In Conversation With Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky, the M.I.T. linguist and renowned iconoclast of the Left, has exerted a tremendous influence on my political and intellectual development. Some of it had to do with hearing his voice as a young person coming of age politically in the immediate post-9/11 United States, with its hysterical jingoism and spurious justification for military intervention. A greater part of his influence on me however has to do with his gracious nature. In 2006, I was a mediocre, solid B student at San Diego State University, writing my undergraduate thesis on Israel’s construction of the West Bank Barrier (under the supervision of SDSU professors Farid Abdel-Nour and Jonathan Graubart). It was probably the first assignment I took seriously up until that point and I sent a draft of the paper to about a dozen scholars, hoping for feedback, but not expecting anything much. To my surprise, Professor Chomsky was the only one to respond—and with extensive comments. That someone in his position would take the time to interact with someone in my position impressed me immensely. It still does. His encouragement was a revelatory experience for me intellectually and the paper, incidentally, went on to win a California-wide award for Best Undergraduate Research in the Social Sciences. I was also frequently in touch with Professor Chomsky during my time working in the Gaza Strip (2007-08) and he was one of the first scholars to send a letter to Brooklyn College protesting my brief dismissal as an adjunct lecturer there in 2011. Just recently, he agreed to meet with me in his office at M.I.T. to discuss my dissertation. I have reproduced the transcript here, including annotations.

Kristofer Petersen-Overton: You talk about Cartesian common sense in much of your work, concerning our inability to recognize an act of atrocity. Iris Murdoch, whose work I use in my dissertation, uses an idea of moral vision, of attention, to express a similar notion. You give the example of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan compared to the American invasion of South Vietnam. For your average person, it’s recognized as common sense that this was an invasion in the Afghan case, whereas it sounds bizarre to talk about the U.S. “invasion” of South Vietnam, something that should be common sense but is apparently obscured. My research is very much interested in this idea. What are the filters to actually seeing what is going on? First of all, the idea that certain forms of violence are invisible and perhaps then also even obscured by active manipulation on the part of political and economic elites. I’m thinking also about your own work on the media system. So I wanted to ask you how one begins to go about this project of achieving common sense, of clear moral vision without the filters. Where to start?

Noam Chomsky: Well take say the inability of educated Americans, let alone the so-called man on the street, to perceive American crimes as crimes. There’s a history. So, for example, if you talk about the war in Vietnam, the phrase “U.S. invasion of South Vietnam” simply does not exist in the professional, academic, and general cultural literature. You don’t have such a notion. The “[Soviet] invasion of Afghanistan” is, of course, normal. What’s the difference?

Well, take two original sins of American society. There are very serious crimes. One is slavery. The United States ran literal slave labor camps for centuries. The modern economy, the modern industrial economy, not just of the United States but of England and of other industrial countries that developed from it, is based on slavery. Cotton was the fuel of the early industrial revolution and most of it was produced right here in slave labor camps of a vicious character. Actually, one of the first books on it just came out: Edward Baptist’s book, The Half Has Never Been Told.1 Well, some was known, but he gives a vivid, detailed account of the nature of the slave labor camp and he discusses how maybe the North pretends they weren’t a part of it, but they were. That’s where the merchant manufacturers, bankers, importers of equipment and so on developed their wealth and developed the economy. That’s one and that went on. It didn’t end with the end of slavery. After slavery there was a compact between the North and the South which essentially permitted the South to reintroduce a form of slavery by criminalizing much of the black population and turning them into a slave labor force, except that they were run by the state instead of by the plantations. That’s what the prisons were and much of the American industrial revolution in the later period is also effectively based on slave labor. This went on until the Second World War. It’s been reinstated now with the drug war, which is racist, criminalizing the black male population. Well that’s one crime. It’s not that people are unaware of it. In discussion of let’s say Ferguson, very little attention, in fact virtually none, is given to the fact that in 500 years—1619 is when the first slaves came—African Americans have had a small taste of freedom, sporadically, now and then, for a few decades.

The other crime is the extermination of the indigenous population. You can actually read articles in journals like the New York Review of Books, the leading left-liberal intellectual journal. A couple of years ago they had an article by a good leftist or kind of left-liberal there, Russell Baker, describing his discovery of the fact that when Columbus landed in the Western Hemisphere there were only about a million people in the hemisphere from the steaming tropics in the south to the arctic north straggling around.2 He’s off by about [18] million and they didn’t just disappear.3 To a large extent they were exterminated. But that passes without a comment. This goes right up to the present. We don’t see our own crimes. Why? It’s not unique to the United States. It’s the same everywhere.

So for example, France. Maybe 20 percent of French wealth derives from their vicious destruction of Haiti, their richest colony. When Haiti finally won its liberation in a terrible war of destruction, France imposed an indemnity on Haiti, a crushing indemnity to punish them for liberating themselves from France. That had a horrible effect on their future efforts to develop. Recently, President Aristide, before he was thrown out in a US-French coup, politely suggested to the French that they consider some amelioration of the burden that they had imposed on Haiti for liberating itself. There was a commission in France set up to investigate it. They dismissed that as without merit. OK, and you can duplicate this in country after country. Why? Well, there are many mechanisms.

Take say the United States. The United States is maybe the most secure country in the world. Enormous. It has been since it’s origins. It’s also one of the most frightened countries in the world. It goes right back to colonial times. You can see it in the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson, a person of enlightenment by contemporary standards, wrote that one of the charges against King George of England in the Declaration is, you know, he unleashed against us “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction” and so on and so forth. He was there. He knew it was the merciless English savages who were unleashed against the indigenous population and virtually exterminated them. But it’s the opposite and we intone it every year, quietly, and it’s in the imagery, the mythology, you know the literature, the films and so on, defending ourselves against the merciless Indian savages.

One of the reasons for the gun culture, the kind of crazed gun culture in the United States, goes right back to slavery. There was great fear, including people like Jefferson, that if the slaves were in any way free, they would react. They have, as Jefferson put it, 10,000 reminiscences of the horrors we’ve imposed on them. They’ll react and there’ll be a race war. They’ll try to exterminate us, so we have to defend ourselves from the slaves. Then we have to defend ourselves from this, that, and the other enemy. Now it happens to be Islam, narco-traffickers, whatever it may be, communists. It’s a frightened country and it’s very easy in that intellectual, cultural context for the leadership to impose on the population the conception that “they” are going to destroy us. And it’s believed!

See, take South Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson was kind of a man of the people. He spoke honestly and reflected common conceptions. Take a look at a speech of his that he gave in Asia in I think 1966. He was addressing American soldiers and what he said is there are 150 million of us and 3 billion of them and if might makes right they’ll sweep over us and take all that we have, so we have to defend ourselves in South Vietnam from being overwhelmed by the mass of “them.”4 That’s a deep-seated conception. That’s why we have to have a thousand military bases. Because even then all over there they’re going to sweep all over us. You read contemporary discussion, current discussion, by leading political analysts in journals like Foreign Affairs that we must intervene everywhere or else they’re going to come after us. In that case, everything we do is defense.

KPO: One of the issues that I explore in my dissertation is the place of the Nazi holocaust in the popular imagination and how it is often used, I’m arguing, as a kind of benchmark of what makes an atrocity. So anything less than concentration camps, gas chambers, is perhaps perceived as not quite an atrocity. In one chapter I’m looking at the field of genocide studies, arguing that the large concentration on the Nazi holocaust has perhaps created a blind spot when it comes to recognizing atrocities that occur in other forms today. For instance, I give the example of the My Lai massacre. One of the reasons this particular massacre became so outrageous in a war defined by numerous atrocities, at least in some parts of the country, is because people actually began to draw comparisons to Nazis, calling it a “Nazi kind of thing.” It seems the Nazi holocaust is often used as a rule of thumb for identifying atrocity or transgressive violence in general. I wonder what you think about that.

NC: I see it a little differently. At the time of the My Lai massacre, the New York Review of Books was still permitting writers from the Left—that ended by the early 1970s—so I was one of the writers and I was asked by the editor to write about it. This was before it was called My Lai and I told them I would write about it, but only if I described the My Lai massacre as a footnote to what was happening because it was a very small atrocity by comparison with what was happening. They agreed, reluctantly, and I did have an article. It’s called “After Pinkville“—[My Lai] was called Pinkville at the time—and I did mention the My Lai massacre, but in the context.5 So why did the My Lai massacre become such a huge thing? Actually if you look at the My Lai massacre, it was literally a footnote. It was one operation of many which were part of a major military operation which was really brutal and vicious, with B-52 attacks on concentrated urban centers, all kinds of horrors. In the course of it, there were individual atrocities like My Lai. In fact, when there was finally an investigation of My Lai, a military investigation, they found other similar massacres right in the neighborhood. The Quakers at the time had a clinic at Quang Ngai nearby. They reported the My Lai massacre at once but paid no attention to it because it was happening every day. So why did My Lai become the symbol of American atrocities? I think there’s a simple reason: you could blame My Lai on them, namely uneducated GIs in the field, not people like us, not like the nice guys who were sitting in air-conditioned rooms and planning the B-52 raids on populated centers. Not people like us. Poor uneducated people who went wild. Actually these are people you can sympathize with. They’re stuck in the jungle somewhere, they don’t know who’s going to shoot at them next, and they went crazy. But it’s easy to blame them. They’re different from us. We’re the nice guys carrying out the major atrocities, but that’s why I don’t think My Lai was, I mean of course it was horrible, but the fact that it became a symbol of atrocities is very striking. It’s nothing as compared with even the single operation that it was part of.

Edward Herman and I wrote a book about this in 1979 where we went through the record of the actual operations that were going on and described My Lai as a footnote. We were using the notes taken by Kevin Buckley. He was the Saigon correspondent, I think for Newsweek, yeah Newsweek, at the time and he and an associate did a very careful investigation of all of these massacres and Newsweek wouldn’t publish it. He gave it to me personally and I used it. We have his notes in there. So that’s My Lai.

Let’s take the holocaust. The history of attention to the holocaust is pretty interesting. It’s discussed by Peter Novick in a book, Tom Segev and others.6 There was not much concern about it. It wasn’t just, you know, about not bombing Auschwitz. What about right after the holocaust? People, Jews were still in concentration camps. Truman sent a mission headed Earl Harrison to investigate the concentration camps. He pointed out they were about the same as under the Nazis. The only difference is they don’t have the gas chambers so people weren’t being [exterminated]. But they were in a horrible condition. Now ask yourself a simple question: why didn’t those people come to the United States? I mean, if you had asked them “where do you want to go?” The miserable survivors, what do you think they would have said? Half the population of Europe would have wanted to come to the United States. Undoubtedly, they would have chosen to come to the United States if they had a chance. They didn’t. The U.S. had racist immigration laws which wouldn’t allow Jews. The 1924 immigration laws were aimed at Jews and Italians. There was a lot of anti-Semitism in the country. Furthermore, the American Jewish community didn’t want them. The only people who lobbied for trying to introduce them into the limited immigration acts [was] the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism. So they didn’t want them here. Meanwhile, the Yishuv7 was sending representatives to take control of the concentration camps and to compel the survivors to go to Palestine. In fact there’s a very important book about this by Yosef Grodzinsky. It came out first in Hebrew and was eventually reviewed pretty favorably even in Israel.8 Do you know Hebrew?

KPO: No, I don’t.

NC: Well the translation of the title [ed. Chomer Enoshi Tov] would be something like “Good Human Material.” What he means is that the Zionist emissaries had a doctrine that able-bodied men and women between 18 and 35 had to be compelled to go to Palestine where they would be cannon-fodder for the coming conflict. Now the others they didn’t care much about and even undermined efforts to save children and so on. Well, all of this was going on in the immediate wake of the holocaust involving the survivors. No concern about them. You look through the 1950s, there’s virtually no discussion of the holocaust. The first major scholarly work, uh, what’s his name?

KPO: Raul Hilberg?

NC: Hilberg’s, yeah. When Hilberg’s book The Destruction of the [European] Jews came out, he couldn’t find a publisher at first because people didn’t want it.9 Why should we talk about this stuff? There was a little interest when the [Adolf] Eichmann trial came but the event that turned the holocaust into the major issue of modern history was Israel’s 1967 war. When did holocaust museums start spreading over the country? When does Elie Wiesel become kind of a figure of everyone’s imagination? All of this is after, you know, programs in schools teaching holocaust studies. It’s post-1967 when the holocaust began to be used as a justification for Israel’s occupation and for U.S. support for it. It’s an ugly story. There are holocaust museums all over the country. Take a look at the museums of the destruction of Native Americans or the slave labor camps for the blacks. You don’t have them. It’s post-1967. Nothing happened in ’67 apart from the Israeli takeover of the occupied territories, when you started to require justification for the Israeli occupation and American support for it. It’s not a pretty story, but yes, since then and only since then the holocaust has been kind of the benchmark for what counts as an atrocity and My Lai, as I say, is another story. So I think it’s really worth looking at these cases closely. Take Elie Wiesel for example, considered a moral hero. He was asked by a fellow Nobel laureate10 to approach political leaders in Israel, who he knows of course, privately—nothing public—just privately, to suggest to them that they withdraw Israel’s critical participation in genocidal atrocities in Guatemala, and they were genocidal. He refused. He later said why in an interview in Israel and I have this in print. He said “I can’t criticize Israel, even in private. If Israel is engaged in genocide, I’m afraid I can’t say anything about it.”11 This is the great moral hero. I mean when you begin to look at these things, the record is shocking.

KPO: I don’t want to take up too much of your time but I did want to speak a bit about the media. One of my chapters will be looking at the media, using Manufacturing Consent and also Niklas Luhmann’s work. Are you familiar with Luhmann at all? He was a German social theorist. Systems theory?

NC: No, I don’t know him.

KPO: Ok. I was just curious because he published his own book, The Reality of the Mass Media, several years after the publication of Manufacturing Consent but he oddly doesn’t talk about your book at all.12 In any case, I wonder if you can tell me how one might apply the propaganda model to social media. If you use Twitter or Facebook, this sort of thing. There’s a lot of rather overblown claims about the supposed capacity for political activism, democratic revolutions and all of this, but I wonder how you might apply the propaganda model to social media given that some of the filters—advertising revenue for example—are not as obvious.

NC: It’s not applicable. Yeah, I don’t think the propaganda model is a very good model for those media. I don’t participate in them I should say. I don’t have a Facebook page. I’m not interested, but I observe it of course. It’s a major phenomenon.

KPO: But you do have a fan-page on Facebook!

NC: Yeah, I do but I don’t have anything to do with it. I probably have Twitter accounts too, but I don’t know anything about them. But I think it’s a mixed story. I mean it is a useful organizing tool, undoubtedly. Almost all organizing goes through this media today. It’s a good way to keep in communication with people. It’s a good way for parents to figure out what their children are doing. My daughter uses it and so on. But it has a downside. I mean, I think it imposes a superficiality on human interchanges and on intellectual culture. It kind of directs people towards superficiality and lacks the intimacy of face-to-face relationships. We’re not automatons. Having a hundred friends on Facebook who write you a five-line letter when you say that you’re crossing the street is not friendship and the kinds of communication that take place are necessarily superficial and I think that has a dangerous impact on society and the participants in these systems. So it has its utility. It also has, I think, negative aspects. But I don’t think the propaganda model applies.

KPO: Alright, then perhaps I’ll raise a few points of objection that Niklas Luhmann doesn’t bring up in his own work but which another scholar, Hans-Georg Moeller, suggests as problems Luhmann might have raised had he spent time considering your argument in Manufacturing Consent. First of all, according to your theory, Moeller argues, “the sins of the mass media are to be blamed on a group of evil people. If only the powerful politicians and rich capitalists would stop manipulating the media, then everything would be okay.” He says that you reduce the problems of the media “to the ethical errors of some certain human beings.”13

NC: Well the trouble is, whoever this is didn’t even read the first chapter which discusses this and points out specifically that this is not a theory of individuals, of evil people. It is a study of the institutional structure of the media system which has almost nothing to do with the individuals who are in it. It’s not a fact about evil individuals that the major media are corporations. That has nothing to do with evil individuals. The fact that corporations, in their usual behavior—say General Motors—try to maximize profit, is not a criticism of the C.E.O. of General Motors. It’s a comment about the institutions and the way they function and in fact the legal system, even the legal system in which they function, also the market system. So there’s absolutely nothing to do with evil individuals. Change the names, it will come out the same. It’s an institutional critique. If it’s wrong, fine. Let’s see where it’s wrong. But as a descriptive account there are no conspiracies. There is nothing other than… In fact, what we point out is that this is basically a classical guided free market picture. I think that’s what it is.

KPO: He also says that you “assume that if manipulation stopped, then the mass media would present the real reality.” You “assume that there is one correct version” of a news story “and that this one correct version can potentially be presented by the ethically correct mass media.”14 Moreover, he also complains that you do not acknowledge your own paradoxical role as critic operating within the very system you are challenging—the mass media itself—relying on it for sources, quotations, etc.

NC: Yeah, I don’t know what that means. We acknowledge it openly. We quote the media. What more is there to acknowledge? That’s perfectly transparent.

KPO: I suppose he means how the filters you describe may or may not apply to you as well, in the publication of your own book for example.

NC: Well, we do discuss the publication of our own book. For example, our first book, our first joint book, 20,000 copies were published by a small but profitable publishing company. This is before Manufacturing Consent. It was called Counterrevolutionary Violence, which you don’t know about, but we do discuss it.15 It’s our first book. It was published by a flourishing, small publisher which was owned by a conglomerate, Warner Communications, later Time Warner. An executive of the big corporation saw advertising copy and wasn’t happy about it so he asked to see a copy of the book. When he read the copy of the book he demanded the publisher remove it from publication. When they refused he put the publisher out of business, destroyed all their stock, not just our book. Destroyed all their stock to prevent them from distributing our book. Well, was there any criticism? This was brought to the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, other civil libertarians. They didn’t care because it was not state censorship. It was corporate censorship and the doctrine of free speech in the United States is that corporate censorship is perfectly legitimate. Just as corporate money is just like if you give a dollar to somebody. That’s the doctrine. So corporate censorship, putting a publisher out of business, destroying all their stock to prevent the distribution of one book, is not a violation of freedom of speech. Well we do discuss that.

I don’t know what more to say about our… We also don’t say anything about… You know, if the institutional structure remains you expect it to act like this. I mean it’s like a critique of the market system which say “well, if only the C.E.O. of General Electric would decide to give all the profits to the workers everything would be fine.” He can’t do that. If he tried to do that he’d be out as C.E.O. These are institutional analyses. Now there are people who don’t want institutional analysis because it tells you about the reality of the society and their own role in it. So I think those kinds of criticisms are revealing from that point of view. Incidentally, very few people have read that book. Most people have only read the first chapter. But if you read that book, about a third of it—the last part—is a defense of the media. It’s a defense of the media against an attack by Freedom House.

KPO: It did strike me as a misguided critique, but I wanted to hear your response. Thanks so much for agreeing to meet with me.

NC: Ok. It’s a very interesting topic.

1. Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

2. Russell Baker, “A Heroic Historian on Heroes,” New York Review of Books, July 11, 2009.

3. Chomsky gave the figure of 80 million, but he cites the lower figure of 18 million in his book, Hopes and Prospects (Chicago: Haymarket, 2010), 283 n21.

4. LBJ’s full quote: “There are 3 billion people in the world and we have only 200 million of them. We are outnumbered 15 to 1. If might did make right they would sweep over the United States and take what we have. We have what they want.” See his Remarks to American and Korean Servicemen at Camp Stanley, Korea,” November 1, 1966

5. Noam Chomsky, “After Pinkville,” New York Review of Books, January 1, 1970.

6. Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999); Tom Segev, The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust (New York: Picador, 2000).

7. The Jewish leadership in Palestine before the creation of Israel in 1948.

8. Yosef Grodzinsky, In the Shadow of the Holocaust: The Struggle Between Jews and Zionists in the Aftermath of World War II (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 2004).

9. Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1961).

10. Chomsky is referring to a letter sent to Wiesel by Salvador Luria, a professor at M.I.T. and 1969 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

11. Chomsky is obviously paraphrasing here. When Wiesel was asked by the Israeli press about the letter he received from Salvador Luria, he “sighed” and said that he had not responded. “I usually answer at once,” he explained, “but what can I answer to him?” Cited in Mickey Z, “Elie Wiesel’s Strange Parade: Mad Man or Commissar,”Counterpunch, July 7, 2004. In another interview with Wiesel, he explains more explicitly his attitude toward criticizing Israel: “I am not an Israeli. I am a diaspora Jew, and the price I pay, the price I chose to pay for not living in Israel, especially in times of danger, is not to criticize Israel from outside its borders.” Cited in Mark Chmiel, Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), 101.

12. Niklas Luhmann, The Reality of the Mass Media, trans. Kathleen Cross (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000).

13. Hans-Georg Moeller, Luhmann Explained: From Souls to Systems (Chicago: Open Court, 2006), 144.

14. Ibid.

15. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, Counter-Revolutionary Violence: Bloodbaths in Fact & Propaganda (Andover, MA: Warner Modular Publications, 1973).

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