Part III of an interview with Noam Chomsky
By David Barsamian
BARSAMIAN: Youve been spending time in South America, where youve observed popular grassroots movements. Do you see any lessons that people in the U.S. can learn from these situations?
CHOMSKY: First of all, these are very vibrant and dynamic societies with huge problems. One thing I was immediately struck by was that no one ever asked, Whats the grand strategy for overthrowing this and that? People dont say, What should I do? They say, Heres what Im doing. What do you think about it? There are lots of things going on. They are impressive. The circumstances are extremely difficult, much harder than anything we face. But theyre not waiting for a magic key, which there isnt. Brazil, for example, has the largest labor-based party in the world which would have won any fair election. By that I dont mean that the votes were stolen. I mean that the resources and the media were so overwhelmingly on the other side that there wasnt a serious election. But otherwise they would have won. It has its problems, but its an impressive organization with a radical democratic and socialist thrust, a lot of popular support, lots of potential. The landless workers movement is struggling under very hard circumstances to deal with a core problem of Brazilian society, the incredible inequality of land ownership and control and inequality generally. Theres organizing in shantytowns.
Is it enough to change things? I think theyre also trapped by many delusions. You have to free your mind. The weapon that is being used, to carry out the analog to Reaganomics in Brazil, is the debt. The same with most of Latin America. Weve got this terrible debt. Weve got to minimize the state. They dont have any debt. They have to understand that. Just as we have to understand that private tyrannies have no legitimacy. People dont liberate themselves alone. You liberate yourself through participation with others. Just like you learn things in science by interacting with others. The complicated network of popular organizations and the umbrella groups like the Workers Party help create a basis for this.
We have all sorts of advantages that they dont have, like for example, enormous wealth. Also, we have the unique advantage that we dont have a superpower standing over us. We are the superpower. That makes a huge difference. So the opportunities here are vastly greater. Its kind of striking to see, you just feel how stultifying it is, in many ways, when you come from there back here. For one thing, the doctrinal rigidity here is startling. Anybody who comes back from the Third World to the West in general, but here in particular, is struck by the narrowing of thought and understanding, the limited nature of legitimate discussion, the separation of people from one another.
I wasnt in Chile long enough to have much of an impression, but I think its probably true there too. Thats a country which is very clearly under military rule. We call it a democracy, but its a democracy with the military setting very narrow bounds as to what can happen. And its in peoples attitudes. You can see it. They know there are limits you dont transcend.
Do you have any ideas on getting from the choir, those that agree with your ideas, to the larger congregation? This seems to be a major problem.
Its the usual problem. First of all, I think almost everybody agrees with these ideas. For example, 95 percent of the population thinks that corporations ought to sacrifice profits for the benefit of workers and the community. I dont think thats enough, but I certainly agree with that. Over 80 percent of the population thinks that the economic situation is inherently unfair and ought to be changed. I agree with that. How do you get out? By doing it. Everywhere you go or I go or anybody else goes, its because some organized group has set something up. I cant go to, say, Kansas City and say, Im going to give a talk. I wont have one person showing up. Why should they? On the other hand, if some group there which is organizing and active says, Lets put together a meeting and bring people in, then I can go and give a talk and people come from all over the place to hear it. All this goes back to the same thing. If people are going to dedicate themselves to organizing and activism, whether its in unions or community organizations or working on health programs or on and on, yes, then you can have access to broader and broader audiences. How broad? It depends on how strong the movement is.
Michael Moore is a filmmaker who did Roger and Me. He also does "TV Nation." He has a new book out called Downsize This! He says the problem with the left is that its boring. It whines too much and its very negative, and that turns people off. Anything to that?
That may be. If it is, its making a mistake. For example, I dont think Howard Zinn whines too much and turns people off. Probably plenty of people do. Take the example I gave you of that media group in Brazil, which after very careful planning and working with leadership in the community presented television skits in public which turned people off because they were boring and full of jargon and intellectual talk. On the other hand, when they let the people do it themselves and gave them the technical assistance, it turned out not to be boring and not to turn people off. This is for people who like to write fancy articles about the responsibility of intellectuals. Thats their responsibility. Go out and do things like that. And make sure its the people themselves who are doing it. You give them what help you can. Learn from them. Thats the responsibility of intellectuals.
I produce Alternative Radio, a one-hour program. It is pretty effectively locked out of the Boston-to-Miami corridor. This belt is very difficult to penetrate. In contrast with that, in the West, in Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, places like that, its much easier to get AR on the air.
The institutional reasons are pretty obvious, the same reason why discussion is narrower and more rigid and more stultifying here than in other countries. Its just more important. This is the part of the country where the decisions are being made. So youve got to keep it under tight doctrinal control and make sure that nothing gets out of hand. It doesnt matter what people are talking about in Laramie, Wyoming. Still less in the slums of Rio. So there are institutional reasons. On the other hand, dont just blame them. People here are not making use of the possibilities they have. So take, say, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cambridge, like other towns, has a community cable television station. That was part of the communications act, that the companies had to provide facilities. Ive been there. Im not a big techie, but even I can see that it has pretty good equipment. They claim to have outreach to the Cambridge area. Is it used by anyone? Its available to the public. The one time I was there the program was so crazy I almost walked off. Is it being used? No. In the slums of Rio do they have cable television stations which the people can use? Boy, theyd be delighted if they had them. We have them and were not using them.
What would happen if you had lively local cable TV? Youd find that the commercial channels would be responding to that. They might try to stop it or to undercut it or co-opt it or something, but they would have to respond to it if it got to a big enough scale. Same with the other media. Same with NPR [National Public Radio]. Theyre not going to be able to disregard whats happening in their communities. If nothings happening, sure, they have a free ride. So, on the one hand, there are understandable institutional reasons why this corridor should be the most deeply indoctrinated, the most rigid, the hardest to penetrate. But its not a law of nature. The same reasons that make it the most rigid make it the richest in resources, meaning the richest in options to overcome if people do something about it. Not if they sit around waiting for a savior.
Lets talk more about the media and this notion of supply and demand and the current tabloidization of the news. Criticisms are made of whats happening to newscasts and the content of the news. The program directors and editors are saying, Were giving the public what it wants. No ones forcing them to read this stuff. No ones forcing them to turn on the TV and watch crime stories and sports reports. What do you think about that?
There are studies of what people want. What they want overwhelmingly is commercial-free television. Do you see commercial-free television? The television system here is a business where big corporations sell audiences to other businesses, and theyre going to keep it within a narrow framework. What people want is socially created. For example, take again that working-class slum in Brazil that I mentioned. I was there in prime television time. They had all the soap operas and all the junk. But what people wanted was things they themselves were producing about racism and debt and internal problems and so on. What you want depends on who you are. Who you are depends on what options youve had, what kind of training youve had, what experiences youve had. That determines what you want. The kinds of wants that come out of interactions with other people to solve a problem, those wants arent going to be there unless there is interaction with other people to solve the problem. You cant just say, well, thats what people want. Sure, under that structured arrangement thats what people will choose. Change the structure, theyll choose different things.
In August 1996, Gary Webb, a reporter for the San Josť Mercury News, wrote a three-part article entitled "Dark Alliance," purporting to show that there was a connection between the explosion of crack cocaine in the black ghetto in LA and the CIA. Youve often stayed away from such stories.
Thats not quite true. I just put it differently. For example, the relation between the CIA and drugs is certain. Thats been well studied, since Al McCoys work 25 years ago. The trail of clandestine activities is followed very closely by drug activities. There are pretty good reasons for that. Clandestine activities require untraceable money. They require lots of thugs. Where do you go? Its natural. So it starts right after the Second World War. We can follow the trail through the French Connection in Marseilles, trying to undermine the resistance in the unions, to the Golden Triangle in Laos, Burma, etc., and on to Afghanistan and all these places. The CIA has been involved, but as an agency of state policy. What I dont agree with, and here I differ from a lot of others, is I dont think the CIA is an independent agency. I think it does what its told. You can maybe find examples, but as far as I read the records, the CIA is basically the agency of the White House, carrying out operations that require plausible deniability. Take the source of the Webb story, which is fundamentally correct. Bob Parry and Brian Barger exposed a lot of it ten years ago. They were shut up very quickly. But their evidence was correct. The U.S. was involved in massive international terrorism throughout Central America. It was clandestine to a large extent, meaning everybody knew about it, but it was below the surface enough so you could pretend you didnt. They needed the usual things: untraceable money and brutal thugs. They naturally turned right away to the narco-traffickers. Noriega was our great friend, remember, until he decided not to play a part in this any longer. He became too independent and had to be thrown out. But in the beginning he was fine, an ordinary thug, narco-trafficker, helping with the contras. So, of course, theres a connection between the CIA and drugs. What Webb did was trace some of the details and find that one aspect of that connection was that cocaine got into the ghetto through such-and-such a passage. Thats predictable. When the CIA says they didnt know anything about it, I assume theyre right. Why should they know anything about it? Its not their business.
The structure of the system, however, is very clear. And its not just this case. Its many other cases. That its going to end up in the ghettos is not a plot. Its just going to happen in the natural course of events. Its not going to sneak into well-defended communities which can protect themselves. It will break into communities that are being devastated, often by external social forces where people are alone and have to fight for survival. Kids arent cared for because their parents are working to put food on the table. Thats where its going to break into.
You wrote to a mutual friend about when educated classes line up for a parade, a person of conscience has three options. Either one can join them and march in the parade, or one can join the cheering throngs and watch from the sidelines, or one can speak out against it and all expect to pay the price.
Thats about right. Thats been going on for a couple of thousand years, too.
Where do you see yourself in that parade structure?
Its a question of choice, but I would like to see myself with those who are not joining and not cheering. Incidentally, the origins of our own history are exactly that. Go back to the oldest recorded texts. Just notice what happens to people who didnt march in the parade, like what happened to Socrates. He wasnt treated very nicely. Or take the Bible. The Bible had intellectuals. They called them "prophets." They fell into the usual two classes. There were the ones who were flattering the kings and telling them how wonderful they were and leading the parade or cheering the parade. They were the ones who were honored and respected. A couple of hundred years later, a thousand years later they were called false prophets, but not at the time. There were other people, like, say, Amos, who incidentally insisted, I am not an intellectual, or as he put it, I am not a prophet. I am not the son of a prophet. I am a poor farmer. He had other things to say, as did many of the people who were much later honored as prophets. They were imprisoned, persecuted, hated, despised. Any surprise in that? If you dont join in the paraderemember the prophets were giving geopolitical analysis as well as moral lessonsyoure hated. The geopolitical analysis turned out to be pretty accurate. The moral prescriptions were often very elevated. Why were people in power going to like that? Of course they were going to drive them out. You might say, going back to your television producer about people watching what they want, yeah, it was the public who was driving them into the desert and imprisoning them. They dont want to hear it either. Not because theyre bad people, but for the usual reasons: short-term interest, manipulation, dependence on power. Thats an image of what the world is like. Of course, thats a negative image. There are plenty of successes. The world is way better than it was. Go back to the 18th century, the way people were treating each other was an unbelievable horror. Go back 50 years and the circumstances were indescribably bad. Right now were trying to defend a minimal healthcare system. Thirty years ago we werent because there wasnt any. Thats progress. Over a long period there were plenty of successes. Theyre cumulative. They lead us to new peaks to climb. Plenty of failures, too. Nobody ever assured us that it was going to be easy.
Josť Ramos-Horta and Bishop Carlos Belo of East Timor, were honored with the Nobel Prize.
That was great, a wonderful thing. I ran into Josť Ramos-Horta in Sao Paolo. I havent seen his official speech yet, but certainly he was saying in public that the prize should have been given to Xanana Gusmao, who is the leader of the resistance to Indonesian aggression. Hes in an Indonesian jail. But the recognition of the struggle is a very important thing, or will be an important thing if we can turn it into something. It will be suppressed as quickly as possible, polite applause, and lets forget about it. If that happens its our fault, nobody elses. This gives an opportunity to keep this issue up front. Right now the Clinton administration is planning to send advanced arms to Indonesia. That doesnt have to work. But it will work unless theres a real public outcry. The granting of the Nobel Peace Prize offers a golden opportunity for people who care about the fate of a couple hundred thousand people to do something about it. But its not going to happen by itself. In fact, some of the major issues about this have never even made it to the American press, like the oil issue. A large part of the reason for the Indonesian invasion and the U.S. and Australian support for it was that Timor has rich oil resources which are now being robbed in an outlandishly disgraceful Australian-Indonesian treaty, with U.S. oil companies involved. We can do something about that.
Didnt you have occasion in the early 1980s to go to the New York Times editorial offices with a Portuguese Timorese?
What actually happened was they were refusing to interview Timorese refugees in Lisbon and Australia, claiming that they had no access to them.
The Times was claiming this?
Everybody was. We brought over some Timorese refugees. Actually I paid to bring them from Lisbon and tried to bring them to the editorial offices. It didnt work. The case youre mentioning was a little more complicated. The story has not been told because Im not sure how much to tell of it. Someday it will be told. I arranged to have a Portuguese priest, Father Leoneto do Rego, interviewed by the New York Times. He was a very interesting man and a very credible witness. He had been living in the mountains with the Timorese resistance and had been driven out during the really near-genocidal campaign of 1978, when then-president Carter vastly increased the flow of weapons and Indonesia really smashed people. When they talk about hundreds of thousands of people being killed, thats then. A lot of people were driven out of the hills. He was one of them. Hes Portuguese, so they didnt murder him. They let him get out. He was a very credible witness, a classmate of the Archbishop of Boston, pretty hard to disregard. He could describe what was happening. Nobody would talk to him.
Finally, in a complicated way, I got the Times to agree to interview him. The interview ran, by Kathleen Teltsch. It was an utter disgrace. It said almost nothing about what was happening. It had one line in it saying, Things arent nice in Timor, or something like that. I think it must be that event that shamed the Times editors into running their first serious editorial on the problem. Thats my strong suspicion. The transcript of that interview later leaked. I was working very hard to get the Boston Globe to cover the story. They were just publishing State Department handouts and apologetics from Indonesian generals. I finally got them to agree to look at the facts. They offered to let me write an op-ed. I said, No, I dont want to write an op-ed. Get one of your reporters to look into it. So they didnt take it too seriously. They gave it to an extremely good local reporter. He was not an international reporter. The last I heard he was reporting on restaurants. He dug the way you dig into a local story, like investigating a corrupt judge, good reporting. We helped him with some leads, but he picked it up and ran with the story. He wrote the best story on Timor that had ever appeared in the American press. One of the things he did was get to the State Department and find a guy who had been transferred away from the Indonesia desk because he didnt like what was going on. Somehow this guy leaked to him a transcript of the actual New York Times interview and he published good parts of it. It was a very powerful interview with Father Leoneto saying extremely important things. So that Times interview did appear in the Boston Globe. That must have been around 1981.
All this stuff was going on. Censorship had been total, and I mean total. In 1978, when the atrocities peaked and U.S. and British arms flow peaked, coverage was literally zero. The first article in the U.S., at least its listed in the Readers Guide, that specifically deals with Timor, is one of my own. It was from Inquiry, a right-wing libertarian journal where I was writing in those days. It was basically testimony that I had given in the UN on the suppression of the issue by the Western, primarily the U.S., press. There had been an earlier article by Arnold Kohen about Indonesia in The Nation, which had discussed this, and thats it for the journals. Its not that nobody noticed it. You go back to 1974-75, there was very extensive coverage in the context of the collapse of the Portuguese empire. It dropped to zero at the peak of the atrocities, started picking up again around 1979-80 as a result very largely of these activities.
Incidentally, heres a case where a very small number of people, the most important by far being Arnold Kohen, managed to get the issue to some extent into the public arena. It certainly saved tens of thousands of lives. The Red Cross was allowed in. There was some attention. The terror continued but lessened. And on to the present. Heres a case where the Internet made a difference. The East Timor Action Network was a very small and scattered support group until the Internet came along. That was used very constructively by Charlie Scheiner and others to set up a wide base of support to bring the information to people who couldnt get it. I was getting information from the Australian press, but how many people have friends in Australia who send them the press? Now everybody was getting it who wanted it very fast. The movement grew and became significant enough to have an impact.
Does the Guatemala peace treaty that was signed signal the end to this three-decade-old bloodbath?
Im sort of glad its being signed, but its a sad occasion. What it reflects is the great success of state terror, which has devastated any serious opposition, has intimidated people, has made it not only acceptable but even desirable for them to have the rule of ultra-right business interests, mostly foreign interests, in a peace treaty which may, lets hope, put an end to the real horrors. So in the context a step forward, but in the broader picture a very ugly outcome of one of the biggest state terror operations of the modern period, which started in 1954 when the U.S. took part in overthrowing the one democratic government.
Id like to end with an incident that you told me about, just to give people a flavor of how far youve traveled personally and your family background, when we were sitting in a car in North Carolina four or five years ago. It involved you and your brother and your Orthodox grandfather over a radio. Do you remember?
I remember it very well. My family was first generation, so we lived in Philadelphia, but there were two big branches of the family. My fathers family was in Baltimore and my mothers family was in New York. They were quite different. The one in Baltimore was very religious. My father told me that they reverted into even deeper Orthodoxy after they left Eastern Europe and came here, which is not unknown. We were sort of observant, but not super-Orthodox. My brother and I, I was maybe six or seven, he was maybe two. We went there for the holidays. It was nice to see cousins. But there was always a tone of fear which I remember well from childhood, the fear that I would do something wrong. I dont know what it is, but Im going to do something wrong. Because I dont know the rules. It wasnt that they were harsh, it was just that you knew you were going to do something wrong and you were going to be ashamed of it. Its one of these things thats inevitable. The incident I remember was when my brother on Saturday turned on a radio very loud. Saturday is the big family day, everybody is sitting around the kitchen having fun, and this radio starts blaring, driving everybody crazy. Of course, nobody could turn it down. Youre not allowed to touch it on Saturday. He understood enough to know that he had done something really criminal. He had made everybody suffer this horrible noise all through Saturday. I was a few years older and I could perceive the criminality, but Im sure it didnt leave an indelible stain on his memory. Hes probably forgotten about it. But I remember it quite well.