What the World is Really Like: Who Knows It — and Why

Noam Chomsky

Excerpted from The Chomsky Reader, 1983

QUESTION: You’ve written about the way that professional ideologists and the mandarins obfuscate reality. And you have spoken — in some places you call it a “Cartesian common sense” — of the commonsense capacities of people. Indeed, you place a significant emphasis on this common sense when you reveal the ideological aspects of arguments, especially in contemporary social science. What do you mean by common sense? What does it mean in a society like ours? For example, you’ve written that within a highly competitive, fragmented society, it’s very difficult for people to become aware of what their interests are. If you are not able to participate in the political system in meaningful ways, if you are reduced to the role of a passive spectator, then what kind of knowledge do you have? How can common sense emerge in this context?

CHOMSKY: Well, let me give an example. When I’m driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I’m listening to is a discussion of sports. These are telephone conversations. People call in and have long and intricate discussions, and it’s plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount. They know all sorts of complicated details and enter into far-reaching discussion about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday and so on. These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding. On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality that’s beyond belief.

In part, this reaction may be due to my own areas of interest, but I think it’s quite accurate, basically. And I think that this concentration on such topics as sports makes a certain degree of sense. The way the system is set up, there is virtually nothing people can do anyway, without a degree of organization that’s far beyond anything that exists now, to influence the real world. They might as well live in a fantasy world, and that’s in fact what they do. I’m sure they are using their common sense and intellectual skills, but in an area which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence and affect because the power happens to lie elsewhere.

Now it seems to me that the same intellectual skill and capacity for understanding and for accumulating evidence and gaining information and thinking through problems could be used — would be used — under different systems of governance which involve popular participation in important decision-making, in areas that really matter to human life.

There are questions that are hard. There are areas where you need specialized knowledge. I’m not suggesting a kind of anti-intellectualism. But the point is that many things can be understood quite well without a very far-reaching, specialized knowledge. And in fact even a specialized knowledge in these areas is not beyond the reach of people who happen to be interested.

So take simple cases. Take the Russian invasion of Afghanistan — a simple case. Everybody understands immediately without any specialized knowledge that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. That’s exactly what it is. You don’t debate it; it’s not a deep point that is difficult to understand. It isn’t necessary to know the history of Afghanistan to understand the point. All right. Now let’s take the American invasion of South Vietnam. The phrase itself is very strange. I don’t think you will ever find that phrase — I doubt if you’ll find one case in which that phrase was used in any mainstream journal, or for the most part, even in journals of the left, while the war was going on. Yet it was just as much an American invasion of South Vietnam as it is a Russian invasion of Afghanistan. By 1962, when nobody was paying any attention, American pilots — not just mercenaries but actual American pilots — were conducting murderous bombing raids against Vietnamese villages. That’s an American invasion of South Vietnam. The purpose of that attack was to destroy the social fabric of rural South Vietnam so as to undermine a resistance which the American-imposed client regime had evoked by its repression and was unable to control, though they had already killed perhaps eighty thousand South Vietnamese since blocking the political settlement called for in the 1954 Geneva Accords.

So there was a U.S. attack against South Vietnam in the early sixties, not to speak of later years when the United States sent an expeditionary force to occupy the country and destroy the indigenous resistance. But it was never referred to or thought of as an American invasion of South Vietnam.

I don’t know much about Russian public opinion, but I imagine if you picked a man off the street, he would be surprised to hear a reference to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. They’re defending Afghanistan against capitalist plots and bandits supported by the CIA and so on. But I don’t think he would find it difficult to understand that the United States invaded South Vietnam.

Well, these are very different societies; the mechanisms of control and indoctrination work in a totally different fashion. There’s a vast difference in the use of force versus other techniques. But the effects are very similar, and the effects extend to the intellectual elite themselves. In fact, my guess is that you would find that the intellectual elite is the most heavily indoctrinated sector, for good reasons. It’s their role as a secular priesthood to really believe the nonsense that they put forth. Other people can repeat it, but it’s not that crucial that they really believe it. But for the intellectual elite themselves, it’s crucial that they believe it because, after all, they are the guardians of the faith. Except for a very rare person who’s an outright liar, it’s hard to be a convincing exponent of the faith unless you’ve internalized it and come to believe it. I find that intellectuals just look at me with blank stares of incomprehension when I talk about the American invasion of South Vietnam. On the other hand, when I speak to general audiences, they don’t seem to have much difficulty in perceiving the essential points, once the facts are made accessible. And that’s perfectly reasonable — that’s what should be expected in a society set up as ours is.

When I talk about, say, Cartesian common sense, what I mean is that it does not require very far-reaching, specialized knowledge to perceive that the United States was invading South Vietnam. And, in fact, to take apart the system of illusions and deception which functions to prevent understanding of contemporary reality, that’s not a task that requires extraordinary skill or understanding. It requires the kind of normal skepticism and willingness to apply one’s analytical skills that almost all people have and that they can exercise. It just happens that they exercise them in analyzing what the New England Patriots ought to do next Sunday instead of questions that really matter for human life, their own included.

QUESTION: Do you think people are inhibited by expertise?

CHOMSKY: There are also experts about football, but these people don’t defer to them. The people who call in talk with complete confidence. They don’t care if they disagree with the coach or whoever the local expert is. They have their own opinion and they conduct intelligent discussions. I think it’s an interesting phenomenon. Now I don’t think that international or domestic affairs are much more complicated. And what passes for serious intellectual discourse on these matters does not reflect any deeper level of understanding or knowledge.

One finds something similar in the case of so-called primitive cultures. What you find very often is that certain intellectual systems have been constructed of considerable intricacy, with specialized experts who know all about it and other people who don’t quite understand and so on. For example, kinship systems are elaborated to enormous complexity. Many anthropologists have tried to show that this has some functional utility in the society. But one function may just be intellectual. It’s a kind of mathematics. These are areas where you can use your intelligence to create complex and intricate systems and elaborate their properties pretty much the way we do mathematics. They don’t have mathematics and technology; they have other systems of cultural richness and complexity. I don’t want to overdraw the analogy, but something similar may be happening here.

The gas station attendant who wants to use his mind isn’t going to waste his time on international affairs, because that’s useless; he can’t do anything about it anyhow, and he might learn unpleasant things and even get into trouble. So he might as well do it where it’s fun, and not threatening — professional football or basketball or something like that. But the skills are being used and the understanding is there and the intelligence is there. One of the functions that things like professional sports play, in our society and others, is to offer an area to deflect people’s attention from things that matter, so that the people in power can do what matters without public interference.

QUESTION: I asked a while ago whether people are inhibited by the aura of expertise. Can one turn this around — are experts and intellectuals afraid of people who could apply the intelligence of sport to their own areas of competency in foreign affairs, social sciences, and so on?

CHOMSKY: I suspect that this is rather common. Those areas of inquiry that have to do with problems of immediate human concern do not happen to be particularly profound or inaccessible to the ordinary person lacking any special training who takes the trouble to learn something about them. Commentary on public affairs in the mainstream literature is often shallow and uninformed. Everyone who writes and speaks about these matters knows how much you can get away with as long as you keep close to received doctrine. I’m sure just about everyone exploits these privileges. I know I do. When I refer to Nazi crimes or Soviet atrocities, for example, I know that I will not be called upon to back up what I say, but a detailed scholarly apparatus is necessary if I say anything critical about the practice of one of the Holy States: the United States itself, or Israel, since it was enshrined by the intelligentsia after its 1967 victory. This freedom from the requirements of evidence or even rationality is quite a convenience, as any informed reader of the journals of public opinion, or even much of the scholarly literature, will quickly discover. It makes life easy, and permits expression of a good deal of nonsense or ignorant bias with impunity, also sheer slander. Evidence is unnecessary, argument beside the point. Thus a standard charge against American dissidents or even American liberals — I’ve cited quite a few cases in print and have collected many others — is that they claim that the United States is the sole source of evil in the world or other similar idiocies; the convention is that such charges are entirely legitimate when the target is someone who does not march in the appropriate parades, and they are therefore produced without even a pretense of evidence. Adherence to the party line confers the right to act in ways that would properly be regarded as scandalous on the part of any critic of received orthodoxies. Too much public awareness might lead to a demand that standards of integrity should be met, which would certainly save a lot of forests from destruction, and would send many a reputation tumbling.

The right to lie in the service of power is guarded with considerable vigor and passion. This becomes evident whenever anyone takes the trouble to demonstrate that charges against some official enemy are inaccurate or, sometimes, pure invention. The immediate reaction among the commissars is that the person is an apologist for the real crimes of official enemies. The case of Cambodia is a striking example. That the Khmer Rouge were guilty of gruesome atrocities was doubted by no one, apart from a few marginal Maoist sects. It is also true, and easily documented, that Western propaganda seized upon these crimes with great relish, exploiting them to provide a retrospective justification for Western atrocities, and since standards are nonexistent in such a noble cause, they also produced a record of fabrication and deceit that is quite remarkable. Demonstration of this fact, and fact it is, elicited enormous outrage, along with a stream of new and quite spectacular lies, as Edward Herman and I, among others, have documented. The point is that the right to lie in the service of the state was being challenged, and that is an unspeakable crime. Similarly, anyone who points out that some charge against Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam, or some other official enemy is dubious or false will immediately be labeled an apologist for real or alleged crimes, a useful technique to ensure that rational standards will not be imposed on the commissars and that there will be no impediment to their loyal service to power. The critic typically has little access to the media, and the personal consequences for the critic are sufficiently annoying to deter many from taking this course, particularly because some journals — the New Republic, for example — sink to the ultimate level of dishonesty and cowardice, regularly refusing to permit even the right of response to slanders they publish. Hence the sacred right to lie is likely to be preserved without too serious a threat. But matters might be different if unreliable sectors of the public were admitted into the arena of discussion and debate.

The aura of alleged expertise also provides a way for the indoctrination system to provide its services to power while maintaining a useful image of indifference and objectivity. The media, for example, can turn to academic experts to provide the perspective that is required by the centers of power, and the university system is sufficiently obedient to external power so that appropriate experts will generally be available to lend the prestige of scholarship to the narrow range of opinion permitted broad expression. Or when this method fails — as in the current case of Latin America, for example, or in the emerging discipline of terrorology — a new category of “experts” can be established who can be trusted to provide the approved opinions that the media cannot express directly without abandoning the pretense of objectivity that serves to legitimate their propaganda function. I’ve documented many examples, as have others.

The guild structure of the professions concerned with public affairs also helps to preserve doctrinal purity. In fact, it is guarded with much diligence. My own personal experience is perhaps relevant. As I mentioned earlier, I do not have the usual professional credentials in any field, and my own work has ranged fairly widely. Some years ago, for example, I did some work in mathematical linguistics and automata theory, and occasionally gave invited lectures at mathematics or engineering colloquia. No one would have dreamed of challenging my credentials to speak on these topics — which were zero, as everyone knew; that would have been laughable. The participants were concerned with what I had to say, not my right to say it. But when I speak, say, about international affairs, I’m constantly challenged to present the credentials that authorize me to enter this august arena, in the United States, at least — elsewhere not. It’s a fair generalization, I think, that the more a discipline has intellectual substance, the less it has to protect itself from scrutiny, by means of a guild structure. The consequences with regard to your question are pretty obvious.

QUESTION: You have said that most intellectuals end up obfuscating reality. Do they understand the reality they are obfuscating? Do they understand the social processes they mystify?

CHOMSKY: Most people are not liars. They can’t tolerate too much cognitive dissidence. I don’t want to deny that there are outright liars, just brazen propagandists. You can find them in journalism and in the academic professions as well. But I don’t think that’s the norm. The norm is obedience, adoption of uncritical attitudes, taking the easy path of self-deception. I think there’s also a selective process in the academic professions and journalism. That is, people who are independent minded and cannot be trusted to be obedient don’t make it, by and large. They’re often filtered out along the way. […]

QUESTION: You wrote that Henry Kissinger’s memoirs “give the impression of a middle-level manager who has learned to conceal vacuity with pretentious verbiage.” You doubt that he has any subtle “conceptual framework” or global design. Why do such individuals gain such extraordinary reputations, given what you say about his actual abilities? What does this say about how our society operates?

CHOMSKY: Our society is not really based on public participation in decision-making in any significant sense. Rather, it is a system of elite decision and periodic public ratification. Certainly people would like to think there’s somebody up there who knows what he’s doing. Since we don’t participate, we don’t control and we don’t even think about the questions of crucial importance, we hope somebody is paying attention who has some competence. Let’s hope the ship has a captain, in other words, since we’re not taking in deciding what’s going on. I think that’s a factor. But also, it is an important feature of the ideological system to impose on people the feeling that they are incompetent to deal with these complex and important issues; they’d better leave it to the captain. One device is to develop a star system, an array of figures who are often media creations or creations of the academic propaganda establishment, whose deep insights we are supposed to admire and to whom we must happily and confidently assign the right to control our lives and control international affairs. In fact, power is very highly concentrated, decision-making is highly concentrated in small interpenetrating elites, ultimately based on ownership of the private economy in large measure, but also in related ideological and political and managerial elites. Since that’s the way the society effectively functions, it has to have political theology that explains that that’s the way it ought to function, which means that you have to establish the pretense that the participants of that elite know what they are doing, in our interest, and have the kind of understanding and access to information that is denied the rest of us, so that we poor slobs ought to just watch, not interfere. Maybe we can choose one or another of them every few years, but it’s their job to manage things, not ours. It’s in this context that we can understand the Kissinger phenomenon. His ignorance and foolishness really are a phenomenon. I’ve written about this in some detail. But he did have a marvelous talent, namely, of playing the role of the philosopher who understands profound things in ways that are beyond the capacity of the ordinary person. He played that role quite elegantly. That’s one reason why I think he was so attractive to the people who actually have power. That’s just the kind of person they need.

QUESTION: Does the business elite have an accurate perception of how our system operates?

CHOMSKY: Yes, quite commonly. For example, in business schools and in business journals, one often finds a fairly clear perception of what the world is really like. On the other hand, in the more ideological circles, like the academic social sciences, I think you find much more deep-seated illusion and misunderstanding, which is quite natural. In the business school, they have to deal with the real world and they’d better know what the facts are, what the real properties of the world are. They are training the real managers, not the ideological managers, so the commitment to propaganda is less intense. Across the river from the business school in Cambridge, you have a different story. You have people one of whose functions is to prevent understanding on the part of others. Again, I don’t want to overdraw the lines, but I think there are tendencies in these directions. There are some cases where it has even been investigated, though this is not a popular topic in the ideological disciplines. For example, some years ago, there was a review in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, which I have quoted now and then, of research into the relation of corporations and foreign policy. This was not done by any radicals. It was done by a mainstream political scientist named Dennis Ray. It wasn’t a very far-reaching study, but some of the remarks that he makes are quite correct and to the point. He reports a survey of some two hundred works drawn from what he calls “the respectable literature on international relations and U.S. foreign policy.” In this “respectable literature,” he found no reference at all to the role of corporations in U.S. foreign relations in 95 percent of the books surveyed, while in less than 5 percent he found passing mention. This was in 1972 — there may have been a slight shift since as a result of the challenge to strict orthodoxy in the 1960s. This is quite remarkable. This is a marvelous example of the way the taboo system operates. Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of these matters knows that there’s a very significant relation between corporations and foreign policy. It’s perfectly obvious, and for good reasons. How strong corporate influence is and how it is manifested, one could debate. But that it’s a strong and major influence, no serious person could deny. Nevertheless, the academic profession had succeeded in essentially eliminating this central topic from consideration.

Now the relevant point is this. Ray said he was excluding from his study two categories: one, what he called “radical and often neo-Marxist analyses,” which presumably means anything critical of the corporate role, anything dissenting from the standard religious doctrines; and two, statements of corporate executives and business school professors. In both of these categories, there is discussion of the role of corporations in U.S. foreign policy. Ray concludes from his own investigation that the role is significant, as of course it is, but those who point out these obvious and important facts are not admitted into the “respectable literature,” just as those who avoid the obvious do not lose “respectability” thereby.

I think this illustrates something which is fairly standard; that the real world is much more easily understood among people who really have to deal with the facts than among those one of whose functions is the creation of ideological cover and support for the doctrines of the faith.

QUESTION: Yet the business community can turn out an enormous literature about development and modernizing other lands — not to speak of the good life here at home.

CHOMSKY: That is certainly correct. The business community in the United States has demonstrated a high degree of class consciousness and an understanding of the importance of controlling what they call “the public mind.” The rise of the public relations industry is one manifestation of this concern for “the engineering of consent,” the essence of democracy according to Edward Bernays, the leading figure in this system of business propaganda. Part of this effort has been to create a certain conception of “the good life” at home, as you say, a conception that happens to conform to the needs of the wealthy and privileged sectors that dominate the economy as well as the political and ideological systems. They have also favored a particular form of “development and modernization” which happens to conform to the interests of American investors. These are very important matters which merit more attention than they receive.

But there are other elements of the picture worth considering, too, apart from the vast stream of propaganda aimed directly at control of the public mind and ensuring that public policy will conform to the needs of the privileged. The favored conception of development, for example, is commonly presented in terms of the alleged benefits to the indigenous population, not the interests of American investors and corporations or their local clients and associates. The belief that what you are doing is helpful to the peasants of northeastern Brazil doesn’t harm your business operations, but just makes it psychologically easier to continue to act in your own interest. But a failure to recognize how state policy is and must be determined, fantasies about pluralist interactions and popular sovereignty — these could be an impediment to real world operations. It is important to keep a firm grasp on reality in this domain. The propaganda may be what it is, but dominant elites must have a clearer understanding among themselves. We can see what this understanding is from documents that are not intended for the general public, for example, the very illuminating report on the “Crisis of Democracy” to the Trilateral Commission — liberal elites in this case — explaining the need to return the general population to passivity and obedience, reversing the threat of democratization posed during the 1960s as normally irrelevant sectors of the population actually attempted to become organized for political action and to enter the political arena, threatening the domination of business-based elites.

But alongside of such frank internal discussion of the need to reverse the democratic thrust of the sixties, to ensure that there is no tampering with the institutions responsible for “the indoctrination of the young,” to muzzle potentially dissident elements of the media, and so on — alongside of this we commonly find the construction of a system of beliefs that justifies what one is doing as right and good. That is natural enough, and is just as common in business circles as elsewhere. […]

QUESTION: Do you have a deep faith in reason?

CHOMSKY: I don’t have a faith in that or anything else.

QUESTION: Not even in reason?

CHOMSKY: I wouldn’t say “faith.” I think… it’s all we have. I don’t have faith that the truth will prevail if it becomes known, but we have no alternative to proceeding on that assumption, whatever its credibility may be. It’s of more than a little interest that ideological managers act in ways that indicate that they share this belief. This is shown, for example, by the substantial efforts to conceal the obvious. After all, it would be easier just to tell the truth.

Why is it that the propaganda system is geared to suppressing any inquiry into questions such as the role of corporations in foreign policy? Or let’s take contemporary history. Why isn’t the terrible history of U.S. intervention in Central America and the Caribbean a staple of the curriculum, so that everyone learns, for example, that there are people living under conditions of virtual slavery in Guatemala because land reform was stopped by a CIA coup in 1954, and subsequent interventions under Kennedy and Johnson helped maintain a terror-and-torture state with few counterparts in the modern world? Why isn’t it a staple of modern history that in Greece in the late 1940s the United States, with a degree of fanaticism, organized a murderous counterinsurgency campaign, putting tens of thousands of people into reeducation camps where they were tortured and killed, backing the expulsion of tens of thousands of others, destroying the unions and the political system and carrying on massacres? Why doesn’t everybody know that? It’s really important to know. Look at Vietnam. What about that? Why is so much effort undertaken to ensure that the basic facts about the attack on South Vietnam will not be known, will not be investigated, or if investigated, will be dismissed or swept into a corner, and certainly won’t enter the mainstream of academic interpretation or education? Why such efforts to conceal the real history with fables about the awesome nobility of our intentions, flawed only by blunders arising from our naivete and simpleminded goodness, which is unique in history? I think there’s a good reason why the propaganda system works that way. It recognizes that the public will not support the actual policies. Therefore, it’s important to prevent any knowledge or understanding of them. Correspondingly, the other side of the coin is that it’s extremely important to try to bring out the truth about these matters, as best we can. Maybe if people knew the truth, they would still support the same policies. Well, that could be. Certainly the ideologists of the propaganda system do not believe that. […]

QUESTION: At times it’s a system that seems to have extraordinary strength and other moments there’s a question of vulnerabilities that are evident in the unease, the fear…

CHOMSKY: Well, it’s extremely unstable because of the reliance on lies. Any system that’s based on lying and deceit is inherently unstable. But, on the other hand, it does have enormous resilience and very little challenge, limited enough and sufficiently marginalized so that the impact of the propaganda system is powerful and pervasive.

QUESTION: Is not debate limited by a general lack of belief in alternatives to how we live?

CHOMSKY: Well, it’s very hard to get to the point where you can even discuss alternatives until you first peel away layer after layer of myth and illusion. Friends who share my interests and concerns have often criticized the work I do, maybe rightly, because they say it’s much too critical of superficial phenomena, in a sense. A lot of what I have written and speak about has been devoted to particular atrocities in Vietnam, in Latin America, in the Middle East, in East Timor, things like that, and to the web of deceit that has been constructed about them. Now these are matters that have enormous human significance, but they’re superficial in a sort of technical sense; that is, they are the end result of much deeper, central factors in our society and culture. The criticism is that I ought to pay more attention to the central factors and to ways of changing them, to revolutionary strategy, for example. Well, I’ve been resistant to that, rightly or wrongly, but I see the point, certainly. I mean, suppose that we could, say, induce the United States to stop supporting massacre and repression in East Timor. It would be very important for the Timorese, if they survive. But it would be like putting a Band-Aid on a cancer. It’s just going to show up somewhere else.

To the extent that one can reach the general public on these issues — it’s very limited because the media and journals don’t really permit it — but to the extent that one can, well, East Timor or Vietnam are topics you can talk to people about in a way that is meaningful to them, whereas talking to them about institutional change and the possibility that they might play a role in changing the institutions is like talking to them about Mars. I don’t know how you get to the point where those kinds of questions can be raised. Certainly not just by talk. Those are things that people have to live; aspirations and understanding have to grow out of experience and struggle and conflict.

For example, take a runaway plant. At the time when the plant is being removed from Connecticut to Taiwan, it’s quite possible that questions about, say, workers’ decision-making, worker control, can be raised in a way which would seem exotic and academic when the system is functioning. I have a lot of respect for the people that are doing it. There are plenty of opportunities to raise issues for thinking and consideration that are somehow related to the actual options that people have, that are not just abstract and esoteric, like, could an alternative society work? It’s very hard to think about abstractly. It’s just too remote from the options that people actually have for them to even pay any attention to that. But I think these are the kinds of questions that ultimately have to become central to the concerns of the great mass of the population if we are going to be able to do anything more than put Band-Aids on cancers.