YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

January 14, 2017

“Fake News” (and “pigs in a blanket….”)

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UNITED STATES - JANUARY 5: A controversial painting by Missouri student David Pulphus depicting police as animals hangs in the tunnel connecting the U.S. Capitol to the Cannon House Office building as part of the annual student art exhibit on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017. The painting was selected as the 2016 Congressional Art Competition winner from Rep. William Lacy Clay's district in the St. Louis area. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

UNITED STATES – JANUARY 5: A controversial painting by Missouri student David Pulphus depicting police as animals hangs in the tunnel connecting the U.S. Capitol to the Cannon House Office building as part of the annual student art exhibit on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017. The painting was selected as the 2016 Congressional Art Competition winner from Rep. William Lacy Clay’s district in the St. Louis area. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

[Update: When I said that the news was both real and fake I did not mean to absolve the purveyors of “fake news” in the sense that it was contrived and mendacious. The point was that reality is a personal matter and that one person’s reality may be another’s fake.]

Ever since the President-elect gave his news conference on January 11, 2017, the question of “fake news” has flooded the airways. At the same time, a handful of media conservatives have identified a Congressional art contest winner as an intolerable provocation, adding to the outrageous claims of black power types that “cops” are “pigs.” (Caption on painting image from Huffington Post)

I want to link these two events, for they are aspects of the same problem: viewers and readers have few tools to understand these controversies, whose connections could be illuminated were we even partly educated in deciphering competing ideologies.

The question of real versus fake has haunted our species forever. Plato gave that job to the “Guardians” of his Republic who would be expert in defining what sense perceptions are to be taken seriously, versus the shadows in the Cave. We are besieged by “journalists” and all intellectuals all eager to shape our inquisitiveness. Even Walter Lippmann advocated the training of a special class to separate truth from lies in his interwar books, thus earning the enmity of libertarians such as Noam Chomsky: https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/.

Anyone who has ever dipped into the study of rhetoric understands that competitors for eyeballs detect sharp differences between propaganda and the “real deal”: my opponents do not only think differently, they are mistaken in their evaluations of what is and what is not a “fact.” So we may wallow in self-righteousness, convinced that our opinions are indeed facts in the “real world.”

The Cops as Pigs painting. Which brings me to the contentious arguments over what is and what is not “art.” Here I will depart from many conservative judgments that high art is eternal and not susceptible to historicizing.

I have been critical of all “collectivist discourses” throughout my postings. By “collectivist” I mean the substitution of groups for individuals. Thus in prior blogs I have criticized the notion of national character (like all “cultural criticism” as covering over unique responses to authority). Thus it is, in my view, typical adolescent rebelliousness to all authority (not solely black power) that is the relevant context for understanding the high-school originator of the disputed painting.

We should be asking who (or what social forces) put government in charge of determining the winners in “art contests”? And why can’t we draw a line between legitimate dissent and special pleading?

Rep. William Lacy Clay

Rep. William Lacy Clay

To the extent that Lacy Clay’s judgment should be upheld by ratifying his opinion about what is and what is not “art,” is, like all “fake news,” real and fake at the same time. To this particular Missouri Representative to Congress, the painting is indeed art and accurately reflects his own world-view, and probably those of a majority of his constituents, more’s the pity.

As long as collectivist monikers remain, we will be stuck like other bureaucrats, at best, confused and bleeding.

New Observer Online

New Observer Online

May 18, 2015

Matthew Weiner’s MAD MEN and the double audience

Don Draper meditating on California coast

Don Draper meditating on California coast

(Spoilers ahead). In all my years of watching television, I have never been so flummoxed as I was by the final season of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men that purports to trace the ups and downs of its primary characters in a small NYC advertising agency, “Sterling Cooper” through its absorption into McCann Erickson. The series was set  during the late 1950s through the early 1970s, a period of great social upheaval.

I have written about the show before, arguing that it was odd for television writers to worry about the sponsors of the shows that they write, given that they purport to represent the real world uncontaminated by its corporate sponsors. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/10/24/mad-men-and-the-jewish-problem/.)

It never occurred to me until I looked up the definition and history of “irony” that the series had perhaps a double audience: one that would see it as a highly produced, realistic soap opera faithful to the period; while another would “get it” as standard {Jewish?] left-liberal self-hatred and anti-Americanism. (On the double audience for “irony” see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irony.)

For the last episode, eagerly anticipated by its fans, looked as if Don Draper, the dark, alcoholic, chain-smoking, womanizing genius adman (played by Jon Hamm) was going down, down, down, along with the American Dream, viciously portrayed in prior episodes such as the one with “milk and honey” in the title. Instead, Draper found at least a temporary reprieve at, of all places, an Esalen-type setting in the vicinity of Big Sur that persistently asked the question “How do you feel about your feelings?” Don, bottled up since his miserable childhood and perhaps on the brink of a heart attack, is suddenly redeemed by the confession of a depressed, unloved stranger in an encounter group, and goes on to embrace some kind of ersatz Indian religion installing him in a chanting hippie-garbed assembly, then to write a great Coca Cola commercial that not only unifies Draper with the mostly successful and “strong” female characters but affirms international groupiness. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/03/06/groupiness/, and https://clarespark.com/2013/07/02/groupiness-group-think-and-race/.)  On the commercial see http://www.coca-colacompany.com/coca-cola-unbottled/cokes-hilltop-featured-in-final-scene-of-mad-men.

Don Draper is literally and figuratively unbottled at last.

During my radio days of chronicling the fights in the art world, I used to know several New Yorker writers of fame. One or more complained to me about the ads for luxury goods that they felt compromised their ostensibly daring liberal stories and reportage. Similarly the artists and critics I met during the 1970s viewed themselves as hugely radical in both form and content. They loathed their bourgeois patrons (“Merde!”), pretty much as did the artistic vanguard that emerged before and during WW1.  I suppose that these artlings (not one of whom was a disciplined Red, by the way) comprise the peanut gallery that has praised Mad Men for the last seven seasons. They will “get it,” unlike the high-end consumers who fall for such arrant trickery.

As for myself, at the very end of the finale, I shouted out “Real or Fake?”

My outburst remains a radical query, and I don’t know the answer. I read once that irony was an unimaginative  excuse for an oppositional stance that failed to undermine or transform repressive cultures.

Then I thought about the venom hurled by Chomsky and his followers toward Walter Lippmann for encouraging the “spinmeisters” who “manufacture consent” (https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/): magicians and puppeteers like the fictional Don Draper, archetypally a Jewish liar.


October 31, 2013

Gossip and the gullible

purple batThis representative republic was founded on finding the truth, and identifying liars.  Here are just a few of my blogs on the subject, focusing on Alexander Hamilton, the bad boy of US history for populists and progressives alike:






https://clarespark.com/2012/03/03/sluts-and-pigs/  (retitled “Limbaugh v. Fluke, and mentioning the Crosswell case, one of Hamilton’s great achievements for telling the truth)




While interrogating his own early progressivism, Walter Lippmann proposed rearing a special class of fact-checkers, whose sole role would be to discover which journalists were lying, and who were not; they would not take partisan positions on policy as such, but would simply unmask liars.

These views (Hamilton’s or Lippmann) are unfashionable. Thanks to the Left’s appropriation of close reading, we are left only with the factoids of “race” and “diversity.” Or with “a multiplicity of readings” based on “point of view.” Not just “the Jews” but every enemy is now “a big liar,” yet the (postmodern) accusers are left with no ground to stand on. (I do not minimize the difficulty in pinning down the distortions of perception or locating the exact sources of human motivation. Some facts are settled, no matter how often they are bent into unrecognizable shapes by spin.)

So, bereft of guides or even curiosity, we are left with “gossip,” a game that anyone can play, including on “interactive sites” where experts and pundits define reality, and where facts are irrelevant. It is a form of hero worship (or hero takedown), and “the people” (whoever they are), are free to choose their favorite gurus du jour, then they may leave comments, which are not tested by anyone, but will leave their marks, no matter how improbable.

It is not just the Constitution that is up for grabs, it is the law of the land, and anyone may appropriate “the law” for his own particular benefit. Both populists and progressives are expert at such appropriations, for their aims (as moderate men) are social stability, achieved through the cohesion of the great unwashed as a malleable mass to be shaped at will by their betters.

Don’t look to a pundit to save us. As the Mandy Patinkin character (Saul Berenson)in HOMELAND observed in commenting on the Claire Danes character (Carrie Mathison) , “she has always been on her own.”

positive state

August 9, 2013

Melodrama and its appeal

melodramacrThis is a defense of the professional historian, with a further exploration into the dream world of melodrama. It follows https://clarespark.com/2013/08/08/neocons-academics-melodrama/, and is best read in sequence. (I am taking sides here, but I ask my “side” to take into account the emotional attachments and psychodynamics of the other side, as well as our own.)

It is all too easy to fall into the language of myth. Thus, in the current polarization over whether or not Ronald Radosh is a hero or a villain (the same goes for his antagonist Diana West), we may fail to transcend these mythic stereotypes. I brought up the pervasiveness of “melodrama” in my last blog, but skipped over it too quickly.

There are numerous academics who insist that relatively objective history is impossible and we should not even bother. Hayden White, who ran the History of Consciousness program at UC Santa Cruz, is one example: he argued that all history falls into the genres of literature, such as comedy or tragedy. His “postmodern” followers are legion and many are in powerful positions. I remember Richard Slotkin, a popular professor at Wesleyan University and author, arguing with me at a conference on “The American Hero” in 1978: There could be no escape from myth, he insisted. I demurred, though I will acknowledge that it is no easy task to get beyond our own subjectivity, i.e., the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world we inhabit. These are stories that often have well-defined heroes, villains, and victims. I was born August 10, 1937, and I still amaze myself with reconfigurations of my family dynamics, all my decisions, including “mistakes”, or the flaws vs. the achievements of my immediate family. I pride myself on my willingness to correct errors, to escape the vocabulary of melodrama, but wonder if I have fallen into yet another trap of subjectivity, that perhaps I will never “get it right.”

This is healthy. Before I went to graduate school in history, I was compiling a context for sentimental song as popularized by the middle class before the American Civil War. It was then that I saw the abundance of songs about dead infants (infant mortality and early death were common occurrences at that time). I also noted the prevalence of heroes, villains, and victims in the discourses of the popular composers of the antebellum period. I read Melville with relief, because I was sick to death of gruesome lyrics and relieved to see him satirize the emotional vocabulary of his contemporaries, for instance in his send-up of sentimental novels: e.g., Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852). Decades before Freud, Melville interrogated his family myths, and ended up with ambivalence and ambiguity, not only about his choices, but with respect to his feelings about his closest relatives, particularly his “dear, perfect father.” Melville, then and now, remains one of our greatest critics of melodrama. He has been punished for that, and his major crime would seem to be that he makes us think; he makes us look inside ourselves, and even then, we may never know what motivated us for certain. His protagonist “Pierre” is another Captain Ahab; there are striking similarities between the two Romantic heroes. The lesson they suggest to the reader is that the Romantic hero may be an antihero, even a destructive, demonic force. Melville does not conclude with clear answers; he leaves readers somewhat disoriented, but with a curious, questioning, unsettled kind of mind.

My major gripe with populism is that it hews to the romantic vocabulary of hero, villain, and victim. “The people” (rarely defined in terms of precise socio-economic class or gender) are the victims of villains (finance capital, warmongers, Jews, political hacks, professors), but are saved by designated heroic figures who finger the bad guys, and turn victims into heroes as they defend the people’s detective against onslaughts from, say, Ronald Radosh or the professors and journalists who support his critique of Diana West. Years ago I faced a similar situation when I defended Walter Lippmann from the followers of Noam Chomsky. Some Chomsky-ites remain unpersuaded by my essay, remaining heroically tied to their Leader against the forces of “manufactured consent” (i.e. the Jews who allegedly control mass media. See https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/). I understand these attachments, which find their force in loyalty to families and other authority figures who hold the powers of life and death over us, even as we grow into adulthood.

Hero-worship is unattractive and un-American whether it emanates from the far Left/counter-culture or far Right. To many populists, Joseph McCarthy has been vindicated by the briefly opened Soviet archives after 1989, but they do not appreciate the caution that trained historians and political scientists exerted when interpreting the revelations about real Soviet espionage during the 1930s onward. It is one thing to recognize that Alger Hiss was guilty, but quite another to implicate all liberals, including FDR and his entire administration in Hiss’s treason. It is one thing to argue that the Cold War was fought too weakly (see Revel’s How Democracies Perish, summarized here: https://clarespark.com/2011/04/09/jean-francois-revel-and-father-mapple/), but quite another to claim that “America” was occupied by commie-symps for decades, that “America” was “betrayed” by moderates and liberals.

None of this mythologizing would be possible without the “culturalist” turn in the writing of U.S. history, combined with the promiscuous gullibility of internet users who enjoy being “inside-dopesters.” Economic interest was erased in favor of ethnicity and identity politics. The result? Our journalists usually fail to describe partisan conflicts (including internal ones) with accuracy. In my reading, economic factors and beliefs about wealth creation are foremost in the current polarization: Keynesians believe that the State is the most potent force enabling upward mobility, while free market theorists generally favor supply-side economics as more efficient and conferring improved life chances. (This conflict about wealth creation perhaps splits both political parties internally, complicating our political culture insofar as it goes unnoticed.)

What makes historians competent is their long immersion in archival research and their participation in the most heated debates over what really happened in the past. This is a discourse that has no place for hero-worship. We ought to suspect everybody, including ourselves as we read what is available to our eyes. It takes the most arduous training and ongoing humility to become even somewhat competent in any sub-field. To imagine that an English major from Yale, armed with only a bachelor’s degree, is able to correct the work of an entire group of historians (some of them sadder-but-wiser neocons), is to indulge oneself in the most primitive and destructive thinking.


March 2, 2013

“Free Speech” and the internet

Moreau's Prometheus

Moreau’s Prometheus

This is not the first time I have broached this subject. See https://clarespark.com/2010/04/04/what-is-truth/.

When Melville’s Captain Ahab exclaimed “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines,” the author left the exact meaning of “truth” undefined. For many Christian readers of Moby-Dick, truth signified the truth of Christ the Saviour and Redeemer, hence Ahab must be a wicked blasphemer and opponent of God. But for secularists (including deists), truth signified empirical fact, ethical universalism, and human rights. In my view, the “fighting Quaker” Ahab was another Father Mapple, an abolitionist. Many “anticlericals” of the 18th C. railed against censorship by authoritarian religious institutions, but their notion of the truth was intended to protect their own writing; such as Voltaire scrambled, using either pen names or publishing anonymously.

Sometime during the research for my book on Herman Melville’s resuscitation between the wars in the 20th century, I read the collected letters of Abigail Adams, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. It was clear that for these three icons of U.S. history, free speech was not about libel or slander, but about the search for worldly truth. Similarly, Alexander Hamilton, in the Crosswell case, argued that “truth” should be the standard in cases of libel and slander; that plaintiffs had to prove that their targets were actually lying before crying foul. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/03/03/sluts-and-pigs/.)

Several centuries later, Walter Lippmann, worried about the propensities of the new mass media to spread propaganda distortions, suggested that a special class of intellectuals be developed to determine who was lying in controverted matters: controversies where the facts were faraway and otherwise hidden from citizens who would then be asked to vote on problems that were foreign to their direct experience. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/.)

When I was appointed Program Director of KPFK-FM (the local Pacifica station in Los Angeles) in February 1981, I was asked immediately to discipline a late-night young programmer who was enamored of punk rock music, and who was allegedly using language that could have cost us our broadcasting license. After warning him, he resisted, and I cancelled his show, irritating his listeners. This action was the least of my troubles at Pacifica, but it got me thinking about our using the phrase “free speech” as a rationale for supporting our famously “non-commercial” radio station.

Now with the internet and the widespread use of fake screen names to shield individuals from litigation or any exposure at all as they vent their dissatisfaction and hatred of individuals and policies, along with pressure from organized groups to control speech in public space ( see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/12/hate-hard-liberty-quick-fixes/, and https://clarespark.com/2011/05/26/who-is-a-racist-now/) the question of free speech remains a live, controverted issue. What do I think about it?

It seems to me that venting rage, either directly through insulting one’s opponents, or through catharsis by listening to or playing raucous music or watching horror films, is no substitute for the careful analysis of problems, whether these be personal or social in scope. Indeed, it may be counter-revolutionary and  destructive apart from the relief of yelling at one’s enemies du jour. Venting and kvetching is no substitute for thoughtful analysis and the labor of organizing opposition.

I used to warn my Pacifica radio listeners that contributing to the radio station was only the beginning of a lengthy process. Later I read Stephen Eric Bronner’s book on the political limitations of German Expressionism that made the same point. There are numerous intellectuals and would be journalists and bloggers who hope to make a living wagging fingers (on both the Left and Right), and some succeed brilliantly at it, but following them accomplishes nothing apart from feeling entirely alienated from their targets, whose different life experience and opinions should be understood as a required prelude to social/political action.

So I end up with a typical 18th C. Enlightenment (classical liberal) view of “the truth.” It is about discovery and innovation, especially the willingness to swim against all currents and to cherish memory and a more accurate history, letting chips fall. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/02/21/discovery-anxiety/.) If this be romantic defiance or an attack upon “unity” as many an order-loving leftist or conservative would have it, so much the better for romantic defiance. The urge to forget and to conform knows no ideological boundaries. But we warned: as fictional detective Bobby Goren warned at the end of one of his episodes on Law and Order Criminal Intent: “The search for truth is not for the faint-hearted.” It was an Ahab/Hamiltonian moment.

1960s Berkeley radicals

1960s Berkeley radicals

September 29, 2012

Index to blogs on antisemitism

Saudi cartoon 2008










https://clarespark.com/2010/11/14/the-abcs-of-antisemitism/ (a synthesis that takes account of the “Hebraic” Reformation sects)


https://clarespark.com/2011/03/28/index-to-multiculturalism-blogs/ (index to German Romantic sources for multiculturalism and related issues, such as identity politics)



https://clarespark.com/2011/10/15/baltzell-on-the-good-jews/ (retitled The Protestant Establishment Taps a Good Jew)


















It is a misconception to think that a person’s views toward individual Jews tests their antisemitic views one way or another. A-S is above all, a theory of history, most recently a reaction to the “disruptive” effects of modernity, and an identification of the source of Evil. Most or all antisemitism is racist, for no matter how assimilated a person of Jewish descent may be, that person retains mental, physical, and moral attributes attributed to “the Jews” considered as a collective entity. Of these, none is more pernicious than the  notion that all “Jews” partake of the Old Testament God as read by non-Jews, most famously by Voltaire (whose admirers were possibly angrier at Christianity, the offshoot of Judaism). That deity is domineering, militaristic, and genocidal, looking out solely for his “Chosen People.” One would think that such a powerful set of misconceptions would be corrected in the schools and in the mass media, but no. For in a highly populated globe, the masses must be controlled, and there is no more potent poison, directing popular anger away from abusive elites, than antisemitism: our innermost desires for truth, for a relatively accurate inventory of our past, is stigmatized as disintegrating to “the family.” So despite occasional hand-wringing over “the Holocaust,” antisemitism is still poorly, even crudely, understood by most, if not all, trained intellectuals.

Gustave Doré: Lost Satan

Gustave Doré: Lost Satan

February 20, 2010

The Glenn Beck Problem

Pierrot collage by Clare Spark

[Added 9-1-10: This blog has obviously been evolving as I have tried to place Glenn Beck’s views in some recognizable historical narrative. For a liberal account of Beck as demagogue that I find disturbingly distorted see http://hnn.us/articles/130820.html. My search for Beck follows; I should say that Beck does urge his viewers to do their homework and to read primary sources, then challenge him if he is mistaken in his characterization of the Founders, or any other claim he makes. That is not the usual practice of a demagogue (who does not permit, let alone welcome, criticism from the crowd):]

Click onto the illustration and read what German agent George Sylvester Viereck wrote about Hitler in 1923: you will find the line “he storms their reserve with his passion.” Yesterday I posted my objection to Glenn Beck’s obsession with blaming everything wrong with our society on “the progressive movement.”  I also objected to his tendency to equate right-wing social democrats with communists, an error only a person with little knowledge of 20th century European history would make. Given the millions who tune into every program and who think he is a powerful weapon in the campaign against “Big Government,” it is not surprising that one of my Facebook friends immediately objected to my criticism of a man he thinks is a hero, but who, though I often agree with him, sometime suspect to be a power-hungry demagogue, taking advantage of ever-growing dissatisfaction with U.S. domestic and foreign policies to feed his ego and to line his pocket, while playing the earnest clown. Whatever his motives, there is no excuse for indicting “progressivism” as a “cancer….” as he did in his keynote address at CPAC, or his comments today (May 26, 2010) trashing Bernays and Lippmann. Usually  this is an antisemitic jibe from the Left and Chomsky, but Beck was vehement and nasty.  I am disgusted. See my widely circulated essay https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/

[Added, March 19. I have been reading about Edmund Burke and his revival from the 1950s on. Paleoconservative Russell Kirk (a founder of National Review) and his ultraconservative Burkean allies in academe are probably the intellectual sources for Beck. Although on many points, he seems to be a libertarian, he is also opposed to any view that does not regard the Christian God as the source of order and liberty–along with Bill O’Reilly and Newt Gingrich, his opponents are “secularists.” Hence his attempt to remake the Founding Fathers into believers in God as the chief lawgiver of “moral natural law”–the source of order, with the state as a usurper insofar as it threatens (upper- or middle-class) property, the ballast for “tradition.” This places Beck as a follower of Edmund Burke, as I believe Jonah Goldberg to be, who is as rattled by “the Jacobins” as the source of totalitarian/statist control.)* [Added 6-6-10: I was much mollified and gratified by Beck’s support for Israel during the last week. How this fits in with his general ideology, I cannot say. Added 7-18-10: Beck clarified what he means by rights being God-given: he was contrasting this position with the competing notion that rights are gifts from the State, a key Nazi idea.] [Added 10-30-10. I am taken aback by the Harvard UP published book by Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (2002). This book is more helpful in explaining the religious Right and their alarm at secularism than any other history book I have ever read. If intent matters, Hamburger bolsters the case that the writers of the Constitution did not banish religion from the public square, far from it. See https://clarespark.com/2010/11/05/hamburgers-separation-of-church-and-state/.]

This blog is about the danger of allowing any media personalities to do our thinking for us, and I am not speaking about Glenn Beck alone, nor do I wish to insult his viewers or listeners, but they should be on guard. As my long-time friend political scientist Stephen Eric Bronner wrote in one of his first books (this on German Expressionism), making a passionate work of art or viewing it, though valuable in itself, cannot substitute for the thoughtful study, investigating, organizing and other activity that resists illegitimate authority. Professor Bronner wrote enthusiastically about Rosa Luxemburg too, as well as other radical social democrats who were associated with the Second International. These activists were called left-wing social democrats, because they meant to educate the masses in the most advanced industrialized societies and through majority acquiescence (as opposed to bureaucratic centralism) make the transition from capitalism to socialism. Luxemburg herself was an anti-Bolshevik and argued with Lenin about issues that are still red-hot today, such as supporting anti-colonial social movements that were antidemocratic and backward. (I am updating the debate between Luxemburg and Lenin, originally about the nature of imperialism, and about self-determination in the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, not about Third World dictatorships of today. (Thanks to Steve Bronner for the correction. But as Robert Brenner and Perry Anderson taught the debate in a session I audited, the issue concerned  left-wing alliances with antidemocratic entities, so I extrapolated to the present, when the hard Left does ally itself with dubious entities. For an entirely negative view of Luxemburg and other “Non-Jewish Jews” see Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews. Johnson has the clearest exposition of twentieth-century politics and diplomacy affecting the future of Jewry that I have ever read. It is especially welcome at a time when a new “peace process” is under way.)

All this is to explain that “right-wing social democrats” like FDR were conservative reformers, similar in their views to those of Edmund Burke, ardent critic of the French Revolution and its threat of popular sovereignty. Bronner, though a prolific author, is not typical of today’s radical (Leninist) Left. And I have shifted my own position, as my Pacifica memoir makes clear. As an historian with a background in science education, my most positive contribution must be to encourage individuals to be skeptical of all pronouncements from politicians and other celebrities, and to withhold their support until they know among other things, who is financing their endeavors: Arab sheiks? Closet Islamic jihadists? Americans remain innocent, characters in a novel by Henry James. We remain child-like in our quickness to trust. We are not experienced in the ways of amoral and jaded Europeans or elites from other societies who would destroy democratic movements in their own countries and who seek to bring down the West tout court, for the West is full of bad examples, such as the American and French Revolutions. Do we know the extent to which their financing of university programs and media corporations such as Rupert Murdoch’s outfit is affecting their programming (Fox) or curriculum (Columbia U.)?

While reading Schiller’s and Goethe’s plays over the last few years, I was struck by the complexities of their plots, for they were writing in a time when court life was full of intrigue. Perhaps that is why I collect masks and images of Pierrot. Artists knew that it was bad, really bad out there.

* On the subject of Edmund Burke as a liberal constitutionalist and not an organicist, see Rod Preece, “Edmund Burke and his European Reception,” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation Vol.21, Number 3 (Autumn 1980): 255-273. Preece argues that Burke’s European admirers mistook him for an organicist thinker, and that for Burke, there was a contract between the state and the individual; moreover that he was opposed to Platonic guardians, but preferred practical men of affairs (the moderates) to be running things. But that Burke was horrified by Jacobins and the French Revolution, there is no dispute. If Preece is correct, then Russell Kirk’s name should be added to those who have misunderstood Burke.

August 19, 2009

Noam Chomsky’s misrepresentation of Walter Lippmann’s chief ideas on manufacturing consent

Walter Lippmann

[For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2012/01/12/the-counter-culture-vs-the-establishment/]

I first defended Walter Lippmann’s chief ideas from the 1920s and 1930s on a KPFK radio program, then worked up this longer analysis for a discussion group on Humanities Net (the History of Diplomacy). It is archived there, but the material remains timely, as science is always on the defensive, and the entire subject of “public opinion” is paramount in importance to any would-be democracy.

For instance, as I showed in my book, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival,  Melville’s character Captain Ahab was appropriated by “moderately” conservative psychoanalysts and sociologists calling for government psychological warfare during and after World War II, and blaming fascism on Byronic/Ahab-ish puritanism and romanticism, at times recommending the adoption of (Byronic, Ahab-ish, Jewish) Hitler’s astute and effective techniques of mind-management in order to evacuate the Radical Enlightenment (i.e., civil liberties, rational-secular education, the accountability of “experts” directly to the people). One of these, the political scientist Harold Lasswell (featured in my book), is now paired in his Wikipedia entry with Walter Lippmann as a proponent of propaganda designed to make us dependent upon experts, who may not be interrogated by non-experts. Anyone who has read Lippmann’s Liberty and the News, would have to be outraged by this comparison. Meanwhile, Chomsky still draws crowds among the Left and the social psychologists whose antidemocratic policies I have addressed remain unexposed.

[Added 3-11-10: Jonah  Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism (p.109) similarly misreads Lippmann. He footnotes an apparently damning quote from Public Opinion, but then gives no page number. See https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/]

The H-Diplo interchanges started with a query, 7 December 2001, and raised the hackles of Chomsky-ites who defended Chomsky to the death:

[My query:] I am trying to get a handle on why Noam Chomsky and his followers are so hostile to Walter Lippmann. I have read Lippmann’s Public Opinion and the sequel The Phantom Public  (both published in the 1920s), and there is no basis for the Chomskyite claim that Lippmann thought that the manufacture of consent was a good idea; it was quite the opposite.

Moreover, the second work (Phantom Public) was decidedly Heraclitean, postmodern and cultural/ethical relativist in its epistemology; one would think that the New Left academic cohort would have embraced Lippmann (though perhaps experiencing discomfort with his defense of fact-finding and truth vs. falsehood, a task best handled by experts).

I would also like to add that from my reading of right-wing populist screeds (and including the Carroll Quigley tome), that Walter Lippmann is a favorite bogeyman, along with other “Jews” and their Anglo-Saxon co-conspirators who have allegedly controlled the mass media to the detriment of participatory democracy.

[Second H-Diplo posting, 15 Jan.2002:] This message responds to questions and claims offered by a few list members with respect to whether or not Noam Chomsky and his followers have misrepresented Walter Lippmann’s positions on the role of experts and others in the formation of public opinion. Specifically, in my initial query on this list I alluded to the Chomskyite distortion of Lippmann’s attitude to “the manufacture of consent” in his book, Public Opinion (1922).

Chomsky’s characterization of Lippmann and his role in what is often called “elite culture” is frequently repeated in both written and spoken form, and widely disseminated to college audiences. For instance, in his talk “Media Control,” at M.I.T., 3/17/91, Chomsky noted that “Walter Lippman, who was the dean of American journalists, a major foreign and domestic policy critic and also a major theorist of liberal democracy…argued that what he called a ‘revolution in the art of democracy,’ could be used to ‘manufacture consent,’ that is, to bring about agreement on the part of the public for things they didn’t want by the new techniques of propaganda.” And speaking to the Society of Professional Journalists at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, 4/30/00, a graduate student noted in the Minutes for the Society, “Chomsky frames his media criticism around Walter Lippmann’s famous term, “manufactured consent…The public’s role is to be spectators, not participants, and that is the sound of the trampling and roar of an obedient herd.”

Chomsky’s constant invocation of Lippmann is reflected in the title of his book co-authored with Edward S. Herman, Manufacturing Consent: the political economy of mass media  (1988) and in the videorecording Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (National Film Board of Canada, 1992). The award-winning film, an argument that Chomsky has been denied access to what is commonly called “the corporate media,” shows sentences on the printed page from Public Opinion (with the words “manufacture of consent”) purportedly demonstrating that Lippmann was, in fact, a powerful advocate of mind-management . I saw the film when it was used by the Public Broadcasting System as a fund drive premium for Los Angeles station KCET and was stunned. [This was an unforgivable crime against the historical record. C.S. 8-19-09]

As a preface to further remarks, I offer the following comments about the general context surrounding the debate over Lippmann. WL  is frequently linked to Freud and his nephew Edward Bernays (see my bibliography below). As many of these titles suggest, Lippmann, Freud and Bernays are the “spinmeisters” who originated the practice of brainwashing the public. Both Bernays and Lippmann had worked for George Creel’s Committee during the First World War, as Chomsky and his followers note. Deploying their propaganda techniques, they claim that Bernays has corrupted the working class with consumerism, and, through symbol manipulation (allegedly advocated by Lippmann, who had studied Freud, as had Bernays), they engineer the consent of the masses to the takeover of government by big business. Thus the State becomes the engine of imperialist war in the sole interest of commercial values, hence destroying the spirituality that hitherto protected and united peace-loving communities. This linkage seemed to me to echo well-known populist allegations that “the Jews” control the media, to the detriment of “the people” who are thereby hornswoggled. Further, according to a recent NBC television special, “Roots of Rage” Arab populations believe that in fact the Jews do control the media (I don’t know if there were any polls taken). Other reports note that many Arabs believe that “Hollywood” can make anything look real, i.e. the supposedly manufactured bin Laden tape recently circulated. It is thus essential for us to be very careful about the relationship between the media and public opinion, especially on the foreign policy issues that are the focus of this discussion group.

Having read Public Opinion and seen the numerous slams at Lippmann mentioned above, several years ago I asked Ronald Steel, Lippmann’s biographer, if Chomsky had not mischaracterized WL’s position. He said that I was correct, but then cautioned me to read The Phantom Public, where I would see what an elitist Lippmann really was. I have read the latter book and also Drift and Mastery (1914), written when Lippmann was only 24, an outspoken socialist, and about to become a founding editor of The New Republic; it is an optimistic affirmation of the possibilities of a scientifically conceived, trained, and informed democratic polity. There is no evidence that Lippmann (then or later) had contempt for democracy, let alone workers, consumers, women, or any other members of a “bewildered herd” as one list member alleges. “Bewildered” is a word Lippmann often uses, and applies it to himself and to every other person attempting to grasp the huge changes in scale and the titanic social forces aroused by industrial society, along with its sharply divergent proposals for reform or revolution. It is a modest and humble but hopeful book, and strongly influenced by Freud insofar as Lippmann wishes to make the hitherto unconscious elements of our volition susceptible to apprehension and constructive redirection. (It should be mentioned here that Woodrow Wilson and Lippmann, following Theodore Roosevelt, had divergent views on the role of experts in an industrial society [Cooper, 1983], and the Wilson-Roosevelt rivalry may be an element of the historical sub-text underlying the Chomsky-Lippmann debate.)

The most persuasive riposte I can offer to those who believe Chomsky (along with other antagonists claiming that Lippmann was an antidemocrat, i.e. an elitist opponent of “popular sovereignty” [Riccio, 1994] is to quote relevant passages from Public Opinion, including the one cited by list member Charles Young (p.248) as evidence in support of the allegation that Lippmann was indeed advocating mind-control.

First, Lippmann lays out the project of the book at the end of his first chapter “The Pictures In Our Heads.”

…”The substance of the argument is that democracy in its original form never seriously faced the problem which arises because the pictures inside people’s heads do not automatically correspond with the world outside. And then, because the democratic theory is under criticism by socialist thinkers, there follows an examination of the most advanced and coherent of these criticisms, as made by the English Guild Socialists. My purpose here is to find out whether these reformers take into account the main difficulties of public opinion. My conclusion is that they ignore these difficulties, as completely as did the original democrats, because they, too, assume, and in a much more complicated civilization, that somehow mysteriously there exists in the hearts of men a knowledge of the world beyond their reach.

[Lippmann continues:] “I argue that representative government, either in what is ordinarily called politics, or in industry, cannot be worked successfully, no matter what the basis of the election, unless there is an independent, expert organization for making the unseen facts intelligible to those who have to make the decisions. I attempt, therefore, to argue that the serious acceptance of the principle that personal representation must be supplemented by representation of the unseen facts would alone permit a satisfactory decentralization, and allow us to escape from the intolerable and unworkable fiction that each of us must acquire a competent opinion about all public affairs. It is argued that the problem of the press is confused because the critics and the apologists expect the press to realize this fiction, expect it to make up for all that was not foreseen in the theory of democracy, and the readers expect this miracle to be performed at no cost or trouble to themselves. The newspapers are regarded by democrats as a panacea for their own defects, whereas analysis of the nature of news and of the economic basis of journalism seems to show that the newspapers necessarily and inevitably reflect, and therefore, in greater or lesser measure, intensify, the defective organization of public opinion. My conclusion is that public opinions must be organized for the press if they are to be sound, not by the press as is the case today. This organization I conceive to be in the first instance the task of a political science that has won its proper place as formulator, in advance of real decision, instead of apologist, critic, or reporter after the decision has been made. I try to indicate that the perplexities of government and industry are conspiring to give political science this enormous opportunity to enrich itself and to serve the public. And, of course, I hope that these pages will help a few people to realize that opportunity more vividly, and therefore to pursue it more consciously.” (pp.31-32, Harcourt Brace edition, 1922)

The second excerpt uses the contested term “manufacture of consent” in the chapter entitled “Leaders and the Rank and File”:

“The established leaders of any organization have great natural advantages. They are believed to have better sources of information. The books and papers are in their offices. They took part in the important conferences. They met the important people. They have responsibility. It is, therefore, easier for them to secure attention and to speak in a convincing tone. But also they have a very great deal of control over access to the facts. Every official is in some degree a censor. And since no one can suppress information, either by concealing it or forgetting to mention it, without some notion of what he wishes the public to know, every leader is in some degree a propagandist. Strategically placed, and compelled often to choose even at the best between the equally cogent though conflicting ideals of safety for the institution, and candor to his public, the official finds himself deciding more and more consciously what fact, in what setting, in what guise he shall permit the public to know. [subsection 4 follows]
“That the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements, no one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages, and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough.
[Lippmann, cont.] “The creation of consent is not a new art. It is a very old one which was supposed to have died out with the appearance of democracy. But it has not died out. It has, in fact, improved enormously in technic, because it is now based on analysis rather than on rule of thumb. And so, as a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power.
“Within the life of the generation now in control of affairs, persuasion has become a self-conscious art and a regular organ of popular government. None of us begins to understand the consequences, but it is no daring prophecy to say that the knowledge of how to create consent will alter every political calculation and modify every political premise. Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables. It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the old original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.” (Lippmann, 247-249)

Does Lippmann want his political science fact-finders to hide the truth from the populace; i.e. to “manufacture consent” ? In distinguishing between the news and truth, he is clearly on the side of correcting misconceptions propagated by media: “…news and truth are not the same thing, and must be clearly distinguished. The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act. Only at these points, where social conditions take recognizable and measurable shape, do the body of truth and the body of news coincide.” (358)

Lippmann’s chapter “The Appeal To The Public” speaks directly to teachers, and once again reiterates his commitment to scientific method, and the mastery of the irrational (the theme of Drift and Mastery). Note that the professionals are not hoarding their expertise:

[This is my favorite part: C.S., 8-19-09] “The study of error is not only in the highest degree prophylactic, but it serves as a stimulating introduction to the study of truth. As our minds become more deeply aware of their own subjectivism, we find a zest in objective method that is not otherwise there. We see vividly, as normally we should not, the enormous mischief and casual cruelty of our prejudices. And the destruction of a prejudice, though painful at first, because of its connection with our self-respect, gives an immense relief and fine pride when it is successfully done. There is a radical enlargement of the range of attention. As the current categories dissolve, a hard, simple version of the world breaks up. The scene turns, vivid and full. There follows an emotional incentive to hearty appreciation of scientific method, which otherwise it is not easy to arouse, and is impossible to sustain. Prejudices are so much easier and more interesting. For if you teach the principles of science as if they had always been accepted, their chief virtue as a discipline, which is objectivity, will make them dull. But teach them at first as victories over the superstitions of the mind, and the exhilaration of the chase and of the conquest may carry the pupil over that hard transition from his own self-bound experience to the phase where his curiosity has matured, and his reason has acquired passion.” (my italics, 409-410).

As for The Phantom Public (1925), Lippmann criticizes those who claim to speak for the public interest or community or nation or society while concealing their own particular interests. He proposes that a fully pluralist political and intellectual environment will offer the opportunity for such deceptions to be exposed by the opposition. The book is yet another attempt to rethink democratic political practices, and reiterates the position that the complexity and technicalities of industrial society (modernity) put an impossible burden on individual voters, who are asked to become proficient in areas for which no one is prepared. Lippmann’s implication is that peer review is needed to sort out which experts we should endorse. I don’t find his concern elitist, but rather realistic. This view is also consistent with his earlier critiques of populism, Marxian socialism, and Wilson’s New Freedom, plus all other movements that practice reductive social labeling and neglect the concrete individual and his behavior who does not fit the ideal type of exploiter, etc.

It is also worth noting that a recent study of Lippmann and his cohort takes to task the revisionist historiography of the 1960s and 1970s that characterized the progressives as “misleading if not dishonest.” Whereas they could have been seen as persons in a dilemma: that is, they were democratic theorists without a political base that could realize their idealistic admonitions. [Thompson, 1987, 287-88] Thompson also notes that Lippmann had been contemplating a revision of democratic social theory at least since 1915 (when he was still influenced by English socialists).

I am not an uncritical acolyte of Walter Lippmann, but I do not see how any democrat can fail to worry about the state of culture and education during the period when Lippmann was a public intellectual, or the terrible decline of standards today. I do think that it behooves scholars, as a matter of ethics and professionalism, not to distort the views of their opponents. Finally, if others on this list know of other refutations of the Chomsky claim that Lippmann is an antidemocrat and mind-manager, arch manufacturer of consent, I would like to know about them. If there are none or few, then this matter should be widely publicized, for Chomsky’s bitter and negative views of American identity and U.S. foreign policy have had a broad impact on college youth and many an autodidact.


Chomsky, Noam and Edward S. Herman. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media. New York: Pantheon, 1988.

Cooper, John Milton, Jr.. The Warrior and the Priest. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1983

Ewen, Stuart. PR! A Social History of Spin. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

Ewen, Stuart. Interviewed by David Barsamian. _Z Magazine_, May 2000.

Gabler, Neal. “The Fathers of P.R.” New York Times Magazine, 31 Dec.1995, 28-29.

Jackson, Charles E. “The Long and Influential Life of the Original Spinmeister.” Boston Globe, 23 Aug.1998, C2. Review of Larry Tye, The Father of Spin.

Lippmann, Walter. Drift and Mastery. New York: Mitchell Kennerly, 1914.

Lippmann, Walter. Public Opinion . New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1922.

Lippmann, Walter. The Phantom Public. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1925.

Riccio, Barry D. Walter Lippmann: Odyssey of a Liberal. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1994.

Thompson, John A. Reformers and War: American progressive publicists and the First World War. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Valby, Karen. Minutes for Chomsky lecture, Society of Professional Journalists, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 30 April 2000.

Wintonick, Peter and Mark Achbar. Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. National Film Board of Canada, 1992.

Worth, Mark. “Who Are ‘They’? Alex Carey Outs The Founders of the American Propaganda Machine.” Internet review of Alex Carey, Taking The Risk Out of Democracy (University of Illinois Press, 1997).

Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, Manufacturing Consent: the political economy of mass media (Pantheon, 1988), and then consult the videorecording Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (National Film Board of Canada, 1992, distributed by Zeitgeist Films), and the accompanying companion book, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media: the companion book to the award-winning film, by Peter Wintonick and Mark Achbar (Montreal: Black Rose Press, 1994).

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