Propaganda in the US vs in the USSR
October 24, 1986
David Barsamian: C.P. Otero, who has edited a collection of your essays entitled Radical Priorities, has written in its preface, “The totalitarian system of thought control is far less effective than the democratic one, since the official doctrine parroted by the intellectuals at the service of the state is readily identifiable as pure propaganda, and this helps free the mind.” In contrast, he writes, “the democratic system seeks to determine and limit the entire spectrum of thought by leaving the fundamental assumptions unexpressed. They are presupposed but not asserted.”
Noam Chomsky: That’s quite accurate. I’ve also written about that many times. Just think about it. Take, say, a country which is at the opposite end of the spectrum from us domestically, the Soviet Union. That’s a country run by the bludgeon, essentially. It’s a command state: the state controls, everybody basically follows orders. It’s more complicated than that, but essentially that’s the way it works. There, it’s very easy to determine what propaganda is: what the state produces is propaganda. That’s the kind of thing that Orwell described in 1984. In a country like that, where there’s a kind of Ministry of Truth, propaganda is very easily identifiable. Everybody knows what it is, and you can choose to repeat it if you like, but basically it’s not really trying to control your thought very much; it’s giving you the party line. It’s saying, “Here’s the official doctrine; as long as you don’t disobey you won’t get in trouble. What you think is not of great importance to anyone. If you get out of line we’ll do something to you because we have force.”
Democratic societies can’t really work like that, because the state can’t control behavior by force. It can to some extent, but it’s much more limited in its capacity to control by force. Therefore, it has to control what you think. And again, democratic theorists have understood this for 50 or 60 years and have been very articulate about it. If the voice of the people is heard, you’d better control what that voice says, meaning you have to control what they think. The method Otero mentions there is one of the major methods. One of the ways you control what people think is by creating the illusion that there’s a debate going on, but making sure that that debate stays within very narrow margins. Namely, you have to make sure that both sides in the debate accept certain assumptions, and those assumptions turn out to be the propaganda system. As long as everyone accepts the propaganda system, then you can have a debate.
The Vietnam War is a classic example. In the major media, the New York Times or CBS or whatever — in fact, all across the spectrum except at the very far-out periphery which reaches almost no one — in the major media which reach the overwhelming majority of the population, there was a lively debate. It was between people called “doves” and people called “hawks”. The people called hawks said, “If we keep at it we can win.” The people called doves said, “Even if we keep at it we probably can’t win, and besides, it would probably be too costly for us, and besides maybe we’re killing too many people,” something like that. Both sides, the doves and the hawks, agreed on something: we have a right to carry out aggression against South Vietnam. In fact, they didn’t even admit that it was taking place. They called it the “defense” of South Vietnam, using “defense” for “aggression” in the standard Orwellian manner. We were in fact attacking South Vietnam, just as much as the Russians are attacking Afghanistan. Like them, we first established a government that invited us in, and until we found one we had to overturn government after government. Finally we got one that invited us in, after we’d been there for years, attacking the countryside and the population. That’s aggression. Nobody thought it was wrong, or rather, anyone who thought that was wrong was not admitted to the discussion. If you’re a dove, you’re in favor of aggression, if you’re a hawk you’re in favor of aggression. The debate between the hawks and the doves, then, is purely tactical: “Can we get away with it? Is it too bloody or too costly?” All basically irrelevant.
The real point is that aggression is wrong. When the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia, they got away with it. They didn’t kill many people, but it was wrong because aggression is wrong. We all understand that. But we can’t allow that understanding to be expressed when it relates to the violent actions of our state, obviously. If this were a totalitarian state, the Ministry of Truth would simply have said, “It’s right for us to go into Vietnam, period. Don’t argue with it.” People would have known that’s the propaganda system talking and they could have thought what they wanted. They could have seen that we were attacking Vietnam just like we can see that the Russians are attacking Afghanistan.
You couldn’t permit that understanding of reality in this country; it’s too dangerous. People are much more free, they can express themselves, they can do things. Therefore, it was necessary to try to control thought, to try to make it appear as if the only issue was a tactical one: can we get away with it? There’s no issue of right or wrong. That worked partially, but not entirely. Among the educated part of the population it worked almost totally.
There are good studies of this that show, with only the most marginal statistical error, that among the more educated parts of the population the government propaganda system was accepted unquestioningly. On the other hand, after a long period of popular spontaneous opposition, dissent and organization, the general population got out of control. As recently as 1982, according to the latest polls I’ve seen, over 70 percent of the population still was saying that the war was, quoting the wording of the Gallup poll, “fundamentally wrong and immoral,” not “a mistake.” That is, the overwhelming majority of the population is neither hawks nor doves, but opposed to aggression. On the other hand, the educated part of the population, they’re in line. For them, it’s just the tactical question of hawk vs. dove.
This is, incidentally, not untypical. Propaganda very often works better for the educated than it does for the uneducated. This is true on many issues. There are a lot of reasons for this, one being that the educated receive more of the propaganda because they read more. Another thing is that they are the agents of propaganda. After all, their job is that of commissars; they’re supposed to be the agents of the propaganda system so they believe it. It’s very hard to say something unless you believe it. Other reasons are that, by and large, they are just part of the privileged elite so they share their interests and perceptions, whereas the general population is more marginalized. It, by and large, doesn’t participate in the democratic system, which is overwhelmingly an elite game. People learn from their own lives to be skeptical, and in fact most of them are. There’s a lot of skepticism and dissent and so on.
Here’s a case which is an interesting one because, while the technique of thought control worked very effectively, in fact to virtually 100 percent effectiveness among the educated part of the population, after many years of atrocities and massacres and hundreds of thousands of people killed and so on, it began to erode among the general population. There’s even a name for that: it’s called the “Vietnam Syndrome”, a grave disease: people understand too much. But it’s very striking, very illuminating to see how well it’s worked among the educated. If you pick up a book on American history and look at the Vietnam War, there is no such event as the American attack against South Vietnam. It’s as if in the Soviet Union, say, in the early part of the 21st century, nobody will have ever said there was a Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Everyone says it’s a Russian defense of Afghanistan. That’s not going to happen. In fact, people already talk about the Russian invasion of Afghanistan — maybe they defend it, maybe not — but they admit that it exists. But in the United States, where the indoctrination system is vastly more effective, the educated part of the population can’t even see that it exists. We cannot see that there was an American invasion of South Vietnam. It’s out of history, down Orwell’s memory hole.
Non-Conspiracy Analysis of Propaganda System
October 24, 1986
Barsamian: … [W]ho are the mandarins, or to use Gramsci’s term, the “experts in legitimation”?
Chomsky: The experts in legitimation, the ones who labor to make what people in power do seem legitimate, are mainly the privileged educated elites. The journalists, the academics, the teachers, the public relations specialists, this whole category of people have a kind of an institutional task, and that is to create the system of belief which will ensure the effective engineering of consent. And again, the more sophisticated of them say that. In the academic social sciences, for example, there’s quite a tradition of explaining the necessity for the engineering of democratic consent. There are very few critics of this position. Among them is a well-known social scientist named Robert Dahl who has pointed out — as is obviously true — that if you have a political system in which you plug in the options from a privileged position, and that’s democracy, it’s indistinguishable from totalitarianism. It’s very rare that people point that out.
In the public relations industry, which is a major industry in the United States and has been for a long time, 60 years or more, this is very well understood. In fact, that’s their purpose. That’s one of the reasons this is such a heavily polled society, so that business can keep its finger on the popular pulse and recognize that, if attitudes have to be changed, we’d better work on it. That’s what public relations is for, very conscious, very well understood. When you get to what these guys call the institutions responsible for “the indoctrination of the young,” the schools and the universities, at that point it becomes somewhat more subtle. By and large, in the schools and universities people believe they’re telling the truth. The way that works, with rare exceptions, is that you cannot make it through these institiutions unless you’ve accepted the indoctrination. You’re kind of weeded out along the way. Independent thinking is encouraged in the sciences but discouraged in these areas. If people do it they’re weeded out as radical or there’s something wrong with them. It doesn’t have to work 100 percent, in fact, it’s even better for the system if there are a few exceptions here and there. It gives the illusion of debate or freedom. But overwhelmingly, it works.
In the media, it’s still more obvious. The media, after all, are corporations integrated into some of the major corporations in the country. The people who own and manage them belong to the same narrow elite of owners and managwers who control the private economy and who control the state, so it’s a very narrow nexus of corporate media and state managers and owners. They share the same perceptions, the same understanding, and so on. That’s one major point. So, naturally, they’re going to perceive issues, suppress, control and shape in the interest of the groups that they represent: ultimately the interests of private ownership of the economy — that’s where it’s really based. Furthermore, the media also have a market: advertisers, not the public. People have to buy newspapers, but the newspapers are designed to get the public to buy them so that they can raise their advertising rates. The newspapers are essentially being sold to advertisers via the public. Since the corporation is selling it and its market is businesses, that’s another respect in which the corporate system or the business system generally is going to be able to control the contents of the media. In other words, if by some unimaginable accident they began to get out of line, advertising would fall off, and that’s a constraint.
State power has the same effect. The media want to maintain their intimate relation to state power. They want to get leaks, they want to get invited to the press conferences. They want to rub shoulders with the Secretary of State, all that kind of business. To do that, you’ve got to play the game, and playing the game means telling their lies, serving as their disinformation apparatus. Quite apart from the fact that they’re going to do it anyway out of their own interest and their own status in the society, there are these kinds of pressures that force them into it. It’s a very narrow system of control, ultimately.
Then comes the question of the individual journalist, you know, the young kid who decides to become an honest journalist. Well, you try. Pretty soon you are informed by your editor that you’re a little off base, you’re a little too emotional, you’re too involved in the story, you’ve got to be more objective. There’s a whole pile of code words for this, and what those code words mean is “Get in line, buddy, or you’re out.” Get in line means follow the party line. One thing that happens then is that people drop out. But those who decide to conform usually just begin to believe what they’re saying. In order to progress you have to say certain things; what the copy editor wants, what the top editor is giving back to you. You can try saying it and not believing it, but that’s not going to work, people just aren’t that dishonest, you can’t live with that, it’s a very rare person who can do that. So you start saying it and pretty soon you’re believing it because you’re saying it, and pretty soon you’re inside the system. Furthermore, there are plenty of rewards if you stay inside. For people who play the game by the rules in a rich society like this, there are ample rewards. You’re well off, you’re privileged, you’re rich, you have prestige, you have a share of power if you want, if you like this kind of stuff you can go off and become the State Department spokesman on something or other, you’re right near the center of at least privilege, sometimes power, in the richest, most powerful country in the world. You can go far, as long as you’re very obedient and subservient and disciplined. So there are many factors, and people who are morwe independent are just going to drop off or be kicked out. In this case there are very few exceptions.
Capitalism’s Short Term “Horizon”
January 24, 1988
Barsamian: There’s a paradox here that bewilders me. You’re talking about the state managers, whose function is to preserve power and privilege. If that indeed is the case, how could they create this apparatus of extinction.
Chomsky: The reason is that in a competitive system you do short-term planning only. Exactly the same is true in the business world. Let’s take corporate managers, where there’s no real confusion about what they’re doing. They are maximizing profit and market share in the short term. In fact, if they were not to do that, they would no longer exist. Let’s be concrete. Suppose that some automobile company, say General Motors, decides to devote their resources to planning for something that will be profitable ten years from now. Suppose that’s where they divert their resources, they want to think in some long- term conception of market dominance. Their rivals are going to be maximizing profit and power in the short term, and they’re going to take over the markets, and General Motors won’t be in business. That’s true for the owners and also for the managrs. The managers want to stay managers. They can fight off hostile takeover bids, they can keep from being replaced, as long as they contribute to short-term profitability. As a result, long-term considerations are rarely considered in competitive systems. Exactly the same attitudes take over when the same managers move over into the state planning system. Which is also, to an extent, a competitive system. What you find specifically is short-term maximization of gain and very little concern for the longer term. This shows up all over the place.
Let’s take another example, one which is more remote than nuclear destruction, say, depletion of American energy resources. Back in the 1940’s and early 50’s it was pretty well known where the world’s energy reserves were, there haven’t been many surprises. It was known that U.S. reserves would be depleted if they were extensively used, and that the major reserves in the world would remain in the Middle East. If anybody was concerned with long-term U.S. security, what they would have done would be to protect northern hemisphere reserves, the Gulf of Mexico and so on, save those and exploit Middle Eastern reserves. They did the exact opposite. They depleted American reserves, for reasons of short-term profitability. We’re now in a situation where Louisiana and Texas are producing very little oil. We’ve got to import oil from abroad to fill holes in the ground as a strategic reserve. This was all completely predictable. It’s just that basically nobody cared. They’re making calculations in terms of short-term profitability. If in the long term it means that you destroy your own corporation, or you destroy the world, that’s somebody else’s business.
We saw the same short-term view in the Reagan administration. It was transparent that Reaganomics was going to lead to a massive debt and a massive trade deficity, it was going to really harm the country very seriously. But they were interested in short-term gain for the privileged. The longer term would somehow take care of itself. That is absolutely typical of corporate capitalism, state capitalism, to the extent that it’s competitive, and it’s very typical of state managers.
Chomsky on Call-In Talk Radio
KGNU call-in, December 13, 1989
Caller: It seems that, Professor Chomsky, you are merely a critic of society and you don’t have a definite program or political alternative or system that you are clearly advocating. In what you write and what you say you give only the barest and vaguest solutions. You talk vaguely of a social revolution or something of this nature, but you don’t say concretely what you believe in.
Another point I’d like to ask you about is the Pentagon budget, which is only about 6 percent of the GNP, and military procurement is only 2 percent or 3 percent of the GNP. If you think that exists to benefit high-tech industries, it seems like it would make more sense for the government to directly fund high-tech industries if they wanted to do that. Probably the public would be even more supportive of it, like they are in Japan. Number three: I’ve heard you criticize and criticize and go on and on about what you dislike about the United States’ political and economic system. Is there anything, anything that you have ever said, or could you say something now, about the U.S.political and economic system that you approve of, that you think is an achievement, a success? I like to hear if you can say anything positive about the politics and economics of this country.
Chomsky: On the first point: You say I haven’t written about what I believe is an alternative. That’s just not true. I’ve written a lot about it. You probably haven’t read it, but then it’s not easily accessible. I’ve written quite a lot about what I think a libertarian society should look like and what it would mean to take the radical democratic ideals of the Enlightenment, for example, and translate them into a form in which they would apply to a modern industrial society. I could go on to describe it. I’ll be glad to give you references, but point number one is just not true.
Point number two: The figures about percentage of GNP are almost totally meaningless. The point is that the corporate managers in advanced industry — this is true of electronics, computers, pharmaceuticals, etc. — expect that the government, meaning the public, will pick up the costly parts of the production process, the parts that are not profitable — research and development. That’s got to be paid for by the public. Furthermore, the public, through the Pentagon, provides a state-guaranteed market, which is available for waste production if commercial markets don’t work. That is a gift to the corporate managers. It’s a cushion for planning. When something can be sold on the market, you sell it. If not, the public purchases it and destroys it. Furthermore, the public pays the cost while the corporation makes the profit. If you take a look at particular industries you can see how this works.
Take, say, the computer industry, the core of the modern industrial economy. I’m kind of smoothing the edges here, but the story is essentially accurate. You can put in tenth-order effect, if you like. In the 1950s, computers were not marketable, so the public paid 100 percent of the cost of research, development and production through the Pentagon. By the 1960s, they were beginning to be marketable in the commercial market, so the public participation declined to about 50 percent. The idea is that the public pays the costs, the corporations make the profits. Public subsidy, private profit; that’s what we call free enterprise. By the 1980s there were very substantial new expenditures required for advances in fifth-generation computers and new fancy parallel processing systems, etc. So the public’s share in the costs went up very substantially through Star Wars and the Pentagon, etc. That’s the way it works. Percentage of GNP doesn’t tell you anything relevant to this process.
As to why the government doesn’t just come to the population and play it the Japanese way, the answer is, in my view, and this has been the answer that business has given and I think they’re right, that the public here wouldn’t tolerate it. This is not a docile, submissive population like Japan. You can’t come to the population here and tell them : “Look, next year you’re going to cut back on your consumption by this amount so that IBM can make more profits and then maybe ten years from now your son or your daughter will get a job.” That wouldn’t wash. What you tell people here is: “The Russians are coming, so we better send up a lot of missiles into space and maybe out of that will come something useful for IBM and then maybe your son will get a job in ten years.” Those last parts you don’t bother saying.
Caller: Who are you quoting? Are you quoting yourself or some analyst in the military or what?
Chomsky: What I’m saying is what politicians in the United States say.
Caller: I’ve never heard them say that.
You’ve never heard a politician in the United States say, “The Russians are coming, we have to have more missiles?”
Caller: I never heard them say that we need it because we have to fund some high-tech industries.
Chomsky: You didn’t hear what I just said. I said that the last two sentences I added were not what is publicly said. How you do it in the United States is you say, look, we’ve got to defend ourselves, we need Star Wars, we need the Pentagon system, and the effect of that is to achieve what I just described with regard to the computer industry, or the semiconductor industry, or whatever. That is because this is a relatively free society.
If politicians were to approach the public telling them, “Look, we’ve decided that next year you’re going to cut back on your consumption so that IBM will make more profit,” the reaction in the United States would be a healthy reaction: “Who are you to tell me to cut back so that IBM will make more profit? If it’s going to be a social decision of that kind, I want to take part in it.” And that’s precisely why business does not want to be put in those terms. They do not want social policy, which is going to organize people, to become involved in making decisions over investment. This issue has come up over the years, many times, in the business press. Go back to the 1940s. It was recognized, as any economist will tell you, that you can get the same priming effect for industry, maybe even more efficient, through other forms of government intervention besides military production.
Caller: Right. That’s my point.
Chomsky: Sure you can do that, but it’s irrelevant, and business understands exactly why it’s irrelevant. You can read editorials in Business Week going back to the late 1940s where they point out there are two techniques: one technique is the military system, the other technique would be social spending, infrastructure development, hospitals, services, etc. or useful production. But the latter is no good. It will work from a technical, economic point of view, but it has all sorts of unwelcome side effects. For example, it tends to organize public constituencies. If the government gets involved in carrying out activities that affect the public existence directly, people will want to get involved in it.
Caller: Professor Chomsky, it’s a pleasure to ask you these questions. I’m from Canada, where your books are obtainable in virtually every bookstore. Your last book, Necessary Illusions, is on a paperback non-fiction bestseller list. I don’t see the same availability of your thoughts in America. That’s the first question: Why is that? The second question is: Do you have any comment on the elite media coverage of the situation in El Salvador regarding the [killing of] six Jesuit priests? The third question is, regarding the Middle East: A comment that I’m hearing again and again from people like Martin Peretz [of the New Republic] and others regarding the Palestinians is that these are Muslims, they’re tribal savages, they’re pre-Enlightenment and they pose a threat to Israel. Israel is a democracy. Why should we consider allowing another dagger to be pointed at Israel’s existence? I’d appreciate your comments on those three questions.
Chomsky: As for the availability of books, your description is correct, but that’s only one part of it. For example, this book that you mentioned was based on lectures that were delivered over Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on problems of thought control in industrial societies. It would be next to impossible for anything comparable to happen in the United States on any major public outlet. The United States is different from most other societies in that respect. Most industrial societies, even ones that are very much like us, have a good deal more openness on their public media to dissident opinion. There are a lot of reasons for that.
The previous caller had asked whether I had ever said anything nice about the United States. The answer is, very often. One of the things that’s extremely nice about the United States is the degree of freedom that it has. It is a free society, much more so than any other, and that very freedom has led to problems. If you can’t control people by force, you have to figure out other ways to control them. Corresponding to American freedom, which is unusual, are very highly sophisticated measures of ensuring that that freedom doesn’t work, and one of them is the one that you’re describing. A whole array of devices have been developed to ensure that dissident opinion just isn’t heard, although it isn’t suppressed either, given American freedoms. So what you’re describing is true, and I could elaborate the way it works if you like.
With regard to the second point, the coverage of the murder of the priests: The murder of the priests was considered an outrageous act here, and that particular action was covered reasonably well. It’s always considered a mistake for a friendly government to commit atrocities essentially in front of television cameras. They should commit them when nobody’s looking, and killing of priests, obviously by the military, is bad news. Therefore, there was some coverage of it. But the coverage will decline, and under U.S. pressure there may be a decision made. If the government of El Salvador is smart, they’ll find some scapegoat, a lieutenant, and put him on trial and then put him away in some country house somewhere for the crime. But the chances that they’ll go after the authorities who are responsible, say, the higher officers of the First Brigade, that’s very unlikely. It’s even more unlikely that the American press will point out what that means. What does it mean, for example, that the one witness had to be spirited out of the country to the United States so that she could survive? What does that tell us about the democratic society we’re supporting if the one witness to the murder of six priests can’t be kept in the country because she’ll be murdered? Exactly what does that tell you? It’s clear what it tells you, but that wasn’t the lesson that was drawn from it in the editorials. So the event itself was covered, and after that the cover-up begins, and it will be continuing.
On the matter of the Palestinians, I’m sure that what you heard is what many people say, and the only thing that I can respond to, apart from the false statements, is the level of racism it reflects. That reflects the assumption that there are human beings, the Jews, the Israelis, who are human beings and have rights, and then there are these strange animals, the indigenous population, who aren’t human beings and who don’t have rights, and what right do those animals have to threaten the human beings? That’s not something that’s unique in European or American history. It was attitudes like that that made it possible for those who conquered the United States, the European settlers, to basically wipe out the indigenous population, who, as George Washington once put it, were not really humans; they were just wolves who looked like men. As long as that’s true, you can do anything you like to them. I think those are the attitudes that you’re reflecting, the same attitudes expressed by the worst sectors of white South Africans. There’s no arguing with those positions, any more than you could argue with a Nazi who told you that the Jews weren’t human.
The “Concision” Technique of U.S. Media
February 2, 1990
Barsamian: I’m interested that you’ve said that commercial radio is less ideological than public radio.
Chomsky: That’s been my experience. Here I’d want to be a little more cautious. Public radio out in the sticks, in my experience, is pretty open. So when I go to Wyoming or Iowa I’m on public radio, for longer discussions. That would be very hard to imagine in Boston or Washington. Occasionally you might get on with somebody else to balance you for three minutes, in which there are three sentences for each person. But anything that would be more in depth would be very difficult. It’s worth bearing in mind that the U.S. communications system has devised a very effective structural technique to prevent dissidence. This comes out very clearly sometimes. The United States is about the only country I know where anywhere near the mainstream you’ve got to be extremely concise in what you say, because if you ever get access, it’s two minutes between commercials. That’s not true in other countries. It’s not true outside of the mainstream either. You can get maybe ten or fifteen minutes, you can develop a thought. If you can get on a U.S. mainstream program, NPR, Ted Koppel, it’s a couple of sentences. They’re very well aware of it. Do you know Jeff Hansen?
Barsamian: He’s at WORT, Madison.
Chomsky: Last time I was out there, he wanted to arrange an interview when I was in the area giving some talks on the media. He started by playing a tape that he had that you’ve probably heard where he had interviewed Jeff Greenfield, some mucky-muck with *Nightline*. He asked Greenfield, How come you never have Chomsky on? Greenfield starts with a kind of tirade about how this guy’s a wacko from Neptune. After he calmed down and stopped foaming at the mouth, he then said something which was quite right: Look, he probably “lacks concision.” We need the kind of people who can say something in a few brief sentences. Maybe the best expert on some topic is from Turkey and speaks only Turkish. That’s no good for us. We’ve got to get somebody who can say something with concision, and this guy Chomsky just rants on and on. There’s something to that.
Take a look at the February/March 1990 Mother Jones. There’s an interesting article by Marc Cooper in which he does an analysis of the main people who appear as experts on shows. Of course, they’re all skewed to the right, and the same people appear over and over. But the commentary is interesting. He talks to media people about this and they say, These are people who know how to make their thoughts concise and simple and straightforward and they can make those brief two-sentence statements between commercials. That’s quite significant. Because if you’re constrained to producing two sentences between commercials, or 700 words in an op-ed piece, you can do nothing but express conventional thoughts. If you express conventional thoughts, you don’t need any basis for it or any background, or any arguments. If you try to express something that’s somewhat unconventional, people will rightly ask why you’re saying that. They’re right. If I refer to the United States invasion of South Vietnam, people will ask, “What are you talking about? I never heard of that.” And they’re right. They’ve never heard about it. So I’d have to explain what I mean.
Or suppose I’m talking about international terrorism, and I say that we ought to stop it in Washington, which is a major center of it. People back off, “What do you mean, Washington’s a major center of it?” Then you have to explain. You have to give some background. That’s exactly what Jeff Greenfield is talking about. You don’t want people who have to give background, because that would allow critical thought. What you want is completely conformist ideas. You want just repetition of the propaganda line, the party line. For that you need “concision”. I could do it too. I could say what I think in three sentences, too. But it would just sound as if it was off the wall, because there’s no basis laid for it. If you come from the American Enterprise Institute and you say it in three sentences, yes, people hear it every day, so what’s the big deal? Yeah, sure, Qaddafi’s the biggest monster in the world, and the Russians are conquering the world, and this and that, Noriega’s the worst gangster since so-and-so. For that kind of thing you don’t need any background. You just rehash the thoughts that everybody’s always expressed and that you hear from Dan Rather and everyone else. That’s a structural technique that’s very valuable. In fact, if people like Ted Koppel were smarter, they would allow more dissidents on, because they would just make fools of themselves. Either you would sell out and repeat what everybody else is saying because it’s the only way to sound sane, or else you would say what you think, in which case you’d sound like a madman, even if what you think is absolutely true and easily supportable. The reason is that the whole system so completely excludes it. It’ll sound crazy, rightly, from their point of view. And since you have to have concision, as Jeff Greenfield says, you don’t have time to explain it. That’s a marvelous structural technique of propaganda. They do the same thing in Japan, I’m told. Most of the world still hasn’t reached that level of sophistication. You can go on Belgian national radio or the BBC and actually say what you mean. That’s very hard in the United States.
Alternative Media & Boston Globe “Ban” on Chomsky
February 2, 1990
Barsamian: In a 1986 interview that we did, you were fairly negative about the possibilities of an alternative media developing. Since then, however, we have the establishment of Z magazine, the growth of community radio, cable TV, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, I understand a Canadian film crew is doing a documentary on you, there’s been a lot of developments. Do you see that as a positive thing? Are you surprised by it?
Chomsky: I don’t remember what I said in that interview, but I’ve always felt it would be a very positive thing and it should be pushed as far as it can go. I think it’s going to have a very hard time. There’s such a concentration of resources and power that alternative media, while extremely important, are going to have quite a battle. It’s true, there are things which are small successes, but it’s because people have been willing to put in an incredible effort. Take Z Magazine. That’s a national magazine which literally has a staff of two and no resources, none, except for what some friends give. Putting out a magazine with no resources is backbreaking labor.
South End Press has sort of made it, that is, they’re surviving. It’s a small collective with again no resources, and they put out a lot of books, including quite a lot of good ones. But for a South End book to get reviewed is almost impossible. Take the Boston Globe, for example. By the standards of American journalism it’s a very liberal newspaper. Their book review editor a couple of years ago said publicly that she would never allow a South End book to be reviewed. The reason that she gave was that I was a South End author, and as long as I was a South End author she’d never allow a South End book to be reviewed. My books are not only not reviewed in the Boston Globe, but they won’t even list them. There’s a section on Sunday where they list things by local authors. Like some local author wrote a chapter in a cookbook. They won’t even list my books under listings by local authors.
In fact, sometimes it’s kind of comical. For example, the National Council of Teachers of English every year gives out what they call an “Orwell Award” for exposure of doublespeak. It was awarded to me for On Power and Ideology two years ago. This year it was awarded to the book that Edward Herman and I did, Manufacturing Consent. Just at the time when that award was given, a Boston Globe columnist, a rather left-liberal columnist, incidentally, wrote a column interviewing the guy who is in charge of this award. It was a very upbeat column about what a terrific idea this is to give an award for exposure of doublespeak. She listed some of the people who had gotten it in the past, Ted Koppel, etc. There was a very striking omission: This year’s award was not mentioned. It happened to go to a local person, which usually is mentioned. It also happened to be the first time, I think, that anybody had gotten it for the second time. Furthermore, both of the books in question were books about the media. It’s not what Ted Koppel does. It was critique of the media. None of that could be mentioned. South End has a very hard time getting a book reviewed. It’s been written up in Publisher’s Weekly, in fact, which has discussed this.
If you don’t have access to capital resources, advertisers, the powerful modes of public articulation, your outreach is going to be extremely limited. You can make up for it to some extent with just hard work. There are ways of compensating. Some of these ways are important. For example, dissidents in lots of societies cooperate. I spend an awful lot of time, for example, just xeroxing stuff, copying stuff for friends in other countries who are, in their countries, in roughly the situation I’m in here. They do the same for me. That means that although I don’t get a research grant to work on this kind of stuff or time off or whatever, I do have access to resources that mainstream scholars or for that matter the CIA don’t have. The CIA or mainstream scholars don’t have a very smart and perceptive guy in Israel scanning the Hebrew journals for them picking out the things that are important, doing an interpretation and analysis of them and sending reams of this material to me.
Barsamian: You’re talking about Israel Shahak.
Chomsky: Yes. That is a big difference. That means I’ve got resources. Shahak is the main one and there are others. I’ve got other friends that do the same thing. I and others do the same for them. The same is true in Australia and England and other places. So there are kind of networks of cooperation developed. Here on my desk, for example, is a collection of stuff from a friend of mine who does careful monitoring of the whole press in Los Angeles and a lot of the British press, which he reads, a selection so I don’t have to read the movie reviews and the gossip and the rest of it. I get the occasional nugget that sneaks through that you maybe find if you’re carefully and intelligently and critically reviewing a wide range of press. There are a fair number of people that do this, and we exchange information. The end result is that you do have access to resources in a way I doubt that any national intelligence agency can duplicate.
So there are ways of compensating for the absence of resources. People can do things. This happens all over. A couple of years ago I gave a talk in Manhattan, Kansas, and they asked me to meet beforehand with the local Central America solidarity group, so I thought, OK, four people will be in someone’s living room. To my surprise it wasn’t four people in a living room but a couple of hundred people in a church. It was a town of 30,000 or so. There was a lot of literature, including literature I’d never seen, information I’d never seen, and people who were up and back from Central America, who’d been living there doing solidarity work, dragging their congressional representatives down there. Very informed people. I’m sure they know more about Central America than you’d find at the Central America desk of an American newspaper or many Latin American departments. That’s the kind of thing you can find all over the country. People have just found other ways of getting information and educating themselves and each other and figuring things out. There are ways of getting around the constraints, but it’s not simple. To try to make it reach any scale that would have an impact is difficult.
Chomsky “versus” Dershowitz
Barsamian: Over the years you’ve been subjected to a number of personal attacks. I don’t want you to go into a detailed response because you have done that elsewhere. But I’m curious about your perception and understanding of the nature and character of these attacks. What motivates them? Why do they persist? I’ll just give you two examples. On March 16, 1991 you spoke for KPFA and the Middle East Children’s Alliance in Berkeley. This prompted a letter from seventeen UC Berkeley academics who condemned you and called you “A defender of the PLO, even when it was carrying out murder missions against Jewish children. You also have the current case of a national bestseller, Alan Dershowitz’s Chutzpah. In various passages, he calls you an “anti-Zionist zealot, anti-Israel, anti-American, and anti-Western.” Did he leave anything out?
Chomsky: I didn’t read it so I can’t tell.
Barsamian: But what about these attacks? How do you respond? How can you respond?
Chomsky: You really can’t. There’s no way to respond. Slinging mud always works. Again, it’s partly institutional, but in this case partly personal, too. In the case of the Berkeley professors, the letter came out about six weeks after I was there, and it was a letter, remember, to bookstores, saying that they should not allow this stuff to be heard. I’ve also been told, although I’m not certain, that there was an attempt to get them to withdraw my books from the stores. I think that’s very understandable and I appreciate it. These are people who know perfectly well that they don’t like what I say. They know that they don’t have either the competence or the knowledge to respond, so the only thing to do is to shut it up, prevent it from being heard because you can’t respond to it. Therefore you say I supported the PLO, etc. Most of them probably don’t know what I said about anything. But the author of the letter, Robert Alter, knows perfectly well that I condemned the PLO for those atrocities, probably more harshly, certainly more knowledgeably than he did. But that doesn’t matter. Facts are irrelevant.
Turning to Dershowitz, there’s partly the same story. Again, he knows that he can’t respond to what I say. He doesn’t have the knowledge or the competence to deal with the issues. Therefore, the idea is to try to shut it up by throwing as much slime as you can. There’s a famous story attributed to Sam Ervin, a conservative Senator, who once said that as a young lawyer he had learned that if the law is against you, concentrate on the facts. If the facts are against you, concentrate on the law. And if both the facts and the law are against you, denounce your opposing counsel. Dershowitz is not very bright, but he understands that much. If you can’t answer on the facts and if you can’t answer on the principles, you better throw dirt. In his case there happens to also be a personal reason.
He’s been on a personal jihad for the last twenty years, ever since I exposed him for lying outright in a vicious personal attack on a leading Israeli civil libertarian. Despite pretenses, he’s strongly opposed to civil liberties. Using his position as a Harvard law professor, he referred to what the Israeli courts had determined. But he was just lying flat outright. This was in the Boston Globe (April 29, 1973). I wrote a short letter refuting it (May 17). He then came back (on May 25,) accusing everybody of lying and challenging me to quote from the court records. He never believed I had them, but of course I did. I quoted the court records in response (June 5). He then tried to brazen it out again. It finally ended up with my sending the transcript of the court records to the Globe ombudsman, who didn’t know what to do any more with people just taking opposite positions. I translated them for him, and suggested that he pick his own expert to check the translations. The ombudsman finally told Dershowitz they wouldn’t publish any more letters of his because he had been caught flat out lying about it.
Ever since then he’s been trying to get even, so there’s just one hysterical outburst after another. That’s not surprising, either. He’s basically a clown. In that case there’s a personal issue overlaying the political issue, which is much more interesting. This personal stuff is not interesting. But if you look at the Anti-Defamation League or the Berkeley professors, and there are plenty of others, it’s the Sam Ervin story. You know you can’t deal with the material. Either you ignore it, or if you can’t ignore it, then defame the speaker. That’s the only way you can deal with it if you don’t have the brains or the knowledge or you just know your position can’t be defended. I think that’s understandable, and in a sense you can appreciate it. That’s just the hallmark of the commissar.