Chomsky and the American Culture of Fear

As someone who finds Noam Chomsky in equal measure challenging and infuriating - even when he descends to hyperbole he still says things that few others will - I’ve just finsihed reading Imperial Ambitions : Conversations on the Post-9/11 World. Of course a lot of the same themes that he’s been banging the drum about for the past 40 years are there, but he perhaps goes a little further in two directions, which might be ripe for debate.

First, he links American people’s “culture of fear”, as he terms it, with a willingness to gobble up propaganda generated by the Government and the media. In turn he traces this psychological insecurity to feelings of guilt about first (first, both chronologically and in terms of impact on the psyche) having exterminated the Native Americans, and second having enslaved black Africans. Do people buy this?

Second, looking back over the past 50-some years, to the operations in Iran and Guatemala in '53 and '54, he considers American foreign policy “initiatives” under Republicans and Democrats to be equally tainted by blatant self-interest. Kennedy, Clinton, and even to a certain extent Carter, come in for almost as much criticism as Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes. Is he sounding an effective wake-up call for liberals?

People buying into propaganda and the “culture of fear” is not at all unique to the United States, if in fact we are guilty of it (I’m not so sure that it’s fear, per se). In fact, most of the most noteworthy propaganda has come from elsewhere. Take Lani Riefenstahl and Sergey Eisenstein, for example. We have our own famous icons, like Uncle Sam and Rosie the Riveter, but I’d be hard-pressed to put them in the same league as the aforementioned propagandists. Every culture buys into propaganda at some level- if they didn’t advertising would be futile. Simply adapt advertising principles to your goals and you’re on your way.

As far as “guilt” goes re: slavery and extermination, it colors our national thinking, but I don’t feel any guilt as a result of those things happening. Why should I? It happened long before I even existed. I have no direct knowledge of either, and while I have a historical appreciation for the horrors of the two and have no desire to see them repeated, that does not constitute guilt.

In other words, I think Chomsky is way off base with his conclusions (I usually do).

He’s sounding an effective wake-up call for members of both parties. He hits much closer to the mark with this one, although he’s still a bit wide of the target. I think that the Soviet Union was a menace, which was confirmed in many regards with the smackdowns in Hungary in 1955 and Czechoslovakia in 1967 and the Cuban Missile Crisis and building of the Berlin Wall in the early 1960s. It has been confirmed that the Soviets all but told Kim Il Sung to attack the South in 1950, and the records we have been allowed access to showed that they were trying to spread their influence everywhere they could. Now, that’s not a bad thing if Soiet-style Communism is your thing, but most people found it to be oppressive and destructive. So some of what we did was worthwhile.

However, you have to ask yourself if we went too far. My answer: of course we did. The destabilization of Iran in 1955, the senseless fighting in Vietnam that went on far too long, Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989, Iraq currently. Yes, we have made some mistakes, and some (like Grenada) were very self-serving. I saw something with Tucker Carlson the other day where he was laughing about Grenada- I wanted to smack him silly. Military action should not be a game. But all the same, I think we’ve done more good than bad if you take a big picture view. That’s small consolation for the victims, but that’s far too micro for the macro-type question you’re asking.

Fear is one of the best tools governments can use to seize control. It has allowed us to accept our rights to be abreviated. When the election was going on we had readily accepted the orange alerts with out questioning. They disappeared after the election. Our government has been reshaped since 911. We acecpted blindly government actions tha t would have fought before.
The guilt is by social strata. We who deal with blacks and ,minorities on a social basis , may have a sense of it. The extremely wealthy who are growing richer at an incredible rate , dont seem to have trouble with it. They are more and more becoming distant from the problems of the small people.
We cloak our military forays in language of saving someone else or ourselves from danger. War is about money. Newspapers and tv wont tell you.They are part of a structure that profits from it.

This idea is not new for Chomsky or other liberals. Surely he didn’t leave Johnson off his list of self-interested Presidents.


Hey, I didn’t know this! Chomsky is a Wobbly! :slight_smile:


People are naturally fearful of things that they should find fearful - terrorism, totalitarian governments, child molesters, teenage psycho killers, etc, etc. Your actual chances of being killed or injured by any of these things is fairly low. The problem is that people have a skewed perception of reality because all they see in the news is a steady diet of this stuff. It’s all they want to see because if they didn’t, the news wouldn’t show it.

An interesting book on the subject:

Y’know, the trouble with these sorts of critiques is that they’re so darn provincial. Only a provincial American could believe that Americans are uniquely susceptable to fear and propaganda. Only a provincial American could believe that Americans are uniquely scarred by the past of slavery and colonization, forgetting that just about every country in the world has such a past. Britain, Russia, France, Japan, Germany, Spain, Portugal, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium. If slavery leaves a scar, how about Europe’s constant warfare? If displacement of Native Americans leaves a scar, how about colonization of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland by England?

These critiques seem to take as a given that two countries are unique: The US and Israel. I can understand American exceptionalism from a jingoist America-firster, I simply can’t understand it from a supposedly internationalist America-laster. It’s one thing to complain about and correct the grammar school history of America some people still believe…it’s another to substitute another grammar school version of history except in reverse.

As to the first point, I think he’s way off base. Americans do not hold a monopoly on being easily manipulated by fear and simple enemies. People around the world do and have historically gobbled up propaganda both religious and political, and xenophobic rhetoric on small and large scales. Guilt about slavery and genocide plays no part in this. First, we are now many generations removed from those events, and second, as I see Lemur866 says, most every culture has a history of oppression of some sort. I don’t think that sort of past has the lasting effect on the psyche of the descendants of the descendants of the perpetrators that Chomsky is suggesting.

As to the second point, he could be right. I admit to having not much more than a passing knowledge of U.S. political history between Truman and Reagan.

I don’t have much recent international experience to compare with, but trips to NZ and France/Switzerland made over the past 3-4 years reveal starkly different approaches to news and certain forms of what I guess should be called exposé entertainment.

If you turn on the evening news in the States, it seems like a disproportionate amount of time is spent “informing” the audience about scams and safety hazards lurking in every corner. After the 6:00 o’clock news is over, you get entire “news magazine”-style programs devoted almost entirely to who or what will turn you, yes you, into a victim of something. The rest of the time we hear about urban violence, kidnappings, drugs, war, etc.

The emphasis on danger is far less great abroad than it is here, based on my experience. After four weeks in New Zealand, returning to U.S. TV felt oppressive, and I almost never watch at all now. Our “news” is a non-stop stream of peril and paranoia, wildly exaggerated compared to at least some other industrialized nations. Certainly “fear” isn’t unique to Americans, but the fixation we have with it seems excessive when contrasted with some other places having similar standards of living, and so forth.

Yeah, but if Chomsky’s statement is that America is uniquely guilt about its role in slavery, he is correct (assuming, that is, that America is guilty about its role). Liverpool was massively important in the slave trade, forming one of the points of the “black triangle” that worken between England, America (or, later, the Bahamas/Cuba) and the West Coast of Africa, and there really is no sense of guilt amongst the current generation of Liverpudlians. The same goes for any part of England that profited off of the slave trade. Two caveats: number one, this year both England and Liverpool issued an apology to all descendants of slaves for their part in the slave trade; however, no reparations were offered, it hardly made the news, and there really was nothing behind it except a feel-good political gesture (albeit a pleasantly benevolent one, in contrast to the usual run of scare stories). Secondly, I know that England doesn’t have a large black population either to serve as a constant reminder of our actions or to agitate for things like apologies. However in several urban centres in the south there is a sizable afro-caribbean population, who immigrated just after WWII. Now, these groups are almost uniformly the ancestors of slaves on British plantations in the Caribbean, forcibly transported there from Africa during the 17th and 18th centuries. There simply is nothing like the sort of calls I hear about in America for reparations for the slave trade, and little sense of lasting bitterness about it. I think that this is a uniquely American phenomenon.

You’re more on the mark about Scotland and Wales but, the very vocal (and very small) independence movements in those countries aside, there is, again, little sense of grievance for the historic wrongs of England. There may be a sense of generalised bad feeling about the English, but it’s not due to history, but to the unconcern with which English government are perceived to treat the “regions” (bunch of rubbish IMO, especially since three of the chief four men in the British parliament are Scots, but there you go). Mention Bannockburn or even Culloden to the average Britisher today, I doubt they’d know what it was.

Ireland, of course, is a constant example of the first (and least successful) attempt at British empire-building.

And mention Flodden Field to any Scot and he’ll pretend he’s never heard of it!

I wonder, incidentally, if there’s not a kind of spiritual level on which people in cities like Liverpool “suffer” (perhaps not a very good word - would “labour” be any better?) for what happened in the past.

Well, if you agree with Hegel, the oppressor is just as much a victim as the oppressed, because his spirit is degraded by contact with inhumane acts.

Um, national alert levels never went above yellow from June 2004 through November 2004. So, in theory, I could argue that you’re as much a scaremonger as the people you’re inveighing against, as you’re telling lies to scare people into believing that they’re being manipulated by the government.

Hey now. American exceptionalism is just about inescapable. This is a country that was founded to get away from history, not to live intimately with it. We do, for the most part, see history as something you learn in school - not part of people’s lives.
Upside: We do bold, unprecedented, individualist things.
Downside: We make grievous mistakes and seldom acknowledge them.