Necessary Illusions

by Noam Chomsky


This is a vitally important book for anyone concerned with Truth and/or Knowledge. It should provoke any mixture of the following emotions: outrage, shock, depression, shame, resignation, and hope. I’m embarrassed to say that this is the first book by Chomsky that I’ve ever read, despite being aware of his ideas from both articles and documentaries. Overall, this book met or somewhat exceeded my expectations, making up in content for what it lacked in accessibility.

This is a particularly interesting book to read soon after What Liberal Media?, which I can now recognize as quite a superficial look at media bias. Not only does Alterman inexcusably omit any reference to Chomsky’s work on the subject (a fact which perhaps helps corroborate Chomsky’s “propaganda model” that he explains here and in Manufacturing Consent), but he confines his book to the very narrow Liberal-Conservative paradigm, whereas Chomsky pointedly recognizes that entire paradigm as a false dichotomy manipulated and maintained both overtly and covertly by both corporate and government interests.

The layout of the book is counterintuitive. It consists of five chapters that each has its own appendix. Strangely, however, the appendices are almost twice as long as the chapters they’re meant to support, and they’re usually more interesting and engaging. I understand that the chapters were based on lectures, which helps explain why they contain only general information (as opposed to the specific examples of the appendices). Still, as editor I would have suggested that Chomsky arrange each appendix after its chapter, perhaps in five sections with the original “chapter” serving as introduction. The confusion is compounded by the fact that he seems to discuss the same episodes of media malfeasance across different chapters and appendices, without an immediately discernible organization. This confusing presentation combined with both the repetition of facts and superfluity of examples caused me to subtract a star.

Ultimately, though, the information here is invaluable, and the task Chomsky undertook while proposing, supporting, and cataloguing evidence for his Propaganda Model is simply extraordinary. I haven’t come across any other author that has so systematically and reliably challenged the status quo, not only discarding the myth of the “liberal media” but looking even deeper under the curtain to uncover some truly disquieting flaws in the very fabric of U.S. “free speech,” a phenomenon of which we are (according to Chomsky) unjustly proud.

In an attempt to verify his model, Chomsky looks primarily at news coverage of the Cold War and its proxies from the 50s to the late 80s, with an emphasis on the 80s and, to a lesser extent, the 70s. He painstakingly analyzes the way that the U.S. media covered conflicts in Central America (Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala) and the Middle East (Israel, Lebanon and Palestine), with much less space dedicated to Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Indonesia).

In every case, he uncovers the double standard that U.S. media (particularly The New York Times, which he takes as the primary news source in the U.S.) employs when discussing the Nicaraguan versus the Salvadorean/Guatemalan insurgencies, or Israeli versus Palestinian aggression. In the latter case, he also goes to lengths to document the blatant racism that is regularly employed to describe the conflict between Jews and Arabs.

I’m not sure how critics can really refute any of what Chomsky says, unless it’s to point to a selective citation of sources. I’m not accusing him of that myself since I have neither the time nor inclination to search through 80s newspapers to find mentions of “death squad” as opposed to “guerrilla” atrocities in El Salvador, for example. But as someone who tries to maintain critical perspective even when overwhelmed by a particular work (in addition to being unfamiliar with Chomsky as a whole), I grant that it’s within the realm of possibilities, even though Chomsky’s obviously tedious research comes across as exceedingly credible.

Making it even harder to refute him, Chomsky often uses the establishment’s own words to point out their hypocrisy and absurd misanthropy. When discussing the (ironic) problem of Costa Rica’s “lackadaisical. . . attitude. . . toward suppression (of communists)” (U.S. State Dept.), Chomsky cites the U.S. ambassador, who appears to lament that the C.R. government is “handicapped in arresting communists because of the protection afforded the individual in the Costa Rican Constitution.” This is something that might otherwise surprise the citizens of a country that proudly flaunts its constitutionally-protected freedom of expression. The ambassador goes on to say that “it should not be too difficult to suppress communist publications” as long as the public is “conditioned” to “the use of force by authorities.” Needless to say, none of these comments ever reached the U.S. public.

Perhaps the most memorable trend of the book, and a key point in illustrating both the double standard and the propaganda model itself, is Chomsky’s iteration of the great quantity of horrific acts that are simply and utterly suppressed by the U.S. media. As such, we just never hear of the tens of thousands that were killed by (U.S.-supported) death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala, or the dozens of Lebanese and Jordanian villages that were bombed to pieces by the (U.S.-supported) Israelis.

It’s downright scary to think of what else may be withheld from us all the time, and it should give any intelligent reader pause to consider just how distorted our view of the world is, due to being filtered totally through the lens of the mainstream, corporate-owned media. I could say how I really feel about our media and our nation after reading this, but I’m probably already on enough lists simply by virtue of having read it at all (much less labeling it a “favorite”); so I think I’ll stop right here.

One further criticism I would consider valid is that the book is not completely timely almost 25 years after the fact. The rise of the Internet alone has entailed a vast democratization of media and allowed for many alternative viewpoints that are now encroaching on and broadening the conventional narrative to a degree unknown when Chomsky was writing. Then again, I wouldn’t buy for a second the argument that Chomsky’s propaganda model has disintegrated entirely with the influx of alternative viewpoints.

Indeed, two current examples are enough to show that the propaganda model is still relevant and necessary for analyzing the information we receive through the mainstream media. The coverage of the recent sequestration was dominated almost completely by an argument about how cuts should take place, with the more reasonable outlets against the sequester but generally for fiscal restraint in the near future. Left almost completely to the sidelines was the discussion of whether or not we should be cutting anything at a time when many economists believe that the most important task to improve our economy is to increase spending to stimulate job growth. This viewpoint is most publicly articulated by Paul Krugman, who, despite seeming wholly reasonable the most of the time, is usually deemed somewhere between a communist clown (by the right) and an extreme radical whose suggestions are interesting but have no real bearing on reality (by the left).

In other words, the media managed to completely obfuscate the actual problem facing us, and the result is that we are still leagues away from any solutions that most likely include higher taxes, anathema to corporate interests.

The second instance is much more menacing and concerns the drone programs. There has recently been a flap about the disclosure of drone memos that discuss how people or U.S. citizens can be targeted, abridging the constitutional right to due process. This is admittedly a grave concern, but at the same time an even more fundamental issue continues to be completely suppressed: namely, the question of whether a program of automated bombing devices that can unilaterally terrorize nations with which we are not at war, and without any sort of congressional or judicial oversight, is morally, ethically, or legally acceptable. Where is this debate? According to Chomsky’s model, this very basic debate about the actual rightness of a major government policy lies so far outside of the accepted spectrum of discourse that it cannot be mentioned, because to do so would endanger the powers that be with unwanted (and, to them, unnecessary) public scrutiny and/or outrage.

Actually, that last sentence reminds me of another book because the word “unspeakable” comes to mind. All of these policy aspects outside of the accepted realm of discourse are considered “unspeakable.” Another unspeakable part of U.S. history is discussed in the highly recommenable JFK and the Unspeakable by James Douglass. But be warned, by clicking on that page (and even by reading this review probably), you’re probably placing yourself on some sort of list. Good lord I can’t believe how much I’ve written here. Apologies!

Original Review

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