Last week in this series on critical thinking, I attempted to connect Plato’s Allegory of the Cave with the work of Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in Necessary Illusions. There they alleged that the function of the mainstream media (MSM) is and has always been the dissemination of propaganda. It’s purpose is to create a shadow world far removed from reality. In other words, President Trump is largely correct: fake news is the rule, not the exception. So, for instance, is fake history, fake economics, and fake religion.
Chomsky and Herman don’t expect readers of Necessary Illusions to simply accept their allegations. Instead, they propose testing the model’s predictions (enumerated in last week’s posting). The first step in doing so identifies “paired examples.” These involve similar controversial actions, performed by the United States or its client states on the one hand, and by “designated enemies” on the other.
In Necessary Illusions many such pairings are provided – all of them, of course, taken from the 1980s, when the book was published. Then U.S. involvement in Central American wars (especially in Nicaragua) dominated the news. While historically “dated,” the examples still communicate what the authors mean by paired examples. In addition, even dated case studies can prove useful to research in order to broaden one’s historical knowledge, while at the same time testing the model’s predictions. (More current examples will be suggested below.) Those given by Chomsky and Herman include:
- Celebration of elections in (client state) El Salvador (widely criticized for their meaninglessness in Europe) vs. media adoption of the U.S. official account that the 1984 elections in (designated enemy) Nicaragua either never occurred or were hopelessly rigged, even though the Nicaraguan elections were praised internationally for their freedom and fairness (66-67).
- The defense and rationalization of the U.S. downing of the Iranian air bus in 1988, vs. the furor over the earlier Soviet destruction of KAL 007 (34).
- The lack of comment on Indochinese injuries and fatalities caused by U.S. mines left behind after the Vietnam war, and on the refusal of the United States to supply minefield maps to civilian mine-deactivation squads, vs. the denunciation of the Soviet Union for the civilian casualties caused by their mines in Afghanistan, where they did provide maps to assist mine clearing units (35).
- Media indignation aroused in 1988 over alleged plans to build chemical weapons factories in Libya, vs. the media’s lack of concern for the extensive civilian casualties in Indochina caused by U.S. chemical warfare there through its use of Agent Orange (38-39).
- The sympathetic support given Israel for its repeated invasions and bombings in Lebanon even in the absence of immediate provocation, vs. the identification of Nicaraguan “hot pursuit” of Contras across its unmarked border with Honduras as an “invasion” of a sovereign state (54-55).
- The press position that Soviet provision of MIG fighter planes to Nicaragua would legitimate a U.S. invasion of that country, vs. media acceptance of the threat posed to Nicaragua by U.S. shipment of F-5 fighter planes to neighboring Honduras (55-6).
- Portrayal of the World Court as the culprit, when the United States was condemned for its support of the Nicaraguan Contras in 1986, vs. press astonishment over Iran’s lawlessness when it refused to recognize the Court’s adverse decision during the hostage crisis of 1979 (82).
- Portrayal of the World Court as the culprit, when the United States was condemned for its support of the Nicaraguan Contras in 1986, vs. press astonishment over Saddam Hussein’s lawlessness when he refused to recognize the Court’s jurisdiction, when it ordered him to cease his occupation of Kuwait in 1990.
- Press outcry over the genocide of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, vs. its silence about the proportionately larger-scale slaughter in East Timor at the hands of U.S.-backed Indonesian invaders (156).
- Criticism of Soviet failure to pay its U.N. dues, vs. silence about U.S. debts in the world body (222).
- Focus on Nicaragua’s alleged failures to live up to the Esquipulas II accords, vs. relative silence about the much worse records of client states, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala (239).
- The extensive media coverage given the 1984 murder of Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko in (designated enemy) Poland by policemen who were quickly apprehended, tried, and jailed, vs. the comparatively little space given the murder of 100 prominent Latin American religious martyrs, including the Archbishop of San Salvador and four raped American churchwomen, victims of the U.S.-backed security forces (137, 146-47).
Paired examples with more contemporary relevance might include:
- The San Bernardino shooting on December 2, 2015 by Muslim, Rizuan Farook and Tashfeen Malik vs. the January 29th, 2017 shooting in a Quebec City mosque by white nationalist and supporter of Donald Trump, Alexandre Bissonette.
- The U.S. nuclear weapons modernization program announced by President Obama vs. suspicions that Iran might have initiated a program to acquire nuclear weapons.
- Iran’s nuclear weapons program vs. Israel’s.
- Monroe Doctrine justifications for U.S. attempts to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua during the 1980s vs. Russian justifications for its invasion of the Ukraine beginning in 2014.
- Russian and Syrian atrocities in the Battle for Aleppo in 2016 vs. similar acts by the U.S. and Iraq in the Battle for Mosul that same year.
- Stories on Cuban political prisoners vs. stories on U.S. political prisoners.
- Islam as an inherently violent religion vs. Christianity as an inherently violent religion.
- The Jewish Holocaust at the hands of Germans vs. the Native American Holocaust at the hands of European settlers.
- Alexander Putin as a “murderer” vs. Barack Obama as a “murderer.”
Testing such paired examples involves
- Locating news reports of both incidents in the mainstream media, e.g. The New York Times.
- Counting the number of articles devoted to each incident.
- Measuring the column inches devoted to each
- Comparing the reporting of each incident, noting:
- The source-bases of the articles in question and whether they conform to Chomsky’s predictions as earlier described.
- Whether there are significant language differences in the reports of the “paired examples.”
- The significance of the differences.
- How the quality of evidence advanced or demanded in each case differs. (E.g. Is a “smoking gun” required for alleged U.S. crimes, while something less is tolerated as proving the crimes of designated enemies?)
- Whether conclusions are drawn or implied about evil intent on the part of “designated enemy” leaders, while similar actions by the U.S. or its clients are excused or rationalized.
- Whether conclusions are drawn or implied about the corruption and unworkability of the “designated enemy’s” system, while similar actions by the U.S. or its clients are explained in terms of exceptional crimes by officials at the lowest level possible.
- Whether arrests, trials or convictions are accepted as indications that the system in question does work or that it doesn’t.
Both Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Chomsky’s propaganda model suggest that the problem of fake news has been with us for a long time. Even more importantly: critiquing it goes much deeper than merely analyzing what appears in the newspapers, on television or online. Instead, critical thinking often challenges its practitioners to make a 180 degree turn away from accepting what we’ve been told by beloved parents, teachers, priests, ministers, politicians, other public figures and friends.
No wonder it’s so intimidating to walk through our prison’s open cell door!
(Next week: My own journey from egocentrism towards Cosmo-centrism)
 Here all page references are to Chomsky, Noam. Necessary illusions. Toronto, ON: CBC Enterprises, 1990.