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Guilty Until Proven Innocent
One cannot help but note how vitriolic our elections have become. If it is not the candidates themselves, it is their surrogates, either individuals or Political Action Committees. The message is almost always negative. It is as if we now practice the Napoleonic code, guilty until proven innocent. Disinformation is the tactic of first choice. Allegation has become the de facto truth of the moment and the real story behind that allegation is not relevant because our attention has been directed toward the new allegation. The taste of the last allegation is still in our mouth, unresolved, coloring our view of the new allegation. It is a slide away from civil discourse and we, the American people, have been on that slide for the last decade.
Civil discourse, the give and take of ideas has been fundamental to the success of our democratic republic. When we veered from this approach in the mid-1800s, we had the Civil War. There have been tough political times in our past since then, but there has always been respect for the opposing opinion until lately.
Growing up in a small town in the 50s and 60s meant there was a respect and deference toward parents, civil authorities and elected officials. Vietnam started changing our thinking. We saw that we were involved in something we didn't like, we didn't necessarily know why. We just knew that we didn't like it. It felt wrong. In all previous wars, there were at least 2 degrees of separation between the reality of that war and our personal lives at home. We had to buy a newspaper to read about it or go to the movies and see it in a newsreel. With the advent of a televised war, the reality came into our homes every night. Many people just tuned out, the experience was too personal. Many more people tuned in, and after a while started asking the question, why. Why is this war stopping the spread of Communism? Why isn't there any progress? Why can't you just defeat these people? Why are we entering villages and shooting women, children and the elderly? Finally, why are we there? The answers seemed to be only half answers. Again that bad aftertaste was in our mouths. In that the people of my age were the ones shedding the blood, we started questioning that respect and deference toward authority that we grew up with. In 1970, our elected officials couldn’t give a good reason why we were still in the war. Then the Kent State shootings occurred. People, especially in my generation, really revolted. Mass antiwar demonstrations became commonplace at campuses across the nation. The country was in upheaval. Nixon was re-elected on a pledge that he would get us out of Vietnam. He made good on that pledge and also opened the door to communist China at the same time. The ‘Red Menace’ started to recede. My generation started to believe again. Then Nixon's paranoia brought forth actions out of the Oval Office that shook the nation to its core. The President of the United States purposely and repeatedly lied to the people about Watergate, again up close and personal, via television.
Fortunately, Gerald Ford was a man of real integrity and his words plus actions really helped heal the psyche of the nation. However, Pandora's box of doubt had been opened, doubt in our elected officials, doubt in our authority organizations, doubt in the decisions that they make. The seed of doubt had been planted and was then nurtured; in 1979 by the military debacle in the desert after the American Embassy in Tehran was seized, the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986, and the impeachment of the President in 1998. All of these undermined the credibility of our elected officials, our stated moral beliefs, our faith in our military and the trust in us as a nation by our friends around the world. The unspoken question was could you believe anyone?
Finally we get to the 21st century. The presidential race between Bush and Gore were was a hard-fought campaign. There was some smearing of the candidates, but it was largely confined to the fringes. The results were so close that the Supreme Court had to step in and five men basically decided the winner. This was so unprecedented, in a lesser country it probably would have started a Civil War. Again, there was the right man at the right time and Mr. Gore said enough was enough, throwing the race to George W. Bush for the good of the country. Unfortunately, both major parties determined that to win future elections, simply advocating the best plan for moving the nation forward would not be enough. They believed that the American electorate was too evenly divided and too fickle. The philosophy became one of destroying the opposition credibility in order to win. This meant going after their character and questioning everything in their background, holding it up for ridicule if at all possible. The idea of coming up with a platform that could really move the common good forward became secondary. Divide and conquer is a classic war strategy, and political contests were now viewed as classic war. Therefore any tactic which helped win that war was by definition okay. The concept of politics as a noble endeavor died.
This became very evident in the 2004 presidential campaign, when the divisive Swift Boat allegations which became a rallying cry, were proven to be without merit; however this was after the election. These allegations did the job of casting doubt about candidate Kerry and though the Swift boat campaign was not directly part of the Bush campaign, its actions were basically condoned through the Bush campaign silence. That silence on direct character assassination gave the green light to like-minded attacks from both sides. Of course the numerous scandals of our elected officials over the past 10 years have only reinforced the argument for complete disclosure. Full disclosure at all costs, relevant or not, meaning there is no more private life if you go into politics.
Today, it has become common to attack on a personal level, any individual seeking elected office. The rhetoric is about what the other guy/gal hasn't done or can’t do, not about their ideas. Our elections have become a war based in economics and misinformation. The more money you have, the more misinformation can be generated, the more doubt put in the minds of the electorate and therefore the most opportunity to exploit that doubt.
As a result, allegation is the weapon of choice. Allege the opponent has done something wrong, allege the opponent advisors have done something wrong, allege the opponent family has done something wrong, it doesn't matter the target, just keep the allegations flowing. This creates doubt in the minds of people. They forget about ‘innocent until proven guilty’ because they don't have time to think about the first allegation when they are being bombarded by the third allegation. The right or wrong of the first allegation becomes moot as we eagerly discuss the latest allegation.
This type of rhetoric leads us away from the vision of the founding fathers. They had grown up and lived with a social economic system that was heavily based upon the governing few, nobility, believing they knew what was best for their society. Those few had ensured that the governing artifacts of their society benefited them first, and all others second. One of those artifacts was the law of nobility: if the accuser was a noble, the accused was guilty. Our founders were educated in classic Greek and Roman civilization. They saw that injustice in English law and determined the Roman ‘Digest of Justinian’ from the sixth century provided a much more desirable approach. Basically it says “the proof lies on him who asserts, not on him who denies”. In other words, under our system we are presumed to be good and innocent, until it is proven otherwise.
Unfortunately, in today's political discourse many of us assume the worst, not the best. Allegation after allegation is made with very few attempts to ascertain whether they are true or false. Many electorate have given up, deciding that the elections have degenerated into “choosing the best between two evils”, not “who is going to do the best job”. This approach falls right in line with the one expounded by Joseph Goebbels back in the late 1930s. He said “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the state." This means that if the State is built around a lie, then the truth is the enemy of the State and must be extinguished at all costs, the hallmark of Totalitarian States.
Fortunately, our nation is still ruled by universal law, and that law is based upon the common good. Though today’s political battles are acrimonious, and tend to bring out the worst in us, they still fall under the law. If we can remember that accusation is not de facto truth, remember the lessons learned by our founding fathers which have been put in place through law, and remember the harsh civil lessons from the mid-20th century, then we can get back to solving the problems of today through civilized discourse. Debate the pros and cons of the proposed solutions and come to logical conclusions, not spend all of our time on discussing character assassinations.
The stakes are too high, we are talking about the future of our children and their children and their children. We have real problems that need to be addressed today. Not necessarily solved today, some are just too big. However, we need to start addressing them today, so they can be solved tomorrow. The vitriolic discourse reinforces the thought that “truth is the enemy of the State” by avoiding the truth at all costs. It is the easy way of not having to address the real problems we face. It wastes everyone’s time and energy. Time and energy needed to address those real problems.
It is time to call “foul” on this current approach to winning elections and the acrimony. It is time for the American electorate to send a clear message: ‘Bring thoughts or a plan on how to move society forward, and we would like to hear what you have to say. Stay home if all you have is accusations.’ We live in an environment of mass communications. Use it to get this message out. Social media, call-in radio, email, snail mail, telephoning and plain old face-to-face conversation are all appropriate. Above all, seek the truth by questioning the accuracy of what you say and what others assert. Discuss the pros and cons without resorting to belligerency. The future is too important to ‘leave to the future’. We need to start proactively addressing our issues NOW.