An Interview with Noam Chomsky

by Matt B. on February 10, 2010

This interview was conducted on December 15, 2009 at Chomsky’s MIT office.

In Manufacturing Consent (1988), you use a “propaganda model” to describe the way elite media functions.  Can you summarize the view?  Do you think its central claims still hold?  If so, how might the model help us to understand coverage of the war in Afghanistan?

Well, the Propaganda Model is very simple-minded. It’s pretty close to truism, I think. If you look at the structure of the media, what kind of institutions they are, there are some simple observations. Let’s keep to the United States; it’s slightly different than other countries.

The media in the United States are major corporations…usually part of mega-corporations. Like other businesses, they sell a product to a market. Now, the market is advertisers – that is, other businesses. There are other powerful institutions that they interact with, like state power, which is very closely linked to concentrated private power in numerous ways. As for the product that’s sold – that is, audiences – that depends on which media you’re talking about. Our work is mostly on the elite media. So that audience is educated people, you know, people who are in general managerial circles – political managers, economic managers, doctrinal managers, universities, and so on.

If you look at that array of properties, you draw some plausible conclusions about…what the output of the media would probably be like. You’d expect it to conform to the interests and the goals, the concerns of the sellers, the buyers, the state closely linked to them, and the audience. Then come specific conclusions about whether in fact there are filters or factors that do shape media content, and then come investigations of case studies to see if it’s true.

In that particular book we ran through a series of case studies and tried to pick what should be called “hard cases” where the media think that they did a fantastic job, and we tried to show that in fact, it’s seriously distorted by these factors….

I think the common sense expectations – basically, guided free-market expectations – tend to be quite accurate.  You can investigate the detailed studies and draw your own conclusions.  And it continues. Take for example the US escalation of the war in Afghanistan, in reality our invasion of Afghanistan.  There have been intense deliberations for the last couple of months and a lot of discussion about how seriously everyone’s taking it.  Just ask – who participated in these deliberations? I mean, was there a voice of the general population? I mean, we know the popular attitudes towards it; the population’s mostly opposed to it. Do they have a voice on the table? No. What about the Afghans? Do they have anything to say about this? Well, no voice at the table, so they have nothing to say about it. The citizens of Pakistan, do they have anything to say? No.

We know something about what they think because there are polls and so on, but the point is they are not part of the decision-making because of our very deeply rooted imperial culture, which says that the victims have no voice. It’s the powerful – namely us – who have the voice. In fact not even “us,” if that includes the general population.

Obama made a speech the other day, the Nobel Peace Prize speech, about how we’ve made mistakes, but basically, everything we do is dedicated to peace and justice and we have a very noble record. It was a very well-received speech.…Did anybody ask, for example, whether four million corpses in Indo-China would have given the answer that everything we do is just? Or hundreds of thousands in Central America?….We can go on. No, they’re just not part of the story. What we do is basically right; it can’t be wrong. It can be mistaken, but it can’t be wrong. Now, that’s just a principle.

So, for example, Obama’s considered a principled critic of the Iraq war, very much hailed for that position by liberal sectors. But what was his criticism in the Iraq war? He said it was a strategic blunder. In other words, he took the same position that you could have read in Pravda in 1985 about the Russian invasion of Afghanistan….In fact, it’s the position you could have heard from the Nazi general staff after Stalingrad – fighting a two-front war was a strategic blunder. Now, we don’t call these principled criticisms. In fact, we call them deeply immoral criticisms – criminal criticisms, in fact. But when we do it, it’s a noble, principled position.

[T]he Vietnam War is a very interesting case, because there’s a ton of literature and commentary about it….But you find one very interesting thing. It’s virtually impossible to find the phrase “American invasion of South Vietnam.” I mean, obviously, there was one. You know, Kennedy in 1962 sent the U.S. Air Force to start bombing South Vietnam. He authorized chemical warfare to destroy crops and livestock and ground cover. They started programs which drove millions of people into what amounted to concentration camps, in order to separate them from the guerillas, who the government knew very well they were supporting.

Well, if somebody else did that we’d call it aggression.  But when we did it, the phrase can’t be pronounced. If you look, go to the end of the war and ask what the retrospective judgments are, about the most critical judgments you could find from the extreme critical end is perhaps Anthony Lewis of the New York Times – I don’t think you can get much beyond that.  He said the war began with “blundering efforts to do good.” They were blundering because they didn’t work out too well. They were efforts to do good by definition, ‘cause we did them. You don’t need any argument for that. So it began with blundering efforts to do good, but by 1969, it was clear that it had become a disaster. It was too costly – he says too costly to ourselves, some others say too costly for others. And it was therefore a mistake. Well, try to find something more critical than that in the media, then go read, say, Pravda on the Afghan invasion. I haven’t done it, but I assume you would find pretty much the same….

And do you think that the criticism only ever goes that far because the participants in elite media want to give the benefit of the doubt to leaders who we’ve all been taught to believe were under the influence of a belief in the domino theory and perpetual Soviet aggression?

Well, first of all, the Russians weren’t anywhere in sight, so yes, you can believe in Russian aggression if you want, but…the Russians had a better case for believing in American aggression in Afghanistan or Chechnya – we don’t take it seriously. And in fact, if you look at the whole history of the Cold War – it had events after all – the events were very different from the ideology. The events were almost invariably wars by the United States against forces in its own domains, and violence by the Soviet Union against forces in its own domains. In all cases, justified by the fear of the other, but with very little justi- some yes, some shred of justification – propaganda exercises never totally lack them.

And what’s more interesting is that this is conceded at the end. So a very interesting moment to look at, if you want to understand the Cold War, is what happened exactly twenty years ago.  We’ve just had a big commemoration of the Fall of Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union. Try to find in all of this discussion some attention to what happened next. Well, something happened next.  Couple of weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, George Bush the first invaded Panama to capture a petty thug, who was kidnapped and brought to Florida and sentenced for crimes that he committed for the most part on the CIA payroll. We don’t know the casualties because we don’t do body counts, but Panamanian civil rights organizations estimated a couple of thousand people killed, mostly poor people. In fact, Panama has a day of mourning every year to commemorate it. But on our side, it was nothing. In fact, that’s correct; it’s just a footnote to history – we do it all the time.

There were two new things about it though. It was pointed out by Elliott Abrams, recently in the State Department, that this was the first time that the United States had been able to – he wouldn’t say “invade”, you know, liberate, or whatever – intervene in another country, without the concern that the Russians might react somewhere….But this time, we could disregard it. So we’re much more free to use force than before. That’s one effect of the end of the Cold War….

The other novelty was that the pretext was new. The Berlin Wall had fallen, Soviet Union’s collapsing, couldn’t be that the Russians are coming. So they had to make up a new story. In this case, Hispanic narco-traffickers are trying to destroy us. And over the next couple of years, there were interesting developments in the intellectual community, not just the media, to try to concoct new stories to justify intervention. So humanitarian intervention, a responsibility to protect, one and after another story was concocted…

So the policies go on about as before, and more freely because there’s no deterrence and with new pretexts. Take a look at how the government reacted. Immediately after the fall of Berlin Wall, the Bush administration came out with a national security strategy and defense budget. They make for interesting reading. Now, if you want to understand the Cold War, that would be the perfect thing to look at.

Okay, Cold War’s over, now what happens? Well, turns out they said that things will stay just as before.  We still need a huge military force, not because of the Russians but because of what they called the “technological sophistication” of Third World powers. So therefore, we need this huge military force.  And we have to maintain what they call the “defense industrial base.”  That’s places like MIT. That’s a euphemism for high-tech industry, which is funded under the cover of defense, like computers, the internet, and so on.

So we have to maintain the defense industrial base. We have to maintain intervention forces, directed at the Middle East energy resources.  Then comes an interesting phrase, where the substantial threats to our interests “could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door.” So in other words, we’ve been lying to you for fifty years, but that’s over, and now the threats could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door, the cases that involved military force. That’s true, it could never have been laid at the Kremlin’s door.  But that was not the story for fifty years, and so it continues.

…What happened last month is pretty striking. It’s not just about the media; it’s about the intellectual culture altogether. There were two major events to commemorate last November. One of them was the Fall of the Berlin Wall – huge commemoration, a lot of discussion about its meaning, idealism triumphed, we learn the lesson that non-violence works, and so on and so forth. A lot of self-praise, that was the theme.

A week after the fall of the Berlin Wall, on November 16, 1989, elite military forces in El Salvador – their elite battalion…fresh from training at Fort Bragg in North Carolina; they’d just come from three months of training, and then had a refresher course a couple of days earlier – went in and murdered six leading Latin-American intellectuals, their housekeeper, daughter. That capped a decade of monstrous crimes, traceable back to us, in Central America, which killed hundreds of thousands, three countries ruined…

And that’s just the end of something much more significant. It’s the end of a war, a war against the Catholic Church, that the US initiated in the early 60s, after Vatican II. Vatican II, called by Pope John XXIII, was a revolutionary event in the history of the Catholic Church. It was a return to the Gospels. The Church in the 4th century had been taken over by the Roman Empire, Constantine, and he basically converted it, to quote a famous theologian, “from the Church of the persecuted to the church of the persecutors.”

And so it pretty much remained until Vatican II, which set off an effort to restore the Church to the Church of the Gospels, which is radical pacifism. And in that context, Latin American bishops undertook what they call the “preferential option for the poor.” They began to – priests, nuns, laypersons – they went to peasant communities, organized communities to read the Gospels, to think about ways in which they might take their lives into their own hands and overcome the misery and oppression they had suffered under US domination. It was really an effort to revive the Church, to revive Christianity.

US reacted immediately. The first major reaction was the military coup in Brazil, 1964, planned by the Kennedy administration – took place right after the assassination. It instituted the first Neo-Nazi style national security state, a violent torture state…[and] of course, suppressed liberation theology….

That was called the greatest victory for freedom in the mid-20th century by Lincoln Gordon, who was Kennedy-Johnson’s ambassador.  Then the dominos started falling. Brazil’s a big country. One country after another fell under a brutal vicious dictatorship: Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and so on. The plague spread to Central America in the 1980s, I just described that. It was essentially terminated on November 16, 1989. It was maybe the final blow; that’s a pretty important historical event, I would think.  Did you see anybody discuss it? Actually, there was a meeting in Boston College about it, where the one survivor of the Jesuit massacres appeared, but I don’t think that was even reported. Well, okay, the comparison gives us an interesting insight into imperial mentality.

Do you think that self-justifying, self-praising intellectual climate in the US is markedly different than it is in other…

That’s the way great powers behave, and if you look at the history of England or France or Germany or Japan, you’ll find pretty much the same thing.

What would it take for the sorts of things you are describing to change?

The country is a lot more civilized that it was in the 1960s. It’s because of activism and dissent.  Now, I mean, you’re supposed to hate the 60s and call it the time of troubles and so on, but what the 60s actually were was a time of activism, mostly young people and some of it, you know, crazy, some of it off-the-wall, but that was a fringe.  And just look at the impact. Out of it came the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, the environmental movement, later the international solidarity movements, anti-nuclear movements. It’s just a much, very much more civilized country than it was.

I mean, the Kennedy School was an example. It didn’t look like that forty years ago.

What did it look like?

Probably looked like MIT did 40 years ago when I got here in the 1950s – white men, well-dressed, obedient, deferential, doing their job, working hard, not much interested in anything in the world. But take a walk down the halls now. It’s not what it looks like anymore….

About the possibility of dissent today, what’s your take on the emergence of figures like Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann?  Do they strike you as a new development in American political culture, or are they incarnations of old phenomena?

Back in the 30s, you had Father Coughlin preaching anti-Semitic racism and so on. It’s new because we have new media – it’s different in many respects. Actually, I’ve never heard Glenn Beck, so I’m just judging by secondary comment. But I do listen to talk radio while I’m driving, because it’s interesting. I think it gives you an interesting insight into a significant part of the culture. I don’t exactly know what the scale of the audience is. But if you listen to, say, Rush Limbaugh for a while, you get a kind of a sense of the people who he’s talking to and who’re calling in.

And at least – I’ve never seen a study of it – but the sense that I get is that these are people with real grievances, valid grievances. They’ve been treated very badly for 30 years. They are hard-working – they think of themselves as hard-working Americans, white, Christian, God-fearing, do all the right things, but for thirty years, they’ve been cast aside. Their incomes and wages have stagnated; such benefits as there were have declined. Their jobs are being sent abroad, schools are no good. Two members of the family have to work to put food on the table. Families are falling apart. Bad things have happened to them. It’s not like El Salvador where we slaughtered them, but it’s not nice, and they don’t understand why. They want an answer and they deserve an answer. Well they’re not getting an answer that says it’s because of the bipartisan decision in the 1970s to shift the structure of the economy towards financialization and emptying out of industrial production and towards the neoliberal policies that enrich a tiny sector and disregard everyone else – no one is telling them that….

And they do get an answer from Rush Limbaugh – a crazy answer but it’s an answer. And you know, McLaughlin and Michael Savage and the rest of them, the answer is it’s the rich liberals who own everything, who run the corporations, run the government, run the media. They want to take everything away from you and give it to the illegal immigrants and the shiftless blacks and so on….So you’re ordinary Americans? I’m one of you and we’re getting back at these rich elitists, who don’t care about us. Okay, that’s an answer. It’s not the right answer, but it’s an answer.

If you kind of suspend disbelief, you forget what you know about the world, and just try to get into that system of thought, it’s a coherent answer. It’s internally coherent. It’s logical. It has historical resonances. It’s rather similar to late Weimar Germany. That’s the way the Nazis organized, to an aggrieved population, giving them answers that were coherent – crazy but coherent – and I don’t have to tell you what happened after that. So I think it’s very important.

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