Still suckers for giant frauds
Our aversion to hard truths in both history and today's society leaves us divided
The Cardiff Giant, at rest, at the Farmers’ Museum, Cooperstown, N.Y. (Photo by Martin Lewison)
We Americans are so often suckers for clever connivers, especially when they speak with utter authority. A charlatan can offer a simple solution to a complex problem, and that’s much more attractive than struggling to identify and accept truth. Reality is usually a bit messy.
Yes, we’re talking about contemporary politics here, but we have quite a history of gullibility.
Take, for instance, the example of George Hull, a New York cigar-maker who, shortly after the Civil War, was offended by a revivalist preacher’s insistence on the literal truth of the passage in Genesis that declared, “There were giants in the Earth in those days.” Hull, an atheist, figured he might as well get rich off such nonsense, so he hired a stone carver in Chicago to create a 10-foot giant out of a hunk of Iowa gypsum, and secretly buried the statue on a farm in central New York, near the hamlet of Cardiff. When well-drillers uncovered the hulk a year later, it was declared both a miracle and proof of the inerrancy of scripture. Believers flocked to Cardiff from all over the country, paying 50 cents for a 15-minute viewing. Hull cashed out, selling his interest in the statue for about $500,000 in today’s money.1
You can see the so-called Cardiff Giant today at a museum not far from where it was first displayed. As to Hull, his trickery was exposed only after he reaped profit from it, and it elicited no apology. In fact, he said, the whole incident backed up his claim that religion preys upon the gullible. As if to underscore that point, he pulled a similar stunt several years later in Colorado.
We can shake our heads at those 19th-century rubes who saw their unlikely beliefs confirmed by a hunk of rock, but it’s not so different from 21st-century marks who let themselves be deluded by shameless politicians and cable TV demagogues. We’re witnessing some Cardiff Giant moments in America now, but the swindlers have swapped out their chisels for teleprompters.
This week Tucker Carlson, the most popular host on cable TV, insisted against all evidence that the brutal attack on the U.S. Capitol a little more than two years ago was simply an example of patriotic Americans exercising free speech. After cherry-picking some benign moments from 41,000 hours of security video shot on Jan. 6, 2001, Carlson declared, “These were not insurrectionists. They were sightseers.”2
Right. Sightseers who laid siege to the seat of democracy, garroted and bear-sprayed brave police officers protecting it, and fought hand-to-hand in a battle to overturn the results of a fair election. It’s impossible to justify believing anything on Fox News anymore — unless, of course, your only source of information is Fox News, since Fox doesn’t cover its own duplicity.
That is, most Fox viewers don’t know, as the rest of us do from documents revealed in the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit, that Carlson was privately disparaging Donald Trump as he was posing to viewers and Trump himself as a supporter. “I hate him passionately,” Carlson declared in a message to his producer just after the 2020 election. The TV star’s duplicity was breathtaking: Those who still justify supporting the untethered ex-president by claiming that a conservative administration produced benefits for the nation might weigh Carlson’s unintended riposte: “We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest,” Carlson wrote, in a secret text exchange with a colleague. “But come on. There really isn’t an upside to Trump.”
Yet it would be a mistake for us to see Donald Trump and the personalities of Fox News, and the many politicians who mirror Trump’s mendacity, as the major impediments to truth in America. They’re liars, yes, but they are byproducts, not progenitors, of Americans’ craving for simplistic answers. They draw power from our unwillingness to recognize the hard truths of both our past and today’s reality.
We see this starkly in the push to make our schools teach a sanitized version of American history, and to stop classroom discussion that doesn’t reflect traditional heterosexuality and white sensibility. It’s a movement conservative politicians are promoting for partisan benefit, but they’re exploiting an aversion to seeing the reality of today’s society and admitting the truths of our history. Teachers around the country are watering down their lessons to avoid talking about LGBTQ issues and the historic oppression of people of color because in one state after another, laws have been put in place that could cost the teachers their jobs if parents are offended by what is taught in their kids’ classrooms. Books are being pulled from school libraries not just in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis is building a presidential campaign on voters’ insecurities, but in countless school districts in every part of the country.
In suburban Long Island and in south-central Pennsylvania, for example, students were stopped from reading Front Desk, a middle-grade novel about the experience of a Chinese immigrant family written from first-hand experience by Kelly Yang. Front Desk, incidentally, had won the 2018 Parents’ Choice Gold Medal for Fiction, and was a national bestseller. It couldn’t be coincidental, surely, that a book drawing an attack from white parents involved a young Asian character struggling with how different her life is from those of her classmates. 3
That has been repeated hundreds of times recently. The books being pulled from the hands of young readers aren’t pornography; they’re accurate depictions of history and expositions on our sociology. During the last school year, according to PEN America, about 40 percent of the books banned from schools featured either LGBTQ themes or key characters who are people of color.4
What’s bothering us, apparently, is reality — the reality that American society hasn’t achieved its goals of fairness and equity for all, and that our history isn’t peopled with only heroes. Yet editing our history, or distorting it, won’t change it. Teaching our children that American racism ended when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation is no more justifiable than teaching that giants once roamed the earth.
There’s a peril to this far beyond the next election. As the writer Francine Prose observed in an essay in The Guardian last month, “The truth is being distorted or omitted at a moment when we, as a nation, have never so desperately needed to maintain our grip on reality.” Prose notes that children taught a polished version of our past, and discouraged from probing for uncomfortable truths, will be unable as adults to distinguish fact from fiction, and more susceptible to the next conspiracy theory to come along.5
In another context, even Tucker Carlson recognized that dynamic. In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election, Carlson gave support to Trump’s wild claim that unless vote counting was slowed down, fraud would deliver the win to Joe Biden. “Americans who love this country are beginning to fear it,” he said on the air on Nov. 5. “Why? We know exactly why. Because shutting down legitimate discourse and inquiry always has that effect. It destroys social trust and it sets the table for awful things to come.”
There, for once, Tucker Carlson hit upon a truth. What he fails to note is that legitimate discourse about America surely must include the truth of its past and the reality of life for all its citizens today. Shutting that down — by advancing false narratives about the news and teaching sanitized versions of our history — will surely leave a weakened society for our children and grandchildren. It’s a deeply disappointing prospect for a generation that embraced youthful idealism and hope.
In that regard, it is worth noting that the Genesis account of giants upon the earth is immediately followed by the familiar story of the flood, which spared only Noah and his family, along with their ark co-passengers, two of every creature on earth. There have been plenty of stories of explorers finding pieces of Noah’s Ark, of course, and they’re no more credible than the tale of George Hull’s giant in Cardiff, N.Y. Still, the devout may note the reason Genesis offers for the flood: “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.”6 You can understand why, can’t you?
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Savannah, Ga. (Savannah Morning News, savannahnow.com)
Freeport, Ill. (Journal-Standard, journalstandard.com)
Carlsbad, N.M. (Carlsbad Current Argus, currentargus.com)
Burlington, Vt. (Burlington Free Press, burlingtonfreepress.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes each Wednesday, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Bill to protect Okefenokee Swamp dies in legislature
As permitting moves forward for a titanium mind proposed alongside the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the Republican-controlled Georgia House of Representatives failed for a second straight year to pass a bill aimed at preventing development at the fragile blackwater swamp. Marisa Mecke reports in The Savannah Morning News that the bill had won strong bipartisan support this year. but the bill failed in the middle of the public comment period for the mining proposal. The committee chair who buried the bill did not offer an explanation.
‘Soft interview’ room unveiled by police
Sometimes, police told Jena Kleindl of the Journal-Standard, victims of domestic violence who go to police feel as though they’re the ones who have done something wrong. So the Freeport Police Department has opened a “soft interview” room — with velvet chairs and a bright rug — to make the environment feel safer for the victims as they talk with police. The room was funded by Project Beloved, a Texas-based nonprofit founded by two women who lost daughters to domestic violence. A domestic violence counselor explains that victims are “more open to sharing their story because they realize this is a space solely for them.”
Nuclear waste draws fears, opposition
The U.S. still has no permanent storage space for spent nuclear fuel, but waste from nuclear power plants is routinely transported to “temporary” storage facilities around the country. Adrian Hedden reports in the Carlsbad Current-Argus that a federal proposal to build such a site near Hobbs and Carlsbad is drawing concern, especially after recent train derailments. “The risk of (spent nuclear fuel) transport accidents, whether by rail, barge of truck, is not negligible and requires independent assessment, which has not been conducted,” read a recent letter from anti-nuclear activists to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission released its final environmental impact statement (EIS) on the proposed facility’s application last year, finding impacts minimal and recommending a license be issued for the facility, with a final decision expected this year.
Ben and Jerry, of Ben & Jerry’s, speak up for police oversight
Since 1978, they have been manufacturing ice cream in Vermont for more than 600 retail shops worldwide, but Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen have always been politically active — though rarely on the local scene. Now, according to Lilly St. Angelo in The Burlington Free Press, the ice cream entrepreneurs have spoken up in favor of a hotly-disputed proposal to create a police oversight board in Burlington. According to the coverage, Greenfield said that he and Cohen learned while building their business that accountability was the only way to build trust and get desired results, a principle that he sees translating well to policing.
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Whence we come, where we go
Music often touches our innermost feelings, and that’s one reason that I have felt so fortunate to have had a lifelong engagement with singing. Nothing else so regularly and deeply touches me emotionally, spiritually and physically. For the past 22 seasons, that gift has come my way as a member of a marvelous vocal ensemble, Albany Pro Musica.
The major work we performed as part of last weekend’s concert was Star Song, a 12-movement piece written nine years ago by our current composer-in-residence, Bradley Ellingboe, a New Mexico-based composer, conductor and singer, who is just a few years younger than I am. The gorgeous music Brad created arose from his observation that the atoms that make up humans and the stars are one and the same, and are immeasurably old. “They were something before they were us, and they will be something else after we are gone,” Brad wrote. He composed the piece in various styles and drew lyrics from many writers — Rilke, Milton, Whitman, Billy Collins — but I was perhaps most moved by the words he set to music from an unlikely source, Vincent Van Gogh:
Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be accessible as the black dots on the map of Frank? Just as we take a train to get to Tarascan or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take a train while we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means. To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.
It is at once a terrifying outlook, since we know that Van Gogh killed himself at age 37, and, more fully, a profound insight. Van Gogh suffered severe depression, and his death was undeniably a tragedy. Still, we may take some comfort from his notion: Death is less a bleak prospect than another step. From the same place as the stars we have come, and to that same place we will go. I’m not eager to rush my transition to stardust, mind you, but I am inspired by the notion of the continuity of what makes us.
Albany Pro Musica spent two evenings after our concert recording Star Song, and at some point I will share some of it with you. The great works we sing always inspire me, but I’m sure this piece will stay with me for a long time — as Brad Ellingboe wrote, “until the atoms that comprise me are off being something else.”
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