Democracy's invisible line
The US writer Noam Chomsky talks about the mechanisms behind modern communication, an essential instrument of government in democratic countries - as important to our governments as propaganda is to a dictatorship.
By Noam Chomsky and Daniel Mermet
DM: Let's start with the media issue. In the May 2005 referendum on the European constitution, most newspapers in France supported a yes vote, yet 55% of the electorate voted no. This suggests there is a limit to how far the media can manipulate public opinion. Do you think voters were also saying no to the media?
NC: It's a complex subject, but the little in-depth research carried out in this field suggests that, in fact, the media exert greater influence over the most highly educated fraction of the population. Mass public opinion seems less influenced by the line adopted by the media.
Take the eventuality of a war against Iran. Three-quarters of Americans think the United States should stop its military threats and concentrate on reaching agreement by diplomatic means. Surveys carried out by western pollsters suggest that public opinion in Iran and the US is also moving closer on some aspects of the nuclear issue. The vast majority of the population of both countries think that the area from Israel to Iran should be completely clear of nuclear weapons, including those held by US forces operating in the region. But you would have to search long and hard to find this kind of information in the media.
The main political parties in either country do not defend this view either. If Iran and the US were true democracies, in which the majority really decided public policy, they would undoubtedly have already solved the current nuclear disagreement. And there are other similar instances. Look at the US federal budget. Most Americans want less military spending and more welfare expenditure, credits for the United Nations, and economic and international humanitarian aid. They also want to cancel the tax reductions decided by President George Bush for the benefit of the biggest taxpayers.
On all these topics, White House policy is completely at odds with what public opinion wants. But the media rarely publish the polls that highlight this persistent public opposition. Not only are citizens excluded from political power, they are also kept in a state of ignorance as to the true state of public opinion. There is growing international concern about the massive US double deficit affecting trade and the budget. But both are closely linked to a third deficit, the democratic deficit that is constantly growing, not only in the US but all over the western world.
DM: When a leading journalist or TV news presenter is asked whether they are subject to pressure or censorship, they say they are completely free to express their own opinions. So how does thought control work in a democratic society? We know how it works in dictatorships.
NC: As you say, journalists immediately reply: "No one has been exerting any pressure on me. I write what I want." And it's true. But if they defended positions contrary to the dominant norm, someone else would soon be writing editorials in their place. Obviously it is not a hard-and-fast rule: the US press sometimes publishes even my work, and the US is not a totalitarian country. But anyone who fails to fulfil certain minimum requirements does not stand a chance of becoming an established commentator.
It is one of the big differences between the propaganda system of a totalitarian state and the way democratic societies go about things. Exaggerating slightly, in totalitarian countries the state decides the official line and everyone must then comply. Democratic societies operate differently. The line is never presented as such, merely implied. This involves brainwashing people who are still at liberty. Even the passionate debates in the main media stay within the bounds of commonly accepted, implicit rules, which sideline a large number of contrary views. The system of control in democratic societies is extremely effective. We do not notice the line any more than we notice the air we breathe. We sometimes even imagine we are seeing a lively debate. The system of control is much more powerful than in totalitarian systems.
Look at Germany in the early 1930s. We tend to forget that it was the most advanced country in Europe, taking the lead in art, science, technology, literature and philosophy. Then, in no time at all, it suffered a complete reversal of fortune and became the most barbaric, murderous state in human history. All that was achieved by using fear: fear of the Bolsheviks, the Jews, the Americans, the Gypsies - everyone who, according to the Nazis, was threatening the core values of European culture and the direct descendants of Greek civilisation (as the philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote in 1935). However, most of the German media who inundated the population with these messages were using marketing techniques developed by US advertising agents.