Swift-Boat Them

I first encountered the phrase “swift-boat them” following The Grumpy Economist in a 2009 article smacking down leftist political hack Paul Krugman.  Cochrane concluded:

Krugman wants people to swallow his arguments whole from his authority, without demanding logic, or evidence.  Those who disagree with him, alas, are pretty smart and have pretty good arguments if you bother to read them. So, he tries to discredit them with personal attacks.

This is the political sphere, not the intellectual one. Don’t argue with them, swift-boat them. Find some embarrassing quote from an old interview. Well, good luck, Paul. Let’s just not pretend this has anything to do with economics, or actual truth about how the world works or could be made a better place.

The first chapter of our new project, the book The Constitution of Knowledge:  A Defense of Truth (2021) by Jonathan Rauch, is “A Terrible Statement Unless He Gets Away With It”.  The chapter title refers to Donald Trump’s 2004 interview response to a question on the George W. Bush vs.  John Kerry election.  Rauch’s obsession with Trump is distracting (Trump is denounced on 32 pages throughout the book).  But his overall conclusions are spot on.  Trump and the irrational right are a reaction to the much more menacing irrational, institutionalized left.  Rauch is a journalist with left myside bias.  I am a lawyer with right myside bias.  We both, however, clearly respect and pursue truth despite our biases.  Trump does not – he operates on an ‘all’s fair in politics and war’ basis – trolling and lying (swift-boating) are just tactics – weapons in the epistemic war of all against all.

Rauch’s book (and the next two I’ll cover) analyzes the current knowledge crisis.  He deems the process, norms, the entire system of knowledge production as “The Constitution of Knowledge”, paralleling the U.S. Constitution’s framework, which established our legal and economic systems.  He explains that America is now in an unprecedented truth calamity.  Cancel culture and disinformation are rampant.

Despite Rauch’s bias as a journalist (giving mainstream media a pass even though a lot of it is their fault), his analysis is mostly accurate.  Here’s an article pointing out the book’s shortcomings:

https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/arts-letters/articles/rauch-eli-lake

Notwithstanding its flaws, Rauch’s work is an important addition to the current controversial discourse on knowledge and truth.  That is why I’ll devote the next 7 weeks summarizing each chapter before moving on to 2 more books detailing the chill wind now blowing through reality.

Arnold Kling writes a good review of Rauch’s book:

https://arnoldkling.substack.com/p/on-the-constitution-of-knowledge

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