Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Chapter 3: The Bounds of the Expressible Segment 7/8
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Once again, not a single phrase refers to the fact that, unlike the U.S. clients in the "fledgling democracies," the Sandinistas had not launched a campaign of terror and slaughter to traumatize their populations. Rather, as a huge mass of generally ignored documentation demonstrates, this task had been assigned to the U.S. proxy forces; this inconvenient fact is placed in proper perspective by former Times executive editor A.M. Rosenthal, who writes that "James LeMoyne's carefully reported, sensitive accounts in the Times of rebel troops inside Nicaragua indicate growing self-confidence and skill." The totalitarian Sandinistas are contrasted with the "struggling democracies of Central America": the "imperfect but working" democracies of Guatemala and Honduras, and El Salvador, which, though "under communist guerrilla siege," is "an imperfect democracy but a democracy with an elected government" (Post columnist Stephen Rosenfeld), unlike Nicaragua, where there were no elections, so Washington has decreed.55

The assumptions revealed in these samples of expressible opinion are the very foundations of discourse, beyond challenge.

The effectiveness of the state doctrine that there were no elections in Nicaragua, in contrast to the U.S. terror states, provides useful lessons for future commissars. It confirms the judgment of Woodrow Wilson's Committee on Public Information (the Creel Commission) "that one of the best means of controlling news was flooding news channels with `facts,' or what amounted to official information."56 By dint of endless repetition, combined with media election coverage conforming to Washington dictates, the required doctrine has become established truth. Virtually no deviations are to be found. Even human rights groups that have made a real effort to steer an even course fall prey to these impressive achievements of state-media propaganda. Thus the Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch criticizes the Reaganites for inconsistency: they "have been loath to speak out [about]...abuses under elected governments" (he mentions El Salvador and Guatemala), but they condemn "human rights abuses by the hemisphere's left-wing regimes -- Cuba and Nicaragua." On the one hand, we have the "elected governments" of El Salvador and Guatemala, and on the other, Nicaragua, left-wing and therefore lacking an "elected government." At the outer reaches of dissidence in the media, the liberal Boston Globe contrasts El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras ("unstable democratic") with Cuba, Nicaragua, Guyana, and Suriname ("socialist"). The "democratic" governments have "civilian presidents" who were "elected," though they are "battling the army for political control"; but in Nicaragua, we have only a "socialist junta in power since 1979 revolution" -- no elections, no "democracy" as in the U.S. clients.57

To escape the impact of a well-functioning system of propaganda that bars dissent and unwanted fact while fostering lively debate within the permitted bounds is remarkably difficult.

In recognition of the importance of preventing the free flow of ideas, the U.S. government has long sought to impress upon its clients the need to monitor and control travel and published materials. Thus, President Kennedy met with seven Central American presidents in San José, Costa Rica, in March 1963, where the seven agreed to an April meeting in Somoza's Nicaragua "To develop and put into immediate effect common measures to restrict the movement of subversive nationals to and from Cuba, and the flow of materials, propaganda and funds from that country." In secret internal documents, the Kennedy liberals were concerned over the excessive liberalism of Latin American regimes, in particular, "the reluctance of governments to establish bilateral or multilateral arrangements for the control of travelers," such as exist and are extensively applied in the United States.58 For similar reasons, there is no concern here when the independent media are destroyed by violence in U.S. dependencies or are securely in the hands of reliable right-wing elements, or when censorship is imposed by government terror, assassination, or imprisonment of journalists. At home, such measures are obviously inappropriate. More delicate ones are required, more sophisticated procedures of manufacture of consent.

The commitment to block the free flow of ideas reflects deeper concerns. For global planners, much of the Third World has been assigned the role of service to the industrial capitalist centers. Its various regions must "fulfill their functions" as sources of raw materials and markets, and must be "exploited" for the reconstruction and development of Western capitalism, as secret documents frankly explain. It is, of course, understood that such policies leave the United States "politically weak" though "militarily strong," the constant lament of government specialists and other commentators, and a fact recognized by the victims as well, in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere. Although banning of improper thoughts, free travel, and "subversive nationals" can perhaps compensate in part for the political weakness of the United States and its clients, planners have clearly and explicitly recognized that the United States will ultimately have to rely on force, the local security forces if possible, to contain dissidence and popular movements. The basic commitments explain not only the regular reliance on military and state terror, but also the hostility to democracy (in the sense of popular participation in public affairs) that is such a striking feature of U.S. policy in the Third World -- sometimes becoming a real passion, as under the Reagan administration.

For the same reasons, the Kennedy administration shifted the mission of the Latin American military from "hemispheric defense" to "internal security," and the United States lent support to the National Security States that spread throughout the region in subsequent years. Latin Americanist Lars Schoultz observes that these new forms of "military authoritarianism" developed in response to "increased popular political participation" and aimed "to destroy permanently a perceived threat to the existing structure of socioeconomic privilege by eliminating the political participation of the numerical majority, principally the working or (to use a broader, more accurate term) popular classes."59 It is only when the threat of popular participation is overcome that democratic forms can be safely contemplated.

The same considerations explain why it is necessary to block dangerous ideas and "anti-U.S. subversion," indeed anything that might appeal to the "popular classes" who are to be excluded from the political system. This combination of political weakness and military strength underlies State Department concerns that the government of Guatemala in the early 1950s was too democratic, treating the Communist Party "as an authentic domestic political party and not as part of the world-wide Soviet Communist conspiracy."60 It also explains why, in the early postwar period, the United States undertook a worldwide campaign to undermine the anti-fascist resistance, suppressing unions and other popular organizations and blocking democratic politics in Japan, Europe, and much of the Third World until proper outcomes were assured, while its junior partner in global management established its harsh rule in its own narrower domains.61

One of the bases for maintaining stability in client states of the Latin American variety is a symbiotic relationship between domestic liberalism and political figures in the dependencies who provide a façade for military rule. The conditions of the relationship are that the "democrats" in Central America pursue their task of preserving privilege and U.S. interests, while American liberals laud the encouraging growth of the tender plant of democracy while providing the means for the continuing terrorist assault against the population by the state security services and the death squads closely linked to them.

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55 Rosenthal, NYT, March 8; Rosenfeld, WP, April 24, 1987.

56 Stephen Vaughn, Holding Fast the Inner Lines (U. of North Carolina, 1980, 194).

57 Kenneth Roth, letter, NYT, Aug. 17, 1988; BG, Dec. 26, 1988. Advocates of U.S. violence condemn Americas Watch because its careful and judicious reporting does not satisfy their standards of loyalty to state doctrine. Thus New Republic editor Morton Kondracke charges that Americas Watch and State Department propagandists "deserve each other," each exaggerating and distorting in their partisan endeavors, protecting Nicaragua and the U.S. clients, respectively ("Broken Watch", The New Republic, Aug. 22, 1988; for some examples of Kondracke's appreciation for successful violence, and other views, see Culture of Terrorism; also appendix I, section 2). In fact, Americas Watch has bent over backwards to detect and denounce Nicaraguan abuses, devoting far more attention to them than the comparative facts would warrant. It has gone so far as to say that it would oppose support for Nicaragua if that were at issue, because of its abuses, though it has not proposed that the U.S. terminate aid to El Salvador, where the abuses are vastly worse; nor have the Watch groups called for termination of aid to Israel and other major violators of human rights (see Americas Watch, Human Rights in Nicaragua, March 1986). But Americas Watch has kept to the determinable facts, scandalizing assorted commissars.

58 Bernard Diederich, Somoza (E.P. Dutton, 1981, 74). Memorandum from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to McGeorge Bundy, June 11, 1965; for further details, see On Power and Ideology, 22f. and bibliography.

59 Schoultz, Human Rights and United States Policy toward Latin America (Princeton, 1981, 7).

60 Cited by F. Parkinson, Latin America, The Cold War, and The World Powers (London, 1974), 40.

61 See my article "Democracy in the Industrial Societies" in Z Magazine, Jan. 1989, for discussion and references.