By Tim McGrath
We’re a funny bunch, we humans. On one hand we can be generous, smart, creative and inventive. Just think of all the things those that came before us accomplished, created, and experienced. It’s quite a remarkable list. Things that today we just shrug our shoulders at and say, “Mmm, yeah, I guess” were monumental in their day. I remember my grandmother commenting on getting to experience electricity and the joys of indoor plumbing for the first time.
“Chamber pots were way better than running to the outhouse at night in the middle of January, Timmy, but I’ll tell you what, when we got the indoor pot we all thought we’d died and gone to heaven: it was a lovely thing.” Can only imagine.
When she’d see an airplane or jet zooming over, we’d hear about the first time she saw one flying over their house when she was a little girl. How all the neighbors came rushing out of their houses and watched it roaring by. We’d hear about their first radio, television, telephone, car. How the horse drawn milk wagon that clip-clopped by the house every morning was replaced by the milkman in his truck. Refrigerators replacing the icebox. My cousins and I playing in the empty coalbin in her basement, her telling us about the dirty work of stoking the coal burning furnace. What a thrill it was when piped in natural gas came along and fed the huge new furnace. We imagined it to be an octopus bent on gobbling little boys like us up. On and on her list went.
Every generation that’s followed has also witnessed a mind boggling array of innovation, invention, and achievements that never fail to astound. So on and on these things go, moving the whole thing forward.
And yet, there’s the head scratchers….
We humans can also be a big mystery. How is it that in spite of how much we’ve moved civilization forward we see evidence that suggests otherwise. It seems like, even though the rate of knowledge, innovation, and achievement has accelerated at an astonishing rate, we seem to be moving the whole thing backward in so many ways. Take the wealth of half-truths, disinformation, misinformation, and just outright blather we’re bombarded with daily on television and social media made to sound like truth.
The goofiness people fall for is quite remarkable. How is it that so many seemingly intelligent, thoughtful, reasonable people fall for ridiculous notions that, given some reflection and thought, would be revealed to be a crazy mix of half-truths, and just plain nonsense. But if the peddlers of these conspiracies say it loudly enough, long enough, and convincingly enough some will start to wonder. Hmmm…, maybe this could have some merit, they think. And then we’re off and running.
Here's some I’ve found that really are quite remarkable in both their zaniness, and the fact that a number of people believe them.
This is just a tiny look at the conspiracy theories that have been floated about. New ones regularly pop up like angry boils. Many are hilarious in their outlandishness, yet too often there are the dangerous ones that persuade susceptible people to commit truly heinous crimes that cause so much misery and suffering. How did we allow ourselves to become a people where half -truths, misinformation, disinformation, and ridiculous blather screamed over all forms of media become the truth, and an acceptable way to think and act toward one another? Where we become pitted against each other in like-minded tribes that won’t entertain the thoughts, beliefs, or ideas of people we disagree with. If you aren’t with us, you’re not only wrong, you’re now the enemy. Wait, what…, are we that unthinking, unyielding, and gullible?
Enter one of the most magnificently ridiculous conspiracy theories in recent days… Birds Aren’t Real. True. According to the group promoting this, the government has secretly replaced all the birds with look-alike bird drones. Beginning in 1959 and continuing through 2001, 12 billion birds were replaced with surveillance drones. They’re out there keeping an eye on all of us, and reporting back to the government….
The television news program 60 Minutes recently had a piece on the movement. It was interesting to watch as the group moved from city to city passing on the information that our feathered friends are not what they seem. In spite of the laughability of the whole thing, there were people who, after listening to the message being screamed from the BAR conspiracy van, started wondering if just maybe…. Of course, many people realized the craziness of it, and laughed it off as just some wacko hippie types peddling their silliness. But there were some who were wondering. One lady, after listening to the group’s insistent message, was asked what she thought about BAR. “Oh, yeah, I knew that.” Seriously.
The point of the story and the BAR movement is to point out in a truly outrageous way just how gullible some can be given the right circumstances. One would think that just given their name, Birds Aren’t Real, that people would ignore them, or laugh it off as some silly prank. But nope, some do believe. Remarkable. Oh by the way, they do have a website and Facebook page with some cool BAR merchandise.
And yet, in spite of how clever or smart we may think we are, all of us can be susceptible to falling for conspiracy theories…. Here’s one of my own.
Pets in our house were mostly an abysmal failure. The hamsters would regularly escape their cages, and Mom finally had it when she was awakened at 2:00 a.m. one morning. She heard something chewing, and turning on the bedside lamp to investigate, saw little beady eyed Herbie happily gnawing away on the bedpost. She had us all up chasing the bugger around the room. We finally got it cornered, and Dad clomped an empty cool whip container over it. We got it back into its cage, and that’s when I realized I’d failed to completely close the cage door after I’d been playing with him. From then on, Herbie was on 24-hour lockdown.
Every dog we got usually ended up being given away. It wasn’t that they weren’t cared for or loved, it was just that there was always something wrong with them. So, off they’d go to some other relative or friend. Inevitably, we’d hear what wonderful companions they were, how could we possibly have given them away like that? Always said with a laugh, always. Which left my brother and I longing for some kind of pet that wasn’t a disaster.
The first time I saw it, I couldn’t believe it. There, right across the street, was Mrs. Saurman, a neighbor lady, out for a walk. But what she was walking was remarkable. I hurried across the street to get a closer look.
“Hi, Mrs. Saurman. Is that a raccoon?” I asked, incredulous that someone could actually be walking a raccoon.
“It sure is, Timmy. This is Dicky, he’s my pet raccoon. Would you like to pet him?” she cheerfully asked. She made it seem like the most natural thing in the world to be out on a glorious August evening with your pet raccoon on the end of a leash.
Not long after I saw her again out walking. This time it appeared she had a duck on the end of a leash. As I ran across the street to investigate, I saw it was a duck; a fat, waddling, quacking duck. “Hi, Mrs. Saurman, is that a duck?”
“It is, Timmy. This is my pet mallard, Larry.”
After that it became a common sight to see the three of them out for a stroll in the evening: Mrs. Saurman, Dicky, and Larry. Which got me thinking.
“Mom, can we get a raccoon?” I casually asked one day. “Mrs. Saurman has got one, it’s tame, and she said they’re friendly and clean. Or maybe we could get a duck?” She looked up from her dishwashing and looked at me like I’d lost my mind.
“Why of course not. We’re not having any more pets in this house. Nutso dogs and hamsters running all over creation are bad enough. But a raccoon? I can only imagine the mischief it would get into. Let’s not hear any more of this nonsense.” Well, that’s that, I thought.
One day not long after I was moping around the house. My pals were out doing stuff with their moms, so I was stuck at home. “I’m bored,” I said. Not a good thing to say to my mother. She’d see to it that I’d regret uttering those words. But today was different.
“Do you remember when you wished for a duck like Mrs. Saurman’s Larry, or pet raccoon, Dicky?” she asked. How could I forget?
“Well, I’m going to let you in on a little known fact. Did you know that if you sprinkle salt on a bird’s tail, it freezes in place and can’t fly? Why don’t you go out and give it a try? If you catch one, you can have that as a pet.”
“Really?” I asked. I wanted to believe her, but it sounded kind of goofy.
“Yes, completely true. Now why don’t you go on out and see if you can nab one. It’s a nice day, and I’m tired of seeing you moping around here.”
The next few weeks were taken up by the great bird chase. I was eager. Every day after school found me slinking ninja style around the neighborhood, salt shaker in hand, determined to catch a robin, sparrow, or well, any flying creature. It became an obsession. I actually got within a few feet of a robin one afternoon. I got the salt shaker in position, and just as I gave it a shake, the stupid bird flew away. That’s when I saw Mrs. Van Koevering peeking out her kitchen window with a big grin on her face. She’d been watching me the whole time. And that’s when I finally realized Mom had made the whole thing up to get me out of her hair.
Years later, we were recounting my great disappointment at not being able to capture a bird with the salt shaker method. “Oh, my, the whole neighborhood was in on it,” she laughed. “All the other moms got such a kick out of watching you sneaking around with your salt shaker after school all those days,” she recalled. “At first I felt badly that I’d tricked you like that, but then I thought it might be a good lesson for you to learn.” she said.
“What kind of lesson is that, tricking a little kid?” I huffily replied. I still remembered my embarrassment after realizing I’d been duped by my own mother.
“Well, I realized there would be people in your life who would try to take advantage of you, and get you to believe things that were not true. I wanted you to learn not everything you hear, see, or read is true, and not everyone can be trusted, honey. I wanted you to learn to use your head. So I hope you can understand why I did what I did.”
Thanks, Mom, well played.
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