Where Never is Heard a Discouraging Word

I've been dismissive of Democratic charges that the Bush administration is suppressing dissent.  I think that I, in common with most people, define government suppression of dissent as a situation in which the government tortures, imprisons or kills dissenters. For example, just a month ago, Akbar Mohammadi, an Iranian dissident who was imprisoned for participating in an anti—government protest, died nine days into a hunger strike against his prison conditions.

Castro's Cuba is another example of what it really means when a government represses citizens who dare to voice criticism.  Only three years ago, the Cuban government sought life terms for seventy—eight Cubans, including more than thirty journalists, who had the temerity to question Castro's regime.  After a one day kangaroo trial, the "lenient" court eschewed life sentences and, instead, limited the inevitable convictions to terms ranging from twenty to twenty—seven years.

If this type of oppression were indeed happening here, Cindy Sheehan, instead of swinging from the trees in Crawford and enjoying her milkshake hunger strike, would be in some dank prison cell having the soles of her feet whipped.

So what are the Democrats really complaining about when they charge that Bush and his crew are embarking upon a witch hunt that will make Joe McCarthy and the  House Un—American Activities Committee look like a toddler romp?  No one spells it out better than the darling of the new Left, Markos "Kos" Moulitsas Zuniga. 

Kos has boasted that he began his blog and his political odyssey to express his deep dissatisfaction with the climate of fear and repression George Bush is imposing on the United States.  Kos knows that this oppression exists because

"[i]f you criticized the president on any issue, domestic or foreign, you were accused of being un—American and unpatriotic."  

There you have it in a nutshell.  The Bush administration isn't silencing critical voices through torture, imprisonment or death.  The administration is hurting their feelings.  It turns out that we were wrong as children to chant that "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."  The fragile flowers on the liberal end of the spectrum are apparently just as silenced by verbal insults as they would be by physical injury.

Kos isn't operating in a vacuum.  Two weeks after 9/11, when conservative talk show hosts (not the government, mind you, just talk show hosts) said that Bill Maher was unpatriotic for speaking admiringly about the 9/11 hijackers' courage, the same wails about censorship and oppression — cries directed at the Bush administration — instantly filled the air.

Censorship, of course, is a government activity.  If private citizens agitate and the market responds to this agitation (as happened when corporate sponsorship for Maher's show dried up), that's not censorship.  Strikingly, the only government involvement in that kerfuffle was disapproval. While the market definitely slapped Maher down, the government did not.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the same pattern again emerged: a government spokesman criticized Democratic positions, Democrats shrieked that their patriotism was being questioned, and charges of government oppression filled the air.  This time, the trigger was Donald Rumsfeld's August 29th speech to the American Legion.   In it, Rumsfeld stated that modern democracies find themselves in a situation similar to that facing the world in the 1930s, and that moral clarity is absolutely necessary now.  Thus, he described the years after World War I as follows:

Over the next decades, a sentiment took root that contended that if only the growing threats that had begun to emerge in Europe and Asia could be accommodated, then the carnage and the destruction of then—recent memory of World War I could be avoided. 

It was a time when a certain amount of cynicism and moral confusion set in among Western democracies. When those who warned about a coming crisis, the rise of fascism and nazism, they were ridiculed or ignored. Indeed, in the decades before World War II, a great many argued that the fascist threat was exaggerated or that it was someone else's problem. Some nations tried to negotiate a separate peace, even as the enemy made its deadly ambitions crystal clear. It was, as Winston Churchill observed, a bit like feeding a crocodile, hoping it would eat you last.

There was a strange innocence about the world. Someone recently recalled one U.S. senator's reaction in September of 1939 upon hearing that Hitler had invaded Poland to start World War II. He exclaimed,

"Lord, if only I had talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided!"

I recount that history because once again we face similar challenges in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism. Today —— another enemy, a different kind of enemy —— has made clear its intentions with attacks in places like New York and Washington, D.C., Bali, London, Madrid, Moscow and so many other places. But some seem not to have learned history's lessons.

No whips, no chains, no Iron Maidens.  The "repression," if such it is, appears as a veiled suggestion that today's anti—War activists are, at best, naive, and at worst, lacking in moral clarity.

Nor is any other part of the speech much more heated.  Among other things, Rumsfeld takes fairly mild pokes at the media's obsession with any malfeasance involving American troops and at a reporter's demonstrably false charge that troops were targeting the press.  Even if one claimed, solely for the sake of argument, that it is improper for an administration official to make jibes at those opposed to the administration, there are no threats in the speech, nor was the speech accompanied by any roundups or crackdowns.  It was, at the end of the day, just a speech.

Or at least I thought it was just a speech.  Those who hadn't heard or read the speech, but merely heard Keith Olbermann's impassioned, empurpled rhetoric about the speech, might be excused if they ended up believing that Rumsfeld had called the American people a bunch of Nazis and threatened all of them with imprisonment.  I'd be lying if I said Olberman was choking back sobs as he spoke but, really, there's a hysterical emotionalism to Olberman's utterly false summation of Rumsfeld's speech. 

Here's how Olbermann begins:

The man who sees absolutes, where all other men see nuances and shades of meaning, is either a prophet, or a quack.  Donald H. Rumsfeld is not a prophet.  We end the countdown where we began, our #1 story with a special comment on Mr. Rumsfeld's remarkable speech to the American Legion yesterday. It demands the deep analysis — and the sober contemplation — of every American.

For it did not merely serve to impugn the morality or intelligence — indeed, the loyalty — of the majority of Americans who oppose the transient occupants of the highest offices in the land.

Worse, still, it credits those same transient occupants — our employees — with a total omniscience; a total omniscience which neither common sense, nor this administration's track record at home or abroad, suggests they deserve.

If you're in the mood for a laugh (or a cry, I'm not sure which), you can read the whole thing here, and try to follow Olbermann's weirdly strained alternative history.  This is a history in which, had Churchill been silenced, World War II would never have started — or something like that.  My eyes glazed over so quickly I kind of lost the thread of Olbermann's historical allusions (allusions that mingle Churchill, Chamberlain, hurricanes and vaccinations in a wild m ange that would have done credit to Groucho Marx.

Get rid of all the wacky stuff, and what Olbermann's speech boils down to is his contention that people like Cindy Sheehan, Kos, even Olberman himself are being threatened because Rumsfeld dared to imply they were wrong!  And worse, he did it in a way that hurt their feelings!  When government gets this vicious, you know it's time to pack your suitcases and move to the old survivalist hide—a—way. Or maybe decamp to France.

It's easy to make jokes about this type of manic sensitivity.  After decades in which people were encouraged to contemplate their navels, get in touch with their feelings, and let it all hang out (no matter how badly it really should be kept in), it's hardly surprising that we've created a political generation that finds torture in a tongue lashing. 

But it's not a joking matter.  ABC is frantically re—edited its docudrama, "The Road to 9/11," not because the market threatened it (as happened with Maher), but because Congressional Democrats threatened to pull ABC's broadcasting license. By the way, if the Democrats were actually to carry out this threat, that would in fact be censorship, since it is government action to suppress speech.

I know that, right about now, someone is thinking "Well, the conservatives got that show about Reagan pulled," so let me interject here that the situation today is different from the hooha over the Reagan show.  Back then, as with the Maher situation, conservatives successfully brought their market power to bear to get the show off a major network.  The Administration and Congressional Republicans remained silent and non—threatening.

Of course, as always when one wants to see the ne plus ultra of any liberal political trend, the place to go is France, where a libel trial is beginning. A bit of background is required here.  In 2000, French TV (specifically, a station called France2) broadcast footage that allegedly showed the Israeli military killing a young boy named Mohamed Al Durah.  The footage was so shocking that it helped spark the bloody Second Intifadah that has raged between Israel and the Palestinians since then. 

The only problem is that the footage was almost certainly staged.   Or, as neo—neocon elegantly states:

But subsequent research and revelations have led those who have investigated the incident to the almost inescapable conclusion that the facts were not only not quite as reported (for example, the direction of the shots were such that Israeli forces could not have been responsible for hitting al Durah), but what is far worse——that it was bogus from start to finish. That is, that it was staged. The Second Draft site  has a great deal of information on this subject; take a look for yourself.

One would think that the victims of the war sparked by this film—making travesty would have a nice legal claim against France2.  But this is France, so that's a silly thought.  In fact, it is France2 that is suing three bloggers for daring to disseminate information about the manifest falsities in the Al Durah footage.   The basis for the suit is an 1881 statute that allows a person or entity to sue for a statement that "strikes at the honor and consideration (reputation) of the individual or institution in question."

To understand this statute, you need only think back to an old black—and—white movie in which the Frenchman who is insulted, no matter how deservedly, snatches off his glove, slaps the offender in the face, and demands satisfaction through a duel.  In such cases, of course, the ultimate honor rested not with the honest man but with the best swordsman.  This French libel suit is the 21st Century equivalent of that theory of redress.  Right now, it appears as if France2's utter lack of morals is offset by a sharp sword, and it may win this duel.  The besieged bloggers, however, might have the last laugh if this suit brings out of a dark corner the ugly truth that the Al Durah footage is fake.

And so we see in France what the Democrats would love to have happen here: an opportunity to punish those who imply (or even dare to state outright) that they are unpatriotic, foolish, naive, vindictive or whatever other pejorative you'd like to add to this list.  Being Americans, though, where everything has to be bigger, Democrats want to go a step further.  Even as they raise a ruckus about their hurt feelings and try to claim censorship when their humiliation strikes them dumb (dumb in theory, at least, if not in fact), they've shown a complete willingness to use actual government censorship to spare their feelings.  If this keeps up, my grandchildren will be chanting in the playground, "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can really hurt me."

Bookworm is the pseudonym of a writer and blogger living amongst some of the bluest of blue state Americans. Her website is Bookworm Room.