Dana E. Abizaid
August 2, 2004
Published in The Salem Evening News.

The great American journalist Edward R. Murrow once said, "We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies I think the soul of America dies with it."

In light of last week's staged and scripted Democratic National Convention, Murrow's statement has particular resonance.

Regardless of how many times Ted Kennedy or others invoked the spirit of the brave American colonists who stood up to British occupation and oppression in the very neighborhood of the FleetCenter over 230 years ago, it was difficult to sense that present-day leaders possessed even an ounce of the conviction that inspired simple Massachusetts farmers to take up arms against the mightiest military power of the 18th century. In fact, John Kerry's blatant use of his military experience and comrades, as well as his "reporting for duty" line, would surely have irked the Bostonian Sons of Liberty and humbled Massachusetts Minutemen who desired to break loose from British domination.

In the end, honest spontaneity at the DNC took a back seat to contrived sincerity.

Although Democrats like to chide the Bush administration for its hubris, self-righteousness and "managed perception" (read: lying), too often during the DNC Democratic leaders mimicked the president's successful tactics. The repeated promise to destroy al-Qaida by using all weapons available to the U.S. military, as well as the insinuation that as president Kerry would undertake military operations without U.N. approval, could easily have been written by the pernicious neo-cons who hover around Bush. As in 2000, hardworking Americans again have a less-than-stellar choice between rich and well-born candidates to lead them.

In spite of our reverent view of our forefathers, 18th century American politicians, like their 21st century counterparts, knew the value of propaganda and consensus, and employed lying, character assassination and sensationalism accordingly. Yet, in their struggle against the British, despite the occupation of Boston and Philadelphia and the war that ravaged the countryside, they conducted a healthy debate concerning what type of government should emerge upon victory. Fear did not deter them.

Ben Franklin is noted as saying that "we must all hang together or we will certainly hang separately." One wonders what Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Thomas Paine would have thought of the wretched, fear-inspired "Free Speech Zone" that blighted the area across from the FleetCenter. Whatever side of the political fence one falls on, this horrendous venue was in no way a proper forum for the marketplace of ideas.

Democratic dissent at the DNC was terribly feared. It was not only stifled on the streets where freedom was born but also in the halls of the FleetCenter where no difficult questions were asked and Democratic leaders adopted tough, Bush-like rhetoric to appeal to an electorate constantly driven to a state of hysteria by vague terror warnings and yellow journalism.

It is a sad commentary on the state of American democracy that those who wished to ask vital questions and exercise their constitutional rights were penned up under decaying Green Line tracks. Has fear so clouded our reason that we would give up many of our cherished liberties for a security that the government is woefully inadequate at providing?

Stalin called those who dared speak ill of the Soviet Union "enemies of the people," and they were hauled off to camps that eerily resembled the Free Speech Zone. Forcing consensus should not be part of the American political agenda.

Democracy is a messy thing. Anyone who has studied the American and French revolutions; remembers Prague Spring, the 1968 Democratic National Convention and Tiananmen Square; or follows the daily carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan can attest to that. Kerry's claim that what was accomplished by activists three decades ago could be accomplished today rings hollow when the voices of dissent are imprisoned in a Gulag-like pen, snipers perch on rooftops, and roads around the city are shut down. For all the talk about preserving freedom, we seem to be doing the opposite.

With America attempting to spread democracy by force in Afghanistan and Iraq, one wonders just what type of model we are exporting. Prepackaged, synthetic demonstrations of unity that avoid tough debate may make good television, but they fail to live up to our robust democratic heritage. The world is watching with a discerning and, in many cases, jaundiced eye.

We are facing one of the most important elections in our history. That is why it is so astonishing that politicians and the media are not asking the essential questions and that the people are not demanding answers.

The suspension of due process and a slew of other infractions we have seen recently would surely have inspired Jefferson to again exclaim that whenever the government deprives us of our unalienable rights it is the "right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government." Unfortunately, today there is no Jefferson, Lincoln or JFK. Instead, we have dueling media creations employing Huxley's mantra that "62,000 repetitions equal one truth" as they try to appeal to a bewildered and frightened electorate. Yet there remain those who ask the essential question: What will be the future course of our young democracy?

Hollow slogans and half-truths will not suffice as answers and for the time being it appears our democracy will get much worse before it gets any better. But lest we despair, we may take solace in the fact that Americans are historically slow to act on the issues that so drastically affect them. After all, the Declaration wasn't written and signed until nearly 15 months after the first shots were fired at Lexington; the Constitution wasn't drafted until four years after the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution in 1783; and more recently, American involvement in Vietnam raged for years before mass protests helped end that conflict.

We can only hope that we come to our senses soon and honestly address the issues - war, poverty, rising health care costs and education - that affect every American. In doing so, we may just inspire Americans to take part in the democratic process, confront fear, and inject a bit of life into America's beleaguered soul.

  • Inspired by observations on a summer job repainting the crosswalks on Causeway Street near the FleetCenter.