Dissent Deficit

An American ideal needs a workout
August 7, 2008

To suggest that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were in any way blowback from U.S. actions (and inactions) in the Muslim world is to dissent, rather sharply, from the principal narrative that took root in this country, and that persists to this day, about those attacks. In the months and years following 9/11, doing so was even branded treasonous by some in the public sphere; and in April, when the Reverend Jeremiah Wright convulsed the nation with a series of public statements that were roundly criticized as racist and anti-American, some of the sharpest denunciations were spurred by the video of a sermon Wright gave less than a week after 9/11 in which he said the attacks were America’s chickens “coming home to roost.”

Regardless of how one feels about this notion of cause and effect, our failure as a nation, seven years on, to even begin to air it out is both curious and instructive. Curious because America was conceived in dissent, and the principles of free speech and a free exchange of ideas are central to our national self-image and the image we want to project to the world. Instructive because, in spite of this, meaningful dissent—dissent that is welcomed, even encouraged, as a healthy part of the democratic process; dissent that is taken seriously, debated, and considered—is effectively absent from American public discourse. Forget Jeremiah Wright. Both the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States and the Pentagon’s own Defense Science Board have, in separate reports, presented essentially, if less colorfully, the same view as Wright—that the attacks were attributable in large part to anger over various U.S. policies in the Muslim world. Yet the press and the public have largely ignored the implications of this idea.

Rather than engage speech that strays too far from the dangerously narrow borders of our public discourse, the gatekeepers of that discourse—our mass media—tend to effectively shout it down, marginalize it, or ignore it. Wright, for example, was ridiculed as a fringe-dwelling albatross around Barack Obama’s neck; the pertinent aspects of the reports from the 9/11 Commission and the Defense Science Board, meanwhile, got virtually no attention from the press.

It is easy to say that the Internet allows dissent to bubble up without the mainstream media’s megaphone, and this is true as far as it goes. But another truth about the Internet is that it fosters a balkanization of tastes, and much of what is preached online is to the choir. Still another is that the anonymity afforded by the Net has elicited a degree of intolerance for honest disagreement and debate that is seriously unsettling.

Dissent needs to go mainstream. It is already clear that a wide range of new and looming realities of the twenty-first century will demand creative and even radical new ideas from America about who we are, how we live, and how we deal with the rest of the world. Even Fareed Zakaria, in his fairly optimistic new book, The Post-American World, worries that America’s sclerotic political system (the “sensationalist” press included) is too consumed with trivia and sustaining the status quo to respond effectively to a world in which, as he writes, “on every dimension—industrial, financial, educational, social, cultural—the distribution of power is…moving away from American dominance.”

If you actually listened to Reverend Wright’s entire April speech to the National Press Club (rather than the endless, selective looping of it on cable news), you would have heard, among all the so-called bombast, an explanation of how the idea of transformation is central to black liberation theology. This notion that things—laws, social orders, lives—can and do change for the better, sounded quintessentially American. It also struck us as having a whiff of journalism’s great muckraking tradition. As the nation moves toward its most important presidential election in at least thirty years, the question of how and what to change might be something we—the people and our press—should discuss.

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The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.