Americans are living in a new dark ages in which science bends before faith, in which fanatical delusions are discussed as if they were rational ideas, in which the very facts before our faces are perpetually under assault.
From Glenn Beck's surreal and paranoiac theory of a cabal of atheistic communists conspiring with fanatical Islamists in the Middle East, to the routine assaults on peer reviewed science by groups of organized skeptics--doubters on global warming, on autism and childhood vaccines, to the ideological, Soviet-style rewriting of history textbooks by panels of bureaucrats in states like Texas; we now live in a culture where there's no shared truth left to bind us.
How we got to this point will be a matter for sociologists and historians to puzzle out in decades to come. Living in the middle of our descent into madness it's hard for us to have the necessary perspective.
Did the steady erosion of faith in government's honesty, beginning with the revelations of The Pentagon Papers and Watergate, play a role? The flagging quality of public education that has left us with a nation in which one quarter of us don't know who we fought the Revolutionary War against certainly must shoulder a portion of the blame. So too the twisted cult of "balance" in journalism, requiring, as it does, that reporters treat every bit of information as if it were opinion, placing one attributed "fact" next to an equal and opposite one regardless of the independently verifiable truth or falsity of the attributed information.
Conservatives would argue that the growth of widespread relativism in society at large, which proceeds from the notion that there's more than one truth, is to blame for our inability to discern truth from falsity. Maybe. But widespread faith in the truth as arbitrated by a single authority that demands fealty--a church, a government, a political movement--while inspiring unanimity of mind, rarely leads adherents closer to facts, those nettlesome empirical things that we now routinely contest. Maybe it's the sheer cognitive dissonance of living with all these competing notions that has driven us off the deep end.
Nevertheless here we find ourselves, in a pernicious and fundamental contest for reality itself. The latest evidence of the malleability of truth in American life comes from Tom Jensen at Public Policy Polling who reports on a new poll finding that 51% of likely Republican presidential primary voters believe the President Obama was not born in the United States. Jensen writes:
Birthers make a majority among those voters who say they're likely to participate in a Republican primary next year. 51% say they don't think Barack Obama was born in the United States to just 28% who firmly believe that he was and 21% who are unsure. The GOP birther majority is a new development. The last time PPP tested this question nationally, in August of 2009, only 44% of Republicans said they thought Obama was born outside the country while 36% said that he definitely was born in the United States. If anything birtherism is on the rise.
Or as PPP commentor Marvin Marks : "This means that only 28% of GOP primary voters are sane."
Writes Steve Benen at Washington Monthly: "In other words, the Republican fringe is no longer the fringe."
In the spirit of trying, for as long as possible, to cling to our shared sanity, I present a link to Jonathan Strong's recap of those facts that we do know about President Obama's birth . Why the President will not release the long form birth certificate does remain an open question and one can only suspectit is because the document possesses some embarrassing personal detail. But the State of Hawaii's Certification of Live Birth and contemporaneous birth announcements leave no supportable doubt about the location of the president's birth.
Nevertheless nearly three quarters of prime Republican voters cling to an unsupported truth of their own.
There are those, like Dave Weigel of Slate who see the poll results as a mere political proxy in highly partisan times :
Does that mean that 72 percent of Republicans think Obama should be disqualified from the presidency? No. It suggests that birtherism has become another screen for extreme partisanship.
But I agree with Steve M at No More Mr. Nice Blog :
I don't see any reason why we shouldn't believe the vast majority of birthers mean exactly what they're saying and absolutely believe that Obama has become president through deliberate deceit.
You have to remember that these people feel they're at war with Obama, Democrats, liberalism, socialism, and so on (up to and including a Kenyan anti-colonialist Piven/Cloward-meets-sharia vast conspiracy).
Believers are unconvinceable. Reason holds no sway in the kingdom of faith. So is there any hope left for America?
In the 1330s, when first advancing the notion of the Dark Ages, Petrach wrote:
My fate is to live among varied and confusing storms. But for you perhaps, if as I hope and wish you will live long after me, there will follow a better age. This sleep of forgetfulness will not last for ever. When the darkness has been dispersed, our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance.
You see even he was a believer. I'm not quite so sanguine.