Monday, November 14, 2005

The Limits Of Dissent

I began this morning at Insults Unpunished with a quote that has always set my teeth on edge. Like many other quotes that annoy me no end, it is attributed to Thomas Jefferson:

“Dissent is the highest form of patriotism”.

Robert informs me that Jefferson never said it. I'm glad to hear it, for I fail to see how dishonest, destructive, or malicious and irresponsible dissent can ever be termed patriotic. It seems to me that when evaluating the patriotism of dissent, the means, content, and effect of what is said matter greatly. Robert points to a post by TigerHawk which examines the types of dissent and their effects on a nation fighting a limited war:

When a democratic nation is at war, there are inevitably those who will object to the way in which the war is being fought, or that it is being fought at all. If the war is manifestly for the country’s survival or otherwise of great moment, the objectors will be so marginalized that they and their arguments will have no effect on the politics of the country, the morale of its military, or the tactics of the enemy.

Dissent can, however, have an enormous impact on the means by which a democracy wages a limited war, the persistence with which it wages the war, or whether it wages the war at all.

TigerHawk engages in some excellent analysis, with which I largely agree, so far as it goes:

...certain anti-war dissenters have objectives that have very little to do with furthering public debate about policy. In some of those cases, the objectives are purely political and inherently self-centered. If these dissenters in the pursuit of these personal objectives inflict collateral damage on the war effort and undermine our soldiers, is it not fair to suggest that these dissenters are not acting patriotically? If a dissenter’s primary objective is to advance the political interests of one Democrat compared to another -- to assist the candidacy of Howard Dean at the expense of Hillary Clinton, for example -- is that dissent “worth” the collateral damage to the same degree as forthright public debate? Suppose that an anti-war dissenter does not really care about the war, but is using her dissent as a pretext to oppose the President because she is worried that he’ll appoint pro-life Supreme Court justices? Is that dissenter not aiding the enemy and undermining our soldiers to achieve an unrelated political objective? The First Amendment guarantees that dissenter her right to speak, but it does not protect her from the opprobrium that will fairly attach.

TH later suggests that dissent which "efficiently balances our systemic interest in robust public debate with the collateral damage it inflicts is "legitimate,", while dissent which effectively does more harm than good (while not seeking to further public debate) is not. I am somewhat more comfortable with this second view of dissent than I am with looking at the dissenter's motivation, which is all too easily debatable. And if this second test is used the question arises, how does one judge whether dissent furthers our interest in robust public debate?

After all, these days almost anything is open to debate. The most trivial matters are endlessly argued in the public forum. I think a more rational and objective standard is needed. It seems to me that three criteria can reasonably be used to judge the patriotism of dissent:

1. Honesty/factual accuracy: In the case of anti-war dissent, is the case being made based on facts or emotion? Are the arguments backed up with documented and credible sources? Are they logical and well-stated or do they consist of ad-hominem attacks against the President (which is not at all the same as making a case against the war). A genuinely patrioticdissenter (i.e., one who cares about the future of his or country) will present a responsible, truthful, well-thought-out argument because the future of his or her nation and its defenders is at stake. Any other kind of dissenter does not deserve consideration because he has not bothered to consider the consequences of his words.

2. Means: TigerHawk addresses this criterion well. Deliberate sabotage is not dialogue, nor is it intended to further debate about our foreign policy. It is certainly not dissent:

...if you use tactics that interfere with American policy -- if you attempt to obstruct military recruitment, campaign against American policy outside of the United States or to primarily foreign audiences, demonstrate against weapons manufacturers simply because they are weapons manufacturers, and so forth -- you are deliberately undermining the American capacity to win the war. This is not legitimate anti-war dissent (again, even if it is lawful), and it is by no measure patriotic.

We have elections in this country so the will of the people may be known and acted upon. If a vocal and disaffected minority then take it upon themselves to actively subvert the will of the majority after a national election, they have gone beyond dissent and are now engaged in open sabotage, justified by the rather amazing notion that the end justifies the means, or some even more self-serving notion of do-it-yourself checks-and-balances such as this commenter seems to have written into the Constitution:

I would argue that this obstruction of a president out of control is a crucial check of presidential power. Short of an impeachment - which would not solve the problem, given the overwhelming influence of the Vice President - the sanest strategy for the political opposition to the Bush agenda is to freeze it in place. Why? The concept here is that this opposition would prevent further harm from being enacted. And, in recent weeks, we've already seen the fruits of this strategy. An opposition has appeared, one that votes against the use of torture by any arm of the U.S. government, that prevents the irrational drilling of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge... etc.

Essentially the strategy outlined is an 'insurgency' against the legitimate government of the United States, which some citizens refuse to recognize because they don't happen to agree with it. And this end-run around democracy is what passes for patriotism?

They will have their chance at the Presidency in 2008 and at Congressional seats soon enough - that is the legitimate scope for the exercise of their dissent: to persuade enough voters to their point of view so that their elected leaders change course. More direct intervention than that is actively taking the part of our enemies during wartime. There is a word for that, and it is not a pretty one.

3. Result: The United States is a democratic republic. We make decisions of national import through our elected leaders. Many of these decisions are long-term ones which cannot be easily stopped in mid-stream. As TH points out, the debate over why we went to war is now largely irrelevant. We are there. If we leave now, over 2000 Americans will have died in vain. Their families will know that their country did not value the cause they were sent for enough to make sure it was achieved. The world will know the United States of America does not honor its promises. The positive gains registered by the Pew Global Attitudes Project will quickly vanish when it is seen that all our fancy words about spreading democracy were just empty rhetoric.

The majority of the military who are there support the mission and do not want to be brought home. They want to see the mission completed. The question is, what are we going to do now? The whole "we must withdraw because the war was illegitimate" argument is inherently silly and irresponsible even when one overlooks the obvious objection that it ignores the historical record. We have embarked on a project of global import in the MiddleEast. We can withdraw now and leave it (and our credibility) in shambles or persevere and try to see it to a successful conclusion. The usefulness of revisiting past decisions in the light of information not available at the time ought to be questioned by any thinking individual. Barring the discovery of a wayback machine in the Oval Office, we don't get historical 'do-overs'.

Dissent can be separated into constructive and destructive dissent. There is no pressing need to debate why we went to war in the wake of four investigations into the intelligence leading up to the invasion and two years of pubic debate and discourse: this is now a matter for historians. The who-shot-Johns can wait.

The sad legacy of the political correctness movement is that the overemphasis on feelings has led many critics of the war to mistake rigorous dissection of, or disagreement with, their ideas for an attempt to silence them. The truth of the matter is that unless their publications have been seized or we see protesters like Cindy Sheehan suddenly carted off to Gitmo, the Republic is probably safe for another day. Congressional Democrats can cease the hyperbole about being "silenced". The truth is that they have held the floor for far too long.

The pain they are feeling now comes from having their unquestioned sway over the war debate challenged for the first time. I have a feeling they are going to regret having pushed the "Bush Lied" meme as hard as they did, for they may well find in the end that it will not be so much the White House as the American public that questions their patriotism.

It would be nice if assessing the patriotism of dissenters were as easy as asking the favorite question of crime detectives: "who benefits"? But the answer to that question is so subjective as to make it hardly worth the asking. A more objective approach acknowledges the absolute right of patriotic Americans to dissent from the policies of their government, but demands that they do so honestly, within legal means that do not undermine the capacity of their government to achieve the aims set forth by the majority of the electorate, and finally insists that the results be constructive in nature; moving the country forward, rather than serving merely to tear down or destroy public confidence in their leaders and institutions.

This does not seem too much to ask of anyone who legitimately has the good of their country at heart.


At 12:50 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

Here are my thoughts on a related topic:


At 1:09 PM, Blogger Cassandra said...

Thanks - I'll check it out.

At 3:42 AM, Blogger camojack said...

I beg to differ...
(OK, not really)


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