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Benevolent Big Brother Illustration by Chris Pecora

Benevolent Big Brother

Tannara Yelland revisits Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media on its twenty-fifth anniversary.

Growing up with a father who taught sociology, I was exposed to more than my fair share of nineties-era documentaries about media literacy. While that expertise is rarely useful, I can immediately point out some hallmarks of the genre: bouncy synth music that could serve as the theme song for a nineties sitcom; B-roll of a nondescript mall, whether or not that’s especially pertinent to the story; and always—always—a wall of TVs, letting you know by way of meta-visual that you’re about to see what lies beyond the screen you’ve been taught to take for granted. All of that is on display in the very first scene of Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, which was first released in 1992.

Chomsky is an outsize figure on the left, one of the world’s best-known intellectuals. Trained as a linguist but more familiar for his critiques of American empire and power, he’s routinely criticized and dismissed by mainstream journalists. Deriding Chomsky is almost a writerly rite of passage; an American Prospect cover once figured him as Dick Cheney’s leftist counterpart, and political scientist Corey Robin describes an entire class of person “whose passport to mainstream respectability is stamped with a Chomsky-is-the-most-dastardly-person-on-the-face-of-the-earth visa.” Yet the man continues to exert influence over left-wing thought. A 1979 New York Times review would have us believe this is because his public-facing writing is “maddeningly simple-minded,” though many on the left would argue it’s because his explanations are clear, concise and accurate. 

The argument Chomsky presents in Manufacturing Consent elucidates why he is such a polarizing figure. In a liberal democracy, he explains, the government doesn’t have open coercion or violence at its disposal to produce the behaviour it wants in its citizens (how far this truism extends in marginalized communities is up for debate). Without the option to lean on violence, and forced to contend periodically with its citizenry at the ballot box, these governments turn to corporate media to craft beneficial narratives, exclude unhelpful information and develop what Chomsky calls the “necessary illusions” that allow for the smooth operation of ruthless imperial capitalism. Decision-making is concentrated in the hands of the government and a small handful of large corporations; it behooves those in power to obscure this imbalance from the masses, who might reasonably take issue with such a structure. 

Many critics, including a former Times editorial writer named Karl E. Meyer who’s featured in the film, see this as the stuff of wild-eyed conspiracy. At the time of the film’s initial distribution, there were two political parties in the United States that laid claim to distinct segments of the political spectrum; scores of politicians at the federal, state and municipal levels enacting various versions of those ideologies; thousands of newspapers with tens of thousands of columnists and reporters and a similar number of TV news channels. How could we be expected to believe that so many people were actively engaged in ongoing collusion—that none of them would break rank to bring the truth to the public? For Meyer, the organizational logistics alone render this unlikely to the point of near impossibility; Chomsky is little more than a crackpot conspiracy theorist, a bespectacled maniac who might have more in common with Infowars’ Alex Jones than with respectable media analysts.

But of course that’s not how the system works. Rather, it’s that political networks and media networks have developed in such a way that most people enmeshed in them share a general ideology—an ideology so pervasive, in fact, that most of the people who subscribe to it don’t see it for what it is. The basic tenets of this ideology are a belief in the inerrant supremacy of capitalism and American empire. Or rather, eschewing the charged language of “empire,” that America has done a great deal of good in its position as the world’s primary superpower. (Believing this requires us to set aside the wars the US has instigated, as well as its use, and rationalization, of institutionalized torture.

As the Canadian-made film does periodically, we might now cut briefly to Canada, where the prevailing ideology is essentially identical, with an appendix: it’s right both for America to run the world as a benevolent patriarch and for Canada to benefit from its close relationship to the global superpower. We may entertain more criticism of American empire, since our national narrative posits Canada as the kindly junior partner, looking askance at our crude but ultimately harmless friend. But in our corridors of power there’s no real challenge to American hegemony, because we see ourselves as standing only to benefit from its preservation. 

The journalism industry today is, in many respects, starkly different from its 1992 iteration. On one hand, we’ve been bleeding jobs for nearly a decade as advertisers move online and bigwigs search for a magic formula to resuscitate ad revenue. On the other, it’s stunningly cheap and simple to create your own blog, and the barriers to the potential of reaching a global audience online are essentially nil compared with print or broadcast media. In theory, the internet brought about the total democratization of information—as, in theory, my grade nine LiveJournal could have gained as wide an audience as the New York Times.

Yet step back, and strong continuities emerge. The consolidation of corporate media has continued apace, and organizations that began life as scrappy online outsiders have mostly been swallowed into the same machine. BuzzFeed and Vox Media are both owned in part by NBCUniversal and Comcast; VICE Media has scooped up investments from Disney, 21st Century Fox and, in Canada, Rogers Media (full disclosure: I worked at VICE for a year, and have done some work for Rogers-owned Maclean’s magazine). While CNN is less likely than VICE to feature a firsthand report on doing heroin in a London squat, both have taken favourable positions on Western military interventions. 

For a rather stunning example of contemporary journalists’ mental synergy with the political class, we need look no further than Paul Wells, a well-regarded Canadian political commentator who once published a 1,500-word interview he conducted with himself to argue against perceptions of personal bias. In September 2016, he came to the conclusion that Canadian troops in Iraq, who are ostensibly there to train and assist Kurdish forces, nobly seek to avoid combat—but “[s]ometimes combat comes to them.” Last year, he parroted the tired idea that leftist parties must ask if they’d rather hold power or have principles (it doesn’t help that the NDP frequently asks itself this very question). As a staff columnist with name recognition, Wells is ostensibly granted a great degree of latitude to share his thoughts and analysis. Yet his writing consistently falls safely within the acceptable range of centrist political thought and duplicates the Liberal Party’s myopic focus on a hazily defined middle class.

Earlier this year, Wells acknowledged on Twitter that “[t]he Chomsky position—capitalists hire capitalists—has truth. I may be a stooge. But no editor ever told me ‘You can’t say that.’” Even a surface skim of Chomsky’s analysis would tell Wells that is exactly the point. Towards the end of Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky says he suspects most journalists simply “internalize the values and then you regard yourself, in a way correctly, as acting perfectly freely.” Wells considers it a matter of pride that he’s never run up against the limits of his editorial freedom—but how could we expect him ever to chafe against limits placed on him not by his bosses but by his own beliefs?

Horseshoe theory contends that fascism, on the far right of the political spectrum, and communism, on the far left, are actually nearly identical, and the One Good Ideology, liberalism, stands pristine in the middle. This equivalence between far right and far left is fallacious and absurd. While one tip of the horseshoe is in favour of liberation from oppression and an equitable distribution of resources, the other violently implements the exact opposite: authoritarian rule, rigidly imposed social hierarchies, and the continuation of economic policies that unnecessarily immiserate large swaths of society. Mainstream thinkers of the media-political class have a vested interest in this false equivalence—the idea that socialists are the same as fascists is a real boon if you’re more concerned with how a $15 minimum wage would affect companies’ bottom lines than with the plight of the working poor. 

Speaking to journalist Bill Moyers, Chomsky notes, “much of the general population recognizes that the organized institutions do not reflect their concerns and interests and needs.” He continues, just before the documentary cuts to tape of George Bush, Sr., extolling Americans’ freedom to detach from political questions, the supremacy of American-style democracy having been decided once and for all: “They do not feel that they participate meaningfully in the political system. They do not feel that the media are telling them the truth or even reflect their concerns.” 

Both the left and the right can capitalize on the delegitimization of institutions and leaders, the growing unease many of us feel with the world around us and the sense that the people in charge don’t actually know what they’re doing any more than we might in their positions. But whereas the leftist’s prescription is for the people to seize control of their destiny and to work towards a common goal of liberation, the right’s suggestion is to institute a different set of leaders, more openly brutal about their control.

“We now find ourselves in agreement that ‘the elite’ have been discredited, but we can’t quite figure out exactly who they are,” wrote Chris Hayes in 2012’s Twilight of the Elites. “We’ve seen how the contagion of distrust spreads out to infect any and all institutions and people that are plausibly associated with the elite.” 

Here, then, is a short introduction to the elite. Elites care about maintaining the status quo such that unearned advantages continue to accrue to them. The elite is Hillary Clinton, Yale Law graduate, former first lady, former senator, former Secretary of State, so firmly ensconced in the networks of power that her presidential campaign was treated from the outset by nearly all mainstream media, save Fox News, as a mere formality before she ascended to the Oval Office; the elite is President Donald Trump, another Ivy League grad, a media personality and scion of a real estate empire, who filled his cabinet with “loyal,” astonishingly corrupt incompetents with a net worth of over fourteen billion dollars. And in spite of the administration’s obvious horrors, it took just a few dozen Tomahawk missiles sailing into Syria—a country the United States is technically not at war with—to inspire rapturous support from ostensibly freethinking, independent journalists. The elite is Maclean’s magazine marquee political columnist Scott Gilmore, married to a federal cabinet minister, and it’s National Post columnist Michael Den Tandt, who joined the Liberal communications team less than two weeks after writing his last columns lauding the party he was about to work for.

As the rest of us realize that no one in power is coming to help, we’ve begun to organize into grassroots movements for economic, racial and sexual liberation on a scale not seen in a generation or more. South of the border, party politicians and mainstream journalists have been left in the dust, the former frantically trying to triangulate between policies their supporters demand and those their donors will accept, the latter struggling to interpret the surge in left-wing political action. In Canada, slightly behind the American times as ever and facing a less well-defined moment of crisis, this organizational groundswell is less robust, but it’s here—Black Lives Matter, pipeline resistance, moment’s-notice counter-protests facing down Islamophobes, opposition to absurdly draconian policies in the Prairie and Atlantic regions. Frustrated and ignored by institutional power, citizens are reclaiming the political space as their own. 

It’s been twenty-five years since Chomsky’s analysis of the intertwined and mutually beneficial political and media classes was released on film. The dissolution of popular support for the political class and distrust of the media have been growing steadily since then, and we now find ourselves trying to make sense of what is to come. Is this a momentary rupture that will be papered over, leaving the traditional structure of society more or less intact? Or, faced with ongoing crises of capitalism and the impending threat of climate-related disaster, will we reach a breaking point? 

If we are at a breaking point, we have two options: we can move towards the bleak vision, laid out for us most recently by Trump, to shut out those in need and sprint towards irreversible global disaster. Or we can reject shortsighted, dangerous environmental policies; we can dismantle the violently cruel, often gendered and racialized economic policies that have left people evicted, uninsured, imprisoned, deported and worse. We can attempt to structure a society that relies on participation of the masses and, accordingly, treats them with respect and dignity. If we choose the latter path, it will be without help from the many journalists who, despite working in a profession that’s long held “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” as a motto and a badge of honour, are in the thrall of the elite. There have always been outliers who acknowledge there is no objective centre from which to relay the news without bias, and that striving for that elusive goal works to the advantage of the privileged. But they’ve been just that—outliers. As neoliberalism and American hegemony devolve into existential crises, the vast majority, aligned with the old order, can either readjust, facing up to the consequences of the politics they’ve supported at every turn, or go down with the ship.