The discomfort of thought

    The latest manifestation of public cluelessness – namely, the sharp uptick in the percentage of Americans who erroneously believe that President Obama is a Muslim – brings to mind a remark uttered nearly a half century ago by John F. Kennedy:

    “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived, and dishonest, but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

    The myth that Obama is a Muslim (whereas, need we say it again, he’s Christian) now appears to be stronger than ever. The new poll released yesterday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center shows that a growing share of citizens prefer the comfort of opinion over the discomfort of thought. Eighteen percent, nearly one in five people, now embrace the Muslim myth. That’s a hefty hike from 11 percent, as recorded by Pew in March ’09. Naturally, conservative Republicans are driving this increase – 34 percent of them now think that Obama is a Muslim, nearly double their ’09 percentage – but perhaps the most noteworthy finding is that a growing share of independents (eight percent more than in ’09) now endorse the myth as well.

    And that’s just the Pew poll. In the latest Time poll, 24 percent of Americans – and, within that statistic, a whopping 46 percent of Republicans – now declare themselves to be fans of the counterfactual.

    What’s going on here, anyway? Why are so many people so willing to take refuge in delusion?

    The latest manifestation of public cluelessness – namely, the sharp uptick in the percentage of Americans who erroneously believe that President Obama is a Muslim – brings to mind a remark uttered nearly a half century ago by John F. Kennedy:

    “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived, and dishonest, but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

    The myth that Obama is a Muslim (whereas, need we say it again, he’s Christian) now appears to be stronger than ever. The new poll released yesterday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center shows that a growing share of citizens prefer the comfort of opinion over the discomfort of thought. Eighteen percent, nearly one in five people, now embrace the Muslim myth. That’s a hefty hike from 11 percent, as recorded by Pew in March ’09. Naturally, conservative Republicans are driving this increase – 34 percent of them now think that Obama is a Muslim, nearly double their ’09 percentage – but perhaps the most noteworthy finding is that a growing share of independents (eight percent more than in ’09) now endorse the myth as well.

    And that’s just the Pew poll. In the latest Time poll, 24 percent of Americans – and, within that statistic, a whopping 46 percent of Republicans – now declare themselves to be fans of the counterfactual.

    What’s going on here, anyway? Why are so many people so willing to take refuge in delusion?

    JFK’s riff on human nature is a good starting point, but I prefer the blunter diagnosis offered by historian Rick Shenkman, editor and founder of the History News Network website. In his ’08 book, Just How Stupid Are We?, he wrote: “Any dolt can make fun of a politician. What if the real problem isn’t with them, but with us – or, to be more precise, those among us who exhibit habitual stupidity?”

    Shenkman defined the characteristics of stupidity, including: “sheer ignorance of critical facts about important events in the news, and ignorance of how our government functions and who’s in charge…the disinclination to seek reliable sources of information…the inclination to believe what we want to believe, regardless of the facts.”

    This is a tough subject to discuss, given our populist impulses, but the statistical truth is that The People are often as dim as Joe the Plumber. One national poll, conducted in 2006, says it all: Only 25 percent of Americans were able to name more than one of the five freedoms encoded in the First Amendment (speech, religion, press, assembly, petition for redress of grievances), while more than half of all Americans were able to name at least two members of the Simpsons cartoon family. Better yet, 22 percent of Americans could name all five Simpsons, whereas just .1 percent could name all five First Amendment freedoms. D’oh!

    This kind of result is typical. In recent years, other polls have reported that only 25 percent of Americans could correctly identify the length of a U. S. Senate term (six years); only 30 percent could name the length of a House term (two years); only 20 percent knew that there are 100 senators; only 30 percent knew that Roe v. Wade was the high court ruling that legalized abortion. Since 2001, sizable percentages have insisted that 9/11 was plotted by Saddam Hussein, or that U.S. officials engineered it as an inside job.

    And current events apparently stump a lot of people as well; last month, according to Pew, 47 percent of Americans said that Obama started the bank bailout, while 34 percent named George W. Bush. The correct answer was Bush. No word yet on what percentage of Americans believe that “Elena Kagan” is a girlfriend who hangs with Snooki on Jersey Shore.

    But the “sheer ignorance” factor can’t fully explain those Muslim stats. Shenkman’s third definition – “the inclination to believe what we want to believe” – is clearly the most relevant. When people are drawn to a myth, the facts don’t matter. Those who dislike Barack Obama are increasingly inclined to dismiss him as an alien figure, as The Other, and therefore they are more willing to swallow the faux factoids that pop up in viral emails or on tea-party placards. As Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (please tell me you have heard of him) was once quoted as saying, “If the people believe there’s an imaginary river out there, you don’t tell them there’s no river out there. You build an imaginary bridge over the imaginary river.”

    Reacting yesterday to the Pew poll, the White House said: “The president’s strong Christian faith is what guides him through the challenges, but he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve.” Some commentators insist that Obama should be wearing it on his sleeve, and that the Muslim myth would lose its potency if Obama simply showed up more often at church. I don’t buy that one. If the White House suddenly began to flood us with photo-ops of the president in public prayer – indeed, even if Obama began to quote the New Testament in all his speeches – the myth embracers would probably conclude that the Muslim was cleverly seeking to cloak his true faith in fake Christian piety.

    The real problem, a subset of baseline stupidity, is willful demonization and the inclination to believe it. Obama’s policies are unpopular with a growing percentage of Americans who are understandably freaked about the economy. When a president is unpopular, some people are more inclined to believe the worst about him. And the worst about Obama appears to dovetail with the worst phobias about Islam. Ronald Reagan rarely went to church and never wore religion on his sleeve, but even when his tenure was in the dumps (1982, with 10 percent unemployment), he was never perceived even by liberals as The Other. Such were the inherent advantages of being a white guy with a face seemingly chiseled from all-American bedrock. In terms of image, Obama has less margin for error.

    Bottom line? The best way Obama can beat the Muslim myth is to preside over an America on the road to economic recovery. If we’re on the mend, fewer people would think the worst. Democratic talking head Paul Begala was probably right yesterday when he quipped that if the economy was creating jobs, “I don’t think people would care if he were a Druid.”

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