Funny thing is, I can remember reading (popularised, and even some fairly serious) history texts in which scholarly authors described for our modern entertainment/amazement the wild and marvellous beliefs that used to sweep through a Europe of mostly illiterate peasants. The Messianic cults, the remarkably strange myths about other countries. The witch hunts. The blood libel. Heck, the Crusades. There was a sort of comfortable assumption behind the text: since the Enlightenment and public education, this kind of thing didn’t happen any more — it was just so 11th or 12th or 15th century, almost charmingly quaint if it hadn’t been so destructive at the time. Wasn’t it remarkable how gullible those peasants were, poor things. I mean, they’d believe anything. But of course, what could you expect, they were so ignorant and isolated.
And here we are — surrounded by communications technology, not isolated in some bakkabeyond valley where our ancestors have ploughed the soil for generations in serfdom. We have freedom of travel. We have public education. We have the empirical method and Occam’s Razor and all that good stuff. And here we still are, eagerly inventing and elaborating on and disseminating wild and strange stories, ever-evolving mythologies, ever-ramifying interpretations of cryptic Sibylline utterances, anything so long as it reassures us that whatever privileges we enjoy are ours by divine right, that our hatred for selected others is righteous and just, and that our preferred leader is chosen of G-d and cannot err or fail. I mean, I could list a whole bunch of contemporary Flat-Earth and Tin-Foil narratives, all spectacularly counter-factual and surprisingly persistent — and so could any reader. I think I might even call them “memomas” or “cancerous memes.” They multiply bodaciously while harming their host.
We have iThings and the internet and TV and (sorta) universal literacy, we have GPS navigation and advanced medical technology and robotic assembly lines… and we’re still — hordes of us — a bunch of peasants who believe (carried away by waves of enthusiasm and mega-gossip and sheer repetition) that Englishmen all have tails and Jews eat babies. Or if not those particular myths, others just as flimsy and self-serving and… well, silly. I used to be rather keen on the narrative of Progress, myself, but lately… I’m not so sure.