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That was quick...and now...the interview:


Collateral Language
An Interview With Noam Chomsky

David Barsamian

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor in the Department of Linguistics and
Philosophy at MIT. He is the author of scores of books-his latest are
Power and Terror and Middle East Illusions. His book 9-11 was an
international bestseller.  

BARSAMIAN: In recent years, the Pentagon, and then the media, have
adopted this term "collateral damage" to describe the death of
civilians. Talk about the role of language in shaping and forming
people's understanding of events.  

CHOMSKY: Well, it's as old as history. It has nothing much to do with
language. Language is the way we interact and communicate, so,
naturally, the means of communication and the conceptual background
that's behind it, which is more important, are used to try to shape
attitudes and opinions and induce conformity and subordination. Not
surprisingly, it was created in the more democratic societies.  

The first coordinated propaganda ministry, called the Ministry of
Information, was in Britain during World War I. It had the task, as they
put it, of controlling the mind of the world. What they were
particularly concerned with was the mind of America and, more
specifically, the mind of American intellectuals. They thought if they
could convince American intellectuals of the nobility of the British war
effort, then American intellectuals could succeed in driving the
basically pacifist population of the United States, which didn't want to
have anything to do with European wars, rightly, into a fit of
fanaticism and hysteria, which would get them to join the war. Britain
needed U.S. backing, so Britain had its Ministry of Information aimed
primarily at American opinion and opinion leaders. The Wilson
administration reacted by setting up the first state propaganda agency
here, called the Committee on Public Information.  

It succeeded brilliantly, mainly with liberal American intellectuals,
people of the John Dewey circle, who actually took pride in the fact
that for the first time in history, according to their picture, a
wartime fanaticism was created, and not by military leaders and
politicians but by the more responsible, serious members of the
community, namely, thoughtful intellectuals. And they did organize a
campaign of propaganda, which within a few months did succeed in turning
a relatively pacifist population into raving anti-German fanatics who
wanted to destroy everything German. It reached the point where the
Boston Symphony Orchestra couldn't play Bach. The country was driven
into hysteria.  

The members of Wilson's propaganda agency included people like Edward
Bernays, who became the guru of the public relations industry, and
Walter Lippmann, the leading public intellectual of the 20th century,
the most respected media figure. They very explicitly drew from that
experience. If you look at their writings in the 1920s, they said, We
have learned from this that you can control the public mind, you can
control attitudes and opinions. That's where Lippmann said, "We can
manufacture consent by the means of propaganda." Bernays said, "The more
intelligent members of the community can drive the population into
whatever they want" by what he called "engineering of consent." It's the
"essence of democracy," he said.  

It also led to the rise of the public relations industry. It's
interesting to look at the thinking in the 1920s, when it got started.
This was the period of Taylorism in industry, when workers were being
trained to become robots, every motion controlled. It created highly
efficient industry, with human beings turned into automata. The
Bolsheviks were very impressed with it, too. They tried to duplicate it.
In fact, they tried throughout the world.But the thought-control experts
realized that you could not only have what was called on-job control but
also off-job control. It's their phrase. Control them off job by
inducing a philosophy of futility, focusing people on the superficial
things of life, like fashionable consumption, and basically get them out
of our hair. Let the people who are supposed to run the show do it
without any interference from the mass of the population, who have no
business in the public arena. From that come enormous industries,
ranging from advertising to universities, all committed very consciously
to the conception that you must control attitudes and opinions because
the people are just too dangerous.  

It's particularly striking that it developed in the more democratic
societies. They tried to duplicate it in Germany and Bolshevik Russia
and South Africa and elsewhere. But it was always quite explicitly a
mostly American model. There is a good reason for that. If you can
control people by force, it's not so important to control what they
think and feel. But if you lose the capacity to control people by force,
it becomes more necessary to control attitudes and opinions.  

That brings us right up to the present. By now the public is no longer
willing to accept state propaganda agencies, so the Reagan Office of
Public Diplomacy was declared illegal and had to go in roundabout ways.
What took over instead was private tyrannies, basically, corporate
systems, which play the role of controlling opinion and attitudes, not
taking orders from the government, but closely linked to it, of course.
That's our contemporary system. Extremely self-conscious. You don't have
to speculate much about what they're doing because they're kind enough
to tell you in industry publications and also in the academic

So you go to, say, the 1930s, perhaps the founder of a good bit of
modern political science. A liberal Wilsonian, Harold Lasswell, in 1933
wrote an article called "Propaganda" in the Encyclopedia of Social
Sciences, a major publication, in which the message was, "We should not
[all of these are quotes, incidentally] succumb to democratic dogmatisms
about men being the best judges of their own interests." They're not, we
are. And since people are too stupid and ignorant to understand their
best interests, for their own benefit-because we're great
humanitarians-we must marginalize and control them. The best means is
propaganda. There is nothing negative about propaganda, he said. It's as
neutral as a pump handle. You can use it for good or for evil. And since
we're noble, wonderful people, we'll use it for good, to ensure that the
stupid, ignorant masses remain marginalized and separated from any
decision-making capacity.  

The Leninist doctrines are approximately the same. There are very close
similarities. The Nazis also picked it up. If you read Mein Kampf,
Hitler was very impressed with Anglo-American propaganda. He argued, not
without reason, that that's what won World War I and vowed that next
time around the Germans would be ready, too, and developed their own
propaganda systems modeled on the democracies. The Russians tried it,
but it was too crude to be effective. South Africa used it; others,
right up to the present. But the real forefront is the United States,
because it's the most free and democratic society, and it's just much
more important to control attitudes and opinions.  

You can read it in the New York Times. They ran an interesting article
about Carl Rove, the president's manager-basically his minder, the one
who teaches him what to say and do. It describes what Carl Rove is doing
now. He was not directly involved in the war planning, but neither was
Bush. This was in the hands of other people. But his goal, he says, is
to present the president as a powerful wartime leader, aimed at the next
presidential election, so that the Republicans can push through their
domestic agenda, which is what he concentrates on, which means tax
cuts-they say for the economy, but they mean for the rich-tax cuts and
other programs which he doesn't bother enumerating, but which are
designed to benefit an extremely small sector of the ultra-wealthy and
privileged and will have the effect of harming the mass of the
population.  But more significant than that-it's not outlined in the
article-is to try to destroy the institutional basis for social support
systems, try to eliminate things like schools and Social Security and
anything that is based on the conception that people have to have some
concern for one another. That's a horrible idea, which has to be driven
out of people's minds. The idea that you should have sympathy and
solidarity, you should care whether the disabled widow across town is
able to eat, that has to be driven out of people's minds.  

Clearly, there is a huge gap on the Iraq war between U.S. public opinion
and the rest of the world. Do you attribute that to propaganda?  

There is just no question about it. The campaign about Iraq took off
last September. This is so obvious it's even discussed in mainstream
publications, like the chief political analyst for UPI, Martin Sieff,
has a long article describing how it was done. In September, which
happened to be the opening of the midterm congressional campaign, that's
when the drumbeat of wartime propaganda began. It had a couple of
constant themes. One big lie was that Iraq was an imminent threat to the
security of the United States. We have got to stop them now or they're
going to destroy us tomorrow. The second big lie was that Iraq was
behind September 11. Nobody says it straight out; it's kind of

Take a look at the polls. They reflected the propaganda very directly.
The propaganda is distributed by the media. They don't make it up, they
just distribute it. You can attribute it to high government officials or
whatever you like. But the campaign was reflected very quickly in the
polls. By September and since then, roughly 60 percent, oscillating
around that, of the population believes that Iraq is a threat to our
security. Congress, if you look at the declaration of October, when they
authorized the president to use force, said Iraq is a threat to the
security of the United States. By now about half the population, maybe
more by now, believes that Iraq was responsible for September 11, that
Iraqis were on the planes, that they are planning new ones.  

There is no one else in the world that believes any of this; there is no
country where Iraq is regarded as a threat to their security. Kuwait and
Iran, which were both invaded by Iraq, don't regard Iraq as a threat to
their security. Iraq is the weakest country in the region, and as a
result of the sanctions, which have killed hundreds of thousands of
people-about probably two-thirds of the population is on the edge of
starvation-the country has the weakest economy and the weakest military
force in the region. Its economy and its military-force expenditures are
about a third those of Kuwait, which has 10 percent of its population,
and well below others. Of course, everybody in the region knows that
there is a superpower there, offshore U.S. military base, Israel, which
has hundreds of nuclear weapons and massive armed forces and totally
dominates anything.  

But only in the United States is there fear or any of these beliefs. You
can trace the growth of the beliefs to the propaganda. It's interesting
that the United States is so susceptible to this. There is a background,
a cultural background, which is interesting. But whatever the reasons
are for it, the United States happens to be a very frightened country by
comparative standards. Levels of fear here of almost everything, crime,
aliens, you pick it, are just off the spectrum. You can argue, you can
inquire into the reasons, but the background is there.  

What is it that makes it susceptible to propaganda?  

That's a good question I don't say it's more susceptible to propaganda;
it's more susceptible to fear. It's a frightened country. The reasons
for this-I don't, frankly, understand them, but they're there, and they
go way back in American history. It probably has to do with conquest of
the continent, where you had to exterminate the native population;
slavery, where you had to control a population that was regarded as
dangerous, because you never knew when they were going to turn on you.
It may just be a reflection of the enormous security. The security of
the United States is beyond anyone else. The United States controls the
hemisphere, it controls both oceans, it controls the opposite sides of
both oceans, never been threatened. The last time the U.S. was
threatened was the War of 1812. Since then it just conquers others. And
somehow this engenders a sense that somebody is going to come after us.
So the country ends up being very frightened.  

There is a reason why Carl Rove is the most important person in the
administration. He is the public relations expert in charge of crafting
the images. So you can drive through the domestic agendas, carry out the
international policies by frightening people and creating the impression
that a powerful leader is going to save you from imminent destruction.
The Times virtually says it because it's very hard to keep hidden. It is
second nature.  

One of the new lexical constructions that I'd like you to comment on is
"embedded journalists."  

That's an interesting one. It is interesting that journalists are
willing to accept it. No honest journalist would be willing to describe
himself or herself as "embedded." To say "I'm an embedded journalist" is
to say "I'm a government propagandist." But it's accepted. And it helps
implant the conception that anything we do is right and just; so
therefore, if you're embedded in an American unit, you're
objective.Actually, the same thing showed up, in some ways even more
dramatically, in the Peter Arnett case. Peter Arnett is an experienced,
respected journalist with a lot of achievements to his credit. He's
hated here precisely for that reason. The same reason Robert Fisk is

Fisk being British, Arnett is originally from New Zealand.  

Fisk is by far the most experienced and respected Middle East
journalist. He's been there forever, he's done excellent work, he knows
the region, he's a terrific reporter. He's despised here. You barely
ever see a word of his. If he's mentioned, he's denounced somehow. The
reason is he's just too independent. He won't be an embedded journalist.
Peter Arnett is condemned because he gave an interview on Iraqi
television. Is anybody condemned for giving an interview on U.S.
television? No, that's wonderful.  

The attack on Afghanistan in October 2001 generated a couple of these
interesting terms, and you've commented on them. One was the Operation
Enduring Freedom and the other is "unlawful combatant." Truly an
innovation in international jurisprudence.  

It's an innovation since the post-war period. After World War II there
was a relatively new framework of international law established,
including the Geneva Conventions. And they do not permit any such
concept as enemy combatant in the way it's used here. You can have
prisoners of war, but there is no new category. Actually, it's an old
category, pre-World War II, when you were allowed to do just about
anything. But under the Geneva conventions, which were established to
criminalize formally the crimes of the Nazis, this was changed. So
prisoners of war are supposed to have special status. The Bush
administration, with the cooperation of the media and the courts, is
going back to the pre-World War II period, when there was no serious
framework of international law dealing with crimes against humanity and
crimes of war and is declaring not only to carry out aggressive war, but
also to classify people it bombs and captures as some new category who
are entitled to no rights.  

They have gone well beyond that. The Administration has now claimed the
right to take people here, including American citizens, to place them in
confinement indefinitely without access to families and lawyers, and to
keep them there with no charges until the president decides that the war
against terror, or whatever he wants to call it, is over. That's unheard
of. And it's been to some extent accepted by the courts. And they're, in
fact, going beyond the new, what's sometimes called PATRIOT 2 Act, which
is so far not ratified. It's inside the Justice Department, but it was
leaked. By now there are a couple of articles by law professors and
others about it in the press. It's astonishing. They're claiming the
right to remove citizenship, the fundamental right, if the Attorney
General infers-they don't have to have any evidence-just infers that the
person is involved somehow in actions that might be harmful to the
United States. You have to go back to totalitarian states to find
anything like this. An enemy combatant is one. The treatment of
people-what's going on in Guantanamo is a gross violation of the most
elementary principles of international humanitarian law since World War
II, that is, since these crimes were formally criminalized in reaction
to the Nazis.  

What do you make of British Prime Minister Tony Blair being quoted on
"Nightline" on March 31 saying, "This is not an invasion."  

Tony Blair is a good propaganda agent for the United States: He's
articulate, sentences fall together, apparently people like the way he
looks. He's following a position that Britain has taken,
self-consciously, since the end of World War II. During World War II,
Britain recognized-we have plenty of internal documents about it-what
was obvious; Britain had been the world-dominant power and it was not
going to be after World War II-the U.S. was going to be. Britain had to
make a choice: Is it going to be just another country, or is it going to
be what they called a junior partner of the United States? It accepted
the role of junior partner. And that's what it's been since then.
Britain has been kicked in the face over and over again in the most
disgraceful way and they sit there quietly and take it and say, "Okay,
we will be the junior partner. We will bring to what's called the
coalition our experience of centuries of brutalizing and murdering
foreign people. We're good at that." That's the British role. It's

Often at the talks you give, there is a question that's always asked,
and that is, "What should I do?" This is what you hear in American

You're right, it's American audiences. You never hear it in the Third

Why not?  

Because when you go to Turkey or Colombia or Brazil or somewhere else,
they don't ask you, "What should I do?" They tell you what they're
doing. It's only in highly privileged cultures that people ask, "What
should I do?" We have every option open to us. None of the problems that
are faced by intellectuals in Turkey or campesinos in Brazil or anything
like that. We can do anything. But what people here are trained to
believe is, we have to have something we can do that will be easy, that
will work very fast, and then we can go back to our ordinary lives. And
it doesn't work that way. You want to do something, you're going to have
to be dedicated, committed, at it day after day. You know exactly what
it is: it's educational programs, it's organizing, it's activism. That's
the way things change. You want something that's going to be a magic key
that will enable you to go back to watching television tomorrow? It's
not there.  

You were an active and early dissident in the 1960s opposing U.S.
intervention in Indochina. You have now this perspective of what was
going on then and what is going on now. Describe how dissent has evolved
in the United States.  

Actually, there is another article in the New York Times that describes
how the professors are antiwar activists, but the students aren't. Not
like it used to be, when the students were antiwar activists. What the
reporter is talking about is that around 1970-and it's true-by 1970
students were active antiwar protesters. But that's after eight years of
a U.S. war against South Vietnam, which by then had extended to all of
Indochina, which had practically wiped the place out. In the early years
of the war-it was announced in 1962-U.S. planes are bombing South
Vietnam, napalm was authorized, chemical warfare to destroy food crops,
and programs to drive millions of people into "strategic hamlets," which
are essentially concentration camps. All public. No protest. Impossible
to get anybody to talk about it. For years, even in a place like Boston,
a liberal city, you couldn't have public meetings against the war
because they would be broken up by students, with the support of the
media. You would have to have hundreds of state police around to allow
the speakers like me to escape unscathed. The protests came after years
and years of war. By then, hundreds of thousands of people had been
killed, much of Vietnam had been destroyed. Then you started getting

But all of that is wiped out of history, because it tells too much of
the truth. It involved years and years of hard work of plenty of people,
mostly young, which finally ended up getting a protest movement. Now
it's far beyond that. But the New York Times reporter can't understand
that. I'm sure the reporter is being very honest. The reporter is saying
exactly what I think she was taught-that there was a huge antiwar
movement because the actual history has to be wiped out of people's
consciousness. You can't learn that dedicated, committed effort can
bring about significant changes of consciousness and understanding.
That's a very dangerous thought to allow people to have.  

David Barsamian founder and director of Alternative Radio. He is the
author of  Decline & Fall of Public Broadcasting as well as a number of
books, such as Propaganda & the Public Mind with Noam Chomsky,
Confronting Empire with Eqbal Ahmad and Culture & Resistance with Edward
Said. He is a regular contributor to Z, the Progressive, and other  

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