Meaningful Democracy

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Bill Moyers

A World of Ideas, Doubleday, 1989, pp. 38-58

QUESTION: You wrote recently that this country is more dissident than you can remember it, more so even than during the Vietnam War. When I read that, my mind went back immediately to that period, to the protests in the streets, the mass demonstrations, the riots on college campuses and in the ghettos. That period of dissidence is unforgettable. Yet you say we’re a more dissident nation now?

CHOMSKY: The dissidence now is much wider and more deeply rooted. It’s found in sectors of the population that were excluded from the dissident movements of the 1960s. But to compare the present situation with the late sixties is a little misleading because of the scale of what is being protested. The antiwar movement of the sixties became a significant movement at a time when we had thousands of troops attacking South Vietnam and expanding the war to all of Indochina. But until that time the peace movement was very limited. When John F. Kennedy began bombing South Vietnam in 1962, there was no protest. You couldn’t get two people in a living room to talk about it. By the time Lyndon Johnson sent an American expeditionary force to — if we were honest with ourselves, we would say to “attack” South Vietnam — we were barely beginning to get protest. As late as mid-1966 here in Boston, which is a pretty liberal city, we had a hard time having public meetings because they’d be broken up, often by students. In fact, it really wasn’t until late 1966 and early 1967, when we had about four hundred thousand troops fighting in Vietnam, that we got a large-scale protest movement going.

Now, compare the eighties. When Ronald Reagan came into office, one of the first things he did was the lay the basis for direct military intervention in Central America. The white paper of February 1981 was a clear effort to test the waters, to see if you could get the population to support direct dispatch of troops to El Salvador and probable military intervention in Nicaragua. That’s roughly comparable to the situation Kennedy faced in 1961 or even to the late fifties. At that time, intervention could take place without any protest, but as soon as the Reagan people made just the beginnings of an indication that there might be direct military intervention, there were substantial and spontaneous protests from all over the country. There were demonstrations, the churches protested, there were letters to Congress — in fact, the protest was sufficient so that the Administration backed off because they were afraid it was going to harm the programs that they were really interested in.

QUESTION: And they went underground with it.

CHOMSKY: Yes, in fact, the Reagan Administration was literally driven underground by a dissident population. The scale of clandestine activities, in fact, is a pretty good measure of domestic dissidence. After all, clandestine activities are secret from no one except the domestic population.

QUESTION: But it never seemed that as many people were participating in the demonstrations against the Central American policy or that the media were paying as much attention as they were during the Vietnam era.

CHOMSKY: Dissidence does not extend to the media — but of course it didn’t in the 1960s either. The media supported the war enthusiastically. With rare exceptions, the only criticism that you heard of the war in the media was the tactical criticism that it didn’t seem to be working. Finally, by 1969 or so, after major sectors of American business had turned against the war and were calling on the Administration to liquidate it as being not worth the cost, you began to get protests in the media. In the case of Central America, media protest has been greater than during the Vietnam War at any comparable time, even though the scale of the intervention is far lower. It’s true, you don’t get huge numbers of people in demonstrations, but that has to be measured against the scale of the atrocities that they’re protesting. If you want to compare the sixties and the eighties, you should compare the popular reaction at a time when U.S. intervention was comparable. U.S. intervention in Central America today is comparable to what it was in South Vietnam probably in the late fifties, or early sixties at the latest.

QUESTION: Are you talking only about dissidence toward Central American policies?

CHOMSKY: No, it’s much broader. It’s a striking fact that on almost every major issue, the population has been quite strongly opposed to the policies of the Reagan Administration. The poll results have been quite consistent about this from the beginning. In fact, apart from a very brief period in the very first year of the Administration, when there was support for a military build-up, the population has been basically tending toward classical New Deal positions. It favors social spending over military spending, it favors increased taxes if they are used for improving the environment, education, or social welfare, and it has been quite strongly opposed to direct interventionism. The only exceptions to this are the one-day, quick victories — Grenada and Libya. But anything that has extended even to a limited extent beyond that has encountered public opposition.

QUESTION: Are you saying that a negative poll on an issue constitutes dissidence?

CHOMSKY: No, it only constitutes dissidence if it becomes articulated. On many issues, it doesn’t become articulated. On Central American policy it did become articulated, and that’s what drove the government underground.

QUESTION: But fifty-five percent of the people in the latest Gallup Poll express approval of President Reagan as he is preparing to leave office, so that you have polls showing opposition to his policies while he himself remains unusually popular in the public standing.

CHOMSKY: If you take a look at comparative poll results, he’s not that unusually popular. The popularity of a President is usually predicted quite closely by people’s sense of where the economy is going. When people sense that the economy is probably declining, they tend to disapprove of the President. Reagan himself has been reasonably popular, though not by and large beyond the norm for presidents. On the other hand, his policies have been unpopular, and sometimes this shows up quite dramatically. In the presidential election in 1984, there was a very intriguing exit poll which shows that voters disapproved of Reagan’s polices by about three to two. The majority said they hoped his legislative programs would not be enacted. Now, these are the people who had just voted for him by two to one. So what’s happening?

QUESTION: That’s a good question.

CHOMSKY: It’s pretty clear what’s happening. Look at other studies of public opinion. Every year the Gallup Poll asks people, Who do you think runs the government? Consistently, about fifty percent say the government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves. I suspect that the fifty percent who say that are roughly the fifty percent who don’t vote, who tend to be the poor and dispossessed. They don’t participate in the political system.

Reagan is a very interesting political figure, a very natural phenomenon in a capitalist democracy. In a capitalist democracy, you have the problem that the general population participates in the decision-making process by participating in politics. The state is not capable of stopping them. You can’t shut them out, you can’t put them in jail, and you can’t keep them away from the polls. It’s striking that that has always been perceived as a problem to be overcome. It’s called the “crisis of democracy” — too many people organizing themselves to enter the public arena. That’s a crisis we have to overcome.

QUESTION: According to a certain view.

CHOMSKY: Well, it’s the view of a very wide spectrum. In fact, the crisis of democracy was articulated by the group of people around Jimmy Carter.

QUESTION: The Trilateral Commission —

CHOMSKY: — and the report they put out called “The Crisis of Democracy.” That report reflects attitudes that go way back. Even the mainstream democratic theorists have always understood that when the voice of the people is heard, you’re in trouble, because these stupid and ignorant masses, as they’re called, are going to make the wrong decisions. So, therefore we have to have what Walter Lippmann, back in 1920 or so, called the “manufacture of consent.” We have to ensure that actual power is in the hands of what he called a specialized class — us smart guys — who are going to make the right decisions. We’ve got to keep the general population marginalized because they’re always going to make mistakes. The Founding Fathers had very strong feelings in this respect. The Federalists, for example, were very much afraid of popular democracy.

QUESTION: That’s why we have a representative form of government.

CHOMSKY: The transition from the confederation to the constitutional system marginalized the public. Shays’ Rebellion was probably the last reflection of the popular democracy of the earlier period.

QUESTION: You said Reagan is an interesting political figure. Why?

CHOMSKY: Because from a point of view which perceives democracy as a problem to be overcome, and sees the right solution as being farsighted leaders with a specialized class of social managers — from that point of view, you must find means of marginalizing the public.

QUESTION: Marginalizing?

CHOMSKY: Reducing them to apathy and obedience, allowing them to participate in the political system, but as consumers, not as true participants. You allow them a method for ratifying decisions that are made by others, but you eliminate the methods by which they might first, inform themselves; second, organize; and third, act in such a way as to really control decision-making. The idea is that our leaders control us, not that we control them. That is a very widespread view from liberals to conservatives. And how do you achieve this? Well, there are lots of ways. One of them is by by turning elected offices into ceremonial positions. If you could get to the point where people would essentially vote for the Queen of England and take it seriously, then you would have gone a long way toward marginalizing the public. We’ve made a big step in that direction.

QUESTION: The President as ceremonial leader.

CHOMSKY: Yes. That’s why Reagan is so interesting. Although a lot of intellectuals put the best face they can on it, most of the population knows that Ronald Reagan had only the foggiest ideas of what the policies of his Administration were. The Democrats were always surprised that he could get away with these bloopers and crazy statements and so on. The reason is that much of the population understood very well that they were supporting someone like the Queen of England or the flag. The Queen of England opens Parliament by reading a political program, but nobody asks whether she understands it or believes it.

QUESTION: So many books from the Reagan Administration — from the Stockman book to the Regan book to the new book that’s on the newsstands — say that the President was detached from the decision-making process.

CHOMSKY: More than detached. I think he doesn’t know what it is.

QUESTION: He’s performing well the ritualistic role.

CHOMSKY: It’s the flag. To the extent that you feel good about the way things are going, you’ll say, “I like the flag, I like the Queen,” and so on. To the extent that you don’t like the way things are going, you’ll say, “I’m unhappy about it,” and so on. But this is quite disassociated from your positions as to what ought to be done.

We have an interesting political system in the United States, one that’s different from those of the other industrial democracies. This is a very free country. By comparative standards, the state is very restricted in its capacity to coerce and control us. The police can’t come in and stop us from talking, for example.

QUESTION: You’re saying that we as free individuals — we can say anything we want to, for example.

CHOMSKY: But we don’t make use of those freedoms. Sophisticated mechanisms have been devised to prevent us from making use of those freedoms. In a society where the state does not have the power to coerce, other mechanisms must be found to ensure that the population doesn’t get in the way — indoctrination, for example, or elimination of popular organizations like unions. To have ideas, to interchange those ideas with others, to turn these ideas into possible programs, and to press for those programs — all this takes access to information. It takes an independent media. It requires organizations by which isolated people can group together.

QUESTION: Political parties.

CHOMSKY: Active political parties and parties and political clubs. Unions have often played this role in other countries. The United States is unusual in the extent to which these structures are weak. The level of unionization is extremely low and in the Reagan period has declined even further. Furthermore, American unions have always been basically apolitical. We’re the only major industrial democracy that doesn’t have a labor-based political party — a party based on the poor or the working class. We have only one political party — it’s the business party. We have two factions of the business party called the Democrats and the Republicans.In the 1980s, the Democrats have been accused of being a party of the “special interests.” But who are the “special interests?” Well, take a look behind the rhetoric and you find that the “special interests” are women, labor, youth, the elderly, ethnic minorities, the poor, and farmers. In fact, it’s almost the entire population. The one group that’s never identified as being among the special interests is corporations. They’re the national interest. Both parties are basically beholden to them. The special interests — the people — have to be marginalized. So everyone denies that they represent the special interests — that is, the people.

QUESTION: Corporations? Or the capitalist business system whose first priority is profit-making for the general welfare, as its defenders say?

CHOMSKY: The chairman of the board will always tell you that he spends his every waking hour laboring so that people will get the best possible products at the cheapest possible price and work in the best possible conditions. But it’s an institutional fact, independent of who the chairman of the board is, that he’d better be trying to maximize profit and market share, and if he doesn’t do that, he’s not going to be chairman of the board any more. If he were ever to succumb to the delusions he expresses, he’d be out. Some in Walter Lippmann’s specialized class — the experts — are candid enough to tell you the truth. Henry Kissinger defined an expert as a person who is capable of articulating the consensus of people with power. That’s true. If you want to be an expert, you have to serve the interests of objective power. If you want to be a journalist, you have to respond to the needs of the institutions. The major media are —

QUESTION: — they’re corporations, too.

CHOMSKY: They’re just like any other business. They have a product and a market. The product is audiences, and the market is other businesses. They sell their product to advertisers — that’s what keeps them going. Fundamentally, the media are major corporations selling relatively privileged audiences to other businesses, so it’s not very surprising to discover that those are the interests they reflect. The managers and editors are very privileged themselves. They share associations and concerns with other privileged people. There’s a close interaction and a flow of people between corporate boardrooms, government decision-making centers, and media. Without government coercion, the independent media tend to accept as the framework for discussion the interests, concerns and perspectives of the privileged sectors of the society. That’s true of the information system and it’s also true of the political system. The distribution of resources alone determines it. As other modes of organization and articulate expression have declined, isolated individuals find themselves marginalized, and they end up by voting for a ceremonial figure, if they bother to vote at all.

QUESTION: Are you suggesting that there’s a conspiracy — that there are people who gather and decide we’re going to eliminate unions, we’re going to eliminate popular participation in political parties, we’re going to do this and that?

CHOMSKY: My point is exactly the opposite. For example, there’s no conspiracy in a board of managers that it tries to raise profits. In fact, if the managers didn’t pursue that program, they wouldn’t be in business any longer. It’s part of the structure of the social system and the way in which the institutions function within it, that they will be trying to maximize profit, market share, decision-making capacity, and so on.

QUESTION: Doing what comes naturally?

CHOMSKY: You might say it comes naturally because they would never have gotten to that point unless they had internalized those values. But it’s also constrained. If they stop doing it, their stock is going to decline.

Now, pretty much the same is true of these other institutions. Suppose we had an authentic political party reflecting the needs of the special interests — the population. It would not be supported. It would be denounced by the information system, condemned for being anti-American or subversive. It would not even have the minimal resources to keep functioning. Or suppose that some journal emerged which reflected the concerns of the special interests or seriously challenged the elite consensus on some important issue — let’s say the war in Vietnam. Suppose there was some journal that called that what it was, namely a U.S. attack against South Vietnam. Or suppose there was some journal in the country that thought that the real Iran-Contra scandal was not these various shenanigans, but that the United States was in blatant violation of international law — as it was, and nobody cared. Or suppose some journal were to focus on the fact that we are in a tiny minority, worldwide, in our opposition to arms control. All you have to do is look at the U.N. votes to find that right in the middle of the summit, when everybody’s focusing on the INF treaty, the United Nations had a series of resolutions on the militarization of outer space, on the creation of new weapons with mass destructive capabilities, on a comprehensive test ban, and so on. The United States was outvoted by numbers like 154 to 1, or 135 to 2, and so on. Most of this wasn’t even reported, incidentally. But suppose that some journal were to focus on these facts and say what they mean. Suppose that some journal were to point out that far from supporting democracy in Central America, we have been creating terror states which have destroyed the possibility of democracy. Suppose that issues of this nature were to be articulated. That journal would not long survive because it would not have the resources to survive. Resources come from the source of real power in the country — from ownership. Those who own the productive assets of the country ultimately have the capacity to determine what else functions. Now, such a journal could survive if it had mass popular support and didn’t have to rely on advertising and the financial markets.

QUESTION: If each reader subscribed.

CHOMSKY: But we’ve overcome that possibility by the isolation of individuals and by the elimination of organizations that might bring individuals together. If we want to get more insight into this, it’s good to look behind us in this process. This is a perfectly natural process under a capitalist industrial democracy. Take a country like England, which is maybe a generation behind us in this respect. England still has a labor-based party, the Labor Party. It’s a mildly reformist party. When it’s in office, it doesn’t do anything very different [from other parties] but to some extent, it reflects the interests of the poor and working class — the majority of the population. But it’s declining. Up until the 1960s England had a substantial labor-based press. The Daily Herald for example, was one of the major newspapers in England up until the 1960s. It had more readers than the Times, and the Guardian, and the Financial Times combined. That paper and other social democratic papers gave a different view of the world. They responded to different values, to different concerns — not, for example, to the value of maximizing personal gain, but to values such as solidarity and support for others. They recognized that productive workers had a right to a share of what they produced and of decision-making that they didn’t have.

Now those different values are articulated and expressed on a regular basis. That journal and the other social democratic journals disappeared, primarily because of standard market pressures. They couldn’t get advertising. Their advertising rates were too low because they had the wrong kind of readers. They couldn’t reach the capital markets for support, not because they didn’t appeal to people but because they had the wrong ideas. They disappeared. Now, there’s no conspiracy in that. Those are the workings of power.

QUESTION: All right, you bring me back to Ronald Reagan. Why do you think President Reagan is foreshadowing what is coming politically? Why do you think he’s the beginning of something?

CHOMSKY: He’s just one aspect of a much more general process of marginalizing the public and ensuring that the stupid and ignorant masses, as they are called, don’t interfere. Harold Lasswell, a major political scientist, in an article in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, back in 1933, said that we should not succumb to democratic dogmatism. We should not believe that men are the best judges of their own interests. People in general are ignorant and stupid, so we have to make sure that leaders make those decisions. Since the state does not have the power to coerce, it needs other means. He recommended propaganda. Those were more naive days.

QUESTION: Sixty years ago, when Walter Lippmann talked about the manufacturing of consent, a title not unlike your new book, he suggested that this could mark a radical change in democracy.

CHOMSKY: He said it’s a revolution in the art of democracy.

QUESTION: Do you think that’s happened?

CHOMSKY: It’s gradually happening. Up until the 1930s there was a lively working class culture in the United States. That’s a thing we tend to forget. The unions had an enormous growth in the 1930s, but since the Second World War, they’ve been increasingly marginalized.

QUESTION: Isn’t that because many times they got what they were after — a higher standard of living for the family?

CHOMSKY: They got that, to an extent, for union workers. But the question is, should that be what they’re after? Or should they be after a different kind of a society based on different values, different concerns, and different needs? I think they should. If human civilization is going to survive, the population will have to become organized to support different values.

One part of this general process of marginalization is removing elective office from popular control. If you could achieve that, you’d have achieved a lot. In this respect, the creation of the ceremonial President is a big step forward. Over the years, elections have become public relations operations, largely stage-managed. Candidates decide what to say on the basis of tests that determine what the effect will be across the population. Somehow people don’t see how profoundly contemptuous that is of democracy.

QUESTION: Contemptuous?

CHOMSKY: Suppose I’m running for office, and I don’t tell people what I think or what I’m going to do – I tell them what the pollsters have told me is going to get me elected. That’s expressing utter contempt for the electorate. That’s saying, “Okay, you people are going to have the chance to push your buttons, but once you’re done, I’ll do exactly what I intend, which is not what I’m telling you.”

QUESTION: But if you conduct polls to tell you what the people want, and they tell you, are you not listening to the voice of the people?

CHOMSKY: Only if that changes your mind. But of course the system is based on the assumption that it doesn’t change your mind, it changes what you say. In other words, a political figure is not testing the waters and saying, Okay, that’s what I believe. If we had that kind of a political figure, we wouldn’t bother voting for him. The political figure is not a barometer — he represents something, and he’s supported by certain interests and has certain commitments. Now the political figure comes before us and tells us things which the pollsters have told him will increase his chances of gaining office. After the election, he will do what is demanded of him by those who have provided him with resources. This has always been true, but what is interesting now is the extent to which it is recognized to be the democratic system. It is recognized that we don’t care what we say. We don’t express interests. What we do is reflect power. And so we have a candidate that’s rehearsed in the answers that he’s supposed to give. The debates, so-called, are basically stage-managed public relations operations.

We see the effects of this in the remarkable decline in the level of what is said. This jingoist flag-waving has a tinge of 1930s populist fascism about it. We don’t like to say it, but Hitler was a very popular leader. If he’d bothered to run an election, he probably would have won it. He used populist techniques — appealing to the population but on the basis of chauvinistic and racist premises. Now, we’re beginning to see elements of that in the demeaning of the concept of patriotism by reducing it to coerced pledges of allegiance to the flag. That’s astonishing. The fact that a political candidate can stand up in public and call someone a card-carrying member of the ACLU — that means his advisors or the people who write his words for him are telling him support for the Constitution is subversive. The ACLU is an organization that supports Constitutional rights. The phrase “card-carrying” is a way of implying, of course, that it’s somehow subversive. All of these things reflect the general vacuity of the discussion. They are just parallel modes of marginalizing the public.

QUESTION: Of reducing the importance of the individual and the individual’s participation in the political process.

CHOMSKY: We’re even proceeding beyond the point where people can ratify the decisions made by others. We’re simply being asked to elect ceremonial figures who will then be a surface for the interests behind the scenes that are conducting policy.

QUESTION: I once interviewed Edward Bernays, the pioneering figure in American business public relations. He talked about the “engineering of consent.”

CHOMSKY: Yes, he thought it was a wonderful thing. In fact, he described it as the “essence of democracy.”

QUESTION: The effort to persuade people to see things your way.

CHOMSKY: He said that the essence of democracy is that we have the freedom to persuade. But who has the freedom to persuade? Well, who runs the public relations industry? It’s not the special interests — they’re the targets of the public relations industry. The public relations industry is a major industry, closely linked to other corporations. Those are the people who have the power to persuade and who engineer the consent of others.

QUESTION: A vice president at AT&T in 1909 said that he thought the public mind was the chief danger to the company. What did he mean by that?

CHOMSKY: The general public might have funny ideas about corporate control. For example, people who really believe in democracy, people who take eighteenth-century values seriously, people who really might merit the term “conservatives” are against concentration of power. The Enlightenment held that individuals should be free from the coercion of concentrated power. The kind of concentrated power they were thinking about was the church, the state, the feudal system, and so on. But in the subsequent period, a new form of power developed — namely, corporations — with highly-concentrated power over decision-making in economic life. We should not be forced simply to rent ourselves to the people who own the country and its institutions. Rather, we should play a role in determining what those institutions do. That’s democracy.

QUESTION: That is the premise of your whole view, is it not? That in democracy, the people should initiate –?

CHOMSKY: They should run their own organization, whether it’s a community or a union.

QUESTION: Should corporations be run by their shareholders?

CHOMSKY: No, they should be run by the employees. I don’t think there should be shareholders. The very idea of shareholders reflects the conception of the wealthy getting more votes than the poor — a lot more votes, in fact. If we were to move toward democracy, even in the eighteenth-century sense, there would be no maldistribution of power in determining what’s produced, what’s distributed, and what’s invested. In fact, unless we move in that direction, human society probably isn’t going to survive.

QUESTION: Why not?

CHOMSKY: We now face the most awesome problems of human history — nuclear conflict and the destruction of our fragile environment. They’re of a level of seriousness that they never were in the past.

QUESTION: But why do you think more democracy is the answer?

CHOMSKY: More democracy is a value in itself. Democracy as a value doesn’t have to be defended any more than freedom has to be defended. It’s an essential feature of human nature that people should be free, should be able to participate, and should be uncoerced.

QUESTION: But why do you think if we go that route –?

CHOMSKY: — that’s the only hope that other values will come to the fore. If the society is based on control by private wealth, it will reflect the values that it, in fact, does reflect now — greed and the desire to maximize personal gain at the expense of others. A small society based on that principle is ugly, but it can survive. A global society based on that principle is headed for massive destruction. We have to have a mode of social organization that reflects other values inherent in human nature. It’s not the case that in the family every person tries to maximize personal gain at the expense of others. If they do, it’s pathological. It’s not the case, if you and I are walking down the street and we see a child eating a piece of candy, and we see that nobody’s around, and we happen to be hungry, that we steal the candy. Concern for other people’s needs and concern for our fragile environment that must sustain future generations are part of human nature. But these elements are suppressed in a social system which is designed to maximize personal gain. We must try to overcome that suppression. That’s, in fact, what democracy could bring about. It could lead to the expression of other needs and values which tend to be suppressed under the institutional structure of a system of private power and profit.

QUESTION: But by your own analysis, we’re moving in the other direction.

CHOMSKY: Certainly the institutions are moving toward more centralization, more marginalization, the elimination of options, and so on. On the other hand, the population itself is increasingly dissident.

QUESTION: What’s the evidence for that other than the polls?

CHOMSKY: Something much more striking than the polls are the events of the 1980s. In the 1980s the government was driven underground. It was forced to undertake large-scale clandestine activities because the domestic population would not tolerate those activities overtly. The Reagan Administration is the first Administration to have created anything like the State Department Office of Public Diplomacy.

QUESTION: I have to tell you, the Kennedy Administration, the Johnson Administration, and the Nixon Administration all engaged in domestic propaganda.

CHOMSKY: Yes, but there’s a substantial increase in scale under Reagan. The Reagan Administration had a massive enterprise to control the public mind. In fact, when this was exposed during the Iran/Contra hearings, partially exposed, one high administration official described it as the most successful operation carried out. He said it’s the kind of operation that you carry out in enemy territory. And that expresses the attitude toward the population completely. The population is the “enemy,” and you’ve got to control “enemy territory” by and by very extensive public diplomacy — meaning propaganda. Sure, propaganda has always been there, but there’s a qualitative change in the resources and intelligence drawn upon to ensure that the enemy territory is controlled. When John F. Kennedy sent the American Air Force to start bombing South Vietnam in 1962, he didn’t have to keep it secret. It was on the front page of the New York Times and nobody cared. When Johnson sent twenty thousand Marines to the Dominican Republican to prevent a democratic revival there, it wasn’t secret. When we subverted the only free election in Laos in 1959, it wasn’t secret. Nobody ever cared about these things. The population was really marginalized.That changed as a result of the popular movements of the sixties, which had a dramatic and lasting effect on the country.

QUESTION: You keep coming back, though, to the opposition to our Central American policies, so I have to keep coming back to asking: What’s the evidence of other dissidence?

CHOMSKY: In the early sixties, there was nothing like an environmental movement, or a feminist movement. There was an anti-nuclear movement, but it was a few people sitting in a room somewhere. It’s now a movement so vast that it got something like seventy-five percent support for a nuclear freeze. It couldn’t do anything with that support, but that’s because the organizational structure was lacking. But all of these developments are extremely significant. In the 1960s, the churches were either supportive of government military intervention or else quiescent. Now it’s very different.

QUESTION: But the Civil Rights movement was driven by religious folk.

CHOMSKY: I don’t think that’s true. The Civil Rights movement was driven by people like the SNCC organizers.

QUESTION: Martin Luther King was himself a Baptist minister.

CHOMSKY: The Civil Rights movement did have wide-scale support, even business support. But the thrust of the Civil Rights movement was not directed against the interests of centralized power in the United States. The protest against the war, of the environmental movement, and the feminist movement in many respects, are directed against power. Those movements didn’t exist in the sixties.

QUESTION: You’re saying there’s more democracy today?

CHOMSKY: On the one hand, there’s a lot more popular expression of democracy; on the other hand, it’s less and less a part of the actual institutions of the system. I can see it in my own life. Over the last couple of years, the demands on me to speak have escalated beyond anything imaginable. And the audiences are interested and thoughtful, and include parts of the population that you couldn’t have talked to years ago. Others, who are doing similar things, notice it, too.

QUESTION: I don’t see you on television and I don’t see your books reviewed.

CHOMSKY: Even in that respect, there’s an illusion that years ago things were different. It’s not true. There’s limited exposure for dissidents, but it’s more than it was. It’s more than it was in the sixties, for example. I wouldn’t have been on a program like this in the late 1960s, that’s for certain. And while my books will sometimes be reviewed today, the ones I wrote some years ago almost never were.

QUESTION: Do you think you’re more tolerated today?

CHOMSKY: Yes, partly because my positions are less out of the mainstream as the mainstream changes.

QUESTION: But there’s a paradox here. You say you’re invited to speak constantly and people are listening to you, but at the same time the political process itself is not listening.

CHOMSKY: It’s listening, but in its own way. It’s not listening by giving us the opportunity to express ourselves and control its policies. It’s listening by going underground when it can’t convince us. In 1981, when the Reagan Administration flew their trial balloon, they listened and discovered that military intervention was not going to play. We know they listened because they then resorted to secrecy in carrying out clandestine activities so as to prevent the domestic enemy from knowing what they were doing. There’s a lot of ferment and the people who have power have to respond to it. Remember, even a totalitarian state — and we’re very far from that — has to pay attention to public opinion. Hitler’s main economic adviser, Albert Speer, is very, very interesting on this topic. He says in his memoirs that Nazi Germany was unable to become a real, functioning totalitarian state during the war. He says it was less able to do so than England and the United States, because in England and the United States, the government trusted its population, and the population was willing and committed, and accepted what amounted to totalitarian structures to win the war. In Germany, the government never trusted its own population, so they had to buy them off. Speer claims that that set back the German war effort by maybe a year or two, which may have made them lose the war.

Now, the United States began to face that problem in the sixties. Johnson was unable to declare a national mobilization of the kind that was carried out in the 1940s. The result was that the economic system began to be injured. If they had carried out a true national mobilization of the 1940s type, it probably would have helped the economy, as it did in the 1940s. But this kind of guns-and-butter war, a war fought on deficit financing, buying off the dissident public by making them promises because you couldn’t trust them — that’s harmful. It led to stagflation and ultimately to the point where corporate leaders pressured to call off the war because it was harming the U.S. economy vis-a-vis its industrial rivals.

That was a victory for dissidents, for the peace movement. In many ways that’s continued into the seventies and eighties. It’s led on the one hand to much more sophisticated propaganda and public diplomacy and by intensive efforts by the media to narrow debate and discussion. On the other hand this ferment from below is always interfering. Take journalism, for example. People have filtered into the system who came out of this dissident culture, and they’re hard to control.

QUESTION: A lot of people claim that the media are unpatriotic, disloyal, too liberal.

CHOMSKY: That’s an interesting complaint because if you take the actual incidents and cases, what you find is that the media are remarkably subservient to power. There are people for whom subservience isn’t enough — you have to actually grovel. They’re the ones who call the media unpatriotic.

We go through a lot of such cases of media criticism in our book. The most interesting is the coverage of the Tet Offensive. Freedom House did a big, two-volume study accusing the press of virtually losing the war because of its adversarial contempt for power. But if you look through that material carefully, you find quite a different picture. You find that the media kept entirely to the framework of government assumptions. The media reporting of the war at the time of the Tet Offensive was probably a little more accurate than American intelligence, but it was basically the same, except that it was more optimistic for American goals, because it was taking the government’s public statements seriously and didn’t know what intelligence was saying in the background. We know that, thanks to Ellsberg and others and the Pentagon Papers. The basis of the Freedom House critique comes down to the argument that the media should not only accept the whole framework of government falsification and perversion of the facts, and it should not only talk about us as defending the country we’re attacking, it should do so with great enthusiasm. If it’s not upbeat enough about what’s going on, then it’s unpatriotic. Now, that’s demanding a very high standard of subservience to the state.

QUESTION: So you meant it when you said that the state and the media act in cahoots to sustain the interests of the superpower they serve?

CHOMSKY: They don’t always act in cahoots, but they reflect the same domestic interests. There is often a tactical debate among elites. Take Nicaragua, for example. There’s been a consensus among the power elites about what to do. The consensus is, we have to block the Sandinista programs, not for the reasons that are given, but because they might be successful. The Sandinistas were diverting resources to the poor majority — and that’s unacceptable. They were not paying appropriate concern to the needs of investors, including American investors. They were what George Schultz calls a cancer. They were raising the threat of what secret documents call nationalism — the kind of nationalist regime that is responsive to the need of its own population and that we never tolerate, for obvious reasons. No great power ever tolerates those. So we have to stop it. On that there’s a consensus. The only debate is about how to do it. On the one hand, the hawks say we have to stop them by violence. On the other hand, the doves say violence isn’t working, so we have to find some other way, as Senator Alan Cranston says, to get them to fester in their own juices or to impose regional standards on them. No one argues that we have to impose regional standards on El Salvador, or Guatemala, or Honduras — states which are under military control, in effect, and which serve the interests of the local oligarchy and business and foreign investors while they are torturing and murdering and suppressing their own population. That’s already fine; we don’t have to impose any regional standards on them.

But on Nicaragua, we have to impose regional standards — if not by force, then some other way. They have to conform to the Central American mode, as the Washington Post puts it. I’ve done a lot of media studies on this. In the opinion columns and news reports, you find close to a hundred percent agreement that the Sandinista regime is intolerable. There’s virtual agreement that they don’t have an elected president whereas El Salvador and Guatemala do have elected presidents. That’s remarkable. It requires something like a kind of voluntary totalitarianism to say this, since plainly they had an election which had plenty of flaws but was certainly freer than the ones in El Salvador and Guatemala. There’s plenty of international testimony to that effect. But we have a consensus that they didn’t have an election, and they don’t have an elected president, so we’ve go to undermine them. The terror states, on the other hand, are just fine. They’re flawed democracies, but democracies, and so on. On that there’s a consensus, and you find virtually no deviation from it in the media.

QUESTION: If that’s so, why did so many journalists go down there and come back with stories of what the Contras were doing?

CHOMSKY: It’s very striking that they didn’t.

QUESTION: There were many who did.

CHOMSKY: Again, I’ve reviewed this in detail. The coverage of Contra atrocities has been extremely low, just as coverage of atrocities in El Salvador and Guatemala has been low. On the other hand, there’s been intense focus on Sandinista repression — which falls far below that of the Contras or of El Salvador or Guatemala.

QUESTION: You’re saying that the primary function of the mass media is to mobilize public support for the interests that dominate the government and the private sector. But that’s not how the media see it. We claim that our news judgments rest on unbiased, objective criteria.

CHOMSKY: The chairman of the board also sees what he’s doing as service to humanity.

QUESTION: You mean, we’re like the lobster in the trap, we can’t see it close behind us?

CHOMSKY: You don’t make it to a high position in the media, whether as columnist or managing editor, unless you’ve already internalized the required values, unless you already believe that the United States is unique in history in that it acts from benevolent motives. Now, benevolent motives are not properties of states, whether it’s the United States or any other state. The United States acts because of the interests of groups that have power within it, like any other society — but anyone who believes this truism is already excluded. You have to believe that whatever the United States does is defensive. If we bomb South Vietnam, we’re defending South Vietnam. But of course if the Russians invade Afghanistan, that’s not defense, although the Politburo would tell you they’re defending Afghanistan against terrorists supported from the outside. They’ll even tell you they were invited in. There’s an element of truth to that but we naturally dismiss it as nonsense. On the other hand, when we create a government in South Vietnam to invite us in, and we attack the population of South Vietnam — and we bomb people to drive them into concentration camps so we can separate them from the guerrillas that we concede they’re supporting — we’re defending South Vietnam. Anyone who doesn’t agree with this is not part of the system.

QUESTION: You’re equating the Soviet Union and the United States. Jeanne Kirkpatrick and others would say the fundamental fallacy of your approach is that you see a moral equivalency —

CHOMSKY: — I don’t say anything of the kind. The Soviet Union and the United States are at opposite poles among contemporary political systems. What I‘m saying is that even though they’re at opposite poles, in some respects they behave alike, for deep-seated reasons that have to with the exercise of power and institutions. That has nothing to do with moral equivalence.

QUESTION: You do admit that we are a free society.

CHOMSKY: I not only admit it, I insist upon it. I insist that we are a free society and that the Soviet Union is a dungeon, and that therefore we have completely different methods of population control. In fact, I’ve written a lot about this. There’s no moral equivalence here. No state is truly totalitarian, but as we move toward the totalitarian end of the spectrum, the technique is roughly that satirized by Orwell. You have a ministry of truth that announces official truths. People can believe it or not. Nobody cares very much. It’s sufficient that they obey. Totalitarian states don’t really care what people think, because they always have a club at hand to beat them over the head if they do the wrong thing.

QUESTION: They force people to do what they want them to do.

CHOMSKY: People can think what they like in private, but they’d better do what we tell them in public. That’s the model toward which totalitarian states tend. As a result, the propaganda may not be too effective. On the other hand, democratic states can’t use those mechanisms. Since you can’t force people, you have to control what they think. You have to have more sophisticated forms of indoctrination.

QUESTION: That’s what you meant when you said, “Propaganda is to democracy what violence is to the totalitarian state.” What form does propaganda take in a democratic society?

CHOMSKY: The basic way it works is by taking certain assumptions, which express the basic ideas of the propaganda system, and then allowing debate, but only within the framework of those assumptions. The debate, therefore, enhances the strength of the assumptions. Take the Vietnam War, for example. In the Vietnam War there was an assumption that was shared among elites, but not by the general population, namely, “We are defending South Vietnam in the interest of democracy and freedom.”

QUESTION: I can tell you that’s what Lyndon Johnson honestly thought.

CHOMSKY: I’m sure evry editor thought it, too. I have found virtually no exception to this pattern in twenty-five years of study of the media. No one describes the United States’ attack on South Vietnam for what it was. We can describe the Rusian invasion of Afghanistan as what it was. But the American invasion of South Vietnam was defense. Even when we were wiping the population, even when we were blocking the political system, and so on, it was always defense, and to that, there’s no deviation. That’s the assumption.

Now, within that assumption, you can have a debate between the hawks and the doves. As in the case now in Nicaragua, the hawks said, “Look, if we use enough violence, we’ll win.” And the doves said, “I hope you’re right, but I don’t think you are. I think no matter how much violence we use, it’s going to cost us too much, or it’s going to be too bloody,” or something like that. Now the debate is encouraged, and even gives the impression that there’s a dispute. There is sort of a dispute, but it’s merely a tactical dispute within shared assumptions.

What was particularly striking about the Vietnam case is that a large majority of the population came to deny the assumption. By around 1970, and even up until today, a substantial majority of the population says that the war was not a mistake, it was fundamentally wrong and immoral. But anyone who accepted that view was not part of the discussion, even though it came to be accepted by two-thirds or more of the population. Here is a striking case where the propaganda system and the attitudes of the elites became very distinct from those among the general population. The propaganda wasn’t working. That’s the crisis of democracy, in fact — to overcome the problem that the people are out of control.

QUESTION: If all this ferment is going on, if there is more dissidence now than you can remember, why do you go on to write that the people feel isolated?

CHOMSKY: Much of the general population recognizes that the organized institutions do not reflect their concerns and interests and needs. They do not feel that they participate meaningfully in the political system. They do not feel that the media are telling them the truth or even reflect their concerns. They go outside of the organized institutions to act. So, on the one hand, you have a lot of popular ferment and a lot of dissidence, sometimes very effective. On the other hand, you have a remoteness of the general public from the functioning institutions.

QUESTION: We see more and more of our elected leaders and know less and less of what they’re doing.

CHOMSKY: The presidential elections are hardly ever taken seriously as a matter of choice. Congress, especially the House, is more responsive to public opinion than higher levels, but even here the rate of electoral victory by incumbents is in the high nineties. That’s a way of saying that there aren’t any elections.

QUESTION: You get those sort of election results in Communist and totalitarian states.

CHOMSKY: It means something else is happening, not choice. Options are not being presented. You have a complex situation in the United States. A cleavage is taking place between a rather substantial part of the population and elite elements.

QUESTION: But those elite elements are supported by a substantial part of the population. There are people who take the debates seriously, who go and vote, who believe they’re participating in a legitimate exercise of democracy.

CHOMSKY: It’s not a cleavage to the point of revolution. It’s not as if you had an aristocracy facing a mass population. It’s not Iran in 1978. It’s split and complex and fluid — you can see tendencies toward popular marginalization from functioning institutions, and the abstraction of those institutions from public participation, or even from reflection of the public will.

QUESTION: Now, put that in the vernacular. That means what?

CHOMSKY: It means that the political system increasingly functions without public input. It means that to an increasing extent not only do people not participate in decision-making, they don’t even take the trouble of ratifying the decisions presented to them. They assume the decisions are going on independently of what they may do in the polling booth.

QUESTION: Ratification means —

CHOMSKY: Ratification would mean a system in which there are two positions presented to me, the voter. I go into the polling booth and I push one or another button depending on which of those positions I want. Now, that’s a very limited form of democracy. In a really meaningful democracy, I’d play a role in forming those positions. Those positions would reflect my active, creative participation — not just me, but everyone, of course. That would be real democracy. We’re very far from that. But now we’re even departing from the point where there is ratification. When you have stage-managed elections, with the public relations industry determining what words come out of people’s mouths, even the element of ratification is disappearing. You don’t expect the candidates to stand for anything, you simply expect them to say what the public relations expert tells them will get them past the next obstacle. The public expects Ronald Reagan to have his lines memorized.

QUESTION: I don’t understand why the candidates for President don’t take the campaign back from the media. Instead of having questions from journalists, they should want to sit like this and talk about abortion, foreign policy —

CHOMSKY: That would allow the population the option of ratification at least. We could find out what this person really believes and decide whether we want that. These are among the concrete examples of how the institutions are less and less structures in which people meaningfully participate.

QUESTION: They see them like a mountain range they will never climb.

CHOMSKY: However, at the very same time, people are complex creatures. If they can’t organize and act and express their interests and their needs through formal institutions, they’ll do it in other ways. To a large extent they are. So that’s why I think you have this complex system. There’s an increasing cleavage between articulate intellectual opinion and public opinion. The articulate intelligentsia have taken part in this so-called right turn of the 1970s and ‘80s. They’ve articulated and expressed it. But I don’t think the population has. In fact, they less and less feel that the organized intellectuals are expressing what’s on their minds., or helping them clarify what they think. Now, that’s hard to prove, but it’s a sense I have about what’s going on now.

QUESTION: What do we do about it? I don’t want to leave people with a wholly negative analysis. You have said that we live entangled in webs of endless deceit, that we live in a highly indoctrinated society where elementary truths are easily buried.

CHOMSKY: I do believe that.

QUESTION: What elementary truths are buried?

CHOMSKY: The fact that we invaded South Vietnam. The fact that we are standing in the way of significant — and have stood in the way for years — of significant moves towards arms negotiation. The fact that the military system is to a substantial extent a mechanism by which the general population is compelled to provide a subsidy to high-technology industry. Since they’re not going to do it if you ask them to, you have to deceive them into doing it. There are many truths like that, and we don’t face them.

QUESTION: How do we extricate ourselves from this web of endless deceit?

CHOMSKY: An isolated individual can do it. Human beings have tremendous capacities. If they’re willing to make the effort, if they’re willing to look at themselves in the mirror and to think honestly, they can do it — with hard work.

QUESTION: One would at least have to have money to subscribe to journals and newspapers.

CHOMSKY: Unfortunately, that’s true. You need resources. It’s easy for me to say, because I’ve got the resources. But for most people, it’s extremely hard. That’s why you need organization. If a real democracy is going to thrive, if the real values that are deeply embedded in human nature are going to be able to flourish, groups must form in which people can join together, share their concerns, discover what they think, what they believe, and what their values are. This can’t be imposed on you from above. You have to discover it by experiment, effort, trial, application, and so on.And this has to be done with others. Central to human nature is a need to be engaged with others in cooperative efforts of solidarity and concern. That can only happen through group structures. I would like to see a society moving toward voluntary organization and eliminating as much as possible structures of hierarchy and domination, and the basis for them in ownership and control.

QUESTION: Do you think a citizen has to have far-reaching specialized knowledge to understand the realities of power and what’s really going on?

CHOMSKY: It’s not absolutely trivial, but as compared to intellectually complex tasks, it’s pretty slight. It’s not like the sciences, where there are so many things you have to study and know something about. By and large, what happens in political life is relatively accessible. It doesn’t take special training or unusual intelligence. What it really takes is honesty. If you’re honest, you can see it.

QUESTION: Do you believe in common sense? I mean you’re a —

CHOMSKY: Absolutely, I believe in Cartesian common sense. I think people have the capacities to see through the deceit in which they are ensnared, but they’ve got to make the effort. As you correctly pointed out, for an individual to make the effort is very hard.

QUESTION: Let’s grant for a moment that your analysis is correct. You have government with its vast propaganda machinery and billions of dollars being spent on “informing the public.” You have the media interlocking with the government, and you have corporations themselves. So you’ve got the dominant institutions of society — business, government and media — all joined in defining what is happening in the real world. How does a lonely individual counter this official view of reality?

CHOMSKY: You struggle on your own. The marginalization of the population and its separation from institutions could potentially lead to a mass base for a fascist movement. We’ve been extremely lucky in the United States that we’ve never really had a charismatic leader who was capable or organizing people around power and its use. There were people who came close, but most of them couldn’t make it. Joe McCarthy was too much of a thug and Richard Nixon nobody could trust, and Ronald Reagan people regard as basically as a clown. There has not been a figure who could do that. But it could happen. In a depoliticized society with few mechanisms for people to express their fears and needs and to participate constructively in managing the affairs of life, someone could come along who was interested not in personal gain, but in power. That could be very dangerous.

QUESTION: I think the danger is the opposite of that — just a general passivity on the part of the people in which the system continues to function.

CHOMSKY: That’s another possibility. But the third and more hopeful one is that out of the growing sense of remoteness from actual power, the sense that the democratic forms are not functioning as they should, the sense that you’re being deceived and lied to — out of that can come the recognition that popular organization and popular struggle does have effects. Out of all that can come the basis for a much more democratic order.

QUESTION: Do you believe that by nature human beings yearn for freedom? Or in the interests of safety, security, and conformity, do we settle for order?

CHOMSKY: These are really matters of faith rather than knowledge. On the one hand, you have the Grand Inquisitor who tells you that what humans crave is submission, and therefore Christ is a criminal and we have to vanquish freedom. That’s one view. The other view, held by Rousseau, for example, is that people are born to be free and that their basic instinct is the desire to free themselves from coercion, authority, and oppression. Where you stake your hopes depends on what you believe. I’d like to believe that people are born to be free, but if you ask for proof, I couldn’t give it to you.

QUESTION: You talk about faith. Do you have faith in freedom?

CHOMSKY: I try not to have irrational belief. We should try to act on the basis of our knowledge and understanding, recognizing that they’re limited. But you have to make choices and those choices have to be determined by matters that go well beyond anything you can demonstrate or prove. In that sense, I have faith — but I would like to think it’s at least the kind of faith which is subject to the test of fact and reason.

QUESTION: This is the first time I’ve met you. To be honest, I expected to find a man somewhat cynical and disillusioned because you haven’t played by the games of the consensus. You have dealt with truth that has not been admissible into the realm of the common political discourse., and as a consequence of that, you have for a time been ostracized by the political community. Why are you not cynical and disillusioned?

CHOMSKY: That’s not exactly the way I see what’s happened. My own views go back to childhood.But I became really active politically in the early sixties. At the time I thought it was utterly hopeless. I never thought there was the slightest possibility that anything could be done to overcome the jingoist fanaticism that had virtually no break in it at that point. In fact, I was doing what I was doing primarily because I simply couldn’t look myself in the mirror and not do it. I was spending my evenings talking in somebody’s living room to three neighbors, two o whom wanted to lynch me, and taking part in demonstrations so small that we had to be protected by the police to keep everybody from killing us. This went on for a while. I never thought a serious movement would develop.

QUESTION: You were a scholar living a quiet life in the world of linguistics. What propelled you into activism?

CHOMSKY: I was living a very pleasant life, in fact. I remember thinking very hard about whether to get involved because I knew exactly where it was going to go. It’s the kind of involvement which only grows. There are more issues and more problems and more needs, and once you are willing to take what is clearly the step that honesty and integrity requires and become involved in these issues, there’s never going to be any end to the demands.

QUESTION: So many people want you to write and speak.

CHOMSKY: And to demonstrate and get arrested.

QUESTION: But what was it? Was it the war?

CHOMSKY: That’s what pushed me over the limit. Partly it was the fact that the war was so horrible. It was also partly because I was extremely impressed by the young people involved in the civil rights movement. As in most popular movements, the people who actually carried that one through to fruition are unknown to history. Some of them were killed or marginalized or forgotten.

QUESTION: And the movement succeeded.

CHOMSKY: The movement succeeded, but it succeeded out of tremendous courage and dedication. That was impressive. And then, as the war began to escalate, I began to think I had gotten involved much too late. I definitely felt that I should have been deeply engaged years earlier. When I did become seriously engaged in the early sixties, it was with a sense that this is a real step that’s going to change my life. It’s going to be a lot of unpleasantness. I expected to spend several years in jail, and if it hadn’t been for the Tet Offensive, I probably would have. I was actively involved in open resistance. It was not a secret. I could see where it was going, and it wasn’t a pleasant sight.

I don’t like public life. I don’t like demonstrations. I don’t like being maced. I don’t like giving a talk to a big crowd. There are all sorts of things I much prefer not to do. You asked about cynicism — I felt it was hopeless, but there was nothing else I could do at that point. Over the years it turned out I was very much wrong, and it was anything but hopeless. The achievements went far beyond anything I could imagine.

QUESTION: Stopping the war.

CHOMSKY: Yes, and creating a big cultural change. Lots and lots of people, of whom I was one tiny example, were doing the same thing. The general effect was to dramatically change the cultural climate in all sorts of respects, in everything from civil rights to the war to feminism to the environment. Take Native Americans, for example. That’s something we should have been facing for hundreds of years. But it was literally not until the 1970s that it became possible for American citizens to look at what they had done to the native population. That’s a remarkable fact. It’s really only in the seventies that we got beyond the “cowboy and Indian” nonsense. Now, we’ve begun to face the fact that there were lots and lots of people here who aren’t here anymore. Something happened to them for which the settlers were responsible.

QUESTION: Now, as a result of that, the upcoming celebration of the five hundredth year of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of Americas will also be met by a counter demonstration, by descendants of those millions of people who were wiped out after the Europeans arrived.

CHOMSKY: That’s right. I hope others will join in that. I once wrote that every October we have a day celebrating Columbus, who in fact was a major murderer. Some reviewers were absolutely outraged by that. One described it as bitter and humorless. Frankly, genocide isn’t very humorous.

QUESTION: Someone wrote that you have taken on too much of the harshness of the world that you’ve struggled against —

CHOMSKY: Well, I don’t feel it. I think I know the person who wrote that, and I think he’s missing the point. This is a reviewer who pointed out that the character of my writing has changed somewhat over the years. The kind of things that I am now saying about institutional structures I did not say in the late sixties, not because I didn’t believe them, but because I felt that audiences wouldn’t understand what I was talking about. I would not talk about the nature of capitalism. I would not talk about the fact that if you’re forced to rent yourself to an owner of capital, that’s better than slavery, but it’s very far from being a system that a free human being could accept. I didn’t talk very much about these things because they were too remote from consciousness and understanding. Now I talk about anything to any audience in the country. No matter who it is, I say approximately the same thing, and I don’t feel any constraints any more. The audiences that you reach today are just a lot more sophisticated.

QUESTION: But you have to reach them practically face-to-face because this mass medium pays little attention to the views of dissenters. Not just Noam Chomsky but most dissenters do not get much of a hearing in this medium.

CHOMSKY: That’s completely understandable. The media wouldn’t be performing their societal function if they allowed favored truths to be challenged because their very institutional role is to establish certain truths and beliefs and not to allow them to be challenged.

QUESTION: In order to cohere, society needs a consensus, does it not? It needs an agreed-upon set of assumptions.

CHOMSKY: I think we need tentative assumptions in order to continue with our lives, but we also ought to be a healthy society that not only tolerates but encourages challenge. That’s what happens in the sciences. In the sciences, where the world is keeping you honest, not i=only is challenge tolerated, but it’s stimulated. When students come along with a new idea that threatens established beliefs, you don’t kick them out of your office. You pay attention.

QUESTION: But in politics?

CHOMSKY: In political life, the object is to preserve privilege and power. But that’s not a value that should be protected, that’s a characteristic that should be overcome. I’m not saying you should question everything, always — that’s hopeless. I walk out the door and I don’t think the floor is going to collapse. Of course, you accept things. You have… faith and beliefs, and you operate on the basis of them. But you should recognize that they are subject to challenge and that if the past is any guide, they’re probably wrong, because beliefs have generally been wrong in the past.

For example, it wasn’t very long ago that slavery was considered moral. The slave owners offered a moral basis for slavery. Nobody does that anymore. Or take the issues raised by the feminist movement. These are things many people simply did not see thirty years ago. Now the problems are still there, but we have greater insight into our own nature. We discover forms of repression and authority that we know we do not accept as moral human beings and that we try to overcome. You can sense such progress. At the same time, you also have decline: Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia —

QUESTION: — the genocide of this century, the Holocaust —

CHOMSKY: — it’s indescribable. That’s why it’s hard to look at the twentieth century and say that you’re an optimist.

QUESTION: What about the twenty-first century?

CHOMSKY: We’re not going to get far into the twenty-first century unless these problems are overcome because the problems are no longer localized. Hitler’s genocide was probably the worst moment in human history, but it was still, in a sense, localized. It was a huge massacre, but it was bounded. The problems we are now facing are not going to be bounded. If there is a superpower confrontation or even a confrontation among lesser nuclear powers, that’s not going to be bounded in any sense that wars were in the past.

QUESTION: Or if we all unplug the environment.

CHOMSKY: If we continue to act on the assumption that the only thing that matters is personal greed and personal gain, the commons will be destroyed. Other human values have to be expressed if future generations are going to even be able to survive.

QUESTION: Seems a little incongruous to hear a man from the ivory tower of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a scholar, a distinguished linguistics scholar, talk about common people with such appreciation and common sense.

CHOMSKY: I think that scholarship, at least the field that I work in, has the opposite consequences. My own studies in language and human cognition demonstrate, to me at least, what remarkable creativity ordinary people have. The very fact that people talk to one another is a reflection — just in a normal way, I don’t mean anything particularly fancy — reflects deep-seated features of human creativity which in fact separate human beings from any other biological system we know.