Overcoming Orthodoxies

Noam Chomsky


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

Russell’s America.


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.

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