Brief history of the political smear

SMEAR: to stain or attempt to destroy the reputation of…


We all know about this stuff!  Every politician, sooner or later, falls victim to its claws. Whether deserved or not, it is always ugly. Even in our daily lives–far from the sordid world of politics– the smear is a common tactic, sometimes friend, sometimes foe. It is so much fun watching the pain and destruction unravel lives when it happens to others.  In truth, no one is ever completely innocent…BELOW are some nice excerpts of an essay on the topic published yesterday in the Herald that I found a brief mention of on Jonathan Rowson’s popular twitter.  Though the essay mostly focuses on some aspects of current British politics, the underlying principles are applicable in any and every country…and I want to thank Gary Kasparov, who celebrates his 52nd birthday today (congrats!) for the inspiration for publishing these excerpts on this blog here.  Gary has provided us all a window onto the inner workings of the much bigger world of international geo-political interests and all of its brilliance, but especially its flaws…


A brief history of the political smear, by Ian Bell

IN 2011, the American historian Rick Perlstein sketched out the anatomy of the beast.

“It takes two things,” he wrote, “to make a political lie work: a powerful person or institution willing to utter it, and another set of powerful institutions to amplify it.”

Perlstein didn’t bother to ask why anyone in politics would want to lie. In the United States, as here, that became self-evident long ago. The risk of public censure is no inhibition when the public are your intended victims. If you have right on your side – and doesn’t everyone? – any wrong can be made to sound excusable. The only important thing is not to get caught.

Deceit in politics needs helpers, dupes and stooges. All categories were no doubt represented in this little affair…Like all smears, this was more than just a simple lie. As these things often do, it involved a kind of non sequitur. An alleged fact justified previously held beliefs. When the allegation began to dissolve, belief, sufficient unto itself, justified all.

The risk run by the perpetrators and those amplifying the lie involved public scepticism. When does a journalist ever fail to question the subjects of an allegation?…So stray facts were distorted, conflated and wielded to prove a falsehood…

Behind the political lie is a strange superstition. It holds that character and trust are everything. The belief persists even when we know perfectly well that successful politicians are not necessarily good or trustworthy people. The lie depends, in fact, on a belief in honesty. It counts as irony: the smear is meant to destroy trust despite the fact that most of us wouldn’t trust a politician to say “Hello” sincerely. The smear says X is no better, and might be worse, than the rest of us…”

You can read the entire essay HERE.


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