In his study of obedience in modern society, psychologist Stanley Milgram wrote, "There is always some element of bad form in objecting to the destructive course of events, or indeed, in making it a topic of conversation." Milgram noted that even Nazi’s most closely associated with the ‘final solution’ considered it an act of discourtesy to talk directly about the killings. We know, of course, that the Soviet gulags and insane asylums were subsequently filled with similarly impolite dissidents motivated by a range of psychopathologies.
We might like to believe that our society is free of such wicked nonsense, but today ‘liberal’ commentators regularly deride dissidents such as Noam Chomsky, Harold Pinter and John Pilger for being motivated by anger, egotism and other psychological disorders. As a result, it is claimed, they present a simplified version of the world shaped to fit their delusions, rather than the world as it is.
In the Independent, Steve Crawshaw titled his recent review of Chomsky’s latest book of political analysis: "Furious ideas with no room for nuance". Crawshaw perceives a strange contradiction in Chomsky’s work: "Chomsky knows so much", he writes, "but seems impervious to any idea of nuance." Sentences like this have me reaching for my dictionary: how can someone who "knows so much" be ignorant of "any idea" of subtle difference in shade or meaning? Anger distorts Chomsky’s work, it seems. Lambasting his criticism of the Nato bombing of Serbia, Crawshaw writes: "Misguided isn’t enough [for Chomsky]; the policy must be plain evil." Alternatively, as Chomsky himself argues, policy can be guided by profit, with human suffering an unfortunate and unintended, but ultimately necessary, consequence.
A May 1999 review of Harold Pinter’s political output by Jay Rayner in the Observer, focused on the distorting influence of rage on Pinter’s thought. The titles and subtitles leave us in no doubt: "Pinter of Discontent: Hated Pinochet; loathed Thatcher; doesn’t like America; deplores Nato; is disgusted when his play doesn’t get a West End run. Good old Harold – he’s always bitching about something." The enraged Pinter naturally has no time for subtlety or nuance: "Late Pinter is all about sound and fury" – as opposed to content, we are invited to presume. Rayner quotes Timothy Garton Ash, who says of Pinter, "He has this terribly imaginative vision of the world and everything has to fit it.
Compare and contrast all of this with comments made by Jon Snow in his recent Observer review of Anthony Hayward’s book, In the Name of Justice, documenting John Pilger’s filmic output. "Still angry after all these years", ran the title. Snow writes that Pilger’s work has sharply divided the journalistic world: "Some argue the ends justify his means, others that the world is a more subtle place than he allows". Snow does not reveal on which side of the fence he falls, although in the last sentence he insists a fundamental problem remains where Pilger’s work is concerned: "whether the very great good that Pilger has achieved justifies the way he has reached his conclusions". What can these controversial ways and means be? Tenacious research, a willingness to challenge officialdom, and often to travel to dangerous places? Snow doesn’t say, suggesting a sinister element, and also that the "vociferous majority" of journalists would agree with him. Really? Has he conducted a national survey? His patronising assertions and their subtext are the stuff of smear familiar to all dissidents.
Chomsky has discussed the rationale behind this, and the constant references to the alleged anger and distortions of dissidents:
"Somehow they have to get rid of the stuff. You can’t deal with the arguments, that’s plain; for one thing you have to know something, and most of these people don’t know anything. Secondly, you wouldn’t be able to answer the arguments because they’re correct. Therefore what you have to do is somehow dismiss it. So that’s one technique, ‘It’s just emotional, it’s irresponsible, it’s angry.’"
That mainstream journalists do indeed have difficulty answering the arguments became clear to me in an interview with Jon Snow in January. I put to Snow, and several other leading liberal journalists, some of the fundamental ideas underpinning the work of Chomsky, Pilger, and others. I asked Snow, for example, what he thought of the idea that the US and Britain have a long and dishonourable history of supporting dictators like Pinochet, Suharto, the Shah of Iran and many others, in order to protect local resources for Western corporations: "Oh this is bollocks!" he replied. "Total bollocks! Utter bollocks!" When I asked him why he thought it was bollocks, he replied: "Because, I’m afraid there are many, many other factors." The world is "a more subtle place" argument again – communicated less subtly.
Snow also rejected out of hand Chomsky and Pilger’s argument that advertisers, wealthy owners, parent companies, corporate flak machines and state power have a dramatic impact in filtering media output. "I’m aware of the argument," he told me. "I don’t believe it’s true. I mean I don’t think that’s the motivation. I think they just know that sex and those sort of things sell a lot better. After all, Channel 4 has no institutional owner… I just don’t travel with +any+ of this crap! What I travel with is lazy journalism."
So much for a systemic analysis of the media! When I asked him whether "lazy" journalists perhaps thrived in a media system unwilling to reveal the depredations of the corporate system of which it is itself a part, whether there might be a pattern to this "lazy journalism", Snow replied:
"No, unfortunately there is +not+! You mean, white, middle-class, middle-aged men, sitting around desks hatching plots which have nothing to do with the main interests of women and ethnic minorities? Well there is a bit of that, yes!"
Try though I might to assure him that I was not proposing conspiracy theories, and that these were not simply weird ideas that I had cooked up on my own, Snow was firm in his conviction that I was a mad conspiracy theorist: "I think you’re bananas! You’re completely off the clock!", he said.
And this, one suspects, is finally the real opinion that often lies behind the more delicate, but no less damning, liberal description of dissidents as angry, simplistic and lacking in nuance. It remains "bad form" to criticise the destructive course of events for which Western governments are often responsible. Better to call the destruction a ‘moral crusade’, or a ‘humanitarian intervention’, and to denounce ideas that challenge this Orwellian status quo as deranged and "bollocks".
As a kind of experiment, I tried to publish the above article in the mainstream ‘liberal’ British press. The results were interesting. Mike Holland of the Observer told me that unfortunately there wasn’t space that week, and probably wouldn’t be the next – better try somewhere else. So I sent the article to Catherine Pepinster of the Independent on Sunday, who said:
"It’s not something we would run because it’s partly an attack on one of our own journalists [Crawshaw], and it’s also too inward looking on journalism."
It is interesting that disagreement is interpreted as "an attack". The message is clear and in fact consistently repeated throughout the media: radical criticism of a newspaper or its journalists will result in rejection. Media analysts are fully aware of this, of course. Several high-profile radical writers have told me privately that they will not openly criticise the ‘liberal’ media because it means certain career-death. As a result, readers are subjected to an entirely false consensus affirming the view that we have a free, honest, open and tolerant media. Nobody challenges that view because nobody is allowed to.
You will have noticed that ‘media sections’ of newspapers seem designed to be read solely by industry insiders. I sent my article to Janine Gibson, editor of the Guardian’s media section. She rejected it, saying it wasn’t "suitable for media Guardian". I sought clarification, asking whether the problem was one of style or content. This is what she e-mailed back to me.
"Both, really, though I hesitate to be so discouraging. Your essay/thesis style seems to me better suited to a weekend review section or a weekly magazine such as the Spectator. Similarly the subject, which is quite subtle, doesn’t in my opinion lend itself to a weekly section which carries topical features about media issues. Basically, it reads to me like a piece which should be read on a Sunday afternoon rather than a busy Monday morning. I hope that makes sense."
As it turns out, crucial issues that have never been discussed in the mainstream are +not+ better suited to Sunday afternoons, or indeed any afternoon.
With the support of John Pilger, a regular columnist at the New Statesman, I sent the piece to Peter Wilby, the New Statesman’s editor. This is what I got back:
"Your piece isn’t uninteresting and you are quite right that Chomsky, Pinter, Pilger et al (in the case of the last, I have frequently experienced it first-hand) are regularly dismissed as mad, thus freeing people from any need to engage with their arguments. But will this really be such a great revelation to New Statesman readers? And why should we care about what Jon Snow said to you?"
It might be a revelation, given that these arguments have never appeared anywhere in the mainstream press, and are (presumably) therefore unknown to the vast majority of people. Alas, the same argument does not apply when the New Statesman, and any number of other mainstream media entities, serve up agonisingly interminable coverage of the Monica Lewinsky Affair, OJ Simpson-type court cases, Cherrie Blair’s bouncing baby, and the saga of New Labour’s Millennium Dome. Unless dissident views are guaranteed 100% fresh, having never been heard even once before, they cannot be published – or so we are told.
I replied to Wilby, saying that I had sent the article to Chomsky who had described it, "A very good article, about a topic that strikes too close to home (hence unpublishable)." Come on, I said, isn’t that ultimately the point?
Wilby responded thus:
"Well, I’d hardly expect Chomsky to be rude to you, given what you’ve written. ‘There’s nothing wrong with what I’ve written; it’s just censorship. If people won’t publish me, it proves my point.’ Gosh, I’ve heard all that before."
Wilby would have a point, except that there is +always+ something wrong with dissident work, no matter how good it is. I know when I am reading truly incisive, honest work that dares to challenge the comfortable beliefs of society. I can tell when writers are putting truth ahead of self-interest – it’s something you can feel; it’s electrifying, uplifting. But I almost never experience this in the mainstream. I read tedious, grey, empty, superficial material that seems to deliberately obscure its meaning to avoid taking a targetable position. I read words written by people from the same schools, universities, clubs and salary brackets (they all seem to speak the same way too), saying what I know powerful interests are happy to hear. How can Wilby be unaware of this? Is it possible to be that insensitive to the moronic inferno that is the modern media output?
I got a surreal response from the Independent:
"Thanks very much for thinking of us, unfortunately it isn’t right for reality."
It turns out that ‘Reality’ is a section of the paper. I felt that the point hit the mark, though. My piece really +isn’t+ right for the corporate media’s version of reality.
In a final act of desperation, I did something no self-respecting journalist should do: I submitted my article to the right-wing Spectator magazine. The editor’s response finally consigned my article to the media grave, there to join the twisting and turning Orwell:
"I thought your piece was very interesting, but is it not possible that Snow, Crawshaw et al are simply right?"