The future of democracy

Noam Chomsky interviewed by John Titlow

dragonfire, July 5, 2005

Depending on what side of the political spectrum from which you’re speaking, Noam Chomsky is either a bottomless resource of sound analyses or an anti-American radical. Either way, the 76-year-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of linguistics is one of the most influential thinkers of our time. He is credited with having revolutionized the scientific study of human language with his Theory of Universal Grammar and what has become known as the Chomsky hierarchy of formal languages, a system that has been applied in other fields of study from computer science to evolutionary psychology. In the 1960s, Chomsky began applying his work to the political realm. He became a prominent critic of U.S. foreign policy during the Vietnam War and has since become a prolific writer on such topics as international politics and mass media.

In 9-11, a best-selling collection of interviews published soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Chomsky took the controversial position that while a “horrifying atrocity,” the 9/11 attacks were unique “not in their scale and character, but in the target.” In other words, argued Chomsky, the horror Americans endured on Sept. 11, 2001, was not unlike what those on the receiving end of U.S. foreign policy experience every year. Chomsky has, in the past, called the United States “a leading terrorist state.” The media, Chomsky reasons, act as a vehicle for state and corporate propaganda in which only a narrow scope of debate is permitted. And he views the U.S. political parties as “two factions” of one “business party.”

Chomsky has written dozens of books and has been called everything from “the most important intellectual alive” by The New York Times to “the ayatollah of anti-American hate” by right-wing commentator David Horowitz. The mainstream media in the United States often ignore his commentary, while interviewers in Europe, Canada and elsewhere wrestle just to reserve an hour of his time.

His book Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (The American Empire Project), published in November 2003, is a biting critique of the U.S. posture in the world, which Chomsky views as having the aim of global dominance, a theme throughout U.S. history that now poses a tangible threat to the survival of the human race.

Chomsky invited Dragonfire into his Cambridge office to talk about freedom of the press, the state of democracy and American foreign policy during the week when the United States celebrates its independence.

This week, Americans celebrate 229 years of independence. In your view, are we as free and independent as we pride ourselves on being?

A few years ago, after the Reagan years, polls showed that about 80 percent of the public thought that the government works for the few and the special interests, not for the people. Well, if that’s true, then we’re not very free. We don’t have anything to do with our government. If you take a look at the last election, 2004, I don’t think that particular question was asked, but if you compare public attitudes, which are very heavily studied, and the positions of the two candidates, they are poles apart. Both of the political parties are far to the right of the public on a host of general issues. In fact, people had to make guesses about the positions of the parties, because they weren’t really articulated in any comprehensible form. Most people, it turns out, seriously misunderstood the positions of the candidates.

For example, take a current issue: support for the Kyoto Protocols. The United States rejected [it], [but popular support for the Protocols] was so strong that a majority of Bush voters thought he was in favor of them. The same runs true on a host of similar issues. When people were asked to evaluate the federal budget, the opinions of the public are almost the opposite of the budget. A large majority wanted cutbacks in military spending, increases in social spending, health, education, veterans’ benefits, renewable energy, more funding for the United Nations, which the public strongly supports – though neither of the parties do – and more foreign aid. You can just run through the list and see what the public wants and see what the policy is. They’re almost diametrically opposed. That shows up in feelings of helplessness and that the government doesn’t have much to do with us.

I think that’s probably the reason why the public doesn’t get much involved in the issues of stolen elections. After the 2000 election, there was a huge uproar about Florida, the Supreme Court, chads [the small, controversial pieces of paper hanging off of the election ballots]. There were books and articles written about how the republic is collapsing. And a number of people noticed, but nobody seemed to care. And the lack of knowledge on the positions of the candidates makes it even more extreme.

On that dimension [of freedom], the U.S. looks like a failed state. [It is] a state that has the formal political institutions, but they’re not functioning, if functioning in a democratic society is supposed to mean that public policy somehow reflects public interests and concerns. The divide is enormous.

What about outside of domestic political elections… is all hope lost?

In other dimensions, the U.S. is very free. For example, freedom of speech is protected in the United States to an extent that is unique in the world. A lot of personal freedoms are indeed protected. There are attempts to cut that back. There’s a streak in the present administration that clearly would like to severely cut back on personal freedoms, and [has] succeeded in doing so for certain marginal populations, like immigrants. The extreme example is the radical violation of domestic and international law in Guantanamo, Bagram and Iraq, which has caused a huge uproar around the world and here, too. It’s an extreme case, but it reflects a strain of thinking within the government. The proposed U.N. ambassador [John R. Bolton] for example, his position is that international law has no force. It’s just a contract that the U.S. government enters into and follows it when it wants to and drops it when it doesn’t. The attorney general [Alberto R. Gonzales] has described the Geneva Conventions – the core of modern humanitarian law – as, I think his words were “quaint” and “obsolete.” In fact, there have been attempts to severely constrain personal freedom, but a lot of them have been beaten back. [Former Attorney General John] Ashcroft, Bush and the rest tried to impose the Patriot Act in a way so extreme that it just aroused enormous resistance. For example, they wanted surveillance of public libraries, and public libraries throughout the country just refused.

How much do you see our civil liberties being impinged upon, especially with respect to freedom of the press?

Freedom of the press from state control is very high in the United States, much higher than any other place I know. So take, say, England. They recently had a government investigation of the BBC to see whether they’re too critical of the government – the Hutton Report. There was a lot of debate about it, but it was mostly about the content of the report, not about the fact that it took place. I don’t think that in the United States it would have been possible for such an inquiry to take place. The protest would have been too strong. I mean, what right does the government have to investigate whether somebody’s being too critical of it? But in England, it was acceptable. In fact, English libel laws are designed so they sharply constrain freedom of the press. In the British system, if I accuse you of libel, you have to prove that I’m wrong. In the American system, I have to prove that I’m right. That’s a substantial difference, and it has a highly intimidating effect. In fact, it’s been used by big media corporations to put small journals out of business. One journal had claimed to expose something that a big media corporation did, and their reaction was just to threaten them with a libel suit. A big corporation can command legal resources, and so on, that no small journal can possibly deal with, so the journal went out of business. That’s almost impossible in the United States.

[In the U.S.], there is some diversity in the media, but overwhelmingly, they naturally remain within the basic agenda that’s pretty much set by their owners and their market, which is other businesses. It’d be amazing if it departed very much from that. Also, [the media] is very closely linked to state power, and that gives you not literal censorship but constraints. It doesn’t mean you can’t say what you want, but it does mean that there’s a slight difference in voice level.

What are your thoughts about public broadcasting in the wake of budget cuts, threats of more governmental oversight and efforts to influence programming decisions at National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)?

Public broadcasting has always been very narrowly bounded. I mean, it pushes the edge slightly beyond commercial broadcasting, but not very much. There are a lot of illusions about that. It’s called “liberal,” which is correct, I think, but liberalism in the United States means something a little less extremist than what’s called conservative. It’s kind of center-right instead of far left.

So regardless of where you are, public broadcasts are going to skew right?

I should qualify that. There is a difference in public broadcasting around the country. So when you get out of the Northeast corridor, it’s a lot more free and open. If I go to an area that’s not part of the Northeast corridor, the main ideological and political center, NPR is pretty open to discussion and commentary, but it’s much more restricted.

What do you make of the Bush administration’s recent efforts through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to monitor NPR’s coverage of the Middle East in order to detect a so-called bias, which to the government might mean something different than it does to us?

On the Middle East bias, that’s an interesting question. There’s a big attack on the universities for that too, same as public broadcasting. And it does raise the question of “what do you mean by bias?” There are some very simple tests of that, which are never undertaken. They’re never undertaken because everybody knows what the answer will be.

The question is: Are you biased against Israel? There’s a simple test: Do you think that Israel should have the same rights as any state in the international system? No more, no less. That’s neutral. That’s what it means not to be biased against, say, Luxembourg. Well, nobody asks that, because the answer’s going to be 100 percent agreement in the Middle East departments of the universities and the media and so on, so therefore that’s not a good answer. What lies behind it is the belief that Israel, the U.S. offshoot in the Middle East, should have rights far beyond those of any state in the international system. That’s called unbiased.

And that’s what mainstream opinion is: Israel should have what’s called the abstract “right to exist.” No state has a right to exist, and no one demands such a right. For example, the United States has no such right. Mexico doesn’t respect the right of the United States to exist, sitting on half of Mexico, which was conquered in war. They do grant the U.S. rights in the international system, but not the legitimacy of those rights.

This concept “right to exist” was in fact invented, as far as I can tell, in the 1970s when there was general international agreement, including the Arab states and the PLO, that Israel should have the rights of every state in the international system. And therefore, in an effort to prevent negotiations and a diplomatic settlement, the U.S. and Israel insisted on raising the barrier to something that nobody’s going to accept. Certainly, the Palestinians can’t accept it. They’re not going to accept Israel’s existence but also the legitimacy of its existence and the legitimacy of their dispossession. Why should they accept that? Why should anyone accept it?

But that’s what’s called “neutrality” and being “unbiased.” It shows in all sorts of other ways. So what they mean by unbiased is approximately what they would have meant in the Kremlin. Yes, that’s very dangerous and the fact that that’s even contemplated is outrageous, and the attacks against the universities as well. These really reflect a totalitarian instinct, in my opinion, and of course they’re dressed up under the name academic freedom and so on, but anyone who’s read Orwell knows what that means.

Let’s say that we built a time machine and could bring Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin to America 2005. What might they think about our society in 2005, compared with 1776 and what they might have hoped for or envisioned?

First of all, they were pretty much pre-capitalist. They were kind of on the verge of the development of capitalism. Madison, who was the main framer of the Constitution, was opposed to democracy, contrary to what you’re taught. He felt that power should be in the hands of the wealth of the nation – the set of men who have sympathy for property owners and their rights – not the general population, which has to be fragmented and marginalized somehow. That sounds very autocratic, but you have to recall that he was pre-capitalist. So, his illusion was that the wealth of the nation would work for the public good, and therefore it’s okay to give [the aristocracy] the power. That’s a very pre-capitalist notion. Adam Smith, before him, would never have accepted that illusion. Smith described the merchants and manufacturers of England as dangerous people whose commitment was to delude and deceive the public for their own interests and to shape public policy so it’ll serve their interests.

Some years later, by the 1790s, Madison was having second thoughts and began to be concerned that stockjobbers, what we call financial markets, which barely existed at the time, … would sooner or later become what he called the tools and tyrants of government. They’ll be so powerful that they’ll be able to control the government, and they’ll also be used by powerful states as tools. If Madison showed up now, he would be appalled, I presume, to see that that’s just what happened.

[Financial markets] are now the tools and tyrants of governments, and they’re not just individuals and stockjobbers. They’re massive, tyrannical entities, which were given the rights of [individual people] a century ago [and] were in more recent years given First Amendment rights. Madison and Jefferson would be absolutely appalled by that, as would anyone from that period.

The basis of their thinking was that rights are inhered in persons, people of flesh and blood, not collectivist legal fictions. The very structure of our society, I think, they would find appalling. A century ago, when these rights were created and granted, not by legislation but by the courts, Woodrow Wilson, who was in fact in favor of them, though [he] was a progressive, wrote that from this point on, the old America is gone. He [predicted] that from then on, men would be the servants of corporations.

And what would they think of speech? Would they consider our media truly free to publish what it wants?

I would hope that they would applaud the development of the notion of freedom of speech, which didn’t really exist in their day. Contrary to what’s often believed, the Bill of Rights doesn’t say much about freedom of speech. It was never really granted. Most of the Supreme Court decisions on freedom of speech were in the late 20th century. I would think that Jefferson at least would have been in favor of that. But I presume, if they were true to their principles, that they would be appalled by the entire system of corporate domination of society.

[The framers] did live long enough to see one substantial violation of the Constitution, which has now become challenged, and that is the right of Congress to declare war. The Constitution was set up to prevent the emergence of a monarch, so the executive branch had very limited powers. The U.S. has gone to war many times, but very rarely with a declaration of war. Take the Iraq War. Congress gave some kind of authorization, but there was no declaration of war. The war in Vietnam … the question of a declaration never came up. The Contra war against Nicaragua: Nothing.

Executive wars, as they’re called, have become the norm. It’s interesting that this doesn’t bother people who call themselves strict constructionists of the Constitution. I presume that that and other developments would strongly offend those like Madison and Jefferson, who did not want the executive to become a monarch. By now, it’s pretty much a monarchy. You can see it in the embarrassing and outlandish commemorations, like the Reagan funeral. That was an embarrassment to a democratic society. Maybe in North Korea you’d do something like that. It would’ve been embarrassing even if it had been for a president who you could respect or had any popularity, and he didn’t. By the time he left office, he was ranked next to Nixon, the most unpopular living ex-president. But then a huge propaganda campaign began, which turned him into a divinity, and his death was treated that way. That shouldn’t happen in a self-respecting democratic society, no matter who the person is.