The Sounds Of Silence

Last month a United Way chapter in Florida disinvited the actress Susan Sarandon from a fund-raising luncheon at which she'd agreed to speak. This was scarcely surprising. Many charities are happy to use celebrities to attract donors to their events, but they like them to be as decorative and inoffensive as the flower centerpieces. And with war looming, the Oscar-winning actress, who has been outspokenly liberal on a variety of social issues and consistently critical of the invasion of Iraq, must have suddenly seemed akin to a cactus.

It was an early salvo in the difficult and painful war here at home. The rules of engagement were clear. If you had early doubts about the use of American power in Iraq, you should sit down and shut up because you might imperil the eventual result. If you continued to have doubts about our foreign policy while the war was ongoing, you should sit down and shut up because you were giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

And, trust me, if you still have doubts about the wisdom of unilateral action now, you should sit down and shut up because we won.

Never mind if you are asking yourself why a nation we were told was lousy with chemical and biological weapons never used them during a punishing bombardment. Never mind if you are asking yourself why the oft-invoked but never factually supported ties between Saddam and Al Qaeda didn't lead to the predicted terrorist attacks in the United States.

Sit down, you're rocking the boat.

The bright side of this is that it offers a valuable lesson in American history. Each time the United States becomes imperial it betrays the very keystone upon which its greatness rests. It suppresses dissent and suggests that national interest is more important than free speech. In the wake of its primacy after World War II, this became so pernicious that lives were ruined, not only by Communist Party membership, but also by thirdhand suggestions of it. Only a decade that put the lid on discourse as tightly as the '50s did could have exploded into the free association of the '60s.

The division between those who support the Iraqi war and those who do not has become an unbridgeable ravine of accusation and name-calling, as fraught an issue as this country has had since it first discovered abortion. The greatness of America is almost unrecognizable in the resulting maelstrom. Its most basic principles are mangled, when, in places like Albany, N.Y., a man is arrested at a mall for wearing a T shirt with the Biblical legend PEACE ON EARTH on the front and the musical legend GIVE PEACE A CHANCE on the back. (The mall has a policy that bans patrons from wearing clothing "with slogans that may incite a disturbance." Let's hope no one ever comes in with a shirt that reads free beer in the food court.)

The all-purpose accusation against dissenters is that they are "unpatriotic," which is deeply ironic since those first patriots are celebrated for rebelling against government policies they considered wrong. Children learn of the greatness of those who spoke out against the policies of George III, then hear vilified those who do not agree with George W. How confusing. Almost as confusing as seeing your parents glued to "Access Hollywood" and then hearing them complain they can't understand why celebrities believe anyone would pay attention to anything they have to say.

If the free exchange of ideas is temporarily suspended in the interest of "supporting our troops" (as though all soldiers are also of one mind about foreign policy), then what is the gift we bring to the Iraqi people? Old Navy fleece? Stuffed-crust pizza? Much of what we have to export as a nation is similarly transient, except for this: the right to elect leaders, to watch what they do through the vehicle of a free press, and then, if we choose, to damn them for doing it, in coffeehouses, at home, from the steps of the courthouse or the statehouse, in private and in public, too. If there is any justification for an imperial America, it is because this is the jewel in its crown.

Last week the war at home continued unabated; the president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, a former Reagan assistant press secretary, canceled an anniversary screening of the film "Bull Durham" because it stars Sarandon and her equally uncompliant companion, Tim Robbins. In a letter, he made the incendiary, baseless and, given his past life, clearly partisan accusation that the failure of the two actors to go along with a policy they cannot support puts American soldiers in harm's way.

"May we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion." A line from Robbins's irate reply to the baseball guy? Nah, it's Eisenhower at a time when the Constitution was mutilated by McCarthy and his minions, and dissent and subversion were constantly confused. And so it is in our time. If, in the shadow of the unilateralist power niche the United States will occupy in the foreseeable future, its citizens are pressured by their government, their communities and their neighbors to speak with one cautious voice, we will have saved Iraq and damned ourselves. In a democratic society, the only treason is silence.