Friday, December 30, 2005

Book Review: Necessary Illusions

Any time I read a book by Noam Chomsky, I get multiple things happening in my head.

First of all, I start feeling superior to people. “Why can’t everyone see what is so obvious to me?” (When Chomsky points it out to me, of course...) This effect is heightened by the fact that sometimes he points out things that I had always sort of secretly believed, but never with any kind of analysis, or with the hard evidence that he brings to his books. Definitely nothing I could ever articulate, but when I read it in his books, it has a feeling of familiarity to it.

The other feeling I get, unfortunately, is a deep-seated feeling of helplessness; I feel like things will never change, and the ruling powers will always rule, because they’ve been doing it for so long, and they’re so good at removing opposition.

In any event, I present to you another book by Chomsky, which will make it onto my Recommended Reading list right after I’ve finished writing this review: Necessary Illusions. The thesis for this book, if I may clumsily sum it up in one sentence, is that the media in North America (specifically the States, but not exclusively) is not much more than a propaganda machine for the US government. “Wow,” you may be thinking, “that sounds a bit extreme, Chomsky. Surely that’s an exaggeration, in order to make a point.” But it’s not.

Chomsky’s argument is that there are certain pre-conceived notions in North America, which everyone must hold to: the U.S. is benevolent; the U.S. is pursuing democracy, and helping to foster democracy, throughout the world; any violent acts committed by U.S. enemies is an act of terrorism, while any act of violence taken by the U.S. is retaliatory, and, by definition, not an act of terrorism; etc. He points out, throughout the book, that while the media often portrays itself as presenting divergent viewpoints, those viewpoints are always within the confines of the pre-conceived notions.

As Chomsky himself states it:

In the democratic system, the necessary illusions cannot be imposed by force. Rather, they must be instilled in the public mind by more subtle means. A totalitarian state can be satisfied with lesser degrees of allegiance to required truths. It is sufficient that people obey; what they think is a secondary concern. But in a democratic political order, there is always the danger that independent thought might be translated into political action, so it is important to eliminate the threat at its root.

Debate cannot be stilled, and indeed, in a properly functioning system of propaganda, it should not be, because it has a system-reinforcing character if constrained within proper bounds. What is essential is to set the bounds firmly. Controversy may rage as long as it adheres to the presuppositions that define the consensus of elites, and it should furthermore be encouraged within these bounds, thus helping to establish these doctrines as the very condition of thinkable thought while reinforcing the belief that freedom reigns.

Most of the events studied by Chomsky in this book took place in the 1980s. The two main examples cited are the U.S. involvement in Nicaragua, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So, for example, in the 80s the media presented multiple views on the situation in Nicaragua, debating whether Reagan’s policies would ultimately be successful in bringing democracy to that country or not, but never questioned the policies as to whether the U.S. should be there in the first place—financing a treasonous army, trying to overthrow a democratically elected and popular government, against international law (which is ignored by the U.S. when deemed necessary). In addition, because the U.S. decreed that Nicaragua was not a democracy—even though they’d had democratic elections, and elected a leader who had a 90% approval rating by the people—this is the position the media took: Nicaragua is a dictatorship, and we must free the people.

Chomsky also refutes the idea that acts of violence committed by U.S. enemies are acts of terrorism, while acts of violence taken by the U.S. (or its allies) are acts of retaliation. (In practice, this is a thought which is never specifically voiced in the media, for fear that people would draw their own conclusions; it’s simply taken as a given, any other position on the idea being “unthinkable”.)

As he says:

There are many terrorist states in the world, but the United States is unusual in that it is officially committed to international terrorism, and on a scale that puts rivals to shame. Take Iran, surely a terrorist state, as government and media rightly proclaim. Its major known contribution to international terrorism was revealed during the Iran-contra scandal: namely, Iran’s perhaps inadvertent involvement in the U.S. proxy war against Nicaragua, a topic of much attention by the media, which succeeded in not noticing this uncomfortable though perfectly evident fact. The U.S. commitment to international terrorism reaches to fine detail. Thus the proxy force attacking Nicaragua is directed to attack agricultural cooperatives—exactly what we denounce with horror on the part of Abu Nidal. In this case, the directives have explicit State Department authorization and the approval of media doves. The U.S.-organized security forces in El Salvador follow the same policy.

“Terrorism is a war against ordinary citizens”; “the terrorists—and the other states that aid and abet them—serve as grim reminders that democracy is fragile and needs to be guarded with vigilance.” So George Shultz thundered at the very moment of the U.S. terrorist attack against Libya. “Negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table,” he added, also condemning those who advocate “utopian, legalistic means like outside mediation, the United Nations, and the World Court, while ignoring the power element of the equation.” The sentiments are not without precedent in history.

It has required considerable discipline on the part of the “specialized class” to maintain its own studied ignorance while denouncing the terrorism of others on command and cue.

(emphasis his)

There are numerous other examples I was going to cite here, but the review is already getting long. (In fact, whenever I “review” books by Chomsky, I do much less “reviewing” and much more regurgitating facts—there’s not usually much I’m critical of in his writing.) I highly recommend this book, so do yourself a favour and go and buy it.