Repressive messages lead to potential dangers

Andrew Scott ’01

Kudos to Steve Rogness and Amy Seeboth for their constructive response to Jonathan Horne’s critique of fair trade. Whereas Mr. Rogness and Ms. Seeboth stick right to the issues, Mr. Horne personally attacked fair trade activists and demonstrated a sad feature of our civic discourse post 9/11: when progressives advance their opinions in the public sphere they often invite not only disagreement but also aggressive personal attacks. It is a trend as subtle as it is alarming: In both fair trade and peace activism, reactionary forces greet dissent with a power-play of delegitimization that ultimately stifles our public debate. Mr. Horne, for his part, makes the following attacks: He argues that fair trade activists are insincere in their concern for farmers and motivated to hurt American business. He accuses activists of taking the easy way out, (an attack on character) and he mocks their supposed aversion to lowering tariffs. To be sure, his conclusion is no more substantive than an insult: progressives just like to point out problems. We’re whiners.

Some may counter that it is naive to protest this, but the pattern here is significant. Since 9/11 peace activists have also had to overcome a daunting, shadowy force of repression cached in the language of their opponents. The pro-peace arguments would be so “anti-American” as to be dangerous. Either you’re with us or you’re against us, the logic goes. (If this were true, what sorts of violent reprisals would be viewed as legitimate?)

But just as breathtaking, activists are further silenced by the demand to respect the “unity” engendered by 9/11 and Bush’s push to war. If “united we stand” is advanced as a call to war, those who oppose war would be guilty of destroying unity. Again, the parallels are striking: fair trade activists are whiners, and peace activists are divisive.

What kind of response can activists muster? Should they launch their own invective, matching the insults tit for tat, refining the art of the collective smack-down? Or should they continue with their program-advancing policy arguments that go against the grain? (It is true that activists don’t always uphold their end of the bargain. They must be equally careful not to malign those who disagree with them).

Here is an example of what they’re up against: During the push to war there was a fierce lawn sign battle raging next-door in Minnesota, pitting those saying “no to war in Iraq” against those encouraging us to “support our troops.” (In turn the peaceniks printed a counter-counter sign: “Support our troops: bring ’em home.”) While both messages are directed at those on both sides of the aisle, only one directly affirms or denies policy. In contrast, the other jumps right for the throat in a near accusation of treason. If you don’t support the war, you’re no better than an enemy combatant, the sign seems to imply.

And this astonishing power perfectly illustrates a mechanism of repression that is incompatible with democracy. When dissenters are nearly accused of treason–at a time when fundamental liberty has been curtailed, when government secrecy is at its highest in recent memory, when we are one terrorist attack away from marshal law and possible suspension of elections (there is no stage of alarm higher than “Code Red”)–as long as this sort of accusation goes unanswered, we fail to defend the America that terrorists are said to hate us for.

Now, Mr. Horne came nowhere near to suggesting treason in coffee activism, this is true. But he does exercise a language of marginalization that may be easily activated within a broader repressive movement.

Bottom line: when we take for granted that legitimate policy arguments will be dismissed with violent speech, we harm our ability to distinguish between legitimate dissent and treason. Who will join me to denounce this and stand united?

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