Chomsky & Miller, etc. (fwd)
Thu, 13 Jun 1996 14:42:40 -0400

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Date: Thu, 13 Jun 1996 13:04:37 -0400
Subject: Chomsky & Miller, etc.

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Subject: Chomsky & Miller, etc.

Here are some comments on Ted Morgan's "Catching Up" posting.

>And there was a long piece from Jeff Apfel responding to the "ideology" in >Grover's responses and my recommendations re. Chomsky. It's hard to pick u= p >all the meaning because of all the strange marks in my text,

sorry! hopefully corrected. . .

>but Jeff makes >some interesting points that could make for some good talk. >First, Chomsky is not a conspiracy theorist as he takes great pains to poi= nt >out (perhaps not so much in the video); the key to his points about the >propaganda system/media culture is that certain critical perspectives (rou= ghly >"left") are systematically weeded out of the mainstream media; they simply= do >not appear in the mainstream media whether these be the tv networks or the= NYT >or Wash. Post or.

I understand his not being a conspiracy theorist and take seriously Ted=92s suggestion that I go beyond the video version and consult the book directly, which I will do. A few points, however, which I make in the spirit of goodwill and dialogue, since there are bound to be disagreements. In the video, Chomsky=92s critics (Tom Wolfe and the news exec from the Times) did indeed rely on the =93conspiracy=94 angle to debun= k Chomsky and Chomsky did indeed deny that his structure of understanding is conspiratorial. Yet (and maybe this will get clearer to me when I read the book) I cannot avoid the impression that, despite the denials, Chomsky still does bring some of this on himself. Start with the title: Manufacturing Consent. The notion of manufacturing (at least in human, as opposed to, say, biological, terms) is one which inherently involves conscious effort, a plan, a design.=20

My guess is that if he sincerely holds to a non-conspiratorial account of the facts he describes, he may well be misunderstood not only by his critics, but also by many of his fans.=20 =20 >I agree with Jeff that Chomsky tends >to focus exclusively on political content rather than, in some ways broade= r, >cultural/visual consciousness-creation (e.g., TV), but others like Doug >Kellner & Mark Crispin Miller do a pretty nice job on these, and my own vi= ew >is that the two complement each other --both reinforcing the pro-corporate >status quo.

My point here was garbled--I was afraid I wasn=92t getting it across right, so let me try again, in part by discussing Mark Crispin Miller.=20

Let us assume that the conspiratorial model is out the window. In other words, let us say we need to frame the facts presented (say, the lack of coverage of East Timor in relation to Cambodia) without relying on a command-type structure of news dissemination (such as one might find, for example, in a communist regime).=20

In the absence of a conspiracy, what do we have? We have elites who, while they do not always share a common world view (Main Street vs. Wall Street, Yankee vs. Cowboy, Heritage vs. Brookings) have opinions and views which intersect with one another to some degree (agreement on infanticide but not abortion; agreement on Stalinism but not on aggressive social programs).=20

The elite opinions dominate and their points of intersection and conflict become major social discussion points. Moreover, in a dynamic sense, this ongoing discussion has a =93coopting=94 quality to it as power centers on t= he fringe or just outside the center buy into the terms of the debate (the dreaded process of =93selling out=94).=20

All this is consistent, I think, with a non-conspiratorial Chomskian worldview. What is missing in the Chomskian view, in my estimation, is any sense of =93exchange=94--i.e., does a specific non-elite get or demand anything in return for being coopted? The Chomskian version seems--even if non-conspiratorial--to partake of something only being imposed from on high.=20

Ted mentioned Mark Crispin Miller=92s work in this area. Boxed In is in fact one of my favorite books. But I read an interview with Miller recently in which he did indeed undertake a Chomskian/C. Wright Mills analysis of media ownership which, I think, suffers from the same defects.= =20 (The interview was on the web and listed his address, so I responded to it but never heard back. Anyway, some of what follows is pirated from what I wrote Miller.)

When asked about the negative consequences of media ownership (with reference to what might be wrong with Rev. Moon owning the Nostalgia Channel), Miller stated that the problem is that =93what we have now is a vast array of basically the same degraded material.=94 But it does seem to me, as an impartial consumer, that there is indeed a wide variety of content on the air now, and that, as technologies proliferate, =93narrowcasting=94 to find smaller identifiable pockets of taste in order = to create and serve new markets, is likely to grow even more important. In order to make the case that ownership is the problem, I think one has to go further, and to point to situations where there is unmet demand that is being blocked as a result of the nature of the ownership itself.=20

Miller also analogized the situation in America to the Soviet Union in the =93Iron Curtain=94 era, an analogy which to me fell flat. Miller maintained that he doesn=92t =93really see the difference=94 between a kid in a totalitarian regime getting fed =93approved=94 programs and an American kid watching Jenny Jones or cartoons. Of course there is a big difference, mostly relating to the way American offerings are clearly geared toward meeting expected consumer tastes--at the very least, that way the fat cats grow fatter. To say there is no difference ignores huge areas of fact and context. And it gets one kind of close to Marcusean =93repressive tolerance=94, a notion that, even if accurate, can be sharply differentiate= d from =93repressive intolerance=94 in its political and cultural manifestations.=20

The point here is that it seems to better to view this process, as well as much of what Chomsky considers, in exchange terms rather than command terms. Rebels in the sixties--at least from my collegiate perch--consistently underestimated the extent to which regular folks (I won=92t define that here, but let=92s just say, broadly speaking, the vario= us middle classes) were financialy, emotionally and intellectually invested in the system. I know the Frankfurt School take on all this--that the system denies the people the ability to visualize alternatives, etc. That can be another thread.=20

But I tend, using Occam=92s Razor, toward the much more prosaic view--that people support the system by and large because they get things out of it that they value. This is the way =93systems=94 are supposed to work, warts and all. So, in a sense, Chomsky may simply be describing the inherently flawed but not all that bad means by which, through exchange, consensus is maintained in a modern mass society. It=92s only =93bad=94 if you=92ve got something radically better to take its place. And, much as I sympathize in some respects with Chomsky=92s anarchist leanings (my favorite paper tha= t I wrote in grad school was a sympathetic account of the Spanish anarchists Chomsky lauds as a model), my gut tells me that such arrangements, as with the Diggers, end up much more intellectually satisfying than capable of generating a stable social order.=20

It=92s also sort of like the problem I wrote about earlier that Buchanan experienced in South Carolina--try as he may to whip the peasants into a frenzy, a lot of them just had their own opinions, one of which is that free trade has created more new jobs than the ones it killed off. So in this instance, the peasants sided with Wall Street. Why is it that every time the peasants do that, the intelligentsia smells a rat? Can=92t intellectuals conclude that the peasants might be able to make up their own minds? And that they might side with Wall Street from time to time? Or that they might be in sync with a lot of what the media affords them?=20

Jeff Apfel