The late political philosopher Isaiah Berlin coined the term ”secular priesthood” to describe Russian commissars who were apologists for Stalin’s crimes. Later, MIT Professor Noam Chomsky adapted the term to characterize their counterpart in contemporary societies, namely the higher level media, commentators and academic types who learn which side of their crusty French bread has the foie gras.
Just whom do they serve in our own society? Although we avoid the subject, we live in a class society. Roughly 2 percent of the population owns virtually everything that matters. Below them reside about 18 percent, those whom political analyst Michael Albert calls the ”coordinator class,” most of whom administer the daily operations of the economy. They are the agents that workers encounter on a day-to-day basis. The government, including both parties, serves this group. Finally, at the bottom, 80 percent of the population consists of working people with little or no power or influence.
The secular priesthood belongs in the second group and the target for their actions are the minds of newspapers readers like yourselves, educated people with some discretionary time and resources. The fear is that if this vast middle class knew the truth, they would demand changes that would threaten the top 20 percent. Therefore, obedience to the system must be engineered by those whose stated opinions habitually echo what Orwell once called the official truth.
For their servility, the secular priesthood is accorded a lavish lifestyle, respectability, minor celebrity status, and the label ”experts.” Henry Kissinger, in a rare candid moment, once defined an expert as ”a person who knows how to articulate the consensus of his constituency.” Their function is to create public opinion, in Chomsky’s phrase, to ”manufacture consent” through disinformation, misinformation, and especially omission of vital information. It’s impossible not to detect a measure of contempt for ordinary citizens in this behavior.
Some carefully vetted academics become, as British writer Tariq Ali terms them, ”embedded experts of the empire.” Being ”useful” wins them prizes, access to major media outlets and tenure at places like Harvard, Yale and Stanford. They are called upon to provide commentaries in The New York Times, on CNN, NPR and The PBS Nightly News Hour. Within the media, establishment lapdogs do entertain vigorous debate, but only within narrowly circumscribed limits of acceptable thought. Because core issues are never addressed, they presumably do not exist.
By contrast, critical intellectuals who raise nettlesome questions aren’t invited. To accord ”expert” status to them would undermine the legitimacy of the domesticated intellectuals. Therefore, critical intellectuals are marginalized, dismissed as provocative, pariahs or worse. (Here I might note that this newspaper, The Morning Call, deserves credit for its routinely demonstrated practice of a free press and respect for the First Amendment.)
What are a few propositions that demand widespread exposure and debate? 1. Meaningful democracy and capitalism are mutually exclusive. 2. The United States is hated not for what we are but what we do in the world. 3. Oil can never be cited as the real motive behind the U.S. invasion of Iraq. 4. Sources of cheap labor, resources and profits â€” not promoting freedom â€” explain the 800 U.S. military bases around the globe and U.S. foreign policy since 1945. 5. The Israeli lobby in Washington does not serve this country’s best interests. 6. The ”war on terrorism” is only the latest propaganda tool to scare the public for other ends. 7. The proposed U.S. ”defense shield” in outer space is an offensive weapon. 8. The purchasing power (adjusted for inflation) of the typical American family been falling for many years. 9. Big Business loves illegal immigration. 10. Most people experience no signficant upward mobility and the American Dream is now officially a myth.
Where does one find an antidote to the ”official truth” on these and other issues? Progressive Web outlets that I use frequently include Common Dreams, ZNet/Z Magazine, F.A.I.R., DollarsandSense, truthOut.com, Counterpunch, TheProgressiveMagazine, Pacifica Radio and AlterNet. Alternative media aren’t a substitute for activism, but they are a necessary prerequisite.
Gary Olson, Ph.D. is chair of the Political Science Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem. His e-mail address is [email protected]