The illusion of a free press
Superb independent journalist Jonathan Cook recently wrote a thoughtful piece on what he termed the “Great Western Narrative,” the deceitful storyline that we digest on a daily basis from our media about America’s role in the world. It’s a devil with a thousand names. It’s what evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers calls a “false historical narrative.” What Adolf Hitler called the “big lie.” It’s what French sociologist Jacques Ellul said we privately crave, implying a level of complicity few would freely acknowledge. And it’s what Noam Chomsky said were “necessary illusions.” That winsome fable that keeps us docile and distracted while the timeless tale of bloodshed for bounty is written just over the horizon.
The Official Line
George Orwell explained that “who controls the past controls the future...and who controls the present controls the past.” He seemed to mean that those who control the truth, control the people. Once you’ve colonized truth, there is no need to colonize anything else. Your work is done, since perceived truth is often the motive cause of action. Presently the United States government controls the official interpretation of the truth, and it essentially claims that the U.S., as set forth in its founding charters and exemplified through its long history, is a faithful evangelist of individual liberty and free-market democracy, sharing its exceptional boon with the curious, chiding the disinterested, and reluctantly prodding the incalcitrant to quit their crimes and join the community of enlightened nations, where human liberty blooms in full. This is the mental medicine that the public must swallow, a poison pill that forestalls the engines of revolution.
Peerless Australian journalist and filmmaker John Pilger explains why that story is a fairy tale:
“Since 1945, more than a third of the membership of the United Nations–69 countries–have suffered some or all of the following at the hands of America’s modern fascism: they have been invaded, their governments overthrown, their popular movements suppressed, their elections subverted, their people bombed and their economies stripped of all protection, their societies subjected to a crippling siege known as ‘sanctions’.”
These are the crimson facts that must be converted into an optimistic tale of good intentions. A tale that wins the acceptance of the populace, without which these forms of imperial brutality could not be effected, at least not without considerable friction.
Taking Stock: A Cast of Characters
Critical to achieving popular consent is the need for a mix of approving voices. To create a sufficient ecosystem of affirmation, you’ll need both anecdotal and analytical proofs. Hit the emotional chord and the logical chord one after another. Heartstrings and data graphs. This is not a new model of ‘manufacturing consent’, as Walter Lippmann called it in his seminal Public Opinion in 1922. It has long been a tactic of those in advertising, marketing, and public relations. It always helps, when selling a product, to have a diverse selection of legitimating voices. Authority helps. Peers help. Crowd support helps. Insiders help. You’ll see the same model at work in advertising today. Two out of three doctors recommend. Four stars from 550 customer reviews. Seventy-five percent of respondents preferred. In two double-blind clinical studies. As someone who suffers from, I trust.
Taking the instructive case of the Syrian War, let’s look at a handful of the characters the mainstream media has deposited into their false historical narrative. Gathered from mid- to late-April, listen to the media flog imperial fictions about Syria’s Bashar Al Assad and a chemical attack that was neither verified or attributed, and later found to most likely be a false flag. What’s important here is that a diversity of voices share a common view.
- Naturally, one needs to hear from a respectable member of K Street, that thoroughfare of think tanks that act like a grist mill for national policy. A foot soldier from warmongering Atlantic Council (Faysal Itani) sketches Assad as a kind of rodent, pinned in the back of a tunnel, prepared to wait out an aggressive but impatient predator. Witness the New York Timesflogging White Helmets (al-Qaeda media department) imagery to promote a probable false flag, all while whittling down an entire army of patriotic soldiers to an effigy of Bashar Al Assad, twisting demonically in the chem-laden breeze. The article hews to the prescribed talking point of the 24-hour news cycle: the administration’s lack of a ‘coherent strategy,’ a nuanced way of calling for more than a show of strength.
- A fair-haired Congressman with a principled stance would be a helpful addition. Cue Lindsey Graham, the loquacious Senator, who was hardly so restrained as Itani, calling for Assad’s assassination on Twitter (once, of course, the country’s air force was obliterated). Perhaps Graham can dust off the blueprint for Libyan chaos from seven years ago. Such a simple plan: Security Council resolution, scope creep, murder, regime change. Fast forward to slave auctions on some dusky square in Sirte.
- A bit of irony is always useful, particularly at the Times, where a sense of milquetoast decorum is a brand asset. It keeps the reader from assuming the op-ed pages are filled with a raging pack of humorless warmongers. On cue, cartoonists with long faces joined the fray, implying that even without a chemical weapons false flag, ‘intervention’ would be acceptable.
- Follow that with something grave and heart-rending, preferably the voice of someone on the ground in the conflict zone or, barring that, an embittered exile. Enter Abdulhamid Qabbani, a rueful Syrian refugee who is afforded considerable column inches, presumably because he is said to be one of the humble nonviolent protesters from 2011, a reference to the authentic unrest in Syria that is repeatedly and erroneously conflated with the ignition point of the war. It was not. The injection of lethally armed jihadis by the West was the tipping point. But that is not the point of Qabbani’s op-ed. Rather, he laments his grandmother’s status, her home destroyed, one presumes by her own government, while the “world looks away” and will doubtless fail her again and again. An ugly and regrettable story, but one which is cynically published to help direct the narrative finger-pointing away from Washington in the subtlest of ways.
- Well, there’d be no consensus without a risible byline from wild-eyed Zionist. The NYT opinion page then welcomes the author of a book called “Rise and Kill First,” a supposedly riveting account of how the IDF, Mossad, Caesarea, and Shin Bet take the Talmudic maxim to heart and slaughter first, all while tackling those “thorny ethical questions” that occasionally arise during a brutal occupation. This correspondent chides Israel for not observing its “duty to defend Syrians,” naturally taking on hearsay that the Syrian Arab Army gleefully slaughters its own.
Of course, the readership must also hear from a familiar face. Enter quotidian op-ed flack Bret Stephens, who enthusiastically joins the chorus of armchair warriors. Stephens is no stranger to taking bold positions. He has previously argued that Americans don’t deserve men of iron principle like John McCain; he told Palestinians they should blame themselves for their troubles; he calls Kim Jong-un a cheater and deceiver; he believes Donald Trump is courageous; and he claims Iran already violated the JCPOA, thereby legitimizing America’s exit from the “lousy deal.” Not one to disappoint, here Stephens writes of his desire for “severe” consequences for the users of chemical weapons (assumed to be Assad himself again). This thoughtful interlocutor of American foreign policy enthuses over the appointment of John Bolton, the man with the handlebar mustache (or is it an imperial?), as National Security Advisor. Stephens sees Bolton as the man who will unleash the administration, help it to assume its natural warlike posture, assemble a ‘coherent strategy’ (i.e., full-scale, long-term engagement), and finally attack. This strategy, if Stephens has his druthers, would include a “decapitation strike” on Assad and his lieutenants. How nice. The reader can gaze at his goateed face, a facsimile of equipoise, and perhaps decipher in it the oracular wisdom of the deep state.
- The institutional perspective never fails to deliver the gravitas of heavy brains in conclave. At CIA contractor Jeff Bezos' Washington Post, no less than the entire “Editorial Board” weighs in with considerable gusto. Only the board can opine from an institutional perspective, so their musings carry particular weight. It seems not to consider the import of its words, as it freely declares that “a few cruise missiles won’t change anything in Syria,” not least “Syria’s war crimes.” What is wanting, according to this groupthink primer, is a “concerted strategy” that protects “vital American interests.” Note the thematic consistency with the Times. The administration’s one-off missile attacks are simply insufficient to achieve durable changes in Syria.
- In case the ethical argument hasn’t been put home with sufficient force, the frightful voice of a true moral crusader can work wonders on the soft liberal sentiments of MSM readers. To accomplish this doughty task, The Guardian leaps aboard the Syrian Express with a belligerent screed from fearsome Simon Tisdall. Tisdall emphasizes both “morality” and “self-interest” side by side. Tisdall is on a moral crusade. He blames Assad--again, just the one man--for the crimes in Syria, implying the 500,000 deaths are largely his doing. (To reject that Assad started the war and has done the most slaughtering of innocents is not to declare his innocence; doubtless the SAA has killed civilians, as has Russia). It is assumed that he is slaughtering his own citizens because they are earnest rebels revolting against him, a claim longdebunked by countless alternative outlets and evenmainstream ones, which have conceded the armed opposition is jihadist and largely composed of foreigners. Tisdall falsely blames Assad for the 2013 Ghouta chemical weapons attack, which has beenshown by Seymour Hersh and others to have most likely been launched by the so-called “rebels.” Waiting for fact-finding UN missions amounts to “irresponsible obfuscation,” according to the frothing scribe.
The art department, not to be denied a chance to participate, adds a helpful illustration of a hand pouring a bottle of chemicals, replete with skull and crossbones, onto a city. Tisdall calls East Ghouta a “Syrian Srebrenica,” and says the lack of war is “our shared shame.” He conflates the shady Salisbury incident with the East Ghouta one, and puts them both down to “Russian meddling,” an cheap claim without a shred of evidence. Although Mad Simon stops short of demanding full-scale occupation, he does not mince words. For him, intervention, “...means destroying Assad’s combat planes, bombers, helicopters and ground facilities from the air. It means challenging Assad’s and Russia’s control of Syrian airspace. It means taking out Iranian military bases and batteries in Syria if they are used to prosecute the war.” We must also do this to “tell Israel it is not alone,” since $4B a year in military aid from Washington doesn’t do the trick. This is all a moral imperative, from Simon’s point of view. Like his Atlantic peers, he wants “concerted, sustained military action” because Trump’s last strike was “limited.” As Simon rails, “One feel-good bombfest does not a strategy make.” The argument is eerily on-point with aforementioned articles. The Times Editorial Board characterized it similarly by lamenting “the limits of bluster.” All of these articles deride Donald Trump’s supposed lack of a strategy, little more than a more nuanced way of calling for war.
An Aggregate Fraud
Note the diversity of sources we’ve touched upon: a conscientious academic; a sardonic political cartoonist; a grief-stricken exile; a hard-nosed foreign policy realist; and a moral crusader. All are of a singular mindset: we must attack Syria. To anyone reading the news at hand, namely the MSM, it seems a range of voices from across the social spectrum have found common ground. This is what Joseph Goebbels meant when he said the idea of propaganda was to "...to present an ostensible diversity behind which lies an actual uniformity." To that end, this array of voices are functional necessities of a successful propaganda campaign. (Without question, it is also necessary to shotgun these voices across corporate-owned media channels on a weekly basis in order for the story to stick.)
We are all influenced by it, whether we like it or not. In the book of literary critique from which this article takes its name, critic Harold Bloom said his work on influence was an attempt to “forge a weapon” against a “gathering storm of ideology.” We do need weapons of wit and irony and fact to wield in the battle against groupthink. Uncovering the banal techniques by which false narratives are shaped is one of those weapons. Seeing the mechanics of a thing often helps demystify it.
As Mark Fisher writes in Capitalist Realism, “...in order to operate effectively, capitalism’s rapacity depends upon various forms of sheathing.” If freedom and democracy are the movie posters that sheathe the reality of imperialism, then the onscreen mise-en-scene is populated by stock characters that supply the illusion of debate, of democracy in action. What it really is, is the insular consensus of a hidebound elite. Their children aren’t being deployed, their jobs aren’t being offshored, their paychecks aren’t being garnished. Nor are they witness to the societies they wreck. The peasants they showcase, like a wounded exile during a SOTU speech, are just stage props to be discarded once they’ve served their purpose. It is, as Christopher Hitchens wrote, the manipulation of populism by elitism, sold to us at price others must pay. Caveat emptor.
Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and recent author ofImperial Fictions, a collection of essays from between 2015-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Parting shot—a word from the editors