I will not employ any euphemisms in this post. I want it to be perfectly understood that mankind’s trusted “common body of knowledge” is both a sick joke and a barely-there thing of an overwhelmingly ephemeral nature. As I see it, the damned thing is a dismal, incomplete collection of dim remembrances, half-truths, and folklore-turned-fact that becomes inserted into the collective American consciousness through repetition. And when I say repetition, I mean the kind like the “Columbus set sail to America prove the world was round” kind of repeated misinformation. He was looking for a new route to India, not looking to discover some "new world". In truth, the Vikings and Asians already found what would later be called "the Americas" long before the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria went sailing around the Caribbean. Only recently has the above correction begun to creep into the popular consciousness, thus showing how in retelling that which is incorrect again and again, fable becomes fact while fact becomes corrupted or forgotten.
Speaking of fact, it is an unquestionable that the general population tends to know of the extremes of a given type of incident or element of an event, but few are aware of other events that, while not quite as spectacular, devastating, or salacious as the better-known events, are nonetheless possessed of their own elements of courage, sadness, triumph, and bitter tragedy. This is the critical point where truth pivots toward lesser things. It is not only the exact point where the failures of the common body of knowledge become apparent, it is where our own desire and ability to be informed fails us as well, and where true knowledge should not only begin, it is where common knowledge should end. Unfortunately for us all, it does not.
There are many instances which illustrate the fallacy that is common knowledge. Let us consider the common knowledge about troubled painter Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890). According to popular lore he cut off his entire right ear, but in reality, Van Gogh cut off his right ear lobe, not his entire ear. However, common knowledge demands the depiction of Van Gogh in the mass media with a large bandage on his head, presumably to cover his presumedly severed ear.
Now let us consider what we know of the number of lives lost in the worst peacetime maritime disaster and the name of the ill-fated vessel those poor souls were on. According to common knowledge, the answers are, respectively, about 1500 people who died and the ship they were on was the infamous RMS Titanic. And once again, reliance on common knowledge yields an absolutely incorrect response. In truth, about 4000 people died in 1987 when a ferry named MV Doña Paz collided with another vessel and sank near the Philippines. 4000 people. Dead. Thousands gone in a single horrific event that did not arise from war or terrorism. There was no major Hollywood movie about this tragedy. There was no Leo, no Kate, no James Cameron, no stirring imagery of hope to the tune of Celine Dion. Instead, those who died aboard the ship are forgotten by the world, their names and faces largely existing only in the memories of those who knew them. And the sad truth behind that is not just a horrible lack of knowledge about the MV Doña Paz tragedy, but a misdirection of interest stemming from the public’s adoption of inaccurate common knowledge as supported by the media’s false reporting (and apparent love affair) with the Titanic as the worst-ever peacetime disaster at sea. (Source: http://world.time.com/2012/01/20/unsafe-at-sea-asias-history-of-deadly-ferry-disasters/slide/mv-dona-paz-philippines-1987/.)
There are numerous other cases where the inaccuracy of common knowledge surprises. To wit, the American President responsible for the creation of most of Executive Orders is not named “Barack Obama”. This will surprise many who routinely swallow punditry instead of facts. In truth, the honor (or dishonor) goes to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. President Obama has issued well over 200 Executive Orders, including some that make absolutely no sense whatsoever, but he falls well short of FDR who fired off an astounding 3721 commandments. To his credit, FDR was trying to get the nation out of the Depression while trying to navigate through the hostile international politics that would eventually lead to America's entry into World War II. (Source: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/data/orders.php.)
My final example is a poignant tale about the failure that is common knowledge as applied to the national zeitgeist. That is, relatively few people who were teenagers or older in 2001 recall that a plane once fell out of the cool skies above my native New York City on Veteran’s Day, 2001. The holiday fell on Monday, November 12th, and it was then barely two months since hijacked airplanes were used to bring death and tragedy to an innocent American nation on the day forever commemorated as September 11th, and the country’s wounds were still fresh and raw from that modern day of infamy.
It was a time when the mere sound of an airplane flying overhead or the sight of a person wearing a turban or flowing robes was enough to send masses of people into immediate, widespread panic. While such general sentiment could easily and justifiably be construed as fear, racism, jingoism, or the mass expression of caution, it remains an indisputable fact that the crash of American Airlines flight 587 into the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens, New York, reawakened fears of death from above by merciless attackers from the Middle East, and ripped open the wounds of terrorism that had yet to fully heal.
Sadly, the loss of life in Belle Harbor was incredible. All aboard the doomed jet and several unfortunate persons on the ground were killed by the impact. The immediate concern in the aftermath was and is understandable, given the time: terrorism. Many believed that murderous religious fanatics had returned and unprepared Americans were again the targets of their unfettered religious intolerance and blind, unreasoning hatred towards America itself. The nation’s media fanned the flames of nationalism and beat the drums of war in the belief that America was once again the victim of those possessed of an unabated hatred against all that the Stars and Stripes represents, but as we know today, the media was then absolutely wrong.
The crash, the death, the horror in Belle Harbor was the result of an accident in midair that yielded the most horrendous of consequences on the ground. Once the truth was exposed, the American media did not cease its zealous and possibly immoral quest for national unity at the cost of more lives, both foreign and American. Seemingly with a renewed sense of vigor, the media leveraged the fear, ethnic animosity and sheer racial hatred that was palpable in the time immediately following the 9/11 terror attacks, and it continued forward like an unstoppable juggernaut, screaming tales of gut-wrenching horror and unconscionable hatred at every turn while largely ignoring those events that failed to provide sufficient fuel to propel its cause for war.
So forceful, so vociferous, so relevant was the media’s slanted reporting that it largely made it impossible for President George W. Bush to avoid going to war. Blood was demanded for 9/11 and the Government had to respond to the fears of a nervous, jingoistic citizenry. It is through eyes that feared the unwanted adoption of Federal indecisiveness (or worse, helplessness) that helped the Bush administration see terrorist training camps, stockpiled weapons of mass destruction, missiles, tanks, troops, lions, tigers and bears (plus dogs and cats living together) in various surveillance images of Iraq. The perceived threats weren’t real, of course, but with the media beating the drums of war and the people following along like mindless zombies, the cause for war was imagined, accepted, and engaged.
The threats were not real, we know that now. There was no cause for war, at least not against Iraq. Today we realize that Saddam Hussein's death created a power vacuum in the Middle East, that the brutal dictator was actually essential in suppressing the various insurgent elements that would eventually come to the fore in his absence. But in late 2001 and throughout 2002, America just knew who should be blamed. After all, the media told us that the identity of the nation responsible was common knowledge.
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