Look for the Smoke Machine

You’ve probably heard it before: “Where there’s smoke, there must be fire.” Like most proverbs, it makes a lot of intuitive sense; it fits the balance of probabilities. Follow it, and you’ll be right most of the time.

But not always, as I learned from the same source where I first ran across this proverb: Agatha Christie. Both of her main detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, dealt at various points with domestic mysteries in small villages, which usually featured “spinsterish old cats” (not unlike Miss Marple herself, actually, save for the latter’s complete absence of malice) declaring that Dr. So-and-so must have murdered his poor wife, because everyone was saying so, and “where there’s smoke, there must be fire.” Usually, in those stories, there proved to be no fire at all, but someone else determinedly laying down a smokescreen.

To be sure, those were mere fictions to entertain an evening, but they highlight an important fact: certain kinds of people, and people in certain kinds of situations, find smokescreens very useful. They can misdirect the attention of people who might be watching; they can cover one’s activities; and of course, they can conceal evidence, including evidence of one’s own guilt. And because people are generally predisposed to think, “If there’s smoke, there must be fire,” one can often use them to convince the public of negative things about one’s enemies.

This is, I think, the basic strategy of the Left for dealing with Sarah Palin. Should they ever find any actual fire in her life, you may be sure they’ll pull every alarm they can reach and turn it into the biggest media conflagration in recent memory; but in the absence of that, they’ve settled for taking every chance they can spot, twist, or invent to blow smoke at her. It doesn’t matter whether there’s even the thinnest shred of a reasonable justification for doing so—they’ll do it anyway.

In the latest ludicrosity, they’ve taken her observation about “In God We Trust” being moved from the face of the presidential line of dollar coins to the edge and put words in her mouth to accuse her of falsely blaming the current administration for that act. Before that, they tried twisting Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s words to make it look like he was dissing Gov. Palin. They falsely accused her of trying to force the Iowa Family Policy Center to pay her for a speaking event. They twisted her statement about death panels in the Pelosi/Obama/Reid health care plans. They continue to peddle old lies such as the accusation that she tried to ban books. (And yes, the “they” in these cases usually includes Politico‘s Jonathan Martin.) And the list goes on, and on, and on, and on . . .

Why are they doing this? They’re creating a smokescreen, figuring that people are conditioned to think there must be a fire around somewhere; if Gov. Palin’s enemies can just keep the smoke thick enough around her, they expect voters to infer a fire, never mind that they’ve never seen any actual evidence of one. Meanwhile, those of us on the Right who aren’t in thrall to one of the other 2012 contenders, or entranced by the bright lights of the Beltway media, keep hooking up our fans and trying to blow the smoke away. Which is a laudable and necessary thing to do, and certainly we’ll be hard at it from now through November 2012 and, very likely, beyond. Lies must be fought with truth, and liars must be answered; the sincerely misled must be given the opportunity to clear their eyes of the smoke. It is a worthy exercise for its own sake.

At the same time, though, we need to recognize that our fans aren’t big enough to clear the air; and as such, we need to find ways to make another point to the electorate: watch the smoke. Watch the smoke and realize that it keeps changing—the color and direction are never the same twice. The storylines keep shifting, new accusations keep being made—often contradicting previous accusations. One might start to wonder if all this smoke is in fact coming from the Caterpillar‘s famed hookah, given the way it seems to enable one to believe six (mutually) impossible things before breakfast. Watch the smoke and realize it’s all implication, allegation, suggestion, prediction, and third-hand claims; realize that for all the smoke, no one has yet actually found any fire. Watch the smoke, and learn the real lesson: when there’s a little smoke, or a fair bit of smoke, yes, there’s probably a fire; but when the smoke just keeps on billowing by without a hint of a spark or any cinders on the breeze, stop expecting a fire—and look for the smoke machine.

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