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Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
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December 10, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 32

  Doubt: the new substitute for proof?
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

Politics, I have come to believe, is both science and art. The science lies in its discovery of the messages it will take to get candidates into office. Its art lies in its display of the amount of righteous indignation it will take to get political enemies out of office.

The science is called polling; the art is called smear tactics.

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Smear politics has risen to the level of high art in the United States and sunk to new lows at the same time.

The calculation of its high art rests in the fact that some of its most effective negative messages now come couched in high tech packaging skillfully done. Like the famous Willie Horton-capital punishment ads used to frighten voters away from Michael Dukakis, for instance, or the Swift Boat anti-Kerry campaign, or the relentless media pursuit of wrongdoing in the Clinton Whitewater investigation. They were all smear. Meaning that they were all groundless or misapplied messages. None of them were touted because they were unequivocally true. On the contrary, they were designed primarily to create doubt in the minds of the electorate around incidents that had nothing at all to do with the issues at hand but about which voters felt deeply.

The Whitewater investment case went on for years but never produced even the slightest evidence of Clinton wrongdoing. Presidential candidate Dukakis never said he didn't support life terms for wanton murderers, only that he himself did not support capital punishment. The Swift Boat campaign cast Kerry, a decorated war veteran who had the moral temerity to protest an immorally conducted war, as some kind of traitor to American ideals.

Who can forget the images? Who is there who doesn't remember the constant dinning of the ideas into the American mind by every major TV news program, every radio talk show, every news magazine in the country. The best American technology has to bring to the propagation of ideas was devoted to the packaging of the material, however little proof, however little substance there was to any of them.

So much for what we teach sixth graders about a person's being considered "innocent until proven guilty" in this country. Instead attacks based as much on innuendo and guilt-by-association as they are on data thrive.

As Tom Delay himself said recently in defense of his own attempts to retain the chair of a congressional committee, despite the threat of indictment for campaign finance irregularities, "No, I should not lose the chairmanship over this," he argued. "After all, anybody knows you can indict a ham sandwich if you want to."

What's even more troublesome, then, is the fact that the practice is not only increasing, it seems to be approaching the credibility of legal judgment in the public mind. If a thing is said over and over again, it must be true. No questions asked, little doubt entertained. Or as one studiously ignorant arm chair philosopher was wont to declare as irrefutable evidence of almost anything outrageous, "Where there's smoke, there's fire." That was enough for him and assertion seems to be becoming enough for us, too.

As a result, leaks, rumors, planted information and, finally, the kind of rush to judgment modeled by CBS's misrepresentation of George Bush's military record, based on forged documents even amateurs recognized at first sight, have become the coin of the realm.

Now we may well be on the brink of an even bigger miscarriage of justice in the name of righteous outrage.

Five Republican members of the House of Representatives have introduced a resolution into Congress calling on the U.S. government to withhold American dues to the United Nations pending the resignation of Kofi Annan as secretary general of that body. The charge is that Annan's son, Kojo, received "no compete" contract monies from a Swiss firm that monitored the U.N. Oil for Food program. The implication, of course, is collusion or dereliction of duty or worse, graft. And that without a single shred of evidence.

Kofi Annan, who has held senior positions in the U.N. system since 1987, and staff positions since 1962 says he had no knowledge of the association. Annan, as this week's standing ovation in the General Assembly indicated, is almost universally respected by other U.N. member nations. None of them are calling for his resignation over this issue.

Nor should we, it seems, given our declared philosophy of law, without thorough investigation of the situation.

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After all, no one called for George W. Bush's resignation over Vice President Cheney's relationship with Halliburton, the bigger winner for Iraq war contracts. No one called for George H. Bush's resignation over son Neil's involvement in the billion dollar taxpayer loss accruing from the savings and loan scandal. No one called for Jimmy Carter's resignation over brother Billy's $200,000 connection to the government of Libya.

Which brings up two questions:

So why here? After all, this smear is of a man who has nothing to do with the internal government of the United States?

And why now? Ahhhh, maybe the question is the answer. After all, what better way to take attention away from Annan's continuing disapproval of the unfounded invasion of Iraq? If the international disapproval of the war in Iraq keeps up, and that from the secretary general of the United Nations himself, any day now the American people might themselves begin to regret it. If there were ever a time for the smear tactics of righteous anger, founded or not, this must surely be it.

Maybe the purpose of the smear is not really about the unlikely event of being able to have Annan removed from office at all. Maybe it's only about leading the American public to question, to doubt, his integrity so we don't begin to doubt ours.

The new low in smear politics emerges from the fact that the repetition of an idea by the major communication systems in the country seems to be enough to give it currency, certainty, reality in the general population. Now planting the possibility of wrongdoing has become almost as important in this country as proving it.

But this time there is an attempt to do it on the international level by a country whose international credibility is already at an all-time low.

From where I stand, the beauty of it all is that Annan has named American Paul Volcker, former chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, to lead the investigation. How's that for trusting your enemies?

This time maybe we better all ignore the smear tactics, sit back, listen, and let the investigation come to an end before we do succumb to innuendo again. It would seem to be such an American thing to do.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator at the address below.

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