Interview with Noam Chomsky

At the age of 77, after decades as one of the world’s most widely recognized and controversial critics of American government, Noam Chomsky is still occasionally taken aback by the politics of his country. For more than 30 years, he has tracked the steady and dramatic shift to the right in the attitudes and actions of America’s leadership, a trend that, as he recently told the Georgia Straight in an extended interview, began as a predictable reaction in the early ’70s to the preceding decade’s wave of activism. Still, he admits, “I didn’t think it would go this far.”

Six presidents have come and gone since the renowned dissident and MIT linguistics pioneer published his first political work, American Power and the New Mandarins, in 1969. Yet the administration now governing surely counts as the most brazenly autocratic in that period. During their two terms, George W. Bush and his cohorts have taken virtually every step open to them to confine the powers of government to the Oval Office and its small coterie of appointed advisors. The result has undermined fundamental civil and human rights through such groundbreaking concepts as the USA PATRIOT Act and the suspension of habeas corpus. And all of it has served as scaffolding for a grimly innovative doctrine of unilateral military action that, as Chomsky argues in his latest book, Failed States, has radically weakened the fabric of international relations.

And yet, at the same time, Chomsky senses a growing openness in public political discussions that runs directly counter to this strong rightward current.

“I can see it in my own personal experience,” he says on the line from his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Last night I gave a talk, and the topics that I now discuss I could barely mention 10 or 20 years ago. It happened that this talk was on the Middle East, and I’d given another one a couple of days earlier. There were huge crowds. I was saying things that I couldn’t say in the past. When I talked about these topics even a few years ago, even in a place like Cambridge, Massachusetts, the ”˜Athens of America’, there had to be police protection, literally, because the meetings were being broken up and there were threats of terror. But now it’s just totally gone—I talk freely and engage people. And the same is true all over the country.”

These impressions are backed up by the popular response to Chomsky’s books. Failed States (Metropolitan Books, $32), released in March (and, amazingly, his 58th publication on politics), continues to sell strongly, while his 2003 title Hegemony or Survival (Owl Books) currently resides in the top 30 of the New York Times’ bestseller list, the result of a spike in sales after Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’s much-noted endorsement of the book during a recent speech at the UN. It can all be considered evidence of what Chomsky describes as the American public’s widespread feelings of alienation from an electoral process in which party platforms are increasingly indistinguishable from one another and increasingly distant from the genuine concerns of voters.

“When I look at public opinion, I’m not far out of the mainstream,” he says, referring to discussions in Failed States of recent polls suggesting a widening political split between most Americans and their leaders. “I’m in it, in many respects. In some respects, public opinion goes beyond anything I’ve ever said. For example, a small majority of the public believes that the United States ought to give up the veto at the [UN] Security Council and follow the will of the majority, even if we don’t like it. Have you ever heard those words expressed anywhere during an election campaign?”

A further example is the immediate prospect of serious environmental degradation, a matter that—according to an extensive 2004 public-opinion poll by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations that Chomsky cites—is of deeply pressing importance to most Americans. “We read in the press that the United States was one of the few industrial countries that wouldn’t sign the Kyoto protocol, that didn’t support it,” he explains. “That’s true if by ”˜United States’ you exclude its population. The population was overwhelmingly in favour of it—in fact, so strongly in favour that a majority of Bush voters assumed that he was in favour of it. That’s partly a reflection of the fact that the party’s election managers are very careful to keep issues off the table so you don’t know where candidates stand.”

And so on with a host of other major issues, from universal health care to the invasion of Iraq. Chomsky sees few reasons to believe that matters will be any different in the American midterm elections slated for next month, even though one might reasonably expect Bush’s Republicans to suffer a resounding defeat in response to a slew of scandals, misdeeds, and distortions of vital fact.

“If there were a genuine opposition party in the United States, it would have been making hay in the last year or two,” he notes. “I mean, every week the Bush administration has been shooting themselves in the foot on something, often in grotesque ways. But, although their popularity has declined as a result, the Democrats have gained very little from it.”¦The reason is because they’re perceived—quite accurately—as not presenting much of an alternative. On issues of major concern to Americans, they don’t take any clear position.”¦There are exceptions—I don’t want to talk about everybody. But as a general rule, the tendency is that they [Democrats and Republicans] both appeal to pretty much the same constituencies, namely concentrations of economic power and privilege. I mean, you don’t run in an American election—again, with rare exceptions—unless you have substantial support of sectors of corporate power. And in fact the elections themselves have over the years become increasingly deprived of political content.”

Chomsky has long argued that this hollowing-out of democratic debate, to the point of vacuousness during election campaigns, is largely the result of the growing prevalence and sophistication of the public-relations industry—“the same people who are selling lifestyle drugs and toothpaste on television”, as he remarks to the Straight.

“Everyone knows that when you look at a television ad, you do not expect to get information,” he explains. “You expect to see delusion and imagery. And when they sell candidates, they naturally do the same thing, particularly because there’s pressure in both parties to keep away from issues, since the public by and large doesn’t agree with them on issues.”

Thus the extraordinary usefulness of the war on terror, which, as a tool for misdirecting public attention, has been all the more effective for being hazily defined. As Chomsky argues in Failed States, it is merely the latest and most streamlined version of a tactic in use since the outset of the Cold War. Like its predecessors’, its power is reductive: complex and often unpalatable plans for dominance on the world stage are transformed into simple dramas that pit a wholly benign American superpower against the diabolical enemy of the day—even when, as in the case of Saddam Hussein, that enemy was relatively recently a favoured ally. Its basis is a PR–like appeal to emotion, he says, focusing on fear for the purpose of blurring the surrounding facts. And foremost among the current facts, as Chomsky points out, is the increasing evidence that Bush’s adventure in Iraq has worked directly against its stated aims.

“This is a very frightened country,” he notes. “Actually, it’s been a frightened country all through its history, where it’s been very easy to mobilize people in fear. That’s true of many countries, but particularly true here. There is a genuine fear of terror, and it has a basis, like most fears. The Bush administration’s main appeal to the country—in the 2004 election and today [in the midterm-election campaigns]—is ”˜Keep away from all issues; we’re going to protect you from terror.’ Is there any truth to that? No.”

For proof, Chomsky points to a recent intelligence report—initially leaked in the New York Times on September 24 and reluctantly declassified by the president two days later—in which a range of U.S. intelligence agencies assessed the ongoing occupation of Iraq as a “cause célí¨bre” for violent Islamist groups around the world.

The report, Chomsky says, merely “stressed what has been known in the past. But now we have it from a higher authority, and in more detail, that the war, exactly as predicted, has increased the threat of terror and, in fact, has increased it far beyond what was anticipated. The dynamics were understood. It was predicted by intelligence agencies and specialists. It’s been verified since by the CIA and others.”

Where, then, is the widespread public outcry? If, as Chomsky claims, the majority of American voters reside some distance to the left of their leaders in the political spectrum, and if they are now more open than ever to opinions and ideas that have been consistently excluded from official discussion, why is there a clear lack of organized popular opposition, especially as the next set of elections approaches?

Chomsky suggests that there is “another new strain” growing alongside this greater public openness. “At least it’s new in my experience, which goes back 60 years: a feeling of hopelessness. I mean, we have every possible opportunity, and an incomparable legacy of freedom, of privilege, of opportunity, and there’s numbers that I’ve never seen involved, engaged, and concerned. But they feel they can’t do anything. They feel hopeless.”

Such desperation, he argues, is the result of an array of forces at work on average Americans, among them a deliberate erosion of key institutional and organizational structures, such as unions, “in which people used to get together and form opinions and prepare actions.” Reinforcing the “atomizing” trend, he adds, is a rising tide of materialism, driven on by what he refers to as the “fabrication of consumers”.

“That’s by now a huge industry, and it affects everyone,” he says. “People are deeply in debt—for much of the population, debt is greater than income. So they’re trapped.”¦People are induced—you can’t say compelled, but induced under tremendous pressure—to purchase commodities that they don’t want.”

Couple this with the stagnation of real wages that most of the population has experienced over the past 25 years, Chomsky says, and “people do feel helpless. I mean, if you’re working 50 hours a week to try to maintain family income, and your children have the kinds of aspirations that come from being flooded with television from age one, and associations have declined, people end up hopeless, even though they have every option.”

The fact that these options remain provides Chomsky with his greatest source of optimism at this late stage of his career. Indeed, although he has throughout the years been accused by opponents on both the right and the left of being motivated by a kind of knee-jerk anti-Americanism, he invokes the long, hard-won traditions of civil liberties and intellectual freedom that have flourished in the United States, most often through popular resistance.

“You know, we’re not living in a fascist state,” he says. “We don’t have to face torture chambers and secret police and so on. Consumerism is a much easier threat to face than torture chambers. We can overcome this, as in the past. There have been similar periods of regression that have been overcome. The 1960s is a recent example. It really led to civilizing society in significant ways. The rights of minorities, the rights of women, opposition to aggression—these were substantial changes. And there was a backlash”¦and very self-conscious efforts to try to beat back the democratizing wave. And, yes, we’re in the middle of that period now. But not forever. It’s continuing, but I think its hold on power is very fragile and it could be overcome. It’s a matter of will, really.”