Propaganda and the Public Mind

Conversations with Noam Chomsky

interviews by David Barsamian

South End Press, 2001, paper


The Reagan administration was the most anti-market administration in modern American history. They virtually doubled barriers to imports in order to try to save U.S. industry. If they had opened up markets in the 1980s, superior Japanese products would have flooded the automotive industry, steel, and semiconductors. The main industrial base of the U.S. would have been wiped out. So the Reagan administration just barred imports. What's more, it poured public funds into industry.

Anyone who has had any dealings with children knows that they're curious and creative. They want to explore things and figure out what's happening. A good bit of schooling is an effort to drive this out of them and to fit them into a mold, make them behave, stop thinking, not cause any trouble. It goes right from kindergarten up ... People are supposed to be obedient producers, do what they're told, and the rest of your life is supposed to be passive consuming. Don't think about things. Don't know about things ... Just do what you're told, pay attention to something else and maximize your consumption. That's the role of the public.

When the world's only superpower [the US], which has essentially a monopoly of force, announces openly, We will use force and violence as we choose and if you don't like it get out of the way, there's a reason why that should frighten people.

The U.S. achieved its major war ends. Its major concern was to ensure that Vietnam would not take off on a course of independent development that, horror of horrors, might even be a model for others, what is called a virus. That goal was achieved. When you've destroyed a country, it's not going to follow a course of independence. And it's certainly going to be no model for others.

... But the U.S. didn't achieve its highest aim. It didn't turn Vietnam into the Philippines, a colony. So that's called a loss. But in fact it achieved its major aim. And now we go home. The attitude has been quite astonishing. Jimmy Carter, for example, in what must count as one of the most incredible comments from any head of state anywhere, told a news conference that we owe no debt to Vietnam because "the destruction was mutual".

States are not moral agents. They do not engage in the use of force for humanitarian ends, although that's always claimed.

... Bertrand Russell, who by any standard is one of the leading intellectual figures of the twentieth century. He was one of the very few leading intellectuals who opposed World War I. He was vilified, and in fact ended up in jail, like his counterparts in Germany. From the 1950s, particularly in the United States, he was bitterly denounced and attacked as a crazy old man who was anti-American. Why? Because he was standing up for the principles that other intellectuals also accepted, but he was doing something about it.

For example, Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, to take another leading intellectual, essentially agreed on things like nuclear weapons. They thought nuclear weapons might well destroy the species. They signed similar statements, I think even joint statements. But then they reacted differently. Einstein went back to his office in the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton and worked on unified field theories. Russell, on the other hand, went out in the streets. He was part of the demonstrations against nuclear weapons. He became quite active in opposing the Vietnam War early on, at a time when there was virtually no public opposition. He also tried to do something about that, including demonstrations and organizing a tribunal. So he was bitterly denounced.

On the other hand, Einstein was a saintly figure. They essentially had the same positions, but Einstein didn't rattle too many cages. That's pretty common. Russell was viciously attacked in the New York Times and by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and others in the 196Os. He wasn't counted as a public intellectual, just a crazy old man. There's a good book on this called Bertrand Russell's America.

A standard technique of belief formation is to do something in your own interest and then to construct a framework in which that's the right thing to do.

... if you want to be praised and have your books reviewed and told how brilliant you are and get great jobs, it's not advisable to be a dissident. It's not impossible, and in fact the system has enough looseness in it so that it can be done, but it is not easy. Both of us can name plenty of people who were simply cut out of the system because their work was too honest. That blocks access.

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