Matt Taibbi Ukraine

Matt Taibbi: America’s Intellectual No-Fly Zone

From left to right, from Chomsky to Carlson, war-skeptical voices are being denounced at levels not seen since Iraq.

By Matt Taibbi / Substack

In a 1979 essay called, “My Speech to the Graduates,” Woody Allen wrote:

More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

Allen was satirizing the notion that there are always good choices in life. Often, there aren’t. Sometimes the fork in the road ahead asks you to choose between different routes to hell. The late, great Gilbert Gottfried once made the same point in a standup routine about stranded missionaries just slightly less subtle than Allen’s bit. 

Indomitable public intellectual Noam Chomsky gave an interview to Current Affairs last week called, “How to Prevent World War III.” Regarding Ukraine, Chomsky revisited “My Speech to the Graduates”:

There are two options with regard to Ukraine. As we know, one option is a negotiated settlement, which will offer Putin an escape, an ugly settlement. Is it within reach? We don’t know; you can only find out by trying and we’re refusing to try. But that’s one option. The other option is to make it explicit and clear to Putin and the small circle of men around him that you have no escape, you’re going to go to a war crimes trial no matter what you do. Boris Johnson just reiterated this: sanctions will go on no matter what you do. What does that mean? It means go ahead and obliterate Ukraine and go on to lay the basis for a terminal war. 

Those are the two options: and we’re picking the second and praising ourselves for heroism and doing it: fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian.

Immediate shrieking outrage of course ensued (why doesn’t Twitter have a special “torch” emoji for denunciatory mobs?). Chomsky was judged a genocide-enabling, America-hating Kremlin stooge. A tiny sample:

I reached out to Chomsky about the brouhaha. The good professor was charmingly unaware he’d set off a social media meltdown, but commented in a general way. 

“It’s normal for the doctrinal managers to bitterly condemn people who (1) don’t keep rigidly to the Party Line, so can’t be admitted into their circles and (2) have some outreach to the rabble,” he said. “Makes sense, quite normal. Have to make sure that the ‘herd of independent minds’ doesn’t stray.”

Chomsky has often mentioned a proposed introduction to Animal Farm that was undiscovered until 1971. In it, George Orwell said free societies suppress thought almost as effectively as the totalitarian Soviets he ridiculed in his famous farmhouse allegory. He wrote, for instance, that critiquing Stalin was simply not done in the English liberal society of that time:

The issue involved here is quite a simple one: Is every opinion, however unpopular – however foolish, even — entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form and nearly any English intellectual will feel that he ought to say “Yes.” But give it a concrete shape, and ask, “How about an attack on Stalin? Is that entitled to a hearing?” and the answer more often than not will be “No.”

Chomsky brought up this Orwell passage again with regard to the Ukraine controversy, citing the example of a former U.S. diplomat named Chas Freeman. 

“This sometimes extends to figures who are highly regarded on the inside,” he said. “An interesting case now is Ambassador Chas Freeman, greatly respected within establishment circles. But he has departed from orthodoxy on Ukraine.” 

Freeman, a former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, recently gave an interview to Grayzone in which he talked about being stunned by the Ukraine invasion. He called it an “impetuous decision” that was a “comparable blunder” to Tsar Nicholas’s invasion of Japan, with the potential for similarly disastrous consequences. At the same time, Freeman was critical of the Western response, saying there’s been a lot of “tendentious nonsense” in coverage and adding, “The war is a fog of lies on all sides. It is virtually impossible to tell what is actually happening because every side is staging the show.”

Chomsky said people like Freeman who depart from the national security orthodoxy are often left to give interviews on smaller independent sites, at which point establishment critics then go after them for being associated with other material on those sites, a neat trick. 

“It’s a highly effective system of thought control in free societies, going well beyond what Orwell imagined in his few words on this topic,” he said. 

It was Freeman who used a phrase, “fighting to the last Ukrainian” to describe America’s strategy in Ukraine. The phrase incensed many of Chomsky’s critics, who seemed to think these were his words. The interview was oddly misinterpreted in other ways. For instance, Chomsky wasn’t saying Ukraine should “surrender” (as a practical matter even Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky would have a tough time selling almost any cease-fire to Ukrainians, but that’s a different question). He was speculating about what the policy of the United States with regard to Ukraine should be, and laid out what he saw as two lousy choices.

One is continual armament and proxy war against a belligerent and unpredictable enemy that happens to be relying on an outdated nuclear warning system. This path could lead to Armageddon or the complete destruction of Ukraine. The other choice is pushing for a negotiated settlement, the general parameters of which are already known to all parties. This would involve making highly distasteful concessions to a government already denounced across the West for having committed war crimes, and it also might not end hostilities for long.

Total extinction, or utter hopelessness. Death, or Ugu. A depressing take, but treasonous? 

The interesting thing about Chomsky’s Ukraine comments wasn’t even that they were so inflammatory, but that he was giving them to Current Affairs. The hits and traffic for Chomsky’s controversy-generating interview could have belonged to the New York TimesWashington Post, or even MSNBC, which last year broke longstanding tradition by airing an interview with the Manufacturing Consent author. However, in this country, when it comes to war, big media companies simply do not air countervailing views, not even out of economic self-interest. 

Before “de-platforming” was even a term in the American consciousness, our corporate press perfected it with regard to war critics. Back in May of 2003, months into the Iraq War invasion, the media watchdog FAIR did a study of 1,617 on-camera sources cited on six television networks and came to remarkable conclusions. “Anti-war voices were 10 percent of all sources, but just 6 percent of non-Iraqi sources and 3 percent of U.S. sources,” the group noted, but that was just the appetizer:

Of a total of 840 U.S. sources who are current or former government or military officials, only four were identified as holding anti-war opinions–Sen. Robert Byrd (D.-W.V.), Rep. Pete Stark (D.-Calif.) and two appearances by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D.-Ohio). Byrd was featured on PBS, with Stark and Kucinich appearing on Fox News.

This preview of decades-later America took place in 2003. Dennis Kucinich at that time was considered too far left even for the Daily Show — who can forget Jon Stewart’s “All rise for the honorable Justice chick with dick!” joke that year about Kucinich’s professed willingness to nominate a transgender person to the bench — and he had to go on conservative Fox to speak against the Iraq invasion. FAIR found there was a literal absolute consensus about war among the major center-left stations ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN almost twenty years ago. 

Since then, we’ve only widened the rhetorical no-fly zone. In a development that back then I would have bet my life on never happening, anti-interventionist voices or advocates for such people are increasingly confined to Fox if they appear on major corporate media at all. 

This begins with those who are literal exiles or de facto political prisoners, like Edward Snowden or Julian Assange, and continues through the growing list of people like the aforementioned Hersh or Australian filmmaker John Pilger or Kucinich or Tulsi Gabbard or even recent torchbearer fixation John Mearsheimer, all of whom have been put on pay-no-mind lists for views on Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, and other actual or potential military interventions. When Democratic Senator (D-DE) Chris Coons issued one of the first in what’s sure to be a long list of official calls for more direct U.S. involvement in the Ukraine conflict, saying Vladimir Putin “will only stop when we stop him,” the only serious major-media pushback came from Tucker Carlson on Fox. It’s not that Fox is a paradise of enlightened pacifism, but that the center-left media landscape is a total desert when it comes to dissent from Natsec conventional wisdom. Fox in comparison has maybe has a couple of shriveled palm trees on the horizon. Meanwhile, war-skeptical voices on the left are herded into ever-smaller outlets. 

A consumer who only reads traditional press will see Ukraine coverage confined to the following parameters: should we stick with just sanctions and sending arms, or up the ante? Look at the way stories about polls on this subject are phrased. Every one is couched in the same language: should we get more involved? Here’s the opening to an AP story, headlined, “AP-NORC poll: More support for Ukraine, concern about Russia”:

WASHINGTON (AP) — As Russia escalates its war in Ukraine and stories of civilian casualties and destruction in cities reach the United States, support has risen for a major American role — and so has fear of the threat Russia poses to the U.S.

This is from NPR’s “Most Americans don’t like Biden’s Ukraine response”:

A new NPR/Ipsos poll finds that a majority of Americans think President Biden has not done a good job in his handling of the war. Many say the president has been too cautious, even as a majority say they’re wary of sparking a broader conflict.

This was the first graphic in “CBS News poll — War in Ukraine: What should the U.S. do now?”:

Viewers see journalists asking a hundred times a day if we’re involved enough or sending enough arms. Meanwhile one journalist, Ryan Grim of the Intercept, managed to get a question in front of Jen Psaki about whether or not the United States plans to respond to Ukrainian requests for diplomatic help. Watch this unnerving comparison video:

The bulk of American news followers probably aren’t even aware that Zelensky has asked the U.S. for diplomatic aid. All the headlines are about Zelensky asking for weapons or sanctions, even if there’s a sentence buried in some of the texts about diplomatic help. Take for example “Zelensky steps up criticism of West, demanding weapons and sanctions” (Washington Post), or “Ukraine’s Zelensky Calls for More Military Aid” (Wall Street Journal), or “Ukraine has requested military aid. Here’s how allies are providing assistance” (CNN). 

Still fewer stories have explained that the United States seems to have declined to participate in peace talks, or empower Zelensky to negotiate an end to sanctions. Even fewer have pointed to the growing number of comments from current and former American officials suggesting the U.S. should “pull the Brzezinski trick,” as Chomsky put it. This is the idea that drawing Russia into a long military quagmire could weaken the enemy in the long run, as Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser (and Dad of MSNBC’s button-eyed yammerer Mika) Zbigniew Brzezinski believed was the case after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. “This is the model that people are now, uh, looking toward,” an unpleasantly smiling Hillary Clinton said on CNN not long ago.

If you’re on the wrong side of the national security consensus, or even just want to suggest that alternative policy ideas exist, you won’t make it near the press mainstream now. Policing on this issue is significantly more intense than it was even in the virtual unanimity of the pre-Iraq period. Moreover, as Freddie deBoer just noted on Substack, even people who “define themselves by championing dissent and free speech” are “no less likely to demand that everyone get on board with the dominant narrative,” adding, “a lot of people who regularly mock Instagram-bio politics have put up Ukrainian flags in theirs.” America seems tired of thinking and wants to get back to cheering, but sometimes there isn’t really anything to cheer for. Sometimes, unless you’re a Raytheon executive, all the options are awful.

Matt Taibbi

Matthew C. Taibbi is an American author, journalist, and podcaster. He has reported on finance, media, politics, and sports. He was a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, author of several books, co-host of Useful Idiots, and publisher of a newsletter on Substack.

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