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Real Crisis Is Absence of Critical Thinking

Montpelier

I was just sitting down this morning to write a pleasant piece about a lovely paddle on a Massachusetts pond brilliant in spectacular soft maple leaves, when an icon at the bottom of my computer screen alerted me to the arrival of a new email. I clicked on it; it was from my aunt in western Pennsylvania coal country, and enclosed a startling announcement.

“Obama’s Reckoning to Come on November 19!” read the headline, which was followed by a call “for the masses to force resignation of convicted President.” The writer of the call to action was one Larry Klayman, formerly a Justice Department prosecutor in the Reagan administration and later the founder of Judicial Watch. His specialty seems to be filing quixotic lawsuits against public officials, from Dick Cheney to Barack Obama; and he seems to have found his niche: inflaming the hoi polloi who currently smart from political frustration and financial difficulty.

Klayman claims that “the great usurper, Barack Hussein Obama,” has been indicted and convicted by “an Ocala, Florida citizens’ grand jury” for “defrauding the American people and Floridians by proffering them with a fake birth certificate.”

I’m not making this up. You can Google “Larry Klayman” and get a basketful of his appeals to the common man and woman to rise up, drive the president from office, and take over the government by a massive Gandhiesque peaceful protest (he doesn’t mention Martin Luther King). If that doesn’t work, he suggests, there are further steps they can take. What those might be, he doesn’t say — he is a lawyer, after all, with a keen eye on the edge of legality and the Secret Service — but it’s clear what he means: Keep your weapons cleaned. He cites Thomas Paine’s and Benjamin Franklin’s best-known quotations, somewhat irrelevantly, adding the illusion of gravitas to his clarion call. He’s quite a piece of work.

Klayman himself doesn’t concern me so much. He’s got the right, under the First Amendment, to hold and disseminate his opinions as long as he stops short of causing public harm. Nor do I worry about the hotheads he may inspire; there’ll always be a Charles Guiteau, Lee Harvey Oswald or John Hinckley lurking in the bushes, harboring delusions, hatred and a firearm. We can only wish good luck to those charged with protecting our leaders from physical assault.

Trouble is, many people, incapable themselves of actual violence, appear to be wishing just the opposite. They’re actually praying that, as a (thankfully distant) in-law of mine said not long ago, “Somebody needs to take that African Muslim down before he takes the whole country down.”

Those of us living in the fuzzy liberal cocoon of Vermont can only guess at the ideological conformity required to survive and thrive in other parts of the nation. It appears from my aunt’s emails — we’ve exchanged several since her first one aroused me to a protest of my own — that she’s in accord with 100 percent of her fellow members of the local Alliance Church. One of the participants in the Sunday evening Bible study group apparently brought Klayman’s broadside to the meeting, where it met with general approbation — enough so that my aunt passed it on to her email address listees. I can’t imagine it getting a similar reception in our local Episcopal Bible study session.

How can so many people take as gospel ideas that are clearly not founded on evidence, or are even patently absurd? In religion, you don’t need to prove anything; most of it’s not possible to prove. But in politics and science, we ought to be held to what we can substantiate. Most of us knew, during the height of the so-called “Birther” nonsense, that no documents released by the White House would convince the faithful that the president was born in Hawaii; indeed, Klayman’s letter states that, “according to forensic experts, the birth certificate is altered and forged.” Truly, as Barbara Kingsolver has written, “We decide what we believe first, and then we go looking for facts that support what we believe.” But the question remains: Where do these dark absurdities come from?

Critical thinking — the kind exercised by a newspaper editor or a judge — can be difficult and time-consuming. Applying labels (lefties, tree-huggers, Bible-thumpers) is much easier than searching for the facts, meaning, and nuances of a story or an argument. Second, slogans are anathema to critical thought (“Government is not the solution to our problem; it is the problem.” What a world of trouble that little zinger has caused!). Third — and I find myself, in this age of the Internet, often reminding myself and others of this caveat — consider the source of your information and opinions. There’s even a bit in the Gospel of Matthew calling us to beware of false prophets. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, for example; they’re easy for me to ferret out. They simply throw raw red meat, laced with tiny bits of truth, to the discontented, and make millions at it. Chris Matthews and Al Sharpton are more difficult for me, because I tend to agree with their commentary. But when they’re over the top, I have to get out of there. Give me just carefully substantiated information, and let me decide what to do with it.

“I appeared before a citizens’ court judge,” writes Klayman, “and presented evidence from Cold Case Posse investigator Michael Zullo showing that Obama tricked voters into electing him in 2008 and 2012.” Michael Zullo’s Cold Case Posse, eh? It was deputized by Joe Arpaio, self-styled “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” to ferret out the president’s true origins. Information it produces should be taken with a pound or two of salt. But all across America voters are slurping it up eagerly, and even — in western Pennsylvania at least — taking it with them to Bible study sessions. It’s time to get the government up and running again, and focus like a laser on education. The IRS, too. I’d like them to look into the tax-exempt status of a little church in coal country.

Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached at will.lange@comcast.net.