Mute Button,

Democracy in Irons

excerpted from the book

Gag Rule

On the Suppression of Dissent and the Stifling of Democracy

by Lewis Lapham

Penguin Books, 2004, paper


General William Westmoreland

Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind.

The Wall Street Journal, probably the most widely read newspaper in the country, heavily favors the conservative side on any and all questions of public policy, and both the Washington Post and the New York Times fortify their op-ed pages with columnists who strongly defend the established order-William Safire and David Brooks in the Times; Charles Krauthammer, George Will, and Richard Harwood in the Post. The vast bulk of the nation's radio talk shows (commanding roughly 80 percent of the audience) reflect a reactionary bias, and so do all but one or two of the television talk shows that deal with political topics on PBS, CNN, and CNBC.

... the institutional media preserve the myths the society deems precious, reassuring their patrons that all is well, that the American virtues remain securely in place, that the banks are safe, our doctors competent, our presidents interested in the public welfare, our artists capable of masterpieces, our armies invincible, and our democratic institutions the wonder of an admiring world.

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. The trick is by no means easy. It demands the skill of a juggler or an acrobat, but few of the well-paid adepts admit to talents associated with carnivals and fairs. At the awards banquets and on the annual pilgrimages to the mountains, nobody mentions the media's embarrassing resemblance to a chain of cut-rate department stores. Like all arrivistes jealous of their places in the sun, the high-end columnists and anchorpersons cast themselves in the most flattering available light as dignified, professional gentlemen and gentlewomen trading at par value with physicians, lawyers, and professors of theology-and they scorn their clumsy and ill-bred relations who don't know when or how to ask a question in the White House Rose Garden. It isn't that the news media object to displays of immoral conduct but rather that they think it their duty to protect the rulers of the state from the howling of the mob, to preserve (for as long as is decently possible) the precious and expensively manufactured images of wisdom and power. They live in mortal fear of being made to look ridiculous.

Tom Wicker, Washington bureau chief for the New York Times.

In the end we are still part of the league of gentlemen. The people who run the press-particularly the metropolitan, largely capitalized institutions of the press-are part of it, along with the people who run the government and the major businesses and the big corporations .... We don't want to be out in front, to attack the establishment, to criticize major institutions, to be accused of endangering national security ... Sure, someone could write a two-fine memo tomorrow and change the news policy of the New York Times to be more skeptical and challenging of established institutions. But they don't do it, not because they couldn't do it, not because they don't have the power to do it, but because they don't want to suffer more than the minimal necessary disapproval of the league of gentlemen.

John Swinton, the former chief of staff at the New York Times, put the matter somewhat more plainly in a toast delivered to a farewell banquet in his honor at the New York Press Club in 1953:

There is no such thing, at this date, of the world's history, in America, as an independent press .... The business of the journalist is to destroy truth; to he outright; to pervert; to vilify; to fawn at the feet of Mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it and what folly is this toasting an independent press? We are the tools and vassals for rich men behind the scenes. We are jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.

Dan Rather speaking to John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper's Magazine

"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."

As few as nine conglomerates now manufacture and distribute 90 percent of the country's news and entertainment product; three corporations (AOL, Yahoo, and Microsoft) manage 50 percent of the Internet traffic ...

During the weeks leading up to George Bush's presidential nomination in the summer of 2000, the adjectives became more flattering and submissive as he approached the rostrum in Philadelphia, the once ignorant and boorish chieftain from the Texas plains becoming more statesmanlike and wise at every step, until at last, on the morning of his triumphant entrance into the city, the New York Times on its front page welcomed "a man of dazzling charm, tremendous social skills, a bold self-confidence, growing political savvy, great popularity."

The American news media are the product of the American educational system, and their unwillingness to speak for themselves n Archibald MacLeish's phrase, "to resign," even momentarily, "from the herd") should come as no surprise. The dumbing-down of the schools is neither an accident nor a mistake. We are a people blessed with a genius for large organizational tasks, and if we were serious in our pious mumbling about the need for educational reform if we honestly believed that mind took precedence over money-our schools surely would stand as the eighth wonder of the world. But we neither like nor trust the forces of intellect-not unless they can be securely fixed to a commercial profit or an applied technology-and if most of what passes for education in the United States deadens the desire for learning, the miserable result accurately reflects the miserable intent.

No American schoolmaster ever outlined the lesson at hand quite as plainly as Woodrow Wilson. While he was still president of Princeton University, Wilson in 1909 presented the Federation of High School Teachers with explicit instructions: 'We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks."

The pedagogues of Wilson's generation recognized the possibility of unrest implicit in a too-well-educated electorate, and they took it upon themselves to rig the curricula in a way that discouraged the habits of skepticism or dissent.

Among eligible voters in their twenties, only 13 percent cast ballots in the 2000 presidential election; no more than 50 percent believed that voting was important; 60 percent didn't know how or when or by whom the United States had been brought into existence. The official estimate of illiterate American citizens now stands at 40 million, but because the statistics measure little except the capacity to read road signs and restaurant menus, the number is optimistically low. Complicate the proceedings by one or two degrees of further comprehension (an acquaintance with a minimal number of standard texts, the capacity to recognize a tone of irony) and the number of people impaired by a lack of literary intelligence probably comes nearer to 100 million.

As many as six out of ten American adults have never read a book of any kind, and the bulletins from the nation's educational frontiers read like the casualty reports from a lost war. The witnesses tell mournful stories about polls showing that one quarter of the adults interviewed were ignorant of the news that the earth revolves around the sun, about the majority of college freshmen (68 percent) who have trouble finding California on a map, about the high school girl who thought the Holocaust was a Jewish holiday.

The publication of Tom Paine's Common Sense in January 1776 kindled the spark of the American Revolution, but the victory at Yorktown in October 1781 brought its author little else except the prize of unemployment. The incendiary polemic had proved useful to rebellious colonists looking for a worthy cause; so had Paine's binding up of the wounds of American defeat in battle with the composition of The Crisis Papers that were passed from hand to hand around military campfires at Saratoga and Valley Forge-"These are the times that try men's souls"; 'What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly"; "Virtue is not hereditary." The peace settlement killed the market for dissent. Once again understood as a bad career move, unseemly displays of candor reemerged as blotches on the smiling face of ambition; no longer was there any profit to be gained from the circulation of possibly unsanitary truths. To the propertied gentry in Massachusetts and New York, Paine stood revealed as an idealist unfitted to the work of dividing up the spoils-a man too much given to plain speaking, on too-familiar terms with the lower orders of society and therefore not to be trusted.

The reformulated set of circumstances declared Paine's rhetoric superfluous, his services no longer required by the lace-ruffled politicians, men like John Jay and Gouverneur Morris, who feared the "democratic rabble" in the streets of Philadelphia and thought that the newly acquired American estate should be governed by the gentlemen who owned it. Denied political appointment by an ungrateful Congress, the progenitor of the American War of Independence sailed for Europe in 1787, still bent on his great project of political transformation and social change. In England he wrote The Rights of Man, the book in which he sought to give programmatic form to his plan for a just society and which, 150 years ahead of its time, anticipates much of the legislation that eventually showed up in the United States under the rubrics of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal-government welfare payments to the poor, pensions for the elderly, public funding of education, reductions of military spending, a tax limiting the amount of an inheritance. The book appeared in two volumes in 1791-92; the sale of five hundred thousand copies ranked it the best-selling book of the entire eighteenth century and prompted the British government to charge the author with treason and to declare him an outlaw.*

Paine left for France in the summer of 1792, to find a joyous crowd of newly enfranchised citizens according him a hero's welcome on the waterfront at Calais. To the makers of the French Revolution, The Rights of Man bore the stamps of hope and freedom, and as testimony of their appreciation they promptly elected Paine to the political assembly then at work in Paris on the construction of yet another new republic. He remained in France for the rest of the century, arrested by Robespierre's Committee of Public Safety when the revolution degenerated into the Reign of Terror, writing the second volume of The Age of Reason while in the Luxembourg prison awaiting a summons to the guillotine. Together with Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin, Paine became one of the most famous and best-loved figures of the Enlightenment. Napoleon Bonaparte thought him the great contemporary apostle of liberty, fraternity, and equality to whom there "ought to be erected," in every city in the universe, "a statue of gold."

When carried into the arenas of foreign policy, the belief in America's always perfect innocence supports the Bush administration's doctrine of forward deterrence and preemptive strike. The immaculate republic invariably finds itself betrayed, and because it has been betrayed, it can justify the use of criminal means to defend itself against the world's wickedness. American armies go forth into the deserts of iniquity on behalf of all mankind, in order to forestall any upstart challenge to America's unblemished moral sovereignty. The imperialist line of thought was well entrenched in Washington long before the terrorist onslaught of September 11, 2001. In 1993 the Pentagon released a policy paper, Defense Strategy for the 1990s, that had been drafted two years earlier by Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and Paul Wolfowitz. The three authors were then serving as senior counselors in the administration of the elder President Bush; the document acknowledges and accepts America's mission to rule the world, clearly setting forth the theory of domination subsequently incorporated into what became known, in the autumn of 2002, as the Bush Doctrine.

In 1998, while serving as secretary of state in the Clinton administration, Madeleine Aibright asserted America's right to use unilateral force against Saddam Hussein because "we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future."

The ease with which the legislative measures attract nonpartisan majorities bespeaks a politically demobilized society and reflects the grotesque maldistribution of wealth that over the last thirty years has transferred 80 percent of the country net worth to 10 percent of the citizenry.

.. John Kenneth Gaibraith's observation that "the deepest instinct of the affluent, whether in America, Germany, or Argentina, is to believe that what's good for them is what's good for the country." People supported by incomes of $10 million or $15 million a year not only enjoy a style of living unavailable to those with incomes of $50,000 or even $150,000 a year, they also acquire different habits of mind - they are reluctant to think for themselves, afraid of the future, careful to expatriate their profits in offshore tax havens, disinclined to trust a new hairdresser or a new idea, grateful for the security of gated residential protectorates, reassured by reactionary political theorists who say that history is at an end and that if events should threaten to prove otherwise (angry mobs throwing stones in third-world slums), America will send an army to exterminate the brutes. Not an inspiring set of attitudes, but representative of the social class that owns our news media, staffs the government, and pays for our elections.

Whether we like it or not, the argument now going forward in the United States is the same argument that put an end to the Roman and Weimar Republics, built the scaffolds of the Spanish Inquisition, gave rise to the American Revolution. If we fail to engage it, we do so at our peril. It is not the law that takes freedom from us but the laziness of our own minds, the unwillingness to think for ourselves and so resign, even momentarily, from the herd.

Milton Mayer's They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945.

What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret, to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security .... I do not speak of your "little men," your baker and so on; I speak of my colleagues and myself, learned men, mind you. Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There was no need to. Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about-we were decent people-and kept us so busy with continuous changes and "crises" and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the "national enemies," without and within, that we had no time to think about those dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who wants to think?*

... To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it-please try to believe me-unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, "regretted," that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these "little measures" that no "patriotic German" could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

Gag Rule

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