Where Egos Dare
David Edwards
The Compassionate Revolution, Green Books, 1998
"The fact is that they are deceitful with no wish to deceive, not like Machiavellians, but with no consciousness of their deceit, and usually with the naiive assurance that they are doing something excellent and elevated, a view in which they are persistently encouraged by the sympathy and approval of all who surround them." (Tolstoy, On Civil Disobedience and Non-Violence)

Rumble in the Media Jungle

According to the propaganda model, the mainstream press will consign the propaganda model to oblivion. It will be met with ridicule, anger and abuse where necessary; with silence where possible - the priority being that all engagement with the idea itself be avoided.

As the model also suggests, however, the mainstream is not monolithic and is not maintained by a conscious conspiracy. The very efficiency of 'democratic' thought control is such that many individuals are completely unaware of the realities of the system by which they are controlled, and so perceive no danger in exposing that system to radical examination. For this and other reasons, damaging rationality and common sense do occasionally slip through the net.

Such was the case when Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was interviewed by Andrew Marr of the Independent. This encounter was particularly significant, as Chomsky was facing a mainstream journalist convinced that we have a basically free press. Chomsky was very much preaching to the unconverted, and so we had a chance to see how his radical critique held up against what to most people is simple common sense.

The arena was BBC2's The Big Idea, on February 14, 1996, one of a series of thirty-minute interviews. It had all the makings of a classic brawl: Chomsky, the street-fighting linguist, who learned his trade in and around New York's anarchist book stores and news-stands. Marr, the Independent's much-vaunted Columnist of the Year and Chief Political Correspondent (soon to become Editor).

Marr's preparation for the contest appears to have been relaxed to the point of somnolent. Here, after all, was a respected journalist squaring up to Chomsky, a notoriously tenacious intellectual adversary. One prominent British intellectual warned a colleague against getting into a dispute with Chomsky, describing him as "a terrible and relentless opponent"; and a New York Times book reviewer wrote: "Reading Chomsky... one repeatedly has the impression of attending to one of the more powerful thinkers who ever lived." And yet Marr, while knowing enough about Chomsky's arguments to debate them, did not know enough to be aware of Chomsky's countless refutations of the objections he planned to raise. Either he had not read Chomsky's political works, or he had read them half-asleep, and, as one reviewer wrote, "Not to have read [Chomsky]... is to court genuine ignorance."

The result was a mismatch, with Marr offering arguments that were meat and drink to his opponent - the sort of misunderstandings and misinterpretations Chomsky regularly uses to illustrate the intellectual bankruptcy of mainstream journalism. More often than not, Marr managed to prove Chomsky's points for him. Older and wiser journalists would surely have advised Marr that an ill-prepared TV debate with Chomsky is to be avoided at all costs. As one reviewer noted with regard to Chomsky: "Academe is crowded with critics who have made twerps of themselves taking him on."

What happened to Marr helps explain why such confrontations happen so rarely. The reality of his predicament appeared to gradually dawn on Marr, whose standard response to Chomsky's counter-arguments was to let the issue drop and quickly change the subject, only to be subjected each time to a similarly relentless battering.

The interview centred around Herman and Chomsky's propaganda model. The introduction to the programme was indicative of much that was to come. An ominous clip of Big Brother from a film of Orwell's 1984 set the ball rolling. "The idea that Orwell's warning [about thought control and propaganda] is still relevant may seem bizarre", Marr's voice-over intoned, immediately revealing his lack of understanding of Chomsky's views. Marr asked his audience to consider whether it were possible that the media is "designed to limit how you imagine the world?"

Yet Chomsky's whole point-as is well-known to all who have read his books-is that thought control in democratic societies does not happen through totalitarian, Big Brother-style mechanisms but is the result of a filtering process empowered by economic and political power operating in a free market system - there is no design, no conspiracy. Through a complex and subtle process, certain ideas and ways of looking at the world are promoted and come to find their way into our heads. This is a sort of negative thought control - we are controlled as much by what is not there, as by what is. It is not that we are prevented from choosing business-unfriendly facts and ideas, we just never encounter them and so assume they do not exist. Children are not forced to choose from a wide range of careers within the one corporate system; they are not deliberately brainwashed into believing that this is freedom. They are convinced that they are making a free choice because society functions in such a way that they are unaware of alternatives. Moreover, they are unaware that they are unaware, so that the options confronting them seem to be 'just how life is'. As Chomsky has pointed out many times, this is way beyond Orwell, who wrote about crude, Soviet-style propaganda and whose understanding of the possibilities of non-conspiratorial, democratic thought control was limited in the extreme.

Continuing his introduction, Marr proceeded to cite the Indonesian genocide in East Timor as an example of Chomsky's propaganda system in action, claiming that Timor's fate was ignored "because we were selling arms to the aggressors".

Unfortunately for Marr, this interpretation is itself a prime example of the propaganda system in action. In reality, Chomsky (like Herman, Pilger, Curtis and Zinn) argues that the slaughter in Timor has gone unreported for two decades for far more deep-seated reasons. Firstly, Indonesian dictator Suharto was a Western client originally installed by the United States, which supplied arms, intelligence and other assistance during the Indonesian massacre of some 600,000 'communists' under Suharto, beginning in 1965. In return, Suharto consistently maintained a 'good investment climate' for foreign companies operating in Indonesia; meaning, as we have discussed, low-wage labour, forcible suppression of unions, extra-judicial killings, torture, death squads, minimal environmental protection and the general militaristic control of the economy to suit the elite at home and abroad. East Timor had gained independence from Portugal in 1975 and was looking to remain independent. This, however, Chomsky argues, was not permissible - and is still not - in the post-war world.

There were other reasons: Indonesia was a major Western ally that it was deemed important to keep sweet, following the partial failure of the war in Vietnam. Other motivations include vast reserves of oil and gas in the Timor Gap (Timorese wealth which is currently being divided up between Indonesia and Australia), and indeed the neat profit made by US companies from supplying ninety per cent of the arms used for the "annihilation of a simple mountain people" in East Timor.

The silence over the genocide in Timor was not just about pressure from the arms lobby; it was part of a much deeper silence surrounding the Western programme to install and support Third World dictators to guarantee cheap access to local resources and so maintain the flow of profits from South to North.

Cat Among the Cliches

Marr began his discussion with Chomsky by suggesting that we live in "an age of relative media diversity, in the age of the Internet". Relative to what?, one might ask. There was once far greater diversity in the media than there is now. A good example is the radical press which grew out of the vibrant working class culture of the thirties and forties, which gave genuine expression to working class interests, but which was quickly marginalized by the corporate press.

Marr moved on to suggest that opposition to the Vietnam War was an example of radical ideas being accorded full coverage in the press. What would we have heard, Marr asked, if there were no propaganda system? Pretty much what we heard about the Soviet assault on Afghanistan, Chomsky replied, namely that the United States was not defending but attacking Vietnam, in support of a corrupt and murderous South Vietnamese client dictatorship, by the massive bombing of civilians and outright invasion. Of these realities, Chomsky suggested, the media uttered barely a word.

"What I don't get," Marr continued, "is that all of this suggests - I'm a journalist - people like me are self-censoring."

Chomsky argued that this is not so: journalists are a product of a state- and corporate-run selection system that is operative throughout politics, culture and education. Children are trained to defer to experts, to repeat what they are told by learned authorities, and to suppress their own doubts and independent conclusions. As children and adults rise up the educational and career ladder they are selected for obedience and subservience (such as the willingness, for example, to put aside reservations and do as they are told for the sake of career advancement). Winners are intelligent and free-thinking, but only within certain parameters.

What Marr "doesn't get" is that the propaganda model does not depend on self-censorship, but on a system of filtering maintained by the ability of power to introduce bias by marginalizing alternatives, providing incentives to conform and costs for failure to conform, and by the innate human tendency to rationalize inconsistencies.

But, Marr insisted, "there are a lot of disputatious, stroppy, difficult people in journalism, and I have to say I think I know some of them." Chomsky replied that he also knows some of "the better" journalists and they know it's all a sham and play the system "like a violin", looking for occasional windows of opportunity to get things through. Chomsky accepted that Marr was sincere in his beliefs but then "If you believed something different you wouldn't be sitting where you're sitting."

'Politics Funnier than Words can Express...'

Marr referred Chomsky to the Gulf War, pointing out that he was "very, very well aware of the anti-gulf war dissidents - the 'no blood for oil' campaign."

"That's not the dissident position," Chomsky interrupted.

"'No blood for oil' isn't the dissident [position]?!" Marr replied incredulously.

As with East Timor, Marr had again unwittingly demonstrated how the propaganda system operates: by presenting a false version of the actual dissident view which is ignored, goes unreported and is thus unknown.

Chomsky pointed out that the real dissident argument was that a peaceful, negotiated settlement to the Gulf crisis was possible even from August 1991, and increasingly so as allied forces threatened to wreck havoc on Iraq. It is not simply that sanctions might eventually have worked: they might already have done their job. The real problem was that, far from seeking a peaceful resolution, the Bush administration was fearful that Iraq might pull out before an attack could be launched. Thus all peace initiatives were powerfully suppressed, and simply did not appear in the mainstream US media. Some high-ranking US officials, like Richard Helms, were unable to get media coverage for possible peace initiatives. Even the US State Department, Chomsky argued, considered the problem negotiable, but the press would not cover it.

This is a sample of the real dissident position, not the 'No blood for oil' argument. The media did inform us that many people objected to killing for oil, but they never aired the idea that the war might have been part of a plan to remove an obstacle to Western profits, or that peaceful withdrawal was a genuine possibility, and a genuine fear on the part of our leaders.

Marr chose not to respond, and instead moved on to Watergate, generally assumed to be the classic example of how the free press can humble the powers that be. After all, Marr said, "This brought down a president." Chomsky, however, argues that Watergate is a perfect example of just how servile the press is to power. Watergate is, he has said elsewhere, "small potatoes" compared to what the state secret police - the FBI - had long been doing to socialist, black and women's movements under the COINTELPRO programme. "Sorry, you'll have to explain that," Marr chipped in. "Exactly!" Chomsky replied. He had to explain the meaning of COINTELPRO, whereas Marr knew all about Watergate.

What Marr did not know about was a huge campaign of political subversion that went all the way from bugging, theft and sabotage, to political assassination organized by the FBI under four administrations. By comparison, the Republican Watergate shenanigans were a side-show. The reason the latter became headline news was, as Chomsky explained, that one half of US political power started to mess with the other half, and that is not allowed - hence the fall of Nixon and widespread press coverage.

Watergate showed, not that the US has a free press, but that powerful interests in the US are capable of defending themselves against attack. By contrast, when minority movements without power are attacked, there is no way through the propaganda system and the facts go unreported. Thus, once again, in a way completely contrary to the common understanding, Chomsky argued that:

"There couldn't be a more dramatic example of the subordination of educated opinion to power in England, as well as in the United States."

"It still seems to me," Marr proposed gamely, "that on a range of pretty important issues for the establishment there is serious dissent." Gingrich, for example, has "been pretty savagely lampooned". Again, Marr missed the point. It is fine to lampoon Gingrich, just as it is fine to lampoon Major and Blair. The point is that this type of dissent is restricted within parameters so narrow that all serious dissent is excluded and so real power is unthreatened. Henry Adams explained how it works in a letter to a friend:

"We are here plunged in politics funnier than words can express. Very great issues are involved... But the amusing thing is that no one talks about real interests. By common consent they agree to let these alone. We are afraid to discuss them. Instead of this the press is engaged in a most amusing dispute whether Mr. Cleveland had an illegitimate child and did or did not live with more than one mistress."

It is the job of politicians to act as a buffer between populace and power, to distract us from real issues, from real obstacles to democracy. If necessary, a politician like Nixon can be sacrificed and the myth promulgated that the one 'bad apple' has been purged from an essentially good 'barrel'. Politicians, like journalists, are representatives-not of the people, to be sure, but of corporate interests. They are functionaries who have to abide by the basic rules or leave.

But what about NAFTA (The North American Free Trade Agreement)?, Marr countered. "We were well aware of the [counter] arguments" presented by unions, environmentalists and so on.

"That's flatly false," Chomsky responded, pointing out that the crucial dissident responses, the widespread and profound objections to NAFTA, were suppressed and replaced by "Mexico bashing" and the concern about losing jobs. The real issues: that the treaty was organized and signed in secret in a way that largely circumvented democratic procedures (whereby unions were supposed to be allowed to comment on the treaty, and so on) were ignored. Instead, a barrage of media publicity railed against union strong-arm tactics in pressuring politicians, whilst the massive pressure exerted by corporate lobbyists went unnoticed. The corporate solidarity in favour of NAFTA was such that genuine discussion of the issues was nowhere to be found in the mainstream.

But what about 'sleaze'? Marr asked. Apparently many of the politicians he is acquainted with are "deeply irritated, ranging on furious" about media intrusions into their private lives; and do we not hear no end of tales about sexual misdemeanours and corruption? Sure, Chomsky said, but that's of marginal importance. Corporate power is in favour of 'law and order' (on its terms) and is certainly opposed to corruption, which acts as a drain on profits and interferes with the control of society. In India, fully one-third of the economy is 'black', a fact that is not at all popular with transnationals. Also, as Henry Adams hinted, sex scandals, corruption and sleaze all serve the important function of diverting us from what really matters. While we are focusing on royal love lives, or what politicians like to wear in bed, we are assuredly not focusing on the real, systemic issues which should be central to everyone concerned with democracy-such as the fact that, regardless of the personalities and behaviour of individual politicians, modern democracies are hopelessly compromised by the immense influence of large corporations, which have the power to manipulate governments and economies simply by threat of capital flight and other measures.

By way of a strangely inappropriate concluding question-one which supports Chomsky's contention that "within the mainstream it is barely even possible to hear the arguments" - Marr asked: "What would a press be like, do you think, without a propaganda model [sic]? What would we be reading in the papers that we don't read now?" Chomsky reminded Marr that he had just given dozens of examples; examples, moreover, that had been chosen by Marr. Chomsky could have chosen different ones which might have made his task easier.

Finally, how much hope is there in the Internet? As Chomsky suggested, the struggle taking place for the independence of the Internet is nothing new. First of all it is essentially an elite operation (most of the people in the world have no access to a phone, let alone a computer). More importantly, a similar battle already took place in the 1920s over radio which, initially, was viewed as a public resource. There were no limits on the number of stations, no reason why the airwaves should belong to anyone in particular. Nevertheless, radio fell under corporate control and, today, with the exception of a few marginal voices, there is little dissent.

Deceived Deceivers

Barring a grin from Marr and a wry smile from Chomsky, the interview was over. It was a rare and illuminating event. Chomsky was interviewed by Peter Jay on TV in the '70s, and by Bill Moyers in the '80s, but never have we seen Chomsky discuss the propaganda model in such detail with a mainstream journalist. The public response to these appearances is interesting. The Bill Moyers interview generated 1,000 letters from readers (more than the programme had received for almost any other interview). When Chomsky appeared on TV Ontario in 1985, the phone-in number registered 31,321 calls-a station record. John Pilger, who regularly applies the propaganda model in his journalism, reports that when his Timor documentary Death of a Nation was shown on Channel Four, British Telecom registered 4,000 calls a minute to the number displayed at the end of the programme. The producer of the Marr-Chomsky interview reported that: "The audience reaction was astonishing... I have never worked on a programme which elicited so many letters and calls." His office was "inundated". The public enthusiasm for this type of analysis is clear, but that of the corporate media less so.

With Marr's The Big Idea, we had a chance to see ideas that have been casually dismissed by the mainstream pitted against one of the media's finest. The result was fascinating. We saw that journalists like Marr are intelligent, lucid and rational, but only within parameters that preclude a deeper understanding of what is really happening in the world. We saw how the illusion of media diversity is maintained by presenting superficial and trivialized versions of the true dissident position. Above all, perhaps, we saw how journalists are intellectual herd animals who instinctively seek safety among the tried but rarely tested cliches of the mainstream: Watergate proves we have an anti-establishment free press, media-coverage virtually ended the Vietnam war, and so on. Normally this tactic succeeds in eliciting eager nods of agreement, or a humble shrug of 'I suppose you're right'. When confronted by a Chomsky, however, the facade of great expertise and intellectuality that is the stock-in-trade of the journalist, and which is normally so intimidating, quickly crumbles. Interestingly, the reaction of the viewer to the spectacle of this intellectual debagging is not surprise but relief: 'My God, I was right all along, and I thought it was just me!'

To listen to, and believe, mainstream journalists like Marr - who is undoubtedly an honest and sincere individual - is to be stifled and bemused by a necessarily superficial, misleading and confusing version of the world that cannot make sense because it cannot address the real issues. Marr is not a liar and he is not a crude propagandist; he is the unwitting product of a system that selects for the ability to talk intelligently and convincingly about anything and everything, so long as it is not genuinely costly to power. The crucial factor is that individuals are able to do this sincerely and with the firm conviction that what they are saying is the uncompromised, freely-expressed truth. This, in the end, is the real genius of the modern system of thought control-it is very subtle, invisible, and its greatest victims are often not the deceived but the deceivers themselves.
chomsky.info