Dissent disrupts democracies, yet without it there is no democratic discourse. That point struck home as I watched the Democratic National Convention unfold and realized that the voices of the delegates, the representatives of the common people, had been muffled by the preordained celebrants of the Kerry command. With rare exception, notably Jimmy Carter and Rev. Sharpton, no voice spoke against the appointed incumbent; no voice raised the rabble about the lies that led to slaughter; no voice questioned the silencing of the people behind the curtain of the Patriot Act; no voice damned the administration that dared to impose on Americans the impious “pre-emptive strike” policy that destroys the very concept of Democracy; no voice asked why America does nothing to respond to the silent genocide taking place in our name in Rafah and the refugee camps crammed together in Gaza; no voice lamented the incarceration of the Palestinians by the illegal wall made of hatred and racism erected by the notorious terrorist, Ariel Sharon; no voice blasted the erasure of western law by the acceptance of extra-judicial executions; no voices, not a sound. Why?
Recently I happened upon an apocryphal story told about the Nuremberg trials. Day after day an old man made his way to the front of the courtroom, slid quietly into his seat, and listened attentively to the proceedings. During the Adolf Eichmann hearings, he seemed engrossed in the man. His eyes never left Eichmann, as though he of all the prisoners might reveal some hidden truth that would give understanding to the horror of their acts. One day, with Eichmann on the stand, the old man uttered a strange, muffled cry and fell to the floor in a dead faint. Once roused back to consciousness, he was asked what caused him to faint. He said he had expected to see in Eichmann some visible monstrous flaw that would explain how the Nazis could inflict such pain and suffering on a defenseless people. He saw none. He saw only a common ordinary man like himself, like all in the courtroom.
Curiously enough, what this old man realized captures the reality of all human existence, “Custom is the principal magistrate of men’s life,” as Bacon put it. Eichmann went home after work, took off his uniform, ate dinner with his family, talked with the neighbors, and played with the children. He performed what he was told to perform assuming, as do we all, that our customary behavior as dictated by our society is correct. When that society controls the communication media, directs the employment opportunities, provides the resources for society’s infrastructure, and provides the arguments that give motivation to its people, what is customary becomes the correct and acceptable order for living. A principled conscience does not exist in a void; it is framed by the narratives that shape a society. How else explain what is good for one is evil for another?
A Democracy must allow for the expression of multiple voices; it is the one form of government that can prevent the absolute control Eichmann represents in that story. That is what makes the muffling of voices at the DNC so abhorrent. But the question persists, what is gained by not raising the issues that divide the country? The answer resides, perhaps, in the hoped for possibility that a positive campaign will win voters’ hearts, that a “smiling liberal” will beat a “compassionate conservative.” Or the answer resides in the reality that Kerry and Edwards supported Bush’s “invasion” and they would be contradicting themselves if they now ran against it, so the best they can do is waffle and claim it was badly planned. Indeed, they can’t even raise the specter of lies because they either stupidly accepted what this administration said or they failed to research the details and failed to listen to the world’s communities that argued against it. Or the answer resides in fear of retribution by the forces that control our media, the forces that capitalize on the billions that Bush is expending to prosecute his war, and the forces that support our ties to Sharon for whom we undertook the war as Phillip Zelikow, Director of the 9/11 Commission, has stated.
But muffling voices blunts exposure of truth. Varying perspectives become shrouded in ambiguous statements; conflicting views go unaddressed; the ordinary citizen hears nothing that demands serious response unless they happened by happenstance upon the remarks of Carter or Sharpton; they heard nothing that discloses the corruption resident in this administration as it conducts illicit business practices in Iraq using our tax dollars; nothing that exposes the fabricated news produced by FOX as it pretends to present fair and balanced reporting; nothing that decries the lies that seeped into American thought through the controlled media and brought this nation to invade another without provocation; nothing that questions the absolute control of American politics by corporate powers allowing starched collars to buy their way out of prison as the blue collars sit out their lives imprisoned for a felony; nothing that raises the alarm against the religious right that clamors for war while it damns the Islamic community for wanting it; and nothing that warns against the Neo-Con Cabal, infected with conflict of interest, for absconding with our Democracy by instituting illegal actions as policy in the National Strategic Security Report that upends the principles of our land by sanctifying behavior reserved heretofore for Dictators.
What a missed opportunity for the dissenting voice to be heard throughout the land! What a missed opportunity for the world to hear what the other half of the American people think! The sin of omission lies heavy on this opposition party. Ignorance of the issues can be condemned if the people refuse to reflect on evidence presented, but ignorance resulting from imposed silence concerning the issues cannot; rather, the condemnation must be addressed to those who disallowed discussion, open debate, and freedom of speech. The ancients understood the power of truth not told, of lies fabricated intentionally to deceive, to hide the true motive for actions, and they clothed this understanding in stories as dreadful as the perversity of those engaged in the deceit.
Ovid’s tale of Philomela captures the consequence of personal desire fulfilled at the expense of another followed by the silencing of truth as it is masked by deceit. Tereus, Philomela’s sister’s husband, rapes her and rips out her tongue when she threatens to tell the world of his crime. That action he believes will silence her as he prepares a tale of lies about her death for her sister. But Philomela weaves the story of her shame on a tapestry depicting Tereus in his shameful act. That tapestry is brought to her sister, Procne, who reads the story of her husband’s lechery and his lies in her sister’s sorry tale of incest. What we learn from this story is simple enough: truth in time dissembles the most determined of liars, “Ye Gods! What thick involving darkness blinds/The stupid faculties of mortal minds!” Nothing can withstand the power of truth to surface: “My mournful voice the pitying rocks shall move,/ Hear me, O Heaven! And, if a God be there,/ Let him regard me, and accept my prayer,” cries Philomela in the agony of her despair and deceit.
Consider the metaphorical reality couched in this ancient tale: those engaged and responsible for an insidious act of defilement silence all dissent that questions the truth of their hideous act. They fabricate a story that masks their rape of a people with a tale that places blame for the defilement on the people or on the weakness of the people to prevent the defilement. They present themselves as innocent bystanders suffering the consequence of the retaliation of the victim of the rape. They turn the victim into the perpetrator of the crime and the true perpetrator into the victim. So long as they can control the voice of the victim, so long can they deceive those who have not witnessed the crime. The DNC cut out the tongue of the dissenter. They silenced those who would contest the status quo, who would create a tapestry of truth that all might see.
William Cook is a professor of English at the University of La Verne in southern California. His new book, Psalms for the 21st Century, was just published by Mellen Press. He can be reached at: cookb@ULV.EDU