Worse Than Mud

By Danielle Allen
Thursday, July 10, 2008

Since time immemorial there has been political mud-slinging, including heaps during the period of the American founding, as Edward J. Larson noted on this page [" The Founding Mudslingers," op-ed, July 4]. But the eternal and universal nature of mud-slinging provides no basis for judging when the balance between it and forthright political discourse falls within a range healthy for democracy. As the Internet age matures, we should ask: Are we getting the balance right?

The philosopher Machiavelli, in a chapter of "Discourses on Livy" called "As much as accusations are useful to a Republic, so much so are calumnies pernicious," makes a useful distinction between accusation and calumny, or slander. Accusers present themselves and their evidence publicly so their accusations can be debated by the accused. That debate provides a reasonable basis for public deliberation. But calumny is anonymous, secret. Spread far and wide, it provides no real opportunity for debate or testing of evidence.

Moreover, accusations, even those caked in mud, can be true. Calumny is false by definition. The problem we face is not mudslinging but calumny, an antique word resurrected by the Internet era.

Machiavelli had seen clear examples of the problem. He wrote:

"Whoever reads the history of [Florence], will see how many calumnies have been perpetrated in every time against those citizens who occupied themselves in its important affairs. Of one, they said he had robbed money from the Community; of another, that he had not succeeded in an enterprise because of having been corrupted; and of yet another, because of his ambitions had caused such and such inconvenience. Of the things that resulted there sprung up hate on every side, whence it came to divisions, from divisions to Factions (Sects), (and) from Factions to ruin."

How important is calumny today? In 2000, calumny effectively led to John McCain's defeat in South Carolina. That smear campaign against him used robo-calls and fliers, and e-mail also played an important role, as the New York Times reported in February 2000. Arguably, calumny defeated John Kerry in 2004, and the infamous Swift boat television ads of that summer were, importantly, preceded by an aggressive Internet campaign begun that January that included perhaps the first viral campaign e-mail: a computer-generated image of Kerry and Jane Fonda beside each other on a podium at an antiwar rally. The image originally emerged at the Web site FreeRepublic.com, and Fonda had not in fact been at the event. But the damage was done. Today we are seeing viral anti-Obama e-mails, some of which I have traced to some of the same origin points for the 2000 and 2004 smear campaigns.

Since 2000, then, Internet- and e-mail-based slanders have had significant effects on national elections and have clearly shifted the balance between reasonable and calumnious discourse in a negative direction. In this regard, the Internet has given calumny a new level of consequence for our politics.

Machiavelli offered an account of calumny's threat to free republics: "Calumnies sting without disabling; and those who are stung being more moved by hatred of their detractors than by fear of the things they say against them, seek revenge." We can see these very sentiments in John McCain's response to the apparent involvement of a man named Ted Sampley, who operated a Web site devoted to attacking John Kerry in 2004. (Sampley's central Web site, U.S. Veteran Dispatch, appears to feed some of the e-mail against Obama, and he apparently also was involved in the South Carolina campaign against McCain in 2000, though he certainly has not been alone in these efforts.) As the New York Times reported in 2004, McCain described Sampley as "one of the most despicable people I have ever had the misfortune to encounter." Machiavelli argued that calumny breeds dangerous levels of factionalism specifically by motivating hatred.

But there is another issue at play here. McCain described Sampley as "an enemy of the truth." The problem with calumny is not merely that it motivates hatred or that it is simply dishonest. Even more significant, effective dishonesty -- calumny that succeeds in its goals -- undermines cultural commitments to truth by encouraging cynicism. When lies work, why not lie? Yet when a culture ceases to honor the truth, it loses its ability to preserve law, justice and fairness.

A right to free speech is no excuse for lying. While strongly protected rights of free speech are critical to a healthy democracy, rights bring responsibilities. Citizens should, as a standard practice, take responsibility for their views -- the matters of fact and principle that they wish to put before the public for consideration -- by appending their full, legal names to their expressions, even in blog posts. While there are times and places for anonymity, it should be the exception. Unfortunately, the Internet has brought us to a point where anonymity is the rule, not the exception. Rather than facilitating free speech, this is corrosive to democratic discourse. It's time to rebuild a responsible culture in which people speak in their full, legal names and honor the truth.

Mud we can laugh about. Calumny we can't.

Danielle Allen is a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study. Her latest book is "Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education." She has donated to Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

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