Pirates and Emperors is a brilliant exploration of the role of the United States in the Middle East that exposes how the media manipulates public opinion about what constitutes "terrorism." Chomsky masterfully argues that appreciating the differences between state terror and nongovernmental terror is crucial to stopping terrorism and understanding why atrocities like the bombing of the World Trade Center and the killing of the Charlie Hebdo journalists happen.
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About the Author
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston. A member of the American Academy of Science, he has published widely in both linguistics and current affairs. His books include At War with Asia, Towards a New Cold War, Fateful Triangle: The U. S., Israel and the Palestinians, Necessary Illusions, Hegemony or Survival, Deterring Democracy, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy and Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.
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Thought Control: The Case of the Middle East (1986)
From a comparative perspective, the United States is unusual if not unique in its lack of restraints on freedom of expression. It is also unusual in the range and effectiveness of the methods employed to restrain freedom of thought. The two phenomena are related. Liberal democratic theorists have long observed that in a society where the voice of the people is heard, elite groups must ensure that that voice says the right things. The less the state is able to employ violence in defense of the interests of elite groups that effectively dominate it, the more it becomes necessary to devise techniques of "manufacture of consent," in the words of Walter Lippmann over 60 years ago, or "engineering of consent," the phrase preferred by Edward Bernays, one of the founding fathers of the American Public Relations industry.
In the entry on "propaganda" in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences in 1933, Harold Lasswell explained that we must not succumb to "democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests." We must find ways to ensure that they endorse the decisions made by their far-sighted leaders — a lesson learned long before by dominant elites, the rise of the Public Relations industry being a notable illustration. Where obedience is guaranteed by violence, rulers may tend towards a "behaviorist" conception: it is enough that people obey; what they think does not matter too much. Where the state lacks adequate means of coercion, it is important to control what people think as well.
The attitude is common among intellectuals across the political spectrum, and is regularly maintained when they shift across this spectrum as circumstances dictate. A version was expressed by the highly respected moralist and political commentator Reinhold Niebuhr when he wrote in 1932 — then from a Christian left perspective — that given "the stupidity of the average man," it is the responsibility of "cool observers" to provide the "necessary illusion" that provides the faith that must be instilled in the minds of the less endowed. The doctrine is also familiar in its Leninist version, as in American social science and liberal commentary generally. Consider the bombing of Libya in April 1986. We read without surprise that it was a public relations success in the United States. It "is playing well in Peoria" and its "positive political impact" should "strengthen President Reagan's hand in dealing with Congress on issues like the military budget and aid to Nicaraguan 'Contras'." "This sort of public education campaign is the essence of statecraft," according to Dr. Everett Ladd, a leading academic public opinion specialist, who added that a president "must be engaged in the engineering of democratic consent," the inspired Orwellism common in public relations and academic circles to refer to the methods for undermining meaningful democratic participation in shaping public policy.
The problem of "engineering democratic consent" arises in a particularly sharp form when state policy is indefensible, and becomes serious to the extent that the issues are serious. There is no doubt about the seriousness of the issues arising in the Middle East, particularly the Arab–Israeli conflict, which is commonly — and plausibly — judged the most likely "tinderbox" that might set off a terminal nuclear war as regional conflict engages the superpowers, as has come too close for comfort in the past. Furthermore, U.S. policy has contributed materially to maintaining the state of military confrontation and is based on implicit racist assumptions that would not be tolerated if stated openly. There is also a marked divergence between popular attitudes, generally supportive of a Palestinian state when the question is raised in polls, and state policy, which explicitly bars this option, though the divergence is of little moment as long as the politically active and articulate elements of the population maintain proper discipline. To assure this outcome, it is necessary to conduct what American historians called "historical engineering" when they lent their talents to the Wilson Administration during World War I in one of the early exercises of organized "manufacture of consent." There is a variety of ways in which this result is achieved.
One method is to devise an appropriate form of Newspeak in which crucial terms have a technical sense, divorced from their ordinary meanings. Consider, for example, the term "peace process." In its technical sense, as used in the mass media and scholarship generally in the United States, it refers to peace proposals advanced by the U.S. government. Right-thinking people hope that Jordan will join the peace process; that is, will accept U.S. dictates. The Big Question is whether the PLO will agree to join the peace process, or can be granted admission to this ceremony. The headline of a review of the "peace process" by Bernard Gwertzman in the New York Times reads: "Are the Palestinians Ready to Seek Peace?" In the normal sense of the term "peace," the answer is of course "Yes." Everyone seeks peace, on their own terms; Hitler, for example, surely sought peace in 1939, on his terms. But in the system of thought control, the question means something else: Are the Palestinians ready to accept U.S. terms for peace? These terms happen to deny them the right of national self-determination, but unwillingness to accept this consequence demonstrates that the Palestinians do not seek peace, in the technical sense.
Note that it is unnecessary for Gwertzman to ask whether the United States or Israel is "ready to seek peace." For the U.S., this is true by definition, and the conventions of responsible journalism entail that the same must be true for a well-behaved client-state.
Gwertzman asserts further that the PLO has always rejected "any talk of negotiated peace with Israel." That is false, but it is true in the world of "necessary illusion" constructed by the Newspaper of Record, which, along with other responsible journals, has either suppressed the relevant facts or relegated them to Orwell's useful memory hole.
Of course, there are Arab peace proposals, including PLO proposals, but they are not part of the "peace process." Thus, in a review of "Two Decades of Seeking Peace in the Middle East," Times Jerusalem correspondent Thomas Friedman excludes the major Arab (including PLO) peace proposals; no Israeli proposals are listed, because no serious ones have been advanced, a fact not discussed.
What is the character of the official "peace process" and the Arab proposals that are excluded from it? Before answering this question, we must clarify another technical term: "rejectionism." In its Orwellian usage, this term refers exclusively to the position of Arabs who deny the right of national self-determination to Israeli Jews, or who refuse to accept Israel's "right to exist," a novel and ingenious concept designed to bar Palestinians from the "peace process" by demonstrating the "extremism" of those who refuse to concede the justice of what they see as the robbery of their homeland, and who insist upon the traditional view — the view adopted by the reigning ideological system in the United States as well as prevailing international practice with regard to every state apart from Israel — that while states are recognized within the international order, their abstract "right to exist" is not.
There are elements in the Arab world to which the term "rejectionist" applies: Libya, the minority Rejection Front of the PLO, and others. But it should not escape notice that in official Newspeak, the term is used in a strictly racist sense. Abandoning such assumptions, we observe that there are two groups that claim the right of national self-determination in the former Palestine: the indigenous population and the Jewish settlers who largely displaced them, at times with considerable violence. Presumably, the indigenous population have rights comparable to those of the Jewish immigrants (some might argue that this does not go far enough, but I put that issue to the side). If so, then the term "rejectionism" should be used to refer to denial of the right of national self-determination to one or the other of the competing national groups. But the term cannot be used in its non-racist sense within the U.S. doctrinal system, or it will be seen at once that the U.S. and Israel lead the rejectionist camp.
With these clarifications, we can turn to the question: what is the "peace process"?
The official "peace process" is explicitly rejectionist, including the United States and both major political groupings in Israel. Their rejectionism is, in fact, so extreme that the Palestinians are not even to be permitted to select their own representatives in eventual negotiations about their fate — just as they are denied municipal elections or other democratic forms under the Israeli military occupation. Is there a non-rejectionist peace proposal on the agenda? In the U.S. doctrinal system, the answer is of course "No," by definition. In the real world, matters are different. The basic terms of this proposal are familiar, reflecting a broad international consensus: they include a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip alongside Israel and the principle that "it is essential to ensure the security and sovereignty of all states of the region including those of Israel."
The quoted words are those of Leonid Brezhnev in an address to the Soviet Communist Party Congress of February 1981, expressing the consistent Soviet position. Brezhnev's speech was excerpted in the New York Times with these crucial segments omitted; cuts in a Reagan post-summit statement in Pravda evoked much justified indignation. In April 1981, Brezhnev's statement was unanimously endorsed by the PLO, but the fact was not reported in the Times. Official doctrine holds that the Soviet Union, as always, is concerned only to cause trouble and block peace, and thus supports Arab rejectionism and extremism. The media dutifully fulfill their assigned role.
One might cite other examples. In October 1977, a joint Carter–Brezhnev statement called for the "termination of the state of war and establishment of normal peaceful relations" between Israel and its neighbors. This was endorsed by the PLO, and withdrawn by Carter after a furious reaction by Israel and its American lobby. In January 1976, Jordan, Syria and Egypt supported a proposal for a two-state settlement debated by the Security Council of the United Nations. The resolution incorporated the essential wording of UN 242, the core document of relevant diplomacy, guaranteeing the right of every state in the region "to live in peace within secure and recognized borders." The proposal was endorsed by the PLO; according to Israel's President Chaim Herzog (then UN Ambassador), it was "prepared" by the PLO. It was backed by virtually the entire world, and vetoed by the United States.
Much of this has been eliminated from history, in journalism and scholarship. The 1976 international initiative is not even mentioned in the unusually careful review by Seth Tillman in his book The United States and the Middle East (Indiana, 1982). It is mentioned by Steven Spiegel in his The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict (Chicago, 1985, p. 306), a highly regarded work of scholarship, along with some interesting commentary. Spiegel writes that the U.S. "vetoed the pro-Palestinian resolution" so as "to demonstrate that the United States was willing to hear Palestinian aspirations but would not accede to demands that threatened Israel." The commitment to U.S.–Israeli rejectionism could hardly be clearer, and is accepted as quite proper in the United States, along with the principle that demands that threaten the Palestinians are entirely legitimate, indeed praiseworthy: the terms of the official "peace process," for example. In public discussion, it is a matter of doctrine that the Arab states and the PLO have never veered from their refusal to come to terms with Israel in any fashion, apart from Sadat, with his trip to Jerusalem in 1977. Facts need be no embarrassment, or even mild annoyance, to a well-functioning system of "historical engineering."
Israel's reaction to the 1976 peace proposal backed by the PLO and the Arab "confrontation states" was to bomb Lebanon (without a pretense of "retaliation," except against the UN Security Council), killing over 50 people, and to announce that Israel would enter into no dealings with any Palestinians on any political issue. This was the dovish Labor government headed by Yitzhak Rabin, who, in his memoirs, identifies two forms of "extremism": that of the Begin government, and the proposal of "the Palestinian extremists (basically the PLO)," namely, "to create a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip." Only the Labor Party style of rejectionism departs from "extremism," a point of view shared by American commentators.
We note another pair of Newspeak concepts: "extremist" and "moderate," the latter referring to those who accept the position of the United States, the former to those who do not. The American position is thus by definition moderate, as is that of the Israeli Labor coalition (generally), since its rhetoric tends to approximate that of the United States. Rabin thus conforms to approved practice in his use of the terms "moderate" and "extremist." Similarly, in an anguished review of "extremism" and its ascendance, New York Times Israel correspondent Thomas Friedman includes under this rubric those who advocate a non-racist settlement in accord with the international consensus, while the Western leaders of the rejectionist camp, who also hold a commanding lead in terrorist operations, are the "moderates"; by definition, one might add. Friedman writes that "Extremists have always been much better at exploiting the media." He is quite right; Israel and the U.S. have shown unparalleled mastery of this art, as his own articles and news reports indicate. His convenient version of history and the conceptual framework of his reporting, as just illustrated, provide a few of the many examples of the success of extremists in "exploiting the media" — now using the term in its literal sense.
In adopting a conceptual framework designed to exclude comprehension of the facts and issues, the Times follows the practice of Israeli models such as Rabin, who achieve the status of "moderates" by virtue of their general conformity to U.S. government demands. It is, correspondingly, entirely natural that when Friedman reviews "Two Decades of Seeking Peace in the Mideast," major proposals rejected by the U.S. and Israel are omitted as inappropriate for the historical record. Meanwhile the Israeli leaders are praised by the Times editors for their "healthy pragmatism" while the PLO is denounced for standing in the way of peace.
It is, incidentally, a staple of the ideological system that the media are highly critical of Israel and the U.S. and are far too forthcoming in their tolerance of Arab extremists. The fact that such statements can even be made without evoking ridicule is another sign of the extraordinary successes of the system of indoctrination.
Returning to the official "extremists," in April–May 1984, Yasser Arafat issued a series of statements calling for negotiations leading to mutual recognition. The national press refused to publish the facts; the Times even banned letters referring to them, while continuing to denounce the "extremist" Arafat for blocking a peaceful settlement.
These and many other examples illustrate that there are nonrejectionist proposals that are widely supported; with some variations, by most of Europe, the USSR, the non-aligned states, the major Arab states and the mainstream of the PLO, and a majority of American public opinion (to judge by the few existing polls). But they are not part of the peace process because the U.S. government opposes them. The examples cited are thus excluded from the Times review of "Two Decades of Seeking Peace," and from the journalistic and even scholarly literature fairly generally.
There are other incidents that do not qualify as part of the peace process. Thus, the Times review does not mention Anwar Sadat's offer of a full peace treaty on the internationally recognized borders — in accord with official U.S. policy at the time — in February 1971, rejected by Israel with U.S. backing. Note that this proposal was rejectionist in that it offered nothing to the Palestinians. In his memoirs, Henry Kissinger explains his thinking at that time: "Until some Arab state showed a willingness to separate from the Soviets, or the Soviets were prepared to dissociate from the maximum Arab program, we had no reason to modify our policy" of "stalemate." The USSR was extremist, in the technical sense, supporting what happened to be official (though not operative) U.S. policy, which was remote from "the maximum Arab program." Kissinger was right to say that such Arab states as Saudi Arabia refused to "separate from the Soviets," though he did not observe, and appears to have been unaware, that this would have been a logical impossibility: Saudi Arabia did not even have diplomatic relations with the USSR and never had. The impressive discipline of the media and scholarship is revealed by the fact that these astonishing statements escape comment, just as no responsible commentator is likely to point out that Kissinger's blissful ignorance and insistence on military confrontation were primary factors that led to the 1973 war.
Excerpted from "Pirates and Emperors, Old and New"
Copyright © 2002 Noam Chomsky.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents
Preface to the 2015 Edition vii
Preface to the First Edition xiii
1 Thought Control: The Case of the Middle East 25
2 Middle East Terrorism and the American Ideological System 49
3 Libya in U.S. Demonology 105
4 The U.S. Role in the Middle East 135
5 International Terrorism: Image and Reality 155
6 The World after September 11 187
7 U.S./Israel-Palestine 207