Monday, December 12, 2005

Wartime Dissidence?

I was emailed by a kind gentleman who has not only been generous enough to make articles available for me on citizenship, but also kind enough to challenge me on my ideas and thoughts on dissenting. He encouraged me to compare the US during WWI to today. Although our positions still oppose each other, the information he provided was insightful and important. I wish to share it with the blogging community. Is there a fine line between dissent during war time vs peace time? Where and when does dissent interfere with national interests and is it right to challenge national interests during times of war? To the latter question, I answer yes because a country must stand by its ideals both in times of war and in times of peace. This debate is acute right now as we hear questions concerning torture during war time, and answers stating that a different face of war, a different face of the enemy, requires a different and more radical mode of operation. I am not here to discuss the issues concerning torture; however, the philosophy behind the rational is fundamental to the debate. Sanford Levinson in his article: “What is the Constitution’s role in Wartime?: Why Free Speech and Other Rights Are Not As Safe As You Might Think,” looks at many of the same issues as my email friend asked me to examine. Core to this debate are two main events/factors of law. First is the US Sedition Act of 1918, which was repealed in 1921. Second was the Supreme Court case upholding the criminal conviction of Eugene Debs. The Sedition Act of 1918, which was an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917, made it illegal, during wartime, to dissent and to:
“willfully make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of its enemies . . . or incite insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or navel forces of the United States . . . whoever shall by word or act support or favor the cause of any country with which the United States is at war or by word or act oppose the cause of the United States therein, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than 20 years, or both....”
Under this law, over 2000 people were convicted including Eugene Debs. Argued before the Supreme Court on January 27-28 in 1919 was the case against Eugene Debs who “caused and incited and attempted to cause and incite insubordination, disloyality, mutiny and refusal of duty in the military and naval forces of the United States and with intent so to do delivered, to an assembly of people, a public speech, set forth.” The Supreme Court upheld most of the charges and penalties brought against Debs whose public complaints, it seems, echoes today’s complaints about the war:
“This document contained the usual suggestion that capitalism was the cause of the war and that our entrance into it 'was instigated by the predatory capitalists in the United States.' It alleged that the war [249 U.S. 211, 216] of the United States against Germany could not 'be justified even on the plea that it is a war in defense of American rights or American 'honor.’ It said: 'We brand the declaration of war by our Governments as a crime against the people of the United States and against the nations of the world. In all modern history there has been no war more unjustifiable than the war in which we are about to engage.'”
As was pointed out to me, in today’s culture, dissent goes mostly unfettered. I, as a US citizen, have the right, thanks to the 1921 repeal, to publicly disagree with the actions performed by the government who, I may add, in theory, represents my interests as well as the interests of my fellow citizens. Yet, both constitutional law and public opinion are more often then not, not adhered to during times of war. Certainly we have seen this with our current administration and Levinson links this tendency back to the Lincoln administration. I believe, although was not able to find the quote, G.W. Bush once said that he would not consider or fall to public opinion when he disagrees with it. Coyote in an insightful post titled “Apocalyptic Binary—The Shape of Things to Come?,” rightly pinpoints public opinion as the place where change can happen. The problem is, however, that public opinion is often embedded in ideology which supports State actions because issues are viewed in a generic and not a specific basis. By going back to WWI, we can see how this nation viewed dissent during times of war and also how there is a cultural tendency towards acceptance of silence during times of war and crisis. This embedded ideology is problematic as it interferes with our questioning of motives and actions taken by our government who is not always working in our best interests. It is true, however, that many times public opinion is not educated and so is sadly misleading. Part of this occurrence is a result of our collective laziness. Part is also a result of the propaganda we are constantly subjected to and, as is seen as a tactic used by this current administration, repetitive ascertains does have an affect on public opinion. If you say something enough times, you start to believe it. In my post on Citizenship, I pointed to a document available on the internet through and by the Project for a New American Century entitled “Rebuilding America’s Defenses." In this document (I urge you to take the time to read this) the committee suggested that public opinion was needed to support unilateral action towards a Pax America doctrine. What was needed, they insisted, was another Pearl Harbor: “. . . the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event—like a new Pearl Harbor” (51). 9/11 was this Pearl Harbor and, as predicted, public opinion supported initial actions and, later, both public opinion and Constitution law was subverted because of “war time” needs to promote the Pax American extension. There is a great deal more to say on this issue, but I have learned that people hate long posts and shall stop here for the moment. Yet, as was suggested to me, it is important to consider where public opinion is harmful to national interests. The issues are not clean cut on either side of the, as Coyote terms, binary. However, I do not think an “either/or” binary regarding dissent is a good idea as we, in my opinion, do not live in a black and white world. All thoughts, for and against, are always welcomed. Rebecca FYI, this conversation is the result of posts dealing with Pinter’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Pamela at Cosmo has taken the time to historically ground Pinter’s speech with events in his life and how these events connect to his comments. As I support the effort to historically and specifically locate events, ideology and the like, I urge you to read her post as well as “Coyote’s post.” It will be worth your time.

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