After attacks, nation must still agree to disagree

October 02, 2001|By Michael Olesker

"I'M NOT going to read from the book," said Mark Crispin Miller.

Lord, no. Miller, the author, social critic and professor of "media ecology" at New York University, was at Baltimore's sixth annual Book Festival over the weekend, where a pretty nice crowd gathered at Mount Vernon Square to listen to him talk about his new book but seemed content merely to hear him talk around it.

The book is called The Bush Dyslexicon. When it arrived in bookstores a few months ago, it was part of that national wave of material relating to George W. Bush's rhetorical pratfalls. Remember "Is our children learning?" Remember "The question is, how many hands have I shaked?" Remember "Will the highways on the Internet become more few?"

Remember how easy it was to laugh back then, back when a sense of humor was considered part of America's instinctive survival equipment, back before the dreadful events of Sept. 11?

Miller remembers. But he also knows the nation's emotional needs for a strong leader have changed. "People regress, they sink to their knees, looking for a father figure," he said. And judging by the polls, its perceptions of this president have changed drastically. Bush's popularity is suddenly up around 90 percent -- about where his father's was during the Persian Gulf war.

And so Miller finds himself standing by a book whose charges he still defends, but whose message -- that Bush is the "most illiterate" president in history and a man of shallow intellectual curiosity -- is precisely not what the country wants to hear right now, when our very existence has been threatened and he's the man on whom we're depending.

So the issue is something larger than the new Leader of the Free World vs. the fellow we used to perceive as a stumbler. It's about the continuing flow of open discussion in a difficult time, and the give-and-take of conflicting ideas that has always been the country's greatest strength, and the ability of a democratic society to retain its civility in an hour when people are quick to question each other's patriotism when they disagree.

Miller said one national book chain canceled his speaking appearances in New York and Philadelphia. "I understand," he said. "I'm not crazy about it, but I understand."

Then he mentioned Bill Maher, the Politically Incorrect TV host who lobbed a few misguided rhetorical missiles at previous (and puny) American efforts to root out terrorists -- "cowardly," he called them -- and was slammed for being unpatriotic. Stations canceled Maher. Sponsors pulled out. One of them issued a press release denouncing Maher.

Then Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, got into the Maher discussion. He said, "The reminder is to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and that this is not a time for remarks like that."(But when the official White House transcript was released, part of Fleischer's line -- that Americans need to "watch what they say" -- was not printed. Before anybody started making George Orwell comparisons, the White House claimed it was a technical glitch. Like Nixon's 18-minute erased tape, perhaps.)

These are nervous times, which will only be made worse if we start questioning each other's patriotism every time we disagree.

"Are we allowed to talk about Bush's performance?" Miller asked Sunday at the Baltimore Book Festival. "Of course. But there's been a typical problem, the overfocus on style. Theatrically, Bush was terrible the first few days. We didn't know where he was. Then he was nervous. Then he called the terrorists `folks,' and then called our response a `crusade.'

"But he gave the speech to Congress, and suddenly he's Winston Churchill! You know, the bar was very low for him -- what Bush himself called `the bigotry of low expectations.' But even in that speech to Congress, he said, `God is never neutral.' Well, that's the rhetoric of the enemy, the fanaticism of the enemy."

Not everyone appreciated Miller's remarks. At the rear of the book festival crowd, a man accused Miller of spreading "dissent and disunity." But many others quickly turned and hollered, "No." They understood the overriding message: What's more important than our feelings about Bush is our reverence for free speech.

Miller, who used to live in Baltimore, resides in New York. He said this was his first trip "out of my neighborhood" since the terrorist attacks three weeks ago.

"I'm grateful you didn't cancel," he told those at the festival.

When we cancel those with whom we disagree, then we've lost a big piece of the fight. We would give up the very values, the very openness and intellectual vitality that the terrorists are trying to kill -- the values that have always stood taller than mere buildings.

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