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Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and Stifling of Democracy Hardcover – June 17, 2004
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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.
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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This is a deeply interesting topic, or at least it should be, and Lapham is no slouch. He writes a polemic and goes out of his way to identify the culprits in the matter--ranging from promoters of "PC" talk to Woodrow Wilson. Others have commented on his erudition and his command of facts (or "facts", depending on your point of view).
My problem with this book is twofold.
First, although I share a political viewpoint with Lapham in many cases, his writing is so thoroughly anti-Bush and anti-conservative that this book will have essentially no audience among the "red" crowd. Instead of seeking the middle ground where most American's used to live (neither Republican nor Democrat but rather "moderate"), he writes in a manner guaranteed to stir the blood of partisans on his side--and to be entirely dismissed by the opposition. Hardly a starting point for a debate about preserving the fundamental nature of political discourse.
Secondly, this book outlines the problem and the potential for disaster that exists in any democracy but it doesn't address the remedies that might be applied. Yes, Hitler did a good job of taking over Germany. What approach can stop a demagogue? How can the lap dog Democrats be turned into the pit bulls of individual liberty? (It is strange even to write that: since when were the Democrats associated with the libertarian movement?!?)
Still and all: this book gives you something to think about and a unique approach to thinking about it. If it sets some teeth on edge, well, perhaps that's all to the better. Allowing one side or the other to dominate the terms of the debate ultimately leads to very boring debate indeed. Maybe this is the start of a coherent position in opposition to the conservatives. That would be good for everyone.
Finally, I have to note that the themes and examples presented here have entered into the world of punditry as specific cases to hammer on: a kind of pundit's shorthand for various issues. For example, I read a conservative op-ed piece in the S.F. Chronicle just yesterday that cited Wilson, Thucydides (and the Athenian adventure in Sicily), Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, and several other items from this very book but presented exactly upside-down. It is bizarre to see an rhetorical war break out over the (rather too extensive) footnotes to the argument without tangling with the substance.
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.
In this long essay (parts of which appeared in Harper's Magazine) Lapham spends a considerable amount of time going back into American history and recalling the suppression of dissent by previous administrations. In particular he shows how civil rights and civil liberties were taken away by our government during times of war or civil unrest. He compares and contrasts the historical record with that of the Bush administration. He makes the point that in declaring a "war" on terrorism, the Bush administration greatly augmented its ability to get around the Bill of Rights. As Lapham phrases it, "by declaring 'war on terrorism' the Bush administration had declared war on an unknown enemy and an abstract noun...[which would be similar to] sending the 101st Airborne Division to conquer lust..." (p. 17)
He adds, "We have a government in Washington that doesn't defend the liberty of the American people, steals from the poor to feed the rich, finds its wealth and happiness in the waging of ceaseless war." (p. 165) In general Lapham believes that "In every instance, and no matter what the issue immediately at hand, the purpose is the same--more laws limiting the freedom of individuals, few laws restraining the freedoms of property." (p. 141)
Working hand-in-hand with the interests of property is our mass media, which is controlled by corporate interests either directly or through their ability to withhold advertising dollars. Lapham, who is the longtime editor of Harper's Magazine and an experienced reporter himself, makes a special point of exposing the failures of newscasters and reporters. He recalls his days with the White House press corps: "I could never escape the impression of a flock of ducks--plump and well-kept ducks, ducks worthy of an emperor's garden--waddling back and forth to the pond on which the emperor's gamekeepers cast the bread crumbs of the news." (p. 98)
On the next page he quotes John Swinton, former chief of staff for the New York Times: "There is no such thing...in America, as an independent press...We are the tools and vassals for rich men behind the scenes...Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men."
Lapham sums it up this way: "The media compose the pictures of a preferred reality, and their genius is that of the nervous careerist who serves, simultaneously, two masters--the demos, whom they astound with marvels and fairy tales, and the corporate nobility, whose interests they assiduously promote and defend." (p. 93)
Assuming that Lapham is right, what is to be done? How can we free the press from the corporate influence to the extent that reporters, editors, and newscasters can feel free to report the news as they see it, rather than as their bosses want them to see it? Clearly the antidote to a government that would suppress liberties and stifle dissent is to elect people who will honor and respect the Bill of Rights. But the media is another story since it is inexorably bound up with commercial interests. Lapham does not have an answer to this conundrum. And neither do I. It is a curiosity that the Fourth Estate, powerful even during the time of the formation of the American colonies, is a de facto political force that is not part of the electorate and yet can influence elections. And while it is not part of the government, it can influence government policy.
One feels that as long as corporate interests control the media, the media will continue to be an anti-democratic force in our society. This danger increases dramatically as larger and larger chunks of media fall into fewer and fewer hands.