ISBN 978-1-78099-365-2. “Why are we the good guys? – Reclaiming your mind from the delusions of propaganda” by David Cromwell was published by Zero Books in 2012. We last reviewed one of David’s works four years ago when he jointly wrote “Guardians of Power – The Myth of the Liberal Media” with David Edwards. We were disappointed by “Guardians” but wrote that “[here] we have two talented authors with a genuinely useful contribution to make“. Not to give too much away this remains our conclusion here. David is a really, really bright guy but “Why are we the good guys?” (despite having the best book title EVER) is just all over the place. Part auto-biography, part anti-establishment rant, part philosophy-digest – we were left wondering when he would get to the point.
Cromwell leans very heavily on previous work by Noam Chomsky, David Edwards, John Pilger, Mark Curtis and others to make his point. The first four chapters focus largely on the last Gulf War against Iraq and the role of the media in presenting a solidly pro-western angle to all news. Nothing new here. On chapter 5 we actually get to the pertinent bit about Climate Change. However, bang, it is all gone in just 23 pages before Cromwell launches into examining the rights and wrongs of dropping the bomb on Hiroshima.
From there he looks at the problems of globalisation before we get to two quite self-indulgent chapters about philosophy that might leave many an observer scratching his or her head. We guess this is the bit where we are supposed to “reclaim our minds”. But I didn’t get it.
Then the book is all over. Our disappointment doesn’t extend so much from any disagreement with Cromwell. It is just that this has all been done so well before by Noam Chomsky. Although we get to repeatedly revisit the work of Cromwell’s Media Lens organisation this mostly appears to be along the lines of sending irate emails to newspaper editors and television news journalists to reprimand them for not being, well, “right on” enough. It all reminds me so much of tired-old leftist student politics. Cromwell appears to revel in simply pissing off the mainstream media. Never before have I actually felt so sympathetic to the media victims of Media Lens.
Since reading Noam Chomsky and Edwards S. Herman’s “Manufacturing Consent” there is no doubt in our minds that the mainstream media does act in a manner suggestive of an industry that acts in the interest of power. However the needs of power, to the media, is like the presence of water to a fish. It is the culture they swim in and they cannot see it, hear it, feel it or [in any way] be aware of it. Somehow blaming individual journalists doesn’t quite hit the spot.
There is a noticeable difference between Chomsky and Cromwell. Chomsky tends to remain neutral about what should be done. His advice to power is that it simply should “do no harm”. Other than writing about his respect for certain early 20th century European anarchist organisations, he has no specific agenda, no specific politics. Reading Chomsky is like having all the wallpaper removed in your home so that you can see how the house was built – flaws and all. Reading Cromwell is like watching a man scraping away at the wallpaper with the sole intent on applying a new wall-covering. One that he [and he alone] prefers.
As a conservative (small “c”) I view the work of Chomsky as an essential eye-opener that does not require the reader to adopt any leftist ideology. Chomsky just asks that his readership understands. It is up to them as to how they react to correct the wrongs of state & corporate power. However Cromwell actually appears to blame the media for not understanding the fact they are fish who do not comprehend water. This seems to me to be a largely pointless exercise. The media cannot change from within in the same way that a leopard cannot change its spots. Our best efforts are to present as much of the real-world as possible to people and allow them to make up their own minds. As such, Cromwell’s attitude comes over as lecturing and patronising. This is not to criticise the work of Media Lens. They are to be commended. We must speak truth unto power.
So let us return briefly to climate change. Cromwell covers this less to attack deniers but more to condemn the media who fail to present the problem as being caused by EVIL COPORATIONS:
“What is fundamentally missing [..] is the dangerous driving force of state-corporate greed that is accelerating the danger of societal collapse under climate chaos. What is missing from the mainstream debate is the potential for mass grass roots action to challenge this dangerous greed and to invert current state-corporate priorities in order to benefit humanity and ecosystems.”
…and no doubt make every day Sunday. What a wish list to Santa! I write this on behalf of a grassroots movement that does not (as I understand it) seek any such anti-capitalist revolution. We intend to swamp large multi-nationals with a multitude of genuinely free-market, community-sized and cooperatively-owned, enterprises. These make the best use of local resources to mitigate climate change and to build resilience to its effects. Chomsky would understand this. I am not sure Cromwell is able to move on beyond his inflammatory language. Any corporation can be a tool for good or evil. It is up to us to write the source code. WE choose. Currently the system is written to benefit the minority at the expense of the majority. Half-baked Marxist theory will not move this on. Blaming corporations is like blaming the internet or the TV. It misses the point. A good craftsman never blames his tools. These are the tools we have. We need to learn how to make them work.
Instead of this we get Cromwell’s list of 8 things the media, politicians and academics allegedly never tell you about climate change:
- “The inherently biocidal, indeed psychopathic, logic of corporate capitalism, structurally locked into generating maximised revenues…” etc, etc – you get the picture…
- Big business involved in promoting “catastrophic consumption”
- Corporate lobbying to protect and strengthen private power.
- The creation of artificial needs through advertising.
- The installation of compliant dictators in client states around the world.
- Trapping third world countries in a debt trap.
- Suppressing independent development in third world nations.
- The role of the media in promoting this status quo.
Of course if you are reading this book no doubt you are already well aware of all this. If you are interested and pay attention these themes do arise out there in the ‘real world’. However, Cromwell is right, they do not fit the regular narrative. It is just that we are not covering new ground here.
For Cromwell it is a crime to get into bed with big business. Afterall isn’t it obvious they are EVIL? Hence he rounds on Greenpeace for daring to attempt to modify the source code of the corporation by actually working with them. Doesn’t Greenpeace know that they are meant to be throwing Molotov cocktails at chauffeur-driven Mercedes? Geez. It is really interesting at this point to contrast this with “The Great Disruption” written by the former head of Greenpeace Australia; Paul Gilding. His spin on this issue is vastly different. They spent years getting nowhere fighting corporate pollution. However when they sat around the same table they found they were pushing against an open door. Most organisations were quite willing to set their own house in order. You just needed the right leverage, the right language. Hence they made progress. If you listen to Cromwell then they simply sold their soul to the devil. Unusually for me I would support Greenpeace on this issue. Progress is made through dialogue not dogma.
It isn’t just Greenpeace who get hammered. Cromwell’s most favourite targets in the UK were the BBC, the Guardian and the Independent. It isn’t clear why he chose the traditionally liberal media. Maybe he thought he would make progress there? Cromwell is pretty merciless in denouncing John Vidal because he didn’t take his narrative about corporate power directly from Joel Balkan’s “The Corporation“. Most readers of the Guardian would find that taking matters a little too far, especially as this specific tiff seems to originate over Vidal butchering a story that Cromwell submitted to the paper. It isn’t just that the media do promote the agenda of elite power, the problem for Cromwell is that they do not follow Cromwell’s private agenda. Obviously no media outlet is going to follow such extreme anti-corporate ideology. Who would blame them?
Of course the propaganda model is real. We know this from so many other great books that cover this topic well. Cromwell is right when he explains that:
“…corporate media professionals have long played a crucial role in the protection of private power by maintaining the illusion that member of the public are offered an ‘impartial’ and wide selection of facts, opinions and perspectives… […] …for it presumes that ‘impartiality’ equates to one major political party receiving identical […] coverage to another. But when all the major political parties have almost identical views on important issues […] how can this possibly be deemed to constitute genuine media impartiality?”
Herein lies the problem. Cromwell is right but he then blames the media. How is the media to blame for there being three identical political parties to chose from? It may be complicit but we are at the whim are far stronger forces. We are all equally complicit in this failing. YES, public interest would be a disaster for the elites, but who is to decide what in the public interest? Cromwell? The Media? The Elite? Us? I would like to believe that Cromwell means “us” but sometimes it sounds like he means “Cromwell”. It is just too Orwellian.
The author quotes a retort from Hamish McRae economics columnist at the Independent:
“…I feel I should deal with the world as it is, rather than as it might be.”
Cromwell derides this point of view as a journalistic side-step. But isn’t it central? Journalists report the world without seeing the water they swim in. Are they to blame? Are they to chose Cromwell’s ideology? Why his? Why not the ideology of Karl Marx or of Milton Friedman? Who decides? Not journalists.
In the final analysis this is a book written on the shoulders of giants. One of the simplest and best quotes in the book isn’t Cromwell’s, it’s by Martin Harts-Landsberg – professor of economics in Portland, Oregon:
“We don’t have a broken system. Rather we have a system that works very efficiently to enrich an ever smaller number of people. Those people think that it is working just fine.”
And they hold the reins of power. So nothing changes until we pull the rug out. Or the rug slips all by itself. Cromwell demands that the media do its professional duty and scream this message from the mountain tops. If only they would. If only they could.
The extreme view takes a certain discipline. Cromwell has simplified the argument enough to make his own cartoon bad guys. He can blame them for everything. In his chapter “Beyond Indifference” the author takes a trip through the world of philosophy. It goes nowhere specifically, either that or it is so incredibly clever that I didn’t understand it. If so then Cromwell hasn’t communicated it very well. Or I am stupid. For a few pages Cromwell does pick up on an idea that I found profoundly disturbing. It is unclear exactly what Cromwell thinks he is doing with this:
“In Buddhism, contemplating one’s own death is strongly encouraged in order to generate the necessary motivation for training the mind on the path to enlightenment.”
This sounds close to the sort of motivational techniques used by quasi-religious cults such as Scientology. They need only convince their disciples that they must make great sacrifices because they are saving the world. With this kind of self-discipline any dogma can be internalised as a fundamental truth to be regurgitated over and over like a mantra. Once you convince yourself this is true then any messenger conveying any inconvenient truth has to be shot – because they are the message.
So what we have here is a long book about shooting the messenger rather than one that really gets under the skin of exactly WHAT the message is. And what it should be. In the final analysis Cromwell is absolutely right when he writes that:
“It takes constant propaganda, backed by the hard sell of ‘patriotism’ and professed commitment to ‘freedom’and ‘democracy’ to enable states to fight wars.”
If this book can simply be about THIS singular issue then Cromwell would be the British Gore Vidal. He could be our version of Noam Chomsky. But this book doesn’t convey that depth. It is just what it is; a vague attempt to create a philosophy around the authors perceived sins propagated by the media establishment. We really wanted and deserved more, we really wanted to know why the media could not see the water they swam in. Exactly how does this work in the United Kingdom? How does this work in northern Europe? This could have been a book of great insight but, at times, in veered close to student polemic.
Cromwell is talented and this is a contribution. But it doesn’t cut deep enough. Media Lens do good work and David is to be applauded for his work. Is this a genuinely useful contribution? Not this time. If you really have not read any Chomsky or Curtis then maybe this might be a useful introduction to some of the issues at stake. But I pity the poor reader who doesn’t give up half-way through chapter 9 in utter despair. You learn a lot about propaganda from the giants Cromwell borrows from – but reclaiming your mind? Maybe not. We wanted this to work so much. Yet it only gets half way there. We simply could not tell who was pushing the ‘delusion’ anymore: Cromwell or the media? You decide.