IRA SHORR: The New York Times has referred to Noam Chomsky as “arguably the most important intellectual alive.” His work in linguistics at MIT changed the field forever and earned Chomsky international renown. His extensive range of publications in linguistics and political science have made him the most cited author living today. Indeed, Noam Chomsky ranks only behind Shakespeare, Plato and Freud as the most cited author ever. But it is as a social critic and analyst of American foreign policy that Noam Chomsky is at his most controversial….
His explicit and profound critique of US foreign policy has put him consistently at odds with government officials and media pundits alike. And while Chomsky’s writing and appearances command a large and fervent following among segments of the US public, he remains virtually invisible on the mainstream media scene.
Noam Chomsky teaches at MIT in Boston, but lectures extensively around the United States on political and social issues. Chomsky was in Washington recently to speak at the University of the District of Columbia, where he offered his insights into why US military budgets remain at Cold War levels and who benefits from high military spending. We spoke with Noam Chomsky following his speech.
CHOMSKY [clip from speech at UDC]: The Pentagon budget has to increase, according to the Pentagon budget, and of course the other component of the security system, the imprisonment of the population, which is now taken off into the stratosphere, that part has to increase, too. Newt Gingrich, of course, agrees, and the reasons are explained.
The reasons were explained, for example, by a spokesman for the aircraft industry, for Lockheed — which happens to have its corporate headquarters in Gingrich’s district and just received a huge subsidy from the Clinton administration for having had to face the big problem of merging with Martin Marietta, along with big subsidies for the corporate executives, and so on. So, an executive of Lockheed-Martin, the new merged corporation, pointed out that “it’s a dangerous world out there in which sophisticated fighter planes are being sold.” So, we’re really in trouble.
Who are they being sold by? Well, mostly by us. We had about 75 percent of the international arms market at that time for the Third World, and he pointed that out. The executive went on to say, “We’ve sold the F-16,” the most advanced fighter plane — “We’ve sold the F-16 all over the world. What if a friend or ally turns against us?” So, it’s a real dangerous world out there.
And there’s an obvious solution to that. Namely, we should sell still more F-16s, but now upgraded ones. So, the public should pay Lockheed — and put money into the hands of Gingrich’s constituents — we should pay Lockheed to upgrade F-16s, so they’re even more dangerous. And then we should do what’s called “selling them to the Third World”, which means giving them with Export-Import Bank loans and other guarantees that are, again, paid for by the public.
And having created a more dangerous world out there, we then have to spend tens of billions of dollars on F-22s in order to counter the threat that’s created this way. That’s the obvious solution and that’s indeed what we’re doing. And that’s why the Pentagon budget is going up, with a sort of a small point on the side.
Incidentally, the public is overwhelmingly opposed to this. The public is, by about six-to-one, opposed to increasing the Pentagon budget. The Pentagon is opposed to it, says it doesn’t want all that stuff.
But there’s someone more important who does want it. Namely, people like Newt Gingrich’s rich constituents and others like them, who have to be protected from market discipline. If they had to face the market, they’d be out selling rags or something, but they need a nanny state, a powerful nanny state to pour money into their pockets. They happen to be there represented by the country’s leading welfare freak, Newt Gingrich. That’s literally correct. It’s not an exaggeration and it’s, furthermore, well known, although it’s not reported. Nor is the fact that the Pentagon system has long been the country’s biggest welfare program, transferring massive public funds to high-tech industry on the pretext of defense and security. And that it is a pretext is also well known and has been public, certainly in Washington, since the late 1940s. For example, when the senator from Missouri, Senator Symington, an aircraft producer at that time, Secretary of the Air Force under Truman explained that the word to use is not “subsidy,” the word to use is “security.”
SHORR: Current plans call for increasing US military spending by $7 billion more than the Pentagon requested. Why do you think that in the absence of an enemy that was supposedly as formidable as the former Soviet Union was that military spending is going up?
CHOMSKY: Well, what that shows us is what we should have known all along and, indeed, was obvious all along, that military spending had very little to do with the Soviet Union. In fact, this gives us a good measure as to the actual assessment of the Soviet threat. Military spending is now — before the increases — is now at a higher level in real terms than it was under Nixon. It’s at about 85 percent of the Cold War average and it’s now going up. And that gives a rational person a measure of how seriously the Soviet threat was taken. Answer: Not seriously at all, or very marginally.
SHORR: Well, we were fighting communism, is what we were told.
CHOMSKY: Well, what we called communism, but communism could be priests organizing peasants in El Salvador. We were fighting somebody who was trying to construct a system of — a socio-economic system that was not in the interest of American investors. And then if you can get them to rely on the Russians, so much the better. And because of that, it sort of took a Cold War aspect to it, you know, on the margins, but no serious planner could have believed it.
And, in fact, if you look at the record, it’s clear and now we know, because the Soviet Union is gone and everything remains the same. Yes, because the policies had very little to do with the Soviet Union, except in so far as it’s a big force and — like if you attack Nicaragua and you block arms from France, they’ll turn to the Russians. Yes, in that respect, the Russians were there.
SHORR: What does it have to do with then —
CHOMSKY: Exactly what planners said.
SHORR: But what is it now? Who is the enemy?
CHOMSKY: Same as it always was. In fact, the enemy always was Third World nationalism, still is Third World nationalism. So, for example, if you look at the new military — It was quite interesting to — The White House presents to Congress every year a request for, you know, kind of a request for a big military budget. It comes usually in the spring. Well, I was kind of curious to see — It’s always the same, you know, Russian monsters, we need a huge military budget, etc.
I was interested to see what it would be after the fall of the Berlin Wall, so I took a look at that one, March 1990. It was the same glossy pamphlet, you know, the bottom line was the same: A huge military budget to keep the defense industrial base going, we need the intervention forces, and so on. The only thing that they changed was the argument. It wasn’t “the Russians are coming”, because nobody could be insane enough to believe the Russians were coming at that time, it was the — I’m quoting now — “the technological sophistication of Third World powers.”
The point of all of this is ancillary to something else. And what that something else is is well understood by Newt Gingrich and the Heritage Foundation who want the Pentagon budget to go up and has been understood by the business community since the 1940s. And that is this is the way in which you compel the public, frighten the public into paying the cost of high-tech industry. Newt Gingrich is a perfect example of this.
SHORR: High-tech industry, but not high-tech, high-speed rail, high-tech environmental protection equipment.
CHOMSKY: No, because that’s not good for investors. High-tech indus- — The United States, in fact, destroyed the rail system and created a huge highway-airway system because that’s what’s good for advanced industry. Railways are too efficient.
In fact, this was done in a — it was a literal conspiracy. GM, Firestone and Standard Oil were brought to court for conspiracy on this and charged with it, so it was, in fact, a conspiracy. They bought up street railway systems and eliminated them to replace them with buses, and they were fined a couple of thousands dollars.
And then the government took it over in the 1950s with the biggest social engineering project in history, this hundred billion dollar national defense highway program, because everything has to have the word “defense” in it. There was no defense involved. The idea was to build up a huge highway system, which would suburbanize America, build up the automobile industry, build up the trucking industry, cut back the rail industry.
SHORR: So, when you say the rails are too efficient — I mean cars, they break down and they got to be replaced, and tires need to be replaced, and gasoline needs to be put in them in a constant way.
CHOMSKY: Right. Exactly. Yes. And furthermore, suburbanization has all sorts of effects. It makes commodity — I mean, it’s enormously changed the culture.
SHORR: Conservatives say that the United States should not have an industrial policy, that the federal government should not be involved in picking winners and losers. You’re saying though that Pentagon spending is a de facto industrial policy.
CHOMSKY: There are no conservatives in the United States. The United States does not have a conservative tradition. The people who call themselves conservatives, like the Heritage Foundation or Gingrich, are believers in — are radical statists. They believe in a powerful state, but a welfare state for the rich. So, they want an industrial policy, they just want it hidden. They want an industrial policy that pours public funds into the pockets of rich investors and high-tech industry. And since they don’t want people to see it, they say the Russians are coming, it’s the Pentagon.
SHORR: But why not pour it into other kinds of things? Teachers, create jobs for teachers, and then, you know, you would strengthen the country because you would have an educated workforce. Or pour it into, again, the domestic kinds of goods that people, you would think, would support.
CHOMSKY: That would make perfect sense if you were interested in strengthening the country. But if you’re interested in strengthening the corporate sector, it doesn’t make any sense at all, then you don’t care about the country. I mean, you have to ask yourself what is the country?
If the country is US-based corporations, you make one set of decisions. If the country is the people in the country, you make a different set of decisions. Now from their point of view, the country is US-based corporations, and what’s good for them may be bad for the population. It’s not just here, it’s true everywhere.
So, yes, let’s — it would be fine to have schools, and breathable air, and drinkable water, and so on and so forth, but that doesn’t put the money into the pockets of rich people. What puts the money into the pockets of rich people is having the government use public funds to develop computers, and lasers, and metallurgy — fancy metallurgy, and avionics, and new aircraft design, and semi-conductors, and so on. Yeah, that is very good for a sector of the wealthy. It may harm the general population, but that’s not the issue at stake.
SHORR: Will the public continue to buy that message now with communism or the threat of communism being displaced? What replaces that? What replaces anticommunism as a common thread in the United States?
CHOMSKY: Well, it’s been a problem for US propagandists and by propagandists, I include the entire intellectual community virtually, and the journals, and the universities, and so on who have been able to disguise all of this for years under talk about communism. And you could see it coming in the early Eighties. I mean, even before the fall of the Soviet Union, you know, people knew this isn’t going to last forever. And there was, in fact, during the Reagan years a search for alternatives, desperate search. International terrorism, I mean, crazed Arab —
SHORR: Drug trade.
CHOMSKY: Drug traffickers. I mean, they’ve been trying just about everything. The latest one is Islamic fundamentalists and, you know — By now, it’s just welfare mothers, immigrants. I mean, it’s the kind of thing that — Look, there’s nothing particularly new about it. I mean, in Germany it was the Jews, you know, and the gypsies, and so on. If you want to control people and you want them to subordinate themselves to interests that are harmful to them, you’re going to have to engender fear, anger, demoralization and so on, and there aren’t a lot of ways to do that, so everyone hits on more or less the same ways.
The point is that since this is a business-run society, it’s also a propaganda-oriented society, because business is committed to marketing. The highest value in business is to deceive people into getting something, taking something that they don’t want.
SHORR: Sell their products.
CHOMSKY: Sell your product. As a marketing society, the US is to an unusual degree based on propaganda. The public relations industry, which is a huge industry, is a US-invented industry which spends billions of dollars on what they call “controlling the public mind.”
SHORR: Well, why should I worry about, you know, if they’re trying to sell soap? What’s the big deal to me?
CHOMSKY: They’re not just trying — Well, first of all, you should worry about that, too, because they’re trying to create — they’re consciously trying to create wants, and that’s already deceptive and harmful, but something else is involved. They are fighting what they call the “everlasting battle for the minds of men to indoctrinate people with the capitalist story” — I’m quoting — “because if we don’t, the rising political power of the masses will be a hazard to private power and interests.” Now that’s an enormous part of it.
Now starting from the Second World War, there was a huge propaganda campaign, extraordinary in scale, which went after every aspect of society — the school system, the churches, the universities, the workforce, the entertainment industry, everything else, to try “to indoctrinate people with the capitalist story” and “win the everlasting battle for the minds of men.” The scale was incredible. I mean, by the early 1950s, the business world was providing about a third of the total materials for all elementary schools.
SHORR: So, this is the American Dream that you go after with the house, the car, the job —
CHOMSKY: A special version of it. Now one — There are several parts of that, however. One is: keep private power invisible. You don’t want people to know who’s running things, the private tyrannies. Two: demonize government. Of course, demonize the unions. I mean, that goes without saying. But also, demonize government, get people to turn their hostility and anger against government, not against the private power which pretty much controls government.
Now why against government? Well, government has a defect. It’s not that governments don’t do bad things, but that’s not what they’re worried about. They have a defect. The defect of governments is that they are — they can be influenced by the public. They’re potentially democratic, and that’s the unacceptable defect of government. So, you have to demonize government and shift power more and more into the hands of private tyrannies, which are totally unaccountable.
SHORR: Well, don’t — Weren’t we taught to love the flag and, in that sense —
CHOMSKY: That’s jingoism.
SHORR: — love the country?
CHOMSKY: You’re supposed to love the flag, but you’re supposed to hate the government. You’re supposed to love the symbols, you’re supposed — You have to be a jingoist, otherwise you’re not going to accept things like Pentagon spending. So, it’s a complicated operation, but, you know, not that complicated.
You’re sitting in a PR office, you can figure it out. Get people to be patriotic, subordinate, silent, hate government, blame government for everything that goes wrong, think governments can do nothing right, not notice that more and more power is being turned over to private hands, which are completely unaccountable and are totally —
SHORR: And those private hands are?
CHOMSKY: Corporations, which is a totalitarian institution. People are unhappy. A lot of things are going wrong with their lives. Real income is going down, working hours are going up, families are falling apart, a lot of bad things. And you’ve been taught for 50 years that it’s the government’s fault, so you bomb a — you don’t bomb the GE headquarters, you don’t read the Fortune 500 and find out who’s got all the money, you don’t notice that they’ve just celebrated their fourth straight year of double digit profit growth. That stuff is for special people.
What you’re supposed to know is, ‘yeah, those bad government guys, they’re doing it.’ And government is bad because it’s potentially influenceable. You could take part in it an change it. So, hate them. And that creates the mood of anti-politics, and that’s part of the — you know, that’s part of the propaganda.
Well, where does the military fit into all this? Well, if you can keep the population frightened — This is a very frightened country. People are more frightened in the United States than I think anywhere in the world. It’s become a laughing stock in the world, in fact. Just why the country is so frightened, we could argue about, but it’s certainly true.
If you can keep people cowering in terror, then they will support this huge military system which is defending them from somebody — Martians, aliens, who knows who. And that means you got plenty of money pouring into the pockets of Newt Gingrich’s rich constituents through this industrial policy system. And indeed, if you have to control somebody out there, you got the force to do it.
SHORR: Now that’s why they’re saying that the threat is from the unknown. They’ll actually use the unknown or instability, much more general —
CHOMSKY: Yes, just to keep people frightened. I mean, people have to be kept frightened, atomized. They have to have their attention diverted away from true power. Of course, any good propaganda system understands that. You don’t want to see real power and the government’s a good target, especially the federal government. State governments are better, so it’s a good idea to move power from federal to state government.
The reason is that state governments are much more under the control of private business than the federal government is. The federal government’s big enough so that, you know, it can somehow stand up against private power to some extent. State governments, it’s hopeless. I mean, even middle-sized businesses can play one state against another.
SHORR: Let me get back to the issue of propaganda. Again, people like Newt Gingrich will point to the media in this country and label them the “liberal, cultural elite media,” saying that the major networks, for example, are part of the — are liberal, in essence.
CHOMSKY: I agree with him. They’re liberals, but the liberals are the main commissars. I mean, the liberals are the ones who set the bounds, saying “this far and no further”. So, the liberals are supposed to say we must balance the budget, but I think eight years, not seven years. Or, the liberals will say, well, yeah, it was a noble enterprise to go into Vietnam, but I think maybe we made a mistake, you know. That’s the role of the liberal media.
If you want to talk about the truth about the world, you can’t possibly get it through the liberal media, that’s not their role. So, Newt Gingrich is right and, in fact, it’s smart for him to denounce the liberal media because that makes it look — it’s a mutually supportive game. They love to be denounced from the right, and the right loves to denounce them, because that makes them look like courageous defenders of freedom and independence while, in fact, they are imposing all of the presuppositions of the propaganda system.
SHORR: How would you envision an international security structure that could address post-Cold War conflicts? And what role, if any, would the US play in that kind of structure?
CHOMSKY: Well, the US could play a major role, for example, in calling off some of the worst Cold War conflicts. Angola. Angola is a horrible atrocity. It’s been going on for years. In the early 90s, again, it’s been worse than the Balkans.
The person mainly responsible for that — it’s a complicated story. But the main responsibility is in the hands of Jonas Savimbi, who’s an old US client, who was hailed here as a leading freedom fighter and has been massacring people at a horrible scale. Used to be backed by South Africa. He’s still getting arms from somewhere, probably still us. Well, you know, we got plenty of leverage here. So, way short of peacekeeping forces, we could probably end that one.
Let’s come closer to home. Take, say the Western Hemisphere. Where is the worst atrocity in the Western Hemisphere? Well, it happens to be Colombia. Colombia is the worst human rights violator in the hemisphere. Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch, and the church, and everyone have tons of material on it. The atrocities are being carried out by the military forces and their paramilitary associates at a horrible scale. They get half — about half of US military aid and training for the hemisphere, going up under Clinton. So, there’s another one we can handle.
And we could run through the world and find quite a number of cases where we could actually bring about security without doing much at all, just by withdrawing — It’s a little bit like asking how could the Russians — in pre-Gorbachev days, how could they have helped security in Central Asia? Well, one way they could have helped security is by withdrawing their troops from Afghanistan, that would have helped security. Well, we’re a global power, so we’re all over the place, and there are a lot of things of this sort that we could do.
Now this isn’t everything. This wouldn’t have taken care of Bosnia.
SHORR: Is there a place for a strengthened UN and an international, say UN, standing army and that kind of thing?
CHOMSKY: Oh, sure. There would be great strength for — a place for the UN, if the United States would allow it, but the United States is destroying the UN. It’s been attacking the UN for 30 years. Ever since the decolonization, when the UN became more democratized, the US has turned against the United Nations, has tried to eliminate it.
The US is way ahead of any other country in refusing to pay its legally required debts. It doesn’t pay for peacekeeping forces or for anything else. The US has already virtually dismantled UNESCO. It’s now trying to — It is now eliminating the UN development office. It’s attacking the FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization. It’s going to eliminate UNCTAD because UNCTAD is giving independent economic analysis which is critical of the IMF/World Bank consensus.
SHORR: A strong UN is not, you’re saying, in the US’ best interests —
CHOMSKY: The US does not want — Well, it is —
SHORR: (Simultaneously) — from that —
CHOMSKY: It depends again who you mean by US. If by US you mean 250 million people, yes, it is in their interest. If you mean by that people in corporate boardrooms, no, it’s not in their interests. So, it depends which United States we’re talking about. For the people of the United States, a strong UN is very much in their interest. For the top sector of privilege and power, of course, it’s not in their interest, unless it’s their — unless it’s their tool. And to the extent it’s not their tool, they want to destroy it.
SHORR: Last question. I know that you have to leave. Where do you see hope in this — in this democracy for people to take back control over their lives and over their country? Where is the hope?
CHOMSKY: This is a very free country. By comparative standards, the capacity of the state to coerce is very limited here, meaning there are an awful lot of things you can do. And the hope lies in the prospect, which I — I hope and, indeed, expect will be realized, that people will understand, come to understand to what extent there have been, especially in the last 20 years or so, major attacks on democracy, on human rights, on every decent value, and will simply take over their own society and run it by themselves. Get rid of the tyrannical structures that are destroying it for them….
CHOMSKY [clip from UDC speech]: Let me go back finally to the conventional story. I think there is a move from containment, but I don’t think it’s a move to enlargement. Rather, to borrow another bit of Cold War rhetoric, it’s a move from containment to rollback.
There have been major changes in the international economy and in the world scene in the past 25 years, of which the end of the Cold War is only a small part. And they have indeed placed extraordinary new power, new weapons in the hands of private tyrannies and the states that they pretty much dominate. They’ve enabled them to launch a very significant attack against democracy, against human rights, even against markets, if we look closely, and to roll back the hated expansion of democracy, human rights and freedom that has been won in long, long and often bitter popular struggles, and we’re seeing that right around us here, as in much of the world.
Well, it’s not the first such moment, by any means. This has happened before repeatedly. This kind of end of history has been hailed by the powerful and the privileged and by their minions several — many times before, always wrongly. Whether, in fact, this claim this time around is right or wrong is not something for us to predict because we can’t, it’s something for us to decide and to determine, which indeed we can.