Okay, I take it back. We live in a nation filled with people either so afraid or so exhausted that anytime someone passes around the tray of Oxycontin-covered conservative memes, they just grab a handful and swallow 'em without chewing. The result? The extremes start to seem tastier after a while. To call us dumber than sheep is offensive to real sheep.
As Nietzsche pointedly suggested, the skill required to understanding anything beneath the wrapper of synthetic opium is one that humans lack, but which even cows possess: the ability to ruminate.
Check to see if anyone next to you is wearing Big Shoes.
P.T. Barnum was right: Obama is a Muslim
Last week I gushed about the quality of the students I get to see here in the Little-University-on-the-Prairie Division of the University of Wisconsin System and, on Monday night, I was relieved to see the School Board invest in the hope, rather than fear.
A new academic year usually brings hope for the future of our democracy. Usually. But this year my hope is tempered by mounting evidence that Americans are more gullible, more taken in by the tricks of slick advertising and more likely to swallow the candy-covered marketing memes of corporatist think-tanks, than ever. Maybe H.L. Mencken was right. Maybe America is really just an “Eden of clowns” – except it looks like we’re becoming an Eden of brain-eating zombie clowns, attempting to spread intolerance like a virus among anyone not yet affected.
My fears for the future of education in the United States red-lined last month when the Pew Center released a poll – followed rapidly by polls from Newsweek and Harris – indicating that an increasing number of Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim. They found that about 18 percent of Americans believe Obama is Muslim, an increase of 7 percent since March 2009. Harris found that among Republicans “57 percent believe Obama is a Muslim, 22 percent believe he ‘wants the terrorists to win’ and 24 percent believe he is the Antichrist.”
Right. That’s where we are.
The last time I had this experience was in the months following the March 2003 invasion of Iraq when polls revealed that as many as 70 percent of Americans believed Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I stumbled on this number completely by accident after a number of students in my ethics course handed in their first papers (Topic: “How would Aristotle criticize the 9/11 terrorists?”) and a number of them identified the terrorists as Iraqis.
My own surveys confirmed the numbers. I wrote to my colleagues across the UW Colleges to ask their students to identify the terrorists’ country of origin. Dozens wrote back confirming the same jaw-dropping misinformation. Polls immediately following 9/11 had shown that only about 3 percent of Americans thought Saddam might be responsible.
So how had Americans come to believe, falsely, that Hussein was responsible despite the fact that news reports had made the truth completely clear that the planes were flown by Saudis?
They didn’t come up with these ideas on their own. It was a well-oiled on-message propaganda effort. And how have an increasing number of Americans come to believe, falsely, that Obama is a Muslim? They didn’t come up with that idea on their own either.
It isn’t entirely new. During the campaign in 2008 I canvassed a house just outside of West Bend where the resident, a McCain supporter, told me he would not vote for Obama because 1) Obama was a Muslim and 2) because of the things Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, had said about 9/11. When I pointed out that Obama was a member of the United Church of Christ and that this might be a reason to suspect that Obama wasn’t a Muslim, this local resident said that UCC members weren’t really Christians.
This example of zombie clown insanity was an isolated incident two years ago. Today, 18 percent of Americans (and 57 percent of Republicans) act, and will vote, in response to a patently false belief. So what’s to be done?
We could follow the sound advice in a speech President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave 66 years ago this week, over the radio to the Herald Tribune Women’s Conference on Current Affairs. In light of the ongoing triumph of complete nonsense, one bit in particular bears repeating.
“More and more men and women are looking up their own facts and forming their own opinion. And equally important, we are learning in these days to discriminate between real news and mere rumor. As a people, we put our tongues in our cheeks when a fact, or a series of facts are distorted, no matter what motive is the cause of that distortion. We as a people, throughout the length and breadth of the country, are less and less inclined to believe those who would create fear or encourage panic. We as a people pay small attention to those gossip mongers who invent tales, generally of course, with a selfish objective behind the tales. You and I, as sensible Americans, know of daily instances which mar rather than help our common efforts for calm discussion of current problems.”
Now, go check your nose in the mirror. Be honest with yourself. Is it big and round and red?