Language, Politics, and Propaganda

Noam Chomsky interviewed by David Jay Brown

In Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse, New York, 2005, pp. 33-39

DAVID: All previous forms of media-television, radio, and newspapers-have been monopolized by corporations. It seems that they can’t monopolize the Internet. Do you think that this will make a difference sociologically?

NOAM: First of all, historically, that’s not really true. I don’t know about other countries, but the history of media in the modern period-the last two centuries-has been studied pretty closely in England and the United States, and the period when the press was most free was probably the nineteenth century. There was a very substantial press in the nineteenth century, and it was very diverse. There was a working-class press, an ethnic press, and so on-with a lot of participation and involvement. It reached a great many people, and it presented a variety opinions and point of views.

Over time this changed. Actually there was an effort, first in England, to try to censor the independent press by various government means, such as taxation and others. Now, that didn’t work, there were too many ways around it. It was finally recognized that through the forces of capital concentration and advertiser reliance, the independent press would simply be eroded since it would not be able to gain business support, either capital investment or advertising. And over time the press has narrowed, very sharply, in fact. It’s been going on for the last few years, and the mass-based independent press has largely disappeared.

In the United States, for example, as recently as the 1950s, there were about eight hundred labor-based newspapers which reached, maybe, 30 million people a week. Of course, that’s completely disappeared. If you go back to the early part of the century, about a century ago, popular-based, what we would call left-oriented journals, were on the scale of commercial press, and the same has been true in England. So it’s not entirely true that it’s always been monopolized, that’s a process that takes place through capital accumulation and reliance on advertising.

The Internet is a very important case. Like most of the modern economy, it was developed in the state system, and for about thirty years it was either within the Pentagon or later the National Science Foundation. It was only privatized in the mid-’90s, and since then it has changed. So far it’s been impossible to really control, so if people want to use it for their own purposes they can. But there are major efforts being made by the corporate owners and advertisers to shape the Internet, so that it will be mostly used for advertising, commerce, diversion, and so on. Then those who wish to use it for information, political organizing, and other such activities will have a harder time. Now, that hasn’t happened yet, and it’s really a terrain of struggle. But what’s going on with the Internet is, in some respects, similar to the early days of print press, later radio, to some extent television.

DAVID: What sort of difference do you think the Internet has made politically? Do you see it as a tool for improving human rights and democracy?

NOAM: The appearance of the Internet has had a big effect. So a good deal of the organizing and activism of the past say ten years has been Internet-based. Now, that’s true inside particular countries. So, for example, the overthrow of the dictatorship in Indonesia was very much facilitated by Internet contact among people, many of them students, who were able to organize and overthrow the dictatorship. Now we’ve just seen it in South Korea very dramatically.

Like just about every major element of capitalist society, the media are highly concentrated and very business-run. But South Korea is the most wired-up country in the world, I think, and through the use of the Internet, it was possible to develop what amounted to alternative media, independent media, which were on a very substantial scale. And they were major factor in the political victory of the current president, who was reformist-a party which had plenty of popular support, and was able to organize it through Internet-based media.

The same is true much more generally. So, for example, international organizing that blocked the multilateral agreement on investments was done almost entirely by Internet. The media simply wouldn’t cover the issue. Groups-like, say, the World Social Forum, which is now a huge organization, like a hundred thousand people show up at the meetings, and many more are involved from all over the world-are almost entirely Internet organized. The mass media won’t permit any information to appear about it. There are many other examples.

DAVID: Do you think that our species is making progress with regards to human rights and democracy?

NOAM: Well, there’s progress and there’s regression, so it’s a difficult trajectory to plot. By and large, with regard to human rights, I think there is notable progress. With regard to democracy, it’s a much more complicated story. Formal democracy is increasing. So democracy in the sense of, say, the ability to vote for people in office is increasing. On the other hand, the barriers to effective use of democratic rights are also increasing. That’s why skepticism and disillusionment with democracy are very notably increasing throughout a good part of the world, including the United States.

So, in the United States, for example, which is one of the most free and democratic societies there is, by now about three-quarters of the population regard presidential elections as basically a farce-just some game played by rich contributors and the public relations industry, which crafts candidates to say things that they don’t mean and don’t understand. And those proportions have been increasing. The same has been happening through Latin America and much in of the world. So formal democracy is definitely increasing, but with regard to substantive democracy, I don’t think one can easily draw that conclusion.

DAVID: What do you think can be done to help bring about greater democracy in America and the world?

NOAM: The greatest American social philosopher of the twentieth century, John Dewey, once said-correctly I think-that politics is the shadow cast over society by big business. What he meant by that is, as long as you have a massive concentration of private power and wealth, there will essentially be dictatorial systems within the economy. A business firm is basically a dictatorship, with orders coming from top to bottom. As long as those phenomena continue, democracy’s going to be very limited. The way to extend democracy is to overcome this massive concentration of power and wealth and to introduce democratic procedures throughout all institutions-what Dewey called going from industrial feudalism to industrial democracy. And not just in industry, but in every other institution. That’s a traditional view-Dewey’s not a far-out Leftist-and I think it’s correct.

DAVID: Has your work in linguistics led you to believe that there is anything like a universal morality, similar to a universal grammar, that is inherent in people?

NOAM: Well, my work in linguistics hasn’t led to that, but I think it’s correct. In fact, the insight goes back well beyond the emergence of modern linguistics. The eighteenth-century British philosopher David Hume pointed out correctly that-as he put it-the number of duties is infinite. This means that we have an understanding of what we ought to do in a unbounded range of circumstances, many of them novel. And this can only happen, he said, if there were some fixed principles of human nature from which we derive an understanding of what our moral responsibilities are. And that’s obviously got to be given to us, as he put it in the eighteenth century, by “the original hand of nature.” You could say it’s evolved as part of our nature.

It’s hard to see what other possibility there could be, and that’s very similar to the question of how linguistic knowledge develops. It must be part of our nature, and it is available for a unbounded range of circumstances.

So you and I, for example, may be producing expressions right now which neither of us have ever heard in our lifetimes, or may never have been produced before, but we understand them, because we have a fixed nature that provides the computational and interpretive mechanisms to use and understand them over an unbounded range. So in that sense there’s a similarity, you could say, but it seems to be that Hume’s observation is correct, whether or not you know anything about language.

DAVID: How do you think the innate structure of our minds imposes limits on our understanding?

NOAM: Well, if we are organic creatures and not angels, then our innate characteristics provide scope for our development, as well as limits on it. The fact that I have human genes and not mouse genes determined that I could become a human being, but I was unable to become a mouse. The same has to be true of our cognitive capacities. So whatever the genetic basis for our cognitive capacities is, it plainly provides a rich scope of options. But it must also provide limits on those options. They’re logically connected-if there’s a cognitive scope, then there’s cognitive limits, just as with physical capacities.

DAVID: HOW do you think language affects consciousness and what we experience as reality?

NOAM: Your guess is as good as anyone else’s. I mean, what we know is mostly by introspection. If you pay attention for, say, the next few hours, you’ll discover that you’re constantly talking to yourself. It’s almost impossible to go through a moment of time without internal dialogue taking place, and that’s just an enormous part of our consciousness. And it’s in language, most of it, at least the part that’s accessible to our consciousness is in language. How it affects our thought, and our general awareness, it’s pretty hard to say. The thing is, we have no real access to thought or consciousness, except through language. So it’s hard to ask the question.

DAVID: Bodily expressions and pheromones aside, do you think that language usage pretty much explains human communication? Or do you ever entertain the notion that telepathic, or other means of communication currently unrecognized by conventional science, can play a role?

NOAM: First of all, language by no means exhausts human communication. We communicate in all sorts of ways-by gesture, by the clothes we wear, by our hairstyles. All sorts of interactions are communicative. Language is just one of many modes of communication. But as for things like, say, telepathic modes, I don’t have any reason to believe in their existence. I can’t prove with certainty that they don’t exist, but we need some evidence for it. It seems very unlikely because it would be quite inconsistent with, at least, what’s understood about the nature of physical reality. It doesn’t necessarily prove that it’s wrong, but just that it’s unlikely. It raises very high the bars to belief in it.

DAVID: What is your perspective on the concept of God, and do you see any teleology in evolution?

NOAM: I don’t think there’s any reason to suspect that there’s any validity to any such notions.

DAVID: What do you personally think happens to consciousness after death?

NOAM: I assume it’s finished.

DAVID: It’s finished. That’s the end?

NOAM: That’s the end. Death is the end of the organism, and the end of everything associated with it.

DAVID: What do you think is the biggest threat to the human species, and what do you think we can do to help avoid it?

NOAM: The biggest imminent threat, I suppose, is nuclear war, which is not far away. We’ve come very close to terminal nuclear war a number of times. It’s kind of a miracle that the species has escaped, in fact. And those threats are increasing. For example, the development and the expansion of military systems into space-with highly destructive space-based offensive weapons that are probably on hair-trigger alert-is almost a guarantee of devastation, if only by accident.

Now, those are very imminent threats and they’re being increased, and the same is true with other weapons of mass destruction. For the moment, nuclear weapons are by far the most destructive, but bioweapons are increasing in lethal character and being spread. The failure to develop a bioweapons treaty is a serious danger to the species. Actually the United States has been in the lead in blocking any implementation of bioweapons treaties. In fact, it just undermined the latest bioweapons treaty, and is in fact also in the forefront of developing new nuclear weapons and the militarization of space.

Now, those are extreme dangers. In fact, if you were watching from Mars, a rational person would be amazed that the species has survived this long, and wouldn’t put very high odds on it for the future. Now, beyond that, there are many other dangers. I mean, nobody really understands very much about the environmental threats, but there’s a very broad consensus among scientists that they’re serious. It could be that a nonlinear process is taking place-meaning that small differences, small changes, could have massive effects. This could have unpredictable consequences, and many of the possibilities are lethal. And there are a list of others. The species is in a very hazardous state. A rational person wouldn’t put very high odds on survival.

DAVID: Do you think that the human species is going to survive, or do you think we’re headed toward extinction?

NOAM: It depends whether we can take control of our own destinies. We have the means to do it. I mean, there’s no law of nature that says you have to put destructive weapons in space or that you have to destroy the environment by wild overconsumption of hydrocarbons. Those are choices.

DAVID: What gives you hope?

NOAM: The short answer is that it doesn’t really matter. How hopeful one or another of us may be is an insignificant matter of personal assessment of incalculable possibilities. We should do exactly the same things no matter what our subjective probabilities are. But when we see people all over the world struggling courageously under conditions of really terrible adversity, it seems to me not our business to pay much attention to our personal guesses, but rather to make use of the legacy of freedom and privilege that most of us enjoy.