Is Dissent Un-American? 

Some talk-radio hosts, country-music fans, and politicians think so.

Is patriotism synonymous with unquestioning acceptance of the decisions made by our elected officials? Is it un-American to criticize the Bush administration for "failed diplomacy" or to argue that the decision to launch a preemptive attack on Iraq was a monumental blunder? If you think the war should not have been started, does this mean you want Saddam to win, that you don't support our troops, that you actually hope that there are American casualties? If you are still praying for peace instead of war, does this mean you are an idiot, moron, nutcase, and/or commie? If you think President Bush has done a terrible job, does this mean that you hate him? In the bizarre world of right-wing talk radio, the answers to all of the above questions are: "Yes, you #*%*&# liberal!" By this standard, millions of Americans are traitors, or worse.

We have come to expect this sort of garbage on right-wing rant radio, but similar malicious rhetoric and insinuations are beginning to appear in print and even in comments made by some of our elected officials. George Will (Rush Limbaugh with a bow tie and a much better vocabulary) recently claimed that Democrats who opposed the war were "unhinged" and "deranged." House Majority Leader Dennis Hastert asserted that Senator Tom Daschle came "mighty close to giving comfort to our adversaries" (i.e., committing treason) when Daschle complained about the failure of Bush's diplomatic efforts. Even Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who usually thinks before he speaks, claimed that any criticisms of the president's decisions at this point would be "irresponsible."

One of Mr. Bush's heroes, Teddy Roosevelt, famously argued that "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." And it is beyond surreal for right-wingers who criticized every move made by Bill Clinton to now claim that any criticism of a Republican president is "irresponsible," much less treasonous. The far right does not have a monopoly on name-calling, of course. Comparisons of George Bush to Hitler or Saddam Hussein are nonsense, and dismissing Bush as a moron is to sink to the level of the Clinton haters.

Our Founding Founders would be turning over in their graves to learn that many conservatives believe the way to honor them is to become a "Dittohead" who supports all presidential decisions no matter how bone-headed -- at least during a Republican administration.

The flap over the recent comments made by Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines is instructive. Right-wing radio and Internet sites like the Drudge Report and helped make a mountain out of a molehill. Last summer, Maines infuriated some right-wingers when she criticized the (embarrassingly bad) Toby Keith song "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" for "making country music sound ignorant." When, during a recent London concert, Maines stated that "we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas," there was little or no immediate reaction, but a concerted effort by right-wing Internet-based groups eventually succeeded in making it into the latest cause célèbre for talk-radio hosts.

Callers to country stations subsequently managed to persuade some of them to temporarily stop playing Dixie Chicks songs, but the group's concerts are still selling out and their latest CD is still number four on the charts. In the long run, the Dixie Chicks will sink or swim based on their music, not their political views.

There's plenty wrong with America. (If you don't believe me, listen to talk radio for five minutes.) But we're still the greatest country in the world because we value liberty and freedom. If our citizens (including, for better or worse, our celebrities) are only allowed to speak up when they support the actions of our government, we might as well be in Iraq.

B. Keith English, M.D., is a professor of pediatrics at UT Health Science Center.

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