---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 13 Nov 2001 12:10:10 -0800
From: radtimes <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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
* 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
* 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
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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