The Power and Fallacy of Belief and Our New Civil War

Battle of Franklin, Nov. 30, 1864. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

With all the disinformation, fake news, innuendo as fact, and lies gone unchallenged, it’s been difficult to get a grasp of anything close to truth during the past campaign for president and post-election. This onslaught of propaganda has rendered truth irrelevant, further cementing Red-Team beliefs and Blue-Team beliefs as well. Belief is a Kevlar vest against sharp attacks of disagreeable facts. And it’s an armor-piercing bullet, a weapon of force and power.

It’s been difficult for me to disentangle what I read in the news from both camps and make of sense this of war of beliefs between the Reds and the Blues. To help me put things into perspective I reached back in history to an era where the destructive forces of belief split the nation.

We all know of the Civil War, the War Between the States, between North and South, between the Blue and the Gray. Although I think even today some would deny it, the root of this war was slavery.

Slavery was the way of life in the South. It was as natural as magnolia blossoms. It’s mentioned many times in the Bible and not unfavorably. Belief held that God approved of slavery, endorsed slavery. It was right and good. Moreover, it was a necessary duty. Such was the belief that made slavery possible, thus making it possible for those upright people of Southern gentility to sleep well at night and with a clear conscience.

Ah, but those in the North, those abolitionists, believed slavery was an abomination. It could not be possible for a good and gracious God to condone slavery. Slavery was evil and it must end.

So here we have two strongly held and conflicting beliefs. Some 500,000 people died for those beliefs. Those conflicting beliefs ripped families apart. Those conflicting beliefs wrecked the Southern economy.

Such is the power of belief.

But who was right? Where lay truth?

Did Northern victory prove that God abhorred slavery? If so, all those Southerners held wrong beliefs about God and a few other things, too. Or could it be that God got whupped along with the true believers? If that’s the case, then Satan, not God, stood behind Northern victory. And, hell yeah, the South will rise again!

Or maybe, just maybe, God had no opinion of slavery or the war, for that matter. If so, the South used God as an excuse for deplorable behavior (not at all uncommon, don’t you agree?).

Such is the fallacy of belief.

So what do you believe? Is slavery right or wrong? Was God with the Gray Team or the Blue Team? Or nowhere to be found? Is belief the same as truth, or is truth independent of belief?

And here’s another bit of perspective-putting: Abraham Lincoln, that good and deliberative man so determined to keep the union together, was despised by half the country for what he believed.

Now take this perspective on truth and belief, pop it into this very day, and make of it what you will.

What Makes America Great?

uncle_sam_pointing_fingerI am 65 years old. I remember the day, November 22, 1963, that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John Kennedy. I remember, two days later, watching on black-and-white television as Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. I remember my father asking: “What’s this country coming to?”

Fifty three years later, a bi-polar answer appears imminent.

On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump fired a bullet into the heart of the American psyche and of democracy itself. Half of us watched in stunned disbelief as he won enough electoral votes to become the 45th president of the United States. The other half, the people who provided the gunpowder, will dance with self-righteous joy as their savior begins making “America great again” when he takes office on January 20, 2017.

For some (myself included) his election to power is a tragedy. For others it’s a hallelujah moment. It’s pointless to rehash the details because so much has been—and will be—written about that already. Rather, Donald Trump has compelled in me an examination of conscience about the United States and its presumed greatness within the context of my upbringing and understanding of the world.

I am a third-generation American—with German heritage on my father’s side and Scottish and Polish on my mother’s. My parents raised me with the implicit understanding that the United States of America is the greatest country in the world. It alway has been and ever shall be, world without end, amen. I was born just six years after the end of World War II. My father didn’t go to war—he wasn’t old enough—but he did enlist when of age, first in the Air Force, then in the Army. When I was 21, he retired (in a ceremony at the Pentagon, no less) as a Lieutenant Colonel. Growing up in the classroom of the military family reinforced my education in patriotism.

An early memory is of watching on television, with my mother, the opening-day parade of the Olympics. She took the opportunity for a lesson in patriotism and American exceptionalism. She prompted me to notice that when each team passed the reviewing stand, the flag bearer would lower the staff, bringing it parallel to the ground. “Dipping the flag” was a sign of respect to the dignitaries of the host country sitting in the stands. “Now watch,” she said as our team approached the stands, Stars and Stripes held high. Team USA walked right by the stand without giving the flag so much as a twitch. “Our flag dips for no one,” my mother said. I suppose I felt proud. I think that was the point. But I didn’t, and don’t, understand the need for such blatant arrogance.

Encompassing my childhood were the specter of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the fear of being overrun by Communists, and the massive effort to beat the USSR to the moon. Also in the mix were the baby boom (I’m in there somewhere) and the rapid rise of the middle class, supported by spectacular industrial and technological advances. There was no doubt that America was the most powerful country in the world in all respects. We manufactured the best products, built the best roads and buildings, excelled in everything. We had very recently conquered Hitler, liberated Europe, and blew Japan to smithereens.

We are Number One! We are the Best! And, with implied importance, we are good—so very, very good—meaning our moral superiority in the world is unquestionable.

At age 14, in 1965 and just 20 years after the war with Germany and Japan, my father’s duty to country took him and his family to Europe. We landed in Paris on a sunny day in late August or early September, just before I would start ninth grade. I have no way of knowing how different my life would be today had I not lived those three years in Europe, first in France then in Germany. But I do know that what I saw and experienced there was awe-inspiring: the rich cultures, the industry, the buildings, the history, the art. National pride was palpable, especially in France. From then on my impressionable mind understood that greatness was relative.

I returned from Europe in 1968, in time to begin my senior year at Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield, VA, just outside Washington, DC’s beltway. I returned to a country in the midst of upheaval, a country different from the one I had left. In January of ’68 the Tet Offensive had escalated the war in Vietnam, and scenes of killing and destruction played out daily on the 6:00 news. On April 4, Martin Luther King, and on June 5, Robert Kennedy, were murdered. In August came the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and its attendant protests, riots, and police brutality. There were the Yippies, the SDS, the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers and the Hard Hats. Soon came Kent State (with “four dead in O-hi-o”) and Watergate and so much more. It was an era of turmoil and tension and anger and hatred throughout the country, especially between those who supported the war in Vietnam and those who were against it. For the record I was against it, although I did not engage in any kind of serious protest.

Then came the Pentagon Papers, a Top Secret study of US involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. The Papers (7,000 pages in 47 volumes). In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked the papers to the New York Times. A major revelation was that the government had lied to the people and to Congress about what was happening in Southeast Asia and our reason for being there in the first place. It exposed a secret history in contradiction to the public one. Ellsberg was a hero to some, a traitor to others. Edward Snowden is in the same place.

If Ellsberg—and much later Snowden—proved that the government lies to the people, George W. Bush, with his invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, proved that the people don’t mind being lied to. It all depends on whose lies “we the people” choose to believe. Truth is not the point. Rather, we accept as truth only what we want to believe. All else is false, regardless of fact.

The election cycle of 2016 could be a case study of this phenomenon, with the constant proliferation of fake news, hoaxes, innuendo as fact, and outright lies emanating from Donald Trump, his campaign, and right-wing propaganda mills—enough to get him elected by the believers.

We know from history that some very thoughtful and intelligent men wrote the documents upon which the United States was founded. They intended a country that would distinguish itself among all others for the values contained in those documents. Yet, then, there was only potential for greatness. We also know from history how the machinery that built our country was fueled by genocide, theft, broken treaties, slavery, deception, repression, and all manner of violent oppression—much of which continues—at home and abroad.

I grew up with the doctrine of “might makes right.” But that bully’s refrain has little to do with greatness, unless all one cares about is wielding power in the upper hand while crushing enemies underfoot. I understand how projecting strength and power on the world stage is vitally important, but so too are many other qualities. They include respect, kindness, compassion, integrity, honesty, generosity (we are a generous country, to be sure), fairness, justice, judgment, virtue, and an astute, clear-eyed understanding of our world. This is wisdom. The opposite of wisdom is ignorance and delusion.

If we insist the United States is the greatest country in the world, shouldn’t we also insist that we examine, monitor, and maintain those human and humane qualities that could make us so? To exclude them makes it impossible for us to be, as Ronald Reagan put it, that “shining city on the hill.” We cannot be that country unless we the people embody those bright qualities. If we the people can’t embody those qualities, we certainly can’t expect our leaders to. And if we choose leaders who are dishonest, deceitful, hateful, mean-spirited, obnoxious, ignorant, selfish, self-promoting, and utterly lacking in wisdom, then we cannot expect to be the greatest country in the world—even if we can bomb everyone else into oblivion and force them to our will. All we can do is brag about being what we are not.

Much like the guy we just elected.

Ebola and Ignorance: Where is the Wisdom?


ebolaI recently met a man named Dick, who, before he retired, worked for the World Health Organization. However, he told me, the WHO had recalled him to duty to help with the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Did he have a background in medicine? I asked. No, his field was communication. I wondered how a person good at communicating could be useful in turning back an epidemic. Dick explained that many villagers fear and mistrust the government so much they don’t believe officials when they say things like “Don’t touch that body! You’ll get sick!”

During the 2002-03 SARS epidemic that began in China and spread to 37 countries, Dick was part of a team that developed a communication model that was useful in conveying information on how to disrupt the spread of the disease. A similar model, Dick told me, would be used in West Africa to help control the spread of Ebola.

Not long after Dick left for West Africa I watched a Frontline episode documenting the efforts of Doctors Without Borders to treat Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. Among other things, the program reinforced Dick’s premise. Indeed, many people got sick during funeral ceremonies during which it’s customary to touch and even kiss the body—ensuring contagion. In some cases villagers hid from healthcare workers, fearing contact with them was equal to a fatal diagnosis. Most striking to me was the city dweller who insisted Ebola was a hoax perpetrated by the World Health Organization to steal people’s blood.

It would be easy to dismiss these instances as examples of third-world ignorance, and insist that contracting the disease was merely the logical result of ignorance. Yet ignorance isn’t confined to the third world. We have plenty of it here in the first world, and not just about Ebola.

Ignorance, by definition is a lack of knowledge, understanding, or education. The use of the word “or” (instead of “and”) implies that a person may be lacking in any one of these qualities and still be ignorant. For example, a person could be highly educated in, say, physics but lack an understanding of—and therefore ignorant of—the intricacies of international banking.

Wisdom, according to my copy of Merriam-Webster, is “knowledge that is gained by having many experiences in life; the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand; and knowledge of what is proper and reasonable, good sense or judgement.” Synonyms of wisdom include discernment, insight, and perception.  It seems reasonable, then, to further define ignorance as a lack of wisdom.

With the first diagnosis of Ebola in the United States we saw an immediate outbreak of ignorance as displayed by many politicians and the usual media blowhards calling for quarantines and travel bans. A political activist from South Carolina, on Twitter, went so far as to call for the “humane execution” of anyone testing positive for the disease.

Epidemiology is the branch of medical science that studies the spread of disease and how to control a given disease once it infects a population. At first glance, travel bans and far-reaching quarantines (never mind euthanasia) may seem reasonable and in good judgment. Yet, those who have studied the spread of, and have treated, Ebola for years say travel bans and unwarranted quarantines are ineffective and may do more harm than good. Clearly, such measures are unwise.

Even though the Obama administration and other authorities (i.e., experts in the field) have repeatedly made their case, a poll taken in October indicates that more than 70% of U.S. citizens support a civilian travel ban into and out of West African countries with Ebola outbreaks. How can this be? Fear is one answer. It’s human nature to fear what we don’t understand. But it’s more than just fear. It’s fear incited by pundits and politicians who, for their own base reasons, spread ignorance instead of wisdom.

Controlling the spread of ignorance is, it seems to me, as monumental a chore as controlling the spread of Ebola. And even if there is not yet a vaccine against Ebola, we do have wisdom as a vaccine against ignorance. Yet wisdom seems in such short supply. For instance, where is the wisdom in arming teachers to combat school shootings? Where is the wisdom in poisoning our aquifers so that we may extract every last drop of oil from the earth? Where is the wisdom in intentionally working to make sure a large part of our society remains economically poor, poorly educated, and in poor health? And, although it may help win elections and keep the privileged in power, disenfranchising thousands out of fear they will vote for the opposition party does not seem wise to me.

The fellow in Sierra Leone who insisted Ebola is a hoax is no more ignorant than those who insist climate change is a hoax perpetrated by scientists so they can get more grant money (or any number of other reasons). Nor were those villagers who mistrusted the authorities more ignorant than those of us who mistrust authorities who say vaccines don’t cause autism.

There is no crime in having a lack of education, knowledge, or understanding. These qualities take time and the right conditions to develop, both within the individual and throughout society. But when leaders—political, social, religious, business, and so on—willfully spread ignorance and work against creating the conditions for wisdom to flourish and society to prosper, that is a crime.

Why so many of us continue to believe, vote for, and otherwise support such people is beyond me.