BOOK TV C-SPAN2 January 17, 2008
Noam Chomsky talks about U.S. foreign policy and other matters at an event hosted by Back Pages Books in Waltham, Massachusetts. Professor Chomsky talked to Back Pages owner Alex Green and then took questions from audience members.
Alex Greene: It seems like the world leadership, I think most recently, of course, here about Benazir Bhutto having been educated in this area and Harvard. And so many of the world leaders seem to come here to be educated for better or worse.
NC: You remember how recently that is. (Definitely) I mean look, up until the Second World War, the United States was kind of culturally backward. If you wanted to study philosophy or physics, you’d go to England or Germany. If you wanted to be a writer, you’d go to Paris. The United States at that time in its relation with the rest of the world was kind of like, I don’t want to assault anybody, but maybe central Indiana to Boston today. It’s a place you try to get out of if you wanted to be a creative writer or thinker or something. That changed during the Second World War. In fact, a whole relationship between the United States and the world changed. And part of it was--much the rest of the industrial world was seriously harmed or destroyed. And the United States gained enormously during the war. In fact, it already was by far the richest country in the world, but industrial production more than tripled during the Second World War. And it just ended up—the United States ended up owning, having half the wealth of the world. There’s not anything like that in history. And it affected the mentality, the institutions and so on. It was just a radical shift. So what we see today is not the traditional United States.
AG: Certainly, certainly. Now, are there any commonalities in these people who come out of this sort of modern education system and who are becoming world leaders around? Do they seem to be sort of a similar foundational approach? Are they taking anything out of this American system or this American ideal?
NC: If that is true, it does not reflect very well on the educational system here. Take a look at the world. Is this what we want to train people to create? Now I suppose it’s true.
AG: I guess it ties into a question I’ve been thinking about and sort of obsessively rereading a poem called The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot. And it begins this, “We are the Hollow Men. We are the Stuffed Men,” but it ends with a lullaby, sort of “This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper.”
And it strikes me that---I look to education very often as a root of how people comport themselves, even in the political sphere where maybe we perhaps shouldn’t be expecting that to be a relevant sort of part of your resume. But that it seems to me that for all of the bombastic things that are happening around the world, it seems to be occurring here almost as a whimper. As the end of this poem, it seems to be incredibly muted here. (NC:In Boston?) In Boston, and in America and in general. And while there are definitely large movements, you know, there’s a level of obfuscation that seems to be preventing that from being a general sentiment that you feel day to day walking around. I wonder if, are there other places like this in the world where people feel muted? Do they feel almost--although things are, for how large the scale there are in what’s happening-- that it oddly has this sort of played-down sense to your, maybe your sensibility of what you can do about it but maybe your sensibility of even how to grasp the concept of what’s happening in the first place?
NC: I guess I just don’t see it that way really. In fact, it seems to me more exciting now than it was 30 years ago, much more than it was 50 years ago.
AG: In what ways? Why, because I guess----.
NC: Well, let’s just take this room. (Absolutely)When I started giving talks on general topics--it was originally the Vietnam War-- back in the early 60s, talk would be in somebody’s living room with two neighbors or in a church with four people: the minister, the organizer, somebody who wanted to kill me, and a drunk who walked in from out in the streets. That was the level of concern for the outside world. In fact, horrible things were going on all over the world that the United States was involved in, and nobody cared.
For example—I don’t want to take a poll but— try with your friends. Very few people even know when the United States attacked South Vietnam. I mean that was one of the major events of modern history. Ask people “When did the United States attack South Vietnam?” I mean it did have a client state there, which killed about maybe 60~70,000 people during the 50s. But when did the invasion take place? It turns out it was 1962. Nobody cared. I mean it wasn’t a secret. You could read in the back pages in the NY Times that John F. Kennedy had sent the US Air Force to start bombing South Vietnam under South Vietnamese markings, planes with South Vietnamese markings so they wouldn’t know that the huge jet there was the US Air Force. When they started the programs of chemical warfare to destroy crops and ground cover, they started rounding people up and driving them into what amounted to concentration camps, ultimately millions of people into strategic hamlets in urban slums, authorized Napalm. Really, a big attack. Nobody even cared. It was years before things really became vitalized. And the 60s just changed the place enormously.
So for example, a meeting like this would have been inconceivable. In fact, the latest, the late 60s, politically active groups like SDS(Students for a Democratic Society), you could barely mention a word like capitalism. You know people would shrink and “God, that’s really a frightening concept, talk about that." I mean things are just taken granted now, were considered outlandish then in many areas.
In fact, it’s striking to compare the beginning of the Vietnam War with the beginning of the Iraq War. In case of the Iraq War, there were huge protests before the war started. In the case of Vietnam, you didn’t get protests that scale until South Vietnam was essentially destroyed and much of the rest of the region as well.
AG: I think there is a remaking of that goes on now, so that the sense of people who weren’t alive or aware during that period, is often that "yeah, you know, the 60s are this decade, they start in 1960 and they end in 1969."
NC: See, but it didn’t end. It has picked up since then. (Absolutely) I mean the major popular movements that had a real effect on the society are from a later period. Take, say the women’s movement which just changed the society enormously. I mean, take say MIT again, since all want to talk about Boston. If you walk down the halls in MIT when I got there in 1955, you’d see white, well-dressed, differential males. Take a walk down the halls now, you know what you are going to see. It’s about a half women, a third minorities, casual dress, informal relations, it’s just political activisms were unheard at this time. It just changed tremendously. That’s changed all over the country but the women’s movement is primarily a product of the 60s. I mean this is the germs in the 70s. The germs were there in the 60s but barely. And it picked up and changed things enormously.
Or take say the environmental movement. I mean that’s speaking of the end of the earth, that’s going to be important. There was almost nothing in the 60s. It began and developed in the 70s. The solidarity movement, Central American solidarity movement is now worldwide, that’s the 80s. And that’s something new in western history. I mean no one, say in France, ever thought of going to live in Algeria or in Vietnamese villages in order to help the people who were under attack from French violence. You know, nobody thought of going to live in a Vietnamese village. But in the 1980s, thousands of people did it. And now it’s all over the world.
AG: I guess it begs almost a simple definition question that is, sort of what is contemporary liberalism. My sense is that there are not--you say platforms--there are not necessarily the same kinds of platforms and movements especially where you can say “I’m liberal and I’m a communist. I’m liberal and a socialist. I’m an anarchist.” You know, you don’t hear that as often in these discussions as now. There seems to be a different kind of solidarity and different kind of definition of liberalism. Now I wonder what you see that is being now….
NC: One reason is that the words have simply lost meaning. So, what does it mean to be a liberal or communist or anything else? The point that Orwell made, I mean the--of one way of trying to undermine independent thought and creative approaches to the world is to simply destroy the way of talking about things so the words literally almost have no meaning. In fact by now, just about every word that is used in political discourse has at least two meanings: a literal meaning and its opposite. And it’s the opposite that is normally used.
So, take a contemporary debate that’s going on right now. You see headlines in newspapers about our report on “foreign fighters in Iraq.” Condoleezza Rice announces that she’s got a—that it’s easy to ask a question about how can we settle the problem in Iraq. She says it’s quite easy: just keep the foreign fighters out, keep the foreign weapons out, and it all will be settled. Yeah, nobody bats an eyelash. Are there 150,000 US troops there? Are they bringing weapons? They aren’t foreign. Because anything we do is not foreign. If we invaded Canada, they would be enemy combatants. And we would be there by right. So concept like aggression and invasion, terror, anything you mention doesn’t exist—I mean take democracy. George Bush was in Egypt yesterday, praising President Mubarak. The Egyptians are writhing at that. At the same time he’s giving talks about how we have to promote democracy and so on. He had just come from Saudi Arabia, one of the most extreme fundamentalist tyrannies in the world. See a picture of him with King Abdullah watching a horse show, so on and so forth. Why do we make up all of this? The terms for discussing things have been almost evacuated from content. That’s why you don’t hear these words. But on the other hand, people’s instincts and commitments and engagement I think are significantly improved over the 60s.
I mean take your own field, which you were telling me about. Archeology. You can go back to the 1960s. The general assumption even in the academic world, was that there was nobody living in this hemisphere, just a couple of savages wandering around. The idea that what has been discovered about the precontact history is just kind of mind-boggling when you go back, look at what was even in the scholarly literature at that time, let alone people’s ordinary mentality.
I mean like when I was growing up as a kid, you know, I consider myself pretty a leftist but we played Cowboys and Indians, where we were the cowboys killing the Indians. Maybe it still happens somewhere but it wouldn’t be my children, they wouldn’t have done that. These are just changes that took place in our consciousness and our conception of what the past was, what we have done, who we are, how we relate to one another. It just changed enormously.
A lot of sparks were lit in the 60s but much of it took off later.
For example, the beginnings of the rediscovery actually of what happened, the original scene(sin?) of this country, what happened to the native population, it just began in the 70s from outside the academic world incidentally. People like Francis Jennings and others.
AG: Where these words have lost so much of but not all of their meaning, and you look at the—a sort of— there’s a rhetorical sub tactic of this government in particular, which is sort of the broad blitz of you send out, the top ten people you have and you reiterate the lie on ten news programs at once, in a sense, sort of quasi-double speak sort of way, so that it becomes a truth. I wonder is that- if you look at the rhetoric being used by other world leaders around the world, whether it’s Vladimir Putin or whether it’s Sarkozy or whether it’s Hugo Chavez, are there drastically different tactics of the same sort of the approach being used right now? Or are they sort of all following this model, just sort of blitzing the same idea over and over until people don’t particularly listen, I think?
NC: Well, it’s a mistake to expect anything from leaders other than attempts to expand their power and control and domination. They differ, you know. But as soon as you mention the word “leader,” you should shutter and look somewhere else. In a free society you might have representatives but you wouldn’t have leaders.
So, let’s imagine that this was really functioning: we are in the primary season. What would a democratic primary be? Say, take New Hampshire. It wouldn’t be (that) a candidate comes into a town and says…tells you lies about themselves. What would happen if the people in the town would get together and say look, we worked out the programs they want the next president to follow, and then if somebody wants to come in to be elected and they’d say OK, you can come, here’s what we want you to do. If you are willing to do that, maybe we will vote for you. If you are not, we’re not willing to vote for you. And there should be mechanisms to ensure that they do it or else you throw them out. But the way we do is quite different. The leaders come, they tell you what they present themselves usually falsely, and you’re then to decide whether you want him or you don’t want him. But that’s completely backwards from what a functioning democratic society would be. So, when you talk about leaders, you have to shiver.
On the other hand, there are differences. So, take say Chavez you mentioned. I don’t know how many people know this but on December 31st, the end of last year(2007), Chavez announced an amnesty for participants in the military coup in 2002 April, not for all of them, for many of them. This is the military coup backed by the United States probably, with US participation, certainly with support, which overthrew the government, kidnapped the President, disbanded the parliament, the Supreme Court, the other democratic institutions, applauded in the United States and denounced in Latin America almost entirely. It was overturned a couple of days later.
But suppose it happened here. Suppose there was a military coup here which overthrew the government, kidnapped George Bush, disbanded the Congress. Incidentally there was a popular uprising and overturned the coup, would there be an amnesty to people who took part of it? They’d get death sentence. There wouldn’t be any question about amnesty. Well, I don’t know if it was out of embarrassment or lack of interest, but actually I had a friend do a data base search on coverage of the amnesty. Well, a couple of lines, scattered lines here and there. I’m sure you know that Chavez is like a demon in the western press.
One of his worst crimes which just elicited a taunt of abuse, was canceling the license of station, RCTV. Actually he didn’t close the station contrary to what he had said. He cancelled their license to take up a large part of the publicly owned frequencies. They still go on cable. That was considered utterly horrendous. The press denounced and said it was a kind of thing that could never happen here. It’s perfectly true, it couldn’t happen here but very few pointed out the reason.
You have to think of an analogy. Let’s go back to the imagined military coup in the United States. Suppose CBS helped instigate the coup, supported it openly. As the popular uprising took place that overthrew the coup leaders, CBS started playing comedies or anything so that people wouldn’t know what’s going on in the streets. What would happen to CBS afterwards? To their managers and owners? Would they be allowed to keep broadcasting for five years, and to have their license to public broadcasting removed? (They would be) Immediately sent to jail and probably get to death sentence. So it’s true it wouldn’t happen here. But not for exactly the reasons we mentioned. You know, go on and on like this.
Take one last example to illustrate just our difficulty of applying to ourselves the standards we do to others. Take 9/11. A terrible atrocity. A huge outpouring of sympathy and support all over the world including incidentally from the Jihadi movements. They later turned, because of our reaction to it but in the beginning they highly condemned it pretty strongly. And it was a terrible atrocity undoubtedly. But it could have been worse.
So, let’s imagine how it could have been worse for example. Suppose that on September 11th, Al-Qaeda had bombed the White House and killed the President, instituted a murderous, brutal regime which killed maybe 50,000 to 100,000 people and tortured about 700,000, set up a major international terrorist center in Washington, which was overthrowing governments all over the world, and installing brutal vicious neo-Nazi dictatorships, assassinating people. Suppose he called in a bunch of economists, let’s called them “Kandahar Boys” to run the American economy, who within a couple of years had driven the economy into one of the worst collapses of its history. Suppose this had happened. That would have been worse than 9/11, right?
But it did happen. And it happened on 9/11. That happened on September 11th, 1973 in Chile. The only thing you have to change is this per capita equivalence, which is the right way to look at it. Well, did that change the world? Yeah, it did but not from our point of view, in fact, who even knows about it?
AG: Because just in terms of your comment on their report..
NC: --- incidentally, just to finish, because we were responsible for that one.
AG: Definitely. But because as you said the amnesty on December 31st what you see is no coverage and you look at Chile during that period and when you look at the NY Times, the majority of the articles are being filed from Argentina. They were not even being filed from Chile. So, where is that, the magnitude of the event was immediately I think muted by the fact that nobody… who was reporting for the American media wasn’t even there.
NC: Well, it’s not the case. All of our services covered it, which means that every editorial office knew it. I mean every editorial office picks up Reuters and AP and AFP and so on. Yeah, every desk at every editorial office knew about it and decided not to print it. The main reason is that it just doesn’t fit the image that is supposed to be presented.
Actually, I was even involved in that inadvertently. When Chavez was at the UN a couple of years ago, he gave a press conference in which he allegedly said that he was very sorry that he hadn’t been able to meet me before I died. That was a big story all over the country. You know, actually I was interviewed by the NY Times, they thought it was very funny, what would I have to say about it and so on. That was a big issue because they needed to show how crazy, idiot he is. There was only one problem. That’s not what he said. What he said is that--it was very explicit and unambiguous--he said he was sorry that he hadn’t been able to meet John Kenneth Galbraith before he died. Well, evidently the editorial offices decided that it wouldn’t do to present the image of Chavez as somebody who admires a liberal icon. So, they changed it. It was pointed out right away. FAIR--media monitoring organization, a very good one--immediately looked at the transcript and wrote to the NY Times, and others saying it’s not what it was. And the NY Times did issue a correction 17 days later at the bottom of wherever at page of advertisements. Yeah, it was a correction. You can’t imagine that the American press didn’t understand the Spanish. It's hard to imagine how John Kenneth Galbraith and Noam Chomsky would be confused, but let’s imagine it. Did Le Mond not understand the Spanish? Did El Mercurio in Chile not understand the Spanish? This is just a way of demonizing a figure who the state orders you must demonize. It was independent whether you like him or not, totally independent.
AG: I think it strikes me more often that while all this was sort of an extraordinary moment of baffling– sort of rewriting. That they did it often, it seems like, your articles that you find and the reporters that you see is just diversion-oriented. So that I remember reading an article about the coup in Chile where the entire--it was the front page NY Times article from just after September 11th 1973-- where the entire article was about bank runs in Argentina. (Yeah, that’s right.) And nothing about Chile, there was no sense even that “Who was Pinochet?” “What was going on?”, “What was at that point the junta that was in control?”
NC: Bear in mind that that’s a much worse atrocity than our 9/11, what is often called in South America the second 9/11 for good reasons. Actually, personally, I had a teenage son who my wife and I decided to take, Lexington where we live. The Lexington movie theatre was playing “Missing,” you know what the film is about. So we took our son, figuring he’d learn something about it. He thought that was kind of an interesting adventure story but as we were walking out of the theatre, I was listening to people talking about it. I don’t think much of the audience knew that it was about Chile. They knew that the American government had done some bad thing and they had to rescue this nice American guy, but that’s about the level of them. It’s true that the film didn’t spell out in detail--this is Chile in 1973, the United States helped instigate the coup which had utterly horrible effects--but it takes a remarkable degree of insularity not to know enough about the world to appreciate what this is.
I should say that the second 9/11, ours, one of its consequences was to introduce many cracks in that insularity. It opened a lot of people’s minds. You could see that in all sorts of ways. I mean I can just see personally like the number of invitations from around the country to give talks just escalated radically. Audiences are much bigger, much more engaged. Small book stores, like little left book stores which were barely struggling along had to suddenly reprint books from the 1980s and 70s that were never sold because people weren’t interested. A lot of people- one of the consequences of it was to shatter some of the -- kind of internal focus of a highly insular society and may get people feel that they got to learn something about the world.
AG: Even now perhaps this sort of platforms or identifiable movements attached on issue may have sort of –dropped often certainly is the old sorts of polemical identification way, that now perhaps it is this seeking of information that drives this more than anything because it’s-- I think it’s abundantly clear that people, you can’t just turn on the CBS evening news, this clip emerged. Last week of Katie Couric, clips between her segments from New Hampshire where she, it’s clear that she has no sense whatsoever what even she’s reporting on. So that people, perhaps it is the seeking it in of itself that might be engendering a larger, active sense that people have.
NC: Well, it’s hard to generalize about a diverse and complex society like this one. But there are tendencies that you can identify. One tendency is to certain level of skepticism, of certain level of interest and independent inquiry trying to find out what happened. I mean it can lead it in crazy directions too. It can lead to wild conspiracy theories, so on and so forth. The Internet kind of tends to engender that kind of phenomenon but it’s also just much healthier concern with things that are happening in the world.
AG: The Internet also brings in, I think, tremendous amount you can’t find anywhere else. It does, perhaps maybe what makes it better is the sense that you have to be more discerning with what you’re reading, but you are prepared to be discerning. It’s not the case perhaps with the older media up on that cusp when the Internet is sort of really arising. A lot of folks I think weren’t as able to be as rapidly critical of….
NC: No, because you got one picture: the morning newspaper, local television station. Now if you want, at least you can get quite a wide variety of information.
For example, the things I just mentioned, you can find out about. It takes, as you say, discernment. First of all, commitment and discernment. Not much different from sciences in that respect. You can’t just take a look at all the data that exists and come up with a theory. You have to know what makes sense to look at, what doesn’t make sense, you have to framework the interpretation. I mean the best scientist is not the one who can list all the papers that have been written on the topic he’s working on. It’s the one who knows what to look at.
Actually I had a friend at MIT who is a Nobel Prize laureate in biology once described me how he taught his classes. He said he goes in and gives a lecture about the way he thinks these things ought to be just in principle. And the task for the students is to check the literature and find if he’s right. That’s kind of the way you have to look at the world, too. You’ll get overwhelmed with meaningless data. You have to pick out what matters, which does take discernment and training and so on. If we had a kind of educational systems that you and I and the rest of us would like to have, that’s what children would be trained to do, encouraged to do, figure out how to do it. It’s very different than No Child Left Behind, where you train to pass test.