If you want to know how dangerously narrow and rightward the dominant doctrinal spectrum is in the United States, look at what passes for that nation’s leftmost “mainstream” newspaper, The New York Times. Last Sunday’s Times was another typical, one might even say textbook , example.
SILENCE, NOT PEACE
The first page of the first section contains a story about repression in Myanmar (Burma). “On Quiet Streets in Myanmar,” the headline reads, “Fear is a Constant Companion.” “It’s not peace you see here,” a 46 year-old Burmese writer tells Times reporter Choe Sang-Hung, “it’s a forced silence.” According to Sang-Hung, the writer is “on the run, carrying with him a worn copy of his favorite book, George Orwell’s ‘1984.’”
“We are the military’s slaves,’” the writer told the Times. “We want democracy. We want to wait no longer. But we are afraid of their guns” (Choe Sang-Hung, New York Times, 21 October 2007, sec.1, p.1).
WHY THEY DIED
Speaking of authoritarian silence regarding matters of state violence, a directly adjacent article on the same page of the same Sunday Times is instructive. The article is titled “Old Enough Now to Hear How Dad Died at War.” According to Times reporter Lisa Foderaro, a number of U.S. military children who were infants and toddlers when their fathers died in Iraq are now mature enough to want to know why they lost a parent in Mesopotamia.
The answer to the question of why Americans have died in Iraq since March 2003 is an important matter for American “democracy” as well. As most of the morally and politically cognizant planet knows, and the as The New York Times will never acknowledge, they died because they were ordered by George W. Bush to participate in a brazenly imperialist, monumentally illegal, and inherently mass murderous occupation of formerly sovereign nation that posed zero threat to the U.S. Nearly four thousand U.S. GIs have been killed in the execution of a criminal invasion sold on false and manufactured pretexts. Beneath the deceptive official reasons given, the invasion is, in Alan Greenspan’s words, “largely about oil.” More precisely, “Operation Iraqi Liberation” (O.I.L.)  is about deepening and sustaining U.S. control of The Middle East’s super-strategic petroleum reserves.
The invasion has killed one million Iraqis and caused the exodus of at least 2 million more. Beneath media-fanned rhetoric about the U.S. as “a nation at war” and Bush as “a wartime president,” O.I.L is naked, one-sided imperial aggression. It has been marketed to the bewildered American herd (citizenry) with a series of overlapping and media-transmitted deceptions that would have impressed Orwell: the preposterous Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs) claims (horribly advanced by The New York Times and supposedly believed by U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton [D-NY]); the false links made between Saddam’s Iraq, al Qaeda, and 9/11; the absurd claim (see below) that “we” attacked Iraq to bring it “democracy” and “freedom;” the childish claim that “we” are preventing civil war and ethnic violence in Iraq; the deceptive allegation that “we” are fighting (rather than encouraging and practicing) terrorism in and beyond Iraq; and the shamelessly Orwellian assertion that “we” are there to prevent “outside [primarily Iranian] interference” in Iraq.
“THE VERY VALUES OF DEMCORATIC GOVERNENCE” WE “HOPED TO EXPORT TO IRAQ”
We should hardly expect surviving parents of kids whose other parent was killed carrying out Bush’s occupation to tell their still young children all the terrible truths behind the Iraq “war.” But if we are serious about our commitment to “democracy,” we should want them to be in a position to know the dark imperial realities – well understood the world over – behind O.I.L.
And the fact that most of them and many millions of other Americans are in no such position is a monument to the remarkable reach of military-industrial thought control in “mainstream” U.S. media. The fundamentally illegal and imperialist nature of “Operation Iraqi Freedom’s” genesis and character may be an elementary historical fact. It is unmentionable in dominant U.S. media and political culture, however.
This is true even and perhaps especially at its “leftmost” extremes. The New York Times may have joined the Washington Post (also preposterously smeared as “left wing” by the American Right) in belatedly apologizing for its role in advancing the Bush administration’s concocted Iraqi WMD claims in 2002 and 2003. But it has never apologized for its continuing role in advancing the equally ludicrous U.S. claim (dramatically escalated once most Americans realized that “Saddam’s WMD” were White House fiction) to have invaded Iraq to promote “democracy” beyond U.S. shores Three sections down from the articles mentioned at the beginning of this commentary, in fact, regular Sunday Times columnist Frank Rich criticized Pentagon corruption because it “has routinely betrayed the very values of democratic governance that [the U.S.] hoped to export to Iraq” (Frank Rich, “Suicide is Not Painless,” New York Times, 21 October, 2007. section 4, p.14). “This,” Rich says, is “the corruption that cost America a war.” The supposedly left Times liberal Rich seems to think that the brazenly imperialist U.S. invasion of Iraq is a “war” (a) for democracy and (b) worth winning, not a monumental international crime.
Never mind that the preponderant majority of Iraqis have wanted U.S. troops to leave their nation from the start. Or that 72 percent of Americans surveyed by the mainstream Chicago Council on Foreign Relations in 2004 (the percentage is certainly higher today) said that the U.S. should remove its military from Iraq if that’s what a clear majority of Iraqis want. Or that America’s own regressive, hyper-plutocratic domestic policies are highly unpopular with the U.S. majority, residents of the most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation in the industrialized world. Or that the America’s “dollar democracy” has long been something of an open corporate plutocracy, raising critical questions about U.S. qualifications to “export democracy” to anyone.
Never mind that one of the first actions of the U.S. occupation authorities was to open up much of Iraq’s economy to multinational corporate ownership – an action that would never have been supported by the Iraqi majority and which blatantly violated core principles of national independence. Or that the U.S. has built a large number of permanent military bases in Iraq. Or that the U.S. is a close ally and sponsor of the feudal, arch-repressive, and oil-rich Saudi Arabian regime along with numerous other authoritarian state and political forces (including the Israeli occupation state) in the region and around the world.
And never mind that the notion of the Iraqi people doing whatever they wish with their own nation’s critical petroleum resources – second only to Saudi Arabia’s – is completely unacceptable to U.S. policymakers from either of the nation’s dominant two business parties. The strategic stakes in Iraq and the region are simply too high for that, as is well understood at elite levels.
SAY IT AIN’T SO, FRANK
Later in his Sunday column, Rich offered another great progressive revelation. “Even a turnover in [White House] administration” – a change from the Republican Bush II to the Democrat Clinton II – would not “guarantee reform” in “defense”-contracting practices, Rich opines. Say it ain’t so, Frank: yes, it’s pretty big and radical-populist of Rich to admit the obvious and well known fact that the other dominant U.S. corporate-imperial party (the Democrats) – itself deeply complicit in the occupation of Iraq and in the formulation of the Bush doctrine that justified that invasion  – is also at risk of corruption in the execution of great “wars” for “democratic governance” like U.S.-imposed neocolonial Holocaust in Iraq.
AMERICAN THOUGHT CONTROL: WORSE THAN MYANMAR?
In an unpublished introduction to Animal Farm, a popular satire of the Soviet Union’s totalitarianism, the British writer George Orwell argued that “democratic” England was not all that different from Russia in its real commitment to the free flow of ideas. We might not have state police breathing down our necks, Orwell said, but the outcomes are remarkably similar: people with independent thoughts that do not fit dominant domestic power structures and doctrines are censored and cut out of meaningful public discourse. This happens, he reasoned, because the media is owned by wealthy people with a vested interest in keeping certain things out of public discussion. The other important factor Orwell said is that the people in charge of media content have attended privileged institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, where they have been given a “proper” sense of what should and shouldn’t be said. Elite schools develop the habit of power-serving self-censorship before reporters, commentators, and editors take their first positions at places like the London Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the New York Review of Books.
Noam Chomsky likes to cite Orwell’s chilling and (appropriately enough) censored introduction in support of the argument that we have pretty much the same totalitarian thought control and censorship in the “liberal” and “democratic,” free speech” West (the onetime so-called First World) as existed in the Soviet bloc . But I’ve never been able to escape the chilling notion that the problems of elite thought control and top-down moral-ideological narrowing may actually be worse in the “freedom-loving” United States than in places like contemporary Burma and Stalinist Russia. As Alex Carey suggested in his haunting book Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (Urbana, IL, 1997), the techniques of mass opinion control are developed on the most advanced levels precisely in societies where rule through sheer state coercion is least legitimate and where people are most free to speak and write without the fear of being violently repressed. The incentive to “manufacture [mass] consent” from the top down is greatest where the democratic and free-speech traditions are strongest and where absolutist state coercion is least justifiable. Elites need to control popular thoughts especially where the populace is free to express and act upon them, without fear of the military’s guns.
The United States’ free speech, democratic, and civil libertarian traditions are an invitation to thought-control and propaganda when they exist side by side with the nation’s stark and deepening socioeconomic inequalities and imperial commitments. Precisely because most Americans can’t be dominated in purely coercive ways, they must be controlled in more subtle and less overtly oppressive fashion. Since they are “free to speak their minds,” their minds must be influenced by those who wish to maintain existing harsh disparities of wealth and power at home and abroad. Thus, there is a huge investment in the U.S. in “taking the risk out of democracy” through the "manufacture of consent” .
The strain of the totalitarian virus that forms in response to the vaccine of a strong democratic tradition is perhaps the most powerful one of all. It draws on the most developed techniques of mass advertising, developed on the highest scale in the modern mass-consumerist “capitalist democracies.”
It gains strength, it is important to add, from its stealth and covert nature. The populace of Myanmar knows very well that news, commentary, and culture is censored and that independent and critical voices are silenced by concentrated power in its country. It’s an open secret understood by all, as it was in the late Soviet bloc. Things are very different in the United States, where many are led to believe that a free and equal marketplace of ideas exists even while much of ordinary U.S. citizens’ freedom to “say,” “write,” and “think” whatever they wish generally amounts in practical policy relevance to the liberty to whisper to one’s immediate neighbor in the front row of a crowded movie theater with a blaring sound track.
DOUBLE AND SINGLE STANDARDS
The Sunday New York Times writes at least half-eloquently about and against the imposition of authoritarian silence on the masses of Myanmar and then epitomizes (one article and then three sections over) an analogous silence in its Iraq “war” coverage and commentary. Is this a “double standard?” Perhaps, but the seeming contradiction at its center is fed by what Chomsky calls “the single standard” at the heart of dominant U.S. media, intellectual and political cultures: “subordination to power.” An American journalist or commentator can criticize Myanmar’s narrow and militarily imposed spectrum of acceptable opinion without upsetting elites atop established U.S. and imperial power structures and without breaking the rules of “proper” conduct observed and inculcated at places like the Council on Foreign Relations, Harvard, and The New York Times.
Truth be told, media criticism of the Burmese generals’ regime and support of Myanmar’s “saffron revolution” is quite welcome in the corridors of U.S. power right now. That “revolution” has been significantly supported and instigated by the U.S. State Department and Pentagon for geopolitical reasons that have nothing to do with any alleged U.S. interest in democracy promotion. As William Engdahl recently noted in Asia Times, the U.S. government is working with and through such agencies as The National Endowment for Democracy, the Open Society Institute, Freedom House, and the Albert Einstein Institution to foster regime change in Myanmar. This is part of imperial policymakers’ effort to control strategic sea routes and energy supplies and its related effort to contain the perceived regional threat of China .
Things are very different for an American reporter or commentator who wishes to honestly discuss U.S. imperial violence and/or the limits of acceptable “mainstream” debate inside the “democratic” U.S. “homeland.” Such people don’t really exist at places like the New York Times, where it is generally understood that you “don’t say things you know. You say things that are required for service to power” . The rare “mainstream” journalist, columnist or other intellectual worker who escapes the indoctrination process enough to try to tell the truth about U.S. policy and “democracy” will see their efforts quickly squashed or marginalized in one generally quiet and covert way or another.
The fact that they won’t be shot or beaten by the state may be less of a cause for celebration than we like to think.
Paul Street is a writer, speaker and activist based in Iowa City, IA and Chicago, IL. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America (New York: Routledge, 2005. Paul can be reached at [email protected]
1. For some leading texts, see Noam Chomsky and Edwards S. Herman, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 1988); Noam Chomsky, Letters From Lexington: Reflections on Propaganda (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Robert W. McChesney, Corporate Media and the threat to Democracy (New York: Seven Stories, 1997); Howard Freil and Richard Falk, The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Verso, 2004); Howard Freil and Richard Falk, Israel-Palestine on the Record: How the New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East (New York: Verso, 2007).
2. I use “Operation Iraqi Freedom’s” initial designation – dropped because it too blatantly captured the petro-imperialist nature of the invasion. The interesting and at darkly humorous fact that “O.I.F.” was originally “O.I.L.” is NOT an urban myth. See Greg Palast, Armed Madhouse (New York: Plume, 2007), p. 65.
3. Laura Flanders, “Clinton: Class of ’68,” p. 21, in Flanders et al., The Contenders (New York: Seven Stories, 2008); Tony Smith, “It’s Uphill for the Democrats: They Need a Global Strategy, Not Just Tactics for Iraq,” Washington Post, 11 March, 2007, p. B01, available online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/ 2007/03/09/ AR2007030901884_pf.html).
4. Noam Chomsky, Letters From Lexington, p. 5; Chomsky, Understanding Power (New York: New Press, 2002), pp. 111-112.
5. Ordinary Americans are human beings endowed with a basic sense of moral decency. Since we are not born with some sort of masochistic, self-hating impulse us to like the nation’s remarkable economic disparities and the perversion of our democracy by the privileged few, the majority of us (not privileged) have to be ruled. Thanks to the British, American and French Revolutions and the living legacy of the Enlightenment, we are free to say that we don’t like it. It’s not generally legitimate to shoot us if and when we voice displeasure with the consequences and in some cases even the existence of empire and inequality. It makes sense, then, that, as an American academic named Norman Meier noted in 1950, "Americans are the most propagandized people of any nation." That’s what you’d expect in a nation that combines stark class inequality (the U.S. is by far the most unequal and wealth top-heavy nation in the industrialized world), concentrated (corporate and state) power, and remarkable private/corporate communications capacity (organizational and technological) with the world’s strongest free speech and related civil-libertarian traditions and protections. Meier is quoted in Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (Urbana, IL, 1997), p.14.
6. William Engdahl, “The Geopolitical Stakes of ‘Saffron Revolution,’ Asia Times, 21 October 2007. As Engdahl explains: “The question is, what would lead to [U.S.] engagement in such a remote place as Myanmar? Geopolitical control seems to be the answer – control ultimately of the strategic sea lanes from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea. The coastline of Myanmar provides naval access in the proximity of one of the world’s most strategic water passages, the Strait of Malacca, the narrow ship passage between Malaysia and Indonesia.” Further:
“The Pentagon has been trying to militarize the region since September 11, 2001 on the argument of defending against possible terrorist attack. The US has managed to gain an airbase on Banda Aceh, the Sultan Iskandar Muda Air Force Base, on the northernmost tip of Indonesia. The governments of the region, including Myanmar, however, have adamantly refused US efforts to militarize the region. A glance at a map will confirm the strategic importance of Myanmar.”
“The Strait of Malacca, linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans, is the shortest sea route between the Persian Gulf and China. It is the key chokepoint in Asia. More than 80% of all China‘s oil imports are shipped by tankers passing the Malacca Strait. The narrowest point is the Phillips Channel in the Singapore Strait, only 1.5 miles wide at its narrowest. Each day, more than 12 million barrels in oil supertankers pass through this narrow passage, most en route to the world’s fastest-growing energy market, China, or to Japan.”
“If the strait were closed, nearly half of the world’s tanker fleet would be required to sail further. Closure would immediately raise freight rates worldwide. More than 50,000 vessels per year transit the Strait of Malacca. The region from Maynmar to Banda Aceh in Indonesia is fast becoming one of the world’s most strategic chokepoints. Who controls those waters controls China‘s energy supplies.”
China is the American Empire’s greatest geopolitical rival, the main perceived threat behind the United States’ recent and dangerous strategic and nuclear alliance (in bold defiance of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) with India
7. Noam Chomsky, What We Say Goes: Conversations on U.S. Power in a Changing World (New York: Metropolitan, 2007), p. 2. Chomsky is commenting on New York Times Magazine writer James Traub’s failure to acknowledge the obvious fact that the United States is an “outlaw state” that is proudly “unconstrained by international law.”