[This essay is part of the ZNet Classics series. Three times a week we will re-post an article that we think is of timeless importance. This one was first published June, 1997.
BARSAMIAN: You’ve been spending time in South America, where you’ve observed popular grassroots movements. Do you see any lessons that people in the U.S. can learn from these situations?
CHOMSKY: First of all, these are very vibrant and dynamic societies with huge problems. One thing I was immediately struck by was that no one ever asked, What’s the grand strategy for overthrowing this and that? People don’t say, What should I do? They say, Here’s what I’m doing. What do you think about it? There are lots of things going on. They are impressive. The circumstances are extremely difficult, much harder than anything we face. But they’re not waiting for a magic key, which there isn’t. Brazil, for example, has the largest labor-based party in the world which would have won any fair election. By that I don’t mean that the votes were stolen. I mean that the resources and the media were so overwhelmingly on the other side that there wasn’t a serious election. But otherwise they would have won. It has its problems, but it’s an impressive organization with a radical democratic and socialist thrust, a lot of popular support, lots of potential. The landless workers movement is struggling under very hard circumstances to deal with a core problem of Brazilian society, the incredible inequality of land ownership and control and inequality generally. There’s organizing in shantytowns.
Is it enough to change things? I think they’re also trapped by many delusions. You have to free your mind. The weapon that is being used, to carry out the analog to Reaganomics in Brazil, is the debt. The same with most of Latin America. We’ve got this terrible debt. We’ve got to minimize the state. They don’t have any debt. They have to understand that. Just as we have to understand that private tyrannies have no legitimacy. People don’t liberate themselves alone. You liberate yourself through participation with others. Just like you learn things in science by interacting with others. The complicated network of popular organizations and the umbrella groups like the Workers Party help create a basis for this.
We have all sorts of advantages that they don’t have, like for example, enormous wealth. Also, we have the unique advantage that we don’t have a superpower standing over us. We are the superpower. That makes a huge difference. So the opportunities here are vastly greater. It’s kind of striking to see, you just feel how stultifying it is, in many ways, when you come from there back here. For one thing, the doctrinal rigidity here is startling. Anybody who comes back from the Third World to the West in general, but here in particular, is struck by the narrowing of thought and understanding, the limited nature of legitimate discussion, the separation of people from one another.
I wasn’t in Chile long enough to have much of an impression, but I think it’s probably true there too. That’s a country which is very clearly under military rule. We call it a democracy, but it’s a democracy with the military setting very narrow bounds as to what can happen. And it’s in people’s attitudes. You can see it. They know there are limits you don’t transcend.
Do you have any ideas on getting from the choir, those that agree with your ideas, to the larger congregation? This seems to be a major problem.
It’s the usual problem. First of all, I think almost everybody agrees with these ideas. For example, 95 percent of the population thinks that corporations ought to sacrifice profits for the benefit of workers and the community. I don’t think that’s enough, but I certainly agree with that. Over 80 percent of the population thinks that the economic situation is inherently unfair and ought to be changed. I agree with that. How do you get out? By doing it. Everywhere you go or I go or anybody else goes, it’s because some organized group has set something up. I can’t go to, say, Kansas City and say, I’m going to give a talk. I won’t have one person showing up. Why should they? On the other hand, if some group there which is organizing and active says, Let’s put together a meeting and bring people in, then I can go and give a talk and people come from all over the place to hear it. All this goes back to the same thing. If people are going to dedicate themselves to organizing and activism, whether it’s in unions or community organizations or working on health programs or on and on, yes, then you can have access to broader and broader audiences. How broad? It depends on how strong the movement is.
Michael Moore is a filmmaker who did Roger and Me. He also does “TV Nation.” He has a new book out called Downsize This! He says the problem with the left is that it’s boring. It whines too much and it’s very negative, and that turns people off. Anything to that?
That may be. If it is, it’s making a mistake. For example, I don’t think Howard Zinn whines too much and turns people off. Probably plenty of people do. Take the example I gave you of that media group in Brazil, which after very careful planning and working with leadership in the community presented television skits in public which turned people off because they were boring and full of jargon and intellectual talk. On the other hand, when they let the people do it themselves and gave them the technical assistance, it turned out not to be boring and not to turn people off. This is for people who like to write fancy articles about the responsibility of intellectuals. That’s their responsibility. Go out and do things like that. And make sure it’s the people themselves who are doing it. You give them what help you can. Learn from them. That’s the responsibility of intellectuals.
I produce Alternative Radio, a one-hour program. It is pretty effectively locked out of the Boston-to-Miami corridor. This belt is very difficult to penetrate. In contrast with that, in the West, in Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, places like that, it’s much easier to get AR on the air.
The institutional reasons are pretty obvious, the same reason why discussion is narrower and more rigid and more stultifying here than in other countries. It’s just more important. This is the part of the country where the decisions are being made. So you’ve got to keep it under tight doctrinal control and make sure that nothing gets out of hand. It doesn’t matter what people are talking about in Laramie, Wyoming. Still less in the slums of Rio. So there are institutional reasons. On the other hand, don’t just blame them. People here are not making use of the possibilities they have. So take, say, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cambridge, like other towns, has a community cable television station. That was part of the communications act, that the companies had to provide facilities. I’ve been there. I’m not a big techie, but even I can see that it has pretty good equipment. They claim to have outreach to the Cambridge area. Is it used by anyone? It’s available to the public. The one time I was there the program was so crazy I almost walked off. Is it being used? No. In the slums of Rio do they have cable television stations which the people can use? Boy, they’d be delighted if they had them. We have them and we’re not using them.
What would happen if you had lively local cable TV? You’d find that the commercial channels would be responding to that. They might try to stop it or to undercut it or co-opt it or something, but they would have to respond to it if it got to a big enough scale. Same with the other media. Same with NPR [National Public Radio]. They’re not going to be able to disregard what’s happening in their communities. If nothing’s happening, sure, they have a free ride. So, on the one hand, there are understandable institutional reasons why this corridor should be the most deeply indoctrinated, the most rigid, the hardest to penetrate. But it’s not a law of nature. The same reasons that make it the most rigid make it the richest in resources, meaning the richest in options to overcome if people do something about it. Not if they sit around waiting for a savior.
Let’s talk more about the media and this notion of supply and demand and the current tabloidization of the news. Criticisms are made of what’s happening to newscasts and the content of the news. The program directors and editors are saying, We’re giving the public what it wants. No one’s forcing them to read this stuff. No one’s forcing them to turn on the TV and watch crime stories and sports reports. What do you think about that?
There are studies of what people want. What they want overwhelmingly is commercial-free television. Do you see commercial-free television? The television system here is a business where big corporations sell audiences to other businesses, and they’re going to keep it within a narrow framework. What people want is socially created. For example, take again that working-class slum in Brazil that I mentioned. I was there in prime television time. They had all the soap operas and all the junk. But what people wanted was things they themselves were producing about racism and debt and internal problems and so on. What you want depends on who you are. Who you are depends on what options you’ve had, what kind of training you’ve had, what experiences you’ve had. That determines what you want. The kinds of wants that come out of interactions with other people to solve a problem, those wants aren’t going to be there unless there is interaction with other people to solve the problem. You can’t just say, well, that’s what people want. Sure, under that structured arrangement that’s what people will choose. Change the structure, they’ll choose different things.
In August 1996, Gary Webb, a reporter for the San José Mercury News, wrote a three-part article entitled “Dark Alliance,” purporting to show that there was a connection between the explosion of crack cocaine in the black ghetto in LA and the CIA. You’ve often stayed away from such stories.
That’s not quite true. I just put it differently. For example, the relation between the CIA and drugs is certain. That’s been well studied, since Al McCoy’s work 25 years ago. The trail of clandestine activities is followed very closely by drug activities. There are pretty good reasons for that. Clandestine activities require untraceable money. They require lots of thugs. Where do you go? It’s natural. So it starts right after the Second World War. We can follow the trail through the French Connection in Marseilles, trying to undermine the resistance in the unions, to the Golden Triangle in Laos, Burma, etc., and on to Afghanistan and all these places. The CIA has been involved, but as an agency of state policy. What I don’t agree with, and here I differ from a lot of others, is I don’t think the CIA is an independent agency. I think it does what it’s told. You can maybe find examples, but as far as I read the records, the CIA is basically the agency of the White House, carrying out operations that require plausible deniability. Take the source of the Webb story, which is fundamentally correct. Bob Parry and Brian Barger exposed a lot of it ten years ago. They were shut up very quickly. But their evidence was correct. The U.S. was involved in massive international terrorism throughout Central America. It was clandestine to a large extent, meaning everybody knew about it, but it was below the surface enough so you could pretend you didn’t. They needed the usual things: untraceable money and brutal thugs. They naturally turned right away to the narco-traffickers. Noriega was our great friend, remember, until he decided not to play a part in this any longer. He became too independent and had to be thrown out. But in the beginning he was fine, an ordinary thug, narco-trafficker, helping with the contras. So, of course, there’s a connection between the CIA and drugs. What Webb did was trace some of the details and find that one aspect of that connection was that cocaine got into the ghetto through such-and-such a passage. That’s predictable. When the CIA says they didn’t know anything about it, I assume they’re right. Why should they know anything about it? It’s not their business.
The structure of the system, however, is very clear. And it’s not just this case. It’s many other cases. That it’s going to end up in the ghettos is not a plot. It’s just going to happen in the natural course of events. It’s not going to sneak into well-defended communities which can protect themselves. It will break into communities that are being devastated, often by external social forces where people are alone and have to fight for survival. Kids aren’t cared for because their parents are working to put food on the table. That’s where it’s going to break into.
You wrote to a mutual friend about when educated classes line up for a parade, a person of conscience has three options. Either one can join them and march in the parade, or one can join the cheering throngs and watch from the sidelines, or one can speak out against it and all expect to pay the price.
That’s about right. That’s been going on for a couple of thousand years, too.
Where do you see yourself in that parade structure?
It’s a question of choice, but I would like to see myself with those who are not joining and not cheering. Incidentally, the origins of our own history are exactly that. Go back to the oldest recorded texts. Just notice what happens to people who didn’t march in the parade, like what happened to Socrates. He wasn’t treated very nicely. Or take the Bible. The Bible had intellectuals. They called them “prophets.” They fell into the usual two classes. There were the ones who were flattering the kings and telling them how wonderful they were and leading the parade or cheering the parade. They were the ones who were honored and respected. A couple of hundred years later, a thousand years later they were called false prophets, but not at the time. There were other people, like, say, Amos, who incidentally insisted, I am not an intellectual, or as he put it, I am not a prophet. I am not the son of a prophet. I am a poor farmer. He had other things to say, as did many of the people who were much later honored as prophets. They were imprisoned, persecuted, hated, despised. Any surprise in that? If you don’t join in the parade—remember the prophets were giving geopolitical analysis as well as moral lessons—you’re hated. The geopolitical analysis turned out to be pretty accurate. The moral prescriptions were often very elevated. Why were people in power going to like that? Of course they were going to drive them out. You might say, going back to your television producer about people watching what they want, yeah, it was the public who was driving them into the desert and imprisoning them. They don’t want to hear it either. Not because they’re bad people, but for the usual reasons: short-term interest, manipulation, dependence on power. That’s an image of what the world is like. Of course, that’s a negative image. There are plenty of successes. The world is way better than it was. Go back to the 18th century, the way people were treating each other was an unbelievable horror. Go back 50 years and the circumstances were indescribably bad. Right now we’re trying to defend a minimal healthcare system. Thirty years ago we weren’t because there wasn’t any. That’s progress. Over a long period there were plenty of successes. They’re cumulative. They lead us to new peaks to climb. Plenty of failures, too. Nobody ever assured us that it was going to be easy.
José Ramos-Horta and Bishop Carlos Belo of East Timor, were honored with the Nobel Prize.
That was great, a wonderful thing. I ran into José Ramos-Horta in Sao Paolo. I haven’t seen his official speech yet, but certainly he was saying in public that the prize should have been given to Xanana Gusmao, who is the leader of the resistance to Indonesian aggression. He’s in an Indonesian jail. But the recognition of the struggle is a very important thing, or will be an important thing if we can turn it into something. It will be suppressed as quickly as possible, polite applause, and let’s forget about it. If that happens it’s our fault, nobody else’s. This gives an opportunity to keep this issue up front. Right now the Clinton administration is planning to send advanced arms to Indonesia. That doesn’t have to work. But it will work unless there’s a real public outcry. The granting of the Nobel Peace Prize offers a golden opportunity for people who care about the fate of a couple hundred thousand people to do something about it. But it’s not going to happen by itself. In fact, some of the major issues about this have never even made it to the American press, like the oil issue. A large part of the reason for the Indonesian invasion and the U.S. and Australian support for it was that Timor has rich oil resources which are now being robbed in an outlandishly disgraceful Australian-Indonesian treaty, with U.S. oil companies involved. We can do something about that.
Didn’t you have occasion in the early 1980s to go to the New York Times editorial offices with a Portuguese Timorese?
What actually happened was they were refusing to interview Timorese refugees in Lisbon and Australia, claiming that they had no access to them.
The Times was claiming this?
Everybody was. We brought over some Timorese refugees. Actually I paid to bring them from Lisbon and tried to bring them to the editorial offices. It didn’t work. The case you’re mentioning was a little more complicated. The story has not been told because I’m not sure how much to tell of it. Someday it will be told. I arranged to have a Portuguese priest, Father Leoneto do Rego, interviewed by the New York Times. He was a very interesting man and a very credible witness. He had been living in the mountains with the Timorese resistance and had been driven out during the really near-genocidal campaign of 1978, when then-president Carter vastly increased the flow of weapons and Indonesia really smashed people. When they talk about hundreds of thousands of people being killed, that’s then. A lot of people were driven out of the hills. He was one of them. He’s Portuguese, so they didn’t murder him. They let him get out. He was a very credible witness, a classmate of the Archbishop of Boston, pretty hard to disregard. He could describe what was happening. Nobody would talk to him.
Finally, in a complicated way, I got the Times to agree to interview him. The interview ran, by Kathleen Teltsch. It was an utter disgrace. It said almost nothing about what was happening. It had one line in it saying, Things aren’t nice in Timor, or something like that. I think it must be that event that shamed the Times editors into running their first serious editorial on the problem. That’s my strong suspicion. The transcript of that interview later leaked. I was working very hard to get the Boston Globe to cover the story. They were just publishing State Department handouts and apologetics from Indonesian generals. I finally got them to agree to look at the facts. They offered to let me write an op-ed. I said, No, I don’t want to write an op-ed. Get one of your reporters to look into it. So they didn’t take it too seriously. They gave it to an extremely good local reporter. He was not an international reporter. The last I heard he was reporting on restaurants. He dug the way you dig into a local story, like investigating a corrupt judge, good reporting. We helped him with some leads, but he picked it up and ran with the story. He wrote the best story on Timor that had ever appeared in the American press. One of the things he did was get to the State Department and find a guy who had been transferred away from the Indonesia desk because he didn’t like what was going on. Somehow this guy leaked to him a transcript of the actual New York Times interview and he published good parts of it. It was a very powerful interview with Father Leoneto saying extremely important things. So that Times interview did appear in the Boston Globe. That must have been around 1981.
All this stuff was going on. Censorship had been total, and I mean total. In 1978, when the atrocities peaked and U.S. and British arms flow peaked, coverage was literally zero. The first article in the U.S., at least it’s listed in the Reader’s Guide, that specifically deals with Timor, is one of my own. It was from Inquiry, a right-wing libertarian journal where I was writing in those days. It was basically testimony that I had given in the UN on the suppression of the issue by the Western, primarily the U.S., press. There had been an earlier article by Arnold Kohen about Indonesia in The Nation, which had discussed this, and that’s it for the journals. It’s not that nobody noticed it. You go back to 1974-75, there was very extensive coverage in the context of the collapse of the Portuguese empire. It dropped to zero at the peak of the atrocities, started picking up again around 1979-80 as a result very largely of these activities.
Incidentally, here’s a case where a very small number of people, the most important by far being Arnold Kohen, managed to get the issue to some extent into the public arena. It certainly saved tens of thousands of lives. The Red Cross was allowed in. There was some attention. The terror continued but lessened. And on to the present. Here’s a case where the Internet made a difference. The East Timor Action Network was a very small and scattered support group until the Internet came along. That was used very constructively by Charlie Scheiner and others to set up a wide base of support to bring the information to people who couldn’t get it. I was getting information from the Australian press, but how many people have friends in Australia who send them the press? Now everybody was getting it who wanted it very fast. The movement grew and became significant enough to have an impact.
Does the Guatemala peace treaty that was signed signal the end to this three-decade-old bloodbath?
I’m sort of glad it’s being signed, but it’s a sad occasion. What it reflects is the great success of state terror, which has devastated any serious opposition, has intimidated people, has made it not only acceptable but even desirable for them to have the rule of ultra-right business interests, mostly foreign interests, in a peace treaty which may, let’s hope, put an end to the real horrors. So in the context a step forward, but in the broader picture a very ugly outcome of one of the biggest state terror operations of the modern period, which started in 1954 when the U.S. took part in overthrowing the one democratic government.
I’d like to end with an incident that you told me about, just to give people a flavor of how far you’ve traveled personally and your family background, when we were sitting in a car in North Carolina four or five years ago. It involved you and your brother and your Orthodox grandfather over a radio. Do you remember?
I remember it very well. My family was first generation, so we lived in Philadelphia, but there were two big branches of the family. My father’s family was in Baltimore and my mother’s family was in New York. They were quite different. The one in Baltimore was very religious. My father told me that they reverted into even deeper Orthodoxy after they left Eastern Europe and came here, which is not unknown. We were sort of observant, but not super-Orthodox. My brother and I, I was maybe six or seven, he was maybe two. We went there for the holidays. It was nice to see cousins. But there was always a tone of fear which I remember well from childhood, the fear that I would do something wrong. I don’t know what it is, but I’m going to do something wrong. Because I don’t know the rules. It wasn’t that they were harsh, it was just that you knew you were going to do something wrong and you were going to be ashamed of it. It’s one of these things that’s inevitable. The incident I remember was when my brother on Saturday turned on a radio very loud. Saturday is the big family day, everybody is sitting around the kitchen having fun, and this radio starts blaring, driving everybody crazy. Of course, nobody could turn it down. You’re not allowed to touch it on Saturday. He understood enough to know that he had done something really criminal. He had made everybody suffer this horrible noise all through Saturday. I was a few years older and I could perceive the criminality, but I’m sure it didn’t leave an indelible stain on his memory. He’s probably forgotten about it. But I remember it quite well.