In the late 90s the world held its breath as it watched a dog try to become a rap star. That dog’s name was PaRappa the Rapper, and his quest for rap perfection captivated the imagination of everyone on the planet. I don’t think I need to tell you that he succeeded, or what the key to his success was.
PaRappa’s mantra of “I Gotta Believe!” propelled him to worldwide stardom and adoration, but what works for two-dimensional dogs might not work for everyone.
There’s an article in the latest New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell about the assault on the Branch Davidian “compound” by the ATF. Make no mistake, that event was a travesty, a nothing situation escalated out of control for no reason by a bunch of hyped-up lunatics, with tragic results. There is no justification for the ATF’s actions in that awful situation. But Gladwell’s article posits that the problem with the Bureau’s decision-making was that they thought they were dealing with a bunch of deluded, brainwashed kooks instead of devout believers.
Devout believers who sincerely thought that David Koresh was sent by God to usher in the Apocalypse while having a harem of spiritual wives.
I gotta say, I might be inclined to err on the same side as the ATF in that case.
Somewhere along the way we decided that when it comes to determining reality, genuine, sincere belief is good enough. That as long as you, in your heart of hearts, believe in something, then no force on Earth can or should try and move you otherwise. Belief is seen as something noble and sacred, inviolable and unimpeachable. How many people, including George W. Bush himself, have defended their position on the Iraq war by stating, simply enough, that they genuinely (it’s always either genuinely or solemnly) believed that Saddam Hussein had WMDs, as though having that belief relieved them of the responsibility of finding any actual evidence or being culpable in any wrongdoing. And who can forget Saint Reagan’s line regarding the Iran-Contra Scandal: “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” The facts and the evidence, like party crashers, were laying siege to his beliefs and his heart.
This week the concept of belief being just as good as reality is getting a big test. The crafts wizards at Hobby Lobby are appearing before the Supreme Court to argue that paying for contraceptives goes against their spiritual beliefs, as they sincerely believe that those contraceptives are abortifacients. Never mind that they demonstrably, factually, aren’t, it doesn’t matter because they sincerely believe they are. There’s no reason in a sane society that a doctor should say, “these are the facts of this medical matter” and a hobby store owner say, “yes, but I sincerely believe otherwise” and the result would be, “I guess we have to go to the Supreme Court, then, how else can we sort this out?”
There’s a term for someone who, despite constant naysaying and obstacles and the prevailing attitudes of the day, clings to what he knows for certain in his heart and strives to achieve a goal or maintain a belief that others find impossible or ridiculous: that term is “crazy person”. Sure, every now and then one changes the world, but for every one of those genuine visionaries there are millions of just plain deluded or ignorant fools, and we can’t coddle them all in the hopes that one of them turns out to be a Copernicus or Picasso or PaRappa. As physicist Robert Park so eloquently put it, “Alas, to wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment, you must also be right.” Sadly, today’s Galileo would be in a bind, as the only support he could muster for his theories would be simple observations, experiments, evidence, and facts, which is sadly insufficient in an America where sincere religious belief (and, let’s be honest, a pile of money; the Hobby Lobby guy is loaded) is valued above mere reality. After all, this is still the country where many of our elected leaders still maintain that the Earth was created 6000 years ago because to yield to the vast mountains of evidence to the contrary would make them feel less special.
It’s time to ditch this concept of “belief” as a bulletproof shield festooned with eagles and Jesuses. We’ve got to grow up and stop wanting to be told how special and full of possibility and potential we are and instead focus on actually doing something with that potential and possibility. We need to be sat down and told to believe in one hand and shit in the other and see which one fills up first. This kind of belief is unnecessary and crippling when it’s replacing something far more powerful and useful: actual knowledge.