Democratic Underground

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 opposed to?"

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 us.

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 "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 Truth.

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 variety!

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 attack ads.

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?

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