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Dissent Isn't Deep, It's Just a Hole Dug by an Errant Elite

Leftists are wrong: Foes of terror are not brainwashed.

September 19, 2002|NORAH VINCENT | Norah Vincent is a New York writer and a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank set up after Sept. 11 to study terrorism. Web site: www.norahvincent.com.

Is ridiculing majority opinion the only way to show that you're a free thinker? Or can you agree with the consensus and still have a mind of your own?

Take the war on terrorism. If you think we are "quagmiring" in an unwinnable, endless, metaphorical war that we are waging for the sole purpose of consolidating and wielding our power, does that make you an intellectual? Or, by contrast, if you think we are fighting a winnable, justifiable battle against a certifiable evil, does that make you a numskull?

Certain segments of the intellectual left, represented most famously by Susan Sontag and Barbara Kingsolver, seem to think so. To them, it appears that most Americans (who support American foreign policy and the war on terrorism) aren't doing much thinking at all, either because they've been brainwashed, as Sontag puts it, by "lobotomizing" jingoism or intimidated into silence by the government's "jihad language."

Kingsolver--who, like Sontag, was upbraided last year for an article she published in response to the Sept. 11 attacks--has just published a new collection of essays, titled "Small Wonder," in which she recycles some of the offending material, including her dismissal of prevailing patriotism as the censorious threat of a "vigilante" mob infuriated by "thoughtful hesitation" and "constructive criticism."

But who, after all, is really being thoughtless here? It's the left elite's arguments that were ill timed and insensitive. They were made just days after the catastrophic event, while the wound was still fresh and families and friends were reeling. Like a slap in the face on cue, they were made again on the eve of the wrenching anniversary.

From the comfortable remove of their armchairs, the sages begrudged us and worse, the victims and survivors, our justified feelings of national solidarity. What's more, they did so in brazenly hypocritical and self-refuting terms. Here were some of our nation's most coddled citizens, taking full advantage of their country's freedoms to deny the existence of those freedoms (especially of speech) and to denounce the policies that guarantee them.

Then, of course, there were the core arguments themselves, denunciations of terms like "good and evil," "us and them," which Sontag deems "voided of content." But are those words simplicity or just clarity? After all, relativistic notions about one man's terrorist being another man's freedom fighter might sound "balanced," but the premise behind them is still woolly. Does Sontag really mean to suggest, as she seemed to do recently in the New York Times, that history will recognize no objective difference between the French Resistance and Al Qaeda? If that's the case, we should give up on ethics altogether. Good and evil exist and can be meaningfully distinguished from each other by simple criteria. It's hardly propaganda to say that people who target innocents are evil. It's simply true--that is, if you're simple-minded enough to believe in truth.

As for debate and dissent, the idea that there is none going on in this country is patently absurd. If the thoughtful minority Sontag claims to represent is really being denied a fair hearing, then how does she explain the showcasing of her views?

Being anti-establishment doesn't make you a particularly deep, cogent or original thinker any more than being traditionalist makes you a slavish dolt. Moreover, when people take you to task for the flawed arguments you've expressed arrogantly at the worst possible time, it doesn't mean they're mindless bigots, and it certainly doesn't mean that your nation refuses to brook dissent.

On the contrary, it means that dissent is an ongoing formula. Assertion invites rebuttal, and in this regard, the patriotic majority has shown at least as much intellectual creativity--and moxie--as the loyal opposition.

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