Well, someone finally did it. Defined the phrase “Swift-Boat” in a dictionary (that is, if one considers wikipedia a dictionary. I do).
According to wikipedia, a “Swift-Boat” attack is:
“an ad hominem attack against a public figure, coordinated by an independent or pseudo-independent group, usually resulting in a benefit to an established political force. Specifically, this form of attack is controversial, easily repeatable, and difficult to verify or disprove because it is generally based on personal feelings or recollections.”
Notice several key words:
2) difficulty to verify or disprove
3) generally based on personal feelings or recollections
In short, and at best, one cannot effectively respond to these attacks using the attackers’ rules of engagement (even in politics, some battles are well-joined in this fashion. Not this one).
An ad hominem attack is an attack that calls into question the alleged failings of an adversary rather than on the merits of the case. What is especially pernicious about today’s Republicans is that 1) they do not even try to present a “case” from which merits can be discussed (and from which they can try to change the topic by resort to the ad hominem; just think for a moment – what was the larger “case” the Republicans were debating that overlayed the Swift Boat attacks? That Kerry was not fit to be Commander in Chief? Did they really present a cogent argument on this point? No, they grunted and hissed sporadically that he could not be Commander and Chief – indeed, the “case” itself was an ad hominem attack, of which the Swift Boating was an ad hominem within an ad hominem). 2) The alleged “failings” of the adversay that drive the ad hominem attacks are created out of whole cloth. Prior successsful ad hominem attacks at least pointed to a fact that was alleged to be a “failing” (i.e. Dukakis would not sign a bill forcing students to recite the Pledge). Now, the very premise of the ad hominem attack – its raison d’etre – is manufactured. The Swift Boaters are infatuated by the logic of “how does one disprove a negative?” Indeed, they DARE their opponents to prove any falsehood they sling to be incorrect.
The Swift-Boat attack, as noted above, is difficult to verify or disprove. Ever see the movie “Rashomon?” This 1951 Akira Kurosawa classic tells the story of the rape and murder of a Japanese woman from four different points of view. Each person – whom the story implies is a suspect (although the movie is not a police procedural; it simply recounts the tale of each person) has a different version of how the death occurred. Kurosawa, once he came up with the idea for the story, gave a copy of the screenplay to two trusted associates. Both read the script and were utterly befuddled. They approached him and said, “Sir, you have written this story of a gruesome murder, and have told of how the murder occurs from four different points of view, but there is no resolution to the story. We do not know who committed it! Who would want to see such a story? We do not get it.” Kurosawa took the associates aside and explained what he was getting at: how the concepts of memory, of ego, of motivation, of passion, and of manipulation, can sometimes make the “objective truth” impossible to ascertain. THAT, he said, was the point of the story. The unsatisfactory ending WAS the point of the story because human beings’ petty limitations create such unsatisfactoriness. “I am doing nothing more, and nothing less, than dramatizing this truth,” Kurosawa said. One assistant “got it,” the other didn’t.
Whether Karl Rove ever watched this movie, I do not know, but he might as well have, because he has taken its Cliffs Notes version and adapted it for his own purposes: the Cliffs notes version says: the objective truth is often impossible to obtain. Rove’s gloss thereon: since this is true, fabricate a series of events in conformity with this principle. People won’t then think you’re lying; they’ll just think that the fabricators are acting out – dramatizing (and how!) the “truth” adverted to above. Of course, what makes Rove’s gloss especially foul is that the motives of the attackers are cloaked in a swath of pseudo-righteousness. The four storytellers in Rashomon, whatever they wanted each other and us to believe, necessarily were stripped of this swath because they were murder suspects. They were the ones on the defensive. A succesful Swift-Boat attack, Rashomon-style, requires that the motives of the attackers be superficially above the fray. After all, why would someone go to such lengths to attack, say John Kerry, at great risk to that someone’s own personal career, UNLESS that person were proceeding out of a noble motive? (Republican answer: unless that person is named Anita Hill and John Kery is Clarence Thomas, the answer is “no reason.”) Therefore, to attack the attacker requires us to, at least temporarily, ignore the “substance” of his message and examine his potential motivations. The media, however, refuses to do this. It will only report an “illicit” motivation AFTER that motivation has been brought to its attention. It takes more effort for a person – or the public – to NOT swallow something miraculously coming out of stage left in the final act than it does to swallow an incredibly well-timed, Hail-Mary coincidence. Why? Because of religion, in part – specifically, how it has lobotomized people into believing coincidences, fairy tales, contrivances, and implausibilities. Repeat after me: “Let’s make a deal: If you don’t pray in my school, I won’t think in your church.”
Finally, the Swift Boat attack, as noted above, is based on personal feelings or recollections. Even where the attacker makes his own personal feelings or recollections plain, people will STILL refuse to evaluate the attacker’s comments critically. Why? Does the phrase “Republican noise machine” ring a bell? I remember Sean Insanity, on Faux News, singing the Swift Boaters’ praises, saying “Why are you guys (the li-bruls) trying to shut them up?” (There’s a funny one – the idea of a non-conservative on network news cutting off someone’s mic). I then remember him saying – and here is the noise machine at work – “200 Swifties said this, and Kerry said this. Who would you believe?” Well, that must settle it. The more noise one side makes, the more “right” that one side is, period. Creationists make much more noise about the “”correctness” of creation science than evolutionists do about the strength of science; therefore, evolution is ipso facto a flawed hypothesis, is how this argument goes. Right? 80% of Fox News viewers believe Saddam Hussein attacked us on Sept.11th, and since these small-balled, wife-beating, three-toothed, fat-gutted, redneck, local yokel bumpkin bubba schlubba hateriots whine and squeak louder than people who know that “fact” is false, they’re right, right? Right-wing commentators harness (the same) hateful comment after comment in an effort to show that these comments, which represent mere (ill-founded) opinion, are “fact.” Only someone who is attracted to loud noises falls for this kind of crap. But then again, many people are attracted to loud noises. Fox News is the highest-rated cable news network, by far, and not coincidentally, people who watched it are more factually misinformed about the Iraq war, September 11th, and the “war on terror” than people who get their news from ANY other source.
So, how do we fight the Swift Boaters? With common sense, logic, reasoning and earplugs. The war on thinking is leaving the first three in short supply, but I don’t think Republicans have cornered the earplug market. Yet.