Sunday, August 22, 2004
Of Swift Boat Vets and Bay City Rollers
Richard Yeselson of Washington, D.C., writes:
As much attention as the Swift Boat liars controversy is now receiving, I don’t think the media or even Kerry yet understands or acknowledges how pernicious and relatively unprecedented it is. The term “McCarthyism” has been so overused in American politics that we have lost our moorings to its original intent, as it were. But this is, I believe, one of those rare occasions where the term fits, i.e. baseless charges impugning an individual’s patriotism, but, more specifically, depicting the individual as a member of a decadent intellectual elite that deceitfully sapped the nation’s martial spirit in its struggle against the Communist enemy (we can substitute other enemies going forward, e.g. Islamic terrorists, but, historically, of course, beginning in the Weimar era, the charge is linked to communism).
In the modern era of American politics, i.e. since, say, the New Deal (I’m not talking about the 19th century, when candidates were always accusing each other of fathering children with baboons, or whatever) I don’t think-- and I’m happy to stand corrected if wrong-- that a major party candidate for president has been assaulted by a per se defamatory attack on his character and personal history. We have seen such attacks at a lower level of the political food chain, e.g. Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas, and we have seen inflammatory, yet vague accusations, e.g. conservatives labeling FDR a “class traitor” or even wacky charges against Ike by the John Birch Society, and we have seen grotesque distortions of positions that candidates have taken, or public policies that they have been associated with, e.g. the daisy picking atomic bomb commercial of LBJ’s vs. Goldwater, the Willie Horton and pledge of allegiance controversies used by Bush I vs. Dukakis. Even the attacks on Clinton, while hysterical, don’t fit the model for a whole host of reasons-- they do not address the betrayal of the nation charge, except tangentially going back to Clinton’s sixties activism, and they do not in wholesale fashion, invent Clinton’s history-- he really is a legendary horndog.
But I’m pretty certain that swift boat is unique: a systematic, coordinated effort both to create an Orwellian (or Marcusean, if you prefer) counter-narrative-- not to a presidential candidate’s political record, but to his copiously documented biography-- combined with, essentially, an accusation of treason and betrayal of the nation’s military by a head-up-his-ass intellectual (one charge these guys have leveled against Kerry is that he wasted precious poundage in his gear bag with his typewriter, with which he could weirdly be found writing stuff, as the rest of the soldiers hung out together). Whether Bush’s surrogates actually ok’d it is not the point (I think Kerry makes a mistake by overly focusing on Bush/Rove’s explicit involvement)-- I very much doubt they did. But, until the president forcefully denounces what is being done on his behalf, the effect is all the same, and greatly appreciated by the president and his supporters.
This really is, to use another lazily overused term, the Big Lie. Kerry should literally ask Bush whether “he has no shame, at long last has he no shame”? For once, the evocation is precise and just.
Readers of this here little blog will know that I agree with most of this, of course, and that’s why Richard’s letter is today’s discussion item. I think the question of Bush/Rove involvement is a crucial one, and that Kerry made no mistake in taking the case directly to the top, but otherwise, this seems entirely right to me-- the Swift Boat ads really are unprecedented. People keep citing the Willie Horton ad in 1988, but the Willie Horton ad was a model of probity compared to this stuff: after all, Massachusetts really did have a weekend furlough program (though it was not unique in this respect, and though Dukakis didn’t initiate it), and Willie Horton really did take one of those weekends to assault Clifford Barnes and rape his fianc?©. Yep, it was Atwaterian race-baiting, no question, but it did not rest entirely on a string of lies. By contrast, the first Swift Boat ad is a fraud-- and I do mean that in the legal sense-- from start to finish. It isn’t even plausibly protected by the First Amendment, quite apart from its violations of modern campaign ethics.
But calling the Swift Boat Vets “McCarthyite” won’t work, for the very reasons Yeselson mentions above: the term has become completely de-referentialized thanks to its long service in the PC wars, during which conservatives denounced everything from campus sexual-assault codes to AIDS Awareness ribbons (real examples, folks! not made up!) as indices of a “new McCarthyism,” more virulent and powerful than the “old” version. (Surely you remember the thousands of moderate and conservative faculty members who were fired for not wearing those AIDS ribbons.) So I’d like to shift the focus for a moment, to a secondary matter.
I don’t think we should spend too much energy being outraged by right-wing attack dogs. Right-wing attack dogs are . . . well, right-wing attack dogs. They do what they do. The only thing to remember about them is that you shouldn’t take them home, not even if they follow you and beg for food. Remember the story of what happened to the “liberal” journalist in the PC wars: one day in 1991 he came across a right-wing attack dog who was nosing around the dumpsters in the back of the American Enterprise Institute, barking about all this crazy deconstruction and radical feminism that leftist professors were foisting on unsuspecting American undergraduates. “Gee, I hate deconstruction and radical feminism too,” thought the liberal journalist. “This right-wing attack dog doesn’t seem so bad.” So he brought the dog home, gave him a big, ten-thousand-word spread in the Atlantic Monthly, a regular spot on a half-hour cable “opinion” show, and a plate of leftover steak scraps. “I’ll call him ‘Fluffy,’” said the liberal journalist. But imagine the journalist’s surprise a few days later, when his dog Fluffy began barking that liberal journalists were “traitorous scum”! “But I fed you and gave you a home,” said the liberal journalist, mortally wounded. “Yeah,” replied Fluffy, “but what did you expect? Come on-- I’m a right-wing attack dog.” Granted, John O’Neill and Roy Hoffmann are rabid, whereas Fluffy was merely nasty. But they’re all dangerous in the end, and they do what they do.
Instead, let’s think for a moment about all the people, from the Tennessee law professor to the Townhall regulars to the Slate columnist to the bear-with-the-ecosystem, who’ve looked at the Swift Boat Vet ad and said, “you know, this is very powerful stuff here-- it could really spell trouble for Kerry!” And these folks haven’t been too guarded about their endorsements, either; it’s not like they’ve protected themselves with qualifying clauses like, “I think this is over the line, but” or “I can’t speak to the merits of the case myself, but.” No, they’ve looked at a fraudulent, defamatory campaign ad and they’ve bought the whole thing. Even worse, they’ve promoted it as legitimate political speech. Sometimes, as in the case of the law professor, they’ve defended themselves with arguments so stupid that their mere utterance sucks all the oxygen out of the room: Kerry brought this on himself by harping on his Vietnam service-- and that means that now anyone can lie about him! Or, following the GOP talking points more closely, they’ve argued that the 527s are to blame, even though there’s only one libelous ad at issue here: we’ll stop lying about Kerry if MoveOn will stop saying true things about Bush!
But whatever their rationale, these people have demonstrated a quality of judgment more often associated with the Looney Tunes characters to whom Mel Blanc gave life in lines like, “which way did he go, George, which way did he go.” To get a sense of just how bad their judgment is, you have to imagine a Kaus or a Reynolds poring over the words of a group of people whose current accounts of Kerry’s wartime conduct are contradicted not only by an extensive documentary record but also by their own previous accounts, then turning to the camera and saying, “duuuhhheyy, Thurlow now says he didn’t deserve his medal either because Kerry probably wrote up the papers awarding it to him, uhh, duuuhhheyy, that sounds logical.”
Or, if that pop-culture reference is too dated (Warner Brothers shut down its seven-minute animation shop in 1964, I believe), think instead of some of the feather-haired people you knew in 1975 who bought up all the Bay City Rollers merchandise they could get their hands on, on the grounds that these guys were going to be even bigger than the Beatles. I know, it seems too innocuous an analogy-- after all, the Bay City Rollers never (to my knowledge) put together any fraudulent and libelous campaign ads. But the important thing here is to point out that the Swifties’ enablers have really, really lousy judgment. Ludicrously, embarrassingly bad. The kind of judgment that simply gets you laughed out of any discussion in which there are people who know what they’re talking about. And it really wouldn’t hurt to laugh them out: if we get any more outraged by this nonsense-- or by Marc Racicot barking about how Kerry’s eloquent response was actually “wild-eyed” (though I have to say that “Marc Racicot” sounds like an effete French name to me, and though I don’t want to sound Kausian about this, I’ve heard that some people who know reliable sources in certain circles can credibly vouch for the possibility that Racicot may have been stinking drunk when he said it)-- we’ll forget that the best way to deal with ridiculously foolish people is to reveal them as the ridiculously foolish people they are.
So I’m suggesting we think of this as a way of keeping track of commentators who have such ludicrously bad judgment that they need never be taken seriously again, and who can be laughed out of the room pretty much whenever they open their mouths. You know, sort of the way I think of Joe Lieberman on moral issues, only with regard to bloggers and journalists. Let’s just lump these good people in with the kind of speechwriters who speak of the “reasonable assumption” that God commanded dolphins to guide Elian Gonzalez to Florida.
OK, now I’m going to brace myself for a raft of emails from the Bay City Roller Fans for Justice, telling me that “Money Honey” was actually a more technically challenging and innovative song than “I Feel Fine” and that “Saturday Night” marked a musical maturity that leaves Rubber Soul and Revolver in the dust. To those Bay City Roller fans I say, bring it on.