Monday, May 31, 2010

Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media

Avram Noam Chomsky is a world-famous linguist and intellectual political dissident who has written eloquently on many aspects of the world's social and political spectrum. In his many writings on politics, Chomsky places extensive emphasis on American foreign policy and the ways in which it influences events in the world at large [1]. This focus is not surprising, given the fact that America is the world's strongest superpower, with our economy totaling 30% of the total world economy while our population totals only about 5% of the world population. The actions taken by America holds global ramifications across the board, and few intellectuals are possessed of as firm and incisive an understanding of this than Noam Chomsky.

The 1992 documentary film Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media is a film adaptation of a 1988 book Chomsky authored with economist and media analyst Edward S. Herman. The book, entitled Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, is concerned primarily with the concentration of media ownership [2]. As the wording of the title clearly implies, the book's thesis is that there exists some degree of manipulation that takes place in terms of which viewpoints and political ideas are allowed to be voiced in the media, and which are constructed to appear as though they stand within mainstream acceptance. The documentary film, created by Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick, expands upon the book's subject of concentration of ownership in news media and how that concentration impacts the range of political discourse in society. Interspersed throughout this exploration are in-depth elucidations of the life and work of Noam Chomsky, including his lifelong research in linguistics and his views on other political matters, as well as biographical details of his personal life.

There are many aspects of the life and work of Noam Chomsky that make for interesting (not to mention heated) discussion. Among these various aspects, and one which the freethinking community may find worth emphasizing, is that Chomsky is a convinced atheist whose earliest cultural experience was in the secular Judaism of his parents, who were both teachers of the Hebrew language. From an early age, he identified and strongly connected with the secular and socialist aspects of the Jewish community in which he was raised. He was born in December of 1928, and was especially influenced between the formative ages of seven and ten by the events that unfolded in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. The libertarian socialism driving those fighting for democracy in Spain at the time greatly contributed to the early development of Chomsky's political philosophy.

By this point in his career, Chomsky joins the ranks of intellectuals who have shown the academic community that atheists tend to be provocative thinkers. Of course, the very nature of atheism is provocative in a culture that is dominated by religion, rendering a provocative stance unavoidable for an open atheist. But one fact that is often grossly under-acknowledged is that the one and only thing that unites atheists is our lack of a belief in any god. There is literally no official atheist position on anything else. After all, any community that has produced such figures as Emma Goldman, Ayn Rand, Camilla Paglia, Christopher Hitchens and Ayaan Hirsi Ali is obviously politically diverse and divergent. Emma Goldman (1869-1940) played a pivotal role in shaping the same anarchist tradition that Chomsky now embraces and contributes to with his work. Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was an Objectivist who rejected all forms of supernaturalism as being antithetical to reason. These figures questioned the prevailing ideologies of their day, and those who follow in their footsteps maintain that questioning tendency. Noam Chomsky himself is heavily immersed in skeptical inquiry and universal ethics, and he has been and continues to be a tireless critic of the centralization of authority that benefits the few at the expense of very many. The major emphases of the documentary Manufacturing Consent are Chomsky's views and application of ethics and egalitarianism. At one point in the documentary, he recounts an early childhood experience he had in which another child was being bullied at his school. He relates that he remembers wanting to stand up for this bullied child, but became too afraid of being beaten up himself to step in and intervene. Ever since that incident, Chomsky says, he has always felt attracted to standing up for the underdog.

The "Liberal" Media and the Role of Faith in the Manufacture of Consent

The manipulation of political discourse executed by our current system of corporate media, as explored in the film, can be very clearly observed and confirmed by anybody. The most obvious culprit, of course, is Fox News. But interestingly enough, less obvious culprits have included CBS, which has been attacked from both sides of the political spectrum. In 2001, a book by Bernard Goldberg entitled Bias was released [3]. In this book, former CBS news reporter and producer Goldberg charges CBS with being the greatest bastion of liberal lunacy and bias in all media. Then, only three years later, CBS found itself charged with harboring a strong conservative bias in January of 2004, when the progressive advocacy group MoveOn.org attempted to place their anti-Bush ad "Child's Pay" as a broadcast during the Super Bowl [4]. CBS rejected the ad on grounds that it was "controversial," leading MoveOn.org to accuse CBS of being disproportionately conservative and of censoring from that position. These situations serve to illustrate the fact that while political favoritism is clear and unmistakable in some cases (such as Fox News), the direction of favoritism is often somewhat hazier in most other cases.

The grey areas encountered in trying to discern the direction of favoritism is especially the case with so-called "liberal" media. Outlets such as National Public Radio (NPR) is generally considered to be very liberal in the estimation of most critics and the general public. But Chomsky argues that media tends to be very "liberal" only by an almost begrudging necessity, in order to establish the agenda for what mainstream discourse is to consist of. Anything that ventures beyond those established parameters is marginalized and stigmatized. The public is thus encouraged to think of such ideas as being on the fringe and discouraged from looking deeper into what prevailing assumptions create the status quo in the first place. Chomsky's position is that the media does indeed tend to be more liberal, but only to the extent that the powers that be are not questioned. And therein lies the contradiction of the "liberal media." Choosing not to question the powers that be which control the concentration of media ownership is a strikingly conservative outlook. The media is artificially "liberal" in the context of television shows such as CNN's Crossfire (which aired from 1982 to 2005), in which representatives from both the Left and the Right engaged in on-air debate. Because both sides are being presented in this kind of format, this means that for all intents and purposes the network is being "liberal" in allowing both sides to air their say. Yet the "both sides" format implies that the two viewpoints being presented are all we have at our disposal, and this sets the parameter for what kinds of dissenting political discourse are tolerated. Coming out of the anarchist tradition, Chomsky seeks to question the forms of authority that dominate the mainstream media in the form of such parameter-setting, in order to realize the egalitarian vision he champions.

The following quote from the film encapsulates in a nutshell the overriding theme that is fleshed out in the course of the documentary:
Elizabeth Sikorovsky ("American Focus" Student Radio): From Washington, D.C., he's intellectual, author and linguist Professor Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: what is that title meant to describe?

Chomsky: Well, the title is actually borrowed from a book by Walter Lippmann written back around 1921, in which he described what he called the "manufacture of consent" as a "revolution" in "the practice of democracy." What it amounts to is a technique of control, and he said this was useful and necessary because the common interest, the general concerns of all people, elude the public. The public just isn't up to dealing with them. And they have to be the domain of what he called a "specialized class."

[Cut to footage of a lecture delivered by Chomsky]: Notice that that's the opposite of the standard view about democracy. There's a version of this expressed by the highly respected moralist and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who was very influential on contemporary policy makers. His view was that rationality belongs to the cool observer, but because of the stupidity of the average man, he follows not reason but faith. And this naive faith requires necessary illusions and emotionally potent oversimplifications, which are provided by the myth-maker to keep the ordinary person on course.

This is a worthwhile point to make in discussions concerning why Chomsky's ideas are relevant to skepticism and atheism. Only through rational discourse and critical thinking can we discuss what impacts us as a culture and as a country with immense political influence in a way that examines all sides of any given issue in order to discern which is best supported by available evidence. The promotion of faith in religion and supernaturalism and the promotion of the acceptance of authoritarianism that comes through faith can be extremely destructive. The promotion of faith and authoritarianism leads inevitably to complacent believers blindly accepting what they are told without further inquiry or examination. Such promotion can also lead to religiously-motivated terrorist movements. A striking example of this is seen in the case of Chuck Spingola, a proudly self-described Christian terrorist, who in 2004 called upon his fellow Christian extremists on his "Army of God" website to carry out their religious duty by waging a wave of violence against abortion clinics and doctors [5]. Spingola has faith that his god decrees higher laws, and therefore his faith tells him that he has no need to be a contributing member of society. The notion he holds that says he can pass judgment on his fellow citizens comes about because his is a faith-based position, not a rational one. This faith-based position tells people like Spingola that the commands of his invisible friend is the sufficient legitimizing factor for his personal murderous prejudices. The "naive faith that requires necessary illusions and emotionally potent oversimplifications" that Chomsky brings up is an important and worthwhile concept to consider when examining the contrasts between faith and reason. What we discover is that the "myth-maker" can often inspire dangerous actions that go beyond mere harmless belief in irrationalities.

Football, Fundamentalism and Alternative Media

The most negative feedback to this documentary that Noam Chomsky received was in response to his statements concerning sports coverage in news media. Chomsky's view is that sports coverage is used to dumb down people and make them largely uncritical, to divert the public's analytical thinking skills towards matters that are not important in terms of current events. There is some validity in this argument; if everyone in America is occupied with worrying about trivial issues, such as another breakup between Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, then perhaps they are not remaining as astutely aware as they should be of issues such as expansions to the Patriot Act that were snuck under the door by the Bush administration. While it is my contention that Ben Affleck and J.Lo can be the basis of worthwhile ideological and cultural analysis, as can football, the points raised by Chomsky deserve to be seriously taken into account. He says,
It's not the case, as the naive might think, that indoctrination is inconsistent with democracy. Rather, as this whole line of thinkers observes, it's the essence of democracy. The point is that in a military state or a feudal state or what you would nowadays call a totalitarian state, it doesn't much matter what people think; because you've got a bludgeon over their head and you can control what they do. But when the State loses the bludgeon, when you can't control people by force, and when the voice of the people can be heard, you have this problem: It may make people so curious and so arrogant that they don't have the humility to submit to a civil rule. And therefore you have to control what people think. And the standard way to do this is to resort to what in more honest days used to be called "propaganda," the manufacture of consent, the creation of necessary illusions, various ways of either marginalizing the general public or reducing them to apathy in some fashion.

Now there are other media too, whose basic social role is quite different. It's a diversion. There's the real mass media, the kinds that are aimed at, you know, the guys who - Joe Six-Pack, that kind. The purpose of those media is just to dull people's brains. This is an oversimplification, but for the eighty percent (or whatever they are), the main thing for them is to divert them, to get them to watch National Football League and to worry about, you know, a mother with child with six heads, or whatever you pick up . . . on the supermarket stands and so on. Or, you know, look at astrology or get involved in, you know, fundamentalist stuff or something or other. Just get them away. You know, get them away from things that matter. And for that, it's important to reduce their capacity to think.

Sports . . . another crucial example of the indoctrination system idea. For one thing, because it offers people something to pay attention to that's of no importance. It keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea about doing something about. And in fact it's striking to see the intelligence that's used by ordinary people in sports. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in. They have the most exotic information and understanding about, you know, all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this. I remember in high school . . . I suddenly asked myself at one point, Why do I care if my high school team wins the football game? I mean, I don't know anybody on the team, you know. It's got nothing to do with me. I mean, why am I cheering for my team? It doesn't make any sense, you know. But the point is it does make sense. It's a way of building up irrational attitudes and submission to authority and, you know, group cohesion behind the . . . leadership elements. In fact, it's training in irrational jingoism.

Those are indeed fighting words, and I will here contribute only a slight disagreement to the fray. I can readily understand and agree that trivial media such as celebrity worship, football, etc. could very well serve as a diversion. But I do not see the fundamentalist thinking that he mentions as being a tool used for drawing people away from involvement in society. I would argue that fundamentalist movements are a tool used to draw people into being more involved, albeit from the basis of a particular ideological agenda that does not contribute to the healthy involvement Chomsky is referring to. Again, one need look no further than Chuck Spingola and his "Army of God" movement for confirmation of this fact. Religious fundamentalism, especially as it has been developing in this country, has been an extremely useful tool in the hands of the Religious Right, which is very politically motivated. The manipulation of fundamentalism has been a great asset for the likes of John Ashcroft and the late Jerry Falwell. To a considerably large extent, Americans have even substituted fundamentalism for politics. One can also argue that fundamentalism is dumbing down the masses while simultaneously mobilizing them. But the crucial difference is that fundamentalism is dumbing people down and force-feeding dogma in a way that is useful to groups with political agendas, whereas the kind of diversion characterized by things like astrology, football or Trading Spaces is not particularly pursuant to encouraging participation in movements that have important effects on the political or social landscape. Even if sports as covered by the media is a "training in irrational jingoism" (which I think is a valid observation), getting people to zone out on football cannot be said to satisfy or aid groups with a political agenda to attain power. On the other hand, religious fundamentalism, supernaturalism and conspiracy theories are far more useful forces. Those are means of manufacturing consent that are actually useful politically to groups such as the Christian Coalition, the Moral Majority and other organizations under the umbrella of the Religious Right. These forces are also useful in the service of an elite who have a unity of interests. One need look no further than the Bush White House of the last decade, during which our country was subjected to Ashcroft, Rumsfeld and Mr. Halliburton himself, Dick Cheney.

In regards to Chomsky's statements on sports being a tool that serves to keep people from worrying about issues of more considerable import to their lives, I wish to play the devil's advocate. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. There is nothing inherently wrong with sports. If people find football games entertaining, I see nothing draconian in indulging in that entertainment. There is no nefarious movement to dumb down the public with high school football games. Chomsky does have a valid point in the sense that media attention is often excessively geared toward trivial and downright stupid content. Chomsky also has a valid point in that corporate news networks such as Fox and (to some degree) MSNBC do engage in the manufacturing of pseudo-stories about an issue they allege is important. They will present such stories through talking heads that give their view about why a given issue is important, when in reality the story is bullshit and lacks substance. Oftentimes, the stories presented by these corporate news outlets contain nothing that holds any bearing to Joe Blow from Idaho sitting in his living room. Such stories are not specifically relevant to him, but the news media is very skilled in persuading him that he should be invested in an obscure social issue playing out among people across the country. This manufacturing of pseudo-stories in corporate news can be viewed as a good example of the kind of distraction Chomsky is referring to.

However, I argue that there can be political and social value in following sports, largely depending on who the participants in the sport are and the extent to which meaningful symbolism is involved. One figure that comes to mind is the heavyweight boxing champion Muhammed Ali. As a black Muslim, Ali experienced a great deal of trouble in working to to maintain his boxing career because of his refusal to serve in the Vietnam war on religious grounds. Also, in the degrees to which women are allowed to participate in certain sports, there is opportunity to analyze the feminist significance of sports. There do exist aspects to sports whose larger implications can be meaningfully pondered. This is where I find Chomsky's assessment to be terribly simplistic.

However, buried within his remarks is the fact that Chomsky stands in awe of human creativity and is interested in encouraging as many people as possible to rise above being mere cogs in a machine by putting their intelligence to application. It is on this point that I could not agree more wholeheartedly with Chomsky. Of particular importance is his comment that, given the rather intricate analysis that ordinary people are able to deliver on call-in shows related to sports, it would be great if they were able to engage in comparable analysis with regard to political and social issues. There are media outlets that attempt to provide such opportunity for important political and social analysis, but their success is often limited by the barriers of big business demands and what kind of shows get the best ratings. This is why alternative media is crucial to the survival of democracy. I do not think it is any accident that most of the footage for the documentary Manufacturing Consent comes from a number of interviews of Noam Chomsky on public access television shows and community radio stations. The subliminal message of the documentary strongly praises and promotes the efforts of alternative media. Noam Chomsky gives considerable credit to the benefit to social and political critical analysis that alternative media provides, and for this reason alone this film is worth viewing and discussing.

Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media can be viewed online at http://www.hulu.com/watch/118171/manufacturing-consent or downloaded from http://www.archive.org/details/NoamChomskyNoamChomskyManufacturingConsent_0.

Notes

1. Noam Chomsky (2003). Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance. New York: Metropolitan Books. I recommend this macroscopic analysis of U.S. foreign policy from WWII to the Iraq War as the best place to start for anyone interested in getting a sense of Chomsky's views on foreign policy.

2. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman (1988). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books.

3. Bernard Goldberg (2001). Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing.

4. This ad can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A9WKimKIyUQ&feature=related

5. Dean Schabner. "A Call to Arms for 'Christian Terrorists'." ABC News 22 January 2004. http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=96790.

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