If you’re Gen X, like me, you remember the 1980s phenomenon of action movies that were all based on the exact same plot.
The premise was this: American prisoners of war remain trapped in Vietnam, and a ruthless badass is going to get them out.
Yes, there were 924 movies or television episodes entirely predicated on this ludicrous theory. At the time, the idea that American POWs had been left behind in Vietnam was not a point of debate—these films and shows accepted it as fact. And even 20 years after the end of the war, about two-thirds of Americans believed that there were still U.S. servicemen being held prisoner in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
No, there were not. But that two-thirds mark of gullibility has proven resilient.
For example, one year after the September 11 attacks, two-thirds of Americans believed “that Saddam Hussein helped the terrorists.”
No, he did not.
And today, two-thirds of Republicans still believe that Democrats stole the 2020 election.
No, they did not.
So what conclusion can we draw from this, other than the fact that it is remarkably easy to fool two-thirds of conservatives at any time on any topic?
Well, social media has certainly made it easier to spread disinformation. That much is obvious.
But one aspect of our society’s descent into incomprehension is rarely discussed. You see, a large percentage of America actively wants to be ignorant. Studies have shown that almost half of Americans “sometimes or often actively avoid the news,” and this percentage has grown steadily over the years.
Now, back when Rambo was rescuing POWs from Nam, there was at least plausible deniability. After all, the internet didn’t exist, and the average American couldn’t research how absurd it would be for the Vietcong to detain Americans forever.
But it’s much harder to be ignorant today. You have to make a conscious choice to be ill-informed.
So why would someone do that?
Maybe it’s because the world is so chaotic, so twisted and grotesque, that merely having angst about the situation isn’t enough. Many of us adopted another German concept of despair, weltschmerz, which means world-sadness. And we now appear to be embracing “mediaschmerz—a sadness about the news cycle and news media, which is distinct from the experience of our everyday life.”
So even if our lives are going okay, and studies show that most Americans are at least hanging in there, we still get depressed at the undeniable truth that our society is in crisis. Indeed, the goal “for those who are stunned by the baldness of the horror, paralyzed by the bleakness of the view, is to figure out how to move forward anyway.”
And so many Americans have checked out, in the hope that if they look away, everything will magically get resolved overnight.
But while our fellow citizens are covering their eyes and mumbling “La-la-la,” millions of highly motivated right-wingers are shouting their lies in an ever-increasing cacophony that drowns out the truth.
These lies are “designed not to persuade people, but to organize them into a mass movement.” The political scientist Hannah Arendt said that the ideal follower of authoritarianism is not someone who is committed to an ideology, but rather “people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction … and the distinction between true and false … no longer exist.”
So if a bloated lunatic admits in open court that he lied about Sandy Hook being a false-flag operation, it has little impact on those who believe that those slaughtered children were not actually slaughtered.
If Republicans scream about voter fraud “without evidence and even before the votes have been counted,” their supporters will parrot the claim.
If the fabrications of just one GOP member of Congress—over the course of a single speech—surpass the accumulated lies of a classroom of second-graders, conservatives will not even notice.
And of course, if a pandemic kills a million Americans but enough demagogues scream “fake news” and deride the vaccine, hordes of true believers will trust them over science.
Because whether you choose to be ignorant and hateful, or you choose to blot out the world, the effect is the same.
You deny reality and curse us all.
Featured image by Paul Brennan/CC0 Public Domain