Hey, Swing Voters! Truth Is NOT "Relative"
September 7, 2004
By Thomas P. Straw
A young man I know and respect recently told me that Democrats
have no right to complain about the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth
ads. Why? Because these ads were just inevitable responses to what
Democratic special interest groups had been doing to Bush for months.
A tit for a tat. The next logical step in the tragic, but inevitable,
mud-slinging dogfight of big-time American politics.
"How can we ever really know," he opined, "how much of the dirty
accusations on either side are actually true? [And] in the end,
Tom, isn't it easy to defend the guy you like and dismiss any allegations
against him as baseless while vilifying the candidate that you are
Translation: truth is relative. Value judgments are not allowed-or
at least, they are practically impossible. Assertions of Truth,
or of values, are suspect. We all have predisposed biases that cloud
our judgment. Therefore, Truth is, well, if not exactly futile,
then pretty difficult to find or even define. Efforts to find Truth
usually result in a cacophony of conflicting and confusing noise.
That's politics, right?
But here is the tragedy of such a premise: progressives and far
too many moderates wholeheartedly buy into it (or at least think
they buy into it), while right-wing nut jobs don't buy into it for
a second. Therefore, right-wing nut jobs have a built-in "advantage"
in any discussion or "debate." They can level outrageous and vile
accusations, and moderates and progressives feel that these accusations
must be seriously and unironically entertained, often to a comical
degree of exactitude and deference, all in the interest of "fairness,"
"balance," and reticence to "rush to judgment."
After all, we can't let something like our "prejudices" - even
perfectly understandable prejudices against things like slander,
character assassination, improbable hypotheses, and political fanaticism
- get in the way of our tireless attempts to show that Everyone's
Point Of View Is Valid.
Our very reluctance as progressives and moderates to make value
judgments, or at least to stand by them, is precisely what has created
a thug-like political atmosphere of "anything goes" in which the
right wing gets away with figurative murder and outright hypocrisy
in the public discussion. Our kowtowing to relativism compels us
to grant our intellectual adversaries and political opponents benefits
of the doubt that they do not for one moment grant to us.
We sat by in 1992 and 1996 while right wingers assailed the credibility
and character of our presidential candidate. They claimed that Bill
Clinton's avoidance of combat made him unfit to be our commander
in chief. However, now that they are busy fashioning the image of
George W. Bush as a "strong war time leader in a time of change,"
we are somehow "not allowed" to make light of his questionable Vietnam-era
record of service, no matter that Republicans themselves so clearly
set the precedent for making military service a political issue.
Unlike the Swift Boat ads, the records pertaining to George W.
Bush's attendance in the Alabama National Guard are clear-cut and
non-partisan. Yet invoking them somehow constitutes a "dirty trick,"
something that is somehow "comparable," my friend asserts, to the
shameless smear job of the Swift Boat Veterans for "Truth" accusations.
Therefore, in essence, we are "not allowed" to hold Republicans
to the very standards they hold others to, in large part because
they use our own unwavering sense of decency and fairness against
Progressives "have to admit" when something so much as smacks
of foul play or dirty politics; Republicans, by and large, make
no such concessions and grant no such benefits of the doubt. They
relentlessly and rabidly advocate for their own versions of the
"truth," however vile and questionable they may be.
This surrender to relativism and supposed subjectivity permits
patently absurd notions to masquerade as legitimate "points of view."
It is, frankly, how right-wing nut jobs like the Swift Boat people
can legitimize their baseless nonsense. It is the reason their baseless
nonsense remains in front of the eyes and ears of the public until
it is no longer perceived as baseless nonsense but rather some twisted
version of the "truth," a version we have to accept because, well,
there's no such thing as Truth with a capital "T," after all, and
certain others of us accept this nonsense as their own "personal
truth," with a lower case "t." So who are we to judge?
Relativism and supposed subjectivity indeed create a political
arena where people "don't do nuance" and don't listen to common
sense. Not "doing nuance" and not listening to common sense are
precisely what allow my young friend to tell me, with a straight
face, that moveon.org "did the same thing" as the Swift Boat Veterans
for "Truth" by questioning Bush's service in the Air National Guard.
Of course, this is categorically false. Any sensible person knows
that it is like the difference between accusing someone of cheating
at cards and accusing someone of murder. It is literally the difference
between an offense that warrants a dishonorable discharge (at most)
and an offense that warrants a charge of perjury and even treason.
There are very important distinctions of degree, precedent, and
viciousness here, and it is perfectly valid to raise these distinctions
and make an issue of them. It is not a case of "standing by your
own man" or "vilifying the man you disagree with."
Political moderates must start recognizing these distinctions
if they are to make informed decisions come election time. But making
these distinctions requires the fearless application of value judgments.
It also requires a tireless search for the Truth, a search that
will demand intelligence and indeed nuance. We cannot make these
distinctions if we carry around a resigned acceptance that Truth
is somehow not possible, or that everyone has a "right" to his own
watered-down, disingenuous, and oversimplified "version" of the
Progressives and especially moderates need to realize something
else, as well: being fair and even-handed is not and should not
be the same thing as suffering fools and their idiotic ideas and
accusations. This is where common sense comes into play. We are
now at a critical point in history where we are in no position to
blithely surrender the Truth to those who would make a mockery of
it, as the Swift Boat Veterans For "Truth" have done. As John Kerry
pointed out in one of the high moments of his nomination acceptance
speech: "Just saying something is so doesn't make it so."
Far too often, we allow radical right wingers simply to say something,
and somehow, magically, by simply the force of their own misguided
convictions and rote repitition, it "becomes so."
Whether or not George W. Bush knew about these ads or signed off
on them is really beside the point. The childish and morally ambivalent
insistence that Bush, or John McCain, or some other public figure
or pundit of the Republican party step up and denounce these charges
- in essence, to de-legitimize these charges on our behalf - is
pathetic and desperate.
It is, in fact, tragically indicative of how thoroughly and how
willingly progressives have surrendered their greatest power: the
ability to make valid and correct value judgments entirely on their
own. As if we should even need John McCain, or anyone else, from
either political party, to tell us that the Swift Boat Veterans
for "Truth" are practicing dirty politics of the most despicable
The simple fact is this: if political moderates and reasonable
Republicans - that is, "swing voters" - do not denounce these
political dirty tricks by voting George W. Bush and his cronies
out of office, they are saying yes to dirty politics and yes to
anything goes and yes to the idea that truth is relative. If moderate
Republicans decide ultimately to stand by their man, no matter the
slime they have to ignore, they are practicing the very kind of
partisan politics they claim to abhor.
If voters send a clear message with their ballots that slander
is not to be tolerated, and that they do know the difference between
sharp but appropriate criticism and slander, we won't have to beg
for acceptable behavior out of our public officials and the special
interest groups who advocate on their behalf. If we send a clear
message that "doing nuance" is not only a tolerated but desired
expectation for a Leader of the Free World, we can expect a more
intelligent public dialogue about the issues instead of sledgehammer
Above all, if voters expect and demand intelligence and decency,
politicians will act with intelligence and decency. But if we think
truth is relative and unreachable, public officials and their advocates
will continue to trounce upon the idea of Truth and make a mockery
of it. As the saying goes, our values always come home to roost.
In essence, we get only what we deserve, and only what we ask for.
As voters in a democracy, we have far more power than we think
we have. The question is, do we have the moral courage to exercise
this awesome power on November 2, or will we surrender to the game
of dirty politics as usual?