Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Chapter 5: The Utility of Interpretations Segment 11/11
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It is particularly important to understand what stories not to seek, what sources of evidence to avoid. Refugees from Timor or from U.S. bombing in Laos and Cambodia have no useful tales to tell. It is important to stay away from camps on the Honduran border, where refugees report "without exception" that they were "all fleeing from the army that we are supporting" and "every person had a tale of atrocity by government forces, the same ones we are again outfitting with weapons" as they conduct "a systematic campaign of terrorism" with "a combination of murder, torture, rape, the burning of crops in order to create starvation conditions," and vicious atrocities; the report of the congressional delegation that reached these conclusions after their first-hand investigation in early 1981 was excluded from the media, which were avoiding this primary source of evidence on rural El Salvador.72 It would be bad form to arouse public awareness of Nicaragua's "noteworthy progress in the social sector, which is laying a solid foundation for long-term socio-economic development," reported in 1983 by the Inter-American Development Bank, barred by U.S. pressure from contributing to these achievements.73 Correspondingly, it is improper to set forth the achievements of the Reagan administration in reversing these early successes, to record the return of disease and malnutrition, illiteracy and dying infants, while the country is driven to the zero grade of life to pay for the sin of independent development. In contrast, it is responsible journalism for James LeMoyne to denounce the Sandinistas for the "bitterness and apathy" he finds in Managua.74 Those who hope to enter the system must learn that terror traceable to the PLO, Qaddafi, or Khomeini leaves worthy victims who merit compassion and concern; but those targeted by the United States and its allies do not fall within this category. Responsible journalists must understand that a grenade attack on Israeli Army recruits and their families leaving one killed and many wounded deserves a front-page photograph of the victims and a substantial story, while a contra attack on a passenger bus the day before with two killed, two kidnapped, and many wounded merits no report at all.75 Category by category, the same lessons hold.

There is, in fact, a ready algorithm for those who wish to attain respectability and privilege. It is only necessary to bear in mind the test for sincerity already discussed, and to make sure that you fail it at every turn. The same simple logic explains the characteristic performance of the independent media, and the educated classes generally, for reasons that are hardly obscure.

I have been discussing methods of thought control and the reasons why they gain such prominence in democratic societies in which the general population cannot be driven from the political arena by force. The discussion may leave the impression that the system is all-powerful, but that is far from true. People have the capacity to resist, and sometimes do, with great effect.

Take the case of the Western-backed slaughter in Timor. The media suppressed the terrible events and the complicity of their own governments, but the story nevertheless did finally break through, reaching segments of the public and Congress. This was the achievement of a few dedicated young people, whose names will not be known to history, as is generally true of those whose actions have improved the world. Their efforts did not bring an end to the Indonesian terror or the U.S. support for it, but they did mitigate the violence. Finally, as a result of their work, the Red Cross was allowed limited access. In this and other ways, tens of thousands of lives were saved. There are very few people who can claim to have achieved so much of human consequence. The same is true of many other cases. Internal constraints within a powerful state provide a margin of survivability for its victims, a fact that should never be forgotten.

The United States is a much more civilized place than it was twenty-five years ago. The crisis of democracy and the intellectual independence that so terrify elites have been real enough, and the effects on the society have been profound, and on balance generally healthy. The impact is readily discernible over a wide range of concerns, including racism, the environment, feminism, forceful intervention, and much else; and also in the media, which have allowed some opening to dissident opinion and critical reporting in recent years, considerably beyond what was imaginable even at the peak of the ferment of the sixties, let alone before. One illustration of the improvement in the moral and cultural level is that it has become possible, for the first time, to confront in a serious way what had been done to Native Americans during the conquest of the continent; and many other necessary illusions were questioned, and quickly crumbled upon inspection, as challenges were raised to orthodoxy and authority. Small wonder that the sixties appear as a period of horror, chaos, and destructive abandon in the reflections of privileged observers who are distressed, even appalled, by intellectual independence and moral integrity on the part of the young.

The same developments have had their impact on state policy. There was no protest when John F. Kennedy sent the U.S. Air Force to attack the rural society of South Vietnam. Twenty years later, the Reagan administration was driven underground, compelled to resort to clandestine terror in Central America. The climate of opinion and concern had changed, outside of elite circles, and the capacity of the state to exercise violence had been correspondingly reduced. The toll of Reaganite terror was awesome: tens of thousands of tortured and mutilated bodies, massive starvation, disease and destruction, hundreds of thousands of miserable refugees. It would have been a great deal worse without the constraints imposed by people who had found ways to escape the system of indoctrination, and the courage and honesty to act. These are no small achievements -- again, on the part of people whose names will be lost to history.

There are ample opportunities to help create a more humane and decent world, if we choose to act upon them.

I began with the questions raised by the Brazilian bishops about the problems of democracy and the media. Perhaps I may close with my own conclusions on these matters. The professed concern for freedom of the press in the West is not very persuasive in the light of the easy dismissal of even extreme violations of the right of free expression in U.S. client states, and the actual performance of the media in serving the powerful and privileged as an agency of manipulation, indoctrination, and control. A "democratic communications policy," in contrast, would seek to develop means of expression and interaction that reflect the interests and concerns of the general population, and to encourage their self-education and their individual and collective action. A policy conceived in these terms would be a desideratum, though there are pitfalls and dangers that should not be overlooked. But the issue is largely academic, when viewed in isolation from the general social scene. The prospects for a democratic communications policy are inevitably constrained by the distribution of effective power to determine the course and functioning of major social institutions. Hence the goal can be approached only as an integral part of the further democratization of the social order. This process, in turn, requires a democratic communications policy as a central component, with an indispensable contribution to make. Serious steps towards more meaningful democracy would aim to dissolve the concentration of decision-making power, which in our societies resides primarily in a state-corporate nexus. Such a conception of democracy, though so familiar from earlier years that it might even merit the much-abused term "conservative," is remote from those that dominate public discourse -- hardly a surprise, given its threat to established privilege.

Human beings are the only species with a history. Whether they also have a future is not so obvious. The answer will lie in the prospects for popular movements, with firm roots among all sectors of the population, dedicated to values that are suppressed or driven to the margins within the existing social and political order: community, solidarity, concern for a fragile environment that will have to sustain future generations, creative work under voluntary control, independent thought, and true democratic participation in varied aspects of life.

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72 See Towards a New Cold War, 36-37, 228, for further detail and some very marginal exceptions.

73 Dianna Melrose, Nicaragua: The Threat of a Good Example? (Oxfam, London, 1985).

74 NYT, Dec. 29, 1987.

75 Thomas Friedman, NYT, Oct. 16; photo, p. 1. AP, Oct. 15, 1986.