Free Speech Radio News producer Catherine Komp interviews Noam Chomsky.
Noam Chomsky is amongst the world’s most cited living scholars. Voted the “world’s top public intellectual” in 2005, he is perhaps best known as a critic of all forms of social control and a relentless advocate for community-centered approaches to democracy and freedom. Over the last several decades, Chomsky has championed a wide range of dissident actions, organizations and social movements. In this excerpt from the just-released expanded edition of the Zuccotti Park Press book, Occupy: Class War, Rebellion and Solidarity, Chomsky speaks with Free Speech Radio News about media control, fear, indoctrination and the importance of solidarity.
Catherine Komp: It’s been twenty-five years since the publication of your and Edward Herman’s acclaimed book Manufacturing Consent. How much do you think has changed with the propaganda model, and where do you see it playing out most prominently today?
Noam Chomsky: Well, ten years ago we had a re-edition and we talked about some of the changes. One change is that we were too narrow. There are a number of filters that determine the framework of reporting, and one of the filters was too narrow. Instead of “anti-communism,” which was too narrow, it should have been “fear of the concocted enemy.” So yes, it could be anti-communism—most of that is concocted. So take Cuba again. It’s hard to believe, but for the Pentagon, Cuba was listed as one of the military threats to the United States until a couple of years ago. This is so ludicrous; you don’t even know whether to laugh or cry. It’s as if the Soviet Union had listed Luxembourg as a threat to its security. But here it kind of passes.
The United States is a very frightened country. And there are all kinds of things concocted for you to be frightened about. So that should have been the filter, and [there were] a few other things, but I think it’s basically the same.
There is change. Free Speech Radio didn’t exist when we wrote the book, and there are some things on the Internet which break the bonds, as do independent work and things like the book I was just talking about when we came in, Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars, which is a fantastic piece of investigative reporting on the ground of what actually happens in the countries where we’re carrying out these terror campaigns. And there’s a lot of talk about drones, but not much about the fact that they are terror weapons.
If we were sitting here wondering if, all of a sudden, there’s going to be a bomb in this room, because they maybe want to kill him or kill us or whatever, it’s terrorizing. In fact, we just saw a dramatic example of this which got a couple lines in the paper. A few days after the Boston Marathon bombing, there was a drone attack on a village in Yemen, kind of an isolated village. Obama and his friends decided to murder some guy. So the villagers are sitting there, and suddenly this guy gets blown away and whoever else is around him. I don’t think it was reported except for the fact that there was Senate testimony a week later by a person from the village who’s quite respected by Jeremy and others who know him. The man, Farea al-Muslimi, who studied at a high school in the U.S., testified to the Senate and he described what happened to his village. He said that every- body knew the man that they murdered, and that they could have easily apprehended him, but it was easier to kill him and terrify the village. He also said something else which is important. He said that his friends and neighbors used to know of the United States primarily through his stories of “the wonderful experiences” he had here.* He said the U.S. bombing has turned them into people who hate America and want revenge—that’s all it takes. And, in fact, this whole terror system is creating enemies and threats faster than it’s killing suspects, apart from how awful that is. These things are going on, and going back to Jeremy, his book exposes a lot of it and also the exploits of the secret executive army, JSOC, Joint Special Operations Command. It’s dangerous, but it’s the kind of thing an investigative reporter could do, and he’s done it. There’s more of it now, fortunately, in some respects, than there was then.
So, some progress.
Yes. On the other hand, the indoctrination system has gotten incredibly powerful. The examples that I mentioned, like the right-to-work laws—it is pretty shocking that that can succeed. So, I’d say it’s about the same inequality entered the national dialogue with the Occupy movement, but the wealth gap for black and Latino families rarely generates debate or headlines. What role should the media—particularly independent media—play in ensuring critical public interest issues like these are at the forefront?
Independent media ought to be telling the truth about things that matter. That’s quite different from the task of the commercial media. They have a task. They’re supposed to be objective, and objectivity has a meaning in the world of journalism. In fact, it’s taught in journalism schools. Objectivity means reporting honestly and accurately what’s going on within the Beltway, inside the government. So that sets the bounds. There are Democrats and there are Republicans. Report honestly what they’re saying—balance and so on—and then you’re objective. If you go beyond that and you ask a question about the bounds, then you’re biased, subjective, emotional, maybe anti-American, whatever the usual curse words are. So that’s a task and, you know, you can understand it from the point of view of established power. It’s a distorting prism with enormous impact. Even just the framework of what’s looked at.
Take, for example, current domestic issues. We have “the sequester,” which is harming the economy, and that’s, in fact, conceded. But what’s it about? Well, it’s about the deficit. Who cares about the deficit? Banks, rich people and so on. What does the population care about? Jobs. In fact, this has even been studied. There are a couple of professional studies that tested this question. It turns out that concern about the deficit increases with wealth, and the reason is rich people are concerned that maybe someday in the future there might be a little bit of inflation, which is not good for lenders. It’s fine for borrowers. So, therefore, we have to worry about the deficit, even if it destroys jobs.
The population has quite different views. They say, no, we want jobs. And they’re right. Jobs mean stimulating demand, and government’s got to do that. Corporations have money coming out of their ears, but they’re not investing it because there’s no demand. Consumers can’t fill the gap because they’re suffering from the impact of the crimes that the banks carried out. Of course, the corporations are richer than ever. That’s the way it works, but it’s not what’s discussed within the Beltway. So you get some little comment on it around the fringes, but the focus has to be on the terrible problem of the deficit, which will maybe be a problem someday in the future, but not very serious.
In fact, professional political science has done a pretty good job on a specific topic relative to this. This is a very heavily polled country, so you get to know a lot about public attitudes, and there are quite good studies on the relation between public attitudes and public policy and differentiating attitudes. And it turns out that maybe 70 percent of the population, the lower 70 percent on the wealth income level, are disenfranchised. That is, their opinions have no influence on policy. Senators don’t pay any attention to them.
As you move up in income level you get more influence. When you get to the very top, and here the Occupy movement was a little misleading— it’s not one percent, it’s a tenth of a percent. When you get to the top tenth of a percent, where there’s a huge concentration of wealth, you can’t even talk about influence. They get what they want. That’s why the banks who created the crisis, often with criminal action, are not only scot-free, but richer, more powerful and bigger than ever. Reading the business press, you can see there’s a criminal action here and there, and maybe a slap on the wrist or something there.
Because of that, what’s within the Beltway reflects wealth and power. Elections are basically bought. We know the story. So “objectivity” in the commercial media means looking at the world from the point of view of the extremely rich and powerful in the corporate sector. Now, it’s not 100 percent from their view. There are a lot of very honest reporters who do all kinds of things. I read the national press and learn from them and so on, but it’s very much skewed in that direction. It’s kind of like the filters in Manufacturing Consent. And going back to your point, what the independent press ought to be doing is what the national press ought to be doing, looking at the world from the point of view of its population. This holds on issue after issue—you can almost pick it at random.
The Occupy movement has had several pretty big successes: Occupy Sandy, Occupy Our Homes, Strike Debt and the Rolling Jubilee. But what do you think a post-Occupy movement looks like? What comes next?
The Occupy tactic was a remarkably successful tactic. If I’d been asked a month before Zuccotti Park whether to do this, I would have said, you’re crazy. But it worked extremely well. It just lighted a fire all over the place. People were just waiting for something to light the spark. And it was extremely successful, but it’s a tactic, and tactics are not strategies. A tactic has a half-life; it has diminishing returns. And in particular, a tactic like this is going to arouse antagonism, because people don’t want their lives disrupted and so on. It will be easy to fan it the way you do with public workers. So it’s a tactic that had to be revised. Frankly, when the police broke the occupations up, it was harsh and brutal and didn’t have to be done like that. But in some ways, it wasn’t a bad thing, because it turned people to what they have to do next. And what they have to do next is bring it to the general population. Take up the topics that really bother people. Be there when you’re needed like Sandy. Be there for the foreclosures. Focus on debt. Focus on a financial transaction tax, which ought to be instituted. Nobody else is bringing it up. That’s what the Occupy movement ought to be doing, and not just as a national movement, but as an international movement.
It’s actually striking that there are Occupy offshoots all over the world. I’ve talked at Occupy movements in Sydney, Australia, and England, all over. Everywhere you go there’s something. And they link with other things that are happening, like the Indignados in Spain; the student actions in Chile, which are pretty remarkable; things in Greece, which are enormous; and even movements in the peripheral parts of Europe trying to struggle against the brutal austerity regimes, which are worse than here and which are just strangling the economies and destroying the European social contract. We look progressive in comparison with Europe.
So that’s a future that can be looked forwardto, including things like we were talking about before, supporting and maybe even initiating things like worker-owned, worker-managed enterprises. It sounds reformist, but it’s revolutionary. That’s changing—at least giving the germs for changing—the basic structure of this society in a fundamental way. Why should banks own the enterprise in which people work? What business is it of theirs? Why should they decide whether you move it to Mexico or Bangladesh or where the next place will be? Why shouldn’t the workers decide, or the communities? There’s a lot to say about this.
Just consider, for example, the things that aren’t being discussed in the immigration struggle. We’re here in Boston, right? Right around Boston, there’s a pretty large community of Mayan immigrants. They’re still coming right now. They live right near here, but under the radar because they’re undocumented. Why are Mayans coming here? They don’t want to be here. Some of them I know pretty well, and when you talk to them, they say, “We’d rather be home.” They don’t want to be here.
Why are they coming? Well, because in the early 1980s, there was a virtually genocidal attack on the highlands in Guatemala that was supported by Ronald Reagan, backed by the United States. It practically wiped the place out, andthere are now actually trials going on in Guatemala of the perpetrators, but nobody here talks about it. So, you know, we destroy their country and people flee because they can’t survive. In fact, there’s an interesting book coming out by David Bacon, who is an immigration activist. It’s called The Right to Stay Home.
It was obvious, for example, that NAFTA was going to destroy Mexican agriculture. The Mexican campesinos can be as efficient as they like, but they can’t compete with highly subsidized U.S agribusiness, and that means people are going to flee. And, in fact, it’s not just coincidental that the year NAFTA was passed, Clinton started militarizing the border. It was an open border before, and so, of course, people are going to come. Well, these topics aren’t discussed.
If you’re worried about immigration, let’s take a look at why people are coming and what our responsibility is and what we can do about it. They don’t want to be here. And the same is true about exporting factories. People ought to have jobs in Bangladesh, but we ought to be paying attention to the fact that they have decent working conditions. They want it, we should want it, and we should struggle to make sure they have it. And then decisions can be made about a workforce and where they want their enterprise to be. There are all kinds of topics like this that free, independent media can bring up and movements like Occupy can be dedicated to.
You’ve talked about the effectiveness of sit-down strikes in which workers occupy a workplace as a precursor to taking it over. You’ve said, with enough popular support, sit-down strikes can work and be the basis for a real revolution. But how much popular support is needed and what should it look like?* Charlie Savage, “Drone Strikes Turn Allies Into Enemies, Yemeni Says,” New York Times, published April 23, 2013.