2003-08-30 22:29:40 UTC
After September 11, the mainstream media's blatant performance as
the U.S Government's propaganda machine has only served to highlight
the business of `managing' public opinion. The resultant `mistrust of
the mass media' would at best be a political hunch or at worst a
loose accusation, if it were not for the relentless and unswerving
media analysis of one of the world's greatest minds. And this is
only one of the ways in which Noam Chomsky has radically altered our
understanding of the society in which we live. Rationally and
empirically, he has unmasked the ugly, manipulative, ruthless
American universe that exists behind the word 'freedom', says
ARUNDHATI ROY, in an essay written as an introduction for the new
edition of Noam Chomsky
"I will never apologise for the United States of America ÷ I don't
care what the facts are."
-- President George Bush Sr.
SITTING in my home in New Delhi, watching an American TV news
channel promote itself ("We report. You decide."), I imagine Noam
Chomsky's amused, chipped-tooth smile.
Everybody knows that authoritarian regimes, regardless of their
ideology, use the mass media for propaganda. But what about
democratically elected regimes in the "free world"?
Today, thanks to Noam Chomsky and his fellow media analysts, it is
almost axiomatic for thousands, possibly millions, of us that public
opinion in "free market" democracies is manufactured just like any
other mass market product ÷ soap, switches, or sliced bread. We know
that while, legally and constitutionally, speech may be free, the
space in which that freedom can be exercised has been snatched from us
and auctioned to the highest bidders. Neoliberal capitalism isn't
just about the accumulation of capital (for some). It's also about
the accumulation of power (for some), the accumulation of freedom
(for some). Conversely, for the rest of the world, the people who
are excluded from neoliberalism's governing body, it's about the
erosion of capital, the erosion of power, the erosion of freedom. In
the "free" market, free speech has become a commodity like
everything else ÷ ÷ justice, human rights, drinking water, clean
air. It's available only to those who can afford it. And naturally,
those who can afford it use free speech to manufacture the kind of
product, confect the kind of public opinion, that best suits their
purpose. (News they can use.) Exactly how they do this has been the
subject of much of Noam Chomsky's political writing.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, for instance, has a controlling
interest in major Italian newspapers, magazines, television
channels, and publishing houses. "[T]he prime minister in effect
controls about 90 per cent of Italian TV viewership," reports the
Financial Times. What price free speech? Free speech for whom?
Admittedly, Berlusconi is an extreme example. In other democracies ÷
the United States in particular ÷ media barons, powerful corporate
lobbies, and government officials are imbricated in a more
elaborate, but less obvious, manner. (George Bush Jr.'s connections
to the oil lobby, to the arms industry, and to Enron, and Enron's
infiltration of U.S. government institutions and the mass media ÷
all this is public knowledge now.)
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist strikes in New York and
Washington, the mainstream media's blatant performance as the U.S.
government's mouthpiece, its display of vengeful patriotism, its
willingness to publish Pentagon press handouts as news, and its
explicit censorship of dissenting opinion became the butt of some
pretty black humour in the rest of the world.
Then the New York Stock Exchange crashed, bankrupt airline companies
appealed to the government for financial bailouts, and there was
talk of circumventing patent laws in order to manufacture generic
drugs to fight the anthrax scare (much more important, and urgent of
course, than the production of generics to fight AIDS in Africa).
Suddenly, it began to seem as though the twin myths of Free Speech
and the Free Market might come crashing down alongside the Twin
Towers of the World Trade Center.
But of course that never happened. The myths live on.
There is however, a brighter side to the amount of energy and money
that the establishment pours into the business of "managing" public
opinion. It suggests a very real fear of public opinion. It suggests
a persistent and valid worry that if people were to discover (and
fully comprehend) the real nature of the things that are done in
their name, they might act upon that knowledge. Powerful people know
that ordinary people are not always reflexively ruthless and
selfish. (When ordinary people weigh costs and benefits, something
like an uneasy conscience could easily tip the scales.) For this
reason, they must be guarded against reality, reared in a controlled
climate, in an altered reality, like broiler chickens or pigs in a
Those of us who have managed to escape this fate and are scratching
about in the backyard, no longer believe everything we read in the
papers and watch on TV. We put our ears to the ground and look for
other ways of making sense of the world. We search for the untold
story, the mentioned-in-passing military coup, the unreported
genocide, the civil war in an African country written up in a
one-column-inch story next to a full-page advertisement for lace
We don't always remember, and many don't even know, that this way of
thinking, this easy acuity, this instinctive mistrust of the mass
media, would at best be a political hunch and at worst a loose
accusation, if it were not for the relentless and unswerving media
analysis of one of the world's greatest minds. And this is only one
of the ways in which Noam Chomsky has radically altered our
understanding of the society in which we live. Or should I say, our
understanding of the elaborate rules of the lunatic asylum in which
we are all voluntary inmates?
Speaking about the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington,
President George W. Bush called the enemies of the United States
"enemies of freedom". "Americans are asking why do they hate us?" he
said. "They hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom
of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each
If people in the United States want a real answer to that question
(as opposed to the ones in the Idiot's Guide to Anti-Americanism,
that is: "Because they're jealous of us," "Because they hate
freedom," "Because they're losers," "Because we're good and they're
evil"), I'd say, read Chomsky. Read Chomsky on U.S. military
interventions in Indochina, Latin America, Iraq, Bosnia, the former
Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. If ordinary people in
the United States read Chomsky, perhaps their questions would be
framed a little differently. Perhaps it would be: "Why don't they
hate us more than they do?" or "Isn't it surprising that September
11 didn't happen earlier?"
Unfortunately, in these nationalistic times, words like "us" and
"them" are used loosely. The line between citizens and the state is
being deliberately and successfully blurred, not just by
governments, but also by terrorists. The underlying logic of
terrorist attacks, as well as "retaliatory" wars against governments
that "support terrorism", is the same: both punish citizens for the
actions of their governments.
(A brief digression: I realise that for Noam Chomsky, a U.S.
citizen, to criticise his own government is better manners than for
someone like myself, an Indian citizen, to criticise the U.S.
government. I'm no patriot, and am fully aware that venality,
brutality, and hypocrisy are imprinted on the leaden soul of every
state. But when a country ceases to be merely a country and becomes
an empire, then the scale of operations changes dramatically. So may
I clarify that I speak as a subject of the U.S. empire? I speak as a
slave who presumes to criticise her king.)
If I were asked to choose one of Noam Chomsky's major contributions
to the world, it would be the fact that he has unmasked the ugly,
manipulative, ruthless universe that exists behind that beautiful,
sunny word "freedom". He has done this rationally and empirically.
The mass of evidence he has marshalled to construct his case is
formidable. Terrifying, actually. The starting premise of Chomsky's
method is not ideological, but it is intensely political. He embarks
on his course of inquiry with an anarchist's instinctive mistrust of
power. He takes us on a tour through the bog of the U.S.
establishment, and leads us through the dizzying maze of corridors
that connects the government, big business, and the business of
managing public opinion.
Chomsky shows us how phrases like "free speech", the "free market",
and the "free world" have little, if anything, to do with freedom.
He shows us that, among the myriad freedoms claimed by the U.S.
government are the freedom to murder, annihilate, and dominate other
people. The freedom to finance and sponsor despots and dictators
across the world. The freedom to train, arm, and shelter terrorists.
The freedom to topple democratically elected governments. The
freedom to amass and use weapons of mass destruction ÷ chemical,
biological, and nuclear. The freedom to go to war against any
country whose government it disagrees with. And, most terrible of
all, the freedom to commit these crimes against humanity in the name
of "justice", in the name of "righteousness", in the name of
Attorney General John Ashcroft has declared that U.S. freedoms are
"not the grant of any government or document, but... our endowment
from God". So, basically, we're confronted with a country armed with
a mandate from heaven. Perhaps this explains why the U.S. government
refuses to judge itself by the same moral standards by which it judges
others. (Any attempt to do this is shouted down as "moral
equivalence".) Its technique is to position itself as the
well-intentioned giant whose good deeds are confounded in strange
countries by their scheming natives, whose markets it's trying to
free, whose societies it's trying to modernise, whose women it's
trying to liberate, whose souls it's trying to save.
Perhaps this belief in its own divinity also explains why the U.S.
government has conferred upon itself the right and freedom to murder
and exterminate people "for their own good".
When he announced the U.S. air strikes against Afghanistan,
President Bush Jr. said, "We're a peaceful nation." He went on to
say, "This is the calling of the United States of America, the most
free nation in the world, a nation built on fundamental values, that
rejects hate, rejects violence, rejects murderers, rejects evil. And
we will not tire."
The U.S. empire rests on a grisly foundation: the massacre of
millions of indigenous people, the stealing of their lands, and
following this, the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of black
people from Africa to work that land. Thousands died on the seas
while they were being shipped like caged cattle between continents.
"Stolen from Africa, brought to America" ÷ Bob Marley's "Buffalo
Soldier" contains a whole universe of unspeakable sadness. It tells
of the loss of dignity, the loss of wilderness, the loss of freedom,
the shattered pride of a people. Genocide and slavery provide the
social and economic underpinning of the nation whose fundamental
values reject hate, murderers, and evil.
Here is Chomsky, writing in the essay "The Manufacture of Consent,"
on the founding of the United States of America:
During the Thanksgiving holiday a few weeks ago, I took a walk with
some friends and family in a national park. We came across a
gravestone, which had on it the following inscription: "Here lies an
Indian woman, a Wampanoag, whose family and tribe gave of themselves
and their land that this great nation might be born and grow."
Of course, it is not quite accurate to say that the indigenous
population gave of themselves and their land for that noble purpose.
Rather, they were slaughtered, decimated, and dispersed in the
course of one of the greatest exercises in genocide in human
history... which we celebrate each October when we honour Columbus ÷
a notable mass murderer himself ÷ on Columbus Day.
Hundreds of American citizens, well-meaning and decent people, troop
by that gravestone regularly and read it, apparently without
reaction; except, perhaps, a feeling of satisfaction that at last we
are giving some due recognition to the sacrifices of the native
peoples.... They might react differently if they were to visit
Auschwitz or Dachau and find a gravestone reading: "Here lies a
woman, a Jew, whose family and people gave of themselves and their
possessions that this great nation might grow and prosper."
How has the United States survived its terrible past and emerged
smelling so sweet? Not by owning up to it, not by making reparations,
not by apologising to black Americans or native Americans, and
certainly not by changing its ways (it exports its cruelties now).
Like most other countries, the United States has rewritten its
history. But what sets the United States apart from other countries,
and puts it way ahead in the race, is that it has enlisted the
services of the most powerful, most successful publicity firm in the
In the best-selling version of popular myth as history, U.S.
"goodness" peaked during World War II (aka America's War Against
Fascism). Lost in the din of trumpet sound and angel song is the
fact that when fascism was in full stride in Europe, the U.S.
government actually looked away. When Hitler was carrying out his
genocidal pogrom against Jews, U.S. officials refused entry to
Jewish refugees fleeing Germany. The United States entered the war
only after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Drowned out by the
noisy hosannas is its most barbaric act, in fact the single most
savage act the world has ever witnessed: the dropping of the atomic
bomb on civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war was
nearly over. The hundreds of thousands of Japanese people who were
killed, the countless others who were crippled by cancers for
generations to come, were not a threat to world peace. They were
civilians. Just as the victims of the World Trade Center and
Pentagon bombings were civilians. Just as the hundreds of thousands
of people who died in Iraq because of the U.S.-led sanctions were
civilians. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a cold,
calculated experiment carried out to demonstrate America's power. At
the time, President Truman described it as "the greatest thing in
The Second World War, we're told, was a "war for peace". The atomic
bomb was a "weapon of peace". We're invited to believe that nuclear
deterrence prevented World War III. (That was before President
George Bush Jr. came up with the "pre-emptive strike doctrine". Was
there an outbreak of peace after the Second World War? Certainly there
was (relative) peace in Europe and America ÷ but does that count
as world peace? Not unless savage, proxy wars fought in lands where
the coloured races live (chinks, niggers, dinks, wogs, gooks) don't
count as wars at all.
Since the Second World War, the United States has been at war with
or has attacked, among other countries, Korea, Guatemala, Cuba,
Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Libya, El Salvador, Nicaragua,
Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan. This list
should also include the U.S. government's covert operations in
Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the coups it has engineered, and
the dictators it has armed and supported. It should include Israel's
U.S.-backed war on Lebanon, in which thousands were killed. It
should include the key role America has played in the conflict in
the Middle East, in which thousands have died fighting Israel's
illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. It should include
America's role in the civil war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, in which
more than one million people were killed. It should include the
embargos and sanctions that have led directly, and indirectly, to
the death of hundreds of thousands of people, most visibly in Iraq.
Put it all together, and it sounds very much as though there has
been a World War III, and that the U.S. government was (or is) one
of its chief protagonists.
Most of the essays in Chomsky's For Reasons of State are about U.S.
aggression in South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It
was a war that lasted more than 12 years. Fifty-eight thousand
Americans and approximately two million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and
Laotians lost their lives. The U.S. deployed half a million ground
troops, dropped more than six million tons of bombs. And yet, though
you wouldn't believe it if you watched most Hollywood movies,
America lost the war.
The war began in South Vietnam and then spread to North Vietnam,
Laos, and Cambodia. After putting in place a client regime in
Saigon, the U.S. government invited itself in to fight a communist
insurgency ÷ Vietcong guerillas who had infiltrated rural regions of
South Vietnam where villagers were sheltering them. This was exactly
the model that Russia replicated when, in 1979, it invited itself
into Afghanistan. Nobody in the "free world" is in any doubt about
the fact that Russia invaded Afghanistan. After glasnost, even a
Soviet foreign minister called the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan
"illegal and immoral". But there has been no such introspection in
the United States. In 1984, in a stunning revelation, Chomsky wrote:
For the past 22 years, I have been searching to find some reference
in mainstream journalism or scholarship to an American invasion of
South Vietnam in 1962 (or ever), or an American attack against South
Vietnam, or American aggression in Indochina ÷ without success.
There is no such event in history. Rather, there is an American
defence of South Vietnam against terrorists supported from the
outside (namely from Vietnam).
In 1962, the U.S. Air Force began to bomb rural South Vietnam, where
80 per cent of the population lived. The bombing lasted for more
than a decade. Thousands of people were killed. The idea was to bomb
on a scale colossal enough to induce panic migration from villages
into cities, where people could be held in refugee camps. Samuel
Huntington referred to this as a process of "urbanisation". (I
learned about urbanisation when I was in architecture school in
India. Somehow I don't remember aerial bombing being part of the
syllabus.) Huntington ÷ famous today for his essay "The Clash of
Civilizations?"÷ was at the time Chairman of the Council on
Vietnamese Studies of the Southeast Asia Development Advisory Group.
Chomsky quotes him describing the Vietcong as "a powerful force
which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the
constituency continues to exist". Huntington went on to advise
"direct application of mechanical and conventional power"÷ in other
words, to crush a people's war, eliminate the people. (Or, perhaps,
to update the thesis ÷ in order to prevent a clash of civilizations,
annihilate a civilisation.)
Here's one observer from the time on the limitations of America's
mechanical power: "The problem is that American machines are not
equal to the task of killing communist soldiers except as part of a
scorched-earth policy that destroys everything else as well." That
problem has been solved now. Not with less destructive bombs, but
with more imaginative language. There's a more elegant way of saying
"that destroys everything else as well". The phrase is "collateral
And here's a firsthand account of what America's "machines"
(Huntington called them "modernising instruments" and staff officers
in the Pentagon called them "bomb-o-grams") can do. This is T.D.
Allman flying over the Plain of Jars in Laos.
Even if the war in Laos ended tomorrow, the restoration of its
ecological balance might take several years. The reconstruction of
the Plain's totally destroyed towns and villages might take just as
long. Even if this was done, the Plain might long prove perilous to
human habitation because of the hundreds of thousands of unexploded
bombs, mines and booby traps.
A recent flight around the Plain of Jars revealed what less than
three years of intensive American bombing can do to a rural area,
even after its civilian population has been evacuated. In large areas,
the primary tropical colour ÷ bright green ÷ has been replaced by
an abstract pattern of black, and bright metallic colours. Much of the
remaining foliage is stunted, dulled by defoliants.
Today, black is the dominant colour of the northern and eastern
reaches of the Plain. Napalm is dropped regularly to burn off the
grass and undergrowth that covers the Plains and fills its many narrow
ravines. The fires seem to burn constantly, creating rectangles of
black. During the flight, plumes of smoke could be seen rising from
freshly bombed areas.
The main routes, coming into the Plain from communist-held
territory, are bombed mercilessly, apparently on a non-stop basis.
There, and along the rim of the Plain, the dominant colour is
yellow. All vegetation has been destroyed. The craters are
countless.... [T]he area has been bombed so repeatedly that the land
resembles the pocked, churned desert in storm-hit areas of the North
Further to the southeast, Xieng Khouangville ÷ once the most
populous town in communist Laos ÷ lies empty, destroyed. To the
north of the Plain, the little resort of Khang Khay also has been
Around the landing field at the base of King Kong, the main colours
are yellow (from upturned soil) and black (from napalm), relieved by
patches of bright red and blue: parachutes used to drop supplies.
[T]he last local inhabitants were being carted into air transports.
Abandoned vegetable gardens that would never be harvested grew near
abandoned houses with plates still on the tables and calendars on
(Never counted in the "costs" of war are the dead birds, the charred
animals, the murdered fish, incinerated insects, poisoned water
sources, destroyed vegetation. Rarely mentioned is the arrogance of
the human race towards other living things with which it shares this
planet. All these are forgotten in the fight for markets and
ideologies. This arrogance will probably be the ultimate undoing of
the human species.)
The centrepiece of For Reasons of State is an essay called "The
Mentality of the Backroom Boys", in which Chomsky offers an
extraordinarily supple, exhaustive analysis of the Pentagon Papers,
which he says "provide documentary evidence of a conspiracy to use
force in international affairs in violation of law". Here, too,
Chomsky makes note of the fact that while the bombing of North
Vietnam is discussed at some length in the Pentagon Papers, the
invasion of South Vietnam barely merits a mention.
The Pentagon Papers are mesmerising, not as documentation of the
history of the U.S. war in Indochina, but as insight into the minds
of the men who planned and executed it. It's fascinating to be privy
to the ideas that were being tossed around, the suggestions that
were made, the proposals that were put forward. In a section called
"The Asian Mind ÷ the American Mind", Chomsky examines the
discussion of the mentality of the enemy that "stoically accept[s]
the destruction of wealth and the loss of lives", whereas "We want
life, happiness, wealth, power", and, for us, "death and suffering
are irrational choices when alternatives exist". So, we learn that
the Asian poor, presumably because they cannot comprehend the
meaning of happiness, wealth, and power, invite America to carry
this "strategic logic to its conclusion, which is genocide". But,
then "we" balk because "genocide is a terrible burden to bear".
(Eventually, of course, "we" went ahead and committed genocide any
way, and then pretended that it never really happened.)
Of course, the Pentagon Papers contain some moderate proposals, as
Strikes at population targets (per se) are likely not only to create
a counterproductive wave of revulsion abroad and at home, but
greatly to increase the risk of enlarging the war with China and the
Soviet Union. Destruction of locks and dams, however ÷ if handled
right ÷ might... offer promise. It should be studied. Such destruction
does not kill or drown people. By shallow-flooding the rice, it
leads after time to widespread starvation (more than a million?)
unless food is provided ÷ which we could offer to do "at the
Layer by layer, Chomsky strips down the process of decision-making
by U.S. government officials, to reveal at its core the pitiless heart
of the American war machine, completely insulated from the realities
of war, blinded by ideology, and willing to annihilate millions of
human beings, civilians, soldiers, women, children, villages, whole
cities, whole ecosystems ÷ with scientifically honed methods of
We sure are pleased with those backroom boys at Dow. The original
product wasn't so hot ÷ if the gooks were quick they could scrape it
off. So the boys started adding polystyrene ÷ now it sticks like
shit to a blanket. But then if the gooks jumped under water it
stopped burning, so they started adding Willie Peter [white
phosphorous] so's to make it burn better. It'll even burn under
water now. And just one drop is enough, it'll keep on burning right
down to the bone so they die anyway from phosphorous poisoning.
So the lucky gooks were annihilated for their own good. Better Dead
Thanks to the seductive charms of Hollywood and the irresistible
appeal of America's mass media, all these years later, the world views
the war as an American story. Indochina provided the lush, tropical
backdrop against which the United States played out its fantasies of
violence, tested its latest technology, furthered its ideology,
examined its conscience, agonised over its moral dilemmas, and dealt
with its guilt (or pretended to). The Vietnamese, the Cambodians,
and Laotians were only script props. Nameless, faceless, slit-eyed
humanoids. They were just the people who died. Gooks.
The only real lesson the U.S. government learned from its invasion
of Indochina is how to go to war without committing American troops
and risking American lives. So now we have wars waged with long-range
cruise missiles, Black Hawks, "bunker busters". Wars in which the
"Allies" lose more journalists than soldiers.
As a child growing up in the state of Kerala, in South India ÷ where
the first democratically elected Communist government in the world
came to power in 1959, the year I was born ÷ I worried terribly
about being a gook. Kerala was only a few thousand miles west of
Vietnam. We had jungles and rivers and rice-fields, and communists,
too. I kept imagining my mother, my brother, and myself being blown
out of the bushes by a grenade, or mowed down, like the gooks in the
movies, by an American marine with muscled arms and chewing gum and
a loud background score. In my dreams, I was the burning girl in the
famous photograph taken on the road from Trang Bang.
As someone who grew up on the cusp of both American and Soviet
propaganda (which more or less neutralised each other), when I first
read Noam Chomsky, it occurred to me that his marshalling of evidence,
the volume of it, the relentlessness of it, was a little ÷ how shall
I put it? ÷ insane. Even a quarter of the evidence he had compiled
would have been enough to convince me. I used to wonder why he needed
to do so much work. But now I understand that the magnitude and
intensity of Chomsky's work is a barometer of the magnitude, scope,
and relentlessness of the propaganda machine that he's up against.
He's like the wood-borer who lives inside the third rack of my
bookshelf. Day and night, I hear his jaws crunching through the
wood, grinding it to a fine dust. It's as though he disagrees with
the literature and wants to destroy the very structure on which it
rests. I call him Chompsky.
Being an American working in America, writing to convince Americans
of his point of view must really be like having to tunnel through
hard wood. Chomsky is one of a small band of individuals fighting a
whole industry. And that makes him not only brilliant, but heroic.
Some years ago, in a poignant interview with James Peck, Chomsky
spoke about his memory of the day Hiroshima was bombed. He was 16
I remember that I literally couldn't talk to anybody. There was
nobody. I just walked off by myself. I was at a summer camp at the
time, and I walked off into the woods and stayed alone for a couple
of hours when I heard about it. I could never talk to anyone about it
and never understood anyone's reaction. I felt completely isolated.
That isolation produced one of the greatest, most radical public
thinkers of our time. When the sun sets on the American empire, as
it will, as it must, Noam Chomsky's work will survive.
It will point a cool, incriminating finger at a merciless,
Machiavellian empire as cruel, self-righteous, and hypocritical as the
ones it has replaced. (The only difference is that it is armed with
technology that can visit the kind of devastation on the world that
history has never known and the human race cannot begin to imagine.)
As a could've been gook, and who knows, perhaps a potential gook,
hardly a day goes by when I don't find myself thinking - for one
reason or another - "Chomsky Zindabad".