Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Modern mythology

Urban legends are so much a part of our culture, they force us to ask ourselves how we acquire knowledge about the world. So many people get attached to these legendary stories that I hesitate to discuss the topic, for fear of coming off as a party-pooper. Yet in recent years, debunking urban legends has become popular, with several TV series and websites devoted to the sport. By now, most people who have heard the old alligators-in-the-sewer tale probably know it to be false. I suppose this is all a good sign, but the cynic in me suggests that the general public is no less gullible now than it was twenty years ago. Most people still believe anything they see on television (the continuing influence of political ads makes this all too clear), even if that information includes skepticism.

It's not just the dumb or uneducated who have fallen prey to these tales. Cokie Roberts, a respectable journalist who should have known better, uncritically repeated the Internet rumor that the phrase rule of thumb derives from an old English law condoning spousal abuse. If the very people responsible for telling us what's happening in the world can't keep the truth straight, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Some of these tales come from outright hoaxes, as in the picnic etymology that proposes a shockingly racist origin to an everyday word. But urban legends aren't always the result of intentional deception. The old game of telephone may be at work, where a basically true story gets embellished beyond recognition. That's evidently how the alligators-in-the-sewers business started. In other cases, one writer's offhand speculation is mistaken for fact. That's how people came to believe, for example, that "Ring Around the Rosie" was about the Black Death. And sometimes a joke gets misinterpreted as a true story, as when the parody newspaper The Onion published an article entitled "Harry Potter Books Spark Rise in Satanism Among Children." While most readers understood the parody, some critics of J.K. Rowling's fantasy series--the very people whom the article was lampooning--cited the article as fact.

Fear and paranoia are prime mechanisms in the spread of urban legends. Indeed, many horror movies are based on old urban legends, the Urban Legends series being only one example. And today's legends often sound like horror stories of their own: the AIDS needles that pop out of trash cans, the man who wakes up in the bathtub and finds that his kidney has been stolen, the black gangs with sinister murder rituals. Many of the legends prey on racial fear in much the same way that the blood libel myth of the Middle Ages exploited anti-Semitic prejudice.

Are urban legends really anything new? A great deal of what passes for common historical knowledge is in fact folkloric. Take the stories about Columbus being the first to prove the earth round, or George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, or the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock. Even the revised accounts often lack historical basis, and there is scarcely a major event in American history that doesn't have a legendary version existing alongside a more accurate account.

When we look back at all the myths and legends from the Ancient Greeks and other cultures of antiquity, we tend to assume that the people back then must somehow have been stupider than us to have believed such things. In reality, very little has changed. We've got mythologies right here in the present day, and they show no signs of waning in our age of Internet literacy. Discerning the valid information from among the junk is a far more elusive skill than most people realize. There simply isn't enough time in our short lifespans to look at everything with a critical eye. At some point, we have to trust our instincts.

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