Creating the Horror Chambers

Noam Chomsky. (photo: Mirco Andrea Carlesso)
Noam Chomsky. (photo: Mirco Andrea Carlesso)

By Noam Chomsky, Jacobin

29 July 15

e’re pleased to publish another interview with Professor Noam Chomsky. In this recent conversation with Dan Falcone, a Washington DC–based high school history teacher, Chomsky builds on our last interview, discussing everything from Scott Walker to the Monroe Doctrine, from Citizens United to for-profit colleges. We hope you’ll share it widely.

I wanted to stay on the topic of education and ask you about language, terminology, and definitions in the social sciences. So for example, I’ve noticed in my curriculum that there’s a tendency to have terms with a real definition and then a code definition. Terms like foreign aid, independence movements, partition, and democracy. terms that I know are of particular interest to you are anarchism and libertarianism. Could you discuss the varying definitions of those two terms, anarchism and libertarianism? Maybe the American definition versus the European, and why that’s important for education to sort out?

There’s hardly a term in social science, political discourse, academic professions, and the scholarly professions where there’s anything remotely like clear definitions. If you want a clear definition, you have to go to mathematics or parts of physics.

Definitions are basically parts of theoretical structures. A definition doesn’t mean anything unless it’s embedded in some theory of some explanatory scope. And in these areas, there really are no such theories. So the terms are in fact used very loosely. They have a strong ideological component.

Take, say, democracy. The United States, I’m sure in your school, they teach as the world’s leading democracy. It’s also a country in which about 70 percent of the population, the lower 70 percent on the income scale, are completely disenfranchised.

Their opinions have no detectable influence on the decisions of their own representatives. Which is a good reason to believe, a large reason, why a huge number of people don’t bother voting. They know that it’s a waste of time. So is that a democracy? No, not really.

And you could say the same about almost any other term. Sometimes it’s almost laughable. So for example, in 1947, the US government changed the name of the War Department. They changed it to the Defense Department — any person with a brain functioning knew that we’re not going to be involved in defense anymore. We’re going to be involved in aggression. They didn’t have to read Orwell to know that. And in fact, religiously, every time you read about the war budget, it’s called the defense budget. And defense now means war, very much as in Orwell. And pretty much across the board.

Anarchism is used for a very wide range of actions, tendencies, beliefs, and so on. There’s no settled definition of it. Those who use the term should be indicating clearly, as clearly as you can, what element in this range you’re talking about. I’ve tried to do that. Others do it. You know, anarcho-syndicalism, communitarian anarchism, anarchy in the sense of let’s get rid of everything, the old kind of primitive anarchism, many different types. And you’re not going to find a definition.

Libertarianism has a special meaning predominantly in the United States. In the United States, it means dedication to extreme forms of tyranny. They don’t call it that, but it’s basically corporate tyranny, meaning tyranny by unaccountable private concentrations of power, the worst kind of tyranny you can imagine.

It picks up from the libertarian tradition one element, namely opposition to state power. But it leaves open all other forms of — and in fact favors — other forms of coercion and domination. So it’s radically opposed to the libertarian tradition, which was opposed to the master servant relation.

Giving orders, taking orders — that’s a core of traditional anarchism, going back to classical liberalism. So it’s a special, pretty much uniquely American development and related to the unusual character of the United States in many respects.

America is to quite an unusual extent a business-run society. That’s why we have a very violent labor history. Much more so than comparable countries, and attacks on labor here were far more extreme. There are accurate libertarian elements in the United States, like protection of freedom of speech, which is probably of a standard higher than other countries. But libertarianism is designed in the United States to satisfy the needs of private power.

Actually, it’s an interesting case in connection with the media. The United States is one of the few countries that basically doesn’t have public media. I mean, theoretically, there’s NPR, but it’s a highly marginal thing and is corporate funded anyway. So there’s nothing like the BBC here. Most countries have something or other. And that was a battleground, especially when radio and television came along.

The Founding Fathers actually were in favor of different conceptions of freedom of speech. There’s a narrow conception which interprets it as being a negative right, meaning you should be free of external interference. There’s a broader conception which regards it as a positive right: you should have a right to impart and access information, hence the positive interpretation. The United Nations accepts the positive interpretation, and theoretically, the US does too.

If you look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I think Article 19 says that every person must have the right to express themselves without constraint and to impart and receive information over the widest possible range. That’s the positive right.

That was a battleground in the 1930s and 1940s. Particularly right after the Second World War, there were high level commissions taking both sides. And the position that won out is what was called corporate libertarianism, meaning corporations have the right to do anything they want without any interference.

But people don’t have any rights. Like you and I don’t have the right to receive information. Technically, we can impart information if we can buy a newspaper, but the idea that you should be a public voice that people, to the extent that this society’s democratic and participatory, was eliminated in the United States. And that’s called libertarianism. Meaning mega-corporations can do what they like without interference.

In the ever-growing field of Republican presidential candidates is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. He’s advocating local control of schools in an effort to undermine public education. With his announcement to run for president, I’m reminded of the recall in Wisconsin a few years ago and its relation to the Citizens United case. Can you discuss the ramifications of the Citizens United case and the impact on teachers and education, and the overall meaning of that decision on the society?

The Citizens United decision should be considered in the context of a series of decisions, starting with Buckley v. Valeo back in the ’70s, that determined that money is a form of speech. You and I can speak in the same roughly equal loudness, but you and Bill Gates can’t speak in the same loudness in regards to money. So that was a big deal, that there can’t be any interference with the use of money, for example — funding.

Now there were restrictions in the laws on campaign funding, but they’ve been slowly eroded. Citizens United pretty much dispensed with them. There’s still some limitations but not much. So exactly what its impact was is pretty hard to judge. But it’s part of a series of decisions which have led to a situation in which, if you want to run for president, you have to have several billion dollars. And there’s only certain sources for several billion dollars. If you want to run for Congress, pretty much the same. House of Representatives, you have to have a huge campaign funded.

Technically, you could decide, “I’m going to run for president.” That’s a meaningless freedom. It doesn’t mean anything. And the effect is pretty striking. The impact of money on politics goes way back — you know, Tom Ferguson’s Golden Rule? It’s the best work on this topic; he’s a very good political scientist, and has done work, very good work, on the impact of campaign funding on both electability, but also more significantly on political decisions. And he traces it back to the nineteenth century. And the impact is quite substantial — it goes right through the New Deal and on to the present.

But now it’s in the stratosphere. That’s why 70 percent of the public is totally disenfranchised. They don’t contribute to campaign funding, so they’re out. And if you sort of go up the income/wealth scale, you can detect greater levels of influence, but it’s not really significant until you get to the very top, maybe a fraction of 1 percent or something, where decisions are basically made.

It’s not 100 percent, so you find some deviation. There are times when public opinion is powerful enough so that it does matter, but these are overwhelming tendencies. The effect on education, of course, is obvious. It means that the concentrated power of the business classes will determine educational as well as other policies. That’s why you’re getting charter schools, cutting back of funding for state colleges, the corporatization of the universities. I mean, it’s across the board.

Universities, for example, are increasingly going to a business model in which what matters is not educational attainment, but the bottom line. So if you can get temporary, cheap, dispensable labor, like adjuncts and grad students, that’s preferable to tenured faculty. And of course by other measures, it’s not that preferable, but this is a business model.

At the college level, there’s a huge growth of these private colleges, most of which are total scams. They’re not private, they get maybe 80–90 percent of their funding from the federal government through Pell Grants and other things. And they’re very profitable. So during the recession, they stayed extremely profitable. All their corporate profits went down, but their stock stayed high.

They have a huge drop-out rate, enormous. Corinthian Colleges, one of the biggest for-profits, just had a big scandal. They made promises that they’d recruit deprived populations. So they’ll heavily recruit in, say, black areas, with all kind of inducements to what you can become if you take on a huge debt and go here. Kids end up with an enormous debt and very few of them even graduate. It’s just a major scam. And meanwhile, the community colleges, which can serve these communities, they’re being cut back.

And that’s very natural in a business-run society. After all, business is interested in profit and power; not a big surprise. And so therefore why have public education, when you can use it as a way to profit? It’s very much like the health care system. Why is the United States about the only country without any national health — without any meaningful national health care? Well, it’s the same thing. It’s extremely inefficient, very costly, and very bad for the patient, about twice the per capita costs of comparable countries, with some of the worst outcomes.

I don’t know if you’ve tried to get health insurance, but it’s an unbelievable process. My wife just did it, and we spent days trying to get on the computer networks, which don’t work, and then you call the office and then you wait for an hour and finally you get somebody that doesn’t know what you’re talking about and if you do it, it fails. And we finally had to end up after days of this, going to an office, a physical office out in the suburbs, a small office, where you can actually talk to a human being, and then figure it out in five minutes.

Alright, that saves money for the government and the insurance companies, but it costs money to the consumer. And in fact, that’s not counted, so economists, for ideological reasons, don’t count costs to users. Like if you think there’s an error on your bank statement, say, and you call the bank, you don’t get somebody to talk to. You get a menu, a recorded menu, and then comes a whole routine, and then maybe if you’re patient, minutes later, you get somebody to talk to. Saves the bank a lot of money, so it’s called very efficient, but that’s because they don’t count the cost to you, and the cost to you is multiplied over the number of consumers — so it’s enormous.

If you added those costs, the business would be extremely inefficient. But for ideological reasons you don’t count the cost to people, you just count the cost to business. And even with that, it’s highly inefficient. All of these — it’s not because people want it. People have favored national health care for decades. But it doesn’t matter. What the people want is essentially irrelevant.

Education is simply part of it. So sure, when Scott Walker talks about going down to the local level, it’s put in the framework of, “I’m for the common man.” What he means is that at the local level, businesses can have a lot more power than they can at the state level or at the federal level. They have plenty of power at the higher levels, but if it’s a local school board, the local real-estate people determine what happens. There’s as little resistance as you can possibly get down at the lower levels. It would be different if it was a democratic country where people were organized, but they’re not. You know, they’re atomized.

That’s why the right wing is in favor of what they call states’ rights. It’s a lot easier to take over a state than the federal government. Pretty easy to take over the federal government too, but a lot easier when you get to the state level.

And all of this is veiled in nice, appealing terminology about we’ve got to favor the little guy and send freedom back to the people and take it away from power, but it means exactly the opposite — just like libertarianism.

Do you see a lot of propaganda efforts in terms of undermining teachers, maybe in regards to pensions or job security, to have “neighbor turning against neighbor”?

It’s unbelievable. In fact, what Walker did, or his advisers, was pretty clever. They unionized the teachers, firemen, policemen, and people in the public sector who had benefits. And what they concealed, and what you know, is the fact that the benefits are paid for by the recipients. So you pay for the benefits by lowering your wages. That’s part of the union contract. You defer payment and take a slightly lower wage and get a pension. But that’s suppressed.

So the propaganda which was directed at the workers in the private sector said, “Look at these guys. They’re getting all kinds of benefits and pensions, security, and you’re being thrown out of your job.” Which is true. They were being thrown out of their jobs. And of course the unions had already been beaten down to almost nothing in the private sector. And this propaganda was able to mobilize working people against people in the public sector. It was effective propaganda. I mean, a total scam, but effective.

It’s pretty interesting to see it work in detail. You get a lot of insight. So you remember in 2008, when the whole economy was crashing, we could have gone into a huge depression, mostly because of the banks and their corruption and so on. But there was one huge insurance company, AIG, the biggest international insurance company, which was collapsing. If they would have collapsed, they would have brought down with them Goldman Sachs and a whole bunch of big investment firms, so the government wouldn’t let them collapse.

So they were bailed out, a huge bailout. And it was really malfeasance, if not criminality, on their part that led to all of this, but they were bailed out, and Timothy Geithner had to keep the economy going. Right after that, right at that time, the executives of AIG got huge bonuses. That really didn’t look good, so there was some publicity about it, bad publicity. But Larry Summers, the former secretary of treasury, a big economist, said, you have to honor the contracts. And the contract said that these guys have to get a bonus.

Right at that same time, the state of Illinois was going bankrupt, it claimed. And so they had to stop paying pensions to teachers. Well, you didn’t have to honor that contract. So yeah, for the gangsters at AIG who practically brought the economy down, you got to honor that contract, because they got to get their multimillion dollar stock options. But for the teachers who already paid for the pensions, you don’t have to honor that one.

And that’s the way the country runs. That’s what a business-run society looks like in case after case. And it’s all consistent and perfectly sensible and understandable.

Shifting to a foreign policy question, I remember recalling being given the traditional account of the Monroe Doctrine as a young student of history, and in my formative years, hegemonic terms or imperialistic phraseology in the classroom wasn’t common. It was excluded from my history introduction all the way through high school.

Anyway, a little while back, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.” It might have been just rhetoric, and recently Vice President Biden announced that a $1 billion aid package would be delivered to Central America.

That prompted several scholars like Adrienne Pine, an academic from American University, to express concerns — her area of expertise is Honduras and Guatemala, and she was arguing that this “aid packaging” would go to corrupt government officials in those countries and it would do little to enhance democracy or help people.

Well, this whole story is quite interesting. The meaning of the Monroe Doctrine, we were taught, was to protect the country from European imperialism. And that’s perfectly defensive. But the actual meaning was stated very clearly by Secretary of State Lansing, Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state. It’s a wonderful example of an accurate description — he presented a memorandum to President Wilson in which he said, here’s the real meaning of the Monroe Doctrine.

He said the Monroe Doctrine was established in our interest. The interests of other countries were an incident, not an end. So it’s entirely for our interest. But Wilson, a great exponent of self-determination, said he thought this argument was “unanswerable,” but it would be impolitic to make it public. That’s the meaning of the Monroe Doctrine. And it is. It’s exactly the way it’s been used.

This is supposed to be our hemisphere. Everybody else stay out. We didn’t have the power to implement it in 1823, but it was understood how it would work. John Quincy Adams, the great grand strategist and the intellectual author of Manifest Destiny, explained in the accredited — I think he probably wrote the Monroe Doctrine when he was secretary of state — he explained it was really directed at Cuba.

Cuba was the first foreign policy objective for the US. We wanted to take over Cuba. And the Monroe Doctrine was supposed to keep the British out. And it was discussed, and they understood that they couldn’t do it because Britain was too powerful.

But Adams explained that over time, Britain would become weaker, and the United States would become more powerful, and over time, he said, “Cuba will fall into our hands by the laws of political gravitation, the way an apple falls from the tree.” Which is exactly what happened through the nineteenth century when relations of power shifted, the United States became more powerful and was able to kick Britain out of one place after another.

In 1898, the United States invaded Cuba. The pretext was to liberate Cuba. In fact it was to conquer Cuba and prevent it from liberating itself from Spain, which it in fact was about to do. And then comes the Platt Amendment, and Guantanamo and all the rest of the story.

That’s the Monroe Doctrine. Why is it changing? It’s changing because Latin America has liberated itself. The United States is practically being kicked out of the hemisphere. That’s extremely important. For the last roughly fifteen years and for the first time in its history, the Latin American countries have begun to integrate slightly to free themselves from imperial control to face internal problems, and if you look at the hemispheric conferences, the United States is increasingly isolated.

At the Santiago conference in 2012, the OAS conference, it never reached any decisions because they have to be reached by consensus, and the US and Canada blocked every decision. The major ones were on Cuba. Everybody wanted it admitted, but the US and Canada refused. And the other was drugs. The other countries want to end this crazy US drug war which is destroying them, and the US and Canada refused.

Well, there was another conference coming up in Panama, just a couple months ago. And Obama recognized‚ or an adviser recognized, that unless he did something, the US would simply be kicked out of the hemisphere. So they moved towards normalization of relationswith Cuba. And here, it’s presented as a wonderful benign gesture, bringing Cuba out of its isolation.

Fact is, the United States is totally isolated. In the world, it’s completely isolated. The votes in the UN on the embargo are like 180–2, the United States and Israel. And in the hemisphere, it was on the verge of being tossed out. So they make the gestures that are silly — they have to say those sort of things, or end up being thrown out of the hemisphere.

And we can’t intervene at the previous levels — there’s plenty of intervention, but not at the level before. As for giving money to Honduras and Guatemala, it means giving money to murderers ruling governments that were installed by US power. The Honduras government was thrown out by military coup in 2009. This is Obama now. And they were a military government, ran a kind of a fake election, which almost nobody recognized except the United States, and it’s become a horror chamber.

If you take a look at the immigrants coming across the border, you’ll notice most of them are from Honduras. Why? Because Honduras, thanks to Obama, is a horror chamber. They’re giving money to Honduras, this military regime which has probably the worst human rights record in the hemisphere. Guatemala has been a horror story ever since 1954, when the US went in.

So that’s the history, but not the sanitized history.



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