At times it can feel like everything is wrapped up in some kind of messaging. This week at Cracked, we're taking a closer look at propaganda and how it has shaped the world in ways that may not be so obvious. 

You know the worst thing about the news? Just when you think you're learning about the world, it turns out you're actually getting fed some narrative to trick you into thinking some predetermined way. You can't trust any outlet without reservation. Not even yourself! And not even us!

You can trust us a little though, so come along with us as we try to angrily dispel some of these media boogeymen. 

Shoplifting Is Not Running Rampant

We are in the middle of a shoplifting epidemic, say the media. Thieves are brazenly walking out of stores, laden with goods, particularly in California due to that state's strange California ways:

NY Times

In these reports, the journalist interviews the store, who says shoplifting is up. They interview a retailers' association, who says shoplifting is up. They interview police, who say shoplifting is up. The old reporter tactic of quoting two opposing sides and calling it a day doesn't yield useful results because it seems there's no side with an interest in claiming that shoplifting isn't going up. 

And yet shoplifting isn't going up. Shoplifting is down from a year ago, down more from five years ago, and down even more from ten, twenty, thirty years ago. In fact, the phenomenon these reports are covering isn't shoplifting at all. 

When someone rolls into a department store, fills a whole cart with targeted goods, and rolls out, that's a different crime, known as organized retail theft. But some prefer to call it shoplifting, because shoplifting is a broad failure of society with no solution but stricter rules. Call it organized retail theft, however, and suddenly you have people asking, "Why isn’t someone investigating these thefts, finding out who's organizing them, and stopping them that way?"

Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charles Lloyd "Charlie" Beck discusses crime statistics of 2013 for the city of Los Angeles at LAPD headquarters.

Scott Liebenson

"Nono, crime is supposed to make you support cops, not get mad at us!"

So, if shoplifting isn't going up, are we seeing an uptick in organized retail theft? Could be—we're seeing an uptick in all kinds of crimes right now, including murder. But long-term, retail theft (and murder) is down, and the media is saying it's up partly because stores are reporting numbers that are just flat-out wrong. The California Retailers Association told outlets that thieves are stealing $3.6 billion annually just in San Francisco and Oakland. Sounds big, but it's an estimate they pulled out of their ass because the actual number is more like a third of one percent of that

It's really easy to get caught up in the idea that the world is getting worse and worse. This post did the rounds last month and became a meme:

"What is he even talking about?" people wondered, laughing. "Is he nostalgic for some imaginary time before minorities?" Probably, judging by some of his tweets, but he was also anxious about stores putting in new security measures and was looking wistfully at a time when you could shop safely. It's hilarious though that he thinks the height of safety was 7-Eleven in 1973.

We actually have records on how often 7-Elevens got robbed back then: We had 769 robberies per thousand 7-Eleven stores in 1973. For comparison, the last year we have national stats available, 2019, had 96 robberies per thousand convenience stores (and convenience stores aren't subject to the organized retail theft that we've seen since then).

Those numbers speak for themselves, but you might be interested in how I got the 1973 figures. They're from the background section of a 1975 study. The Western Behavioral Studies Institute of California was testing how to deter robbery, so they compared a control group of stores to ones that implemented a new strategy. That's right—crime was so high that they could run an experiment and they could count on, in the absence of any special strategy, most stores in the control group probably getting robbed sometime within the year. 

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Those Unemployment Checks Didn't Keep People From Seeking Work

For a while during the pandemic, we had a running joke about how the US government cut us all one check and then sat back and let us fend for ourselves. Oh, if only we lived somewhere like Finland, where they take care of everyone, instead of the US, where they pretend we can live on $1,200 for eight months. 

But in reality, America's relief plan over the last two years was massive. It was the largest COVID relief response in the world, both in absolute terms and (excluding some fuzzy numbers from Japan) in terms of percentage of GDP. Americans got multiple direct payments, while people in most other countries got none. Plus, other countries paid companies to keep employees on the rolls, and while America did that too with the Paycheck Protection Plan, the US alone also hugely expanded relief for the unemployed.

That last bit annoyed many US companies. Unemployment benefits had long been a thing, but the extra $600 a week on top meant the average unemployed American was briefly drawing $980 in benefits a week, over three times the federal minimum wage. As companies soon struggled to find workers, they were sure the benefits were convincing people to stay home. 

A reasonable belief. I for one was totally up for believing this and sneering at everyone living large on unemployment, as shown by this actual video of me and my friends praising work over welfare:

Surely free money deters work. The first time I ever heard of the concept of universal basic income was at a live debate, where the speaker arguing against UBI questioned how we could expect people to do anything useful if they never needed to. Why wouldn't they just play video games all day? Or engage in necrobestiality? Or (when the crowd watching the debate failed to laugh at these first two suggestions) sit at home and just masturbate with bacon?

The speaker advocating for UBI was unable to answer this, but he insisted that people should be able to choose whatever lifestyle they want. "I CANNOT masturbate with bacon," he said passionately, losing himself in the argument, "unless you pay me!" The audience's laughter then threw him off; he hadn't meant this to be funny. Hearing this line was one of the highlights of my life. 

But when considering the effects of benefits, we don't have to stand behind guitars and podiums and speculate. We have actual data. Those extra-large unemployment benefits ended, and we saw all kinds of ripple effects on spending and the economy, but one thing didn't change: labor participation. The people reluctant to work stayed just as reluctant. 

The fact is, the cost of labor has gone up, with or without unemployment benefits. Companies are going to have to pay more if they want workers—that's how the market works. The lockdowns affected many people's choices, but it was the break from working rather than the temporary money that made people consider their options

Unemployment benefits also come with enough requirements that they're never quite guaranteed money that will let you live in comfort forever without working. As for whether people might be dissuaded from ever working if they got such a guarantee, well, we'll have to leave that to the experts at Oscar-Mayer.  

Opponents Tried To Change The Meaning Of Critical Race Theory … And Succeeded

Critical race theory was theoretically a critical issue in the race leading up to the 2021 elections, then once the election had passed, conservative media immediately stopped talking about it. School boards and parents went on talking about it, however, so it's still worth knowing what we're talking about.

The knowing what we're talking about part is harder than it sounds. For that reason, I am now going to spend the next few paragraphs covering the confusion over CRT without actually even explaining what CRT is, so strap yourself in. Here's a clip of someone trying to talk about the subject and then getting overwhelmed when he realizes the host knows more:

This guy, having seemingly now discovered the secret to sounding smart, then prepared a speech on CRT, consisting entirely of a list of citations that mean nothing to most people. He took this speech to, of all places, the Dr. Phil show. The assembled panel, there for an actual discussion, just stared at him. The audience's laughter then threw him off; he hadn't meant this to be funny. 

On the show, we have this guy, who opposes teaching CRT because … well, because of what he was saying. We have another guest who says she supports CRT because students need to learn about the historical contributions of people of color. We have a third guest, who opposes CRT because America has actually produced a Black female billionaire, Oprah, so it's time to stop labeling races as oppressors and oppressed. We have a fourth guest, a CRT academic, who points out that nowhere short of graduate school actually teaches CRT, because it's a complicated college-level discipline. This panel then discusses CRT, even though they are talking about vastly different things that just all suddenly got stuck under the umbrella term "critical race theory."

So, we have lots of different misconceptions about CRT. This is the part where I dispel those and explain what CRT really is. Well, in summary, critical race theory is … uh … you know what, I can't summarize critical race theory for you. Because like the academic said, it's a graduate-level discipline, and I haven't studied it. I can point you to other people's summaries. I can mention some of what critical race theory teaches (it says that American institutions are influenced by a history of racism, which is provably true and a topic we touch on a lot at Cracked). But I can't describe the whole thing for you here. Many complex ideas can't be summarized, or even understood without foundational knowledge. 

And that's fine actually. Because the debate over CRT only concerns whether schools are teaching it to kids, and schools aren’t teaching it to kids. School districts banning the teaching of CRT is like states banning the use of Sharia law—the ban may be racist or well-meaning but confused, but it's banning something that never had a chance of happening anyway, so it's pointless. End of story.

Except, it's not the end of the story. Because on hearing that schools "don't" teach CRT, opponents will list a ton of examples of schools doing just that.

That video is set to The Can-Can, so it's very convincing. Yet its examples of critical race theory in schools include things that aren't critical race theory at all (we also have doubts about whether all of these things are from schools). They're just references to race and to racism. "You aren't objecting to some obscure theory, you just don't want kids learning about racism at all" sounds like a strawman attack on CRT opponents, but looks like it's true.

But that video also contains some actual inclusions of the phrase "critical race theory," even if those aren't examples of real CRT. That's because even schools are latching onto the expanded definition. The National Education Association approved a measure last year supporting CRT-influenced curricula, before realizing that was the wrong description of what they were advocating and taking it back. 

Wrapped up in all of this, maybe there actually is some objectionable race-based stuff taught in schools (for example, maybe it's not constructive to call "getting the 'right' answer" in math an example of white supremacy, like one Oregon workbook does). But attacking the wrongly defined concept of critical race theory isn't the way to fight that. At the time of writing, Florida is pushing to let parents sue schools for teaching CRT. This would be a law that explicitly guards against something that's never taught in schools, in the name of fighting something that's possibly taught in schools, and will definitely chill teachers from teaching stuff that should be taught in schools. 

Ideas really are under attack. Speaking of which … 

Cancel Culture Is Real, It Just Hurts People Other Than The Ones You Hear Complaining

Is cancel culture real? The short answer is: yes. The long answer is: Cancel culture is another umbrella term, and if someone expects you to take a single position on it, it's because they're trying to force you into one of two imaginary sides, neither of which make sense.

According to these sides, if you support the basic concept of free speech, you must also ally yourself with the worst people in the world, and you must strive to be more offensive, because that's who you are now. On the other side, if you dare agree that racism and sexism are bad, then you must agree that all penalties are justified when someone commits relevant crimes both real and imaginary.

"Freedom from speech doesn't mean freedom from consequences," you must say, inanely, as though speech is now the one offense to be punished without any heed toward proportionality. "If canceling is real, why do these people have so many outlets where they can vent?" you must ask, which makes about as much sense as asking why, if COVID kills, those health experts on TV seem to be still alive. 

The fact is, yes, people lose their careers for being what might be called insufficiently woke—say, this curator, who had to resign after saying his museum will collect works from white artists as well as artists of color. Other people lose their careers for being too woke—say, these authors whose YA novels are pulled for teaching critical race theory (the novels do not in fact teach critical race theory). There are other people who deservedly lose their careers. Then, there are still other people who surely deserve to lose their careers but never do. None of these groups disprove the existence of the others, because there is no single linear scale of what is acceptable and no one judge handing out punishments.

Some people are more likely to suffer consequences than others, though, and it's the ones who are the least guilty, but who feel the most guilty. After backlash, a canceled person might double down and even find new popularity as someone who offends—unless they actually regret what they did, in which case they won't. And if you shame someone for their mistake, the harassment might drive them to abandon their public life—but if they are shameless, it can't.

Sadly, we don't have time right now for me to go through every controversy of the past decade and defend thousands of wronged parties. But when you see these cases in the future, don't ask yourself "has this person been canceled," sincerely or sarcastically, as though your entire position and identity depends on that answer. Forget the term cancel culture and consider cases individually, because they're all very different. 

For all the talk about things you're not allowed to say, the real danger to free thought may come from these awful umbrella terms, which force us to conflate separate concepts and so cut our minds off from a wide spectrum of ideas. Hey, maybe someone should write a book about that. 

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see. 

Top image: JJonahJackalope, Congress

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