Recent events in Iran concerning attempts to assert that the Nazi Holocaust was a hoax have awakened me to what might be the tiny seedlings of an educational and cultural crisis in our country. Intentional misinformation on everything from the moon landing in 1969, world ecology/global warming, basic world history, astronomy, and AIDS are all beginning to take footholds in world culture.
While the vast majority of Americans are intelligent enough to know better, more and more disinformation is being disseminated (and in some cases believed) as fact to an entire generation of Americans. In the age of the Internet this irresponsible disinformation is spreading like wildfire.
Politicians and religious leaders worldwide are beginning to take liberties with, and in some cases attempting to completely rewrite, common knowledge. Once solid scientific and historical facts are now being irresponsibly branded “theories”, or worse, out and out lies.
This is nothing new; religion has opposed science for centuries.
As far back as the 1700s in American history, there are similar religious zealots who branded all science as evil and a contradiction to biblical teachings. Damage from lightning storms was a dangerous problem in colonial days. The tallest buildings in a town were the most vulnerable. Since the structures had very little metal, they’d usually explode when hit, causing fires that spread to other buildings, threatening whole settlements.
What were the highest spires in those days? Church steeples. To curb the problem, Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod, a device that would channel the bolt of electricity harmlessly to the ground. Fanatical Christians began protesting and demanding they be removed from steeples because use of the strange devices was seen as mankind defying God’s will. In other words it was better to condemn something you don’t understand (Franklin’s electrical theory), even if it meant sacrificing your own house of worship. Some preachers even went so far as to blame Franklin for causing an earthquake with his evil invention in 1755!
Southern white children in the late 1800s never stopped referring to Negroes as “niggers” and were taught to think of them as inferior intellectually and nothing more than common farm animals to be owned and traded. Those beliefs were handed down from generation to generation, and only in the last fifty years or so has the American culture in general rejected such opinions. These notions were so ingrained in the southern mindset that laws had to be passed in the early 1960s in order to protect the rights of black Americans to vote, work, and have good housing.
One of the most horrific examples of dangerous opinions being taught as fact is when Nazi children were taught by their parents to hate Jews. They learned that Jews are stingy, speak in strange tongues, hoard money and never return anything to society. Hitler was merely performing God’s holy judgment upon them for the crime of crucifying Christ, and it was completely justified that they be rounded up and executed.
German children were also held to the criteria of racial purity and all who didn’t meet it were judged inferior. Never mind that nearly none of the Nazi hierarchy matched their own descriptions of what the “master race” should look like.
The AIDS epidemic in the U.S. in the early 1980s went almost completely unchecked because normally responsible and knowledgeable people told the public that it only struck homosexuals and the general straight population was safe. Many Americans believed people like Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell, who taught that God had brought his judgment down on the sinning heathens.
These zealots branded anyone who contradicted their prejudices as un-Christian. Rather than speak out against these hate-mongers, scientists and medical scholars who knew better would let hundreds of thousands of people become needlessly infected because they believed they were immune. People like Falwell, Pat Robertson and their like have no conscience towards the resulting victims. The only way to get the disease is to have sex in a way that conflicts with God’s moral teachings. President Ronald Reagan also used the religious Right's hate speech as an excuse to delay an initiative to get AIDS under control until it was far too late.