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Slate Magazine’s daily newspaper summary recently foisted the following
story on unsuspecting readers:
“Le Monde of Paris marked Friday’s 20th anniversary of John Paul II’s
election to the papacy by commissioning an opinion poll that shows 53 percent of French people think he should resign. Nineteen percent disapprove strongly of the way he has done his job, and 34 percent say they have major reservations. Even among practicing French Roman Catholics, only 14 percent totally approve of him.”
The aftermath left me glad for my youth and good health. I almost died
I continue to shake my head over the whole affair. What could have compelled Le Monde to do such a silly thing as polling the Pope? More broadly, why is the notion that some things are immune to opinion such a hard thing to grasp?
To realize just how futile polling the Pope is, consider what would happen if the head of another religion –the Ayatollah– was subjected to a poll.
Q: Do you approve of the job the Ayatollah is doing?
Results: Over 70% of the inhabitants of Western nations either disapprove or strongly disapprove, with a surprising 84% of all Americans disapproving. Only 61% of all Germans disapprove, probably because of the extensive trade between Germany and Iran. Disapproval was especially concentrated among readers of Salmon Rushdie novels, over
95%. In the Moslem world, the percentages are almost reversed, with 85% approval in Iran, 77% in Saudi Arabia and 60% in Iraq.
And this would have told us, what? That non-Muslims are afraid of a guy
who hands out death warrants if he doesn’t like your novel? That Muslims are afraid of him but express this fear differently because, presumably, he has some say in whether or not they go to hell? That Iraq is none too fond of Iran? This would be new knowledge? The question “Do Muslims support the Ayatollah?” would seem to fall into the
same category as “Is the Pope Catholic?” — a rhetorical question. But not if the French have anything to say about it.
Ours is a culture obsessed with polls. To contest this would be to ignore the newspapers, the nightly news, talk radio, the Internet and any major trial. The democratic impulse carries with it the assumption that what “the people” think matters. To the extent that this gives elites pause, it is even a laudable impulse. But it is hardly the only thing that should figure on things like morality, manners and the rights
There is a danger in paying too much heed to polls if for no other reason than the polls can be wrong. For instance: There never was a President Dewey, the Tories held on for one more futile round in 1992 when they were expected to lose by fifteen points and Helmut Kohl also stuck around one term longer than expected. These are but a few examples.
There is, however, a greater, more fundamental danger. Matt Drudge, God
bless him, reposted a survey by the ABC News Site.
The question: If there were an Ig-Nobel Peace Prize, who would win it?
1) Slobodan Milosevic
2) Osama bin Laden
3) Saddam Hussein
4) Linda Tripp
Linda Tripp won.
Consider for a moment what a silly comparison this is. Milosevic ordered and supervised the slaughter of over 200,000 civilians in Bosnia
and Herzegovina. Bin Laden funded the bombing of two American embassies earlier this year. Hussein gassed his own people, killed his own in-laws
and once shot an education minister dead in a cabinet meeting. Linda Tripp was asked to perjure herself, refused to do so and taped conversations between herself and Miss Lewinsky so the White House could
not call her a liar.
I am quite sure that many people who responded to this survey did so in
jest and equally sure that a few of them did not. The dearth of perspective is breathtaking.
The real problem with polls is that they give off the false impression
that everything is negotiable: That what matters is not what is, but what
we think about it.
I’ve yet to see a poll on the percentage of the people who would like to
revoke gravity or at least “moderate” it. Neither have I seen a poll with the question, “Would you like to cheat death?” But, and I ask this seriously, can either of these be far behind?
Some things are true whether or not a majority believes them. This is a
point which must be re-learned by a navel-gazing populace.
David Frum once noted that, when Congressman Klug and Mayor Muttonhead
are arguing about something in a public forum, one of them will try to end the debate by saying to the other, “The American people don’t agree with you.” The appropriate response, he said, is, “Then the American people are wrong.”
I would pay money to hear a politician say that. Who knows, it just might shock us back to earth; a real place which we cannot wish away.