Noam Chomsky has been pointing out for 50 years that the most harmful component of the US propaganda system is what he at one point named ‘feigned dissent’, the carefully-limited critique of Establishment figures who pose as opponents of the Establishment. At the outset of his career as a public intellectual, Chomsky pointed out that the furious debate over the Vietnam War within the mainstream media actually entrenched US propaganda about the war, rather than challenging it.
Chomsky observed that mainstream ‘doves’ such as Anthony Lewis and Stanley Karnow believed the Vietnam War began with ‘blundering efforts to do good’, then became a ‘noble’ but ‘failed crusade’. Kennedy liberal Arthur Schlesinger Jr called for the war to be ended on grounds of cost. Schlesinger opposed the noted ‘hawk’ Joseph Alsop, who believed the war could be won – however, Schlesinger added ‘we all pray’ that Alsop is proved correct, in which case ‘we may all be saluting the wisdom and statesmanship of the American government’.
In other words, Lewis, Karnow and Schlesinger all agreed that the US invasion of South Vietnam (a phrase they would never have used) was benevolent in motivation, and morally and legally justified, though unwise. They all accepted the fundamental principle that the United States had the right to re-structure other societies by force – a right that they would not have accorded to any other nation.
By posing as opponents of the war while tacitly accepting this principle, Schlesinger and other Establishment liberals helped to reinforce the acceptability of US imperialism. Washington’s divine right to use violence was not only acceptable, it did not even register as something that could be debatable, it was a presupposition of the debate. The main debate within the mainstream was over the cost-benefit analysis of the assault on Vietnam (and later Indochina as a whole).
Chomsky warns that, in such cases:
‘The more vigorous the debate, the better the system of propaganda is served, since the tacit unspoken assumptions are more forcefully implanted. An independent mind must seek to separate itself from official doctrine – and from the criticism advanced by its alleged opponent. Not just from the assertions of the propaganda system, but from its tacit presuppositions as well, as expressed by critic and defender. This is a far more difficult task. Any expert in indoctrination will confirm, no doubt, that it is far more effective to constrain all possible thought within a framework of tacit assumptions than to try to impose a particular explicit belief with a bludgeon. It may be that some of the most spectacular achievements of the American propaganda system, where all of this has been elevated to a high art, are attributable to the method of feigned dissent, practiced by the responsible intelligentsia.’
There are various aspects of the US propaganda system. One of them concerns the definition and re-definition of words. There is a classic literary conversation on this topic in in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. In this 1871 follow-up to Alice in Wonderland (confusingly featuring a different Alice), Humpty Dumpty says: ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ Alice is not impressed, arguing: ‘The question is, whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.’ Humpty Dumpty corrects her: ‘The question is, which is to be master – that’s all.’
When I’ve seen this passage quoted in relation to propaganda, I’d always assumed that the issue was who was to be ‘master’ in social terms, that words will be defined and redefined by the powerful and wealthy, who have dominion over other people. There is a definite resonance between that reading of the passage and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model of the mass media.
When you read the rest of the passage, however, it’s clear that the scornful egg was just referring to his own individual ‘mastery’ over words. He goes on: ‘They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs, they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot of them!’ Humpty Dumpty then explains that when he makes a word ‘do a lot of work’ (by loading it with meanings it is not usually associated with), he always pays it extra: ‘you should see ’em come round me of a Saturday night… for to get their wages, you know.’
On reflection, there is a social element here also, because, as they are used normally in society, words derive their meaning from society, from common agreements about what they can mean. If one person insists on re-defining a word as it is to be used by the community, they are assuming a power over the community, the power to de-recognise the meaning that been in some sense agreed by society, and the power to force society to accept a new definition. (There are obviously very deep waters here about how clear and precise and agreed the meanings of even very simple words are; about how words change their meanings; and about dialect and subcultures and so on, which I will navigate around – hugging the coast, while knowing that there are oceans of complexity right at hand.)
Lewis Carroll wrote in an appendix to his book Symbolic Logic:
‘… I maintain that any writer of a book is fully authorised in attaching any meaning she likes to any word or phrase she intends to use. If I find an author saying, at the beginning of her book, “Let it be understood that by the word ‘black’ I shall always mean ‘white’, and that by the word ‘white’ I shall always mean ‘black’,” I meekly accept her ruling, however injudicious I may think it…. I maintain that every writer may adopt her own rule, provided of course that it is consistent with itself and with the accepted facts of Logic.’ (sexist language reversed)
There are a lot of things one could say here, but one issue that emerges is the importance of explicitness. In Symbolic Logic, Carroll accepts willful re-definition if it is explicitly stated at the outset that we are departing from the dictionary definition or common understanding of a word, and its new meaning is explained before we encounter it. In Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty inserts his redefinitions into his conversation with Alice without giving any explanation – until he is challenged. The conversation about meaning begins when Alice queries the outsized egg’s use of the word ‘glory’:
‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”‘ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”‘ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’
Their conversation about meaning pretty much ends with this exchange, started by Humpty Dumpty:
‘Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’
‘Would you tell me, please,’ said Alice ‘what that means?’
‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. ‘I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’
To recap: Humpty Dumpty observes ‘contemptuously’ that Alice can obviously not understand what he means by the word ‘glory’ until he tells her the new meaning he has assigned to it. Later, looking pleased, he praises her for asking him the new meaning he has assigned to ‘impenetrability’. The evidence here is that Humpty Dumpty expects and relies on the explicit re-definition of words, but only after the fact. When he redefines words, he clearly signposts them as requiring further explanation: ‘only ONE [day] for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!’ ‘I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’
The Humpty Dumpty principle of absolute freedom of (re-)definition has been invoked by judges in a number of cases in the United States, England, Australia and perhaps elsewhere. Jacco Bomhoff, a law professor at the London School of Economics, observes that the ‘who is to be master’ aspect of the conversation ‘suggests that the real problem with Humpty’s view is related to authority; the fact that the speaker gets to unilaterally determine the meaning of his words precludes all form of communication when applied to ordinary life, but leads to absolute power when applied to legal commands.’
Bomhoff was responding to a 2006 US Supreme Court ruling in which Justice Souter, in the majority Opinion, cited Humpty Dumpty approvingly. Souter accepted the power of the US Congress to define words in whatever way it wished, but he insisted on Lewis Carroll’s Symbolic Logic requirement of explicitness-in-advance:
‘Humpty Dumpty used a word to mean “‘just what [he chose] it to mean – neither more nor less,'” and legislatures, too, are free to be unorthodox. Congress can define an aggravated felony of illicit trafficking in an unexpected way. But Congress would need to tell us so, and there are good reasons to think it was doing no such thing here.’
The Supreme Court refused to allow the government to retrospectively ‘Humpty Dumpty’ its definition of a crime. If we follow the analysis above, what the government was trying to do was not a true Humpty Dumpty, because in Through the Looking Glass Humpty Dumpty made it clear by his phrasing that the reinvented word was doing something different to what it did normally – that it was ‘doing a lot of work’. He was not explicit in advance about the new meanings of ‘glory’ or ‘impenetrability’, but he did explicitly signal that these words had new meanings which should be clarified by his hearers – if they want to be ‘reasonable’.
In Chomsky’s Propaganda Model, the entire propaganda system relies on not drawing attention to the fundamental distortions and presuppositions underpinning the structure of lies. It is critically important not to be explicit about the basic definitions being used. In the case of Vietnam, it was vital not to be clear that ‘anti-war’ within the mainstream meant ‘against this war because the costs outweigh the benefits, but in favour of the US right to invade other countries in principle, regardless of international law’.
In other words, it was very important to disguise the fact that ‘anti-war’ meant ‘pro-war’.
It’s very interesting that the phrase ‘US invasion of South Vietnam’ does not exist as a possibility in the mainstream discussion of the war. In the conventional understanding of the conflict, North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam, and the United States helped to defend the latter. Here again, there is a tacit re-definition of words, as well as a suppression of relevant historical evidence.
The historical evidence became irresistible when most of the ‘Pentagon Papers’, the US government’s secret, internal history of the Vietnam War, were leaked in 1971 and published shortly afterwards. (The 7,000-page report was officially declassified and made available online in its entirety in 2011.) According to the government’s own documentary record, when Washington determined on its major escalation of the war in February 1965 – the bombing of North Vietnam – US intelligence knew of no regular North Vietnamese units in South Vietnam. Five months later, while implementing the plan to deploy 85,000 US troops in South Vietnam, there had been scattered reports, but Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton was still only expressing concern about the ‘increasing probability’ of regular North Vietnamese units in South Vietnam – or across the border in Laos. (See page 195 of volume 5 of the Beacon Press edition of the Pentagon Papers for references – it’s online.)
‘In the light of these facts,’ Chomsky observes, ‘the discussion of whether the US was defending South Vietnam from an “armed attack” from the North – the official US government position – is ludicrous.’ Nevertheless, this ludicrous claim, converted into an unquestioned assumption, continues to govern discussion of the Vietnam War in the United States and elsewhere in the West. Mainstream debate turns on whether it was wise for the US to attempt to defend South Vietnam. The notion that the United States did not defend the people of South Vietnam, but rather attacked them, does not figure even as a theoretical possibility. It is an unthinkable thought.
Government officials, and mainstream commentators and reporters all follow the Humpty Dumpty principle of redefining words as seems convenient to them – but they do not follow the practice of Humpty Dumpty in signalling their non-dictionary usage, or welcoming the explicit statement of their underlying presuppositions. Mainstream doves and hawks share a common interest in protecting their assumptions from public scrutiny.
Milan Rai is an editor of Peace News. A referenced version of this essay will be posted on www.peacenews.info.
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