Back in the late 1970s, Steve Martin did a comedy routine in which he reminded the audience that we now live on a different planet.
"Don't you remember?" he'd ask, describing some natural disaster in the recent past that had required the evacuation of all humanity to a more hospitable world. The punch line was something like, "And remember how the government decided it just wasn't going to tell any of the really stupid people.... " And he'd pause, and then say, "Uh oh."
It's just a joke, of course. Even really stupid people, in this age of cable news and the Internet, can find the facts. Even really stupid people can discern truth from fiction, given all the tools at our disposal. Even really stupid people know what's what.
I should warn really stupid people that I'm likely to offend them in the next few paragraphs. Read with caution.
A question in a recent Knight Ridder poll prompted a remarkable response from Americans. It's the kind of response that provokes some to shake their heads or roll their eyes, and probably P.T. Barnum to spin in his grave, wishing he were alive today because he'd just be swimming in money.
The question was this: How many of the 9/11 hijackers were from Iraq?
Twenty-three percent of respondents said "some." Twenty-one percent said "most." Six percent said "one." So, what do we have for our contestants, Johnny?
Well, to be fair, this could be considered a "push poll," a trick question with an apparent given fact as its premise. But let's not be fair.
Three thousand Americans died on Sept. 11, 2001. We're told by the president that our country is engaged in a war on terrorism. We are massing American troops in the Middle East for an invasion of Iraq unless Saddam Hussein dies, leaves or proves a negative.
It seems reasonable to wonder what percentage of Americans understand the relationship between Iraq and the perpetrators of 9/11, what with war and death and all that coming up.
Thirty-three percent replied "I don't know," and 17 percent gave the correct answer, which, by the way, was "none." (I'm assuming this is news to 83 percent of you. Maybe I'm wrong).
It's also worth pointing out that recent polls show that a solid majority of Americans (around 68 percent) believes that Iraq and al-Qaida have strong and continuing ties, despite virtually no evidence to support this.
So, not only do a majority of Americans think Saddam and Osama are in cahoots, but a vast majority thinks that either there were Iraqis in the planes used on 9/11 or don't know that there weren't. Are we ready for a war or what?
Polls are just snapshots, of course, a quick gauge of the nation's mood, but taken together they can present an interesting syllogism: If a majority of Americans favors U.S. action against Iraq, and a majority mistakenly believes Iraq is linked in some way to the 9/11 attacks, then... what planet is this again?
Jay Leno has a recurring segment on his show where he goes out and asks people on the street questions about history or current events, and he gets some amazingly stupid answers. I've always wondered how long it takes him to find such ignorant people. Now I'm thinking, not long. Or is it just me?
We were stunned and shocked at the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and for a few weeks we were inundated with facts. None of us expected a quiz; few of us remember any of the hijackers' names, and apparently a lot of us are unaware that most of them came from Saudi Arabia.
But why do a majority of Americans sniff an imaginary (or at least unsubstantiated) trail between Baghdad and the twin towers? Are we seeking justification for sliding into a war no one contemplated 18 months ago? Are we just really stupid?
Both. Neither. I don't know. Don't ask me any more questions, Mr. Pollster.
"Facts are stubborn things," John Adams wrote. They can also be overwhelming, and accompanied by hard stuff like numbers and graphs. Maybe there are too many sources of information now. Maybe we're distracted by "Friends" and football.
And maybe the question is moot, and war will happen or it won't and it doesn't matter what we think we know. Maybe the Bush administration will make the case, finally and concisely, about why we fight.
In the meantime, though, I think it's important to be aware that while ignorance can make us laugh, there comes a time when it's just not funny anymore. Let's not forget what it was like 30 years ago, when we all had to pick up and move to a new planet.
Uh oh. That just slipped out. Sorry.
Chuck Sigars is a free-lance writer living in Snohomish County near Mukilteo. He can be reached at ChuckSigars@aol.com.
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