Our biases and prejudices can cause us to believe some pretty absurd things.
I’ve been reminded of this most recently by a documentary I saw on Great Zimbabwe, a medieval stone city in southern Africa that in it’s day grew fabulously wealthy off of the gold trade. Great Zimbabwe had been long known to traders and merchants (goods originating there ended up in markets across the Middle East, India, and China), although the first Europeans didn’t visit there until some Portuguese traders were taken there around 1500, and Europeans didn’t permanently locate the city until the mid-1800s–by which time it had fallen into ruin. Those Europeans in the 1860s looked upon the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, deep inside Africa, and knew immediately who had created them: the Phoenicians (an ancient Middle Eastern people). Or maybe it was the Arabs. Cecil Rhodes, the white pro-apartheid colonist after whom the surrounding country would be named for most of the 20th century, was sure it was the Queen of Sheba, an ancient and powerful queen from what is now Yemen who married King Solomon. By the 1950s, one prominent archaeologist was convinced that the ruins were created by the Lemba, a small African tribe that is descended from ancient Israel. Really, they weren’t quite sure who created the great city, but they were were absolutely certain of one thing: there was no way that native black Africans (with no Middle Eastern or European influence) could have made something so grand, beautiful, and lasting!
But, of course, the simplest solution is usually the right one, and in this case it was as well: Great Zimbabwe was, in fact, made by the people who have long lived in the area. The anti-black bias was so persuasive that it caused otherwise logical and seemingly intelligent people to believe some absurdly stupid things, and deny the plain evidence of what was in front of them.
I look around at modern politics and I see the same kinds of absurdity, although thankfully without the blatantly racist undertones of the Great Zimbabwe debate.
Here are my two favorite myths in US politics over the last few years. I call them my favorites because they are patently absurd, and yet huge numbers of people believe both of them to be true–these aren’t fringe conspiracy theories, these are so ingrained as to be gospel among large swaths of the electorate.
- Conservatives believe that President Obama cannot put together a coherent sentence without a teleprompter. This belief goes back to a campaign event in 2008 in which a teleprompter malfunctioned, clearly throwing Obama for a loop on that particular day. Of course, Obama goes without a teleprompter all the time, most notably at the 2008 presidential debates in which he was definitely not at a loss for words. Yet the myth continues, with every single major candidate in the 2012 GOP primary, at one point or another, making fun of Obama’s supposed teleprompter reliance.
- Liberals believe that George W. Bush was a man of below-average intelligence. They love pointing out that he was a “C-student” at Yale–never mind that many extremely intelligent people have failed to produce good grades in college for all sorts of reasons. Mostly, it seems to come down to his Texas accent and willful mispronunciations (“nu-clear” instead of “nuk-u-lur”). But, of course, they ignore the fact that he was multilingual, an avid reader, and that as a politician he never lost an election. George W. Bush was an extremely skilled politician–I find it completely implausible that one could be that good and yet be of below-average intelligence.
Politics is about myth-making; each side trying to define the other. But it is up to us to believe or reject those myths. And seriously, can’t we make them work harder than that?