September 14, 1993

Interview with Noam Chomsky
by David Cogswell

Q: What would be your thoughts about how to make your ideas accessible to a broad cross section of the public?

A: The main problem of reaching people, and there's a close interaction, there always has been, between what is roughly called education or discussion or discourse on the one hand and organization on the other. They stimulate each other. Almost by definition people who are critical of established institutions and what they do will not have resources and will not have access through the established institutions except very marginally. They're not suicidal after all. Since that's the case you have to establish alternative institutions and that means organizations. Take, say, that film. I didn't see it, but I presume it was filming talks and those talks were possible because there are popular organizations. There's a whole complex proliferation of groups around the country and around the world in fact working on all sorts of topics and bringing people together on them, and they both have a need for speakers and they provide an opportunity for them and then these occasions, if properly done, stimulate more interest and broader audiences. Small newspapers grow up. Community-supported radio develops. Out of the activities and the organization come opportunities for interaction among people including talks and writing and so on and that stimulates more of it. That's the way every movement in history ever developed, whether it was the background for the American Revolution, abolitionism, the Civil Rights movement, you pick it, that's the way it developed.

Q: Did you say you haven't seen the movie, ``Manufacturing Consent?''

A: No actually. I've looked at the transcript but I haven't actually seen the film.

Q: Unfortunately it doesn't get shown very much.

A: Well, outside of the United States it's being shown quite a lot, I mean I discovered, I didn't know it, but traveling around the world... I do a lot of traveling, I happened last year to do quite a bit of traveling, foreign traveling, and in many countries I went to people told me they'd seen it on national television.


The point is if people are reached individually and in an isolated fashion, it really doesn't amount to a lot. There are a lot of interesting things about American society, even unusual things. On the one hand it's a very free society so there's very little government control, in fact by comparative standards remarkably little. On the other hand it's a very isolated society. People are really alone to an unusual extent. That's a technique of control. I mean if you're sitting alone in front of the tube, it doesn't matter a whole lot what you think.

Q: You have said that there has been a great deal of progress in the last 30 years in the knowledge that people have about the nature of our governing institutions and, for example, the mass slaughter of the Native Americans. Do you still think its going well?

A: I don't think it is at the moment. I think in a very short term focus, the last year or two, things look pretty depressing in my opinion. But over the longer term, say 30 years, I think they're encouraging. There are ups and downs.

Q: What do you see as the significance of the last election? Is there a significant difference between a Clinton administration and a Bush administration?

A: I don't think so. I think the last election was a vote against. Clinton was one of the most unpopular candidates in recent American history. Clinton's vote, not only the percentage, but even the socioeconomic distribution of voters was very similar to Hubert Humphrey in 1968 it turns out. There was no reason for any illusions, he was quite honest about it. He put himself forward as a conservative. He was going to be what they called a new Democrat, some one who was not going to be caught up in the liberal delusions about entitlements and rights and welfare and social issues and so on, but he was going to be a business candidate, a candidate of the business community. He was pretty straightforward about that.

Q: I thought of him in terms of what you had called ``feigned dissent'' because he represented a supposed alternative, but in fact did not threaten any of the important powerholders.

A: You can't accuse him of dishonesty, he presented himself as a business-oriented conservative and that's what he is. And I think that the reason for the lack of popular support, which was quite low, was because.... I mean you know a lot of people didn't like Bush, so there was a lot of negative vote. But I think people are looking for anything. In this respect the Perot candidacy was kind of interesting. When Perot appeared on the scene, it was spring '92 I think, he had no platform at all. He just said look at me I'm a rich guy with big ears -- vote for me. And within a week or two he was running even with the major candidates. I think they would have voted for Mickey Mouse.

Even those who voted for Clinton were not very enthusiastic according to public opinion studies.

Q: What do you think of Gore, his backing by military groups and his stated support of environmental protection?

A: Gore is another neo-liberal, much beloved by people around the New Republic for example. I mean he has some words to say, I don't know if there's anything behind the words about the environment but that's about it. The Clinton military budget is a natural extension of the Bush one. It hasn't changed a lot.

Q: Is the Clinton foreign policy significantly different from the Bush one?

A: About the same. I mean there are changes taking place, but that's because of changes in the world and changes in the economy. The domestic population is much less willing to support military intervention than it was in the past. The Bush administration was well aware of that.

Q: I think many people were profoundly shocked by the Gulf War and the degree to which information was controlled in the United States. It seemed to create a sort of unconscious backlash that expressed itself in the anti-Bush vote.

A: Well, you know the Gulf War aroused a wave of jingoism and also extraordinary fear. This is a very frightened country. It was quite interesting. I traveled around a lot during that period and I went in fact to the most jingoist and reactionary parts of the country where I could get an invitation and it was remarkable to see how frightened people were. But this is a very frightened country. It's been noticed for a long time in Europe. Every couple of years the tourist industry in Europe collapses because Americans are afraid to go to European cities where they are about 100 times as safe as in any American city and there's a lot of joking and laughter about it there, and ridicule. But you could see it during the Gulf War, people were really scared that Saddam was going to come and get 'em. But after the war, actually it's hard to work out, but a number of economists think the war was probably profitable for the United States, that is the amount of money that was ripped off of Germany and Japan and the Gulf States probably more than paid for the US costs. But I think what was tricky was that the aftermath of the Gulf War was pretty hard to deal with, if you looked at what was left. There was a tremendous amount of devastation. The Gulf monarchies or dictatorships were firmly in power, not a move towards democratization or anything else. Saddam Hussein was back in power firmly. He was slaughtering his own population and the US was standing back and applauding silently. There's a human rights disaster developing in Iraq primarily after the war. Probably 100,000 children or so have died after the war from the sanctions and so on. That's not a pretty picture and it had to be suppressed pretty quickly. That's one of the reasons why they took off all at once into this fanfare about a Middle East peace process, to try turn people's attention away from it. The Gulf War left a bad taste. For one thing people could see that the fear and hysteria were manufactured. They had to be able to understand after this that we were fighting a defenseless third world country. It was pretty hard to suppress that after February.

Q: You have written and spoken about Carter's move to send arms to Indonesia to help them slaughter the natives of East Timor. This runs counter to the prevailing image of Carter as a decent peace-seeking man. Was he just a hypocrite? Was this something that happened without his full awareness of the consequences of what he was doing? Was it tacked onto other legislation?

A: This was a Carter initiative. Not only did they radically increase the flow of aid to Indonesia, but Walter Mondale, who was then vice president, flew to Jakarta in 1978. That was the period of the worst atrocities, which were well known incidentally, I mean the press wasn't reporting them, but there were plenty of other sources. Surely US intelligence knew all about it. Mondale went to Jakarta. He was terribly impressed by how wonderful it was. He telegraphed back to Washington that they ought to send them more jet planes. Carter couldn't do that because of congressional legislation that prevented direct military aid to human rights violators, so they arranged with Israel to ship American jets to Indonesia. That was all White House initiatives.

Q: What could have been his motivations?

A: His motivations were ``stability'' and the usual things. When you ask whether Carter was a hypocrite or not, I haven't the slightest idea. You'd have to get into his head and find out. Maybe he believed he was doing the right thing, who knows? In my opinion, these are not very interesting questions. Most people, we all know from our own personal experiences, if not from reading history, that it's very easy to construct a pattern of justification for just about anything you choose to do. I mean none of us are so saintly that we haven't done ugly and unpleasant things in our lives, like maybe you took a toy from your five-year-old brother when you were a kid or something. Just ask yourself, anybody can ask themselves, how often did I say to myself, ``Boy I'm really rotten, but this is what I feel like doing.'' Very rarely. Usually you set up a pattern of justification that makes it exactly the right thing to do. That's the way beliefs are formed.

Motivations are kind of hidden. If you're honest maybe you could dig out and find them, but it's awfully easy and a common experience to construct a pattern of justification for things you do out of some kind of self interest. And that's done in statecraft all the time. So the question whether someone's being hypocritical or not is almost meaningless.

His motivations are straightforward. Indonesia's a very rich country, huge resources which were open to exploitation by foreign corporations. Suharto, the head, was keeping the country under control. If you want to know the motivation, I suggest if you're interested you might have a look at, I have a book that came out about a year ago called ``Year 501'' and one of the chapters in it reviews the western reaction to the military coup that brought Suharto to office in 1965. He immediately launched the biggest slaughter since the holocaust. Nobody knows how many, but maybe seven- or eight-hundred thousand people were slaughtered in four months. Huge bloodbath, Time magazine called it ``a boiling bloodbath.'' Most of the people killed were landless peasants. It destroyed the only popular organization in the country, namely the Indonesian Communist Party, mostly the peasant party. What's interesting about it was the reaction of the west, which was total euphoria. The New York Times described it as ``a gleam of light in Asia.'' News magazines were writing about ``hope where there once was none.'' New York Times editorials, which I run through closely in this, thought it was just magnificent. The more the boiling bloodbath boiled the more they loved it. It wasn't even hidden. It was quite open. It was a very interesting episode. It's a lot of detail about it there and the point was very straightforward: this vindicated the US war in Vietnam. In fact American liberals were writing that this proves that we were right to be in Vietnam because in Vietnam we were providing a shield which encouraged the Indonesian generals to get on with the necessary work of cleansing their own society and throwing it open to western robbers. It was remarkably open. Take a look at the quotes. I went through a very comprehensive review then, complete euphoria. A lot of the reason why the Vietnam war was fought was to protect the surrounding regions from the infection of popular uprisings. The most brutal dictatorship we supported was in Indonesia, but at the same time we also supported very bloody dictatorships and coups in other surrounding countries in Thailand, the Marcos coup in the Philippines and so on, all for the same reasons. So sure, that's the motivation.

Q: In what ways do you perceive that our progress is slowed in terms of the general awareness of these things at the moment?

A: For one thing there's an incredible degree of conformism setting in even more than usual. To a remarkable extent people say the same thing and think the same thoughts, you hear the same fabrications and so on with less and less in the way of critical voices. And as far as the popular movements are concerned, I think that they're dissipating a lot of energy on inside issues, many of them. There's a lot of self-destruction in my opinion.

Take for example all this frenzy about the JFK assassination. I mean I don't know who assassinated him and I don't care, but what difference does it make? It's not an issue of any general political interest. And there's a huge amount energy and effort going into that.

If somebody could show that there was some general significance to the assassination, that it changed policy, or that there was some high-level involvement or whatever, then it would be an important historical event. Other than that it's just like the killing of anyone else. Naturally you're upset when somebody gets killed, but why is it an issue for the popular movements anymore than the latest killing on the streets of Hoboken?

The Left (I use the term loosely), the whole array of popular movements and dissident groups and so on have spent huge energy and effort in this. That's one example. There are others.

Q: The book ``Rethinking Camelot'' powerful indictment of the theory that JFK was intending to pull out of Vietnam.

A: Really the book is not about the Kennedy assassination. What it's about is the buildup to the war in Vietnam, which we now know a lot about because of recent documentation, and it shows very clearly what was going on. Kennedy just launched an attack against South Vietnam and hadn't the slightest intent of ending it short of victory. Also interesting, at least I thought it was interesting, in the last chapter I went through the accounts that have been given of that period, and it's very striking to see. There were a lot of memoirs written at the time by people like Arthur Schlesinger and others and all of these memoirists completely revised their account after the Tet Offensive. The Tet Offensive in January of 1968, that made the war unpopular. American corporate elites decided at that point that it just wasn't worth it, it was too costly let's pull out. So at that time everybody became an opponent of the war because the orders from on high were that you were supposed to be opposed to it. And after that every single memoirist radically changed their story about what had happened. They all concocted this story that their hero, John F. Kennedy, was really planning to pull out of this unpopular war before he was killed and then Johnson changed it. If you look at the earlier memoirs, not a hint, I mean literally. Like Schlesinger in his 940 page book has less about the withdrawal than the New York Times did. And it's not that any new information came along, it didn't. The new information that came along just showed more that he had no intention of withdrawing. But the war became unpopular, therefore people had to rewrite the story. And they did it in the most amazing way. I mean this is the kind of thing you might have found in Stalinist Russia and it happened right here in a free country.

Q: What kinds of political activities are meaningful? What can people do that would really make a difference?

A: There are things. I mean I don't think there are any real formulas. Some participation in electoral politics is sometimes very important. I personally myself almost always vote at least in local elections where things often make a difference. National politics, in my opinion, often doesn't make much of a difference. There are groups, take say the New Party, the political organization. I mean I think they have a pretty sane program, they're not ... they're looking forward to trying to ultimately be a force in electoral politics, their shorter term concern is to influence local politics and support a lot more progressive candidates elsewhere and to use their electoral participation as an organization technique. I mean after all a lot of attention is focused on elections, whether they're meaningful or not is sort of beside the point in this respect, and that attention can be used to bring up issues to create more lasting organizations that bring people together to work systematically right after the election. The important thing is to keep the work up after the election. If elections are just something where you go in, then you push a button and then you go home, then it doesn't make much difference which button you push.


A: Whether a person feels positive or not is kind of a comment on their personality and of no great interest. You can find positive signs you can find negative signs. How you evaluate them depends on what happened in your life recently or something like that. There's no objective way to do it. The important thing is to try to commit yourself to making the positive signs more real. Suppose that you felt that there's 99 percent of a probability that human civilization is going to be destroyed in the next hundred years, but one percent chance that it won't be, and that one percent offers some opportunities to do something. Well you commit yourself to that one percent.

Q: How do you get from discussion groups to, say, anarcho-syndicalism?

A: Just a more democratic society, let's not give it any fancy words. A world that's under the thumb of huge transnational corporations and the institutions that cater to them, that is not a democratic world, even if you have elections.

Q: Do you see new technologies helping to increase the flow of information or to facilitate democracy in the world?

A: Certainly not the rich countries. Take, say, the United States, which is not unusual; we're like other rich countries. The United States developed its own economy behind very high protectionist walls with enormous state intervention and it maintains it that way. The Pentagon system, for example, is itself a huge government program arranged for a taxpayer subsidy to advanced industry. I can't imagine anything more radically opposed to the free market. In fact even the things that are called free trade agreements, like say NAFTA, are not free trade agreements. For one thing, they don't deal particularly with trade, and for another, they're not free. NAFTA has enormous protectionist elements built into it which is one of the main reasons why a lot of American industry supports it .


A: That's the beginning. Very important things are happening in the United States and other countries. It's not a big secret that the economy is moving very fast, in fact, from what used to be mainly national economies to an increasingly internationalized economy. So take say the United States, 30 years ago the question of international trade was not a big issue because the national economy was so huge in comparison with trade that it didn't matter all that much. You didn't have big debates about trade policy. Now that's changed. The international economy is enormous. In fact it's not really trade, so about 40 percent of US trade, as it's called, is actually internal to big transnational corporations. It means like one branch of the Ford Motor Company moving things to another branch which happens to be across a border. Forty percent is not a small amount, and it's the same worldwide. But, in any event, the economy's becoming much more internationalized, it's much easier to move capital abroad. The effect of that is that production can be shifted much more easily to low-wage/high-repression areas elsewhere. And the effect of that is to bring the third world model home to the United States and other rich countries. It means that these countries themselves are drifting toward a kind of a third world model in which there's a sector of great wealth and privilege and a growing mass of people who are basically superfluous. They're not necessary for a profit either as producers or consumers. You can produce more cheaply elsewhere and the market can easily become the international wealthy sectors. You end up with south-central Los Angeles and that's happening more and more. That's going to create very big changes and what's more that's going to continue as long as decisions over investment are in private hands. It's not a law of nature that says that....the private enterprise system, which is of course a state-subsidized, publicly subsidized private enterprise system, that is deeply anti-democratic by its very nature. It means that the basic decisions of human life are out of the framework of popular influence and control, and that's not a law of nature. In fact (tape runs out)

Q: I had invoked Jefferson's name recently in a positive comparison to George Bush and then read in your book ``Rethinking Camelot'' about his sending people out to destroy the villages of the Cherokees. It seems like there's no one that can be used for a positive example.

A: We shouldn't be looking for heroes, we should be looking for good ideas. They are mixed. Jefferson's attitudes towards democracy were generally good, his attitudes towards freedom of religion were quite good. His attitudes toward freedom of speech, on the other hand, was not good at all. Let alone extermination of the native population. These are human beings after all. Like each of us is. If we look into ourselves honestly we'll find an odd mixture.

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