One year ago, following Major League Baseball's opening week and the second week of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon were denied an appearance at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
Robbins and Sarandon, amongst many others, were planning to attend the Hall's fifteenth anniversary celebration of the classic baseball film "Bull Durham," in which they both starred and at the filming of which the couple first met. But the celebration was canceled by the Baseball Hall of Fame President, Dale Petroskey, because Robbins and Sarandon used their social consciences and their sense of activism to question the reasons for our country going to war.
Petroskey, a former assistant press secretary to Ronald Reagan, wrote a public letter to Robbins announcing his decision to call off the event, explaining: "The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum - and many players and executives in Baseball's family - has honored the United States and those who defend our freedoms. ... We believe your very public criticism of President Bush at this important - and sensitive - time in our nation's history helps undermine the U.S. position, which ultimately could put our troops in even more danger. As an institution, we stand behind our President and our troops in this conflict."
Robbins wrote in his response to Petroskey's actions: "I had been unaware that baseball was a Republican sport. I was looking forward to a weekend away from politics and war to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of 'Bull Durham.' I am sorry that you have chosen to use baseball and your position at the Hall of Fame to make a political statement. ... As an American who believes that vigorous debate is necessary for the survival of a democracy, I reject your suggestion that one must be silent in a time of war."
In a moment of almost unanimous solidarity, baseball fans, sportswriters, political columnists and citizens from across the country, both for and against the war, expressed their anger with calls, letters, emails and columns of protest directed at the Baseball Hall of Fame president.
During a lonely time for those who opposed the President's policies amongst relentless pro-war propaganda from the mainstream media, Petroskey must have been especially "shocked and awed" that using baseball to make a political statement following its opening week and invoking patriotism in his reprimand of Robbins and Sarandon backfired. Major League Baseball even disavowed any connection to Petroskey's actions.
Whether or not Petroskey's decision was the result of Republican Party connections, as some have suggested, is unclear. Nevertheless, he used the Baseball Hall of Fame as an instrument to punish public figures who did not support the President's war policy. Petroskey is part of the cultivation of fear that penalizes people for expressing dissenting political views. This was just one in a series of public assaults on celebrities who had spoken out against the war. Public figures who questioned the reasons for going to war were labeled traitors, un-American and unpatriotic for demonstrating the dissent that millions of Americans were feeling.
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Tim Robbins spoke of the cultivation of fear at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington, D.C. just a week after the Baseball Hall of Fame canceled the "Bull Durham" celebration, observing:
"A chill wind is blowing in this nation. A message is being sent through the White House and its allies in talk radio and Clear Channel and Cooperstown. 'If you oppose this Administration there can and will be ramifications.' Every day the airwaves are filled with warnings, veiled and unveiled threats, spewed invective and hatred directed at any voice of dissent. And the public ... sit in mute opposition and in fear."
A year later, criticisms of the President and suspicions surrounding the invasion of Iraq expressed by Robbins and Sarandon are being advanced by a growing number of people. Our nation was sent to war based on faulty and false information on a platform of fabrications and deceptions.
What questions would have been raised if people like Robbins and Sarandon gave up their right to speak in opposition? What if they submitted to Petroskey's apparent position that criticism of the President should be suspended in times of war? Would we know nearly as much as we do now about the war?
As the new baseball season begins, let us remember the scar left on the game at this time last year as an opportunity to thank the people, like Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, who recognize the value of dissent in a free society and who have the courage to speak out even with much to risk given the political environment.
As Robbins concluded in his response to Petroskey: "Long live democracy, free speech and the '69 Mets; all improbable glorious miracles that I have always believed in."