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Of Petrified Giants and the Credulity Crisis

America has a Credulity Crisis.  It’s not that we have too little of it, it’s that we have way too much, and a credulity glut is the last thing a democracy needs.

It’s demoralizing to watch those in power or in pursuit of power lie so easily and persuasively (“death panels,” “Obama was born in Kenya.”) But liars have always had it easy. Mark Twain said, “A lie can make it halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Today, we might say Truth is devalued, delayed and being groped by a the TSA while Lie, exempt from the full body scan, is flown first class ’round and ’round the world.

Only in such a circumstance can the U.S. Transportation Safety Administration’s ugly assault upon two glories of American democracy – freedom of movement and personal privacy – be believed as necessary to “protect our freedom.”

Then again, “there’s a sucker born every minute.” That phrase is so popular that P.T. Barnum, who probably never said it, nonetheless thanked the rival that accused him of it.  A healthy half-dozen other American confidence men get credit for it, too. There’s evidence that the phrase arose from some source during a controversy between Barnum and a rival over whose circus had the authentic 10-foot tall, petrified man known as the Cardiff Giant. Only a sucker, it seems, would fall for a fake one.

Oh how we Americans want to believe. The trouble is, political freedom – and existential freedom, too – depend upon open, creative and intelligent interaction with the environment. “Think again” is good advice. A little incredulity goes a long way.

Delusion and illusion are deadly, for individuals and society. Making them more dangerous, we are quite often our own private suckers. Thinking and discernment require assumptions, mental habits, metaphor, prediction, memory and language with all its limitations. Often, we’re not as open, creative and intelligent as we think we are, even when we’re thinking about freedom. We need skepticism, open-mindedness and incredulity to set us right.

Jesus figured this out. “You will know them by their fruits,” Jesus said of false prophets (Matthew 7:16). In other words, forget gossip, spin, beguiling tales or your own knee-jerk reactions: “Think again.”  When Socrates said (in Plato’s Apology) that he knew nothing, he was stepping away from all his assumptions, habits, metaphors, etc. that could make of his judgments something less than truthful. The advice is precisely that given centuries later by American philosopher William James and his heirs.

Buddha was even more explicit. In the Kalamasutra, Buddha said:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.
Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

We ought to make cable networks crawl that advice across the bottom of the screen 24 hours a day. The Buddha’s charter of free inquiry ought to be a public service announcement repeated every 15 minutes on talk radio. Newspapers ought to print it daily.

Sucker-hunters like Roger Ailes, Karl Rove, and Sarah Palin will always be with us. We don’t have to reward them like we do, however. The Credulity Crisis won’t go away until Americans begin living up to the expectations of the Framers, who knew democracy depended upon, well, what Buddha said.

When we believe in a Cardiff Giant, we become like him: immobilized, petrified humans incapable of freedom.

Access to information is clearly not enough. We need to renew our commitment to critical thinking, in public school and beyond. I know plenty of adults who need to be taught the skills. It should be embodied in all of our work. It should be required of the media and its importance reported by the media.

Many don’t agree about this because it threatens them. During a right-wing attack on reading skills two years ago, Republican Texas Board of Education member David Bradley said:

This critical thinking stuff is gobbledygook.

Bradley’s phrase fairly drowns one in a whirlpool of doublespeak. If Bradley and others wanted to erase gobbledygook, they’d come to praise critical thinking, not bury it.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith