Noam Chomsky: America Is a Terrified Country
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 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-seven 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, twelve 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 somethings 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 waseasier 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.
CK: So, some progress.
NC: 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.
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.
CK: 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?
NC: Well, it has to be extensive. Actually, it can work. I recently visited Ireland, and one of the things I did there was meet with a group of workers at a plant called Vita Cortex. I’d been supporting their strike. They had a long sit-down strike. The management wanted to sell the plant, a profitable plant, to some rich entrepreneur who would move it somewhere else. All the workers were just going to be fired. Some of them had long tenure. They got together, formed a community support group and sat in on the plant. And there was community support—people wanted to keep them there. People brought food and all kinds of help. And they won, after, I think, about six months. The owner agreed to keep it there, pay the workers and so on.
CK: And that was in Ireland?
NC: That was in Cork, southern Ireland. And it was doing okay, not hugely profitable. Ireland is in a big downturn, so this was serious. But they won. They didn’t get everything, but a lot. It can be done. Much of the New Deal legislation, which was important, was motivated by employee concerns, and other concerns, when CIO organizing, which was new then, reached the point where it was leading to sit-down strikes—because sit-down strikes drive fear into management and everyone else. If we’re sitting in and doing nothing, why shouldn’t we? We’re the ones who know how to run the place, so let’s run it and kick out the bosses. That’s only one step away.
CK: Why are they so rare in the United States?
NC: Strikes of any kind are very rare, especially since Reagan, who kind of broke the mandate against using scabs. That’s outlawed everywhere in the world. I think maybe apartheid South Africa allowed it. But when Reagan broke the flight-controllers’ strike, he set the tone, and maybe ten years later there was a strike at a major Caterpillar manufacturing plant. I think it was in Peoria, and management broke it by bringing in scabs. Now that’s illegal everywhere in the world. As I said, apartheid South Africa I think allowed it, but it passed.
It’s kind of interesting what happened. The Chicago Tribune, which is a conservative newspaper but covered labor affairs pretty well, had a lot of coverage about Peoria and the scandal of bringing in scabs. Well, that was maybe twenty years ago. When President Obama—who was in Chicago at the time, so he couldn’t have missed it—decided to show his solidarity with workers, he went to that plant and nobody commented on it. It’s effaced from memory. And the labor movement, as you know, has been decimated. It developed enormously in the 1930s and it’s responsible for most of the progressive legislation that took place. There was an immediate backlash, even by the late 1930s. That’s when management initiated what are now called scientific methods of strike breaking, sophisticated strike-breaking techniques.
CK: What are some of those?
NC: Some of them are called the Mohawk Valley formula. Say there is some town in Pennsylvania where there’s a strike going on. The idea is to saturate the town with propaganda whose basic theme is Americanism: We’re all Americans, we all work together, we all love each other. We’re all helping the friendly boss who works to the bone eighty hours a day for the service of the workers, the banker who loves to give you money to buy a car, and the workman with his pail going to work and his wife who’s making dinner at home. They’re all one big happy family living in harmony. And then these outsiders come in, the union organizers, and there’s a hint as well that they’re probably communists, and they’re trying to disrupt the harmony and prevent everyone from living the good American dream. That’s basically the theme, and the idea is to saturate everything with propaganda: the schools, the churches, everything. And it sometimes has an effect. That’s one technique. There are others.
These developed substantially under Reagan, who was very anti-labor. In fact, he hated poor people with a passion. So, for example, during the lettuce strike, Reagan was governor of California. He very ostentatiously appeared on television happily eating lettuce just to show what he thought about the striking workers, the poorest of the poor. If he can kick them in the face, great. He loved that. Just like his “welfare queen” business, which demonized welfare and portrayed rich black women being driven in their Cadillacs to the welfare offices and stealing your money, and that sort of thing. In fact, he made it very clear. You couldn’t miss it.
Reagan opened his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a little town which is probably unknown except for one thing: There was a massacre of civil rights workers there. And that’s where he very ostentatiously opened his campaign—telling people: Don’t worry, I’m a racist thug. And then came the strike. But his administration also informed the business world that the government essentially wasn’t going to apply the laws. There are laws about illegal interference with union organizing and they’re obviously supposed to implement them. But he made it quite clear that you can do what you like. Illegal measures, like firing of union organizers, went way up during the Reagan years. I think it might have tripled, and it continued.
Then came Clinton, who had a different technique for undermining unions. It was called NAFTA. There have been studies on the effect of NAFTA on strike breaking in the United States, and it’s substantial. It’s illegal, but if you have a criminal state, you can do what you like—you don’t enforce the laws. So a standard technique would be, say, if there’s an organizing campaign somewhere, for management to tell workers, “You guys can go and strike if you want, but if you win, it’s all going to Mexico.” That’s a very effective technique. In the absence of solidarity, real solidarity, in fact international solidarity, it’s a pretty effective technique of strike breaking, and the number of illegal strike-breaking efforts, I think, went up by about 50 percent after NAFTA.
All this started right after the Second World War with Taft-Hartley, the huge anti-labor campaigns and so on. Now there are companies which just do strike breaking. There are scientific and sophisticated techniques, and there’s plenty of clout behind it, a huge amount of corporate money, and the government supports it. And there isn’t much popular support. You could see it in the passage of the right-to-work law in Michigan, which was pretty shocking. That’s a labor state, and it turned that out a lot of union members voted for it. If you look at the propaganda, you can see why. First of the all, the very phrase “right to work”: It’s actually not right to work; it’s right to scrounge. What it means is a person can work in a factory and refuse to join the union so he doesn’t have to pay dues, and he’ll get all the protection that the union offers to others, the grievances and so on. He gets the protection, but doesn’t pay. That’s all that right-to-work means.
It’s a technique for destroying labor. But the propaganda has been effective, and it’s best against public workers, librarians, firefighters, teachers or even workers in a unionized plant. They have jobs, they get pensions, they get health care. You are unemployed, you can’t a job. And if you get one, it’s part-time and you don’t get a pension. So they’re stealing from you, especially the public service workers who are leaning on taxes. They’re underpaid, relative to their skill level, and the reason they get pensions is because they take lower pay. It’s a trade-off. They say, okay, we’ll take lower wages, but you guarantee us our pension. But the propaganda works, and the administrations supported it.
When Obama declares a freeze on pay for federal workers, he’s saying that we’re not going to raise taxes on the rich but that we are going to raise taxes on you, because a freeze on public workers is identical to a tax increase. The whole technique of demonizing labor and “corrupt union leaders”—I mean, this goes way back.
In the early 1950s there were two movies that came out about the same time. One was Salt of the Earth, a marvelous low-budget movie. It was about a strike that was eventually won. I think a Mexican woman was leading it. It was a very well-done movie, but nobody ever heard of it. There was another movie that came out at the same time called On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando, and it was about a corrupt union leader and the good, honest workman, you know, Joe with his pail and stuff. They finally got together. Marlon Brando kind of organized them, and the thing ends up with Marlon Brando throwing the union organizer into the ocean or something like that. Now that was a big hit. Incidentally, it was directed by Elia Kazan, who was supposedly a rather progressive director. But the point was to get people to hate the unions because they’re all a bunch of corrupt gangsters and they’re just stealing from you honest workmen and so on. And this is just one piece of an enormous campaign. By the time some of the scholarship came out on it, I was shocked by the scale. I had been following it, but had no idea. And it’s had an effect.
CK: One solution, since labor has been weakened, is for workers to start their own worker-run and worker-managed businesses. A lot of people were inspired by the growth of worker-run collectives and businesses in Argentina following the 2001 economic collapse there. In the United States, there are about several hundred, including Free Speech Radio News, which has been worker-run and worker-managed since itwas founded thirteen years ago. Do you think this could grow and expand in the United States?
NC: It’s quite significant. There’s been very good work on this, which ought to be read, by Gar Alperovitz, who is both an activist and a writer, a very good historian. What I know of, it’s mostly around northern Ohio and the Rust Belt, and what happened there is interesting and worth thinking about. The steelworkers union, which is one of the more progressive in some ways—not without plenty of problems—are working on some sort of an arrangement with MondragÃ³n, which is this huge, worker-owned conglomerate in the Basque country in northern Spain.
CK: And that’s been around since the 1950s, right?
NC: Goes back to the 1950s as church-initiated, what became liberation theology and so on. But there’s also a strong workers’ tradition there, going way back to the Spanish Revolution. And it’s grown and developed. It’s now a number of productive enterprises: banks, housing, schools, hospitals. It’s quite an elaborate affair. And it seems to be with standing the financial crisis, while everything else in Spain is collapsing. I don’t know the details, but that’s what it looks like. It’s not worker-managed. Workers select management, who then act on their own. And, of course, it’s part of an international capitalist economy which means that you can argue the ethics of it, since they do things like exploit labor abroad and so on. They say that they have to do it to compete and survive—maybe—that you can’t extricate yourself from the world you’re in.
Of course, the more solidarity spreads, the more you can do things about that, but that’s not easy. It’s hard enough to reconstruct the labor movement internally. After all, every labor movement is called an international. That’s an aspiration. It’s a real problem in the United States. You could see it yesterday. Yesterday was May Day. I happened to get a letter in the morning. A ton of email comes in—one of them was from a friend in Brazil who told me that she wouldn’t be going to work that day because it’s a holiday, a labor holiday. In fact, it’s a labor holiday all over the world, except in the United States where nobody knows what it is. I happened to be giving a talk at Harvard in the afternoon and this came up. I asked the big audience of Harvard graduate students, “What do you think May Day is?” And some people said, “You mean dance around the May pole,” or something like that. It’s not only a labor holiday. It’s a labor holiday that was initiated in support of American workers who were struggling for an eight-hour day and who were among the most oppressed in the industrial world.
So here’s this holiday—you know, big demonstrations everywhere, and all kinds of celebrations and so on, and here nobody knows what it is. That’s a sign of extremely effective indoctrination. It’s the kind of thing that we just have to work our way out of. Here there are some small celebrations. Maybe Occupy might have had a May Day march or something. And it’s kind of interesting the way the press treated it. Usually they just ignore it. But if you take a look at the New York Times the next day, it had an article that said demonstrations were in support of labor or something. But it was datelined “Havana,” and there was a picture of a huge mob of Cubans marching and some commentary. It was clear what the implication is: This holiday is some kind of commie business; it’s got nothing to do with us. I don’t know if it’s conscious or if it’s just so internalized that the journalists don’t even see what they’re doing. But the message was, “Forget it, it’s some alien thing.”
It’s like breaking up the harmony in your town when the union organizers come in; it’s kind of that imagery. And here, strikingly, we do have a Labor Day, but notice what day it is. It’s the day when you go back to work, not the day when you struggle for your rights. The success of indoctrination in the United States is really amazing.
*Charlie Savage, “Drone Strikes Turn Allies Into Enemies, Yemeni Says,” New York Times, published April 23, 2013.