Gag Rule

excerpted from the book

Gag Rule

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 cities."

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 Herndon

"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 good men."

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."

p 65
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 edge."

"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.

Gag Rule

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