Chomsky vs the Media, 2020 version

Chomsky signed a letter about free speech and something called “cancel culture“, which has prompted a small social media wave of responses.

There is a good piece by Jonathan Cook about how focusing on Chomsky’s signature misses the point. But I am going to focus only on Chomsky here.

My argument: Chomsky’s most powerful message is anti-imperialism. Containing that message has been the preoccupation of the propaganda system since the 1960s.

In 1973, they shut down a whole company and pulped the print run of his book with Ed Herman, Counter-Revolutionary Violence.

Mostly, though after the peak of protests, he was just driven out of the mainstream. He published with activist publishers and the alternative media.

Like Z Magazine and ZNet, one of the principals of whom was Michael Albert, who’s now… a podcaster.

Beyond marginalizing him, they also smeared him. Because he compared Indonesia’s Timor massacres to Cambodia massacres, they called him denialist.

A French publisher slapped a free speech essay he wrote on a holocaust denier’s book, and they smeared him about that.

In the 1990s, a new generation of people discovered Chomsky on the web. The web was different then. Not fully sealed up by the tech giants.

Chomsky’s influence grew and some of the alternative media also grew and became mainstream or close. By the time of the Afghanistan War 2001, he could no longer be marginalized.

Indeed it became a good careerist move to make a showy denunciation of Chomsky in the mainstream. It worked for Samantha Power, for example.

A hilarious 2005 interview by Emma Brockes in the Guardian resulted in a very extensive corrections page that was basically a retraction.

Johann Hari, who went somewhat downhill and then turned around and did some good work since, invented a comment by Chomsky at a luncheon.

George Monbiot did the same in the 2010s, and others.

These are just off the top of my head and intended to reveal the particular way that Chomsky was handled by the mainstream in the 2000s: try to introduce inaccuracies and falsehoods; prove your liberal credentials by denouncing Chomsky the leftist.

Chomsky’s influence didn’t stop, but the whole media ecosystem that he analyzed has changed. So has the strategy for containing him.

The strategy today is to select the views that he holds that are closest to the mainstream and amplify those, while de-emphasizing the anti-imperialism.

That’s what the Intercept does when it sends someone to interview Chomsky on how Biden is the lesser evil.

That’s what the new “cancel culture” petition is about.

Yes, Chomsky is a free speech absolutist, he’s a lesser-evilist on electoral politics, he’s a two-stater on Palestine, he broadly prefers nonviolent strategies, and is critical of every state, including those targeted by imperialism.

But can find those views everywhere in the mainstream. They are not why people admire Chomsky and they are not why imperialists hate Chomsky.

Chomsky says that every US president is a war criminal.

Chomsky talks about the US sanctions against Cuba.

Chomsky talks about the US-led counterinsurgency in Colombia.

Activists in every anti-war movement in the US since the Vietnam war have relied on Chomsky’s analysis and arguments; including movements against Israel’s wars in Lebanon & Occupied Palestine.

Chomsky talks about how propaganda systems work and push for war.

Chomsky believes in challenging the reader or audience: in Canada, he talks about Canada’s crimes, because it’s cowardly to denounce crimes you can’t affect while doing nothing about crimes you can affect.

There’s much more. My point: Chomsky is a proven person of principle, impossible to deny. The Biden people, the “cancel culture” people, they want to use that to advance their agendas.

As they do so, they want you to forget the anti-imperialism that is what Chomsky is really about and has been about for 50 years.

This is just the 2020 iteration of the campaign to contain Chomsky’s anti-imperialism.

Whether you’re disappointed that Chomsky signed that letter or newly concerned about cancel culture because Chomsky signed the letter, consider this option – read enough of his work to get a sense of what it is about, and if you like his ideas, principles, and methods try to assimilate them into your world view.

AEP 57: Super-Wealth through the right mindset? A breakdown of Silicon Valley Ideology

Is wealth a matter of mindset?

I forced Dan to listen to naval (Naval Ravikant)’s twitter stream/podcast about How to Get Rich Without Luck or Inheritance. Naval’s twitterstorm inspired me to create one of my own, about the real strategies used by the super-wealthy (spoiler: they aren’t available to you). But we spend an hour talking about where these “how to get rich” methods fit into a bigger propaganda and ideology scheme, pushing people towards pyramid schemes; to despise unions, taxes, and collective solutions; and to feel like social failures are their own fault. 

SHOW NOTES

Here are my thirty five ways to get SUPER WEALTHY.

My Dad tells me that everywhere online and on TV there are Indian guys my age teaching you how to be rich (in at least one case, without luck). I won’t be left out! After extensive study, not one but 20+ ways to become not just rich, but super-rich. Here we go.

I am going to confine myself to the great countries of the Anglosphere, where opportunity is more abundant and where the wealthy don’t have to worry about authoritarianism, socialism, or taxes.

1. The first and best way to be wealthy is to inherit wealth.

2. The next reliable way to vast wealth is to win a war with an empire that is in decline, steal its entire treasury, and install a ruler who gives you rights to tax the population.

3. We are talking country-scale wealth here, folks. So, use hundreds of millions of other people’s money to sell a country’s currency short during a financial crisis. If you guessed right, you’re a billionaire. Wrong? It’s mostly other people’s money, it’s cool. (See: George Soros).

4. Own a bank.

5. If you own a bank, charge bank fees, trading fees, mutual fund management fees, etc. These will make you rich, whatever other games you can play with interest rates.

6. Get a big contract with the government – say, to rebuild an occupied country.

7. Get a big contract with the military – supply a military with weapons. Look for countries that are violating human rights: these countries require weapons.

8. Obtain tax relief and government subsidies.

9. Install a monarch in power and obtain rights to the state-owned oil company. The general principle applies to other governments and resources.

10. Own the media.

11. Bank for organized crime.

12. Offer to overthrow an elected government (see: Silvercorp). Mercenaries make good money.

13. Have your friends in government privatize a previously public service: obtain a monopoly over that area.

14. De-fund and destroy public systems to offer expensive private alternatives. Especially good in higher education.

15. Avoid taxes using private jets, wine auctions, and rewriting tax codes.

16. Obtain government protection for intellectual property. It doesn’t matter who created that property, only that you get a government-protected monopoly.

17. Use your political position to personally enrich yourself and your companies.

18. Obtain board positions after being in office.

19. Do speaking tours after leaving office.

20. Start a speculative bubble, obviously. Below this: create fancy financial instruments and use them to create bubbles or suckers.

21. Run a pyramid scheme, of course.

22. Use fancy talk about disruption to seduce investors into giving you money. Lose money year after year while your valuation increases. Being profitable is irrelevant- real wealth is about making promises.

23. Sell dollars for 90 cents while your stock price increases (see: Amazon). Only do this if you want to become the wealthiest man in the universe.

24. Get everyone in the world to work producing content for you for free, then sell their attention to advertisers. By taking over the entire communication infrastructure for the world, you also obtain the entire advertising revenue.

25. Extract precious minerals from the earth, destroying irreplaceable ecosystems and local cultures. (see: gold in Guatemala).

26. Have the goverment create money and give it to you in astronomical amounts (see the recent bailout).

27. Rob banks in a country you occupy. Nice headline by the way, NYT. Thanks for that.

28. Rob banks, part 2.

29. Declare sanctions and steal from the sanctioned country.

30. Leveraged buyout: borrow money, buy a large corporation, and sell its assets – do asset stripping.

31. Be a vulture fund and sue countries in financial trouble.

32. Join the military in a country with a fragile democracy. Wait for the CIA to ask you to launch a coup.

33. Be born into the right social circle. Attend the right schools, join the right clubs. Never do anything to rock the boat. When you are made CEO, do exactly what everyone else does. Two years later, collect your golden parachute. Rinse and repeat.

34. Operate a sexual abuse network with undisclosed intelligence agencies [allegedly. Note this is a high-risk strategy].

35. Start with an inheritance, and use a mafia-connected lawyer to sue the government for hundreds of millions of dollars.

I am planning another twitterstorm about how to stay wealthy once you already are wealthy, so sign up for my EXCLUSIVE SEMINAR and I’ll teach you the secrets that ONLY THE RICHEST PEOPLE ON EARTH KNOW! (And everyone who looks them up).

AEP 54 – On the roots of structural racism in Canada: On the Meng Wanzhou case, part 2

The roots of Canadian structural racism

Lord Elgin, who gave Canada Responsible Government, also burned the summer palace in China during the British Empire’s Opium War. 

Sir John A. MacDonald sung the glories of the Aryan Race from the floor the House of Commons in 1885. 

The poem “White Canada Forever” was aimed specifically at the supposed “Yellow Peril”. 

And apparently the claws of the panda have sunk into Canadian society? Dan tried to read all the Canadian media coverage about the case since the BC Supreme court judgement and couldn’t find anything of interest in it. 

In this episode we talk about the relationship between racism and propaganda in the past hundred years of Canadian history, and how understanding what Canada is can help you understand the Meng Wanzhou case unfolding today. Part 2 of the series on Meng Wanzhou.

The Anti-Empire Project Episode 46: Biden and Imperial Propaganda

Justin and Dan talk about Biden and Imperial Propaganda

Dan and Justin start with the hectoring of the Bernie movement by liberals to vote Biden – including their sudden discovery of Chomsky,  who has always endorsed voting “the lesser evil”. From there, we talk about early 20th century propaganda in both its British and American imperial incarnations.

The Anti-Empire Project Episode 43: Two Chomskyites Trapped in 2020

Justin and Dan talk about Chomsky.

Justin and Dan (that’s Dan Freeman-Maloy, for new listeners) talk about Chomsky – and not just manufacturing consent, but Chomsky’s influence on their political thinking, where they might have tiny disagreements, and how they try to use Chomsky’s work to think through political problems in 2020.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does Bruce Lee wrong — and much else

Tarantino’s mastery seems to be in reading the mood and making a movie for it. His latest movie is perfect for the Trump era, based as it is in nostalgia for a racially homogeneous Hollywood.

The genre for Once Upon a Time… forces some choices on both the storyteller and the audience. The movie treats the day that actor Sharon Tate was murdered by followers of Charles Manson, but it reverses that murder and ends with Sharon and friends having a nice drink in her house after the would-be murderers have been eaten by a dog, bashed in on various surfaces of a house, and incinerated by flamethrowers. But the whole hook of the movie is its ability to evoke the Hollywood of 1969, which Tarantino clearly wants us to think was a good time. So, which parts of it were real and which were changed? These were the decisions Tarantino made, the consequences of which moviegoers have to suffer.

Here’s one decision I was wondering about. Since all the protagonists were white, did they not use casual racial slurs in their conversations with one another back then? They certainly are vitriolic towards the “f#@in hippies”. But I didn’t hear them use the n-word even once. No anti-Semitism among these paragons either. At Manson’s ranch, one of the villains, “Squeaky”, or “the red-head” tells Brad Pitt’s character that she “doesn’t want to be gypped” of her time watching TV with George, the ranch’s mostly incapacitated owner. “Gypped” is a racist term that implies that gypsies, or Roma, are thieves. Like the Jews, the Roma were targeted for extermination in the Nazi Holocaust, and indeed, the term “gypped” is used interchangeably with “jewed” by racists. Tarantino inserted the word “gypped”, presumably to add some verisimilitude about the casual racism with which people talked back then. So why no casual anti-Black racism or anti-Semitism, which was also the coin of the realm at the time? Tarantino used to do that, with anti-Black racism at least: Reservoir Dogs is full of n-bombs dropped by the white cast, in all kinds of shameful ways, with deniability for the storyteller to say, hey, I’m not racist, my characters are.

Aside from the protagonists’ hatred of the “f#@in hippies”, the film is all about not showing you anything of the 1960s social movements against the Vietnam War, the effects of the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panthers — or even the East L.A. Walkouts of 1968 or the Watts riots of 1965. The only mention of that context is when one of the Manson-following villains (played by Margaret Qualley), trying to seduce Pitt’s character (a Vietnam veteran), says that “real people are dying in Vietnam”. One of the would-be killers, who gets incinerated by Leonardo Di Caprio, delivers a critique of media violence before her attempted murder and elaborate death. 1969 Hollywood was a better, cleaner place, Tarantino is saying, with the only encroachments on this purity coming via a death cult of “f#@in hippies” (not via any real Black people or people with genuinely held anti-racist values).

On the theme of purity, Tarantino’s camera worships Margot Robbie’s angelic character, Sharon Tate, lingering on her golden hair, her pristine white boots and her beautiful smile as she dances and enjoys the audience reaction to her acting (a significant amount of the movie’s runtime is of Sharon Tate watching her own movie — which means a significant amount of the audience’s time is actually spent watching someone watch a movie). The camera follows Robbie (and Qualley in a different way, since she’s a bad) the way you’d see in a Michael Bay movie or a James Bond film, with Robbie as the good Bond girl and Qualley as the bad one.

And on Bond films: if Once Upon a Time… were a Bond film, the superspy role would go to Brad Pitt’s character, Vietnam veteran and possible wife-murderer Cliff Booth. And the main way we know of Cliff’s superpowers is by way of an encounter with Bruce Lee — for me, the most insulting part of this insulting film.

Bruce Lee is portrayed as a fan of Muhammad Ali, which of course he was. Bruce’s philosophy was to learn about fighting from every possible source. At that time, Muhammad Ali was displaying attributes and skills to astound anyone, but even more so a student of martial arts like Bruce. A story known by every Bruce Lee fan:

Another time Yeung, aka [Bolo] went to see Bruce at Golden Harvest Studios. Bruce was screening a Cassius Clay [Muhammad Ali] documentary. Ali was world heavyweight champion at the time and Bruce saw him as the greatest fighter of them all. The documentary showed Ali in several of his fights. Bruce set up a wide full-length mirror to reflect Ali’s image from the screen. Bruce was looking into the mirror, moving along with Ali.

Bruce’s right hand followed Ali’s right hand, Ali’s left foot followed Bruce’s left foot. Bruce was fighting in Ali’s shoes. “Everybody says I must fight Ali some day.” Bruce said, “I’m studying every move he makes. I’m getting to know how he thinks and moves.” Bruce knew he could never win a fight against Ali. “Look at my hand,” he said. “That’s a little Chinese hand. He’d kill me.”

Bruce was a keen teacher, and a great showman (see the videos of his martial arts demonstrations), but he was no braggart and he spent all his time picking apart and analyzing fighting methods, practicing them, and teaching them to others. So, of course, Tarantino portrays him exactly as a loudmouth braggart and a bully, who picks a fight with Brad Pitt’s strong, silent character on a set. The fight starts when this cartoon Bruce (in direct defiance of what the real Bruce believed and said) tells someone that he would turn Muhammad Ali “into a cripple” if they fought — this, Brad Pitt’s character cannot abide. So Bruce — who in real life reluctantly accepted challenges on-set from blowhards (ie., who was much more like Pitt’s character was portrayed) — fights Cliff, who gives the foreign braggart a good old-fashioned American beating.

In the real world, Bruce Lee faced a glass ceiling in the racist Hollywood of the time, despite his extraordinary gifts. Playing Kato in the Green Hornet, the story goes that Bruce refused the plan in a crossover episode to have his character defeated by Batman’s sidekick, Robin. No one would have believed it. Screenwriters changed the fight to a draw.

So, how would Brad Pitt’s character, a stuntman and Vietnam veteran, have approached a fight with Bruce? Presumably he would have been trained in the Army Combatives system at the time — a system Bruce knew and studied. Maybe Cliff also even knew American boxing and wrestling — which would have been no surprise to Bruce, who taught American students with these backgrounds. So, would Bruce have opened with a lot of fancy movement and kiai sounds and a flying sidekick, like he does in the movie? Would he have done that same kick after challenged by Cliff to do it again? What we know of how Bruce behaved in sparring situations says no (look at this YouTube MMA analyst’s breakdown of a sparring session). Nor would Bruce have reacted to Cliff’s attacks with stunned surprise: he was an experienced fighter who would have seen it all before.

It gets worse. Because in the fight choreography Tarantino chose for the scene, Pitt’s character actually uses wing-chun style close-quarters hand-fighting for a portion of the fight (this was the first style Bruce studied before developing his own). Pitt’s stance and movement incorporate moves that were introduced to North America by (the real) Bruce Lee, who did a lot to change and improve both real martial arts training and fight choreography. While disparaging the real Bruce, Tarantino freely uses his martial arts to make his movie look cool.

In the end, Bruce is just a stepping stone, a foreigner whose fancy moves are no match for the all-American hero, a foil to show the invincibility of the white protagonist. The very role the real Bruce chafed against his entire career.

There’s more to say about the class dynamics of the movie, the way in which Pitt’s working class character knows his place and is uncritically loyal and ever-grateful to Di Caprio’s upper class character. But I’ll leave that for someone else. I’ll just say that while this movie rewrites a gruesome murder and spares the actual victims, it is also an attempted murder on, among other historical realities, the real Bruce Lee.

The Ossington Circle Episode 32: The Wrong Story – Palestine, Israel, and the Media with Greg Shupak

The Ossington Circle Episode 32: The Wrong Story – Palestine, Israel, and the Media with Greg Shupak

I talk to Greg Shupak, author of The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel, and the Media. We use the Israel/Palestine story as a launching point for a technical discussion about tropes, frames, narratives, and propaganda, and about why and how to argue against it all. 

The future of mind control: How social media is supercharging the propaganda system

In their book Manufacturing Consent, the late Ed Herman and professor Noam Chomsky described how a privately owned free press could function as a propaganda system that deceived its readers quite as efficiently as a heavy-handed government censor.

Media corporations have hacked your social brain

In their propaganda model, information about the world had to pass through a series of filters before reaching the media’s audiences. These filters prevented dangerous ideas—like democracy, equality, and peace—from reaching the readers of mass media. They identified five of those filters: Concentrated media ownership helped ensure that media reflected the will of its wealthy, corporate owners; reliance on official sources forced journalists and editors to make compromises with the powerful to ensure continued access; shared ideological premises, including the hatred of official enemies, biased coverage toward the support of war; the advertising business model filtered out information that advertisers didn’t like; and an organized “flak” machine punished journalists who stepped out of line, threatening their careers.

When Herman and Chomsky created the propaganda model in the 1980s, they wrote about newspapers—what we now patronizingly call “legacy media.” The “legacy media” still wield influence, but things have evolved far beyond the five “filters” they identified: ownership, official sources, ideology, advertising revenue, and flak. In our media environment, these five filters have become supercharged. And new filters have refined propaganda into something more like mind control.

The Supercharging of Existing Media Filters

Ownership of media outlets is now supercharged and superconcentrated. It’s not the four or five media companies, but Big Tech that determines what you see. And Big Tech is even more concentrated: it’s Google (which owns YouTube) and Facebook (which owns WhatsApp and Instagram). The generous can give honorable mention to Twitter, with its few hundred million users (which dwarf the reach the “legacy media” had). In recent years tech billionaires have bought media companies too, such as the Washington Post (owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon), the Intercept (Pierre Omidyar of eBay), Time magazine (Marc Benioff of Salesforce), and the Atlantic (Laurene Powell Jobs of Apple).

Official Sources: Relying on official sources and the compromises needed to maintain access to those has long been a force behind media self-censorship. Media companies like Fox News have staked their fortunes on Trump’s ability to draw audiences to their networks. They have made Trump the ultimate official source and the ultimate news story. This has reduced the range of issues down to those that cross Trump’s limited attention span and narrowed the spectrum of debate (for and against Trump’s often absurd positions on the topics of the moment).

Ideology: Herman and Chomsky wrote about Cold War and War on Terror ideologies, but today’s ideological filter is worse than ever. Anticommunism might not have the force it had in the 1980s, but the New Cold War means that associations with Russia can be made to the same political effect as they had then. We also continue to have to hear about the importance of endless war, the endless generosity of police, the undeserving poor, and most of the other key premises that undergirded the media in the 1980s.

Advertising Revenue: The tech giants are advertising companies at their heart, and so all of the problems that came with the legacy media being driven by advertisers remain in the new environment. Two years ago a report out of Columbia University described the new business model of media, “the platform press,” in which technology platforms are the publishers of note, and these platforms “incentivize the spread of low-quality content over high-quality material.”

Beyond the boost to the propaganda system provided by the transition to a “platform press,” the new advertising ecosystem has led to an explosion of what could be called the fake internet: advertising companies can pay other companies for clicks; the production of content can be automated. Much of the internet, as writer Max Read puts it, is now “fake people with fake cookies and fake social-media accounts, fake-moving their fake cursors, fake-clicking on fake websites.” This provides the powerful with two distinct opportunities to mislead audiences: first, they can take advantage of the fake internet directly. Second, by posing as uniquely credible on an internet full of fakery, they can sell more sophisticated or subtle falsehoods.

Flak has become supercharged to the point where organized hate machines can be created and deployed against anyone at the drop of a hat, creating immense psychological pressure to silence independent voices. In November 2018, Indian student activist Shehla Rashid wrote devastatingly about both the organization of hate on Twitter and the effect it has on her:

“The hate that I get from pro-BJP accounts is organised. No sooner have I tweeted than hundreds of abusive, acerbic, mocking replies start appearing beneath—within 12 seconds, 17 seconds. It would be flattering if it weren’t scary. Also, there seems to be no way to avoid this. There is no method to the madness. Regardless of what I tweet, there is ‘instant abuse.’ It is not based on the content of what I write.”

This affects not just Rashid, but her followers on the social media platform: “If you want to genuinely engage with my post, you’ll think twice before replying to me, as it means that your day will be ruined by abusive trolls who will keep tagging you for hours or even days. You will find no support for me in the direct replies (except in the forms of retweets or favourites) and you’ll take whatever I say with a pinch of salt.”

Rashid feels stuck, as in an abusive relationship: “In times when electronic media has turned into a show of competitive bigotry, Twitter does provide activists like me with a platform to air our views. I have 427,400 followers on Twitter. This means that the trade-off between leaving Twitter and having a voice is too high. This points to a deeply abusive relationship that we have with Twitter. We have virtually been held hostage to its benefits.”

The New Media Filters

But the new environment has some powerful filters the old one didn’t. Here are three:

It’s Brought to You by a Cult: Earlier this year employees at Facebook described the ways in which the company’s performance review system, in which numerical ratings from colleagues are gathered by managers, leads to “cult-like” practices within the company. To get ahead in the company, employees must “act as though everything is fine and that we love working here,” even when they don’t. In authoritarian political systems, people must do what they’re told; in totalitarian systems, people must pretend to love the authority. Most corporations could be described as internally totalitarian, and so this may not be a “new” filter. But by recent reports, the most powerful social media corporation in the world is, internally, more totalitarian than most.

An Opaque Algorithm Controls What You See: Many researchers have pointed out how social media algorithms work to boost conspiracy theories, move users to more extreme content and positions, confirm the biases of the searcher, and incentivize the outrageous and offensive. These proprietary algorithms, which determine what you see, cannot be viewed, reverse-engineered, or understood. The media platforms that use them do so without any accountability. On the other hand, savvy political operators with resources can game the algorithm by creating ecosystems of links and platforming one another. This has been done so effectively on YouTube that, as the report Alternative Influence notes, the top 10 results for the phrase “social justice” are “criticisms of social justice from reactionary channels.”

They Have Hacked Your Social Brain: When you receive news on Facebook, even though it comes from a small number of corporate sources or advertisers, you are receiving it from your friends, and so it comes with additional trust that you never had in “legacy media.”

One of Facebook’s founders, Sean Parker, said that Facebook’s goal was to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible,” and that it did so by giving users “a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments.” The point was to create “a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

If that were not enough, social media platforms can hack your mood directly. In 2014, it was revealed that Facebook researchers had done a study on users, manipulating their moods, to see if they could. That case was terrifying, and has long been forgotten. Repeated academic studies show that social media use is harmful to mood and body image. Reducing its use can help with mental health. That is why upper-level social media executives neither use, nor allow their children to use their own platforms.

In the face of the propaganda system, Chomsky once famously advocated for a course of “intellectual self-defense,” which of necessity would involve working with others to develop an independent mind. Because the new propaganda system uses your social instincts and your social ties against you, “intellectual self-defense” today will require some measures of “social self-defense” as well. If Big Tech executives can unplug themselves and develop their “real-world” selves, those of us who hope to resist should probably do the same.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. You can find him on his website at podur.org and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental Studies.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Lessons from Ed Herman’s Lifelong War against Lies

The story goes that Einstein’s theory of relativity began with a simple question: What if a person could sit on a beam of light? A single inquiry led to an entire field of study, and perhaps the world’s most famous scientific breakthrough.

The late Ed Herman’s questions were less playful. They were about war and death, lies and power politics, but they too created entire areas of study. If properly considered, they can even guide us through the perilous age in which we’re living.

Herman is best known for co-authoring Noam Chomsky’s iconic Manufacturing Consent, which explores how U.S. corporate media operates as a system of disinformation. Written during the Cold War, the book challenged readers who understood propaganda to be a tool of the Soviet Union. How could a diverse industry without official censors to monitor what it published or aired, that was neither owned nor controlled by the state, be used for social control? Quite easily, as it turns out.

The world offers an almost infinite array of events that can be covered, and media insitutions must decide what’s most relevant to their audiences. In other words, they operate as an information filter. But how do they provide their viewers, listeners and readers with the best possible understanding of the world? Ideally, these institutions produce the kind of coverage necessary to make informed decisions about public policy. In reality, Chomsky and Herman discovered, they serve the interests of the rich and powerful.

In their propaganda model, the pair identified five distinct filters: Media ownership, which is concentrated in the hands of a few spectacularly wealthy corporations; ideology, specifically anti-communism, which “helps mobilize the populace against… anybody advocating policies that threaten property interests or support accommodation with Communist states and radicalism”; advertising, or the selling of audiences to advertisers, which can lead to any number of distortions and misconceptions; official sourcing, which often leads to self-censorship as media outlets become dependent on their access to members of the government; and finally organized flak, which allows lobbies to lean on journalists and outlets who deviate from the status quo.

Manufacturing Consent remains as vital today as it was when it first published in 1988. Anti-communism continues to dominate our discourse, even in the absence of a Soviet Union or communist China, while several prominent media personalities have made their careers decrying “leftist ideologues.” Media ownership has become even more exclusive, and the advertising model has overtaken the whole of society by way of Google and social media. Twitter mobs can be manufactured and mobilized; organized flak is now a matter of life and death.

Not only did Herman ask the kinds of questions that produced one of social science’s most compelling theories, but he served as a model of rigor for media critics across the political spectrum. The 1988 edition of Manufacturing Consent ran 330 pages (including appendices), 63 pages of which were endnotes. Its voluminously documented cases were always supplemented by quantitative analysis: the amount of coverage devoted to so-called enemies of the state was inversely proportional to that of crimes committed by the U.S. and its allies. This method can be applied to virtually any line of journalistic inquiry, be it war, economic crisis or a political dispute on campus.

Herman’s priorities were radical, aimed at stopping or preventing the most heinous forms of violence by exposing the media biases that facilitated them. Herman and Chomsky revealed as much in the preface to Manufacturing Consent: “It would have been very difficult for the Guatemalan government to murder tens of thousands over the past decade if the U.S. press had provided the kind of coverage they gave to the difficulties of Andrei Sakharov or the murder of Jerzy Popieluszko in Poland. It would have been impossible to wage a brutal war against South Vietnam and the rest of indochina… if the media had not rallied to the cause, potraying murderous aggression as a defense of freedom.”

Finally, Herman was relentless in his pursuit of a cause he deemed just. “Trolling” has many definitions, but when it comes to politics, it can most aptly be described as the use of bad-faith tactics to demoralize one’s opponent. Having devoted his life to exposing the consequences of media manipulation, Herman was immune to this mode of communication. He threw himself into intellectual debates with little regard for social taboos, and he gave it as well as he took it. (I learned this firsthand when he published a withering rebuttal to my review of the BBC 2 documentary, “Rwanda’s Untold Story.”)

In The Politics of Genocide, which he co-authored with David Peterson, Herman argued that Western media used the term “genocide” to quash debate about foreign policy, specifically NATO’s efforts to dismantle Yugoslavia, and the joint support of the United States and Britain for Rwandan dictator Paul Kagame. He was immediately labeled a “genocide denier.” More recently, in its obituary for Herman, the New York Times accused Manufacturing Consent of “having soft-pedaled evidence of genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, and, during the Bosnia war, Srebrenica.” FAIR and other outlets were quick to point out that the book was published years before two of the conflicts, and the obit was corrected.

The zeal with which these outlets tried to smear Herman’s name could have made a case study for Herman himself. Knowing Herman, the study would have been carefully modeled, meticulously conducted, and revealing in its conclusions about the mainstream media. American readers would have gained a fresh understanding of their country’s propaganda system, not only how it works but how they can subvert it.

Published Feb 15/18 on AlterNet as: What Can Noam Chomsky’s Co-Author Teach Us in the Age of Trump?

The Ossington Circle Episode 29: Media and Empire with… Justin Podur

Dan Freeman-Maloy interviews Justin Podur

In this episode Justin Podur is the guest and guest interviewer Dan Freeman-Maloy asks the questions. We talk about media, Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model, activism in a time of social media monopolies, and empires. The first of a series.