Failed States

By Noam Chomsky

The fact that Noam Chomsky’s name has recently topped a couple of lists of the world’s most prominent public intellectuals suggests several things. In the first place I think it reflects the fact he is a great communicator of ideas about culture, politics and the media. I’ve never found those ideas, however correct and compelling, particularly groundbreaking or even original – and I think he would probably argue that they aren’t – but he does express them passionately, and with a firm handling of the evidence. His prominence is also a result of his being an outspoken critic of the powers-that-be in such an unapologetically authoritarian age. He is by no means a lonely voice in the wilderness, but he is a counter-cultural figure. That his views have found such an audience is itself evidence of the divorce of that culture from public opinion. It is a trick of the political Right to not only brand the America media as suffering from a liberal “bias,” but to diagnose popular disgust with the news media in particular as a conservative backlash. In fact, as Chomsky’s popularity would seem to indicate, the public’s contempt for the media is probably more the result of a liberal backlash, or a disenchantment with media power in general.

While I am entirely in sympathy with many of Chomsky’s positions, and have always reviewed him positively in the past, I don’t agree with everything he has to say. And so on the occasion of this new book, which comes hard on the heels of Hegemony and Survival (and which covers a lot of the same ground, with much of the same analysis), it might be worth laying out some objections. Not for the sake of being contrary, but because these differences of opinion are related to some very important, and timely, issues.

First, however, we should begin with the moral foundation of Chomsky’s work:

Among the most elementary of moral truisms is the principle of universality: we must apply to ourselves the same standards we do to others, if not more stringent ones.

The way this moral principle is expressed, as applying to ourselves the same standards we do to others, makes it clear that what really gets Chomsky’s back up is hypocrisy, the message of “Do as we say, not as we do.” Hence his obsession with media propaganda, which is hypocrisy’s bullhorn, and the cold eye he turns on America’s “righteous exceptionalism” when it comes to inconvenient matters such as international law and treaty obligations.

As a case study in American hypocrisy Chomsky takes apart the so-called “Bush Doctrine” of promoting democracy abroad. The origin of this doctrine seems to lie in the discrediting of any of the justifications given for the invasion of Iraq. Promoting democracy became a sort of fall-back position to save face. In reality, America has little interest in promoting democracy anywhere in the Middle East, for the obvious reason that such democracies would be anti-American. The Bush Doctrine apparently has little application when it comes to countries like Egypt, or democratically elected governments like Hamas. Nor has it stopped continuing attempts to oppose democracy in Central and South America, even lending support to an attempted coup against Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

Chomsky traces a “strong line of continuity” in the application of “democracy promotion” starting in the Reagan years, describing how, while “democracy promotion has always been proclaimed as a guiding vision . . . it is not even controversial that the United States often overthrew democratic governments, often installing or supporting brutal tyrannies: Iran, Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, and a long list of others.” The bottom line? Democracy “is a good thing, if and only if it is consistent with strategic and economic interests.” The rest of the “Doctrine” is just window dressing for an assault on independent nationalism, a political force that the most intensely nationalistic state on the planet cannot condone.

Nor is democracy promotion at home doing much better. And here is where I would disagree with some of what Chomsky has to say. Not that the point of government has always been the protection of the rich from the poor. And not that the proper “management” of democracy, primarily through media propaganda, is essential to the current system. But rather with the public’s complicity in all of this.

In a recent series of interviews (Imperial Ambitions: Conversations on the Post-9/11 World), David Barsmanian puts the following quote from Bertrand Russell to Chomsky: “It is in the nature of imperialism that citizens of the imperial power are always among the last to know – or care – about circumstances in the colonies.” Chomsky immediately objects:

I disagree with Russell when he says that citizens of the imperial power are the last to care. I think they do care, and I think that’s why they’re the last to know. They’re the last to know because of massive propaganda campaigns that keep them from knowing.

For someone who places so much emphasis on the power of the media to control and manipulate public opinion, this is a basic position. People are naturally caring. They are even naturally good. Unfortunately, public opinion has become a product that can be manufactured by powerful state-corporate interests. And the natural goodness of the people is corrupted by ignorance and misdirected by lies.

I don’t agree with this. My feeling is that Russell was right. People do know, but they don’t care. (This is a formulation, by the way, that I would also apply to the question of what the German people “knew” about the crimes of the Nazis. What did they know? Whatever they wanted to know, which was in most cases as little as possible.) The truth about the American Empire is not hidden. Even Chomsky regularly relies on mainstream sources for his critiques. Yes, there is suppression, hypocrisy, and propaganda, but the guilty little not-so-secret is that most American’s really don’t want to know what is going on. They prefer faith to uncomfortable reality, not because they have to but because reality is so unpleasant. It is a pattern repeated throughout the culture. Global warming? The verdict on that has been in for years. Everybody knows it’s happening. They just don’t want to bother thinking about it. A favourite sports star juiced on steroids or some other performance-enhancing drug? Well, duh. But in the absence of a tearful confession and at least half-a-dozen positive tests, can it be established beyond all (un)reasonable doubt? Evolution? Despite the fossil record and scientific evidence can we really say it’s anything more than a “theory”? Did the Bush administration lie about Iraqi WMDs? Well, they weren’t there where they said they were. In fact they weren’t there at all. And there was that Downing St. memo discussing how the evidence was being “fixed.” But proof? Can anyone really prove anything? Surely it’s better to just take these matters on faith.

But whether you call it faith, wilful blindness, or simply the abdication of reason, you can’t call it ignorance. It is a conscious closing of the mind. And it entails some moral responsibility.

Which brings me to my final problem with Chomsky’s domestic argument. America is not so much a managed as a neutered democracy. The bottom line is that – whether cynical, ignorant, misinformed, or ideologically blinded – somewhere between 40% and 50% of Americans simply will not vote no matter what. Yes, a lot of this can be blamed on the media and the cultivation of the sort of mindset Linda McQuaig described in her book The Cult of Impotence. But in choosing not to participate these people are casting a vote – a vote against democracy. And though they might not care for it, their government is still their fault.

Review first published online June 30, 2006.