Ostriches, guns and God

The extraordinary power of false narratives.

Perhaps it’s simply part of human nature to want to hear and tell stories. Like the “fight or flight instinct”, maybe its hardwired into us. Inchoate. Part of our essence.

Long before we were a written culture, humans shared tales via the spoken word. As our ancestors sat around fires or huddled in caves, they told stories of battles, lineages, creation myths, tales of the hunt, the dreaming, of past conquests, vanquishments and lessons learned. We dreamed up gods to worship and prophecies of things to come.

Ghost stories, parables, fables, myths and sagas explained our history and made sense of it.

We learned that stories have power (which is doubtless why politicians are always trying to “control the narrative”). Even as they enthral, our tales can also evoke, provoke, excite, amuse, entertain – even control. When a story is sufficiently potent, it can draw masses to houses of worship, or even inspire them to sacrifice their lives for the promise of something better in the hereafter.

Consider the egregious story of the “stolen” US election, which built such momentum that it led – unprecedentedly – to a throng descending on the US Capitol Building, with dire results. The story of US greatness and impregnability might be at play in the lack of urgency a year on in responding to Donald Trump’s outrageous behaviour.

It would seem false stories are just as potent as the genuine article, and maybe even more so.

Most of us have been warned at one time or another not to stick our heads in the sand, or worse, accused of doing the same.

The phrase refers to the supposed practice of the flightless African bird, the ostrich, of plunging its head into soil in an ill-fated attempt to avoid danger.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the phrase has come to mean “to refuse to think about unpleasant facts, although they will have an influence on your situation.”

A classic Warner Bros cartoon featured Foghorn Leghorn and his “son,” a misplaced ostrich, who emerged from his oversized egg only to thrust his head earthwards at the merest hint of discomfort.

It’s a phrase that’s in common parlance.

Here’s the thing, however: Ostriches don’t bury their hands to avoid danger, and never have.

The untruth relates to a fantastical piece of travel journalism from ancient historian Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD).

In Book 10, Chapter 1 he writes of ostriches, “they imagine when they thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed.”

It’s thought this single sentence is the source of the misunderstanding, which has now lasted about 2,000 years. It’s very evocative, which might help explain its “stickiness”.

The way you hear gun-toting Americans talking about their Second Amendment rights, one might imagine that the framers of the US Constitution had in mind a society where everyone has a legal right, if not responsibility, to own and carry their own firearms. Indeed, the story many Americans understand is that these sacred words allow just that.

I’m not sure that this is the case, but then again, I’m not a US citizen nor a pettifogging shyster, merely someone interested in language.

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary for the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Stunning in its brevity, the Second Amendment also stands out for its lack of clarity and for its disjointedness.

Since it’s but a single sentence, one might think the second part is connected with what comes before – that the right to bear arms is dependent on the arms-bearer being part of a militia, and a well-organised one at that.

Ratified in late 1791,  the most influential framer of the Second Amendment was said to be James Madison, whose primary concern was that a federal army could be kept in check by state militias if necessary.

Still, in 2008 a conservative-dominated US Supreme Court held that the amendment protects an individual’s right to keep a gun for self-defence.

The idea that the second amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Research by Robert Spitzer found that every single law journal article discussing the Second Amendment through to 1959 “reflected the Second Amendment affects citizens only in connection with citizen service in a government-organised-and-regulated militia.”

The “individualist” reading is a recent phenomenon, and decidedly not what the framers intended, regardless of that recent ruling.

Justice John Paul Stevens (a Reagan administration appointee, so hardly a liberal bleeding heart) submits a revised Second Amendment in a book calling for the US Constitution to be changed.

“A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms when serving in the militia shall not be infringed.”

Firearms rights is a cause positioned at the heart of the conservative authoritarian political right in the US. It seems incongruous, somehow, that Christian tenets also sit within the potpourri of conservatism beliefs, whose espousal of the free market and pro big-business policies seem counter – if not diametrically opposed – to the Bible’s teachings.

I’m thinking here of “Do unto others …”, “Turn the other cheek …”, “The meek shall inherit the Earth …”.

The stark words from Matthew 19:24 state clearly that the Biblical Jesus had little truck with materialism.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” the passage states.

(Before I quote any more biblical passages, I should state that my own beliefs run to agnostic.)

Some years ago, prominent rugby union player Israel Falau was banned from playing following a controversy over some homophobic social media posts. Folau had posted on Instagram that gay people were destined for hell.

At around the same time Folau gave a sermon in his Sydney church linking the bushfires ravaging parts of Australia at the time (in 2019) to legalisation of same-sex marriage and the decriminalisation of abortion.

Meanwhile, however, Folau was signed to a four-year $4m pact with Australian rugby, surely placing him in the camel-competing cohort as outlined in the Book of Matthew quote above.

Not only that, but Folau, like many professional athletes, is bedecked in tattoos, which according to the Old Testament’s Book of Leviticus (19:28), are strictly taboo.

“Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves,” the passage says.

What made Folau think he was a Christian, when clearly, he was in contravention of his religion’s own rules? His obscene wealth and ink made sure of that.

Surely kindness and acceptance rather than judgementalism and hostility should be top of the tree when it comes to preferred Christian characteristics? Jesus was a friend to prostitutes and the destitute, and thought the world of commerce had no place in the house of God.

Sadly, though, the major religions have logged a long and inglorious history of acts based on their faiths’ superstitions and myths rather than depredations (from above, where else) to mean well and do good.

I didn’t set out to write a piece about deplorable Christian brothers or Nazi-funding popes, but it’s fair to see the “big three” religions have committed their share of repugnant acts. Only considerable cognitive dissonance makes such duality possible. And as Philip Adams reminds us, arguing about religion is like arguing about who has the best imaginary friend.

Other well-known facts that are not true: that a frog will allow itself to be boiled alive if the cooking process is gradual (the frog will hop out when it gets sufficiently uncomfortable); that 10,000 steps per days is optimal for human health (the number is based on a 1960s study of Japanese factory workers and has no real-world corollary – although it probably isn’t a bad idea); and that we humans use only 10 per cent of our considerable brain power (debunking the films Lucy and Limitless, and putting in jeopardy our overperforming future selves).

Acquiescent amphibians, cowardly flightless birds, even unkind and uninformed so-called Christians – one can to a degree understand how such misunderstandings developed over time.

But how should we think about those who believe not just those misnomers, malapropisms and false narratives that have found their way into our culture, but have actually gone further and embraced a pack of lies – say that COVID vaccinations contain nanobots, or that a paedophile ring is operating among “elites” – politicians, actors and those in their community?

In her book Qanon and On, Van Badham details cases of non-radical individuals being sucked in by the vortex of online cults such as Qanon and others via chat rooms such as 4Chan.

Such realms provide a degree of comfort and sense of control for marginalised and vulnerable individuals. And because they are ring-fenced off from reality (for instance claiming the ABC or the New York Times are left-wing skewed and full of untruths), all the forms of media these folks access contain confirmation bias.

Some of those who marched in the Capitol riots on January 6, 2001, had undergone a deep radicalisation and conversion within months of first venturing into the online conspiracy cults.

I have a science teacher friend who, once a member of the Greens, morphed into a conservative and anti-vaxxer over the past few years. During Melbourne’s most recent lockdown he was extremely concerned and agitated that the lockdowns were merely an excuse for the state government to impose a police state.

Badham’s advice is to keep such individuals engaged but don’t attempt to dissuade them of their strange beliefs. Stay in neutral conversational territory.

In other words: Don’t bury your head in the sand.