P.T. Barnum once remarked that no one ever went broke under estimating the intelligence of people. Sad, but true.
Remember your childhood, filled with magical stories? There were talking trains (“I think I can, I think I can!”). Wile E. Coyote tumbled off cliffs, disappearing far below into a tiny puff of dust, or was blown to bits by his own Acme dynamite, to emerge with only his ego bruised. Aladdin murmured, “Open sesame” to enter the robbers’ cave.
Oh yes, magic’s appealing. Think of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. He may be the magician (and we mere muggles), but she magically turned his stories into a personal net worth nearly a billion dollars.
Of course, such stories are the stuff of imagined adventure and wish fulfillment. Voluntary suspension of our disbelief in magical powers enables these stories to deliver their little jolts of pleasure. But surely we understand that these tales are not true. In reality, big engines pull our trains, Jafar would have had Aladdin’s head on a pike if the robbers didn’t get him first, and Wile E. Coyote would have been road kill.
Walter Mitty is an amusing short story character, a victim to runaway fantasy life, whose author slyly dramatized the propensity to daydream that exists to one degree or another in all of us. Now, however, Walter Mitty’s foolishness has become the norm with disturbingly large fractions of our contemporary population.
Unfortunately, many people believe nonsense, as if they can’t distinguish between the unreal characters and events that spangle our entertainment society, and the more sober tasks of life.
Recent polling reveals that 77 per cent of Americans believe in the literal reality of angels, and one in four believes that the sun revolves around the Earth. Thirteen per cent believe that Obama is the Antichrist (and another 13 per cent aren’t sure). The same percentage of people who believe in angels – 77 per cent – believe that aliens have landed on the Earth. About 20 per cent believe “that witchcraft and the ability to cast spells is completely possible.”
Meanwhile 40 per cent of Britons believe that houses can be haunted and 27 per cent that people can communicate directly with the dead.
Who are these gullible numbskulls!? In many cases voters, unfortunately.
Clouds of similar unreality have invaded our politics, largely because unscrupulous groups (taking P.T. Barnum to heart) cheerfully take advantage of public credulity. Note recent developments emerging out of contemporary American life.
Opposed to immigration? Don’t like ‘coloured’ queers with divergent religious fantasies in your neighbourhood? Deny them rights. Build a wall! Register Muslims, round up illegal Mexicans, export them! (Apparently we need a “final solution.”)
Don’t want to pay for climate change? Pretend it doesn’t exist, promote “clean” coal, build pipelines! Worried about violence? Arm the population until there are few enough survivors left to hang for murder!
Canadians aren’t immune to this lunacy. During the last election, our cutesy premier promised $100 billion in benefits from LNG development (not to mention thousands of jobs!). The electorate licked the fantasy up, providing her another majority government of dubious competence.
We have the baloney served up by the Fraser Institute (a “charity” devoted largely to improved corporate profitability through “free” markets) and expounded by convicted liberalists like Ezra Levant or the oily neo-fascists chanting “lock her up” about Alberta’s premier, echoing Trump campaign ugliness.
Sad, but true, many superficially reasonable people seem content to resume the “good old days” – low regulation (get rid of those seatbelt laws), start smoking again, make sure coloured folk know their place – “abra-ca-dabra,” poof! back to a perfect world.
Confronted with the philosophical idea that anyone can believe what’s reasonable, but it takes real character to believe the absurd, a student once asked me, “How’s that different from stupidity?” At least someone’s on his toes.
Should we be worried? In a magical world, what can mere muggles do?
Retired English teacher Al Lehmann lives in Terrace, B.C.