A few nights ago, I watched “Manufacturing Consent,” a 1992 documentary featuring Noam Chomsky, based on the book, “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media” by Edward Herman and Chomsky. This documentary was mostly a collection of older videos of Chomsky’s lectures, and shows him engaged in debate or answering questions or being on shows and answering questions and illustrating different challenges to his views, typically by people who didn’t understand what he was really trying to talk about. Undoubtedly, the selection of the inept opposition was purposely chosen for maximum advantage, and, once stripped away of the dismissives, there were a few real challenges that were notable. Though I am a fan of Chomsky and have read several of his books, I hadn’t seen this documentary before, which is available through Netflix. It was confrontational Chomsky at his very best, advocating for the poor and disenfranchised, while accusing the American government of war crimes for which he provided persuasive evidence and documentation of U.S. involvement in truly ugly stories like East Timor, Vietnam and Cambodia; the contemporary examples of the documentary went back far enough to include the 1960s and 1970s. While seemingly dated, the persistence of our government in pursuing wars without purpose or logic or ending makes this documentary timeless. Of course the stories of many of these American adventures are well known to us, with the possible exception of East Timor in the 1970s.
The American press, which normally gives a green light for our national misadventures abroad, but particularly the New York Times, found itself trying to defend against Chomsky’s analysis about bias of coverage over a brutal war that would have made us look bad, except for the fact that the invasion of East Timor in the 1970s received virtually no attention from the press, with a few rare but notable exceptions. Chomsky knew this, because he counted up the number of newspaper citations and compared it directly with the coverage for the better known atrocities in Cambodia (a right-wing (East Timor) vs left-wing (Cambodia) government–that distinction also played a major role). He claims to have learned more about East Timor by reading British and Canadian articles as virtually nothing appeared in the American newsprint or in television coverage. The conflict Chomsky referred to as one left out of media attention, was that of the East Timor invasion by Indonesia in 1975, which we supported, as we looked the other way when mass genocide against the indigenous people of the region was carried out by the invading army, using American made military hardware. Chomsky compares press coverage of East Timor with that of Cambodia under Pol Pot, who came to power after we invaded the country and deposed Prince Sihanouk. When Pol Pot took over, his objective was to install a harsh, left wing government, which he implemented through policies of dislocation and genocide in what became known as the “killing fields” of Cambodia. Why asks Chomsky, did East Timor get nearly zero coverage from the NYT, while Cambodia got a lot, when both events were associated with mass genocide and were equally indefensible? Chomsky’s critics have always been waiting for him to make some sort of blunder and then pounce on what appears to be a self-inflicted mortal wound, only to discover that Chomsky’s mistake was usually one of misinterpretation on their part, rather than his lack of consistency or a failure of his encyclopedic knowledge of events and reporting. I don’t think anyone is better at that than Chomsky.
A good example of one interesting case in the documentary took place when a French professor, Faurisson, claimed the holocaust was a hoax; he was put on trial by the French government and found guilty of distorting history. You may remebmer this case. Chomsky, as well as many other academics throughout the world, signed a petition in support of Faurisson’s right to make his statement, without passing judgment on the statement per se. Chomsky’s many detractors seized on this as an opportunity to caste him as an anti-Semite, though he himself is Jewish and was brought up within a strong, liberal Jewish tradition in New York. The documentary showed the numerous engagements he went through to establish the academically defensible point that a person should be free to advocate their position and leave it to the evidence presented to determine whether a rational case was established by the assertion. On other occasions, Chomsky went on to thoroughly destroy the argument that the holocaust did not take place and eventually seemed to win the day over those who thought they had finally caught him in an indefensible position. But as he said, “I defended his right to say it, not what he said.” He then accused the French Government of putting themselves into a Stalinist-like state by making a legal decision about which history was correct and which was not (holocaust or no holocaust) . So he touched on just about everyone. The presence and actions of Vichy France during WW II have made the French very sensitive to this issue, since they participated in the persecution of Jews and helped ship 70,000 French Jews to the “East” as part of the final solution; only about 3% of them ever returned.
Quite predictably, I found myself deeply resonating with Chomsky as he was portrayed, while I was at the same time a bit astonished to see how many of his ideas don’t or didn’t penetrate with sufficient clarity to most people, at least those with whom he interacted on the video clips. Because of Chomsky’s dogged persistence and his unfailing attention to detail (with some lapses), I think we have a much better appreciation of him during the last decade or so and then too, the militaristic nature of our country, thanks to GW Bush, has been much more thoroughly exposed and perhaps revealed as a nation-state, more loathsome to at least some sensible Americans, than one might ever have imagined. At least we better understand Chomsky’s views and his critique on social issues and war. His positions on issues are hardly radical: he believes that a just society should take care of everyone and stay out of conflicts that unnecessarily kill people. He argues that WW II was justified, but nothing since has risen to the threshold requiring military action. Throughout his career as an activist, Chomsky has always harbored a special dislike for governments as well as a particularly strong dislike for our government and our support of vicious, right-wing governments, who will do the bidding of Corporate America, such as those we helped establish and prop up throughout South America after WW II, right up to the present day.
Chomsky is a prodigious writer who gave up a successful academic career as a linguist to pursue the social and political ideology for which he is better known. Yet, eighteen years after the documentary was made, one can see what was missing from Chomsky’s arguments, something for which we have a much better appreciation today, as a result of accumulated studies of the brain, which impact on our views of human brain function and how political bias gets established therein. This new level of understanding, though hardly complete, has come about through contemporary studies in neuroscience as well as the encroachments from molecular biology and brain imaging studies using the methods of fMRI, PET (positron emission tomography) and MEG (magneto encephalography). These insights have established a more solid foundation for further speculation about brain function, bias and the failures of our frontal lobes to be given rational access to our experiences. As humans, we have an enormous capacity for learning and creativity. Chomsky’s “manufacturing consent” needs a redux. Here’s what one might add for a new version of the documentary.
Chomsky was a leader in pointing out that language is not the act of creating utterances on a blank sheet of auditory neurons, but is in fact, a reflection of genetic programming within the brain, which makes a human baby very different from that of an infant chimpanzee for example, or for that matter, any other primate. At two months of age, a human infant begins to babble language sounds and perfects them through listening to humans around him/her, a process that reflects a voracious appetite for expressing and receiving language, fed by the energy of their pre-programmed neural circuits, highly tuned for language acquisition. Even children who are born deaf, utter language sounds, though their babbling eventually subsides due to the lack of auditory feedback. Different languages have enough similarities such that phonetic rules are learned and the native language is spoken well before our children go to school. Some languages are phonetically easier to master than others and Italian children for example can speak their language two years before children raised in English-speaking families. Eventually humans have a storage capacity of 50,000 to 100,000 words!
“Manufacturing consent” as Chomsky and co-author Herman point out, paints a picture, not of a conspiracy theory in which some committee in the New York Times editorial office or a government agency meets to shield us from the reality of our atrocities abroad. Rather, the process of bias reflects an entrainment which loads our mental dice, so that when called upon to roll a winner, we mostly get snake eyes! We tend to look the other way when information flows into our brains that runs counter to the grain of our private national image, as we focus and emphasize instead the affairs that enhance the internal image we project about ourselves and the views we have adopted that are supposed to guide our international behavior. It runs against our many mental programs to imagine we are out there in the real world somewhere murdering innocent people, or at least facilitating such behavior. We are capable of a search mode that runs beneath the conscious, declarative mode of verbalized behavior. It also helps, that, in the case of newspapers like the New York Times, the paper does better in terms of advertising and their subscription rate when they rock the boat only intermittently or not at all. But, in attempting to describe this reality bias, Chomsky moves from the genetic code of language, where he is obviously very much at home, to a behavioral interpretation, as if we suddenly switched from Chomsky as the genetic linguist to Skinner as the behaviorist, using a slate of blank neurons for encoding. But brain studies have suggested another kind of genetic code for brain wiring and function, maybe several, though each of these additional coding modes is far more difficult to trace when compared to the development of our linguistic apparatus. There may well be many different language mechanisms for which humans are “primed” for intense learning as part of our adaptive pre-programmed brain structure. Our motor control, sensory integration and emotional make-up may all reflect programmatic coding to start us out on the road to success as an evolutionary wonder!
Humans are born early and mature late. A chimpanzee reaches young adult stage at about 7 years after birth, whereas humans stretch that out to at least 12 years and our brains are still growing and maturing even during our late teen years. There is evidence that brain mechanisms involving the amygdala for example, which helps us avoid dangerous circumstances, may not fully kick-in until the mid-twenties, leading to the irrational behavior, for example, of Olympic competitors achieving sub-orbital heights on a snow board! What adult would do such things?
With the growth of our brain, we stretch the developmental period out, the purpose of which is to enhance our capacity as great, natural learners, full of curiosity and eager to figure out how things work, before full cultural responsibility comes to rest on our shoulders. Anthropologists like to express the problem of prolonged maturity to the limits imposed by our big brains, which need to go through the birth canal early, because the imposing physical constraints, thus rendering us more dependent at birth and slower on the uptake, when compared to other primates. Our prolonged developmental period was almost surely related to our survival, particularly as the African continent of our origins became less of a tree-filled jungle and more like the Africa of today, during which time, we came out of the trees and, as bipeds, began to compete with other carnivores for food and sometimes as well, we became the target of their predatory behavior. There is fossil evidence to suggest that humans were confronted with new environmental challenges which served as the stimulus for brain growth and enhanced our brain resources for improved adaptability. One issues seems well established: when our ancestor first stood up and walked as humanoids, their brain size was initially small; it was only later that hominid brain size showed rapid growth and development. Whatever advantages we gained by walking upright, it was not the stimulus of bipedalism that began the development of our larger brain size–that came later.
Phineas Gage Head Wound
The main feature of the human brain that we can appreciate today, compared with those of apes and our distant ancestors of several million years ago, is the growth of the brain in general, but more especially the growth of our frontal lobes. It is this region of our brain that seems to house much of our social skills, personalities and the capacity for long-term planning. These complex functions of our frontal lobes first came to our attention through Phineas Gage, who, in 1848, had a tamping rod explode through his orbit and destroy much of his frontal lobes, reducing his capacity to deal with abstract issues and suffering from a dramatic change in personality. When you read the description of Phineas Gage and his post-accident behavioral changes, you have the feeling that you are reading about contemporary Republicans/teabaggers. Naturally, the Republican brain is quite different from that of normal humans with respect to our frontal lobes. But, we briefly digressed.
As one example of our brain/behavioral repertoire, just thinking about moving our finger let’s say, instead of actually moving them, switches the prominent activity center of our brain, as determine by fMRI studies, from the precentral gyrus (where motor commands originate) to a more frontal lobe location (supplementary motor area (SMA)), which is one site where planning our motor actions take place, just as the better known Broca’s area of the left frontal lobe serves as the motor planning region for vocalizing language.
Our capacity to rapidly develop language is likely to be only one of many genetic programs that we have embedded within the millions of neural circuits residing in our cerebral cortex, all derived from the process of natural selection, whose original function was that of optimizing our chances for survival. And, it isn’t all just cerebral cortex: lying within the cerebral hemispheres underneath the cortex, the basal ganglia get massive input from the cortex and feed back through cortical projections; the cerebellum receives at least two loops of impulses, one of which precedes our movements, while the second loop modifies our movements once they are being executed. New imaging data suggests that even the cerebellum, once considered to be a strictly motor organ (where much of our motor-based non-declarative memories are formed) may be involved in cognitive functions as well. This story is far from over, as it represents an increasingly expanded view of human cognitive brain functions.
Most of the coding mechanisms in our brains, those outside of language, such as our social interactions, either depend on or are facilitated by language acquisition. So it is natural to ask how long spoken language has been within the hominid ancestral clans? Well, the brain doesn’t leave a fossil record, so one has to rely on other kinds of evidence, like skull size and depressions in the skill to derive the composition of the brain and guesstimate the presence or absence of language. All of this leaves great uncertainty and doubt. Some have speculated that language mechanisms have been with us for perhaps several million years, although, as we know from our social history, the written forms of language have been with us for only 4,000 years or so. If true, it implies that language is an innate, pre-programmed component of our brain structure, while the capacity to recognize written words is a very recent acquisition, too recent to have found an evolutionary niche in our brain structures and programed genetics. Nevertheless, the fact that our visual memory system seems to have created a visual “letterbox” where knowledge of written words is housed, implies that we had to crowd out some other cortical function in order to have knowledge of the written word. As many as 17% of us cannot read normally and fall into the diagnostic category of dyslexia.
In the last few years, enthusiasm has developed over a single gene that some feel might represent a unique gene for expressive language. The FOXP2 gene was discovered in a group of individuals with an inherited incapacity to develop language and was eventually discovered in the Neanderthal genome to have the exact same form as the normal human. This gene appears to differ in several important ways from the equivalent in other primates. Many took this to mean that Neanderthals used language. Part of the FOXP2 gene appears to generate a transcription factor that controls other genes, but it is still unclear from the studies carried out so far if the FOXP2 gene can serve as the gene for language. Many of the large group that suffered language deficiency with a point mutation in the FOXP2 gene also had low intelligence, which itself can cause language deficiencies. So, at the moment, the scientific community is properly divided on the subject of this gene and how much it has to do with language. Is FOXP2 the the master or merely another slave of speech and language acquisition? We will be hearing a lot more about this gene in the future.
The brain of course is a highly plastic organ and, once we are born, our brains go to work constructing themselves according to the experiences to which we are exposed. This goes on throughout the day and probably takes place during our sleep, as recent studies are beginning to show that sleep is a form of re-practicing what was learned the previous day. Though our retina appears to be a hard-wired structure, the visual cortex behind it is not. The plasticity of the cortex can change connections according to the visual experiences of the individual. As I sometimes have said to my students, we spend the first thirty years of our lives constructing a brain we can live with and the next thirty years trying to figure out the brain we constructed. Some never get it right. During the early growth period of our lives, the acquisition of culture has the same kinds of driving mechanisms we see for language. We intensely absorb the cultural and social elements around us and the behavior and ideas of those with whom we come in contact, as we try to sort out and stamp out our cultural phenotype. Just as surely as a French child growing up in a French family learns to speak French, a child growing up in a teabaggers environment, with both parents speaking cultural teabaggereeze, will become a teabagger child.
But the frontal lobes of our brains are always exercising another one of the programmatic options, that of longitudinal evaluation and it is during this period, long after we started school, that the opportunity exists, by sharing information with and through others, that the teabagger children have an opportunity to unteabag themselves. Sometimes this happens through a “Eureka” moment from a memorable teacher and sometimes it occurs when taking a college course. For many of my friends growing up in Salt Lake City Utah and coming from a Mormon background, it was the early interactions with others who had question marks about the validity of Mormon doctrine and the recognition that a demarcation line existed–a line in the sand so to speak. The heart of Mormonism demanded that everyone had to accept things that the church said were true. And, mostly this worked. But, for a few, myself included, we opted, perhaps unconsciously, for the alternative brain mechanism I refer to as “the frontal lobe longitudinal program option,” which planted little seeds of doubt about the story that was too fantastic to neatly fit into an acceptable belief program–it couldn’t fit into the frontal lobe compartments when such knowledge would then be nominated for long-term memory and reflexive cortical behavior. Compounding this early nugget of uncomfortable disbelief, was the attitude that we didn’t want to believe something that wasn’t true. Suppose for example, you were told that the grizzly bears that have been attacking farmers and killing sheep, sleep in nearby caves and are incapacitated during sleep, such that they can easily be approached and killed. If you were asked to join the party that was going to eliminate the grizzlies one night, you would want to know whether the story was absolutely true and you would certainly want to talk to someone who had been on such a killing trip and even then you might and should be wary, as your very survival would be at stake. If you declined to join the grizzly party and later discovered many were killed by an angry awakened grizzly during the night, it would make survival sense for you to avoid seeking additional knowledge from the group. So too with the Mormons.
Once the seeds of doubt get planted, the analytical programs of our minds begin to reshape our neural circuits, replacing older connections with new ones as the older cultural values get pushed out of the way in favor of the new intellect. It is highly stimulating to our brains to feel we have arrived at this new conclusion all by ourselves, even though it never happens on solo flights alone. But once a transition in brain thinking begins to take place, our physical brain is transformed: new synapses are added and older connections are pruned away. Thus, to some extent, we get to rebuild our brains! The seemingly subtle commitment that we make, when we decide we don’t want to believe something unless it’s true, unless there is some evidence we can verify, that is the first fatal step of demanding that religion convert itself into a science, where it cannot survive and voila! The link is broken. The requirement of “truth” and “proof” brings on a burden of evidence that no religion can meet, not the least of which is the Mormon church, because it is relatively new and a lot of information is available on its origins and deeds. Verifiability with Mormonism is a far easier task than it would be for Catholicism. All religions fall apart once the demand for evidence becomes an essential element for continued subscription to the belief system. I was always impressed that those of us who escaped Mormonism in Salt Lake City, all went on to graduate training or advanced professional degrees and had successful careers in a variety of academic and non-academic pursuits. Yet the Mormons we left behind, those that didn’t exercise their “frontal lobe filibuster toolbox”, remained as those who would accept without failure the teachings of the church, including the absurd ones that the book of Mormon was anything other than a nineteenth century fairy tale. Thus, rather early in my life, I resisted a form of brain development that was best served by the absence of a frontal lobe engagement, which committed the lives of non-doubting Mormons to a kind of self-imposed celibacy against the use of the frontal lobes, at least that’s the metaphorical explanation. Most Mormons are Republicans and the state of Utah overwhelmingly votes Republican, with the few Democrats that get elected also voting along the same conservative party line, at least at the national level.
Our developmental period of brain growth and maturation readily follows from another genetic code we see in the human brain–the need to be creative, social animals, coupled to our thirst for understanding how things work. This is also a gift of our greatly expanded frontal lobes, that have new connections now being described by fMRI, MEG and PET scanning images of the human brain during different kinds of cognitive processing. Whether these techniques can ever decipher the nature and substrate of our consciousness and higher mental capacities remains as a future aspiration. But, we know a little more today than we did ten years ago.
So, what Chomsky should say in the redux version of his documentary is that the New York Times didn’t publish much on East Timor, while publishing a lot on Pol Pot and the Cambodian atrocities, because, though they were smart and well educated, the editors didn’t understand that they were the prisoners of their many languages of the brain and had yet to go through a full frontal lobe review of their inconsistent behavior. The non-declarative memory, that parks itself somewhere within the brain, perhaps the cortex and in some cases, for some skills, in the cerebellum, represents a force that encourages decisions like the elimination of East Timor news from the pages of the New York Times. It’s the braining, not the training that eliminated East Timor!
But, while we’re at it, let’s not forget the biggest distortion in U.S. history ever perpetrated by an American President. That happened right after 9/11, when Bush said, referring to the attack, “the terrorists hate our freedoms.” And that immediately established a political constituency of millions of Americans, including the swift boaters and the teabaggers, who still believe that Bush identified with clarity the motivating factor of the 9/11 terrorists. To reaffirm this position, Cheney later spoke at the American Enterprise Institute where he said the terrorists hate “all the things that make us a force for good in the world — for liberty, for human rights, for the rational, peaceful resolution of differences” (what was he smoking?). As we all know, the self-confessed mastermind of 9/11, khalid sheikh mohammed, the person who probably also beheaded reporter Daniel Pearl, emphasized throughout his incarceration, that he planned 9/11 and other attempts to murder and harm Americans and Israelis, solely because of the way that the U.S. and Israel have treated the Palestinians and occupied their lands. Bush’s statement makes no sense unless you appreciate the intelligence from which the statement came, whereas khalid sheikh mohammed’s statement will not earn him any relief from trial or outcome, so he has nothing to personally gain by making such a statement, which is also widely corroborated by what the other plotters and planners have said all along. To swallow Bush and Cheney’s assertion, you must suffer from severe frontal lobe atrophy and be denied the possibility of ever exercising your “frontal lobe longitudinal program option.”
[Note added: while there are many deficiencies in each of the main brain imaging methods in use today, none of which leads to an unambiguous determination of brain activity or provides us with a simple interpretation of brain function, the confluence of these methods has led to an entirely new culture of science on human brain function in which the efforts of psychologists (cognitive neuroscientists), neuroscientists, physiologists and imaging physicists are collaborating with the belief that their measurements are providing us with new revelations about brain function. Whether this new effort is taking us down the path to greater clarity about human brain function remains to be seen, but one can no longer ignore the fact that this group of scientists, using these methods, are making a significant contribution to clearing up the excessive number of houses on the market. It's a growth industry. One of the best books on this subject, though it is very focused on language and reading is "Reading in the Brain" by Stanislas Dehaene. In this book Dehaene discusses the current state of knowledge available to us from these imaging methods, at least as it applies to the subject at hand. I strongly recommend the book if you are looking for something on the modern view of language and brain function revealed by imaging methods.]
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