Language in the Service of Propaganda

Noam Chomsky, 1984

excerpted from the book

Stenographers to Power

media and propaganda

David Barsamian interviews

Common Courage Press, 1992, paper

Language in the Service of Propaganda
Noam Chomsky
December 1, 1984

NC: ... for the last several years, something called "international terrorism" has been right at the front of the agenda. There are conferences about it, books, articles, etc. We were told when the Reagan administration came in that the struggle against international terrorism was going to be the centerpiece of their foreign policy, and it's continued that way. People debate as if they were in the real world. They're not in the real world. There is such a thing as international terrorism, and the United States is one of the main sponsors of it. For example, according to the official doctrine, the one that we discuss and the one that George Schultz talks about, Cuba is one of the main centers of international terrorism... The fact of the matter is that Cuba has been subjected to more international terrorism than probably the rest of the world put together. This began in the early 1960's when the Kennedy administration launched a major terrorist war against Cuba. It went on for many years; for all we know it's still going on. There's very little reporting on it. You have to work hard to find out what's going on from memoirs and participants' reports and so on. What has happened is a level of international terrorism that as far as I know has no counterpart, apart from direct aggression. It's included attacking civilian installations, bombing hotels, sinking fishing vessels, destroying petrochemical installations, poisoning crops and livestock, on quite a significant scale, assassination attempts, actual murders, bombing airplanes, bombing of Cuban missions abroad, etc. It's a massive terrorist attack. But this never appears in the discussions of international terrorism. Or, for example, take the Middle East. The very symbol of terrorism is the PLO, what could be more an example of terrorism? The PLO has certainly been involved in terrorist acts, but Israel, which is our client, has been involved in far greater, incomparably greater terrorist acts, except that we don't call them terrorist acts. For example, in the spring of this year, four young Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, who live under conditions of extreme oppression, hijacked a bus and tried to drive it out of the Gaza Strip. They apparently didn't have weapons, the bus was stopped by Israeli soldiers and in the fire they killed an Israeli woman on the bus. The soldiers knew that the bus was hijacked because these Palestinians had allowed a pregnant woman to leave the bus, who then informed them, as a humanitarian act on their part. The people who hijacked the bus were captured. Two were killed at once and two were taken away and murdered, apparently &r torture by Israeli soldiers. That's all described as an act of Palestinian terrorism. There was an investigation of the murder of the two Palestinians by the Israeli army but nothing ever came of it, there's been no prosecution. About the same time, Israel bombed an

NC: You don't have any other society where the educated classes, at least, are so effectively indoctrinated and controlled by a propaganda system.

NC: One should be clear that in referring to the "state propaganda apparatus" here I do not mean that it comes from the state. Our system differs strikingly from, say, the Soviet Union, where the propaganda system literally is directed and controlled by the state. We're not a society which has a Ministry of Truth which produces doctrine which everyone then must obey at a severe cost if you don't. Our system works much differently and much more effectively. It's a privatized system of propaganda, including the media, the journals of opinion and in general including the broad participation of the articulate intelligentsia, the educated part of the population. The more articulate elements of [those] groups, the ones who have access to the media, including intellectual journals, and who essentially control the educational apparatus, they should properly be referred to as a class of "commissars." That's their essential function: to design, propagate and create a system of doctrines and beliefs which will undermine independent thought and prevent understanding and analysis of institutional structures and their functions. That's their essential social role. I don't mean to say they're conscious of it. In fact, they're not. In a really effective system of indoctrination the commissars are quite unaware of it and believe that they themselves are independent, critical minds. If you investigate the actual productions of the media, the journals of opinion, etc. you find exactly that. You find a very narrow, very tightly constrained and grotesquely inaccurate account of the world in which we live. The cases I mentioned in point are examples. There has never been more lively and extended debate in the United States, to my knowledge, than occurred over the war in Vietnam. Nevertheless, except for the very margins at the outside, the debate was entirely between those who were called "doves" and "hawks." Both the doves and the hawks began by accepting a lie so astonishing that Orwell couldn't have imagined it, namely the lie that we were defending South Vietnam when we were in fact attacking South Vietnam. Once you begin with that premise, everything else follows.

NC: It's perfectly natural, any student of Orwell would expect, that we would accuse the other side of bringing in advanced aircraft. We're also conducting a real war against Nicaragua through a mercenary army. They're called "guerrillas" in the press, but they're nothing like any guerrilla army that's ever existed. They're armed at the level of a Central American army. They often outgun the Nicaraguan army. They're completely supplied and controlled by a foreign power. They have very limited indigenous support, as far as anybody knows. It's a foreign mercenary army attacking Nicaragua, using Nicaraguan soldiers, as is often the case in imperial wars. In this context, the big discussion is whether the Nicaraguans did or did not bring in aircraft which they could use to defend themselves. The doves say they probably didn't bring them in and therefore it was exaggerated. The doves also say, and here you can quote them, Paul Tsongas, for example, or Christopher Dodd, the most dovish Senators in Congress, that if indeed the Nicaraguans did bring in jets, then we should bomb them, because they would be a threat to us. When one looks at this, one sees something almost indescribable. Fifty years ago we heard Hitler talking about Czechoslovakia as a dagger pointed at the heart of Germany and people were appalled. But Czechoslovakia was a real threat to Germany as compared with the threat the Nicaragua poses to the United States. If we heard a discussion like this in the Soviet Union, where people were asking whether, let's say, Denmark should be bombed because it has jets which could reach the Soviet Union, we would be appalled. In fact, that's an analogy that's unfair to the Russians. They're not attacking Denmark as we're attacking Nicaragua and El Salvador. But here we accept it all. We accept it because the educated classes, the ones who are in a position, through prestige, privilege, education, etc., to present an intelligible understanding of the world, are so subordinated to the doctrinal system that they can't even see that two plus two equals four. They cannot see what's right in front of their eyes: that we are attacking Nicaragua and El Salvador and that of course the Nicaraguans have every right to defend themselves against our attack. If the Soviet Union had a mercenary army attacking Denmark, carrying out terrorist acts and trying to destroy the country, Denmark would have a right to defend itself. We would agree with that. When a comparable thing happens in our domains, the only thing we ask is, are they or are they not bringing in planes to defend themselves? If they are then we have a right to attack them even more. That assumption is essentially across the board. There's virtually no voice in the press which questions our right to take even more violent action against Nicaragua if they're doing something serious to defend themselves. That's an indication of a highly brainwashed society. By our standards Hitler looked rather sane in the 1930's.

DB: The United States' Ambassador to Costa Rica was quoted in the New York Times as saying that "The Nicaraguan government has an extreme left network working for them in Washington. This is the same network that worked against American interests in Vietnam. It's sad to say that many Congressmen are prisoners of their own staffs, who rely on a preponderance of information from the left." The Ambassador then likens Nicaragua to Nazi Germany, and he makes this final statement that I'd particularly like you to address: "Nicaragua has become just like an infected piece of meat attracting these insects from all over," the insects being Libyans, Basque separatists, Cubans, the PLO, etc.

NC: All of this is very reminiscent of Nazi Germany. The Ambassador's remarks are very typical of those produced by the Nazi diplomats at the same point, even in their style, the talk about "insects" and so on. Of course, what he describes is so remote from reality that it's superfluous even to discuss it. The idea of a leftist network in Washington is hilarious. What he would call "leftists" are people like Tsongas and Dodd. Those are precisely the kind of people he's referring to. The people who say that we should bomb Nicaragua if they do something to defend themselves. That's what to the Ambassador is a leftist attempt to undermine our policy. This is like a discussion of Nazi propaganda, which doesn't even make a pretense of being related to reality and regards any deviation as unacceptable. We have to have total conformity, from his view, to the position that we are permitted and justified in carrying out any act of subversion, aggression, torture, murder, etc., and any deviation from that position is, from his point of view, a leftist conspiracy directed from Moscow. This is the extreme end of the propaganda system, and in fact it's not the important part, in my view. It's so crazy that anybody can see through it. The important part is the kind that doesn't seem so crazy, the kind that's presented by the doves, who ultimately accept not dissimilar positions. They accept the principle that we do have the right to use force and violence to undermine other societies that threaten our interests, which are the interests of the privileged, not the interests of the population. They accept that position and they discuss everything in those terms. Hence our attack against another country becomes "defense" of that country. Hence an effort by Nicaragua to acquire jets to defend itself becomes an unacceptable act that should evoke further violence on our part. It's that apparently critical position that plays the most significant role in our propaganda system. That's a point that's often not recognized. I think it's clearer if it's something that's a little more remote, so that we're not directly engaged in it now. Let's take the Vietnam War. The major contribution to the doctrinal system during the Vietnam War period, in my view, is certainly the position of the doves. The doves were saying that we were defending South Vietnam, that's just a given, but that it was unwise, that it was costing too much, that it was beyond our capacity and beyond our power. If we're capable of thinking, well see that their position is very much like that of Nazi generals after Stalingrad, who said it was a mistake to get into a two-front war, and we probably won't carry it off, and this is probably an effort that should be modified and changed, though it is of course just and right. We don't consider the Nazi generals doves. We recognize what they are. But in a society in which that position is considered to be the dissenting, critical position, in that society the capacity for thought has been destroyed. It means the entire spectrum of thinkable thoughts is now caught within the propaganda system. It's the critics who make the fundamental contribution to this. They are the ones who foreclose elementary truth, elementary analysis, independent thought by pretending and being regarded as adopting a critical position, whereas in fact they are subordinated to the fundamental principles of the propaganda system. In my view that's a lot more important than the really lunatic comments that you just quoted.

DB: What can people do to cut through this elaborate | and ornamented framework of propaganda and get at what is real, get at the truth?

NC: I frankly don't think that anything more is required than ordinary common sense. What one has to do is adopt towards one's own institutions, including the media and the journals and the schools and colleges, the same rational, critical stance that we take towards the institutions of any other power. For example, when we read the productions of the propaganda system in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, we have no problem at all in dissociating lies from truth and recognizing the distortions and perversions that are used to protect the institutions from the truth. There's no reason why we shouldn't be able to take the same stance towards ourselves, despite the fact that we have to recognize that we're inundated with this, constantly, day after day. A willingness to use one's own native intelligence and common sense to analyze and dissect and compare the facts with the way in which they're presented is really sufficient. If the schools were doing their job, which of course they aren't, but they could be, they would be providing people with means of intellectual self-defense. They would be devoting themselves with great energy and application to precisely the kinds of things we're talking about so that people growing up in a democratic society would have the means of intellectual self-defense against the system. That means that individuals have to somehow undertake this task themselves. I don't think it's really very hard. I think once one perceives what is happening and is willing to take the first step of adopting a stance that is simply one of critical intelligence towards everything you read, in this morning's newspaper or tomorrow's newspaper or whatever and discover the assumptions that underlie it, analyze those assumptions, restate the account of the facts in terms that really are true to the facts, not simply reflections of the distorting prism of the propaganda system. Once one does that I think the world becomes rather clear. Then one can become a free individual, not merely a slave of some system of indoctrination and control.

DB: Could you talk about the twentieth century nation-state?...

NC: I don't entirely. I think there's some truth to it, simply because modern nation-state and the European model, that is, including the United States, happened to be by historical standards enormously powerful. The degree of power in the hands of a modern nation-state is something with no historical parallel. This power is centrally controlled to a very high extent with a very limited degree of popular participation in how that power is exercised. Also, we have an awesome increase in the level of power in the hands of the state, and as a result we have an enormous amount of violence. However, it's very misleading to think of, say, genocide as being a twentieth century phenomenon. Let's just take our own history, the history of the conquest of the Western Hemisphere. We celebrate every year, at least in Massachusetts, we have a holiday called "Columbus Day," and very few people are | aware that they're celebrating one of the first genocidal monsters of the modern era. That's exactly what Columbus was. It's as if in Germany they would celebrate "Hitler _ Day." When the colonists from Spain and England an Holland and so on came to the Western Hemisphere, they found flourishing societies. Current anthropological work indicates that the number of native people in the Western Hemisphere may have approached something like 100 ( million, maybe about 80 million south of the Rio Grande and 12 million or so north of the Rio Grande. Within about a century, that population had been destroyed. Take just north of the Rio Grande, where there were maybe 10 or 12 million native Americans. By 1900 there were about 200,000, and most of them were killed off very quickly. In the Andean region and Mexico there were very extensive I Indian societies, maybe something like 80 million people throughout the southern part of the continent south of the Rio Grande, and they're mostly gone. Many of them were just totally murdered or wiped out, others succumbed to European-brought diseases. This is massive genocide, and that's long before the emergence of the twentieth century nation-state. It may be one of the most, if not the most extreme example from history, but far from the only one. These are facts that we don't recognize. And the ways in which we protect ourselves from these facts are often quite astonishing. Let me give you a personal example. This past Thanksgiving, last week, my family was here. We went for a walk in a national park not far from here. We came across a gravestone which had on it an inscription, placed by the National Parks as a testimonial, in fact as a gesture, no doubt conceived as a liberal gesture toward the Indians in the past: "Here lies an Indian woman, a Wampanoag, whose family and tribe gave of themselves and their land that this great nation might be born and grow." That is so appalling that one doesn't even know how to discuss it. She and her family didn't "give of themselves and their land," rather they were murdered by our forefathers and driven out of their land. It's as if 200 years from now you came to Auschwitz and found a gravestone saying, "Here lies a Jewish woman. She and her family gave of themselves and their possessions so that this great nation might grow and prosper." These things are so appalling one doesn't even know how to describe them. But these are reflections of what is regarded here as a liberal, accommodating, forthcoming attitude. That's what's appalling and frightening. For example, the very fact that we celebrate Columbus Day is appalling. All of these aspects of our historical experience, of the foundations of our own society, we are protected from seeing. Sometimes when they are described they are described in these unimaginable appalling ways. Again, these are all aspects of the system of indoctrination to which we are subjected. Looking at that gravestone, any person of even minimal common sense and just the most elementary knowledge of history should be totally appalled. But person after person passes it by and thinks it's fine. It's again an indication of a level of indoctrination which is quite frightening.

DB: This raises the question of who controls history in our society.

NC: History is owned by the educated classes. These are the people who are the custodians of history. They are the ones who are in universities and throughout the whole system of constructing, shaping and presenting to us the past as they want it to be seen. These are groups that are closely associated with power. They themselves have a high degree of privilege and access to power. They share class interests with those who control and in fact own the economic system. They are the cultural commissars of the system of domination and control that's very pervasive. I'm avoiding nuances. There are important exceptions. There are people who write honest history. But the point I'm describing is something that is overwhelmingly dominant, to the extent that only specialists would be likely to know things that fall outside it. For the ordinary citizen, one that doesn't have the resources or the time or the training or the education to really dig into things deeply on their own, the position they're presented with is the one I've described. For example, you can have a gravestone like that. That's why we can talk about genocide as a twentieth-century phenomenon, failing to recognize what happened not too far back in our own past.

DB: Could you talk about what is called "the first genocide of the twentieth century," which occurred in 1915 in Ottoman Turkey to the Armenians. Why is that a virtually unknown event? Why is that relegated to the periphery of our awareness?

NC: Essentially because people had very little interest in it at the time. What happened is that something between several hundred thousand, maybe over a million people, were massacred in a quite short time. It was in Turkey, remote, no direct interest to Westerners, and hence they paid very little attention to it. I think much more dramatic and striking is the fact that comparable genocidal acts which are much closer to us, and in fact in which we have been directly involved, are suppressed. For example, I would wager that more people are aware of the Armenian genocide during the First World War than are aware of the Indonesian genocide in 1965 when 700,000 people were massacred within a couple of months. That was with the support of the United States. It was greeted with polite applause in the United States because it "returned Indonesia to the free world," as we described it at the time. That genocide was used, including by American liberals, I should say, as justification for our war in Indochina. It was described as having provided a "shield" behind which these delightful events could take place. That's a much more striking fact than our casual attitude towards a genocidal attack on the Armenians 70 years ago.

DB: That connects directly with a two-volume set that you co-authored with Edward Herman, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism and After the Cataclysm. You talk extensively about the events in 1965 in Indonesia and then the events in 1975, in East Timor.

NC: Which are still going on, incidentally. There's a case of genocide that's going on right today and is continuing precisely because the United States supports it. That's what blocks any possible termination of that genocidal attack. There's one right in front of our eyes for which we're directly responsible and there's virtually no awareness of it. I doubt if one person in 100 in the United States ever even heard of Timor [East Timor was a former Portuguese colony].

DB: Why is that? Does it serve some ideological interest that there's no information?

NC: Sure. It's quite improper for people in the United States to know that their own government is involved in a genocidal massacre which is quite comparable to Pol Pot. Therefore they better not know about it, and they don't. This is particularly striking because it began, as you say, n 1975, just at the time that the Pol Pot massacres began. They're rather comparable in many ways, except that the Timorese massacre was carried out by an invading army rather than being a peasant revolution taking revenge and controlled by a gang of fanatics who were carrying out huge massacres in their own society. These two are rather comparable in scale. Relative to the population, in fact, the Timorese massacre is maybe two or three times as great, once all the propaganda is filtered away and we look at the actual facts. The treatment of them was quite different. The Pol Pot massacres received enormous attention, tremendous protest, this was compared to the Nazis. The Timorese massacre, that we were responsible for, was suppressed. People went way out of their way to try to find Cambodian refugees on the Thai-Cambodian border so that they could tell horror stories. They didn't go to Lisbon, which is much easier to reach than the Thai-Cambodian border, to talk to Timorese refugees who would tell them what the United States was backing in Timor. That whole near-genocidal attack, the term is not exaggerated in this case, was almost entirely suppressed for over four years. Even today it's barely discussed, and when it is discussed, the American role is suppressed. For example, the New York Times finally began to talk about it and ran editorials, one was called "The Shaming of Indonesia." Sure, it's the shaming of Indonesia, but it's also the shaming of the United States. We're the ones who blocked every diplomatic effort to stop it. The Carter administration, which was supposedly committed to human rights, vastly increased the flow of arms to Indonesia with the certain knowledge that they were going to be used to extend the massacre in East Timor, there was nothing else that they could be used for. None of this is the shaming of the United States, nor is it the shaming of the New York Times that they didn't report it for four years, even today aren't reporting what's going on. These are again ways of protecting ourselves from understanding of the world in which we live and function as agents. The population has to be protected from any understanding of that. That's one of the main purposes of the indoctrination system, to prevent the population from understanding what they are participating in indirectly through the institutions that they support.

NC: ... Canada is a country very similar to the United States and has essentially the same values, institutions, social organizations, etc. Kind of like an adjunct to the United States. But as soon as we cross the border, we find that the treatment of these books and their authors is radically different than it is here. For example, The Fateful Triangle, which came out about a year ago, is primarily concerned with American policy. It's peripheral to the interests of Canadians, but central to the interests of Americans. It was barely mentioned in the press here, and is very hard to find. You have to really work to dig it out somewhere. It's probably not in the libraries. But in Canada it was radically different. It was reviewed in major journals. It was reviewed in most minor journals, even in the Financial Post, which is sort of like the Wall Street Journal. It was reviewed in the news weeklies, the equivalent of Time and Newsweek. Every time I go to Canada I'm immediately on Canadian radio and television. I was there last week for a day, and I had three interviews on national CBC. In the United States, it's radically different. People with similar views, not just me, are marginalized, excluded, no reviews, no purchases of books, individuals can do it, but you rarely find such books in the libraries, media almost totally closed off. If we look at other countries similar to the United States, the same is true. In England and Australia, again countries very much like us, these books are reviewed, discussed, etc.

DB: Could you speculate why, for example, you're not on occasionally Dan Rather's CBS Evening News or National Public Radio's Al l Things Considered. Has Noam Chomsky been marginalized, to use the very term that you've coined?

NC: That's always been the case. For example, during the Vietnam War, when I was very visible in opposition to the war on the international scene and here too, I live in Boston and I was constantly in the radio and television studios here. But for foreign interviews. I think I was once on public radio in the Boston area during the Vietnam War. I had just returned from a trip to Indochina and I was on for about five minutes. But I was constantly on Australian, Canadian, British, continental European radio and television. That's constantly the case. Just in the last few weeks I've been on national Italian television, on Canadian television, on Irish radio, all over the place. In another couple of weeks I'm going to England for a day for a big television program discussing politics. This is constant and common. In the United States it's virtually unknown. In fact it's very striking that I'm now talking over a Colorado radio station. When you get out of the main centers in the United States, out of New York, Boston and Washington, then the controls ease. For example, if I go to Denver or Boulder or Des Moines or Minneapolis or San Diego, then it's not at all unlikely that I'll be asked to talk on political topics on radio and sometimes television. But in the main ideological centers it's unimaginable. Again, that's not just me, it's other people who are essentially dissenting critics. This reflects the sophistication of our ideological system. What happens in areas that are marginal with respect to the exercise of power doesn't matter so much. What happens in the centers of power matters a great deal...

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