Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Imperial Ambitions (Chomsky with Barsamian)

This post was written by peterbroady Part 1 of 9

This is part 1 of 9 of an extended discussion of Imperial Ambitions, a collection of interviews of one of the the world’s leading intellectuals and foreign policy critics, Noam Chomsky (Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy, MIT) with journalist David Barsamian.

In the first interview in Cambridge, Massachusetts on March 22, 2003, titled “Imperial Ambitions”, Chomsky first mentions that he agrees with world opinion outside the U.S. that the U.S. invasion of Iraq might be part of a disturbing “new norm in the use of military force” articulated in the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, announced in September 2002 and followed by the administration’s PR and rhetoric which led almost half of the population to link Saddam Hussein with Osama bin Laden and the attacks of September 11, 2001. This link was known to be false (in fact bin Laden and Hussein are acknowledged enemies), and prior to administration rhetoric (repeated virtually without question in the media), almost no one in the American public, even after the hysteria of 9/11, thought Iraq or Hussein had anything to do with it. Chomsky also notes that “George Bush has succeeded within a year in converting the United States to a country that is greatly feared, disliked, and even hated” citing statistics compiled by the Christian Science Monitor and other news organizations and scholarly publications around the world [1].

Chomsky goes on to trace the history of regime change in theory to Dean Acheson, a senior advisor to the Kennedy administration in 1963 [2], but notes that now the kind of ‘extreme nationalism’ and ‘imperial violence’ [3] advocated by a few voices has now found it’s way into official policy [4].

Further responses from Chomsky led to explorations of the role of Iraq’s considerable oil fortunes in the decision to go to war, and Washington’s relations with other oil-rich countries, like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Colombia, and Nigeria. Chomsky thinks that in this other countries outside the Middle East, the U.S. wants access, but in the Middle East it wants control (p.7). He then suggested the Turkey-U.S.-Israeli opposition to Iran could lead Iran to be split up or even attacked, drawing off a 2002 report in The Times (London) [5] wherein Ariel Sharon advised the Bush administration to go after Iran “the day after” they were finished with Iraq. From there the discussion veered into the impact of the Iraq War and occupation for Palestine, where Chomsky argued that the current U.S. administration has been taking significant steps prolonging the conflict by ignoring much of the world’s call for the establishment of Palestinian state and an end to Israeli occupations declared illegal under international law [6].

Then addressing domestic matters, such as what Chomsky regards as the “unprecedented” [7] public protest and resistance to the Iraq war before the war began and the ”threats to and intimidation of dissidents” inside the United States, the veteran intellectual critic and activist compares U.S. wages, working conditions, and benefits to those in Europe and argues that the current administration’s extraordinary and largely unprecendented power grab and the undermining of social programs is damaging most of the population so that an elite few can become very rich and powerful, undermining meaningful democracy [8]. He states that what the current administration is trying to do is institutionalize “doctrines of imperial domination” and economic exploitation.

The final question Barsamian asks Chomsky is worth quoting in full, as encouragement to U.S. peace activists:

Barsamian: What do you say to the peace activists in the United States who labored to prevent the invasion of Iraq and who now are feeling a sense of anger, and despair, that their government has done this?

Chomsky: That they should be realistic. Consider abolitionism. How long did the struggle go on before the abolitionist movement made any progress? If you give up every time you don’t acheive the immediate gain you want, you’re just guaranteeing that the worst is going to happen. These are long, hard struggles. And, in fact, what has happened in the last couple of months should be seen quite positively. The basis was created for expansion and development of a peace and justice movement that can go on to much harder tasks. And that’s the way things are. You can’t expect an easy victory after one protest march.

I have long found Chomsky to be, at the very least, one of the most useful writers and commentators on U.S. foreign policy [9]. Certainly he cannot be said to be an expert in many of the fields on which he speaks, but his books [10] are filled with useful references to the scholarly literature and expert opinion on the subjects addressed, as well as the mainstream and alternative press from the U.S. and around the world. The scope of his reading and familiarity is really quite astounding, and his books offer a uniquely inter-disciplinary perspective on U.S. affairs that is very popular outside of the U.S. but has long been marginalized within [11]. Chomsky has been criticized by those most familiar with his political work as going further rhetorically than most scholars would, and in his public speeches and interviews one can certainly find examples of this; however, Chomsky is a scholar and astute moralist, indeed a somewhat ‘prophetic’ figure, and not a pundit, ideologue, or anything near your average American political personality, who many of us find uninformative, dogmatic, and downright frustrating, whether they be so-called “conservatives”, “liberals”, or “moderates”.

- Peter Broady

[1] See polls cited in Hegemony or Survival

[2] Dean Acheson, Proceedings of the American Society of International Law, no. 13/14

[3] Chomsky, “Confronting the Empire” 2 February 2003 www.chomsky.info/talks/20030201.htm

[4] Referring to National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 2002

[5] Stephen Farrell, Robert Thomson, and Danielle Haas, The Times (London), 5 November 2002

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_law_and_the_Arab-Israeli_conflict

[7] interview with Cynthia Peters, ZNet, March 2003

[8] See “Power Grab” by Elizabeth Drew in The New York Review of Books, June 22, 2006 http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19092

[9] Chomsky and collegue Edward Herman have written significant analysis of U.S. role in Indonesia and East Timor, as well as U.S. mass media, see The Political Economy of Human Rights Vol. I and II and Manufacturing Consent

[10] Most recently Perilous Power with Gilbert Achbar, Failed States, Hegomony and Survival, and collections of interviews 9/11 and Imperial Ambitions

[11] The New York Times Book Review has referred to Chomsky as “perhaps the most widely read voice on foreign policy on the planet”, which he has found ironic due to his little, and mostly negative, coverage in the Times or other American newspapers and media

* Part 2 of 9

This is part 2 of 9 of an extended discussion of Imperial Ambitions, a collection of interviews of one of the the world’s leading intellectuals and foreign policy critics, Noam Chomsky (Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy, MIT) with journalist David Barsamian.

This might be the most interesting chapter of the book, an interview from Boulder, Colorado on April 5, 2003 where Chomsky is at his best in exposing ‘propaganda’ and marketing, a subject on which he has written volumes [1]. It is in the area of dissecting political language that Chomsky has long been most astute and revealing [2]; and though some think that this would be expected of a great linguistic and philosopher [3], Chomsky argues that what he does is actually very simple common sense [4], and it is hard to disagree with him here.

The interview begins with a question about the term “collateral damage” (meaning the killing of civilians) and the role of language in shaping understanding. Chomsky notes that some manipulation is quite natural, as the principle means of communication have always been used ”shape attitudes and opinions and to induce conformity and subordination (p.18)”. But ‘propaganda’ was only created as a self-conscious industry in the last century, beginning in Britain during the First World War at the first propaganda ministry [5], the Ministry of Information, and then spreading to America through the creation of the Wilson Committee on Public Information [6]. The original plan in Britain was to convince American intellectuals “of the John Dewey circle” to convince the people of America to join in fighting World War I, something they didn’t really want to do. President Wilson, through his Committe on Public Information, was able to turning the pacificist population viciously anti-German (”the Boston Symphony Orchestra couldn’t play Bach”, notes Chomsky). The intellectual leaders of the propaganda agency (back then the term was used openly, as it’s negative connotations only came from the later association with the Nazis) were, Chomsky says, Edward Bernays and Walter Lippman [7] who spoke of the “engineering” [8] and “manufacture of consent” [9] as a way to control the public mind. Bernays called this “the very essence of the democratic process [9]”. Chomsky notes that this was also the beginning of the public relations industry, now an enormous industry in democratic societies, especially the U.S. (p.21), and ‘Taylorism’ in industry, meaning strict control of worker behavior both on and off the job [10], the imposition of a “philosophy of futility” which focused a person on “the superficial things of life, like fashionable consumption [11]”.

With the success of propaganda in Britain and American society during and after WWI, other countries adopted the same techniques, Chomsky notes, like Leninists and (most notoriously) Adolf Hilter, who praised Anglo-American propaganda in his book, Mein Kampf and of course later used his own techniques of propaganda against the German citizens, with well-known disasterous results [12].

After the discussion of the history and development of propaganda, Chomsky turns to the modern usages of persuasion, debunking “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, “imbedded reporting”, “Enduring Freedom”, “unlawful combatant”, “war against terror”, etc.

In doing this, Chomsky (and Barsamian) bring to light some facts not widely reported within the mainstream press that are worth mentioning:

1) Karl Rove’s role in inciting fear and shaping the president’s image before elections and in the run-up to war [13]

2) The attack on Social Security and other social support systems that help the poor

3) The gap between world and U.S. public opinion and the intentional manufacture of consent leading to the Iraq war [14]. Here Barsamian notes:

Bush gave a prime-time press conference, his first in a year and a half, on Thursday, March 6, 2003. It was actually a pre-scripted press conference. He knew in advance who he was going to call on. A study of the transcript reveals a constant repetition of certain phrases - Iraq, Saddam Hussein, threat, increasing threat, deep threat, 9/11, terrorism. On the following Monday, there was a sharp spike in public opinion polls in the United States, showing a majority now believe that Iraq was connected to 9/11.

Chomsky and Barsamian then turn to the analysis of propaganda and what Chomsky has elsewhere called “intellectual self-defense” [15]. Chomsky attempts to show, using simple examples, that regular people with a critical intelligence can easily expose propaganda:

“There are no techniques, just ordinary common sense. If you hear that Iraq is a threat to our existence, but Kuwait doesn’t seem to regard it as a threat to its existence and nobody else in the world does, any sane person will begin to ask, where is the evidence? As soon as you ask this, the argument collapses. But you have to be willing to develop an attitude of critical examination toward whatever is presented to you. Of course, the whole educational system and the media system have the opposite goal. You’re taught to be a passive, obedient follower. Unless you can break out of these habits, you’re likely to be a victim of propaganda. But it’s not that hard to break out (p.32).”

After addressing some of the culture of fear [16], U.S. aggression and war crimes [17], and the “disappearing” of American citizens [18], Chomsky notes that it is only in America among primarily wealthy audiences that he is ever asked What Should I Do?. The poor and oppressed in Turkey, Colombia, or Brazil, he says they just tell him what they are doing.

But people here are trained to believe that there are easy answers, and it doesn’t work that way. If you want to do something, you have to be dedicated and committed to it day after day. Educational programs, organizing, activism. That’s the way things change. You want a magic key, so you can go back to watching television tomorrow? It doesn’t exist.

- Peter Broady

[1] see Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media with Ed Herman, The Political Economy of Human Rights Vol I and II with Ed Herman, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in a Democratic Society, Media Control, and Propaganda and the Public Mind

[2] Chomsky has a long relationship with language and linguistics which goes back to his childhood; he is now professor of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT and is often credited with ‘revolutionizing’ the field with his Syntactic Structures in 1957

[3] One is reminded of the work of progressive thinker and cognitive neuro-linguistic George Lakoff; see Moral Politics

[4] “Cartesian common sense”; see interview with Bill Moyers on The World of Ideas

[5] Randal Martin, Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion, p. 66

[6] The Orwellian nature of such names should be obvious, and it should come as no surprise that Orwell was very aware of these developments; see Orwell, 1984

[7] see Bernays, Propaganda, and Lippman, Public Opinion

[8] Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent; Chomsky, The Culture of Terrorism (South End, 1988). See also two-volume Political Economy of Human Rights (South End, 1979), an extension of an earlier study that was suppressed by the conglomerate that owned the publisher; see the author’s preface for details. See also Herman, The Real Terror Network (South End, 1982); Chomsky’s Pirates and Emperors (Claremont, 1986; Amana, 1988); and much other work over the past twenty years. Also James Aronson, The Press and the Cold War (Beacon, 1970); Michael Parenti, Inventing Reality (St. Martin’s, 1986)

[9] see Manufacturing Consent

[10] Michael Dawson, The Consumer Trap

[11] Stuart Ewen, Captains of Consciousness

[12] This is how ‘propaganda’ came to be a pejorative term

[13] Martin Sieff, American Conservative, 4 November 2002

[14] Howard LaFranchi, Christian Science Monitor, 14 January 2003. Linda Feldmann, Christian Science Monitor, 14 March 2003. Jim Rutenberg and Robin Toner, New York Times, 22 March 2003

[15] see Necessary Illusions

[16] “Only in the United States do people fear Iraq. This is real acheivement in propaganda (p.28).”

[17] “The United States is invading Iraq. It’s as open an act of aggression as there has been in modern history, a major war crime. This is the crime for which the Nazis were hanged at Nuremberg…”

[18] Rachel Meeropol, ed., America’s Disappeared


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