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August 25, 2004

why the "swift boat" controversy is sad

Jay Rosen has a thoughtful but almost anguished mini-essay entitled "Swift Boat Story a Sad Chord." He finds many aspects of the whole controversy "sad": the behavior of the anti-Kerry veterans, the boomers' inability to move past Vietnam, the poor response of the press, and John Kerry's effort to base his candidacy on his war record. I'll add an extra reason for sadness: I just can't manage to read and think "deliberatively" in circumstances like these. It's always important to listen to a wide range of opinions, to take diverse claims at face value and try to understand their underlying principles and goals. No one has the patience to listen to every crackpot, but there are worthy voices from across the spectrum. We need to stay open to these opinions or we'll end up in separate enclaves, echo chambers, or ... pick your cliché.

Yet the Swift Boat controversy is closing my mind. I know that there are serious and responsible bloggers on the right who think that at least some of the charges against Kerry are plausible. These are people I read and respect. Meanwhile, my favorite sources on the left are saying, forcefully and pretty believably, that the charges are a pack of contemptible lies. So what am I supposed to do?

1. I could delve deeply into the available facts about John Kerry in Vietnam (and Cambodia?) in 1968 and 1969, in order to make up my own mind. But I don't want to study this issue. I don't think it's important. I don't think it's relevant. I have other things to spend my time on.
2. I could just believe the side I'm closer to politically. But I'd have no real basis for that conclusion. Besides, I would have to assume that at least some people on the other side were acting outrageously, without any sense of judgment, honor, or principle. Then how could I read the rest of their opinions?
3. I could absorb everyone's views with equanimity. Believe me, I'm trying, but the cognitive dissonance is unbearable.
4. I could try to ignore the whole affair. But it's all over the newspapers and blogs I read, it's affecting the election, and it's revealing important truths about the news media, the Kerry campaign, independent political expenditures, the American public, boomers, blogs, and Bob Dole--to mention just some of the angles. In other words, it's a microcosm, a case study, just like almost anything else that gets column inches and broadcast time.

What I really want to do is shut off all news sources until November. Notice how sad that is. A campaign is supposed to be a time to focus on the great issues of the day. It's supposed to be the season when people who are usually concerned about other matters turn their attention to public issues and make up their minds. If someone like me--who happens to love politics and public life--wants to turn away from this campaign, then why should most people pay any attention to it?

Update, Sept. 2: Jay's latest post about the Swift Vote affair uses it as evidence that the mainstream press is losing control to more open and populist media like blogs. Professional reporters scrutinized the first Swift Vote ad, found it false, and assumed that their verdict would kill the story. However, as Jay writes, the "Swift Vets are capable of telling their own story on their website, publishing their own book and selling it to lots of people without benefit of good reviews, finding their own allies in the blog world (some of whom have large audiences), raising their own money, and of course running their own ads aimed at voters. ..."

So professional journalists are in some trouble, but I can't decide whether that's promising news or not. Back in February, Jay was optimistic about the future of politics once professionals began to lose their monopoly. In a comment on my blog, he explained that he detested official politics while it was dominated by campaign managers and pundits, but he hoped that the more interactive, participatory campaign of Howard Dean presaged something better:

Everybody has a tipping point, Peter, when it comes to despairing of politics. I was offended, as a citizen, by how dumb my country's presidential campaign had become by 2000-- dumb and rote and packaged and predictable and timid, one huge overdone regression to the mean. I thought the elites in the system showed fantastic confidence in their ability to contain elections within a tight formula.

By isolating the few people they needed to bother with in a few 'battleground' states, and treating the manuevers for the 5 percent as the entirety of the campaign for the other 95 percent, the professionals who run the process and narrate it as normal seemed to express unlimited confidence that things could go on this way. They had no insights into how closed the process had become. Interactive? That was not a universe known to them.

Alas, 2004 seems--so far--at least as bad as 2000 in almost every respect. The Democrats are mainly running on the basis that their guy served in Vietnam thirty years ago, whereas the incumbent has messed up Iraq and presided over a decline in jobs (although no president can influence employment within three years). The Republicans are running on the basis that Democrats are unpatriotic and weak. The mass media mainly report this tit-for-tat. Although I think the Republicans are the worst offenders, all sides patronize the American people.

Thanks to online self-publishing (blogs and other websites), the political debate is now more open and interactive than it was four years ago. But the results seem disappointing. The net effect of the blogosphere, I fear, is to keep a few fairly extraneous issues alive while shedding little light on more important matters. I recognize some excellent exceptions among the more than 3 million extant blogs; but it's the overall impact that troubles me.

Posted by peterlevine at August 25, 2004 12:02 AM


I have never "blogged" before and I'm not sure how I happened in to yours...but I found it to be fascinating reading.

I had to comment on this because I agree so whole heartedly...I have always enjoyed election years but I am not hearing anything from either side to really help me decide. We need another Ross Perot to really get the issues out there instead of just childish name calling.

Issues like Social Security....I own a small business specializing in Womens Health Care. A great portion of my patient base are on Medicare. I started noticing that we had clients with Medicare that could not speak English and I wondered how they could have worked enough in this country to qualify for Social Security benefits.

I was shocked when I read that there are really few requirements for obtaining Social Security benefits besides age or disability. As I see it, in order to get S.S. and Medicare all you need to do is live in the United States legally for 5 years. Apparently, citizenship is not a requirement, nor contributing funds prior to applying. If it is true that S.S. and Medicare may run out before my time..I'm 48... then why are they paying for people who aren't even citizens? It seems alot of young people are coming in from all over the world, becoming citizens, and then bringing over their parents for us to support in 5 years.

That is fine...welcome to Freedom. However, I do have issue when I've paid every cent in taxes that I ever owed and they tell me I may not be able to get Medicare? Everyone that I have mentioned this to had no idea they could receive benefits....but how does one go about getting the word out? I bet most Americans would be upset.

I imagine no one will ever read this, and I'll probably never find my way back, but it feels good just getting it off my chest. Thanks!

Posted by: Laurie at September 3, 2004 06:57 PM

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