On the Repression of Democratic Movements, US Elections, and Future Prospects

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Nancy Nangeroni & Gordene O. MacKenzie

GenderTalk, October 30, 2000

Gendertalk: What is a Rogue State, and who is the leading Rogue State out there? [*]

Noam Chomsky: Well actually the book [1] begins with some discussion of that. Like just about every term of political discourse, the word ‘rogue state’ has two meanings. One is its literal meaning: you’ll find it if you look it up in the dictionary. The other is the meaning that it’s assigned to it as an instrument of propaganda, to beat selective enemies over the head. That distinction is pretty standard: it holds for terms like ‘peace process’, ‘terrorism’, and so on.

Gt: So what you’re saying is we selectively use ‘Rogue State’ to define people that we want to attack?

NC: ‘Rogue State’ is used here to refer to any state that is disobedient, that the US has in the sights of its rifles. But the term really has a meaning: a rogue state is a state that defies international law, international norms and conventions, that demands the right to do anything it wants, pays no attention and doesn’t care about the opinions and attitudes of others who stand in its way, and so on.

Gt: So it refuses to submit itself to world order and to international…

NC: To the conventions of world order: either international law, the dictates of the World Court; refuses to accept its legally required responsibilities, and in fact pursues what is sometimes called in the technical literature “The New Sovereigntism” [2] meaning a demand for sovereign rights so extreme that nothing stands in its way. That term is used to refer to the United States, and by those criteria, it would be hard to find a state that qualifies more fully.

Gt: So what you’re saying is the United States asserts its rights in the world above the United Nations or any other kind of international negotiation…

NC: The only qualification I would say is – the phrase “its needs” – I mean the United States is not an entity, for example, when the United States is rejecting the decisions of the World Court, it’s not speaking for me or for you.

Gt: That’s an important distinction to keep in mind because one of the points that you make throughout your work is that people are not really considered but instead the military interests, the multinational corporate interests are the real sovereign interests that are taken in to account and if it means running over people, that’s ok.

NC: Yeah, that’s basically true and it runs over us too.

Gt: So in other words, we’re not hearing the truth about what’s going on in foreign affairs?

NC: Well we hear some of it and if you look carefully, you hear a lot of truth, but it’s often presented in ways which significantly disguise what’s happening. So, take the notion of ‘Rogue States’: there’s a lot of reporting and commentary, journal articles and books about ‘Rogue States’, but they use the term in the propaganda sense. Take Cuba and the United States – Cuba is one of the half a dozen official ‘Rogue States’ it’s condemned for all sorts of things. The condemnations could be right or wrong, but it’s kind of irrelevant. For forty years, Cuba – a small country which had been colonized for sixty years by the United States until it finally won its independence – for the forty years since, Cuba has been under constant US attack: military attack, economic warfare, efforts at strangulation, trying to induce maximal suffering on the population – straight outright terror, lots of it – so who’s the ‘Rogue State’?

Gt: It’s kind of like doublespeak isn’t it? When terms are mislabelled like “free trade agreements” or “labour flexibility” – they’re not what they appear to be; instead, they’re kind of the opposite.

NC: Actually, “free trade” and “labour flexibility” are interesting examples. “Labour flexibility” is a fancy way of saying that when you go to sleep at night, you don’t know if you have a job tomorrow morning – and that’s supposed to be a very good thing. So when you read the World Bank reports and they say that labour-market flexibility is the primary reform that every country must institute.

Gt: Oh my God.

NC: They point out – I’m virtually quoting now – that labour-market flexibility has gotten a bad name as a euphemism for keeping wages down and workers out, which in fact is exactly what it is, which is why it’s gotten that bad name.

Gt: And longer hours too; it’s horrific.

NC: And that’s the essential reform. And you know, the effects are lauded, so when Alan Greenspan testifies before Congress on the wonderful economy he’s presiding over – wonderful for some – he explains, straight out, not hiding it, that one of the bases for the foundations of what he calls excellent economic progress – and these are his words – growing worker insecurity.

Gt: [Gasps] Growing worker insecurity?

NC: And that makes sense: if workers are insecure, they don’t dare to ask for higher wages, decent working conditions and so on.

Gt: Or refuse overtime or extra assignments…

NC: Yeah, that’s the effect of growing worker insecurity, and that’s good for the economy in a certain sense – it increases profits, cuts down inflation…

Gt: I want briefly to touch on the issue of the relationship between US military aid to Third World countries and human-rights violations.

NC: Well actually that’s been very closely studied in academic work by leading specialists. So, for example, there’s a major study of US military aid and human rights in Latin America by the leading academic specialist on this, Lars Schoultz at the University of North Carolina. He found a very close relationship: military aid tends to go to the most egregious violators of fundamental human rights – he wrote that article back in 1980. [3]

Gt: Now we’re not talking about Russian military aid, or Iranian or Iraq…

NC: No, US military aid. He wrote it in 1980 – there are broader studies which find the same correlation worldwide. Since 1980, there really haven’t been any studies, because it’s too obvious. In the 1980s, it’s completely obvious that US military aid in Latin America – and in fact, worldwide – went to very brutal regimes. In fact, some of the worst atrocities – atrocities surely comparable to anything that went on in Yugoslavia over the last decade – were being carried out with US guns, US arms – everything from the assassination of an archbishop to killing a couple of hundred thousand people [inaudible] refugees.

It’s worth looking at [this] closely. Take the leading recipients of US military aid and arms transfers. Well, there are two who are in a category by themselves: Israel is way above anyone else, and Egypt is second, but that’s because of its relations with Israel. So they’re the perennial front-runners, but that’s a separate category. If you look at the rest, it’s quite interesting how it works. So, through the 1980s, El Salvador was the leading recipient, and had about the world’s worst human rights record. Military aid to Turkey shot up in 1984 – not for cold war reasons. That was the year in which Turkey began a major counter-insurgency campaign against the Kurds. Military aid to Turkey remained very high – in fact in the ’90s, it was the highest – peaking in 1997, right through the whole campaign against the Kurds. By 1999, Turkey had moved down and Colombia took first place. Well, what had happened? The Turkish campaign against the Kurds – its own population – had, at least temporarily, succeeded in repressing any form of resistance, at a horrendous cost: tens of thousands killed, 2-3million refugees, 3500 villages destroyed – that’s about 7-times Kosovo under NATO bombs. Colombia had not yet succeeded in repressing its internal insurgencies. Colombia has the worst human rights record in the Western hemisphere in the 1990s, and characteristically has been the leading recipient of US military aid – about half – in 1999, it went up to first place and now that aid is going up even higher, and again the same correlation. It’s not like 100%, but it’s a very close correlation.

Gt: This is all very scary stuff. We have a government that’s out of control, that is basically saying ‘we want workers to be working for lower wages and to have less stability so that they’re more available to us when we want them to work for us, and we want to basically ship arms to any place where there’s a popular democratic uprising, or an attempt to institute reform against tyrannical governments,’ so we ship them all kinds of arms. Now we have an election in front of us with Bush and Gore, who look like more of the same. And I just wonder, what can we do? Is there anything we can do in this election? Is there any hope?

NC: I’m sure there’s plenty of hope, I mean there are things to do in elections too – we can go in to that, but I think that’s kind of secondary. Something that should give all of us hope is just a look at what’s happened over the last 30 or 40 years – or an even longer stretch, if you like. There have been very significant improvements; many things are way better than they were 30 or 40 years ago. Take your own programme: feminist issues were barely on the agenda 30 or 40 years ago. Environmental issues didn’t exist. There was almost no opposition to aggression. When Kennedy started bombing South Vietnam – as he did – there was virtually no protest. It went on for years without protest. Native American rights were an object of ridicule. Inter-personal relations have changed, much for the better in fact. The civil rights situation has improved. There’s been regression too, but overall there’s been significant improvement, and it didn’t come from elections. It came from extensive popular struggle – every one of those cases.

Gt: Let’s talk about popular struggle – what it is, and what it takes to make it happen.

NC: Well, educational programmes, organization, protest, demands, creating alternative institutions – just what’s happened in all of those cases.

Gt: Do you think the demonstrations in Seattle, Washington, Boston and so forth against the WTO…

NC: Oh sure, in fact, they’ve had a big impact already.

Gt: Really? How so?

NC: At the rhetorical level, the World Bank and the IMF have changed quite considerably. They now effectively concede that the programmes they’ve been carrying out for some years have been harmful. They’re trying to buy off the demonstrators by incorporating NGOs – the more respectable looking ones.

Gt: Because they were exposed…

NC: Because they’ve been exposed and they’re afraid of the popular reaction. Now, so far, those are not substantive changes, and they claim they’re changing their policies. They agree that the policies harmed people, caused poverty, undermined education and health, and so on, and they claim they’re going to change. Well, they’ll change if they’re compelled to, not out of the goodness of their hearts – they didn’t just discover this because they looked over their back records. So the protests have already had an effect, and the more they intensify and develop, and become something beyond protests – calls for significant modification of the institutions and linking up with people in the Third World, as they’ve already done – those can be very powerful forces.

Gt: So, in a sense, we have a democracy, although the elections themselves aren’t really the primary instrument of the democracy, it sounds like.

NC: Yeah, I think that’s probably true, and I think that’s true back through history. The democratic rights are nothing to sneeze at – they’re important. It’s very important that right now, you and I know that storm troopers aren’t going to break in to your studio and my house and take us out to a torture chamber…

Gt: As long as we don’t cross the FBI…

NC: (Laughing) well, yeah. I got an FBI file at 36…

Gt: How do you survive? How come you havn’t been targeted?

NC: Well I have – I’ve been on Nixon’s enemies list. The only reason I didn’t go to jail for a long time was because the Tet Offensive came along and the prosecutions that were underway were cancelled. But I don’t call that being targeted. People like us are so privileged by comparison with most of the world that to talk about anything that happens to us is almost obscene. There are problems, but nothing like what’s faced in most of the world, and in this country, over a long period, many rights have been won – not granted, won. Even some of the things that are best established here like freedom of speech – and in that respect, the United States is maybe the best place in the world. That’s not in the First Amendment. The Supreme Court dealt with its first serious freedom of speech case I think in 1931. Those rights were won by labour struggles, women’s struggles, other struggles over the years which finally brought about a change in atmosphere and attitudes so that free speech is protected. The civil rights movement, for example, led to one of the first major decisions by the Supreme Court to support fundamental freedom of speech in 1964.

Gt: Wow, that’s a great perspective, and it’s very empowering. And if we look at how the resistance has operated – in your book you give an example. Here in New England, you said, 150 years ago, there was an independent labour press run by young women from the farms who condemned the degradation and subordination of the newly emerging industrial system and talked about how it was running over people and how horrible it was to rent themselves out to survive. So there have always been resistance and critiques and now we’re concerned with the colonisation of the public mind as you say in your book. Could you comment on that, how it induces a philosophy of futility in us?

NC: Well those phrases like inducing a philosophy of futility and regimenting the minds of men like an army regiments their bodies – those are straight out of the public relations industry, in fact they’re quotes from business leaders. The people with power and privilege don’t decide to give it up easily. When they face popular struggles and popular victories, they don’t go home – they try to figure out other ways to sustain the privilege and power that they’ve obtained. Those quotes that you mentioned are mostly from the 1920s, and it’s an interesting time. By the 1920s, the franchise had been extended – to the White population, at least – including women for the first time, and there were other popular democratic victories. And that scared business greatly – both here, and in England, the other leading democracy. And strikingly, primarily in the United States, secondarily in England, huge industries developed, devoted to regimenting the public mind. It was very explicitly recognised that it’s going to be harder to control people by force, and therefore, we have to put much more energy and effort in to controlling their opinions and attitudes. There are a lot of ways of doing this, one of the major ones – again I’m quoting business leaders – is to try to focus peoples’ attention on the superficial things in life, like fashionable consumption. Well, we all recognise that – people now are bombarded from infancy through the rest of their lives, with propaganda that tries to induce them to perceive themselves as passive consumers, and nothing else.

Gt: Wage slaves, consumer slaves.

NC: Yeah, you follow orders, and you try to maximise what are called invented wants. And it begins in infancy.

Gt: It seems like we should be contesting the media control, then, by a few large corporations, because it seems like… I mean we know that the government now is subsidising film and TV production if they put the government message in that, if they advocate for certain things, or if they have certain ideas in there. It seems like that ought to be a place we should be fighting hard.

NC: Yeah, and it goes the other way as well: corporate power, which basically runs the media – it is the media in fact – also has enormous influence over government. The concentration of media – which is increasing – is dangerous – in fact, the media, like other parts of the economy are falling in to the hands of a small number of mega-corporations. It’s worse in the case of the media than in the automobile industry – the media has a different role – but there are ways around that too. Alternative media, for example.

Gt: Sure, with the internet – the internet is democratising the media, in a sense.

NC: The internet, radio has opportunities – in fact there are many opportunities that aren’t even exploited, and should be. Take, say, cable television. Under the original congressional acts, municipalities have to provide public-access cable TV. That’s a golden opportunity for activists, but it’s very rarely used. There are things that can be done which aren’t being done.

Gt: Noam, unfortunately we have to say goodbye. We really appreciate you coming on Gendertalk. Can we ask one final quick question? Should we vote for Nader

NC: Uh, where do you live?

Gt: We’re right here (in Massachusetts)

NC: Well, I will – I think in Massachusetts…

Gt: Which we know is a state that’s basically going to go Gore. Swing state though, you go Gore?

NC: Where there’s a close election, I think a question arises, and you can give arguments both ways, but where it’s a shoe-in I think it’s pretty clear what my view is of what one should do.

Gt: Thank you so much.


* Transcript and footnotes by Simon Pawley.

1 Noam Chomsky, Rogue States: The Rule of Force in World Affairs (Boston, MA: South End Press; London: Pluto Press, 2000).

2 Peter J. Spiro, ‘The New Sovereigntists: American Exceptionalism and Its False Prophets‘, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 97, No. 6 (November/December, 2000), pp. 9-15.

3 Lars Schoultz, ‘U. S. Foreign Policy and Human Rights Violations in Latin America: A Comparative Analysis of Foreign Aid Distributions’, Comparative Politics, Vol. 13, No. 2. (January, 1981), pp. 149-170. See also, Schoultz, Human Rights and United States Policy Towards Latin America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981).