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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Just Plain Getting it Wrong


Don’t Confuse Us With Facts, Please… The photo is of Park51, the proposed site of an Islamic cultural center, two Manhattan blocks north of where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood.

By now, I suspect, everyone in the country – except perhaps that escaped prisoner caught late last week in Arizona with his accomplice girl friend – has an opinion on whether the so called “Ground Zero mosque” is appropriate for this site.

(I’m making the assumption that the jail breaker might just have been too busy while out on the lamb to check in on cable TV or pick up a paper to follow this controversy, but who knows? Seems like everyone else is weighing in.)

There are many things of interest about the hottest story out of New York since Chelsea’s wedding. The “mosque issue” is fast becoming a political litmus for this year’s candidates and political analysts are debating how much voicing support and then walking it back a bit it is hurting the President. Republicans, for the most part, have jumped all over the issue and made the case that this is the worst idea, well, since Mohammad demanded the mountain come to him.

President Obama, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and some of former President George W. Bush’s guys have made the case that the issue must be about religious freedom and not condemning an entire religion by saying all Muslims harbor radical, violent intentions. Others ranging from Newt Gingrich to Harry Reid, in various shades of heated rhetoric, have condemned the location of the proposed Islamic center and, in many cases by extension, also condemned the religion to which 1.5 billion of the world’s people adhere.

One more thing of interest in this story, a story that has dominated the news now for close to three weeks, says a great deal about how information gets disseminated and used in the digital age. It is fascinating to me just how many of the essential elements of the story lack factual basis or have been so distorted in the repeated re-telling that they have little resemblance to the truth.

Hendrik Hertzberg, writing in the August 16 edition of The New Yorker tried to catalogue some of the details that have just gotten lost, or been distorted, or are just plain wrong as the story has picked up steam and controversy.

“Well, for a start,” Hertzberg wrote, “it won’t be at Ground Zero. It’ll be on Park Place, two blocks north of the World Trade Center site (from which it will not be visible), in a neighborhood ajumble with restaurants, shops (electronic, porn, you name it) churches, office cubes, and the rest of the New York mishmash. Park51, as it is to be called, will have a large Islamic “prayer room,” which presumably qualifies as a mosque. But the rest of the building will be devoted to classrooms, an auditorium, galleries, a restaurant, a memorial to the victims of September 11, 2001 (emphasis added), and a swimming pool and gym. Its sponsors envision something like the 92nd Street Y – a Y.M.I.A, you might say, open to all, including persons of the C. (Christian) and H. (Hebrew) persuasions.”

Hertzberg went on to note, as others have, that the principal backers of the center are immigrants from Kuwait (a country we went to war to liberate) and Kashmir and the man who is now routinely referred to in press accounts as “a controversial imam,” Feisal Abdul Rauf, is a Columbia University grad who has been in charge of a mosque in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York for nearly 30 years.

Rauf is so dangerous that the Federal Bureau of Investigation enlisted his help to “conduct ‘sensitivity training’ for agents and cops” after 9-11. Rauf is also the vice-chair of the New York Interfaith Council, which means he regularly associates with Christians and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists who, one assumes, thought enough of him to elected him vice-chair of their organization. (The founder and chairman emeritus of the Interfaith Council, by the way, is the retired Dean of the Cathedral of St. Patrick the Divine. Those Anglicans can be pretty radical.) Rauf has also often and at length, it is important to note, denounced terrorism in general and the 9-11 attacks in particular. Before it became popular for Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh to denounce him, Rauf palled around with Condi Rice and Karen Hughes of the Bush Administration.

Not quite the story that appears in the thousands of words written daily about this issue, but it does help explain, if not excuse, why so many people have made up their minds that the “Ground Zero mosque,” promoted by “radical Muslims” will be a threat to all Americans and an insult to the 9-11 victims and their families. Lots of folks believe that, it’s just not true. When I went to journalism school back in the dark ages, a old prof told us over and over that reporting a story – particularly a story steeped in controversy – required more than merely recounting what “he said and what she said.” That kind of journalism, the old, green eye shade guy would say, almost always ensures that “the truth goes and hangs itself.” Seems like that is what has happened on the south side of Manhattan.

There us much more evidence, everywhere you look, of the truth looking for a place to die. Consider, for a moment, the President’s religion and place of birth. Barack Obama wrote two best selling books about his life and background, books that have been poured over by reporters and his political enemies for years now. Books that discuss at some length his views on religion and what it means to him to be a Christian. Obama has given interviews and made speeches talking about his faith and, in particular, how those of us not of the tradition can begin to understand the black Christian church in America.

Yet according to a new Pew Research poll 20% of Americans now firmly believe the President is a Muslim. In the same survey, fully 34% of conservative Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim.

In his book The Audacity of Hope – you can look it up on page 208 – Obama writes about his decision to fully embrace Christianity:

“It was because of these newfound understandings – that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic or social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved – that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized. It came about as a choice and not an epiphany…I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to His truth.”

Reading those words, one who continues to believe Obama is a secret Muslim simply has to believe he is a serial teller of untruths, which may actually help explain the 34%. The opinion page editor of the Dallas Morning News wrote about this the other day and made a telling point when declaring that the paper would quit printing letters making religious claims about the President for which there is absolutely no evidence and that are clearly not true.

“Aren’t the people who claim Obama is a Muslim,” the editor asked, “some of the same people who said they could not trust a man whose Christian preacher said racist and unpatriotic things from the pulpit? Which is it? Is he a follower of a controversial Christian preacher or a Muslim?”

Truth and logic there, but is anyone paying attention?

Another 41% of Republicans in a recent CNN/Opinion Research poll believe Obama was “probably” or “definitely” born in another country. Even when a copy of Obama’s birth certificate, certified as authentic by officials in Hawaii, was posted on the Internet, the so called “birthers” continue to believe what just ain’t so.

Of course, there is more. The story continues to circulate that current Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner used to work at Goldman Sachs, one of the big, bailed out Wall Street banks. Nope, the Goldman guy was the last Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson.

Or, what about the now accepted notion that the terribly unpopular Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) – hated left and right in a rare show of bipartisanship about anything – was all Obama’s doing. Wrong again. TARP occurred on the Bush watch late in 2008 with W’s full backing, as well as that of John McCain.

What’s going on here? There are lots of theories, including one called the “backfire effect.” This notion holds that when a person harbors a particularly strong view, that is shown by facts and logic to be wrong, they often actually reject the facts and logic and strengthen their belief in what is false. It is a sort of “don’t confuse me with the facts” response, on steroids, to something that may be personally comforting or important to believe even if it is just not true.

One theory is that some folks so dislike Barack Obama – much as some folks so disliked George W. Bush – that they need/want to believe things that reinforce their views even if those things aren’t true. The human mind is a curious thing.

A political scientist, Brendan Nyhan, who is a Robert Wood Johnson scholar in health policy at the University of Michigan, has studied the “backfire effect” and recently told NPR’s Talk of the Nation that misinformed people – conservatives and liberals – rarely change their minds once they are made up. Now, there’s a cheery thought.

As traditional journalism declines apace, one of the promising new developments has been a greater commitment by some news organizations to good, old fashioned “fact checking.” There are websites devoted to this. One of the best is FactCheck.org that tries to keep politicians and others making public claims honest. It is, after all, possible to research and find real answers to many things.

Yogi Berra was right, once again, when he famously said “you can look it up.” Yes, you can, if you will. Nevertheless, Nyhan and others say fact checking, no matter how well it is done, may not have much impact on those who simply won’t be confused by, well, facts.

If, when talking or speculating about things that we believe that just aren’t true, we were focused on whether Elvis is really dead or whether Neil Armstrong really walked on the moon or why the U.S. Air Force just won’t come clean with all it knows about UFO’s, it would be a mild curiosity. We could write it off as just a fact of life that some people will believe what they want to believe. But, when the myths continually trump the facts for a significant number of people in the every day political and policy life of the nation, it is a cause to wonder – can this be good for the country?

The Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page calls what is going on “American dumb-ocracy” and cites as proof of the dumbing down not only the recent Pew survey about Obama’s religion, but also Jay Leno’s on-street interviews and evidence that way too many Americans, for example, have no idea what the First Amendment protects. Civic engagement, Page says, has to mean more than closely following Lindsay Lohan’s drinking problems. Page is discouraged about dumb-ocracy and me, too. He simply says, “heaven help us.”

Lincoln, I think, talked about not being able to fool all the people all the time. That is some cold comfort, but I’m also reminded of the old line, often attributed to Mark Twain, that “it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

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