You Gotta Believe

Birthers, truthers, and creationists threaten to take us back to the future


| January-February 2011


Henceforth, people will be looking at the universe with the eyes of oxen. —Katib Chelebi, 17th-century geographer

 

“Barack Obama won’t show us his birth certificate,” says Steve, a Connecticut resident and small-business owner, while he’s shoveling his walk. “He’s a Muslim terrorist. And you know what really bothers me? He is doing exactly what Hitler did.”

Steve has plenty of other opinions relating to the American president, culture, and society. He can rattle off the prized talking points of this country’s culture of belief without missing a beat: The moon landing was a hoax; the world is ending in 2012; 9/11 was an inside job; creationism is valid science.

A hardworking fellow and family man in a postindustrial factory town of a blue state, Steve does not come across as fanatical. Yet his adherence to raw belief—a position unassailable by factual counter-data—is more than an inherently dangerous American mind-set. It is a deadly challenge to the aim of humanism.

The “belief” mind-set is pretty common in the news these days. Much of the believers’ ire seems directed at the current presidential administration, and it’s now getting legal attention: The U.S. Army is set to court-martial a soldier who refused deployment to Afghanistan because the soldier—Lieutenant Colonel Terry Lakin—shares with Steve the belief that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen. Neither Lakin nor Steve nor thousands of other “birthers” can put forth any evidence, documentation, or data that withstands the test of scrutiny. They just, well, believe it.

PeteNRepete
2/2/2011 2:13:54 PM

The last few nights of Chris Matthews has been all about this issue. He's pulling no punches when calling people out for what this piece calls "a culture of belief." Hes been having birthers on, and death-panel fruities, and tore Michelle Bachmann a new @sshole for her weird version of American history where, according to her, the founding fathers completely eliminated slavery! I don't know why the media doesn't do this more often, you know, like actually calling out someone when they're wrong. Splendid and ballsy piece.


snacks
1/31/2011 8:59:57 AM

Karin, I appreciate your taking the time to understand and address my point. I agree with your characterization of the main point of the article, and to a certain extent I agree with that point. All of the individual examples are right on, I just thought the article used these examples selectively to support a simplistic thesis that is symptomatic of a polarizing trend in public discourse. I thought the argument was a bit tired, but more importantly, making a complicated issue simple is an underrated form of inaccuracy. I do disagree with your point that truth is only for philosophy classes. First of all, facts, and not just moral truths, are more complicated and hard to discover and interpret than you give them credit for. And even if we all know the same facts and prioritize them the same way that often doesn't settle things. Second, many, if not all, political debates are embattled by some combination of misinformation and deep moral disagreement so it can be hard to separate those two things. So if we stop at settling the facts, if that's even possible, we are missing a big part of the problem. Take for example the nasty debates about abortion and end-of-life health care. I've got my views, but I will grant to the other side that many of them seem to be engaged in a genuine and heartfelt debate about when human life truly begins and ends, and how best to value and respect it.


Karin
1/27/2011 7:49:29 AM

snacks, sorry but I have to take issue with you again. The article is not saying, as you claim, that "Truth with a capital T is always there to be found." It repeatedly makes the case that FACT is what can be found. And that's the difference. Facts are all around us, and the right technology and dedication has been uncovering facts since the dawn of history. Truth is for philosophy classes. Fact is what maks the world go round. I also take issue (again) with your misrepesentation of the article's point on faith. I thought Trent took a deft road when tackling religion; he didn't condemn it, as long as it didn't sideline rational decision-making. If you believe gay marriage is evil, for example, that's fine, but Trent is saying that when you attempt to pass laws based on that belief and have nothing rational to make your case (i.e. somehow showing facts that gay marriage is evil and will destroy America) then you are in the wrong. Beliefs are fine unless you're trying to shape public policy with them, when public policy should be shaped by a consideration of the facts. You keep trying to simplify the argument into a straw man. There are multiple things being discussed, and your tact is disingenuous at best.