When I was nine I saw a leprechaun!
I’m not kidding. I was in the back seat of our car driving up the hill from the hotel my dad managed, back in Bermuda. I’d ridden up that hill, in that seat, hundreds of times. I knew every rock and clump of grass by heart.
Anyway, there he sat, up against a familiar rock: little green pants, little green vest, little green top hat, small little bone-white pipe. Captain Ahab beard – white, no moustache. I screamed like we had just run over Lassie.
Stop the car!
What is it?
Stop the car! Stop the car!
Dad stopped the car, and I nearly broke Mom’s nose on the dashboard as I flew out of the back seat and ran for the rock.
Gone! The little bastard had ducked into one of his tunnels. This didn’t surprise me much: it’s tough enough to actually see a leprechaun, but to catch one – that was the real bitch. And by the way, I wasn’t interested in Learning About His Little Customs or Making a Wee Friend for Life by letting him go. I wanted his pot of gold so I could buy a dolphin to go snorkeling with.
My parents had to restrain me with ropes to get me to leave. The second I got home, I got on my bike and dashed directly back to the spot. I searched there every day for weeks. I never saw him again. If you had told me that having just seen Finian’s Rainbow the week before might have influenced my nine-year-old imagination, I would have said, Yeah, okay, but I SAW him! And I did see him. I saw him with my own two eyes.
Fast forward six long, dry, magic-free years. Miami, 1975. It’s Friday night and I’m on the roof of the Southern Cross Observatory at the Museum of Science and Space Transit Planetarium. I’ve just been made, as far as I know, the World’s Youngest Planetarium Console Operator, an honor so monumental in the Great Halls of Geekdom as to ensure that I would not get a date for at least three years.
So there I was, trying to convince a group of about twenty people that the image of Saturn they were looking at was not a slide taped to the eyepiece, when all of a sudden, someone screams: My God! Look! UFO’s!
And sure enough, there they were: A V-shaped formation of dully glowing ovals flying pretty much right for us! People were screaming, crying, hugging each other. One of our Junior Birdmen ran for the phones to scramble the interceptors. And they kept coming: no running lights, no sound at all, just weird, slowly moving grey ovals.
I had waited for this moment since I saw the leprechaun six years before. I grabbed the binoculars, and--.
What?! Are they charging their Death Rays?
Nah. They’re just birds.
How could they be birds? But they were. They were geese, with dark necks and wings, but white bellies. These white oval bellies were reflecting the city lights, but if you looked carefully as they got closer, even without the binoculars, you could see the long necks and thin, flapping wings.
It was a flock of geese.
And then something happened that I will never forget: that crowd wasn’t relieved; they weren’t even disappointed. They were angry. They were angry at me. Not dogs and pitchforks and torches angry, but they were surly enough to burn the moment into my young brain.
I had taken away their magic.
There’s a strange cloud that’s settled over our modern society. It’s a pervasive sort of bland contempt for an ingenious collection of lenses and mirrors that can reveal a giant ball of hydrogen, helium, methane and ammonia, billions of miles away, surrounded by untold millions of ice fragments in delicate orbit, yet one which will ascribe to the most banal unknown, a life-changing, quit-your-insurance-job-and-live-in-a-tree status.
For our entire history, right up until a hundred years ago, the idea of flying carpets and magic lanterns held people’s imaginations in thrall. Now that we have everyday miracles like jet aircraft and electric lights, all some people want is to return to a time when the belief in magic was common, but the everyday blessings of magic – telephones, computers, antibiotics – didn’t exist. Back in the anti-nuclear 80’s lots of folks drove around with SPLIT WOOD NOT ATOMS bumper stickers, and I often asked myself, how much wood have these people actually split? I’ve done an hour in my 20’s and I thought I was going to die.
It’s sad, frankly – at least to people like me. I find it terribly, tragically sad that the more successful and comfortable we become, the more people pine for a time when none of these everyday miracles existed. Outdoor bathrooms on January nights and miserable coal stoves that need to be tended hourly just to heat a pathetic half-gallon of tepid water need to be experienced to be believed – and not just in a 24 hour adventure, but continuously. Death, hunger, cold, disease, infant mortality – we have fought them tooth and nail for millennia, for what? Apparently in order to so insulate people that they can long for “ancient wisdom,” return to the “holistic tribal remedies” of the past, and hold up the most primitive and achingly poor cultures on earth as being the sole repository of “authenticity,” while scorning every advance that they take completely for granted.
Magical thinking is everywhere today, and it is growing. It threatens the foundations of reason, individualism, science and objectivity that have delivered this success so well and for so long. It is dangerous. If we are to continue to thrive and progress, then we need to sharpen some sticks and drive a stake through the heart of this monster, and right quick.
I’ll use the term Magical Thinking as a pretty big umbrella to cover a whole host of creeping intellectual chicanery: superstition, wishful thinking, pseudoscience, unsubstantiated claims, assertion, mysticism and anti-science.
Like so many of our other destructive tendencies, this whole mess really started in the latter part of the 1960’s. It’s a sad comment to make, because we were the first nation founded after the Enlightenment, and reason and clarity thunder so triumphantly throughout the Constitution that, in the immortal words of P.J. O’Rourke, the operating manual for an unruly nation of 300 million people is about one-quarter the length of the one for a Toyota Camry.
Of course, superstition and magical thinking have been with us since the dawn of time, but up until very recently, we Americans have prided ourselves on our scientific bent, our Yankee ingenuity – which is nothing less than applying common sense, reason, and hard work to find new ways to solve age-old problems. For most of our history, our public schools were the envy of the world. The very idea that a whole nation could educate their entire population was so radical that scholars from around the world flocked to the United States in the nineteenth century to see such a bold miracle for themselves.
Even before the late 1950’s, when Sputnik lit a fire under science and technical education, US public schools performed magnificently. Now I’m not a professional educator, but I suspect this might have had something to do with the fact that we were more interested in teaching history, science, writing, literature and math than we were about raising self-esteem, discussing birth control and indoctrinating political and environmental beliefs. There were specialized people who taught these things way back then, and they were called “parents.” The only “soft science” taught in those days was “citizenship,” a class that sounds so dated and quaint today that we can only lament how far we have fallen. The idea that we would teach people how the system works, rather than telling them what to think about it, has long gone. And we continue to pay the price for it.
Anyway, some time in the late 1960’s, Sauron gets the Ring and along comes the Hippie movement. Their entire philosophy was summed up succinctly in a slogan from the times: if it feels good, do it.
As a life philosophy, it simplistic and childlike. It is also extremely subtle and pervasive, and as a personal philosophy it has enormous seductive power. It frees you from the constraints of discipline, study, responsibility and ethics, not to mention relieving you of the burden of making choices based on evidence, reason, logic or fact.
Now those Hippies are college professors, and post-modernism is their Graille.
You know the drill: No objective reality. All truth is relative. You can believe whatever you want, when you want. You can be descended from Atlantean Priests! You can have Mental Powers to move objects, read the future, and speak to dead people! Even better, you can save six billion trillion tons of silicon, nickel and iron in the third orbit around the sun –- a sphere that has endured 5 billion years of asteroid impacts, volcanoes, ice ages, and having its core knocked out and into orbit -- by holding up a piece of wood with some lettered cardboard on one end and by marching down the street chanting two-line political philosophies!
What’s not to like!
Let’s go kill some vampires…
Because it is so susceptible to fact and logic, the very best way to fight magical thinking is to simply grant the premise and look at the consequences. This is a silver-tipped, hardened oak stake dipped in garlic paste made from holy water when it comes to demolishing some of these ideas.
Let's start with those geese bellies…
UFOs, proponents tell us, are physical vehicles from other solar systems carrying large-eyed, small bodied beings who are so technologically and spiritually advanced that they can wing through the light years at will, carry objects aloft on beams of light, move through walls, dispense advice for cultural survival and administer anal probes.
The constancy of the speed of light as a natural speed limit has been so thoroughly and completely tested and vindicated, that these aliens must have learned to harness the power of entire galaxies to bore wormholes through spacetime, which would be necessary to have these infinitely fast, staggeringly maneuverable, gravity-defying, super-hardened space-metal saucers in the skies over our planet.
Well, turns out that in 1946 one of these antigravity, faster than light, space-metal disks…uh…ran into a hill. The ultra-classified alien voice data recorder yielded a single sound: zzrrzzrrrD’oh!rrzzzrr!)
Yes, in 1946 one of these ultra-advanced beings was arguing with the little podlings in the back seat, took his eye off the Iludium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator, and then came the Earth-Shattering Ka-Boom! right outside of Roswell, New Mexico.
They – The Government – recovered a few strips of crumpled aluminum. UFOlogists point to the picture of the Air Force officer holding up a couple of Jiffy-Pop fragments as “hard evidence” – but as for me, I’d like my anti-gravity, faster-than-light intergalactic hyper-dimensional space-metal saucer to produce something more than one-fifth the wreckage you’d expect from a Cessna 150 hitting the ground at 40 mph flown by some teenager experimenting with The Weed.
Apparently, Area 51 has at least one, if not several of these accident-prone vehicles. They are being ‘reverse-engineered’ by the CIA and other Black organizations.
I have on a cheap digital wristwatch. Don’t ask why. Now presumably these masters of gravity, wormholes and anal probes are far, far ahead of us in science and technology – hundreds, or more likely thousands of years more advanced. But let’s take my cheapo, simple, everyday wristwatch back to a watchmaker of only 100 years ago – the finest Swiss watchmaker of 1903. What could he reasonably expect to reverse engineer?
Upon opening the back, he would find – what? No gears, no jeweled movements. No springs or hands. Completely silent, not a hint of ticking. The case – what is that? Not wood, not metal – more of that smooth, curved stuff. And what about that tiny green square wafer with the strange markings on it? Forget about making one that worked for himself – what the hell is that? What does it do? And the numerals – just a piece of clear plastic – only he has no idea what plastic is, let alone the liquid crystal matrix.
He pushes a button. The thing beeps. Where the hell did that come from! There are no visible bellows or acoustic horns to make such a sound. And the accuracy! And – my god! It lights up in the dark! No gas lines, no wicks, no flame of any kind!
Even the nylon strap and Velcro would be completely beyond him.
If the smartest man on earth of 100 years ago would be baffled and driven to madness by a $15 dollar watch, how are we expected to believe that NASA is reverse engineering a faster than light, anti-gravity Spaceship? The ancient Egyptians would have a far easier time reverse-engineering the Space Shuttle.
Why is it that every certified, approved, authorized and official UFO photo has been revealed by experts – or the perpetrators – to be a hoax? That can’t be good. What does it say for the credulity of these people when you can see video reporting of three UFO’s flying in rigid formation at night: a bright white light in the middle, and a red light on one side and a green one on the other? Startling footage shows a string of lights over Phoenix one evening, and thousands call the police reporting the alien armada. Looking at the video, it’s clear that these are either a string of parachute flares or a sinister invasion battlefleet of slowly descending anti-gravity flying disks populated by super-intelligent alien creatures from another solar system. The military response was a deafening yawn. The news media, on the other hand, rushed to welcome our new Insect Overlords and began rounding up humans to work in their underground sugar caves.
But why bother with questions like this? If it feels good to believe that we are being watched over by advanced beings, then none of this will stop you.
More likely, you believe that you are nothing more than an impotent, faceless cog in a vast conspiracy of silence and oppression, a victim of government cover-ups and hidden agendas, of dark metallic disks under canvas in subterranean hangars. If that’s what makes you feel better about your failures and frustrations, then, hey – asking questions like this won’t even slow you down.
But realize this: if your worldview requires all sorts of secret kingdoms, unknowable motives, and unseen forces moving behind the veil of normal human experience, then you have taken yourself from the realm of a free citizen responsible for his own destiny and that of his nation, to a frightened caveman quivering in fear of distant Thunder Gods: immobilized, helpless and in a state of abject surrender. You have thrown away the hard work of millions and millions of your fellow human beings who have worked and studied their entire lives to raise you from those very depths.
Shame on you.
There is a lake in Scotland inhabited by a giant, long-necked creature, a plesiosaur that we thought went extinct fifty million years before man came down from the trees. This gigantic, air-breathing reptile inhabits the cold, dark, murky depths of Loch Ness.
Got it. Granting the premise…
What have we got? Some stories from eyewitnesses. Like the one by the British naturalist who took the most famous picture of the Monster, the famed “surgeon photo.” You’ve all seen it.
Only the son of the photographer has admitted that this single most compelling piece of evidence was a fake. He made a recreation of the model – it’s about the size of a large rubber ducky (and if you look at the picture again, you realize just how small and out of scale it looks relative to the waves).
Divers and automated remote cameras have scoured the Loch. There’s a picture of a fin – only the picture has been enhanced, rotated, and ‘dodged’ – the original shows an unremarkable -- and tiny -- bit of debris on the bottom. No sign of Nessie. What is much more damaging is that there is no sign of much of anything – especially fish. This ten-ton ancient dinosaur presumably does not order out for pizza. What the hell does it eat?
And this is most damning: plesiosaurs were air-breathing. Why is it that the best evidence for the Loch Ness Monster is a distant, grainy video of an ‘unexplained’ wake, shot in the far distance. This creature has to come up for air several times an hour. If we grant that there is a breeding population of aquatic dinosaurs surviving in Loch Ness, they should be sticking their heads out of the water like a giant whack-a-mole game, 24/7. If air-breathing dinosaurs really inhabited these lakes in Europe, and Africa and the US, then the best evidence would be the body hauled ashore by a shotgun-toting British Marine after Nessie ate a busload of tourists in full view of the world press.
Think about it. What if there really is an air-breathing dinosaur in this lake. How many HDTV recordings would there be in a single day. Fifty? A hundred?
Divers did find many sunken logs on the bottom of these peaty, dismal waters. Some of these will, on occasion, float to the surface as the gases from their decay increases their buoyancy. From a distance, they look like a dark, humped shape breaking the water. They eventually sink again.
So which is more likely? A log floats loose, maybe a boat wake propagates across a glassy lake for ten or twenty minutes? Or that a ten ton air-breathing dinosaur the size of a city bus, extinct for 50 million years, escapes detection in a fish-free lake scoured by dozens of cameras every day for the past fifty years?
But people swear they saw it! Same with the UFO’s. many of these people are lying -- convincingly lying, as they did with Nessie's "surgeon photo." Some of them, though, are undoubtedly telling the truth. Like I said, I saw a Leprechaun when I was nine. Saw him clearly enough to stop the car. Saw him clearly enough to go back looking for him every day, for weeks, until my parents took such pity on me they put a few leprechaun dolls around the house in the middle of the night and swore up and down they had nothing to do with it – just so that I could find something.
I saw it. That doesn’t mean it was there.
The immediate, knee-jerk reaction to such hard-headed looks at magical events is to state that rationalists are shuffling grey automatons gloomily dissecting flowers and bunnies through thick lenses and tightly-pursed lips, relentlessly crushing wonder and awe.
What a bunch of crap.
I don’t have a problem with UFO’s, Bermuda Triangles, Sea Monsters, Ghosts, Crystals, Crop Circles and Atlantis because I think they are silly. Silly Things, like the Ministry of Silly Walks, are a prime ingredient of sanity.
I object to these things not because they are silly, but because they are lazy. They are just, in the final analysis, so incredibly boring, mundane and unimaginative, compared to the real wonders, the authentic magic. Look! A Leprechaun! It's like a man! Only smaller than most men you normally see!
We ooh and ahh at some circles stamped out in a wheat field, but completely ignore pillars of gas and dust so beautiful and so enormous that if you drove fast enough to cross the US in a second, your great–grandchildren would grow old before they reached the end of it. We, a species that can make things from individual atoms, who can decode the history of every living thing on earth, draw maps of the world of a billion years ago, take pictures of the far side of Neptune’s moons, puzzle out virtual particles in a bubbling quantum soup, look into space and time back to the first .0000000000000001 second of the Big Bang and who can conceive of and live their lives by concepts such as honor and justice and freedom, can find enough REAL magic, enough authentic, verifiable wonders to keep us busy for as long as we live. Yet this species stands in line to buy books about a face on Mars and how to keep razor blades sharp by storing them in a pyramid made from popsicle sticks.
We are failing our children if we let a two-dollar piece of particle board obscure the view of the redwood forest just beyond it. Give me half an hour in an observatory with anyone and I will introduce them to wonders they will think about for the rest of their lives.
They are more challenging than flying saucers, sea serpents, or wee people with their pots of gold. To understand them enough to be floored by their magnificence requires a little patience, a little imagination. It does, in fact, require some work.
But these wonders have one powerful advantage. They have the advantage of being real.
We all have people who have influenced our thinking – more, for in a very real sense they have made us into who we are. For me, one of the pillars of who I have become was the late Dr. Carl Sagan.
Sagan was not only a great writer, he was a scientist of the first order. When I first read The Dragons of Eden I could see, at last, some basis for why we act the way we do. And Broca’s Brain is nothing less than a brilliant tour de force of how to weigh evidence and build a worldview based upon what is real. It is refined genius of the highest degree.
One of Carl’s last works was The Demon-Haunted World. If you have any interest at all in learning how to tell what is real and what isn’t then this book is indispensable. Carl Sagan fought a lifelong battle to teach people how to think critically, how to challenge assumptions, and how to marry the wonder and awe of an open mind with the tough, disciplined skepticism needed to stop your brains from falling out. In one chapter, called The Dragon in My Garage, he gives an example so eloquent I have to quote it in full here before we go on to slay bigger monsters:
‘A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage.'
Suppose I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!
‘Show me,’ you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, some empty paint cans, an old tricycle – but no dragon.
‘Where’s the dragon?’ you ask.
‘Oh, she’s right here,’ I reply, waving vaguely. ‘I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.’
You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.
‘Good idea,’ I say, ‘but this dragon floats in the air.’
Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.
‘Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.’
You’ll spray paint the dragon to make her visible.
‘Good idea, except she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.’
And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.
Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire, and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.
[Emphasis mine -- BW]
When a person wants to believe something, no amount of skeptical questioning, logical contradictions or contrary evidence will move them. Couple that with the example of the dragon – the constant moving of the goalposts of proof and verification, and you have the basis for modern magical thinking. And if UFO’s, Loch Ness Monsters and Bermuda Triangles can draw so many believers, how many more can we recruit with more nuanced sleight of hand?
Look around. In the months leading up to the Iraq war, how many people were saying we should hold out and let diplomacy work to remove Saddam? Had diplomacy worked in the previous 12 years? No. Had anything changed since then? It had not. So how will it work this time? Magic! That’s how.
And so to believe that diplomacy, and not force, would remove Saddam from power was a case of deeply magical thinking. Plus, you get to come out against killing people! That feels good! Let’s do it!
If you claim that capitalism is evil, and that a better society can be built from common ownership of everything, administered by a benevolent state – well, this is identical to saying that you have a dragon in your garage. Now I’m an open-minded fellow. Let’s take a look at your claim. Haven’t they tried this before, in Russia. Wasn’t it a disaster? They didn’t do it right. Okay. What’s different this time?
But see, sharing is nice. Being nice feels good! It’s a twofer! Everybody works together. Everybody gets along. The community cow is sick at 3:30 in the morning in February in Minnesota, and all the communal farmers fight each other to be the first out of bed to attend to the livestock that no one owns and no one is responsible for! Could work! Mnnnnn…sharing…
There are still many people who cling to the magical notion that George W. Bush did not legally win the Presidency. Challenge their contention with evidence and watch them move the goalpost:
Bush stole the election. No, he had the majority of electoral votes. Yeah, but Gore won the popular vote. The President is not elected by popular votes. He’s elected by electoral votes. The electoral college is outdated. Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but you don’t get to change the rules after you lost the game. Gore really won Florida. Not according to three recounts he didn’t. The recounts don’t matter because the Supreme Court selected him. The Supreme Court only told the Florida Court to play by the rules. Bush stole the election because I say so! Ahhh. At last. Now we get down to brass tacks.
People believe that adapting the Kyoto treaty will save the earth. If you only do one thing today that will raise your self-esteem and promote diversity, then saving the planet and all of its species cannot be oversold. If you think building the perfect society feels good, just wait till you get a taste for saving an entire planet and everything on it! What a rush that is!
Think of the arrogance of that statement, the sheer magic involved in a belief such as that. The earth will be here for five billion more years regardless of what you or I do. What are these people really saying? The Earth’s environment has been far hotter, and far colder, than it is today. Which environment are we to save? Human industry may -- in fact, likely does -- have some impact on global temperatures. How significant is this relative to massive factors like solar output? We don’t know. The one thing we do know, with certainty, is that the more technologically advanced and wealthy the society, the cleaner all of its industries become. Want a clean planet? Fill it with rich people.
Even the proponents of Kyoto admit that if fully ratified, it would only delay their own worst-case model’s warming by two or three years over the next century. And all we have to do is wreck the world’s economy. Then we can all go back to that magical time when a few million humans lived in villages and drank herbal teas and sang songs around the campfire and poet-kings ruled lands without warfare and sacred crystals kept everybody healthy just as they did in Atlantis.
Now, ask any professional magician how they pull off their illusions and every last one will tell you it’s all about misdirection. Sadly, those boring, insensitive, dead-white-male laws of physics don’t allow for quarters to disappear into thin air. So to make someone believe that precisely this has happened, we need to physically make that coin go someplace where it is not expected. And the way to do that is to make everyone look somewhere else for a moment.
Humans have retained several reflexes, and for good reason too – they keep us alive. All of today’s animals are reflexively attracted to fast motion in their field of vision. There were undoubtedly many animals that did not have this brain wiring, and these extinct animals are known by the scientific name, breakfast. Whether you’re a two-ounce tree shrew or a one-ton wildebeest, if something moves fast in the bushes, it would behoove you to give it your undivided attention.
This is hard-wired, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. So watch a magician carefully next time he makes a coin disappear. You’ll see one hand move quickly – and that is the hand you will watch. Coin’s in the other hand.
Now to show you how this works in the real world, I need to tell you a story about a real man named Robert Wayne Jernigan. I guarantee you this story will make you very angry, but this is the kind of world we live in today.
Robert Wayne Jernigan is now 28 years old. People who knew him said he was quiet, somewhat stand-offish. He was not widely liked in high school.
Four years ago, a witness reported seeing Jernigan enter a building in a remote suburb of Dallas with an axe. Four people were found dead at the scene, including a nine year old girl. No charges were filed. Less than two days later, Jernigan turned up again, this time at the scene of a suspicious fire in a day care center. Miraculously, no one was injured. But it was just a matter of time.
During the next several weeks, it is possible to place Jernigan at the scene of no less than thirteen suspicious fires. Eleven people died. Eyewitnesses were unshakable in their determination that Jernigan had been on the scene. And yet the police did nothing.
Jernigan had long been fascinated with fire. A search of his apartment revealed fireman-related magazines, posters and memorabilia. Despite the deaths of fifteen people, despite repeated eyewitness accounts and photographic evidence placing Jernigan at these fires, no criminal charges were ever filed against Robert Wayne Jernigan. He remains a free man to this day.
And rightfully so. Because Robert Wayne Jernigan is an ordinary fireman for the Dallas Fire Department.* He is not a serial arsonist at all.
Now re-read the previous paragraphs and tell me where I lied.
Everything I told you was factually true. But the spin, the context, the misdirection… The press always reports serial killers with all three names – Robert Wayne Jernigan sounds a hell of a lot more ominous than Bobby Jernigan. Quiet, stand-offish, not widely liked – instant psychopath, if you read the papers. Entered the building with an axe – oooh! That ought to get the blood boiling. That the people had died from smoke inhalation I decided was irrelevant to the story…
And so on. And so on.
This is how you lie by telling the truth. You tell the big lie by carefully selecting only the small, isolated truths, linking them in such a way that they advance the bigger lie by painting a picture inside the viewer’s head. The Ascended High Master of this Dark Art is Noam Chomsky.
I have long admired Noam Chomsky. It must be absolutely intoxicating to be able to write so free of any ethical constraints. Chomsky flitters and darts through the vast expanse of human experience, unerringly searching out those few, isolated data points that run contrary to the unimaginably vast ocean of facts crashing ashore in the opposite direction.
Here’s a Noam Chomsky moment for those of you without enough duct tape to wrap around your heads to keep your brains from exploding while you actually read his works:
Let’s say we stand overlooking the ocean along Pacific Coast Highway. From high atop the cliffs, we look down to the waves and the sand below. I ask you what color the beach is. You reply, reasonably enough, that it is sandy white. And you are exactly right.
However, there are people who cannot see the beach for themselves because they are not standing with us on this very spot. This is where Noam earns his liberal sainthood. Noam takes a small pail to the beach and sits down in the sand.
If you’ve ever run sand through your fingers, you know that for all of the thousands upon thousands of white or clear grains, there are a few dark ones here and there, falling through your fingers. With a jewelers loupe and an EXCEEDINGLY fine pair of tweezers, you carefully and methodically pluck all of the dark grains you can find – and only the dark grains – and carefully place them, one by one, into your trusty bucket.
It will take you a long time – it has taken Chomsky decades – to fill this bucket, but with enough sand and enough time, you will eventually do so. And then, when you do, you can make a career touring colleges through the world, giving speeches about the ebony-black beaches of Malibu, and you can pour your black sand onto the lectern and state, without fear of contradiction, that this sand was taken from those very beaches.
And what you say will be accurate, it will be factually based, and you will be lying like the most pernicious son of a bitch that ever lived.
Why do so many people take this hocus-pocus at face value? Because, like any audience at a Magic show, they want to believe.
Do this long enough, and you will become an Icon –- no more hours spent sorting sand for you! No sir! And finally, after a few decades as Icon, you may manufacture whatever data you need to make your case, and not one of your followers will call you on it.
Shortly after 9/11, and somewhat before the “Taliban forces did finally succumb, after astonishing endurance” St. Noam thundered that America’s “Silent Genocide” in Afghanistan would kill – pick a number, any number -- somewhere between 3 to 4 million civilians. At one point, he intimated that up to 10 million could die.
The real number was around 500.
Being Noam Chomsky means you get a pass for being wrong not by a factor of ten to one, or even a hundred to one. In Afghanistan, Chomsky was wrong by a factor of 20,000 to one. Being that wrong on a regular basis means going for a $2.99 Happy meal at McDonald’s and paying $59,800 for it. It means frugally walking out of a Nothing Over 99 Cents! store with the seven most expensive items, having just put $138,600 on your credit card. That’s how wrong Noam Chomsky is.
Misdirection. Unsubstantiated allegations. Undocumented assertions. Counting a few scattered hits and ignoring millions of misses. You can prove anything in this manner, if your audience is a willing accomplice and refuses to challenge you.
Michael Moore used exactly this technique to make people believe that America is a land of terrified, racist murderers who are armed to the teeth solely because of their fear of black people. For this he was given an Academy Award, and Bowling for Columbine has been called “the best documentary film ever made.”
I told you this story would make you angry.
I saw Bowling for Columbine in a small art house in Santa Monica, attended by what I think was a small knot of NPR movie club pass holders. This is like watching Triumph of the Will in Nuremburg stadium seated between Goebbels and Himmler. You know before the lights go down that they’re gonna love it.
We’re used to the willing suspension of disbelief when the lights go down. This agreement between the audience and the filmmaker, the magician, is what allows us to watch a kid get bitten by a ‘radioactive spider’ and believe that this will give him the power to climb the side of a skyscraper and shoot webs from his wrists. This is good magic. This is what art is all about.
It takes a particularly badly-made and clumsy film to become so unbelievable that you find yourself muttering, Oh, come on! at the screen, and Bowling for Columbine is nothing like that badly made. It is a lie so carefully and meticulously crafted that you find yourself sitting there in the dark thinking, I have to admit, he’s got a point there.
It’s only later, when the magic is over and you’re walking to your car, only when the narrative flow has released you to swim to the shore of reason, that some people begin to ask some questions. Let me take a few examples from the movie to show you how this lie is constructed on a brick-by-brick basis.
Moore’s thesis – near as I can follow it – is that America commits vastly more handgun murders than the rest of the world. Well, there’s no disputing that. You would think Moore would make the point that it’s because we have such easy access to handguns. He does not. He claims that there are plenty of guns in Canada, but they don’t have our murder rate. The movie’s premise is that we kill people with guns because we Americans are terrified all the time, and the one thing we are most terrified of is Black people. But cross 10 feet over the border into Canada and that terror instantly -- you might say magically -- disappears.
Hope I didn’t wreck the movie for you.
The title comes from Moore’s assertion that Harris and Klebold, the Columbine murderers, were so immune to violence that they went bowling in the morning before they shot up the school. It is a chilling thought. Didn’t happen. But that shouldn’t get in the way of a chilling thought, especially when it’s your opening thesis.
The opening scene features Michael Moore in the North Country Bank & Trust in Traverse City, Michigan, which was running a promotion saying that for every account opened, they would give away not a toaster or a walkman, but a gun. We see Moore filling out the paperwork to open a new account. This done, the teller hands him a rifle. Moore exits the bank, thrusts the rifle into the air like some well-fed Sandinista, and over the freeze-frame says “maybe it’s not such a good idea to give people a gun…in a bank!” Oh, how the NPR film club tittered at that line!
This isn’t just misdirection. This is, pure and simple, a goddam lie. The bank did offer this promotion, and when Moore heard about it, he found out that when you open the new account, they give you a certificate. You then have to go to a gun shop to pick up the gun.
This wasn’t damning enough. So Moore convinced the poor, decent, gullible people who ran that bank that it would be much better publicity for them if they could hand him the gun right there in the bank. Uh, well, um…okay. If it will help you with your movie. But the bank did not hand out guns on the premises. Moore created this scene to advance his premise. It’s a funny scene. It is most emphatically not a documentary scene.
Not wanting to appear one-sided, Moore interviews a few randomly selected gun owners. And who could be a more random handgun owner than John Nichols, brother of Terry Nichols, co-conspirator of Oklahoma City lunatic Timothy McVeigh?
In the interview, John Nichols seems on the verge of total emotional collapse. He makes off-color comments and has a spooky, lithium-deficient smirk that appears at awkward and inappropriate times. After a few moments, this completely random and therefore totally typical American gun owner takes Moore into the back room to ‘show him something.’ He does not allow the camera to enter. A subtitle tells us that John Nichols has put a gun barrel in his mouth. We can hear Michael Moore gently begging him to stop, to put the gun down. Not only a fair man, but gentle, too. When it comes to misdirection, Master Moore has the strongest kung-fu.
Littleton, Colorado is a nice, safe, upper-middle class neighborhood. It’s the kind of place you’d want to raise your kids. It is also home to a Lockheed plant, and Moore goes on the make the assertion that this ‘climate of death’ from these ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is responsible for the Columbine killing spree. Presumably the school shooters in other communities had to settle for magazines and websites of missiles to work up their Death Culture madness.
This would be a stretch – a real stretch – if the ‘entire community’ was indeed wrapped up in ‘America’s Defense Industry Culture of Death.’ But the Lockheed plant in Littleton, the one using ominous missiles as a backdrop for an interview in the film, builds launch vehicles for communications satellites – you know, the ones used by HBO to broadcast Bowling for Columbine across the nation. This little detail was left out of the movie. Keep your eye on the flick of the wrist; pay no attention to the slow palming of the coin.
One of the most widely-quoted sequences, one that drew squeals and applause for the Santa Monica Art House Crowd, was a cartoon series showing Moore’s history of the United States. Terrified white people in England get on a ship, sail to the New World, meet dark, friendly, all-around swell dark-skinned people, and kill them all out of paralyzing, abject fear. Slaves are imported to maintain an excuse for us to stay armed. The black people are then summarily killed to the last man. And so on, with the screaming, yelping, frozen-with-fear white people shooting everything in sight.
Oh, how true. When the box office attendant, who was black, handed me back my change a little too quickly for comfort, I had to drop him with 23 rounds from my trusty 9mm. The snack bar attendant – a mulatto if ever there was one – asked me if I wanted butter on my popcorn in a really threatening way, so it was a shotgun blast to the head for him. And the usher, who was Mexican, took a hostile step towards me as he opened the theater door. Not being completely dark-skinned, I decided it was safe to just stab him in the eyes with my ballpoint pen.
This is what he wants you to believe. His European audience, generally salivating at the chance to hear an American describe his country as a bunch of idiotic, murdering, terrified racists, howls with approval.
Moore then recounts the story of a 6 year old boy who went to school with a handgun and murdered a little girl. We meet his mother, a young African-American woman, in the courtroom, crying and terrified, handcuffed, orange jumpsuit, the whole nine yards. This woman, says Moore, was forced by welfare cuts by those evil bastard Republicans, to leave her child with relatives, get up before dawn, and ride a bus, for hours, so that she could go to a shopping mall and serve biscuits to rich white people.
Moore rides the bus in the pre-dawn hours. It’s depressing. I was watching this, and I thought to myself, you know, maybe we have gone too far.
But when I got to the car, I realized, hey, wait a second. I’ve had to get up in the predawn hours and take a bus to go to work. Millions of people do this every day in America. It’s society’s fault that this woman has to get up and take a bus to work? And the relatives she left her kids with? It was a crack house. Guns and drugs were everywhere. And the fact that she is a black woman standing handcuffed in a courtroom has precisely nothing to do with this. It is much more likely that this would have happened to an equally unskilled white mother.
And furthermore, if you had a six year old child, and you absolutely had to leave him in a place like that, would your kid take a gun to school and shoot someone? Or do you think that maybe, perhaps, just possibly, this tragedy had more to do with this individual’s parenting skills than the fact that she has to take a bus to go to work in the morning? Is this an indictment of a heartless society, or an insult to the millions and millions and millions of Americans, black and white, rich and poor, who get up every morning and go to work without their children murdering a classmate during the course of the day?
Bowling for Columbine is not a documentary. It is propaganda, created in many cases from whole cloth, and in others by selective interviewing, biased editing and false assumptions. Much of it is, in fact, downright lies. That it was awarded an Oscar only reveals that the Academy Awards have suffered as much ethical rot as the Nobel Peace Prize, in that it was awarded by faceless voters who wanted nothing more than to take a swipe at the Bush administration.
As for his assertion that Americans kill because they are nothing but terrified white people, a quick look at the murder statistics will show any dispassionate reader that this is, in fact, nearly the exact opposite of the truth. Black-on-Black violence is many, many times greater than White-on-Black violence
Michael Moore claims to be the Conscience of America and the Champion of the Common Man. As my friend James Lileks points out, he is neither.
If Michael Moore was only interested in saving innocent lives, he would have done better to have tackled a subject that kills many hundreds of times the number taken by handguns, namely, obesity-related diseases. Is that a cheap shot? It is. It is a factually-based cheap shot, which is more than can be said about Bowling for Columbine.
We find ourselves living in a time when people grow increasingly unwilling or unable to determine fact from assertion. In a society ruled by the people, this is a fatal condition. Where magical claims go unchallenged, where feeling good about something is the measure of its truth, public policy plummets into the same disconnect from reality that has doomed entire civilizations.
As always, we face a choice: we can live our lives by fantasy ideologies and wait for the train wreck called reality, or we can learn not what to think, but how to think. How to test and compare the barrage of information and statements we receive on a daily basis.
Howard Zinn has a theory of American History. Victor Davis Hanson has another. Which one is right? How do we know?
A few nights ago, during one of my regular visits to the main sensor screen at USS Clueless, I read something that absolutely bored a hole in my brain. You always have to pay attention when you read Steven Den Beste, but this was something else again. I could feel the veins in my temples throbbing like I was a Talosian trying to keep Captain Pike from seeing that the top of the mountain had been blown off. My hands and feet went cold, then numb, as the blood rushed to my head. I staggered into the kitchen, ripped open a five-pound bag of sugar, and washed it down with Hershey’s syrup: brain needs more glucose! Brain must have more glucose!
Steven was talking about how people think – no, more than that. He was talking about what thought is. He talked about thought as a series of heuristics.
I liked the American Heritage Dictionary entry best: Relating to or using a problem-solving technique in which the most appropriate solution of several found by alternative methods is selected at successive stages of a program for use in the next step of the program.
Now remember, I’m fresh from the Krell Mind Machine myself, but as I understand it, what we know and what we believe are a series of heuristics, which basically means we use models – little index cards – when we deal with problems. A simple heuristic might be touching a red-hot stove burns. We don’t have to keep touching the stove every time to find this out. All we have to do is touch it once – I remember doing it and so do you – and now we emphatically know red hot burners bad.
This is a simple heuristic, and a damn good one. But as Steven points out, a heuristic doesn’t have to be true all the time – just enough of the time for it to be a useful mental shortcut.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that the right-wing raving lunatics meet the left-wing barking moonbats somewhere off the map where There Be Dragons. So how useful is a complex heuristic like Democrats can’t be trusted with national security?
Hot stove burns is right pretty much every time: it is an effective heuristic, certainly useful, but pretty damn narrow and limited. That is, its predictive power is good, but the things it accurately predicts are pretty limited. Democrats can’t be trusted with national security is far more complex, open to infinitely more variables and exceptions, and therefore will be less accurate. It will be proven wrong more often. Roosevelt and Truman were Democrats, and they could hardly be improved upon.
But if you think about how you think, you may realize that everything we see in the world is colored by our enormous pyramid of ever-more-complex heuristics, our personalized set of index cards on how the world works.
When we have discussions, like this one, what we are essentially doing is trading cards; I’ll try to give you a Democrats can’t be trusted with national security, but you may respond with Republicans don’t care about anything beyond their own wallet.
We nod when we read or hear something new that makes sense to us, but that’s only because, while new, it is a conclusion that makes sense based on the heuristics we already hold. It is a new assumption based upon less complex assumptions, based on still less complex assumptions, all the way down.
Big fleas have little fleas
Upon their backs to bite ‘em
And little fleas have lesser fleas
And so ad infinitum
(and these small fleas
of course, in turn
have larger fleas to go on
and larger still, and larger still,
and larger still, and so on)
Post-modernists will look at this and come to the conclusion that because we all have these internal clichés, all truth is relative, there is no objective reality, and a nineteen-year-old English Lit student knows the true meaning of Hamlet better than Shakespeare does.
Here, in my experience, is a very reliable heuristic: All Post-modernists are idiots. Of course, your mileage may vary.
As usual, they have gotten it exactly wrong. It is true that no one can re-learn every lesson they have learned throughout their entire lives every day. To build on knowledge, to grow smarter, to become educated, is to add layers based on the existing foundations.
Science works because each layer is inspected – by science itself – and checked for accuracy. Entire theories, entire skyscrapers of ideas, have been demolished because new experiments proved that a single, simple piece of foundation data was in error. As new experiments provide new information – repeatedly, reliably, independently and in the expected quantities – these then become the steel and concrete with which we build newer, taller and stronger theories, stronger heuristics.
And the end result is cell phones, antibiotics, MRI scanners, 747s, weather satellites and the internet.
This process is the exact opposite of magical thinking. It is disciplined. It is rigorous. It is determined to follow the evidence that reality provides when we question it through experiment. It does not have a destination in mind – it follows the path wherever it may lead. Its results are not always comforting, which means it requires courage to walk that path.
And wherever it has been applied, the results have been absolutely magical. Miraculous. Astonishing. Awe-inspiring.
It is also a way of thinking that we Americans formerly tried to apply to politics with pride. Show me. I'm listening. We abandon it at our mortal peril.
Because of this rational, disciplined, skeptical, hopeful and ultimately joyous way of looking at the world, we have been able to behold wonders that no poor human imagination could begin to predict. It is the mirror-image of seeing the world as the drab, lifeless, mechanical thing that mystics accuse rationalists of. Rather, it is driven by the elation that we can do difficult things well, see layers upon layers of the infinitely large or infinitesimally small being peeled back, generation after generation, to reveal an entirely new stage and cast of wonders and miracles. Big fleas have little fleas…and so, ad infinitum.
If someone chooses to run their lives through the horoscope printed next to the comics, that is their business. They certainly have the freedom to do so. But when magical ideologies are put forward as political positions of equal weight and value, as a chart to sail the ship of state, when assertion carries the same weight as proof, we will surely lose our way. And then we will have nothing left to save us but all the luck we can wring from whatever leprechauns we can get our hands on.
Posted by Proteus at June 7, 2003 12:30 AM
*I made up Robert Wayne Jernigan only because I do not have, at hand, a real fireman with real stories to tell. If I had, I could have sold the story even better by adding the real-world details such an interview would have provided. The more data points I have to choose from, the better I can build the lie.