Noam Chomsky Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Activism, Anarchism, and Power: Conversation with Noam Chomsky, Linguist and Political Activist; 3/22/02 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Thinking about Power

I've read interviews where you have tried to separate your approach in science to your approach of politics. How does your approach to the world as a scientist affect and influence the way you approach politics?

I think studying science is a good way to get into fields like history. The reason is, you learn what an argument means, you learn what evidence is, you learn what makes sense to postulate and when, what's going to be convincing. You internalize the modes of rational inquiry, which happen to be much more advanced in the sciences than anywhere else. On the other hand, applying relativity theory to history isn't going to get you anywhere. So it's a mode of thinking. I try, at least -- with what success; others have to judge -- to [apply] the mode of thinking that you would use in the sciences to human affairs.

As to other connections, there may be some, but they're pretty remote. If you think about the core notions of what I was calling anarchism, which, as I say, is deeply rooted in popular traditions everywhere (for good reasons), if you try to take it apart, it's based on a conception of what Bakunin once called "an instinct for freedom," that people have an instinctive drive for freedom from domination and control. I can't prove it, but I think that's probably true.

The core of the work that I've been interested in, in language, is also interested in a kind of human freedom: the cognitive capacity to create indefinitely, and its roots in our nature. Historically, people have drawn a connection between these. If you look at, say, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the Romantic periods, this connection was explicitly drawn. If you read Rousseau or Wilhelm von Humboldt and others, the connection between human freedom in the social and political realm and human freedom in the creative use of cognitive capacity, in particular language, they did try to establish a connection.

Now, if you ask, can this be connected at the level of science, the answer is no. It's a parallel intuition, which doesn't link up empirically, but maybe could someday if we knew enough.

You said somewhere, I think in this new book on power, "You can lie or distort the story of the French Revolution as long as you like and nothing will happen. Propose a false theory in chemistry and it will be refuted tomorrow."

Yes, that's the kind of thing I mean. Nature is tough. You can't fiddle with Mother Nature, she's a hard taskmistress. So you're forced to be honest in the natural sciences. In the soft fields, you're not forced to be honest. There are standards, of course; on the other hand, they're very weak. If what you propose is ideologically acceptable, that is, supportive of power systems, you can get away with a huge amount. In fact, the difference between the conditions that are imposed on dissident opinion and on mainstream opinion are radically different. I'll give you a concrete example, if you like.

Yes, do that.

Okay. For example, I've written about terrorism, and I think you can show without much difficulty that terrorism pretty much corresponds to power. I don't think that's very cover The more powerful states are involved in more terrorism, by and large. The United States is the most powerful, so it's involved in massive terrorism, by its own definition of terrorism. Well, if I want to establish that, I'm required to give a huge amount of evidence. I think that's a good thing. I don't object to that. I think anyone who makes that claim should be held to very high standards. So extensive documentation, and from the internal secret records and historical record and so on. And if you ever find a comma misplaced, somebody ought to criticize you for it. So I think those standards are fine.

All right, now, let's suppose that you play the mainstream game. For example, the Yale University Press just came out with a volume called The Age of Terror. The contributors are leading historians, many of them at Yale, the top people in the field. You read the book The Age of Terror, the first thing you notice is there isn't a single footnote, there isn't a single reference. There are just off-the-top-of-your-head statements. Some of the statements are tenable, some are untenable, but there are no intellectual criteria imposed. The reviews of the book are very favorable, laudatory, and maybe it's right, maybe it's wrong. I happen to think a lot of it is wrong and demonstrably wrong. But doesn't really matter, you can say anything you want because you support power, and nobody expects you to justify anything. For example, on the unimaginable circumstance that I was on, say, Nightline, and I was asked, say, "Do you think Kadhafi is a terrorist?" I could say, "Yeah, Kadhafi is a terrorist." I don't need any evidence. Suppose I said, "George Bush is a terrorist." Well, then I would be expected to provide evidence, "Why would you say that?"

So that you aren't cut off right there.

In fact, the structure of the news production system is, you can't produce evidence. There's even a name for it -- I learned it from the producer of Nightline, Jeff Greenfield. It's called "concision." He was asked in an interview somewhere why they didn't have me on Nightline, and his answer was -- two answers. First of all, he says, "Well, he talks Turkish, and nobody understands it." But the other answer was, "He lacks concision." Which is correct, I agree with him. The kinds of things that I would say on Nightline, you can't say in one sentence because they depart from standard religion. If you want to repeat the religion, you can get away with it between two commercials. If you want to say something that questions the religion, you're expected to give evidence, and that you can't do between two commercials. So therefore you lack concision, so therefore you can't talk.

I think that's a terrific technique of propaganda. To impose concision is a way of virtually guaranteeing that the party line gets repeated over and over again, and that nothing else is heard.

This is why so much of your work in the area of politics has been focused on what you call "manufacturing consent,"book cover meaning the framing of issues, the way topics are put off the table for discussion. So in the end, what your work suggests is that in coming to understand that, then there's hope for understanding the problems we confront.

Oh, yes. Actually, I should say, the term "manufacturing consent" is not mine, I took it from Walter Lippmann, the leading public intellectual and leading media figure of the twentieth century, who thought it was a great idea. He said we should manufacture consent, that's the way democracies should work. There should be a small group of powerful people, and the rest of the population should be spectators, and you should force them to consent by controlling, regimenting their minds. That's the leading idea of democratic theorists, and the public relations industry and so on, so I'm not making it up. In fact, I'm just borrowing their conception, and telling other people what they think. But, yes, that's very important, and, yes, there is hope, I think. Ordinary common sense suffices, no special training, like my uncle, to unravel this and see what's really happening. I don't think it's hard to discover that the U.S. is a leading terrorist state; in fact, it's obvious.

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