Noam Chomsky has been called many things: “the most important intellectual alive, America’s leading dissenter” and a few other things not suitable for polite company. Scholars around the world know him for his revolutionary work on the structure of language, studies he has pursued at MIT since 1955.
But he’s most controversial as a freelance critic of politics and power. Honest dissidence is what he calls it; the blunt scrutiny of national power, arbitrary government and injustice. In part one of this wide-ranging interview conducted in 1988, Chomsky talks with Bill about his book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, and discusses the role of propaganda in a democracy.
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BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Good evening, I’m Bill Moyers. On the face of it, this seems the worst of times for the political radical. The consensus seems to be that dissent died with the 60s.
That people today are too contented, too rich, or two poor and put upon to protest anything; that we’ve become a nation of couch potatoes. But stop a minute and consider this; more than five hundred students were arrested last year in campus political protests. Over three thousand people were arrested in 1988 protesting against nuclear arms. Look sharp and you’ll even spot the occasional placard proclaiming “New York Yankee Fans for Peace.” That’s no small potatoes for a nation supposedly sunk into apathy.
My guest tonight, himself a seasoned rebel, has some thoughts about the meaning of protest, 80s style. Join me for a conversation with Noam Chomsky.
[voice-over] Noam Chomsky has been called many things: “the most important intellectual alive, “America’s leading dissenter,” and a few other things not suitable for polite company. Scholars around the world know him for his revolutionary work on the structure of language, studies he has pursued at MIT since 1955.
But he’s most controversial as a freelance critic of politics and power. Honest dissidence is what he calls it; the blunt scrutiny of national power, arbitrary government, and injustice. In dozens of books and hundreds of articles over the past quarter century, he has criticized the superpowers; From U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia and Central America, Soviet involvement in Afghanistan and Czechoslovakia. Twenty years ago he was an early volunteer in the protest against the war in Vietnam. We met in Boston to talk about dissent and democracy, then and now.
[interviewing] You said recently that this country is more dissident now than you ever remember it, more so than even during the Vietnam War. When I read that, my mind went back immediately to that period, to the protests in the streets, the mass demonstrations, the riots on college campuses and in the ghettos. That dissidence, it was powerful and emotional and unprecedented. You say we are a more dissident nation now?
NOAM CHOMSKY: : The dissidence now is much wider and more deeply rooted, and it’s found in sectors of the population that were excluded from the dissident movements of the 1960s. I think to compare the present situation with the late ’60s is a little misleading, because of the scale of what is being protested.
The movements of the ’60s became- well, partly- the peace movement, at least, the anti-war movement, became a significant movement at a time when we had hundreds of thousands of troops attacking South Vietnam and expanding the war to all of Indochina; a major war with hundreds of thousands of people slaughtered, just one of the major wars of the century, in fact. Until that time, the peace movement was very limited. As late as mid-1966 here in Boston, which is a pretty liberal city, we had a hard time having public meetings because they’d be broken up, often broken up by students.
And in fact, it wasn’t really until late 1966, early 1967- and remember, at that time we had, what was it, about 400,000 troops lighting in Vietnam that you got a large-scale protest movement going.
Now, compare the ’80s. When Ronald Reagan came into office, one of the first things they did was to lay the basis for direct military intervention in Central America. The white paper of February 1981 was a clear effort to test the waters, to see if you could get the population to support direct dispatch of troops to El Salvador and probably military intervention in Nicaragua.
That’s roughly comparable to the situation that say, John F. Kennedy faced in 1961 or even to the late ’50s. Now, at that time intervention could take place without any protest, but as soon as the Reagan people made just the beginnings of an indication that there might be direct military intervention, there was substantial protest, spontaneous protests from all over the country. You know, there were demonstrations, there were- the church was protesting, there were letters to Congress. In fact, the protest was sufficient so that they backed off. And they tried to–
BILL MOYERS: The administration.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : -the administration backed off, because they were afraid that it was going to harm the programs that they were really interested in.
BILL MOYERS: They went underground with it.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : And the Reagan administration was literally driven underground by a dissident population. The scale of clandestine activities, in fact, is a pretty good measure of domestic dissidence.
After all, clandestine activities are secret from no one except the domestic population.
BILL MOYERS: Are you talking only about dissidence toward Central American policies? Do you see–
NOAM CHOMSKY: : No, it’s much broader. For example, it’s a striking fact that on almost every major issue, the population has been quite strongly opposed to the policies of the Reagan administration.
This has been true from the beginning. If you take a look at the polls, the poll results have been quite consistent about this. In fact, apart from a brief period in the very first part of the first year of the administration, when there was support for a military build-up briefly, apart from that the population has been basically tending towards classical New Deal positions. It favors public spending- social spending over military spending.
The population has been in favor of increased taxes if they are used for improving the environment or education or social welfare, and so on.
If you look at the questions on the polls which ask, “Would you spend such-and-such an amount of money for new weapons or for, say, medical insurance?” the answers have consistently been in favor of social spending against military spending. The population has been quite strongly opposed to the direct interventionism. In fact, the only exceptions to this are the sort of one-day quick victories–
BILL MOYERS: Grenada.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Defeat Grenada, you know, I mean, things like that everybody rallies around the flag, but anything that has extended even to a limited extent beyond that has in fact had public opposition. Now, it’s not organized public opposition, but-
BILL MOYERS: You are saying that a negative poll on an issue constitutes dissidence?
NOAM CHOMSKY: : No, it only constitutes dissidence if it becomes articulated.
BILL MOYERS: Articulated.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Yes, and on many issues it doesn’t become articulated. On Central American policy, it did in fact become articulated, and that’s what drove the government underground.
BILL MOYERS: Even as we talk, however, 55 percent of the people in the latest Gallup poll express approval of President Reagan as he is preparing to leave office.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Yes.
BILL MOYERS: So what you just have said, polls showing opposition to his policies, while he himself remains unusually popular in the public standing.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : I think there’s something much more striking in the polls, and that is the events of the 1980s. In the 1980s, I think it’s a very dramatic fact that in the 1980s the government was driven underground. It was forced to undertake large-scale clandestine activities because of its domestic enemy, because the domestic population would not tolerate those activities.
In fact, the Reagan administration was very interesting in this respect. It’s the first administration to have created anything like the State Department Office of Public Diplomacy. I mean, there were elements of that before, but here we have-
BILL MOYERS: Oh, I have to tell you that the Kennedy administration, the Johnson administration
NOAM CHOMSKY: : -to a limited extent.
BILL MOYERS: -and the Nixon administration, all engaged in domestic propaganda.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Sure. And so did Woodrow Wilson, it’s the Creel Commission.
BILL MOYERS: That’s where it began, really, in the modem world.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Yes, yes, but, you know, there’s a substantial increase in scale. I mean, in the Reagan administration you really had a massive enterprise to control the public mind. In fact, when this was exposed during the Iran/Contra hearings, partially exposed, one high administration official described it as the most successful operation carried out. He said it’s the kind of operation that you carry out in enemy territory.
And that expresses the attitude toward the population completely. The population is the “enemy,” and you’ve got to control “enemy territory,” and the way you do it is by very extensive public diplomacy, meaning propaganda. Sure, it’s always been there, but the-
BILL MOYERS: Lyndon Johnson considered you subversive. People like you subversive. Richard Nixon.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : That’s right. But there’s a qualitative change.
BILL MOYERS: The enemy were the people in the streets, the demonstrators.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : That’s right But the point is there’s a qualitative change in the resources that have been devoted and the intelligence that has been devoted, and the resources drawn upon to ensure that enemy territory is controlled. Now, why do that’? h’s because the enemy is much more dangerous.
BILL MOYERS: The people.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : You see, when the enemy is quiet.
BILL MOYERS: The protesters, the dissenters.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : -yes. When the enemy is quiet, you don’t have to-like, for example, when John
F. Kennedy sent the American Air Force to start bombing South Vietnam in 1962, as he did, he didn’t have to keep it secret. It was on the front page of The New York Times. Nobody cared. When Johnson sent 20,000 Marines to the Dominican Republic, in fact to prevent a democratic revival there, there was a little bit of protest, but basically it wasn’t secret. When Johnson sent hundreds of thousands of troops to invade South Vietnam, it wasn’t secret. When we subverted the only free election in Laos in 1959, it wasn’t secret. Nobody ever cared about these things.
The population was really marginalized. That changed. It changed as a result of the popular movements of the ’60s, which had a dramatic effect on the country and, I think, a lasting effect.
BILL MOYERS: You keep coming back, though, to the opposition to the Central American policies, and I have to keep coming back to you, asking what’s the evidence of other dissidence?
NOAM CHOMSKY: : In the early ’60s there was nothing like an environmental movement, there was nothing like a feminist movement. There was an anti-nuclear movement, but it was a few people sitting in a room somewhere. It’s now a movement so vast that it, in fact, got something like 75 percent support for a nuclear freeze.
Couldn’t do anything with that support, but that’s because of, again, because the organizational structure was lacking. But all of these developments are extremely significant. I mean, take, say, the churches. In the 1960s, the churches, by and large, were either supportive of government military intervention or else quiescent. Now it’s very different, now they’re–
BILL MOYERS: No, no, not all. William Sloane Coffin, the civil rights movement was
NOAM CHOMSKY: : William Sloane Coffin’s a co-conspirator of mine. We were on
BILL MOYERS: -but the civil rights movement was driven by churchmen, churchwomen.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : -yes, but the civil rights movement was different.
BILL MOYERS: And Martin Luther King was himself a Baptist minister.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Yes, absolutely. And in fact it was a tremendously important movement, and it was a popular movement which, for the first time, after close to 200 years, at least technically enfranchised a significant segment of the population. Now, that was a movement which did, in fact, have wide scale support, even business support, for that matter. But, the thrust of the civil rights movement was not directed against the interests of centralized power in the United States.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Now, that’s crucial. The protest against the war, or the environmental movement, or even the feminist movement, in other respects, is directed against power, and those are the kinds that didn’t exist then, they developed in the ’60s– I mean, they existed to an extent.
BILL MOYERS: You’re saying there’s more democracy today.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Well, there’s on the one hand a lot more popular expression of democracy, and on the other hand it’s less and less part of the official, of the actual institutions of the system. It’s outside. And that’s why you get these funny conflicts. I mean, I can see it in my own personal life. For example, over the last couple of years the demands on me personally for, say, speaking somewhere have escalated beyond anything imaginable.
I have to plan years in advance, and the audiences are interested in thoughtful- they reach out to pans of the population that you couldn’t have talked to years ago.
BILL MOYERS: If all this ferment is going on, if there is more dissidence now than you can remember, why do you go on to write that the people feel isolated?
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Because I think much of the general population recognizes that the organized institutions do not reflect their concerns and interests and needs. They do not feel that they participate meaningfully in the political system. They do not feel that the media arc telling them the truth, or even reflect their concerns. They go outside of the organized institutions to act. And so on the one hand you have a lot of popular ferment, or dissidence- sometimes very effective on the other hand you have remoteness of the general public from the functioning institutions.
BILL MOYERS: We see more and more of our elected leaders and know less and less of what they’re doing.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Yes. In fact
BILL MOYERS: This medium does that.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : -very striking. In fact, the presidential elections have been almost removed from the point where the public even takes them seriously as involving a matter of choice. Take congressional elections. Congress, especially the House, is more responsive to public opinion than higher levels. But even here the rate of electoral victory by incumbents has been going up.
BILL MOYERS: Ninety- high nineties.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Yes. High nineties. Well, that virtually is a way of saying that there aren’t any elections, you know. It means that other systems like patronage and so on-
BILL MOYERS: You get those in a Communist- in a totalitarian state.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : -yes. It means– it means that something else is happening, not choice. It means that options are not being presented. So I think you do have a kind of a complex situation in the United States. There’s a break taking place, a cleavage taking place, between a rather substantial part of the population and elite elements. That includes elite intellectuals, incidentally.
BILL MOYERS: Well, but that elite element is supported by a substantial part of the population. I mean, there are people who take seriously the debates, who go out and vote, who think that they’re participating, and believe they’re participating in a legitimate exercise of democracy.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Yes. It’s a not a cleavage at the point of revolution. It’s not as if you had an aristocracy facing a mass population. It’s not Iran in 1979, nothing like that.
BILL MOYERS: A lot of people are happy.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Sure. It’s split and complex and fluid, and so on. But I think that you can see tendencies. You can see tendencies toward popular marginalization from functioning institutions. And abstraction of those institutions from public participation or even reflection of the public will.
BILL MOYERS: Now put that in the vernacular. That means what?
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Well, it means that the political system increasingly functions without public input. It means, to an increasing extent, not only do people not ratify decisions presented to them, but they don’t even participate– they don’t even take the trouble of ratifying them. They assume that the decisions are going on independently of what they may do in the polling booth.
Notice that even ratification of decisions made elsewhere is a very weak form of democracy.
BILL MOYERS: Ratification would be what?
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Well, ratification would mean a system in which there are two positions presented to me, the voter. I go into the polling booth and I push one or another button, depending on which of those positions I want. That’s a very limited form of democracy. A really meaningful democracy would mean that I play a role in forming those decisions, in creating those positions. That those positions reflect my active, creative participation; not just me, of course, but everyone. And that would be real democracy.
BILL MOYERS: That’s not happening.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : We’re very far from that. But we’re even departing from the point where there is ratification. When you have stage-managed elections, with the public relations industry determining what words come out of people’s mouths, you in fact are going beyond, to the point where even the element of ratification is disappearing.
Because you don’t expect the candidates to stand for anything. Candidates decide what to say on the basis of tests that determine what the effect will be across the population. Somehow, people don’t see how profoundly contemptuous that is of democracy.
BILL MOYERS: Contemptuous?
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Yes. Suppose I’m running for office. And I don’t tell people what I think, or what I’m going to do. I tell them what the pollsters have told me is going to get me elected. That’s expressing utter contempt for the electorate. That’s saying, okay, you people are going to have the chance to push your buttons, but once you’re done, I’ll do exactly what I intend, which is not what I’m telling you. See, if you express what you believe, you don’t have to ask what the polls tell you.
You don’t believe what the polls tell you, that’s what you say. And in fact, the whole construction of our political system is increasingly moving towards a real articulated expression of contempt for the general population. And I think people understand that.
BILL MOYERS: But, if you conduct polls to tell you what people want, and they tell you, are you not listening to the voice of the people?
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Only if that changes your mind. But of course, the whole structure of the system is based on the assumption that that doesn’t change your mind. It changes what you say. In other words, a political figure is not testing the waters and saying, “Okay, that’s what I believe.” If we had that kind of a political figure we wouldn’t bother voting for him. He’s not a barometer.
The political figure represents something, supported by certain interests, has certain commitments and so on. And the political figure then comes before us and produces things which the pollsters tell him, or his advisers, on the average will increase his chances of gaining office.
After which he will follow his commitments, his interests, what is demanded of him by those who supported him, by those who provide him with resources and so on. This has always, of course, been true, but what is interesting now is the extent to which it is recognized to be the democratic system. It is recognized that we don’t care what we say. We don’t express interest.
What we do is reflect power. See, I think Reagan’s a very interesting political figure, and I think in a way he may represent the future of where our capitalist democracy is tending. He’s a very natural kind of phenomenon in the capitalist democracy. In a capitalist democracy, you have the problem – and it is always perceived as a problem – that the general population has a method of participating in decision-making. They can participate in politics. The state is not capable of stopping them.
You can’t shut them up, you can’t put them in jail, you can’t keep them away from the polls and so on. And it’s striking that that has always been perceived as a problem to be overcome. It’s what’s called the crisis of democracy; too many people organizing themselves to enter the public arena. That’s a crisis we have to overcome.
BILL MOYERS: According to a certain few.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : It has always been understood by I would say even the main stream of democratic theorists that when the voice of the people is heard, you’re in trouble, because they’re always going to make the wrong decisions. These stupid and ignorant masses, as they’re called, they’re going to make the wrong decisions.
So therefore, what we have to have – what Walter Lippmann back in 1920 or so called manufacture of consent – we have to ensure that actual decision-making, actual power, is in the hands of what he called the specialized class, us smart guys, you know. Who are going to make the right decision? And we’ve got to keep the general population marginalized, because they’re always going to make mistakes.
BILL MOYERS: Marginalizing, meaning?
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Reduce them to apathy and obedience. Allow them to participate in the political system, but as consumers, not as true participants. That is, allow them a method for ratifying decisions that were made by others, but eliminate the methods by which they might first inform themselves, second, organize, and third, act in such a way as to really control decision-making.
That is, the idea is, our leaders control us, not we control them. Now, that is a very widespread view, from liberals to conservatives, and how do you achieve this? Well, there are a lot of ways of achieving it, but one of the ways of achieving it is by turning the elected offices into ceremonial positions. If you could get to the point where people would essentially vote for the Queen of England, and take it seriously, then you would have gone a long way towards marginalizing the public. And I think we’ve made a big step in that direction.
BILL MOYERS: The presidency as ceremonial leader.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : See, that’s why Reagan’s so interesting, because, you know, although a lot of intellectuals try to put the best face they can on it, the fact of the matter is – and most of the population knows – that Ronald Reagan had only the foggiest ideas of what the policies of his administration were. And, in fact, nobody much cared. The Democrats were always surprised that he could get away with these incredible bloopers and crazy statements and so on.
BILL MOYERS: The detachment and indecision.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Yes. And I think the reason is that much of the population understood very well that they were supporting someone like the Queen of England, or the flag. The Queen of England opens parliament by reading a political program, but nobody asks whether she understands it, or does she believe it, or anything like that.
BILL MOYERS: Every book from within the Reagan administration, from the Stockman book to the Regan book to the new book that’s now on the newsstands – says that the President was detached from the decisions.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : More than detached; I think he doesn’t know what it is. And I think much of the
population understood it. Now, I think that explains the combination of moderate -not an enormous- but moderate popularity with opposition to the programs.
BILL MOYERS: What do we do about it? I mean, I don’t want to leave people in a wholly negative analysis, although I believe in facing reality.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : For ordinary people it’s extremely hard, and that’s why you need organization. If a real democracy is going to thrive, if the real values that are deeply embedded in human nature are going to be able to flourish – and I think that’s necessary to save us, if nothing else – it’s an absolute necessity that groups form in which people can join together, can share their concerns, can articulate their ideas, can gain a response, can discover what they think, can discover what they believe, what their values are. This can’t be imposed from above. You have to discover it by experiment, by effort, by trial, by application and so on. And this has to be done with others.
Furthermore, surely central to human nature is a need to be engaged with others in cooperative efforts of solidarity and concern. That can only happen, by definition, through group structures.
BILL MOYERS: Political organizations.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Political and others.
BILL MOYERS: Civic organizations.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : All sorts.
BILL MOYERS: Trade associations.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Yes. I mean, all kinds of ways in which people can associate with one another. And I think what I would like to see is a move towards a society which is really based on proliferating voluntary organization, will eliminating as much as possible structures of hierarchy and domination and the basis for them, and ownership and control. And becoming the means by which we govern ourselves, by which we control our lives at every level.
BILL MOYERS: Does a citizen have to have far-reaching, specialized knowledge to understand the realities of power, to understand what’s really going on?
NOAM CHOMSKY: : It’s not absolutely trivial, but I mean, as compared with intellectually complex tasks, it’s pretty slight. It’s not like the sciences. I mean, I think there’s a big effort made to make everything seem mysterious, but there are things that you have to study and know something about. But by and large, what happens in social and political life is relatively accessible. It does not take special training. It does not take unusual intelligence. What it really takes is honesty.
BILL MOYERS: Honesty?
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Yes, if you’re honest you can see it.
BILL MOYERS: Do you believe in common sense?
NOAM CHOMSKY: : Absolutely. I believe in Cartesian common sense. I think people have the capacities to see through the deceit in which they are ensnared, but they’ve got to make the effort.
BILL MOYERS: Seems a little incongruous to hear a man from the ivory tower of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a scholar, a distinguished linguistics scholar, talk about common people with such appreciation, and common sense.
NOAM CHOMSKY: : I think that scholarship, at least the field that I work in, has the opposite consequences.
My own studies in language and human cognition demonstrate to me, at least, what remarkable creativity ordinary people have. The very fact that people talk to one another is a reflection- just in the normal way, I don’t mean particularly fancy- reflects deep-seated features of human creativity which, in fact, separate human beings from any other biological system we know. You get tremendous respect for human beings when you begin to study their normal capacities.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From Boston, this has been part one of a conversation with Noam Chomsky. I’m Bill Moyers.