veiled censorship

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Noam Chomsky*

Policy commentators avoid dealing with relevant issues following the journalistic principle that “objectivity” means reporting what the powerful do and say, not what they ignore. The principle holds even if the fate of the species is at risk.

Mark Twain famously said that “it is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three things unspeakably precious: freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and prudence never to practice either.”[I].

In his unpublished introduction to the animal revolution[ii], dedicated to "literary censorship" in free England, George Orwell added the reason for this prudence: there is, he wrote, a "general tacit agreement that 'it would not do' to mention this particular fact". The tacit agreement imposes a “veiled censorship” based on “an orthodoxy, a body of ideas that it is assumed all people of common sense will accept without question”, and “anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness” even without “any official ban”[iii].

We witness the exercise of this prudence constantly in free societies. Take the US/UK invasion of Iraq, a textbook case of aggression without a credible pretext, the “supreme international crime” defined by the Nuremberg trials. It is legitimate to say that it was a “dumb war”, a “strategic mistake”, even “the biggest strategic mistake in the recent history of US foreign policy”[iv] in the words of President Barack Obama, highly praised by liberal opinion. But it "wouldn't do" to say what it was, the crime of the century, although there would be no such hesitation if some official enemy had committed even a very minor crime.

Prevailing orthodoxy does not easily accommodate someone like General/President Ulysses S. Grant, who felt that there never was "a more vicious war than the one waged by the United States in Mexico," taking over what is now the southeastern United States and California, and who expressed his shame at his lack of “moral courage to resign” rather than participate in the crime.[v]

Subordination to prevailing orthodoxy has consequences. The not-so-unspoken message is that we should only fight smart wars that are not mistakes, wars that achieve their goals, by definition just and right according to prevailing orthodoxy even if they are in reality "wicked wars", the greatest crimes. The examples are too numerous to mention. In some cases, like the crime of the century, the practice is almost without exception in respectable circles.

Another familiar aspect of subordination to prevailing orthodoxy is casual appropriation of orthodox demonization of official enemies. To take an almost random example, from editing the The New York Times who happens to be in front of me right now, a highly competent economics journalist warns us of the populism of official demon Hugo Chávez, who, once elected in the late 1990s, “began to confront any democratic institution that stood in his way”[vi].

Returning to the real world, it was the United States government, with the enthusiastic support of the The New York Times, which (at the very least) backed the military coup that overthrew Chávez's government, briefly, before it was reversed by a popular uprising. As for Chávez, whatever one thinks of him, he has won repeated elections certified free and fair by international observers, including the Carter Foundation, whose founder, former president Jimmy Carter, said that “out of the 92 elections we monitored, I would say that the electoral process in Venezuela is the best in the world”[vii]. And Venezuela under Chávez regularly ranked very high in international opinion polls on popular support for government and democracy (Chile-based Latinobarometer).

There were undoubtedly several democratic shortcomings during the years of Hugo Chávez, such as the crackdowns on RCTV, which provoked enormous disapproval. I joined the reproaches, agreeing that such repressions could not take place in our free society. If a prominent TV channel in the United States had supported a military coup as RCTV did, it would not suffer repression a few years later, because it would not exist: the executives would be in jail, if they were still alive.

But orthodoxy easily trumps mere facts.

Failure to provide pertinent information also has consequences. Perhaps the citizens of the United States should know that popular opinion polls run by America's leading polling agency found that, a decade after the crime of the century, popular opinion regarded the United States as the greatest threat to world peace, no competitors even close; certainly not Iran, which wins the prize among US policy commentators. Perhaps instead of hiding the fact, the press could have done its duty to bring it to public attention, along with some considerations about what such a result means, what lessons it provides for politics. Again, dereliction of duties has consequences.

Examples like these, which abound, are serious enough, but there are others that are much more important. Take the 2016 election campaign in the most powerful country in world history. The coverage was massive, and instructive. The subjects were almost entirely avoided by candidates, and virtually ignored by policy commentators, following the journalistic principle that “objectivity” means accurately reporting what the powerful do and say, not what they ignore. The principle holds even if the fate of the species is at stake, as it is.

The neglect reached a dramatic peak on November 8, 2016, a truly historic day. On that day Donald Trump won two victories. The least important received extraordinary media coverage: her electoral victory, with almost 3 million votes less than her opponent, thanks to retrograde characteristics of the US electoral system. The most important victory passed in almost total silence: Trump's victory in Marrakesh, Morocco, where around 200 countries met for essential decisions on the Paris agreement on climate change a year earlier.

On November 8, the process stopped. The remainder of the conference was largely devoted to trying to preserve hope, given the imminence of the United States not only pulling out of the enterprise, but dedicating itself to sabotaging it, sharply increasing the use of fossil fuels, dismantling regulations and rejecting the pledge of help developing countries adopt renewable energy sources. What was at stake in Trump's most important victory was the perspective of organized human life as we know it. Accordingly, the coverage was practically zero, maintaining the same concept of “objectivity” determined by the practices and doctrines of power.

A truly independent press rejects the role of subordination to power and authority. It throws orthodoxy to the winds, questions what “people of good sense will take without question”, rips apart the veil of tacit censorship, makes available the information and variety of opinions and ideas that are prerequisites for meaningful participation in social life and policy, and furthermore, it provides a platform for people to engage in debate and discussion on issues that concern them. In so doing, it fulfills its founding function of a truly free and democratic society.

*Noam Chomsky é Professor Emeritus em Linguistics No. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA).

Translation and notes: Pedro G. Mattos

Article originally published on the website (

[I] “it is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them”. Following the Equator: A Journey around the World, 1897, chapter XX. Available in:

[ii] Animal Farm, 1945. Available at:

[iii] “general tacit agreement that 'it wouldn't do' to mention that particular fact”/ “veiled censorship”/ “an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question”/ “anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness”/ “any official ban”. The Freedom of the Press. Available in:

[iv] “the greatest strategic blunder in the recent history of American foreign policy”. My Plan for Iraq, July 14, 2008. Available at:

[v] “a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico”/ “the moral courage to resign”. References can be found at A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 US Invasion of Mexico, by Amy S. Greenberg.

[vi] “proceeded to battle any democratic institution that stood in his way”. A Threat to US Democracy: Political Dysfunction, by Eduardo Porter, January 3, 2017. Available at:

[vii] “of the 92 elections that we've monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world”. 30 Years of The Carter Center (Sept. 11, 2012). Available in:

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