BLIND MEN AND THE ELEPHANT: THE DANGER OF HALF-TRUTHS

(This piece is written by a San Jose litigator - Dan Do)




You all know the story. When asked to describe an elephant, the blind man who feels the animal’s leg says the elephant is like a pillar. For the one who feels the ear, it is a fan. And so on. What these blind men describe is not totally untrue. They base their descriptions on partial truths.

The blind men have a good excuse for not discerning the truth: they are blind and cannot see the true picture. In our society, however, persons with perfect vision often choose not to say the truth. Instead, they only say half-truths when asked to describe a thing or an event. Because what they say is based on the truth, their statements become highly convincing. These half-truths thus are much more dangerous than outright lies. They expose their recipients to real danger.

During the months leading to the recent presidential election, supporters of the McCain/Palin ticket actively engaged in the dissemination of half-truths. Because he grew up in Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country, Barack Obama was called a Muslim. Because he worked in education reform with Bill Ayers, a former member of a militant group, Barack Obama was accused of “palling with terrorists.” Ayers’s former group, the Weathermen, committed violent acts that could be described as terrorist activities. However, such acts were committed at the time Obama was just eight years old.

Those half-truths about Obama’s faith and association were aimed to deceive the voters and to generate their fear of the candidate. Terrorist acts such as the 9/11 attack were committed by Muslim terrorists. It was easy to arouse the anger of the crowd by the mere mentioning of the words “Muslim terrorists.” The “Muslim” and the “terrorist” half-truths about Barack Obama combined into a powerful guilty verdict (Muslim terrorist) rendered by people who already had a strong prejudice against a liberal candidate as well as against the color of his skin.

As the blind man who believes the elephant to be a pillar, a voter who looks at a single act or event concerning a candidate, will reach a voting decision based on half-truth. The McCain campaign employed this half-truth tactic by either disseminating or tolerating the dissemination of information surrounding one single act or event relating to Obama or his running mate. Blogs and emails containing the picture of Obama not putting his hand on his chest during a flag ceremony were widely disseminated to raise questions about the candidate’s patriotism. A statement made by the vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden during the days of the fall of South Vietnam showing his lack of support for the Vietnamese refugees was quoted to the Vietnamese as the reason for this group not to vote for the Democrats. Pictures of African relatives of Obama were shown in the most unflattering manner to expose the “unworthy” roots of the candidate. The voters were asked to contemplate this type of information in deciding their votes. The truly important issues got lost in the process.

A presidential election demands the careful examination of multiple issues. This is particularly true during a time that the people of this country are facing a serious economic crisis, two costly wars, a bitterly divisive society, repeated revelations of political abuses and corruptions, among a myriad of issues of concern.

Many among the Vietnamese intelligentsia supported the McCain/Palin ticket and contributed to this half-truth dissemination effort. These are mainly members of the first generation of Vietnamese refugees resettling in the US. These members are strongly anti-communist as they were witnesses of the atrocities of the Vietnamese communist regime. They somehow identify the Republican party as the party that fights the communists, and on that assumption give the party their full (and almost blind) support. This probably originated from the strong antiwar stance of the Democrat George McGovern who, during his 1972 presidential campaign, made statements that were offensive to the South Vietnamese regime, and in the process offended the South Vietnamese people. History taught us that the Republican president Richard Nixon and his close adviser Henry Kissinger were the authors of the selling out of out South Vietnam. Yet Nixon continues to be admired by many Vietnamese. Lyndon Johnson who had to abandon a bid for a second presidency term because of his commitment to the war, was never much of a friend or comrade-in-arms to them. Gerald Ford who opened the US border to Vietnamese refugees was highly praised, but Jimmy Carter who established a panoply of refugee assistance programs was hardly recognized for his work. The Democrats who were champions of refugee causes such as Ted Kennedy, Frank Church, and Joe Biden did not receive much affection from the Vietnamese refugees.

The danger of the half-truths disseminated by the overly eager McCain supporters is that, while not succeeding in helping McCain win the presidency, they managed to divide the country into two camps, more distinct than ever before. Barack Obama now appeals to both camps to work together. For the winners, it is easy to reconcile. For the losers, resentment will linger. Those people who were responsible for half-truths will seek to justify their conduct, and again will use more half-truths to veil the truth.

For the Vietnamese-Americans, it is time for them to no longer associate with one party or another simply because of the Vietnamese experience. Such association is a half-truth association, which will only alienate them from the mainstream. They exclude people who may sympathize with their plight, lose them as allies, and thus weaken themselves. They will also face with a skeptic younger generation who is more liberal and has no direct experience with communism. As half-truths have divided this country, a half-truth alignment with a party will divide the community.

As a last note, the rhetoric used in disseminating half-truths during this campaign may germinate into trees that bear poisonous fruits. There will be individuals who remain fully convinced that Barack Obama is a Muslim terrorist and that his supporters are unpatriotic and anti-American. Some of them my be susceptible to violent and irrational acts, and may assume for themselves patriotic duties to rectify the situation, which will lead to tragic consequences. This writer wishes that no person shall take upon himself or herself to harm our newly elected president. We need to believe that this is the beginning of a new dawn, full of hope and good intent. Can we turn our hope into reality? This writer certainly hopes that “Yes we can!”



Little Saigon Inside Epilogue: For those who believes in the empirical science of fortune telling, Obama's fate foretells an unfinished term in office. "Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.", said F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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