Nuggets From A Nuthouse

Edward S. Herman

Left criticisms of
the media have always drawn the accusation of conspiracy theory, because media
personnel and defenders of the media establishment are either too lazy to
examine closely the case made by left analysts, can’t understand it, or are
pleased to resort to a smear tactic. They can get away with this because they
are largely protected from challenge and can take their cheap shots without
fear. In Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and I, recognizing the
likelihood of accusations of conspiracy theory, went to the trouble of
explicitly denying this and showing that our model was much closer to a “free
market” model, with any censorship largely self-censorship, with biased media
choices coming about naturally by the “pre-selection of right-thinking people,
internalized preconceptions, and the adaptations of personnel to the constraints
of ownership, organization, market, and political power.” This effort, and our
showing of how the filters work to cause the media to follow party lines, made
no difference: we were conspiracy theorists, by establishment definition.

I was inspired to
bring this up again after seeing that David Rieff had played this theme in
reviewing Chomsky’s “A New Generation Draws the Line” in the Los Angeles
of June 3, 2001. Rieff, a long-time aggressive advocate of, and
apologist for, “humanitarian bombing,” quickly dismissed Chomsky as a “radical
conspiracy theorist,” who in his “latest effusion…of arrogant
fantasy-mongering” claims to “see in the human rights movement some new disguise
for American imperial hegemony.” The closest Rieff comes to making a testable
claim, as opposed to pure name-calling, is his sentence, “an unfortunate reader
will discover that because the United States behaved badly in East Timor and
supported the Turkish government’s war against the Kurds, its actions in Kosovo
can’t possibly have been anything other than in the service of the nefarious
interests of the military industrial complex [MIC].”

Chomsky, of
course, never says that the U.S. performance in East Timor and Turkey shows the
impossibility of non-service to the MIC or concern for human rights, but he
presents such information to raise questions about the likelihood of a mainly
benevolent motive. Rieff fails here (and elsewhere) to explain why the “bad
behavior” happened—which, as Rieff fails to mention, included active multi-year
U.S. assistance to ethnic cleansings in Turkey and East Timor that were far more
extensive than in pre-bombing Kosovo—and how that behavior is to be reconciled
with the benevolent motive dominating in Kosovo. The childish phrasing about
“nefarious interests of the military-industrial complex” obscures the fact that
Chomsky is suggesting that the “national interest” as seen by the dominant
elements in the U.S. political economy may have been pursuing a non-benevolent
agenda in the Balkans, consistent with their non-benevolent agenda in Turkey and

There is also the
question of why Chomsky’s view should be called a “conspiracy theory,” even if
he is arguing that the “nefarious” MIC can explain the NATO war better than
benevolence. If one argues that the policy makers decided to attack Yugoslavia
for geopolitical reasons, that is apparently a conspiracy theory; the war
managers “conspire” to this cynical end. On the other hand, the belief that they
do it because of Clinton’s and Blair’s “exasperation” at Milosevic’s evil, as
Rieff would have it, is not conspiracy theory—you can’t conspire to do something
of which Rieff approves. We are clearly dealing here with comic book level
analysis, but acceptable in the mainstream.

Frank Kofsky made
the trenchant observation in his book Harry Truman and the War Scare of 1948,
that the charge of conspiracy theory is generally offered by “those who wish to
discredit the author’s thesis but—and this point is absolutely crucial—have been
unable to find factual evidence to refute the interpretation they detest.” How
perfectly applicable to David Rieff, who prefers assertions and sneers to
finding factual evidence and discussing the issues honestly.

In his review of
Chomsky’s Deterring Democracy in 1991 (The Independent [London],
August 4, 1991), Rieff described Chomsky as “so far out on the lunatic fringe
that even the sensible things he has to say are lost….” The review is again
comprised almost entirely of sneers and smears with minimal address to issues (a
“weak book,” “incantory,” his “bugbears,” “grim, disheartening quality…”). In
the rare case where he does touch on an issue Rieff’s remarks are mere rhetoric
and also misleading. Thus in referring to Chomsky’s analysis of the Cold War,
Rieff says that “he has in mind an epoch whose tragedies and crimes were largely
‘made in the USA’,” but he doesn’t discuss Chomsky’s evidence or case and
distorts his position as Chomsky gives weight to the reciprocity and two-sided
character of the Cold War.

Rieff also can
not refrain from dredging up the Faurisson case, although it has no relevance to
the book under review. He refers to Faurisson’s “obscene denials” of the
existence of Nazi extermination camps, and goes on to say that Chomsky was, by
all accounts, defending free speech, not Faurisson’s beliefs. “But Chom- sky’s
unwillingness to make this distinction publicly is a florid example of the way
he has always courted misunderstanding.” Rieff’s statement here is a brazen lie:
Chomsky not only made public statements of the distinction in hundreds of
letters, speeches, and to anybody in the media asking him about the point, he
had a prominent article in the Nation that made the point repeatedly and
was even featured in the article’s title (“His right to say it,” the Nation,
February 28, 1981).

Earlier in 1991,
Rieff had reviewed Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education, a key
work in the rightwing attack on the academy in the “political correctness”
campaign of 1990-1991 (“A War Of Ideology On The Campus,” Newsday, March
31, 1991). He found nothing grim or incantory or obscene about this sleazy
rightwing diatribe—for Rieff it was a “remarkable new account of the ideological
wars now wracking American college campuses,” but not a part of that war, which
it surely was. For Rieff, D’Souza’s book was “important,” “a fine book,” and
“perhaps the best account of the multicultural follies we have had so far.”

Rieff, not
Chomsky, was the man the Nation mobilized to write on “humanitarian
intervention” on May 8, 2000, where he offered Nation readers the
remarkable insight that humanitarian intervention, called by its right name, “is
war.” For purposes of this liberal magazine he explained further, “however
understandable the motivations, and however good the intentions of those who
advocate it, humanitarian intervention is not, cannot be and should not be
presented as a species of crime-stopping. It is war-making” and nothing can
change this reality. Kofi Annan’s call for a systematic regime of humanitarian
war “is wrong.” Nowhere in this stream of bullshit does Rieff mention that he
was a passionate supporter of the NATO war in Kosovo and its violent efforts
earlier. As usual, he found that rhetoric and dishonesty is the best policy.

Using Polls

In the prelude to
the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the New York Times
steered clear of featuring polls on what the public thought of that legislation.
It was surely not a coincidence that the paper’s editors and pundits favored the
agreement, whereas the polls showed the public hostile. Now, with the Bush
administration about to beat up another small country, and the Times’s
editors and pundits in favor, the paper has twice given front page coverage to
polls that suggest that the public is gung-ho for war.

The propaganda
service of the paper in stoking war fever runs deep and its use and misuse of
polls is a facet of its overall pro-war slant. Focusing here only on its use of
polls, first of all, featuring polls on whether people want to go to war in the
immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks and in the midst of an obvious wave
of public anger and fear is deeply irresponsible, feeding a war hysteria that
might dissipate in more normal conditions.

there is serious bias in the structure of the poll taken by the paper and in its
reporting of the results. The latest front-page report on the poll features the
positive 92 percent sample response to the question: “Do you think the United
States should take military action against whoever is responsible for the
attacks?” (Richard Berke and Janet Elder, “Poll Finds Support for War and Fear
on Economy,” September 25, 2001.) But the text indicates that the public thinks
the country should “wait until it is certain who is reponsible for the acts,”
and on the back page continuation of the article it appears that 78 percent
think the country should wait and only 17 percent call for an immediate military
response. Given that the Bush administration was displaying a strong inclination
to act quickly, the featuring of the 92 percent and muting of the 78 percent
figure is irresponsible and war- mongering bias.

It is also
noteworthy that in its questions the paper never offers the public options to
military action, such as whether the United States should first seek remedies
via extradition measures, supported by diplomacy; whether it shouldn’t first go
through UN channels to pressure any country found to harbor those who organized
the terrorist actions; or whether it should not seek redress via an
international tribunal. The questions also never ask the public whether the
United States should act militarily if this would violate international law. The
questions also do not ask whether the United States should engage in military
action if this would kill large numbers of innocent civilians in the target

These are all
matters that the paper had already slighted in its news and editorials—it had
given miniscule attention to the non- military possibilities or to the
requirements of international law, and in discussing the possible military
action its focus was on the difficulty of finding useful targets and possible
hazards to the U.S. attackers. So, having featured with overwhelming intensity
the hurt received by this country in the attacks, and portrayed the world as one
of U.S. innocence betrayed by the forces of evil, the paper had once again
pushed the country toward war, with an efficiency that Pravda could not
have surpassed.

This great
country sure takes on formidable enemies—Iraq, Panama, Serbia, Grenada, and now
Afghanistan, another enemy state in the Grenada size class (economically, not in
population). Afghanistan’s GDP is reportedly about $21 billion; ours is
approaching 10 trillion, a 500 to 1 differential. They have two old war
planes—which may even be jets—and millions of starving people. So here is the
United States assembling a vast armada, surrounding this pathetic enemy with an
overkill that gives the word “bully” a new meaning. In the nuthouse, where the
establishment and populace are looking everywhere for terrorists, this buildup
and threat to beat up the tiny victim arouses no anger or repulsion in the
mainstream. The pitiful giant’s bullying is now not only a just cause, it is an
infinitely just cause.

George W. Bush
had described the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon as “cowardly,”
although the 19 active participants sacrificed their lives in this enterprise.
The comedian Bill Maher got into trouble on his “Politically Incorrect” program
by suggesting that the U.S. “zero casualties” war strategy of dropping missiles
on people from 2,000 miles away was possibly less brave than being willing to
die in a kamikaze attack. Maher was quickly under attack and was forced to
apologize for his politically incorrect thought, but the crime was so serious
that his program on ABC is reportedly in jeopardy. How can a person dare to say
such a thing in a free and open society? He not only expected to have freedom
but actually to put it to use.

Taking Out

In the wake of the
terrorist attacks, Bush, Wolfowitz, and Rumsfeld, with a happy echo from
right-wing pundits, vowed to “take out” and “end” states providing a safe harbor
for terrorists. Of course, some of the terrorists seem to have received training
in Florida, so I guess its lucky George W.’s brother is governor down there. But
Florida and Washington, DC have also for decades provided a safe harbor to a
Cuban terror network and they still protect Class 1 terrorists like Orlando
Bosch and Carlos Posada. On Bush’s taking out criteria, Florida would be gone.

And Washington,
DC, as well. My God, where was the safe harbor for the Nicaragua contras in the
1980s? Who supported the El Salvador terror state and who has provided a safe
harbor to the Savadoran generals who oversaw the rape-murder of five U.S.
religious women in 1980, along with the slaughter of maybe 30,000 Salvadoran
civilians? (And Bush has now made John Negraponte, one of the onsite and
hands-on managers of Central American terrorism in the 1980s into the U.S.
Ambassador to the UN, to help in the Administration’s campaign against
terrorism.) Who aided the terrorist Jonas Savimbi and “constructively engaged”
(i.e., gave steady support to) apartheid South Africa, one of the great
terrorist states of the past half century? This is just for starters.

You will not see
the slightest hint in the mainstream media that taking out safe harbors for
terrorists, if done across the board, would result in the “ending” of this great
country. This is inconceivable for the establishment media, just as they have
never admitted that the real terror network of the 1970s and 1980s was U.S.—
rather than Soviet-sponsored. If you pressed them on a specific case, like
supporting Savimbi and the contras, and helping put in place a terrorist
government such as that which ruled Guatemala for decades after our 1954
sponsored invasion, they would perhaps acknowledge that maybe in some sense we
were once a safe harbor. But that was in the past, and supporting the butcher of
Sabra and Shatila in Israel and the occupied territories right now they would
not admit to be providing a safe harbor for terrorists. Right now we do not
support terrorists—we only did it by a sad mischance in the past.

New Evil

The security
establishment took a heavy hit with the WTC and Pentagon attacks. With a
national defense budget of over $300 billion and intelligence outlays of $30
billion, our protectors were unable to prevent a long-planned terrorist
operation that had worked largely within the United States and involved the
seizure of planes at two different airports. Once the action got under way, the
security system failed even to stop an attack on the Pentagon.

But with the help
of the mainstream media and loyal opposition Democrats, the military-industrial
complex has turned defeat into a spectacular triumph. Instead of criticizing the
performance of the security establishment and demanding some radical
restructuring and firings, it was quickly decided that this was all the fault of
Senator Frank Church’s overzealous investigation of the CIA and its abuses and
failures, along with the work of the other pacifists and false economizers who
had limited the funding and ability of the CIA and FBI to subvert the
Constitution in the search for subversion. So what we needed was more money and
legal rights for official subversion.

Still more
important, after the initial shock of their humiliation and failure, the MIC and
right wing realized that this event was a godsend. They had been searching
desperately since the collapse of the Soviet Union for a new national security
threat that would justify a gigantic military establishment and provide a basis
for an internal repressive apparatus and limits on dissent.

Global terrorism
fits the bill beautifully— even better than the Soviet threat because this one
is diffuse, hard to identify, with an enemy possibly anywhere. The threat is
therefore open-ended and paranoia-inducing. They might send missiles or the guy
next door might be about to terminate you with extreme prejudice. Perfect. Our
material welfare may suffer, our infrastructure may decay, the environment may
continue its downward course, vast numbers may die of disease, starvation, and
war, but we will have lots of National Defense and we are in for exciting times.