I mentioned Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “The Bomber Mafia,” in an earlier column. It is one of the best works of nonfiction that I have read in a long time. Gladwell weighs and contrasts the effectiveness, from both a military and a moral standpoint, of two divergent schools of thought involving bombing campaigns over Germany and Japan during the Second World War.
There is an incident cited in the book that, I think, is an example of what this country is experiencing today. A man named Leon Festinger had the very unenviable job during the war of selecting the crews that would man the aircraft sent out on particularly dangerous bombing missions. Oftentimes, it felt as if he was passing death sentences upon them.
After the war, Festinger became one of the country’s most prominent social psychologists. His most notable study involved a group in Chicago that called themselves the Seekers. The members of this religious cult were ultimately forced to deal with the same feeling he had experienced during the war when everything that the Bomber Mafia had attempted to perfect precision bombing and minimize civilian casualties had failed.
The Seekers believed that the end of the world was at hand and that a flood would inundate the Earth on December 21, 1954. This alarming information was passed to their leader, a woman named Dorothy Martin, who was in contact with aliens that the group called the Guardians. Martin assured the faithful that their lives would be spared and that they would all be rescued by a flying saucer that would pick them up in her backyard in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park on December 17.
People quit their jobs and sold their homes and possessions. Some of them left their families. They gathered at Martin’s home where the saucer was due to arrive at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. They waited. The hour came and went. No message arrived from the Guardians saying that they were running late.
Martin did, however, inform them that the Guardians had postponed the rescue. They wouldn’t be saved from the cataclysmic deluge until midnight on the 21st, just before it began.
Festinger asked Martin if he and two colleagues could join the Seekers when they gathered again on December 21st. Still confident that aliens would whisk the group to safety in a flying saucer, she allowed them to observe.
When the appointed hour arrived, every chime of the clock seemed to mock their faith. Neither the spaceship nor the Biblical flood ever materialized.
Stoicism prevailed. Festinger reported that the Seekers betrayed little emotion. There were no expressions of surprise or even of disappointment. At 4:45, Dorothy Martin told the group that she had received another message. This time it was from God. He had called off the destruction of the world because of their faithfulness, a reprieve that you may recall He did not grant to Sodom and Gomorrah.
Festinger concluded that “the more you invest in a set of beliefs — the greater the sacrifice you make in the service of that conviction — the more resistant you will be to evidence that you are mistaken. You don’t give up. You double down.”
If Festinger and his colleagues expected the Seekers to disavow their beliefs after the flying saucer failed to show up, they were mistaken. Discarding core beliefs is like kicking out the pylons on a bridge; the entire structure would be in danger of collapsing. At least for the Seekers, the drowning prophecy would prove to be true.
The overriding question raised by the Seekers incident and then posed by Gladwell in his book is, “What happens to true believers when their convictions are confronted by reality?” Sound familiar? It certainly should.
I am not going to pretend that I ever understood the appeal of our former president. He seemed woefully uninformed, inarticulate, crude, and egotistical, the perfect representation of what inherited fortunes can do to a person. The speculation now — and it seems perfectly reasonable — is that he was only announcing his candidacy in the 2016 presidential race to bolster the plummeting ratings on his television program, one of the very few enterprises that he was involved in that actually proved profitable.
That was my opinion. Millions of other people felt differently and saw in his cruelty and boisterousness a refreshing departure from politics as usual. He played the right hands to gather the fixed mindsets that Republicans have always pandered to around the table. The self-absorbed billionaire was going to be a champion for the working class. The three-times married serial lothario emerged as the evangelical movement’s savior. The six-times bankrupted businessman was going to get the country on solid financial ground. And the guy with his arms wrapped around the flag called service people who went to Vietnam “suckers.”
After four years that brought the country to the brink of fascism, a resounding loss in the 2020 election, and a traitorous, deadly insurrection, his core supporters only dug in deeper, just like the people sitting around Dorothy Martin’s house while the time for a flying saucer’s arrival passed by. Many of them are still mired in the muck of denial and delusion.
Ice ages ago, I saw a show in New York called “Skyscraper.” It was an enjoyable if not particularly memorable musical, except for its star, Julie Harris (yes, that Julie Harris!), and a great song by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn called “Everybody Has a Right to Be Wrong.” I believe the sentiment of that title, but I also believe another line in the song, especially as it applies to the people who have so much emotional baggage invested in the fabricated myths surrounding the nation’s previous president: “Only fools go walking on thin ice…twice.”