Barsamian: I want to come back to the idea of what individuals can do in
overcoming orthodoxies. Steve Biko, the South African activist who was murdered
by the apartheid regime while he was in custody, once said, The most powerful
weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.
quite accurate. Most oppression succeeds because its legitimacy is internalized.
That’s true of the most extreme cases. Take, say, slavery. It wasn’t easy to
revolt if you were a slave, by any means. But if you look over the history of
slavery, it was in some sense just recognized as just the way things are. Well
do the best we can under this regime. Another example, also contemporary (its
estimated that there are some 26 million slaves in the world), is women’s
rights. There the oppression is extensively internalized and accepted as
legitimate and proper. Its still true today, but its been true throughout
history. That’s true in case after case. Take working people. At one time in
the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century, a hundred a fifty years ago, working for
wage labor was considered not very different from chattel slavery. That was not
an unusual position. That was the slogan of the Republican Party, the banner
under which Northern workers went to fight in the Civil War. Were against
chattel slavery and wage slavery. Free people do not rent themselves to others.
Maybe you’re forced to do it temporarily, but that’s only on the way to
becoming a free person, a free man, to put it in the rhetoric of the day. You
become a free man when you’re not compelled to take orders from others.
That’s an Enlightenment ideal. Incidentally, this was not coming from European
radicalism. There were workers in Lowell, Mass., a couple of miles from where we
are. You could even read editorials in the New York Times saying this around
that time. It took a long time to drive into people’s heads the idea that it is
legitimate to rent yourself. Now thats unfortunately pretty much accepted. So
that’s internalizing oppression. Anyone who thinks its legitimate to be a wage
laborer is internalizing oppression in a way which would have seemed intolerable
to people in the mills, lets say, a hundred and fifty years ago. So that’s
again internalizing oppression, and its an achievement.
the demonstrations that are going on right now in Washington, which are good
ones, about canceling the debt. That’s right. They should cancel the debt. But
its also worth recognizing that — a lot of people know this — the form of
the protests and the objections on the part of the poor countries are
internalizing a form of oppression that they should not be accepting. They are
saying that the debt exists. You cant cancel it unless it exists. Does it exist?
Well, it doesn’t exist as an economic fact. It exists as an ideological
construction. OK, that’s internalizing oppression. You can go on and on. Just
as Biko says, its a tremendous achievement of the oppressors to instill their
assumptions as the perspective from which you look at the world. Sometimes its
done extremely consciously, like the public relations industry. Sometimes it’s
just kind of routine, the way you live. To liberate yourselves from those
preconceptions and perspectives is to take a long step towards overcoming
Discuss the role of intellectuals in this equation. There’s a lot of talk
today about public intellectuals. Does that term mean anything to you?
an old idea. Public intellectuals are the ones who are supposed to present the
values and principles and understanding. They’re the ones who took pride in
driving the U.S. into war during World War I. They were public intellectuals.
Notice who they were. Walter Lippmann was a public intellectual. On the other
hand, Eugene Debs wasn’t a public intellectual. In fact, he was in jail. A
very vindictive Woodrow Wilson refused to grant him amnesty when everyone else
was getting Christmas amnesty. Why was Eugene Debs not a public intellectual?
The reason is, he was an intellectual who happened to be on the side of poor
people and working people. He was the leading figure in the U.S. labor movement.
He was a presidential candidate, despite the fact that he was running outside
the main political system he got plenty of votes. He was telling the truth about
the First World War, which is why he was thrown into jail. Take a look back at
what he was saying, its quite accurate. So he was thrown into jail and wasnt a
public intellectual. On the other hand, Walter Lippmann, who was part of the
propaganda agency, the Creel Commission, and later was explaining in his
progressive essays on democracy how the bewildered herd have to be spectators,
not participants, and so on, he is a public intellectual, in fact, one of the
leading public intellectuals of the U.S. in the twentieth century. That’s
rather general. Public intellectuals are the ones who are acceptable within some
mainstream spectrum as presenting ideas, as standing up for values. Sometimes
what they do is not bad, maybe even very good. But again, take humanitarian
intervention, take a look. The people who do not accept the principles, the
assumptions, they rarely qualify as public intellectuals, no matter how famous
they are. Take, say, Bertrand Russell, who by any standard is one of the leading
intellectual figures of the twentieth century. He was one of the very few
leading intellectual figures who opposed World War I. He was vilified, and in
fact ended up in jail, like his counterparts in Germany. From the 1950s,
particularly in the U.S., he was bitterly denounced and attacked as a crazy old
man who was anti-American. Why? The reason was that he was standing up for the
principles that other intellectuals also accepted, but he was doing something
about it. For example, he and Einstein, to take another leading intellectual,
essentially agreed on things like nuclear weapons. They thought it might well
destroy the species. They signed similar statements, I think even joint
statements. But then they reacted differently. Einstein went back to his office
in the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton and worked on unified field
theories. Russell, on the other hand, went out in the streets. He was part of
the demonstrations against nuclear weapons. He became quite active in opposing
the Vietnam War early, at a time when there was virtually no public opposition.
He also tried to do something about that. He also tried to do something about
that, demonstrations, organized a tribunal. So he was bitterly denounced. On the
other hand, Einstein was a saintly figure. They essentially had the same
positions, but Einstein didn’t rattle too many cages. Thats pretty common.
Russell was viciously attacked in the New York Times and by Dean Rusk and others
in the sixties. He wasn’t counted as a public intellectual, just a crazy old
man. There’s a good book on this published by South End Press called Bertrand
You make yourself available for various groups all over the country, from the
East Timor Action Network to an upcoming talk you’re going to give for the
Boston Mobilization for Survival. You made that choice pretty early on. Why
don’t other intellectuals get engaged politically?
have their own reasons. Presumably the reason most dont is because they think
they’re doing the right thing. That is, I’m sure that overwhelmingly people
who are supportive of atrocious acts of power and privilege do believe and
convince themselves that that’s the right thing to do, which is extremely
easy. In fact, a standard technique of belief formation is to do something in
your own interest and then to construct a framework in which it follows that
that’s the right thing to do. We all know this from our own experience.
Nobody’s saintly enough that they haven’t done that illegitimately any
number of times from when you stole a toy from your younger brother when you
were seven years old until the present. We always manage to construct our own
framework that says, Yes, that was the right thing to do and its going to be
good. Sometimes the conclusions are accurate. Its not always self-deception. But
its very easy to fall into self-deception when its advantageous for yourself to
do so. Its not surprising.
And when you have the culture and the media celebrating.
is advantageous. If you convince yourself, or just maybe cynically decide to
play the game by the official rules, you benefit, a lot. On the other hand, if
you don’t play the game by those rules and you, say, follow Bertrand
Russell’s path, you’re a target. In some states you may get killed. If its a
U.S. client state, you get killed. We’ve just passed the twentieth anniversary
of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. He was a
conservative archbishop who tried to be a voice for the voiceless. So he was
assassinated by U.S.-run forces. The anniversary just passed, incidentally.
David Peterson, who is an invaluable resource, did a database analysis that was
kind of interesting. Virtually nothing in the mainstream national press.
Practically the only place where the assassination was reported was Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles Times had reports. Los Angeles happens to have the biggest
Salvadoran community in the country, and Archbishop Romero is kind of a saint,
so they had a couple of articles. But basically silence.
few months earlier, last November was the tenth anniversary of the murder of six
leading Latin American Jesuit intellectuals by the U.S.-run forces, armed and
trained by the U.S., in El Salvador. This was part of a large-scale massacre,
but they happened to be murdered with particular brutality. If say, Vaclev Havel
and half a dozen other Czech intellectuals had had their brains blown out by
Russian-run forces ten years ago, the anniversary would have been noted, and
somebody would know their names. In this case, David Peterson did a media
analysis, and there was essentially nothing. Literally their names were not
mentioned in the U.S. press. In addition to the six Jesuit intellectuals, their
housekeeper and her fifteen-year-old daughter were murdered.
hundreds of other people were killed whose names you never heard of. It is
intriguing, instructive, that no one knows the names of the assassinated
Salvadoran intellectuals. If you ask well-educated public intellectuals or your
well-educated friends, Can you name any of the Salvadoran intellectuals who were
murdered by U.S.-run forces, its very rare that anyone will know a name. These
were distinguished people, one was the rector of the leading university. Some
people know. The people who were involved in Central American solidarity know.
But they’re not well known. Nothing like what we know about East European
dissidents. They’re well known. Everybody knows their names and reads their
books and praises them. They in fact suffered repression. But in the post-Stalin
period nothing remotely like the treatment that’s regularly meted out to
dissidents in the Western domains. Its a very enlightening reaction.
the story gets worse. Right after they were murdered, Vaclav Havel came to
Washington and gave a rousing address to a joint session of Congress where he
praised the defenders of freedom, his words, who were in fact responsible for
just murdering six of his counterparts. That led to a euphoric reaction, rapture
in the U.S. Editorials in the Washington Post about, Why cant we have
magnificent intellectuals like that who come and praise us as defenders of
freedom. Anthony Lewis wrote about how we live in a romantic age. That’s quite
interesting. Then we passed the tenth anniversary and of course its forgotten.
The twentieth anniversary of Archbishop Romero, forgotten.
happens if you’re a dissident intellectual in our domains? In the rich
societies, the U.S. and England, you don’t get murdered. If you’re a black
leader, you might get murdered, but for relatively privileged people youre
secure from violent repression. On the other hand, there are other reactions
that plenty of people don’t like. In fact, about the only way to continue to
do it is not to care. For example, if you have contempt for the mainstream
intellectual community and you really don’t care, then you’re safe. On the
other hand, if you want to be accepted by them, if you want to be praised and
have your books reviewed and told how brilliant you are and move on and get
great jobs, its not advisable to be a dissident. Its not impossible, and in fact
the system has enough looseness in it so that it can be done, but it is not
easy. Both of us can name plenty of people who were simply cut out of the system
because their work was too honest. That blocks access. It s not like having your
brains blown out or being thrown in jail, but its not nice.
entire Barsamian/Chomsky interview will appear in an upcoming South End Press
volume later this coming year.