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Manufacturing Dissent

Activists and opinion-formers on the Left and Right have been persuaded that living under anything besides the kind of governance they want means they’ve been cheated.

· 9 min read
Manufacturing Dissent
Philosopher, author and political activist, Noam Chomsky, addresses the audience (in a remote call) at Altice Arena Centre Stage during the closing day of the Web Summit 2022, Lisbon, Portugal, 4th November, 2022. Alamy

Everyone hates the media, and everyone sounds like a talking head.
~George Packer, “The Hardest Vote

It’s all Noam Chomsky's fault. Well, it’s not directly his fault, but Chomsky’s influence on generations of pundits, political junkies, and ordinary people has been wider than anyone 40 years ago might have hoped or feared. A scholar of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chomsky gained international renown with his trenchant criticisms of American foreign policy from the 1960s onward. He also issued warnings about the power and influence of propaganda and mass manipulation in open societies that reached an even greater public, including many who had never read his books or checked his research. Today, a sampling of his observations, once eagerly endorsed by intellectuals and alt-rock fans, sounds like the staple complaints of MAGA Republicans and truck blockaders:

But apart from educated elites, much of the population appears to regard the government as an instrument of power beyond their influence and control. (From Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies)
See, in most parts of the society, you’re encouraged to defer to experts - we all do it more than we should. (From Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky)
The dominant class recognized that they had to shift their tactics to control of attitudes and beliefs instead of just the cudgel. They didn’t throw away the cudgel, but it can’t do what it used to do. You have to control attitudes and beliefs. (From Occupy)
[The state has] to control what people think. And the standard way to do this is to resort to what in more honest days used to be called propaganda. Manufacture of consent. Creation of necessary illusions. Various ways of either marginalizing the general public or reducing them to apathy in some fashion. (From Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media)
It is also important to understand that privileged and powerful sectors in society have never liked democracy, for good reasons. Democracy places power in the hands of the population and takes it away from them. In fact, the privileged and powerful classes of this country have always sought to find ways to limit power from being placed in the hands of the general population. (From Optimism Over Despair: On Capitalism, Empire, and Social Change)
[I]f a political leader says that “I’m doing this in the national interest,” you’re supposed to feel good because that’s for me. However, if you look closely, it turns out that the national interest is not defined as what’s in the interest of the entire population; it’s what’s in the interests of small, dominant elites who happen to be able to command the resources that enable them to control the state. (From Language and Politics)
[T]hose who occupy managerial positions in the media, or gain status within them as commentators, belong to the same privileged elites, and might be expected to share the perceptions, aspirations, and attitudes of their associates, reflecting their own class interests as well. (From Necessary Illusions)

Though these pronouncements sprang from their author’s political leftism, they have been echoed in tracts from the political Right, including Ann Coulter’s Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right (2002), Bernard Goldberg’s Arrogance: Rescuing America From the Media Elite (2003), Gregg Jackson’s Conservative Comebacks to Liberal Lies (2006), Tim Groseclose’s Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind (2011), Derek Hunter’s Outrage, Inc: How the Liberal Mob Ruined Science, Journalism, and Hollywood (2018), Jeanine Pirro’s Liars, Leakers, and Liberals: The Case Against the Anti-Trump Conspiracy (2018), L. Brent Bozell’s Unmasked: Big Media’s War Against Trump (2019), Mark Dice’s The Liberal Media Industrial Complex (2019), and Amber Athey’s The Snowflakes’ Revolt: How Woke Millennials Hijacked American Media (2023).

Along with the unironic “Fair and Balanced” branding of Fox News, and the late radio host Rush Limbaugh’s routine denunciations of a vague, sinister force identified only as “The Media,” these polemics seem to derive from Chomsky’s fearful suspicions about the control and indoctrination exercised by news, education, and entertainment. Ann Coulter and the producers of Fox News didn’t need to quote Noam Chomsky directly in support of their own positions—indeed, they may never have read him at all. But somewhere along the line, they and their peers—and their audiences—absorbed Chomsky’s message.

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