Urban Legends

Viewpoint: The Things That Don't Die


Driving through Washington late one night, I tuned in my favorite talk show. Two authors were giggling about the stupidity of The Average American and the many dumb-bunny things he is said to believe:

"Har. Har. Har. And then this guy called and said that President Kennedy is still alive in Colorado somewhere."

"Hor. Hor. Hor. Probably believes they're keeping him alive in a petri dish."

"And don't forget, Elvis Presley is still alive."

"Yes, Fred, you'd never believe how many people believe Elvis is alive—and John Lennon, too."

"Har. Har."

Being as much of a bimbo as the next guy, I can't pretend that's a verbatim transcript of the conversation. I've probably forgotten a word or two. But the flavor is right. They went on like that, recounting tale after tale of clearly ridiculous things believed by the clearly ridiculous man in the car swerving ahead of me.

Naturally, I was interested. And not only because I was quite prepared to feel superior to a person who would turn left from the right lane. To tell the truth, I've been known to make a U-turn in traffic myself. And I once told a perfect stranger that I believe Gerald Ford is in love with a giraffe.

By the end of the program, I was rather looking forward to reading a whole collection of "bunk, nonsense, and fables we believe." (That's not my weak memory at work but pure promo copy, right off the dust jacket.) So I went out and bought a copy of There Are Alligators in Our Sewers.

I opened the book to the first page, prepared for a bit of merriment, and was immediately let down. After making fun of the idea that alligators thrive in our sewers, the authors concede that there were alligators in the New York sewers, quoting the brag of former Commissioner of Sewers Teddy May, that he wiped them out over a two-year period "with the aid of poison and .22 rifles." Knowing what I know of sewer commissioners and the utter fatuity of most municipal programs to eradicate rats and other vermin, the question whether there are indeed alligators in our sewers suddenly became an open one.

I read on. The farther I went into the book, the more amazed I became. The "bunk" the authors were cataloging was sometimes that, but just as often it was quite true. What a letdown. They seemed to have no powers of discernment at all—at least none that would enable them to distinguish between the proposition that Howard Hughes is not dead, but has merely been "flash-frozen," and the view that studying Latin can improve your vocabulary.

It should be obvious to anyone—at least anyone who has ever peered into a dictionary—that the study of Latin will improve your vocabulary. English contains thousands of words of Latin origin. Indubitably, knowing Latin is probably more valuable to a native English speaker than to one speaking a Romance language. Most widely used English words are further from Latin roots, and English has more hybrid words and technical terms than any other language. It is usually estimated, for example, that English has twice as many words as French, with most of the increment being totally unintelligible to the average person driving an Oldsmobile—unless, of course, he happens to know Latin.

Another bit of popular wisdom that the alligator authors find a scream: If you could pocket the money needed for four years of college, you wouldn't need to work. Is this really ridiculous? Perhaps so, as they state it. But then, I'm not so sure it isn't they who have mixed up a basic truth passed on by some shrewd farmer in Ohio—the suspicion that college isn't worth it. Caroline Bird explained why in The Case Against College: "If a male Princeton-bound high school graduate of 1972 had put the $34,181 his diploma would eventually cost him into his savings bank at 7.5 percent interest compounded daily, he would have at the retirement age of 64 a total of $1,129,200." This, she concludes, "would be $528,200 more than the earnings of a male college graduate and more than five times as much as the $199,000 extra he could earn between 22 and 64 because he was a college graduate."

So much for the "bunk, nonsense, and fables" we believe. Among the others are:

• that children learn faster than adults,

• that the Mafia have a hold on some members of Congress,

• that some Mormons practice polygamy,

• that tea is more healthful than coffee,

• and (here's a real hoot) that the Postal Service would be more efficient in private hands.

Crazy, the things some people believe. Some people (har, har, har) think that government assistance programs do more harm than good. And, credit it or not, "modern, enlightened, and educated" Americans think that Congress would perform better if it were selected at random and contained fewer lawyers.

If the alligator authors were listening for bunk and heard this, then they've provided us with some valuable information. They deserve a cheer—but not your $11.95. From what they have told us, I, at least, have concluded that the political future of America is brighter than I had thought. In this land of fables and talk-show wisdom, the people sometimes do think clearly. I recommend that you not even think of going into a sewer without a rifle.

Jim Davidson is founder and chairman of the National Taxpayers Union and author of The Squeeze.