Noam Chomsky


In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than just ideals to be valued – they may be essential to survival.
“Tough love” is just the right phrase: love for the rich and privileged, tough for everyone else.
Wanton killing of innocent civilians is terrorism, not a war against terrorism.
“Of course, everybody says they’re for peace. Hitler was for peace. Everybody is for peace. The question is: what kind of peace?”
The most effective way to restrict democracy is to transfer decision-making from the public arena to unaccountable institutions: kings and princes, priestly castes, military juntas, party dictatorships, or modern corporations.
All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.
Everybody’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way: stop participating in it.
If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged.
If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.
Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.
The more you can increase fear of drugs and crime, welfare mothers, immigrants and aliens, the more you control all the people.
There are no magic answers, no miraculous methods to overcome the problems we face, just the familiar ones: honest search for understanding, education, organization, action that raises the cost of state violence for its perpetrators or that lays the basis for institutional change — and the kind of commitment that will persist despite the temptations of disillusionment, despite many failures and only limited successes, inspired by the hope of a brighter future.
Personally, I’m in favor of democracy, which means that the central institutions of society have to be under popular control. Now, under capitalism, we can’t have democracy by definition. Capitalism is a system in which the central institutions of society are in principle under autocratic control. Thus, a corporation or an industry is, if we were to think of it in political terms, fascist that is, it has tight control at the top and strict obedience has to be established at every level–there’s little bargaining, a little give and take,but the line of authority is perfectly straightforward. Just as I’m opposed to political fascism, I’m opposed to economic fascism. I think that until the major institutions of society are under the popular control of participants and communities, it’s pointless to talk about democracy.
“The United States is deeply in debt — that was part of the whole Reagan/Bush program, in fact: to put the country so deeply in debt that there would be virtually no way for the government to pursue programs of social spending anymore.
“…so long as power remains privately concentrated, everybody, everybody, has to be committed to one overriding goal: and that’s to make sure that the rich folk are happy — because unless they are, nobody else is going to get anything. So if you’re a homeless person sleeping in the streets of Manhattan, let’s say, your first concern must be that the guys in the mansions are happy — because if they’re happy, then they’ll invest, and the economy will work, and things will function, and then maybe something will trickle down to you somewhere along the line. But if they’re not happy, everything’s going to grind to a halt, and you’re not even going to get anything trickling down.”
“I mean, what’s the elections? You know, two guys, same background, wealth, political influence, went to the same elite university, joined the same secret society where you’re trained to be a ruler – they both can run because they’re financed by the same corporate institutions. At the Democratic Convention, Barack Obama said, ‘only in this country, only in America, could someone like me appear here.’ Well, in some other countries, people much poorer than him would not only talk at the convention – they’d be elected president. Take Lula. The president of Brazil is a guy with a peasant background, a union organizer, never went to school, he’s the president of the second-biggest country in the hemisphere. Only in America? I mean, there they actually have elections where you can choose somebody from your own ranks. With different policies. That’s inconceivable in the United States.”
The Bush Administration do have moral values. Their moral values are very explicit: shine the boots of the rich and the powerful, kick everybody else in the face, and let your grandchildren pay for it. That simple principle predicts almost everything that’s happening.”
“In the United States, the political system is a very marginal affair. There are two parties, so-called, but they’re really factions of the same party, the Business Party. Both represent some range of business interests. In fact, they can change their positions 180 degrees, and nobody even notices. In the 1984 election, for example, there was actually an issue, which often there isn’t. The issue was Keynesian growth versus fiscal conservatism. The Republicans were the party of Keynesian growth: big spending, deficits, and so on. The Democrats were the party of fiscal conservatism: watch the money supply, worry about the deficits, et cetera. Now, I didn’t see a single comment pointing out that the two parties had completely reversed their traditional positions. Traditionally, the Democrats are the party of Keynesian growth, and the Republicans the party of fiscal conservatism. So doesn’t it strike you that something must have happened? Well, actually, it makes sense. Both parties are essentially the same party. The only question is how coalitions of investors have shifted around on tactical issues now and then. As they do, the parties shift to opposite positions, within a narrow spectrum.”
“Because they don’t teach the truth about the world, schools have to rely on beating students over the head with propaganda about democracy. If schools were, in reality, democratic, there would be no need to bombard students with platitudes about democracy. They would simply act and behave democratically, and we know this does not happen. The more there is a need to talk about the ideals of democracy, the less democratic the system usually is.”
“…the point of public relations slogans like “Support Our Troops” is that they don’t mean anything […] that’s the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody is gonna be against and I suppose everybody will be for, because nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything. But its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something, do you support our policy? And that’s the one you’re not allowed to talk about.”
“…sectors of the doctrinal system serve to divert the unwashed masses and reinforce the basic social values: passivity, submissiveness to authority, the overriding virtue of greed and personal gain, lack of concern for others, fear of real or imagined enemies, etc. The goal is to keep the bewildered herd bewildered. It’s unnecessary for them to trouble themselves with what’s happening in the world. In fact, it’s undesirable — if they see too much of reality they may set themselves to change it.”
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
[Q: when do you think is it right to intervene in the affairs of another nation?] “I think there are conditions under which that would be possible. One basic condition is that nonviolent — you mean violent intervention? — that nonviolent means have been exhausted. That’s one condition. A second condition is that the people of the country in which you’re intervening support the intervention. Under those conditions — and you can think of others — intervention would be justified. However, we don’t ever apply those conditions.”
Iraq War:
“To gain control over this resource, and have probably military bases there, is a tremendous achievement for world control. You read counter-arguments to this, and they’re worth looking at. So it’s argued that it can’t be true, because the costs of reconstruction are gonna be greater than the profits that will be made. Well, maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t, but it’s totally irrelevant. And the reason is because the costs of reconstruction are gonna be paid by the taxpayer, by you, and the profits are gonna go right into the pockets of the energy corporations. So yeah, it doesn’t matter how they balance out, it’s just another taxpayer subsidy to the rich.”
“After the invasion, there was sophisticated massive looting of the installations that were constructed in the 1980s – that includes high-precision equipment capable of making parts for nuclear and chemical weapons and missiles, and also toxins for biological weapons. Prior to the US-British invasion, these sites had been monitored by UN inspectors, but they were quickly kicked out of the country and have not been back since, while the occupation forces left the sites unguarded, and very sophisticated looting operations took place. Where this huge massive equipment has gone no one knows, and it’s uncomfortable to guess. The ironies are almost inexpressible. The US and Britain invaded to prevent the use of WMDs that did not exist, and they succeeded in providing the terrorists that they had mobilized with the means to develop WMDs that the US and Britain had provided to Saddam Hussein.”
“Clinton, Kennedy, they all carried out mass murder, but they didn’t think that that was what they were doing – nor does Bush. You know, they were defending justice and democracy from greater evils. And in fact I think you’d find it hard to discover a mass murderer in history who didn’t think that-“
“There’s basically two principles that define the Bush Administration policies: stuff the pockets of your rich friends with dollars, and increase your control over the world. Almost everything follows from that. If you happen to blow up the world, well, you know, it’s somebody else’s business. Stuff happens, as Rumsfeld said.”
“You can find things in the traditional religions which are very benign and decent and wonderful and so on, but I mean, the Bible is probably the most genocidal book in the literary canon. The God of the Bible – not only did He order His chosen people to carry out literal genocide – I mean, wipe out every Amalekite to the last man, woman, child, and, you know, donkey and so on, because hundreds of years ago they got in your way when you were trying to cross the desert – not only did He do things like that, but, after all, the God of the Bible was ready to destroy every living creature on earth because some humans irritated Him. That’s the story of Noah. I mean, that’s beyond genocide – you don’t know how to describe this creature. Somebody offended Him, and He was going to destroy every living being on earth? And then He was talked into allowing two of each species to stay alive – that’s supposed to be gentle and wonderful.”
Chomsky Interview Excerpts (from the film Manufacturing Consent):
Marci Randall Miller
Well, I know probably the main purpose for your trip to Wyoming is to discuss “thought control in a democratic society.” Now, all right, say I’m just Jane USA and I say, “Well, gee, this is a democratic society and what do you mean ‘thought control’? I make up my own mind. I create my own destiny.” What would you say to her?
Well I would suggest that Jane take a close look at the way the media operate, the way the public relations industry operates; the extensive thinking that’s been going on for a long, long period about the necessity for finding ways to marginalize and control the public in democratic societies. But particularly to look at the evidence that’s been accumulated about the way the major media, the sort of agenda-setting media — I mean the national press and the television and so on — the way they shape and control the kinds of opinions that appear, the kinds of information that comes through, the sources to which they go, and so on, and I think that Jane will find some very surprising things out about the democratic system.
Bill Moyers
Good evening, I’m Bill Moyers. What’s more dangerous, the big stick or the big lie? Governments have used both against their own people. Tonight I’ll be talking with a man who has been thinking about how we can see the developing lie. He says that propaganda is to democracy what violence is to a dictatorship. But he hasn’t lost faith in the power of common people to speak up for the truth…You have said that we live entangled in webs of endless deceit, that we live in a highly indoctrinated society where elementary truths are easily buried. Elementary truths such as…?
Such as the fact that we invaded South Vietnam. Or the fact that we’re standing in the way of significant — and have for years — of significant moves towards arms negotiations — or the fact that the military system is to a substantial extent — not totally — but to a substantial extent, a mechanism by which the general population is compelled to provide a subsidy to high-technology industry. Since they’re not going to do it if you ask them to, you have to deceive them into doing it.There are many truths like that, and we don’t face them.
Bill Moyers
Do you believe in common sense? I mean you’re a —
Absolutely, I believe in Cartesian common sense. I think people have the capacities to see through the deceit in which they are ensnared, but they’ve got to make the effort.
Bill Moyers
Seems a little incongruous to hear a man from the ivory tower of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a scholar, a distinguished linguistics scholar, talk about common people with such appreciation.
I think that scholarship, at least the field that I work in, has the opposite consequences. My own studies in language and human cognition demonstrate to me at least what remarkable creativity ordinary people have. The very fact that people talk to one another is a reflection — just in a normal way, I don’t mean anything particularly fancy — reflects deep-seated features of human creativity which in fact separate human beings from any other biological system we know.
Well, I have my own ideas as to what a future society should look like — I’ve written about them. I think that, at the most general level, we should be seeking out forms of authority and domination, and challenging their legitimacy. Now, sometimes they are legitimate, that is, let’s say, they’re needed for survival. So, for example, I wouldn’t suggest that during the second world war — the forms of authority — we had a totalitarian society basically, and I thought there was some justification for that under the wartime conditions. And there are other forms of [coercion]. Relations between parents and children, for example, involve forms of coercion, which are sometimes justifiable.
But any form of coercion and control requires justification. And most of them are completely unjustifiable. Now, at various stages of human civilization, it’s been possible to challenge some of them, but not others. Others are too deep-seated, or you don’t see them or whatever. And so, at any particular point, you try to detect those forms of authority and domination which are subject to change and which do not have any legitimacy, in fact which often strike at fundamental human rights, and your understanding of fundamental human nature and rights.
Well, what are the major things, say, today? There are some that are being addressed in a way. The feminist movement is addressing some. The civil rights movement is addressing others. The one major one that’s not being seriously addressed is the one that’s really at the core of the system of domination, and that’s private control over resources. And that means an attack on the fundamental structure of State capitalism. I think that’s in order. That’s not something far off in the future.
Well, the title [Manufacturing Consent] is actually borrowed from a book by Walter Lippmann, written back around 1921, in which he described what he called “the manufacture of consent” as “a revolution” in “the practice of democracy,” What it amounts to is a technique of control. And he said this was useful and necessary because “the common interests” — the general concerns of all people — “elude” the public. The public just isn’t up to dealing with them. And they have to be the domain of what he called a “specialized class.”
It’s not the case, as the naive might think, that indoctrination is inconsistent with democracy. Rather, as this whole line of thinkers observes, it’s the essence of democracy.
The point is that in a military State or a feudal State or what we would nowadays call a totalitarian State, it doesn’t much matter what people think because you’ve got a bludgeon over their head and you can control what they do.
But when the State loses the bludgeon, when you can’t control people by force and when the voice of the people can be heard, you have this problem. It may make people so curious and so arrogant that they don’t have the humility to submit to a civil rule and therefore you have to control what people think.
And the standard way to do this is to resort to what in more honest days used to be called propaganda. Manufacture of consent. Creation of necessary illusions. Various ways of either marginalizing the general public or reducing them to apathy in some fashion.
Ross Reynolds
You write in Manufacturing Consent that it’s the primary function of the mass media in the United States to mobilize public support for the special interests that dominate the government and the private sector. What are those interests?
Well, if you want to understand the way any society works, ours or any other, the first place to look is who is in a position to make the decisions that determine the way the society functions.
Societies differ, but in ours, the major decisions over what happens in the society — decisions over investment and production and distribution and so on — are in the hands of a relatively concentrated network of major corporations and conglomerates and investment firms. They are also the ones who staff the major executive positions in the government. They’re the ones who own the media and they’re the ones who have to be in a position to make the decisions. They have an overwhelmingly dominant role in the way life happens. You know, what’s done in the society. Within the economic system, by law and in principle, they dominate. The control over resources and the need to satisfy their interests imposes very sharp constraints on the political system and on the ideological system.
David Barsamian
When we talk about manufacturing of consent, whose consent is being manufactured?
To start with, there are two different groups, we can get into more detail, but at the first level of approximation, there’s two targets for propaganda. One is what’s sometimes called the political class. There’s maybe twenty percent of the population which is relatively educated, more or less articulate, plays some kind of role in decision-making. They’re supposed to sort of participate in social life — either as managers, or cultural managers like teachers and writers and so on. They’re supposed to vote, they’re supposed to play some role in the way economic and political and cultural life goes on. Now their consent is crucial. So that’s one group that has to be deeply indoctrinated. Then there’s maybe eighty percent of the population whose main function is to follow orders and not think, and not to pay attention to anything — and they’re the ones who usually pay the costs.
And they do this in all sorts of ways: by selection of topics, by distribution of concerns, by emphasis and framing of issues, by filtering of information, by bounding of debate within certain limits. They determine, they select, they shape, they control, they restrict — in order to serve the interests of dominant, elite groups in the society.
The New York Times is certainly the most important newspaper in the United States, and one could argue the most important newspaper in the world. The New York Times plays an enormous role in shaping the perception of the current world on the part of the politically active, educated classes. Also The New York Times has a special role, and I believe its editors probably feel that they bear a heavy burden, in the sense that The New York Times creates history.
That is, history is what appears in The New York Times archives; the place where people will go to find out what happened is The New York Times. Therefore it’s extremely important if history is going to be shaped in an appropriate way, that certain things appear, certain things not appear, certain questions be asked, other questions be ignored, and that issues be framed in a particular fashion. Now in whose interests is history being so shaped? Well, I think that’s not very difficult to answer.
Now, to eliminate confusion, all of this has nothing to do with liberal or conservative bias. According to the propaganda model, both liberal and conservative wings of the media — whatever those terms are supposed to mean — fall within the same framework of assumptions.
In fact, if the system functions well, it ought to have a liberal bias, or at least appear to. Because if it appears to have a liberal bias, that will serve to bound thought even more effectively.
In other words, if the press is indeed adversarial and liberal and all these bad things, then how can I go beyond it? They’re already so extreme in their opposition to power that to go beyond it would be to take off from the planet. So therefore it must be that the presuppositions that are accepted in the liberal media are sacrosanct — can’t go beyond them. And a well-functioning system would in fact have a bias of that kind. The media would then serve to say in effect: Thus far and no further.
We ask what would you expect of those media on just relatively uncontroversial, guided-free market assumptions? And when you look at them you find a number of major factors determining what their products are. These are what we call the filters, so one of them, for example, is ownership. Who owns them? The major agenda-setting media-after all, what are they? As institutions in the society, what are they? Well, in the first place they are major corporations, in fact huge corporations. Furthermore, they are integrated with and sometimes owned by even larger corporations, conglomerates — so, for example, by Westinghouse and G.E. and so on.
What I wanted to know was how, specifically, the elites control the media- what I mean is-
It’s like asking: How do the elites control General Motors? Well, why isn’t that a question? I mean, General Motors is an institution of the elites. They don’t have to control it. They own it.
Except, I guess, at a certain level, I think, like, I guess, I work with student press. So I know like reporters and stuff.
Elites don’t control the student press. But I’ll tell you something. You try in the student press to do anything that breaks out of conventions and you’re going to have the whole business community around here down your neck, and the university is going to get threatened. I mean, maybe nobody’ll paid any attention to you, that’s possible. But if you get to the point where they don’t stop paying attention to you, the pressures will start coming. Because there are people with power. There are people who own the country, and they’re not going to let the country get out of control.
So what we have in the first place is major corporations which are parts of even bigger conglomerates. Now, like any other corporation, they have a product which they sell to a market. The market is advertisers-that is, other businesses. What keeps the media functioning is not the audience. They make money from their advertisers. And remember, we’re talking about the elite media. So they’re trying to sell a good product, a product which raises advertising rates. And ask your friends in the advertising industry. That means that they want to adjust their audience to the more elite and affluent audience. That raises advertising rates. So what you have is institutions, corporations, big corporations, that are selling relatively privileged audiences to other businesses.
Well, what point of view would you expect to come out of this? I mean without any further assumptions, what yodd predict is that what comes out is a picture of the world, a perception of the world, that satisfies the needs and the interests and the perceptions of the sellers, the buyers and the product.
Now there are many other factors that press in the same direction. If people try to enter the system who don’t have that point of view they’re likely to be excluded somewhere along the way. After all, no institution is going to happily design a mechanism to self-destruct. It’s not the way institutions function. So they’ll work to exclude or marginalize or eliminate dissenting voices or alternative perspectives and so on because they’re dysfunctional, they’re dysfunctional to the institution itself.
This is an oversimplification, but for the eighty percent or whatever they are, the main thing is to divert them. To get them to watch National Football League. And to worry about “Mother With Child With Six Heads,” or whatever you pick up on the supermarket stands and so on. Or look at astrology. Or get involved in fundamentalist stuff or something or other. Just get them away. Get them away from things that matter. And for that it’s important to reduce their capacity to think.
Take, say, sports-that’s another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it-you know, it offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. (laughter) That keeps them from worrying about-(applause) keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in sports. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in-they have the most exotic information (laughter) and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this.
You know, I remember in high school, already I was pretty old. I suddenly asked myself at one point, why do I care if my high school team wins the football game? (laugbter) I mean, I don’t know anybody on the team, you know. (laugbter) I mean, they have nothing to do with me, I mean, why I am cheering for my team? It doesn’t mean any-it doesn’t make sense. But the point is it does make sense: it’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements, in fact it’s training in irrational jingoism. That’s also a feature of competitive sports. I think if you look closely at these things, I think, typically, they do have functions, and that’s why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on.
These are the things to keep in mind. These are not just academic exercises. We’re not analyzing the media on Mars or in the eighteenth century or something like that. We’re dealing with real human beings who are suffering and dying and being tortured and starving because of policies that we are involved in, we as citizens of democratic societies are directly involved in and are responsible for, and what the media are doing is ensuring that we do not act on our responsibilities, and that the interests of power are served, not the needs of the suffering people, and not even the needs of the American people who would be horrified if they realized the blood that’s dripping from their hands because of the way they are allowing themselves to be deluded and manipulated by the system.