Cover image for Gag rule : on the suppression of dissent and the stifling of democracy
Gag rule : on the suppression of dissent and the stifling of democracy
Lapham, Lewis H.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Penguin Press, [2004]

Physical Description:
178 pages ; 20 cm
An audible silence -- Gag rule -- Mute button -- Democracy in irons.
Format :


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Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
JC599.U5 L33 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
JC599.U5 L33 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
JC599.U5 L33 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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From one of America's most important voices of protest, an urgent new polemic about the stifling of the American public's capacity for meaningful dissent, the lifeblood of our democracy, at the hands of a government and media increasingly beholden only to the country's wealthy few. Dissent is democracy. Democracy is in trouble. Never before, argues Lewis Lapham, have voices of protest been so locked out of the mainstream political conversation: they are criminalized, marginalized, and muted by a government that recklessly disregards civil liberties and by an ever-more concentrated and profit-driven media, in which the safe and the selling sweep all uncomfortable truths from view. As a result, we face a crisis of democracy as serious as any in our history. Never has the public conversation been more in need of dissent, and never has protest been more effectively quarantined into zones where it has so little effect on the political process. Under the noses of a cowed and silenced populace, Lapham posits, the Bush regime is "assembling from the ruins of a democratic republic the corporate splendor of a precision-guided empire....What the Bush administration has in mind is not the defense of the American citizenry against a foreign enemy, but the protection of the American oligarchy from the American democracy." Dissent has always had a hard time of it, Lapham shows in a bravura short tour of political dissent in American history, and an especially hard one in time of war. The more ill defined the conflict and the more invisible the enemy, the worse it is for civil liberties, particularly the liberty to disagree. And now, just when the electorate is most narcotized and apathetic, spoon-fed its infotainment by a small gang of gigantic media conglomerates, and the government is in the hands of a terrifyingly self-righteous crew, comes a conflict, the "war on terror," that makes the hunt for Communists in the 1950s look like the Normandy landings on D-Day in its clarity of aim and purpose. It's a witch's brew that is pure poison for a living democracy. Gag Ruleis a rousing and necessary call to action in defense of one of our most important liberties-the right to raise our voices against the powers that be and have those voices heard.

Author Notes

Lewis H. Lapham is the editor of Harper's Magazine.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In four chapter-essays, Lapham returns to the large theme he has addressed throughout his long, distinguished tenure as editor of Harper's: the slow but frightening consolidation of power by an oligarchy comprising the administration in power, big business, and the mainstream media. Neither particularly rightist nor leftist--the author's essays on Bill Clinton's administration are no less withering than his essays on George W. Bush's--Lapham does express particular alarm at what he perceives as the Bush administration's sense of self-righteousness: They bring to Washington the certain knowledge that they can do no wrong. Who is ultimately responsible for this shift? The successful operation of a democracy relies on acts of self-government by no means easy to perform, Lapham offers, and for the last twenty years the American public has been unwilling to do the work. As with Lapham's many other writings, this book presents challenges worth facing. --Alan Moores Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Lapham, editor of Harper's, plays the role of a modern-day Tom Paine, propelling stinging criticisms and scathing indictments at the Bush administration and its supporters for what he claims are their bald-faced deceptions about the justifications for the war in Iraq and for establishing policies-especially the USA Patriot Act-he sees as aimed at silencing dissent about its policies and the war in Iraq. Lapham argues that the muting of dissenting voices has contributed to the erosion of democracy, because policy disagreements form the heart of a democratic republic. Most disturbing, says Lapham, is the complicity of the media in its support of the steady erosion of individual civil liberties in the name of national security. Lapham also levels forceful criticism at our educational system: "An inept and insolent bureaucracy armed with badly written textbooks instills in the class the attitudes of passivity, compliance, and boredom." This, charges Lapham (30 Satires; Theater of War; etc.), results in schools producing citizens who blindly accept the pronouncements of their leaders. The United States, he points out in a strong historical sketch, has a deep history of quashing dissent when politicians have raised alarms over perceived threats to the well-being of the country, most notably with the Sedition Act of 1798, the Espionage Act of 1917 and, he asserts, the Patriot Act. Lapham's compelling book reminds us that "democracy is an uproar, and if we mean to engage the argument about the course of the American future let us hope that it proves to be loud, disorderly, bitter and fierce." Agent, Andrew Wylie. (June 21) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Every presidency is a boon to a few of its critics. To Vidal, who has long seen the United States as an imperial power obsessed with security, the administration of George W. Bush has been a gift outright. In a single year, 2002, Vidal brought out two essay collections, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Dreaming War. Now his publisher is announcing "the long-awaited conclusion to his best-selling trilogy." Trilogy? Unlike the two earlier collections, most of the essays here are not about contemporary events, and readers anticipating another helping of Vidal's take on Bush-Cheney might be surprised to find his wit instead trained upon Ronald Reagan, Jerry Falwell, or Earl Butz. Only the introduction, the postscript, and one essay in which Vidal suggests a nationwide conspiracy to rig voting machines deal with current events. Some essays are not even newly collected, since several, very lightly reworked here, can also be found in Vidal's widely held United States (1993). Only for libraries wanting a complete run of this master novelist and essayist. Lapham, the longtime editor of Harper's, is another eloquent and caustic critic of American imperial ambition, commercial crassness, and media timidity. His magazine work is regularly collected and republished in book form. Gag Rule consists of four long essays on the state of our polity, in large part quilted together from shorter Harper's pieces. Like Vidal's, some of this material has appeared already; certain passages in Lapham's 2002 collection, Theater of War, are identical to passages here. Consequently, this is an optional purchase for libraries, which can gauge the degree of redundancy they want in their own collections.-Bob Nardini, Chichester, NH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

1 An Audible Silencep. 1
2 Gag Rulep. 41
3 Mute Buttonp. 90
4 Democracy in Ironsp. 130
Indexp. 172