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'Death of Dissent' a myth
Refuting the doomsayers
 
Matt Welch
National Post
(Gore) Vidal
 
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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 Iraq.

"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 straight.

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 sites.

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, "Oh yeah?"

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.

© Copyright  2002 National Post


 
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