The Standing Invitation

Posts Tagged ‘Chomsky

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The SI recently had the pleasure of visiting an exhibition of banned books at the National Library of Scotland: a fond celebration of history’s greatest tyrannical despots and holier-than-thou moral busybodies.

Everybody in a position to ban books has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and no book is ever banned because it threatens to keep things as they are. Many of the books on show had constituted a direct threat against the authorities of the day. Their suppression was a readily comprehensible stratagem in the great political game where a government’s worst enemy is the ability of its own populace to have ideas.

But what are we to think of books banned for offences that, to a ruling elite, are relatively minor? Violence, sex, swearing, or the curious notion that homosexuals are people too – whom do these things hurt?

It might well be possible to cast this in terms of the erosion of a power base; conservative parties in a democracy depend on the support of well-defined family units that must be protected at all costs. It’s certainly an idea worth investigating, because ruling that out leaves us with the horrifying alternative that people who want to ban books for our own good might actually be sincere.

In a liberal, educated democracy, the only rational response to this ­– indeed, perhaps the only possible response ­– is wild, hysterical laughter. When Australia declared that American Psycho could only be sold in plastic shrink-wrap, presumably to prevent people from being offended accidentally in the bookshop, Bret Easton Ellis said it was “adorable”. And rightly so. It’s silly, and the people who advocate it are silly.

Is there any case at all to be made for banning books for our own good? Possibly. There are some kinds of information which, if scarce, nobody benefits from their becoming widely known. How to manufacture explosives from household materials, for example, or lists of undetectable poisons. But in an interconnected world such as ours, no one book could be banned that would hide such a information completely from the public eye. It would be on the internet somewhere, and the act of censoring the internet would be a much more catastrophic blow to freedom than anything that could result from somebody clicking a hotlink.

What else could justifiably be banned? Books advocating racism, homophobia, crystal healing? No to all the above. As Chomsky said, “If you’re in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.”

What about books that might cause a panic in which people might actually be harmed? Perhaps, but the blame here should never really be put on the books. Maliciously screaming “fire” in a crowded theatre is very wicked; but if the harm caused is really that serious, then maybe you need to look into having more fire exits.

And books that might offend us with their swearing? Don’t be fucking ridiculous.



The exhibition was held at the National Library of Scotland, and will be open till the end of October; well worth watching.

The Chomsky quote was from the film Manufacturing Consent.

Written by The S I

October 5, 2011 at 11:59 pm

The Propaganda Model

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In 1988, Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman donned their media-analyst hats and proposed a fascinating and frightening concept of how journalism really works in western nations.

Most people’s conception of the media is that it is a force that power must in some way deal with. The newspapermen make their living by exposing government lies and deceptions; they are on the side of their readers, the general public, and not on the side of the powerful elites. Whenever the powers-that-be want to do something naughty, their first thought must be: how should we handle the media? This can either be done subtly, for example by deflecting interest elsewhere or trying to mask their plans as something else; or it can be done not so subtly, by closing down newspapers, torturing reporters and censoring broadcasts – but one way or another, the media must be dealt with.

The alternative, say Chomsky and Herman, is something they call the propaganda model.

In this alternative rendering, media is expensive, and requires the support of the powerful simply in order to exist; and, while it must at least keep up the image of covering stories in the real world, its primary function is to protect the people who pay for it through advertising.

Newspapers that consistently run stories that go against these commercial interests will lose money and eventually go bust, but this kind of macroscopic selection process will rarely happen. Most probably, canny editors will shelve stories from reporters who insist on reporting on the wrong topics, and journalists who don’t behave themselves will be moved somewhere from which they can’t do any damage.

All this sounds plausible, but difficult to prove. The most cited counterexample is Watergate: here, newspapers brought down the President of the USA, surely a demonstration that a free press really is free to take on whoever it likes.

What Chomsky and Herman argue is that Watergate was not the biggest story people could have reported on. Because two stories were unfolding at once: Watergate, that got the media attention, and COINTELPRO, which few people today have heard of, but which is infinitely more shocking and scary than a story about a politician lying to cover himself.

Why was COINTELPRO not more extensively covered? And why is it so little known today? Because to cover a campaign of terrorism, illegal surveillance and state-sponsored murder of political activists is something that is just not done.

And this is the scariest part of their thesis: that people in the media often don’t know that they’re protecting power. They are not lying to themselves. They believe every word they say. But if they were the kind of people who believed something else, they would not be working in the media. The whole system, from school to university to the inner halls of the media, has the effect of reinforcing the idea that there are some ideas that are simply not to be questioned.



This is laid out systematically in C&H’s Manufacturing Consent, which I confess I have not read, although Chomsky sketches the central thesis in many of his books – see Understanding Power.

A video of Chomsky arguing this with Andrew Marr can be found here.

Written by The S I

August 31, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Harris and Chomsky On Drugs

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One of the roles of government is to prohibit and enforce the prohibition of activities that reproducibly result in a lowering of the populace’s quality of life. Governments insist that people surrender certain freedoms in the name of the greater good: the freedom not to bash people over the head with mallets, for example.

The illegality of an act should be proportional to its harmfulness (to society, that is; to you is another matter). While I can understand and condone banning the sale of crack cocaine because it reproducibly creates a huge amount of misery and suffering, it is difficult to see why the government bans cannabis ­­– particularly when tobacco, a much deadlier poison, is sold quite legally. I have recently read two different explanations of this strange inversion. One is by the fascinating if slightly scary writer Sam Harris; the other is by Noam Chomsky.

Harris’s contention is that the enemy is religion. Many drugs, he says, allow one  to experience states of extreme bliss and personal fulfilment, often with no damaging side-effects and in the privacy of one’s own home. There should be no harm in that. But religion wants the monopoly on spiritual experiences, and sees drugs as being unwelcome competition. Drugs are deemed wicked for their positive aspects, for their ability to make you happy or alter the way you see the world; their harmfulness is not even considered.

Chomsky’s idea is, if anything, even more cynical. The crucial difference between tobacco and marijuana, he says, is that tobacco is difficult to grow. Weed is a weed: you can grow it in your back garden. Big businesses have no interest in its legalisation because it would give them no scarcity power – nobody would profit from it. Tobacco, on the other hand, is a difficult crop, requiring a substantial investment of technology and capital. A nation’s tobacco industry can be owned in the way a national marijuana industry could never be, and businesses can make huge amounts of money from monopolising it. It will stay legal, in spite of its harmfulness, because it pays.

I don’t know which of these two theories I like most, or even if either of them comes close to the truth. But until the illegality of what substances you choose ingest correlates with the damage it does to people around you, I will be suspicious of the motives of those who tell you what you can and cannot do.

Governments have the power to stop people doing things. Sometimes this power is used wisely and fairly; but often it is not. Whenever a government asks you to surrender one of your freedoms, it’s worth thinking about who benefits from it. And if it’s not you, it’s time to start worrying.



Noam Chomsky – Understanding Power, p49.

Sam Harris ­– The End of Faith, also his blog post:

Written by The S I

July 20, 2011 at 7:55 pm