Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
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Chapter Five

The Utility of Interpretations

Hypocrisy, Milton wrote, is "the only evil that walks Invisible, except to God alone." To ensure that "neither Man nor Angel can discern" the evil is, nonetheless, a demanding vocation. Pascal had discussed it a few years earlier while recording "how the casuists reconcile the contrarieties between their opinions and the decisions of the popes, the councils, and the Scripture." "One of the methods in which we reconcile these contradictions," his casuist interlocutor explains, "is by the interpretation of some phrase." Thus, if the Gospel says, "Give alms of your superfluity," and the task is "to discharge the wealthiest from the obligation of alms-giving," "the matter is easily put to rights by giving such an interpretation to the word superfluity that it will seldom or never happen that any one is troubled with such an article." Learned scholars demonstrate that "what men of the world lay up to improve their circumstances, or those of their relatives, cannot be termed superfluity; and accordingly, such a thing as superfluity is seldom to be found among men of the world, not even excepting kings" -- nowadays, we call it tax reform. We may, then, adhere faithfully to the preachings of the Gospel that "the rich are bound to give alms of their superfluity,...[though] it will seldom or never happen to be obligatory in practice." "There you see the utility of interpretations," he concludes.1

In our own times, the device, thanks to Orwell, is called Newspeak; the casuists are no less accomplished, though less forthcoming about the practice than Pascal's monk.

In the last two chapters, noting the recommendation of the liberal intellectuals that with the "advance of knowledge" we should keep to "subtle" and "refined" methods of social control, avoiding "coarse, obvious and direct methods," I discussed some of the modalities of thought control developed in democratic societies. The most effective device is the bounding of the thinkable, achieved by tolerating debate, even encouraging it, though only within proper limits. But democratic systems also resort to cruder means, the method of "interpretation of some phrase" being a notable instrument. Thus aggression and state terror in the Third World become "defense of democracy and human rights"; and "democracy" is successfully achieved when the government is safely in the hands of "the rich men dwelling at peace within their habitations," as in Winston Churchill's prescription for world order.2 At home the rule of the privileged must be guaranteed and the population reduced to the status of passive observers, while in the dependencies stern measures may be needed to eliminate any challenge to the natural rulers. Under the proper interpretation of the phrase, it is indeed true that "the yearning to see American-style democracy duplicated throughout the world has been a persistent theme in American foreign policy," as Times correspondent Neil Lewis declared.3

There is, accordingly, no "contrariety" when we yearn for democracy and independence for South Vietnam while demolishing the country to eradicate the National Liberation Front (NLF), then turning to the destruction of the politically organized Buddhists before permitting stage-managed "elections." Casuistry even permits us to proceed on this course while recognizing that until compelled by U.S. terror "to use counter-force to survive," the indigenous enemy insisted that its contest with the United States and its clients "should be fought out at the political level and that the use of massed military might was in itself illegitimate." Our rejection of politics in favor of military might is natural, because we also recognized that the NLF was the only "truly mass-based political party in South Vietnam," and no one, "with the possible exception of the Buddhists, thought themselves equal in size and power to risk entering a coalition, fearing that if they did the whale would swallow the minnow."4 With the same reasoning, it was only proper to subvert the first and last free election in the history of Laos, because the wrong people won; to organize or support the overthrow of elected governments in Guatemala, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Chile, and Nicaragua; to support or directly organize large-scale terror to bar the threat of democracy, social reform, and independence in Central America in the 1980s; to take strong measures to ensure that the postwar world would return to proper hands; and much else -- all in our "yearning for democracy."

From the same perspective, we can understand why, in December 1965, the New York Times editors should praise Washington for having "wisely stayed in the background during the recent upheavals" in Indonesia. In these "recent upheavals," the Indonesian military had "de-fused the country's political time-bomb, the powerful Indonesian Communist party (P.K.I.)" by eliminating "virtually all the top- and second-level leaders of the P.K.I." in one or another manner -- and, incidentally, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of people, mostly landless peasants, while Washington "wisely" observed in silence, the editors choose to believe.5 This concomitant of a welcome victory for freedom was not mentioned, though the editors did warn that the social conditions that enabled the PKI to organize 14 million people persisted. They urged Washington to remain cautious about providing aid to the perpetrators of the slaughter, for fear that the nationalist leader Sukarno and the remnants of the PKI might yet benefit, despite the encouraging achievements of the friends and allies of the United States in conducting the largest slaughter since the Holocaust.

Similarly, it is natural that the New York Times should praise the government of the Shah of Iran, restored to power by the CIA, for its "highly successful campaign against subversive elements" and its "long record of success in defeating subversion without suppressing democracy." The subversives, now thankfully suppressed without suppressing democracy, include the "pro-Soviet Tudeh party," formerly "a real menace" but "considered now to have been completely liquidated," and the "extreme nationalists" who had been almost as subversive as the Communists.6 And few, apparently, find it jarring to read an upbeat report on "the return of full democracy" in the Philippines under the headline "Aquino's decree bans Communist Party," with a lead paragraph explaining that a presidential decree stipulated penalties of imprisonment for membership in the party, which had been legalized under the Marcos dictatorship.7 Not long before, Marcos himself had been a model democrat, a man "pledged to democracy," as Ronald Reagan explained; "we love your adherence to democratic principle and to the democratic processes" and your "service to freedom," his vice president, George Bush, proclaimed in Manila.8 That, however, was before Marcos had lost control, and with it his credentials as a freedom-loving democrat.

On the same principles, we can recall with nostalgia the days of "democracy" under the Diem and Thieu-Ky dictatorships in South Vietnam (see chapter 3). And what is more natural than to observe proudly that "democracy is on the ideological march" because the experience of the last several decades shows that it leads to prosperity and development: "As an economic mechanism, democracy demonstrably works," James Markham writes in the lead article in the Times Week in Review. Economic growth has indeed occurred in the "newly industrializing countries," notably South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. We are to understand, then, that "democracy" is a system that rejects democratic forms so as to facilitate reduced consumption and superexploitation, with state control over the economy in coordination with domestic conglomerates and international corporations, a pattern closer to traditional fascism than to democracy. All makes sense, however, when we take the term "democracy" to mean domination of the economy and social and political life by domestic elements that are properly sensitive to the needs of corporations and the U.S. government.9

These are constant themes in the media and political system, reflecting broader norms. There are no contrarieties here, as long as we understand the proper interpretation of the term "democracy."

All of this is quite in accord with the doctrine that other countries should control their own destinies, unless "developments...get out of control" and "affect U.S. interests adversely" (see p. 59). The logic is similar when a National Intelligence Estimate of 1955 discusses the quandary the United States faced in Guatemala after the successful overthrow of the democratic capitalist regime. "Many Guatemalans are passionately attached to the democratic-nationalist ideals of the 1944 revolution," particularly to "the social and economic programs" of the regime overthrown in the CIA coup, the study observes with some distress; but few Guatemalans "understand the processes and responsibilities of democracy," so that "responsible democratic government is therefore difficult to achieve."10 The apparent contradiction is dispelled when we give the proper interpretation to "democracy." It is the task of the media, and the specialized class generally, to ensure that the hypocrisy "walks Invisible, except to God alone."

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1 Milton, Paradise Lost, Bk. III, 682-84; Pascal, Provincial Letters, Letter VI. For a perceptive account of how the wealthy and the business community transmute tax reform to serve their interests, using the device of "confusion of the public" to make this happen "while appearing not to happen," see Linda McQuaig, Behind Closed Doors: How the Rich Won Control of Canada's Tax System (Penguin, 1987). Her study deals specifically with Canada, but the conclusions are more general.

2 Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 5 (Houghton Mifflin, 1951, 382).

3 See p. 49.

4 U.S. government scholar Douglas Pike, Viet Cong (MIT, 1966).

5 Editorial, NYT, Dec. 22, 1965. Washington took credit for helping to prepare the ground for the military coup, and a more direct U.S. role in the coup and its aftermath is hardly unlikely; see Culture of Terrorism, 181, and an important study by Peter Dale Scott, "The United States and the Overthrow of Sukarno, 1965-1967," Pacific Affairs, Summer 1985. Lyndon Johnson's National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy commented in retrospect that "our effort" in Vietnam was "excessive" after these events in Indonesia, which helped inoculate the region against Vietnamese-inspired nationalism, a perceptive insight into the backgrounds for the Vietnam war, amply supported by other evidence; Manufacturing Consent, 174.

6 Sam Pope Brewer, "Iran is Reported Subversion Free," NYT, Dec. 2, 1956; NYT, Aug. 30, 1960. Cited by William A. Dorman and Mansour Farhang, The U.S. Press and Iran (California, 1987, 77, 72).

7 UPI, BG, July 27, 1987.

8 See Turning the Tide, 161.

9 NYT, Sept. 25, 1988. Apart from the efficacy of quasi-fascist measures, the economic successes reflect the crucial priming effect of America's Asian wars and the lingering impact of Japanese colonialism, which exploited its colonies in a different manner from the West, "bringing industry to the labor and raw materials rather than vice versa," Bruce Cumings observes, commenting on the renewal of the industrial development that had been initiated under Japanese imperialism with state-corporate guidance ("The origins and development of the Northeast Asian political economy," International Organization 38.1, Winter 1984).

10 FRUS, 1955-57, Vol. VII, 88f., NIE 82-85. For more on this enlightening document, reflecting intelligence analysis at the highest level, see my "Agenda of the Doves," Z Magazine, September 1988.