L. Neil Smith's
Number 291, October 3, 2004

"The traffic jam at the spaceport was almost nonexistent"

If You Can't Say Anything Nice...
by Lady Liberty

Special to TLE

If your mother is anything like mine, you heard it more than a few times growing up: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." For gossip-loving teenagers and often appallingly cruel grade-schoolers, those words are good advice. But as adults we grow to recognize that sometimes it's necessary to say even not-so-nice things. That doesn't mean, however, that we need to say those things as if we were the immature and small-minded children we used to be.

Politics usually isn't very pretty. It follows that political speech is frequently ugly. Accusations fly much as does the odiferous substance of another famous saying, and that means that some of the stuff typically sticks to the people throwing it as much as to the person or party at which it is aimed. It's probably true that whoever gets buried the deepest will lose in the end. Yet at the same time, it's likely also the primary reason so many of us hold our noses when we vote no matter the candidate we choose.

Career politicians and their highly paid campaign staff aren't likely to change anytime soon. As much as we lament dirty politics and say we wish races were run based on qualifications rather than accusations of less-than-exemplary actions that could prove to be disqualifications, dirty politics has one single factor in its favor: it works. Still, if a candidate could stay cleaner by virtue of better behavior, at least some of the efforts of the opposing side could be mitigated. At worst, that candidate would come across as being more level-headed, and rationale will always trump rhetoric in the minds of voters who will spare even a moment's thought to place fact above affiliation (never mind for the moment that too many voters don't bother to think at all).

The same holds true of political campaign supporters. All too often, informal debates between adherents turn ugly and, well, childish. "Vote for my candidate because..." is a springboard for discussion and discovery for both sides even if no one is convinced to change his mind. "Vote for my candidate or you're stupid!" is a call to arms. Rational arguments will, it can be hoped, at least provoke pertinent responses. Name calling, on the other hand, means that you either don't know any good arguments in favor of your stance, or that you're too unstable to think of any at the moment. Neither speaks well of you or, by association deserved or undeserved, your candidate or your cause.

Michael Moore is, as much as it pains me to say so, a talented filmmaker. It's impossible for me to appreciate his talent, however, because he's so busy using it to sling lies about his own least favored candidate. I don't argue that there's much that can be said against President George W. Bush and his policies, foreign and domestic. In fact, in some ways, that makes what Moore is doing worse. Given that there are some very legitimate criticisms and concerns that could be—and should be—expressed in connection with the Bush administration, it seems a shame that Moore has instead wasted the time, money, and incessant vocalizations on so many things so easily disproved. Still, you'll recall I acknowledge that dirty politics works. And "Fahrenheit 9/11" has collected an extraordinarily healthy profit even as Moore's biggest lie—calling a work that is largely fiction a documentary—is being swallowed by a distressingly large population.

For those who bother to ask a few questions or to look beyond the tricks of the trade of the silver screen, it's easy enough to see the fakery involved and the outright unreasoning hatred that motivates it. Once you see clearly, do you believe that John Kerry is the supremely better presidential candidate? Do you buy into every criticism of George W. Bush the movie makes? Or do you take many of the movie's "facts" with a very large grain of salt, and look at Michael Moore as being the unethical propagandist that he is? And doesn't that knowledge make you wonder about Mr. Moore's film as a whole, thus tarnishing his efforts even in the (unlikely, unfortunately) event he's telling you the truth?

Michael Moore is also an ideal example of how the opposite side of the issue shoots itself in the foot when it could be taking advantage of an overwhelming argument in its own favor. After all, it would seem to me that Moore's blatant disregard for any semblence of truth in his so-called documentary, and the relatively easily found proof of that contention, is more than adequate to condemn him and, by default, the validity of his viewpoint. Yet in the vast majority of editorials or complaints I've seen concerning Mr. Moore, the writer has seen fit to insult his weight, his hygiene, and/or his personality. Whether true or untrue, what do these petty snipes have to do with the fabrications in his film? How does calling Mr. Moore a pig persuade even the most lukewarm of his fans that an opposing opinion is worthy of even casual consideration?

The same general logic is true for those of us less famous than Mr. Moore. If we want others to consider our position or to think about supporting our chosen candidate, then we need to be able to tell others why that candidate has earned our support and why they might want to consider voting for our man, too. For example, I've made it clear that I endorse Libertarian Michael Badnarik for president. I promote his campaign because he's willing to make good on an oath to uphold the Constitution, and because he believes that government has no constitutional—or moral—right to be involved in so much of our day-to-day and personal business. He's in favor of abolishing many taxes, of the absolute right to self defense, and of returning the responsibility of our own lives to us. That's almost certainly a more compelling argument for you to learn more about Mr. Badnarik than if I'd said, say, "Vote for Michael Badnarik because Ralph Nader is an idiot!" or "Vote for Michael Badnarik because George W. Bush and John Kerry are evil!" And that's true whether or not I personally think Ralph Nader actually is an idiot, or the Republican and Democrat candidates are separately or collectively the Antichrist.

This past week, I happened to read a very well-articulated letter intended to argue in favor of more equitable media coverage for all of the major presidential candidates rather than just the "big two." The writer referenced Michael Badnarik, David Cobb, Ralph Nader, and Michael Peroutka with respect, and gave no indication whatsoever as to which candidate he might personally favor. But all of the logic of his position was undone when, in the closing paragraph, he called George W. Bush and John Kerry disparaging names.

Don't misunderstand my own position in this matter. I agreed with that part of the letter as much as I agreed with the rest of it, which is to say completely. But imagine if you were on the receiving end of such a missive and, despite favoring one of the "big two" yourself, you were actually beginning to be just the smallest bit swayed by the calm, cool, and utterly rational points being made. Then suddenly your own favored candidate is called a nasty name. Your first reaction is to leap to your candidate's defense. Your second, and probably final, reaction is to ignore the letter in its entirety because to do otherwise just makes you waste precious time wanting to act on your first reaction. So how, pray tell, has your descent into name-calling—as well deserved as it might be—helped your cause?

It's crucial that we do speak up when we see political wrongdoing. It's important that we bring to light problems with candidates that could make them singularly unsuited to hold public office. And it's our unalienable right to share our opinion as far and wide as we desire. That's not only part and parcel of the political process, but also one of our responsibilities as citizens. While how you choose to wage your argument isn't as important as whether you're right or wrong, it can never-the-less prove all the difference between winning or losing the respect your position (I would hope) deserves.

The fact is that it really isn't a matter of saying nothing at all if we can't say anything nice, but rather taking the time to say those not-so-nice things nicely, or at least with logic and without the unnecessary baiting of those who disagree. Mom would understand and appreciate the difference. And more importantly for the sake of political activism, so will the others with whom you're communicating.

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