But those stories are also about how far we will go - how hard we will fight - not to be proved wrong. Not to admit that we might not have right on our side. Excuse the double negatives. It’s not simply that the flat-earthers of early recorded history were wrong but believed themselves right; the point is that flatness was absolutely crucial to their lives. Understandably, in a way. If you look out of the window today, and forget everything you’ve ever been told, it seems obvious that the horizon is a flat line and that the sun does the travelling while you remain still. All the other ancient beliefs – they made sense at the time. They made sense of scary reality.
It’s safe, nowadays, to know the truth (sic) about that. But back then, it wasn’t. Security, probably a lot of identity as well, a lot of belonging too, depended on knowing that G** was in His (sic) H****n, and if He said that the sun moved through the sky, that’s what it did as part of the system that kept us alive. Even rainbows were a promise; everything was reassuring if it was part of a big story. There’s no “Secretly, they knew it wasn’t like that” about the past. In the absence of science, curiosity, need to know and communications technology – and in the presence of religion as both a belief system and a means of social control – why not God? With the capital G. He made sense of it all. He made reality manageable.
But. Here goes. The advent of new understanding never triggered a friendly debate leading, say, to an amicable “Oh, I see, yes, how interesting, it isn’t flat.” This never happened. Wars happened. People died every time. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. Throughout history, we have defended our core beliefs - our core wrong beliefs, although the wrongness isn't my point - with violence. Which is to say: when we really, really believe something, and it’s challenged, we neither use reason to defend it, nor subject it to rational analysis. We don't think through the arguments either way. We hit back.
We're not as rational as we think we are. We believe in liberal democracy, equality, western values, the saving power of technology, all the modern virtues, reason, the NHS, and dare I mention staying in the European Union and a Clinton victory in the 2016 US presidential election? We believe we’re right without question, which has been the human condition down through the centuries. Yes, I mean the “We” that is capable of defying popular movements and declaring electorates mistaken. Us. With our beliefs. We’re making the mistake we always make. Reality is scary, but it’s reality first and scary second.
*Six Days or Forever? is the title of a 1958 book by Ray Ginger (Beacon Press) about the Scopes trial, in which a court in Tennessee ruled that the teaching of evolution in schools was illegal. God created the earth in six days, and that's what children should be taught. The ruling didn't stand, but a lot of lawyers were brought to bear on that question - six days to make the world, or the "forever" of evolution? - and what gets my attention is that this was all quite recent - 1925.
Don't panic. Trump's still Trump. We can keep going with the social-media outrage. It's possible, even probable, that "the system" is at work here. Asked what surprised him most about the presidency when he finally took office, George W Bush replied – what surprised him most was how little power he had. Maybe somebody else over there is doing a good job. Somebody powerful within the system.
So ... we needn't worry after all?