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A Voice for the Voices of Dissent

August 06, 2008

A political scientist, poet, and former pro soccer player, Jules Boykoff writes about the suppression of dissent in America.

By Todd Schwartz

Contradictions are a matter of perspective. To the casual observer, Jules Boykoff M.A.T. ‘98 may appear to be a jumble of them.

He’s a one-time pro athlete–and a respected scholar who is among the country’s leading thinkers on how government and the mass media meld to suppress dissent.

He’s a genre-tweaking poet whose latest collection is called Once Upon a Neoliberal Rocket Badge–and a researcher whose study of how journalistic balance can backfire to create bias was cited by Nobel Prize–winner Al Gore in the book and film An Inconvenient Truth.

He’s the voice of authority (or, rather, the voice of the voices against authority) when he appears on National Public Radio–and a man learning something new every day as the foster parent (with his partner, poet Kaia Sand) of a 6-year-old girl.

But the more one gets to know the 37-year-old Boykoff, the more all of these things become pieces of his all-encompassing worldview: Always look beneath the surface–and do what you can to make things better.

Boykoff’s book Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States (AK Press, 2007) is a meticulously researched look at the rise of today’s public-relations–drenched culture and the Orwellian savvy with which our government moves to forestall protest and dissidence.

“There’s been a change in the way government suppresses dissent,” explains Boykoff. “There’s more of a preemptive dimension, a lot more nipping in the bud. Which, of course, dovetails with the notion of preemptive wars. Once, the state would allow something to flower into dissent, then crush it with batons or bullets. Now, there’s a different zeitgeist.”

As Boykoff points out, the current Bush administration wrote the book on these new tactics–literally. “The Presidential Advance Manual,” he says, “is a perfect example. It is a detailed handbook on how to prevent and/or squelch dissent and demonstrations at administration events.”

Boykoff’s book describes the growth of this public relations sophistication and how it has served government from the outset:

“Spin was really given birth during World War I,” he says, “and today we are drenched in PR. It’s absolutely inescapable. It’s much more difficult to be an informed citizen now. Slicing through the spin without becoming enveloped in cynicism is not easy.”

Boykoff identifies a dozen ways that government and mass media combine to suppress dissent. A prime example on the government side is surveillance, which has a long history, justified and otherwise, and which has been personified by J. Edgar Hoover.

“Today,” Boykoff argues, “new technologies and new laws have made surveillance an even more important mode of suppression.” He points to the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping as well as to Section 213 of the Patriot Act–the so-called ‘sneak and peek’ provision that allows the FBI to enter your home secretly–as two of the most publicized examples.

“Another way that government and media function together to suppress dissent is what I call bi-level demonization. In this case, you have an external enemy–communists or, now, terrorists–and you have a domestic dissident group, which the government then links to the external enemy based on ideology, ethnicity, or simply a label. The Earth Liberation Front is a good example. The government calls them a ‘terrorist’ group, but are they in reality? The ELF has never injured anyone. The media get involved in the process when they transmit the connections drawn by the government at face value. I don’t mean to say that there is some wide conspiracy in place–often it’s just the structure of journalism at work.”

Even classic objective journalism is not always a good thing. Boykoff and his brother Maxwell (a research fellow in the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University) published the hypothesis they dubbed “balance as bias” in relation to mass media coverage of global warming–the work that caught Al Gore’s eye. Simply stated, so-called balanced reporting actually misleads when, for example, the opinions of one or two scientists who don’t believe in human-made climate change get equal space with the research-based facts of the thousands of scientists who do.

Boykoff’s commitment to looking behind the curtain came together at Lewis & Clark’s Graduate School of Education and Counseling, where he earned his master of arts in teaching. Boykoff was inspired by a class he took from Caryl Hurtig Casbon, then assistant professor of education, during his pro soccer career. He returned after his retirement to find similar eye-opening experiences with other faculty including Zaher Wahab, professor of education, and Ruth Shagoury, Rogers Professor of Education. Today Boykoff himself is an assistant professor of politics and government at Pacific University.

“Lewis & Clark,” says Boykoff, “really gave me a sense of social justice, and taught me not to dismiss people or ideas. My thinking was changed forever.”

So how do we fight back against overt and covert suppression of dissent–dissent that Boykoff sees as “an absolutely crucial cog in the machine of democracy”? Given all he’s learned about his self-described “pretty bleak” topic, Boykoff is hopeful, buoyed by a belief that, indeed, the pen, the brush, and even the guitar can be mightier than the sword.

“The antidote,” he says, “is art and artists who can step up and inject a serious dose of spunk into the process of political dissent. That’s how you turn spin on its head: with creativity. Without dissent, there is no democracy. The arts are vital in fomenting effective dissent for our future.”

Todd Schwartz is a Portland writer that treads the fine line between necessary and unnecessary spunk.

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