“War Of The Worlds” And Gullibility’s Charms
On November 1, 2012, 11:00 AM by Andrew Belonsky
How Orson Welles and his “War of the Worlds” brought out the best in people.
Just over 75 years ago, Orson Welles caused a national sensation when he broadcasted a radio adaptation of HG Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds. Welles’ dramatic performance was taken as fact, and left as many as 30 million Americans trembling in their boots. Others offer a lower number of around 1.7 million anxious citizens, while the most skeptical critics isolate the hysteria to only a few hundred thousand rubes.
It’s tempting to look back and laugh at the people who fell for Welles’ act, just as it’s tempting to chuckle at the first movie-goers who fled from an “on-coming” locomotive. After all, the first four decades of the 20th century brought with them a slew of discoveries about our world and its inhabitants: the Titanic shocked and awed, as did the Great War’s searing, graphic horror. The World’s Fairs broadened scientific comprehensions and rationality was prized above all, if for no other reason than reality seeming beyond intransigent.
Did the memory of the Hindenberg Disaster or the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, two contrasting examples of a changing world, catalyze people’s frenzied reactions toward the fictional disaster? Perhaps the fire was fueled by a new astronomical understanding, like the 1930 discovery of then-planet Pluto? All analyses and explanations of listener reactions rely on the presence of an essential element: gullibility.
The word’s late 16th century etymological origins, “cull” or “dupe”, suggest a particular disdain for this type of ignorance. “Cull” was the linguistic grandchild of the French “couillon”, meaning testicle, dickhead or even “fucking stupid”. Cullible became gullible and that is something you obviously don’t want to be.
Gullibility as we know it officially dates to around 1793, after the Age of Enlightenment, a time when men and women the world over widened their political, mental and cultural horizons and wanted more. Statesmen like Thomas Jefferson proclaimed the importance of universal — or at least relatively universal — education and individual citizens set up schools for the new nation’s children. Ignorance had always been a subject of scorn. The fool, always a reliable foil, was derided afresh. Some religions even equated, and still do, credulousness with sin. Learning was tops and knowing all was even better, but people were still expected to be able to tell truth from tall tales.