[sixties-l] Gitlin: Patriotism Demands Questioning Authority (fwd)

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Date: Wed Nov 14 2001 - 01:02:26 EST

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    ---------- Forwarded message ----------
    Date: Tue, 13 Nov 2001 12:10:10 -0800
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: Gitlin: Patriotism Demands Questioning Authority

    Patriotism Demands Questioning Authority

    Published on Sunday, November 11, 2001 in the Los Angeles Times
    by Todd Gitlin

    NEW YORK --Years ago, a student of mine at UC Santa Cruz drove a Volkswagen
    van with a QUESTION AUTHORITY bumper sticker. One day, somebody scratched
    out the message. Lately, at a time when some people think loyalty must be
    demonstrated with a shut mouth, I've been thinking of my former student and
    her anonymous vandal.

    Whoever felt the need to crush that young woman's audacity was stomping on
    democratic ideals, failing to understand that questioning is precisely what
    authority needs. In a democracy, authority needs to convince those it
    governs. To be convincing, it must be willing and able to defend itself,
    even--especially--when pointed questions are asked. In his essay "On
    Liberty," John Stuart Mill wrote that even if one and only one person
    dissented, the dissent should be heard. First, because the dissenter might
    just be right. Second, because the authority of the majority opinion--even
    if close to unanimous--can only be bolstered by having to confront its
    adversaries. Amid free discussion, arguments only improve. So the expression
    of rival views is necessary for practical as well as principled reasons.

    But during the current emergency, a stampede of unthinking censure is
    muffling the debate we need to have in order to fight the smartest possible
    campaign against our enemies. Ari Fleischer, the president's press
    secretary, scolded that Americans should "watch what they say." He was not
    referring to advance notice of troop movements, which of course no one ought
    to blurt out. He was referring to a tossed-off remark by talk show host Bill
    Maher. And Fleischer is not alone in blindly discarding the democratic faith
    in free discussion. In the Wall Street Journal last week, Gregg Easterbrook
    wrote that, since novelists Barbara Kingsolver and Arundhati Roy have
    written harshly about the American flag and America's approach to the world,
    "bookstores may fairly respond by declining to stock their books." Stocking
    their books, he suggests, amounts to "promoting" their views.

    As it happens, I have written passionately against Roy's views in recent
    weeks, and I vigorously disagree with Kingsolver about the flag. What does
    their wrong-headedness have to do with their right to be read? As it
    happens, Easterbrook himself wrote recently in The New Republic that
    American motorists contribute handsomely via oil imports to the Saudi
    Arabian money gusher that has subsidized Al Qaeda. Should gas-guzzling
    patrons of Barnes & Noble be catered to if they demand that his book be

    A call for the shuttering of minds betrays the opposite of confidence in the
    American campaign against murderous terrorists. What it betrays is
    desperation, feebleness of nerve, a pathetic lack of confidence that
    questions can be answered. If our authorities are already unthinkingly,
    kneejerkingly disbelieved by too many people around the world, why does it
    help to ask fewer questions? The quandaries we confront now--and for the
    foreseeable future--are immensely difficult, surely making the asking of
    questions a citizen's duty.

    Yet, since Sept. 11 and the decision to go to war in Afghanistan, public
    officials are taking easy ways out, resorting to platitudes. Democrats and
    Republicans alike are fearful of vigorous public debate. Faced with a
    colossal failure of intelligence before Sept. 11, such blank-check
    confidence in the institutions of national defense is demonstrably
    foolhardy. Much of the press, particularly television, had deluded itself in
    recent years that America could afford to ignore international events. Now
    they are playing catch-up, but timidly. Reporters ask technical military
    questions that officials properly dance away from, but they shy away from
    bigger, more important political questions.

    Now the national self-defense campaign has turned into a war. And war, like
    it or not, mangles the truth, because propaganda is useful to all parties.
    The Pentagon can't be expected to change its ways. All the more reason,
    then, for journalists on other beats to give ample attention to the immense
    questions before us. One need not make the mistake of thinking that
    Afghanistan is Vietnam to note that policy unquestioned is policy unbridled.

    Our questions need to start with one so basic and difficult it needs to be
    reflected upon calmly, again and again. How is America to live in a world
    where hundreds of millions of ignorant people, some of whom aim to possess
    weapons of mass destruction, hate us? From that question will come dozens of
    others, including:

    * What ought to be American policy toward the fundamentalist Islamic regime
    of Saudi Arabia, which nurtured Bin Laden, the Taliban and the fanatical
    madrassas of Pakistan? If it is time to stop America's long embrace of the
    House of Saud, then what? If our need to embrace the Saudi regime in part
    stems from our dependence on oil, then how can we reduce it?

    * What is the danger of famine this winter in Afghanistan? What is the U.N.
    saying? (Warnings and appeals by Oxfam, the Red Cross and other relief
    groups have barely registered on the American radar screen.) Who is to be
    trusted about casualties, famine and other desperate conditions there? The
    Taliban is trying to manage the news--big surprise. But casualty reports,
    true or false, are flying around the rest of the world. What is the rest of
    the world saying? Why are American editors not sifting through these
    reports, evaluating them as best they can and pulling out the most reliable
    for Americans?

    * Are sanctions against Iraq useful? Are they having the desired effect? How
    else might we restrain Saddam Hussein's weapons programs and assaults on his
    own people?

    The sad truth is that, when deciding what constitutes legitimate
    controversy, the media take their cues from the two major parties. When the
    parties agree to keep a question out of play, the news media usually
    acquiesce, as with the elimination of debate on the president's missile
    defense system in the wake of Sept. 11. In those days, with huge questions
    unasked and unanswered, we saw an unseemly haste on both right and left to
    stake out firm positions on a war without clear aims.

    In the meantime, those who oppose the current war also evade tough
    questions. If they oppose the bombing, how do they propose that the nation
    defend itself? By parachuting subpoenas over Afghan caves? Nothing could be
    emptier than to say "Bring Bin Laden to justice" when there is no
    international constabulary, no international army, no international criminal
    justice system. Today and tomorrow, in the only world we have, how is the
    government to protect Americans from committed murderers who unrepentantly
    say they want to kill Americans anywhere and have demonstrated their ability
    to do so? No American government could deserve respect from its own citizens
    without a plausible strategy in the here-and-now.

    Barry Farber, a long-time conservative radio host in New York, had it right.
    He used to close his show with the words, "Keep asking questions." That was
    patriotism, not panic.

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