Commentary: The dumbing down of America

Maybe we, the people, have lost the intellectual capacity to manage a workable democracy. How else do you explain why nearly one in five Americans believes that President Barack Obama is a Muslim?

A recent poll by the nonpartisan Pew Forum found that 18 percent of all those polled -- and 31 percent of Republicans -- believe the president is a Muslim. That is up from 11 percent of all Americans last year.

Obama's faith is not a matter of public opinion. He's a baptized Christian who routinely prays with fellow Christians and invokes his "risen savior" when speaking of his faith.

He does not practice the Islamic faith. He has never been seen performing the ritual prayer, which Muslims do five times a day. He is not observing Ramadan, which requires Muslims to fast each day from Aug. 11 to Sept. 10. Nor has he made the required pilgrimage to Mecca.

It is ironic that many of the same critics who excoriated Obama for his close ties with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright now are accusing him of being a Muslim.

I suspect that a lot of people enjoy calling Obama a Muslim because they think it marks him as an outsider, an imposter, someone who assumed the presidency illegitimately. Many of those who call Obama a Muslim undoubtedly are "birthers," too, the ones who believe Obama was not born in the United States.

Or perhaps they aren't aware that Hawaii is a state.

That wouldn't surprise me. As noted, it seems that a significant number of Americans are losing the capacity to accept facts, sift through valid evidence and come to reasonable conclusions about things.

Of course, we always have had wacky conspiracy theories and always will. Some people still believe that the Apollo moon landing was a hoax, that someone other than Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK and that the government is covering up evidence of UFOs.

A 2007 New York Times-CBS poll indicated that 22 percent of Americans thought President George W. Bush knew of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in advance. A Newsweek poll that same year found that 41 percent of Americans still believed that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in planning and carrying out the Sept. 11 attacks.

Those are disturbing statistics, but the flood of misinformation has only risen, topping the levees of rationality at every turn. To a large extent, we can blame the Internet and the ease with which all the false rumors, misstatements, nutty conspiracies and outright lies are disseminated.

I am bombarded with this stuff all the time, accompanied with urgent pleas to write my congressmen, alert my friends and neighbors, send money and lock and load. Here is one example: Obama has ordered the Justice Department to immediately bar all public broadcasting of Christian religious services because they violate the separation of church and state.

Did any of the people spreading that rumor stop and think before pressing the "send" button that the president might not have the authority to do that? Religious services have been broadcast on radio and TV for decades with no constitutional challenge. In fact, wouldn't any attempt by the federal government to interfere with religious broadcasts be a violation of the separation of church and state?

Some of these rumors have a shred of truth that has been distorted to ridiculous extremes. Others are merely fantasy, the equivalent of the urban myth about alligators in the sewers of New York City.

While the Internet has been the source of many of these tall tales, it also can serve as the source of real information to dispute them. One invaluable source is snopes.com.

Go there and learn that President Bill Clinton never tried to fire "half the cattle guards" in Colorado, that Obama hasn't signed an executive order allowing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to resettle in the United States, and that the artificial sweetener Aspartame is not responsible for an epidemic of cancer, brain tumors and multiple sclerosis.

But even with Snopes and other legitimate sites, the misinformation continues to flow. And if we can't resolve the really stupid disputes -- like whether Obama is a Muslim or not -- then how are we going to resolve the important issues that require some nuanced thinking?

How can we talk sensibly about complex issues such as health care reform, Social Security, Afghanistan, taxes, anything that can't be summarized on a bumper sticker? How do we get past the anger and the empty-headed slogans?

How do we counteract the cynical willingness to exploit baseless fears for political gain? How do we get back to having a national discussion instead of a national shouting match?

Maybe we could start by acknowledging that Obama isn't a Muslim.

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