The Mainstream and the Margins: Noam Chomsky vs. Michael Parenti

Noam Chomsky is, as anyone reading this knows, a linguist, MIT professor, and the English-speaking world’s foremost radical dissident intellectual. Chomsky’s work in this latter capacity is so well-documented that it’s not necessary to recapitulate too much—however, a few choice high notes include decades of criticism of US foreign policy, some decent commentary on then-President-elect Barack Obama at a time nearly all of the Western commentariat had turned into a deranged Borg-like collective, and producing the second comprehensive study of corporate constraints on the media along with Edward Herman. As co-author of Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky provided a model illuminating the “political economy of the mass media,” and from this research came a great deal of very useful and incisive media criticism on issues like how concision and sound-bites help the status quo and why a journalist can be both genuine and compromised. Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model purports to show how five corporate filters enable the mass media’s owners to ensure that their interests are expressed. In this way, according to the two, democracies manufacture consent through seamlessly delivered propaganda, the way totalitarian societies do so by coercion and force.

According to Chomsky’s many high-profile boosters, his own experiences belie the myth of a “free” American press. “You’d hardly need a clearer example of his model of how dissenting views are filtered out of the western media than his own case,” writes Guardian columnist Seumas Milne, “Not surprisingly, he has been repaid with either denunciation or, far more typically, silence.” According to physicist Mano Singham, on the subject of “the attempted silencing of Noam Chomsky,” “growing up in Sri Lanka, I would find his articles and essays in the mainstream media quite regularly. But when I first came to the US in 1975, I found him completely absent from the major print and TV media and discovered that his writings were confined to niche publications.” For all his alleged silencing, by Singham’s own account, Chomsky was a relatively constant presence in Sri Lankan media. If an American intellectual enjoys a prominent platform in a country 10,000 miles from the US, where only 10% of the population speaks fluent English, it makes one wonder what the margins or obscurity actually look like. Similarly, while he may not be a daily fixture on cable news, Chomsky is regularly asked to opine at length on the issues of the day for a slew of venues ranging from centrist to lefty, from The Guardian and countless university symposia to Democracy Now! and Jacobin magazine. Right now, Netflix is recommending me two feature-length documentaries on the great dissident, both released in the past few years (Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? and the grimly named Requiem for the American Dream), with another seven currently in production according to IMDb. By way of adducing Chomsky’s invisibility, Milne says that the professor “is the closest thing in the English-speaking world to an intellectual superstar…he is entertained by presidents, addresses the UN general assembly and commands a mass international audience…His books sell in their hundreds of thousands, [and] he is mobbed by students as a celebrity.” I can’t speak for my fellow WordPress radicals, but as someone who has made precisely zero dollars after writing hundreds of thousands of words of criticism, being even a micron as ignored as Chomsky sounds both lucrative and validating.

As mentioned earlier, Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent was the second comprehensive look at how the media’s owners determine what is broadcast. As early as 1845, Karl Marx explained that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.” Though there are many books probing the nature of broadcast media, Michael Parenti’s Inventing Reality (1986) was the first to provide an in-depth analysis of the corporate nature of the media using Marx’s dictum as a thesis. Despite Herman and Chomsky’s book coming two years later, the two don’t mention Parenti at all, instead thanking Australian psychologist Alex Carey for inspiring their work (John Pilger, perhaps revealingly, credits Carey as a “second Orwell”). Even a cursory glance at Inventing Reality’s contents reveals extensive similarities between Parenti’s analysis and that of Herman and Chomsky—hearing Parenti discuss his book at length further cements the commonalities. In fact, beyond these two works, Chomsky and Parenti share a great deal alike. Like his superstar counterpart, Parenti has produced mountains of scholarship and given dozens of easily accessible speeches and presentations. Parenti has been a strident critic of capitalism and imperialism for decades, writing over two dozen books on nearly every conceivable issue that relates to those subjects. In a neat biographical synchronicity, both are even octogenarian New Yorkers. However, unlike Chomsky, Parenti can’t claim everyone from Bono to Radiohead as prominent fans. Chomsky’s influence is particularly felt now during the interminable American election cycle; as Kevin Dooley points out in an excellent post on Chomsky, he “is always at his most visible during election season,” when he can be found churning out almost-weekly interviews warning about the dangers of not voting Democrat. Video of Noam Chomsky’s latest event was uploaded less than a week ago, from a discussion with former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis held at the New York Public Library; in contrast, Parenti’s last uploaded speech was from a decidedly more low-key affair held at a Canadian university in 2014.

All this is to say that, despite their similar territory and Chomsky’s reputation, Noam Chomsky looks very much like a mainstream figure, and the label of marginalized outsider would be applied more appropriately to Parenti. A 2005 issue of the liberal American Prospect magazine, for instance, defined Chomsky and Dick Cheney as the two extremes in American political life. To one who is skeptical of Chomsky’s outsider reputation, he looks less like a silenced dissident and more like the leftmost margin of permissible criticism—the point at which an idea decisively departs the realm of mainstream acceptability and automatically becomes tinfoil-hat territory. If their scholarship on media filters and corporate ownership is to mean anything, it means that there is a reason for this, and it has to do with their respective positions and service (or lack thereof) to those in power. This piece is not meant to be a comprehensive analysis of Chomsky’s career, or the history that brought him to his sinecure as the West’s pre-eminent radical thinker. There are much more focused pieces touching on these issues, which will be linked throughout and shared again at the end. This is meant as a look at some of the areas where Noam Chomsky and Michael Parenti differ most visibly in their analysis and biases. Given their similarities, comparing the two provides a rare opportunity at substitution analysis: to quote Chomsky himself, “you can’t do experiments in history, but here history was kind enough to set one up for us.” In short, the differences in Chomsky versus Parenti’s positions makes for a useful case study in what ideas genuinely make one a candidate for marginalization, versus what ideas are actually quite acceptable despite their transgressive veneers.

This post will be quite long, as it is made of six different parts. A table of contents is below, use it to either skip ahead or open that part in its own post:

Part 1: Inept Empire

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Part 2: “Conspiracy Theorism”

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Part 3: Support For “Actually Existing” Systems – Anti-Communism

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Part 4: Support For “Actually Existing” Systems – Humanitarian Interventions 

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Part 5: Lesser Evilism

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Part 6: Description vs. Prescription 

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