Americans tend to know of the extremes of a given type of incident or element of an event, but few are aware of other occurrences that, while not quite as spectacular, devastating, or salacious as the better-known events, are nonetheless possessed of their own elements of courage, triumph, and bitter tragedy. The lack of awareness is the fulcrum that allows truth to pivot toward lesser things. That fulcrum 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 it’s where true knowledge should not only begin, it’s where so-called “common knowledge” should end. Unfortunately for us all, it does not.
To put it bluntly, I believe that our trusted “common body of knowledge” is a thing of an overwhelmingly ephemeral nature. I see it as a dismal, incomplete collection of dim remembrances, half-truths, and folklore-turned-fact that became 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. So in retelling that which is incorrect again and again, fable became fact while fact became corrupted or forgotten. Sadly, this situation continues even as I write this post.
There are many instances which illustrate the fallacy that is common knowledge. Let us consider the oft-repeated “fact” about troubled painter Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890). Popular lore states that he cut off his entire right ear in a fit of madness, but in reality, Van Gogh cut off his right earlobe, not his entire ear.1 However, common knowledge dictates the acceptance of Van Gogh’s self-portrait of his bandaged head as an accurate reflection of the artist with nothing less than a completely severed ear.
Now let us consider what we know of the number of lives lost in the worst peacetime sailing disaster and the name of the ill-fated vessel those poor souls were on. According to common knowledge, the answers are, respectively, about 1,500 people who died and the ship was the infamous RMS Titanic. Once again, common knowledge is wrong. In truth, about 4,000 (or more) people died in 1987 when an overloaded ferry named MV Doña Paz—a vessel just a third the size of the Titanic—collided with another ship and sank near the Philippines. As estimated 4,000 people drowned or were burned alive.2
There was no major Hollywood movie about the sinking of the MV Doña Paz. The victims of the sinking largely remain anonymous thanks to a horrible lack of public knowledge about the tragedy and the media’s false reporting about the Titanic disaster as the all-time worst peacetime disaster at sea. By repeatedly making an assertion the general public would have no choice but to accept, the media raised the arms of common knowledge in yet another celebration over truth even as the dead of the MV Doña Paz rested in obscurity.
There are numerous other cases where the inaccuracy of common knowledge surprises. To wit, the American president who created the greatest number of Executive Orders is not named “Barack Obama.” Instead, the honor (or dishonor) goes to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. President Obama issued nearly 300 Executive Orders, but FDR fired off an astounding 3,721 commandments.3 To his credit, FDR was trying to get America out of the Great Depression while trying to navigate through the hostile international politics that would eventually lead to World War II.
My final example is a poignant tale about the failure that is common knowledge as applies to the national zeitgeist. That is, relatively few people are aware that a plane once fell out of the cool skies above my native New York City on Veteran’s Day, 2001. It was Monday, November 12th, and barely two months had passed since hijacked airplanes were used to bring death and tragedy to an unprepared American nation on the day forever commemorated on September 11th.
The country’s wounds were still fresh and raw from that modern day of infamy. 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 an immediate 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, all 260 people aboard the doomed jet and five unfortunate persons on the ground were killed.4 In response, 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 horror in Belle Harbor was the result of an accident in midair that yielded horrific consequences on the ground. Though the truth became known, the American media continued to leverage the fear, ethnic animosity and sheer racial hatred that existed at the time to promote the case for war while largely ignoring facts to the contrary.
So forceful, so vociferous, so unrelenting 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 perception of helplessness that helped the Bush administration see terrorist training camps, stockpiled weapons of mass destruction, lions and tigers and bears (plus dogs and cats living together) in various surveillance images of Iraq. As the media beat the drums of war, the American people accepted the imaginary rationales for conflict as truth. Thus did complete fiction transform into common knowledge, and the results of that change would be tragic.
With the same certainty that Columbus truly discovered the New World and the sinking of the Titanic really was the worst sea disaster of all time, Americans just knew who was responsible for the attacks. Unfortunately, the threats were not real and there was no cause for war. Fostered by misinformation, fear, and a general need to blame someone, the false identification of the nation of Iraq as the culpable party was readily accepted by a grieving America, thus giving the erroneous and pervasive thing that is common knowledge yet another victory over truth. Sadly, a total of 4,491 American military personnel would die even as the American people blindly justified their sacrifice.
I reiterate my belief that common knowledge is not fact or truth, although elements of both could exist within otherwise inaccurate convictions. Instead, it’s what we accept without question, it’s what we believe we know. As such, it is a belief system with flaws that result in misconceptions about various issues, and which permits actions up to and including “rubber stamping” the wholesale slaughter of our fellow Americans. Most of all, common knowledge is something that we, as rational human beings, could—and should—do without.
- All images in this post are in the public domain or are modified to render them unsuitable for the purpose of high-quality reproduction.