I got a lot of responses to my previous post, Up is Down, along the lines of “oh, the Democrats lie as much as the Republicans”. But the piece was not about lies. For lack of a better term, it was about anti-truths. Anti-truths have two parts:

  1. They’re completely false.
  2. They’re more accurate when directly reversed.

It’s hard to find a completely unobjectionable one, but take “Ronald Reagan was our greatest President.” As for part one, I have seen no evidence that Reagan actually did anything particularly good on purpose and as for two, “Ronald Reagan was our worst President” seems to be a far more accurate statement, since he did lots of things that were quite bad.

So now that we know clearly what we’re discussing, let’s get to the heart of the issue. Do Democrats do this as much as Republicans? I’m not sure they do it at all. Let’s look at some candidate anti-truths.

Chris Nandor (aka pudge), who I respect a lot, tried hard to convince me that Dean’s “Bush tax” phrasing is a lie. But according to Dean’s own site [bushtax.com], he says “Bush has shifted costs to states and communities, who then pass them on to you. […] That’s the Bush Tax.” I’m pretty sure this is a metaphor, not a lie. Dean is trying to get us to think about all the consequences of an economic plan, not just the direct impact on taxes. He’s trying to make the case that the decrease in income tax has been compensated for by an increase in local costs. And he’s doing this by getting us to think of those costs as a tax.

I’m not against getting people to think about things in new ways, so I’m hesitant to outlaw this one. But let’s check it against the Ronald Reagan example to be sure. In the case of “Ronald Reagan was our greatest President”, is there a metaphor involved here. Nope. Is the speaker trying to get us to think about Presidents or greatness in a new way. Not really. The speaker is simply trying to pass along a conventional fact. So metaphor is out.

How about the Bush-AWOL thing? pudge suggests that the Democrats are using this to deflect criticism of their own record on national security. And while I think that Bush did try to escape serving and Democrats are the stronger party on national security, let’s put that aside for a second and concentrate on part 2.

The reversal of “Bush went AWOL” would be “Kerry went AWOL”, which is obviously not true. Trying to shore up their record on national security by attacking the other party is just typical political point scoring, it doesn’t meet the higher standard of being an anti-truth.

Saying “Kerry went AWOL”, however, would be an anti-truth. And while the Republicans haven’t quite reached that level, they’re getting close by suggesting that Kerry’s principled opposition to the war he served in somehow negates his war record. But even these suggestions aren’t anti-truths, but just the typical political mudslinging.

So I’ve set anti-truths to be a pretty high standard, a standard most dirty politics doesn’t meet. That’s intentional. I wanted to focus on these especially pernicious misdirections, and I also wanted to note how only Republicans seem to do them. But the rest of political rhetorical battles are harmful too, so I’m going to talk about all of them from now on. But before we go, I’ll leave this the comments on this post open for suggestions of possible anti-truths, from either side.

posted February 19, 2004 02:16 PM (Politics) (12 comments) #


Nader’s Negligence
Campaign Finance Reform: The Problem and Solution
Third Parties: Why They Spoil and How to Stop It
Gerrymandering: How Politicians Steal Votes and You Can Return Them
Up is Down: How Stating the False Hides the True
Down is Up: What This Stuff Is
Up With Facts: Finding the Truth in WikiCourt
San Francisco Protects the Freedom to Marry
Sue for Freedom: Saving Steamboat Roy
Shorter Tom DeLay


Bill Clinton: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

posted by sbw at February 19, 2004 02:31 PM #

“I have seen no evidence that Reagan actually did anything particularly good on purpose.”

He pulled us out of a deep recession, and he killed off communism in Europe. Two pretty big ones right there. I know you weren’t around much in the 1980s, but Reagan was rightfully credited with a hell of a lot of good. He also did some arguably bad things, like deficit spending.

posted by pudge at February 19, 2004 02:31 PM #

Isn’t really just a matter of personal opinion rather than turning the truth upside down? Everyone is just going to inperpret the truth how they want to see it…Republicans think Reagan was great and Clinton was terrible. Democrats think the opposite. So what…

posted by Matt at February 19, 2004 02:37 PM #

You start with:

[…] take “Ronald Reagan was our greatest President.” As for part one, I have seen no evidence that Reagan actually did anything particularly good on purpose and as for two, “Ronald Reagan was our worst President” seems to be a far more accurate statement[…]

but then say:

The reversal of “Bush went AWOL” would be “Kerry went AWOL”, which is obviously not true.

You can’t have it both ways. Either the opposite of “Reagan was your greatest president” is “Clinton was your greatest president”, or the opposite of “Bush went AWOL” is “Bush did not go AWOL”.

I agree that either of the two inverses is more true than the original, but your inversion function was picking and choosing to suit your politics.

posted by alisdair at February 19, 2004 02:41 PM #

Pudge’s statements are both debatable.

Let’s phrase the statement another way: “Ronald Reagan was a greater president than Lincoln.”

Is that true? How many people would agree to that statement?

For Reagan to be the greatest president, you would have to iterate over the set of presidents and say that Reagan was better than each one of them (reverse this for “worst President”).

I agree with alisdair. The opposite of “Bush was AWOL” isn’t “Kerry was AWOL”, but “Bush fufilled his duties” or perhaps (to go with the “anti-truth” idea) “Bush was a war hero.”

posted by Luke Francl at February 19, 2004 05:03 PM #

“just the typical political mudslinging”

Aaron, I think you’re on to something here. Whenever people propose an idea to other people, they try to persuade those others to agree with them. I think that’s natural. On the other hand, we also know how political rethoric – ‘propaganda’ – has helped to precipitate genocide and mass slaughter througout the 20th C. So how do you know they’re not out there to get you to do something that fits into their ‘pernicious game-plan’ ? At this point, the issue of trust is frequently invoked. - Do you trust an administration that denies habeas corpus to its own citizens? Err.. If you participate in a society governed by an elected ‘administration’, you entrust that body with certain powers.

So where to draw the line between ‘just the typical mudslinging’ and ‘pernicious misdirection’ ? Only where and when it subverts – or threatens to destroy – the fundaments of the constitution, or much “earlier” than that? Is it a matter of ‘degree’ ?

posted by thorolf at February 19, 2004 06:14 PM #

…and he killed off communism in Europe. Two pretty big ones right there. I know you weren’t around much in the 1980s.

And there was me thinking that Gorbachev was responsible for that.

posted by Dave at February 20, 2004 09:28 AM #

Today I read that Scott McCollough was spinning, “The recession began before GWB,” and “GWB is ending the recession,” both of which “rise” to the level of your high criterion, imho. — David I

posted by David Isenberg at February 20, 2004 06:47 PM #

Aaron, I think you’re a smart person. However, what you’ve written here is a grandiose rationalization for your political leanings (which you have every right to of course). You haven’t made an effective case with this post.

posted by Randy H. at February 21, 2004 08:08 AM #

Get rid of your liberal ideology and look at the facts objectivly.

posted by rar at February 23, 2004 11:29 PM #

Aaron, try these statements to see if they meet your criteria for anti-truths. “The vast majority of my tax cuts go to those in the lowest income brackets”. 60% of the general population of the US received 14% of the total dollars supplied by GWB’s tax cuts. 40% received 86% of the total. “I will not use or believe in the use of our military for the purpose of nation building”, GWB during the 2000 Presidential Campain. “I first got to know Ken Lay in 1994”, spoken by GWB in mid 2002 explaining he had no dealings with Ken Lay or ENRON before becoming the Governor of Texas in 1994. However, GWB’s Harkin Oil Co. was in partnership with Enron in the mid 1980’s.

While there are many more instances of this type of misdirection from our current administration, I also admit there are plenty of examples of similar statements from the other side. The biggest difference between the two sides however, is no one died while in the service of this country because of Monica or Whitewater, although more of our tax dollars were spent investigating those trivial matters than have been spent looking into why Halliburton, Inc. has been doing business with state/nation(s) on the US’s Terrorist Supporting State list while our current vice-president was its CEO.

posted by Steve H at March 3, 2004 01:17 AM #

Set a thief to catch a thief.

posted by Rod at March 29, 2004 04:07 PM #

Subscribe to comments on this post.

Add Your Comment

If you don't want to post a comment, you can always send me your thoughts by email.

Remember personal info?

Note: I may edit or delete your comment. (More...)

Aaron Swartz (me@aaronsw.com)