Hegemony or Survival

By Noam Chomsky

At the beginning of Hegemony or Survival Noam Chomsky borrows a line from the New York Times to the effect that there are now two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.

Since there is little point speaking truth to state power, what Chomsky really wants to address is the second of these: Public opinion. It is axiomatic for him that the “United States” is an actor separate from the American people. American foreign policy reflects the special interests of those groups that control it. There is nothing democratic about it. The power elite has to manage democracy as it would any crisis.

Public opinion is managed by propaganda. And state or special interest propaganda (they come to the same thing) is the domain of the corporate media, whose function in the American political system is to manufacture consent by spinning “a web of mythical goals and purposes, utterly benign, that allegedly guide national policy” while snowing the public with disinformation.

Their achievements have been awesome. Just weeks after 9/11 over half of all Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was personally responsible for the bombing of the World Trade Center. The state-run propaganda bureau of a totalitarian dictatorship couldn’t do any better.

The “web of mythical goals and purposes” has also been effectively spun. To take the most glaring example: Why did the United States invade and occupy Iraq? Expert columnists (a caste of propagandists) quickly disposed of the obvious answer, that it was “all about the oil.” Too simplistic! Naïve!

So what was it all about?

To find weapons of mass destruction? Hardly. No one in the Bush administration seriously believed in those. Even Saddam’s closest neighbours didn’t feel threatened. But fear is very useful, politically.

To rid the world of the monster Saddam Hussein? When his worst crimes were over a decade behind him? If getting rid of the Butcher of Baghdad was any kind of a moral imperative it would have been done twenty years ago. Like a lot of dictators the world over (Marcos, Duvalier, Ceausescu, Suharto, Noriega, etc.), Saddam had the support of the United States while brutalizing his own people.

To bring democracy to Iraq? But America has no interest in democracy in Iraq, and indeed has made it clear that only a government acceptable to the United States will be permitted. Their “best of all worlds” is “an iron-fisted Iraqi junta without Saddam Hussein” (in the words of New York Times warmonger, Thomas Friedman). And so the Iraqi army is now being trained by Americans to become a giant state police force. This is regime change?

Chomsky supplies a more plausible explanation for what it was all about: the establishing of a new norm of international law, that of “preventive war”. If such a norm disposes of the whole concept of international law, that’s too bad for international law – a concept dismissed as “hot air” anyway by one legal scholar quoted. After all, once you accept the invasion of Iraq – a textbook definition of a war crime, being the conspiracy to wage aggressive war – as “just”, there is no framework of international law left. There is only the American rule of force. Which is the whole idea.

Just as Chomsky’s main focus is on public opinion, his real anger is directed at the “intellectual” and media elites who serve the state by manipulating it. Their greatest sin, exposed time and again in these pages, in a survey extending from South-East Asia to Latin America to the Middle East, is hypocrisy. Terrorism is something done to us, never the other way around. Liberty and democracy are proclaimed as ideals, yet vigorously opposed. Indeed the open hatred of democracy displayed by the Bush administration has now gone beyond the merely cynical. Obviously they are starting to feel pretty comfortable.

And why not? Who’s going to call them on it? No one on the home front. Aggressive, nationalist militarism doesn’t lose elections. Violence and fear will feed on each other. As Hermann Goering explained at Nuremberg: “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

Chomsky isn’t saying anything controversial or new. He tends to quote official pronouncements and relies on what’s already in the public record. It’s the fact that he’s one of the few people speaking out that has made him an icon. And while one can debate whether or not the new American Empire is a good or a bad thing, his outline of its history and current operation is at least honest. That’s of some value when considering recent political developments that force us to look toward the future of the human community and the fate of our endangered species.

Review first published January 3, 2004.

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