I wasn’t always the #ChickenPseudoRadical that worshipers of lefty icons love to hate, but there were signs of what the future held for me when I wrote this in my Pulitzer prize-winning post on Chris Hayes:
Somehow lefts that would, on a rainy day, apply the Chomsky/Herman lens to a bag of Doritos are incapable of applying it to establishment lefts at the margins, even when these people are on commercial television. Understandable, really, since I don’t think Chomsky gets how Chomsky applies to Chomsky either.
This line ruffled some feathers. I recall that one person cited it just before telling me I should kill myself, more than a full year before Glenn Greenwald incited the troll fever of 2013 by telling me I should kill myself too.
In the months that passed I’ve concluded that I grossly exaggerated the extent to which the internet left applies the Chomsky/Herman lens, or any lens, for that matter, particularly to phenomena it has set its Manichaean hive mind to misapprehending. In an attempt to see if I at least got the bit about Chomsky right, I recently emailed him to solicit his thoughts on this statement:
It is my sincere belief that The Propaganda Model [described by Chomsky and co-author Herman in Manufacturing Consent] applies all the way out to the margins of American discourse, and that it is as useful for analyzing a Democracy Now broadcast or an issue of Jacobin as it is to understanding the Fox News Network. I even think the Propaganda Model can be useful in illuminating your place in public discourse, not simply as an official pariah but as an icon and role model.
Here’s Chomsky’s reply:
The PM is an institutional analysis, really applicable specifically to the corporate media, and in a more limited way to state media. Hard for me to see what the counterpart would be for, say, Democracy Now.
So I was right: Chomsky doesn’t get how Chomsky applies to Chomsky (and Democracy Now), though he didn’t supply anything to provoke a reconsideration on my part. Yeah, I know, it’s his Propaganda Model, but you know me…
Now before I dig myself in deeper here, let me just say that I value Chomsky a great deal, something which should be obvious from a lot of my media critique and my understanding of power generally. I think he’s really useful in the information-gathering phase of political development. Crucial even. To identify the way people like Chomsky become the raw material by which power shapes and controls dissent, isn’t cause to dismiss them entirely. Even if I am not indifferent to the individual qualities they have that make them useful to power, my interest is not in whether they are essentially good people or bad. It is simply to regard them in relation to the system they inhabit.
Moving along, the foundation of the Chomsky/Herman Propaganda Model is the Five Filters that operate on media. They are:
- Ownership of the medium
- Medium’s funding sources
- Fear ideology
Democracy Now is run by Amy Goodman, who grew up in a wealthy family, graduated from Radcliffe , earns over $160,000 a year and appears to be a social democrat. She is dependent on funding from foundations supported and directed largely by wealthy capitalists. She has been the object of discipline campaigns by Pacifica Radio, the network on which DN is hugely dependent for syndication. Pacifica Radio claims to be listener supported, and I venture that most of those supporters are people who are a whole lot like Amy Goodman: white, well off, well-educated social democrats.
Now is there any reason why Democracy Now isn’t as much a creature of these constraints as Fox News is of theirs? And is there any reason to put these constraints in a wholly separate category of media analysis, when the people running things in both cases are in many respects — class and race, for instance — rather alike, and may actually even intersect here and there? Don’t Goodman’s appearances in corporate media as an avatar of the left blur the lines even more? Doesn’t it make more sense to see Fox News and Democracy Now as being on a continuum, where Democracy Now and its ilk have the last word on what Chomsky and Herman called permissible opinion?
And what of Chomsky, a wealthy tenured professor at a university distinguished by its particularly strong ties to militarism, whose iconic stature among American lefts owes variously to his military-funded accomplishments in linguistics; the esteem of celebrity lefts like Michael Moore, Amy Goodman and Glenn Greenwald; and to the ritualistic opprobrium heaped on him from time to time by riff raff in the mainstream, for whom he functions — particularly during upticks in war fever — as an icon of the wacky, America -hating left?
Don’t calls to listen to Chomsky — either to applaud or to jeer — come mostly from inside, or very near, the beast he and Herman described in Manufacturing Consent? And, if so, doesn’t that mean that beast is shaping the margins too, at least in part? Wouldn’t the system define pariahs in the same spirit in which it defines the limits of permissible opinion? That is, if The Propaganda Model applies to all left discourse, wouldn’t it predict pariahs who, in the ways in which it counts, aren’t all too disruptively radical? Does the preponderance of de facto social democrats in the outer limits, then, tell us anything about what’s going on?
This Democracy Now video from 2012 may help illustrate what kind of results the elite-shaping of the margins delivers. In the video, Amy Goodman asks Chomsky about his recent trip to Gaza, which he describes in soul-crushing detail. A sample:
It’s kind of amazing and inspiring to see people managing somehow to survive in—as essentially caged animals and subject to constant, random, sadistic punishment only to humiliate them, no pretext…They’re—Israel and the United States keep them alive, basically. They don’t want them to starve to death…It’s an open-air prison.
On and on he goes in his patience-wearing monotone until Amy Goodman abruptly changes the subject and seeks his thoughts on Obama’s reelection:
Well, there are two good things about it. One is, the worst didn’t happen, and it might have. The second is, it’s over. So we can put it behind us and get back to work, exactly what you said today. I mean, the whole electoral extravaganza, in my view, ought to take maybe five minutes of the time of an activist, because it’s a farce. I mean, there are some differences; it’s not zero impact, you know.
At the end of the interview, Goodman asks if there is anything in Gaza that gives him hope:
…They just don’t give up. Under the worst conditions, horrendous conditions, people still, you know, fight for their rights and don’t just succumb. And, you know, it’s a lesson for people from the West. I mean, you know, we talk about repression, but, you know, undetectable by comparison with what most people in the world face. And if they can struggle on under really harsh and brutal conditions, tells us we ought to be doing a lot more.
This exchange shows Goodman and Chomsky doing what they each do best. For Goodman, that’s drawing out boatloads of depressing information — much of it already well-known to her audience — while ensuring that it remains disconnected from anything resembling a systemic analysis or genuine militance. Watch a lot of Goodman interviews and you might be struck by the weird intermingling of horror and bathos, which her sudden question about the election in this interview embodies. Note how she abruptly dumbs things down when Chomsky hits on how pretexts for the subjugation of the Palestinians don’t withstand scrutiny.
Chomsky’s specialty is vividly describing the numbing horror of something like Gaza and lightly sprinkling anguished endorsement of state power that makes that horror possible. So in addition to reminding us that the U.S. and Israel maintain Palestinians in an ‘open-air prison’, Chomsky tells us Obama’s reelection means ‘the worst didn’t happen’ and that elections, though farcical, actually matter. We also learn that by comparison to the horrors state power visits on the Palestinians, government repression at home is ‘undetectable’, which must certainly be news to the one in one hundred adults currently languishing in U. S. prisons for, among other things, drug use, debt and political dissidence. ‘We ought to be doing a lot more’, he says, seemingly oblivious to how domestic political repression is ‘undetectable’ in inverse proportion to effective resistance and without specifying what we should do, exactly, besides voting for Democrats.
The whole conversation very usefully encapsulates lefty media as a whole: Top heavy with gory, mostly familiar details; light on analysis; light on prescription; and perhaps most importantly, ultimately compliant with state authority via disaffected endorsement of lesser-evil voting, and the helpful whitewashing of domestic repression. Learn this template and maybe you can be a lefty icon too, wringing your hands over decades-old problems, counseling unconditional support of the corrupt political party that will allegedly make them least worse and never considering in thirty years of setbacks and mounting crises that perhaps you should try something else.
End of Part 1