Opinion Columns & Blogs

Distortions poison our public affairs

They say that when you leave the country, you get a different view of things in your own neck of the woods and learn how others look at you.

With that in mind, Gayle and I chatted up some Europeans and read some newspapers when we were on the continent last month.

We perplex the folks across the pond.

They don’t understand the fuss in the colonies about national health care, for example. They all have it, and it’s no big deal.

Nor can Europeans fathom what one called the “ferocious mendacity” that characterizes American political debate — lies about death panels, phony Kenyan presidential birth certificates and the like.

Fast forward to our return to SLO County.

One of those bizarre sagas that leaves rational foreigners scratching their heads has been playing itself out right here in River City, er, San Luis Obispo County.

There has been a fight to keep the president of the United States from telling children that they should stay in school, do their homework, respect their teachers and otherwise behave as any parent in any country would want their youngsters to behave.

Up in Templeton, school board member David La Rue didn’t see Obama giving good advice. He saw “political manipulation,” propaganda force-fed to impressionable young minds.

La Rue was not alone in his anxiety. Obama’s innocuous speech to young’uns created something of a nationwide unease among a certain set, with tentacles that reached throughout San Luis Obispo County, to Lucia Mar and Los Osos, among other schools.

Bemused, I searched the Internet looking for the cause of such fretfulness. The closest thing I could find was a sentence in Obama’s speech asking kids to help the president.

I took that to mean help the president with the problems of homework, dropouts, rude behavior and similar things about which he’d spoken.

But some saw it as meaning “Help the president hypnotize school children into registering Democratic when they grow up.” Or worse.

I’m trying to think of a nice way to say this — the old 1960s phrase “different strokes for different folks” comes to mind, and the old saw that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion.

But there just isn’t enough sugar in the cane fields of the Caribbean to coat this over: Interpreting Obama’s speech as a sinister political plot is just plain nuts.

Believing he is going to create death panels is loony.

Swallowing the obvious lie that he is not a citizen is daft.

This is exactly like the movement that arose on the left after 9/11, pinning the disaster on Dick Cheney. Many a leftist desperately wanted to believe that, but their common sense overcame their credulity.

I understand why people create and spread these lies, this “ferocious mendacity”: for political and economic power.

Here’s the part that fascinates me: Why does anyone believe them?

That is what I call an artichoke question; It has layer upon layer.

I rule out ignorance. People who are otherwise intelligent are befouling the Internet with this offal. My wife can’t get off a mailing list from an old friend, a professional woman with a master’s degree who nonetheless swallows this swill.

Some analysts think people believe these calumnies because they are afraid or need to scapegoat someone.

A good number of people, beginning with former President Jimmy Carter, think racism is a key ingredient.

Others fault the media, especially radio and television, for giving life to unhinged notions. If there were 24-hour news during World War II, would David Gregory or Anderson Cooper have asked Hitler to explain why it’s a good idea to put people in boxcars and send them to extermination camps?

And, of course, there is the increasing tendency for each of us to choose our own facts. I say this is a chair; you say it’s a weather balloon. We are each correct because that’s how we perceive it.

So, why do people believe what is demonstrably false?

Don’t look at me for an answer. Books could be written exploring the question, probably are being written. It’s a field day for social scientists.

I do know this, however: We’d better find answers, and figure out how to fight these tenacious prevarications before the body politic is engulfed by a tsunami of fiction and deceit.