Seeing Through the Spin

By David Cogswell -- January, 1997

The following was the text of a presentation of the book Chomsky For Beginners at Barnes & Noble in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Hello and welcome

It may seem odd that we have music here at an event to promote a book, and it's strange to have a television set in a bookstore, which is -- thank God -- one of the few places where you can escape from television today.

William Burroughs said that if you take a television set and play another soundtrack with it, it will seem to fit. He said: "You show a bunch of people running for a bus in Piccadilly and put in machine-gun sound effects and it will look like Petrograd in 1917, people will assume that they are running because they're being machine-gunned. What you see is determined largely by what you hear...

"The word of course is one of the most powerful instruments of control as exercised by the newspaper, and images as well, there are both words and images in newspapers. Now if you start cutting these up and rearranging them you are breaking down the control system. Fear and prejudice are always dictated by the control system just as the church built up prejudice against heretics. It wasn't inherent in the population; it was dictated by the church, which was in control at that time. This is something that threatens the position of any establishment, and therefore they will oppose it, will condition people to fear and reject or ridicule it."

So today we are going to do something that is forbidden. We are going to put on the TV and not listen to it. We aren't going to let it dominate the affairs in the room. We will play music and talk and read and mock the sacred tube.

This book on Chomsky is really about media. It's filed in the linguistics section of most bookstores because Chomsky is known as a great linguist whose ideas have had a powerful effect on a much broader field than that of linguistics. But the real reason Chomsky for Beginners was written, and the part of Chomsky's work that is most relevant to most people is his work as a social and political analyst and in his role as what has been called a "media critic."

There is probably little disagreement over the idea that the media today have an extremely powerful effect on events, from what cars, clothes and soaps sell, to who will hold political office. It is an exceptional election in which the candidate who spent the largest amount of money on television time is not the victor. The amount of money spent by all candidates is staggering. Our boy Newt Gingrich just spent over $6 million to get re-elected to his congressional seat, one of over 400 such seats, and he is such a celebrity it's hard to imagine that he would need to buy more exposure than he gets naturally, just by being so brilliant and charming. These congressional seats are worth a lot of money. When it comes to the presidency even all the losers spend massive fortunes to get elected.

So there's probably not much disagreement about the power of media and the power of the money in our society. There may be more disagreement about how well the media present a truthful, balanced picture of important events. But it is a matter of fact that the media are businesses. The major media are major corporations usually owned by larger corporations. And like any corporation, they exist primarily to make a profit. It is not likely that they are going to work against the interests of the large corporations that own them.

According to Ben Bagdikian, author of The Media Monopoly, the 29 largest media systems account for over half of the output of newspapers, and most of the magazines, radio, books, and movies. He calls this elite group "a new private ministry of information and culture that can set national agenda. Ownership is growing more and more concentrated: in 1982, Bagdikian wrote that 50 corporations controlled most of the major media outlets in the U.S. by the fourth edition of the book in 1993, the number was down to 20 and still dropping.

According to Noam Chomsky, what the media are purposely not telling us is a lot worse than most of us have suspected. And most of us probably have suspected that we are being hoodwinked a great deal of the time by whoever is speaking to us over the media, whether they are telling us to buy lottery tickets or cigarettes, or telling us what is going on politically.

I picked up last Sunday's New York Times and saw an article about Peru which I saved because I had wanted to catch up on the news about it ever since I started hearing some very disturbing things about Peruvian people taking diplomats as hostages. I am not at all an expert on the subject and really did just want to find out something. But even without knowing much about it, there were things in the article that made me feel uncertain about the information I was getting.

I don't think many of us have time today to be experts on a lot of the political events that are important and may affect us. But that doesn't mean we have to throw up our hands and leave it to the experts. Those who are in control may not have your best interests in mind. I don't think you have to be an expert to sometimes see when you are not being given a straight, coherent line. We can all use our native critical faculties and a little discipline to look closely at what we are being told. You can figure some things out just by looking closely at the text, and the more you practice your critical faculties, the better they get. It is not necessarily a bad thing not to be an expert.

Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind Beginner's Mind said:

"Our original mind includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few."

I'm not approaching this as an expert. I'm not professing anything and I'm not claiming to know the answers. But if we look closely and watch carefully what we are being fed, we can begin to know what questions to ask. Often there is information in the article that doesn't jump out at you because of the way it is presented, but if you comb through it and reassemble certain things in different ways, you can get more out of it. I'd like to look at the text of the article from the point of view of a beginner.

The standard form for news journalism is the inverted pyramid form, which means that you put the most important, essential information at the top of the article and gradually move toward the more incidental information. It's very functional for making the most important information immediately accessible, and anyone who doesn't want to know the details can get the general idea and then move on to another story. Newspaper articles do sometimes deviate from this form, but even when they do, the very first paragraph is extremely important. If it doesn't satisfy something, the reader may not go beyond it.

The first paragraph in this article is very interesting: "The Marxist guerrilla group holding about 100 hostages at the Japanese Ambassador's residence here has long sought to promote a Robin Hood image of stealing from the rich to help the poor."

The first words in the article are "Marxist guerrilla group," and that makes me wonder right away. The picture it conjures in my head is such a loaded symbol it is almost a cartoon image. I don't know much about Marx, and I would venture to say that not a lot of the people who will read this article have ever read Marx or know much about the man or what he stood for. I do know that he has been dead for a century or so, so I find it a little odd that his name is deemed so important in this article that they give it to you before they tell you anything else. It tells me virtually nothing about what is going on in Peru, but it tells me quite a lot about what the New York Times wants me to think about it.

I know that the word "Marxism" has been thoroughly discredited in this country and has been used as the symbol of everything that is opposed to "our way of life," which we define as freedom, democracy, nice cars, mom, apple pie and so forth. I don't really know who these Peruvians in the article are, or why they chose such a desperate course of action, but I do know that the Times does not want me to think much of them: these Marxist guerrillas who cynically mock the memory of that great American, Robin Hood.

Further down in the article I see that the "rebels" are in favor of "privatizing some public enterprises and opening markets" which sounds diametrically opposed to Marxism as we were taught about it in school. So I'm still wondering why these people have essentially thrown their lives up for grabs, taking an action that invites almost certain, violent death. The Times, who says these Peruvians are "promoting" themselves to be like Robin Hood, makes it sound like they are just a bunch of smart alecks, real bad guys who are stirring up trouble just to be ornery. But when was the last time you contemplated hopping over to the UN and taking some diplomats hostage? You would do that on a day you were ready to die and only then. This is an incredibly desperate act taken by people who would rather die than go on the way things are. So I still want to know, what is going on in Peru?

The hints are not long in coming. A lot of very abstract terms start being thrown around, a new economic plan, foreign investors who "tout the benefits of the neo-liberal economic model," economic terms like Gross Domestic Product and Growth, and somewhere behind it is a shadow of human suffering that is never named except in abstract terms. Words like "social unrest" and "economic reform and the poor." It says, "Half of Peru's 24 million people live in poverty, 85 percent of workers do not have full-time jobs and 93 percent of children do not have access to school books." Numbers. Abstractions.

These are terms you use when you don't want to conjure up an image of what you are talking about. Like calling dead people, "casualties" or even "collateral damage." [read Orwell page 40.]

George Orwell summed up this technique quite well in a 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language." He said, "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name something without calling up mental pictures of it. consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, 'I believe in killing of your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.' Probably, therefore, he will say something like this: 'While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.'"

When the article talks about economic reform, about reducing inflation and debt and foreign investment and gross domestic product it sounds like some sort of economic miracle. But when it says that half the people live in poverty and 85 percent of the "workers" don't have full time jobs it is pretty clear that the majority of the people are not participating in this economic miracle at all. This is clearly the same old third world scenario that we've seen where you have a tiny rich class which is established by foreign interests who police the population while the foreign investors ransack the country for its resources and give the people who live there nothing. When it talks about the sale of Peru's oil and utilities companies and then talks about the Peruvians as "consumers," it's pretty clear that the dirt poor Peruvians are being sold their own oil at prices they can't afford so foreign investors can take a profit.

In Chomsky for Beginners I pulled a few examples from Chomsky's books that show how this pattern has persisted for hundreds of years, since what we call "colonial times." In fact in much of the world, it is still colonial times. We see the pattern where foreigners come in, take over a country, violently suppress the population and steal everything they can. It started with Columbus and it hasn't stopped. In today's world, it translates into strongman regimes that are installed and financed by the U.S. government, trained in terrorism and torture by our government, which arms and supports their death squads with our tax money. The language in which it is reported creates a smoke screen so that the activities slip by the awareness of the citizens long enough to be out of view until it is too late too matter. When the information eventually leaks out, it's history. We hear something about the atrocities of 20 years ago, but we are given the idea that everything is better now.

Chomsky and Edward Herman wrote a book called The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism in 1979 which reported 18 military takeovers in Latin American countries between 1960 and 1978 and in every one of them, the U.S. was a major player. So while we are told that the U.S. is supporting democracy around the world, our tax money is going to support military dictatorships with a penchant for slaughtering their own populations.

These are things we should know about because as citizens of a democratic society, we are partly responsible for what our government does. If our tax money is going for "military expenditures," and half of it is, then we should have an idea who is being armed and who is getting killed. Unfortunately we are not going to hear much about it in the 30 seconds or so of soundbites we get on the daily television news and we're going to have to dig a little deeper ourselves if we are interested. But we live in a free society in many ways and we can find out about some things that are beyond what the mass media is telling us if we are willing to do some work.

As long as the people who are being killed are in some third world country that we know nothing about, it may seem like an altruistic impulse to try to do anything about our government's military and covert activities, but the world is changing very fast and what is happening overseas has more and more effect on what happens here. As we see our industries dismantled and moved overseas so that poor people can take those jobs for a few dollars a week, we see the divisions between rich and poor widening in our own country and it begins to look frighteningly more like the third world here.

"Very important things are happening in the United States and other countries. It's not a big secret that the economy is moving very fast, in fact, from what used to be mainly national economies to an increasingly internationalized economy. So take, say, the United States: 30 years ago the question of international trade was not a big issue because the national economy was so huge in comparison with trade that it didn't matter all that much. You didn't have big debates about trade policy. Now that's changed. The international economy is enormous. In fact it's not really trade, so about 40 percent of U.S. trade, as it's called, is actually internal to big transnational corporations. It means like one branch of the Ford Motor Company moving things to another branch, which happens to be across a border. Forty percent is not a small amount, and it's the same worldwide. But, in any event, the economy's becoming much more internationalized. It's much easier to move capital abroad. The effect of that is that production can be shifted much more easily to low-wage/high-repression areas elsewhere. And the effect of that is to bring the third world model home to the United States and other rich countries. It means that these countries themselves are drifting toward a kind of a third world model in which there's a sector of great wealth and privilege and a growing mass of people who are basically superfluous. They're not necessary for a profit either as producers or consumers. You can produce more cheaply elsewhere and the market can easily become the international wealthy sectors. You end up with south-central Los Angeles and that's happening more and more."

In Chomsky For Beginners, I tried to pull out a sampling of information from a number of Chomsky's books to give people a brief introduction to what he has to say. He has written over 30 books and if you don't find them in the bookstores, you can order them. You aren't likely to see him on TV, though he has shown up on Channel 13 once or twice, on C Span once or twice and on WBAI radio quite a few times.

If you aren't familiar with the For Beginners series published by Writers and Readers publishing, I would like to introduce it to you. They have some of them here. The Heidegger, Nietzche and Kierkegaard For Beginners books are in the philosophy section. There are now 80 of them in the series and they really are a fun and congenial way to be introduced to many of the great ideas and thinkers of history.

The series was started in London in 1974 by a remarkable Afro-American from Harlem named Glenn Thompson. He was orphaned at the age of 12 and at the time could not read. After he taught himself how to read and tried to educate himself, he dedicated his life to making the ideas of great thinkers accessible to regular people, like us.

Anyway, thanks again for coming out today. I really appreciate it.

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