A Reader’s Notes

by Joe Auciello


Last August Arundhati Roy began a speech to the American Sociological Association by referring to a problem with language—words, she said, have been “butchered and bled of meaning.” (Her talk has been published as a pamphlet, Public Power in the Age of Empire, by Seven Stories Press.)

This is indeed a time of big lies, when a war of plunder and conquest is praised by its perpetrators as a struggle for liberty and freedom, and few persons on the public stage either know or tell the truth.

In this way the present links firmly to the past. Neither George Orwell nor Bertolt Brecht, for instance, would fail to recognize the hallucinatory language of today’s presidents and prime ministers, having so effectively analyzed the fraudulent phrases and dogmas of their own era. George Orwell’s best-known essay, “Politics and the English Language,” concludes with this observation: “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Brecht also explored the abuses of language in an essay entitled, “Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties.”

Both Orwell and Brecht taught this lesson: Language shapes and limits thought. Mere opinion can be delivered with the weight of fact, and fact can dissolve in the heat of opinion. Without this deceitful manipulation of words, the repressive practice of modern state politics would be far more difficult. The major media assist the politicians in the task of ruling the citizen-subjects of even the most democratic capitalist government by restricting the range of permissible opinion and thereby limiting the level and depth of critical thought.

But the big lie is not the only source of misinformation and deception. Half-truth, omission, innuendo, “weasel words”—they all contribute to the misdirection and misleading of public opinion. These more subtle methods of propaganda are less easily noticed than the big lies, but, just for that reason, the accumulation of smaller deceptions may prove equally potent.

For the sake of argument, put aside the more obvious and crude propagandists: the Rush Limbaughs, Ann Coulters, Fox News, and so on. Consider, instead, the bellwether of respectable opinion, The New York Times, a newspaper widely derided by the right as a semi-treasonous voice of unrepentant liberalism. In her latest book, Ann Coulter, for instance, accuses the Times of a “crusade against capitalism.”

She doth protest too much. Any serious analysis of the media would conclude that Fox News, CNN, The New York Times, etc., share the same essential beliefs and therefore present news and opinion in ways that are largely complementary.

The central value expressed by the media, conservative or liberal, is patriotism--an unquestioned certainty in the fundamental rightness of the government of the United States, despite criticisms that might be raised against individuals or even branches of government. This certainty is pervasive, common as air and almost as invisible.

This state of affairs is not so much a conspiracy as a consensus of proper opinion, a narrow range of belief-as-truth written every day in newsprint and spoken every day over the airwaves or through the cable wires. Deviation from the consensus is a disinvitation to be heard.

Even a brief sample can reveal how language and propaganda today shape public opinion and stake out the limit of permissible thought.

The following paragraph is from The New York Times Book Review of December 12, 2004. This review of The Persian Puzzle by Kenneth M. Pollack was written by Ernest R. May:

The pivot of Pollack’s narrative is the CIA-sponsored 1953 coup that unseated the demagogic reformer Mohammad Mossadegh and entrenched young Mohammad Reza Shah. The coup created among Iranians a lasting belief that the United States not only wanted to but could control Iranian politics. Early on, Pollack quotes Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s 2000 St. Patrick’s Day speech expressing regret at the “setback for Iran’s political development.” He returns to it toward the end of the book, insisting that, however small the immediate result, confession of past errors is the starting point for avoiding future mistakes.

Nothing in the paragraph above is factually incorrect. At first glance, it appears as straightforward and benign. Few readers would give it a second thought. After all, the language is inoffensive and the tone is temperate. But a first glance is misleading.

A closer look at this paragraph shows a pattern of language designed to excuse a reality that cannot be ignored. Here, words are verbal pollution, intended to befog the brain.

To understand this paragraph, it is necessary to read carefully and parse the grammar of deception. Then the truth emerges.

Mossadegh in this account is merely “unseated,” a rather mild term. In reality, although he had been elected by the Iranian people, he was overthrown by a CIA coup. More significantly, he is labeled as “demagogic.” A “demagogue” is a wily, manipulative leader—not, in other words, a legitimate, honest leader. A demagogue is, to put it bluntly, a bad person. “Demagogue” neutralizes the more positive term, “reformer.” A “demagogic reformer” is a phrase equivalent to a “false hero.” Mossadegh, then, was someone who did not deserve to be trusted; someone who instead needed to be removed from office. So, “the CIA-sponsored 1953 coup” was, arguably, necessary and deserved. Overall, the language of this paragraph implies the coup was quite a positive step.

Equally significant is what the reviewer omitted. Mossadegh was not merely “unseated;” he was arrested and jailed. His crime? He had nationalized his country’s oil fields. Further, his imprisonment meant the end of democracy in Iraq. The paragraph fails to mention that point, as well.

A democratically elected government was overthrown by a foreign power (the United States) to further the economic and political interests of that power, and in particular, the interests of the giant, privately-owned U.S. and British oil companies. To say that is to write a truthful sentence, instead of the distorted account The New York Times printed.

In contrast to Mossadegh, the Shah is described as “young”—generally a positive word in the sense of “fresh,” “new,” “vibrant.” Shah Reza Pahlevi was also a murderous dictator who created a powerful and hated secret police organization (SAVAK) that tortured dissenters. Much of what the Bush administration has said about Saddam Hussein applies equally to the former Shah of Iran Except for one thing—and this is what is important—after the Shah was “entrenched,” he gave control of the Iranian oilfields to the British and the American oil companies and became the trusted ally and client of the U.S in that strategically vital part of the world. The paragraph omits these facts.

Verbal deception continues throughout the paragraph. Notice that the writer says the coup created a “belief” that the U.S. “could control Iranian politics.” One can believe in something true or in something untrue. The writer is silent on this point, preferring not to mention that the popular Iranian “belief” is grounded squarely on fact.

Madeleine Albright is cited for having “expressing regret” five years ago for “past errors.” By then, of course, a revolution in Iran had thrown out the Shah and put an end to U.S. domination of the country. No formal diplomatic relations exist today between the U.S. and Iran. Ultimately, U.S. policy failed in Iran, so that a statement of “regret” hardly amounts to much. The losing side always nurses some regrets.

More telling is the linking of the words “errors” and “mistakes.” This language deliberately understates the reality. An “error,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary, is “an unintentional deviation from what is correct, right, or true.” That is hardly a fitting term for a United States policy, supported by both Democratic and Republican parties and presidents, that was coldly calculated, brutal, profitable, and sustained for some sixteen years. The only “mistake” is that the Iranian people did not allow it to continue.

Ultimately, the impression given from this paragraph is that the United States government is a force for good in the world, and when this government might accidentally do something wrong, its leaders are willing to apologize so that mistakes can be avoided in the future. Thus, language which appears factual and politically neutral is anything but. It is instead a highly politicized but veiled propaganda that affirms loyalty to the dominant myth of American politics, the benevolence of the United States government.

What’s true for this one paragraph is also true for the entire review and is true as well for the other articles since every author and every article must conform to the newspaper’s editorial policy.

That policy is pointed out conveniently enough in another article from the same issue of The New York Times Book Review, in an essay titled “The Anti-Anti-Americans” by Jonathan Tepperman. His review surveys “left-wing attacks on the United States” and the right-wing reaction to them. Tepperman, not surprisingly to readers of The New York Times, vows a plague on both their houses and opts for the secure and sensible middle. In this way he intends to signal his broadmindedness, tolerance, and good judgment. No doubt some readers are fooled, but his writing is actually redolent of smugness, self-satisfaction, and simple-mindedness.

Tepperman is rankled by, among others, Arundhati Roy (“the Indian author of one good novel and many peevish essays”). In her book, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, Roy had the nerve to criticize the United States for “a self-destructive impulse toward supremacy, stranglehold, global hegemony.” Perhaps more galling to the reviewer, Ms. Roy was none too impressed by the courage of this country’s press.

Tepperman dismisses Roy with the back of his hand, calling her “hysterical—a word that conveys several meanings. One definition is a neurosis (supposedly typical of women) and characterized by extreme emotion; another meaning is the sense of something that arouses uncontrolled laughter. Thus, readers are instructed that mirth is the proper response to such critics of American empire as Arundhati Roy. Obviously, the rantings of extremists—and who else but an extremist could condemn an American empire?—ought not to be taken seriously.

In the “Letters” section of the January 2, 2005, issue of The New York Times Book Review, Tepperman spells out just why some “peevish” writers deserve the phrase “anti-American.” He says that “they haven’t merited the label simply because they criticize the United States… constructively criticizing the country can be an honorable act, with a tradition as old as the United States itself…Criticism becomes anti-American, however, when it ceases to be constructive. Roy crosses this threshold…”

And what is this threshold that ought not to be crossed? What are the thoughts that must not be tolerated by respectable opinion, the “inaccuracy” that Tepperman finds “discouraging”? The answer is simple enough. Roy thinks that the U.S. press is not so free, that U.S. democracy is not so democratic, and that the U.S. war on Iraq is more genocidal than generous. This assessment, says Tepperman, isn’t “fair-minded.” More’s the pity.

In “Politics and Public Power,” Arundhati Roy wrote, “The U.S. political system has been carefully crafted to ensure that no one who questions the natural goodness of the military-industrial-corporate power structure will be allowed through the portals of power.”

The media, which are part of this political system, are crafted just as carefully. No one who questions the system in an essential way can pass through the portals of respectability and access mainstream publication. Fortunately, there are better and more accurate alternatives to the sham and deception of the media establishment. More importantly, there is a growing number of people who see through the distortions, who want to think for themselves, and who will settle for nothing less than the truth.