Book Review: Lewis H. Lapham’s Gag Rule

I was lucky to find this slender little book; I’ve been taking it with me everywhere I go, reading and re-reading it in restaurants or while standing in line at the supermarket. Lewis H. Lapham is the editor of Harper’s, a prolific writer and a sort of 21st century Tom Paine. His new book, Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and the Stifling of Democracy is his first in 10 years. My guess is that he was so appalled at the course on which America had embarked after 2001 that he simply had no choice — he had to write this book. You can tell with every paragraph, Lapham is a man who is mad as hell and isn’t going to take it any more.

Lapham is a reporter of the old school — brash, skeptical, cynical and not satisfied with political hacks who say, “Trust me.” The sheer energy and passion with which he has infused this short but weighty book is remarkable. With ruthless logic he exposes how the Bush Administration has indoctrinated the nation on a diet of fear and pseudo-patriotism, creating a sheepish, dissent-averse populace the likes of which would have made our Founding Fathers wince.

Lapham is masterful at delivering his points with blunt eloquence. He is obviously exasperated, furious, and he can’t quite fathom what he is seeing. I take that back; he can fathom it, and that’s why he’s so upset. He is witnessing, live and in color, a nation that is giving up its critical faculties and acquiescing to its leaders’ demands to surrender its freedoms in the name of a “war on terror,” a war on a noun that no one can even define.

An example of Latham’s pithy wisdom:

“President Bush likes to tell his military and civilian audiences that, as Americans, ‘we refuse to live in fear,’ and of all lies told by the government’s faith healers and gun salesmen, I know of none so cowardly. Where else does the Bush administration ask the American people to live except in fear? On what grounds does it justify its destruction of the nation’s civil liberties? Ever since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, no week has passed in which th government had failed to issue warnings of a sequel. Sometimes it’s the director of the FBI, sometimes the attorney general or an unnamed source in the CIA or the Department of Homeland Security, but always it’s the same message: Suspect your neighbor and watch the sky, buy duct tape, avoid the Washington Monument, hide the children. Let too many citizens begin to ask impertinent questions about the shambles of the federal budget or the disappearance of a forest in Montana, and the government sends another law-enforcement officer to a microphone with a story about a missing tube of plutonium or a newly discovered nerve gas.”

My favorite part of the book is Lapham’s description of how journalism in America changed over the past 45 years. He traces the beginnings of our “new journalism” back to President Kennedy, when journalists ascended their traditional role of cynical observers to become celebrities, and even to participate in government. As we all know, many attain rock-star status, and the TV talking heads can earn as much money in a single day on the lecture circuit as many of us make in a year. Lapham’s not happy about this — and if you read the book, you won’t be either. (How can you be a good journalist when you are so beholden to corporate interests? Answer: You can’t.)

Gag Rule is a jewel, and I am delighted I found it. While it’s certainly a polemic, it’s also a page-turner. Lapham’s style has a bite to it, but it’s always engaging and often downright poetic. I can’t recommend it strongly enough. A sublime antidote to Fox News.

The Discussion: 15 Comments

This is not strictly on-topic, sorry. I saw most of Fahrenheit 9-11 last night (the cheap and nasty pirated DVD crapped out in the middle of the section dealing directly with the soldiers in Iraq) and one thing that struck me was Michael Moore’s portrayal of the way the US government has manipulated people’s fear to get them to blindly obey- one of the major themes of Bowling for Columbine and apparently one of Mr Lapham’s themes. Never having been to America that manipulation of fear really stands out, and it’s quite distressing to watch America tear down the freedoms it’s supposed to stand for, this time in the ‘homeland’ instead of in some remote Central American jungle.

As for the changes in American journalism, way back when I lived in Taiyuan, long before the September 11 attacks, I read an article on Alternet in which an American journalist explained his decision to move to Britain- because he despised the excuse for investigative journalism that existed in America at the time (and seems to have only gotten worse) where journalists would make a few phone calls to government officials to ask their opinion and leave it at that. He liked the fact that in Britain he was actually allowed and expected to investigate stories.

July 6, 2004 @ 10:23 pm | Comment

Chris, you are absolutely right-on. Remember, Moore says, in one of the film’s most chilling moments, that Bush “declared war on his subjects” — by subjecting them to constant fear. In one breath, the government is telling you to be frightened, to be on the watch, that attack is imminent; but at the same time Bush is saying, “Go shopping, go to Disneyland, don’t worry.”

This is the reason I posted the quote from 1984 earlier today — the idea of keeping the population in a constant state of angst and dread in the name of a war that cannot be defined and can never be won… it’s exactly what we are seeing today, right now. (It’s only recently that I realized Orwell was a genius; he had it all right.)

As a former member of the journalistic gaggle, I can confirm what you read in the article — most US journalists are lazy and they live from one invitation to the next, and from one drink to the next. The very idea of rigorous research and fact checking and inquiry — those are unknowns to most journalists, who aspire to stardom. They won’t get there by asking obnoxious questions and making the officials uncomfortable.

July 6, 2004 @ 10:41 pm | Comment

Richard this is an intriguing review. You should write a book yourself! But I have never seen this book before and I never heard of it. Is it available in the bookstores now?

July 6, 2004 @ 10:59 pm | Comment

Before Richard writes a book he needs to get a handle on those commas. But that’s beside the point. 🙂

As long as there exists news-for-dollars institutions, there will be no good journalism.

I have the opportunity to watch CNBC, MSNBC, CNN and BBC while I run the treadmill every night at the fitness place. I can usually see them on each of the screens. I am frightened to say that BBC now looks and “speaks” no differently than CNN. It is only the angles which are different.

July 6, 2004 @ 11:54 pm | Comment

I read the news accounts of something I have first-hand knowledge of, and see how accurate it is. If it’s accurate, I feel I can trust the paper for other topics.
Sadly, the only major newspaper that has passed the test so far has been “The Economist” .
Lewis Lapham’s magazine fails the test most of the time, BTW.

However, blogs tend to get high marks; even if they have a specific viewpoint that I don’t agree with (as is occasionally the case here), the viewpoint is transparent enough that I can respect what the writer is trying to do.

So I celebrate the ascendancy of blogs and do not mourn the descent of big journalism into irrelevance.

Richard, stop watching Fox News. You won’t miss much, and judging from your reactions, watching can’t be good for your blood pressure. 😉

July 7, 2004 @ 1:25 am | Comment

I wish your review had listed some specifics from the book re: ways in which American society is suppressing dissent.

Personally, I’m skeptical. As Steven Den Beste pointed out: with Saddam going on trial, the world is about to see a real dictator who ran a real police state. The further irony is that Lapham’s book is available– i.e., it’s an example of strong dissent not being suppressed. And Lapham won’t end up like the Chinese SARS doctor, in prison somewhere, undergoing “reeducation.” Lapham will, like Chomsky et al., live to publish again and again. This serves to undercut the suppression argument.

On a vague, thematic level, I agree the Bush Administration is using public fear to its own ends, and this should be fought. But it can’t be fought through exaggeration: it galls me when a Limousine Liberal like Tim Robbins complains about being repressed when I, here in Censorshipville, Korea, can read all about his protestations, which obviously weren’t being repressed. Lapham, Robbins, Chomsky– all are widely read and heard and discussed.

Again, to be clear– I agree with the basic notion that some bad, bad trends are in place in American society. I further agree they have to be combatted. But I wonder to what extent the cries of “Repression!” or “Destruction of our rights!” or “Suppression of dissent!” are more hyperbolic than substantive.

So, back to my original question, the only one that concerns me: what, specifically, does the author have to say about American suppression of dissent?


July 7, 2004 @ 3:54 am | Comment

If you want to see actual repression in America, look at the victims of the Drug War, and cry no tears for Big Jounalism.

Big Journalism sold their soul, literally, to create the media empires that have been used by the Bush Administration to DO THEIR FEARMONGERING!!

They should not ask us to weep for them, when they created the lie filled monster of modern media.

July 7, 2004 @ 7:23 am | Comment

Visitor, it’s brand new and I don’t know if it’s on the shelf yet, but if you’re in the US you can get it from Amazon.

Kevin, David has answered your question in part: The book is all about the suppression of dissent, not with tear gas or clubs, but through fear. I cited the long passage because it’s at the heart of Lapham’s premise: that by making the people fearful of an obscure enemy and making that fear a part of daily life, the government, aided and abetted by an uninquisitive and uncurious media, squelches dissent. Dissent becomes unpatriotic, a phenomenon we saw shortly after 9/11 but that became more apparent during the buildup to Iraq, when anyone who raised questions became a “weasel.” A common theme on our most-watched cable news channel is that attacking (i.e., asking tough questions) the president destroys the morale of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and thus should not be done. This is symnptomatic of our “Gag Rule.” So is the shift from news reporter to superstar — it’s all part of a disinclination to understand (phase one), to question (phase 2), and to dissent (phase 3). You can’t dissent if you don’t know, which is why disinformation is one of China’s most thriving industries.

For more on the silencing of dissent in America over the past several years, visit Orcinus, which focuses on an increasing tolerance of right-wing thugishness toward Americans who dissent. It is not an overnight phenomenon, but a gradual yet clearly traceable shift. And it’s not always outright “silencing,” but rather intimidation and marginalization, creating the same net effect — a cowed and trembling media and an uninformed, un-outraged populace.

July 7, 2004 @ 8:51 am | Comment

As for the suppression of dissent, I will have to keep things very general and admit at the outset that my observations are from a great distance: The difference between democracies and dictatorships is not that dictatorships suppress the dissent that democracies allow; it is a difference of methods and degree.

In a dictatorship dissenters are locked away, if they’re lucky. I will not dispute that this is evil.

In a democracy suppression of dissent comes in two forms. The first is practiced by the big media networks, such as CNN or Fox. This is a subtle form of suppression that simply involves editors deciding not to report certain stories or to slant stories to support their chosen point of view. The second form of suppression is used to deal with Michael Moore-types: noisy dissenters who refuse to shut up and find alternative ways to express their viewpoint. Such people are marginalised through counter-propaganda campaigns (i.e. conservatives trying to dispute the facts in Michael Moore’s films) and through ridicule. The point is to convince Joe Public who is blessed with an average intellect and is too busy trying to put bread on the table to worry about revolution that the dissenters are a bunch of raving loonies who are best ignored, and that the facts can only be found in the mainstream media.

While I do not for an instant try to pretend that the ‘democratic’ approach to suppression of dissent is as bad as or worse than the dictatorial approach, the net effect is the same: The masses do not dispute the system that rules them and generally behave themselves, allowing the rulers to remain in power and exploit the people.

Before anybody makes any untoward accusations, let me assure you that I would rather be a Michael Moore in ‘democratic’ America than Jiang Yanyong in ‘dictatorial’ China.

One thing that America’s current political situation proves is that the Moores and Laphams of this world are desperately needed in a democracy. It doesn’t matter whether they’re right or wrong, they hold the bastards to account and that is the most important function the media can perform.

July 7, 2004 @ 9:00 am | Comment

Chris, I couldn’t have said it any better. Just because people like Moore (and me and Lapham and you) are permitted to say what they choose doesn’t mean we are not living in an environment where dissent is stifled. They are mocked and marginalized or ignored altogether. And those are all manifestations of a gag rule.

July 7, 2004 @ 9:16 am | Comment

I’m not sure if we should confuse “gag rule” with “spirited disagreement,” but I respect the explanations in the previous comments.

One problem, though, is that we’re still too close to 9/11. It’s not the right moment for anyone to be going “Get over it already!”, which is what many other countries expect of us, and which constitutes the fundamental misunderstanding of American anger, post-9/11. The rawness of feeling is, for good or ill, putting the brakes on rhetoric that leans in a certain direction.

I’ll be curious to read this book myself, if/when it comes out in Korea (I’m sure it’ll be available). Still, I’m a bit bothered by the vague, general nature of the argument. The claim that an anti-dissent culture is being cultivated needs some hard, visible edges in order to be proved– documented trends visible in journalism over the years, for example, or significant changes in politicians’ (and citizens’) rhetoric. Synchronic and diachronic analysis.

The evidence also needs to be convincing to a wide swath of the public because the very first thing to come out of the naysayers’ mouths will be, “But that’s only your interpretation.” There needs to be as little spin as possible. Although selectivity can’t be avoided in marshalling evidence for an argument, care and fairness need to be visible in the finished product.

Anyway, I was happy to read the above responses. Daniel Drezner wrote a recent entry about lack of civility in comment threads; Richard’s site is always encouraging in that regard (except when people like that one vulgar dude come along… remember him? “Losers! Assholes!”– angry little weenie, but amusing).


PS: I’ll be sure to visit Orcinus. Have been meaning to blogroll that site for a while.

July 7, 2004 @ 11:27 am | Comment

Kevin, it’s not only 9/11, but also the disturbing trend under Bush toward government secrecy and unaccountabiity. Everything that disproves their assertions they brand as unreliable and wrong. Everything is stamped secret. All Bush records — for Jr and Sr — are, for the very first time, sealed and classified forever. This is unprecedented. But it happens because we allow it to happen. And because the media fail to report it with all its implications. I promise, the book makes this quite clear, especially the shift from an antagonistic, unruly media to a group of pacified ass-kissers– at least in the mainstream press.

Orcinus should be a daily read. Unfortunately, he’s an essayist and not a true blogger, so it can take all day to read his long posts. But he is the smartest guy in the blogosphere, and he makes it very clear how a slow and all-but-imperceptible shift of far-right media into the mainstream has played an enormous role in making healthy dissent look like treason. And when that happens, dissent becomes more timid, or ends altogether.

Yes, I read Drezner’s Comments post, and I guess I have it pretty good here. But then, I’m not getting 10,000 readers a day — that’s when the trolls start to invade. And yes, I kind of miss that rogue commenter (“Loser!”); he was a hoot.

July 7, 2004 @ 11:56 am | Comment

Kevin, you’re right in that there is a difference between ‘gag rule’ and ‘spirited disagreement’. If we take Michael Moore as an example, he seems to be more a victim of ‘gag rule’ in that his opponents do everything they can to ridicule and marginalise him to prevent plebs like us taking him seriously. He has a brief scene in Fahrenheit 9/11 where Bush yells at him to get a real job, or something along those lines- that’s the treatment I’m talking about, that’s the ‘democratic’ version of suppression of dissent.

Spirited disagreement is precisely what this world needs- spirited disagreement in an environment in which dissent is tolerated and in which all interlocuters are required to present rational, reasoned arguments. I found Fahrenheit 9/11 rather childish, but that’s not surprising considering the environment in which it was made.

July 7, 2004 @ 7:31 pm | Comment

The trend towords unaccountability in govt. in the US has been going on a long time. The present administrations egrerious abuse of that lack of accountability merely displays what’s been brewing for quite a while.

The Federal Rulemaking Process is perhaps the largest culprit. The ‘pesky details’ of legislation get tossed off by Congress to be dealt with by the appropriate bureaucratic dept. in the Executive branch, over which even the President has scant control most of the time. How many times have we heard a Congress-critter proclaim on TV during an election cycle that they ‘voted the right way, it was the implementation in the bureaucracy that botched it’. It also let’s them bury who the true winners and losers are. It’s so much easier to hide a bills true effects when they are disclosed in obscure postings in the Federal Register than debated in all their aweful, tedious glory on CSPAN.

Again, my view is that the current admin’s abuses merely showcase all the rot in the (theoretically) imperial system FDR implemented to ‘save us’ from the Great Depression. That’s where all this bureaucratic non-sense really took hold (after, of course, he’d packed the Supreme Court explicitly to gut the teeth in the Commerce Clause).

Not that the GOP hasn’t gleefully ran with and expanded the scope of Federal power since then. Both parties are now much more concerned with their own power than with doing what’s right. If they weren’t, SOMEONE on a major ticket would be de-crying the lies, corruption and self-destruction wrought by the Drug War.

That’s my personal litmus test right now for an Honest Politician: do they speak the truth about the Drug War? Aside from a few isolated, local candidates around the country, I haven’t seen any yet. That’s an even bigger Big Lie than anything to do with the War on Terror, although the rhetoric is getting close. But the lies, on both sides, have not sunk into everyone’s consciousness to the same degree. Yet.

July 7, 2004 @ 7:45 pm | Comment

David, the drug war is one of those third-rail topics. Everyone knows it’s a monstrosity, but to say so means political suicide. It’s like social security and the death penalty. A real dilemma for politicians. I agree with a lot of what you say, but you are more libertarian than I could ever be. I think there’s a positive role government plays in keeping with the vision of the Founding Fathers. Part of that vision is preventing dynasties like the Bush’s from taking hold of the government, as well as preventing the massive accumulations of wealth by a handful of very few families, mirroring the old English royalty. (Check out Kevin Philips’ American Dynasty for more on this topic.)

Chris, exactly right — spirited disagreement is the healthiest thing for a democracy, and it is discouraged. To disagree with Bush about Iraq or the never-ending war is tantamount to treason.

July 8, 2004 @ 8:44 am | Comment

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