Souls for Sale

The Times Interviews Noam Chomsky

In a society built on lies, the search for truth is a game.

Consider the debate surrounding alleged ‘threats’ to the BBC’s ‘independence’, even as the BBC itself reports of its outgoing chairman:

‘As for Mr Sharp’s departure, I understand conversations between the BBC and the government have been had in recent days. You’d expect that.

‘The BBC chairman is a political appointment.’

If that doesn’t justify Twitter labelling every BBC journalist ‘UK state-affiliated media’, we don’t know what does.

Or consider how, cap in hand, the Guardian now presents itself as a Media Lens-style operation, declaring at the end of its articles:

‘As a reader-funded news organisation, we rely on your generosity. Please give what you can, so millions can benefit from quality reporting on the events shaping our world.’

We wonder how many readers funding this heroic mission are aware that, last year, Guardian editor, Kath Viner, received a 42 per cent pay rise of £150,000, taking her salary to £509,850. Brazen claims that the Guardian is ‘free from commercial influence’ appear in the pages of a newspaper overflowing with corporate adverts on which it is deeply dependent. Last year, print and advertising generated revenues of £71.5m and £73.7m respectively. The Guardian is owned by the Scott Trust, which runs a £1.3bn investment fund.

Even if we try to imagine corporate journalists rising above this nonsense, it’s impossible to conceive of them examining deeper issues of media bias.

Recall the context in which news and commentary appear: the tsunami of 24/7 corporate advertising that is subject to no discussion whatever regarding its bias. Unless we accept that these adverts should be balanced by a counter-tsunami of anti-corporate advertising, there is no question of media impartiality for this reason alone.

But this is still just scratching the surface. In our corporate society, the greatest triumph of the corporate monoculture is not the filtered content of the daily newspaper or nightly newscast; it is us, our conception of who we are, of what it means to be human. We may mock the Sun and lament the Mail, but look in the mirror – we are the ultimate product of propaganda.

Erich Fromm wrote of man’s conception of him and herself in capitalist society:

‘His body, his mind and his soul are his capital, and his task in life is to invest it favourably to make a profit of himself.’ (Erich Fromm, The Sane Society, Routledge, 1991, p.138)

The significance cannot be overstated: if millions of corporate men and women fundamentally perceive themselves as products to be sold on the job market, the question of non-conformity, of challenging corporate society, does not even arise. The idea is not just irrelevant, it is a threat to conformity facilitating ‘success’. The result is deeply dehumanising:

‘The alienated personality who is for sale must lose a good deal of the sense of dignity which is so characteristic of man even in most primitive cultures. He must lose almost all sense of self, of himself as a unique and induplicable entity.’ (Fromm, p.138)

In this case, it is not that we are somewhat biased on some specific issue in the way of a newspaper report; the very idea that we should seek and act on truth, that we are moral agents, becomes ridiculous, laughable. And this, indeed, is the basic theme of much tabloid and other media ‘humour’ targeting left and green activists.

In a society of this kind, Fromm wrote, truth is not a concern:

‘All that matters is that nothing is too serious, that one exchanges views, and that one is ready to accept any opinion or conviction (if there is such a thing) as being as good as the other.’ (p.152)

When Fromm says ‘nothing is too serious’, he means that we are fundamentally indifferent.

Can we point to evidence? Last week, it was reported that the highest April temperature ever recorded in Spain – the kind of record that might, historically, have been broken by a fraction of a degree – had been blown away by a rise of 5C.

This latest sign of impending climate catastrophe was reported briefly and then forgotten. It received a tiny fraction of the merited attention and concern – not just from the press but also from the public. It was just one more example of how ‘modern man exhibits an amazing lack of realism for all that matters. For the meaning of life and death, for happiness and suffering, for feeling and serious thought’. (Fromm, p.166)

Needless to say, corporate journalism is the natural home of Corporate Man because its real task is to defend the status quo.

While working as the ostensibly leftist senior political editor at the New Statesman, Mehdi Hasan – who now presents the Mehdi Hasan Show on Peacock and MSNBC – wrote the following comments in a letter to Lord Dacre, the owner of the Daily Mail:

‘Although I am on the left of the political spectrum, and disagree with the Mail’s editorial line on a range of issues, I have always admired the paper’s passion, rigour, boldness and, of course, news values. I believe the Mail has a vitally important role to play in the national debate, and I admire your relentless focus on the need for integrity and morality in public life, and your outspoken defence of faith, and Christian culture, in the face of attacks from militant atheists and secularists. I also believe… that I could be a fresh and passionate, not to mention polemical and contrarian, voice on the comment and feature pages of your award-winning newspaper.’

Hasan added:

‘I could therefore write pieces for the Mail critical of Labour and the left, from “inside” Labour and the left (as the senior political editor at the New Statesman).’

One could hardly imagine a better example of Fromm’s ‘alienated personality who is for sale’ (p.138), with Hasan hawking the features, advantages and benefits of his insider left credentials for attacking the left.

Another prime example of this personality type treating truth as a game is senior Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland. Political analyst, Norman Finkelstein, whose mother survived the Warsaw Ghetto, the Majdanek concentration camp and two slave labour camps, and whose father was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Auschwitz concentration camp, commented on Freedland:

‘… when my book, The Holocaust Industry, came out in 2000, Freedland wrote that I was “closer to the people who created the Holocaust than to those who suffered in it”. Although he appears to be, oh, so politically correct now, he didn’t find it inappropriate to suggest that I resembled the Nazis who gassed my family.’

Finkelstein made a key point:

‘We appeared on a television program together. Before the program, he approached me to shake my hand. When I refused, he reacted in stunned silence. Why wouldn’t I shake his hand? He couldn’t comprehend it. It tells you something about these dull-witted creeps. The smears, the slanders – for them, it’s all in a day’s work. Why should anyone get agitated? Later, on the program, it was pointed out that the Guardian, where he worked, had serialised The Holocaust Industry across two issues. He was asked by the presenter, if my book was the equivalent of Mein Kampf, would he resign from the paper? Of course not. Didn’t the presenter get that it’s all a game?’

It’s all a game to be played for profit – nothing is to be ‘taken too seriously’ by corporate humans who exhibit ‘an amazing lack of realism’ for everything that matters.

‘Plainly a War Crime’ – Chorley Interviews Chomsky

Matt Chorley, formerly of the Taunton Times, hosts a radio show on Rupert Murdoch’s Times Radio. On 26 April, Chorley tweeted a clip of his impersonation of ‘Zippy’, a puppet in the UK children’s programme, Rainbow, which ran for two decades from 1972-1992. The clip also featured Tim Shipman, the Sunday Times’ chief political commentator, responding with his own impersonation of ‘George’, a pink hippopotamus from the same show.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with having a bit of fun. But in his recent interview with Noam Chomsky, the level of Chorley’s journalism did not rise much higher. Like Hasan and Freedland, and most of corporate journalism, Chorley is an individual pursuing Fromm’s ‘marketing orientation’.

We learn a lot when the likes of Chorley encounter Chomsky and other dissidents whose souls are not for sale; not because the Chorleys have much to say, but because we are witness, not just to a clash of ideas and values, but of ways of being. It is a clash between sincerity and fakery, clarity and obfuscation, engagement and indifference, compassion and egotism.

Typically, these clashes involve a corporate interviewer who is focused, not on asking genuine questions, but on throwing traps in Chomsky’s path. The aim is not to find out what he thinks but to catch him out in some way, to demonstrate that he is deluded, or treasonous. Indeed, after the interview, Chorley described his purpose in talking to Chomsky: ‘See how the long-term Russia enthusiast explains Ukraine.’

This clarifies an otherwise mystifying comment by Chorley in the interview, suggesting that Chomsky’s ‘anti-West position’:

‘… led you to an alliance with Vladimir Putin, who was a new type of Russian leader. And it was all hunky-dory, up until the point he invades Ukraine, and now you’re essentially trying to justify it by the back door – he’s let you down, Vladimir Putin.’

Anyone who knows anything about Chomsky, knows that he has never been a ‘long-term enthusiast’ for Russian Bolshevism, Russian Communism, Stalinism, Soviet state tyranny in general, and certainly not for Putin. The problem, we would guess, is that Chorley doesn’t know what anarcho-syndicalism is, or what Chomsky means when he says he’s a ‘derivative fellow traveller’ of anarchism. And so, the whole interview was based on a bogus conception of Chomsky’s politics.

Chorley began amiably enough, asking harmless questions about Chomsky’s job role and his thoughts on the concept of a ‘public intellectual’; whether he placed himself in that category. Knowing exactly the type of person he was dealing with – Chorley works for Murdoch, after all – Chomsky immediately held up a mirror to Chorley’s worldview, noting that both he and Chorley were fortunate to be able to enter the public domain and have some small impact on public discourse. It is a privileged position that comes with real moral responsibility. This already highlighted the gulf separating Chomsky from the moral indifference of corporate journalism.

Chorley asked if Chomsky thought we are living in more ‘dangerous and disconcerting times’ than previous generations. Chomsky replied that our time is ‘far more dangerous’, citing how the famous Doomsday Clock is now measured, not in minutes to midnight, but in seconds to midnight (currently, 90 seconds). Escalating threats include the risk of nuclear war, but above all environmental catastrophe:

‘We’re racing towards a precipice of environmental destruction. We’ve got a couple of decades in which we could mitigate or control it, but we’re racing in the opposite direction – nothing could be more dangerous than that. That means reaching irreversible tipping points, at which stage, just steady decline to the destruction of human life on Earth. We’ve never faced that before. Actually, we’ve been facing it in a way since August 6th, 1945, but never at this level of danger.’

Typically for this kind of disengaged journalism, Chorley responded to this awful assertion as if he hadn’t truly heard what had been said, responding: ‘It’s interesting that; I was going to ask you…’. ‘It’s interesting’ was not a serious response to the gravity of what Chomsky had said. Chorley blandly recognised that politicians didn’t seem very interested in responding to the climate crisis. As for the rest of us, he said, ‘we spend our time talking about trivial things’.

Suppose Chomsky had said a school was on fire and hundreds of children were being burned alive. How would we react to someone responding that the news was ‘interesting’, before noting that the authorities seemed uninterested in doing much about it, while the public seemed to be more concerned with trivia?

A past master, of course, at squeezing taboo thoughts through this kind of blather, Chomsky mentioned some non-trivial crises that are discussed: the Ukraine war, the Yemen war, ‘the total destruction of Iraq, going on still; these are all very serious issues’.

He noted, further, that, last year, fossil fuel production had increased – the US is expanding new oil fields, opening up federal lands for exploration and exploitation for decades ahead. With his usual dark humour, Chomsky added:

‘The fossil fuel companies are euphoric with the prospects for increased public support for their enterprise of destroying life on Earth. So, it doesn’t look good.’

Chorley then raised the issue of Ukraine:

‘Certainly, in the UK, the left – actually under people like Jeremy Corbyn – argued that it wasn’t Russia that was the enemy, it was the US that was destabilising the world. But then Russia invades a sovereign, democratic country right on its border, starting a conflict which has claimed tens of thousands of innocent lives. Does that not make clear who the real threat to the world is? It’s not the US, as the leftists have argued for a long time; it’s Vladimir Putin’s Russia.’

After Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and as many more examples as one might care to mention, these were childish comments. Chomsky responded:

‘Well, the invasion of Ukraine is plainly a war crime. You can’t put it in the same category as greater war crimes, but it’s a major one.’

Which crimes did Chomsky have in mind? He noted that the UN and Pentagon estimate that about 8,000 civilians have been killed in Ukraine:

‘That’s a lot of people, what the United States and Britain do overnight.’

Of course, the 8,000 figure is ‘presumably an underestimate’, Chomsky added, before offering a series of thought experiments:

‘Let’s say it’s twice as much – that would put it at the level of the [1982] US-backed, Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which killed about 20,000 people. Let’s say it’s off by a factor of ten… that would put it in the category of Reagan’s terrorist atrocities in El Salvador, roughly on the order of 80,000. Of course, Iraq is just another dimension.

‘So, it’s serious, a terrible crime. But you can understand why the Global South does not take very seriously the eloquent protestations of Western countries about this “unique episode in history”. They’ve been victims of far more. Maybe the Russians will go on to our level… Maybe they could even go to the point of commemorating their worst atrocities, like Mariupol.’

Chomsky commented that one of the worst US crimes in Iraq was the destruction of Iraq’s beautiful third city, Fallujah. He noted that the US Navy has recently named its latest warship, the USS Fallujah, ‘in honour of the Marine assault which carried out one of the worst atrocities in Iraq. Well, maybe the Russians will get to that point, too, someday.’

Chorley commented: ‘It’s interesting though, Noam Chomsky; we hear the same thing from the left here in the UK…’

Chomsky interrupted: ‘It’s nothing to do with the left…’

These, indeed, are simply facts – the approximate death tolls are well-known, highly credible. The killers are known. There is no ideological bias in these observations. There is ideological bias in the notion that these facts are somehow ‘leftist’.

Chorley went on:

‘This is trying to create equivalence, an anti-West position… You’ve literally just drawn equivalence with the number of deaths in various places… That doesn’t make what Vladimir Putin’s done alright, does it?’

Notice that, having heard Chomsky cite the far greater death tolls from Western crimes, Chorley was astonished that Chomsky might be suggesting the West was on a par with Putin. It was inconceivable to him that the West might be worse. Notice, also, that Chorley suggested Chomsky was using these comparisons to justify Russia’s invasion seconds after he had strongly condemned the invasion as ‘plainly a war crime’, ‘a terrible crime’.

Chomsky countered:

‘Of course not. I said it’s a major crime, but there’s no equivalence – that’s following the party line. I gave figures. No equivalence. Maybe the casualty toll is ten times as high as estimated. Well, that would make it like Reagan’s crimes in El Salvador. That’s not equivalent.’

This was followed by a telling silence from Chorley, who perhaps at last realised that Chomsky had been agreeing that it was wrong to talk of ‘equivalence’, but not for the reasons Chorley had in mind.

The ‘moral equivalence’ angle of attack – clearly intended to be the key focus of this interview – is a standard feature of corporate interviews with Chomsky and other dissidents. The intention is to present critics of Western policy as warped apologists for Western enemies. In a 2004 BBC interview, a clearly astonished Jeremy Paxman commented to Chomsky:

‘You seem to be suggesting, or implying – perhaps I’m being unfair to you – but you seem to be implying there is some equivalence between democratically elected heads of state like George Bush, or Prime Ministers like Tony Blair, and regimes in places like Iraq.’

Interviewing former UN Assistant-Secretary General, Denis Halliday, in a BBC radio interview in 2001, an exasperated Michael Buerk said:

‘You can’t… you can’t possibly draw a moral equivalence between Saddam Hussein and George Bush Senior, can you?’

Inevitably – again ignoring what Chomsky had repeatedly just said – Chorley moved on to the argument tirelessly advanced by the likes of the Guardian’s George Monbiot:

‘But… I suppose, some people listening to this will think you’re seeking to excuse what Vladimir Putin’s done.’

The argument makes sense – if a journalist cannot discuss ‘our’ crimes – cannot even conceive that ‘our’ crimes might be worse than ‘their’ crimes – but cannot refute the undeniable facts indicating that such is indeed the case, then a Get Out Of Jail Free card is to suggest that the person making these points is secretly on the side of The Bad Guys and therefore not to be taken seriously. Moving from facts to motives usefully directs public attention away from the facts. Chomsky responded:

‘No, that is a fabrication of the right wing; I am not seeking to excuse anything. I said it’s a terrible war crime; that’s not excusing anything. I’m talking about the extreme hypocrisy of claims about how this is the worst thing that ever happened, when it’s a fraction of what we do all the time. That’s why the Global South is watching with ridicule as pompous Western commentators try to lecture them: “Why don’t you join us in opposing this terrible crime?” … They laugh in ridicule: “That’s what you’ve been doing to us forever!”

But ‘why can’t Ukraine join Nato?’, asked Chorley. Chomsky replied:

‘What would happen if Mexico decided to join a Chinese-run international military alliance, sending heavy weapons to Mexico aimed at the United States?… What would happen to Mexico? It’d be blown away. You know that.’

Chorley again fell back on the ‘equivalence’ theme:

‘But you’re then drawing comparisons between Nato and China and Russia; you see an equivalence between…’

Again, Chomsky rejected the claim:

‘No, I don’t; Nato is a much more aggressive alliance. Nato has invaded Yugoslavia, invaded Libya, invaded Ukraine – backed up the invasion of Ukraine – backed up the invasion of Afghanistan. It’s an aggressive military alliance. Everybody outside the West can see it. In the West, we’re not allowed to think it because we’re deeply controlled by adherence to the party line. But everybody else can see it.’

Yet again, Chorley hammered the implied theme that Chomsky was some kind of camouflaged supporter of Putin:

‘It sounds to me like you are justifying the Russian invasion of Ukraine.’

Chorley then asked about Jeremy Corbyn. He later made much of this part of the interview on Twitter, disingenuously suggesting that the interviewee who ran rings around him on every issue was deluded enough to believe that Corbyn had won the 2017 general election.

In fact, when Chomsky said that Corbyn had ‘won a major victory’ in 2017, he meant in generating a massive ‘swing’ in Labour’s favour despite awesome internal and external Establishment pressures. In 2017, the Independent reported that Corbyn had ‘increased Labour’s share of the vote by more than any other of the party’s election leaders since 1945’ with ‘the biggest swing since… shortly after the Second World War’.

In a final, remarkable question indicating just how disengaged and indifferent he had been throughout the interview, Chorley asked:

‘Finally, then, let’s round this off; let’s try and be a bit more optimistic… Will the next century be better than the last?’

Again, it was as if Chorley hadn’t heard what Chomsky had said. Heroically, Chomsky retained his patience for a few seconds longer:

‘There won’t be organised human life a century from now, unless we reverse the course the leadership is now taking towards racing over the precipice on climate destruction.’

By way of a final little joke, Chomsky added: ‘You read the latest IPCC report, I’m sure.’

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The most recent Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.