse of the housing sector, Enron, WorldCom, the highest unemployment rate in the last five years, and now the failure of one of our largest financial institutions, Bear Sterns, with the Fed rushing-in to broker a rescue at taxpayers’ expense.

    In response to these problems, the Treasury Department and the Fed, backed-up by the President himself, are panic-reacting to put the controls back in place. Congress is panic-reacting too with a bill waiting for the President to sign when he returns from Europe in a week to rescue the housing industry and the value of homes in neighborhoods blighted by foreclosures and vacated properties.

    In all fairness, I must admit, the move toward the removal of regulations and oversight did begin during the Clinton years.

    No, Tom, I admit that I could be wrong about the need for government’s steady hand on both the throttle and the brake of our economic choo-choo train, but history is on my side. Recall… I do teach this stuff. By the late 1800s, western nations practicing laissez-faire, to include the United States, all experienced weakening competition with many small firms combining to become a few, very large firms. The rich got richer… the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age. With lost competition, prices rose and workers were exploited. The poor got poorer. Then came the First Great War, followed by the Great Depression, followed by the Second Great War. So, let’s not go down that road again.

    Sorry, Tom, but your response to my posting has not moved me away from my position and my belief that we are our bothers’ keepers.

  5. I will remember and use the term Viral Disinformation. Perhaps that is right now a more serious problem that it is been in the past because of the very wide distribution of a relatively limited number of points of view. Because of time constraints, lack of energy, apathy, or whatever – many of us allow those ‘with a bone to pick’ to determine ‘our’ attitudes. It takes time AND energy AND interest to listen evaluatively – to seek out alternate and quieter points of view. But to the extent that we as a people fail to do that, we are surrendering our minds and our rights to determine our own futures.

    I too am reading the Jacoby book – and find it both exhilarating and horrifying. I urge any with time and inclination to read it. It is indeed compelling!

  6. Greetings,

    Much of what I believe as free thought does not assume to ‘move’ any one’s position, certainly not that of the original author.

    Why I did think this particular blog was interesting, had a lot to do with the author’s overall theme of admittance. He rightly recognized, or at least posed the question, to himself, that he may be playing into the on-going spread of [viral dis] information by writing, posting, and soliciting response.

    I certainly agree, as was also pointed out, in both origin and response, that “infotainment” does bombard us from all directions.. to include what I believe is now accepted as mainstream – the liberal news media. If you doubt me, check the background of political contributions and lobbies of the most powerful media shareholders in Hollywood and otherwise.. then let me know what you think.

    Absolutely, it was fair for the author to make that statement. We are all ‘free thinkers’ are we not?

    However, according to the Heritage Foundation (yes, a conservative think tank, but no, I do not believe either ‘neo’ or ‘ultra’) the current rankings of the most free economies are; Hong Kong, Singapore, Ireland, Australia, the U.S., New Zealand, and Canada (per criteria offered earlier). In fact, Hong Kong as been ranked number one for 14 consecutive years in said Index. But further, what may surprise the blog author, is that it was in fact, Milton Friedman (originally more Keynesian is economic and political philosophy) himself, who described Hong Kong as a laissez-faire state for which he credited policy and the rapid move from poverty to prosperity in a relatively short, by global standards, 50 year time frame.

    Now check school drop out rates, unwed pregnancies, and the crime rates in any of the above economies or societies. Compare them with those of the U.S. Then check the most recent economic growth rates (yes, using the accepted ‘real’ – or even not so real, the author would have you believe, measurement of GDP), and not just during these, our ‘dark ages’ of Bush/Cheney. Finally, compare the per-capita unemployment rates (heck, even look at the U.S. unemployment rates since the late 1800s). And then tell me which direction you think we’re actually headed. One of the ‘big’ 3 career politicians still running for executive office must have the answer to make it all better, right?

    It didn’t take my free thought to properly deduct, I still don’t clearly see the Bush/Cheney analogy. Bush, a weaker to Cheney, succumb to the resurgence of ‘neo’ conservatism that had much to do with, granted, debatable foreign policy after the horrible events of September the 11th, causes the U.S. housing market to tank? I don’t get it. Tax cuts for the rich now has the financial sector all amuk? I still don’t get it. As free economies go, I’m not aware of one ‘freer’ that taxes its subjects, poor, middle-class, or rich, at any a higher rate.. Than of course compared with some of the more socialist countries in our world economy still claiming to be free. But have you seen their unemployment rates? If given a choice, would you have your heart transplanted in one of those countries? Granted, I’ve also not witness any other freer government that continues to spend, domestically, foreign, or otherwise, beyond its means, that of the U.S. [taxpayer].

    But by the author’s definition, it’s mega-mergers, and record-high profits that are a bad thing? Does the author, or some other higher authority, now get to choose what is good and bad? Should we let them choose?

    Bear Sterns was actually and will ultimately be bailed out by the share holders of Merrill Lynch.. As one of the top financial institutions in the world, it was the best and right thing for Merrill to do. I think it ultimately prevented further market melt down from fear and over reaction. Yes, the Fed brokered and ‘guaranteed’ the deal. Though tell me how it will have a direct impact on everyday tax payers. It was better than them filing for chapter 11, wasn’t it. Certainly it was cheaper on the tax payer. But the author now criticizes this particular application of throttle and brake?

    There were just a few select criminals (now either dead or in prison) that brought us the debacles at Enron and WorldCom. Records clearly indicate that criminal activity at both companies began well before the Bush administration. History is on my side, here… I lived this stuff.

    Perhaps the author believes that Paul, Don, Carl, Scooter, or Dick engineered Enron and WorldCom’s collapse.. But meant to have it happen on Clinton’s watch, only hadn’t properly planned for the troops needed to clear, hold, and build, said conspiracy?

    Maybe instead we should blame it on Al Gore for inventing the Internet. No, no, let’s not doubt good ‘ole Al. He’s the only one who’ll save us from polar bears roaming the streets of lower Manhattan.

    Sorry, just a bit of satire, free of charge, provided to any of you thinkers out there who’ve read this far into my not so humble response.

    Now back to my own bias..

    I believe that [federal] governments by the people and for the people should be primarily concerned with establishing justice, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare (by *not* involving itself in my daily life), and securing my liberties so that I may pursue my own form of prosperity.. as long as it does not infringe on the liberties or prosperity of others. In other words, a people that clearly and collectively thinks about the consequences before it pays the government (eg; sacrifices its own liberties) to build a bird feeder.

    If it’s a bird feeder you need, why not have a church or a private charity build it?

    So in my own brand of, “we” are, in fact, not our own brother’s keeper.. “I” am, in fact, my only brother’s keeper.

    Yes, the ongoing spread of viral disinformation, be it the liberal news media or the hyped Internet during U.S. election years, driven primarily by supporters of career politicians and lobbyists, ultimately out to exercise / influence power (that which corrupts) and or to make a buck, particularly at my expense, or any one else’s for that matter, is all quite unfortunate.

    Thankfully, I recognize and I can choose to turn it off (or can I?). It’s the run-on sentences that I mostly have a problem giving up. Which for your sake, I hope you did, several paragraphs ago.

    Infotainment.. sometimes not only informative, but entertaining as well.. at least to me!

  7. Correction: Bear Stearns was recently purchased by JPMorgan Chase.. of course.. oops.


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