Cheney, Cohen and Colbert: The rhetoric and the reality of free speech

As Cohen lays into Colbert, Cheney trumpets the value of free speech -- in Russia.

Published May 4, 2006 5:04PM (EDT)

Vice President Dick Cheney and Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen are both arguing today that retaliation for free speech is something that happens in some other place or at some other time.

Cheney, lecturing Russia from Lithuania, says that men and women "must be free to speak their minds," and he repeats the "simple test" posed by Natan Sharansky: "Can a person walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm?" "If he can," Cheney says, "then that person is living in a free society. If not, it's a fear society."

Cohen, lecturing Stephen Colbert from his home on the Post's Op-Ed page, says speaking "truth to power" is a "tired phrase" that doesn't mean much in America today. When it was "fresh and meaningful," he says, "it suggested repercussions, consequences -- maybe even death in some countries. When you spoke truth to power you took the distinct chance that power would smite you, toss you into a dungeon or -- if you're at work -- take away your office."

Maybe they've got a point. George W. Bush isn't Joseph Stalin, and Stephen Colbert hasn't been subjected to any smitings, at least not of the biblical sort. Still, it's hard to make the case that the United States is the national free debate society that Cheney and Cohen apparently imagine it to be.

Shortly after 9/11, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer warned "all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do." When Gen. Eric Shinseki warned that several hundred thousand U.S. troops would be needed in postwar Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld responded by pushing him aside into premature "lame duck" status. When Joseph Wilson raised questions about the Bush administration's use of prewar intelligence, the White House responded with what Patrick Fitzgerald has called a "concerted action" to "discredit, punish or seek revenge" against him.

Cindy Sheehan is arrested for wearing an antiwar T-shirt to Bush's State of the Union address. A college student is arrested by police who claimed that his invocation of an iconic image from Abu Ghraib somehow amounted to a bomb threat. The Pentagon monitors the "threats" presented by Quaker meetings in Florida and an antiwar march at NYU and a campus protest at Southern Connecticut State University. The FBI monitors the Web sites of groups planning to protest at political conventions, takes note of the license plates on cars near an antiwar rally and gathers information about "antiwar and environmental protesters" and "activists who feed vegetarian meals to the homeless."

The CIA fires a career analyst for having what it calls undisclosed conversations with journalists, and the Bush administration explores the possibility of criminal prosecutions for journalists who pass along leaks of classified information.

Cohen says that "anyone can insult the president of the United States" without fear of any consequences. Tell it to the Dixie Chicks, who were subjected to a nationwide radio boycott after singer Natalie Maines said she was ashamed that Bush was from her home state of Texas. Tell it to anyone whose criticism of the Bush administration has been equated to comforting the enemy or undermining the troops or siding with Osama bin Laden. Cheney is the king of that sort of repression through marginalization: In a speech last fall, the vice president said that political "opportunists" who dare to question the president's justification for war are undermining "American soldiers and Marines ... out there every day in dangerous conditions and desert temperatures."

In his speech today, Cheney talked of the problems facing a country that "has compromised the rule of law" and has "little official respect for human rights, a corrupt bureaucracy, and an intimidated press corps. " He meant Russia, and we suppose that we ought to be thankful for this: We're still free enough to say that his words had us thinking about someplace closer to home.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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