The United States was founded on dissent — specifically, on dissent from British taxation policies; more generally, on dissent from the notion that human beings are not endowed with such inalienable rights as "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."
Dissent should, therefore, be viewed as an honorable American institution. It should be prized even when disputed; it should be respected even when uttered in tones of rancor. When we, as citizens of the United States, dissent with a dissenter, our reaction should always be to disagree with the dissenter's specific words, not with the principle that allows him to speak them.
But these days, dissent has come into disfavor, being no more highly regarded in some quarters than Michael Jackson's child-rearing skills or Jayson Blair's (search) attendance record on stories. There are, it seems to me, two reasons for this.
The first is the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which were Pearl Harbor for a later generation, bringing Americans together in dread and compassion, anger and sorrow. Most of us are more patriotic than we were before the World Trade Center went down. Many of us are less tolerant of those who, in the aftermath of the devastation, criticize the United States and its foreign and domestic missions.
This speaks ill of the impatient ones.
But the second reason for the current notoriety of dissent is the intrusiveness of the dissenters.
You all know about filmmaker Michael Moore (search), intruding on the Academy Awards ceremony to express his disgust with President Bush about the war in Iraq and thereby earning the enmity of people, like me, who defend his right to his views but ask that he respect the notion of a proper venue.
Moore's actions speak ill of the dissenter.
What you may not know is that two more anti-war speeches have recently been given in similarly inappropriate settings, and that the responses have been, at least in part, unfavorable.
New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges (search), a Pulitzer Prize-winner, was hooted off the stage 3 minutes into a commencement address at Rockford College in Rockford, Ill., that was intended to last 18 minutes. His speech had nothing to do with the occasion; he blasted the Bush administration's Iraq policy as being the work of piranhas, said it was the exercise of tyranny over the weak — and the students didn't want to hear it. They shouted at Hedges, jeered at him, bellowed through foghorns. Some graduates turned their backs to him; one tossed his cap and gown at Hedges' podium.
He had not respected the notion of a proper venue. Although, knowing Hedges’s views and the vehemence with which he holds them, Rockford College administrators were remiss in not anticipating this.
A few days earlier, former talk show host Phil Donahue (search) criticized the president for the war in Iraq at a commencement address at North Carolina State University. He also preached the virtues of a liberal political philosophy, urging conservatives to "take a liberal to lunch. Take a Dixie Chick to lunch."
He was rewarded with both boos and cheers, with some of the booers walking out on him.
Even the most ideologically committed of Americans do not want politics to be always with them. They want a break, a lowering of the temperature, a DMZ of social intercourse. They want to know they can watch a movie awards show without being preached at. They want to know they can watch their child graduate from college without being harangued for their views on current events.
They don't care whether the speaker is left or right, Tim Robbins or Charlton Heston. They simply want some peace, some respect for the proper venue, and if it does not come, they will dissent even further with the grand old American tradition of dissent.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.. ET/8 p.m. PT .