Our voices are lost in the tide of intolerance sweeping America
The following article from The Observer is an edited version of a speech given by Hollywood actor and director Tim Robbins to the National Press Club in Washington. It looks at how dissent in the U.S. is sometimes facing a hostile reception. It can be found at its original location http://www.observer.co.uk/focus/story/0,6903,940168,00.html.
'Our voices are lost in the tide of intolerance sweeping America'
April 20, 2002
Free speech is under threat in the US, says actor and director Tim Robbins. In this keynote address to journalists last week, he tells of the reprisals faced by anyone, including his family, who dares to dissent.
For all the ugliness and tragedy of 9/11, there was a brief period when, in the midst of the tears and the shock, I held on to a glimmer of hope in the naive assumption that something good could come out of it.
I imagined our leaders seizing on this moment of unity in America, when no one wanted to talk about Democrat versus Republican, white versus black, or any of the ridiculous divisions that dominate our public discourse. I imagined our leaders going on television telling the citizens that, although we all want to be at Ground Zero, we can't, but there is work that is needed to be done all over America. Our help is needed at community centres to tutor children, to teach them to read. Our work is needed at old age homes to visit the lonely and infirm; in gutted neighborhoods to rebuild housing and clean up parks, and convert abandoned lots to baseball fields. I imagined leadership that would take this incredible energy, this generosity of spirit, and create a new unity in America, born out of the chaos and tragedy of 9/11, that would send a message to all terrorists: if you attack us, we'll become stronger, cleaner, better educated, more unified. Like a phoenix out of the fire, we will be reborn.
And then came the speech: you are either with us or against us. And the bombing began. And the old paradigm was restored as our leader encouraged us to show our patriotism by shopping and volunteering to join groups that would turn in their neighbour for any suspicious behaviour. In the 19 months since 9/11, we have seen our democracy compromised by fear and hatred. Basic inalienable rights, due process, the sanctity of the home have been compromised in a climate of fear. A unified American public has grown bitterly divided and a world population that had profound sympathy and support for us has grown contemptuous and distrustful, viewing us as we once viewed the Soviet Union, as a rogue state.
Last weekend Susan and I and the three kids went to Florida for a family reunion of sorts. Amid the alcohol and the dancing, there was, of course, talk of the war. And the most frightening thing was the amount of times we were thanked for speaking out against the war because that individual speaking thought it unsafe to do so in their own community, in their own life. Keep talking, they said; I haven't been able to open my mouth. A relative tells me that a history teacher tells his 11-year-old son, my nephew, that Susan Sarandon is endangering the troops by her opposition to the war. Another relative tells me of a school board decision to cancel a civics event that was proposing to have a moment of silence for those who have died in the war, because the students were including dead Iraqi civilians in their silent prayer. A teacher in another nephew's school is fired for wearing a T-shirt with a peace sign on it. A friend of the family tells of listening to the radio down South as the talk show host calls for the murder of a prominent anti-war activist. Death threats have appeared on other prominent anti-war activists' doorsteps for their views. Relatives of ours have received threatening emails and phone calls.
Susan and I have been listed as traitors, as supporters of Saddam, and various other epithets. Two weeks ago, the United Way cancelled Susan's appearance at a conference on women's leadership. Both of us last week were told that we and the First Amendment were not welcome at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. A famous middle-aged rock'n'roller called me last week to thank me for speaking out against the war, only to tell me he could not speak himself because he fears repercussions from Clear Channel. In Washington [veteran journalist] Helen Thomas finds herself banished to the back of the [White House press briefing] room and uncalled on after asking Ari Fleischer whether our showing prisoners of war at Guantanamo Bay on television violated the Geneva Convention.
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, invective and hatred directed at any voice of dissent. And the public, like so many relatives and friends that I saw last weekend, sit in mute opposition and fear.
I am sick of hearing about Hollywood being against this war. Hollywood's heavy hitters, the real powerbrokers and cover-of-the-magazine stars, have been largely silent. Today prominent politicians who have decried violence in movies - the 'Blame Hollywooders', if you will - recently voted to give our President the power to unleash real violence in our current war. They want us to stop the fictional violence but are OK with the real kind. These same people that tolerate the real violence of war don't want to see the result on the nightly news. Unlike the rest of the world, our news coverage of this war remains sanitised, without a glimpse of the blood and gore inflicted upon our soldiers or the women and children in Iraq. Violence as a concept, an abstraction - it's very strange.
As we applaud the hard-edged realism of the opening battle scene of Saving Private Ryan , we cringe at the thought of seeing the same on the nightly news. We are told it would be pornographic. We want no part of reality in real life. We demand that war be painstakingly realised on the screen, but that war remain imagined and conceptualised in real life.
In the midst of all this madness, where is the political opposition? We need leaders, not pragmatists that cower before the spin zones of former entertainment journalists. We need leaders who can understand the constitution, congressmen who don't in a moment of fear abdicate their most important power, the right to declare war, to the executive branch. In this time when a citizenry applauds the liberation of a country as it lives in fear of its own freedom, when people all over the country fear reprisal if they use their right to free speech, it is time to get angry. And it doesn't take much to shift the tide. My 11-year-old nephew, mentioned earlier, a shy kid who never talks in class, stood up to his history teacher who was questioning Susan's patriotism. 'That's my aunt you're talking about. Stop it.' The stunned teacher backtracked and began stammering compliments. A bully can be stopped, and so can a mob. It takes one person with the courage and a resolute voice.
Our ability to disagree, and our inherent right to question our leaders and criticise their actions, define who we are. To allow those rights to be taken away out of fear, to punish people for their beliefs, to limit access in the media to differing opinions, is to acknowledge our democracy's defeat. These are challenging times. A wave of hate seeks to divide us - Right and Left, pro-war and anti-war. In the name of my nephew, and all the other victims of this environment of fear, let us try to find common ground as a nation. Let us celebrate this glorious experiment that has lasted 227 years. To do so we must honour and fight for the things that unite us - like freedom, the First Amendment and, yes, baseball.
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