Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Not So Swift

It's bothered me that groups like the Swift Boat Veterans that have been attacking John Kerry can get away with what they do. Not from a legal standpoint but rather from an intellectual standpoint. How can they float these ads, full of information that is, at best, disingenuous - with much of it being outright contradicted by official records - and the public nods their heads as though they were making a valid point to be considered and the media regurgitates the claims in the form of "analysis" that is void of anything resembling the word?

The message is largely aimed at the Republican "base" but is also meant to place a nagging doubt in the undecideds. Yet the majority of these people are not idiots; they are literate - by a strict definition of the word. But therein lies the problem, I believe. And this problem is not strictly confined to conservatives or the shrinking pool of undecided voters; liberals and progressives of all kinds are guilty as well.

Somehow, over the past decade, the respectability of rigorous thought has declined to the point where even admitting that nuance can exist is cause for derision. From the right there has arisen the disdain for the "intelligentsia" of the left. They even adopted a Russian word in order to conflate knowledge with the still-not-dead fear of Communism. From the left - although with much less toxicity - a dismissal of all thought that seems tainted by reactionary conservatism or religion. From the masses an all sides comes a general distaste for the efforts of thought required to process the richness of information available today. The result seems to be an equivalence of opinions, regardless of how informed they may be, and an equivalence of information regardless of veracity.

This has lead to the encroachment of "on the one handedness" in our professional media and to a lack of critical thought by the majority of the public on important issues. Those who are experts in a field of discussion are derided as "nerds" or "wonks." Anyone who talks about and bases their decisions on the nuance and the shades of grey of a particular point will earn the epithet of "flip-flopper." While those who are unchanging regardless of how the world shifts beneath their feet are hailed as "steady leadership in times of change." If you learn from history you are too "sensitive" to be an effective leader. Somehow, our current president's incuriousness is seen as charming and likeable.

So this lack of critical thought in so much of the citizenry and its leadership makes it possible for the Swift Boat Veterans to toss out unfounded accusations and outright lies into the public discourse without worry that they will be exposed before they have done their surrogate dirty work. It allows Bush to conflate the Swift Boat group with progressive groups like MoveOn.Org despite the differences in their membership, methodology and the veracity of their claims. This aversion to intelligence and rationality allows those of baser instincts to poison our political discourse to their own advantage without fear that their misdeeds will be discovered, or that if they are discovered they know that no rational dissection of them need be feared. The lack of trust in experts allows the EPA and FDA to suppress scientific findings and bases for policy and replace them with religious dogma.

If America is fortunate enough that John Kerry wins in November - if the world is lucky enough - we can only hope that a new administration will restore our faith and confidence in rational thought and in those who engage in it. We can hope that a Kerry/Edwards administration will reverese the trend of filling government posts with scientific oversight with party flacks. If not, I can see a new Dark Ages descending on us all.

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