Dissent and critical thought are needed most of all in times of war. Yet it’s precisely the time when people are pressured the most to silence their doubts, to mindlessly conform, and to wave the flag and to cheer for the “good” guys against the “bad” ones.
Dissent is easy to tolerate when it’s about trivial matters that don’t challenge or involve prevailing power structures. Chomsky and Herman famously wrote “Manufacturing Consent,” which is another way of saying that dissent itself is manufactured and controlled, providing us with an illusion that democratic debate is allowed and encouraged in America. But of course dissent isn’t tolerated when it threatens power structures, profit margins, and prevailing narratives.
We see this clearly in the amount of dissent policing and information quashing about the Russia/Ukraine war. Look at what happened to the RT (Russia Today) network in the USA (RT America). It was dropped by DirecTV and forced to layoff its staff and cease operations. It’s easy to cheer something like this if you think or have been told everything Russian is evil, but the loss is considerable to democracy and to free speech.
I didn’t watch a lot of RT America, but I appreciated the network’s support of informed critics like Chris Hedges and Jesse Ventura. Hedges and Ventura, both freethinkers, were excluded by the mainstream media in the U.S. Ventura’s case is especially revealing. He had a three-year, multi-million dollar contract with MSNBC for a talk show in 2003 that was cancelled when the network realized he was against the Iraq War. The network honored the contract, paying him roughly $6-8 million while keeping him off the air for three years. Millions in hush money for no work sounds like a good deal, but it’s obviously not in the interest of free speech.
When I started writing for TomDispatch.com in 2007, posting articles that called into question the official narrative of “progress” in the Iraq and Afghan Wars, there were exactly two TV networks that asked to interview me: Al-Jazeera and RT America. (I turned them down, mainly because I was working in rural Pennsylvania and had no time to travel to New York City for in-studio interviews.) No mainstream media network showed any interest. I’m not complaining here — I’m just stating facts. Ask yourself how many times you’ve seen and heard antiwar voices and penetrating criticism on NBC, CBS, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, and similar networks. You won’t see and hear it there because it’s considered bad for business.
Why is it bad for business? Advertisers don’t like it. You know: companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and similar bastions of the military-industrial complex. Those same companies are often part of multi-national conglomerates that own the networks. They are not about to sanction shows or grant airtime to well-informed critics like Hedges and Ventura. Why would they? Profit and power trump free speech every time.
Dissenting voices are still out there, but they are kept on platforms where their reach is often limited by computer algorithms that send people to mainstream sites first. For what it’s worth, I look for alternative perspectives at the Jimmy Dore Show, at Useful Idiots, at Breaking Points, and from journalists like Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Chris Hedges, and Caitlin Johnstone, among others.
I also continue to check mainstream sources like the New York Times, NBC News, and PBS, as well as subscribing to old-fashioned paper magazines like The Nation, The New Republic, and The Baffler. And I’m not above watching Tucker Carlson when he features important voices like former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard.
Americans, citizens of what is allegedly a democracy, deserve access to the widest possible range of sources and critics. Denying the same to us is censorship. It limits thought, it stifles debate, and it makes us much less than what we could be as a democracy and as a people.