book review

If you believe, and wish to continue to believe, that the U.S. is a force for democracy in the world, a nation with a free press and vigorous debate on critical issues, this book is not for you. That fantasy will stand if you accept the definition of democracy of those who run the country, that is, an elite continuing to run things for their benefit with the rest of us scrambling to survive, occasionally ratifying their decisions by choosing from among the candidates they supply for public office. The belief becomes fairy tale if you question this story and insist that democracy means what the dictionary says it means – “A government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation.” Who is the extremist? Those who promote the first definition or those who embrace the second?

There is no doubt where Chomsky stands on this question and Culture of Terrorism argues on every page, with devastating effect, that the U.S. is an oligarchy and one of the greatest purveyors of violence on the planet. He argues that the 1%-owned media attempts to shape opinion, keeping discussion within the bounds of “polite discourse,” carefully avoiding the transgression of wandering outside the range embraced among the elite, the only “people” that really count, unless you include, of course, corporate persons… but that goes without saying since it is the 1% who own the corporations.

 Culture of Terrorism, Noam ChomskyThe author uses the 80s Iran-Contra scandal and U.S. policy in Central America to elucidate this point of view, with by-the-way excursions onto other terrain such as South Africa and Israel. There is hardly a page without an incisive, finely crafted quote. In a paragraph describing the real and repugnant intent and strategy of U.S. policy toward Nicaragua, taken from official documents, differing perhaps only in degree from what one might expect from a Mafia Don, Chomsky goes on to explain why officials and media turn a blind eye: “But to understand such matters, it is necessary to escape the confines of the ideological system and to question the sanctity and nobility of U.S. intentions. That is excluded, as an intolerable departure from civilized norms.” And in describing U.S. violation of the Vietnam peace agreement it had just signed in Paris: “The factual record evidently lacks ideological serviceability so it has been replaced by a mythical reconstruction crafted to satisfy doctrinal requirements. Whatever the facts, the record must show that it is the Communist enemy that cannot be trusted.”


Oliver North is emblematic of that period under Reagan when, as Chomsky says, a crack appeared in the establishment facade. The opening though was quickly covered up, mildly embarrassing at worst, and soon faded into history, along with the pardons. Chief investigator for the committee? Thomas Polgar an active member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. Chairing the committee? Senator Inouye, who received extensive funding by PACs linked to the Israeli lobby. Those not hypnotized by the charade could glimpse some interesting items; careful avoidence of the Contra drug connection and Israel’s role in funneling arms to Iran and training and arming fascist forces in Central America, a favor to Washington to get around congressional restrictions. Chomsky points out that Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, the much idolized symbol of compassion and peace, remained silent, keeping I suppose to his mantra, “Speak no ill of Israel.”

Central America and the Contras

Contra drug smuggling, essentially creating the crack epidemic, as unmasked by Gary Webb in his series for the San Jose Mercury News (but more or less retracted when the editor/publishers couldn’t stand the heat) was another item partially exposed, but only for those willing to look beyond the blinders of received wisdom. Reagan’s terrorists, who he called the moral equivalent of our founding fathers, were drug smuggling killers searching out “soft” targets in Nicaragua and banking CIA largess. Of course it was the footsoldiers doing the rampaging while the leadership did the lecture circuit and hung out in San Francisco night spots.

During the former dictator and U.S. ally (or puppet) Somoza’s long reign, whom the Sandinistas finally overthrew, one heard nary a peep in the U.S. media, congress or administration on the brutality directed toward and oppressive poverty of the average citizen of Nicaragua. Everything was fine so long as U.S. corporate interests were being served. But when a government came into power interested in addressing the plight of the ordinary citizen, suddenly there was great concern, and cries of Communism! Marxist totalitarianism threatening our very existence. Actually there is some truth in this latter claim. Many of our “forefathers” practiced the abomination called slavery. And if you translate “our” in that sentence into the 1% then yes, there was reason to fear the threat of a good example… a nation that served the needs of its people rather than U.S. corporations and the wealthy might prove popular. Other countries might get ideas were this “subversion” allowed to flourish. Even people in the U.S. might get ideas. Too dangerous to tolerate. Thus the U.S. sometimes installed and certainly supported unscrupulous guardians, a tiny elite benefitting from their association with and service to the Boss in the north. In exchange for serious repression of any and all questioning of that arrangement, military training and materials were lavishly bestowed. Torture 101. Start a union? A Death squad visit should discourage that. Discuss these questions in the press? Death squad at the door. Knock knock.

Media Complicity

An insidious double-standard was applied consistently by U.S. mainstream media in Central American reporting. Nicaragua had elections judged fair by international observers, thus a democratically elected government, the Sandinistas. Yet, Nicaragua was routinely referred to as a Marxist dictatorship. Its “sins” were extremely minor in comparison to the brutal oppression and death squad activism of El Salvador and near genocide in Guatemala, these latter conditions barely mentioned and their compliant governments generously, and disingenuously, described as “fledging democracies.” Nicaragua temporarily closed a newspaper which was openly supportive of the terrorist attacks against teachers, postal workers and other “soft” targets conducted by the Contras, invariably described as the “democratic resistence .” U.S. media were outraged while ignoring the chief means of censorship in U.S. partners-in-crime, El Salvador and Guatemala, journalist homicide. In regard to the Iran/Contra investigation, mainstream media took their cues from the committee, venturing no where near the forbidden zones. Gary Webb was an exception to prove the rule as he was drummed out of the profession, an effective example to those tempted to wander, and to eventual suicide (if it was suicide).

The content of Culture of Terrorism is now history, replaced by current versions of a coopted democracy, shaped, as always, to entrench the unfettered privilege of an elite. Among that 1% is a range of opinion that traverses the political terrain from moderate right to an ideology difficult to distinguish from feudalism, this latter group now enthusiastically congregating around the Trump administration, flirting with fascism. In some psychological circles it is estimated that 4% of the male population are sociopaths. They’re not all particularly smart but those who are can be assumed, given their advantage of ruthlessness, to rise to positions where they can inflict upon the rest of us their conscienceless narcissism.



Image credit: the cartoon is by the author, © Tom Ferguson.
Tom Ferguson

Tom Ferguson

Tom is a painter, a cartoonist, a musician, a thinker and more. View some of his web sites:

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