Noam Chomsky, Wartime Media Hero
"If liberty means anything at all," George Orwell wrote, "it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."
From all indications, the gatekeepers for big media in the United States don't want to hear what Noam Chomsky has to say -- and they'd prefer that we not hear him either.
Mainstream journalists in other nations often interview Chomsky. Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he's a world-renowned analyst of propaganda and global politics. But the chances are slim that you'll ever find him on a large network here at home.
Chomsky is ill-suited to providing soundbites -- and that's not just a matter of style. A few snappy words are sufficient when they harmonize with the conventional wisdom in a matter of seconds. It takes longer to intelligibly present a very different assessment of political realities.
No one disputes that Chomsky revolutionized the study of language more than 40 years ago. The rich and powerful have no quarrel with his work as the world's most significant linguist. But as a political analyst, he's pretty much persona non grata at big U.S. networks and influential dailies.
Meanwhile, overflow audiences of thousands are routine when Chomsky speaks on college campuses and elsewhere in the United States. For many years now, community radio stations across North America have featured his speeches and interviews on political subjects. Progressive magazines publish his articles.
But at major media outlets, most editors seem far more interested in facile putdowns of Chomsky than in allowing space for his own words. Media attacks on him are especially vitriolic in times of international crisis and war.
Since Sept. 11, the distortions have been predictable: Although he's an unequivocal opponent of terrorism in all its forms, Chomsky is portrayed as an apologist for terrorism. Although he's a consistent advocate of human rights for all, Chomsky is accused of singling out the U.S. government for blame.
To some extent, Chomsky seems to bring the media salvos on himself. Even when the brickbats are flying, the guy just won't keep his head down. He speaks bluntly when the Pentagon terrorizes faraway civilians in the name of fighting terrorism. And he points out that citizens of the most powerful country on Earth have special opportunities and responsibilities to work against deadly policies implemented in their names with their tax dollars.
Chomsky's latest book, titled "9-11," is now arriving in bookstores. It's a collection of interviews, serving as a badly needed corrective to news coverage of the present-day "war on terrorism."
The book will be very useful in the months to come. Yet "9-11" just scratches the surface. For those who want more depth, many superb Chomsky books are available -- including the classic study "Manufacturing Consent" (co-authored with Edward S. Herman), "Profit Over People" and "The New Military Humanism," as well as volumes of interviews conducted by David Barsamian.
In "9-11," Chomsky speaks without evasion: "We should recognize that in much of the world the U.S. is regarded as a leading terrorist state, and with good reason." Chomsky cites many examples of U.S. actions that resulted in the killing of several million civilians during the past few decades. A partial list of nations where those deaths have occurred includes Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, East Timor, Sudan, Iraq, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan.
All in the past? Chomsky rips into the scam of wiping the U.S. government's slate clean. "If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion," he said. "Or we can look at recent history, at the institutional structures that remain essentially unchanged, at the plans that are being announced -- and answer the questions accordingly. I know of no reason to suppose that there has been a sudden change in long-standing motivations or policy goals, apart from tactical adjustments to changing circumstances."
Chomsky added wryly: "We should also remember that one exalted task of intellectuals is to proclaim every few years that we have 'changed course,' the past is behind us and can be forgotten as we march on towards a glorious future. That is a highly convenient stance, though hardly an admirable or sensible one."
For those whose window on the world is mostly confined to mainstream U.S. media, some of Chomsky's statements may seem odd or absolutely wrong. But you can't make an informed judgment based on a few quotes. Read a couple of Chomsky's books and decide for yourself.
Noam Chomsky is not a lone ranger or ivory tower intellectual. For decades, he has worked closely with grassroots activists. "Understanding doesn't come free," he commented a few years ago. "It's true that the task is somewhere between awfully difficult and utterly hopeless for an isolated individual. But it's feasible for anyone who is part of a cooperative community." And, he added, understanding the world "doesn't help anyone else, or oneself very much either for that matter, unless it leads to action."
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.