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INTERVIEW: Noam Chomsky by Jerry Brown SPIN MagazineVolume 9, Number 5, August 1993
During my campaign for president in 1992, I experienced for the first time the full weight of the money-media system of control. Having been so much a part of that system, I had not fully grasped the radical dominance of politics by the top one percent and the complicit role of the media. All this became clear once I swore off donations above $100 and refused to attend the sacred rite of end-less political fund raising with the wealthy. This made the media turn aside, for they knew I was not a "serious" candidate committed to the proposition: Money buys media, media buys credibility.
But Professor Noam Chomsky has gone much further in peeling back the myths. A renowned professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he is best known for his stark analysis of the American system of power. His books and lectures take you where few dare to tread. He is not afraid of his peers and doesn't let public disapproval intimidate him--he ruthlessly exposes the deceits that cover up the dark side of power and the media conformity that makes it possible.
I promised to speak truth to powerand found Chomsky had already been doing it for 30 years. This interview captures the spirit and key elements of his devastating critique. Savor it. Let it engage you as it assaults your complacency. Then act.
Everything politics is, Chomsky isn't. That's why this interview is important: It will allow you to perceive contemporary society-its government, its commodity fetishes, its cruelty--in a starker light. Chomsky gives you a lens through which you can see.
Jerry Brown: The national debt waits like a hungry tiger to pounce on President Clinton's new programs. Despite urban despair and ecological disaster, Congress won't appropriate money even when it's clearly needed. Yet Reagan got hundreds of billions of dollars for a military buildup against what now appears to have been a nonexistent threat. Do you have any evidence that the Pentagon, or the government in any of its forms, knew how weak the Soviet Union was prior to the beginning of the U.S. buildup?
If you take a look at the 1980 campaign, it's just like 1960. In fact they probably copied it. Kennedy came in in 1960, denouncing Eisenhower as a wimp who was letting the country fall to the Russians. There was a missile gap, and the Russians were going from strength to strength and we were falling behind and frittering away the luxuries. And, in fact, Kennedy, on the basis of a totally faked missile gap, had the biggest military increase in history. It was a big stimulus to the economy. It's in fact correct: You pour money into high-tech industry from the public, and of course you stimulate it
The question is. What's the scale of the spending as related to any threats that are around. The fact is, there aren't any threats. In fact, the U.S. hasn't been threatened since the War of 1812. We haven't had an enemy who can injure us.
We now have a big declassified record about the '40s and '50s. No one ever expected a Russian invasion. They were concerned about the Russian military threat because it was a deterrent. It put limits on what the U.S. could do. Like, you couldn't do things like send a half a million troops to the desert, as the U.S could do last year it was too dangerous.
And the other thing is, the early postwar plans were to rebuild Germany and Japan, and to remilitarize them. Those are the traditional enemies of the Soviet Union. We were rebuilding that whole system. The Soviet Union was being encircled. Well, they were worried that the Soviet Union was going to retaliate.
However, there is now a reluctance to intervenethat's for other reasons, that's because of the changes in the U.S. It's just a different country now than it was 10 years ago. Take Kennedy again He invaded South Vietnam. In 1961 and '62, he sent the U.S. Air Force and started bombing South Vietnamese villages and authorized the use of napalm, sent U.S. so-called advisers into combat situations, started to try to drive about seven million peasants into concentration camps. Well, there wasn't a peep in the United Statesdo you remember any protests? Who cared?
Reagan also tried to duplicate that. His problem was Central America, and the first couple of months in office, they replayed exactly what Kennedy had done the first few months. They came out with a white paper about how the Russians are conquering Central America, and we've got to move in. They were surely planning to invade Nicaragua like Kennedy did, and to get directly involved in El Salvador and Guatemala.
Well, it's a different country now. There's a big popular protest, a spontaneous protest from all over the place. In fact the Reagan administration was afraid that its main programs like the military budget would soon be threatened. So it backed off. And a couple of months later, the press exposed the white papers as a fraud. Then [the government] turned to clandestine terror and that started Iran-Contra.
Clandestine terror is inefficient. It's much more efficient to send in Marines and B-52s. Government turns to clandestine terrorist operations when it's afraid of its own population. It's a secret from its own population, it's not a secret from anybody else. The Reagan administration just broke new records. They created an international terror network of a kind that nobody ever dreamed of before. Bits and pieces came out in the Iran-Contra hearings.
There was an interesting leak from the Bush administration the day of the opening of this ground war in Iraq. It was an early planning document and it said, "In cases where the U.S. confronts much weaker enemies" which of course are the only ones you want to fight"our challenge will be not simply to defeat them but to defeat them decisively and rapidly" because anything else would "undercut political support," which is too thin to tolerate intervention.
So you can have things like Panama, where nobody fights back. And you've got the whole society under military control before you start and its over in two days. You can have things like Iraq where you're fighting a third world country so you're sure they're not going to be able to shoot back and you smash them up for a couple of weeks and you walk through before anybody has time to think about it. You're going to have things like Somalia, where they held off the intervention until after the crisis was over. The famine was already visibly declining and being taken care of, there had been agreements, which were cutting back the fighting. They knew perfectly well that you send in the Marines and there's going to be a couple of teenage kids throwing rocks at them"Okay. we can handle that" You get some good PR shots of colonels handing out food, then you pull them out real fast.
That's a tribute to the civilizing effect of the '60s, which has just changed the country in every respect: with regard to intervention, with regard to environmental issues, feminist issues, every imaginable issue. It's a very dramatic fact in my opinion, that since the '60s, for the first time in our history, we've been able to face the original sin.
We went until the '60s without any recognition that we had wiped out the indigenous population where was it? When I was a kid, we played cowboys and Indians. We were the cowboys shooting the Indians, the bad guys. And that went right into the '60s. Academic scholarship was just lying about the number of people, claiming that thinly scattered hunter-gatherers had no right to this country anyway. Since the '60s, that whole edifice has been demolished. And 1992 was dramatic. They could not ram through a celebration, people would just not take it. If it had been 1962, it would have been a celebration of the liberation of the hemisphere like it was every other anniversary. The five hundredth anniversary of Columbus turned into a dirge. In my opinion, that's why [the elites] launched this ludicrous political correctness campaign. Because I think that they were terrified by the fact that they couldn't even carry off a celebration of conquest.
Sometimes it's not pretty. Like in Northern Italy, there's a group, the Lombard League, which is asking for more local autonomy, but that's because they're rich and they want to be free of the need to take care of these dirty poverty-stricken peasants down in the south. And at the extreme end you get you know, Bosnia. So it can be quite ugly. But it also has positive aspects.
For one thing, future generations can't vote with their dollars in the market. My grandchildren can't decide how they want things spent, but they're going to have to live with itwhich means the environment.
Take other issues. Suppose the people around here decide that instead of having more consumer goods they'd like to have more leisure. The market system doesn't allow you that choice. It drives you to having more consumer goods because it's all driven to maximizing production. But is the only human value to have more and more goods you don't need? In fact the business world knows that it's not. That's why they spend billions of dollars in advertising, to try to create artificial wants.
Now it's economically inefficient by the economist's measures. It means that things cost a little bit more. But suppose people say, okay, I'm willing to spend a little more because I want a nicer life. The economists say you're not allowed to make that decision, because the only human value in the world is maximizing profit and efficiency. Who says that's the only human value?
Adam Smith didn't think so. You go back and read their hero. What he said, in fact, is that in any civilized country, the government is going to have to intervene to prevent market forces from destroying people and reducing them to creatures as ignorant and stupid as is possible for a human being to be. The natural effect of the division of labor, maximizing efficiency, is going to turn people into tools.
There's one well-known truth of economic history, and that is that every developed society has succeeded by radically violating these principles. You get this in the current negotiations on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). One of their prime elements is to increase protection on things like patentsit's called intellectual property rights. The idea is obvious. You want to make sure that the transnational corporations monopolize the technology of the future, meaning that U.S.-run biotech corporations or pharmaceutical firms will have all the capacity to produce food and drugs and India won't be able to produce drugs for itself at 10 percent the cost. That's protectionism, that's not freedom.
We've always had industrial policy, but ours was hidden behind the Pentagon. The Clinton people said, "The state has to become involved more aggressively in paying the welfare for the rich"which is what industrial policy is. The Berkeley Round Table did studies which pointed out that just about every functioning aspect of the U.S. economy is publicly subsidized. You've got computers, agrobusiness, lasers, pharmaceuticals. Why do you have them? Because the public pays a lot of the cost.
Walk through New York City now. It's beginning to look like San Salvador. You've got very rich people living behind walls. Once in a while a gate opens and a limousine comes out from this complex, and outside you have people starving in the streets. That's a third world country. You drive through LA, you see it. And the people who are behind the walls, their goal is to enrich themselves. For them, it's crucial that there be an attack on democracy, because if the general public becomes involved in these things, well ....
You take a look at polls. This is a very heavily polled society, because business wants to keep its finger on the public pulse. They know that over 80 percent of the public thinks that the economic system is inherently unfair. Half the population thinks both parties ought to be disbanded. Alienation from institutions goes up every year-like, two-thirds of the population thinks none of the institutions function. I think that's where Perot came from. People would have voted for Mickey Mouse if he came down from Mars and said, "I've got 50 billion dollars and big ears, go vote for me. Why not?
People are desperate. If this can be organized into a functioning democracy, wealth is in trouble. Serious trouble.
It's all extraordinarily positive, just wonderful. Except there's one problem, they said. The wording went something like this: They said a democracy opening in Mexico might bring to power a government reflecting more popular interests and concerns, and that might lead to a nationalist opposition to U.S. plans and intereststhat's the one problem. There might be a democracy opening.
Well, same in the U.S. and Canada: People might actually start getting involved in these issues, thinking that they care about jobs, and whether their children have a world to live in. And the idea, in my opinion, the idea of NAFTAand GATT, too is to try to rule out that danger.
The elites, including the educated classes, are going toward reducing moral values and turning people into nothing but agents of production and profit. So the ideal is you try to glue everybody in front of the television set where they get bombarded from childhood with messages that tell them: You've got to buy more, your human value depends on the number of commodities you've got piled up. There's nothing else in life.
On the other hand, if you can't use them as tools of production, you stick them in jail or in the slums, or let 'em prey on one another, and have enough cops around to control them. That's a picture of the world, and it might lead to good macroeconomic statistics.
A city like Bostonrich, cultivatedat the city hospital, they had to open a malnutrition clinic a couple of years ago. It peaks in the winter because people actually make that horrible decision about whether to heat their homes or feed their children. For that to happen in a country like thisthat's just scandalous. But that's what happens as you move toward a third world society. And that's the infrastructure collapsing when you get services for the poor collapsing.
When I was a kid in the Depression, it was much poorer, but it was much more hopeful. My family was mostly unemployed working class, but they were very hopeful people. You had political action that you could be part of.
What you have now is hopelessness. In fact, it's striking that about 75 percent of the population thinks that the future is going to be worse than the past, that their children won't live as well as they will. That's the first time in the history of industrial society that this has happened, except for during temporary things like a war. There's a sense of permanent decline. That's part of the reason you have all of these antisocial behaviors.
I watched TV last night where they were filming people in Baton Rougethere's this court trial going on with this guy who'd shot a Japanese Student who mistakenly came to his house. Many people were saying, "That's right somebody walks onto my property, I shoot 'em." That's the peak of antisocial behavior. You get armory and you shoot anybody who gets in your way. That's the end of civil society, and we're moving to it. At the same time, we're moving in a very positive direction like the grassroots organizations are much more powerful.
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