Thursday, 31 March 2011


Sometimes the questions can be more revealing than the answers.  In a recent interview we seemed to glimpse, for moments at least, the assumptions that underlie the thinking of our liberal establishment; the worldview of the “soft end” of our corporate media.  The answers were interesting too!  With two of them touching on some deeply held beliefs.  We heard their shock, we felt their pain; and there were reverberations around the internet - the mainstream had taken a hit.

Jeremy Paxman, renown for his verbal aggression, is a member of the culture whose representatives he attacks.  This, rather obvious point, is often overlooked; especially by the politicians who accuse him or the BBC of political bias.  Given that he attacks everybody one wonders what they think his politics are.  Is he is a radical outside the respectable political culture; an anarchist, perhaps, or a revolutionary Green?  This seems hardly credible; and I don’t believe has ever been publicly suggested.  Rather, for the most part, the attacks are unreflective, the anger of his “victims” who in a vague way accuse the media of political partisanship, but of an unspecified sort.  Though few take this seriously, there is one important effect that does influence the culture: it appears to substantiate the myth of the media as a critical force within the establishment.  One consequence is that for the rulers and their ideologues it reinforces their view that the BBC can never be subservient enough.

All elites share an ideology, although, because it is reasonably sophisticated and diverse, and changes over time, it includes a variety of opinions; which obscures a more general conformity.  The more liberal the culture the greater that range of views will be; and there will be more tolerance for them – although those on the extreme, or who don’t show the required respect, will be condemned as radicals and non-conformists; and will be marginalised.  However, there are bounds to the debate: every country has its border; each continent its coastline.  Often this is invisible both to the establishment and the general public, both of whom are only exposed to the conventional opinion; through the television or by reading the mainstream press.  Sometimes someone comes along who shows us just where the borders are; and how narrow is the received wisdom.  For a few moments there appears the large horizons of an unexpected sea; and we see the pundits wobbling on the shore’s edge.  This was Noam Chomsky’s recent interview with Jeremy Paxman; where for at least two brief moments the interviewer did indeed lose his balance, and struggling amongst the collapsing waves, exposed his own bias: to Obama and those outside the charmed circle of professional opinion.

Questions can reveal the assumptions that underlie them.  And precisely because they are not explicit such assumptions are good indicators of the prevailing ideology; for being generally unconscious they form part of the texture of a person’s thinking; and are usually shared with colleagues and acquaintances.  In this case nearly all of his questions exposed Paxman’s view of what he thinks Chomsky represents: opposed to representational democracy, against technology, and an extremist.  However, when someone creates a heavily distorted picture of a person they are usually giving us an insight into their own identity.  For in place of knowledge and understanding they project their own fears and prejudices; facts are replaced by opinions, which in turn reflect their own beliefs and thoughts; or those of the public face of the organisation to which they belong.  So, listening to Paxman, what do we learn about him (and the BBC)?

Uncomfortable facts are either ignored and forgotten or misinterpreted, and in a quite systematic way.  The recent democratic uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are supported by the West; the evidence the final endorsements, the last thing to happen, and therefore the only acts to be remembered.  The tortuous path by which our leaders came to meet the protestors at Tahrir Square has, perhaps, never been really comprehended.  Initial backing for the dictator, general calls for good government, and then the slow retreat to eventual recognition of the protestors’ demands; but with one key reservation: the dictator must go, but the regime stays; although this, of course, is somewhat camouflaged.

Criticism of Western governments means the rejection of parliamentary democracy.  Thus the question about Chomsky’s support for the protests in Egypt and Tunisia; with its hint of surprise that he agrees with people who want Western style institutions (“you have viewed them as illusory”).  In part it is a misunderstanding of, and a lack of interest in, Chomsky’s political beliefs – his libertarian socialism is more a collection of values and practices than an idealized set of political arrangements.  This reflects one tendency of an ideology, which is to dismiss its opponents, and have little curiosity about the content of their thought. There also seems to be the assumption that someone who criticises the West’s governments must be opposed to them in toto: both their content and their form has to go.  Here, the distinction between the ideals of a society and its institutional corruption is lost.  In the liberal mind, one suspects, parliamentary democracy and state capitalism have either become conflated - both are seen as expressions of popular sovereignty, the voting booth and the retail park are one and the same –, or the influence of the latter on the former is ignored.  Unthinkable is the all too obvious truth that corporate capitalism has deformed and hollowed out Western parliaments; so that one large company can have more influence than the entire population of a MP’s constituency.   It thus misses the nuances of Chomsky’s own thought: he doesn’t reject current institutions out of hand; rather it is about recognising their democratic strengths, to both utilise and transcend them.  In the cartoon world of the media this is lost in a simple battle of opposites – you are either for or against democracy, as defined by the status quo.

The line of questioning around the internet seemed to assume Chomsky would be opposed to it.  This appears to come from an overvaluation of this technology, and confuses it with a sort of popular democracy and the success of capitalism.  The internet, in this view, is a sign of Western economic and political prowess (one of Paxman’s questions comes very close to actually saying this).  It is a view, part of a longstanding idea, that binds capitalism and democracy together; seeing their fusion as essential for the progress of both; which in turn provides the foundation for technological invention; its products the symbol of the West’s freedom.  

The institutional continuity of state capitalism is simply not recognised.  Thus the very palpable shock when Chomsky says that Obama is as bad, if not worse, than Bush.  It is an unforgettable moment, when two worlds collide, and Paxman falls into the sea.

The essential benevolence of the West: it must do something to sort out Libya.  This seemed the hardest point for Paxman to accept: that our history should actually prevent us from intervening in another country.  It is also revealing in another way, for it highlights the media’s reflexive call for action.  We have to do something, and we have to do it now!  Easy of course, when one sits in front of a keyboard or television monitor.  It shows a lack of insight and concern for the people on the ground – armed intervention should always be a last resort; it should be with the consent of the host population; and it should be based on knowledge of the situation and the history; together with some sense of the likely consequences.  These ideas can take time to formulate, and their expression can be complex and full of nuance.  This has always been difficult for TV, but is especially so today with news available every hour of every day; and where opinions are wanted now! now! now!  Thus we have these quick-fix solutions, which are encouraged by rapid-fire questioning all too common across the TV channels (though less so in this interview), where events are reduced to simple formulas, often based on little knowledge or understanding; while other alternatives are neither known nor investigated – they get in the way of the simple narrative. When Chomsky raised other options Paxman was quick to dismiss them – thus his out of hand rejection of an unconfirmed Reuter’s report that Gaddafi may consider leaving Libya.  The enemy is always evil and insane; and any middle course, based on a rational engagement, is deemed impossible.  The wonder is that journalists don’t recognise how this helps foster a militaristic society; where action is more exciting than talk, and military intervention more rewarding than diplomacy.  This may reflect an in-built bias of the media towards war; with a tendency to encourage it, when that option is available.

The last question is perhaps the most interesting of all.  Paxman asks Chomsky his age and then asks why he hasn’t mellowed.  The assumption is that radicalism is essentially a young man’s game.  In this view radical politics is essentially immature; and arises from youthful exuberance and excessive idealism; and is not the result of universal political principles and the gross failures of one’s own society.

During Chomsky’s last answer, when he mentions the US politician who believes God will intervene to save the planet, Paxman jumps in: why bother with stupid people!  This exposes the foundation stone of the liberal establishment: we are rational, tolerant and intelligent; those who aren’t don’t matter (and, one suspects, this is their view of most of the population).  All three assumptions are highly questionable.  Chomsky’s response is probably the most cutting Paxman has ever received.  He compares the fundamentalist Christian congressman to the evangelists of the free market – Liberals can be stupid too!


  1. Stian Danielsen20 May 2011 at 08:23

    Good post - I'd like to comment on this part:

    "The essential benevolence of the West: it must do something to sort out Libya. This seemed the hardest point for Paxman to accept: that our history should actually prevent us from intervening in another country. It is also revealing in another way, for it highlights the media’s reflexive call for action. We have to do something, and we have to do it now! Easy of course, when one sits in front of a keyboard or television monitor. It shows a lack of insight and concern for the people on the ground – armed intervention should always be a last resort; it should be with the consent of the host population; and it should be based on knowledge of the situation and the history; together with some sense of the likely consequences."

    You seem to assume that the media support a "call to action" on Libya simply based on an assumption that "We have to do something" and that they call for military action merely out of lack of insight and understanding.

    I think that this call to military aggression has nothing to do with lack of insight or any desire to "do something" to remedy things.

    Instead, it has to do with making money and finding yet another target to have the public focus on. Another madman to take focus away from everything that is wrong locally in the US.

    Remember, the mass media are corporations looking for ways to make more money while adhering to elite interests...meaning, if there are signs "from above" that the elite are interested in taking military action against Libya, then that is what big media will whip up the action for.

    And taking military action is almost always good for elite interests - it generates lots of income for weapons manufacturers, it gives politicians pause from focus on internal stuff and it gives mass media something to "milk" with "embedded" journalists and whatnot.

    I think we should be careful to assume that mass media simply supports military action out of lack of insight or something like that. It runs deeper and is much more serious.


  2. I don’t disagree. However, my piece was not concerned with causes, only some of their effects. The major media are corporations and form an integral part of state capitalism, which they both promote and justify. I take that for granted, and therefore did not analyse it.

    However, the actual operation of the media is far more complicated and nuanced than you suggest. While the government and big business do, from time to time, tell journalists what to write, the process is generally more indirect. They are part of a culture that has certain values, and a quite specific worldview, where particular ideas and people are off limits. This culture is something that is acquired through education, family, and one’s own class and colleagues. And it is a culture they share with their friends in the government and BP. Those who don’t fit in are excluded; though there are a few exceptions. Nir Rosen in a brilliant article for Al Jazeera describes one aspect of this process extremely well. Once inside that culture to get out of it means inconvenience. In Iraq it meant danger, dirty water and diarrhoea. In New York or London it means having to justify oneself, not getting promoted, ridiculed and attacked. Most people do not want to be outcasts, so the culture becomes self-reinforcing, and one’s opinions and thoughts become reflexive, like the examples I give in this piece.