|Newsweek, April 21 Issue
The Last Word
Sounds of Silence
lesson in American history: each time the United States
becomes imperial, it betrays the very keystone upon which its
Last month a United Way
chapter in Florida disinvited the actress Susan Sarandon from a
fund-raising luncheon at which she’d agreed to speak. This was scarcely
surprising. Many charities are happy to use celebrities to attract donors
to their events, but they like them to be as decorative and inoffensive as
the flower centerpieces. And with war looming, the Oscar-winning actress,
who has been outspokenly liberal on a variety of social issues and
consistently critical of the invasion of Iraq, must have suddenly seemed
akin to a cactus.
It was an early salvo in the difficult and painful war here at
home. The rules of engagement were clear. If you had early doubts about
the use of American power in Iraq, you should sit down and shut up because
you might imperil the eventual result. If you continued to have doubts
about our foreign policy while the war was ongoing, you should sit down
and shut up because you were giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
And, trust me, if you still have doubts about the wisdom of
unilateral action now, you should sit down and shut up because we won.
Never mind if you are asking yourself why a nation we were told
was lousy with chemical and biological weapons never used them during a
punishing bombardment. Never mind if you are asking yourself why the
oft-invoked but never factually supported ties between Saddam and Al Qaeda
didn’t lead to the predicted terrorist attacks in the United States.
Sit down, you’re rocking the boat.
The bright side of this is that it offers a valuable lesson in
American history. Each time the United States becomes imperial it betrays
the very keystone upon which its greatness rests. It suppresses dissent
and suggests that national interest is more important than free speech. In
the wake of its primacy after World War II, this became so pernicious that
lives were ruined, not only by Communist Party membership, but also by
thirdhand suggestions of it. Only a decade that put the lid on discourse
as tightly as the ’50s did could have exploded into the free association
of the ’60s.
The division between those who support the Iraqi war and those who
do not has become an unbridgeable ravine of accusation and name-calling,
as fraught an issue as this country has had since it first discovered
abortion. The greatness of America is almost unrecognizable in the
resulting maelstrom. Its most basic principles are mangled, when, in
places like Albany, N.Y., a man is arrested at a mall for wearing a T
shirt with the Biblical legend PEACE ON EARTH on the front and the musical
legend GIVE PEACE A CHANCE on the back. (The mall has a policy that bans
patrons from wearing clothing “with slogans that may incite a
disturbance.” Let’s hope no one ever comes in with a shirt that reads FREE
BEER IN THE FOOD COURT.)
The all-purpose accusation against dissenters is that they are
“unpatriotic,” which is deeply ironic since those first patriots are
celebrated for rebelling against government policies they considered
wrong. Children learn of the greatness of those who spoke out against the
policies of George III, then hear vilified those who do not agree with
George W. How confusing. Almost as confusing as seeing your parents glued
to “Access Hollywood” and then hearing them complain they can’t understand
why celebrities believe anyone would pay attention to anything they have
If the free exchange of ideas is temporarily suspended in the
interest of “supporting our troops” (as though all soldiers are also of
one mind about foreign policy), then what is the gift we bring to the
Iraqi people? Old Navy fleece? Stuffed-crust pizza? Much of what we have
to export as a nation is similarly transient, except for this: the right
to elect leaders, to watch what they do through the vehicle of a free
press, and then, if we choose, to damn them for doing it, in coffeehouses,
at home, from the steps of the courthouse or the statehouse, in private
and in public, too. If there is any justification for an imperial America,
it is because this is the jewel in its crown.
week the war at home continued unabated; the president of the National
Baseball Hall of Fame, a former Reagan assistant press secretary, canceled
an anniversary screening of the film “Bull Durham” because it stars
Sarandon and her equally uncompliant companion, Tim Robbins. In a letter,
he made the incendiary, baseless and, given his past life, clearly
partisan accusation that the failure of the two actors to go along with a
policy they cannot support puts American soldiers in harm’s way.
“May we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.” A
line from Robbins’s irate reply to the baseball guy? Nah, it’s Eisenhower
at a time when the Constitution was mutilated by McCarthy and his minions,
and dissent and subversion were constantly confused. And so it is in our
time. If, in the shadow of the unilateralist power niche the United States
will occupy in the foreseeable future, its citizens are pressured by their
government, their communities and their neighbors to speak with one
cautious voice, we will have saved Iraq and damned ourselves. In a
democratic society, the only treason is silence.
© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.