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The suckers born every minute

The Cardiff Giant, in his Amy Winehouse period.

The Cardiff Giant, in his Amy Winehouse period.

Four of us were on the way outta Cooperstown when I slammed on the brakes. A sign along the roadside had caught my eye: THE CARDIFF GIANT. He was here, at the Farmer’s Museum. I had to see him.

The Cardiff Giant is often labeled as the greatest hoax in American history. A 10-foot-tall man “discovered” in 1869 by guys digging a well in Cardiff, NY., outside of Syracuse. Supposedly a fossil of some forgotten race. P.T. Barnum figures in the story, so that ought to tell you something.

And now here the Giant was on this summer afternoon, reclining in his shed among the tools and arcane tractors of honest, hard-working American farmers. One of the Giant’s arms lies across his body, in what appears to be a vain attempt at modesty, for the mighty fellow is naked. The Giant’s details are rough. In two or three seconds, any casual observer will determine that this is simply a figure chiseled from a big block of gypsum. Yet thousands of Americans were fooled by this. They wanted to believe this was a giant. Perhaps because the Bible says there were once giants on the earth.

I Googled some photos of the Cardiff Giant this morning and noticed something odd. There are at least two distinct Cardiff Giants, including one that looks a bit more realistic than the one we saw in Cooperstown. With a little poking around I found that Barnum, who had bought the Cardiff Giant from the original hoaxer, had made a second Cardiff Giant to double the hoax payoff. A hoax of a hoax. That second one’s in Farmington Hills, Mich., at Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum.

It would be cool if such things were true. A few years ago, the bluegrass star Alison Krauss urged me to Google “giant skeletons.” I’m not sure if she actually believed giant skeletons exist, but I took her advice. You try it. You’ll come up with videos and photos of construction equipment digging up impossibly large human skeletons.

Last year I stumbled across Season One of a show on The History Channel, Search for the Lost Giants. Supposedly a documentary series, it’s about two New England brothers pursuing their theory that giants once roamed the planet, just a couple of centuries ago. I watched it with interest. Not because I think giants once existed. I’m just attracted to stories of useless quests and unrequited dreams. And here were two seemingly smart guys so obsessed with their urban myth – or so intent on carrying on an expensive fraud for no explainable reason – that every small piece of “evidence” resoundingly backs their idea. So now I Googled Search for the Lost Giants, just to see if the astonishingly misnamed History Channel, which regularly airs programming of dubious veracity, was preparing a second season of the show. No word on that. But I found a blog by Stephen Mrozowski, a professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts. Professor Mrozowski was invited on the show to examine the “Goshen Mystery Tunnel,” a long, stone structure beneath the Massachusetts ground consisting of several chambers. Or so they say. The brothers fervently insist this tunnel is connected to their giants, although they never explain how they come to that conclusion; the tunnel seems a bit cramped for giants. In his blog, Mrozowski notes that he was never told that he was being invited on the show to discuss giants. Nor does the show air his speculations that don’t fit the brothers’ needs. Like the tunnel could have been built by Canadian bootleggers to hide booze during the Depression. In the selectively edited video, Mrozowski seems to give the brothers’ quest some credence.

More than a few bloggers point out the racist point of view behind theories of UFOs building Mayan cities. Or a race of giants must have created Indian burial mounds. Because Native Americans could never have stacked stones or dug holes on their own.

This all comes to mind because a few people were hanging out at the house Friday night over a couple of bottles of wine. And the subject of lies came up. Mostly the lies that surround today’s political and social issues. I made some kind of comment about how the Republican Party seems to be collapsing beneath the weight of a decade or two of lies piled on top of lies. Once you start lying, you have to manufacture more lies to support the lies.It’s gotten so bad that, with John Boehner having resigned as House Majority leader, the Republicans can’t find anyone to take his place. No one wants to be in charge when it falls.

Before we left the Farmer’s Museum, I stopped in the gift shop and purchased a postcard of the Cardiff Giant, shot in strange lighting that made it look weirdly metrosexual. I suppose that makes me guilty of supporting the Cardiff Giant hoax. A tribute to the willingness of people to believe.

But there are stone-cold hoaxes bigger and more serious than the Cardiff Giant. Or giants buried in the New England woods. Or computer-generated Internet images of giant skeletons. Hoaxes like “clean coal,” no such thing exists. So we continue to choke the planet to death. And the decision to invade Iraq, and then Afghanistan. Lives and money thrown away. And vaccinations cause autism, a claim backed by virtually no doctor. Faith is comforting, but society moves forward with science.

Driving from Cooperstown back to Rochester, taking the beautiful back roads of Western New York, we noticed that people in these rural communities like to post signs in their front yards. Guns aren’t dangerous, they read. But wind turbines are a threat to “Family, Faith and Health.”

What was it that P.T. Barnum said? Perhaps as he was passing through Western New York, counting his receipts from The Cardiff Giant?

There’s a sucker born every minute.

The 21st century isn’t here yet, but we’re getting close

 Would God really have created our complex and planet-filled universe, and not expect us to be inspired by its potential?

Would God really have created our complex and planet-filled universe, and not expect us to be inspired by its potential?

Believe what you want. The Earth is 6,000 years old?  Humans were created by God in his image? Obama was born in Kenya? Go ahead and think so, there’s plenty of room here for all kinds of beliefs. It’s a big world. And an old one: 4.54 billion years old, in fact.

As a hefty news consumer, I’ve drawn the conclusion that the world holds two different types of beliefs. If you believe God created all life on this planet, that’s what’s called a faith-based idea. As is the belief that Santa Claus exists. As is the fear that, if I take your picture, my camera will capture your soul. These are all ideas completely unsupported by any evidence. They’re only endorsed by what you read in a book. Something your parents told you. A movie that you once saw that presented a shallow interpretation of indigenous peoples’ reactions to unfamiliar technology.

The second type of belief? Fact based. Time tested. scientifically proven. The fossil record tells me that all animals evolved from simple, one-celled life forms. And I really wouldn’t care if you think fossils are just intriguing rocks that God scattered around the planet to mess with our heads – it’s your right to be wrong.

I wouldn’t care, that is, if it weren’t for one jarring problem. Those who are wrong can really make life tough for the rest of us. Here’s an example. Say you’re a Republican politician who follows your party’s most-extreme beliefs about abortion. That means you’re against stem-cell research, because you believe that it kills babies. So you vote against funding stem-cell research. If you’ve floated to the top of the Republican depth chart, as George W. Bush once did, you create legislation that makes it difficult for serious scientists to study the promising role that stem cells could play in regenerating human tissues. A breakthrough that might help cure paralysis, or slow your mother’s encroaching Alzheimer’s.

Here’s another example. Say you’re a Republican politician who’s on your party’s ticket as candidate for vice president. That mean’s you’re the pit bull. With lipstick. You attack everything that the Democrats stand for. Especially spending money on useless science. That means one day, during a speech, you mock the idea of the government spending money on researching fruit flies. Money for fruit flies! What typical government waste!

I happened to see Sarah Palin express just such outrage, back in those goofy days when she and John McCain were making their bid to run the country. And I knew one thing at that very second that Palin didn’t know. That fruit flies are very important in  the field of genetic research. Since fruit flies have such a short life span – dozens of generations can pass before your eyes over the course of a couple of weeks – scientists can study genetic mutation on fast forward. I knew this, and I’ll bet millions of Americans that day also knew it. Yet Palin didn’t. And she wanted to be a part of important budget decisions that would impact the lives of many, many Americans.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the wasteful spending of the Obama administration included “buying $47,000 cigarette-smoking machines.” Shocking. Unless you know the facts. The Veterans Administration uses one of those $47,000 cigarette-smoking machines for testing new treatments for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. That’s the third-leading cause of death in the United States. Boehner, a smoker, probably doesn’t want to hear this fact either: But in a 2010 study, the American Cancer Society estimated that the disease would cost the county $49.9 billion that year.

After a few years of hearing elected leaders arguing with scientists that climate change is a hoax, and claiming women have a way of shutting down pregnancies in the case of rape, there can be no denying that the Republican Party lives in a  fact-void world. These are dangerous people who, rather than calling for violence-free schools, are pushing legislation allowing teachers and school janitors to pack heat. “Some day, our side is gonna win one of these shootouts….”

Time lays waste to wrong ideas. We were wrong to invade Iraq. Gay marriage hasn’t destroyed the institution of marriage. And sometimes, time takes time. The state of Mississippi didn’t get around to officially ratifying the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned slavery in 1865, until Feb. 7, 2013.

Minority points of view must be heard and properly represented. But not to the point that it shuts down a society’s ability to move forward. Scientists are using 3-D printers to make replacement human ears. Brain researchers have discovered that chimpanzees have better short-term memories than humans. Geneticists confirmed a few weeks ago that the 500-year-old skeleton of Richard III has been found buried beneath a parking lot in England. Astronomers are discovering new planets every week.  The future isn’t to be feared. Would God really have created our complex and planet-filled universe, and not expect us to be inspired by its potential? The 21st century promises to be a really cool and exciting place. But only those who don’t believe in it would step aside, and allow the rest of us to get there.

Founding Fathers, welcome to the 21st century

The Founding Fathers not only owned slaves, but were computer illiterate.

The Founding Fathers not only owned slaves, but were computer illiterate.

The 21st century has been tough on our Republican friends. This week has been particularly unnerving. The world’s most-famous Marine, Gomer Pyle, married his longtime boyfriend. Female soldiers were granted a privilege formerly reserved for men, engaging in hand-to-hand combat.

And now, we’re finally having that gun discussion that, as a nation, we need. And what a conversation, indeed!

  • Gayle Trotter, a senior fellow at the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, said this to Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence: “An assault weapon in the hands of a young woman defending her babies in her home becomes a defense weapon. And the peace of mind she has … knowing she has a scary-looking gun gives her more courage when she’s fighting hardened violent criminals.” Trotter is a lobbyist, and a tax attorney by trade. I’m not sure why a person with such credentials would be testifying before Congress as an expert on guns. But I ain’t messin’ with her babies.
  • South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham had this to say: “There could be a situation where a mother runs out of bullets because of something we do here. Six bullets in the hands of a woman trying to defend her children might not be enough.”
  • Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander said this during an interview on MSNBC on Wednesday: I think video games is a bigger problem than guns, because video games affect people.”

Is this really the greatest country in the world, as self-proclaimed patriots of the far right love to bray? A country where the only people who look like Bruce Willis in a Die Hard flick can walk the streets with some assurance that they won’t be bothered?

National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre testified Wednesday as well. He’s famously known for insisting on armed guards in all schools, claiming “the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” But LaPierre had no answer for Mark Kelly, the astronaut husband of Congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords, shot in the head, never to be the same woman again. Kelly pointed out what many people have forgotten about that awful morning in Tucson two years ago, when six people were killed and 13 wounded. There was a good guy with a gun. He pointed that gun at one of the brave guys who had tackled and disarmed the shooter. The good guy with the gun, Kelly reminded the Senators, “admits that he came within about a half a second of shooting the man … and nearly killing him.”

Wednesday’s hearing on gun violence has brought out the crazy. But this is nothing new, is it? We’ve been hearing this kind of talk for a while, now. The difference being, when Mitt Romney told a room full of rich people that he didn’t care about 47 percent of Americans because they’d never vote for him, he wasn’t holding a gun to our heads. All we had to do was vote for the other guy.

This is the 21st century, but conservatives never tire of proclaiming that they want to take back the county. Back to the 19th century. They refuse to vote for legislation that would assure women get equal pay as men for doing the same job. They deny women the right to have control of their own lives and bodies – rights confirmed by the Supreme Court – by introducing laws that force the closing of abortion clinics. They introduce legislation in this country of immigrants that treats new immigrants to this country with suspicion and disrespect. They insist school boards that do not include in their curriculums the teaching of articles of faith – creationism, Bible stories – are attacking their religious freedoms, but they refuse to concede that those same religious freedoms should be granted to people who share the beliefs of American Muslims, or Hindus, or Buddhists.

The NRA claims that its aim to protect the rights of gun owners, but its intransigent positions on gun-control proposals that even NRA members agree are good ideas – like background checks – reveal the NRA to be merely a lobbyist for the billion-dollar-a-year gun industry. Like any business, the makers of  guns and bullets do not want to see their customer base reduced. The National Shooting Sports Foundation web site suggests the gun industry creates jobs. Yes, for paramedics, emergency-room personnel and morticians.

This kind of thinking wants to take the country back even further, to the 18th century. When the Founding Fathers walked the Earth. Conservatives falsely claim that old fellas like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, in their wisdom, created a Judeo-Christian nation. They falsely claim that the Second Amendment allows 21st-century man to walk around his neighborhood armed like an extra from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. But the Second Amendment does no such thing. The Founding Fathers were smart men, but they were creating ideas for an 18th-century world, not a 21st-century world. Many of them owned slaves, and their women could not vote. They couldn’t envision a world with nuclear bombs and the Internet, or a time when we would be able to alter the planet’s climate through our own arrogance.

America was a tiny, upstart nation in 1790, when the first U.S. census counted just 3.9 million people. The Founding Fathers saw the need for militias because the young country couldn’t afford to keep a standing army. They hid behind trees to shoot at Redcoats, never imagining the day would come when wars could be fought with pilotless drone aircraft dropping bombs on people who we can’t look in the eye, don’t understand, and aren’t even sure are a threat to us.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson did not write the Constitution or the Bill of Rights mindful of future Americans casually acquiring personal arsenals that could almost single-handedly destroy George Washington’s Continental Army.

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