Early in the war on terror, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! made a telling point about journalism and dissent, a point well worth revisiting eleven years later. She began by observing how mainstream media in the U.S. report the war as if they are state media rather than independent news organizations. She asked why it is that networks keep retired generals on the payroll but not doctors or peace advocates. Why is it that they show romanticized pictures of soldiers against a sunset or aircraft carriers at sunrise? Why don’t they interview the war protesters rather than only feature politicians who make the case for war and generals who explain war tactics?
What is Goodman’s point? That the news media should serve a democratic purpose and that, to that end, their mission should be “to make dissent commonplace in America.” Hearing and seeing people engaged in dissent shouldn’t be shocking or off-putting. It should be recognized as coming out of “the finest tradition that built this country.” The news media should be independent of the government rather than function as an instrument of government propaganda. “Dissent is what makes this country healthy” (“Independent Media in a Time of War,“ April 21, 2003).
Goodman’s point does not apply just to the ill-fated U.S. invasion of Iraq. Dissent is what makes democracy real. Otherwise, democracy is an empty symbol used by politicians and propagandists to promote warfare, to offer the general public the semblance of a rationale for an uninterrupted war on terror that migrates from one venue to the next. America without an accepted and reported practice of dissent does not live up to the democratic banner it carries into battle. It promises to defend and even spread a democracy that it does not make commonplace to its own political culture.
Dissent itself is a term that can be misleading, especially when it is treated as a synonym for protest. Protest is a form of democratic dissent, but dissent is more than protest, especially if we associate protest with marching and chanting antiwar slogans. That kind of protest is easily taken as a sign of alienation and, by extension, as an expression of support for the country’s enemies. That is an unfair caricature of war protesters. It also serves unfortunately to condemn dissent of any kind as unpatriotic, including even the rare expression of dissent by elected representatives serving in deliberative bodies such as the U.S. Congress.
Dissent is democratic because it serves to hold the empowered perspective, and the selective interests served by it, accountable to the broader public. It brings diverse perspectives to bear on matters of public interest. The deliberation of public policy—as opposed to the management of public opinion—is democracy in action. It helps us to vet consequential decisions more thoroughly and to avoid hasty missteps based on the presumption that war is necessary in any given case and that no better alternative exists.
War, we are told time after time, is too urgent to debate. Our duty as citizens is to support the soldiers, not question the decisions of our leaders. That is not self-governance, either by the people or through their elected representatives. Without the benefit of dissent, democracy is only the thin façade of tyranny.