Customer Reviews: Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and the Stifling of Democracy
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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.

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 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.
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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. As the White House officially considered postponing the Presidential election of 2004, perhaps canceling it all together, one's bones can only feel the chill of these two examples, both discussed calmly and carefully by the author.
There is a solid strain of economic thinking woven throughout the book, and one can only conclude that the concentration of wealth and the crimes against the working poor now being perpetuated, can only lead to a Great Depression as the labor economy collapses and the technology economy is attacked by the combined ills of overdue break-down, deliberate sabotage, and a withdrawal of foreign credit. The author makes the point on page 85 that America has elevated capital above humans--capital votes in America, humans do not, in the one place where it really matters: the crafting of legislation that transfers wealth from the individual working poor to the privilege elite that own the military-industrial-prison complex.
Gifted ideas and turns of phrase abound. The author is consistent with others I have read in lamenting the continuing decline of our educational system, designed to create conformist factory workers, and goes beyond the norm in suggesting that perhaps 70% of our national potential intellectual capacity is being "killed" by the mediocrity of our existing educational institutions. I agree with that. Our children survive school, much as we survive hospitals and corporations--our institutions are no longer about humanity and emergence, but rather about docility and conformity.
The author is eloquent on the rise of politics as ignorance aggravated by a sublime arrogance that confuses a commitment to a narrow elite with "God's will," and regards laws as means of "crowd control."
Sadly, the majority of America does not read books. If they did, this book would be motivating people to take to the streets and demand that the core issue in the election of 2004 be that of restoring the integrity of politics, from counting every vote to refusing every bribe. Absent an awakening of the upper middle class that does read and think for itself, the author has written the epitaph of democracy in America.
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on August 2, 2004
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? (there I did it, just when I was totally convinced that nobody on earth is capable of 'one-downing' the grizzled Lapham).

Predictably, much of Lapham's bile gets slathered over the American 'news' media, which of course deserves nothing but scorn. What else is new? The people who will take the time to read this book are newshounds and cynics to a man, already happily singing and playing in Lapham's dour band. If this book were released on CD so that illiterate America could partake of its bitter pleasures, would they? I doubt it.

People like Lapham - erudite, superintelligent, respected in their fields - I wonder if they feel empty and weightless (albeit with all their bills paid) as their copy goes to press. These writers are not going to change any hearts and minds. Lapham will have no fresh faces to cry out, "I told you so!" to after what remains of America's democratic system has been drained, dismantled, and replaced by an abomination of the court, only to control and manipulate illiterate Americans by then reduced to nothing but a horde of savages conscripted to do its preemptive will.

Lapham understands that Americans are too lazy and cowed to be effective at doing democracy any more. In order to get back in the laboratory and continue the grand experiment, we may have to break down the doors that are currently barred and bolted by George W. Bush's secretive and diabolical clan. Lapham calls for a revolution, but be careful, it might get violent! Well, maybe this will come to pass, but literature will not light the fuse. If the American majority allows itself to be coaxed up onto the world-domination bandwagon, then it better be ready to waste a serious amount of lives; it can't happen without a full-on draft. Whether or not America will be willing to allow it remains to be seen.

Except for a few places where Lapham goes completely over-the-top, I agree with him completely - but then, which of his readers wouldn't? Look at the other reviews here, all sung by the choir. Lapham's work is great stuff and makes for very good company. Enjoy it while our democracy goes crawling off into a corner to die for lack of care and feeding. American citizens' finally bidding democracy adieu really should come as no great shock or surprise - as Lapham reminds us, its happened to almost every other country that has ever tried it.

Lewis: trim those adjectives! Everyone else: subscribe to Harper's and get your monthly anti-optimism booster, courtesy Lewis Lapham and his cadre.
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on July 16, 2004
This is a tight little book with a lot of new material. Lapham sometimes tends to recycle pieces from his "Notebook" column in Harpers (which is certainly not bad, because they are so good), but that doesn't seem to be the case here. He once again skewers the absurdity of our show-business politics, laying blame at all deserving doorsteps.
In a time of rabidly partisan Bush and liberal bashing books, Lapham shines through with his historical and cultural approach, covering the deep waters of American dysfunction. Read everything that Lapham and Gore Vidal write, to get a sense of the Republic we have lost.
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VINE VOICEon September 21, 2004
Lewis Lapham's GAG RULE is an extraordinary little book, a breath of intellectual fresh air in a politicized publishing climate befouled by the intolerant and intolerable Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilley, Pat Buchanan, and Sean Hannity on the Right and the almost as intolerable James Carville and Michael Moore (among others) on the Left. In their midst, Mr. Lapham has dropped a pearl, a distant echo to Tom Paine's COMMON SENSE. But this pearl also harbors a dire warning about the future of liberal democracy, a message that needs to be heard and taken seriously.

Mr. Lapham presents his case for the current diminution of democracy in four essay-style chapters. Chapter One replays events from the weeks and months following 9/11, decrying a collective institutional failure of criticism and dissent in the lemming-like rush to rally around the flag and demonize all things Muslim. Lapham's summary of the January, 2002 Super Bowl program is by itself priceless, proving that fact can be just as farcical as the National Lampoon. Chapter Two skewers the mass media mercilessly for their utter collapse as a factual counterbalance to the Bush Administration's propagandists, demonstrating that the suppression of dissent and the Press's willing complicity has been a recurring behavior pattern throughout American history. The Patriot Act is only the most recent of a long series of rationalized programs to limit Americans' First Amendment rights.

Chapter Three turns to a philosophical perspective, exploring the reasons why "honest and genuinely democratic debate" is so difficult to attain in America today. Lapham faults not only the journalism profession but the American educational system, network and cable television, and our growing intellectual sloth. Finally, Chapter Four addresses the Conservative Republican vision of American Empire and their devotion to force and restraints on liberty in the pursuit of ostensibly higher causes. Lapham properly accuses Americans of sloth and indolence, failing to do the work necessary to sustain their own democracy: "It is not the law that takes freedom from us but the laziness of our own minds, the unwillingness to think for ourselves..."

Mr. Lapham's arguments are powerful, and he marshals history and current events persuasively to his cause. His prose is incisive and cutting, a pleasure to read and admire. Two examples:

"Suspicious of low-born historical fact, the Republican majorities in both the government and the media belong to the party of transcendence, imagining themselves as bearers of a higher truth, at odds with a world they never made, captivated by the beauty of ideological abstraction, treacherously arraigned by hideous giants and demonic apparitions instead of by the ordinary interests and desires of other human beings." (pg. 136)

"As a consequence of civilization's war on terror, America gains immediate access to an unlimited fund of unspecific rage. In return for so poor a victory, the Bush administration asks the American people to deny their dearest principles, to repudiate their civil liberties and repent of the habit of freedom. The deal is as shabby as the president's lying photo ops. For the sake of a vindictive policeman's dream of a tranquil suburb, the country stands to lose the constitutional right to its own name." (pg. 89)

Unfortunately, I finished the book only to confront the gnawing and unaddressed question, "So what do we do about it?" Here, GAG RULE falls far short, offering no program, suggestions, or agenda for reclaiming democracy beyond his exhortations not to be so intellectually lazy.

Nevertheless, Lewis Lapham has penned a truly alarming book, one that should strike deep concern in the hearts of Americans who believe in the principles of democracy. Sadly, in a culture now more concerned with Brittany and J. Lo than Lady Liberty, more caught up in who survives on Vanuatu and in Donald's boardroom than in the survival of our Constitutional principles, more involved in fantasy sports and Oprah than in elections, and more willing to be demagogued by Rush and Fox News than read a newspaper and think for themselves (perhaps they are just following their President's example), GAG RULE is unlikely to achieve the readership it deserves. Even more sadly, as past reviews on Amazon attest, it will be read most by those who need it the least and ignored by those who need it the most, including the entire Bush Administration.

Bravo, Mr. Lapham!
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on July 12, 2004
For several years now, ever since discovering Harper's and its monthly essay by editor Lapham, I've looked forward to the magazine's monthly arrival and those always pungent editorials on the state of our times. Consequently, I had high expectations for this book and can say I wasn't let down in the least.
The book, while not huge, is Lapham at his best virtually cover to cover. He's absolutely unrelenting as he ranges across the contemporary cultural and political landscape, drawing amazing connections on just about every page.
The book is divided into four longish chapters, but these are little more than mere formalities, as the tone is seamless from one section to the next. I've read several of the critiques flooding the market in this election year -- "President of Good and Evil" and "Worse Than Watergate" come immediately to mind -- but this book is the best I've hit so far, not only because it's Lapham doing the writing but because his critique is not just of the current Bush administration, but, rather it's a sweeping cultural critique of America today.
While I couldn't recommend the book to the Time magazine or USA Today crowd, I can't imagine others not being challenged and moved by its ideas and its implicit vision of a better America.
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VINE VOICEon October 5, 2004
Anyone familiar with Lapham's elegant style from HARPER'S will need no recommendation to pick up this book. For others, get your hands on a copy and prepare for a treat. Intelligent, wry, clearly reasoned -- forget the politics, the prose on display here is enough to send Ann Coulter off a cliff, should she unexpectedly display any sense of shame. And what Lapham's saying about how we've arrived at our current national crisis is tonic at such a toxic time. He's particularly good (and disturbing) at drawing historical parallels to our present decline. In a perfect world, GAG RULE would knock the political bloviators from both parties off the best-seller lists. In our imperfect world, do yourself a favor. Read it. Now.
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on July 3, 2004
This is yet another example of a cry for help. A plethora of short polemics like this one have been released lately from the heavyweights of dissent; this being the most literate and urgent of the bunch (Nat Hentoff, Gore Vidal, etc.). Lapham urges his readers to remember history and the slowly creeping, barely noticeable, descent into tyranny that occurs from a slothful and deliberately dumbed-down population who are given their daily dose of fear from the mouths of the corporatist state. This apathetic population (he includes himself and other well-meaning but soft malcontents) tends to retreat to the stands to watch the barbarians clash, rather than exercise their duty to directly participate in our liberal democratic republic. He stops just short of recommending outright armed revolt -- maybe it's the twisted flag on the book's cover that keeps him from that final recommendation. Thomas Paine might not have faltered.
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on June 8, 2006
This book tells (in brutal detail) how this [pick your adjective] (as it's hardly an administration so much as a regime) uses, or better to say, misuses, the 'Patriot Act' and 'Homeland Security' to stifle, with the help of the people, and the media (especially), dissent in America. With emphasis on Bush and his people, Lapham tells it like it is. Hopefully, people will read this book and take notice, and create a "debate" in this nation, on the war, the economy, and other importance issues to replace the "monologue" coming from the right wing of the country. People share some responsibility in letting these people (Bush and others) suppress the free expression we are supposed to have, using 9/11 as an excuse. When someone like Ann Coulter can trash the widows and others who lost people on 9/11, but there isn't allowed a rebuttal, something is wrong. This is the kind of one sided and dictatorial view that's pervading the nation right now, and Bush and his people are attempting to suppress it. Lapham Rocks! A must read for most people (of course, right wingers, like Coulter, would vehemently disagree. She ought to be glad she's in a country, so far, that allows her right to be wrong, too bad she doesn't support it.
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on February 7, 2014
This author obviously has research and writing talent and experience. Lapham has achieved many successes in his writing endeavors. However, Gag Rule is suspect.

I looked forward to this reading and was impressed with the research and the author's declared desire to promote open and honest dissent. I tried to enjoy this book and glean valuable information, but was disappointed and the information appeared tainted. It became apparent that every topic, including references to the Third Reich (p. 163), led to criticism of the Bush administration. Bush had his faults and limitations, nevertheless, most discerning individuals increasingly realize that George W. Bush was one of our most open, honest, and altruistic leaders during the past hundred years. Consequently, Lapham comes off as being highly partisan.

I wonder how he explains the current administration and partisans like Eric Holder or Lois Lerner and their methods of stifling dissent of the press and groups like the Tea Party. I defend the author's right and the rights of others... especially the right of expression. But I wonder if Lapham would defend that right for ALL Americans.
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