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New York is Starting to Feel Like Brezhnev's Moscow
Published on Thursday, May 16, 2002 in the Guardian of London
New York is Starting to Feel Like Brezhnev's Moscow
Public Debate in America Has Now Become a Question of Loyalty
by Jonathan Steele
 

What a sad place New York City has become. A vibrant, disputatious town with a worldwide reputation for loud voices and strongly expressed opinions is tip-toeing around in whispers. Grief over the casualties of the twin towers massacre is not the reason (those wounds are slowly healing), but a stifling conformity which muzzles public discourse on US foreign policy, the war on terrorism and Israel.

"If people knew I held these views, I wouldn't be able to stay in this job," an old college friend confided as I passed through the city for a few days last week. He was appointed by the Bush administration to a top Federal position (not connected to foreign policy) some months ago. His subversive views on the Middle East, if uttered in Europe, would raise no eyebrows: Ariel Sharon has no vision or strategy; his tactics on the West Bank are counter-productive; the American media are failing to report adequately on the suffering of innocent Palestinians in cities ransacked by Israeli troops.

Another friend, a liberal rabbi, was about to set off on a regular visit to Israel. She contrasted the usual furious public arguments which she expected to find there to the behind-the-hand mutterings of New Yorkers. "Over here Sharon and Netanyahu have managed to turn the issue of terrorism, which was provoked by Israeli behavior on the West Bank, into an existential question of the survival of the Israeli state. Debate becomes disloyalty," she complained.

The Israeli prime minister's humiliating refusal to heed the White House's call last month for an immediate halt to Israel's West Bank incursions should have prompted a debate on whether Bush or Sharon makes US foreign policy, she argued. Instead, the leaders of most American Jewish organizations sided with Sharon and were pleased when Bush backed down.

Listening to these anguished but private complaints suddenly reminded me of the Soviet Union of the Brezhnev era when lower-level officials, journalists and other fringe members of the regime sat around their kitchen tables, expressing their true views only to family and close friends. A far-fetched analogy, of course, until you look at the narrowness of public discussion, not just on Israeli-Palestinian issues, but also on the threatened American attack on Iraq and the administration's war on terrorism in general.

When Tom Daschle, the Senate majority leader, suggested this spring that the war had failed because Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar were still free, he was fiercely attacked and never dared to repeat the point. The campaign for an all-out attack on Iraq continues in full swing with none of the congressional opposition which marked the Gulf war a decade ago. John Bolton, the state department's most hawkish official, is taken seriously when he "names" countries with biological weapons programs which the US claims the right to target with military strikes. No one contrasts his purported expertise with the fact that, after seven months, the FBI has failed to discover the whereabouts of the people or the laboratories in the US which produced and mailed anthrax-coated letters last autumn. If the administration is so ignorant about events on its own doorstep, why should anyone believe it knows what is going on in labs in Iraq, Iran or Cuba?

To enforce this abandonment of reasoned argument in the name of a witch-hunt against terrorists, a strange alliance of evangelical Christians in Congress has come together with the leaders of American Jewish organizations who normally support the Democratic party. "We live in a culture where there is a diminishing tolerance of dissent," commented Abe Brumberg, long-time editor of Problems of Communism, the Soviet-era journal which was funded by the US government.

He drew my attention to a column by Frank Rich in the New York Times. The piece reported that America's foremost Jewish newspaper, Forward, was fielding subscription cancellations for accepting an ad from Jews Against the Occupation. Mainstream papers are also being targeted. "Our press is not being muzzled," Rich was careful to write, "but the dictates of what constitutes politically correct conversation about the Middle East are being tightened to the point that American leaders of all stripes increasingly seem to be in a contest to see who can pander the most to American Jews."

On CNN's domestic news one morning their vacuous presenter Paula Zahn urged viewers to stay with her until after the break. "A new book which criticizes American foreign policy and says the US has been guilty of terrorism has sold 160,000 copies. We'll have more," she announced.

Noam Chomsky's book, I wondered. Are they really going to let him appear? No such luck. The offending book was indeed by Chomsky but America's leading dissident was not invited on to the show. Like Soviet television in the 1970s, which regularly put up regime hacks to pillory the two giants of non-conformity, Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, without giving them a say, Ms Zahn's guest was William Bennett, a Republican former cabinet minister. He proceeded to "explain" Chomsky's high sales with a flippant "kooks in our midst" argument. Many Americans were still in deep confusion after the shock of September 11, and some people were prepared to believe anything, he claimed.

Chomsky was unsurprised when I rang him later. "It's typical," he said. "CNN International interviews me a lot, but the US channel doesn't dare." Far from being depressed, Chomsky was in bullish mood. Like an intellectual rock star he is perpetually on the move, traveling to packed auditoria on campuses around the US and abroad. "I spend about an hour every night turning down e-mail requests to speak," he said. He was off to Bogota in Colombia later that day.

Other professorial friends were not so gung ho about the extent of campus radicalism, in spite of recent peace marches in Washington and New York. But they agreed that universities are the only place for political discussion these days. "I hear there was a fantastic debate at Yale Law School recently," my highly placed Bush appointee reported. "Two Palestinian law students wiped the floor with Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist."

The fascination, and frustration, of America has always been the way one society can produce so much optimistic vigor and risk-taking intellectual energy alongside a ruling culture of such boorish ignorance and cruelty. To judge from the east coast today, the middle-aged liberal intelligentsia is letting itself be intimidated into taking the wrong side.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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