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Inflation May Be Under Control, But Watch Out for Conflation

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As 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.