How I became a target for America’s zealots
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The following article from The Guardian is by Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop. It looks at the responses she got when criticizing America's war on terrorism and its impacts. It is an example of the challenges that people face when providing dissent, mild or vivid. You can see the original article at http://argument.independent.co.uk/commentators/story.jsp?story=3366581.
How I became a target for America's zealots
By Anita Roddick
26 September 2002
Wow. When just before 11 September this year, The Independent asked me to pen a response to the question "What has changed since 11 September 2002?", I had no idea what my musings would cost. I innocently - perhaps naively - wrote about what I think is the main change in America since that horrible day. I wrote about the suppression of public dissent and the erosion of civil liberties in the United States, which as I see it are among the most dire threats that country now faces. Little did I know that I was about to experience exactly how fearfully limited public debate in America really is.
Somehow, my expression of dismay was twisted in a highly selective retelling in the New York Post, a right-wing tabloid, as "an America-loathing diatribe. Little... in the foreign press outside al-Jazeera comes close to Roddick's viciousness". I was astonished to read that I was suddenly a supporter of terrorism and a hater of Americans and devastated at the idea that any American would assume that I was not outraged by the barbaric attacks of 11 September.
So let me just be absolutely clear about this - I hate terrorism and I hate terrorists.
I have a deep admiration for much that is American. My grandparents emigrated to America. My father was born in America. My daughter lives in America. I had assumed that my sorrow for 11 September went without saying. And I have repeatedly couched my criticism of President Bush in the context of this admiration. It's as though, as I leapt to America's defence, some people - perhaps rattled by a year of terrorism warnings and haunting memories - assumed I was going for its throat.
It didn't help that the Post, a bastion of right-wing simple-minded thinking, had deliberately and outrageously misrepresented my opinion. Somehow, my criticism of George Bush had been equated with a hatred of the country he leads, as if a leader and his country were one and the same, as if all Americans support George Bush without reservation or exception.
When I am feeling particularly generous, I suppose this is a simple misunderstanding by a few people who accidentally missed my point. But I also fear that perhaps this is the natural result of the atmosphere created when a sitting president tells his subjects that "you're either with us or you're with the terrorists".
Criticism of Bush, then, is tantamount to friendship with Bin Laden. The mind reels at the logic. Teddy Roosevelt must be spinning in his grave. He's the beloved American president who said: "To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."
None the less, I quickly learnt what abuse has been levelled at other people who have dared to criticise the Bush administration in the past 12 months. I hadn't realised just how brave other people had been to take even the most reasonable public stand against government policies with which they disagreed. Even though I wrote that I worried about the suppression of public dissent, I suppose I naively miscalculated my own entry into that arena. I admit that I was gobsmacked at the vicious, hateful, threatening messages directed at me after that essay appeared. It was comforting to know, however, that I was suddenly reviled alongside such admirable thinkers as Norman Mailer, Noam Chomsky, Erica Jong, Susan Sontag, Robert Fisk and Ralph Nader. Again, good company to find yourself in!
When the vitriol first started trickling in, I thought to myself: "Am I crazy? Was I wrong? Is this what you get for defending the Bill of Rights? Is there really something un-American about saying that the constitution is precious?" It was Kafkaesque - I was fighting shadows, trying to make a few strangers understand that they had been misled, that I didn't hate them, that I am anything but un-American.
It's as though these few people are so desperate to find an enemy at which to hurl the anger and hurt of 11 September that they are lashing out blindly. I just happened to have stepped in front of their fists. But most of the responses I got from those who were angry just seemed to get it all wrong:
"I think you're all goose-stepping Nazis deep inside. I know Osama and gang would never do you any harm - after all you are his breeding ground." As if a Nazi or an Osama bin Laden would argue for civil liberties.
"If you SO despise America, then take your shitty products and get the fuck out! There is no need for us to shop for your filth if you are going to talk shit and lie about a country that made your fortune." As if I had said I despise America, and as if I'd made a fortune in the United States (hardly!).
Some were astounding, coming from self-proclaimed patriots and defenders of America:
"This lady should look at the laws imposed in the UK in WWII. When a country is under attack, they cannot be as open as they once were. Hopefully, we will have our liberties returned when the crisis is over. But I'm not holding my breath." As if the loss of basic freedoms warranted nothing more than an "oh well".
But most were just funny:
"Years ago, I discovered... that Anita is a 'watermelon' (green on the outside and red on the inside)."
"Going into a Body Shop is like stepping into a nouveau-hippy paradise. Pot-based lotions, hug-a-tree cleansers, you name it. It should come as no surprise that a retail equivalent of an Al Gore-Lenin merger is headed by a flaming left-wing communist."
"Anita needs reminding that the enemy thinks her products are sinful and would like to behead any one selling or using them."
This, apparently, is the calibre of conservative political discourse among my detractors.
But I have received far more letters of support than hate mail, almost all of it from Americans:
One read: "I am alarmed that George Bush is taking away our right to free speech in the guise of defending our country against terrorists. Just because Bush has said that 'you're with us or against us' doesn't make it so."
"I am a California human rights attorney and a customer of The Body Shop... I was pleased to read Ms Roddick's column, which I took as a call to defend what are usually regarded as America's finest values - freedom of speech and association among them - against the depredations of a power-hungry and opportunistic government. I did not take it as a condemnation of America, and I fail to see how any intellectually honest reader could have done so."
I quickly realised that a large number of Americans, if not a majority of them, feel much the way I do. But it is a vocal vigilante minority that is attempting to intimidate those with whom it disagrees, and it is able to do this with the encouragement of Bush, who - by equating dissenters with terrorists - has declared open season on anyone who disagrees with him.
Which, of course, proves precisely the point of my original article: the freedom to dissent is in danger in America. Maybe I didn't realise I was leaping into the fire, but I'm not sorry I did. As Gunter Grass said: "The job of a citizen is to keep his mouth open."
The writer is the founder of The Body Shop
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