Genesis of Gullibility
Beliefs, Superstitions, Lies
Candide’s Notebooks/March 10, 2006
It can be astounding to what extent Americans will believe anything. I’m not using the phrase lightly, as a cliché, but in its literal meaning: they’ll believe anything. Belated epiphanies aside, they’re back to their Eisenhower-era naïveté, when anything spilling out of a marginally governmental mouth had the ring of gospel. It wasn’t to be questioned, merely transcribed and played up as news, whatever it happened to be. Any progress since? Not when a majority of Americans thought Saddam and al-Qaeda were in cahoots over 9/11, when more thought so on the eve of the invasion of Iraq three years ago (they had to hang the illegalities about to unfold on something), or still think the link was fact rather than one of those inventions out of the Bush junta’s treasure chest of slithers and lies.
I’m reminded of one of the letters Air Force Capt. Jerry Shank wrote home in January 1964. He was flying in Vietnam and losing heart. He didn’t think the U.S. was bound to fail, but he saw the nonsensical ways the military was going about fighting the war. “If we keep up like we are going, we will definitely lose. I’m not being pessimistic. It’s too obvious.” This is 1964 mind you, four years before Cronkite finally had his epiphany. “How our government can lie to its own people,” Shank wrote, “it’s something you wouldn’t think a democratic government could do. I wish I were a prominent citizen or knew someone who could bring this before the U.S. public. However, if it were brought before the average U.S. family, I’m sure all they’d do is shake their heads and say tch-tch and tune in another channel on TV.” These days they tune in to the daily parody of journalism posing as Fox News, where the lies are shaped in Thomas Kinkade hues and wrapped in the flag (never mind’s Kinkade’s sham). Sweet Jesus indeed.
But there is a genesis to the gullibility. It’s revealed every couple of years, burning-bush-in-the-desert-like, compliments of the Gallup Poll or some such oracle of despair: We live in a country where 84 percent of Americans believe God performs miracles, where 79 percent believe the miracles in the Bible actually took place, though the 71 percent who believe outsourcing is going to hurt their job security are probably bitching that God is focusing his miraculous cuticles on Bangalore or Singapore or Kuala Lumpur at the expense of Bible-belted Indiana. We live in a country where 79 percent of the people believe in Angels, and where, after all, the same couple of voting generations managed to reelect Nixon Reagan and Bush. The latest Gallup Poll, released on March 8, has about half of Americans rejecting evolution as an explanation of man’s origins. About half “believe that God created humans at one time ‘as is.’” Half. Next thing they’ll tell you is that God created suburbia, Wal-Mart and cheap oil, too, “as is.” They already do. And we wonder why it’s so easy to mislead, to pass off cartoonish war plots as gospel truths, to persist in this endless accumulation of defeats.
“If false teaching leads to tyranny and we cannot discover absolute truths,” the great and indestructible Jacques Barzun wrote in Of Human Freedom the very same year Capt. Shank was writing those letters home, “what can we teach that is not open to the charge of propaganda? The answer is: the diffusion of ideas is propaganda, whether fascist, communist, or democratic. The democratic hope has always been to raise the standard of gullibility, to sharpen judgment, to confront opposite propagandas.” That democratic hope these days shines as dimly as an overshadowed star in the recesses of Orion. This is an age of beliefs blind, blinding and bleached of the redeeming corollary of beliefs in less fanatical ages: the capacity for good will. Capt. Shank whom I quoted above, by the way, was killed in combat three months after he wrote those words. He died on March 24, 1964—39 years to the week when that other folly known as Operation Iraqi Freedom began.
Pierre Tristam is an editorial writer and columnist at the Daytona Beach, Fla., News-Journal, and editor of Candide's Notebooks. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org