Freedom of Speech: Use It or Lose It!

By Michael I. Niman
Artvoice, October 18th, 2001

 A free press is often the first casualty during wartime.  And damn, for the umpteenth time in my life, we’re going to war.  So get your seatbelts on, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

 As we hoist our American flags up the aerials of our Mazdas, let’s not lose site of what we love about America – of the freedoms we’ve struggled so hard to earn.  This is the stuff romanticists say we fight wars over – the freedom of dissent.

 Dissenters, however, haven’t been faring so well since September 11th.  Take the case of Dan Guthrie, a columnist for The Daily Courier of Grants Pass, Oregon.  He had the audacity to write that the passengers who fought the hijackers over Pennsylvania, "are the heroes of this rotten week. They put it all on the line. Against their courage the picture of Bush hiding in a Nebraska hole becomes an embarrassment."  Courier editors printed the story, but after sensing the prevailing political winds, promptly fired Guthrie. 

 Tom Gutting, the City Editor of The Texas City Sun, met a similar fate, getting fired after publishing a column under the headline "Bush Has Failed to Lead U.S.”  His paper later published a front-page apology for Gutting’s unpopular view.

 Stating the Obvious

 Most frightening is the fact that both Guthrie and Gutting were not even penning any radical denunciation of U.S. policy.  Quite frankly, they were stating the obvious.  The attacks seem to have taken Bush by surprise (to the relief of the more conspiracy minded among us), and he needed to chill for a day before rising to the task.  Hence, the first days’ series of much anticipated but tragically short presidential speechlets in that signature 5-3 Bush cadence. 

 Considering the fact that the man spent 20 years more or less drunk before beginning his ascent to the presidency, how presidential could we realistically expect him to be at the onset of World War Three?  From what I hear he’s a relatively nice guy (with the exception of his quirky habit of mocking death row inmates before signing their execution writs) who dreamed of becoming Baseball Commissioner, only to wind up as President.  Before September 11th, according to Harper’s, Bush held the presidential record for vacationing.

  When Bush finally emerged from the fog, however, he immediately called for a “Crusade” against terrorism.  By the time his handlers reeled him back in and explained the historical significance of the word (as in holy war against Islam), the damage was done. My point, and no doubt I’ll get a barrage of hate mail (, is that Guthrie and Gutting’s comments represent the type of critical discourse that makes this country great.  We’re not afraid to call our leaders wieners.  Even when our enemies’ leaders are clearly bigger wieners.

 A Cowardly Response

 Politically Incorrect’s Bill Mahr made the Whitehouse’s shit list by suggesting that the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center were not cowards “since they had been willing to die for a cause.” He went on to explain, "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away; that's cowardly.”  Knowing Mahr, he wasn’t making any deep sort of statement, only providing tinder for his obnoxious format of dueling sound bites and idiot guests.  Even so, the Washington, D.C. ABC affiliate pulled his show “indefinitely,” while White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told Mahr that Americans “need to watch what they say.”

  Given his show’s format, Mahr’s discussion on “cowards” was destined from the start to go nowhere.  Culture Critic and Essayist Susan Sontag, however, tried to tackle the same forbidden thread, writing, “Our leaders are bent on convincing us that everything is OK ... We have a robotic president who assures us that America still stands tall ... But everything is not OK ... The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on the world's self- proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?”  She was quickly condemned in an attack emanating from The Wall Street Journal and parroted throughout the mainstream media.

Few other journalists were fired or harassed because few other journalists had the backbone to broadcast or print their opinions, given the political climate following September 11th.  Self-Censorship still reigns supreme in the American corporate press.

Barnes and Nobel quickly got with the new program, canceling a promotional signing for Mark Crispin Miller’s book, “The Bush Dyslexicon.” In the new post-September 11th America, we need to chill out on criticizing George W. Bush.  This rule also extends to the discussion about the mechanics of his ascension to the presidency.  The recently released final press consortium count shows that barring shenanigans, Al Gore would have won a decisive victory in the Florida election. The national press, however, possessed by a newfound  “patriotic” fervor, is ignoring the story while genuflecting toward the White House.  This is not patriotism.  It’s a gutless display of sucking up at a time when we need an independent vigilant free press more than ever.

A Subservient Press

Lately, the press seems to be as much about suppressing or misreporting stories as they are about reporting them.  Take the September 29th Washington DC rally against what was then an impending assault on Afghanistan.  The DC police, notoriously conservative in their crowd estimates, reported that 7,000 protestors attended.  Organizers claim double that number.  The New York Times, however, in a small story buried in the bowels of the paper, reported “several hundred.”  When I queried Senior Editor Bill Borders as to why The Times misreported to story, in effect suppressing news of the demonstration, Borders explained to me that his reporter visited the demonstration site early in the day when only a “few hundred” demonstrators were present.  He assured me that later editions had the figure corrected to “thousands.”  I checked.  They didn’t.

 More recently, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox all agreed to a White House request to censor segments of bin-Laden and al-Qaidah press releases.  I read al-Qaidah’s latest press release courtesy of BBC.  These psychopaths are Nazi-like in their xenophobia.  The more I read, the more I despise them.  It’s ridiculous to think these messages would endear bin Laden or al-Qaidah to the American people. Censoring the press to keep the American people from seeing these messages is stupid, giving al-Qaidah and its ‘forbidden” message more propaganda ammo around the world.  It’s also un-American.

   No More Questions

 The chill is also spreading to academia, where the new political correctness is gaining momentum and curtailing meaningful discussions about the new war.  At UCLA, library administrators suspended librarian Jonnie Hargis after he responded to a co-worker’s department wide “patriotic” email.  Hargis hit the “reply all” button and briefly outlined recent Israeli attacks against Palestinian civilians before asking, “so who are the terrorists anyway?”  The library administration said Hargis’ email, “contributed to a hostile and threatening environment” and “demonstrated a lack of sensitivity that went beyond incivility and became harassment.”    The message at UCLA and at campuses across the country is clear: there is only one permissible conversation and it doesn’t involve questions.

  Perhaps questions fall under the category of thought that both Defense Secretary Donald Rumsford and Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers recently described (on separate occasions) as “oldthink.”  So look where we are.  Our leaders are warning us against “oldthink” while we join our new allies, the Russians, Iranians and Sudanese, in hunting down leaders of the Taliban -- last year’s “freedom fighters.  Orwell might have been off by 17 years but he’s giving Nostradamous a run for his money.

  The Northern Posse

 Our new friends in the Northern Alliance are the darlings of the post-September 11th American media.  What no mainstream reporter will tell us, however, is that these supposed knights in shining armor are actually the murderous bastards who ran Kabul from 1992 until 1996.  They hail from the same misogynist Mujahideen movement as the Taliban – only they’re our Taliban. They threw acid in the faces of women who resisted obligatory veils.  They burned women alive while raping and executing others in history’s worst gendercide.  When they controlled Kabul, society broke down to a maze of rival warlords bombing each other’s neighborhoods to rubble.  After four years under these barbarians, people welcomed the Taliban and their Nazi-like promise of order.  The buzz coming from the refugee camps is that the only thing Afghanis fear more than the Taliban is the Northern Alliance.  This “oldthink,” however, goes against the new consensus as American reporters tag along with Afghanistan’s future liberators. 

 If it’s all seeming a bit complicated, don’t fret, the networks have lined up a host of analysts to explain new political realities to us.  Before the dust from the Twin Towers settled, ABC brought out Vincent Cannistraro.  What they never told us is that prior to joining the ABC team, Cannistraro served as a high-ranking CIA official in charge of coordinating the terrorist Contra attacks against Nicaragua during the early 1980s.  In 1984 he joined the National Security Council where he supervised aid to the Mujahideen guerillas in Afghanistan, the forbearers of the same al Qaida organization we’re now hunting. We can’t expect any better reportage from NBC or CBS, both of whom are owned by corporations with large military contracts who stand to gain billions of dollars each in the event of a military buildup such as the one we are now witnessing.

 The print media is no better.  Newsweek (not to be confused with “newspeak”) recently offered up a 17-page cover story entitled, “Why They Hate Us.”   At face value it looks like the kind of in-depth reporting media critics have been clamoring for.  But after a few pages of “we stand for freedom and they hate it,” it sadly exposes itself as just a massive waste of paper.  Missing from this report are any references to past U.S. military and CIA intervention in places like Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Indonesia, Yemen, Chad, Libya, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. Also missing was any mention of the hardships many poorer Islamic countries are suffering under IMF and World Bank austerity programs. 

 Now I don’t expect Newsweek to be beating up on the US State Department right after the September 11th attacks, but since they choose to undertake the massive project of explaining, “why they hate us,” they need to explain why they hate us.  Censoring the meat out of such a story leaves readers with a false sense of understanding, which is more dangerous than ignorance.

 Dangerous Times

 These are dangerous times for America.  Not only do we face a self-righteous band of bloodthirsty terrorists, but we also are facing an unprecedented assault on our civil liberties by our own government as the mass media lies down and plays dead.  Legislation passed since September 11th allows widespread wiretapping and e-snooping and allows the government to detain and deport, without reason, any non-citizen. Hence, a Brazilian rain forest activist or a Canadian foe of the WTO, or any law-abiding foreigner who connects up with American democracy, social justice or environmental activists, can be detained and deported.  New laws also open up the door for the federal government to seize the property of domestic political activists.  On the international scene, recent legislation gives the Bush government unlimited powers to invade any country they label as terrorist.  Under the guise of the War on Terrorism, the Bush administration has extended the hand of friendship to some of the most brutal and ruthless human rights violating regimes in the world.  Throughout this horrible month, our press has ignored these domestic threats to democracy and human rights.

 Freedom of speech is a fragile notion.  We have to exercise it regularly to keep it strong.  As journalists, we’ll receive hate mail and threats from across the political spectrum during these difficult times.  There will always be those who don’t respect the concept of a free press.  The more resistance we meet, however, the stronger our duty to report all points of view becomes.  Freedom of the press: if we don’t use it we’ll lose it.


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