Against dissent: Why free speech is important as the U.S. drops cluster bombs on Afghanistan

By Robert Jensen

Published in Counterpunch · November, 2001

[A talk to University of Texas teach-in on war and civil liberties, November 1, 2001]

It might seem strange, given my involvement in antiwar work at a time when most people support the war, that I would title a talk “Against Dissent.” How could I be against something in which I seem to be engaged quite actively?

I am not going to argue against political activity that challenges the dominant view, but instead will suggest a different way to understand that political activity. The point is not simply semantic, but goes to the heart of what it means to be a citizen in a democracy. More on that later.

Let me say up front that I believe that in light of what is happening in Afghanistan at the moment, the topic of free speech seems, in some sense, trivial. I do not mean that speech does not matter. I believe free speech is a good thing in and of itself. But my main concern at the moment is not the intrinsic value of free speech, the way it fosters the growth and development of individuals, which is one powerful argument for protecting free speech. Right now, free speech is on my mind because I live in the nation that has the most destructive military capacity in the history of the world. I live in a nation that has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to use that capacity to kill, and kill civilians. And I live in the nation that at this moment is using that capacity again to kill civilians in a conflict that is being sold to us as a war on terrorism that will keep us safe, but is, I believe, primarily a war to extend the power of a particular segment of U.S. society.

In other words, free speech matters so much right now not primarily because it is good for us, which it is, but because without it citizens of this country will have fewer chances to stop our government from destroying human life abroad. Tonight I want to talk about why free speech and democracy are in some sense more important than ever. In this sense, free speech is not a trivial matter. How we defend and use our free speech is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

It is a matter of life and death for the Afghan child who sees the bright yellow cylinder on the ground and bends over to pick it up; the child who picks up the bright yellow unexploded bomblet from a cluster bomb dropped from a U.S. plane; unexploded because 7 percent of the bomblets released by a cluster bomb do not detonate at first; a bomblet that will explode when picked up and send steel shards ripping into the child’s body. And then the child will die. And then U.S. officials explain that we must keep using cluster bombs because they are effective antipersonnel and antiarmor weapons.

Our freedom to speak is not trivial to that child. So let us speak of free speech.

Let us begin with a little history.

On June 16, 1918, labor leader Eugene Debs made a speech in Canton, Ohio, in which he dared to question U.S. involvement in World War I. In this speech, he said, “Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. …the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish their corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace.”

He continued: “They are continually talking about their patriotic duty. It is not their but your patriotic duty that they are concerned about. There is a decided difference. Their patriotic duty never takes them to the firing line or chucks them into the trenches.”

For this, Debs was charged and convicted under the Espionage Act for trying to discourage enlistment and promote insubordination in the armed forces. Debs gave that speech knowing that it could land him in prison, and he was sentenced to 10 years. During his two years in prison, he ran his fifth and final campaign for president and won 913,664 votes. He was pardoned, not by Wilson — the allegedly liberal Democratic president who took the country into that disastrous war — but by Harding, the conservative Republican.

If Debs were alive today, I believe he would be part of this antiwar movement, speaking about the hypocrisy of U.S. policy and the immorality of killing civilians. The big difference would be that if Debs were speaking today, he would not be thrown in jail. We are not being thrown in jail for making antiwar speeches this time around. At least not yet.

That’s progress. That’s a good thing. The space for free speech in the United States has expanded dramatically since 1918. That space is not guaranteed forever, but we have it right now.

But that’s not where our analysis should end. We must think not only about the scope of formal freedoms, of legal guarantees, but of the context in which that speech happens. We must look not only at the actions of government, but also how wealth and power in the private sector affects these questions. We must ask about how free we are to gain access to the mass media channels through which most people get their news. While celebrating the expansion of formal freedom of speech, we must ask questions about how effectively citizens can exercise those freedoms in the world in which we live.

If we ponder these questions, we come to a paradox: How is it that in the United States we have arguably the most expansive free speech rights in the industrial world and an incredibly degraded political culture? How did political freedom produce such a depoliticized culture?

Let’s examine that in the context of what I have been writing since September 11 and the reaction to it.

An op/ed piece that ran on September 14 in the Houston Chronicle, in which I talked about the history of terrorist activities by the U.S. government and its importance to understanding 9-11, sparked many angry letters to me and university officials. Let’s start with University of Texas President Larry Faulkner’s public response.

His letter in response to my op/ed made three points. First, he said he supported my First Amendment right to speak, which is fine with me. Second, he pointed out that I do not speak for the university in any official capacity, which also is fine with me; I don’t want to speak for the university. Finally, Faulkner said, “Jensen is not only misguided, but has become a fountain of undiluted foolishness on issues of public policy. Students must learn that there is a good deal of foolish opinion in the popular media and they must become skilled at recognizing and discounting it. I, too, was disgusted by Jensen’s article, but I also must defend his freedom to state his opinion. The First Amendment is the bedrock of American liberty.”

Many people, including a surprising number of faculty colleagues, have told me they saw nothing wrong with Faulkner’s statement because he defended my rights and then exercised his own right to speak. A slightly more sophisticated analysis is called for.

First, let me be clear: None of this is personal for me. I don’t care what Larry Faulkner says about me. I do care, however, how a person in power on a campus misuses that power.

Larry Faulkner does have a right to speak. But that does not mean he is free from criticism for his speech, any more than I should escape criticism. As president of the university, Faulkner has considerable power — the power to hire and fire, to dictate policy, and to set the intellectual tone on campus. It should be a truism that with power comes responsibility. For example, in the classroom I have considerable power. If a student were to make a comment that I felt was foolish, it would be irresponsible for me — the person in the room with the ability to determine grades and set the intellectual tone of the class — to respond to the student by saying, “You are foolish and no one should listen to you.” Even if I believed that, I shouldn’t say it, for the obvious reason that it would inhibit other students from speaking. Even if the student in question had the strength to challenge me, the incident might lead other students to silence themselves.

The analogy holds for the president and the campus.

The first and most obvious point to make is that the president offered a bad model of intellectual engagement. I wrote an essay that made a political argument. Faulkner responded with an ad hominem attack. I used to teach a course called Critical Thinking for Journalists, and I used a textbook called Attacking Faulty Reasoning, which defines ad hominem as a fallacy that “consists in attacking one’s opponent in a personal and abusive way as a means of ignoring or discrediting his or her criticism or argument.” If I were to grade Faulkner based on the standards from my introductory journalism class — well, perhaps it is best not to be obsessed with grades.

But rather than simply criticize Faulkner, let’s think about what he could have done. He could have issued a statement that said something like this:

“Many people have been upset by the public comments of a faculty member, and I understand their concerns. But at the University of Texas we take seriously the mission of creating the most open, engaged intellectual atmosphere possible in which people can explore ideas. As a public institution, we also hope that our faculty, staff, and students will be part of a broader public dialogue, taking their knowledge beyond the campus as active and engaged citizens. Inevitably in a pluralist democracy, that will produce clashes between people over deeply held beliefs. We should celebrate that engagement, not try to shut it down. Given the importance of the events of September 11, I encourage members of the UT community to seek all possible venues for discussion of the political and moral questions, on campus and in public. Now, more than ever, let us make good on the promise of democracy.”

Now, if he wanted to go on to disagree with my essay, he could have said something like this:

“In the spirit of that democratic engagement, I would like to offer my critique of Jensen’s argument.”

What would come after that, I do not know, because President Faulkner chose not to make public the reasons for his critical assessment.

So, we might can look around UT and ask whether, at the largest campus in the United States, we see the maximal realization of freedom of expression. No formal suppression of speech rights has occurred, but has the institution supported free speech in a meaningful way? Has it done its job of creating the space for that speech? In light of those questions, we might ask what has been the role a statement from the president that endorses the formal guarantee of freedom that also offers an ad hominem attack?

I also want to discuss the public reaction to my essay. Here I want to highlight the difference between the messages I received from people in the United States, which ran about 70-30 against my views, and the messages I received from abroad, which were overwhelmingly either supportive of my view or interested in a rational discussion of them. These are not adequate samples for making definitive claims, but the difference hints at a simple fact: The things I said about U.S. history and politics that were so controversial in the United States are well understood in the rest of the world. We come back to the paradox: Why is it that people in the United States, with such expansive formal political freedoms, know less about their own history and politics than people abroad?

Which leads to another question: Why did so many Americans not only disagree with me, but become enraged with me? What is it about this political culture that leads people to see a different political analysis not as something to be argued with, but something to eliminate?

Again, we are left to ponder how the freedoms enjoyed in our version of democracy have produced a culture that is so hostile to intellectual engagement and democratic participation.

But that question obscures a point that is perhaps even more important. More distressing than the relatively small number of people who wanted me fired or deported (I got a lot of offers of one-way tickets to Afghanistan), is the much larger number of people who simply do not care enough to react at all — not just to react to me, but to react to the entire issue, beyond a few patriotic platitudes. What does it mean to live in a society in which the president can declare an unlimited war against unspecified enemies, then begin to fight that war with extreme brutality and disregard for the lives of innocent civilians, and a significant segment of the population simply does not care? When I ask such questions, people often say, “You have a right to your opinion; I support your right to speak.”

I think that indicates a fundamental moral, political, and intellectual crisis. Free speech has come to mean not a process of engagement, but a right to shout into the wind. People see no reason or obligation to engage. This tells me that we live in a political system that has democratic features but is not a meaningful democracy. I say that because I believe a meaningful democracy requires an active citizenry. That is why I titled this talk “Against Dissent.” Finally, I’ll explain what I mean by that.

In a meaningful democracy, citizens would be part of the process by which pubic policy is formulated. That is, citizens would discuss issues and problems, with access to the broadest range of information, leading to an exploration of the widest possible range of solutions and responses. The views of people would not only be relevant to the decisions politicians end up implementing, but would structure the choices politicians could make.

Instead, we live in a system in which many people think they are participating fully if they vote. Some will participate a bit further by working in the electoral process. Others will work at educating themselves about the policy options that politicians and other powerful people have laid out, so that they can better choose among those options. But very few people understand democracy to mean direct engagement in the process by which policy options are formulated.

That is why, for example, so many Americans do not know what to think of the movement to resist corporate domination of the global economy. Those people, such as the folks in the streets of Seattle, were asserting their right to be involved in the formulation of policy options, and it seemed strange to many Americans.

If that is what democracy could be — an active role for engaged citizens — then we can see why the term dissent doesn’t quite fit. If we all are part of the process of formulating policy options — if we do not give up the right to be involved in that process — then we begin with the idea that all policy options are open, and that the people will decide which option they want the government to pursue.

If that were the case, then I, and others who offer an antiwar perspective, wouldn’t be dissenting from some already-agreed-upon position. We would be contributing a policy option to the discussion. That wouldn’t be dissent; it would be participation in a conversation about which option or options might be most desirable.

Now, after the political process has concluded and a policy is chosen, then it makes sense to say that one dissents from that. But literally from September 12 on, my public speech has been labeled dissent. But it wasn’t dissent. It was my contribution to the policy discussion. It was labeled dissent only because this culture assumes that the pronouncements of the president and other “important” people are the policy, and we the people then have a right to either agree with it or dissent from it.

I have a different view of democracy. The antiwar movement has a different view of democracy. The movement for a fair and just global economy has a different view of democracy. In that sense, these kinds of movements are not simply about changing policies; they are about changing the system. They attempt to turn a system that now is democratic in its formal structure into a meaningful democracy in practice.

They are, quite literally, movements engaged in — to borrow a phrase from my colleague Rahul Mahajan — the struggle for the soul of a nation.

Ironically, when we engage in that struggle these days we are called anti-American, unpatriotic, or traitors. Let me respond to that, and close, by returning to Eugene Debs. In Canton, Ohio, in 1918, under the threat of a jail term, Debs said:

“Do not worry over the charge of treason to your masters, but be concerned about the treason that involves yourselves. Be true to yourself and you cannot be a traitor to any good cause on earth.”

Debs was one of many Americans who fought for free speech. At the same time these Americans were fighting for that right, they were not afraid to raise their voices against illegitimate authority and for justice, sometimes in the face of harsh repression.

We are lucky; we don’t have to fight those same battles to speak, at least not at the moment. We may face the scorn of some of our fellow citizens, or risk the condemnation of our bosses. Some may lose their jobs. But compared to facing down the barrel of a gun or risking jail time, well, let’s keep our hardships in perspective. Again, these freedoms we have won are not necessarily permanent; we have to work to hold them. But we do have them.

That means that more than ever, the question for us is whether we will use our voices, our energy — perhaps before too long our bodies in civil disobedience — to fight against illegitimate authority and for justice.

That child in Afghanistan reaching for a bomblet from an American cluster bomb, the parents in Afghanistan who in the coming weeks will watch their children starve because U.S. bombing has disrupted food distribution — they have a right to an answer. They are waiting for our answer.

What will our answer be?