It is 2024 and I have all but clinched the nomination to become candidate for President of the United States. Suddenly, an old schoolmate from the 1980s emerges in the media with stories of me cruelly kicking a dog and apparently enjoying the sadistic act. This friend - barely an acquaintance of mine today - can vouch for the accuracy of his tale and assures the rapt-with-attention press that this character flaw makes me a dangerously bad candidate. My poll numbers drop for a time and the blogo- and twittersphere are ablaze with denunciations of my monstrousness. How could anyone trust a fellow with the highest office in the land if he abuses poor, defenceless pets?
Weeks later, a small news item appears, buried in the alternative press, clarifying the report of my cruelty: the schoolmate had dropped the leash on his pit bull, the pit bull charged after me, I kicked the dog in the one place it would stun the creature so I could avoid certain attack and I hightailed it home, reporting the incident to my mother, who then spoke with the schoolmate’s parents.
What does the above fictional story illustrate? Context matters. It also serves to highlight that acts committed by an adolescent do not often have a bearing on adult behaviour decades hence. Even if I had kicked the dog intentionally and revelled in the act, odds are I would have come to regret the act at some later point in the future and made amends with the schoolmate. Haven’t we all known people who as children were insufferable in some way only to become fine or even exemplary men and women as adults?
As we have entered another Presidential election season in America, these are the kinds of stories splashed all over the news as attempts by one side to discredit the other. The problem with this approach is it says nothing about a candidate’s actual views and policy positions. Whenever I hear about such things, my first reaction is: so what? I don’t care what a 60-year-old man did at age 15. I do care what he intends to do about the runaway spending in Washington and the increasing statism in general. I want to know what principles of government he advocates and how he plans to implement them.
Many years ago, I listened to a lecture countering the validity of showing starving children in faraway countries on TV. The essence of the lecture was that a picture is not an argument. The fact that some people are starving in Somalia, for example, says nothing about why that is so. It says nothing about why some countries stagnate for generations in grinding poverty whilst others progress rapidly and their citizens are able to lift themselves out of their miserable states and achieve great things.
And so it goes with contemporary smear campaigns during election season. A smear is not an argument. It is only a grown-up’s temper tantrum writ large. As such, I treat those tantrums for what they are: irrelevant ramblings of the irrational. If I want to know where a candidate stands on a panoply of issues, I go to the source. I don’t wait for the press to spoon feed me horror stories of dog kicking.
One of the great lessons my dad taught me was always to be sceptical of what the press presents as news. The more outlandish the story, the more likely it’s mudslinging. To my readers I suggest: do your due diligence and never let anyone else tell you how to judge a candidate. Oh, and in my fictional universe, I did clinch the nomination.