Historical engineering

Despite my left-wing leanings I’ve never really read Chomsky, apart from his slim 9/11 book. But a few months ago, I bought a copy of Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, a transcript of his 1989 CBC Massey Lecture with accompanying appendices. You can find it online at Z Magazine, and I’ve compiled my favourite quotes as well.

The man is bright. He’s really dissected the media, and come up with an empirical method to demonstrate that media in democratic societies effectively function as propaganda. Unfortunately, his writing is a painful slog, far too wordy and methodical. So I’ve condensed the book to a few bullet points:

  • the media generally reflect the perspectives and interests of established power, supported empirically by his propaganda model.
  • news is rarely falsified, but reporting is highly selective
  • debate is encouraged, within prescribed, presupposed bounds
  • discussion is bounded by the interests of powerful elites, but tactical debate (e.g., hawks vs. doves) within those bounds is permitted
  • some of the basic presuppositions: U.S. foreign policy is guided by a yearning for democracy, and is generally benevolent; no country has the right to self-defense against U.S. attack.
  • method: government floods the news channels with “facts,” which are treated with great weight by reporters

I’ve definitely seen this in action. The Economist frequently reflects the interests of power in its reporting of Venezuela and Hugo Chavez. Despite its extensive coverage of the Ukrainian orange revolution, the Economist quietly omitted discussion of the groundwork laid by George Soros and the implications for U.S. interests, although the Guardian Weekly thankfully covered it.

My respect for Jon Stewart continues to rise. He covers issues within the limits of debate, aiming most of his mockery at domestic targets rather than off-limit international targets. By pointing out the hypocrisy at home, he carefully builds cynicism about the entire system, though, and demonstrates how much vanilla U.S. media sources distort the truth. In his Crossfire appearance, he took aim at its model, which is essentially “tactical debate within the consensus of the powerful elites” (Democratic line vs. Republican line).

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