The Responsibility of Intellectuals, Part II

Transcript of Z Video DVD The Chomsky Sessions One: The Responsibility of Intellectuals, an interview with Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert (http://www.zcomm.org/zstore/products/114). See Responsibility of Intellectuals, Part I here


So, the solution, whether we're talking about intellectuals or journalists, isn't in the genes of the people, it's in the structure of the situations that they find themselves in which over and over and over produce this kind of, almost reflexive, behavior to the point where they don't have to think about it. It's not as if they are making a conscious choice: OK, today I will lie about barbarism in order to get an extra star on my resume, they just do it, because they've done it all along and they keep doing it.

Journalism's kind of an easy target, and a little bit unfair, because a journalist has to get something out tomorrow, they can't think about it much and so on. Much more interesting is scholarship. That's why most of my own critical work is on scholarship, not on journalism. Because in the case of scholarship people have time, they have resources, they have security, they can think about what they're doing, and what you find is, with very rare exceptions, pretty much the same thing.

So, one of the main theses in international relations theory, dealing with the United States, is the impact of Wilsonian idealism. Well, you know, that's quite interesting. I mean, these articles I happened to read are typical, so I'll pick them, but it runs through the whole field. The study of Wilsonian idealism keeps to, almost entirely, to words. So, we ask: when Wilson said self-determination, did he mean this or did he mean that? And you have a big scholarly discussion of it and you look at his letters and what he wrote to his wife, but you don't look at any of the facts. And the facts are glaringly obvious right now. So, right now, for example, Haiti, as everyone knows, has been hit by an incredible disaster. You know, hundreds of thousands of people killed, billions of dollars of damage. Everybody wants to give ten dollars to show how wonderful we are.

Did Wilsonian idealism have anything to do with this? I mean, you would have to be blind not to see it. Wilson was one of the worst killers in Haiti, he destroyed the country. It was already half-destroyed by the French, and then he sent the marines into Haiti on a ridiculous pretext as always, they killed thousands of people, according to Haitian historians maybe 15,000 people. They re-instated virtual slavery. Remember Haiti was liberated as a slave revolt. One of the main things they did, and this is Wilsonian idealism, was, Wilson sent the marines to disband parliament. Haiti had a parliament. It was kind of derided in the United States. So they disbanded parliament at gun point, and the reason was very simple. The U.S. had written a constitution. Actually, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took credit for it, probably boasting. But anyway, there was a U.S.-written constitution which the parliament refused to accept. Why? Because the constitution contained what were called in the United States progressive measures, namely, permitting U.S. corporations to buy up Haiti's lands. Now, that was explained, you know, by economists and other serious thinkers, that this was very progressive. Because, obviously Haiti needs foreign investment. And how can you expect Americans to invest unless they own the place? So, this is just for the benefit of Haitians that we're doing this. If you read the press and commentary, it's just: we're so benevolent, you know, tears come from our eyes, we're trying desperately to help them. And then the marines ran a referendum in which five percent of the population participated, the traditional collaborationist elite that you find in every colony. The rich elite. They participated, and there was 99,9 percent approval. So it was a democratic election. And they got the progressive legislation, with the obvious consequences.

One of the consequences is to add a further blow to the agricultural system, leading to urbanization. This goes on right into the 90’s. I won't go through the record, but Clinton was one of the worst offenders in this respect. Destroy the agricultural system for reasons that every economist can explain are very rational. It was explained. I mean, Haiti shouldn't be producing rice. It's much more efficient in the world if highly subsidized U.S. agro-business, which gets most of its profits from subsidies, floods Haiti with rice. And Haiti's rice farmers, who are quite efficient, of course can't compete with it. If they go into the cities, so that, women can sew baseballs in miserable assembly plants, that's, you know, that's efficient. I mean, any decent economist can explain that. Of course we want to be efficient and progressive. So, we drive them into the cities, we destroy the agricultural system.

Along comes a hurricane. It's a class based disaster, like most disasters. You take a look, the rich people up in the hills, they, you know, got shaken up a little, but nothing much happened. Huge catastrophe among the poor people living in urban slums. Why are they there? Well, Wilsonian idealism had a lot to do with it. All of these things are happening at the same moment that the scholarly articles are appearing about Wilsonian idealism. At the same moment, the front pages are showing us about this hideous class based disaster which substantially results from one of many of Wilson's horrendous crimes. And, now we get back to Orwell and double-think. If you want to be a respected intellectual you have to have both these ideas in your mind at the same time and believe both of them. And not notice the contradiction.


Most of the time, there's this idea of objectivity. And lots of people on the left get upset by the idea of objectivity. So, I'm wondering, as a precursor to asking you about objectivity, first: broadly, you and Ed wrote about this, how does bad journalism work and what are the lynch pins of it. And how would good journalism work instead? What is it about the behavior of the New York Times that is abhorrent to you.

Things like what I've described.

What is it, structurally within the New York Times which causes it, in your view?

First of all, the New York Times is not very much different from the elite intellectual culture in general. So, in my own view, it's much more striking in scholarship and more significant. But in the New York Times, there are kind of obvious institutional factors. The New York Times is a major corporation, a huge corporate system. Like other businesses it sells a product to a market. The market is other businesses, advertisers, that's what keeps it going. The product, for the New York Times, happens to be fairly privileged audiences, what's sometimes called the political class, you know, the maybe twenty percent of the population that are managers. Economic, political, doctrinal managers and so on. And, furthermore, it's tightly linked to other institutions of power, like the state for example, which is enormously under corporate influence, in fact, that's blaring at us every day in the newspapers.

Are you saying that they're selling that twenty percent, that sector of the population to companies, they're selling the audience to the advertisers, that's the real product that they're selling?

That's part of it, but they're also linked to state power, to other corporate power, I mean, these are the circles in which they live. That's who you have dinner with. There's a flow up and back of people. Same with, you know, NPR and so on. It's a small elite group which have institutional roots. Now, there are plenty of honest journalists. And they do good work. But they do it within this framework. And if they sort of drift from the framework, they're usually cut off. In fact, some quit in disgust. Suppose you were looking at it from Mars. You see huge corporations selling privileged people who are managers themselves to other businesses linked to other systems of power like the state, which is heavily influenced, in fact dominated by these power systems. What kind of product do you expect to come out?

What about good journalism? In other words, what would you do to generate…

There are concrete examples. A couple of months ago I happened to go to Mexico. I was invited for the 25th anniversary of a newspaper, which, as far as I'm aware is the only independent newspaper in the hemisphere. It's called La Jornada. It's the second largest newspaper in Mexico. It gets no commercial advertising, because business hates it. It has very smart reporters, good people, really bright, the kind of intellectuals that you and I would like. They write for it, they do investigative reporting. It has regional subsidiaries. I think it's the only Mexican journal that reports regularly from Chiapas, where they have a regional office, and elsewhere. How does it survive? Subscriptions. I mean, there are probably a couple of wealthy donors who give it some money, but primarily it subscribes from a very loyal subscriber base. And it's the second largest journal in Mexico. And in just the couple of days I was there, just reading it, I learned things, important things, I could tell you, that did not not appear in the Western press. OK. How do they do it? Well, that's how they do it.

They eliminate advertising as the source of revenue…

They would be happy to get advertising but, you know, business is highly class conscious. They're not going to subsidize Z Magazine.

Are they objective?

Well, the notion of objectivity belongs in graduate philosophy seminars. It doesn't apply in the real world. This is a topic for elite intellectuals to have abstract discussions about. Anybody, whoever they are, has a point of view. You can't help it. If you're doing quantum physics you're looking for certain things and you are not looking at other things. Maybe what you're not looking at turns out to be extremely important. But you cannot help having a point of view.

So the whole discussion is a waste of time?

The whole discussion is a waste of time.


I mean, there are clear cases where you can see that the search for what is called balance is a charade. Let's take something really important, like the survival of the species. That should be an important question. There's two views on the matter of whether the species can have decent survival. One of them is 99,9 percent of scientists who say we're really getting into trouble with anthropogenic warming of the atmosphere. On the other side there's Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, congressman Inhofe, the editors of the…

You don't see the balance that those crazies occupy 98 percent of the airwaves?

When you see an article in the New York Times or anywhere else, they have to balance it. And, so you get both positions. There's a ton of advertising and propaganda from the business world who wants you to believe it's not happening. Which is kind of interesting itself, because the executives who are doing this advertising know as well as the scientists that it is happening. And they know that it's going to destroy their grandchildren and it's going to destroy everything that they own, but they still want people not to believe it. Now, there are institutional factors there too, they go back to the nature of markets. We could go into that. But, you know, the future of the species is an externality. You don't consider it when you're involved in transactions. So, there's good reasons for that too. Anyway, it's happening. And we see the results. I mean, the results have been so incredible that by now there's a sharp decline in the United States. In belief in anthropogenic, you know, human involved global warming, it's down now to about a third. OK, now that's a death sentence for the species.

But, the people who are saying it were smiled at over lunch.

Oh, yeah. You're the CEO of, say, Exxon Mobil. Well, you read everything that people read in Z Magazine. You know exactly what's happening. You know that the danger is extremely severe, and that the longer we wait, the worse it's going to be. But that's what economists call an externality. It doesn't enter into your day-by-day decisions. Your day-by-day decisions in a market system are forced. You are forced to look at certain things and not to look at others. So you are forced to look at short term profit and market share. If you don't do that, you're out, and somebody else is in.

And you can actually rationalize doing it on grounds that: well, if I didn't do it, I'd be out, therefore I couldn't do any good for anybody, ever.

I don't think that's the grounds that it's done. Not that I'll be out, it's that I'm really doing the right thing.

That's what I'm saying.

I'm really doing the right thing for the world. Because if I get people not to believe in what I know is true, then maybe they'll put more money into solar energy and incidentally, maybe I'll make some profit out of that, as they're trying to do. So, in the long run, it's really good for the species.

Who are some of the people who, in your view, are really good journalists?

Correspondents on the ground do extremely good work. I mean, if I were on a desert island somewhere and I was allowed to have only one newspaper, I'd get the New York Times. I mean, it gives you a tolerable picture of what's going on in the world, and the journalists who are on the ground typically don't lie. They describe accurately what they see. Same with reading, say, the AP wires. I could give names, but there are plenty of them and, in fact, I think it's normal.

It's kind of interesting that in the book that Ed Herman and I wrote, Manufacturing Consent, is hated by journalists and the press and intellectuals, because they claim it's attacking the press, it's unfair. Actually, a large part of the book is defending the press. If anyone opens the book, they'll find that a substantial part of it is defending the press against attacks from what are considered the liberals. FreedomHouse, you know, the main institution that is supposed to support freedom and democracy, launched a huge attack on the press. Several volumes of denunciations, claiming that the press lost the war in Vietnam. 'Cause they lied about the Tet Offensive, they're so pro-communist and antagonistic towards the United States, that they distorted what happened and therefore we lost this noble war. That's FreedomHouse.

Well, Ed and I went through the two volumes, we found that the number of outright lies – straight lies – was just phenomenal. When we actually looked at the facts what we found is that reporters on the ground were reporting what happened honestly, courageously and accurately, but within a framework that is just destroyed by ideological fanaticism. So, somebody would write an article, saying: you know, the Air Force came and they bombed this place to smithereens, and the soldiers came in and they killed everybody who was around. And, you know, that's just necessary to defend freedom and democracy in South Vietnam. So, the reporters were honest, professional, accurate, but deeply ideological. In contrast, FreedomHouse was just lying through their teeth.

In that case, presumably for you, the model of a good reporter, a good journalist, a good commentator is not only somebody who relays facts that they see, but is not subject to the…

Let's give an example from this very period. This is roughly the period, within a year or two, of the My Lai massacre. 1968, which is what we're talking about. The My Lai massacre, which finally broke through thanks to Sy Hersh, independent journalist, working for Dispatch News Service. He's a very smart guy, he picked the moment of a huge demonstration in Washington, you know, a million people, a lot of journalists around and so on, to release, publicly, the information on My Lai that had been around for a year and a half that nobody had even paid any attention to. And that's kind of the symbol of everything that went wrong. It's a wonderful symbol for liberal intellectuals, because you can blame it on half-educated, half-crazed GI’s in the field who didn't know who was going to shoot at them next.

There were a couple of journalists, mainly Kevin Buckley, who was Saigon correspondent of Newsweek. He and an associate, Alan Shimkin I think his name was [Alex Shimkin], did a detailed analysis of what was happening – the context of My Lai. This was part of a series of what were called post-Tet pacification campaigns. Huge mass murder operations, to which My Lai was a minuscule footnote. I mean, it was such a small footnote that the quaker hospital -which is Quang Ngai, right near where it took place – knew about it at once. They didn't even bother mentioning it because it was happening all over the place. Well, Buckley wrote this all up. Newsweek wouldn't publish it. He gave it to me. Ed Herman and I wrote about it in Political Economy of Human Rights, South End Press in 1979. And what we pointed out was that, yeah, it took place. And it's easy to focus on it, because you can blame it on bad guys, not like us. But what was actually taking place in the air conditioned rooms where people just like us were sitting, was incomparably more horrendous. You think anybody ever mentioned that? Well, actually, one person did, thirty years later. So, it's marginally noticed, but, what Kevin Buckley did, and his associate, was really good journalism.

Transcribed by Anton G.   

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