Monday, June 30, 2008

Willfully Stupid

There are people who will believe anything in spite of tons of evidence to the contrary. That includes people who try to disprove evolution, try to prove that the Earth is flat, and that Adam Sandler is ripped off at the Oscars every year. This year you can add people who believe the gossip about Barack Obama.

FINDLAY, Ohio — On his corner of College Street, Jim Peterman stares at the four American flags planted in his front lawn and rubs his forehead. Peterman, 74, is a retired worker at Cooper Tire, a father of two, an Air Force veteran and a self-described patriot. He took one trip to Washington in 1989 — best vacation of his life — and bought a statue of the Washington Monument that he still displays in a glass case in his living room.

He believes a smart vote is an American’s greatest responsibility. Which is why his confusion about Barack Obama continues to eat at him.

On the television in his living room, Peterman has watched enough news and campaign advertisements to hear the truth: Sen. Barack Obama, born in Hawaii, is a Christian family man with a track record of public service. But on the Internet, in his grocery store, at his neighbor’s house, at his son’s auto shop, Peterman has also absorbed another version of the Democratic candidate’s background, one that is entirely false: Barack Obama, born in Africa, is a possibly gay Muslim racist who refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

“It’s like you’re hearing about two different men with nothing in common,” Peterman said. “It makes it impossible to figure out what’s true, or what you can believe.”

The gay bit is news to me, but the rest of it has been flying around since the internet first heard of Barack Obama back in 2004.

What I find both fascinating and maddening is that people who normally display all the signs of being reasonably intelligent are able to fall hook, line, and sinker for a rumor as long as it’s strange or negative about someone they don’t know, and the more exotic the better. It’s not a mystery that human nature goes this way — how else would you explain the circulation numbers for the National Enquirer — but it still makes you wonder why. Could it be that their lives are so predictably comfortable and static that this type of esoterica provides them with some kind of thrill? Are they looking for some kind of excuse to explain why they won’t vote for someone like Barack Obama — other than the irrelevancies of a funny name and the skin color? Or is there something more deeply ingrained in us that lets something like that overwhelm the normal bullshit detector and makes us willfully stupid? (For the record, it works on both sides of the aisle; I didn’t believe the sordid stories about George W. Bush’s colorful drug past or rumors about his marriage. After all, why look at more evidence when the table is already groaning from legitimate examples?)

I suspect that all of us have an agenda of our own and we fit the evidence, the stories, the rumors, and the facts to fit into how we want it in order to affirm that agenda. If your mind is already made up to not vote for Barack Obama — or John McCain — it’s very hard for anyone to get you to change your mind, and the more they try to either debunk the rumors or enforce the truth, the harder you will push back. That’s human nature and I suppose it’s part of the survival instinct that keeps us secure and stable, but when it comes to turning a blind eye to the glaringly obvious truth or fallacy of a story, it truly makes you wonder if Darwin was right after all.