Preposterous Universe

Friday, March 12, 2004

That last post I put up was in a hurry (catching a plane back to Chicago), and it didn't quite form the crystalline structure of unassailable logic that, you know, all the other posts do. So let me elaborate a little. (I could just go back and edit the thing, nobody would know; the technology lets me, but it seems like cheating. I bet Robert Novak wishes he could do that.)

First, why the ad is bad: not because it suggests that the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks were Arabs, but because it appeals to irrational fears rather than making a reasonable argument for certain policy choices. (Probably "xenophobic" would have been a better adjective to use than "racist" in the original post.) It's an emotional cheap shot; those are trite but unobjectionable when they are sugary and uplifting ("Morning in America"), but odious and inexcusable when they appeal to our less-lofty sides.

Second, is it a good campaign strategy? I really don't know. But it does seem to be a little early to be stooping that low. As I understand the conventional wisdom, a negative attack (such as this obviously is) may initially be effective, but over time can lead to backlash. So in the last few weeks of a campaign, they can be quite useful, but at this early stage Bush is going to take so much grief from the ad that it hardly seems worth whatever benefit he might get. Another good question I don't know the answer to: of the people an ad like this might hope to influence (swing voters who actually haven't made up their minds, and mildly-apathetic folks who need to be prodded to vote), how many will see the ad but not hear the accompanying media commentary, and how many will get the commentary without the ad? I'm sure the pros have calibrated this backwards and forwards. (Right?)

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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