Strategies to control the "great
by Noam Chomsky
Z magazine, February 2005
It goes without saying that what happens
in the U.S. has an enormous impact on the rest of the world-and
conversely: what happens in the rest of the world cannot fail
to have an impact on the U.S., in several ways. First, it sets
constraints on what even the most powerful state can do. Second,
it influences the domestic U.S. component of "the second
superpower," as the New York Times ruefully described world
public opinion after the huge protests before the Iraq invasion.
Those protests were a critically important historical event, not
only because of their unprecedented scale, but also because it
was the first time in hundreds of years of the history of Europe
and its North American offshoots that a war was massively protested
even before it was officially launched.
We may recall, by comparison, the war
against South Vietnam launched by JFK in 1962, brutal and barbaric
from the outset: bombing, chemical warfare to destroy food crops
so as to starve out the civilian support for the indigenous resistance,
programs to drive millions of people to virtual concentration
camps or urban slums to eliminate its popular base. By the time
protests reached a substantial scale, the highly respected and
quite hawkish Vietnam specialist and military historian Bernard
Fall wondered whether "Viet-Nam as a cultural and historic
entity" would escape "extinction" as "the
countryside literally dies under the blows of the largest military
machine ever unleashed on an area of this size"-particularly
South Vietnam, always the main target of the U.S. assault. When
protest did finally develop, many years too late, it was mostly
directed against the peripheral crimes: the extension of the war
against the South to the rest of Indochina-hideous crimes, but
It's quite important to remember how much
the world has changed since then. As almost always, not as a result
of gifts from benevolent leaders, but through deeply committed
popular struggle, far too late in developing, but ultimately effective.
One consequence was that the U. S. government could not declare
a national emergency, which should have been healthy for the economy,
as during World War II when public support was very high. Johnson
had to fight a "guns-and-butter" war, buying off an
unwilling population, harming the economy, ultimately leading
the business classes to turn against the war as too costly, after
the Tet Offensive of January 1968 showed that it would go on a
long time. There were also concerns among U.S. elites about rising
social and political consciousness stimulated by the activism
of the 1960s, much of it reaction to the miserable crimes in Indochina,
then at last arousing popular indignation. We learn from the last
sections of the Pentagon Papers that after the Tet offensive,
the military command was reluctant to agree to the president's
call for further troop deployments, wanting to be sure that "sufficient
forces would still be available for civil disorder control"
in the U.S., and fearing that escalation might run the risk of
"provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions."
The Reagan administration assumed that
the problem of an independent, aroused population had been overcome
and apparently planned to follow the Kennedy model of the early
1960s in Central America. But they backed off in the face of unanticipated
public protest, turning instead to "clandestine war"
employing murderous security forces and a huge international terror
network. The consequences were terrible, but not as bad as B-52s
and mass murder operations of the kind that were peaking when
John Kerry was deep in the Mekong Delta in the South, by then
largely devastated. The popular reaction to even the "clandestine
war," so called, broke entirely new ground. The solidarity
movements for Central America, now in many parts of the world,
are again something new in Western history.
State managers cannot fail to pay attention
to such matters. Routinely, a newly elected president requests
an intelligence evaluation of the world. situation. In 1989, when
Bush I took office, a part was leaked. It warned that when attacking
"much weaker enemies"-the only sensible target-the U.S.
must win "decisively and rapidly." Delay might "undercut
political support,,' recognized to be thin, a great change since
the Kennedy-Johnson years when the attack on Indochina, while
never popular, aroused little reaction for many years.
The world is pretty awful today, but it
is far better than yesterday, not only with regard to unwillingness
to tolerate aggression, but also in many other ways, which we
now tend to take for granted. There are very important lessons
here, which should always be uppermost in our minds-for the same
reason they are suppressed in the elite culture.
Each candidate [ in the 2004 election]
received about 30 percent of the electoral vote, Bush a bit more,
Kerry a bit less. General voting patterns were close to the 2000
elections; almost the same "red" and "blue"
states, in the conventional metaphor. A few percent shift in vote
would have meant that Kerry would be in the White House. Neither
outcome could tell us much of any significance about the mood
of the country, even of voters. Issues of substance were as usual
kept out of the campaign or presented so obscurely that few could
It is important to bear in mind that political
campaigns are designed by the same people who sell toothpaste
and cars. Their professional concern in their regular vocation
is not to provide information. Their goal, rather, is deceit.
But deceit is quite expensive: complex graphics showing the car
with a sexy actor or a sports hero or climbing a sheer cliff or
some other device to project an image that might deceive the consumer
into buying this car instead of the virtually identical one produced
by a competitor. The same is true of elections, run by the same
public relations industry. The goal is to project images, and
deceive the public into accepting them, while sidelining issues-for
The population seems to grasp the nature
of the performance. Right before the 2000 elections, about 75
percent regarded it as virtually meaningless, some game involving
rich contributors, party managers, and candidates who are trained
to project images that conceal issues, but might pick up some
votes. This is probably why the "stolen election" was
an elite concern that did not seem to arouse much public interest;
if elections have about as much significance as flipping a coin
to pick the King, who cares if the coin was biased?
Right before the 2004 election, about
10 percent of voters said their choice would based on the candidate's
"agendas/ideas/platforms/goals"; 6 percent for Bush
voters, 13 percent for Kerry voters. For the rest, the choice
would be based on what the industry calls "qualities"
and "values." Does the candidate project the image of
a strong leader, the kind of guy you'd like to meet in a bar,
someone who really cares about you and is just like you.
U.S. public opinion is studied with great care and depth. Studies
released right before the election showed that those planning
to vote for Bush assumed that the Republican Party shared their
views, even though the Party explicitly rejected them. Pretty
much the same was true of
Kerry supporters. The major concerns of Kerry supporters were
economy and health care and they assumed that he shared their
views on these matters, just as Bush voters assumed, with comparable
justification, that Republicans shared their views.
In brief, those who bothered to vote mostly
accepted the imagery concocted by the PR industry, which had only
the vaguest resemblance to reality. That's apart from the more
wealthy who tend to vote class interests.
What about actual public attitudes? Again,
right before the election, major studies were released reporting
them-and we see right away why it is a good idea to base elections
on deceit, very much as in the fake markets of the doctrinal system.
Here are a few examples: A considerable majority believe that
the U.S. should accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal
Court and the World Court; sign the Kyoto protocols; allow the
UN to take the lead in international crises (including security,
reconstruction, and political transition in Iraq); rely on diplomatic
and economic measures more than military ones in the "war
on terror," and use force only if there is "strong evidence
that the country is in imminent danger of being attacked,"
thus rejecting the bipartisan consensus on "pre-emptive war"
and adopting a rather conventional interpretation of the UN Charter.
A majority even favor giving up the Security Council veto.
Overwhelming majorities favor expansion
of purely domestic programs: primarily health care (80 percent),
but also aid to education and Social Security. Similar results
have long been found in these studies, carried out by the most
reputable organizations that monitor public opinion. In other
mainstream polls, about 80 percent favor guaranteed health care
even if it would raise taxes-a national health care system is
likely to reduce expenses considerably, avoiding the heavy costs
of bureaucracy, supervision, paperwork, etc., some of the factors
that render the U.S. privatized system the most inefficient in
the industrial world. Public opinion has been similar for a long
time, with numbers varying depending on how questions are asked.
The facts are sometimes discussed in the press, with public preferences
noted, but dismissed as "politically impossible." That
happened again on the eve of the 2004 elections. A few days before
(October 31), the NY Times reported, "There is so little
political support for government intervention in the health care
market in the United States that Senator John Kerry took pains
in a recent presidential debate to say that his plan for expanding
access to health insurance would not create a new government program"-what
the majority want, so it appears. But it is politically impossible
and there is too little political support, meaning that the insurance
companies, HMOs, pharmaceutical industries, Wall Street, etc.,
Both recent history and public attitudes
suggest some straightforward strategies for short-term activism
on the part of those who don't want to wait for China to save
us from "ultimate doom." We enjoy great privilege and
freedom, remarkable by comparative and historical standards. That
legacy was not granted from above, it was won by dedicated struggle,
which does not reduce to pushing a lever every few years. We can
abandon that legacy and take the easy way of pessimism-everything
is hopeless, so I'll quit. Or we can make use of that legacy to
work to create-in part re-create-the basis for a functioning democratic
culture in which the public plays some role in determining policies,
not only in the political arena from which it is largely excluded,
but also in the crucial economic arena, from which it is excluded
These are hardly radical ideas. They were
articulated clearly, for example, by the leading 20th century
social philosopher in the U.S., John Dewey, who pointed out that
until "industrial feudalism" is replaced by "industrial
democracy," politics will remain "the shadow cast by
big business over society." Dewey was as "American as
apple pie," in the familiar phrase. He was in fact drawing
from a long tradition of thought and action that had developed
independently in working class culture from the origins of the
industrial revolution. Such ideas remain just below the surface
and can become a living part of our societies, cultures, and institutions.
But like other victories for justice and freedom over the centuries,
that will not happen by itself. One of the clearest lessons of
history, including recent history, is that rights are not granted;
they are won. The rest is up to us.
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