I wish it were as surprising as it is disturbing that nearly 20 percent of Americans now believe that President Obama is a Muslim, but it's not. Nor is it possible to explain the situation simply by asserting that that many Americans are kooks or idiots for believing it to be true, even though it is certainly not. So what is going on?
In a culture increasingly unable to distinguish between available data and reliable information, more and more Americans will think themselves justified in holding beliefs which have no basis in fact. And it is the glut of available data, available in far greater quantity and with far greater speed than most of us can handle intelligently, which contributes to the spread of absurd notions such as the one reported by this recent poll conducted by Pew.
One might attribute the rise in those who think the President is a Muslim, up from 11 percent in March 2009, to Mr. Obama's recent comments affirming the right of Muslims to build a community center and mosque near the site of the 9/11 attacks, but the poll was conducted before the President made those remarks. And the idea that these numbers are related to Obama backing away from his beliefs as a Christian has no support either, having given numerous speeches in the past 18 months in which he spoke about his personal religious beliefs.
It has been said that the only difference between perception and reality is that it's harder to change perception, and never has that been truer than it is right now. All of us have access to any information we seek with a few simple clicks of a mouse. But the fact that something is available to us doesn't make it true and certainly doesn't make it good for us. In fact, the more choices that we have as consumers of any product, and especially so when it comes to information, the more discriminating we must become as consumers.
In the case of the growing numbers of people who believe that President Obama is a Muslim, that means asking ourselves questions about how we came to hold whatever belief we have on the matter, upon what sources we base the contention, whether they include sources of information which differ from our own political views, and whether our opinion about the President's religious persuasion simply confirms all of our other opinions about him?
Answering those kinds of questions is how we move from being brain-dead propagandists who simply seek the "facts" which confirm that which we already believe, to intelligent consumers in a world suffering from too much available information and too little wisdom to know how to assess it. Happily, we can all cultivate the needed wisdom by simply slowing down, gathering views from multiple perspectives and remembering that it's not possible for any of us to be right all the time. In fact, if you are never wrong, you are never learning, and unless you think you are God, there is always more to learn.
People need not approve of President Obama or anything he does, but when our beliefs about who he is are detached from reality, even the legitimate critiques we may have, can be written off as the ravings of fools. In a culture which thrives on intelligent critique, as all democracies do, that would be tragic.
The internet demands new skills from us. Once upon a time, we fought hard to obtain bits of information in a world where news traveled slowly and even then reached only a select elite. That, too, was bad for democracy. Happily, that era has passed.
Now we must shift from being miners chiseling out precious nuggets of news to sharp-eyed sifters who can distinguish between precious facts and the fool's gold of cheap propaganda. When that shift happens, the country will be stronger, whoever happens to be president and whatever faith they happen to follow.