Among the press there is a time-honored query applied to presidents and other wielders of power who may have an interest in appearing ignorant of “certain deeds,” who committed them, and the like. “What did he know, and when did he know it?” was, I believe, first asked of Richard Nixon (Watergate), then Ronald Reagan (Iran/Contra), then George Bush 1 (ditto), then Bill Clinton (Whitewater/Monicagate) now George Bush 2 (9/11). The press love these stock scandal-mongering sound bites, because they bestow years of precedent, context, and therefore meaning on otherwise simple statements that mean nothing below the surface.
I think we can assume, for example, that they all knew all of it as soon as anyone else did. These are presidents, after all.
But hearing it again the other day from some talking head reminded me of a more significant phrase that does occur to me so often: What do we know, and how do we know it?
The quick answer from the true believer of either stripe is, “from the Book.”
On the one hand we have the newly revived Biblical literalist. In decline for some time, they are experiencing a resurgence of power and influence due to a number of factors. Chief among these, I think, is what Alvin Toffler termed “future shock,” which, briefly, is the effect on the mind and society of technological and cultural change that far outpaces the mind’s ability to adapt to it. As an example, consider the small-town old-timer, raised in the 1940s, Korean war veteran, in his overalls and seed cap, encountering a tattoo-covered, nose-ringed, green-haired modern primitive wearing a Charles Manson t-shirt (for purposes of irony, let’s say, not admiration). What does old Ernie think of this youngster? Does he consider that the young man is simply adhering to the latest fashions and cultural expressions in an attempt to appear hip and stylish? No, he figures the guy is either insane, a devil worshiper, or both. The pace of change has exceeded Elmer’s ability–or willingness, if you like–to understand and adapt to it. For slightly different but equally compelling reasons, Elmer distrusts the Internet, cell phones and gene therapy.
Anyway, a common reaction to a culture that appears chaotic, out of control and quite likely insane is to cling to simplistic notions of good and evil, right and wrong, black and white. Gray areas are simply not tolerated. The Bible serves this purpose well. And, especially these days, there is no shortage of “evangelists” ready to tell you, the confused one, what the Bible thinks of modern society and what it wants you to do to avoid falling into the pit of depravity that is 21st-century America.
So what does Elmer know, and how does he know it? He knows that he didn’t evolve from some damned ape, that abortion is wrong and should be illegal, that a woman is subordinate to her husband, that prayer should be put back in schools, that death is better than godless communism, that adherents to all other religions besides Christianity are misguided at best, that Hollywood and academia are full of amoral hedonists, that promiscuity is ruining the American family, that network television is a cesspool of sex, violence and blasphemy, etc. But he also knows that we should love our enemies; that the meek shall inherit the earth; that blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs shall be the kingdom of heaven; that Jesus loves him.
It’s a hard mix. I’ve often wondered how people merge the angry and vengeful Old Testament God with the kinder, gentler Jesus version. It’s tempting to quote Voltaire here, but for now I’m sticking with an examination of what Elmer knows. And though what he knows is conflicted and contradictory, it is at least authoritative. One can invoke the Bible to justify almost any truth. And such a truth, backed by the power of faith and the communion of millions of like minds, is difficult to assail. Just ask Copernicus.
Next: Science/Fiction 2: the Other Book