Substantial numbers of Americans believe in ghosts — and that President Obama is a Muslim. Has the April Fool’s mentality become our national reality?
It is traditional, at this time of year, for people to come up with preposterous, outrageous but sorta-true-sounding pronouncements that will set folks back on their heels for a minute or two before they realize it’s just a joke. But the whole idea of an April Fools Day joke may be dead, overtaken by a reality that is just this side of nuts.
The world has always had an ample supply of headcases — some of them having launched wars and massacres, witch burnings, and even holocausts. But in recent decades, I’d thought the ranks of the addled had thinned. Sure, Hollywood always had its share of loons, but they were basically ignored. Now, however, the Charlie Sheens and Lindsay Lohans play to packed houses. Maybe that’s show biz, but how about politics? Listening to some of the current crop of aspiring national leaders makes you feel sorry for the Andy Borowitzes and The Onion writers who are hard-pressed to come up with something more farfetched than the people they are trying to parody. I mean, Michelle Bachmann is saying the nonsense she says in all seriousness.
So then you have to wonder about the sizeable audiences commanded by these poorly educated, misinformed, and just flat-out wrong publicity hounds. A look at what public opinion tells us about substantial numbers of our fellow citizens is not comforting. Take, for example, some findings put out by the highly respected, non-partisan Pew Research Center — a “fact tank,” if you will.
Do bear in mind that an increasing number of Americans stubbornly refuse to accept the fact that President Obama is a Christian. (They seem to prefer that he be a Muslim.) A poll taken last August found that nearly one in five Americans (18%) said the President is a Muslim, while only about one-third of adults (34%) correctly identified him as a Christian, down sharply from 48% in 2009. Fully 43% say they do not know what his religion is – this despite all the news coverage of the topic, and pictures of him going to Church! As the old saying has it, “None so blind as those that will not see.” I am at the point where I want to substitute the word “dumb” for “blind,” and “think” for “see.”
This same “don’t confuse me with the facts” crowd is not only ignorant about some hard-to-ignore facts of national life (Pew found, after the November election blowout, that fewer than half of those surveyed knew the Republicans had taken control of the House.) But substantial numbers harbor beliefs that are ridiculous and anti- scientific, if not Luddite. I find it uncomfortable knowing that among our fellow citizens, one in four (25%) believes in astrology (including 23% of Christians); nearly three in ten (29%) say they have been in touch with the dead; almost one in five (18%) say they have seen or been in the presence of ghosts. Think of it: nearly one-third of Americans think they can talk to dead people! Whereas 87% of scientists say that humans and other living things have evolved over time and that evolution is the result of natural selection, just 32% of the public accepts this as true – into which group I would probably put the 13% of the scientists who buy creationism.
Anyway, April Fool’s Day jokes may have come and gone because, it seems, so many people accept tall stories from the get-go. But certainly with the political no-nothings, the joke’s on us.
Editor’s Note: This piece was written with significant help from Jodie Allen at Pew Research