Noam Chomsky on propaganda & “necessary illusions”

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky (born in 1928) is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and political activist

Seers and mystics have said this world is an illusion.  This often seemed like poetic talk to me–a romantic or metaphysical way of looking at things.

But on an ordinary human level, MIT Professor Noam Chomsky has suggested that much of large-scale politics and “the news” really is an illusion, in the most concrete and manufactured sense:

Over sixty years ago, Walter Lippman discussed the concept of “the manufacture of consent,” an art that may lead to a “revolution” in “the practice of democracy”.  The idea was taken up with much enthusiasm in business circles– it is a main preoccupation of the public relations industry, whose leading figure, Edward Bernays [pictured below], described “the engineering of consent” as the very essence of democracy.

In fact, as Gabriel Kolko notes, “from the turn of the century [i.e. 1900] until this day… [the public mind] was the object of a cultural and ideological industry that was as unrelenting as it was diverse:  ranging from the school to the press to mass culture in its multitudinous dimensions.”  The reason, as an AT&T vice president put it in 1909, is that “the public mind… is in my judgment the only serious danger confronting the company.”

Edward Bernays

Edward Bernays (1891-1995) was the founder of the public relations, or “PR”, industry. He wrote in 1928: “The conscious manipulation of the habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power.” [emphasis added]

The idea was also taken up with vigor in the social sciences.  The leading political scientist Harold Lasswell wrote in 1933 that we must avoid “democratic dogmatisms” such as the belief that people are “the best judges of their own interests.”. . .  Propaganda is to democracy what violence is to totalitarianism.  The techniques have been honed to a fine art, far beyond anything that Orwell dreamt of.  The device of feigned dissent, incorporating the doctrines of the state religion and eliminating rational critical discussion, is one of the more subtle means, though more crude techniques are also widely used and are highly effective in protecting us from seeing what we observe, from knowledge and understanding of the world in which we live. . . .

For those who stubbornly seek freedom, there can be no more urgent task than to come to understand the mechanisms and practices of indoctrination.  These are easy to perceive in the totalitarian societies, much less so in the system of “brainwashing under freedom” to which we are subjected and which all too often we serve as willing or unwitting instruments.

[Exerpted from The Chomsky Reader, by Noam Chomsky.  Edited by James Peck.  New York:  Pantheon Books, 1987.  As listed on The Basket of Tolerance by Adi Da Samraj. Bold added by BoT Student.]

I also recommend another article on this website: How mind (control) works: perception is shaped by assumption which gives some clear examples.

Questions for consideration:

  • What does Mr. Chomsky mean when he says “propaganda is to democracy what violence is to totalitarianism”?  That sounds pretty radical to me, almost shocking, compared to what I was taught in school & on TV.
  • Does the mass media tend to prevent you from “seeing what you observe” or understanding the world in which you live?
  • If there’s any truth to Mr. Chomsky’s research–if there’s a reason to believe politicians and tv pundits won’t take care of us or make everything all right–then what can we put our trust in?

P.S. Here’s a line from a book I read last year that agrees with Chomsky’s views on propaganda:  Only everybody all-at-once can change the current chaos.”Not-Two Is Peace

BoT Student

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