Thursday, November 02, 2006

Poisoning the Body Politic to Win Elections

Republicans are, as you know, currently engaged in a massive marketing effort, trying to trick people into believing that John Kerry thinks soldiers are stupid. They are, as you know, doing this in order to get votes. Though I'm not in love with the Democrats, once again I feel like asking people to beat me senseless if I ever again vote for a Republican candidate. Though the way things are going I'd have to be senseless already to do so.

Here's a question--does any sane person honestly believe that John Kerry--decorated veteran, actual war hero--thinks that all soldiers are stupid? Once again this business seems to indicate that even the most blatant of draft dodgers on the Republican side is more than willing to impugn the patriotism (etc.) of even those with the most impeccable soldierly credentials on the Democratic side. What's more, they seem to be able to get away with it.

The bigger point here--and why I am more and more concerned about the direction in which the Republican party is headed--has to do with poisoning public discourse. Just about the only thing between (a) us and (b) tyranny and chaos is our ability to reason together about how we should conduct ourselves as a country. Every time a prominent figure or party pushes irrational arguments in order to score political points it makes the electorate in general that much more likely to accept irrational arguments in the future. All parties are willing to do this to some extent, but the Republicans have shown something bordering on a kind of ruthless eagerness to do so.

It's pretty obvious to anyone what Kerry was doing. He was--misthinkingly--making, in a jokey way, a Vietnam-era point. Do badly in school, and you'll end up Over There. This IN NO WAY entails or suggests that everyone in the service did badly in school, and only the most avid of distortions can make it seem to do so.

Quick lesson in logic: if A then B does not entail if B then A.

So, e.g., if you do badly in school you'll become eligible for the draft does not entail if you are eligible for the draft, then you did badly in school.

Thinking in Vietnam-era terms as Kerry was, one might want to warn students that doing badly in school could end them up Over There--the point being that they'll end up there even if they do not believe in the cause. This in no way entails or suggests that everyone who believes in the cause did badly in school. And it certainly in no way suggests that everyone who believes in the cause is stupid. Hell, I barely graduated from highschool, and now I are a pee-aych-dee. Is this a great country or what?

Kerry himself made things worse by misdiagnosing his own utterance, asserting that he was making a joke about Bush. Maybe that's what was going on, but I'll bet it wasn't. I'll be it was unconscious reversion to Vietnamesque thinking, as I'm suggesting here.

My obsession with points about public rationality makes me a weirdo, as I'll freely admit, and makes my reaction to things like this rather non-standard. A wee example: when the administration was deceiving us in the lead-up to the war, my level of anger shot up faster and farther than that of most people--not because I was against taking out the evil Saddam Hussein (for I wanted him dead, dead, dead), but simply because we were being lied to about such an important matter. So far as my anger level went, it didn't really matter to me whether we succeeded or failed--what mattered was the deception. Most others I know (correcting for degree of anger about going to war generally) were mad about the deception, but have become angrier and angrier as Iraq has become a bigger and bigger mess. For better or for worse, I, on the other hand (ignoring a few details) am just about as mad now as I was before. Win or lose, succeed or fail, we went to war for stupid and dishonest reasons, and we are a worse country because of it. I'm mad as hell--but no madder than I was in 2002. This attitude might be unreasonable, but I'm asking you to consider the possibility that it isn't.

Going to Iraq was like shooting blindly into a crowd for kicks. Even if you get lucky and happen to take out the next Ted Bundy, you are a stupid asshole.

So, here's my crazy, wacko, idealistic, insane, utopian suggestion: we use good arguments, and let the votes fall where they may. Lay out the issues clearly and honestly, and let the voters decide on those grounds. They won't always vote our way, of course, and they won't always make the right decision. But we'll make more rational decisions and develop a better national character in the long run.

Oh, and as a corollary: we, as voters, should mercilessly punish whichever party is more avidly promoting irrationality. Currently that's the Republicans, hands down. But believe me when I tell you, if the Democrats become worse at some point in the future, I'll switch sides in a heartbeat. And so should you.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a question--does any sane person honestly believe that John Kerry--decorated veteran, actual war hero--thinks that all soldiers are stupid?

To be fair, yeah, they might. I'm largely with you on this issue - I'm fairly certain Kerry was slamming Bush, and only Bush - but for someone who still sees Kerry as being fairly despicable for the whole "Winter Soldier" thing in the 70's, a remark like this would merely solidify their perception of someone who does not love the troops the way he should.

Admittedly, we can offer up the counter-argument that Kerry's actual legislative record for supporting soldiers has been quite good, and that his words aren't nearly as detrimental to the troops' actual well-being as Bush's actions have been. But humans have bounded rationality at the best of times, and it's not completely nuts for someone to chalk this up in the "John Kerry hates our troops" column.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

A fair point, Chris.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was just thinking about writing something on background assumptions and their effect on interpretation...

But, more to the point: I think you're right, SOME sane people might think that. Strikes me as rather unlikely that Bush, McCain & co. think that. But I could be wrong.

11:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Kerry's explanation, as I understand it, is that he literally mispoke -- leaving out the word "us" between "get" and "stuck". George W. Bush is the example of a person who did badly in school, not the average soldier. That doesn't seem to change any of your points about the reaction to Kerry's statement.

1:27 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

So which is it? Do we believe Kerry's explanation or not?

3:43 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

The one thing that's certain here: Kerry was NOT calling soldiers stupid. There's no doubt about that. If anybody should be vilified for making soldiers feel dumb its the Republicans who twisted Kerry's words and made this an issue. If not for that, no soldiers at all--not even the ten holding the sign--would have been offended.

And, by the way...since when is the right wing concerned about offending people? I thought that was a lefty hang-up?

7:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

WS--in Boston, we're about to (hopefully) elect Deval Patrick as the next Governor of Mass. His opponent, Kerry Healey, has followed Karl Rove's strategy of scaring voters, suggesting that Patrick is sympathetic to rapists. It's been encouraging to see this strategy backfire. Patrick has ran a very positive campaign--he hasn't resorted to character assassination once in ads or in his public statements. He's leading by 25% a few days out. The most disturbing thing about our country right now from my perspective isn't so much Bush or the bad decisions he has made, but the means of persuasion he and other Republicans have used to win elections and get their way. I hope that most Americans are reasonable enough to see through this finally and reject this kind of politics. But even if they do, there are enough rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth political extremists out there to make me think that something very destructive is developing.

2:56 PM  

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