LOS ANGELES - On the very first page of the new collection Into
the Buzzsaw -- one of dozens of books on the market right now that
fret about the health of U.S. "dissent" -- best-selling Yankee
dissident Gore Vidal reprints a stirring phrase by the 17th-century
English poet John Milton about the clarifying virtues of letting
"[truth] and falsehood grapple." Vidal then adds:
"One wonders how Milton would have answered that spokesman for
President George W. Bush who admonished the press on CNN, 'You
better watch what you say.' "
One wonders indeed, since no Bush spokesman ever uttered those
words. Here is Ari Fleischer's actual quote, from a Sept. 26, 2001,
press conference, televised by CNN (as well as by various other
networks): "There are reminders to all Americans that they need to
watch what they say."
Fleischer's comment, inappropriate as it was, hardly resembled a
threat -- he didn't say "better," he said "need," and there was no
"or else." Nor was it directed at the press -- he didn't say "you,"
he said "Americans," and he was responding to a request for reaction
to comedian Bill Maher's Sept. 17 assertion that U.S. bombardiers
were "cowards" compared to the brave Islamic terrorists who rammed
jumbo jets full of civilians into the bustling World Trade Center.
Two days later, in fact, Fleischer added: "It is always the right,
and forever will be, of an American to speak out. It is always the
right of an American to be wrong."
But by then, the Doomsayers of Dissent were off to the races, and
they have rarely looked back, even as the one-year anniversary
approaches in a country positively roiling with debate over
"Dissent stifled by most media," thundered The Hartford Courant
on Sept. 28 of last year. "Dissent viewed as unpatriotic during
crisis," seconded The Lexington Herald Leader the next day. "Drums
of patriotism drown voices of dissent," the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
concurred the day after. All three headlines, incidentally, ran
above news stories.
The view looked just as bad north of the border. Linda Diebel of
The Toronto Star wrote an article under the banner, "Freedom of
speech casualty of a new war." The Globe and Mail's Simon Houpt
lamented, "Dissent has all but disappeared." Across the media
landscape, Fleischer's criticism of Maher became the smoking gun for
what Cleveland's The Plain Dealer's Washington bureau chief, Tom
Brazaitis, called "the death of free speech."
Yet the pure physical heft of the Fleischer repudiation -- more
than 200 North American newspapers and magazines piled on within two
months -- actually suggested something quite to the contrary: That
the "dissent" reflex against government over-reach was impressively
well-oiled and ready for work, only two weeks after the worst attack
ever on U.S. soil. Further, it also hinted that those quickest to
cry "Censorship!" were among the most distressingly cavalier about
getting even the most basic facts -- such as easily verifiable
press-conference quotes by government officials -- halfway
In the hands of ideologues, crooked facts can provide the raw
material for analysis that looks as though it was cooked up on Mars.
Vidal, who champions a resilient ideology that relentlessly
criticizes America's "imperial" behaviour, followed up his Fleischer
misquotation with this gleaming specimen of hyperbole: "The Pentagon
Junta that rules us wants every sort of power to silence its
critics. We all accept the fact that a contemporary Milton would not
be allowed on prime-time network television ... but he could
possibly publish in a small magazine or write a book never to be
reviewed in The New York Times."
During this summer of torrential leaks casting doubt on the Bush
administration's Iraq strategy, the Pentagon has hardly behaved like
"a small group ruling a country, esp. immediately after a coup
d'état and before a legally constituted government has been
instituted," as my dictionary defines the word "junta." Though it
seems probable that few poets will soon appear on the 20-minute
slots allotted for the evening news on ABC, NBC and CBS, there are
three major 24-hour cable networks that have no qualms about booking
Vidal's ideological cohorts Michael Moore, Molly Ivins and Noam
Chomsky, even the septuagenarian author himself.
Vidal's latest Sept. 11-related tract, Perpetual War for
Perpetual Peace, has been on the New York Times best-seller list
since June. True, it has yet to be reviewed in the Grey Lady (unlike
his previous volume, The Last Empire, which it pronounced "lively,
instructive, lucid and amusing"), but the Los Angeles Times, among
others, gave Perpetual War a fawning review, Vice-President
Dick Cheney's project to invade Iraq.
Anyone concerned about the state of the American Debate need look
no further than the discussion over what to do with Saddam Hussein.
Two months ago, it seemed like U.S. plans about Iraq were the
exclusive domain of Bush's innermost circle, not to be argued about
in public. Since then, it has been all Iraq, all the time, in sundry
U.S. media outlets, congressional subcommittees and weirdo Web
The process, which has featured not a small amount of
administration inconsistency, has rapidly eroded U.S. confidence in
a new war (a new Time magazine poll shows that support for using
ground troops in Iraq has sunk to 51% as of late August, from 73%
last December). In the wake of Bush's inability to inspire
confidence in his Homeland Security and corporate reform schemes, it
is clearer than ever that when Dubya says, "Jump," Americans say,
This probably does not seem obvious to people who experienced
Sept. 11 and its aftermath outside the United States. An alarmed
American friend of mine living in Europe recently asked me to name a
single prominent U.S. commentator who had come out against Bush at
least once. I racked my brain, but couldn't come up with a single
one ... who hadn't.
But there is another aspect, besides nuance, that perhaps only
Americans living here can detect. That is the feeling of having been
attacked. For me, the most notable absence in political discourse
has been the perennial debate, especially during the Gulf War,
Somalia and Bosnia, over whether the United States should or should
not be "the world's policeman." When your tallest buildings get
pulverized, the goalposts move elsewhere.
You might think that an over-extended country, which spends far
more of its gross domestic product on the military than any other
major power, would react to a horrendously effective potshot by
reconsidering its sprawling and occasionally heavy-handed engagement
with the world. But you would be wrong.
The focus here is on preventing another Sept. 11 from ever
happening again on U.S. soil, period. If there is hesitation about
invading Iraq, it is because Americans have not yet been convinced
by the current vigorous debate that doing so is the next logical
step in preventing another terrorist attack.
If they are, Saddam's toast. And Gore Vidal will continue to make
a good living, trying to convince us why that's bad.