We live in an age of chronic disbelief. We have more information more readily available than at any time in human history, and yet, to many people, the information is false, a fabric of lies manufactured to support and sustain the epic mythologies of power.
Show us the pictures!
President Obama has wisely decided not to release the photographs of Osama bin Laden’s body, taking the position that such pictures would inflame passions and be disrespectful of the dead. While many people agree that this is a prudent decision, already, the predictable opposition and lunatic fringe are declaring that this is part of the cover-up, that the whole story of the death of Osama at the hands of U.S. Seals is as fabricated as…. well, moon landings.
Reuters purchased some photos from a Pakistani security official, and then the Huffington Post ran the photos. The pictures supposedly show the mayhem at the bin Laden compound, complete with some gory dead bodies. Well, I looked at the photos, and I have no idea what they prove. They are no more disgusting than much of what occurs on CSI on any given night. They show bullet-ridden bodies streaming blood. But they neither confirm nor refute anything.
Prove your birth!
Many of the same people who now challenge the veracity of the death of Osama have spawned the remarkably ugly industry trading in claims that President Obama was not really born in the United States. Release of the president’s birth certificate proved nothing to the birthers. I heard a guy on the radio the other day claiming that the birth certificate must be false because it lists Obama’s father as “African” — “they didn’t use that word back then,” claimed the caller, quite obviously confused about appropriate ethnic and demographic labels and their use over time. The president’s father actually was African, from Kenya. His mother was American, from Kansas. President Obama was born in Hawaii after it became a state. The birthers don’t want the facts, however, they want to diminish the president by demeaning his heritage. Their own lies would be simply preposterous if they were not so racist.
The examples of chronic disbelief are not just rampant in the blog-o-sphere fueled by conspiracy theorists typing away in their caves of ignorance. When Representative Joe Wilson hollered out, “You lie!” to President Obama from the floor of the U.S. Congress during the State of the Union address in 2009, the rampant climate of political disbelief reached a nadir.
Sure, skepticism of politicians is a healthy trait, and this nation’s proud democratic traditions encourage challenge and debate. People in power know that the price of winning elections is the relentless demand for accountability. The Fourth Estate — the news media — take it as their particular job to ensure truth in the polity by constantly challenging the facts put forth by politicians and others in power. This is all for the good to keep everyone honest.
Somewhere along the line, however, a substantial part of the social discourse declined from healthy, necessary skepticism and debate to outright incredulity for just about everything, and then from incredulity to the manufacture of its own version of reality, rife with its own lies and mythologies. Maybe it started in Dallas with the “second gunman” conspiracy theory after President Kennedy’s assassination. Maybe it was a necessary reaction to the pervasive evidence of lies throughout the Vietnam War, revealed in the Pentagon Papers, burnished to a white-hot core in the Watergate mess. Maybe it was a result of the increasingly intense “spin” rooms of modern political campaigns, a phenomenon that both hates and manipulates public communication through new media.
At some point, the weight of chronic disbelief becomes a paralyzing force in the political process. The more power the forces of disbelief wield, the more distracted the general public becomes, the more time the politicians spend creating responses to the ephemera of mythology rather than focusing on the hard facts of governing in difficult times.
With the 2012 presidential campaign already underway, the mainstream American electorate needs to exercise its own prudent judgment more than ever in demanding accountability from the politicians seeking their votes while rejecting the forces of dis-communication that warp true democracy. Let’s start by understanding the difference between expressing healthy skepticism of the powerful and manufacturing alternate universes out on the fringe. We need our leaders to spend their time and energy on real-world solutions to the big problems we face, not wasting time trying to counter rumors of alien forces on Pennsylvania Avenue.