Sometimes the part can reveal the whole. A perfect example is the recent uproar over the "Nazi salute" photo of high school boys in Baraboo.

Even the most casual examination of the facts of the situation would reveal that they were not making a Nazi salute, but doing exactly what they said they were doing -- posing for a prom picture and waving to their parents as directed by the photographer.

Not to worry. In this post-fact era, all that matters is that the picture went "viral." The viral story is that high school students in tiny Baraboo are Nazis. Local TV news especially played up this aspect of the story, reciting the word "viral" as if it had sacred meaning. To be viral is to exist.

Maybe we can learn something from this. The way we receive information, process it and respond to it is programmed for hysteria. If something excites us, gets us riled up or triggers our emotions, it has meaning. Otherwise, never mind. This conditioning makes us fair game for demagogues.

We can change by recognizing our vulnerability to hype. Once recognized, we can respond differently.

John Hamilton, Madison

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