Sunday, July 20, 2008

Swiftboating: The Lesson Scholars Must Learn from Politicians

I. The Whisper Campaign Against Obama
So, recently I was reading a piece about a scholar at the Institute for Advanced Studies (Albert Einstein's old stomping grounds) who decided to study how viral e-mail attacks work by trying to trace back the 'Obama is a Muslim' chain e-mails to their source. The article* makes for interesting reading because, despite her ultimate failure to identify the author(s), she did work out the methodology involved, which relies upon online discussion sites or mailing lists of like-minded individuals. Essentially one group who is passionately anti-Obama generates the lies and smears, while another who is just as self-motivated circulates them as widely as possible. There's no fact-checking, no attempt to separate fact from fiction: if a new story clicks with their preconceptions they embrace and dissimulate it.

Obama's Response
Obama had two models for fashioning his own response to lies. The Bill Clinton model calls for an immediate all-out battle against the liars. The John Kerry model calls for staying out of the fray. Mr. Obama noted who became president and made his choices accordingly.

Obama's Result
We're months away from the election but we can already see the positive results Obama's approach is having. By vigorously attacking lies he has remained a viable candidate among voters willing to make decisions based on evidence.

II. The Campaign Against Walter Hooper
Now, all this sounds remarkably familiar, because I see the same pathology over in Lewis studies behind the thirty-year slander campaign against Walter Hooper. Hooper's case is a bit different, in that we know Kathryn Lindskoog is the person responsible for inventing the slanders and the people who circulate her libels usually post online under their own names. But otherwise the two cases are markedly similar: Lindskoog invented the lies and her adherents circulated them as widely as possible, adding to them as they went. Even Lindskoog's being caught forging evidence to support her theories and, when caught, lying about it, and her death a few years back, has done little to stem the tide: new permutations of the same old slanders continue to be posted and re-posted at every opportunity, smuggled into reference books (most recently the four-volume set C. S. LEWIS: LIFE, WORKS, & LEGACY [2007], more notoriously the C. S. LEWIS READERS' ENCYCLOPEDIA [1998]), and in general persist in a sort of toxic half-life.

Swiftboating Hooper
Part of this no doubt is due to Hooper's decision not to sue Lindskoog when she first started printing her libels. Thus we were spared the spectacle of a priest suing a woman in a wheelchair -- which the English tabloids would no doubt have loved but could hardly have reflected well on Lewis's reputation. But, just as with Jn Kerry's failure to respond to Karl Rove's smear machine, some mistook Hooper's hesitation for an admission of guilt. In retrospect, we can see that Fr. Hooper was 'swiftboated' before we had a word for it.

III. Indifference to Evidence
It's unfortunate but not surprising that Hooper shd have suffered baseless attacks -- the phenomenon is a familiar one in our times. What is surprising is the degree to which the smear machine continues to spit out attacks even now -- for they still pop up on a regular basis on discussion lists, often gratuitously inserted into quite unrelated discussions. When confronted with evidence that supports Hooper's position, his detractors dismiss it out of hand but offer no evidence to support their own positions.

The Lesson
If someone disagrees with your thesis, look forward to a stimulating intellectual debate. If someone lies about you or your work, squash the lie fast and hard. Your happy peaceful life depends upon it.

--JDR & JC.


No comments: