Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Column 114 - Dissent

I've just returned from the United Arab Emirates, a place where I'll admit that I had some degree of trepidation about going. I was assured that the UAE is politically pretty safe – the general feeling is that the people and government there are concerned with oil and business, not politics, and by and large I found that to be the case. I never felt I was in danger. In general, I have found that in most of the world people draw a clear distinction between America and Americans – they may not like our government or its actions, but they don't hold it against individual Americans, particularly business people.


So I didn't find it at all strange that, at a women's bridge tournament in Shanghai, the American team tried to distance themselves from the US government by holding up a sign at the awards dinner saying "We didn't vote for Bush," an action reminiscent of the Dixie Chicks' similar declaration in a much more publicly noticeable venue.


The reaction was immediate and intense. Bridge fans sent e-mails accusing the women of "treason" and "sedition." The U.S. Bridge Federation proposed several punishments, including 200 hours of community service and expulsion from next year's World Bridge Olympiad in Beijing. Never mind that that the bridge players were not criticizing their country, but a politician; that they did it in a lighthearted way; that they sang the national anthem and waved little American flags -- none of this calmed those who took mortal offense at that tiny bit of critique.


I've commented before on this administration's attempt to suppress dissent about the President and about the war in Iraq. The Right has a long history of equating dissent with disloyalty, despite the fact that this country was founded on freedom of speech as a basic right, and despite the moral responsibility of the citizen of any country to speak out against actions they see, rightly or wrongly, as immoral.


In the years after World War II, we were quick to analyze and criticize the people of Germany for not speaking out against the Nazis. Actually, Hermann Goering was clear on how dissent was suppressed in the Third Reich: "It is always a simple matter to drag the people along..[to do] the bidding of the leaders," [regardless of the form of government]. "All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."


I don't know that I would choose an international bridge tournament as the place to state my dissent, but I don't think it's wrong to do so either. Rather, I think the ladies' action was in line with the actions of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma and of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. Those women's actions had greater potential consequences, but were of the same ilk.


As Edmund Burke said, and as has been noted so often in discussions of pre-war Germany, McCarthy Era United States, and Vietnam War dissent, "all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good [people] to do nothing. The Bush Administration has cost us our budget surplus, our international reputation, the lives of thousands of American service people and countless others, and even the semblance of apolitical justice at home. We cannot let it cost us our freedom to dissent.

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