State of the media

Posted in Mass Communication, Politics + Diplomacy by expresscheckout on 7 September, 2006

Anti-war protest in Midtown Manhattan 27 Mar 2003

On Media: An Interview with Noam Chomsky
By Cihan Aksan & Jon Bailes
State of Nature
September 2006

“What right do we have to decide what should happen to other people? Is it because we’re so magnificent? Did we have some God given right to determine the fate of the world?”

Noam Chomsky is Professor of Linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as a political analyst and intellectual activist. He has written widely in both linguistics and political affairs, including on the media, the Middle East and US foreign policy. He spoke to SoN editor, Cihan Aksan, via telephone on 30th August 2006.

Interview prepared and transcribed by Cihan Aksan & Jon Bailes.

State of Nature: “The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.” That’s from George Orwell. Today we don’t often hear of the US support for the mujaheddin in Afghanistan in the 1980s or the US support for Saddam Hussein almost until he invaded Kuwait in 1990. To what extent do you think the media has – to use John Pilger’s phrase – “a grip on historical memory”?

Noam Chomsky: Well just as a correction, we might add that George Bush returned to supporting Saddam Hussein immediately after the invasion of Kuwait when he authorized Saddam to crush a Shiite rebellion that probably would have overthrown him.

To John Pilger’s quote, descriptively it’s correct, but it’s correct insofar as we allow it to be correct. We don’t have to permit ideological institutions to control history. And it’s not just the media: this happens in scholarship and there are extraordinary examples of it, like the original sin of American society – in fact Western society in the Western hemisphere – what happened to the indigenous population. Up until a few years ago, for example on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s so called discovery of America, one of the standard history texts, written by 3 eminent historians, repeated the myth that the hemisphere was barely settled, just a few scattered tribes roaming around, maybe some very backward civilizations. That’s complete mythology, it’s all been exposed. It lasted for 500 years. In fact it still prevails in popular consciousness. It turns out that the Western hemisphere was very densely populated, with big cities and a high level of civilization, comparable to Europe in most respects, sometimes better.

Or to take a more recent event, for example the US invasion of South Vietnam. That’s 44 years ago now. It still doesn’t exist in history. Nor does what happened afterwards. In fact there’s actually as far as I know only one poll in which Americans – this is college students – were asked to estimate the number of deaths in Vietnam. And their estimate was about 5% of the official number given by the United States. That’s probably 2 or 3% of the actual number. I mean it’s as if Germans were asked today how many Jews died in the Holocaust and they said 300,000. And it’s not that people are stupid or particularly ignorant, it’s just that’s the impression that’s given to them by the doctrinal system.

SoN: I am interested in the idea that it is the educated class which is the most indoctrinated. We have here an internalisation of the values of the system to such an extent that those we accuse of deceiving are in fact convinced that the way in which they analyse and report events is totally free and objective.

NC: That’s very true. Sometimes there is outright deception, but ordinarily it’s a kind of convenient self deception. We all know this from personal life in fact; very few people are willing to say, “I just did something really rotten.” What they’ll usually do is concoct some structure in which what they did can be interpreted more or less benignly. And this happens with national cultures, with the doctrinal institutions, with the media, with a good deal of scholarship, with intellectual commentary and so on.

But take the first example you mentioned, the United States and Saddam Hussein; Saddam Hussein is on trial after all and will probably be sentenced to death, first for criminal acts that he committed in 1982. Well out of curiosity I’ve been searching, I don’t read everything of course, but I’ve been searching to see if I can find anyone who will mention the fact that 1982 is quite an important year in US-Iraqi relations. That’s the year in which Ronald Reagan lifted the ban on sales of exports, including arms sales to Saddam Hussein. And shortly after he sent his emissary, Donald Rumsfeld, who’s well known today, to firm up the agreement so that the US, not alone, but the US could send ample supplies to Saddam Hussein, including the means to develop weapons of mass destruction. Part of the reason was because the US was strongly supporting Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, many by chemical weapons, for which means were probably supplied by the United States. Well if US-Iran relations are on the front page and Iraq is on the front page, can somebody mention that Saddam Hussein is on trial for crimes committed when the US welcomed it with open arms and began to assist him in committing his monstrous atrocities?

The next crime that he’s on trial for is the terrible al-Anfal campaigns against the Kurds. The US, and Britain incidentally, continued to provide their friend Saddam with aid again, including aid to develop weapons of mass destruction. And in 1989, we’re now on the next president, George Bush, Iraqi nuclear engineers were invited to the United States to learn more about new techniques for developing nuclear weapons. I mean can any of this be mentioned? Well no, but it’s not because people are lying, it’s just it’s not part of their consciousness.

This morning on BBC I was listening to their report about the Middle East. And they quoted the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as saying that the main issue in Resolution 1701 is the release of the two captured Israeli soldiers. Did anyone on BBC point out that Israel, the United States and Britain care absolutely nothing about the capture of soldiers, or even the much worse crime of kidnapping of civilians? For decades Israel had been kidnapping Lebanese civilians, putting them in prisons, some of them secret prisons. Did anybody ever call for the invasion of Israel? They just mentioned on BBC, to their credit, that there’s been a huge escalation of atrocities in the Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip since June 25th, when an Israeli soldier was captured. End of that story. What happened a day before that, June 24th? Well on that day two Gaza civilians were kidnapped by Israeli forces, abducted and sent somewhere off into the Israeli prison system. That’s a far worse crime. But that didn’t happen because it was done either by us or by our clients. It’s not that anyone suppresses this, it’s just all part of a very deeply rooted imperial mentality, which simply presupposes that what we do to them is legitimate, and what they do to us is an outrage, even if it’s a lesser crime. And that’s not so much conscious deception, it’s just sort of part of the air you breathe if you’re educated in a society that has centuries of history of grinding people under their jack boot.

SoN: The pro-Israel lobby has played a vital role in determining the way in which events in the Middle East are represented by the media, think tanks and even academia. This is as well as its influence – overwhelming influence according to some commentators – on the US political establishment. My question is: If Israel was not of such strategic importance to the US would the influence of the pro-Israel lobby be as strong as it is now? In other words, where would AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) be without Israel acting as a US proxy in the Middle East?

NC: It would be approximately nowhere. In order to examine this question seriously, there are two factors that we’re investigating. One is strategic and economic interests, the second is the influence of the lobby. If you want to sort out the effect of those two factors, you have to look at circumstances where they diverge, where they agree, where you can’t tell which one is effective. Well, overwhelmingly they agree, so there’s a small residue of cases that you have to look at where they disagree. And then what you see is pretty much what you expect, the United States is overwhelmingly powerful. Israel didn’t have to, but it has decided to be essentially a client state, so yes of course the US prevails and the lobby disappears, and sometimes in remarkable ways.

So for example Israel has now become by choice, more or less a caricature of the United States. The social system, which used to be sort of Scandinavian style, has collapsed. It has extremely high inequality, just like the United States; in terms of inequality it is at the very top of the industrial societies. And its economy is a high tech, largely military based economy like the US. Well as a military based export economy it has to have a market. And the most lucrative market, the one they’re most interested in, is China, for obvious reasons. But the United States doesn’t want them to send high tech military equipment to China, so there are regular conflicts.

In the year 2000, Clinton simply ordered them not to send their own high tech productions to China. They bitterly objected, but of course they did it – the lobby wasn’t there. Last year, 2005, it got more serious. Israel insisted on sending Harpy Missiles to China. The Bush administration said no, Israel said it would go ahead, the US then proceeded to humiliate them, not just to stop them but to humiliate them. They refused to allow the Defense Secretary Shaoul Mofaz to visit Washington, Pentagon officials broke off their contacts with Israeli connections and they began to threaten sanctions. They insisted that Israel pass legislation to bar these sales and furthermore they were to write a letter of apology to the United States for planning to do it. Well of course they had to do it all, the lobby was invisible – it knows better than confront US power. And the media didn’t report it in the United States. They did in Israel of course, it was a big issue. Well you know these things don’t happen very often, but when they do happen it’s very clear who runs the show.

Furthermore although there’s no doubt that the lobby is influential, the major part of it is usually ignored. The major part of the lobby is the American intellectual community. They’re an important group of people. They’re the ones that shape the way news is presented, the ones that write the articles, that do most of the scholarship. They’re kind of a filter through which the world reaches the rest of the public, so of course they’re important. Well since 1967 they’ve had a virtual love affair with Israel. After Israel’s 1967 victory, it just became the darling of the educated classes and you can see why. Israel performed a huge service to the United States, to Saudi Arabia, which is of course the oldest and most valued ally of the US in the region, and to the energy corporations. Why was this a huge service? It destroyed secular Arab nationalism, which was considered a serious threat; it was even threatening to use the resources of the region for its own people – a totally intolerable threat. Israel took care of that, that’s when the US-Israeli alliance really became firm. And that’s when the educated classes began their love affair with Israel. It had to do with domestic issues too, but no time to talk about that, I read about it at the time. Well, that’s an important part of the lobby, a very important part. On the other hand, their main commitment is to US power. So when US power conflicts with Israel, reflexively most of them take the US side. The conflicts are rare, but that’s one problem with the theory about the strength of the lobby.

Another problem is simply the tactical conclusions that flow from it. If you think the lobby is all powerful and you don’t like US policy, there’s a very elementary tactical conclusion. For me it would be wonderful, I could stop writing articles, giving talks, spending a huge amount of time on it. All I would do is put on a tie and jacket, go to the corporate headquarters of Lockheed Martin, Intel, Warren Buffett, Morgan Stanley, Exxon Mobil and so on and patiently explain to the corporate managers that their interests are being harmed by a lobby that they can put out of business in 5 minutes with their political clout and economic power, and then it’s all over. Well, nobody does that, and there’s an obvious reason why nobody does it. It’s because it doesn’t make sense. The economic and strategic interests of narrow concentrations of state corporate power of course play an overwhelming role in determining what policy is, and yes there are lobbies, and AIPAC and the others are maybe the most influential of them, but they operate within constraints and they know better than to confront US power. They disappear if there’s a conflict.

SoN: The representation of war in the media is at times disturbingly similar to a Hollywood action film. A great benevolent power in a distant backward Arab land fighting with its perfectly trained marines, super smart bombs, embedded journalists against a morally inferior and incurably psychotic enemy. In all this the real human costs of war are hidden or misrepresented; the suffering, the destruction, the annihilation of a whole nation is documented as an act of liberation in history. How can such a representation survive the reality of the quagmire in Iraq?

NC: Well first of all remember it has survived for a long time. This is the way Indian fighting was portrayed, this is the way British conquests were portrayed. France was the same – the minister of war said about Algeria, “We have to simply exterminate the beasts”. It was presented the same way – we’re bringing them civilization, Christianity, the wonders of the modern world and they’re backward natives who have to be beaten into submission so that we can liberate them. It’s a constant theme of Western thought for centuries.

And it’s not just Western. For example, the Japanese invaded the Manchuria in China, carrying out vicious atrocities, which many Japanese are now trying to deny including the Prime Minister. I’ve read the Japanese records, which were captured and rented by the Air force RAND research corporation, they were very interesting. I mean they’re just overflowing with human kindness. Japan is the most benign power in history, it’s trying to create an earthly paradise in which it will raise all of Asia to a much higher level, because Japan is willing to pay the cost for the benefit of the poor people of China, who it happens to be slaughtering. In fact if we had records from Genghis Khan we’d probably find the same thing. That’s standard.

Your reference to the word ‘quagmire’ in Iraq is an interesting one. Quagmire is the term that was used in Vietnam, that’s where it’s borrowed from. When elite criticism about Vietnam finally developed, the charge was that the US was in a quagmire. Did we say that when the Russians invaded Afghanistan? Did we say, “Well, you know, noble cause, but they’re in a quagmire”? That’s the way we describe our own crimes – not that there’s anything wrong about destroying South Vietnam, killing millions of people, carrying out massive chemical warfare – none of these matter. What matters is it’s costing us too much, it’s a quagmire.

And it’s the same with Iraq. I mean Iraq is a clear cut case of aggression – the supreme international crime declared by the Nuremberg tribunal which went on to add that we’re handing the defendants a poisoned chalice, if we ever sip from it, we have to suffer the same sentence. For example the sentence of the German foreign minister, one of his major crimes, for which he was hanged, was supporting a pre-emptive war. Have we heard that phrase before?!

That’s not the way it’s described. Nor do we hear about the huge atrocities. Well we may hear about them, but then they disappear. The huge atrocity is not Abu Ghraib – that’s an atrocity, but just a footnote – the major ones are for example Fallujah, which is a sort of Groznyy. We regard the Russian destruction of Groznyy as a major war crime, so what about the US destruction of Fallujah? That’s also a major war crime. It’s also the same in Britain – to the extent that I read the European press, not as extensively – it’s about the same there. And yes it has a long history, it goes way back to the origins of conquest and it’s common to other conquerors. It’s more significant in the West because it’s been a world conqueror.

SoN: Imperialism is not such a dirty word anymore. It has undergone what some commentators call “a rehabilitation process”, particularly since the Gulf War in 1990. We can now find it used in a positive sense – in fact promoted – quite openly in the pages of the major newspapers and academic publications.

NC: I don’t use the term much myself because it’s too vague and misused so often, but you’re quite right. As one of the educated classes you have to search for new ways for justifying beating people in the head with your club, so you develop myths of the benevolence of empire. Actually I shouldn’t say develop, they resurrect, because they were always there. As in the case of the British, the French, the Japanese, the Americans, in fact anyone else you can think of. They were always there, everything’s always benign, well intentioned, backward natives, fine. So one of the lines is we should openly declare ourselves to be an empire, but an empire for good, not like those bad, say, Japanese. What evidence is there that it’s going to be an empire for good, anymore than in the past? That aside, what right do we have to decide what should happen to other people? Is it because we’re so magnificent? Did we have some God given right to determine the fate of the world?

SoN: The Arab is also now a term of abuse in the media. Primitive, static, fundamentalist, inherently incapable of peace, a bloodthirsty terrorist, and all the other things you would not dare say about a Jew or a black man. Forget The New Republic, the negative image of the Arab is an indisputable truth even in the left-leaning newspapers and journals of Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country. A few days ago I read in the Cumhuriyet that the “Arab reawakening” in the follow up to the war in Lebanon would not last because the genetic code of the Arab makes him predisposed to reflex actions that lead nowhere. I want to ask you this: What do you think of the idea that if the Arab was more inclined to submit to western demands he would not be represented in such a negative way?

NC: I wouldn’t call it an idea; I’d call it a truism. Turkey can be as racist as anyone else, I won’t really talk about that, but they also carry out massive atrocities against their own Kurdish population.

But sure the big issue is submission and you can see it with the Arab world. I mentioned before that the oldest and most valued ally of the United States in the Arab world is Saudi Arabia. Well Saudi Arabia is the most extreme, fundamentalist Islamic state. I mean by comparison with Saudi Arabia, Iran looks like a democratic heaven. Who gets vilified, Iran or Saudi Arabia? Well, we know. What’s the difference between them? Saudi Arabia does what it’s told, Iran follows an independent course.

And texts say the United States is supposed to be favorable to the Catholic Church, but you have to have a pretty short memory to believe that. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration, which is pretty much the present government or its immediate mentors, carried out a brutal, vicious, sadistic war against the Catholic Church in Central America. It’s more than symbolic that the decade was framed first by the assassination of an archbishop while he was saying Mass – an archbishop who was a voice for the voiceless, as he was called – by the forces very closely allied to the US. That opened the hideous decade of the 1980s. Then the decade was closed in November 1989 by the brutal murder of six leading Latin American intellectuals, who happened to be Jesuit priests, by an elite battalion armed and trained by the United States, which had already left a bloody trail of the usual victims. And among the victims were priests, nuns, layworkers and so on. It was largely a war against the Church and the US army’s proud of it.

The School of the Americas, which trains Latin American killers, one of its advertising points is that the US army helped defeat liberation theology, that’s the doctrine of the Latin American bishops. They committed a crime: they adopted what was called the preferential option for the poor; they began to take gospels seriously. That’s criminal – the gospels have a radical pacifist message, you can’t be allowed to take that seriously. But they did take it seriously. They brought it to the peasants, they had them reading it, they began to organize base communities of peasants. I mean that has to be smashed. So they became more vilified and attacked.

And in fact the extent of the profound indoctrination of the Western intellectuals can be evaluated by a very simple test. Ask them if they can even name the Latin American intellectuals who were murdered by a US run elite battalion. Very few will know them, nobody will have read them. Suppose that had happened in Czechoslovakia. Suppose that the 1980s in Czechoslovakia began with the assassination of an archbishop by forces connected to the Russians, and ended with the murder of Vaslaf Havel and a dozen of his associates by a Russian trained elite battalion, who had already been part of the killing of 70,000 people. Would we know about it? We could have a nuclear war. But when we do it, it doesn’t exist. That’s very easy to test.

So the Catholic Church was the enemy and the most radical fundamentalist forces in the Islamic world are great friends. Imperialism is ecumenical – the criterion is obedience and not beliefs. And when someone is an enemy, you can count on the educated classes to produce the required vilification, denunciations and so on. Not everyone of course, there is serious work too.

See also: Bush compares Bin Laden to Hitler (BBC NEWS, September 5, 2006)


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