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How Ahistorical Journalism Serves Power

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The corporate media, the pivotal propaganda arm of any advanced capitalist system, reinforces the values necessary to keep the system of which it is a part going, reflects its position in a form of socioeconomic organization that seeks only to preserve a status quo of mindless consumption. In such a structural role, historical perspective is not allowed. A knowledge of history is subversive. We don't need subversion, we need obedience; we don't need knowledgeable citizens, we need uninformed consumers.

In his segment on the same early-2000 University of California series, Chomsky explains one ways in which "news" sources justify this historical disregard: "concision." He jokes that he could never be on Nightline, as he is guilty of the crime of challenging power, of questioning propaganda, of the unspeakable sin of demanding evidence for one's assertions. "In fact, the structure of the news production system is you can't produce evidence," he states. He recalls that the producer of Nightline, one Jeff Greenfield, when asked why he's never featured Chomsky on the show, says "he lacks concision." Chomsky does not reject such a claim; he agrees entirely.

"The kind of things I would say on Nightline you can't say in one sentence, because they depart from standard religion. If you want to repeat the religion, you can get away with it between two commercials. If you want to say something that questions the religion, you're expected to give evidence, and that you can't do between two commercials. Therefore you lack concision; therefore you can't talk. That's a terrific technique of propaganda. To impose concision is a way of virtually guaranteeing that the party line gets repeated over and over again and that nothing else is heard."

With even the most cursory of looks at the press itself, we see that Chomsky could hardly be more correct. The corporate media, almost without exception, marches in complete accord with Uncle Sam's orders. In its oft-cited 2013 "Freedom of the Press" report, even the Freedom House--a shill organization for the U.S. government, in the words of Chomsky and Herman "a virtual propaganda arm of the government and international right wing"--must admit that the U.S. takes a very underwhelming 23rd place, tied with Barbados, Costa Rica, and Jamaica. The situation is probably much worse. Six corporations control 90% of the U.S. media, down from 50 in 1983. "The more nefarious US foreign policy, the more it relies on media complicity." And the more nefarious US foreign policy, the more money there is to be made in armament sales.

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In his magnum opus, Orwell writes, "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." The corporate media controls mainstream access to information at present. (Yes, this stranglehold may have loosened a bit in the past two decades, with the emergence of the internet and new independent media, yet it is still very much the case.) It almost completely disregards the past. The utter absence of historical data implicitly reifies power structures and socio-cultural mythologies. Given the natural flow of human thought processes, of deep-seated notions of cause-and-effect, some kind of history is necessary to frame any given phenomenon. In the place of actual historical fact, ergo, we find a shared collective delusion, a ludicrous vision of the world in which the Almighty Founding Fathers - put into motion a mission--a mission guided by a love for "freedom," for "democracy"--that Uncle Sam benevolently maintains throughout His years, that finds its fruition in the military intervention of Emperors Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, and their ilk.

When the "news" therefore indicts parties for the very crimes we have committed against others--for using chemical weapons when we ourselves have used them more than anyone else in history--when the "news" ignores the role we have played in the past (and still play) in these crimes, the corporate media does exactly what Orwell predicted: it creates and propagates a white-washed future, one that multi-national corporations, and the imperialist governments who act on their behalf, shape to reflect and serve their pecuniary interests.

Syria offers us a prime illustration of how this ahistorical propaganda system works. The press has ensured that every American now knows that Assad is a dictator and that Syria is in the middle of a bloody civil war, yet the knowledge ends there. Virtually no one discusses the aforementioned U.S.-backed 1963 coup; even fewer acknowledge the vile history of imperialism preceding this. One, however, can understand very little about what is happening in Syria (or in the rest of the Middle East) today without such historical framing.

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The beginning of the story should be at least vaguely familiar. Like Africa, Syria, along with the rest of the Middle East, was carved into colonies by European powers, with a complete disregard for ethnic and regional boundaries. In the last years of the 19th and the first years of the 20th centuries, vast oil deposits were found in these colonies. A century of gruesome imperialism, of political manipulation, of complete disregard for human life in the face of corporate profits, followed, and continues up to this very day.

Over   two years ago, Adam Curtis, in his BBC blog, published an interesting article titled "The Baby and the Ba'ath Water." The piece, although politically naÃÆ' ¯ve and even imperialist itself (it was syndicated by BBC, after all), is well researched, and does a good job of outlining the primary events in modern Syrian history, helping us to understand how, as with the vast preponderance of contemporary problems in the Middle East (and the world), the capitalist West's past (and present) imperialism is ultimately responsible for much of today's political woes.

While many of us know that, in 1953, Uncle Sam played a primary role in destabilizing and overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Iran, only a few years before, He was also active in destabilizing and overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Syria. The first in a series of CIA-backed Syrian coups, president Shukri al-Quwatli was overthrown in 1949. Agent Deane Hinton professed "I want to go on record as saying that this is the stupidest, most irresponsible action a diplomatic mission like ours could get itself involved in, and that  we've started a series of these things that will never end."  It goes without saying that Hinton, the imperialists' Cassandra, was ignored. A period of incredible political turmoil followed (as did the loss of countless innocent lives--not that Uncle Sam has ever cared about those). Capitalism's Iniquitous Army attempted to overthrow the government again in 1957, yet failed. Just six years later, it tried again, and was successful.

This brings us to 1963. In this year, the C.I.A. ensured that the Ba'ath Party was successful in its overthrow of the Syrian and Iraqi governments. The party, although socialist, was adamantly anti-communist and anti-Nasserist (Nasser went so far as to call them "fascist"). The U.S. thus realized it could instigate sectarian conflict among the anti-imperialist, pan-Arab left by sponsoring Ba'athist coups--and providing "kill lists" to purge the countries' prominent communists (yes, in spite of what they taught you in high school "history" class, Uncle Sam loves Him some purges too). These two coups led to the later dictatorships of Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, both of whom worked their way up the Ba'ath Party ranks.

Supporting one side alone was not enough for the U.S., nonetheless. Just as Uncle Sam funneled weapons and resources to both  sides of the almost decade-long Iraq-Iran war, when the Ba'ath party divided into an Iraqi and a Syrian faction in 1966, the U.S. too exploited the sectarian divisions. Such is the principal strategy of the imperialist West: divide and conquer.

It is this messy imperialist past that instigated the relationship between Syria and the U.S.S.R./Russia, a relationship that continues to this day--as consistently emphasized by the Russophobic corporate media. Clay Claiborne of the Daily Kos has done extensive research on the aftermath of the '63 coup, detailing Hafez al-Assad's actions up to the entrance of his son into office in 2000, right up to today. In a particularly illuminating article, written a year ago, "Barack Obama's Courtship of Bashar al-Assad," Claiborne notes that Obama met with the Syrian President in November 2008, before he himself was even elected. The enthusiastic Democrat, the purveyor of "Change," snuggled closely up next to the dictator in an attempt to convince him to serve U.S. interests in the region--namely pro-Israel and anti-Iraq and -Iran policies. We can add Assad to a very, very long list of draconian dictators whom Uncle Sam has been perfectly willing to support, as long as they are willing to support U.S. interests in the region--along with Saddam HusseinHosni MubarakMuhammad Zia-ul-HaqMohammad Reza PahlaviMuammar Gaddafi, and many, many more.

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Ignoring all of this history is ignoring reality. We can't consider the stories we read in the corporate media real "journalism" when they ignore the very historical phenomena responsible for them coming into being. Contemporary "news" sources report on Assad as the "brutal dictator" (that he is) as though we had nothing to do with his rise to power. The imperialist West, we, had everything to do with his rise to power. And we've helped him cling to it (while supporting the rebels, in a yet another example of our support-both-sides strategy). This isn't about chemical weapons. The U.K. sold chemicals to Syria 10 months after the civil war began. The U.S. provided Saddam Hussein with the chemical weapons he used to massacre the Kurds, and sells chemical weapons to Israel and countries around the world. No, this is about hegemony (particularly that of the oil variety).

Amidst the incessant barrage of reports on Syria, few turn the finger inward on the most culpable of all in this mess: US.

To even begin wading through all of the propaganda, we must first study history. We must recognize our past crimes, and see that the government today is merely continuing in this same maleficent tradition. Only then will we see that it is we, the U.S. (along with the U.K., and a few other imperialist countries), who are ultimately responsible for most of the problems in Syria, in the Middle East, and in much of the world. Only then will we see that further intervention from the very people who caused these problems in the first place is an act of insanity of the most absurd, farcical degree. Only then will we ever have a chance to end the needless human suffering.

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Ben Norton is a freelance writer and journalist. His work has been featured in Mondoweiss, Electronic Intifada, CounterPunch, Truthout, ThinkProgress, and ZNet, among other publications. His website is BenNorton.com. Follow him at (more...)

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