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Lessons in Suppression 

We have a Texan in the White House with two daughters whose exploits keep the country amused; Green Berets waging an undeclared war on the other side of the world; talk of rockets and space flight as matters of national security -- things sure have changed since the 1960s, haven't they?

Oh, I know this is Now and that was Then, and the world is somewhat different in the devilish details, even if the big picture seems hopelessly retro. But a Rip Van Winkle might have trouble sorting out the differences after a 36-year slumber, all the same. We have learned the Lessons of Vietnam (haven't we?), and won't make those mistakes again.

Like the Brits discovered ages ago, political support fades when citizens' sons are dying in droves. As with the Northern Alliance, we now know to send hirelings to do the gritty work, the dangerous work. One wonders who will be our pawns in Somalia, Iraq or the Philippines as we ramp up to invasions elsewhere.

Nor will there be the embarrassment of secrets revealed, la Watergate. A veil of secrecy has been pulled over all matters presidential back to 1980, and Attorney General John Ashcroft has quietly rescinded the Freedom of Information Act.

Criticism of the Bush administration has been labeled "subversive" and regular folks are getting visits from the FBI for the highly suspicious activity of questioning the wisdom of war. In recent weeks press reports include that of one fellow who griped during a workout at his local gym and soon found G-men at his door. In another incident, an art gallery's manager was grilled and the establishment's contents were scrutinized for un-American images.

Since my own pronouncements have tended to question the war, the rationale for the war, the rationality of the president leading the war, the lack of publicly proffered proof of guilt on the part of the targets of the war, and the domestic policies that have been engineered either blatantly or sub rosa following September 11, I don't think I am self aggrandizing when I say that a knock on my door wouldn't much surprise me.

I know I have a limited readership, but the circle is definitely bigger than a few guys around a weight bench down at the "Y." I was thinking about this during a phone conversation with a friend today, while we discussed a powerful concert we attended last night: David Rovics, who performed songs of freedom and resistance. Rovics' lyrics about our government's control of news and suppression of dissent, fully aided and abetted by the media conglomerates, led naturally enough to discussion of activists and activism, our own and others.

When the discussion turned toward arrests currently in the news and friends who are potential targets of the new McCarthyism, it was hard to avoid thinking that my phone may be tapped and my e-mail screened. And when one contemplates the possibility of being watched, it is approximately impossible to avoid changing one's behavior. That is, of course, the point.

Systematic coercion doesn't require that each potential naysayer be personally threatened, only that the threat is tangible enough to change behaviors both subtle and overt. If we begin to guard our speech, we have lost the freedom our government claims it is defending.

As cartoonist Dan Perkins has observed in his brilliant Tom Tomorrow comic strips, the administration policy amounts to: "We must dismantle our democracy in order to save it." To that I will not accede. None of us who care about freedom can yield to fear, and we should take heart from the events that played out in the 1960s.

There were attempts to suppress dissent under both the Johnson and Nixon administrations, but suppression only fueled the fires of protest, which drummed the former out of office and led the latter to excesses, near impeachment, and disgrace. Bush and Ashcroft will only win their war on freedom and democracy if we let them win, no matter how the Supreme Court is stacked, no matter who controls the prison gates and the tanks and the missiles.

Ex-Canadian rocker Neil Young has caved, in a fit of amnesia apparently brought on by an elder excess of wealth or a youthful exposure to drugs, voicing his "support" for the USA/Patriot Act. "To protect our freedoms," Young said, "it seems we're going to have to relinquish some of our freedoms for a short period of time."

Did George Orwell delineate double-speak more clearly? As Don Henly sang, "I will not lie down. I will not go quietly."

Bothwell is author of The Icarus Glitch: Another Duck Soup Reader, and editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone.

  • We have learned the Lessons of Vietnam (havent we?) and wont make those mistakes again.

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