Over the last 14 years, while most of America has been worrying about everything from Bieber to budget deficits, two great cracks have appeared in the foundation of society. These are not financial problems, military threats, or technological issues. They are far greater threats to the future of American freedom than any of those problems could be.
What are these menaces to the country? They’re a pair of ideas, both so ludicrous that no one of sound mind should entertain either of them for more than a second. Yet both have been embraced by tens of millions of Americans, who refuse to admit that they are utterly without rational support. Ready? Here they are:
1. The “truther” theory, which claims that the events of 9/11 were an inside job set up by George W. Bush and his allies in the petroleum industry.
2. The “birther” theory, which states that President Obama was born outside of the United States and hence is ineligible to be commander-in-chief.
Both beliefs have been debunked by volumes of irrefutable evidence; yet both are still believed by vast segments of the population. For those who are interested in the details, this link goes to a report from Popular Mechanics magazine that shreds the truther’s claims. As for the birther myth, this link provides more than enough information to send this pack of nonsense to the garbage bin of history where it belongs.
There are many other myths that are accepted by smaller bands of zealots. Here are some of the more popular ones that have appeared in recent history:
• The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary was set up by the Obama Administration to demolish the Second Amendment and take guns away from patriotic Americans.
• President Clinton’s sexual misbehavior was caused by a group of right-wing extremists who sent Monica Lewinsky to prey on him.
• All the major problems in the world, including war, can be traced back to the fact that most people believe in God. Religious faith is a harmful meme that must be expunged from the world for the sake of peace and progress.
• The Founding Fathers were all stalwart believers who based the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution on the Bible. Thus, atheists and other non-Christians are against everything the United States was founded on.
• Gay marriage is a scheme promulgated by far-left radicals, who wish to destroy the institution of marriage and place the United States under Socialist dictatorship.
• All Muslims are enemies of the United States, who would gladly walk into our churches and elementary schools with bombs strapped to their chests, because that’s what their Sharia law tells them to do.
• All African-Americans, or virtually all of them, are criminals and freeloaders who want to rape white women and blame everything on slavery.
• All, or at least most, white people hate colored people and want to sterilize them.
• All Republicans love big business and worship Ayn Rand.
• All, or almost all, rich people are saints who earned their money through hard work and self-discipline. Anyone who thinks the wealthy owe a debt to society is a lazy parasite with a sense of entitlement.
• Rich people (with the exception of Hollywood celebrities, left-leaning musicians, and a handful of liberal business owners) got their money by oppressing the poor and raping the environment. Their money should be taken away from them and distributed to their countless victims.
• All Democrats hate America and want to remold the country to look just like France.
• The cure for every illness can be found in natural substances like herbs, or in meditation, yoga, or faith healing. Modern medicine is really just a giant scam run by greedy, evil billionaires. It actually creates more sickness than it heals with its autism-causing vaccines and carcinogenic compounds.
• All Christians, or at least those who identify as Evangelicals, are religious fanatics who want to slaughter gay people, remove government protection for the poor, and impose Old Testament morality on everyone else.
My point in mentioning these theories is that their wide acceptance points to a problem that has reached crisis proportions in modern society. That problem is the willingness to accept any claim that supports what one wishes to believe, while viciously attacking other views and those who hold them.
This problem is as endemic on the political Left as it is on the Right. It’s as common among Evangelical Christians as it is among militant atheists. It infects both gun control advocates and opponents, pro-lifers and pro-choicers, global warming proponents and skeptics, and so on and so on, ad nauseum.
It’s likely that you’ve heard most of the theories mentioned above; in fact, you may even believe a few of them. All of them are bunk, BS, silly nonsense. Yet each is embraced by tribes of devoted followers, who react with instant hostility towards anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs.
My opinion – and that of countless psychologists, sociologists, and seasoned observers of society – is that these theories offer a number of comforts to those who embrace them. These include:
• An easy-to-understand worldview that offers freedom from uncertainty and ambiguity.
• An excuse to indulge in hateful, violent impulses while feeling morally or intellectually superior.
• A way to bond with people who look, think, act, and believe like oneself.
• A chance to not only join a tribe, but also to rise in its ranks by proclaiming the favored ideology louder than others.
• A way to brush aside one’s own faults while condemning others for theirs.
• An excuse to hide from the fact that reality is complex and hard to grasp, and that sure answers to many very important questions, such as, “is there a God?” and, “why do good people suffer?” may forever be beyond us.
I suspect that, of all these reasons for irrational beliefs, the last one has the most explanatory power. The world is a dark, uncertain, frightening place, with countless unknowns that resist the efforts of humanity’s best and brightest thinkers to resolve. This is a terrifying truth to face, so people seek comfort by turning to a single, all-embracing worldview that promises to drive away the shadows and offer certainty.
And of course it helps if the chosen worldview happens to match one’s existing beliefs and preferences. So people who already lean to the Left are more likely to belong to the “truther” tribe, while those who gravitate to the Right join the “birther” group. The goal isn’t truth, it’s the options package that comes with each ideology
Some readers may respond by noting that this tendency has always existed in the human race, so why am I worried about it now? The problem isn’t one of substance but rather of degree. Yes, there have long been wackos who thought that men never walked on the Moon or that adding fluoride to drinking water was a Communist plot. But these persons were limited to small groups listening to obscure hosts on barely functioning AM radio stations. Nowadays, on the other hand, crazy is the norm. Instead of eliminating intolerance, today’s society repackages it in a million different flavors and markets it to every demographic.
“So why not let everyone have their own pet delusion?” some may ask. Here’s why: because in order for representative government to function properly, most people must be able to critically evaluate all sorts of ideas and to separate the truth in them from the BS. This means listening to what others think, without instantly dismissing them as evil, stupid, or crazy.
Or course, as I’ve pointed out in this post, some ideas truly are evil, stupid, and crazy. But the point is that they are demonstrably evil, stupid, and crazy. Just as crucial for our discussion here is that many ideas are neither clearly true nor false; good cases can be built for both sides. The classic example is the question of whether God exists. Believers point to flowers and foliage as proof that he does; non-believers look at cancer and crabgrass and say, “no, he’s doesn’t!” The bottom line, however, is that nobody knows for sure, and no one will find out until they die. That fact provides zero comfort to both sides, but that doesn’t make it any less true. What reason, then, to belittle or condemn those who see things differently than us, when it comes to questions that defy clear answers?
Abandoning polarized thinking and developing a capacity to consider multiple views has never been easy. In fact, it seems to run counter to human instinct. Nonetheless, the average person must do these things, and soon. The alternative is to watch as our society degenerates into warring ideological tribes that care about nothing but their own agenda. In fact, that is a pretty good description of America as it is right now.
If this trend gets worse, then those who thought the Founding Fathers were deluded and our Republic was doomed will ultimately be proven right, as America dissolves into either anarchy or tyranny. That’s something I’m unwilling to accept, and I hope you feel the same way.
In closing, I offer the following quotes from a trio of great thinkers you may be familiar with:
We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue; and then, when we are finally proved wrong, imprudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time. The only check on it is that, sooner or later, a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.
A great nation is like a great man;
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults to be his most benevolent teachers.
Why do you see the speck of sawdust that is in your brother’s eye, and ignore the hunk of timber that is in your own? How can you say to your brother, ‘let me take that speck out of your eye,’ when you’re blind because of the plank sticking out of yours? You hypocrite! Take the giant hunk of wood out of your own eye first, then you can see clearly to remove the tiny speck in your brother’s.