Sunday, January 18, 2004

Noam Chomsky and his work

In my college years I had a thought, for awhile, to take a Minor in Linguistics, but changed my mind over how far into the future graduation would have been delayed. Still, I took some Linguistics classes, some of whom which centered on Linguistic theories by a controversal researcher by the name of Noam Chomsky. Imagine my surprise several years later to learn that he's also a controversial politics researcher, making a profession of saying the King has no clothes (or in this case, those who typically hold power in the U.S. government).

Noam Chomsky: Distorted Morality - America's War on Terror?

Any time you hear anything said very confidently, the first thing you should as is 'Wait a minute, is that true?'

This is a lecture given at Harvard University in the context of early 2002. The September 11, 2001 attack had occurred, the war in Afghanistan had occurred, but the main justifications leading the world to agree to attack Iraq had not yet begun in earnest. The two part thesis is:

  1. We are all total hypocrites around the war on terror. Note the meaning of hypocrite, namely those who apply standards to others which they refuse to apply to themselves.
  2. The first thesis is so obvious, it takes effort to miss it.

The first question to answer is, "what is terrorism". Rather than go into an hour long lecture on defining terrorism, he turns to a definitive source, the U.S. government (in the guise of a 1984 U.S. Army training manual)

Terrorism is the calculated use of violence, or the threat of violence, to produce goals that are political or ideological in nature.

A reasonable definition, yes? But, wait, there's more.

Most of the lecture he spends describing actions by the U.S., Israeli, British and a few other governments which certainly fill the definition of Terrorism. Generally these events are not reported in the press, hence do not enter the public record of generally known events, and thus get sidelined as historical events. In other words, this is the model that history is written by the winners of the battle. In this case it is the U.S. government (and related governments) which is the Master and controlling the outcome of the world politics game, and it is the U.S. government (and related governments) who are writing history and controlling what is reported which will become the written history.

For example he outlines a series of events in 1985, a year that was a high point in terrorist activities:

  1. A car bombing in Beirut, outside of a mosque. Timed to happen just as people were leaving prayers, so that it would cause the most damage. Target? A Muslim Sheik. Perpetrators? The CIA, approved by William Casey.
  2. The Iron Fist operations in southern Lebanon carried out by the Shimon Peres government. This was an illegal act, because of a U.N. resolution ordering Israel to leave southern Lebanon. There was widespread kidnapping, torture, and murder of Lebanese there, clearly fitting the definition of terrorism.
  3. A few days before Shimon Peres came to Washington DC to declare, with President Reagan, denouncements of terrorism, Israel launched an attack against Tunisia. They bombed and killed many civilians. So that the U.S. military wouldn't have to notify Tunisia of the attack, the 7th fleet was withdrawn from the area.

These events didn't receive much coverage in the press, and are not discussed in the public eye as terrorist events. Instead what's given as examples of terrorism in 1985 is the hijacking of a TWA flight, and the hijacking of the Achilles Lauro (in which attack Leon Klinghoffer was killed).

In the war against Afghanistan, October 2001, he quotes President Bush as an example of this kind of terrorist act. Namely, "We will keep bombing you until you hand over Osama bin Laden". In other words, we (the U.S.) will keep terrorizing you (Afghanistan) until you do as we say. Later we saw this repeated again in the attack on Iraq, spun as "Shock and Awe", which is simply a niceified phrase for Causing Terror.

Is it at all rational to, as he points out, make a war on terror? War, by its very nature, causes terror. Thus, by making war actions such as invading countries and engaging in battle, you are using Terror to "defeat" Terrorism. Doesn't this strike you as insane?

Instead of the official definition of terror given above, he offers this:

Terrorism is acts of Terror that 'they' do to 'us'

If you think about it, this is the way Terrorism is presented in the mainstream press, and by the public statements of government officials and others in places of power. But, is this really terrorism? Isn't the above definition closer to what terrorism is? Why is the honest definition of terrorism not what is being addressed by governments?

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Manufacturing Consent

The video serves as a great introduction to Noam Chomsky, his work, and the controversies. Set in the context of the release of the original version of his book, Manufacturing Consent, it shows excerpts of interviews of him from all periods of his life and work. The video presents not just the message he has been speaking and writing for decades, but also a capsule portrait of what life is like for a controversial intellectual who has human frailties. Finally, the video gives a good introduction to the political result which Chomsky would wish for the world, namely collectivist work on small scale institutions (e.g. the Kibbutz model).

Much of the material presented circles around how the Media is used to channel the interests of the Masses, diverting them from meddling in the affairs of the Elite who are governing Society.

He gives the example of England in the 1600's. The printing press had just been developed, and was being used to create the popular media. One result was a great turmoil in beliefs and ideas, the spawning of political movements, and more. In the midst of the turmoil, in 1660, he quotes an historian as saying:

They have made the people thereby so curious and so arrogant that they will never find humility enough to submit to a civil rule.

They, the ideas being pushed through the nascent popular press of the day, was being printed by unchecked media outlets and, in other words, making it so that the elite could no longer rule their people. His claim is that in the centuries since, the media outlets are more and more controlled, so that the message reaching the masses is more and more controlled, so that the masses are ruled by the elite.

Is Democracy just a game for the elite? Is it proper and correct for the masses to be marginilized and controlled?

"Propoganda is to a democracy what violence is to a dictatorship" - Noam Chomsky

Propoganda is the old word for the manufacturing of consent. In other words, the dissemination of ideas and stories that are purposely constructed to control the resulting beliefs held by the masses who watch and consume those stories.

Public Opinion by Walter Lipman: This book, written in the 1920s, is referred to as a seminal work in democratic theory and the role of media in shaping opinions. In the book it is said "the manufacture of consent is a revolution in the practice of democracy".

The major decisions of life are controlled and in the hands of a very small and narrowly focused group of individuals. They may not act in a formal cabal that fits a conspiracist model, but they have common interests nonetheless. Namely, profit and the commonly held idea of how to create that profit.

The propoganda model he presents is the result of studying the structure of the media in how it operates. It has these roles in society:

  • The selection of topics in the political debate both in the world and the U.S.
  • The distribution of concerns or channeling whatever is the current topic of concern that's supposed to be in the public eye right now.
  • Forming the emphasis on one story over another.
  • The framing of issues as they are presented to the public, so that the public always receives events predigested for them by experts.
  • The filtering of information through choosing what to publish.
  • And the bounding of debate.

In other words, the media acts to determine, select, shape, control and restrict the public debate of the masses. It may appear there is a healthy debate going on between the news media and the political class, but where is the public in that debate? How can the public make their views known and addressed when it is the media that is presenting the questions? And not just presenting the questions, but writing the description of the answers.

By way of example the video goes over the history of East Timor, and to contrast it with the events in Cambodia at the same time. The East Timorese were a former Portuguese colony that was let go by Portugal during the 1970's. Rather than being allowed to govern themselves, East Timor was invaded by Indonesia, the invasion funded by the United States, arms and armor provided by the United States, a big massacre conducted using the U.S. provided arms, and why?

In Cambodia, by contrast, there were two periods of death and destruction. Before 1975, while the U.S. was still active in Vietnam, Cambodia was being "secretly" bombed by the U.S. causing a great deal of death. After the U.S. "withdrew" from Vietnam, Cambodia fell into a cycle of violence led by the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, resulting in the deaths of several hundred thousand people. In the first phase of Cambodia's violence, that perpetrated by the U.S., very little coverage (next to zero) of the events appeared in the mainstream media such as the NY Times. After the Khmer Rouge took over to conduct their violence, there was massive coverage.

At the same time, both happened in 1975, East Timor was being subjugated by Indonesia using U.S. provided arms and assistance. Very little coverage of the East Timor events appeared in mainstream media such as the NY Times. What is the difference in coverage? Well, Pol Pot's Cambodia received 1170 column inches in the NY Times, while East Timor received 70. Yet both countries suffered a similar amount of massacring of its citizens at the exact same time.