QUESTION: When one reads you, one has the feeling that the image of today’s world you have is quite close to Orwell’s 1984: On one side a massive and repressive totalitarianism which doesn’t hide its face, or whose face is easy to unmask (the U.S.S.R.); on the other a decentralized, subtle and crafty totalitarianism which gives the appearance, but only the appearance, of freedom (the U.S.), and which, in the final analysis, is more dangerous because it succeeds in side-tracking us and making fools of us: liberals of all colors.
CHOMSKY: I would not use the term “totalitarian” to refer to the American system of “brainwashing under freedom.” It is, nevertheless, a remarkably effective system, a fact that is rarely recognized, analyzed or understood. Herman and I give many examples. To cite merely one case: In 1962, the U.S. Air Force began large-scale bombardment of rural South Vietnam, proceeding subsequently to full-scale invasion in support of a client regime that Washington knew had no legitimacy. Almost twenty years have passed, and I have never seen a reference in mainstream journalism or scholarship to “U.S. aggression” or the “U.S. invasion of South Vietnam.” Rather, the U.S. was “defending” South Vietnam — unwisely, the doves maintain. Perhaps one will be able to say the same about the Soviet press in twenty years, with regard to Afghanistan. This record of subservience to the state propaganda system is particularly noteworthy in that it is achieved without force. The system operates through a complex of inducements, privileges, class interests, etc., relying on the tendency of much of the intelligentsia to conform to power (while proclaiming their courageous independence of mind), and the unwillingness to endure vilification, lies, and denial of the opportunity to work and publish, as punishment for telling the truth.
I imagine that you can easily find analogues in France. How much principled opposition was there to the French attack on Indochina, for example? How much protest has there been over the fact that France is the main supplier of arms to Chile and South Timor, or that, as Business Week happily comments, French military forces “help keep West Africa safe for French, American, and other foreign oilmen”? It is much easier to deplore the other fellow’s crimes.
QUESTION: Seen from France, your evolution — to the extent that it is perceived this way — is somewhat bothersome, and even a bit old-fashioned. Indeed, in the evolution of ideas in France, people — at least a part of the left intellectuals — are now overcoming the (retrospective) illusion due to the Marxist analysis according to which the so-called formal liberties, those of bourgeois democracy, are not worth anything, and that only those who are naive or members of the ruling class (which are not exclusive terms) can soak in them, while a deep analysis of society, analysis which can only be a Marxist, Marxian or Marxiforme one, reveals, under deceptive appearances, the servitude and at least the alienation generated equally by the hard totalitarianism (without formal freedoms) and by the soft one (with them). Thus, in a very paradoxical way, your evolution ends up taking a smell of Stalinism completely unforeseen.
CHOMSKY: The reaction you describe is remarkable. It is obvious that the so-called “libertés formelles” represented an achievement of enormous significance. The task for the present is to extend these achievements to new domains, particularly, by placing decision-making over production and distribution in the hands of producers and communities, while dismantling authoritarian structures. The “analyse approfondie” to which you refer is not only extremely superficial, but is also helplessly misguided. The “totalitarisme dure” of the societies that some (not I) call “socialist” does not begin to approach the guarantee of freedom and rights in the industrial democracies, whatever historical reasons one can give for this fact.
Surely this is well understood among the serious left in France. Furthermore, in libertarian socialist circles, the true nature of the Soviet regime was obvious from the start, when Lenin and Trotsky destroyed the Soviets and factory councils, instituted the “militarization of labor,” etc., and indeed was fully expected before. I am often amazed by what I read about this matter in the French literature, not only by ex-Leninists; for example, the ignorant comment of Paul Thibaud that prior to Solzhenitsyn, “toutes les présentations” of “soviétisme” were within a “trotskyante” framework, or his plea for “un nouvel universalism,” a position so elementary that rational people would be embarrassed to express it, except perhaps in a Sunday School sermon for children.
QUESTION: Continuing in the same vein, this smell of Stalinism is supported by the pessimism which you show, for example, with respect to the role played by American public opinion in bringing the Vietnam war to an end. If public opinion is indefinitely manipulated and manipulatable, as you seem to want to demonstrate, is freedom of expression and, in particular, freedom of the press, worth defending?
CHOMSKY: My view is entirely different. I believe, and have often written, that the peace movement had an enormous impact on U.S. foreign policy, far more than I ever expected in the early years, when I was being shouted off of platforms and was futilely attempting to organize resistance. The movement was spontaneous, leaderless, courageous, and extremely effective. It had to escape the constraints of the ideological system, and did so. The fact caused great consternation among elite circles over what they saw as a “crisis of democracy” (Michel Crozier, Samuel Huntington, et al.), in which the public was illegitimately playing a role in public affairs; and also among much of the intelligentsia who were appalled by this display of independence of mind and courageous action, particularly among students. To cite one case, consider Alain Besançon, who describes students in 1968 as “pus” that had to be “squeezed out of the universities,” while Blacks were “a curse.” There is now a major effort to rewrite the history of this period so as to deny the importance of mass political action. If what you describe is a widely-held interpretation of my views, then it is simply a part of this reconstruction of a history more tolerable to elite groups.
This effort at historical reconstruction is notable in France as well. Consider, again, Paul Thibaud, who writes in Le Monde that I belonged to that part of the left that “a confié l’avenir des libertés vietnamiennes à la bonne volontée supposée des dirigeants du Nord” and failed to consider “le fait que la grande majorité de la population du Sud préférait une solution du type ‘troisième force’, plutôt que de type Vietcong” (a fact unknown to U.S. government specialists, who regarded the NLF [National Liberation Front] as the only mass-based political organization, much to their distress, and dismissed the “third force” as insignificant).
To begin with, this is sheer fabrication. I always stressed the obvious fact that U.S. aggression was designed to prevent the development of neutralist options (including those of the “third force”), and warned that the consequences of this aggression would be to “create a situation in which, indeed, North Vietnam will necessarily dominate Indochina, for no other viable society will remain” (1969). More interesting, however, is Thibaud’s belief that an opponent of U.S. aggression must have been a supporter of Hanoi. A perfect victim of the U.S. propaganda system, Thibaud repeats this absurd claim, which was, of course, designed to deflect attention from the U.S. attack against the rural society of South Vietnam, where 80% of the population lived. Had Thibaud bothered to look at the writings of mine that he discusses, he would know that it was precisely the attack against the South that I most insistently condemned, noting the obvious consequences, which have in fact ensued. He will not find a word to support his false and ignorant charges, but to the true believer it is simply inconceivable that one can oppose U.S. aggression exactly as one opposes Soviet aggression, or reject the official doctrine that the war was a conflict between the U.S. and North Vietnam.
QUESTION: Even when I read you, I have the feeling that the pessimism of your analysis raises questions about the usefulness of your book. Supposing that there are minds that are free enough to read you, the implacable mechanisms that you describe will only make impotent and isolated poor souls of them.
CHOMSKY: Quite the contrary. In fact, our books are more widely read than those I wrote at the height of the Vietnam war. Contrary to what is often assumed, American public opinion has shifted away from the blind conformism of earlier years. Compare Vietnam and El Salvador. The U.S. intervention in El Salvador is about at the level of Vietnam in 1960. The level of protest, however, is reminiscent of 1966-67, when hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops had invaded South Vietnam. And it has been effective in imposing some barriers to U.S. support for state terrorism in El Salvador.
QUESTION: So I want to ask you: Who is the book addressed to and what effect do you expect?
CHOMSKY: These books are written for people who want to understand the social reality in which they live. We hope that the effect will be to aid those who are attempting to maintain the “crisis of democracy” and, specifically, to bring about fundamental changes in U.S. foreign policy. And there are many of them. I cannot possibly accept a fraction of the invitations I receive to speak about these subjects, although most of the journals are closed.
QUESTION: How do you reconcile your pessimism with the intransigent defense of freedom of expression that you preached elsewhere?
CHOMSKY: It should be unnecessary to stress that freedom of expression should always be defended with vigor and commitment. In fact, the “bourgeois freedoms” that are often derided by people who regard themselves as “on the left” are precisely what allowed the major mass movements to develop in the U.S., despite the efforts of political and intellectual elites to contain them, and despite a considerable amount of state terrorism, directed particularly against Blacks who were such a “curse,” but against many others too.
QUESTION: In this respect, although my opinions as interviewer are without interest or consequences, to fill the distance that separates us (in writing), allow me to interpolate here that I very much liked the article of yours that ended up as a preface to Thion’s book on the Faurisson affair and that I approve of it without reservation.
CHOMSKY: Thank you for your comments. Perhaps I should clarify, once again, that my statement was not written as a preface to the book, which I did not know existed, and that I asked to have it withdrawn, though too late to affect publication a few weeks after I wrote it, a fact that has been subjected to much absurd and malicious comment in the French press that I will not review.
QUESTION: That leads me to ask you whether, afterwards, you have had the curiosity of interesting yourself in the substance of the affair?
CHOMSKY: My interest in this affair has been quite limited. I was asked to sign a petition calling on authorities to protect Faurisson’s civil rights, and did so. I sign innumerable petitions of this nature, and do not recall ever having refused to sign one. I assumed that the matter would end there. It did not, because a barrage of lies in France, claiming, among other absurdities, that by defending Faurisson’s civil rights I was defending his views. I then wrote the statement mentioned before. This and similar comments of mine evoked a new wave of falsification.
For example, in the Le Monde letter I mentioned earlier, Thibaud wrote that I had condemned “toute l’intelligentsia française,” without qualifications. In fact, my statement began by emphasizing that I would comment on “certain segments of the French intelligentsia… Certainly, what I say does not apply to many others, who maintain a firm commitment to intellectual integrity… I would not want these comments to be misunderstood as applying beyond their specific scope.” Le Monde refused to print my response to this and similar absurdities. Similarly, Le Matin refused to print my response to ludicrous charges by Attali and Lévy, who claimed that I was opposing protest against Pol Pot, their sole grounds being that I had testified at the United Nations about U.S.-backed massacres in Timor (which, incidentally, I described as comparable to the Pol Pot massacres, as indeed they were). It is striking that in France, alone in Europe, the press has regularly refused to grant me the right of response to lies and slander, though I read about a “debate” that is supposedly in progress.
The sheer irrationality of the comments is astounding, as the examples indicate. To cite another, consider a tirade by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, of which a typical example is this: he claims that I quoted, from his private correspondence, an error that he had corrected in his subsequent published article in Esprit, when of course he knows I quoted his published article. One must have considerable faith in the gullibility of the reading public to venture such a blatant falsehood. To mention one last case, Le Matin now claims that I regard “l’idée même de génocide” as “un mythe impérialiste,” whereas the editor surely knows that I described “the massacre of the Jews” as “the most fantastic outburst of collective insanity in human history,” and the book to which he refers is devoted to example after example of genocidal actions throughout the world.
There is no space here to review the record of lies and deceit about my alleged views, of which this is only a tiny example. In certain intellectual circles in France, the very basis for discussion — a minimal respect for facts and logic — has been virtually abandoned.
Returning to my involvement in the Faurisson affair, it consists of signature to a petition, and, after that, response to lies and slander. Period.
I will add one final comment. The French courts have now condemned Faurisson for failure of “responsibilité” as a historian and “de laisser prendre en charge, par autri [!], son discours dans une intention d’apologie des crimes de guerre ou d’incitation à la haine raciale,” among other similar charges. In a display of moral cowardice, the court then claimed that it was not restricting the right of the historian to express himself freely, but only punishing Faurisson for doing so. This shameful judgment accords to the state the right to determine official truth (despite the protestation of the court) and to punish those who show “irresponsibility.” If it does not arouse massive protest, it will be a sad day for France.
QUESTION: Do you believe that the doubt about the existence of gas chambers is a reasonable doubt? I mean, that their existence or non-existence is, from the viewpoint of historical research, a real problem?
CHOMSKY: My own view is that there are no reasonable grounds to doubt the existence of gas chambers. Of course, this is a question of fact, not religious faith. Only a religious fanatic would deny that questions of fact are subject to inquiry.
QUESTION: If you haven’t had the opportunity to examine the substance of the record, what is the reason?
CHOMSKY: My reasons are the same as those of the vast majority of others who have also not done so. The claim that there were no gas chambers seems to me highly implausible, and the denial of the holocaust, completely so. Like virtually everyone else who has written about this affair or who has not, I see no need to investigate further. It has been alleged (e.g., by Vidal-Naquet) that it is “scandalous” to defend Faurisson’s right to freedom of expression without denouncing his conclusions — which would, of course, require careful analysis of his documentation, etc. By these curious standards, I have often been engaged in “scandalous” behavior. I have frequently signed petitions — in fact, gone to far greater lengths — on behalf of East European dissidents whose views I either do not know, or do know and find horrendous: supporters of current American atrocities, for example. I never mention their views in this context, even if I am familiar with them, a fact that no doubt scandalizes the commissars. The demand that defense of civil rights requires an analysis and commentary on the views expressed would simply eliminate the defense of the rights of those who express unpopular or horrendous views, the usual case where a serious issue arises. This is taken for granted without comment by all civil libertarians. In discussing this issue, I have therefore limited myself to stating that Faurisson’s views are diametrically opposed to mine, as indicated in the comments I quoted earlier and others like them. In the case of East European dissidents, for example, I do not even go that far, nor is it necessary to do so.
QUESTION: Do you think that the existence or non-existence of gas chambers is a question which has an ideological, political, or ethnic value (even if from the viewpoint of reality their existence is not in question according to you)?
CHOMSKY: If, contrary to my belief, it were shown that there were no gas chambers but that the massacre of millions of Jews was the result of horrifying conditions in slave labor camps, that would not affect my evaluation of the Nazi genocide.
QUESTION: If you think that the existence of gas chambers has such a value, say, as something at stake in a battle about the interpretation of Nazism as a historical phenomenon, would you state precisely your ideas in this respect?
CHOMSKY: This is too complex a question for me to respond adequately here. Nazism was unique in its horror, perhaps without historical precedent, as I have often written. But we must also recognize that fascist-style institutions were developing in one or another form in much of the world in that period, and indeed since. One who views Latin America today might well assume that Hitler had won the war, though in fact it is American liberalism that a bears a major responsibility for the plague of terror and torture regimes that often mimic the Nazis. I might also mention that commentators within the mainstream of popular opinion, for example, the Nobel Laureate in Economics, Paul Samuelson, have expressed their belief that the future of Western state capitalism may be more similar to Brazil and Argentina than, say, Scandinavian social democracy. This is a topic that I cannot discuss without considerably more space, but it is a very important one.
QUESTION: There is the Chomsky who is a scientist and linguist and the Chomsky who engages in political struggles. What do they say to each other when they meet?
CHOMSKY: There is no connection, apart from some very tenuous relations at an abstract level, for example, with regard to a concept of human freedom that animates both endeavors.
QUESTION: You seem to think that the only interesting and courageous work for an intellectual is to denounce the abuses perpetrated by his own government and not be concerned with the abuses perpetrated by the governments of other countries, which are easier to denounce. Is this correct?
CHOMSKY: Not quite. I have always held that criticism of any state or society is legitimate, if it is honest. There are, for example, Western scholars who devote themselves to nothing but the crimes of the Soviet state. I do not criticize them. My own writings include considerable discussion of the criminal nature of Marxist-Leninist doctrine and practice.
But when we consider the moral significance of one’s work and actions, other criteria enter: a rational person will consider the human consequences of what he does. A person who is concerned with these consequences will concentrate finite energies where they will contribute to alleviating human misery and extending human rights. If a Soviet intellectual chooses to denounce American crimes, that is of little significance. What is important is what he says about the U.S.S.R., Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, Eritrea, etc. The reasons are obvious. However valid his criticism may be, its contribution to human welfare is nil, and may even be negative, insofar as it reinforces a repressive, destructive and murderous system. If a Soviet intellectual chooses to concentrate solely on the crimes of his own state, I have only praise for him. Of course, the commissars see things differently and will denounce him for “selective outrage.” A familiar anti-Stalinist joke forty years ago was that if you criticized Soviet slave labor camps, you were asked: “What about the lynchings in the south?” The dishonesty is obvious.
Note that an institutional critique of this sort is, in contrast, perfectly legitimate. Thus it is entirely fair (though obvious) to criticize the Soviet media for concentrating on Western crimes, ignoring their own; and it is entirely fair and extremely important for us to analyze the behavior of the Western media insofar as they mirror this deplorable practice, as to a significant extent they do.
An honest person will apply the same standard to himself. In fact, I have been harshly and immediately critical of Soviet crimes, but the importance of this is slight. What is important is to expose the crimes of my own state, which are often hidden from view by the propaganda institutions. The reason is that by doing so I can help arouse public opinion which, in a democracy, can contribute to bringing these crimes to an end. The crimes of Pol Pot could be denounced, but no one had any suggestion as to how to stop them. The comparable crimes in Timor at the same time could have been stopped by an aroused public opinion, since the U.S. and its allies bore prime responsibility for them. Correspondingly, it is no surprise to find that there was vast outrage over Cambodia coupled with silence about Timor. This is typical, as we document at length in our two volumes, and elsewhere.
Perhaps one can find the equivalent of the Soviet commissar who will accuse me of “selective outrage” for concentrating my energies where I can actually do something to save lives and defend freedom in a meaningful way, though to my knowledge, such blatant dishonesty is rare in the West, apart from some ex-Stalinists or disillusioned lovers of Third World revolutions.
QUESTION: Since American opinion began to be troubled by doubts about the Vietnam war, you speak of an “ideological reconstruction” in process or completed, which leads to a sort of whitewashing or amnesia. Is it, in your opinion a matter of a deliberate and wanted evolution by certain people, or rather a sort of secretion of anti-bodies, half-unconsciously, of the American population?
CHOMSKY: Certainly much of the reconstruction of imperial ideology and effacement of the record of American crimes is quite deliberate. It must be remembered that American liberalism was responsible for many of the worst crimes, not only in Indochina, and the articulate intelligentsia largely supported the war in Indochina, turning against it when business circles did and for the same “pragmatic” reasons. The basic principle, one of long standing, is that the “responsible intellectuals” must undertake what is called “the engineering of consent,” the shaping of popular attitudes to support the aims of those with objective power. Again, a person who is concerned to help suffering people will concentrate his energies on combating these forces, which, needless to say, dominate the ideological institutions.
QUESTION: Your effort to “deflate” the Cambodian genocide has been interpreted by certain French intellectuals as your being misguided by the following postulate: everything that the CIA says (or arranges) is false, therefore the Cambodian genocide, etc.,… How do you explain this way of perceiving your action?
CHOMSKY: There was no such “effort” on my part. It is interesting that what you report is actually believed by people in France. It reflects, once again, the total ignorance of my writings on the part of the people who write so learnedly about them. In fact, in my writings on Cambodia I assume that the analyses provided by American intelligence were probably more or less accurate, as indeed appears to have been the case.
There has been a vast amount of lying about this matter in France. Consider, for example, François Ponchaud. In the introduction to the American edition of his book, he cites my praise for it as “serious and worth reading,” and in turn praises me for the “responsible attitude and precision of thought” shown in my writing on Cambodia, which in fact covered everything I wrote during the Pol Pot period. In the introduction to the world edition, dated the same day, these passages are eliminated and replaced by the claim that I had “sharply criticized” his book, deny that there were massacres, reject refugee testimony, and insist on relying on “deliberately chosen official statements.” These were all lies as he knew: compare the American preface written the same day. The world edition is not available in the U.S., where the lies would have been quickly exposed; the U.S. edition is not available elsewhere, where the facts were generally unknown. Still more revealing are the subsequent efforts to disguise the facts, as, for example, when Paul Thibaud writes that Ponchaud made an error in that only the American edition took account “des remarques de Chomsky” — an interesting way of referring to the fact that the simultaneous world edition contained outright lies about these “remarques.” The editor of Nouvel Observateur displayed comparable dishonesty. He printed a letter of mine, deleting my reference to “draconian measures” of the Pol Pot regime so that he could maintain his claim that I refused to criticize the regime, among other similar distortions. There are numerous other examples.
Herman and I begin our chapter on Cambodia observing that “there is no difficulty in documenting major atrocities and oppression, primarily from the reports of the refugees” in a society closed to the West, and that “the record of atrocities in Cambodia is substantial and often gruesome.” We continue in the same vein, reiterating precisely what Ponchaud and American intelligence officials say about refugee reports; in fact, we criticize the U.S. media for failing to make use of these reports and failing generally to attend to the analyses of U.S. intelligence. We cite estimates of killings ranging from “possibly thousands” killed (Far Eastern Economic Review; as our book went to press, the Review estimated the population at 8.2 million, well above the 1975 figure) to the claim by Jean Lacouture in February 1977 that the Pol Pot regime had “boasted” of having killed 2 million people (we wrote too early to cite the claims, which apparently derive from Hanoi propaganda, that the regime had reduced the population from 7 to 4 million). We concluded finally that “when the facts are in, it may turn out that the more extreme condemnations were in fact correct,” though this would obviously — as a matter of elementary logic — not alter our conclusion on the central matter of our study, namely, “how the available facts were selected, modified, or sometimes invented to create a certain image offered to the general population.” We documented extensive fabrication of evidence and suppression of relevant history, not only in the case of Cambodia, but throughout Indochina. The general context was a study of the ways in which the propaganda system suppressed the record of American crimes throughout the world.
The reason for the remarkable campaign of lies about my writings on Cambodia is quite clear. It began after I wrote a personal letter to Lacouture, pointing out to him that he had grossly falsified Ponchaud’s book in a review that appeared in Novel Observateur and the New York Review. Lacouture printed partial corrections in the U.S., but, revealing the total contempt that he and his editor feel for the French intelligentsia, he never issued corrections in France, assuming that no one would ever care whether what he wrote was true or false. It was then that the campaign of lies began. Evidently, my belief that one should keep to the truth outraged many people who feel that they should be free to lie at will about official enemies.
QUESTION: Doesn’t the fact that human rights are not more respected by the socialist regimes, including Cuba, immerse you in a state of complete pessimism of the type: nothing can be expected from one side or from the other?
CHOMSKY: Not at all, since I expected little else of these regimes. There are many factors that impel Third World revolutions towards totalitarianism and brutality. One of these factors, and the one that should particularly concern us since it is the only one that we can significantly influence, is the Western role. In the case of Cuba, for example, there is no doubt that the terrorist campaign launched by the Kennedy Administration after the Bay of Pigs played a role, as it was intended to do, in enhancing repressive tendencies in the Castro regime. The same is true in respect to Indochina. In Laos, for example, where the U.S. virtually destroyed the agricultural system, the U.S. not only denies food to the starving but also even refuses to aid in removing unexploded ordnance that kills many people and makes farming virtually impossible in the most heavily bombed areas. These monstrous policies, which have few analogues in great power cynicism, are subject to virtually no criticism in the U.S. The goal is to maximize suffering in Indochina and to reinforce the most brutal and repressive elements so that “Western humanists” can then deplore the savagery of the post-revolutionary regimes.
Since gross distortion of these remarks is predictable, let me reiterate the obvious: this is not the sole factor leading to repressive and brutal practice in the regimes called “socialist,” but it is the one factor we can influence, and therefore will be the factor that will primarily concern those whose concern is to help suffering people rather than to improve their image or to contribute to imperial violence.
QUESTION: Have you ever asked yourself: What would I do if I were the U.S. Secretary of State? Or, in other words, what should be the foreign policy of the U.S.?
CHOMSKY: I would rather consider a more realistic question: What can I do to modify American foreign policy so that it will contribute to human welfare rather than pursuing the goal of improving the climate for American business operations and guaranteeing the opportunity to exploit human and material resources. In a democratic society, there is a great deal that one can do, though it will naturally be denounced by those who are committed to oppressive systems, or who interpret a principled commitment to human rights as “selective outrage,” mimicking their counterparts among the commissars.
QUESTION: You fear that the complete cynicism of American foreign policy will end up corrupting and destroying what remains of American democracy. Could you be specific?
CHOMSKY: There are powerful forces in the U.S., as elsewhere, that will labor to secure their wealth and power, whatever the human cost. They will succeed, if they are not opposed by an informed and committed public. This can be done. It was done during the Vietnam war, and it is being done today. This is a continuing struggle, and will remain so, at least until there are revolutionary changes in the superpowers. As to the defense and extension of democracy, this too is a continuing struggle. The anarchist thinker Rudolf Rocker once wrote that “Political rights do not originate in parliaments; they are rather forced upon them from without… They do not exist because they have been legally set down on a piece of paper, but only when they have become the ingrown habit of a people, and when any attempt to impair them will meet with the violent resistance of the populace.” There is much truth to this.
In my view, the struggle against oppression and injustice will never end, but will continue to take new forms and impose new demands. This is not a reason for pessimism, but for honesty, commitment, and forthright efforts in defense of freedom and justice.