Spinsanity: Countering rhetoric with reason
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Suppressing Dissent At Home, Fighting for Freedom Abroad?

By Brendan Nyhan (brendan@spinsanity.org)
September 24, 2001

As the United States embarks on a campaign against international terrorism abroad, it is important that we carefully consider what such a conflict could mean for our freedoms here at home. Wars often give rise to conditions of secrecy and suppression of dissent that are antithetical to democracy. While secrecy in particular is necessary to a certain extent, it is crucially important that we do not let democratic debate be silenced, as some commentary has implicitly encouraged and even, in one case, directly advocated.

"Moral equivalence" and other attacks on dissent

Though public support for the Bush administration's anti-terrorism campaign is extremely high, pro-war commentators have been merciless in their attacks on the few vocal dissenters. The main criticism offered is that these dissenters express a view of "moral equivalence", which is allegedly a belief that, as a result of America's previous foreign policy, we "had it coming". Critics also call this "the cycle of violence" argument or "blame America first". See, for example, John O'Sullivan, Cal Thomas, Don Feder and the Democratic Leadership Council.

An example of the type of argument that is being criticized is an article by John Pilger in Britain's New Statesman:

Far from being the terrorists of the world, the Islamic peoples have been its victims - that is, the victims of American fundamentalism, whose power, in all its forms, military, strategic and economic, is the greatest source of terrorism on earth...

This conflates possible analytical causes of the attack - all speculative and unproven, especially at this point - with moral responsibility. It is legitimate to argue that US policy was a possible cause of this attack, but it is morally abhorrent to most people to argue that we therefore deserved this, or that such a murderous response was somehow inevitable.

However, criticism of arguments like Pilger's is often widely over-generalized by pro-war commentators in order to delegitimize most or all dissent. Only a few Americans have expressed similar views at the national level. Moreover, it is not accurate to argue that everyone who opposes the war holds views that could be described as "blame America first" or "moral equivalence". Pacifists, for example, oppose military retaliation as a matter of principle. It cannot be reasonably inferred that they therefore believe in "moral equivalence".

A common subtext: dissent helps the enemy

Many of these attacks imply that dissent itself is a direct threat to US interests. Don Feder creates a strawman of pacifist liberals and calls it a "cult of national suicide". The Democratic Leadership Council says that "[d]enying the United States the right of self-defense out of sentiment for peace could be quite literally suicidal." And Thomas, after comparing "the blame America first crowd" to a military campaign, says "[t]oo many native-born Americans, and some immigrants" do not share his views of America - "to their shame and, increasingly, to our peril".

Such aggressive rhetoric, particularly that used by Feder and Thomas, can have a chilling effect on free speech by implying that dissent puts America at risk. Far from it - it is the foundation of our freedom. If we are to wage a war consistent with our values, it must be based on a foundation of democratic support that is well-considered.

Andrew Sullivan's "fifth column" and functional reasoning

Among major national pundits, Andrew Sullivan has crossed this line most clearly. As Ben Fritz and I have documented, he has twice suggested that opponents of the war will mount a "fifth column", a term which Mirriam-Webster Online defines as "a group of secret sympathizers or supporters of an enemy that engage in espionage or sabotage within defense lines or national borders".

In fact, Sullivan has stated several times that he believes dissent aids the enemy. Consider part of his disingenuous defense of the term "fifth column", for example - "I have no reason to believe that even those sharp critics of this war would actually aid and abet the enemy in any more tangible ways than they have done already" (emphasis mine). He also approvingly quoted this George Orwell statement from 1941 on his website: "In so far as it hampers the British war effort, British pacifism is on the side of the Nazis."

This is completely unfair. It employs what we call "functional reasoning", a tactic which links a political opponent to the cause of a disfavored leader, country or political figure, whether it be Saddam Hussein, Russia or Osama bin Laden. There need not be any indication of intent - the only pretext is that the dissenter supposedly holds the same opinion of a policy that [insert bad guy here] presumably would. One can construct such associations almost at will in the complex world of foreign policy. In this case, the argument simply asserts that a military campaign is superior by definition - an important point that should be at least open to debate - and then attempts to heap scorn on its target using cheap rhetorical tactics.

It's worth noting that Sullivan has openly advocated dishonest rhetorical strategies in the past. In May, he defended the pervasive dishonesty of the Bush administration on budget and tax issues, writing in the New Republic that "a certain amount of B.S. is necessary for any vaguely successful retrenchment of government power in an insatiable entitlement state". Now, it appears, a lot of B.S. is needed to suppress even the possibility of anti-war dissent.

Advocating direct suppression of dissent

In the current atmosphere, regrettably, it is only a short step from the above commentary to arguments that directly advocate shutting down debate. So far, this has been rare, but there are troubling signs.

Most frightening is an article on the website of David Horowitz's Front Page Magazine that is ominously titled "America's Enemies Rally at UNC-Chapel Hill". It attacks a "teach-in" held at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC). According to the authors, "[t]he panelists stepped forward with one Anti-American libel after another" (the primary definition of libel is a civil statute prohibiting defamatory writing or representation). It was, they argue, a "shameful example of how state-funded universities are responding to the deadliest terror attacks in our nation's history." A box at the end of the article tells readers how they can try to suppress or intimidate any such future protests - "Tell the good folks at UNC-Chapel Hill what you think of their decision to allow Anti-American rallies on their state-supported campus. Chancellor James Moeser can be reached at ..."

Universities are centers of thought and debate in a free society. Calls to suppress speech on campus are therefore an extremely grave matter. Surely, Horowitz, who has made a career of railing at perceived left/liberal dominance of academia, would understand this principle, since he has spent so much time arguing on its behalf. Recently, in fact, he staged a stunt in which he promoted an ad opposing reparations for slavery to demonstrate that many campus newspapers would not publish it - evidence, he argued, that conservative views are suppressed on campus. But this article, on its face, is far worse. Trying to use the power of the state to suppress speech goes far beyond any independent decisions made by campus newspapers.

Defending dissent

The principle that dissent is an acceptable and valued part of our democracy must be constantly defended going forward. Media reports indicate that the Bush administration plans a long war against international terrorism, with estimates ranging from five to ten years. This suggests that imperatives of unity could be invoked against dissent for years to come, especially if public support for the war declines. No matter what one's political beliefs, it is crucial that we stay true to our values of open and rational debate during this conflict.

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Related links:
-Andrew Sullivan's "fifth column" rhetoric (Brendan Nyhan, 9/20)
-Is Rational Discourse Another Casualty of Tuesday's Attacks? (Ben Fritz, 9/17)
-Andrew Sullivan says deceive the public (Brendan Nyhan, 5/7)

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