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Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and Stifling of Democracy Hardcover – June 17, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Lapham, editor of Harper's, plays the role of a modern-day Tom Paine, propelling stinging criticisms and scathing indictments at the Bush administration and its supporters for what he claims are their bald-faced deceptions about the justifications for the war in Iraq and for establishing policies—especially the USA Patriot Act—he sees as aimed at silencing dissent about its policies and the war in Iraq. Lapham argues that the muting of dissenting voices has contributed to the erosion of democracy, because policy disagreements form the heart of a democratic republic. Most disturbing, says Lapham, is the complicity of the media in its support of the steady erosion of individual civil liberties in the name of national security. Lapham also levels forceful criticism at our educational system: "An inept and insolent bureaucracy armed with badly written textbooks instills in the class the attitudes of passivity, compliance, and boredom." This, charges Lapham (30 Satires; Theater of War; etc.), results in schools producing citizens who blindly accept the pronouncements of their leaders. The United States, he points out in a strong historical sketch, has a deep history of quashing dissent when politicians have raised alarms over perceived threats to the well-being of the country, most notably with the Sedition Act of 1798, the Espionage Act of 1917 and, he asserts, the Patriot Act. Lapham's compelling book reminds us that "democracy is an uproar, and if we mean to engage the argument about the course of the American future let us hope that it proves to be loud, disorderly, bitter and fierce."
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

In four chapter-essays, Lapham returns to the large theme he has addressed throughout his long, distinguished tenure as editor of Harper's: the slow but frightening consolidation of power by an oligarchy comprising the administration in power, big business, and the mainstream media. Neither particularly rightist nor leftist--the author's essays on Bill Clinton's administration are no less withering than his essays on George W. Bush's--Lapham does express particular alarm at what he perceives as the Bush administration's sense of self-righteousness: "They bring to Washington the certain knowledge that they can do no wrong." Who is ultimately responsible for this shift? "The successful operation of a democracy relies on acts of self-government by no means easy to perform," Lapham offers, "and for the last twenty years [the American public] has been unwilling to do the work." As with Lapham's many other writings, this book presents challenges worth facing. Alan Moores
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The; First Edition edition (June 17, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594200173
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594200175
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,591,721 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 4, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Lapham is addressing what I think is a serious threat to American democracy, namely the suppression of dissent and the curtailment of civil rights. It comes in two forms: one is pressure from government and corporate interests on media and citizens to behave in a way that furthers corporate interests; and the other is from the news media and ourselves, acted out in the form of prior censorship. Thus the quote from Dan Rather: "We begin to think less in terms of responsibility and integrity, which get you in trouble...and more in terms of power and money...Increasingly anybody who subscribes to the idea that the job is not to curry favor with people you cover...finds himself as a kind of lone wolf...Suck-up coverage is in." (p. 99)

Media mavens know what their corporate bosses want to hear, and they are loath to go against them. After all, their jobs are at stake. So even though reporters and newscasters may be middle of the road or even left-leaning types, their public utterances tend to be in line with what their corporate bosses want to hear. And as citizens we also know what our government and our bosses consider right behavior, and sometimes some of us are afraid to go against their wishes because, as Lapham points out, we might be found out. With surveillance cameras on street corners and camera crews filming protest demonstrations, there is a very real chance that protestors will be caught on film. How would such a photo look alongside a resumé? is what some people ask themselves; and, in consequence, they stifle themselves. In chat rooms and discussion boards we often see people using nicknames so that their utterances and their real world personalities cannot be readily connected.
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Format: Hardcover
This is an elegant essay, possibly the best single individual work I have read within the 475+ non-fiction books on national security and global issues including the future of America. It absolutely must be read in conjunction with Peter G. Peterson's "Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can do About It" as well as Tom Atlee's "The Tao of Democracy" and Bill Moyers' "Doing Democracy."
Steeped in history and the relationship of dissent to democracy, the author provides a down-to-earth yet erudite condemnation of the ease with which America was led to war on Iraq by a small group of individual who were able to silence Congress, the media, and all other public interest organizations. From the first chapter to the last, the author follows the Will and Ariel Durant method of balancing easy to read general comments with equally easy to read detailed footnotes. Early on he singles out Nancy Pelosi and Robert Byrd as being among the few that stood up to the falsehoods and were grounded in reality, speaking out with integrity and courage.
Two comparisons are drawn by the author between the Bush Administration's abuse of the law and their control, and the past: the American past, when the Sedition Act was used to jail dissenters and subvert new immigrant voters; and the German past, when Hitler and Goering pulled off a gradual castration of free voice and vote with incremental steps, all done gradually, incrementally, inconspicuously, until suddenly a state of totalitarian rule existed.
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28 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Michael S. Scheibinger on August 2, 2004
Format: Hardcover
In another characteristically bleak journey down into the depths of his adjective-laden dark side, Lewis Lapham develops his thesis that the politically slothful and intellectually comatose citizens of the United States of America are about to forfeit their dwindling democracy due to general ignorance and a pervasive lack of participation. The usual culprits are here for the blaming: the failings of public education, the media, political extremists on both sides of the equation, apathy, the general ignorance of historical precedent as harbinger, etc. Lapham lays it down in his own inimitable and slightly awkward style, and as usual, his stance is firmly grounded in fact and perfectly logical and believable.

The George W. Bush administration is horrifying and monstrous, but not so horrifying that it doesn't have any historical parallels in U.S. politics. While McCarthyism is an obvious and convenient comparison, closer parallels can be drawn with Woodrow Wilson's administration (corporate hegemony, war as diversionary tactic, the stifling of dissent, all on a grand scale), and this is all entertainingly called out by Lapham, which makes for interesting reading.

Lapham blames public education for illiteracy in America, which he extrapolates out to those individuals reading and comprehending at a level slightly higher than 'functional' ("street signs and restaurant menus"), and estimates to be about 1/3 of the population. While our educational system does suck, I would like to see more causal emphasis placed on families - a topic that Lapham doesn't touch in this book. America's educational sorting machine is completely useless and superfluous, and is no longer even salvageable enough to be the focus of any real attention or concern, or even ridicule, so why bother?
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