Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Chapter 3: The Bounds of the Expressible Segment 5/8
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The basic presuppositions of discourse include those just reviewed: U.S. foreign policy is guided by a "yearning for democracy" and general benevolent intent; history and the secret planning record may tell a rather different story, but they are off the media agenda. It follows that the use of force can only be an exercise in self-defense and that those who try to resist must be aggressors, even in their own lands. What is more, no country has the right of self-defense against U.S. attack, and the United States has the natural right to impose its will, by force if necessary and feasible. These doctrines need not be expressed, apart from periodic odes to our awesome nobility of purpose. Rather, they are simply presupposed, setting the bounds of discourse, and among the properly educated, the bounds of thinkable thought.

In the first chapter, I mentioned some of the ways of approaching the study of the media and evaluating models of media performance. One appropriate method is to consider the spectrum of opinion allowed expression. According to the propaganda model, one would expect the spectrum to be bounded by the consensus of powerful elites while encouraging tactical debate within it. Again, the model is well confirmed.

Consider U.S. policy with regard to Nicaragua, a topic that has probably elicited more controversy and impassioned rhetoric than any other during the past several years. There is debate between the hawks and the doves. The position of the hawks is expressed by a joint declaration of the State and Defense Departments on International Human Rights Day in December 1986: "in the American continent, there is no regime more barbaric and bloody, no regime that violates human rights in a manner more constant and permanent, than the Sandinista regime." Similar sentiments are voiced in the media and political system, and it follows that we should support the "democratic resistance" to Communist terror. At the other extreme, the doves generally agree that we should dismiss the World Court, the United Nations, and other "hostile forums" that pander to Communists and pathological Third World anti-Americanism. They offer their support for the "noble objective" of the Reagan administration -- "to somehow `democratize' Nicaragua" -- but they feel that the contras "are not the instrument that will achieve that objective" (Representative Michael Barnes, one of the most outspoken critics of the contra option).36 A leading Senate dove, Alan Cranston, recognizes that "the Contra effort is woefully inadequate to achieve...democracy in Nicaragua," so we should find other means to "isolate" the "reprehensible" government in Managua and "leave it to fester in its own juices" while blocking Sandinista efforts "to export violent revolution."37

Media doves observe that "Mr. Reagan's policy of supporting [the contras] is a clear failure," so we should "acquiesce in some negotiated regional arrangement that would be enforced by Nicaragua's neighbors" (Tom Wicker).38 Expressing the same thought, the editors of the Washington Post see the contras as "an imperfect instrument," so we must find other means to "fit Nicaragua back into a Central American mode" and impose "reasonable conduct by a regional standard." We must also recognize that "the Sandinistas are communists of the Cuban or Soviet school" and "a serious menace -- to civil peace and democracy in Nicaragua and the stability and security of the region." We must "contain...the Sandinistas' aggressive thrust" and demand "credible evidence of reduced Sandinista support for El Salvador's guerrillas."39 None of this is debatable: it "is a given; it is true," the editors proclaim. It is therefore irrelevant, for example, that Reagan administration efforts to provide evidence for their charges of Nicaraguan support for El Salvador's guerrillas were dismissed as without merit by the World Court, and in fact barely merit derision. At the outer limits of dissent, Nation columnist Jefferson Morley wrote in the New York Times that we should recognize that Nicaragua may be "beyond the reach of our good intentions."40

Other doves feel that we should not too quickly reject the State Department argument that agricultural cooperatives are legitimate targets for contra attacks, because "in a Marxist society geared up for war, there are no clear lines separating officials, soldiers and civilians"; what is required is careful "cost-benefit analysis," a determination of "the amount of blood and misery that will be poured in, and the likelihood that democracy will emerge at the other end" (New Republic editor Michael Kinsley).41 Neither Kinsley nor the State Department explain why similar arguments do not justify attacks by Abu Nidal on Israeli kibbutzim, far better defended against an incomparably lesser threat. And it is naturally taken to be our right, as rulers of the world, to carry out the cost-benefit analysis and to pour in blood and misery if we determine that the likelihood of "democracy" is sufficiently high.

Notice that for the doves it is obvious without comment that there is no need to impose "regional arrangements" on our Salvadoran and Guatemalan friends, who have slaughtered perhaps 150,000 people during this period, or our clients in Honduras, who kill fewer outright but have left hundreds of thousands to starve to death while the country exports food for the profit of agribusiness. We need not "isolate" these admirable figures or "leave them to fester in their own juices." Their countries already conform to the "Central American mode" of repression, exploitation, and rule by privileged elements that accede to the demands of U.S. power ("democracy"), so even hideous atrocities are of no account; and they merit aid and enthusiastic backing, accompanied by occasional sighs of regret over the violent tendencies in these backward societies if the terror, torture, and mutilation that we organize and support become too visible to ignore or attack the wrong targets (Christian Democrat political figures rather than union and peasant organizers, for example).

By 1986, the contra option was opposed by 80 percent of "leaders," polls report.42 The propaganda model would therefore predict debate over contra aid but near unanimity in opposition to the Sandinistas. To test the hypothesis, consider the period of maximum intensity of debate over Nicaragua policy, the first three months of 1986, when attention was focused on the issue of contra aid. During these months, the New York Times and the Washington Post ran no fewer than eighty-five opinion columns on the matter (including regular columnists). As expected, they were divided over contra aid. But of the eighty-five columns, eighty-five were critical of the Sandinistas, the overwhelming majority harshly so; thus close to 100 percent conformity was achieved on the major issue.

It is not that more sympathetic voices are lacking in the mainstream. There are many who would easily qualify for admission to the forum if they had the right things to say,43 including Latin American scholars whose opinion pieces are regularly rejected, or the charitable development agency Oxfam, with long experience in the region, which found Nicaragua's record to be "exceptional" among the seventy-six developing countries in which it works in the commitment of the political leadership "to improving the condition of the people and encouraging their active participation in the development process."

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36 See Culture of Terrorism for references on Barnes and many similar examples. Barnes was regarded as "the ring leader" of the congressional opposition to the illegal Reagan administration programs of domestic propaganda and contra terror. He had to be "destroyed" politically as an "object lesson to others," according to memos of one of the "private" affiliates of these operations (run by Carl Channell, who pleaded guilty for serving as a conduit for tax-exempt money for contra weapons). Barnes was defeated after an ad campaign run by Channell depicting him as a Sandinista sympathizer, a message not lost on Congress. See Parry and Kornbluh, op. cit.

37 U.S. Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Feb. 27, 1986.

38 NYT, March 14, 1986.

39 Editorial, WP Weekly, March 1, 1986.

40 New York Times Book Review, April 12, 1987. See letters, Z Magazine, January 1989, for Morley's interpretation of the quoted phrase.

41 Wall Street Journal, March 26, 1987.

42 John E. Rielly, ed., American Public Opinion and U.S. Foreign Policy 1987, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, March 1987. "Leaders" are defined as "prominent individuals in the United States from government, business, labor, academia, the mass media, religious institutions, private foreign policy organizations and special interest groups."

43 For a sample, see Culture of Terrorism, chapter 11.