Noam Chomsky

by Adam Jones

[Originally published as "Chomsky Fights the Power" in The Gleaner (Langara College), 7 March 1996. The telephone interview with Chomsky was conducted together with Peter Prontzos and Bruce Wilson.]

The author interviewing Noam Chomsky in his office at M.I.T., February 1990: "People in power are going to try to maintain their power. ... But there's no way for them to do it, except by obedience.  And obedience isn't necessary."  Photograph by Shelley MacPherson. The 1990 interview appears after the profile, or link directly.

Chomsky Photo

Noam Chomsky is one of the great moral and intellectual figures of the century. These days, he's also looking a lot like the Energizer Bunny of radical activism.

At a time when the forces of the left seem fragmented, riven by confusion in the aftermath of the Cold War and by the rise of divisive identity politics among their ranks, Chomsky keeps going and going.

The drum he bangs in his low-key but devastating way is familiar by now. Chomsky's critique of U.S. power, craven establishment media, and the forces of "globalization" has been the stuff of a couple of dozen books, hundreds of articles and interviews, and thousands of speeches to audiences like those in Vancouver that packed Chomsky's appearances at the Ridge and Queen Elizabeth theatres on March 5.

Today, the once-unthinkable has spilled over into the political mainstream. Most politicians are patsies. Most media can't be trusted. Marginalized communities and individuals have rights that must be respected.

Chomsky can take some of the credit for having heightened both the skepticism and the humanism of North Americans. And in strictly professional terms, he's done it as a sideline. The "Einstein of linguistics" retains his pre-eminence in that discipline as well: Chomsky's Vancouver engagements were squeezed in between teaching days in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at M.I.T. (This most trenchant critic of the U.S. military-industrial complex points out, tongue firmly in cheek, that Pentagon dollars indirectly pay the salary of everyone in the M.I.T. Faculty of Engineering and Science - Dr. Noam Chomsky included.)

Leave it to others to point to the impact of his own untiring efforts. Chomsky prefers to see the cultural transformations as part of a much wider process, building on the mass protest movements of the 1960s and '70s.

"Since the '60s, a lot of very important things have taken place, and they're very healthy," he told the Gleaner, in a wide-ranging telephone interview a few days before his Vancouver visit.

"The [United States] has become a lot more civilized. That's true on just about every front: opposition to aggression, feminist issues, environmental issues, respect for other cultures, and so on."

The positive balance-sheet is worth keeping in mind, as progressive Canadians struggle to confront what Chomsky calls the "very powerful new weapons in the hands of those who want to bring about just what you see in Canada today - massive profits for banks and corporations, and declining living standards" for the mass of the population.

Looming ahead is a "low-wage, low-growth, but high-profit" future, with increasing polarization and social disintegration in wealthy and poor countries alike.

"The main thing that's being 'globalized' is the Third World model," Chomsky says. That model sees a "prosperous few" perpetually seeking to subdue the "restless many" - to cite the title of a pamphlet he published a couple of years back.

For Chomsky, the origin of the present trend towards profitable stagnation and immiseration lies in the collapse of Bretton Woods - the post-World War II global economic system founded on U.S. political hegemony and the U.S. dollar.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon announced an end to the fixed convertibility of the dollar to gold. The result, claims Chomsky, was a "casino economy ... an absolutely astronomical explosion in speculative capital," able to move around the world in the blink of an eye thanks to revolutionary advances in telecommunications.

The new emphasis of western elites on capital speculation rather than capital investment is a central feature of the post-Cold War international order. But plus ça change ... Chomsky's latest political work is titled World Orders Old and New. It's safe to say he recognizes little difference between the two. Greed, and hunger for power, animate both.

How does he see Canada fitting into the not-so-New World Order? Chomsky is perhaps the most effective voice since George Orwell when it comes to demystifying and dissecting the language of everyday political speech - for instance, the idea that "Canada" even exists.

"You can't really talk about 'Canada'," Chomsky argues. It's not an entity any more than the United States is. There's different sectors in Canada." For bankers and investors, the new trend in the international economy "fits in very naturally. It's great for them. On the other hand, for the general population of Canada, as for the general population of the United States or Indonesia or India, it will be very harmful. But that's what's intended: to construct a kind of sharply two-tiered society, the kind you have in most Third World societies."

In the new global system as in the old, the United States remains top dog, though one poisoned by internal conflict. From the beginning, Chomsky's critique of U.S. power has drawn him to study the U.S. posture towards the Third World. For three decades, he has been the single most eloquent and persistent opponent of U.S. foreign policy - beginning with the "invasion" of Vietnam in the 1960s, and continuing through America's consistent support for murderous regimes in Indonesia, Colombia, or Guatemala.

No arena of U.S. intervention has preoccupied Chomsky as much as the Middle East. This reflects the pre-eminence of Israel in U.S. aid priorities. It also attests to Chomsky's youthful Zionist socialism, his stint on a kibbutz in post-independence Israel, and his unflagging conviction that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict of "right against right" can be resolved other than by simply pulverizing Palestinian nationalism to dust.

Chomsky's March 5 talk at the Ridge Theatre was sponsored by Jews for A Just Peace, a local group highly critical of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. The title of the address, "Peace in the Middle East," echoes Chomsky's 1974 book on the subject, written in the aftermath of the October War between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Things have changed a lot since then - but hardly for the better.

Chomsky sees the recent elections in the Palestinian self-rule areas, and the Palestinian-Israeli "peace process" more generally, as a sham. They were born from "unilaterally imposed agreements, because that's the only kind there are." He expects a series of similar pacts to follow, all designed to turn "Palestine" into something more like the apartheid-era bantustans in South Africa: poor, scattered fragments of a homeland, economically unsustainable in themselves, dependent on Israel as an employer of cheap Palestinian labour.

The blame for this state of affairs lies mainly with the U.S., Chomsky believes. "It only happens because Washington authorizes it and pays for it." But he refuses to absolve the Palestinian Liberation Organization and its chairman, Yasser Arafat, of a share of responsibility.

"I've been involved with a lot of Third World movements, and I have never seen one, ever, that was so contemptuous of democracy [as the PLO]," says Chomsky, who visits Israel and the Occupied Territories regularly.

"It's the only Third World movement I've ever seen which did not try to support a solidarity movement here [in North America]. Even the North Koreans tried! But the PLO simply never saw the point. Because for them, politics is a deal you make in a back room with some powerful guys.

"Arafat himself has always been one of the worst kind of Third World autocrat. He recognized a couple of years ago that his only hope for maintaining any authority is to become Israel's agent in the territories. The role of the Palestinian authority is approximately that of the government of India under the [British] Raj."

Where, then, might a more humane solution be found, if the only agreements that can be arrived at are those unilaterally imposed on the weak by the powerful?

"Not can be, but are under the present circumstances," Chomsky corrects me. This is the positive message that underlies the sometimes-overwhelming bleakness of his Cassandra-like warnings. Chomsky has no time for anything that smacks of defeatism: perhaps that is the trait of his that is most valuable in this perplexed and perplexing age.

Asked if anything can really be done to push for democracy and economic equality, given the elite consensus to keep the masses in their place, Chomsky shoots back wryly: "There was consensus in the Communist Party hierarchy back in the 1970s to maintain the Stalinist system. Is it still there? There was consensus among feudal lords to maintain the feudal system; consensus among slaveowners to maintain slavery.

"People in power are going to try to maintain their power. That's not a very profound thought. But there's no way for them to [maintain] it, except by obedience. And obedience isn't necessary. So there's no limits to the extent to which freedom and justice can not only be defended, but expanded."

Take the faceless multinational corporations that rule the international economy. Aren't they immensely powerful, more so than most nation-states? Once again, Chomsky speaks the unspeakable, pushing mushy minds to dream up viable alternatives.

The multinationals, he scoffs, "are illegitimate, totalitarian institutions. They have the same intellectual roots as Bolshevism and Fascism. They have no more legitimacy than Stalinism. Get rid of them."

Wha-a-ah? Just get rid of them?

"They have a lot of power because we allow them to have a lot of power. In their modern form, corporations got most of their extraordinary rights early in this century. They are not graven in stone.

"But you don't take away their power by snapping your fingers. What you have to do is reconstruct a functioning civil society, based on popular organizations and democratic forms and functioning groups. And then, you know, why should people allow illegitimate, totalitarian institutions to exist?"

The Radical Vocation: An Interview with Noam Chomsky (1990)

(Note: The interview was conducted on 20 February 1990 at Chomsky's office in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at M.I.T., Cambridge.)

The topic of your last two books has been the role of the mass media as a propaganda system in western society. What's your basic thesis?

The thesis is indicated, in a way, by the titles of book Edward Herman and I wrote, Manufacturing Consent, and my follow-up, Necessary Illusions. Neither title is actually ours. We took those phrases from mainstream commentators who were promoting these concepts.

Walter Lippmann, the dean of American journalism, is the person who coined the phrase "manufacture of consent." He advocated it since, in a democratic society, you can't control people by force. Therefore, you've got to control what they think. That's an idea that goes back to the 17th century. It was the immediate élite reaction to the first democratic revolutions, and it grew to become a major theme in modern 20th-century liberal-democratic theory. The voice of the people can be heard, so you've got to control what it says. That's not so important in a totalitarian state, where you just control what people do.

As Lippmann put it, the general population is a "bewildered herd," and we have to protect ourselves from the rage and trampling of the bewildered heard. You do it by manufacturing consent.

And "necessary illusions"?

That was the phrase used by Reinhold Niebuhr, the leading moralist who was called the "theologian of the establishment." His conception was that ignorant slobs - the great mass of the population - are incapable of rational thought. "Rationality belongs to the cool observers," he said - folks like us. So what we have to do is create necessary illusions and emotionally potent oversimplifications, so the ordinary folk don't get themselves into any trouble. The idea throughout is that the general population is plainly incompetent to make reasonable decisions. They won't know what to do, so it would be immoral to let them participate in public affairs. It would be like letting a three-year-old child play with a kitchen knife.

The people who put forward these theories have their own illusions: namely, that decisions are made by "cool observers," the specialized class, the intelligent minority. In fact, the "cool observers" are only able to make decisions if they serve the interests of those with real power, namely business. That "necessary illusion" enables them to play their role as low-level managers for other interests.

This is what you call the "propaganda model."

Right. The media, the intellectual community in general, and most of the academic community as well, act as they're intended to by those who've thought about the problem of democratic theory. They provide the modalities of thought control and indoctrination that protect power from scrutiny, and allow political power to be exercised efficiently by those who have, ultimately, economic power.

In a free society, a society that really doesn't have force at its command - or at least not much - the techniques of propaganda have to be quite sophisticated and elaborate. There's a lot of thought that goes into them. We have, in fact, a major industry - the public-relations industry - which is quite openly devoted to what it calls the "engineering of consent," controlling the public mind. A large part of the overall effort in earlier years was directed toward trying to undermine and destroy the labour movement and popular support for it: the whole culture of solidarity that was associated with working-class politics. That succeeded decades ago.

Are the roles of the media differentiated to some extent?

Sure. The privileged élites have to have some kind of accurate conception of the world. After all, they're in decision-making positions, and they have to act in a way which serves the interests of their masters. Political managers and cultural commissars have to know something about the world, or they'll make the wrong decisions. So a tolerably realistic picture of the world has to be presented. But of course, these people have to be deeply indoctrinated before they can look at it; they have to internalize the right conceptions.

The other media play a different role. They more or less accommodate themselves to the agenda that's set by the national [élite] press, and then they turn to the task of marginalizing the people. For maybe 80, 90 percent of the population, the task is just to get rid of them, keep them out of the way. So that's sitcoms, sports - anything to keep people diverted, to eliminate the danger that they might try to participate in shaping policy. The media I talk about in my books are mostly the élite media, the agenda-setting media. I don't talk much about the diversionary media, which are the real "mass media."

But if these are the tasks of the media, who are the taskmasters? Surely somebody at some stage has to be conscious of what's going on, and in a position to implement this kind of policy.

Actually, that's the wrong way to look at it. That already reflects a system of illusions.

Let's take another system, and look at how we analyze it. Let's say a free market existed - of course, it doesn't - and you have three auto companies competing. Each of them has a Board of Directors. Now, the Chairman of the Board and the Board of Directors have to make certain kinds of decisions, and those decisions are pretty narrowly constrained. They have to be committed to increasing profit share and market share. That means they're going to be forced to try to limit wages, to limit quality, to use advertising in a way that sells goods even if the product is lousy. Who tells them to do this? Nobody. But if they stopped doing it, they'd be out of business.

Similarly, if an editorial writer for the New York Times were to start, say, telling the truth about the Panama invasion - which is almost inconceivable, because to become an editorial writer you'd already have gone through a filtering process which would weed out the non-conformists - well, the first thing that would happen is you'd start getting a lot of angry phone calls from investors, owners, and other sectors of power. That would probably suffice. If it didn't, you'd simply see the stock start falling. And if they continued with it systematically, the New York Times would be replaced by some other organ. After all, what is the New York Times? It's just a corporation. If investors and advertisers don't want to support it, and the government doesn't want to give it the special privileges and advantages that make it a "newspaper of record," it's out of business.

And nobody, at any point, has to tell you to toe the line?

That's a bit of an exaggeration, because you do get told these things. If you're, say, a young reporter or an editor, and you start getting out of line, you're called in. You're not told you've got to follow the party line. You're told you're getting a little emotional, getting too involved. You know: "Why don't you go off and work on the city desk and business pages, make sure you've learned the craft properly ...?" There's a whole range of techniques used. People in the business who are sophisticated laugh about it, because they've all been through it.

The same is true of academic life. You try doing a dissertation in a Political Science department on the wrong kind of topic - you get the same treatment. Usually you're just kicked out. But if you actually make it through, you can simply be destroyed. I can tell you real horror stories: people at top, Ivy League universities who have fought their way through and now literally can't even get a letter saying they attended the university, and they have a Ph.D. there! They're blackballed everywhere they apply, and so on. That's the extreme level. Usually those extremes are unnecessary. There's a filtering and weeding-out process that begins in kindergarten, and it tends to select for obedience. All through school, you're given a framework of requirements which is largely pretty stupid, assignments no sane person would do. I think that's an institutional necessity, not an accident.

People react in different ways. Sometimes you go along with it. You say, "O.K., it's stupid, but I'll do it, because I'll get ahead, or my parents will be happy" - whatever it is that gets you on. Those people are people like us. They end up at good colleges; they're people who've been obedient all the way, and have done what every moron told them to do. We get good jobs; we teach ... There's other people that don't fit in. They're called "behaviour problems." They end up in the streets, or selling drugs, and so on. A lot of them are just too independent-minded. They don't submit themselves to external authority, and they're weeded out. The people doing the weeding have the most benevolent intentions of course; but just look at the institutional structure of the system, and you can see what's happening. The system selects for conformity. I mean, it's not 100 percent, but if the system ever changed, it would cease being supported. Those holding actual power would see it's not fulfilling its designated role anymore.

How does this carry over to the political system?

In the United States, the political system is a very marginal affair. There are two parties, so-called, but they're really factions of the same party, the Business Party. Both represent some range of business interests. In fact, they can change their positions 180 degrees, and nobody even notices. In the 1984 election, for example, there was an actually an issue, which often there isn't. The issue was Keynesian growth versus fiscal conservatism. The Republicans were the party of Keynesian growth: big spending, deficits, and so on. The Democrats were the party of fiscal conservatism: watch the money supply, worry about the deficits, et cetera. Now, I didn't see a single comment pointing out that the two parties had completely reversed their traditional positions! Traditionally, the Democrats are the party of Keynesian growth, and the Republicans the party of fiscal conservatism. So doesn't it strike you that something must have happened? Well, actually, it makes sense. Both parties are essentially the same party. The only question is how coalitions of investors have shifted around on tactical issues now and then. As they do, the parties shift to opposite positions, within a narrow spectrum.

What would happen if someone actually departed from the business-based consensus?

That doesn't happen in the United States. We have much too narrow a system here. But there are countries were the democratic system functions from effectively - Latin America, for example. Take Brazil. They actually had an election - which is very rare in any serious sense. In the last election [December 1989], there was a super-wealthy right-wing businessman [Fernando Collor de Mello] who owned the country's biggest media conglomerate. Then there was a labour leader [Luís Inaçio "Lula" da Silva], who was kind of a social-democratic populist. They had different positions, and the election was very close.

The businessman won. But suppose he hadn't? We know exactly what would have happened. In fact, it was already beginning, and business was issuing its warnings. The country would go down the tubes, because the people who own it would not invest. You'd have capital flight, capital strike, disinvestment, a decline in production and consumption and in services. The country would collapse. The reason is that power happens to be elsewhere than in the political system. So what would "Lula" have done if he'd won? Either he would have capitulated to the business program, or else he'd have had to try to organize a revolution and take over control of the basic power centres of the society, which would have led to intervention and war.

That's the range of possibility. Again, no-one has to sit there and say as much - although in this case, business leaders did say it, in case anybody failed to get the idea.

Take the election in Nicaragua at the moment [February 1990]. The U.S. is telling Nicaraguans, "You have a free choice. You can vote for who you want and watch your children starve, or you can vote for who we want and have a chance to survive." Sure, that's freedom; they're still free to make the choice. But it's an Orwellian kind of freedom. The reason this passes without comment is not that people don't notice it; it's just considered our right. It's the right of the powerful to set conditions which mean that free choice will support those conditions.

All through the cultural system, the economic system, and the political system, there are very strong institutional pressures that set constraints. Within those constraints, you can continue to function. If you violate those constraints, you can't function.

One of the central aspects of this thesis is that radical voices or perspectives, such as your own, have to be marginalized from the mainstream. The parameters of discussion have to be wide enough to give an illusion of substantive debate, but not wide enough to call into question the underlying tenets of the ideological system. But in the last couple of years, it would seem Noam Chomsky has been pretty visible. You're writing an Op-Ed column for a mainstream Minneapolis newspaper; you had an hour of interviews with Bill Moyers on public television; you've appeared on Lewis Lapham's "American Century" TV series. In Canada, you were invited to give the country's most prestigious lecture series, the Massey Lectures, which were broadcast in their entirety on national radio. The book based on those lectures [Necessary Illusions] even cracked the national bestseller lists. Isn't there a contradiction here?

First of all, remember there's a difference between Canada and the United States. Outside the borders of the U.S., there's no reason whatsoever for American dissidents to be silenced - as long as they talk about the U.S. When I go to Canada and start to talk about Canada, I get the same treatment. In fact, you may recall the one occasion when I got sort of bored with going to Canada and criticizing the U.S., so I decided to talk about Canada. It was a radio program I'd been invited to appear on plenty of times; everyone had been quite happy to have me come and tell them how terrible the United States; they'd all smiled ...

This was Peter Gzowski's "Morningside" show on CBC.

As I say, I got sick of it at one point. I'd done a little background work, and I talked about Canadian hypocrisy: about Lester Pearson's role as a major supporter of the French and American attacks against Indochina, as a big backer of Lyndon Johnson's bombing policy - he endorsed it even before it started. I talked about Canada's role as a major war producer - in fact, the leading per-capita military producer in the world - during the Vietnam War: enriching itself on the destruction of Indochina while deploring American "immorality."

When I started talking about these things on the show, he [Gzowski] just had a tantrum. I was cut off, it was impossible to talk, everybody was very angry. ... I thought it was rather comical, myself, but as I left the studio they told me the switchboards were lighting up. They were getting calls from all over the country, people angry that I'd been silenced; even if they disagreed with what I was saying, they thought the treatment I'd got was impolite.

When I returned to Boston, I got a phone call from the station asking me if I'd agree to do another interview on the program, this time by telephone, because they had to prove their good faith. So I said sure, and we had an interview which was quiet and polite. But that's the last time I've heard from them; I've never gone back. And if I'd given the Massey Lectures on the topic of Canadian hypocrisy, I doubt I'd have gotten past the first talk.

In the United States, what I say should be marginalized. In fact, if I stopped being marginalized, I'd rethink what I'm doing. If what I do isn't dysfunctional from the point of view of established power, there's probably something wrong, because there's a lot to be dysfunctional about. All the things you mentioned are there, and there could be more. If I really made an effort, I could write more Op-Eds in quality local newspapers. But it's all around the periphery. I mean, an Op-Ed in the Boston Globe would be inconceivable.(1) A letter to the New York Times would be virtually inconceivable. That makes good sense.

Does the marginalization always take the form of actual censorship?

The U.S. media also have a structural arrangement, which isn't true of any other country I know of - something which prevents dissidence from being expressed in any serious way. It's that everything has to be encapsulated in little bits. So if you occasionally get on television, you have three sentences between two commercials, and that's it. Or you have a couple of hundred words in print. What can you do with time or space like that? One thing you can do is repeat conventional thoughts, because they don't need any justification or evidence. Everyone's heard them already. So you can say the United States is containing Russia. Okay, fine. I heard that in my sleep, you know?

Suppose you say anything unconventional. Suppose you say Russia is containing the United States. Eyes light up: people wonder what you're talking about. And then you explain your point - but unfortunately, the commercial already broke in. So what you can do is state the unconventional thought, and sound like a lunatic; or you can state conventional thoughts which don't require any justification. That's a magnificent technique of thought control in itself. If these guys were smarter, they'd put on more dissenting opinion, because it would all sound crazy, off the wall. It couldn't be minimally credible, even if it were absolutely true. Furthermore, the intellectual level of the general intellectual community is so low that even if you started presenting arguments and evidence, people wouldn't know how to deal with it, because you're supposed to be haranguing rather than discussing. It would take a lot of work even to get to the point where people could start thinking about the issues. And that time is unavailable.

In your mind, in the U.S. at least, there is a fundamental difference between élite and mass opinion. For example, on the question of Vietnam, you've argued that at the popular level the war was viewed not only unfavourably after a time, but in an explicitly moral context. So the war was "fundamentally wrong and immoral," in your words - or in the pollster's words -

The Gallup Poll's words, right.

- rather than just misguided, as the intellectual élite was arguing at the time. On the other hand, you've noted what you call the "low cultural level" in the U.S., as manifested by the power of fundamentalist religion and other phenomena. And in Canada, we've been seeing polls that tell us an incredible 80 percent of the U.S. population supported the invasion of Panama. How do we reconcile this?

First of all, with regard to the "low cultural level," I'm speaking primarily about intellectual élites. That's where the cultural level is lowest, in my view - and also the intellectual level, in many ways.

But the figures on Panama are probably accurate. If they'd bothered taking polls of élite opinion, they'd have turned up close to 100 percent support, or so articulate opinion seemed to indicate. I don't think that's terribly surprising. I mean, if you accepted the framework of beliefs surrounding the invasion, it was justified. If, in fact, we're enraged by Noriega's stealing an election, and if he's a drug-dealer and a criminal; if an American woman was harassed, and every time anything happens to an American citizen we react ... If you believe this whole system of lies, then the invasion was justified. And why shouldn't people believe it? Have they ever heard anything else?

So-called élite opinion - so-called "conservatism," which has nothing to do with conservatism - understands that it doesn't have public support. Thus, the use of violence has to be very narrowly limited. You can invade Grenada, which is defended by 43 militiamen. Or you can bomb Libya, which is totally defenceless. Or you can invade Panama, which is already under virtual military occupation before the invasion, so the troops can carry out dry runs on their targets. But don't attack anyone who can fight back, and make sure it doesn't last more than 48 hours. Because the level of public support for international violence is so low that even with all the propaganda in the world, if there's even the slightest resistance, support is going to disappear. That's why they pick their targets the way they do.

Does popular opposition really have much to do with morality, then? Couldn't you argue that when the American population says the Vietnam War was "fundamentally wrong and immoral," what they're saying is it's wrong and immoral to send American boys overseas to die in large numbers? If they seem to get a regular kick out of sadistic actions against defenceless populations, what is the basis for making this distinction between élite and mass opinion?

Note that we're talking about sadistic acts against defenceless populations which are not perceived as sadistic or defenceless. So, for example, in the case of the bombing of Libya, we were going after Qaddafi, not anyone else.

One of the top television journalists in Libya was Charles Glass. He was the ABC correspondent, and he filmed the attack with great dismay while it was going on. He was also one of the few journalists who actually went into the bombed-out residential areas and collected material there. Among the things he found was a letter from a seven-year-old girl, written in a scrawl to President Reagan. It went something like, "Dear President Reagan, I don't understand why you killed my sister and destroyed my doll ..." He tried to circulate that to newspapers or TV. I can easily imagine circumstances where something like that would have been on every front page: pull out a similar letter written about some enemy ...! But Glass couldn't get anybody to touch it. It was just the wrong story.

That's very typical. In the invasion of Panama, reporters were very careful to avoid the civilian casualties. They claim now that the Pentagon didn't allow such reports, but that's baloney. Nobody was stopping reporters from going to the hospitals; in fact, a few of them did it. The AP reporter went to the hospitals during the first couple of days. The directors were telling him, "The morgues are overflowing, we're appealing to Europe to send medicines because the United States only sends bombs." I don't think his stories every made it into print, and the mainstream reporters just kept away. You don't look for things like that, as a journalist. You look at the glory, not the gore. The population, then, isn't aware of what's being done in its name. If things last for more than a few days, they'll become aware.

Still, I think your point is pertinent. When Americans said the war was "fundamentally wrong and immoral," we don't know exactly what they were saying, because it wasn't pursued. It's likely many of them were saying exactly what you suggested. It's probably even worse than you said: some may have been saying it's fundamentally wrong and immoral because American boys shouldn't be going out and trying to save these gooks. I suspect that's part of it. A substantial part of the response, however, was for the right reasons. And that's why they can't carry out that kind of intervention anymore. Throughout the 1980s, every time there was a move toward direct U.S. intervention, we saw a big popular protest, and they had to back off. They had to move toward clandestine war, in the hope that the media would keep it from the population. A clandestine operation is basically a public operation run at a low enough level that the media, who know all about it, can keep it secret. On the other hand, they staged these one-shot affairs, attacking Grenada and so on.

You've argued that if someone is a citizen of a country that's responsible for two percent of the violence in the world, he or she is primarily responsible for that violence - even if there's another country responsible for ten times as much. I have a couple of questions in this context. I'm interested, first of all, in how it squares with your anarchist philosophy. Why should activists define themselves or their agendas principally in terms of nationality or citizenship?

They shouldn't. You determine what you do on moral grounds, and ask what the consequences will be of your actions. But let me change the structure of the question a little. Suppose your country is responsible for 100 percent of the violence today, but for none of the violence that took place in the 16th century, because it wasn't around back then. And suppose you could show that the violence in the 16th century was far worse than the violence your country's involved in today. Well, what should you direct your efforts toward: the violence in the 16th century, or the violence today?

We know the answer to that, and it doesn't have anything to do with nationality. It has to do with the consequences of your actions. You can be as irate as you want over the massacres in the 16th century, and you're not going to affect anybody's life. But what you do about the involvement of your own society today is likely to have an effect on people's lives.

I would never say don't get involved in the violence carried out by other countries. I've done it plenty of times myself. But if you regard yourself as a moral agent, you'll ask what are the predictable human consequences of what you do. It's generally the case that the consequences are greater closer to home. There is a system of power we can influence pretty directly, and in a relatively free society you can influence it a lot.

Unfortunately, the actual choices people make tend to be quite different. They're those of the commissar: you become engaged in atrocities by some enemy. It's always easy to be rational about the other guy. Take the Russians during the Vietnam War. All sorts of Russians were outraged, publicly, about what the United States was doing in Vietnam. If you read the reports of the World Peace Council, the communist-backed peace organization, they were full of anger over American atrocities in Vietnam. Did we take it seriously? No. In fact, we regarded it with contempt, for quite obvious reasons. It happens that they were allegedly concerned with some of the worst atrocities in recent history - but still, we regard it with contempt.

Let's take a less extreme case. When Canadians were deploring the U.S. war in Vietnam, did I take it seriously? On the contrary. I regarded it with contempt, because Canadians were enriching themselves on the destruction of Vietnam, when they had ways of acting to cut back on the war. This has nothing to do with associating yourself with the nation-state, or anything like that. It has to do with extremely elementary moral judgments, the kind that everyone knows how to make when we're making them about someone else. Honesty requires that we make the same judgments about ourselves.

The question is asked, of course, from a Canadian perspective. I'm in a bit of an awkward position, in that I'm someone who monitors the actions of my government, and lobbies it to the extent that I think it can bring about change in its own policies or those of Washington. But that's secondary to my own actions. I'm primarily concerned with what's happening in the U.S. - in this case, vis-à-vis Latin America. Do you see an ethical inconsistency in that?

Not at all. First of all, Canada's a pretty minor actor on the world scene, and influencing Canada's actions generally has a small effect on things. Sometimes it could have a big effect. Take the Indonesian invasion of East Timor [in 1975]. It happens that Canada is - or was - the major western investor in Indonesia. That means Canada had enormous leverage over the slaughters in Timor, and never used it. The media were never concerned, the intellectual community was never concerned, and therefore that leverage was not used. In that respect, Canadians contributed materially to this slaughter.

However, that sort of thing is rare. Canada's basically a U.S. colony, and its leverage is limited. But it's not zero. First of all, Canada can influence things that happen in the United States. It's a major trading partner of the U.S., it's a similar country, there's a lot of interaction. Specifically on Central America, Canada to a limited extent has been a counterweight to U.S. violence in the region. It could be more so, through constructive aid and support for people who are suffering and under attack. All those things could make a difference.

Again, I would simply ask the question of a moral agent. Can you do anything? - Sure, in this case you can make a difference through solidarity work, which may involve going down to work with refugees in El Salvador, or technical aid in Nicaragua. Or you can work at presenting information and analysis which helps organize public opinion to combat what the U.S. is doing. That can be effective, so you should do it.

A few questions on a more personal level. Do you vote?

Sometimes. I tend to vote more at lower levels: school councils and so on. The reason is that there, you find some real choices. Quite often, it's going to make a difference to the schools whether X or Y gets in. As one goes up the ladder I tend, by and large, to vote less. At the presidential level, things rarely matter much. Sometimes I do vote in presidential elections - albeit holding my nose. For example, I think voting for Reagan made things somewhat worse than voting for, say, Carter or Mondale. Voting for Bush makes things slightly worse than voting for Dukakis.

These decisions are often extremely difficult to make. To tell you the truth, the first time I ever voted in a presidential election was 1964, and then I voted against Goldwater, because I thought a vote for Goldwater would mean a vote for escalating the war in Vietnam. I learned later that while the election was going on, Lyndon Johnson was sending emissaries to his friends like Lester Pearson, explaining to them how he was going to escalate the war in Vietnam in precisely the way he was denouncing Goldwater for talking about doing. Pearson approved, incidentally. He told Johnson he shouldn't use nuclear weapons; conventional bombing would suffice. That's the sort of thing you get the Nobel Peace Prize for.

In 1968, I just couldn't figure it out. I mean, the marginal difference between Nixon and Humphrey - I couldn't make a decision. The major issue, on which virtually everything else turned, was terminating the war in Indochina. My own guess was that Nixon would probably do it a bit faster than Humphrey, which in retrospect is probably correct. But I couldn't make a choice, so I didn't vote. And so it goes.

In a radio interview some time ago, you cited an American politician as "one of the last of the real conservatives," and mentioned in passing that you considered yourself one as well. Now, "conservative" isn't a word that most people would associate with your views. What were you getting at there?

Political terminology isn't a model of clarity at best, but in the last years we've moved into a completely Orwellian period in this regard. Almost every word is used in a sense which is almost its opposite. This is true of words like "conservative." The political policies that are called conservative these days would appal any genuine conservative, if there were one around to be appalled. For example, the central policy of the Reagan Administration - which was supposed to be conservative - was to build up a powerful state. The state grew in power more under Reagan than in any peacetime period, even if you just measure it by state expenditures. The state intervention in the economy vastly increased. That's what the Pentagon system is, in fact; it's the creation of a state-guaranteed market and subsidy system for high-technology production.

There was a commitment under the Reagan Administration to protect this more powerful state from the public, which is regarded as the domestic enemy. Take the resort to clandestine operations in foreign policy: that means the creation of a powerful central state immune from public inspection. Or take the increased efforts at censorship and other forms of control. All of these are called "conservatism," but they're the very opposite of conservatism. Whatever the term means, it involves a concern for Enlightenment values of individual rights and freedoms against powerful external authorities such as the state, a dominant Church, and so on. That kind of conservatism no-one even remembers anymore.

When I say, slightly tongue-in-cheek, that I could be called a conservative, what I mean is that I think I would want to take seriously the values of the Enlightenment.

A former student of yours was quoted in Mother Jones a couple of years ago as follows: "Chomsky thinks he is a feminist, but at heart he's an old-fashioned patriarch. Of course, he's a very good person. He has just never really understood what the feminist movement is about." What do you make of that? How do you evaluate the feminist critique? Has it affected you or your work personally?

Well, I'm in no position to evaluate it. That's for others to do. But yeah, I think the feminist movement is probably the most important development to come out of the Sixties, in terms of its actual impact on values and perceptions. How has it affected me? I don't know. Hard to say. It probably has, but probably not as much as it should have.

Is that a criticism you hear fairly often?

Yeah, in fact it's a criticism I've been hearing for years, from friends and others. And I think there's probably some validity to it.

I want to ask you something about your views on religion, organized or otherwise. There are passing references in your material to church organizations and communities that you've visited or dealt with in the U.S. and also in Central America. You're often full of praise for the work they're doing; you cite their human-rights reports in your books, and so on. But on a more personal level, I'm interested in how you relate. By the light of your own atheist, Enlightenment-oriented philosophy, people who believe devoutly in supernatural phenomena like resurrection, miracles, and the rest might seem a little off their rocker. You wouldn't let that kind of mysticism pass uncriticized in the political sphere. How does it work in your relations with these people?

It basically doesn't come up. I mean, they know where I stand, I know where they stand. You could ask the question: How important is it to fight this battle, how important to try to convince people they shouldn't have irrational beliefs? I think it's reasonably important, and I do it when the thing comes up. But it's marginal to these pursuits. I don't let it get in the way.

While I think in principle people should not have irrational beliefs, I should say that as a matter of fact, it is people who hold what I regard as completely irrational beliefs who are among the most effective moral actors in the world, in many respects. They're among the worst, but also among the best, even though the moral beliefs are ostensibly the same. Take, say, the solidarity movement in Central America, which I think is what you probably had in mind. To a large extent, it comes out of mainstream Christianity, based on beliefs that have had outrageous human consequences in the past, and that I think are totally indefensible. In this case, they happen to lead to some of the most courageous, heroic, and honourable human action that's taking place anywhere in the world. Well, that's how life is, I guess. It doesn't come in neat little packages.

I'm tempted to slot some of your work into the great tradition of political pamphleteering. This would include writers like Jonathan Swift, Thomas Paine, Mikhail Bakhunin. Your use of irony, for example, seems quite Swiftian at times. The point here, though, is that the pamphlet approach is not primarily an approach of methodical scholarship. For its polemical effect, it often sets aside some of the ambiguous "grey areas" of social and political life. What it gains thereby is a capacity to rouse people from their inertia, as a first step toward mobilizing them for a social goal. Is there anything to that?

Yeah. I'm not sure how well it works, but the writing I do is kind of a mixture of straight scholarship and pamphleteering. I don't separate the two very much. That's partly on purpose: I think they go together rather well. What I'm trying to do is approach people who are interested in trying to correct for the distorted ways the world is presented to them, and to work out their own ideas on understanding how the world really is. I'm presenting them with another point of view. I try to give as much information as I can, to list the references I can think of, provide elaborate footnotes, and so on. If the use of irony and bitter criticism is appropriate, I don't refrain from it. Actually, I don't think this approach has the quality of avoiding the grey areas that you mention any more than academic scholarship does. It's just more open about it.

But you're often accused of being too black-and-white in your analysis, of dividing the world into evil élites and subjugated or mystified masses. Does your approach ever get in the way of basic accuracy?

I do approach these questions a bit differently than historical scholarship generally does. But that's because humanistic scholarship tends to be irrational. I approach these questions pretty much as I would approach my scientific work. In that work - in any kind of rational inquiry - what you try to do is identify major factors, understand them, and see what you can explain in terms of them. Then you always find a periphery of unexplained phenomena, and you introduce minor factors and try to account for those phenomena. What you're always searching for is the guiding principles: the major effects, the dominant structures. In order to do that, you set aside a lot of tenth-order effects. Now, that's not the method of humanistic scholarship, which tends in a different direction. Humanistic scholarship - I'm caricaturing a bit for simplicity - says every fact is precious; you put it alongside every other fact. That's a sure way to guarantee you'll never understand anything. If you tried to do that in the sciences, you wouldn't even reach the level of Babylonian astronomy.

I don't think the [social] field of inquiry is fundamentally different in this respect. Take what we were talking about before: institutional facts. Those are major factors. There are also minor factors, like individual differences, microbureaucratic interactions, or what the President's wife told him at breakfast. These are all tenth-order effects. I don't pay much attention to them, because I think they all operate within a fairly narrow range which is predictable by the major factors. I think you can isolate those major factors. You can document them quite well; you can illustrate them in historical practice; you can verify them. If you read the documentary record critically, you can find them very prominently displayed, and you can find that other things follow from them. There's also a range of nuances and minor effects, and I think these two categories should be very sharply separated.

When you proceed in this fashion, it might give someone who's not used to such an approach the sense of black-and-white, of drawing lines too clearly. It purposely does that. That's what is involved when you try to identify major, dominant effects and put them in their proper place.

And to your mind, the dominant factors and motivations are structural and institutional, as opposed to psychological?

Well, I think there are clear psychological factors. But I think they're pretty obvious, and not very interesting.

For example, a constant query that comes up across the ideological spectrum - left to right - is why I don't pay attention to the psychology of leaders. Well, let's talk about the "Russian Threat," for example. I described it as a pretext. On the other hand, if you did a depth-analysis of the U.S. leadership, you'd find they believed in it. We know this from the documentary record: when President Eisenhower and [former Secretary of State] John Foster Dulles are talking in private, in conversations that have now been declassified, we find the same sort of hysterical and lunatic fanaticism that marked their public declarations. When they were planning the overthrow of the Arbenz régime, the democratic-capitalist government of Guatemala [in 1954], they in private described how the existence of the United States was threatened by the fact that the Guatemalan régime was planning to carry out land reform, and so on. I mean, even the minimum of rationality makes one laugh at that; but that's not to say they didn't believe it. If we pursue it further, we can see exactly what they were worried about. When their intelligence agencies were trying to come up with evidence of the threat to U.S. existence, about the only thing they could find was that there had been a strike on a Honduran plantation, and there was some notion that maybe there'd been some Guatemalan support for it. Also, it was thought that Guatemala might have been giving money to José Figueres [in Costa Rica]. Figueres was the leading figure in Central American capitalist democracy, and was very pro-American, but it was felt he wasn't quite enough under U.S. control.

In other words, there were some facts. Given those facts, Eisenhower and Dulles worked themselves into a frenzy over the Russian threat. Did they believe it? Sure. Why did they believe it? Well, here comes psychology - and the answer is trivial. We're all familiar with it in our own lives. You have interests and perceived needs, and you figure out ways of dealing with them. And unless you're a total cynic, which few people are, you construct a belief-system which justifies them. Then you believe this belief-system and set about pursuing the needs. You do it with a high moral stance and a great sense of self-justification. Everyone does this. Just think through any rotten thing you've done. Did you stop to say to yourself, "I'm going to do something rotten because that's what I want"? Or did you figure out a way to place that action in a framework that made it seem justified and appropriate at the time? In retrospect, if you're honest, do you recognize what you were doing?

It's not that you first form beliefs on the basis of the evidence, and then act on the beliefs. Quite commonly, people are pursuing interests - personal or institutional - and they create systems of belief that justify those interest. Very few people are capable of saying one thing and believing another, or doing something that they recognize is completely cynical and immoral.

And that's the psychology of leaders?

Yes. People who are incapable of doing this just aren't leaders. That's part of the filtering system: in order to make it to the point that you can be an effective manager - a state manager in this case - you have to have a sufficient capacity for self-delusion. Then you typically tend to believe what you're saying. There are some people who are pure cynics and don't believe it; it's interesting to read them sometimes. But they're the exceptions.

Given that this is the case, what's the point of looking at the psychology of leaders? It's not like they're interesting people. They're usually tenth-raters: dull, insignificant people whose main quality is that they can follow orders, can sense where power is and serve it. The mechanisms by which they arrive at their beliefs are sort of transparent.

Just the other day, I heard some general explaining why we needed Stealth bombers. The interviewer was trying to ask him, "Can you mention a military mission you could use them for?" He said, "Oh, sure." It was something like: Imagine we've had a nuclear exchange, and now we have to have a follow-up on the Russians. Say the missiles have been destroyed for some reason. The Stealth bombers will be in the air. They'll be able to make it through the Russian radar and wipe out the last three people who still happen to be alive, while the two people who happen to be alive over here cheer.

Anybody who has a grey cell functioning can see what's wrong with this. But I don't say he didn't believe it. In fact, it he hadn't believed it, he couldn't be an Air Force general. You don't make it through if you're not capable of concocting for yourself a system of beliefs of this sort.

The general character of what's going on is pretty obvious. The institutional structures that are leading to certain perceived interests and a range of tactical choices - they're easy enough to detect. Then there's the question, the boring question, of how third-rate people happen to convince themselves this is the right thing to do. We roughly know the answer to that.

You've noted that it's unrealistic for an activist to hope for anything from their labour but the most gradual and incremental change, maybe scarcely perceptible. And the authors of that change tend to receive zero recognition or reward from their society. Given that, what are the rewards? What makes it worth the effort?

Well, when I say zero rewards, I mean from the public institutions of the society. The rewards in actuality are very great. First of all, there's the small achievements you can see happening. No particular individual can say, "I achieved this"; but the fact that the United States isn't sending B-52s to bomb Nicaragua, well, that's an achievement. The fact that there are limits on state violence is an achievement. The fact that the Red Cross was finally permitted to bring supplies to starving people in East Timor is an achievement.

Down the line, you can find all kinds of constraints and openings for freedom, limitations on violence, and so on that can be attributed to popular dissidence to which many individuals have contributed, each in a small way. And those are tremendous rewards. There are no President's Medals of Honour, or citations, or front pages in the New York Review of Books. But I don't think those are much in the way of genuine rewards, to tell you the truth. Those are the visible signs of prestige; but the sense of community and solidarity, of working together with people whose opinions and feelings really matter to you ... that's much more of a reward than the institutionally-accepted ones.


1.  In the aftermath of the Nicaraguan election result, which saw the revolutionary Sandinista Front defeated by a coalition led by Violeta Chamorro, the Globe for the first time accepted an Op-Ed submission from Chomsky. As Chomsky wrote [letter of April 2, 1990], "The minute the returns came in, the mainstream media suddenly opened up. Two motives: first, expecting the commie rats to eat crow, and surprised when I did not; second, with the issues assumed settled in favour of U.S. power, it is possible to show how free and open we are, even allowing people who depart from the narrow consensus to have a few words - but only for a few days, of course; you wouldn't want the rot to spread. As I expected, a week later the opening was slammed tight shut."

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Last updated: 17 October 2000.