Dissent in America

The shooting may or may not have started by the time you read this. But one thing that has certainly begun is the campaign to force dissenters to keep it zipped when the shooting commences. "Once the war against Saddam [Hussein] begins, we expect every American to support our military, and if they can't do that, to shut up," bayed Bill O'Reilly on his Feb. 26 cable show. "Americans and, indeed, our allies who actively work against our military once the war is under way will be considered enemies of the state by me." This was a tad demagogic even by O'Reilly's virtually nonexistent standards, so the next night he toned it -- very marginally -- down. He said he won't think of dissenters as un-American, just as "bad" Americans. But he reiterated that "it is our duty as loyal Americans to shut up once the fighting begins, unless facts prove the operation wrong, as was the case in Vietnam."

(It took roughly four years for a majority of Americans to decide that "the facts" dictated that the Vietnam War was wrong. By that time, more than 30,000 U.S. soldiers and perhaps three-quarters of a million Vietnamese had irretrievably lost the ability to voice an opinion one way or the other.)

Never to be out-demagogued on such questions, Andrew Sullivan chirped in: "If [protesters] go ahead and try to impede those people in the military doing their jobs, if they launch a 'stop-the-war' movement after it has begun and American and British lives are at stake, it strikes me that they will massively overplay their hand. It took a long time in the Vietnam War for people to start campaigning against an existing war, and longer still for some to withhold support from the troops facing battle. If the anti-war brigades decide to cross that line instantly, then the backlash could be enormous. And deservedly so."

It gets worse still. Michael Savage, the new hero of right-wing talk and the unchecked id of these gruesome shills and mercenaries, has gone the full distance and explicitly raised the notion of reintroducing the Sedition Act, which silenced dissent during the waning days of World War I. He also called for the arrest of protesters. And finally, some other savage who goes by the name of Coulter has another "book" due out in June, this one called Treason. It is not about the Rosenbergs.

This is a small sampling, and once the shooting does start -- and the countervailing protests, which will be immediate -- this kind of chest thumping will only get more insistent. Keep an eye open for the demagogue's standard tricks, the main one of which is on display in the O'Reilly and Sullivan quotes above -- to wit, intentionally blurring the line between protesting and harming the military. Impeding the military means giving away troops' positions and interfering with their progress; that's treason, or something very close to it, and we all agree that's bad. (The Prospect's Web log, Tapped, properly rebuked the "human shield" movement.) Protesting is ... protesting. And, as this generation's demonstrators have made clear, the beef is not with the men and women in uniform. It's with the men and women in civvies at the top (who, with the lone exception of Colin Powell, have always managed to find ways around having to wear their country's uniform).

It's very clear what kind of America these people want. First and foremost, they want an America in which such crackpot musings can continue to bag them viewers and readers, and sadly, they have that. Beyond that, they want an America in which their opponents are at least afraid of them and at most prohibited from saying what they believe. They can't come out and say that in America, at least so far. For now, they just float the notion and see if it takes.

And I guess we will see. But they might be surprised. I've been scanning the Web in an admittedly unscientific search for such foul sentiments being expressed in local papers, and thankfully, I haven't found much. That's not to say some won't appear, or there won't be regions of the country where the dove might be well advised not to shout his opinions down the length of the shopping mall.

But it is to say this: We have reached a point now in this country where the shouting right-wingers who dominate the airwaves are more conservative than the country at large. The salons of Washington and New York, so long derided as redoubts of a fey and irresolute liberal elite, are now more tolerant of this kind of bullying than normal everyday newspapers in middle America (think about that for a while). It looks like those "real Americans" these charlatans are always purporting to speak for have a better understanding of what being an American really means.