Bush and Freedom of Speech

“If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.” -President James Madison

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

“It is during our most challenging and uncertain moments . . . that we must preserve our commitment at home of the principles for which we fight abroad.”

-Sandra Day O’Connor

I suspect Andrew Jones and George W. Bush have never consulted one another on their plans. But I do know that they need each other. A founding member of the Bruin Alumni Association, Jones wants to pay students to monitor the speech of professors in order to uncover any ideologically inappropriate and/or seditious speech. Jones and I are also connected because we are both UCLA grads. But while I embraced disparate ideas at UCLA, Jones feared them.

At first glance both Jones and myself seem like nothing more than insignificant players in George W. Bush’s War on Terror. But we are both, in our own ways, unfortunate byproducts of the Bush regime, two sides of the same coin even. While I agree with Teddy Roosevelt-“To announce that there must be no criticism of the president or that we are to stand by the president right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but it is morally treasonable to the American public”-Jones feeds on the environment of fear that Bush and his team have pursued.

What seems to have gone largely unnoticed thus far is that Jones’ actions-and, indeed, the actions of a growing number of self-appointed thought control police-are directly linked to the desire of the Bush administration and its supporters to deem any contrary opinion, any questioning of their actions, to be traitorous. Since immediately following the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration has not only outrightly suppressed dissension but has deliberately kept our country awash in fear so that Jones and his ilk are the inevitable products of our cultivated economy of fear and repression.

And Jones is not alone. In 2003, David Horowitz-a “reformed” liberal who, like a rabid former smoker, now demands that everyone think and act as conservatively as he-began his public campaign to coerce higher education to adopt his “Academic Bill of Rights.” This is, of course, an ideologically one-sided fraud, much like his recent book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America (also check out Bernard Goldberg’s 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America). Though he claimed in a recent Los Angeles Times op/ed to not just be gunning for public institutions, you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for him to go after, say, the debate team at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, a squad that finds PatRobertson.com a legitimate source. (Yes, this is same Robertson who said recently about professors that “these guys are the out and out communists, they are radicals, you know some of them are killers, and they are propagandists of the first order and they don’t want anybody else except them.”) Regarding his debate team, Falwell makes no bones about its purpose: “We are training debaters who can perform assault ministry, meaning becoming the conscience of the culture.” Karl Rove, also a true believer in the intersection of militarism and Christianity, was so impressed with Falwell’s debate team that he hired its coach, Brett O’Donnell, to help George W. Bush prepare for his ’04 debates. Of course, if Bush’s ’04 debates are any reflection of the debate squad’s skills we need not worry. It is not enough for Horowitz and Jones that a majority of America’s boardrooms, the federal government, and the Supreme Court are already on their team. No, as long as the academic liberals-who hold neither the keys to our national purse nor our military-are on the rampage, no one is safe. Jones says that he would be equally happy to receive “information about abusive, one-sided or off-topic classroom behavior” by conservative professors, but believes that such professors “are unlikely to act inappropriately.”

I teach at a private Benedictine university and recently went with a group of students to see the film Brokeback Mountain. This was not a requirement of my class or anyone else’s class-though I have assigned other Proulx short stories in the past. It was a voluntary, extracurricular event and part of an ongoing effort meant to encourage the intellectual interaction of faculty and students outside of the classroom. Aware that I had been the faculty advisor for the film outing, a student later asked me in class about my opinions of the film. Though we were scheduled to read one of my favorite authors that day-Raymond Carver-the class wanted to discuss the film and issues pertaining to sexuality. So on the spur of the moment I decided to open up the class discussion. I didn’t want to miss a teachable moment. But because there was no mention of this discussion on the syllabus, Jones would probably be happy to spend his $100 to rat me out. Of course, this can’t be done anymore because I am now telling you about it.

After class, a student told me that many of his high school friends had been very conservative. But since coming to the university, he has begun to hold his former beliefs up to scrutiny, re-embracing some while rejecting others. This process is but one of the many purposes of higher education. It is also the exact process of which Jones, Horowitz, and others are so afraid. Of course, as I teach the art of the written argument in class, I know that in order to argue cogently against someone or thing, knowing the opposition’s position is as important as knowing your own. As such, I know that Jones and Horowitz might even agree with this description; even they would be hard pressed to reject “an intellectually honest and scholarly” approach. But I would ask you: Why is it that they are even in the position to be the arbiter of what makes acceptable speech? The answer is not logic or reason but fear. The instant an academic institution and a society monitors what professors can and cannot say (or anybody, for that matter) our republic is in serious trouble.

Such fear of expression is common, to use my students’ favorite cliché, “in today’s society.” It is the same fear found in an email protest I received prior to the Brokeback viewing. Why were we, a Catholic Benedictine school, encouraging homosexuality by organizing a voluntary trip to the film? Well, here is the actual comment: “Homosexuality is against the teachings of the bible [sic] and is a sinful life that should not be encouraged here at this university.” The underlying idea, of course, is that the mere viewing and contemplation of ideas deemed to be verboten will, in turn, force the viewer to change her opinions or, in the extreme, to become what she is watching or discussing. Ridiculous, yes, but not an uncommon view in our country post 9/11.

Horowitz decries what he calls the “unprofessional political indoctrination” of students by their professors. (Because he makes this distinction, does this mean that Horowitz is comfortable with professional political indoctrination, à la Karl Rove?) But Horowitz’s lack of respect for the average conservative student (since it is this student he fears “losing” to the enemy) could hardly be more ignorant of reality. Students-liberal, conservative, and other-are not blank pages, to be written into existence by their professors. Rather, they are an amalgamation of their entire life experience, only one part of which is their experience in any given class. Take James E. Rogan as but one example. A Republican, he resigned his position from the board of the Bruin Alumni Assoc. when he learned of Jones’ plans. A graduate of UCLA and Berkeley, Rogan says he doesn’t need a website “to learn there is an overabundance of liberal faculty.” And how did this affect him? It “doesn’t seem to have hurt me,” he said. But what if some students do reconsider one’s views in college? Well, that is called learning. No student should embrace fully any idea at any time that he or she has not considered and tested for themselves. In my experience, no student comes into class believing only X and goes out believing only Y, so Horowitz’s concern for all these “innocent” political souls is either ignorant or disingenuous; it is certainly patronizing. (I wonder if Horowitz would have challenged a generation ago University of Chicago’s Leo Strauss, a founder of the modern neocon movement, who sought openly and actively to make acolytes of his students.) If it is the former, he should not worry so much about a problem that doesn’t exist; if the latter, well, then the conversation is over.

But the tactics of Jones, Horowitz et al do not exist in a vacuum. Their actions merely continue what is a long-if not hallowed-tradition in our country: the suppression of free speech during what, we are reminded daily, is a war. For instance, the Sedition Act of 1798 took as its inspiration the English laws before them, which deemed the mere act of criticizing the government treasonous. President John Adams and the Federalists passed this law which was promptly, according to Linda R. Monk’s The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution, “enforced primarily against Adams’s political opponents, Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican Party.” In the same vein, Geoffrey R. Stone, in his important Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism, highlights some of President Woodrow Wilson’s reasons for the Espionage Act of 1917, the first federal act of its kind for 119 years:

[Wilson] cautioned that “if there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with with a firm hand of stern repression.” . . . he insisted that disloyalty “was not a subject on which there was room for . . . debate.” Disloyal individuals, he explained, “had sacrificed their right to civil liberties.”

Such precedents (there are many more) no doubt lend Bush some degree of comfort and/or rationale for what he is presently doing to our country. This is the same Bush who is fond of letting it be known that he is reading yet another historical tome on a favorite historical giant. One of his favorite presidential role models is Teddy Roosevelt, who, as we have seen, would reject Bush’s cultivation of silencing dissent. (Proof enough that Bush’s reading of history is superficial at best.)

This atmosphere that Bush has fostered has lead to numerous attacks on the freedom of the very people Bush purports to defend. Whether it is the illegal spying on American citizens (from Bush’s authorizing tapping your phone to the PATRIOT Act allowing library records to be secretly examined to spying on the Quakers), the disappearance of American citizens that Bush arbitrarily decrees to be “enemy combatants,” the inclusion of over 200,000 anonymous people in the US terror database, the vast, secretive no-fly list that included-accidentally, of course-such people as Senator Edward Kennedy and retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Dr. Robert Johnson, we are again living in a time where civil liberties are being sacrificed. With no recriminations. When Wolf Blitzer asked Condoleeza Rice how we know that all those being spied on are associated with al-Qaeda, she said, predictably, “I’m not going to get into the program but let’s remember that in 2001” There you have it. 9/11 happened. Now, take your freedom of expression and shut up, because no further justification is necessary.

Definitions are, of course, the key to any argument. Thus far in the essay you and I-writer and reader-have been operating under the premise that we are, in fact, a nation at war. Though you might be excused if, upon looking around, you questioned whether or not this is true. But who gets to define “at war”? Or, for that matter, such terms as “enemy combatant,” “patriot,” or “treason”? Yes, our leaders are doing their best to not let us question this apparently inviolate axiom: we are at war. In fact, were you to question our Dear Leader, he would accuse you of trying to rewrite history. For Bush has rules for debate, for questioning. In the surest example of the pot calling the kettle black, Bush demands a worthy debate, and I’m going to repeat something I’ve said before. People should feel comfortable about expressing their opinions about Iraq. I heard somebody say, well, maybe so-and-so is not patriotic because they disagree with my position. I totally reject that thought. This is not an issue of who’s patriot [sic] and who’s not patriotic. It’s an issue of an honest, open debate about the way forward in Iraq.

Black is white, white black. This is the same Bush who once said that “a wiretap requires a court order.” And if you try and suggest that, oh I don’t know, the war is based on lies and half-truths then you are not engaging in what Bush and his uber-patriots would accept as a “worthy” debate. The WMDs? Ancient history, my friend. Settled as settled can be. And when Bob Schieffer recently asked Cheney about his pre-war comments and their effect on current skepticism, Cheney responded that his comments were “basically accurate and reflect reality.” The open secret regarding the administration’s utter lack of concern about not finding WMDs is that they didn’t care about them in the first place. They were just a reason to sell a war, after all. Did you think they had another purpose? Do you still? No, any concern for them once you and I had jumped on the bandwagon-which meant that the troops who haven’t yet died could not be pulled back because to do so would be to dishonor the troops who had already died-evaporated like a mirage in the desert.

Certainly it is a curious wartime where taxes to the super-rich are lowered and the sacrifices of our soldiers who come home in flag-draped coffins are officially hidden from view, where the nation asks no more sacrifice from you and me than to remain mute and unquestioning. In a word: acquiescence. This is the culture in which the tyranny of Jones and others (even the ham-handed tyranny of Shrub, Cheney and Rove) has naturally flourished. We are paying a high price for allowing Bush to hijack our collective sense of patriotism post 9/11-the cost of which has been the largely voluntary repudiation of many of our civil liberties, not to mention a war of choice sold as necessity which has left tens of thousands of Americans dead and wounded. I attended a recent talk by Andrew Schmookler, author of The Parable of the Tribe, who wondered aloud: “Is evil always stupid, too?” In the end, though, it is this stupidity that might be the thing to save us, historically speaking. Bush has three more years, but our job now is to so tie him up politically that he is impotent now and historically repudiated later. Yes, it is a move right out of the Gingrich playbook. There is a difference, though. Gingrich just didn’t like Clinton; it was about politics. Now, we are dealing with matters that don’t involve just Clinton’s potency, but the lives of countless people across the globe, not to mention the spiraling deficit used to pay for Bush’s folly that will haunt generations to come.

You are either with us or against us, Bush said (in)famously in his 2002 State of the Union Speech. Sure, on the surface, he meant the “axis of evil” of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. But it was clear to me immediately that the subtext of this comment referred to anyone not willing to swallow his line completely. And the intervening four years have only driven this point home again and again and again. The insidious quotes of Bush’s enablers stack up and by now you are familiar with many of them, so I need not rehash them here. We do not currently live in a world where, as Steven Colbert might say, the “truthiness” of an issue is a mere inconvenience. Rather, we live in an era where reality is subverted completely (witness Bush’s latest round of press conferences and speeches to military audiences). Bush’s main strategy is to argue against straw men. Or is he titling at windmills? Creating a false reality in order to argue against it is, of course, an old strategy, but Bush does it with a unique skill, coupled with the requisite level of disdain for any naysayers. His latest example, coming on the heels of defeat from his own Republicans over the Dubai ports deal, is to warn against “isolationism” which, as David Sanger has pointed out, means, in Bush-speak, to go against his policies. As Maureen Dowd put it: Bush “believes in self-determination only if he’s doing the determining.”

Yes, black is the new white and white black. Everyone engaged in the discussion (from week-kneed Democrats who run from Senator Russell Feingold’s attempt to censure the president, to enabling White House correspondents to Team Bush) knows what is happening but, in an odd test of wills, refuses to blink from the bright Orwellian nature of it all. And in the background Leonard Cohen sings:

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking.
Everybody knows the captain lied . . .
Everybody knows.
That’s how it goes,
Everybody knows.

People are getting desperate, but in the end they only want a semi-honest government back, not a particularly odd request. Writing in Newsweek, Jonathan Alter puts it this way: “I’m talking about restoring a reasonable respect for at least minimum standards of truth.” Filled with caveats, that is a pessimistic sentence.

To whit: we live in a world where Bush’s self-declared War on Terrorism is reason to silence and repress anyone and everything that is inconvenient to the cause. Where the imperfect Cindy Sheehan is a madwoman for asking difficult questions and the infallible George Bush is as sane as sane can be for never directly answering one. We live in a world where, at a political rally in 2002, the New York City police used “proactive arrests” of people who were “obviously potential rioters,” tactics right out of Steven Spielberg’s film Minority Report. We live in a time where attacks on judges because of their rulings make perfect sense to Senator Tom Delay. And a time when recently retired Supreme Court Justice O’Connor gives a speech excoriating Delay (though she did not mention his name) but is not comfortable releasing her speech to the public (it was reported by the one correspondent in the crowd). Where the Congress can threaten to pass laws that award five years in prison to anyone who “assists” an illegal immigrant here to work.

Writing about insane asylums in the nineteenth century, Michel Foucault writes that a key element of control is that the inmate “must know that he is being watched, judged, and condemned.” A “homogenous rule of morality” is therefore maintained by a society that condemns Sheehan as crazy and lionizes the Vietnam-dodging Bush as an uber-masculine war hero, complete with the ritualized and phallic over-compensation that comes with an aviator suit and an aircraft carrier. True, neo-conservative cracks from Francis Fukuyama to Andrew Sullivan are showing in Bush’s façade. Actually they are gaping chasms, but with Americans in harm’s way-even if Bush volunteered to put them there-Fox news can still do its thing. Foucault knew what would happen to those who fought against the official story of society’s leaders; not only would government’s strong arm seek to silence the questions, but it would be aided by myriad willing accomplices like the Joneses and Horowitzes, so that fear and intimidation would be “applied to all those who tend to escape from it.” Which leads us to the acceptable wiretapping of you and me.

So, on one hand, what is happening now has a long historical precedent. On the other hand, I like to think we’ve learned by now that the suppression of free speech is merely giving our enemy a great gift (bin Laden-bin who?-gave the neo-cons and their Bush the justification for Iraq in the horrors of 9/11 and Bush responded in kind by, well, invading Iraq). Obviously, Bush and bin Laden have long had a strange symbiotic relationship that, if we did not all have to suffer their cults of personalities, would make for a great stage drama. Bush himself has acknowledged this strange symbiosis. Regarding the bin Laden videotape that emerged just before the 2004 election, Bush said: “I thought it would help remind people that if bin Laden doesn’t want Bush to be president, something must be right with Bush.” Black is white . . . Naturally the idea that bin who? doesn’t want Bush as president is laughable; they need each other.

Things are getting curiouser and curiouser. At this point, it is clear that what I theorized in a March ’03 op/ed is true: Bush’s presidency is, for Bush at least, all about the W, what commentator Michael Shaw calls “the most primitive form of self-centeredness.” As Andrew Bacevich, author of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, asks, “What has Bush accomplished apart from posturing in the role of commander in chief?” We see Bush’s solipsism highlighted yet again with the demonization of the Iranian president. Granted, he’s a bad dude, but what makes the whole thing so interesting is that we (Americans) are really supposed to hate him (axis of evil member ‘n’ all) because he is upsetting our Dear Leader. Pick any of Bush’s personal bogeymen-Saddam, bin who?, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kim Jung Il, Jacques Chirac, Kerry, Gore, or Hugo Chavez-and you will be able to chart the personalization of the conflict. Piss Bush off and we all have to suffer for it.

During wartime, real or imagined, many people are eager to hand over their rights, usually on the basis that we need to be less free now in order to be more free later. Even in a war that Bush admits has no end (the War on Terror) and a mess that will be around for the next president to clean up (Iraq), this is a common defense of Bush’s policies. Take, for instance, the domestic spying program. Bush, who understands the power of language and repetition, now calls it not domestic spying but terrorist surveillance program. And if the change in terminology was not evidence of enough of some kind of hanky panky, try this sentence: “If I was trying to pull a fast one on the American people, why did I brief Congress?” Besides, his tireless enablers jump to argue, we are only spying on terrorists. The logic goes something like this: you don’t like it? Well, then you must be a terrorist-or at least a sympathizer. But I have yet to see one shred of evidence that Bush is, in fact, spying only on terrorists. That this problem of definition is muddled is all the more convenient for those letters to the editors who claim that, hey, what’s the big deal, “I don’t have anything to hide, so let Bush spy.” Obviously, this bit of simplistic jujitsu has quite a bit of currency with those who have something to gain by the Bush fear factor.

Conservative commentator David Limbaugh-Rush’s brother-wrote an article entitled “My Express Consent for Wiretapping,” in which he proceeded to give the NSA permission to spy on him in order to determine if he is communicating with “suspected or known al-Qaida members or persons linked to al-Qaida or related terrorist organizations.” Sure, this is tongue in cheek, but it is also stupid and dangerous. The whole point is that with Bush in charge Limbaugh has no ability to give his permission or to even know about such spying. It is instead being taken from him. Again, it’s all in the definitions. Who defines “terrorist” anyway? Well, in this case and by presidential fiat, it is George Bush. Comfortable with that? Actually, I already know who is and who isn’t and since I am not blinded by the dual lenses of Bush’s largesse-neither financial nor spiritual-you know my perspective.

Max Boot, a first class Bush enabler, wrote sarcastically that because there is no evidence Bush spied on Michael Moore, Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean, there is nothing to see here; please move along. And, in a brilliant rhetorical strategy, Boot argues that even if such an “accidental” spying were to occur it would not rise to the level of the “real abuses of civil liberties” cataloged in Stone’s history. Of course, in the same article Boot gives a couple of examples where the NSA had the wrong man, but these are, he claims, merely “well-intentioned mistakes committed by conscientious public servants intent on stopping the next terrorist atrocity.” And his evidence for such a pronouncement? Well, there isn’t a “scintilla of evidence” that his claim is not true. A wonderful double negative signifying, in the end, nothing. Confused? Good. This is by design.

If bin who? and Bush make strange bedfellows, Bush and Andrew Jones do not. I find myself suddenly agreeing with, of all people, Donald Rumsfeld, who said that “(t)he absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” If this is obviously not sufficient justification for Bush’s war, it should certainly be foundation enough to begin Congressional hearings looking into Bush’s spying on Americans. Perhaps it is true what Joseph Palladino wrote to the New York Times in defense of Bush’s spying on you and me: “Harsh times call for harsh measures. Americans have a greater right to be safe than to be private.”

I admit, though, that Palladino is right. He just doesn’t understand how, which is why I wrote last fall at counterpunch.org that Cindy Sheehan was, in these harsh times, exercising what I called the New Civil Disobedience. One of the hallmarks about this new form of protest, I argued, was that all one had to do was to speak up. You didn’t need to sit illegally in the front of a bus or at a lunch counter reserved for a different skin color (both wrong, of course, but both part of then on-the-books laws). No, until recently the laws seemed to be more or less sufficient and conducive to peaceful protest. All you had to do was, dammit, speak up! But not even half a year later I realize how wrong I was. For the climate that Bush and his cabal have nurtured means that many people-from the president to Congress to Horowitz and Jones to letter-to-the-editor writers everywhere-are working as fast as they can to make formerly legal and sensible actions illegal. And while free speech is eliminated here and there our country has raised little more than a whimper.

When seven activists were arrested in Washington DC on February 27 for holding up a banner that said “God Forgive America” the charge was demonstrating without a permit. When Sheehan-who Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) calls a “nutcase”-was invited to the State of the Union speech by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), she wore a shirt that read “2245 Dead. How many more?” She was promptly arrested. Yes, charges were dropped and the Capitol Police apologized, but she had been removed, her speech silenced, which was the purpose of the arrest in the first place. And yet at this same speech, politicians expressed their freedom of speech by clapping or not clapping while the President, in the words of the New York Times, “threw out a dizzying array of misleading analogies, propaganda slogans and false choices.”

At least no one could accuse Sheehan’s shirt of any of such arguments.

Yes, despite all the evidence against Bush, the thought police are on the march and will defend him to the end. They won’t even take heed of Bush’s own words (AWK here spoken about Saddam before the United Nations, though they work just as well for Bush himself): Bush’s “regime is a grave and gathering danger. To suggest otherwise is to hope against the evidence. To assume this regime’s good faith is to bet the lives of millions and the peace of the world in a reckless gamble. And this is a risk we must not take.” But why shouldn’t Bush’s enablers spurn all the evidence? We are on what Bush called with missionary zeal a “crusade,” one with billions and billions of dollars and immense power at stake. Bush and his team do not want to lose control of the advantage we, the people, have given them. And they have a lot of support. Sure, they have headline grabbers, like Jones and Horowitz, but they also have ex-Marine Donald Bjorkman. Never heard of him? Neither had I until I read his letter to the Seattle Times, which reads, in part: “During World War II, we always knew who the enemy was. Now the enemy could be our neighbor. Until the left-wing press realizes this (if it ever does), the nation is under threat, not only by the enemy, but by ourselves.”

For now anyway, black remains white, white black. Because when Bjorkman says “ourselves” he isn’t including Donald Bjorkman.

No, he means me.

Oh, and you.

JEFF BIRKENSTEIN is a professor of English at St. Martin’s College in Lacey, Washington. He can be reached at: jbirkenstein@stmartin.edu