Noam Chomsky:

"Necessary Illusions" (1989)

(Copyright © 2009 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
Like many of Chomsky's books of the Cold War era, this feels more like a commentary on articles published in the 1980s by the main newspapers than a book with a coherent thesis. Chomsky feels pages and pages with random quotes from the press, and uses them to support his thesis of a double standard in reporting the news (tolerating USA aggression while condemning the enemy's actions of self-defense). This is bad science. The scientific method requires that Chomsky quotes "all" the articles written on a topic and then counts how many are misleading. Chomsky keeps dancing around his three main bodies of evidence: the way the USA aggression in Vietnam was excused while Soviet aggression in Afghanistan was condemned; the way Israeli attacks on Arab civilians were justified while Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians were excoriated; and the way the massacres of fascist Latin dictactors were under-reported while any violation of human rights by Nicaragua (when it was communist) was over-reported. Each of them is true to some extent, but one could also "prove" the opposite: that the media were frequently over-critical against the USA government compared with how lenient they were with foreign governments.

The main theme of the book is Chomsky's favorite theme: the media in a "free" society are no more free than the media in a totalitarian state, because they are subject to the forces of the free market. For example, a magazine depends on advertisers in order to survive (and even more now than back when Chomsky was writing). Therefore it has to write things that will draw and please advertisers. As Benjamin Ginsberg in "The Captive Public" (1986) wrote: "The hidden hand of the market can be almost as potent an instrument of control as the iron fist of the state". And since the interests of the state are closely interlinked with the interests of the business world, the media in a capitalist society end up serving the interests of the state the same way that the media in a totalitarian society do so.

This logic is not wrong. I have personally witnessed how the lousiest rock albums are routinely promoted as masterpieces by scores of critics all over the world because those critics rely on the labels to send them the free music that the critics need to continue their job. The label does not have to force a critic to praise an album. The threat is implicit: if you don't praise it, i will not send you the next one, and your magazine will lose readers because it will be the only one that can't review the new album right away.

Another favorite theme of Chomsky is the trend by democracies to eliminate the very tools of participatory democracy: to "eliminate forms of popular organizations that interfere with domination of the state by concentrated private power". In practice, he sees an effort to turn the citizen into a mere consumer of democracy, not a participant in it. The democratic state is driven by an elite of powerful interests, and their mission is to make sure that the citizens adopt the same view of the world. The state in turn achieves this program by "brainwashing" the intellectual elite so that the intellectual elite will in turn "brainwash" the masses. Chomsky adopts the view that the masses have no free will. They think and act according to simple mechanical laws: either a totalitarian state that tells them what to think and do, or "free" media that construct a propaganda model for them that tells them what to think and do. Democratic participation in the process of news making is null. The news are reported and interpreted by media that represent an intellectual elite.

This logic is also valid. However, Chomsky wrote this before two events that changed the scenario quite a bit. First of all, today China is succeeding precisely because of elite-driven decisions that are "never" even remotely submitted to the judgment of the masses. The Chinese masses themselves seem to like this system and look down at the incompetent mess that results from democracy. People all over the world are wondering if the elite-driven model isn't perhaps a better model than the democratic model of the West. Secondly, the Internet "is" a form of partecipatory democracy in which the masses contribute to the delivery and interpretation of the news, particularly after the success of Facebook and Twitter. The Internet is an invention of the USA government, and the USA government still controls it and could shut it down at any time. Nonetheless, the Internet is still there, growing dramatically by the day, and promoting precisely the kind of democratic participation that, according to Chomsky, the government wanted to suppress. Bottom line: on one count Chomsky's thesis seems to collide with the evidence, and on the other count Chomsky's thesis might be the future (at least for some countries of the world).

Furthermore, Chomsky was writing in an age in which conspiracy theories were just beginning to appear, and they were mostly discredited by being constructed by the Soviet Union and easily disproven. As they became more and more sophisticated, and the practice spread all over the world, they also became a powerful tool to shape the minds of the audience. However, it wasn't the mainstream media of the democratic world that used conspiracy theories. Chomsky wrote that the easy way to go is to repeat and endorse the worldview spelled out by the state, but nowadays the easy way to go is to come up with a conspiracy theory: it's cheap and it sells.