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Sage of Consent NZ Listener Nov 98


He is regarded by some as one of the great thinkers of the century, alongside folk such as Einstein, Freud and Picasso, and his intellectual achievements are said to be as significant as those of Descartes or Darwin. Visiting New Zealand this week for the Media Peace Awards is Noam Chomsky - scientist, founder of modern linguistics, the man credited with initiating the second cognitive revolution and, according to a New York Times article, "arguably, the most important intellectual alive today". But the quietly spoken, eminently polite man on the phone from Massachusetts declines such descriptions. "One should never quote publisher's blurbs, that's a well-known fact." On being "the most important intellectual", he says: "I think people who quote that phrase should also quote the sentence which followed it. Which says something like, 'If this is the case, then how can he write such awful things about the US and its foreign policy?"' In fact, he is more comfortable with the second sentence. "Oh, I understand it all right. [The New York Times] is a major Establishment journal, and I'm hardly their best friend - to the extent that they go beyond the norm and refuse to let me even respond with a few words in a short letter if one of the columns contains some outright slanders. They simply won't permit it. I can understand that. I'm saying things they are not very happy about. " Quite. In fact, if Chomsky is the anarcho-libertarian socialist we all love, in the US he still often regarded a scourge of the Establishment, a commie stooge, lunatic lefty, a simplistic, repetitive, conspirational "blame America firster". Even today, most of the Establishment journals of both political science and the quality press of his own country decline to include him in their pages. Not that he's so bothered. After all, he says, the first 15 pages of your average newspaper are usually devoted entirely to gossip these days. Or Bill and Monica. Talking of which ... "Mostly it's a kind of bore and ridiculous, but there's one interesting aspect," he says. "There is commonly a gap between public opinion and elite opinion, but in this issue it has been an absolute chasm. This affair is an elite obsession. Most of the population don't want to hear about it, haven't been interested in it, wishes these guys would tum to something that matters. That's a very healthy reaction, I think. But it does raise the question of why it is such an elite obsession. I think the reasons might lead us to a psychiatrist's couch."

Noam Chomsky: "They realise to let me even respond with a few words in a short letter if one of the columns contains slanders.

Still, if he's alienated by the Establishment, he is embraced in counter-culture. Even in the US, lefty radio stations regularly programme his interviews, there are dozens of web zines offering all the Chomsky you can download and newsgroups that let you chat about him to your heart's content. Two weeks before his arrival in New Zealand, his lectures were almost booked out. As a journalist once said, people go to hear Chomsky to remind themselves that they are not going mad.

A quick biography then. Avrwn Noam Chomsky was born in 1928 to two Hebrew Ascholars, William and Elsie Chomsky. He was a precocious child who, at 10, wrote an ar,ticle for his school newspaper defending the anarchists in the Spanish Civil war. That same year he read the proofs of his father's edition of a 13th-century Hebrew grammar, an experience that Chomsky credits as sowing the first seeds of his ideas about structural linguistics. (His father not only described, but explained the structure of Hebrew.) As a teenager (an invariably lonely one), Chomsky would catch the train from Philadelphia to New York City to hang out at his Uncle Milton's newspaper stand, which had become a kind of subway salon for roving intellectuals. Chomsky listened, learnt and joined the debates on Freud, Jung, Hitler, Stalin, anarchism, Marxism and the Spanish Revolution. Otherwise, he would spend his time cruising the Philadelphia Library for books on the Spanish Revolution and leftist or Zionist sects. After graduating from high school in 1945, Chomsky enrolled at the University of Pennsyl- vania, where he met Zellig Harris, a professor of linguistics who would become his mentor. Chomsky got his first introduction to structural linguistics as an undergraduate when he read the proofs of Harris's Methods in Structural Linguistics. Chomsky began to adapt HarTis's ideas in the 1950s. For the preceding loo years most believed that language was acquired through habit and imitation. But, wondered Chomsky, how can we innovate by habit? More precisely, how can we create and understand sentences we've never seen or heard before? If you consider that, he said, the whole behaviourist model collapses. Not that he will take all the credit for the innovation: "I was by no means the only person involved ... it was an appropriate time for a substantial reversal of the tendencies towards behaviourism and, more generally, behavioural science. " Chomsky argued instead that our facility for language was part of our genetic endowment - encoded in the deep structures of the mind. The brain is made up of a series of switches that are the sounds we hear around us, which determine e speak English, Yiddish or Hebrew. Thus, if a ded on Earth, he or she would would hear one language, with superficial differences. In making these assertions, Chomsky not only challenged the traditional field of linguistics, but some of the most cherished assumptions of psychology. Any study of the mind could not rest on observation alone, but had to include a serious consideration of pre-existing intemal structures. "There can hardly be any serious doubt that our lives as human beings, our judgments, our choices, our moral judgments, are based on quite rich systems that are part of human nature. Which is why children acquire them in very rich ways with very little experience. "That simply reinforces the conclusion that a structure is basically built in. For a simple reason. How did you ever get the culture? If you ask yourself what is the culture, what are these attitudes, behaviours, beliefs and so on - you find exactly the same thing as when you look at language. The description of particular cases looks extremely intricate and they all look different, but they are acquired by the same human beings, quickly, in a very rich fashion. That means the apparent diversity has to be an illusion, as in the case of language.",

It was in the late 60s that Chomsky embarked on his second career - when he shocked his colleagues by renouncing what lhe called "the American invasion of Vietnam". Since then, he has moonlighted as a radical critic of his country's foreign policy, producing books on the subject faster than most people can read them: on the US rearmament programme, the Iran- Contra scandal, the US siege of Nicaragua, on US involvement in Israel's suppression of the Palestinians et al. (Arid, of course, how the media manufactures consent for such practices.)

Mr Suharto's fall from grace follows a familiar course. Mobutu, Saddam Hussein, Duvalier, Marcos, Somosa - Noam Chomsky.

Washington's post-WW II history, he argues, is one of hemispheric domination, an unrelenting and sophisticated push to organise the world according to its own conceptions. The US as the cop of global economics, using bully-boy tactics on the weaker states - Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, Guatemala, etc. He has, for instance, amassed considerable evidence to show how, in the 60s, Indonesia occupied a prominent place in the US's vision of its new world order. The "function" of South-east Asia, he says, was to provide raw materials and resources to industrialised nations - and Indonesia was the richest prize. Hence, Washington supported the elimination of the independent nationalist movement ("communists" in Washington- speak), supported the installation of Suharto in 1965 and the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975. "Mr Suharto's fall from grace follows a familiar course," Chomsky wrote in an article in Le Monde Diplomatique last month. "Mobutu, Saddam Hussein, Duvalier, Marcos, Somoza etc. The usual reasons are disobedience or loss of control. In Suharto's case, both factors operated - his failure to follow IW orders that were subjecting the population to cruel punishment, then his inability to subdue popular opposition, which made it clear that his useftliness was at an end."

The result of this new world order is a global economy that closely resembles the one that preceded World War II "Those were really pre-democratic societies, including England and the United States. That meant that governments had the power to control things, like exchange rates, and control them without concern for the interests of the population, without concem for social welfare, unemployment and so on. "It wasn't until later that some kind of functioning democracy began to work in the advanced industrial countries. As the world became more democratic, that became harder. You just couldn't ignore the great mass of the population. But, with the effort that is neo-liberalism ... one part of it is to diminish democracy sufficiently so that private powers will be able to run this crazy system. It's called minimising the state - which essentially means minimising the public arena in which people can act." Instead, power has been transferred to financial institutions such as the World Trade Organisation, IMF, the World Bank and to transnational corporations via international trading deals such as the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (on a backbumer, he says, but poised to return in another guise) and Nata. The American Ethyl Corporation, for instance, used the latter to sue Canada for trying to ban a harmful gasoline additive. Moreover, while the US economy is called a triumph of private enterprise, it is in fact a corporate structure with decades of state subsidy behind it. And, although the US preaches free-market ideology to the rest of the world, it continues the practice of fierce protectionism. For ordinary people - in the US and the rest of the world - this has manifested itself in longer working hours, wages stagnating or declining and increased inequality. "The so-called boom that has been raved about by elites is actually a disaster, the slowest recovery in American history. But the wealth is very concentrated, and the people who rave about it happen to be benefiting from it. I probably do, too. I'm on an income level in which I'm one of the beneficiaries." Chomsky's grim vision of a US-led economy can sometimes sound cynical, fatalistic and hopeless. And yet no one could continue his level of output without some residue of optimism, some sense that there is a point. "Well, the world is a complex place. We've been through cycles like this before, and there's always been resistance and there's resistance now. just in the US, for example, the official labour movement has now been somewhat revitalised. It's even beginning for the first time to take the word 'intemational' seriously, not just as a name. That's important in an era of global- isation. Up until quite recently, the leadership of the major unions was in fact ftinctioning as part of the goveniment repres- sive apparatus - linking with the CIA, counter-insurgency, destroying labour movements overseas and so on. The new leadership has dismantled that, and they're now trying to forge links with working people's struggles elsewhere - in Mexico and beyond that. The same thing has to be done in Europe or European labour is going to be in real trouble." Even the fiercest devotees will sometimes chastise Chomsky for being rooted in the past, for failing to produce a utopian vision for the future. What says the guru to such criticisms? "Well, I'm probably one of the few conservatives around in the world. I actually take the Enlightenment seriously, and I think the Enlightem-nent ideals are very important. I also happen to think the ideals of classical liberalism are important. They have been destroyed by rising industrial capitalism, but they were important. And I think many of the ideas and thoughts and hopes that developed in popular struggles over centuries are important. "We can't just take them and apply them to today's world, yet I think there's a great deal in the past that we can learn from, expand on and extend. And, if you want to sketch a utopian vision, I can do it. It's not very hard. But what we really have to ask is how we get from here to there, and that does involve us directly in day-to-day struggles, inspired of course by some longer-term vision. But without dogmatism, you know. No one knows enough to be able to predict or understand how various social mechanisms work. Human life is a complicated affair."

The Media and a Peaceful Society NZ Peace Foundation Media Awards 1998

The media are the most visible part of a broader intellectual culture, sharing many of its fundamental features along with special properties of their own. The basic point was captured succinctly by George Orwell in an important essay on thought-control in free societies. Talking England as his example, he wrote that "the sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without any official ban." The desired outcome results, in part, from the control of the press by "wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics'; and in part from a good education, which brings about a "general tacit agreement that 'it wouldn't do' to mention that particular fact," or even to think it, if the intellectual culture is really functioning properly. Orwell's observations about free societies plainly rank among the inconvenient facts. His essay "literary censorship in England' was found among his unpublished paper 25 years later and is still largely unknown. All systems of authority and domination, including the ones in which we live, rely on a framework of doctrine and belief that provides legitimation. That requires subordinate ideological institutions - media, schools, churches and others - and people to staff them The title also refers to "a peaceful society." That may seem to be a 'good thing." But that is surely not so, without considerable qualification. We do not aspire to the peace of a well-run slave plantation or prison. Or to a peaceful society of "anguish and fear, insecurity about jobs, and what Thoreau described as 'a Iife of quiet desperation'." Ruben Ricupero, speaking for the United Nations at the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation last May, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of its predecessor, Gatt, closed his address by emphasising that "no one should be fooled by the festive atmosphere of these celebrations.' Outside the doors there is "anguish and fear, insecurity and ... quiet desperation." Ricupero's reflections were inconvenient facts and were kept dark. At least in the United States, and to my knowledge elsewhere, the media kept to the upswing rhetoric by Bill Clinton and other star guests. That is standard, operating procedure.

A"Iife of quiet desperation" is one kind of peaceful society. To keep it peaceful is no simple matter, at least when direct force is not an option. Experts in legitimation must gain a good grasp of the kinds of inconvenient facts that are to be kept dark. In the front pages again today is the concept of "peace process." Like most terms of political discourse, this one has two meanings - its literal meaning, and a technical usage. In technical usage, the "Peace process" is whatever the US happens to be doing, perhaps blocking peace. The most successful form of indoctrination would be to suppress the literal meaning,completely, and to install the technical usage as the bounds of the thinkable. Such achievements are rarely possible in totalitarian states; they are common in free societies. Take the most prominent illustration today, the "peace process" in the Middle East., The term has two meanings. In its literal meaning, it would apply to the efforts of the international community to bring about a peaceful settlement of the Israel-Arab conflict. There has been an unusually broad international consensus on this matter since the early 1970s.

It was articulated clearly in a Security Council resolution of January 1976, calling for a settlement that would ensure the territorial integrity and security of all states, including Israel within its internationally recognised boundaries and a Palestinian state in the occupied territories. Agreement was near total, though there was a rejectionist camp, led by Washington, which vetoed the resolution. The position of the US and Israel is that the indigenous population must be denied rights. The US continued to maintain this position in international isolation, as can be seen most clearly in the annual votes at the General Assembly, typically on the order of 150-2, sometimes 3, when the US could pick up the votes of El Salvador or Dominica It is understood that an isolated negative US vote in the assembly, which is very common on a wide range of issues, amounts to a veto. AR of this has disappeared from his- tory, not only in the media but even in most scholarship. For 20 years, the extreme American rejectionist position undermined the peace process, while Washington's stand was depicted in the US as "advancing the peace process"; deviation was undetectable. The last UN vote was December 1990, 144-2. Then came the Gulf War and President Bush's triumphant definition of the New World Order: "What we say goes," at least in the crucial Middle East region. The rest of the world backed off, and the US was free to implement its ultra- rejectionist settlement, as it is now doing. By now the entire world calls this the peace process. So we debate whether Israel should take over all of the usable land and resources of the occupied territories, or whether it should be more forthcoming, and accept a settlement that in fact is much worse than the South African homelands policies of the deep apartheidyears. Anything outside this narrow rejectionist framework is unthinkable, unintelligible. The peace process is the process by which the powerful impose what they call "peace."

There is a scholarly consensus that "the [American] constitution was intrinsically an aristocratic document designed to check the democratic tendencies of the period," delivering power to a "better sort" of people and excluding "those who were not rich, well-born, or prominent from exercising political power." How the project fared in subsequent years is a complex story. It took new forms with the corporatisation of America early in this century, in large part a reaction to market failures that made it clear to business leaders that markets must be administered, by "them," they naturally preferred, backed by a powerful state that is to socialise risk and cost, a feature of the economy that has been particularly significant since the Second World War. In the sophisticated terminology of modem democratic theory, the "rascal multitude" are "ignorant and meddlesome outsiders" who are to be "spectators" but not "participants" in the political system, attending to their personal affairs while the "responsible men' carry out the important work of the world, protected from the "trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd." I am quoting the dean of American journalists in this century, Walter Lippmann, also perhaps the most respected commentator on political and international affairs. The most efficient way to keep the great beast tamed in a peaceful society is to remove decisions over social and economic affairs from the organs of government, which are subject to popular influence in principle - sometimes in fact and to place decision-makiing power in safer hands. The safest hands are private tyrranies that are unaccountable to the public - corporations, banks, the international financial institutions, G-7 executives, and the like. Here the responsible men can work in "technocratic insulation," to borrow World Bank lingo, untroubled by noises from the servants' quarters. For the rich, this does not mean minimization of the state. On the contrary, as the World Bank recently reported, in the OECD countries the state has grown relative to GNP during the neo-liberal era. The most powerful man in America, and one of the most lauded, is Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan -"the saintly Mr Greenspan," as he was recently described in London's Financial Times. He testified before the Senate banking committee about the "economic miracle" over which he has presided - in fact, the slowest recovery from recession since the Second World War and unprecedented in American history since it excludes the large majority. He attributed the miracle to "atypical restraint . on compensation increases [which] appears to be mainly the consequence of greater worker insecurity." Working people are intimidated and afraid to ask for decent wages and working conditions. The facts can be discovered with effort, though it is worth noting that the business press often gives an accurate picture. BusinessWeek took note of the saintly Alan's admiration for "greater worker insecurity," reporting also that 90 per cent of workers express concern over job security. It also reviewed accurately Reaganite initiatives, continuing under Bill Clinton, to perndt the business world to violate laws guaranteeing tabour rights and to disregard , health and safety standards, showing that crime does pay when backed by a criminal state - and again improving the health of the economy. Far from the mainstreaxn, one can also discover studies carried out under Nafta rules showing the effectiveness of the mislabelled "free-trade agreements" in facilitating illegal strike-brealdng. Throughout, the media and responsible intellectuals have taken seriously the task of crafting an appropriate version of reality for the public, silencing inconvenient facts, shaping attitudes and a. rations, and in general helping to maintain a peaceful society, however it may be permeated by insecurity and fear, and often anguish and despair, a remarkable commentary on the richest country in the world, with unparalleled advantages. As always in the past, the successes a,re partial, and likely to be transient. The great beast is hard to tame, and over many years has enlarged the realm of freedom and justice. It is reasonable to expect that the story win go on. How coidd the media contribute to a society that is not only more peaceful but also more free and more just? There are many ways, and they have been pursued. Personal integrity of media participants is a powerful factor, as hard to control as the great beast outside. Its effect can be amplified by a supportive public, which in turn gains from such escape from orthodoxy. It is pointless to, ask powerful institutions to behave differently. Rather, the conditions with which they function can be changed. Even in totalitarian or slave societies, the institutions of power have to respond to popular demands and turmoil, certainly so in societies that are more free from direct coercion. And our societies have changed quite significantly in the past 30 years, often in quite positive directions, with new commitinent for human and civil rights, rights of women and minorities, respect for other cultures, concem for the future generations who will have to endure environmental catastrophes, and a very notable resistance to aggression and terror. The words are hard to utter after this terrible century, but the fact is that there has been substantial improvement in many aspects of human life and consciousness, extending an earlier history of progress - agonisingly slow, often reversing, but nonetheless real. Particularly in the societies that are more privileged and that have won a significant measure of freedom, many choices are available, including fundamental institutional change if that is the right way to proceed. We need not quietly accept the suffering and injustice that are all around us, and the prospects, which are not slight, of severe catastrophes if human society continues on its present course.