By: David Horowitz
Thursday, September 01, 2005

Professor Thomas Brown and David Horowitz attempt to discuss the limits of dissent . . . and prove that leftists can't even understand the question.

Joining Frontpagemag.com today to debate Cindy Sheehan’s anti-war campaign and what constitutes legitimate debate in a time of war, are:

Thomas Brown, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Lamar University, where he teaches political and legal sociology;



David Horowitz: publisher of Frontpagemag.com, a nationally known author and lifelong civil rights activist. He was one of the founders of the New Left in the 1960s and editor of its largest magazine, Ramparts. He helped to organize the first campus demonstration against the Vietnam war at the University of California, Berkeley in 1962. He is the author of Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left.


FP (Jamie Glazov): Thomas Brown and David Horowitz, welcome to Frontpage's debate


Mr. Brown, let's begin with you.


Brown: Victor Turner, the eminent 20th century anthropologist, taught us that that the most potent symbols are two-fold in nature, blending emotional and normative aspects into one. At one pole, you need to arouse the audience's emotions in a visceral manner, by invoking blood, sex, death, or reproduction. A mother grieving over her dead soldier son fits the bill perfectly. At the other pole, you need to intertwine the raw emotion with a normative issue, such as the debate over war policy. The two poles then reinforce each other. Thus the emotions roused by the spectacle of Sheehan’s grief give power to Sheehan’s normative assertions, which in turn focus and reinforce the energy created at the emotional pole.


Skeptics have argued that Sheehan has gotten media traction only because she popped up during the August news doldrums, when there's nothing else on. But Turner's theory helps explain why the Sheehan protest is such an effective example of symbolic politics—and one that would have gotten play in any season.


Sheehan’s position is bolstered by the way her questioning of Bush resonates. Across the world, people are wondering why the Bush administration’s rationale for its Iraq policy smacks of post hoc improvisation; wondering why the administration never developed a coherent post-invasion strategy; and wondering why the administration remains unable to articulate a set of specific goals and a plan for achieving them.


Even though Sheehan has made mistakes—such as stooping to shrill ad hominem attacks on Bush—the symbolic potency of her campaign remains in place, and will not be vulnerable to the ad hominem responses that Bush supporters have fired back at her. The emotional aspect of Sheehan’s appeal is not going away. The only effective tactic for Bush supporters will be to drop their own appeals to emotion, and instead try to undercut the normative pole of Sheehan’s protest, by answering the fundamental questions about the war that her protest symbolizes. Bush’s habit of appealing to vague buzzwords has worn thin in the face of casualties and attrition, and Sheehan currently symbolizes the questions that many Americans are asking.


Sheehan’s critics have tried to play the traitor card, arguing that her protest gives succor to the enemy. One problem here is the administration’s failure to settle on exactly who and what “the enemy” is, much less how we’re going to find them, kill them, and bring the boys home. Another problem is that Sheehan’s protest also symbolizes the primary value articulated in our Bill of Rights—the freedom of political speech and political participation. This freedom has meaning only to the extent that it permits dissent. Supporters of a war that purports to export freedom and democracy are on especially weak ground when they attack the propriety of Sheehan’s dissent. Given the emotional appeal of her symbolic position, the traitor card is a loser.


FP: Thank you Prof. Brown. In your view, what are the legitimate boundaries of dissent in our society in a time of war? Is there any line that, in your view, should not be crossed?


Brown: Freedom to dissent is even more essential during times of stress. As a thought experiment, consider what would happen if dissent were prohibited or stigmatized during wartime. In that context, a president could garner almost totalitarian powers simply by declaring war. The potential for executive abuse in this situation is far more daunting than any downside that flows from permitting dissent.


To justify stifling dissent during times of war, you would have to argue that whenever a president deploys American troops, the cause is automatically just and proper. Clearly that is not only unsound on logical grounds, but it also fails to account for the volatility of global politics. Consider a situation in which there is widespread support for military deployment among both Congress and the polity at the beginning of a war--which was the case in the Fall of 2001. The fact is that as the situation develops overseas, policy corrections may become necessary. A deployment that makes sense today may not six months from now. 


What if the Executive branch proves incompetent in prosecuting foreign policy? What if that incompetence results in unnecessary deaths among US troops? What if it results in the creation of a new state that threatens to become even more dangerous to US interests than the one it replaced? In this context, dissent becomes vital, to push for needed corrections. To argue that the Executive branch should be given absolute freedom to proceed--without advice and consent from the polity--is to advocate dictatorship.


I have yet to see a plausible case for any limitation on the type of dissent that functions within the boundaries of our existing political system. Once the dissenters move beyond politics as usual, through civil disobedience towards armed revolution, then the situation changes. But right now we've just got citizens rallying and speaking out to the press, and that is the heart of politics in a free and open democratic system.


FP: Prof. Brown, do you not acknowledge that all nations in wartime employ censorship, and for good reason? There is no commentator on these issues outside the fringes of the political spectrum who does not recognize that there is a trade-off between liberty and security. 


Why is it exactly that you think the US should be the first nation in human history to regard wartime as an occasion for more rather than less freedom for its citizens?


Would you recommend ending airport security systems because they infringe on privacy rights and restrict liberty?


You are aware, of course, of the implications to your own argument when you hold America up to an ideal in this context to the exclusion of all nations on earth.


Brown: The argument from tradition is mystical, not rational. A rational argument from historical experience would need to interrogate that experience, demonstrate that a policy was successful in the past, and explain why it would be successful under present conditions. It is true that the U.S. and other nations have attempted to censor political discourse in the past. For example, consider the Sedition Acts of 1798 and 1918. These are some of the most shameful episodes in American political history, because there's little evidence to show that the censorship accomplished anything at all for national security. Rather, these Acts were power grabs by administrations attempting to silence their political opposition. They were anti-democratic and un-Constitutional.


Our state and federal sunshine laws are premised on the observation that democracy functions best when it is transparent and open. Secrecy tends to feed on itself and multiply. The more secrets an organization needs to keep, the more repressive it must become. Eventually, the secrecy-obsessed organization begins to consume itself by attacking its own members. The FBI's COINTELPRO operation was designed to take advantage of this human tendency, by planting rumors that it had placed informants in the groups it wanted to destroy. This fostered paranoia, and the groups began to implode from the internal witch hunts that resulted. The obsession with secrecy leads towards totalitarianism for any government or social movement.


Democracy is the best solution for discouraging a government from turning on its population. The notion that policy debate must be censored to protect national security is fundamentally anti-democratic. A democracy simply cannot function without open debate over policy. The only alternative is to ask the polity to accept some sort of mystic infallibility on the part of the executive. This is the path to dictatorship.


Airport security and censoring strategic military information are rather different national policy debates over broad goals and objectives. Cindy Sheehan is not asking to publish details about troop deployments on the south side of Basra, nor is she asking to bring her penknife on the plane.


Horowitz: Professor Brown is a perfect instance of Leon Wieseltier’s comment on Cornel West: “the devastation of a mind by the squalls of theory.” The anthropologist he invokes, Victor Turner, is unknown to me, but on the basis of his reference I have no desire to correct the deficiency. Turner’s theory of the obvious (if you add an emotional component to any statement, it gets more attention) is hardly necessary to explain Cindy Sheehan’s undeserved public prominence or the left’s desire to exploit that prominence.


The issue is not whether Cindy Sheehan has the right to speak but rather: 1) Whether what she says warrants the attention of anyone whose IQ is above a pulse rate; and 2) Whether her diatribes constitute an attack on her own country and community in a time of war. Because Cindy Sheehan is a symbolic figure and appears to represent many million Americans on the left, moreover, these are not just questions about an individual.


A third question might be whether Professor Brown is even up to a discussion of national policy when he makes statements like this: “Across the world, people are wondering why the Bush administration’s rationale for its Iraq policy smacks of post hoc improvisation…” Has Brown read the National Security Strategy of the United States (2002) White Paper, which explains in detail and quite clearly the rationale for a war with Iraq? Or has he read Bush’s two State of the Union Addresses dealing with the Iraq threat, or his speech to the UN General Assembly of September 12, 2002 explaining why that body had to deal with Iraq and if it didn’t the United States would? Or has he read the President’s request to Congress for an authorization for the use of force against Iraq, which was passed by majorities on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers? If he has, let’s hear how Cindy Sheehan and Thomas Brown address those arguments, instead of pretending that they don’t exist. BTW:  I’m sure there are billions of people across the world who are unaware even that George Bush is the president of the United States. So?


Did Bush supporters “fire ad hominem attacks” at poor Cindy? What does Professor Brown think Cindy’s attacks on Bush as a murderer and liar are? Policy statements? Why aren’t Cindy Sheehan’s choices of arguments and of allies and of platforms legitimate subjects of criticism?  Isn’t Professor Brown’s line of attack here just an attempt to suppress debate, exactly what he claims to deplore?


A digression on a peripheral part of Professor Brown’s argument: The professor’s grasp of ancient history in regard to the 18th Century Alien and Sedition Acts which obviously have no relation to 21st Century realities, is somewhat better than his grasp of Cointelpro and the Black Panthers, which seems to derive from the writings of the left’s principle authority in this field, Ward Churchill. In the political mythology of the left the devil always makes them do it. Therefore every bad deed committed by the Panthers like the torture murder of Alex Rackley whom they had accused of being an informer is ultimately blamed on the FBI (which actually had no role in the accusation of Rackley) or on whitey in general. I happened to have been actively involved with Panther leadership in the years of implosion to which Brown refers, and I have written extensively about the subject, a fact he seems wholly ignorant of. (No surprise. How many non-leftists do you think are on the faculty of the sociology department of his school or of any department in any school he has studied or taught in? How many students are assigned books on the Panthers that do not reflect the propaganda of the left?) The Panthers were gangsters who committed more than 300 violent felonies in a single year (1969), as Edward J. Epstein has documented, and who in their brief history murdered more than a dozen individuals. The FBI had only five agents available to monitor their activities in the entire Bay Area where the Panthers were based (this was told to me personally, years later, by the agent in charge of the San Francisco office at the time). In these circumstances, the FBI hit upon the truly inane plan of accusing some Panthers of being informers and planting letters containing insults purportedly written by one Panther leader to another. The purpose was reasonable: to divide the group and decrease the level of violence they could commit against others. In fact, when a single Panther’s life was threatened for being an informer, the FBI sent out a memo to its agents to cease the practice. Tthe memo is available in Kenneth O’Reilly’s otherwise misleading book on Cointelpro, Racial Matters. The idea that Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton -- murderers both -- were fooled by the FBI into attacking each other is ridiculous. However, enough of this digression.


Professor Brown’s answer to the topic of this debate is evidently, No. There are no limits to what people can say or should say in war time. What he actually says in regard to this question is this: “I have yet to see a plausible case for any limitation on the type of dissent that functions within the boundaries of our existing political system.” Perhaps Professor Brown should tell this to the British who have begun deporting Imams who, prior to the recent random bombings of British citizens during rush hour were allowed to promote hatred and violence against British citizens and to recruit acolytes to the anti-British jihad. We also have Imams in the United States both religious and secular who are preaching war against us. Among the secular ones I would count innumerable professors like Ward Churchill, Nicholas DeGenova and Robert Jensen, and also Michael Moore and Media Benjamin, two of Cindy Sheehan’s mentors and sponsors, and of course Cindy Sheehan herself.


When you have been attacked by and are at war with a terrorist enemy, and someone says (as Cindy has) that in fact these terrorists are “freedom fighters” and America is “the greatest terrorist state” (and George Bush the “greatest terrorist”) then that someone clearly is inciting hatred and violence against the American people. That is because in a war, violence is already the language of the conflict, and in this war civilians are the principal targets of the enemy (Cindy’s “freedom fighters”). You don’t have to be specific, as Ward Churchill was when he invited the “fragging” of American troops, to cross the line over which you become an enemy of the rest of us There is undoubtedly someone out there – a John Walker Lindh whom we haven’t become acquainted with yet  who will act on those hateful Cindy Sheehan words and attempt to blow some of us sky high.


What Professor Brown is arguing for, then, is the principle that there should be no consequences at all for the inciters and cheerleaders of anti-American mayhem. His is the reality of the sandbox not the adult world we live in. Lenin once wrote a pamphlet called “Leftwing-Communism, An Infantile Disorder.” As manifest in Professor Brown’s defence of Cindy Sheehan and in Cindy Sheehan’s own statements, leftism itself is an infantile disorder. In the view of this puerile left, the American government is an omnipotent father who is to be blamed for everything – and is so blamed in order to exculpate the children, leftists like Brown and Sheehan, from their responsibility for anything. Did Casey Sheehan volunteer for military service? That’s George Bush’s fault (“Bush lied, Casey died.”) Did Casey Sheehan volunteer to enter a war zone? That’s George Bush’s fault. Was Casey Sheehan killed by terrorists? That’s Bush’s fault too. This is not a position, Professor Brown. This is wah-wah-wah-wah.


Perhaps before resuming this discussion you will consider returning to planet earth. I assure you the exchange will be more fruitful if you do.


Brown: It’s a relief to hear that Mr. Horowitz supports Sheehan’s right to dissent, and instead frames his concerns in terms of the content of her discourse. Whether what she says “warrants the attention of anyone whose IQ is above a pulse rate” is for the marketplace of ideas to determine. Given the paucity of reasoned discourse emanating from the Bush administration and its supporters, the market appears to reflect a strong demand for simplistic appeals to emotion—on both sides of the debate.


Horowitz also asks whether Sheehan’s “diatribes constitute an attack on her own country and community in a time of war.” To answer yes to that question, you would have to conflate the Bush administration’s foreign policy with the country in its totality. But any thinking person will see that reasonable people can disagree over foreign policy means and ends without being unpatriotic. This list of people who’ve engaged in public dissent during times of war includes Abraham Lincoln, Edmund Burke, and Teddy Roosevelt.


It becomes apparent that this relentless traitor-baiting is symptomatic of the baiter’s inability to defend the Bush administration’s policy and actions in a reasoned, rational manner. Ad hominem is the most reprehensible form of argumentation, and I deplore it no matter the source, whether it’s Sheehan, her opponents, or Horowitz himself.


It’s funny that Horowitz accuses me of deriving my understanding of COINTELPRO from Ward Churchill. In fact, I am one of the handful of scholars who have been willing to go public with documentation of Churchill’s habit of fabrication and falsification. Furthermore, I can safely say that—unlike Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Churchill—I’ve never been a supporter of any ethnic nationalism. However, I have spent years researching the history of these movements in the United States. My understanding of the FBI’s COINTELPRO strategy derives not from Churchill—who I wouldn’t trust to tell me whether or not it’s raining outside—but from reading FBI documents from the time period. I agree with Mr. Horowitz’s characterization of the Bay Area Panthers as a violent criminal gang—the evidence of this is overwhelming, and even some former Panthers will admit as much today—and I acknowledge the necessity for law enforcement to infiltrate such groups. None of this undercuts my initial observation of the dysfunctional consequences of secrecy and purity witch hunts in government and other human organizations.


Mr. Horowitz appears to be obsessed with who can legitimately label whom a “terrorist” or a “freedom fighter.” Such rhetorical masturbation gets us nowhere. What Americans concerned about our Iraq policy need to know right now is what Bush’s specific goals are, and how he intends to achieve them. Iraqi politics is currently dominated by competing politico-religious-ethnic armed gangs. The country appears to be heading towards a fracture into several theocratic mini-states. Secular voices are few, for they risk assassination. The Bush administration’s response is to describe the situation as “an Iraqi process,” as if to distance itself from any responsibility for the Iraqis’ internal war and the potentially disastrous fallout for US interests in the region.


Mr. Horowitz pretends that Bush’s goals are not a moving target, by citing only the administration’s pre-war rationale—the one they distributed for public consumption, at least—and ignoring the subsequent improvisation and obfuscation. “Freedom” and “democracy” are nice buzzwords, but how does Bush define them in the context of Iraqi politics? Will Bush accept the devolution of Iraq into several smaller states? If not, then how far is he willing to go to prevent the civil war that seems inevitable once the occupying forces pull out? Will Bush accept elements of Islamic theocracy in the new Iraqi government, even if that’s what the democratic process churns up? Does Bush have a plan to encourage the development of secular leadership, and to protect the rights of women and other minority groups in Iraq? The puerile exchange of insults between the Sheehan faction and her detractors seems a trivial distraction in the face of these burning questions.


Horowitz: When Professor Brown isn’t evading what people actually say and do, he is busy inventing what they say and do. Why should it be a relief to him that I support anyone’s right to dissent since I have a fifty-year record in politics of doing just that and never – not once -- doing anything else?


This back-handed defamation is followed by a typical evasion. In my response to Brown’s original indefensible statement that the Bush Administration gave no thought to what it was doing in Iraq before doing it, I listed a series of Bush Administration explications of national security beginning with The National Security Strategy of the United States White Paper (2002). In his reply, Brown ignores the White Paper and the rest of the list so he can repeat his untenable position: “Given the paucity of reasoned discourse emanating from the Bush Administration….” Not. Take a look at that White Paper my friend.


What is Professor Brown’s problem? Can’t he read? In fact, like other members of academic institutions that have blacklisted conservatives out of existence, Professor Brown is used to talking to himself (or others who talk like him) and therefore doesn’t know what to do with an actual argument.


In Professor Brown’s world, what you do with an argument you have never encountered or just can’t cope with is ignore it. This allows you to repeat your previous position. Thus Brown responds to my claim that Cindy Sheehan’s political diatribes amount to an attack against her own country in time of war by saying that for my statement to be true you would have to “conflate the Bush Administration’s foreign policy with the country in its totality.” No you wouldn’t, because Cindy Sheehan has made it perfectly clear and in so many words that “America [note: not Bush] is a country not worth dying for;” that it’s been rotten since the beginning; that it is a terrorist state, and that our terrorist enemies are actually “freedom fighters.”  I think that constitutes an attack on the country and not just George Bush and the majority of the country who voted for him.


There’s no stopping Professor Brown, however. Having ignored the Bush policy, he now accuses me of being unable to defend it. Actually, I have written a book, Unholy Alliance, defending the Bush policy and a 50- page booklet Why We Are In Iraq doing the same. On the other hand, I have not seen a single sentence from Professor Brown challenging the Bush policy. So what’s he talking about? I have no idea.


Even when Professor Brown finally engages a point, he distorts it so thoroughly that nothing useful will come out of the exchange. I didn’t “accuse” him of deriving his understanding of Cointelpro from Ward Churchill – I said his view seems to derive from the left’s leading authority on the subject (Churchill) and adheres to its core principle: the devil made them do it. The emphasis is somewhat different. What Brown said about Cointelpro was that the forces of law and order “fostered paranoia” among the Panthers and that the Panthers then “began to implode from the internal witch hunts that resulted.” In other words, whatever bad the Panthers did, the devil made them do it. This is the leftwing line and the Ward Churchill line. It is the Cindy Sheehan line too: We are the gangsters and the gangsters are actually freedom fighters who have been driven (by us) to whatever bad they do.


I have to compliment Professor Brown for what he says next. That he agrees the Panthers were bad is good. That he thinks law enforcement should infiltrate and surveil such groups is even better. I guess he supports the Patriot Act – as the vast majority of the left do not – and for this very reason. However, since Professor Brown concedes that there are bad people with bad agendas on the left, criminals in fact, why does he regard an attempt to examine whether some anti-war activists may actually be enemies as “traitor-baiting” (whatever that means)?


And what does the word “obsessed” mean in the sentence in which Brown flings it at me, except that he doesn’t want to discuss the issue of whether there are legitimate limits to dissent in a time of war. Notice how he has evaded this – which was to be the central question of this debate -- throughout our discussion). And why is the question of whether there are legitimate limits to dissent in wartime “rhetorical masturbation,” except that Professor Brown doesn’t know how to deal with it?


Professor Brown wants to know what our agendas are now in Iraq? I will answer this, even though on the evidence of this conversation my answer will pass through him without leaving the slightest impression:


Our Goals in Iraq


1.      Not to lose. To lose the war with the terrorists in Iraq would be catastrophic. There would be a bloodbath in Iraq of all our allies. Tens of thousands slaughtered. There most likely would be a bloodbath in America as well, since the primary reason there has not been another terrorist attack on America since September 2001 is that the Bush Administration’s aggressive policies have put the terrorists on the defensive and preoccupied them with saving their own bases instead of attacking ours.


2.      To establish a stable government in Iraq that can defend itself and keep the

terrorists at bay. This is important whatever kind of government survives the current terrorist war, whether democratic or not, theocracy or no. We know that the Iraqi people are against Zarqawi because that’s the way they voted on January 30 this year. If they can establish a government that can defend itself that will help us immeasurably in the war on terror.


3.      To maintain military and intelligence bases in Iraq which is the heartland of the terrorist world. Iraq is situated between Syria and Iran, adjacent to Saudia Arabia and Afghanistan and smaller terrorist states like Yemen. Is it to our advantage to have a military presence and our eyes and ears here? You betcha.


4.      To provide the Iraqis with as much democracy as they can handle. But even if Iraq were to divide into theocratic mini-states, that would still be a gain from the days of Saddam Hussein when it was fair-sized terrorist state.


I think that’s enough goals to make this war worth continuing. In conclusion let me say that it ill behoves Professor Brown to carp at the Bush Administration’s difficulties in Iraq when he himself belongs to the party of back-stabbers that has tied one of his hands behind his back, and done nothing to advance the cause of freedom in this war and everything to frustrate it – to encourage and strengthen our enemies. Professor Brown may not like this judgment but we’ll just let the marketplace of ideas take care of that problem.

David Horowitz is the founder of The David Horowitz Freedom Center and author of the new book, One Party Classroom.