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Criticism of U.S. leaders muted now

Another byproduct of the patriotic fervor sweeping the nation has been a kind of muting of criticism against the U.S. leadership and a seemingly remarkable conversion experience undergone by many who just a few months ago were crying for an end to big government.

  • Oxfam, the British humanitarian organization, for example, was circulating a petition before the attacks calling on the United States to “put health before wealth” by supporting relaxation of international patent policies that Oxfam says make vital medicines too expensive for developing countries. Immediately after the Sept. 11 events, the language singling out the United States had been dropped. The group also canceled a news conference at which it had planned to denounce the United States for its patent stance.
  • The Sierra Club, the nation’s largest environmental organization, removed the “W Watch” column from its Web site because it could be perceived as critical of President Bush. Another group, Friends of the Earth, let the one-year anniversary of its discovery of unauthorized genetically modified corn in the food supply pass without even a news release. “No one’s interested in gene-altered corn right now,” Mark Helm, a spokesperson for the organization, told reporters.
  • At Brown University in Providence, R.I., a curriculum guide was recently issued on how to discuss the attacks in the classroom, a document that called for understanding why people resent the United States and for a measured military response. It was promptly attacked by conservative critics, as shortchanging patriotism while subtly blaming the victim.
  • Two columnists for daily newspapers in Oregon and Texas were fired after writing opinion pieces critical of President Bush’s leadership immediately after the attacks. Both papers apologized for the criticism, according to Editor & Publisher, a weekly magazine for the newspaper industry.

“I do not relinquish, nor should any of you, the right to criticize, even as we support, our government,” Bill Maher, host of the ABC-TV show “Politically Incorrect,” said on his Sept. 17 program. “This is still a democracy, and they’re still politicians.” Maher was skewered by a critical public after he agreed with guest Dinesh D’Souza that “we have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building -- say what you want about it -- it’s not cowardly.”

Many ask: While trying to avoid being perceived as unpatriotic, isn’t this self-censorship and restraint on criticism dangerous in a democratic society?

“There will be those who will try to tell us that criticizing national policies in time of crisis is unpatriotic,” Tom Cordaro, Pax Christi USA national council chairperson, told NCR. “We have to keep in mind, that statement William Fulbright, Democratic senator from Arkansas, made in the days of the civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam war demonstrations: ‘Criticism is more than just a right; it is an act of patriotism -- a higher form, I believe, than the familiar ritual of national adulation.’ ” Cordaro said Christians must act upon the higher patriotism, “which is to love our country less for what it is than for what we would like it to be.”

Others are pointing to the overnight disappearance of that widespread distrust of big government that permeated politics and national life prior to Sept. 11. Suddenly no one, it seems, wants big government off our backs, but we are showing renewed interest in having federal institutions watch our backs.

“After 20 years of exulting in the power of the private sector, in deregulation, tax cuts and reining in the Washington bureaucrats, Republicans and Democrats alike are talking about a muscular new role for government in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks,” wrote Robin Toner in The New York Times last week. “Now government is being seen as the solution, not the problem.”

The spirit of bipartisan accord on display in the halls of Congress, not seen since the Gulf War in 1991, has drawn favorable attention as well. Judy Woodruff on CNN last week, in a report on bipartisanship in government after the attacks, said: “Americans see this new spirit of unity and are thinking government will work just fine without politics.”

Yet many would argue that debate and honoring dissent are the strengths of democracy.

--Rich Heffern

National Catholic Reporter, October 12, 2001