Censorship and the Anemic State of Political Discourse in America

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By Dave Lindorff

When I lived in China in the early 1990s, there were things that you could not discuss. One was Tibet. Another was Taiwan, "referred to in my daughter's public elementary school in Shanghai as "China's largest island." Another was the 1989 massacre of students and workers in Beijing. I used to be grateful at the time that I was an American and that back home, we could talk about anything.

Except that in a way we can't. Not in public discourse, anyhow.

Take the silly broughhaha on the Right, in the media, and in the Democratic primary campaign, over the statements of Obama's "spiritual mentor" the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Everyone is all worked up--and Obama has sacked Wright from his campaign's religious advisory committee--because of some statements Wright has made that crossed an invisible line of permissible discourse.

Wright's "crime"? He dared to point out that the US is a racist nation. He dared to suggest that the US is a terror state.

In fact, what Wright said is absolutely correct. If you look at the incarceration rate for African Americans, at the fact that half of the astonishing two million Americans who are in prison at this moment (one-percent of the adult population!) are black, at the fact that half the approximately 4000 people on death row are black, at the appalling education that is offered to most of the nation's black children (my daughter teaches math at a "magnet" high school in Brooklyn, NY that is billed as a college preparatory institution, where there are 35 kids per classroom and where there's no teacher offering calculus or even pre-calc even though some students are ready for it), if you look at who the main victims are of the sub-prime loan scandal, if you look at how the Republican Party has deliberately worked in state after state to keep blacks from voting, it's clear that this is a racist nation.

But you're not allowed to say that and be a candidate, or work for a candidate, for public office, much less for the office of president.

Rev. Wright said that 9-11 was a case of "the chickens coming home to roost." He cited America's use of nuclear bombs on civilian targets--the non-military cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He might as well have mentioned the equally catastrophic US bombing of the cultural city of Dresden. These were terror bombings pure and simple, on a scale never seen before in the history of war.

He might also have mentioned the sacking and leveling of Fallujah in 2004--an act of "collective punishment" by the US for the killing and subsequent mutilation of four mercenaries captured by militants in that city.

But in America you're not allowed to say that the US is a terrorist nation, even though objectively, it is at the top of the list. (Look what happened to tenured professor Ward Churchill for saying the same thing at Colorado State University: He was fired.) Nor are you allowed to suggest that 9-11 was in any way a predictable result of US behavior towards third world nations or towards the people of the Islamic world, although it is patently obvious that it was US behavior in the Middle East--propping up dictatorial regimes (including Saddam Hussein's), backing Israeli policies towards Palestinians, etc.) that made us a target of Al Qaeda.

Wright said that the response of the US to the 9-11 attacks was to "pay back and kill," and if you think back, he is totally correct. All the expressions like " it's payback time" and "let's roll!", the American flags everywhere, the lust for getting Osama "dead or alive", and finally, the cheerleading for an attack on Iraq (which had nothing to do with (9-11), were based upon a blind and ill-thought-out lust for revenge, encouraged by a president and vice president who had been angling to attack Iraq at least nine months before the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

But you're not supposed to say that American wars are based on blood lust.

Wright crossed another line when he said that the US had "supported state terrorism" against Palestinians and the African population of South Africa. And yet he is absolutely correct on both counts. The US has unquestioningly and aggressively supported 60 years of Israeli attacks on and abuse of Palestinians, and continues to do so, with money, arms and votes in the United Nations. It also overtly and covertly backed the white Apartheid government of South Africa in its policy of apartheit and suppression of the legitimate rights of the majority black population of that nation.

But you are not allowed to criticize Israel in American politics, or to suggest that the US backed apartheid in South Africa.

Wright also said that the US had contributed to the drug crisis among blacks in America's cities by smuggling cocaine into the US in return for money to back anti-government rebels in Nicaragua (the Contras). There is solid evidence that this was in fact the case, including a crashed CIA plane in Central America loaded with guns that was tied to drug flights in the other direction. Several well-documented investigative books have been written on this topic. (There is evidence that the US backed the production and sale of opium and heroin by its anti-communist allies in Southeast Asia in the '60s and '70s, too.)

But you're not allowed to say that the US government is a long-time drug runner and a promoter of drug use inside its own borders.

Even Wright's claim that the US encouraged the spread of AIDS in black commuities has some truth to it. By opposing needle exchanges despite the documented benefits of free clean needle availability in reducing the incidence and spread of AIDS among drug users, the federal government has worsened the AIDS problem in America.

Unfortunately, none of these topics can be openly and intelligently discussed and debated. Once Wright mentioned them, Barack Obama had two choices: rationally explain why the pastor was right, and become instantly a has-been candidate for president, or denounce the pastor and his statements, and sever all connections with him.

Obama chose the latter tactic, and America is the poorer for it.

Like China, there are some things you can't say or discuss in public in America.
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback edition). His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net

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Ward Churchill incorrect

  • AlphaMaven's picture
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Ward Churchill was fired from the University of Colorado at Boulder, not Colorado State University.


Thank you!

  • takkak's picture
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I've been mumbling these same thoughts since the Wright 'scandal' broke, however in a far less coherent manner than you have.

So much in the United States of Amnesia's political discourse is now beyond the pale. Take "socialism" -- Michael Moore tried (I'd say, in vain) to get across the idea that dismissing single-payer healthcare because it was "socialism" was ridiculous because so many good things we already have in this country are "socialistic." But such discussions, as well as discussions of 'class', just don't even make a blip on the MSM radar, and therefore, don't make a dent into the public psyche.

I'm not sure what will effectively counter this; obviously, the internet has helped, but...


The controversy over Wright's statements

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While we as citizen's should have the right to state our concerns, someone as outspoken as Wright will kill a political campaign. If those statements remain unchallenged, people will vote for the other person, Hillary or McCain.

Obama can't do any good if he isn't elected.  I would rather have him elected and in a position to do some good than to have another Bush in office: the worst of all possibilities.  The reality is that that there are people voting you have to passify or we don't get our candidate, we get a Republican and if we get that, we'll lose not only freedom of speech but a lot more freedom.  We saw that when people voted for Nader instead of Gore. There is as much difference between Gore and Bush as there is between night and day. Nader lied when he said there is no difference. I'll take Obama and grant him the room to do what he has to do to win. Let's get him in office first and then worry about these other things.

In reply to XgenX

  • dlindorff's picture
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All good questions deserving answers.

I am not saying or even implying that the US is like the military/fascist state of China. Only that we too have topics that are taboo, and which cannot be spoken of in public. The "punishment" here is not arrest, as in China (though it can be unwanted surveillance in Bush's America). It is ostracism from the public commons (ie. the media). You are written off as a crank, a "conspircy theorist" or a left-wing loony and your ideas are not aired.

 If you are a candidate, you are marginalized out of existence.

 the question of whether the US is a terrorist nation should be on the table. We kill many thousands more innocent people than any terror organization, or than any so called "terror state." We have killed over a million Iraqis for the stated goal of removing a brutal dictator. We bomb houses full of children because a suspected terrorist might be in there with them. We use weapons other nations have banned--cluster bombs, mines, poison gas, white phosphorus--which are all known to cause horrendous numbers of "unintended" civilian casualties. We resort to collective punishment, destroying cities or neighborhoods because there was a terrorist cell there. All these are objectively speaking terrorist acts. Yet we are left uncharged, because we are the powerful ones. If another nation did what we do, we'd call it guilty of terror.

 I'm saying that over half the people incarcerated in the US are there for non-violent crimes. Moreover, it is documented fact that blacks are jailed for crimes that whites are let loose for. White middle class people are rarely given the death penalty. If you ever visit a jail, or spend a day in a court room watching the dispensation of "justice,"  you will come away convinced we have a racist justice system. 

 And yes, most of those people should be released. They maybe should be on probation, or put in some kind of mandatory retraining or drug rehab program, but jail is only going to turn minor offenders into major criminals.

What I'm trying to say is what I said: America IS a racist nation. Rev. Wright is absolutely, 100% correct.