Does it matter whether Trump builds his wall? Or are we mistaking the finger for what it’s pointing to?
The New Reality
Trump’s campaign promise about a wall along the border between the USA and Mexico is one of his most memorable pronouncements. Even though there are a host of logistical and economic problems with this grandiose scheme to seal the almost two-thousand-mile border, the Trump administration refuses to abandon the plan.
We could attribute this to hubris or delusion, but either of these options assumes that the wall is something Trump truly intends to build. There’s a much more plausible explanation for the administration’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge how unfeasible and ineffectual such a wall is in reality: the wall doesn’t have to exist in reality.
Let’s not forget that Trump made his political stock rise during the previous administration by pushing a conspiracy theory about President Obama having been born in Africa rather than Hawaii. Anyone at this late date who still believes that the birther phenomenon was all about a birth certificate has no business accusing anyone else of a lack of critical thinking skills. Whether or not Obama was born in Hawaii, Trump made hay by pandering to the racism and xenophobia of people who were desperate to deny the fact that a black man occupied the Oval Office. People admired Trump for telling them what they wanted to hear: that Obama was Constitutionally unfit to be President, and that this newly multicultural America was something just as easy to deny.
Trump’s wall is just as folkloric as Obama’s African provenance. Whether Trump really intends to build the wall, or whether such a feat is even feasible, is less important than the act of pandering to his supporters’ need for division from, and security against, their perceived enemies.
The Facts of the Matter Don’t MatterSam Harris closed his manifesto The End of Faith by declaring that “Nothing is more sacred than the facts.” Maybe that’s what’s wrong with the way we skeptics and atheists tend to define these matters: we have a faith in facts that’s just as naïve as religious people’s faith. When confronted with things like conspiracy theories and wild assertions, we fact-check the claims online, spew out the results, and then consider the matter closed. Trump now sits in the White House; what does that say about the magic power of our sacred facts?
I still vividly recall the times folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand appeared on Late Night with David Letterman in the 80s, and the idea of urban legends really interested me. Stories like “The Vanishing Hitchhiker” and “The Choking Doberman” spread by word of mouth, becoming popular legends because there’s something in them that resonates in the imagination of the society in which they circulated. They tell us a lot about the hopes and anxieties of a culture: the fear of strangers, the longing for justice, the legitimacy of the social order. Whether they’re true or not is beside the point.
This is the thing that rankles our rational outlook on society. Isn’t the literal truth of a claim, whether it’s about God, Obama’s birth certificate, or whether the local courthouse was constructed to face the wrong direction, the be-all and end-all of the meaning of the claim? I’d say no. What a story means to people in a culture has more to do with their emotions, their moral sense, and their fears about the future.
The Truth About Truth
I keep coming back to the sad fact that literal-mindedness doesn’t help us establish why a claim has so much power over us as a nation. If we had understood how insidious the appeal of the birther conspiracy theory was, how deeply Obama’s election stoked the fear of the Other in white America, and how effectively Trump was able to capitalize on this paranoia, we might not be talking about a border wall right now.
Is the literal truth really the only important truth? Or are current events showing us that we need to dig deeper to find the truth?