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    The death of dissent

    Playing for keeps in the marketplace of ideas

    By BILL DURYEA, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 20, 2003


    A brief timeline of a recent skirmish on the front lines of political dissent in America:

    April 10: The National Baseball Hall of Fame cancels an event commemorating the 15th anniversary of the movie Bull Durham, saying the vocal antiwar stance of two of its stars, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, "ultimately could put our troops in more danger."

    Robbins insists he had no intention of addressing the war at the event.

    April 11: Roger Kahn, author of The Boys of Summer, cancels his scheduled appearance at the Hall of Fame in protest.

    "You are choking freedom of dissent," Kahn writes to Dale Petroskey, the hall's president. "How ironic. In theory, at least, we have been fighting this war to give Iraqis freedom of dissent. But here you, through the great institution you head, have moved to rob Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and (writer-director) Ron Shelton of that very freedom."

    April 14: Ron Shelton appears on the Jim Rome Show to defend his former cast members. "Baseball is the only game that honors the tradition of dissent to the extent that the game stops until the argument is resolved," he says.

    April 15: Robbins speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, honoring an invitation made before the Bull Durham incident. The United States has become a "rogue state," he says. "Basic inalienable rights, due process, the sanctity of home have been quickly compromised in a climate of fear."

    Same day: Robbins' remarks are replayed extensively and with disdainful commentary by conservative talk radio hosts. Rush Limbaugh says, "Good. You should be afraid."

    Meanwhile, the National Press Club begins to receive an unusually high number of e-mails critical of the club for "pandering to the likes of Tim Robbins" and questioning why someone who does not represent the 70 percent of Americans who support the war would be given a platform at all.

    * * *

    There you have it, a week's worth of national debate about whether there is too little national debate. Dissent has become an American fixation of late. As a catalyst for ad hominem diatribes -- on talk radio, in newspaper columns, at dinner parties -- it is second only to the war itself.

    The Bull Durham dust-up is exemplary for several reasons: disingenuously high-toned rhetoric about the need to avoid divisiveness, lightning-quick mobilization on both sides and something else, a bloodthirstiness. The aim of the public debater these days is not simply winning the argument but annihilating the opponent.

    The war has brought most debate to a new level of shrillness, but shock and awe has been a weapon in the quiver of most successful spinmeisters (no matter their political bent) for some time now. It no longer suffices to say someone's opposition to affirmative action is wrong; it is racist and if the person saying it happens to be black, like Ward Connerly, then he's an Uncle Tom.

    The Dixie Chicks say they're embarrassed to come from the same state as the president and a nationwide boycott of their music is organized. John Kerry, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts and a decorated Vietnam veteran, calls for "regime change" in the White House and he is labeled a traitor. A Lutheran minister who dared to criticize the war in a California town with a large population of U.S. Marines is heckled by townspeople; "Why don't you leave America now!" one sign reads.

    The question is whether these incidents express something healthy -- the majority of Americans' choice not to buy a particular viewpoint in the marketplace of opinion -- or something sinister: a concerted effort to make troublesome opinions and those who hold them disappear.

    Is the debate proof of the Bill of Rights' enduring robustness, or is the public happily ceding its constitutional liberties to a government that critics warn is bent on amassing dangerous and unprecedented investigative powers?

    "I don't think dissent is dead," says John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a law group in Charlottesville, Va., dedicated to civil rights protection that backed Paula Jones in her sexual harassment suit against President Clinton. "Do I think it's in peril? Yes."

    A man wearing an antiwar T-shirt in a Syracuse, N.Y., mall is arrested for trespassing. "Free speech zones" -- protest areas far removed from the scene of the event -- are commonplace. New York police question protesters they arrest about what books they read.

    "That puts a chilling effect on people demonstrating," Whitehead says.

    Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at National Review, rates our civil liberties at 9.5 on a scale in which 10 represents unfettered freedom. "We're always pretty much close to there," he says.

    "There's a difference between saying I'm going to smash all my Dixie Chicks CDs and getting a rule passed saying no one can say a certain thing," he says. "I just think that part of the price of living in a free society is having to listen to the foolish rantings of Tim Robbins."

    If Ponnuru and Whitehead were doctors whom you'd consulted, you wouldn't know whether to wheel yourself into surgery or go home and pour yourself a scotch. But there is one thing the two agree on: The standard of public discourse has changed since Sept. 11.

    "There is a fear that is rampant in this country that makes people fall in line more easily," Whitehead says. "People are afraid to speak out."

    But what Whitehead calls fearfulness, Ponnuru hails as a welcome sobriety in a country where most of what passes for serious commentary "adds nothing to the debate." As an example he mentioned Bill Maher, the former host of Politically Incorrect.

    During the 90s, Maher had made a name for himself debunking the pieties of both ends of the political spectrum. Weary of kowtowing to political correctness, the country seemed to welcome Maher's no-holds-barred style of commentary.

    But then Maher offered this take on the hijackers: "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building -- say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."

    To say anything even remotely complimentary about the hijackers seemed beyond the pale for most. The furor was so widespread White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was asked to comment. "It's a terrible thing to say and it's unfortunate. They're reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is."

    Maher apologized, but his show was canceled several months later. By that time, the public had already identified a new, and entirely contextual, standard for acceptable dissent. Call it the "Yes, but" standard -- "Yes, I believe in free speech, but now's not a good time."

    For some a critical moment in the evolution of this standard came several months later, when Attorney General John Ashcroft testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In his prepared remarks he responded to growing concerns that the government was trampling civil liberties in pursuit of terrorists.

    "To those who pit Americans against immigrants, and citizens against noncitizens; to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil," he said.

    Nineteen months later, that sentiment echoed in the letters page of this newspaper following the cancellation by the United Way of Tampa Bay of an event where Susan Sarandon (Tim Robbins' longtime partner) was to be the featured speaker.

    "Although I have mixed feelings about the Iraq war and I believe in dissenting," wrote Frank B. Hill of Homosassa, "I believe there is a time and place for it."

    One might ask, though, if we're engaged in an open-ended war with a shadowy stateless adversary, a war that in theory could go on for decades, when exactly will it be okay to speak out?

    Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, says dissent is never more needed than "when government is taking action that is risking lives of our youth, let alone the lives of innocent civilians.

    "That's when dissent rises to the level of patriotic duty," he says.

    * * *

    But there is a tradition as old as the nation itself for curtailing the rights of dissent during national crisis.

    In 1798, the government passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made it illegal to say malicious things about the government. One of the law's primary targets was Thomas Jefferson, the head of the Republican Party. The ink was barely dry on the Bill of Rights and already we were targeting one of the Founding Fathers.

    During the Civil War President Lincoln, worried that the Union was on the verge of disintegration, suspended habeas corpus, a pillar of English common law that prevents the government from detaining people without justification. He disregarded the Supreme Court's challenge and it wasn't until after the war that his decision was overturned.

    Yet even with those precedents, some argue that actions of the Bush administration since Sept. 11 represent a more serious threat. They cite the USA Patriot Act, which lowered the wall separating foreign surveillance and domestic criminal prosecution. They fret about Total Information Awareness, the proposed Defense Department database that would catalog virtually the most minute transaction of private citizens. (Congress has blocked funding so far.)

    "This government has done more to shred privacy rights than any other government in history because they have the technological capacity to do it," says Nat Hentoff, civil rights authority and columnist.

    Perhaps it is a natural human conceit to believe that the loss of one's liberties is more painful than anyone has suffered before. But Simon of the ACLU argues that with the USA Patriot Act "we are talking about an attack on civil liberties far broader than during McCarthyism or the internment program (of Japanese-Americans during World War II)."

    And now, even before a decision has been made about whether to allow the first Patriot Act to expire in 2005, the Justice Department is drafting Patriot Act II. If passed, the new law would allow, among other things, for 15-day wiretaps without permission from a judge.

    Ponnuru of the National Review says the furor over the Patriot Act is misplaced. "I'm far more concerned about campaign finance reform and the restrictions on political advertising than anything that may have been done to free speech since 9/11."

    But some of his fellow conservatives are not so sanguine about Ashcroft's agenda.

    Republicans in Congress now express regret they voted for the first Patriot Act ("The worst act we ever passed," said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska). Conservative groups such as the Eagle Forum and the American Conservative Union have created a surprising alliance with the ACLU in opposition to the promulgation of Patriot Act II.

    At the local level, 89 municipalities across the nation have created Bill of Rights Defense Committees to demand notification from federal authorities when investigators are acting under the auspices of the Patriot Act in their communities.

    "This is a real grass-roots movement," Hentoff says, "much like Sam Adams' committees of correspondence before the revolution."

    Riven as we are for the moment about where our liberties end and where our obligations as citizens begin, it is worth remembering that the leaders of the revolution were considered traitors by Americans loyal to the king. If there's a lesson, perhaps it's that in the middle of the debate one can never be certain that the dissenting opinion won't later become the conventional wisdom.

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