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Liz Claiborne, First Internet Urban Legend Victim?

June 30, 2007 | 11:05 pm

What I didn’t see in last week’s obituaries of clothing designer Liz Claiborne was the odd, ugly and creepy Internet-based crusade against her as a racist and Satanist.

First, the racist rumor: that sometime in 1990 or 1991, Claiborne had been a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show, where she announced –- and here’s the first not-credible moment – that she doesn’t design for black women, because their hips are too big, or because they make her clothes look bad, or because she doesn’t need the money. In the second non-credible moment, Oprah is described in these mass e-mails as wearing a Liz Claiborne dress -- hard to believe even in Oprah’s pre-billionaire days. Oprah then supposedly stormed off the set, declaring that she will ‘’never’’ wear a Liz Claiborne dress, and returned wearing a bathrobe – a nice touch that, as the Mikado said, added verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

This urban legend was given voice by director Spike Lee: ‘’it definitely happened,’’ he was quoted as saying in the October 1992 ‘’Esquire,’’ and he was quoted as urging every black woman in America to throw out any Liz Claiborne items in her closet and never buy another Claiborne garment again.

Claiborne had already retired from her company in 1989, and she never did appeare on Oprah. But never mind – this was too juicy not to pass along. And I received over the years several e-mails declaring this as fact and asking me to boycott Liz Claiborne and to urge my friends to do so.

Ditto the equally groundless Internet declaration that Claiborne had been on Oprah’s show – it was unclear whether this was the same appearance or a different one – and declared that she gave 30 percent of her dough to the Church of Satan..

Now had any of this been true, Claiborne shareholders would have fallen all over each other racing to court to file lawsuits.

Anyone who’s opened an e-mail in the last decade has received some of these Internet urban legends. Perfectly sensible people [including some of my relatives] who would never give a moment’s credence to a poison pen letter, or to the ‘’hook on the car door’’ or ‘’black widows in the beehive’’ tales, have no qualms about swallowing and forwarding, eagerly and gullibly, any curious rumor that lands in their in-basket, whether it’s political or cultural, alarming messages about gas boycotts and fast food telemarketing and tainted tampons and gang initiation rituals and dying children trying to set a world record for receiving greeting cards.

Almost all of these can be easily checked out and knocked down by using the same tool – the Internet – at debunking sites like snopes.com. Sometimes I take the time to look them up and send the facts back to the sender. Sometimes …  well, our tendency to kowtow to both ‘’authority’’ voices and to technology combines for the worst of both: if it’s on the Internet, it must be true.

It won't really matter, I suppose -- until the Internet cries wolf once too often.
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