Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and the Stifling of Democracy by Lewis Lapham and What We’ve Lost by Graydon Carter (Review)

Printer friendly version |

One hundred years ago, in the wake of England’s ruinous victory in the Boer War, a young Liberal politician excoriated the ruling Conservative Party and its imperial scam: “A party of great vested interests, banded together in a formidable confederation, corruption at home, aggression to cover it up abroad … sentiment by the bucketful, patriotism by the imperial pint, the open hand at the public exchequer, the open door at the public house, dear food for the millions, cheap labor for the millionaire.” As Lewis Lapham points out in Gag Rule, where this and a great many other nuggets of historically apposite and rhetorically scintillating prose are marshalled, these words of Winston Churchill fairly describe the Bush II administration as well. (Substituting “church” for “public house,” of course.) If only a few Democratic voices could find the young Churchill’s register.

Lapham, the editor of Harper’s, stands ready to help. His monthly columns, collected in half a dozen previous books, regularly strike this same (early-)Churchillian note of indignant scorn for the plutocracy and its government servants. Lapham is particularly offended by one of the most egregious developments in recent American history: the erosion of republican institutions by Republican administrations. In the 1970s and 80s he sponsored many memorable essays by the great critic Walter Karp, above all “Liberty Under Siege” (Harper’s, November 1985), a definitive chronicle of the Reagan administration’s “unflagging campaign to exalt the power of the presidency and to undermine the power of the law, the courts, the Congress, and the people.” Since then, unfortunately, the courts and the Congress have joined the attack on democratic accountability and popular sovereignty. Executive branch decision-making is increasingly insulated from public scrutiny and comment; more and more important documents are unavailable or unaffordable; the prerogatives of law enforcement agencies are steadily expanded in the national-security area, though narrowed in respect of tax and securities fraud, air and water pollution, violations of labor law and occupational-safety rules, and other constraints on profitability. Harper’s has done stellar work in showing how the claims of the Reagan and Gingrich revolutions to “get government off the backs of the American people” merely camouflage their sustained effort to keep the American people off the backs of the government and its corporate principals.

Gag Rule is not quite stellar. The balance between eloquence and substance is off; the book is declaimed rather than written. War imperils independent thought and speech; governments often invoke patriotism to enforce conformity. This is Lapham’s brief, and although familiar, it is always worth bringing up to date. He calls an impressive parade of witnesses. For freedom: Jefferson, Madison, Paine, Lincoln, Fenimore Cooper, Teddy Roosevelt, Learned Hand, Will Durant, Archibald MacLeish. Against: the bad-school-spirit-hunting American Council of Trustees and Alumni (Mrs. Cheney, Kristol, Bennett, Peretz et al); the post-9/11 pack of bloodthirsty columnists and editorialists; various Congressional and administration bozos. He cites the historical precedents: the abuse of dissenters during the Peloponnesian War, the First World War, the Cold War. So far, so good. But his oratory gets out of hand. Too thunderous an eloquence makes the ears ache. I am always ready to answer Lapham’s clarion calls, but where exactly am I being summoned by a sentence like this?

By discounting what the brokers classify as “nonmarket values,” we downgrade our faith in the republic from the strength of a conviction to the weakness of a sentiment, and we’re left with a body politic defined not as the union of its collective energies and hopes but as an aggregate of loosely affiliated interests (ethnic, regional, commercial, sexual) each armed with its own manifesto, loyal to its own agenda, secure in the compound of its own jargon – democracy understood as a fancy Greek name for the American Express card, the government seen as a Florida resort hotel, its assortment of goods and services deserving of respect in the exact degree to which it satisfies the whims of its patrons and meets the expectations of comfort and style at both the discount and holiday rates.

Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, ought to have been Lapham’s co-counsel. What We’ve Lost is surprisingly plainspoken, free of grandiloquence or snarkiness – and none the worse for it. It too is a brief: that the Bush administration has performed execrably in every field, notably the economy, the environment, health care, education, civil rights, governmental accountability, judicial appointments, foreign affairs, and national security. Carter’s method is to quote short, boilerplate statements of noble purpose by the president or other high officials, then list scores of facts that show the statements to be insincere, even dishonest. It is extremely effective.
What We’ve Lost has been criticized as a clip job, a blizzard of hastily culled, bullet-listed facts flung between hard covers. Facts, these critics admonish us, do not interpret themselves. On the contrary, they often do, which is why the administration keeps removing inconvenient ones from government publications and websites. Confronted with Carter’s lists of

· urgent security measures still unfunded;

· essential military gear unprovided to American combat personnel, while Halliburton and Bechtel are showered with public cash ;

· cuts in pay and health coverage for armed service personnel and their families;

· deceptive statements about air quality in Manhattan after 9/11;

· presidential and departmental orders restricting public access to essential information;

· controversial legislation passed at strange hours, after curtailed debate;

· controversial regulatory policies announced on Friday afternoons after 5:00;

· tax hardships of ordinary Americans compared with tax windfalls for Republican campaign contributors;

· regulatory appointees with extremely close ties to the industry they are supposed to regulate;

· the environmental consequences of Clean Skies and other administration programs;

· the heavy burdens imposed on underfunded school districts by No Child Left Behind; and

· the colorful backgrounds of many recent federal judicial appointees,

few readers will any longer believe the Bush administration capable of, or even much interested in, advancing the nation’s welfare. Though not as entertaining as the magazine Carter edits, What We’ve Lost is a real public service. Give a copy to every potential Bush voter you know, and you will have performed an important civic duty.

Their virtues notwithstanding, Gag Rule and What We’ve Lost are tracts for the times. Michael Kelly’s and Hendrik Hertzberg’s collections, though timely, are not. Each covers a lot of cultural ground, contains much brilliant writing, and conveys a distinctive voice. Both will be, or deserve to be, read long after the 2004 campaign.

Michael Kelly, former editor of the New Republic and the Atlantic Monthly, notoriously had strong likes and dislikes. He despised “pacifists,” “anti-American” leftists, and “strident economic populists.” Since he would doubtless have considered me all of these, I always assumed he would have despised me and cordially despised him in return. His death in April 2003, while covering the US invasion of Iraq, did not change my feelings. But reading Things Worth Fighting For has changed them somewhat. It’s impossible not to warm to someone who writes so charmingly about the nonstop nattering of two-year-olds (“Back to You, Tom”) and four-year-olds (“Sunshine on My Shoulders”), so wryly about the downside of enlightened social policy (“Wonk New World,” “The Lure of the Evil Weed”), so ruefully about being fat (“Girth of a Nation”), so Thurberesquely about Robert Reich (“The Reich Stuff”), so savagely about Richard Holbrooke (“A Plea for Diversity”), and so sardonically about the Times’s “About Men” column (“Good Riddance to the New Man”). Kelly was a fine storyteller: his dispatches from Bosnia and the Persian Gulf are full of sharp-edged anecdotes and revealing dialogue. Two long pieces from Kuwait (“The Rape and Rescue of Kuwait City” and “Rolls-Royce Revolutionaries”) and two from Kurdistan (“The Other Hell” and “Back to the Hills”) are superb. So is this passage – just about the only one in the book, unfortunately, that deals graciously with any person or idea to Kelly’s left: “We are not a nation that worries a great deal about the chicken pluckers among us. Somebody has to speak for them, and Jesse Jackson does, with beauty and with strength. In a country where most of the well-fed white men who run both parties have made a corrupt peace with the abandonment of the poor, with the devastation of entire cities, with the decimation of generations of black families, it is desperately important that there be a voice demanding that attention must be paid.”

Mostly, however, he paid no attention. Instead he concentrated almost exclusively on character. For Kelly, politics meant the character of politicians; virtually nothing else about it seems to have interested him deeply. Along with dispatches from the front, Things Worth Fighting For consists largely of profiles from GQ, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine of Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy, Bob Dole, Richard Daley Jr, David Gergen, and Yassir Arafat, among others. They are very good profiles, full of information, color, and shrewd character judgments. Jesse Jackson is “the mirror image of Ronald Reagan, one who sees an America defined, forever and ever, by the lessons of his childhood.” Bill Clinton’s “essential character flaw isn’t dishonesty so much as a-honesty.” And so on.

But Kelly lost track of causes in judging their adherents. “Imitation Activism” rebukes anti-globalization activists at a G-7 meeting. Comparing them unfavorably with Vietnam-era protestors, whom he compares unfavorably with civil rights marchers, he pronounces them “a generational imitation of a generational imitation of a form of politics that was once reserved for matters of life and death” and informs them that “you don’t possess anything that can coherently be called a cause.” That’s Kelly’s first and last word on the global economy. After observing a Kuwaiti corpse tortured by Iraqi invaders, “I could never again stand the arguments of those who sat in the luxury of safety – ‘advocating nonresistance behind the guns of the American Fleet,’ as George Orwell wrote of World War II pacifists.” So he simply ignores the wimps’ arguments against invading Iraq twelve years later. International law, collective security, diplomacy – these are for political girlie men.

The poisoned fruit of Kelly’s fixation on character was his obsessive hatred of the Clintons. He often seemed to want to say something about the perils of liberal elitism and social engineering. I wish he had; it would have been worth reading. Unfortunately, it always came out sideways, as suspicion or resentment of liberal elitists, personified by Bill, Hillary, and friends. When Clinton’s adultery and cover-up became public, Kelly saw in it a profoundly significant instance of class exploitation and abuse – Bill’s, and then his lawyers’, of Paula and Gennifer. He pursued Clinton like a Fury. “He must be impeached,” Kelly thundered nine times at the end of one particularly overwrought Washington Post column, like Cato the Elder demanding the destruction of Carthage, “because, in his pathology, he does great and heartless violence to other people and to the nation.” One can forgive Kelly for believing, however implausibly, that Clinton’s offenses warranted impeachment. But not to notice that the Republican Congressional majority was merely exploiting the Democrats’ paralysis to continue doing its far greater and more heartless everyday violence – regulatory, environmental, fiscal, judicial – this is much harder to forgive. Kelly eventually transferred his anathema to Al Gore. In a column wisely not reproduced in this book, he opined (I’m quoting from memory): “Better a 40-watt bulb [i.e., GWB] as president than someone so tainted by the corruptions of the Clinton White House.” If 537 people in Florida read that sentence and were persuaded by it, then Kelly has a lot to answer for.

In September’s American Prospect, Matthew Iglesias looks back at the 2000 election:

With the country enjoying a seemingly endless spell of peace and prosperity, and no apparent daunting challenges facing the next chief executive, the media were finally granted the chance to construct a narrative entirely around personalities. Al Gore, based on a handful of small exaggerations and his association with the occasionally sordid behavior of Bill Clinton, was said to have a character problem. … Liberals unanimously believed that Bush was not up to the intellectual challenges of the job. But fearful of re-enforcing a stereotype of left-wing elitism, they time and again shied away from pressing the argument. With the point thus conceded, Gore fought things out on the terrain of character. … Three-plus years later we know better, or at least we should. The job of the president of the United States is to manage a wide range of complicated issues. That requires … intellectual curiosity, an ability to familiarize oneself with a broad range of views, the capacity to grasp nuances, to foresee the potential ramifications of one’s decisions, and, simply, to think things through. Four years ago, these things were not considered necessary pieces of presidential equipment.

For that state of affairs, and its persistent dire consequences, Michael Kelly deserves a healthy share of the blame.

Hendrik Hertzberg’s Politics is probably as long as the other three books under review combined, and easily as rewarding. Its title is a homage to Dwight Macdonald’s great magazine of the same name, published between 1944 and 1949. Macdonald, his predecessor at the New Yorker, taught him, Hertzberg avows, “just how good – how vigorous, how funny, how exhilarating – an engaged, indignant political polemic could be.” He spends most of the “Author’s Note” to Politics explaining why he admires Macdonald and why he himself does not measure up to his (and my) hero. The generosity and the modesty are both characteristic. Hertzberg indeed doesn’t quite measure up to Macdonald: he’s apparently never flirted with ideology or dallied with literature. Still, taking all in all, I’m not sure any other recent American writer comes as close.

There aren’t enough indignant political polemics here for my taste, but what there is is exhilarating. Clarence Thomas’s performance at his nomination hearing is given its due: “display[ing] both a coarse contempt for the very concept of evidence and a stunning readiness to slash at the very fabric of democratic trust … he forfeited his honor and besmirched his country.” The case for Clinton’s impeachment is annihilated: “What, exactly, is the justice that has been obstructed? … Obstacles may well have been placed in the path of an unaccountable prosecutorial bureaucracy that for obscure reasons has developed a single-minded obsession with discovering at any cost, and publicizing in sniggering detail, precisely what sexual acts were engaged in by the president and the former intern. One can only hope so. But in what sense does the promulgation of details of this kind constitute justice?” Hertzberg’s comments on the 2000 election are splendidly scathing; less predictable but equally useful are his criticism of the cowardly way the news organizations who subsequently sponsored an ambitious study of the uncounted Florida ballots presented their findings and his sharp reproach to Gore, who went missing after the inauguration and “essentially left voiceless those” – a majority of the voters – “who had placed their trust in him.”

As these examples suggest, what really riles Hertzberg are violations of democratic procedure. Hence his noble devotion to proportional representation, the subject of three long and wholly persuasive essays plus a short, forceful defense of Lani Guinier. Likewise his proposals for abolishing filibusters and establishing Congressional term limits. Hence also, I suppose, his half-hearted effort to justify Nader’s exclusion from the presidential debates in 2000 – what other Gore supporter would even have bothered?

Hertzberg praises Macdonald’s “fearlessness.” In one respect, Hertzberg appears to me less than intellectually fearless. His understanding of the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and American foreign policy generally, though at the left margin of respectable opinion, remains within the bounds of conventional wisdom. “Why the War Was Immoral,” published in The New Republic (where Hertzberg was twice editor) on the tenth anniversary of the Vietnam War’s end, argues that it was fought with “good intentions,” for a “moral aim,” the aim of “saving South Vietnam from communism … at a lower cost in suffering and death than the cost of a communist victory.” This is the conventional liberal view, wrong for two reasons. The first is that the war was, as Macdonald recognized, “illegal.” The reason Macdonald gave – “we did sign the UN covenant” – was correct, and if more liberals had had the courage and wisdom to say so then, they would have had an easier job of arguing against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As Macdonald also recognized, the official US pretext for intervening – to defend the South against the North – was false. When the US first intervened in force, the Southern insurgency was still largely indigenous. Hertzberg does not acknowledge this.

The second reason Hertzberg’s argument is inadequate goes to the central meaning of the Cold War. The United States aimed to save South Vietnam and the rest of the Free World from communism. Why? Because communist regimes were invariably harshly repressive? They were; but so were many noncommunist regimes that the US supported economically, diplomatically, and militarily without exerting on them the slightest real pressure for political reform. What the US has never supported, however, or even tolerated, is a regime that is unwilling to enter into “normal” trade or financial relations with American business. A country, to put it simply, in which no profits can be made by Americans. The presence or absence of profit opportunities, not the presence or absence of freedom, is what has traditionally determined American policy toward other regimes.

I am glad Hertzberg has never understood this. If he had, he would have said so, persistently and emphatically – he is morally, if not intellectually, fearless. In that case, he would have had, I suspect, many fewer opportunities to write about everything else, and the abundant harvest of graceful, amusing, discriminating, and public-spirited prose collected in Politics might not have come to be.



Powered By Movable Type 4.1

Copyright © 2004-2008
George Scialabba