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Friday, September 04, 2009

Exceptionalism

If everyone would please turn to page 279 of Manufacturing Consent (2002 edition), we’ll begin.  There Herman and Chomsky write:

On the tenth anniversary of the Khmer Rouge takeover, Sydney Schanberg wrote two columns in the New York Times entitled “Cambodia Forgotten.” The first highlights the phrase: “Superpowers care as little today about Cambodians as in 1970,” the second dismisses Richard Nixon’s 1985 claim that there was no “indiscriminate terror bombing” but only “highly accurate” strikes “against enemy military targets.” Schanberg comments that “Anyone who visited the refugee camps in Cambodia and talked to the civilian survivors of the bombing learned quickly about the substantial casualties.” He recalls that “the Khmer Rouge were a meaningless force when the war was brought to Cambodia in 1970....  In order to flourish and grow, they needed a war to feed on.  And the superpowers—including this country, with the Nixon incursion of 1970 and the massive bombing that followed—provided that war and that nurturing material.”

Now you might be asking yourself, as I asked myself back when I first read this passage, how exactly does this Sydney Schanberg column bear out the “manufacturing consent” thesis? I mean, here in The Very Paper of Record is the guy who reported from the killing fields, (rightly) pinning the blame for the rise of the Khmer Rouge on Nixon’s secret war, and slapping down Nixon’s lies about the results of the bombing.  What in Moloch’s name is wrong with that? 

To find out the surprising answer to this question, you have to read no further than the next two sentences in Manufacturing Consent.

He [Schanberg] does not, however, inform us about which superpower, apart from “this country,” invaded Cambodia and subjected it to massive bombing.  With comparable even-handedness we might deplore the contribution of the superpowers, including the USSR, to the destruction of Afghanistan, or the attitude of the great powers, including Nazi Germany, toward the victims of the death camps, whom Schanberg brings up in a later column the same month entitled “Memory is the Answer.”

The idea is that Schanberg’s use of the term “superpowers” is something of a whitewash, because the US alone is responsible for the devastation of Cambodia.  Apparently the Khmer Rouge never had any contact with the People’s Republic of China.  But leaving that aside, as well as the decades of debate over the attitude of the great powers toward the victims of the death camps, isn’t the counterfactual invocation of Afghanistan a misstep here?  Why wouldn’t one speak of “the contribution of the superpowers, including the USSR, to the destruction of Afghanistan,” particularly if one were to make the case—sometime after 9/11, say—that the US was partly responsible for the destruction of Afghanistan?

Be that as it may, Herman and Chomsky are clear:  it is not good enough for Schanberg to write, “the superpowers—including this country, with the Nixon incursion of 1970 and the massive bombing that followed—provided that war,” because it entails a false “evenhandedness” that helps to manufacture consent for ... um, what, exactly?  The condemnation of Nixon’s secret war and its massive bombing? 

And this is one of the problems with the Manufacturing Consent “propaganda model” thesis.  The problem isn’t that it’s wrong; on the contrary, American mass media bear it out pretty well, and their manufacturing-consentlike behavior during the election of 2000, after 9/11, and in the runup to war in Iraq was one of the reasons for the development of the liberal-left blogosphere. That was Matt Taibbi’s point with regard to media coverage obfuscation of the health care “debate,” and I could add my own favorite example from recent years—the Pentagon’s extra special disinformation campaign, developed in 2005 in response to criticism of “enhanced interrogation” methods in Guantánamo.  (Actually I do mention this in The Left At War.) The New York Times ran a front-page exposé of the program on April 20, 2008, and it opened like so:

In the summer of 2005, the Bush administration confronted a fresh wave of criticism over Guantánamo Bay. The detention center had just been branded “the gulag of our times” by Amnesty International, there were new allegations of abuse from United Nations human rights experts and calls were mounting for its closure.

The administration’s communications experts responded swiftly. Early one Friday morning, they put a group of retired military officers on one of the jets normally used by Vice President Dick Cheney and flew them to Cuba for a carefully orchestrated tour of Guantánamo.

To the public, these men are members of a familiar fraternity, presented tens of thousands of times on television and radio as “military analysts” whose long service has equipped them to give authoritative and unfettered judgments about the most pressing issues of the post-Sept. 11 world.

Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance, an examination by The New York Times has found.

Well, that’s quite a story, no?  Apparently not, because in response, not a single network or cable news program discussed it.  Needless to say, this Pentagon disinformation apparatus and its treatment by U.S. media (from their willingness to play along right through to their strange unwillingness to discuss their willingness to play along) conform quite nicely to the propaganda model—particularly what Herman and Chomsky call filter number three, “the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and ‘experts’ funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power” (2).  Let’s put it this way: anyone who thinks US mass media don’t use Filter Number Three® in order to bring you the very best in information provided by government, business, and “experts” funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power just isn’t paying attention.

The thing is, though, that the propaganda model is right only most of the time.  There are exceptions here and there—not nearly enough, of course, but real exceptions nonetheless.  That much should be uncontroversial, but sometimes the Chomsky/Herman model has trouble dealing with the exceptions, and sometimes Chomsky/Herman fans aren’t satisfied with the idea that the model doesn’t account for every last aspect of US mainstream media.  In Manufacturing Consent, the mass media are a total system of propaganda-propagation, a massive structure of lying and distortion so dense that only very, very few reports of true things can possibly escape.  Thus obvious exceptions like Schanberg have to be made, somehow, into not-exceptions.

Another problem, of course, is the one familiar to cultural studies theorists since the days of David Morley’s (1980) study of the “Nationwide” BBC programme and Stuart Hall’s “Encoding/ Decoding” essay (also 1980, the Lego® version of which is available here)—namely, that people don’t always “get” quite the same message that mass media “send.” Often they do: witness the millions of Fox-watchers who believe that we found the WMD with which Saddam attacked us on 9/11, hidden under Obama’s real Iraqinesian birth certificate.  But sometimes people respond to mass media by saying “this is bullshit,” and writing scathing liberal/left critiques of the mass media; or sometimes people say “this is bullshit” and proceed to blow a lot of Hot Air about how Rachel Ray is sending seekrit terrorist keffiyeh messages with the help of Dunkin Donuts and the librul media.  People are funny that way: for a variety of reasons, they sometimes refuse to believe what they’re told.

In other words:  I think the propaganda model is mostly right, right enough to take seriously, right enough to explain a great deal about why our mass media are so awesomely terrible, but not the whole entire story.

That’s why I take notice when the blogosphere’s Chomsky fans dump on people like Taibbi (or Digby or Greenwald), denouncing them all as idiots and rubes and craven corporate hacks.  (IOZ himself didn’t do this—he acknowledged Taibbi’s general good sense and suggested that he might be reading Taibbi uncharitably, which, I think, he was.  But some of the commenters in that thread, they are not so careful, shall we say.) Apparently they’re so clearly exceptions to the propaganda model, so clearly willing to take apart mass-media disinformation, laziness, and lying, that they, like Schanberg, have to be made into not-exceptions.  The field must be cleared of competing lefts.  This may also be why IOZ has to say that I get all het up by the mention of any crazee person to the left of Walter Mondale.  Funny, yet somehow ... silly.

But you know, I should probably stop giving Monsieur IOZ a hard time.  I don’t care for the anarcholibertarian thing when it comes to economic matters myself, because I think of it as the antithesis of democratic socialism, and of course I wouldn’t move so much as my big toe to defend Ron Paul.  But the guy does have style.  And talent, and promise, and panache, etc.  The blogosphere is a livelier place with him in it.  So here’s one for the Gip.

I do remember what pissed me off a couple of years ago—it was this post.  I won’t go over the specifics of the pissedoffedness (you can probably guess), but I will say that it wasn’t clear to me why, when the Democrats caved on FISA in 2007, it made sense to respond by taking swipes at some of the bloggers most likely (and willing!) to criticize the collapse.  I mean, on matters of national security, from right to left, you’ve got the wingnuts and the bedwetters, then you’ve got the lunatic Coburns and DeMints and Bachmanns those people put in office, then you’ve got the Very Serious People of the mainstream media, then you’ve got the spineless Democrats, then you’ve got Russ Feingold, and after him come Digby, Greenwald and company.  Clearly, this last group is not the problem around here.

IOZ is a sharp, witty writer with a great sense of how to wield a blog.  But going after Taibbi for his take on the media’s coverage of health care makes about as much sense as going after Greenwald on civil liberties-- or Schanberg on Cambodia.  These guys are some of the most salient exceptions to the mass-media rule, and the more exposure they get, the better.  Earlier this week, I finished “Sick and Wrong,” Taibbi’s Rolling Stone essay on the health care debacle, and it’s brilliant and incendiary.  Why, whole stretches of it could plausibly have been written by Monsieur IOZ himself.  The thing should be distributed and read far and wide by everybody who still gives a damn.  Rolling Stone has some interview snippets with Taibbi for your viewing pleasure, but you really should turn off the computer, go outside, go to a dead-tree-vending location and read the Whole Thing.  Because it would be a good use of time and energy for bloggers to give the guy his due.

(Also, the current issue’s lead story, written by Mikal Gilmore, rightly blames Lennon for the breakup of the Beatles.  Again.  Late-breaking breakup news, that.  As I’ve always said, even to my own children: hiring Allen Klein as manager and tapping Phil Spector to produce Let it Be?  That’s what happens when you eat a lot of acid and then shoot that nasty heroin stuff, kids.  You wind up with vastly impaired judgment.  Still, the breakup had to happen, one way or another.  Without it, we’d never have had George’s “Crackerbox Palace” and Paul’s kazoo solo on Ringo’s cover of “You’re Sixteen.”)

Posted by Michael on 09/04 at 10:26 AM
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