February 23, 2017

When Our Leaders Deny Reality

Fake NewsYou are standing outside a big box store in which you have just finished shopping. It is pouring rain, and you are scanning the parking lot for a clue as to where your car might be. You know you are going to get wet anyway, but you'd hate to pick the direction and have to reverse course eventually. A stranger is standing next to you and appears to be doing the same thing. In an uncharacteristic moment of friendliness, you comment, "It's really coming down, isn't it?" The stranger looks puzzled. "What do you mean? What's really coming down?" You laugh, "The rain, of course." Without so much as cracking a smile, the stranger replies, "It isn't raining."

Now you are the one looking puzzled. You can see the rain, hear the rain, and if you took half a step toward the parking lot, you'd feel the rain. There is no question that it is raining. In a mildly sarcastic tone, you hear yourself say, "Okay, I guess I don't have to worry about getting wet then" before you leave the stranger behind and charge across the parking lot. You are thoroughly soaked by the time you reach your car, but at least it ended up being in the general direction in which you headed.

What was the stranger's problem? We may never know. Perhaps he or she was looking for an opportunity to suggest that the rain was "God's tears" or something equally silly. There is something quite odd about being told by someone else that what you are so obviously experiencing through all your senses is not happening. And when such a person refuses to provide a reason as to why they are telling you to ignore reality, most of us find ourselves feeling at least mildly frustrated.

I can recall having a frustrating conversation with a Christian several years ago during which he insisted that the "holy" bible never condemns homosexuality. When I asked specifically about Leviticus 20:13, I was told, "It doesn't say that." Note how different this is from "That isn't what it means" or "That was a different time." Instead, I was told repeatedly that this statement is not contained anywhere in the bible. And since neither of us had a bible at the moment, there was no way to point to it as evidence. I had to conclude that this was a Christian who hadn't bothered to read his own "holy" book.

When someone like the stranger in the parking lot or the bible-denying Christian behaves like this, most of us recognize that something is wrong and that we are facing something other than a routine encounter. We do not always expect people to be honest with us or even with themselves; we do generally expect them to be at least somewhat connected to reality or at least not to deny it quite so blatantly.

Had there been another stranger outside the store who had overheard our conversation and agreed with me about the rain, I would have felt more of a connection to him or her than I would have with the previously mentioned stranger. And had there been a third party present during my conversation with the Christian who had some basic familiarity with the bible, I would have been at least somewhat more inclined to want to interact with him or her. This isn't about our preference to associate with people who share our views (although we certainly have such a preference); it is about our intuitive sense of what is normal vs. abnormal when it comes to a person's relationship with reality.

What's the point? Where has this unusually lengthy preface been leading us? Your wait is over. I am finally ready to make the point I have to make. When our elected officials or political candidates running for office refuse to discuss the possible role of Islam (or Christianity) in motivating certain acts of bigotry, violence, or terrorism, we recognize that something is wrong. It feels like we are being lied to, manipulated, or that we have encountered someone who is dangerously delusional. And when someone else comes along - another political candidate for instance - who is willing to acknowledge reality, we are far more inclined to connect with this person. Even if we disagree with virtually everything else that comes out of his or her mouth, we tend to respect his or her acknowledgment of reality.

This point has been made over and over again by many people far more articulate than I'll ever be: if the left will not acknowledge the reality that religious faith, including Islam, can motivate some people to do horrible things, the right will reap the benefits. Sadly, it is a point that more of us need to keep making. When Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and others insisted that no bad act ever has anything to do with Islam, they contributed to Donald Trump's rise. And the sad thing is that I'm not sure it even mattered why they denied reality as much as it does that they did so.

We now have a president who repeatedly denies all sorts of inconvenient realities. Pretty much anything that presents an unflattering picture of him is derided as "fake news" regardless of the source or the body of evidence behind it. Will this eventually be his undoing? It is hard to say, but I'd hope the people would eventually tire of being lied to by the right just as they did with the left.