Gag Rule: On the Stifling of Dissent and the Suppression of Democracy by Lewis Lapham
Gag Rule: On the Stifling of Dissent and the Suppression of Democracy by Lewis Lapham

Gag Rule: On the Stifling of Dissent and the Suppression of Democracy

Jun 28, 2004

Lewis Lapham criticizes the suppression of dissenting voices in the aftermath of September 11th and the complicity of the media in manipulating public opinion on the war against Iraq.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Merrill House Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to thank you for joining us at our last breakfast program before our summer recess. We are delighted to have as our guest Lewis Lapham, who is the author of Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and the Stifling of Democracy.

In the aftermath of September 11th, I imagine that most of us were more than willing to accept some encroachments on our civil liberties in order to prevent another terrorist attack, and I imagine that most of us made the assumption that any government action would be measured and proportionate to the threat at hand.

Yet, as events have unfolded during the past two and a half years, it has become quite clear that America has been compromised by an Administration that, in its haste to strengthen national security, has silenced dissent and limited debate about its policies, especially as it relates to the War on Terrorism and to changes which have affected our civil liberties at home. It is this muting of dissenting voices which has contributed to the erosion of democracy and has prompted the concern of our guest this morning.

While the debate over the loss of liberties has been met with apathy by the press and public alike, in Gag Rule Mr. Lapham makes us patently aware that democracy flies only when individuals are willing to raise their voice against the presumed wisdom of the mighty and the powerful. After all, isn't democracy all about participation in the decisions that shape our lives and having a government that allows freedom of speech, press, and assembly? In other words, it is a joint venture that depends for its success upon both the government and the governed.

Gag Rule is not only animated by a passionate belief in democracy and democratic traditions, but it is informed by history and tells us that if we suppress public deliberation, it will almost inevitably lead to outcomes we as a nation end up regretting.

Mr. Lapham is a well-known editor of Harper's Magazine and the author of its monthly "Notebook" column, which won the National Magazine Award in 1995 for its exhilarating point of view in an age of conformity.

Our speaker is a prolific and accomplished writer who, in addition to Gag Rule, has published a number of books, including Theater of War, Fortune: Child, Money and Class in America, and Waiting for the Barbarians. He is also the host and author of the PBS series "America's Century," and was the host and executive editor of "Bookmarks," a television series seen on over 150 stations between 1989 and 1991.

Unlike many of our country's public intellectuals, our speaker is willing to put his convictions on the line, even when those views question the action of America's leaders. Just as Harper's engages readers to reflect about contemporary politics, Mr. Lapham hopes that by speaking out his message will reach concerned citizens who care about democracy and democratic tradition, inviting an active exchange with those who appreciate what they have, do not wish to see it lost, and are willing to do the work to keep democracy alive and flourishing.

It is with this in mind that it is a great pleasure for me to introduce to you our speaker this morning, Lewis Lapham.


LEWIS LAPHAM: Thank you all very much for coming this morning, and thank you, Joanne, for that handsome introduction.

This is a very short book, and I'll briefly explain its thesis and then take questions.

The book is divided into four parts, the first of which is called "The Audible Silence," and it discusses the reaction in the U.S. to the September 11th bombing. During the following days, in the Washington Post and most newspapers, the reaction was along these lines:

Robert Kagan in the Washington Post: "Congress in fact should immediately declare war. It does not have to name a country."

Steve Dunleavy in the New York Post: "The response to the unimaginable 21st century Pearl Harbor should be as simple as it is swift—kill the bastards, train assassins, hire mercenaries, and for cities or countries that host these worms, bomb them into basketball courts."

Richard Brookhiser in the New York Observer: "The response to such a stroke cannot be legal or diplomatic, the international equivalent of mediation or 'Judge Judy.' This is what we have a military for. Let's not build any more atomic bombs until we use the ones we have."

Ann Coulter in National Review Online: "We should invade their country, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity."

This was within the first couple of days, and by and large that is the response that sustained itself for the better part of two years until quite recently, when events in Iraq have proven that the justifications for the war were built on a wall of lies.

But in the meantime what happened was that the Congress passed the USA Patriot Act within six weeks of September 11th, and none of the members read it. Mr. John Ashcroft has now updated and revised the Act—if you read the very small print, it puts extraordinary peace powers in the hands of the government.

We also know that the Congress within a year awarded to President Bush the powers of a Roman dictator, which in effect said: "You may go to war whenever you choose and for whatever reason you happen to have in mind."

There was some objection, particularly from Senators Byrd and Hollings, also from Nancy Pelosi in the House, but by and large these notions carried without objection.

And then the media began to sell the idea of the American empire. To give you an example of that tone, here we have, on January 5, 2003, roughly six weeks before the American invasion of Iraq, Michael Ignatieff from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. The New York Times Magazine on January 5th had a big red, white, and blue cover, and in block lettering, "The American Empire—Get Used to It." In other words, "This is the season's new style, and we're now going to tell you what that style is."

Michael Ignatieff wrote: "Imperial powers do not have the luxury of timidity, for timidity is not prudence, it is a confession of weakness." A little later on in the piece: "The United States remains a nation in which flag, sacrifice, and martial honor are central to national identity." None of those statements are true, but nevertheless this was the line being sold.

And then, further on down in the Ignatieff article: "Americans are required, even when they are unwilling to do so, to include Europeans in the governance of their evolving imperial project. The Americans essentially dictate Europe's place in this new grand design. The United States is multilateral when it wants to be, unilateral when it must be, and it enforces a new division of labor in which America does the fighting; the French, British, and Germans do the police patrols in the border zones; and the Dutch, Swiss, and Scandinavians provide the humanitarian aid." This is an extraordinarily insulting statement, and it is another of the reasons that the Europeans have not responded as kindly as the Bush Administration might have wished to their adventure in Iraq.

Meanwhile, we have a number of best-sellers from Bob Woodward, who rushed to print with a book called Bush at War; and David Frum, one of Bush's former speech writers, with The Right Man, and the phrases come forth perfumed with myrrh and frankincense. For example: "steely"; "eye of storm serenity"; "casting his mission and that of the country in the grand vision of God's master plan"; "impervious to doubt."

And again, Vanity Fair comes out with a foldout cover illustration, "The A Team," and presents us with Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice.

Then we have Powell at the UN in 2003, who is presenting surveillance photographs of what were purported to be mobile weapons laboratories moving around in the desert of Iraq. He also held up a canister of what I assume to be sugar, and it was being presented as anthrax. All of his statement was false, and yet the media at the time swallowed it in the same way that the seals in Central Park swallow fish. It was truly an act to see.

This is not new in the United States. If you go back to both the Spanish-American War and to World War I, you find similar manipulation of public opinion. The explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Bay is comparable to the Tonkin Gulf incident that helped us into the war in Vietnam, and also the weapons of mass destruction that were supposedly at large in Iraq.

During World War I, here's a letter from a U.S. State Department official writing to a friend in England in 1915. He says: "In America there are 50,000 people who understand the necessity of the United States entering the war immediately on your side, but there are 100 million Americans who have not even thought of it. Our task is to see that the figures are reversed."

And they managed to do so with a very concentrated propaganda campaign. It was said in 1915 that Germany was capable of landing 387,000 troops on the coast of New Jersey in sixteen days. That's exactly comparable to the British intelligence claim that Saddam Hussein had missiles that could be launched within forty-five minutes. Neither statement of course was true.

And again, you have the same jingoistic excitement in the American press both with the Spanish-American War and with World War I. The Cuban generals were the most evil men ever known in the history of mankind, and they were throwing prisoners to sharks and roasting nuns over coals. This was trumpeted by the Hearst Press and also by The New York Times. The New York Times was then, as now, a strong supporter of the government and complicit in the propaganda for both the Cuban war and World War I.

We came into the war in April of 1917. In June 1917, the U.S. Congress passed the Espionage Act, which was even more draconian in its strictures and enforcements than our own Patriot Act. Eugene Debs, who was the Socialist American leader and had received a million votes in the election of 1912, was sentenced to ten years in jail for simply saying that he didn't think the Espionage Act was constitutional, which of course it was not. His sentence was remitted shortly after the war.

An American movie producer in the summer of 1917 released a movie about the American Revolutionary War, which was a totally patriotic film, but in the movie the British were presented as enemies, redcoats. As a result, the producer was sentenced to jail for criticizing an ally of the U.S. during a time of war.

Many magazines were shut down in this period also.

The Espionage Act gave J. Edgar Hoover his start in life. He was an assistant to the Attorney General Palmer. Hoover by 1919 had compiled dossiers on 1 million American citizens in search of disloyal acquaintances, activities, and thoughts.

What we now know as the canon of Western civilization, the Great Books courses that are taught at Columbia and Yale and a number of other universities, was in fact a propaganda device thought up by Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of Propaganda—he actually had that title—whose name was George Creel. The question was how to make Americans understand why they were fighting in France for democracy on behalf of two failed monarchies against another one. And so Creel said, "We must turn the American soldiery into 'thinking bayonets.'"

In order to imbue the bayonets with the power of reason, they came up with the notion of the Great Books. The curriculum was imposed on Columbia. Both Thorstein Veblen and Charles Beard quit Columbia because they refused to mouth government propaganda.

Dissent is difficult in the U.S., not only because of the timidity of the news media, but because of our educational system.

Here again is Wilson, who is addressing a federation of High School Teachers Association in 1909. He was at that time President of Princeton University. He is talking about the perfect American educational system: "We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, a necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks."

This was then a large part of the American educational system. The United States is an enormously rich country populated by very brilliant, energetic individuals, and if we truly wanted to have a first-class educational system we could do it. It is not beyond our grasp. I therefore assume that the condition of our educational system is deliberate, because if you were a politician, why in heaven's name would you want a great many people capable of thinking for themselves? And if you were in the advertising business, you would have the same reluctance to equip too many of your fellow citizens with the skill and ability and power of reasoning to see through the screen of your fine photograph.

The first part of the book talks about the last year.

The second part goes through the history of suppression of dissent in the U.S. It not only discusses the Wilson Administration and the Spanish-American War, but also the Alien and Sedition Acts toward the end of the 18th century, the degrees of censorship that were imposed during the Civil War, the McCarthy period and then the subsequent bouleversement of the 1960s. The CIA and the FBI again had files on many millions of American citizens, but by this time were much better equipped with electronic surveillance devices.

Then Chapter 3 discusses the various obstacles to dissent.

One is the American educational system. We no longer teach civics, we don't teach the story of American history, we don’t teach the necessity of candor, free speech, in the functioning of democracy.

Harper's Magazine some years ago published an examination given to eighth-grade students in Wichita, Kansas, in 1896. There is not one senior at Yale University or Harvard University who could have score more than 30 percent on that exam.

Yale doesn't really teach American history anymore because they have broken it into cultural studies. So that if you are a junior or senior, you can fulfill your American history requirement by taking a course in domestic arrangements of early American Indian tribes or a close study of the art of pewter. It's not necessary at all to read the Constitution or know what happened in Philadelphia in 1787.

Another obstacle is the nature of the electronic media. The electronic media do not lend themselves to dissent. Dissent has a hard edge to it, and this is not something that plays very well on television. McLuhan makes the point at some length in Understanding Media, which was published in 1964, that the habit of mind, the sensibility formed on the structure of print, tends to be linear and people can hold thoughts in their heads over a period of time; the electronic media is passive rather than active, and the result is a circular mush of intense feeling and nothing necessarily follows from anything else.

If you have cable television and 148 stations, or 77 or 129, and you have the clicker in your hand, everything is happening at the same time. You could see a performance of the presidency of the U.S. in eight different variations: you could see Mr. Bush, Anthony Hopkins as Mr. Nixon, Kevin Kline as an ideal president, Michael Douglas, Raymond Massey. In the cable world there is no cause and effect.

You can also see at any one given time news footage from Iraq, old situation comedies, pornography, sports. That kind of environment doesn't lend itself to literate argument.

Democracy is a much harder form of government than monarchy or autocracy, and it requires the participation of its citizens, and assumes on the part of those citizens a degree of literacy. According to the Department of Education, the number of illiterates in the U.S. at the moment is 40 million. And the threshold is very low; by "literate" what they mean is the ability to read a menu, a road sign, and a traffic ticket.

I quote at length from Thomas Paine, who sets up the premise of the American Revolution with the publication of Common Sense in January of 1776. This is the best-selling book in the United States in the whole of the 18th century, and Jefferson borrows quite heavily from Paine's argument when he writes the Declaration of Independence in July of that year.

After the war is won, there is not a place for Paine in the new American government. He is a bit of an irritant and too much of an idealist—a Ralph Nader-like figure. So he goes to England and writes a book called The Rights of Man, which again is enormously popular, and many of the ideas that are articulated in that book are subsequently made manifest in Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s. Paine is talking about pensions, he's talking about social security.

He is declared an outlaw by the British government, and the gentry in London had coins struck with Paine's image and they affixed the coins to the heels of their boots so that they could grind his face into the cobblestones. He was forced to flee, literally under threat of being rounded up and imprisoned.

The poet William Blake gets him out of England. He arrives in Calais and receives a hero's welcome as he comes off the ship and is immediately elected Deputy from Calais to the French Assembly and appointed to the committee to write the French Constitution. He is on the same committee as Count d'Orsay, even though he doesn't speak French.

When the revolution turns toward terror a little later on in the 1790s, they capture Louis XIV and put him on trial in the Assembly. The feeling is for the sentence of death. Paine gets up and makes the first argument that I know of anywhere against the death penalty. He says to the French: "Listen, you've overthrown a monarchy. Why embrace the most vicious aspects of that monarchy for your own uses?"

For having made this speech he is condemned by Robespierre to the guillotine and is placed in the Luxembourg Prison. It's a fluke that he is not guillotined. Somebody put the wrong chalk mark on the cell.

Meanwhile, the Federalists have gained power in the U.S., and they're very hostile to Paine. When Paine finally returns to the United States in 1806, a crowd of Federalists meets him at the ship in Baltimore and pelts him with rotten eggs and tomatoes.

When he dies, he is refused burial in the United States, because he had written a third book, called The Age of Reason, in which he attacks organized religion. This was anathema—as it is becoming anathema again if Mr. Ashcroft has his merry way—and so Paine was not allowed burial in consecrated ground.

JOANNE MYERS: I'd like to open the floor to questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Tom Paine got what he deserved.

As you've listed periods in which there were attempts to suppress dissent, we see how incompetent Americans have been in that process.

You quoted the attempts during World War I to persuade Americans to come in on the side of the Western democracies against imperial Germany. It wasn't until the summer of 1918 that America actually had troops in the field. And even a year later, Wilson totally failed to secure congressional or popular support for the notion of any permanent entanglement in the League of Nations.

FDR, who was certainly very sympathetic to the Western democracies in Europe, totally failed to persuade American public opinion. As late as November 1941, only 21 percent of Americans were prepared to go to war.

Look at the problems that Nixon had in mounting support for Vietnam. What stands out from all of your examples is how extraordinarily poor the record of U.S. administrations has been in suppressing dissent and opposition to government positions. The checks, balances and swings have ultimately meant that those who sought to suppress dissent in America met with no success.

LEWIS LAPHAM: If you go away from New York and you travel around the country, I would find very few people, even in places like Texas and Southern California, who were 100 percent for the notion of the war in Iraq. On the other hand, we are in Iraq, and we were in Vietnam for twelve years. Even though the government did not convince large numbers of the American people, they convinced certainly the news media.

Yes, there may be many people who protest. Before the invasion there were large street demonstrations all over the United States as well as in Europe, at one point 5 million people in the streets of Barcelona, 300,000 people in the streets of Calgary, Alberta—and Alberta is a very right-wing kind of place. But this was totally ignored. The Times played these demonstrations on page 18 and reduced the numbers.

And Bush ignored it. Essentially he said, "I don't care," or exactly what Cheney said to Senator Pat Leahy when Leahy was questioning Cheney about the information that the Supreme Court has allowed him to keep secret.

So yes, there is a lot of discontent, protest and disagreement, but it doesn't have enough effect, certainly on policy.

The government is competent. We have a very large presence in the Middle East at the moment. We are building at least twenty-five large military installations, at the eventual cost projected over time of $2 trillion, in Central Asia. I went to a briefing by an American general a couple of years ago, and he had a big map on the wall as he talked to other military personnel. He said, "Here's Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and Afghanistan," he drew a big circle around it, and he said, "For our purposes we just call this 'Pipelinistan.'" We're spending much more money there now than we are on the American infrastructure.

So the government is remarkably successful, and part of it is because the major news media are the servants of the government. To try to get the ideas that I am talking about into the network news at any point in the last two years has been almost impossible.

QUESTION: A review of the dialogue between the state and attempts at a free press in this country is long, and the tension has been high for many years.

I just got involved in a hair-pull at PEN, a writers' organization, which was crying to put out a statement decrying Ashcroft's Patriot Act for its abuse of library freedoms. The politics of artists are usually very amusing, as are the aesthetics of politicians.

The last recorded attempts to review people's choice of library books was when, number one, David Koresh's readings were of interest to Janet Reno's Department of Justice; and secondly, when an attempt was made to find out what porn films Clarence Thomas had been seeing to make sure that he was an appropriate Supreme Court Justice—I guess there's an approved porn list for Supreme Court Justices.

Where are these horrible problems that Ashcroft has caused us? I understand that there is a historic problem of dissent trying to stay alive, and certainly the recent Pew survey of the press shows a 99 percent liberal bias. If there is a dissent problem, it is in academia and in the media. Where is the government actively intervening to suppress speech in this country under the Patriot Act?

LEWIS LAPHAM: I think you're right. I can't think off the top of my head of a newspaper being seized or a radio station going dark, but it is an atmosphere of what people are willing to say and what people are not willing to say.

Much of the suppression of dissent and the stifling of democracy is done by the media itself. A journalist's education is really the education of a courtier. You have to learn to go along to get along.

If you think of the number of citations in any newspaper any day that attribute their remarks to an "informed source" or "a highly-placed government official," that is timidity on the part of not only the official but also on the part of the journalist. If you agree to publish something from an "informed source" or someone otherwise unnamed, you are at the mercy of that source; you have no real idea whether that source is telling you the truth. We have a very tame, cowed news media.

I have yet to see a bundle of newspapers seized and burned. We're not yet to the point of Nazi Germany.

QUESTION: At the time of the protests in New York against the Iraq war, the crowds were from First Avenue, Second Avenue, Third Avenue, and Lexington Avenue. The New York Times published that there were fewer than 300,000 protesters. In reality, others estimate at least 800,000 to a million.

We are now about to have the Republican Convention. The issue now is that the police will put all protesters around Madison Square Garden into pens, which was the way in which they handled the protests back at the time of the Iraq war. This an example of the degree to which we have moved away from free expression.

There are very strong ways in which the politicians, or the Administration, are able to exert pressure to limit the opportunities for dissent, despite the effect in Seattle. There is little protest of late about the way in which the police will control the opportunity for dissent.

LEWIS LAPHAM: That's a good answer to your objection, because when Bush travels in the country the police arrive two days before he comes to Cincinnati or Dallas, and they set up what they call "free speech zones." They are never allowed within 1,000 yards of the President. They are also put in pens.

It's part of an evolution of attitudes since the Cold War in the late 1940s—the notion of national security, the classification of as many as 20 million documents a year. During the Reagan Administration, the number of government periodicals published was cut in half, on the ground that it was too expensive to give the American people too much information. Ashcroft has a policy of actively denying any requests made under the Freedom of Information Act. These are forms of suppression, of the repeated refusal of the Bush Administration to give out information, to say what they have in mind.

For the press and the media in general to lie down in the way that they did when presented with the specious arguments of the weapons of mass destruction and the connection to al-Qaeda and the idea that Hussein was in fact a imminent threat to the U.S. is an indication of the degree to which our media is working as an ad agency for the government.

And it doesn't matter whether the government is Republican or Democrat. The adoration of Ronald Reagan during the week of his ascent to heaven was appalling. The wretchedness of that Administration, the damage that the Reagan Administration did not only to the broad mass of the American people but to the ideals of the American government—and not a mention in the "piggiographies" printed. Newsweek updated the legend of King Arthur. Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal had him turning to say good-bye as he walked through the gates of Heaven, snapping off one of those cute little salutes that so endeared him to the promoters of the savings and loan swindle.

There you see what has happened to a news media that has become part of the entertainment business. The American media's purpose in life is to reassure the American people that their leaders are wise, their armies invincible, their artists capable of masterpieces. That is not a healthy state of affairs.

QUESTION: I call your attention to a recent piece in The Washington Post on an FBI ban imposed on a New York Times reporter who wants to cover the FBI.

There is another guilty party in all of this, and that is Congress, where I served under six presidents. I was always in the majority in the House of Representatives. But the present situation in Washington, with radical right-wing Republican control of the House, of the White House, of the Supreme Court, and of the Senate, about the only check in the system is the filibuster rule in the Senate.

And in the House especially, Democrats are not permitted to make amendments very often, through control of the Rules Committee. And Democrats in both bodies are denied in some cases service on conference committees between the House and the Senate. This is another form of anti-democratic action, with a lower-cased "d".

Although this is a consequence of elections, I have always felt that a congressman was not worth his salt unless he were willing to spit in the eye of the sitting president of the United States, no matter what his party was. I speak metaphorically.

But now we have, in Senator Byrd, the one person who is most eloquently speaking up in defense of the role of Congress.

I am working at New York University, at a Center of the Study of Congress, of Congress as a policymaking institution, because in a separation of powers system, unlike a parliamentary system, Congress, independent of the Executive, has the capacity to shape and make policy.

In recent years, Congress has been neglecting that role. I would like to see a feistier Congress, no matter who is in control of the several branches.

And so it's not solely the media, but Congress has been falling down on the job. They're not asking the tough questions. They're not engaging in the oversight function, which is a very important responsibility.

LEWIS LAPHAM: I wish I had developed that argument to a greater extent in this book because I have also read pieces on the subject, such as one by Bob Kuttner in The American Prospect explaining how the rules inhibit. It is utterly autocratic in form.

QUESTION: Your cynicism may be overly done.

We currently are in a democratic process of primaries. I don't recall Wesley Clark, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Charlie Rose, Tim Russell, The New York Times, or anyone else not having the right to speak or write in bringing the public's attention to any of the travesties you mention. Certainly someone like you could get a letter into The Times or try to get on Charlie Rose.

LEWIS LAPHAM: Let's go back to the first Gulf war in the summer of 1990, when Hussein lurches into Kuwait, as far as I know with the approval of the U.S. State Department. Be that as it may, he is in Kuwait. Now we are building up the reason for war. The buildup starts in August of 1990 and we bomb Baghdad for the first time in January of 1991.

On "Nightline" between August of 1990 and January of 1991, there were appearances by something like 78 generals. There was no opposition. At no point did you hear people like myself, did you hear Noam Chomsky, did you hear Benjamin Barber. There's a long list of people who could have been invited to appear on the equivalent of "Charlie Rose," and nobody did.

The same thing happened before the invasion of Iraq. I recently went to hear Clinton on a stage at NYU about his new book and about the movie that has been made because of the smear that was put on him in the Whitewater story. He didn't use the opportunity at all to speak forcibly either about the current election or mention Kerry's name once.

Kerry is afraid of offending people, of being made to seem unpatriotic, or fickle. So he's got a gag in his mouth, as do most American politicians.

PARTICIPANT: I would urge people to read Lewis's leading article in the current issue of Harper's, which is a powerful statement.

And second, I recall that it was in this room recently, that I read a statement from 1918 from Theodore Roosevelt, in which he said, "Those who say that it is unpatriotic to criticize an American president in time of war are guilty of moral treason to the American people."

LEWIS LAPHAM: That's a marvelous note to close on.

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