Just the facts: “How can they think that way?” moaned Graz, the owner of Dooney’s café on Bloor Street, after watching the Republican convention. Polls say most Americans disapprove of the Bush policies but are still ready to re-elect him, while many think weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, which also played a role in 9/11. It’s their media, said Lynn, a regular who grew up in the U.S. People don’t get to hear what’s really going on.

“But,” sputtered Graz, “The New York Times, the network news . . .” Lynn shook her head. “Those are elite media. They never reach most people.” It was a Chomsky moment.

Noam Chomsky pioneered this approach: that the facts are kept from Americans by the media, blighting their views. It can be addictive. There are people who don’t bother with the news; they wait for the next Chomsky critique. It is hard to find a trenchant critique of him, as opposed to glib dismissals. Those who attack him on specifics usually wind up being handed their heads, studded with footnotes.

But here’s a comment by Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek, interviewed in Left Business Observer: “I partially disagree with him. It’s an underlying premise of his work that you . . . just tell all the facts to the people. The way ideology works today is much more mysterious. . . . There’s an active refusal to know. . . . The question isn’t of any real link between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime. . . . Both Saddam and al-Qaeda hate the U.S. That’s enough of a link. You cannot really help by making factual refutations. The key factor is not that people are duped — there’s an active will not to know.”

This puts us in Freudian country. What people seek is not truth but reassurance. They want to feel: Our leaders are wise; our enemies are crazed; our hands are clean; we are being told the truth etc. In private life, they seek similar comfort. In neither realm are facts crucial. There was a theatre group of the 1970s that called itself 7:84, based on the fact that 7 per cent of the world’s people control 84 per cent of its resources. They were so knocked out by this stat that they behaved as if publicizing it would change the world. But change is indeed more “mysterious.” It’s the context of human need and self-deception that decides what facts get through, or don’t.

I’m glad Slavoj Zizek says he only “partially” disagrees, since Noam Chomsky never claims Americans are utterly duped by the media. He often expresses admiration for their ability to see through the smoke. But the results are at best murky and contradictory: skepticism on those Bush policies, for instance, combined with a willingness to vote for him. None of this can be fully explained by a simple media curtain over “the facts.”

Let me give a final word to Freud, who pointed out that irrational needs often override facts. He wasn’t just a scientist; he was a doctor trying to “cure” patients by fighting through their “resistance” toward truths they might “know” but managed to ignore. He was modest enough to often admit the unlikelihood of a cure. But he also wrote, “Surely infantilism” — including the refusal to see what is there — “was meant to be overcome.” That shows an almost Chomskyite persistence in continuing to lay out the truth in the hope that people will some day seize it, despite their reluctance. His “surely” is the most powerful word in that sentence. It’s more like a prayer than a prediction.

Conrad’s quest: I want to register the claim that Conrad Black’s motive was not greed. If he has written lovingly on greed, then his purpose was to put people off the scent. If greed were the motive, he’d have been more circumspect about his tactics, and especially his bravado. Why on earth publicly denounce the “fad” for corporate governance while taking risks with it? Greed can be done in private. I’m not saying he was trying to get into trouble. But the point seems to have been to be seen. Adler wins over Freud and Jung. It’s about ego, and recognition. Like a pitcher or boxer who is not satisfied to win, but must humiliate the opposition. Rosebud, rosebud, it always comes down to rosebud.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.