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Et Tu, Alan?

Alan Boyle has a long review of the movie Expelled. While I largely agree with it (and it has reduced my estimation of Ben Stein, who seems to have gone completely off the deep end, tremendously), it is marred, severely in my opinion, by the use of the politically loaded word, "swiftboating," not just in the text, but in the title itself.

He seems, from context, to be using the word in its popular, but grossly mistaken and (Democrat) partisan sense, as in "spreading malicious lies about something or someone." But for those of us actually paying attention at the time, and using more enlightened sources than Lawrence O'Donnell screaming "Liar! Liar! Liar!" at John O'Neill, the word means "revealing inconvenient truths about a political candidate who is a Democrat." Most of the charges of the Swift Boaters were in fact validated--on the subject of Christmas in Cambodia, despite it being "seared, seared into his memory," John Kerry was either lying or fantasizing, and his campaign essentially was forced to admit that. And the video of his Senate testimony in which he slandered his fellow sailors, airmen, marines and soldiers, calling them war criminals, was indisputable.

So it would be far better to simply avoid the word, given the fact that it has almost exactly the opposite meaning to two different sets of readerships, and is bound to raise hackles, regardless of the context. I expect it from political polemicists, but I expect (and almost always get) much better from Alan.

I'll have more thoughts on the movie itself (which I haven't seen, and have no plans to), but will save them for another post.

[Thursday morning update]

Alan responds, but seems to miss the point that I was making. Apparently, to him, the term "swiftboat" as a verb simply means "negative campaigning," something that he doesn't like. But I don't think that's what it means to most people, on either side of the partisan divide. As I describe above, Democrat partisans have come to use it to mean not just negative campaigning, but lying about their candidate, whereas those of us who were opposed to John Kerry (for reasons that the Swift Boat Vets stated, and many others) view it as telling inconvenient truths that didn't reflect well on him. Both of those fall under the rubric of "negative campaigning," if by that one means saying things about a candidate (or a concept) with the intent of making people think less of them.

Now, in light of what I think is my understanding of Alan's point, I disagree. I actually have no problem at all with negative campaigning per se, if the campaign is truthful. I think that in order to make a judgment about a candidate or an issue, the more information the better, both pro and con. If a candidate happens to be an ax murderer, would there be something reprehensible about pointing this out? I think that it would be information that the voting public would have a right to know, despite the fact that it's (sigh) "negative."

Likewise, I have no problem with movies that oppose evolution, per se, as long as they're honest, and I would not characterize such movies as "Swift Boating" (particularly since I think that the Swift Boat Vets, in pointing out facts about John Kerry of which the voting public was largely unaware, performed a public service). From what I've heard about Expelled, however, it's scurrilous, and to associate the tactics used there with John O'Neill and his cohorts is slanderous, if not libelous, to them. There's been a lot of discussion about the movie in the last couple days, and the war on science in general (a war that, by the way, contra Chris Mooney's flawed, or at least limited, thesis, is thoroughly bi-partisan). I hope to provide a link roundup and some thoughts of my own shortly, if I can find the time.

In any event, I continue to find Alan's usage of the new (and ambiguous) verb "swiftboating" problematic, for reasons stated above. As I already noted, I expect to hear that word from "political consultants" on partisan talkfests on the cable news channels, but not in a reasoned discussion about science and society.


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Leland wrote:

The way Democrats use the word "Swiftboating", I'm inclined to say John Kerry "swiftboated" the veterans when he gave his testimony to Congress upon returning from Vietnam. Yes, John O'Neill and the SBVT were paying candidate Kerry back in spades but with the truth and not some made up fairy tale about Genghis Kahn type activities.

Bingo wrote:

As long as we're on the subject of Kerry's outright frauds, mis-representations and/or embellishments, "No Man Left Behind" (Kerry's much ballyhoo'd "rescue" of Rassmann) is singular and warrants repetition.

Compare WaPo's Michael Dobb's fine investigative work on the "Bay Hap River" incident with John Kerry's preposterous fable as depicted in this Kerry press release from Jan, 2004.

Brent wrote:

Ugh. I hate "Science." Not science, mind you, where people use reason and observation to find answers to material questions and increase understanding of the physical world. But Science, the arrogant overriding need by some people (not always or even mostly scientists) to declare themselves Final Arbiters of Truth for every conceivable manner of inquiry because they have heard of the scientific method at some point in their life.

I haven't seen the movie, but I'm willing to bet Boyle's review is pretty much spot-on. It is indeed unfortunate that science is apparently attacked rather than Science, which I'm sure is Stein's real target. It will likely appeal to an unsophisticated audience that may not be able to tell the difference.

But can you blame them? I find it hard to. When Dawkins et al are on the bestseller list calling religious people idiots and using Science falsely dressed as science as the weapon, how are people supposed to react? Has Boyle written an essay on lamenting The God Delusion's impact on building the false religion vs science debate? I may well be wrong, but I don't think so. If wrong, I sincerely apologize.

As a counterstroke to the new militant atheists that are allowed to cloak themselves in the mantle of scientists (rather than Science fetishists), I think Expelled probably has some utility even if its methods are wrong. Turn about is fair play. I hate this false science vs religion debate as much as Boyle does, but I can't let one side get a pass for deplorable behavior and eviscerate the other.

Thank God I'm an engineer. I can help out civilization using technology without the baggage of a culture of Scientists brow-beating me over my faith. Our profession is pretty much tolerant of praying to God that we didn't screw up a calculation and won't hurt an innocent with what we built.

This post is probably out of place, but thanks, Rand, for letting me vent a bit.

Christian wrote:

While agreeing with you that "swiftboating" needs a narrower definition than what some have given it, I strongly disagree with your claim that "most" of the Swift Boat allegations were "validated".
Maybe he wasn't in Cambodia "on" Christmas, but that doesn't negate that he was there at some time (maybe several times). Can't we grant that Kerry made a good-faith estimate that he had crossed the border at some point, given his regular proximity to it and the covert "drop-off" missions he was asked to perform far up that river?
Maybe this can be part of our narrowed definition of swiftboating, the practice of using a candidate's partial inaccuracy to try to completely negate every other established or reasonable fact about him/her.
O'Neill's swift-boat book was basically a lawyer's brief targeted on a military career. No detail was immune from dispute, from the level of injury deserving a Purple Heart, to whether the effusive praise in Kerry's performance reviews was actually his superiors' back-hand way of dissing him (no, seriously, that's in O'Neill's book). So, to say most of the Swift Boat Vet's points were validated is just so far out there.

Alan Boyle wrote:

The biggest drawback to my using the term "swiftboating" is that it dredged up all the bad flashbacks from the 2004 campaign. I'm not inclined to change the reference in the item I posted already, but I think I'll back off from using that term again unless I want to address the John Kerry / Swift Boat Vets case specifically (right now I can't imagine why I'd want to, but weird things happen during a presidential campaign).

I read Dawkins' "The Ancestor's Tale" and thought it was mostly pretty good. I haven't read "The God Delusion" and don't intend to, but to illustrate that I am an equal-opportunity prejudger, I'll point out that I called the book a "provocative screed" in this item:

I also quoted Ann Druyan (Carl Sagan's widow and one of the most spiritual atheists I know) as saying she doesn't think Dawkins' approach is having a good effect. "The frontal assault on religion has not resulted in the degree of communication that was possible even a few years ago," she said.

Rand Simberg wrote:

Maybe he wasn't in Cambodia "on" Christmas, but that doesn't negate that he was there at some time (maybe several times). Can't we grant that Kerry made a good-faith estimate that he had crossed the border at some point, given his regular proximity to it and the covert "drop-off" missions he was asked to perform far up that river?

In a word, no. Unless you are willing to call all of his commanding officers liars, because none of them would vouch for his story that he was anywhere near the border. As for the "covert drop off, "we have no evidence of such an event other than John Kerry's word and his "magic hat," which could have come from anywhere.

Given his fantasy about "Christmas in Cambodia," and his self aggrandizement, even then, via the film crew he took along with him, I'm much more inclined to grant credibility to his detractors who were there, than him.

And he can't deny his Senate testimony, which was a large part of the SBV story.

Alan, I was a big Dawkins fan (Blind Watchmaker, Selfish Gene) until he decided to go to war with people who believed in God. Same with Dennett. At this point, I consider them just as evangelical as their enemies, except they preach, and proselytize, the absence of God, rather than simple skepticism.

So maybe I'm a weird outlier, who both believes in evolution, but also thinks that the Swift Boaters were on the side of good. In any event, I've explained my objection to that term as a verb. As I said, I consider it a slander to equate their actions with Ben Stein's.

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on April 30, 2008 12:18 PM.

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