excerpted from the book
On the Suppression of Dissent
and the Stifling of Democracy
by Lewis Lapham
Penguin Books, 2004, paper
As a cure for the distemper of a restive electorate and a stop
in the mouth of a possibly quarrelsome press, nothing works as
well as the lollipop of a foreign war.
George W. Bush
"... there will be no going back
to the era before September 11, 2001, to false comfort in a dangerous
world.. . we are fighting the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan today
so that we do not meet them again on our own streets, in our own
Donald Rumsfeld, June 2002, NATO headquarters, Brussels
The message is that there are no "knowns."
There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns.
That is to say there are things that we now know we don't know.
But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't
know we don't know. So when we do the best we can and we pull
all this information together, and we then say well that's basically
what we see as the situation, that is really only the known knowns
and the known unknowns. And each year, we discover a few more
of those unknown unknowns .... There's another way to phrase that
and that is that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
George W. Bush, Columbus, Ohio
"I think the American people are
patient during an election year, because they tend to be able
to differentiate between, you know, politics and reality."
Paul Krugman, New York Times,
"Suppose that this administration
did con us into war. And suppose that it is not held accountable
for its deceptions ... in that case, our political system has
become utterly, perhaps irrevocably, corrupted."
The Sedition Act passed by the Federalist Congress in 1798 prohibited
"any false, scandalous and malicious writing... against the
government of the United States, or President of the United States,
with intent to defame said government (or Congress or President)
with intent to bring them into contempt or disrepute, or to excite
against them the hatred of the good people of the United States."
Abraham Lincoln, 1846, on the theory of Manifest Destiny, to William
"Allow the President to invade a
neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel
an invasion... and you allow him to make war at pleasure ....
[I]f today he should choose to say that he thinks it necessary
to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how
could you stop him? You may say to him, 'I see no probability
of the British invading us,' but he would say to you, 'Be silent:
I see it if you don't.'"
Just as Operation Iraqi Freedom was not about the rescue of the
Iraqi people, so also the Spanish-American War was not about "the
sacred cause of Cuban independence," and our entry into World
War I not about keeping the world "safe for democracy."
Presidents McKinley and Wilson sought to punish foreign crimes
against humanity, the ones committed by villains in Havana and
Brussels, in order to make America safe for the domestic crimes
against humanity committed by the top-hatted gentlemen in Cleveland,
Chicago, and New York.
Although Wilson, like McKinley, had campaigned
for the White House on the promise of social reform, he betrayed
his presumed principles at the earliest opportunity. Within a
matter of weeks after taking office, in the spring of 1913, Wilson
discovered it his "unavoidable duty" to send the U.S.
Marines to Mexico to overthrow the renegade and evildoing regime
of Victoriano Huerta and thus "to teach the Mexicans to elect
The emergence of the United States as a world power between the
years 1890 and 1920 followed from the domestic political crisis
threatening to remove control of the country's wealth and well-being
from the custody of its newly ascendant ruling class-the passions
of war meant to overrule the motion for economic justice, the
band music intended to silence the solo voices of dissent. Wilson
in 1916 dressed up his presidential election campaign with the
slogan "He Kept Us Out of War," but his actions gave
the he to his words. Not one American in ten thousand wished to
intervene in a quarrel between the British and German monarchies;
even the most feeble of presidents could have kept America out
of the war, but only "a president of uncommon ability, boldness
and flaunting ambition [again the phrase is Walter Karp's] could
possibly have gotten us into it." A British diplomat in Washington
explained the difficulty in a letter to his superiors in London:
"The great bulk of the Americans simply do not believe that
the present conflict, whatever its upshot, touches their national
security or endangers their power to hold fast to their own ideals
of politics, society and ethics." Robert Bacon, a U.S. State
Department functionary writing to a friend in England, reduced
the problem to one of elementary arithmetic. "In America,"
he wrote, "there are 50,000 people who understand the necessity
of the United States entering the war immediately on your side.
But there are 100 million Americans who have not even thought
of it. Our task is to see that the figures are reversed."
The fifty thousand loyalists were to be found in New York financial
circles, among fashionable parsons, impressionable society hostesses,
and Anglophile literary gentlemen.
Rose Pastor Stokes, the editor of the socialist Jewish Daily News,
informed the Women's Dining Club of Kansas City that "no
government which is for the profiteers can also be for the people,
and I am for the people while the government is for the profiteers."
She ... was sentenced to ten years in prison.
Augmented in May 1918 by the Sedition Act which imposed fines
and prison terms on anyone disposed to "utter, print, write
or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language
about the form of government in the United States," the Espionage
Act served as pretext, from the first to the last day of America's
participation in the Great War, for a concerted onslaught against
the freedom of speech, the right of assembly, the protection against
unreasonable search and seizure, and the right to a fair trial.
Nothing was to be said or read in America that cast doubt on the
nobility of Wilson's goals, on the sublimity of his motives or
the efficacy of his statecraft. Frederick Howe, a lawyer allied
with Wilson as both a friend and a political adviser, failed to
dissuade the president from his pursuit of perfect agreement,
and he came away from the conversation thinking that Wilson "was
eager for the punishment of men who differed from him, and that
there was something vindictive in his eyes as he spoke."
The signing of the Armistice in November
1918 didn't rescind the Wilson administration's fiat declaring
dissent a mark of disloyalty and disloyalty a crime. In place
of the German kaiser, the justice Department substituted the Bolshevik
Revolution (the "Hun" traded for the "Red")
and set briskly about the task of arresting individuals with funny-sounding
Slavic names, On May 1, 1919, several homemade bombs arrived in
the mail for prominent government officials in Washington, among
them A. Mitchell Palmer, the newly appointed attorney general;
taken together with the continuing labor unrest in Pennsylvania
and Ohio and a series of race riots disturbing the peace of West
Virginia and Alabama, the terrorist bomb-o-grams resulted in that
year's "Red Scare." Palmer published a popular and bestselling
essay in which he decried "tongues of revolutionary heat
licking the altars of the churches, leaping into the belfry of
the school bell, crawling into the sacred corner of American homes,
seeking to replace marriage vows with libertine laws, burning
up the foundations of society." The United States at the
time harbored a cadre of no more than seventy thousand professed
Communists (0.067 percent of a population of 104.5 million), but
they furnished an explanation for all of the country's unhappiness,
and by 1920 Palmer's deputy, the young but already paranoid J.
Edgar Hoover, had compiled dossiers on two million American citizens
suspected of an illicit relationship with the ideas of Karl Marx.
Without warrants or any findings of fact, the justice Department
during the same thirteen months arrested or deported ten thousand
alien residents (among them Emma Goldman) rumored to have said
something critical of the United States. When the constitutional
question was placed before the Supreme Court, Justice Oliver Wendell
Holmes wrote the majority opinion, approving the arrests on the
grounds that the government may suspend the First Amendment when
the exercise of free speech constitutes what it judges to be "a
clear and present danger."
Walter Karp - The Politics of War
"Americans under Lincoln enjoyed every liberty that could
possibly be spared; in a war [WWI] safely fought 3,000 miles from
our own shores, Americans under [Woodrow] Wilson lost every liberty
they could possibly be deprived of."
During the first months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the
federal government incarcerated seventy thousand American citizens
for no reason other than their Japanese ancestry. Explaining the
maneuver to a congressional committee, Lieutenant General John
DeWitt anticipated the Bush administration's reasons for rounding
up Muslims after the attacks on New York and Washington. "A
Jap's a Jap," the general said. "It makes no difference
whether he is an American citizen or not."
George F Kennan advanced the "messianic concept" of
"the necessary lie," which embraced the virtues of plausible
deniability, the vocabularies of misleading statement, the manufacture
of ideological consent. He set forth the theory of American omnipotence
in a memorandum circulated within the State Department during
the winter of 1948:
We have about 50% of the world's wealth,
but only 6.3% of its population... in this situation, we cannot
fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in
the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which
will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without
positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will
have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming."
Dean Acheson, who later became Truman's secretary of state, in
1947 explained to his associates in Georgetown that the country's
foreign policy must be presented as "non-partisan,"
that any and all political argument "stops at the water's
"If we can make them believe that,"
Acheson said, "we're off to the races."
The preferred "patterns of relationship" presupposed
an American realpolitik strongly turned away from what Kennan
regarded as "unreal objectives such as human rights, the
raising of living standards and democratization."
The young Winston Churchill, a member of the Liberal opposition
in the British Parliament in 1904, ascribed the relationship of
the Liberal Party to the Tory government
"A party of great vested interests
banded together in a formidable confederation, corruption at home,
aggression to cover it up abroad ... sentiment by the bucketful,
patriotism by the imperial pint, the open hand at the public exchequer,
the open door at the public house, dear food for the millions,
cheap labor for the millionaire."
Senator Frank Church (D.-Idaho) (1976) published a report entitled
Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans. The summary
finding didn't mince its words:
Too many people have been spied upon
by too many government agencies and too much information has been
collected. The government has often undertaken the secret surveillance
of citizens on the basis of their political beliefs, even when
those beliefs pose no threat of violence or illegal acts on behalf
of a hostile foreign power .... Investigations have been based
upon vague standards whose breadth made excessive collection inevitable.
Unsavory and vicious tactics have been employed-including anonymous
attempts to break up marriages, disrupt meetings, ostracize persons
from their professions, and provoke target groups into rivalries
that might result in deaths. Intelligence agencies have served
the political and personal ( objectives of presidents and other
high officials ... government officials-including those whose
principal duty f is to enforce the law-have violated or ignored
the law over long periods of time and have advocated and de- J
fended their right to break the law.
The federal Department of Transportation ... proposed to classify
all commercial airline passengers as potential terrorists and
therefore subject-simply by buying a ticket from one destination
to any other-to background investigations that otherwise might
require a court order.
President Bush likes to tell his military and civilian audiences
that, as Americans, "we refuse to live in fear," and
of all lies told by the government's faith healers and gun salesmen,
I know of none so cowardly. Where else does the Bush administration
ask the American people to live except in fear? On what other
grounds does it justify its destruction of the nation's civil
liberties? Ever since the September 11 attacks on New York and
Washington, no week has passed in which the government has failed
to issue warnings of a sequel. Sometimes it's the director of
the FBI, sometimes the attorney general or an unnamed source in
the CIA or the Department of Homeland Security, but always it's
the same message: Suspect your neighbor and watch the sky, buy
duct tape, avoid the Washington Monument, hide the children. Let
too many citizens begin to ask impertinent questions about the
shambles of the federal budget or the disappearance of a forest
in Montana, and the government sends another law-enforcement officer
to a microphone with a story about a missing tube of plutonium
or a newly discovered nerve gas.
The government doesn't lightly relinquish the spoils of power
seized under the pretexts of apocalypse. What the government grasps,
the government seeks to keep and hold, and too many of its reformulated
purposes fit too neatly with the Bush administration's wish to
set itself above the law. Often when watching the official spokespeople
address a television audience, I'm reminded of corporate lawyers
talking to a crowd of recently bankrupted shareholders, and usually
I'm left with the impression that they would like to put the entire
country behind a one-way mirror that allows the government to
see the people but prevents the people from seeing it.