Friday, February 12, 2010

Harvard Citizen - Interview with Noam CHomsky

Citizen Conversation With -- Noam Chomsky
by Matt Bieber, News Writer on February 11, 2010

Interview conducted on December 15, 2009 at Chomsky's
MIT office by Matt Bieber, MPP --11

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 U.S. 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 fall
of the Berlin Wall, the 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 the 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 U.S. 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 U.S. domination. It
was really an effort to revive the Church, to revive
Christianity. U.S. 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 U.S. 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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posted by u2r2h at 9:08 PM

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