On Historical Amnesia, Foreign Policy, and Iraq

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Kirk W. Johnson

American Amnesia, February 17, 2004

Noam Chomsky seldom needs an introduction.  His most recent book Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (The American Empire Project) has, as always, stirred much debate over how to interpret the changes in American foreign policy throughout the last three years.  His theories are controversial, as he is one of the most veteran critics of the U.S. government.  He has been a professor of linguistic theory at MIT since 1955.

American Amnesia recently spoke with Chomsky about historical amnesia, foreign policy, and Iraq.  I have occasionally italicized one of his words to reflect his rise in inflection placed on the word for emphasis.  Please use the index to your left to navigate, and the comments link below to discuss.

AA:  You’re writings often advocate a state of “peaceful anarchy,” and are frequently described as quire radical.  What in your younger years contributed to this philosophy?

NC:  I grew up with a strong interest in anarchism from childhood, actually.  My formative experiences were just growing up in the depression.  Watching people trying to sell rags at the door, or watching security forces smash up women strikers outside the textile plant…most of my family – not my parents, but my uncles and aunts – were Jewish working class at that time.  They were very active – the working class population then had a high level of cultural achievement, including the political culture…there was every possible group you could think of.  I kind of gravitated around that in childhood.  The first article I wrote, which I happen to remember and can also date – to right after the fall of Barcelona, so February or March, 1939.  It was about the rise of fascism in Europe, and the ominous character of that.  Austria being absorbed by falling to Germany, Spain falling to Franco, Mussolini in Italy, Japanese fascism expanding – it looked really frightening at the time.  So it was partly that atmosphere, partly the depression and the activism era.  Also, my personal involvements mostly happened to be in what was at that time called the “Zionist” movement.  All of the same views today would be called “Anti-Zionist.”  The reconstruction of both the language and the cultural center in some kind of a homeland in Palestine – but it was supposed to be a Jewish state.  And those were considered Zionist ideas at the time, but I was very deeply involved in that.  My parents were basically living in a first generation Jewish ghetto – Hebrew teachers – those were their associations, and I came out versed in that as well.  I came out from this mixture and ended up as a young activist leader, involved in various things.  I went to live in a Kibbutz for a while – but it all sort of blended together.

AA: Can it be inferred from this background that your writings stem from a fundamental opposition to the system of U.S. governance?

NC:  Not just America, but the state capitalist world.  Very fundamental.  It draws in part from the anarchist tradition, but it partly draws from the working class tradition in the United States.  And by now it has mostly been beaten out of people’s heads… a striking example of amnesia.  But if you go back to the early indigenous working class movement, right around where I happened to be – the industrial revolution was mostly in Eastern Massachusetts in those early stages – Lowell, Lawrence, Salem, and so on, which drew in young women from the farms, Irish working men from the slums of Boston, and so on…they had a very lively and active, independent, working-class culture, also a very interesting press.  It’s the period of most free press in the history of the country, in England too.  The period of maximal freedom of the press was in the late 19th century.  First of all there was very wide readership of the press, but the press was to a large extent run by working people, ethnic groups, and other associations.  Very substantial involvement…it was before capital concentration created a commercial press, it was before advertising reliance, which greatly narrowed the content and range of the press.  This was a really lively, free, domestic press.  It was extremely radical without any contact with European radicalism – they had never heard of Marx or anyone else.  It grew out of their own experiences.  It simply took for granted that wage labor was marginally different from slavery – not very different.  These were very widespread ideas in the United States in the 19th century – it was even a slogan of the Republican party.  Those who worked in the mills felt that the new industrial system that was being imposed on them was a destruction of their freedom, their creativity, their culture and independence.  It had to be dismantled, and turned into a democratic system of popular control by workers.  There were cities that were accosted – in Pennsylvania is a famous one – and it literally had to be destroyed by violence.  The U.S. has an extremely violent labor history which went on through Wilson’s Red Scare up until the late 1930’s.  Plenty of workers were being killed in strikes by security forces and police.  This wasn’t true in other industrial societies.  But by the 1920’s, roughly, enough freedom and rights had been won so that the coercive power of the state and business firms was reduced.  It was becoming harder and harder to just to control people by violence…they wanted too much freedom.  And it was right at that time in the most free countries – England and the U.S. – that you get the development of the huge public relations industry, including advertising, the media, and elections which are largely run by the PR industry.  They’re pre-consciously designed to control people’s attitudes and beliefs, since you can’t control them by force.  One effect of that, is that over the years, very consciously – and the internal literature on this is very revealing – the natural understanding and ideas of the working people, which means most everybody, this slowly has been beaten out of people’s mind.  I think it’s right below the surface…but it’s not on the surface.  And there’s an acceptance of highly coercive…the institutions which are designed to protect the wealthy from the market forces.  By now it’s virtually taken for granted, and it shouldn’t be.  So yes, I think all of that ought to be dissolved and we should go back to ideas which have deep roots in American society, and also happen to be very similar to those that developed in the anarchist tradition under sometimes different conditions.  In many ways my views are rather traditionally American. Let’s take the role of corporations in modern life.  The institution of modern, Western society, is the corporation…overwhelmingly so.  There had been corporations in the past, but their character was changed radically around 100 years ago, roughly, by courts.  The corporations were created after the tremendous market disasters of the late 19th century, when business realized it just can’t face market discipline – it’s too destructive.  So many methods were developed to try to protect and insulate the rich from market pressures.  And the corporation is one of them…trusts, mergers, all sorts of things.  Corporations were then given extraordinary powers by the courts – one of the most extreme and important changes was that courts granted corporations the rights of persons.  That means 14th amendment rights.  The 14th amendment was designed to protect slaves…in fact almost entirely it was used to protect corporations, not slaves, freed slaves.  To protect them from search and seizure…or all sorts of intrusion into their operations on the grounds that they were persons.  They were given free speech, which is outlandish.  Corporations are tyrannies.  They’re totalitarian, command economies.  They’re totalitarian with strict control from the top-down, passing order through various stages of management and control…it’s a classic model of extreme totalitarianism.  Pretty much unaccountable to the public.  They’re enormous.  They have been granted the rights of persons – which means free speech rights, 4th amendment rights which means freedom from search and seizure – which means that they’re unaccountable tyrannies.  They’re of course immortal.  The courts continue to shift the rights of the person from the corporation itself to its management.  The top level of the totalitarian system that gets the personal rights.  In the ’70s, money was described as a form of speech, which grants them essentially the power to buy elections…by now it’s taken for granted.  Most of the population regards the election as more or less a farce, run by huge contributors, with candidates carefully crafted by the public relations industry, so that they keep away from issues, and project what are called ‘qualities’ or ‘attributes.’  So you’re supposed to vote for a candidate because he looks like a nice guy, or something like that – but not because he’s going to take a position that you like.  And that’s done very consciously, and very purposefully.

AA: Just the other day, the NYT ran an article about the new marketing techniques of the DNC and RNC – huge databases that allow them to individually market to voters based on their demographics, income, magazine subscriptions, etc.

NC:  The point of that is to try to be more effective in undermining democracy.  So when you talk to a particular demographic, or ethnic group, you talk to them in a way which may get them to vote for you.  In a democratic society, first of all, the candidates would come from the population themselves – not from the corporations.  Secondly, they would simply say “Look, here’s what I stand for.”  Period.  But this is just another technique – it’s the same as advertising.  You want to sell cars?  You do the same kind of analysis, and you try to craft your advertising for the particular segment of the population that you’re going after.  So if this segment of the population would like to see sexy models, what you do is have a sexy woman sitting on the roof of the car.  And if this segment has illusions of being a sports car driver, you have ads in which the car goes up a vertical mountain or something.

In a free market you wouldn’t have any of this advertising.  Free market advertising would be: “Here’s what I have to offer.  Period.  You like it, pick it.  You don’t like it, pick something else.”  But since there’s very little competition – corporations are basically all producing the same things – you have to have a very carefully designed, segmented advertising to try to induce various parts of the population to buy your product.  Not because it’s a good product or because they want it, but because you’ve succeeded in framing it in a certain way for their interests.  And the same is true in politics.  You don’t want the population to pay attention to what the candidates stand for, since you probably won’t like it…since they usually stand for about the same thing – that being state and corporate power.  So you therefore try to sell them on the basis of their ‘qualities,’ presented differently.

AA: Is this an irreversible trend?

NC:  No, not at all.  Both in our past history, and in other countries, these efforts have been overcome.  Just think about two years ago, to Brazil, which has a far more democratic culture than we do.  It was able to overcome even harsher versions of these [conditions].  Brazil was a very repressive and violent state, unlike here.  There’s a higher concentration of capital and media than we have, poverty is far worse and deeper, the level of education is much less.  Nevertheless, popular movements based on landless workers, steel workers, peasants and others – massive popular movements developed – were able to overcome all of this and elect their own candidate.  And a candidate who comes out of their own background: a worker, represents their interests, speaks their language, has their interests at heart.  And you couldn’t imagine him being a candidate in any western democracy, because they have succeeded in creating a functioning democratic culture of a kind that has been diminished, not quite eliminated, but severely diminished by huge efforts.  I mean, trillions of dollars a year going to these efforts, literally, to undermine the functioning of democratic societies, and also to undermine the attitudes and beliefs and relationships that are crucial for a functioning democratic society.  And this goes on in every aspect of life, and very consciously.

Take social security.  What’s that about?  The scam here is that social security is facing financial problems – all these baby boomers are going to retire and there aren’t enough workers to pay for them, and it’s a national problem.  It’s a complete fraud.  It’s true that the number of working people is going to be less relative to the number of elderly people.  But that’s strictly a meaningless statistic.  The baby boomers were children once, right?  They were children in the ’60s.  They had to be taken care of from 0-20, just as they have to be provided for from 70-90, and it wasn’t any easier to take care of them from 0-20.  As a matter of fact, it was more expensive – it was a much poorer country then.  So the problem of taking care of them now is non-existent.  If there was any financial problem, which there probably isn’t, it would easily be overcome by raising the cap, for example – which is a highly regressive tax.  Eliminate it and make it progressive.  The ratio of working people to total population is not expected to go down to what it was in the 1960’s anywhere in the foreseeable future.  So what’s the point of destroying the system?  Well partly, it’s going to be a boondoggle for Wall Street, but much more important than that…is that social security is based on attitudes which have to be driven out of people’s minds.  Namely the attitude that you care about somebody else.  The attitude that this is a community responsibility to make sure that the disabled widow has enough to eat, or that the kid can go to school, something like that.  That normal human sentiment, which is very much like the sentiment of working people in the 19th century…that wage labor is like slavery…that workers should take over the factory…these normal human sentiments just have to be driven out of people’s minds if you want to control them…if you want to turn them into disciplined automata.  And therefore you have to get rid of things like social security.

Let’s take health care.  Everybody agrees, across the board, that health care is going to be a huge financial problem – it’s not like social security.  Why is that?  One of the many reasons is that it’s private – and that makes it extremely inefficient because there’s all kinds of layers of bureaucracy, advertisement, and so on.  The administrative costs for HMOs are way above Medicare, and that’s way above the Canadian system.  So it’s highly inefficient, which makes it expensive.  And most of the inefficiencies aren’t even measured – the amount of times that a doctor films out forms, or doesn’t give out medications because maybe some bureaucrat in a big insurance office won’ like it – those aren’t even counted as costs.  But even the standard costs are very high…way higher than any other country.  And the outcomes are not particularly good: in fact they’re worse than most of the industrial world, and it’s going to go way up.  Well, what do you do about it?  Well one thing you can do about it is to put in some version of national health care which is much more efficient and will allow the government either to run the pharmaceuticals itself – which would be very efficient – or lease the use as bargaining power and drive the cost down.  Well how does the population feel about that?  It’s very rarely asked in polls, but when polls do ask about it, it turns out that it’s pretty popular.  The last poll I saw said that about 80% of the population would agree to keep taxes up to have this type of system.  When it’s ever mentioned in the United States, it’s called “politically impossible.”  Doesn’t matter if 80% of the population wants it.  Why is it politically impossible?  The insurance companies don’t want it.  The pharmaceutical companies don’t want it.  The major and radical command economies that run the show don’t want it.  And they control the political system, of course.  So therefore it’s politically impossible.  Doesn’t matter how many people.  And that’s a large part why the poor part of the population doesn’t even vote – nobody represents them.

So can this be changed?  Sure it can be changed.  It’s not harder for us to do it than for landless peasants in Brazil.  And there’s a strong tradition of popular activism in the United States that you can draw from, which is pretty alive today.  But the core of the problem – of domination and control – is simply rotten, it’s rotten to the core.  It shouldn’t be tolerated.  We shouldn’t be under the control of unaccountable totalitarian command economies, which are granted rights which allow them effectively to run the information…none of that is to be accepted.  And if it isn’t accepted, fine, move to a much more free and democratic society.

But in order to maintain this system, it requires massive amnesia, like the things we’ve just been talking about, which were in people’s heads but have been driven out.  But it also requires a lot of disciplinary techniques.  Not police anymore…you can’t control people by force…but other disciplinary techniques, like having the highest workload in the industrial world.  Now that’s a disciplinary technique.  People are trying to ensure that income rates are stagnant.  Or raising the tuitions of schools.  Not only does that keep the poorer people out, but it also disciplines the people who get in.  They come out with big debts.  That’s disciplinary…means you don’t have a lot of choices.  That you’re caught.  Or the advertising onslaught that begins with infants; I sometimes watch television with my grandchildren – it’s appalling!  They’re pouring propaganda into these kids to try to turn them into mindless, passive consumers with no interest in anything except nagging their parents to get toys for them.  And it goes on all through your life.  You get another version of it in graduate school.  And all of these techniques are controlled: partially by forced amnesia, and partially by what’s sometimes called “off-job control” – controlling people’s benefits and beliefs in their general lives.

AA:  To ask a question I put to Zinn – What do you feel about the role of citing historical events in the media these days?

NC:   If you’re down at a bar in the slums, and you say something that people don’t like, they’ll punch you or shriek four-letter words.  If you’re in a faculty club or an editorial office, where you’re more polite – there’s a collection of phrases that can be used which are the intellectual equivalent of four-letter words and tantrums.  One of them is “conspiracy theory,” another is “Marxist,” another is “moral equivalence” – it’s a series of totally meaningless curse words, in effect, which are used by people who know that they can’t answer arguments, and that they can’t deal with evidence.  But when they want to shut you up, they have do approximately the same as screaming four-letter words.  What does it mean to say it’s a “conspiracy theory” to say that top U.S. planners both developed plans which can be seen in the documentary record, and carried out, which can be seen in the historical record.  It’s not a conspiracy theory.

AA:  I’m interested in your response to those like Niall Ferguson – who write about the values of imperialism, such as increased education levels, GDP, etc.

NC:  Niall Ferguson doesn’t bother telling you that in the 18th century, India was one of the commercial and industrial centers of the world.  England was a kind of a backwater – it had much greater force, but not commercial or industrial advantages.  It was able to forcefully impose on India what was now called the neo-liberal program of free-market, tariffs, etc. etc.  Meanwhile England itself, which was a powerful state, raised high protectionist barriers to protect itself from superior Indian goods…textiles, ships, and others.  There was massive state intervention in the economy, the United States later did the same thing – stole Indian technology.  Over the next 200 years, that tyranny led to an impoverished, agricultural country, while England became a rich, industrial society.  The mortality rate in India after 200 years of British rule was about the same as when they took over.  There were railroads, but they were run from the outside – they were there for extraction of resources.  Meanwhile, tens, if not hundreds of millions of people died in famines – the famines were horrendous.  So that’s the history of the British in India.  After India won its independence, it began a path of development, picked up again where it was two centuries ago.  It’s true that while under the imperial system, some of the better features of Western society leaked through, but India had a rich literature and culture long before England came in.  Basically it was a murderous, destructive, several centuries of history, which India then got out of.  Then it began to develop where there were no more famines, and the infant mortality rate began to improve enormously.  There are still a lot of problems, many traceable back to the English days.  That’s the history of English imperialism.

But what about the United States?  Take the idea that the U.S. is going to bring a democracy to the Middle East.  Now let’s take a look at the place where the U.S. has had a maximal influence for a century…the Carribean and the Central America.  No competition.  Totally under U.S. domination.  And it’s pretty much the same people who are running it now, mostly drawn from the Reagan administration, who also came in calling for enhancing democracy.  It’s a disaster!  A total disaster!  The massacres, the destruction…Nicaragua, one of their main achievements, now about 60% of the children under two are suffering from severe malnutrition which main cause partial brain damage.  Now that wasn’t happening when the guys in Washington launched their terrorist war in the early ’80s.  Of course they’ve got formal democracies – you can push a button and vote.  After the popular organizations were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people were killed.  Now you can push buttons and vote.  But the more honest members of the Reagan administration and scholarly analysts agree and say that the U.S. was only willing to accept what they call “top-down” forms of democracy…in which traditional elites remain in power.  Which is precisely what they’re trying to in Iraq.

In order to create democracy in Iraq, first of all we have to prevent elections!  The U.S. is desperately seeking to avoid elections, because they might bring in Iraqis we can’t control.  The U.S. has imposed an economic regime rather like the one the British forced on India.  The entire economy must be available to be purchased and run by Western, mainly American corporations.  For the moment, they’ve left out the oil, but that will come.  They’ve imposed a tax regime which is a dream of the Bush administration – the top 15% tax – again something which no sovereign country would accept.  The idea is to make sure that the economy is taken over by Western corporations.  Meanwhile the U.S. is building the biggest embassy in the world, 3000 people, for Baghdad…because they’re going to hand over sovereignty?  With the biggest embassy in the world?  It’s ensuring that the American troops can stay there as long as they want.  What they want to create is exactly the kind of democracy that they’ve created elsewhere.  Just look around the rest of the Middle East.  Most of the governments that we most strongly support are brutal, vicious dictatorships.  No elections, with much autocratic rule.  There has been one elected leader in the Middle East, one, who was elected in a reasonably fair, supervised election…namely Yassir Arafat.  So how do the great “democrats” like Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld treat him?  Lock him up in a compound so that he can be battered by U.S.-provided arms to their local client under military occupation.  They force him out…they declare his administration irrelevant while they force in somebody who they think will be more pliable.

If you’re an American intellectual and you’re on television, you can say that you’re bringing “democracy.”  But if you’re an ordinary person whose brain is functioning, you can see what they’re trying to do is destroy democracy.  You know, it’d be very nice if Iran conquered the world, and the mullahs had a miraculous conversion and decided they were in favor of democracy and justice, and brought democracy and justice to the world…that would be lovely.  But what happens?  Do we pay any attention to it?  Do we waste one second talking about the possibility?  No.  We look at their record, we look at who they are, we look at what they’re doing.  And then we ask what are the chances? And the chance is zero.  But look at our leaders…we’re supposed to treat our leaders with reverential awe –  but we can also be reasonable.  What are the chances of their even wanting to bring democracy to the Middle East?  They’ve never done it anywhere else, and they’re trying to do it now?  You see any evidence for it?  The only evidence is that they say so.  Stalin said he was bringing democracy to Eastern Europe.  Do we praise him with great awe?  No!  We dismiss him.

AA:  So what then, would you suggest be done in Iraq?  How can the ideal results be achieved?

NC:  By now there’s no ideal, because it’s a total wreck.  A monstrosity.  But the guiding line probably should be to, as quickly as possible, get the U.S. forces out of there.  Both the military forces and the viceroy, the C.P.A. civilian forces, hand it over to the most credible international authority as possible.  The most credible one happens to be the U.N., whatever you think about it – give them the responsibility.  Which is apparently what Iraqis want, and in fact the majority of the United States wants.  For security, probably the best idea that the Iraqis would want, is an international Arab army.  The main point is that these decisions are not for us to decide.  Anything we decide is illegitimate.  You know, we can have a polite conversation and say “I’d like this,” or “I’d like that,” but that’s of no significance.  This is for Iraqis to decide.  So the best principle to be followed is to hand over control to the Iraqis as expeditiously and quickly as possible.  If they decide that they would like to have their economy taken over by Western corporations, and they would like to have the biggest U.S. embassy in the world sitting there in Baghdad, and they would like to have U.S. military forces there as long as Washington wants…if they decide that – ok, I don’t like it but I won’t object.  But they’re not going to decide that, and you know it.

AA:  Howard Zinn said that the WMD issue would lead to a major loss of credibility for Bush, that he wouldn’t be able to defuse it.  Do you agree?

NC:   I don’t think so.  I think that underestimates the power of the U.S. propaganda system.  The most significant aspect of the failure to find WMD is that it has lower the bars for aggression.  If you look back to the original security strategy that was used as the justification for the invasion, which claims that the U.S. has the right to invade another country if that country means of destruction that could harm us – suggesting WMD – the effect of not finding them has been to lower the bars for aggression.  If you read Colin Powell or Condaleeza Rice or the rest of them today, they say “Well, it was justified because Iraq had the capability and intent of developing WMD, so that means we’re entitled to attack them.”  Well just think that through – every country in the world practically has the capability!  Who has the intent?  Right now – probably everybody if they can do it.  So that means every country in the world is subject to U.S. invasion and attack if Washington decides.  That’s the position that Colin Powell and Rice and Rumsfeld are maintaining.  There’s never been anything like that in history.

AA:  Do you think that the difficulties of Iraq have taught them otherwise, though?  Or is the national security strategy here to stay?

NC:   First of all, the security strategy has always been there – it goes way back.  What made it so striking in the Bush case, and the reason it aroused furor and hatred and antagonism, is because it was so brazen.  Usually it’s just kept quiet, and you use it if you want to.  But you don’t hit people over the head and measly illustrate it by carrying out an invasion.  That’s what frightened people about American foreign policy.  But the strategy has always been there.  The aggressive aspect of it has been tamed by the remarkable failures in Iraq…I mean this should have been the simplest military occupation in history.  But they completely blew it – and turned what ought to have been a simple operation into a catastrophe.  And that’s out of incompetence and arrogance and stupidity.  And that undoubtedly is making them pull back.  If it had succeeded the way you would have expected it would with minimal competence, then they’d probably be invading somebody else right now.  They can’t though – they’re in too much trouble.  They’re in deep enough trouble trying to control this one.

AA: Could any of the presidential candidates put us in a better position?

NC:   Slightly.  We know who the two candidates are going to be…it’s an interesting snapshot of American political culture.  The two candidates both come from backgrounds of great wealth, extensive political connections.  Both went to Yale.  Both joined the same secret society at Yale.  That’s the range of choices that we have!  But there is some difference between them – I don’t think a very great difference, just as there is very little range within the corporate-run political spectrum altogether.  But there is some difference, and in a system of tremendous power, small difference can translate into large effects.  So those small differences do matter.  But the real problem is to dismantle and undermine the entire system of completely illegitimate nomination.

The people around Bush happen to be an unusually fanatical, extreme, arrogant and incompetent group, and they’re very dangerous.  But it’s a small group, and they barely hold political power.  And they’re frightening people, including the traditional conservatives, because they’re such extreme, radical, nationalist fanatics.  And Kerry doesn’t come from that background, he leans more towards the normal center.  But they’re very dangerous.  I think that with another four-year mandate, they might do not only severe, but maybe irremediable damage to the world.