Listening to Our Inner Ashcroft

The right not to watch what you say.

As soon as President Bush declared War on Terrorism, culture warriors rushed to their customary battle stations. From satellites hovering in space, a few right-wingers survey the landscape, ready to aim their laser rays and zap any peaceniks who dare to undermine the war effort with their defeatism and moral relativity. Meanwhile, in bunkers deep below the nation’s major universities, a few left-wingers huddle around sensitive seismic devices capable of detecting shockwaves from even the slightest formal suppression of dissent.

For both groups, the pickings have been distressingly slim. Early on, TV comedian Bill Maher violated the rhetorical convention that all bad guys are cowards by noting that it’s arguably less cowardly to hijack an airliner and fly it to your own certain death than to rain missiles from far away. There was an unholy fuss, Maher’s show lost some advertisers and some local stations, but he wasn’t fired. All in all, not exactly the Rosenberg case from either camp’s perspective. And the selection hasn’t gotten much richer since then. Susan Sontag says something dumb and takes it back. A couple of newspaper columnists criticize Bush’s leadership and do get fired. A commencement speaker complains about Attorney General John Ashcroft and is heckled off the stage. Ashcroft himself says fatuously that “those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty … only aid terrorists” by eroding national unity. But he doesn’t propose or even threaten actual restrictions on Americans’ freedom to dissent—concentrating instead on novel ways to lock up foreigners.

The grist shortages for both of these mills—the one grinding away at disloyal dissenters and the one grinding away at the smothering of dissent—have the same cause: Almost no one is dissenting. It’s hard to dissent from the core proposition that the perpetrators of a crime as monstrous as 9/11 are worthy targets of America’s military and diplomatic power. But there has been remarkably little dissent on subsidiary issues, unrelated issues, Bush’s leadership in general. Even genial mockery largely dried up for a while, replaced by an unprecedented flood of patriotic gush and mush.

Why? In part because of self-censorship. John Ashcroft can relax because people have been listening to their Inner Ashcroft. I know this for a fact because I’m one of them. As a writer and editor, I have been censoring myself and others quite a bit since Sept. 11. By “censoring,” I mean deciding not to write or publish things for reasons other than my own judgment of their merits. What reasons? Sometimes it has been a sincere feeling that an ordinarily appropriate remark is inappropriate at this extraordinary moment. Sometimes it is genuine respect for readers who might feel that way even if I don’t. But sometimes it is simple cowardice.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, with characteristic brilliance, described the situation well when he said early on that in this war Americans “need to watch what they say.” He was not referring to national security secrets, and he was not threatening official censorship. He was describing an atmosphere in which clichés are sacrosanct and trying to say something interesting can be more trouble than it is worth. Especially if you go too far or put it badly, as can happen if you’re trying to be interesting and not watching what you say.

The right to go too far and the right to put it badly may not seem like terribly crucial rights, but they are. Opening your mouth is not an exact science, and it’s harder to do well if you’re looking over your shoulder at the same time. Consider an analogy from libel law. The constitution protects some false statements from libel suits, not for their own sake but to give attempts to tell the truth some necessary room for error. For similar reasons, a healthy political culture has to be able to shrug off some stupid or even offensive remarks. If your main concern is not to say anything offensive or subject to misinterpretation, a lot will go unsaid that is true or even possibly wise. Or at least amusing. Bill Maher has been watching what he says lately, and the nation is poorer for it.

If you don’t watch what you say, you risk getting run over by the Great American Umbrage Machine. The U.S. political system protects freedom of speech from formal suppression better than any other nation on earth. But American culture is less tolerant of aberrant views and behavior than many others, and that tolerance has eroded further since Sept. 11. And as conservative culture warriors like to point out—or, indeed, complain (as in the political correctness debate)—a society’s norms are set by the culture as much as by the political system. In a country like Great Britain, the legal protections for free speech are weaker than ours, but the social protections are stronger. They lack a First Amendment, but they have thicker skin and a greater acceptance of eccentricity of all sorts.

What gets suppressed when you’re watching what you say is not formal political dissent or important revelations about government malfeasance. Those things you say with care in any event. It’s the lesser criticisms of our government and our leaders, the odd speculative comment that you’re not even sure of yourself, the joke that may fall flat. But these are important too. My New Year’s resolution for 2002 is to stop listening to my Inner Ashcroft and to be less careful about what I say. How about you?