Understanding Power: the indispensable Chomsky, page 1
Explanatory footnotes available at
Edited by Peter R. Mitchell
and John Schoeffel
SCRIBE PUBLICATIONS MELBOURNE
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First published in the United States by The New Press, New York 2002 First published in Australia and New Zealand by Scribe Publications 2002 Reprinted 2002, 2003, 2005, 2009, 2010
Published by arrangement with The New Press, New York
Copyright © Noam Chomsky, Peter R. Mitchell & John Schoeffel 2002
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book. Explanatory footnotes available at www.understandingpower.com
Printed and bound in Australia by Griffin Press
National Library of Australia
Understanding power : the indispensable Chomsky.
ISBN 9781921753923 (e-book.)
1. Chomsky, Noam - Political and social views. 2. Chomsky, Noam - Interviews. I. Mitchell, Peter R. II. Schoeffel, John. 320
A Note on the Events of September 11, 2001
Chapter One: Weekend Teach-In: Opening Session
Chapter Two: Teach-In: Over Coffee
Chapter Three: Teach-In: Evening
Chapter Four: Colloquy
Chapter Five: Ruling the World
Chapter Six: Community Activists
Chapter Seven: Intellectuals and Social Change
Chapter Eight: Popular Struggle
Chapter Nine: Movement Organizing
Chapter Ten: Turning Point
This book brings together the work of one of the most remarkable political activists and thinkers of our time. The discussions span a wide array of topics—from the workings of the modern media, to globalization, the education system, environmental crises, the military-industrial complex, activist strategies, and beyond—and present a revolutionary perspective for evaluating the world, and for understanding power.
What distinguishes Noam Chomsky’s political thinking is not any one novel insight or single overarching idea. In fact, Chomsky’s political stance is rooted in concepts that have been understood for centuries. Rather, Chomsky’s great contribution is his mastery of a huge wealth of factual information, and his uncanny skill at unmasking, in case after case, the workings and deceptions of powerful institutions in today’s world. His method involves teaching through examples—not in the abstract—as a means of helping people to learn how to think critically for themselves.
The opening chapter introduces two themes that underlie nearly every aspect of the book: the progress of activism in changing the world, and the role of the media in staving off that activism and in shaping the way we think. The book follows a roughly chronological order, and begins with four discussions that took place in 1989 and 1990—the dawn of the post-Cold War era. These first chapters lay a foundation for Chomsky’s subsequent analysis. The remaining chapters explore more recent developments in U.S. foreign policy, international economics, the domestic social and political environment, as well as activist strategies and problems. The book and its accompanying footnotes bring Chomsky’s analysis right up to the present day.
The internet has enabled us to place extensive documentation in our footnotes, which appear at the book’s website. These vast online notes go well beyond mere citation to sources: they include commentary on the text, excerpts from government documents, significant quotations from newspaper articles and scholarship, and other important information. Our goal was to make accessible much of the evidence supporting each of Chomsky’s factual assertions. The notes also add additional depth for those interested in a given topic.
The complete footnotes—which are longer than the text itself—can be easily downloaded from the book’s website, www.understandingpower.com (they can also be accessed through www.thenewpress.com). Information about obtaining a bound printout of the notes is available on the website, or by writing us in care of the publisher.
The book was put together as follows. We transcribed tapes of dozens of question-and-answer sessions, edited them for readability, then reorganized and combined them to eliminate repetition and present the analysis in a coherent progression of topics and ideas. Our aim was to compile an overview of Chomsky’s political thought that combines the rigor and documentation of his scholarly books with the accessibility of the interview format. Always we remained faithful to Chomsky’s own language and answers—and he reviewed the text—but it was necessary to make superficial alterations for structural and stylistic reasons.
Most of the material is from seminar-style discussions with groups of activists, or from question periods after public talks, held between 1989 and 1999. Some of the answers in chapters 6, 7, 8 and 9 are taken from conversations between Chomsky and Michael Albert. Questioners are identified as “Man” or “Woman” because frequently this device reveals when the same person is pursuing a line of questioning, or whether somebody else has taken over.
We have personally checked and verified the sources cited in the footnotes, except for certain foreign language materials. Most of the sources are those Chomsky relied upon when making his comments in the text, but some are not. Emily Mitchell’s assistance in retrieving reams of this material in the final months of our work on this project was invaluable. We direct readers to footnote 67 of chapter 1 for discussion of one common misunderstanding regarding the footnotes: that the frequent citation to articles from the mainstream media is at odds with the “Propaganda Model” of the media, which Chomsky outlines in chapter 1.
We want to thank our parents—Emily and George Mitchell and Ron and Jone Schoeffel—whose support made the book possible.
A Note on the Events of September 11, 2001
As this book was going to print, hijacked airplanes hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon, killing thousands and potentially triggering major repercussions in U.S. society and in the world. The U.S. media devoted huge coverage to the attacks and their aftermath. But, overwhelmingly, the media omitted a critical, accurate discussion of the context in which they occurred.
When President Bush and U.S. officials announced that “America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world,” the mainstream media in the U.S. mostly echoed the refrains. A lead analysis in the New York Times stated that the perpetrators had acted out of “hatred for the values cherished in the West as freedom, tolerance, prosperity, religious pluralism and universal suffrage.” 1 Glaringly missing from the U.S. media’s coverage was a full and realistic account of U.S. foreign policy and its effects around the world. It was hard to find anything but a passing mention of the immense slaughter of Iraqi civilians during the Gulf War, the devastation of Iraq’s population by U.S.-instigated sanctions throughout the past decade,
This book was compiled before the events of September 11, 2001. But answers to many of the most important questions presented by those attacks will be found here. Why does the media provide such a limited and uncritical perspective, and such inaccurate analysis? What is the basis of U.S. foreign policy and why does it engender such widespread hatred of the U.S.? What can ordinary citizens do to change these situations?
As Chomsky noted right after the attacks, “The people in the advanced countries now face a choice: we can express justified horror, or we can seek to understand what may have led to the crimes. If we refuse to do the latter, we will be contributing to the likelihood that much worse lies ahead.” From our frightening, current vantage point, the discussions collected in this book seem more urgent than ever. We hope that the book will provide a starting point for understanding, and will contribute to the critical debates—and changes—that must now occur.
Weekend Teach-In: Opening Session
Based primarily on discussions at Rowe, Massachusetts, April 15–16, 1989.
The Achievements of Domestic Dissidence
WOMAN: Noam, I think the reason we’ve all come out here to spend the weekend talking with you is to get some of your perspectives on the state of the world, and what we can do to change it. I’m wondering, do you think activism has brought about many changes in the U.S.A. in the past few decades?
Oh sure, big changes actually. I don’t think the structure of the institutions has been changed—but you can see real changes in the culture, and in a lot of other ways too.
For instance, compare two Presidential administrations in the 1960s and 1980s, the Kennedy administration and the Reagan administration. Now, in a sense they had a lot in common, contrary to what everyone says. Both came into office on fraudulent denunciations of their predecessors as being wimpish and weak and letting the Russians get ahead of us—there was a fraudulent “missile gap” in the Kennedy case, a fraudulent “window of vulnerability” in the Reagan case. Both were characterized by a major escalation of the arms race, which means more international violence and increased taxpayer subsidies to advanced industry at home through military spending. Both were jingoist, both tried to whip up fear in the general population through a lot of militarist hysteria and jingoism. Both launched highly aggressive foreign policies around the world—Kennedy substantially increased the level of violence in Latin America; the plague of repression that culminated in the 1980s under Reagan was in fact largely a result of his initiatives. 1
Of course, the Kennedy administration was different in that, at least rhetorically, and to some extent in practice, it was concerned for social reform programs at home, whereas the Reagan administration was committed to the opposite, to eliminating what there was of a social welfare system here. But that probably reflects the difference in international affairs in the two periods more than anything else. In the early 1960s, the United States was the world-dominant power, and had plenty of opportunity for combining international violence and commitment to military spending with social reform at home. By the 1980s, that same opportunity wasn’t around anymore: the United States was just not that powerful and not that rich relative to its industrial rivals—in absolute terms it was, but not relatively. And there was a general consensus among elites, it wasn’t just Reagan, that you had to break down the welfare state in order to maintain the profitability and competitiveness of American capital. But that difference apart, the two administrations were very similar.
On the other hand, they couldn’t do the same things. So for example, Kennedy could invade Cuba and launch the world’s to-date major international terrorist operation against them—which went on for years, probably still is going on. 2 He was able to invade South Vietnam, which he did after all: Kennedy sent the American Air Force to bomb and napalm South Vietnam and defoliate the country, and he sent troops to crush the peasant independence movement there. 3 And Vietnam’s an area of minor American concern, it’s way on the other end of the world. The Reagan administration tried to do similar things much closer to home in Central America, and couldn’t. As soon as they started moving towards direct intervention in Central America in the first few months of the administration in 1981, they had to back off and move to clandestine operations—secret arms sales, covert funding through client states, training of terrorist forces like the contras in Nicaragua, and so on. 4
That’s a very striking difference, a dramatic difference. And I think that difference is one of the achievements of the activism and dissidence of the last twenty-five years. In fact, the Reagan administration was forced to create a major propaganda office, the Office of Public Diplomacy: it’s not the first one in American history, it’s the second, the first was during the Wilson administration in 1917. But this one was much larger, much more extensive, it was a major effort at indoctrinating the public. 5 The Kennedy administration never had to do that, because they could trust that the population would be supportive of any form of violence and aggression they decided to carry out. That’s a big change, and it’s had its effects. There were no B-52s in Central America in the 1980s. It was bad enough, hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered—but if we’d sent B-52s and the 82nd Airborne, it would have been a lot worse. And that’s a reflection of a serious rise in domestic dissidence and activism in the United States over the past twenty-five years. The Reagan administration was forced into clandestine tactics rather than direct aggression of the sort that Kennedy was able to use in Vietnam, largely in order to pacify the domestic population. As soon as Reagan indicated that he might try to turn to direct military intervention in Central America, there was a convulsion in the country, ranging from a massive flow of letters, to demonstrations, to church groups getting involved; people started coming out of the woodwork all over the place. And the administration immediately backed off.
Also, the Reagan military budget had to level off by 1985. It did spurt, pretty much along the lines of Carter administration projections, but then it leveled off at about what it would have been if Carter had stayed in. 6 Well, why did that happen? Partly it happened because of fiscal problems arising after four years of catastrophic Reaganite deficit spending, but partly it was just because there was a lot of domestic dissidence.
And by now that dissidence is kind of irrepressible, actually. The fact that it doesn’t have a center, and doesn’t have a source, and doesn’t have an organizational structure, that has both strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses are that people get the sense that they’re alone—because you don’t see things happening down the street. And it’s possible to maintain the illusion that there’s no activism going on, because there’s nothing dramatically visible, like huge demonstrations or something; occasionally there are, but not most of the time. And there’s very little in the way of inter-communication, so all sorts of organizing can be happening in parallel, but it doesn’t feed into itself and move on from there. Those are all weaknesses. On the other hand, the strength is, it’s very hard to crush—because there’s nothing to cut off: if one thing gets eliminated, something else just comes up to take its place.
So looking over a long stretch, I don’t think it’s true that things have gotten more passive, more quiescent, more indoctrinated and so on. In fact, if anything, it’s the opposite. But it’s sort of neither more nor less, really, it’s just different.
And you can see it in all kinds of ways. I mean, public opposition to the policies of the Reagan administration kept rising—it was always very high, and it rose through the Eighties. 7 Or take the media: there have been slight changes, there’s more openness. It’s easier for dissidents to get access t
Or take something like the human rights policies of the Carter administration. Now, they weren’t from the Carter administration really, they were from Congress—they were Congressional human rights programs which the Carter administration was forced to adapt to, to a limited extent. And they’ve been maintained through the 1980s as well: the Reagan administration had to adapt to them somewhat too. And they’ve had an effect. They’re used very cynically and hypocritically, we know all that stuff—but nevertheless, there are plenty of people whose lives have been saved by them. Well, where did those programs come from? Where they came from, if you trace it back, is kids from the 1960s who became Congressional assistants and pressed for drafting of legislation—using popular pressures from here, there and the other place to help them through. Their proposals worked their way through a couple of Congressional offices, and finally found their way into Congressional legislation. 8 New human rights organizations developed at the same time, like Human Rights Watch. And out of it all came at least a rhetorical commitment to putting human rights issues in the forefront of foreign policy concerns. And that’s not without an effect. It’s cynical, doubtless—you can show it. But still it’s had an effect.
The U.S. Network of Terrorist Mercenary States
WOMAN: It’s curious that you’re saying that, because I certainly didn’t have that impression. The only human rights issue the Reagan administration seemed to he concerned with was that of the Soviet Jews—I mean, they resumed funding the terror in Guatemala.