Dismissing Dissidents

You’ve got to admire the consistency of the mainstream media. On the rare occasions when the work of dissident thinkers is reviewed in the press, they are invariably treated with derision and scorn. Nothing strange in this, you might think. But what +is+ so impressive is the lock-step discipline with which ‘liberals’ focus on dissidents’ alleged personality disorders: their anger, egotism and irrationality.

In a recent Guardian article (6 December 2001), Rory Carroll produces a ‘portrait’ of dissident novelist and essayist, Gore Vidal. Vidal, we should be clear, is not popular with the mainstream press because he says things like:

“The bullshit just flows and flows and flows and the American media is so corrupt and so tied into it that it never questions it.”

By this, Vidal doesn’t mean to imply that the media is somehow outside the unclean flow. Elsewhere he has written:

“I tried to explain to the press club what it is they do that they don’t know they do. I quote David Hume: ‘The Few are able to control the Many only through Opinion.’ In the eighteenth century, Opinion was dispensed from pulpit and schoolroom. Now the media are in place to give us Opinion that has been manufactured in the boardrooms of those corporations – once national, now international – that control our lives.”

Carroll seems stunned that Vidal can be deluded enough to hold these views and to believe, for example, that the New York Times is a “parrot for the rulers”. Carroll says:

“The ego appears limitless. The press turns on other leftwing critics whereas he turns on the press.”

In fact there is not one serious ‘leftwing critic’ who does +not+ spend much of his or her time exposing the obvious structural corruption that is intrinsic to the big business press. The implication that Vidal is somehow different from these ‘leftwing critics’ – that he is the extreme of the extreme – is false.

Carroll explains how Vidal has long been “the scourge of the US – and now he’s at it again”. The last phrase suggests a repetitive misdemeanour. “For over half a century”, we are told, “Vidal has been a factory of polemic and prose raging against Pax Americana”. Pouring off this production line have come, “essays of elegant sulphur, scorning everyone from the FBI to the New York Times as frauds and poodles.”

Compare this talk of a “factory” of “raging”, “sulphur” and “scorn” with the introduction to Jay Rayner’s May 1999, Observer review of Harold Pinter’s political output:

“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.” (Rayner, 16 May 1999)

Compare this, in turn, with the title of Jon Snow’s Observer review of John Pilger’s filmic output:

“Still angry after all these years.” (Snow, 25 February 2001)

And with the title of Steve Crawshaw’s Independent review of one of Chomsky’s political works:

“Furious ideas with no room for nuance.” (Crawshaw, 21 February 2001)

Or as Rayner says of Pinter:

“The sound and the fury, rather than the work, is what grabs our attention. Late Pinter is all about sound and fury.”

In his review, Crawshaw identifies a strange contradiction in Chomsky’s work:

“Chomsky knows so much”, he writes, “but seems impervious to any idea of nuance.”

The same problem afflicts Pilger, Joe Joseph of the Times notes:

“He’s an earnest, eloquent tub-thumper. The world, according to Pilger, is pretty much black and white: his journalistic retina doesn’t recognise shades of grey…” (Joseph, 7 March 2000)

Pinter too. Rayner quotes Oxford historian Timothy Garton-Ash:

“He [Pinter] has this terribly imaginative vision of the world and everything has to fit it.”

Like Chomsky and Pilger, then, everything is black and white for Pinter – there’s no room for nuance.

A major cause of these psychic disturbances, according to our mainstream analysts, lies in the same limitless egotism afflicting Vidal. David Rieff describes how one of Chomsky’s books constitutes the “latest effusion… of arrogant fantasy-mongering”, by a “radical conspiracy theorist”. (Quoted Ed Herman, Z Magazine, December 2001) Chomsky is “so far out on the lunatic fringe that even the sensible things he has to say are lost”, Rieff tells us in the Independent.

Bloated egotism also accounts for Pilger and Pinter’s curious behaviour. Rayner writes of Pinter:

“Today, it seems, he is the author of a kind of drama distinct from his plays, one in which he is the star.”

Or as Charles Jennings comments:

“I guess you have to have John Pilger. With his tan, his Byronic haircut, his trudging priestly delivery and his evident self-love, your main instinct is to flip right over to BBC1…” (Jennings, the Observer, 24 January 1999)

Also in the Observer, Roy Hattersley derides Pilger for his inability to be “right without being righteous”.

A black and white view of the world distorted by anger, driven by arrogance and elephantine egotism – how remarkable that the four best-known dissidents and critics of the mainstream media suffer from near-identical personality flaws.

Notice that, Joseph aside, all of these comments appeared in the Guardian, the Observer and the Independent – considered bastions of liberal thought and honest journalism in this country.

We all know, as the Italian philosopher Aretino wrote, that “angry men are blind and foolish, for reason at such times takes flight, and in her absence anger plunders all the riches of the intellect”. And so, by focusing on dissidents’ allegedly “raging”, “bitching”, “furious ideas”, ‘liberals’ are able to dismiss their arguments as foolish, unreasonable and anti-intellectual without debating them. The strategy – itself deeply irrational and anti-intellectual – can be summarised in one word: smear. It’s not like locking people up in gulags, but it has a similar effect in silencing debate.

Chomsky is well aware of how and why corporate media commentators use this tactic:

“Somehow they have to get rid of the stuff. You can’t deal with the [dissident] 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.'”

The Guardian is only one example of an avowedly liberal newspaper that consistently ignores Chomsky’s work. Ironic then that last Saturday’s Guardian reported that three of the current top ten best-selling books on international affairs are the product of an arrogant and lunatic conspiracy theorist lacking all nuance: At number 2: Rogue States, by Noam Chomsky. At number 7: Propaganda and the Public Mind, by Noam Chomsky. And at number 8: The Fateful Triangle, by Noam Chomsky.

Bookmarks general manager, Judith Orr, puts the consensus of the great and the good of the mainstream media in proper perspective:

“Really, at the moment, many young people look to him [Chomsky] as the person who is offering the best critique of the capitalist system in general, and of US hegemony – economic, military and political – in particular.” (The Guardian, 10 November 2001)


Write to Rory Carroll and ask him if he really believes that someone who “turns on the press” must thereby be in the grip of a “limitless” ego. Ask him if he is aware that most ‘leftwing critics’ are deeply critical of the mainstream press. Please copy your letters to Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian editor.

Ask Mr. Rusbridger why the Guardian doesn’t publish Chomsky’s work. It’s what the public wants, as book sales show.

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

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