Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Chapter 3: The Bounds of the Expressible Segment 6/8
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Or consider the founder of Costa Rican democracy, José Figueres, who, just at that time, described himself in an interview as "pro-Sandinista" and "quite friendly toward the Sandinistas," though Costa Rica generally is not, because public opinion is "heavily influenced" by "the Costa Rican oligarchy" which "owns the newspapers and the radio stations." He added that the 2-to-1 margin in favor of the Sandinistas in the 1984 elections, which he witnessed as an observer, "certainly seemed to reflect what you find in the streets." Figueres condemned "Washington's incredible policies of persecuting the Sandinistas" and its efforts "to undo Costa Rica's social institutions" and to "turn our whole economy over to the businesspeople, the local oligarchy or to U.S. or European companies," though as a dedicated supporter of the United States, he found these efforts "no doubt well-intentioned." The United States is "turning most Central Americans into mercenaries" for its attack against Nicaragua, he continued. "I've been familiar with Nicaragua all my life," "and never before have I seen as I do now a Nicaraguan government that cares for its people." In another interview, he reiterated that "for the first time, Nicaragua has a government that cares for its people." Commenting on a recent visit, he said that he found "a surprising amount of support for the government" in this "invaded country," adding that the United States should allow the Sandinistas "to finish what they started in peace; they deserve it."44

Such comments lack ideological serviceability, as does Figueres's statement that he "understands why" La Prensa was closed, having censored the press himself when Costa Rica was under attack by Somoza. Hence, Central America's leading democratic figure must be censored out of the media, though his name may still be invoked for the anti-Sandinista crusade. Thus New York Times Central America correspondent James LeMoyne, in one of his anti-Sandinista diatribes, refers to Figueres as "the man who is widely considered the father of Costa Rican democracy," but does not tell us, nor would he or his colleagues ever tell us, what Figueres has to say about the Sandinistas.45

The front pages of the New York Times present a picture of Nicaragua as seen through the eyes of James LeMoyne as he passed through: a brutal and repressive state under "one-party rule" with "crowds of pot-bellied urchins in the streets," state security agents "ubiquitous" and the army "everywhere," growing support for the "peasant army" struggling against Sandinista oppression and the population reduced to "bitterness and apathy," though somehow resisting a foreign attack under which any other state in the region, and most elsewhere, would have quickly crumbled. They do not present the picture seen by Figueres, or by the CIA-appointed press spokesman for the contras, Edgar Chamorro, on a three-week visit just before LeMoyne's. Speaking to "dozens of people" in the streets after a Sandinista rally, Chamorro found them "very aware, very politically educated, very committed. They thought for themselves; they were there because they wanted to be there." "The days are gone when a dictator can get up and harangue people." "What I have seen here is very, very positive, people are walking on their own two feet," regaining the "dignity and nationalism" they had lost under Somoza. The contras are "like the Gurkhas in India," with the "colonial mentality" of those "fighting for the empire." He spoke on radio and television in Managua, saying "whatever I thought," criticizing Marxism-Leninism. He saw "very little militarization" and "a deep sense of equality," "one of the accomplishments of the revolution." "I didn't see people hungry"; "most people look very healthy, strong, alive," and he saw few beggars, unlike Honduras "or even in city streets in the US." The opposition are the old oligarchy, "reliant on the United States." The war has led to a sense of "nationalism, patriotism" on the part of the youth who are drafted. The Sandinistas continue to be a "people's party," with commitments and goals "that inspire so many people." They are "Nicaraguan nationalists, revolutionaries," who "want a more egalitarian model, to improve the lives of the majority." The elections were "good," the government is "legitimate," and we should "try and change from inside." After leaving the contras, Chamorro adds elsewhere, he lost the easy media access of his contra days.46

Readers of the New York Times do not receive a range of perceptions such as these, but only one: the one that accords with the needs of the state.

A year after these visits, severe malnutrition began to appear in Managua and parts of the countryside, as U.S. terror and economic warfare continued to take their bitter toll in a pathetically poor country, which, for obvious historical and geopolitical reasons, is utterly dependent on economic relations with the United States. George Shultz, Elliott Abrams, and their cohorts may not have overthrown the government, but they can take pride in having vanquished the programs of development, preventive medical care, and welfare that had offered hope to the poor majority for the first time. Their achievements can be measured by the significant increase in dying infants, epidemics, and other normal features of the "Central American mode" to which Nicaragua is to be "restored" by U.S. benevolence.47 The propaganda system may cover their tracks today, but history will render a different judgment.

Returning to the eighty-five opinion columns in the Times and the Post, even more interesting than the uniform hostility to the Sandinistas was the choice of topics. There are two very striking differences between the Sandinistas and the U.S. favorites who adhere to "regional standards." The first is that the Sandinistas, whatever their sins, had not conducted campaigns of mass slaughter, torture, mutilation, and general terror to traumatize the population. In the eighty-five columns, there is not a single phrase referring to this matter, an illustration of its importance in American political culture. The second major difference is that the Sandinistas diverted resources to the poor majority and attempted measures of meaningful social reform -- quite successfully, in fact, until U.S. economic and military warfare succeeded in reversing the unwelcome improvement in health and welfare standards, literacy, and development. These facts merit two passing phrases in eighty-five columns, one in a bitter condemnation of the "generally appalling leadership" in this "repressive society." There is no word on the fact that, unlike U.S. clients, the Sandinistas had protected the poor from starvation, eliciting much scorn about their economic mismanagement -- scorn that is withheld from Honduras, which permits peasants to starve en masse while exporting specialty crops and beef to the United States, and from U.S. policymakers, who imposed development policies on Central America that produced statistical growth (eliciting much self-congratulation) and starvation (about which we hear much less). There is also no mention of Sandinista efforts to maintain a neutralist posture -- for example, of the trade figures at the time of the U.S. embargo that virtually wiped out private business and helped reduce the economy to bare survival: Nicaraguan trade with the Soviet bloc was then at the same level as U.S. trade with these countries and well below that of Europe and most of the Third World.48

Such matters are unhelpful for required doctrine, thus better ignored.

More generally, all of the eighty-five columns stay safely within the approved bounds. Even the few contributors who elsewhere have taken an independent stance do not do so here.49

A reader brought the published study of the spectrum of expressible opinion to the attention of Times dove Tom Wicker, who devoted part of a column to denouncing it.50 He gave two reasons for dismissing the study. First, he saw "no reason why I have to praise the Sandinistas," which is quite true, and entirely irrelevant. As was clear and explicit, the individual contributions were not at issue but rather the range of permitted views; the question is not whether Wicker should be granted the opportunity to express his opinion that a "regional arrangement" must be imposed on Nicaragua alone and enforced by the U.S. terror states, but whether, in a free press, the spectrum of opinion should be bounded by this position, as the extreme of permissible dissent from government policy. Wicker's second reason was that "criticism by foot-rule and calculator is often as simplistic as the reportage it purports to measure." Curious to learn whether Wicker had some methodological or other critique to support this judgment, I wrote him a series of letters of inquiry, eliciting no response, from which I can only conclude that his objection is to the very idea of conducting a rational inquiry into the functioning of the media. Note that his reaction, and the general dismissal of the extensive documentation supporting the propaganda model, is quite in accord with its predictions.51

Perhaps, nevertheless, this sample of the major journals at the peak period of debate is misleading. Let us turn then to another sample a year later. In the first six months of 1987, the same two journals ran sixty-one columns and editorials relevant to U.S. policy in Nicaragua. Of these, thirteen favored diplomatic measures over contra aid, saying nothing about the Sandinistas. Of the forty-eight that expressed an opinion, forty-six were anti-Sandinista, again, most of them bitterly so. Of these, eighteen were pro-contra and twenty-eight anti-contra, primarily on the grounds that the contras were inept and could not win, or that the U.S. goal of "forc[ing] the Sandinista revolution into the American democratic mold" might not be worth "the risk" (John Oakes of the New York Times, at the dissident extreme52). Of the two columns that expressed some sympathy for the Sandinistas, one was by Nicaraguan ambassador Carlos Tunnerman, the other by Dr. Kevin Cahill, director of the tropical disease center at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, the only non-Nicaraguan commentator who could draw upon personal experience in Nicaragua and elsewhere in the Third World53; his was also the only column that took note of the successful Nicaraguan health and literacy measures and the "struggle against oppression and corruption" waged under conditions of extreme adversity imposed by U.S. terror and economic warfare. Cahill's is one of the two contributions among sixty-one that mention the World Court decision and international law; two others, one by Tunnerman, refer to them obliquely. These facts reflect the attitude towards the rule of law in the dominant intellectual culture. We read that the United States "is working through the contras to restore democracy to Nicaragua and break the Sandinistas' Cuban and Soviet ties" and that Washington's role is "to help contain the spread of the Sandinista revolution beyond Nicaragua" (the editors of the Washington Post, who suggest that the United States test the Latin American consensus that "there is a better chance of reining in the Sandinistas by political envelopment than by military assault"). And we are treated to charges of "genocide" of the Miskito Indians (William Buckley, who concedes that the Sandinistas have not yet reached the level of Pol Pot, though they are plainly heading that way). But apart from Cahill, we read not a word about the constructive policies that were successfully pursued, and that, in the real world, elicited U.S. terror to "rein in the Sandinistas" -- another inexpressible thought.54

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44 Andrew Reding, interview with Figueres, World Policy Review, Spring 1986; Culture of Terrorism, 206-7, for longer excerpts from an interview published by COHA, Washington Report on the Hemisphere, Oct. 1, 1986.

45 NYT Magazine, Jan. 10, 1988.

46 James LeMoyne, "Bitterness and Apathy in Nicaragua," NYT, Dec. 29, 1987. Chamorro, Update, Central American Historical Institute, Georgetown University, Nov. 13, 1987; Extra! (FAIR), Oct./Nov. 1987. Having been in Managua at just the time that LeMoyne stopped by briefly, I am personally aware of how distorted his rendition was. Others with personal experience will draw their own conclusions. The point, however, is that it is LeMoyne's version, not other reactions, that can reach the general public. Only certain kinds of responses -- in fact, those that conform to the conditions of the propaganda model -- pass through the media filter, with only occasional exceptions.

47 Mary Speck, "Nicaragua's Economic Decline Takes Toll on Health," Miami Herald, Sept. 15, 1988; William Branigin, "Let Them Eat Fruit Rinds," Washington Post Weekly, Oct. 10-16, 1988. Consistent with the media policy of downplaying the U.S. role in Nicaragua's distress, Branigin alleges that a June 1988 poll shows that only 19 percent of Managua residents regard "U.S. aggression in any of its forms" as "the main cause" of the economic problems. But, relying on a secondary source, he misread the poll results (see appendix IV, section 5). The question asked was to identify "the country's main economic problems." Two-thirds of respondents selected inflation, shortage of goods, low wages, deficient production, and "other"; 8 percent selected "bad government"; and Branigin's 19 percent chose "war," "economic blockade," or "aggression." Plainly, the responses were heterogeneous. Doubtless many of the 67 percent who identified specific economic problems would have agreed that they were attributable to U.S. intervention and economic warfare; even right-wing pro-Somoza businessmen are clear about this matter.

48 Thomas W. Walker, Nicaragua (Westview, 1986, 67).

49 See my introduction to Morris Morley and James Petras, The Reagan Administration and Nicaragua, Institute of Media Analysis, Monograph Series No. 1 (New York, 1987), for a detailed survey, noting some marginal exceptions and nuances and also discussing one of the more outlandish contributions, that of Ronald Radosh, now in his "God that failed" phase and therefore with ready access to the media, previously denied. Also my chapter "U.S. Polity and Society: the Lessons of Nicaragua" in Thomas Walker, ed., Reagan versus the Sandinistas (Westview, 1987).

50 NYT, Dec. 31, 1987.

51 See Appendix I for discussion of these predictions.

52 NYT, Feb. 10.

53 NYT, Feb. 14.

54 Editorials, WP, Jan. 9, March ll; Buckley, WP, May 21, 1987.