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Jewish World Review Nov. 16, 2001 /1 Kislev, 5762

James Lileks

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Attack of the 'Patriotism police' and other Hollywood fare -- A HORRIBLE dark cloud is gathering over America, and it looks much like Joe McCarthy. (Whatever he looked like.) Dissent, it seems, is being met with the one thing we cannot allow: dissenting dissent. Let's quote Aaron Sorkin, wealthy mushroom enthusiast and "West Wing" creator:

"In the fifties there was a blacklist, and it ruined lives. . . . Well, it's happening all over again. I think it's right now when it's most important that there be dissent. When the patriotism police should be kept at bay."

Sorkin is echoing the bleat of many who've been stung by criticism of their criticism: an era of hamfisted repression looms, and unless brave people stand up and be counted, couragous men like Sorkin may only get three Emmys per year instead of four.

McCarthyism used to mean the ruination of one's career by a sweaty, alcoholic cheesehead on a power trip. It referred to the false, reckless or unsubstantiated charge of Communist sympathies. ("I have in my hand a list of 594 known Communists in the State, Treasury, and Lingerie and Sporting Goods Departments of the Federal Government! Hic.") There was a domestic Communist threat in the fifties, and some who cheered on Uncle Joe ought to have been held up for public censure. But the excesses and stupidity of some resulted in an indiscriminate handout of halos for all. Losing work because you were a Stalinist is seen today as proof of virtue.

Similiar ideas are at play now: dissent is being canonized without regard to the quality of the criticism, simply because people are arguing back. A college professor announces his approval of the Pentagon attack, and people call for his removal: McCarthy redux! Rep. Cynthia McKinney's writes of her fellow-feeling with the Saudi blame-the-Jews crowd, and people critique her remarks: jackboots at the door! A sponsor declines to subsidize Bill Maher's serialized incoherence, and Maher suddenly becomes our Solzhenitsyn.

You're free to say what you want. Of course there should be dissent, if only to reveal who's thinking with both lobes of the brain, and who's simply letting their mouth channel their jerking knee. If your speech reveals you as simpleton, don't be astonished when people laugh. Or argue.

Or put you on a blacklist. A private one, that is. When a person puts out their political beliefs for all to see and smell, you're entitled to act accordingly, to assemble your own private list of idiots. An instructive example from the pre-9/11 world appears on the dust jacket of Bill Ayer's autobiography, "Fugitive Days." Ayers was a domestic terrorist in the Vietnam era. Had he been bombing Black churches and abortion clinics, he would rightly be excoriated as a sack of dank filth on legs - but since he opposed the Pigs, man, the Establishment, man, he's America's own home-grown Che. He bombed the Pentagon back when that was still, you know, cool. (Before everyone got so uptight and McCarthyite about bombers.) He is not only unrepentant, he's recently announced he regrets not setting more bombs. Some blurbs from the cover:

"This is a precious book . . . because it re-creates a critical point of view and way of thinking that we seem, even a few decades later, barely able to recall." Scott Turow, of legal-thriller fame. It's hard to recall how people blamed the Versailles Treaty on International Jewry, but recreating that "way of thinking" doesn't seem particularly instructive or useful.

Or this: "A deeply moving elegy to all those young dreamers who tried to live decently in an indecent world. Ayers provides a tribute to those better angels of ourselves." That's Studs Terkel, proving that the gravel in his voice has trickled down from a larger resevoir above. If Studs regards Ayer's plot to bomb a dance hall as a decent act of a better angel, one wonders what Studs thinks the really fabulous angels are capable of doing.

Should either man be barred from print forever? Of course not. But neither should one feel compelled to shed a penny on their behalf again. In other words: build your own blacklist! People are free to celebrate bombers, blame the Jews and parade their loathing for America and love of nihilist chic - but when they make a movie, avoid it. When they ask you to buy their books or records or give their institution money, decline. When they show up on TV, mash the remote button with gusto. Some people fret that there might actually be consequences to speech.

Let's assure them: there are.

JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


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10/30/01: Osama and the Genie
10/08/01: "We can stop the Bush Death Juggernaut"
11/04/01: America, loathe or it leave it
09/25/01: Do the Europeans actually think that the war on murderous zealotry will be furthered by undercutting America?
08/27/01: If the economy is in a funk, why aren't we dancing?
08/14/01: Dubyah's embarrassing presidential vacation
08/10/01: Hail to our co-chiefs?
08/03/01: Constitution: George the Uniter picked a doozy to unify detractors
07/25/01: The real reason why we need missile defense (What those uppity policy wonks won't tell you!)
06/18/01: Paining the egalitarian soul
06/01/01: One of the stranger indexes you'll ever hear about
05/21/01: One man's toke is another man's snort
05/08/01: Republicans want poisoned water
04/23/01: We bleat as we're sheared
04/10/01: Boys will be boys. And that's the problem
04/06/01: Pity the anti-American Left, they're gonna have a hard time on this one
03/26/01: You've been warned
03/16/01: The GOP's inexplicable desire to fold
02/23/01: Will the Jeb Bush administration attack Saddam in 2011?
02/09/01: In search of the the first ashtray thrown by a member of the First Family
02/06/01: Can you say 'Ayatollah Bush'?
01/24/01: The new Executive Orders
01/22/01: Hey, Dubya: Wanna save Ashcroft? Teach him to rap!
01/09/01: Bubba gets his last licks
01/05/01: The low-down on the coming recession (What those snooty economists won't tell you)
12/23/00: Memo to Dubya: Wanna show who is boss? Nuke 'em!
12/06/00: The Count of Carthage
At the Sore/Loserman Transition HQ
12/01/00: The Count of Carthage
11/28/00: Clinton knows history isn't written by the victors anymore
11/17/00: Chad's the word
11/08/00: The strangest political night
11/07/00: Get ready to return to the Dark Ages

© 2001, James Lileks