The age of smear

There is, according to a Jewish essayist, whose principal work is included in our biblical canon, nothing new under the Sun. This is worth bearing in mind, for when I describe our times as “the age of smear,” I do not mean to suggest that smearing has not been a feature of politics in all times and places; only that former generations were acquainted with a wider variety of techniques. The occasional positive argument would be introduced, then clinched or refuted. The British parliamentary arrangement assumes this to be possible, and the concept of a “loyal opposition” proposes gentlemen capable of goodwill, or even noble intention. The rules do not carry this assumption beyond reason. A Member of Parliament cannot be sued for what he says on the floor of the chamber — hence taunts daring him to say it outside. But meanwhile the Speaker may shut him up, and has a duty to do so promptly.

Under the American system, where the Speaker is openly partisan, the relation is more vexed. Often it is the Speaker who needs shutting up. But the notion of civilized debate did cross the Atlantic, if not in the Mayflower, then in some later vessel.

Glancing at the news, I see there is a new book by Sharyl Attkisson, an old-fashioned journalist in that she states her “facts” in ways that may be checkable. I have not read the book, entitled, The Smear, and won’t (at my age, I thirst more for poetry), but from an excerpt I see her thesis is that the reduction of politics to smear campaigns dates from the early ’nineties of the last century, when the Clintons went to work pre-emptively smearing the various women with whom Bill had fornicated, and those who knew too much about Hillary’s sleazy real estate deals, in anticipation of Bill’s run for the presidency. (A smear is incidentally not a smear if true, as our libel laws still formally acknowledge.)

While I’m in favour of putting “facts” before the public, which the news media ignore or suppress, the subtitle, How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote, strikes me as long-winded. The hint of conspiracy might err on the side of extravagance. From my own experience of mainstream journalism, the implicit bias of an established social and professional class is sufficient to the evidence, and we should sometimes avoid attributing to malice what stupidity can adequately explain.

This is called Hanlon’s razor, a variation on William of Occam’s; neither always apply. Humans are malicious beings, and pure stupidity is fairly rare. My analogy would be to demonic possession. It is true the victim is no longer entirely responsible for his acts, but he did invite the devils in to start with. Or like drunken misbehaviour. One should learn not to drink more than one can handle, as journalists should learn not to report more than they can know.

Or less than they are wise to. It emerges for instance that Messrs CNN knew perfectly well that their Trump/Russia covfefe was, in the word of one of them, “bullshit,” but ran with it anyway to please their rabidly Trump-hating audience. He and his allies reply with aggressive, equally smearing tweets. The swamp grows and is full of alligators (and illegal immigrant Burmese pythons, I gather).

But my point would not be to endorse that half or more of the story that Mrs Attkisson reports. It would instead be to observe that no good comes from obsessive smearing, unless gentle reader considers violence a good thing.

Alas, the loss of our “Judaeo-Christian heritage” involves the loss of other things.