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Understanding Power

Understanding Power

The Indispensable Chomsky

Explanatory footnotes available at WWW.

Edited by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel


© 2002 by Noam Chomsky, Peter Rounds Mitchell, and John Schoeffel

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, in any form, without written

permission from the publisher.

Published in the United States by The New Press, New York, 2002 Distributed by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York

Explanatory footnotes available at

ISBN 1-56584-703-2

CIP data available

The New Press was established in 1990 as a not-for-profit alternative to the large, commercial publishing houses currently dominating the book publishing industry. The New Press operates in the public interest rather than for private gain, and is committed to publishing, in innovative ways, works of educational, cultural, and community value that are often deemed insufficiently profitable.

The New Press, 450 West 41st Street, 6th floor, New York, NY 10036

Printed in Canada

19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10


Editors' Preface XI

A Note on the Events of September II, 200 I XIlI

Chapter One Weekend Teach-In: Opening Session 1

The Achievements of Domestic Dissidence I

The U.S. Network of Terrorist Mercenary States 4

Overthrowing Third World Governments 6

Government Secrecy 10

The Media: An Institutional Analysis 12

__ Testing the "Propaganda Model" 15

- The Media and Elite Opinion 18

Filters on Reporting 24

Honest Subordination 30

"Fight it Better"; the Media and the Vietnam War 31

Chapter Two Teach-In: Over Coffee 37

"Containing" the Soviet Union in the Cold War 37

Orwell's World and Ours 41

Contemporary Poverty 45

Religious Fanaticism 50

'The Real Anti-Semitism" 51

Ronald Reagan and the Future of Democracy 53

Two New Factors in World Affairs 58

Democracy Under Capitalism 60

The Empire 64

Change and the Future 67

Chapter Three Teach-In: Evening

The Military- Industrial Complex The Permanent War Economy

70 70 73




Libyan and American Terrorism


The U.S. and the U.N.


Business, Apartheid, and Racism


Winning the Vietnam War


"Genocide": the United States and Pol Pot


Heroes and Anti-Heroes


"Anti - Intellectualism"


Spectator Sports


Western European Activism and Canada


Dispelling Illusions


Chapter Four



The Totalitarian Strain


A Lithuania Hypothetical


Perpetuating Brainwashing Under



Journalism LeMoyne-Style: A Sample of

the Cynical Aspect


Rethinking Watergate


Escaping Indoctrination


Understanding the Middle East Conflict


The Threat of Peace


Water and the Occupied Territories


Imperial Ambitions and the Arab Threat


Prospects for the Palestinians


Legitimacy in History


Qualifications to Speak on World Affairs; A


Presidential Campaign

Chapter Five

Ruling the World


Soviet Versus Western Economic



Supporting Terror


"People's Democratic Socialist Republics"


Contents vii

The Organ Trade 146

The Real Crime of Cuba 148

Panama and Popular Invasions 151

Muslims and U.S. Foreign Policy 154

Haiti: Disturbance at an Export Platform 155

Texaco and the Spanish Revolution 159

Averting Democracy in Italy 160

P.R. in Somalia 163

The Gulf War 165

Bosnia: Intervention Questions 171

Toying With India 172

The Oslo Agreement and Imperialist Revival 174

Chapter Six
Community Activists Discussion Circle
177 177

The Early Peace Movement and a Change

in the l970s 180

The Nuclear Freeze Movement 184

Awareness and Actions 186

Leaders and Movements 188

Levels of Change 189

Non-Violence 193

Transcending Capitalism 195

The Kibbutz Experiment 196

"Anarchism" and "Libertarianism" 199

Articulating Visions 201

"Want" Creation 203

Dissidents: Ignored or Vilified 204

Teaching About Resistance 211

Isolation 212

Science and Human Nature 214

Charlatans in the Sciences 217

Adam Smith: Real and Fake 221

The Computer and the Crowbar 223

viii Contents

Chapter Seven Intellectuals and Social Change 224

The Leninist/Capitalist Intelligentsia 224

Marxist "Theory" and Intellectual Fakery 227

Ideological Control in the Sciences and

Humanities 231

The Function of the Schools 233

Subtler Methods of Control 238

Cruder Methods of Control 242

The Fate of an Honest Intellectual 244

Forging Working-Class Culture 248

The Fraud of Modern Economics 251

The Real Market 255

Automation 258

A Revolutionary Change in Moral Values 260

Chapter Eight Popular Struggle 267

Discovering New Forms of Oppression 267

Freedom of Speech 268

Negative and Positive Freedoms 272

Cyberspace and Activism 276

"Free Trade" Agreements 280

Defense Department Funding and "Clean Money" 284

The Favored State and Enemy States 286

Canada's Media 288

Should Quebec Separate from Canada? 291

Deciphering "China" 282

Indonesia's Killing Fields: U.S.-Backed Genocide 294

in East Timor

Mass Murderers at Harvard 298

Changes in Indonesia 299

Nuclear Proliferation and North Korea 301

The Samson Option 303

The Lot of the Palestinians 305

P.L.O. Ambitions 310

The Nation-State System 313

Contents ix

Chapter Nine Movement Organizing 31 B

The Movie Manufacturing Consent 318

Media Activism 323

Self-Destruction of the U.S. Left 326

Popular Education 331

Third-Party Politics 333

Boycotts 337

"A Praxis" 339

The War on Unions 339

Inner-City Schools 342

Defending the Welfare State 344

Pension Funds and the Law 346

Conspiracy Theories 348

The Decision to Get Involved 351

"Human Nature Is Corrupt" 355

Discovering Morality 356

Abortion 358

Moral Values 359

Chapter Ten
Turning Point

Bringing the Third World Home Welfare; the Pea and the Mountain Crime Control and "Superfluous" People Violence and Repression

International Capital; the New Imperial Age The Fairy Tale Economy

Building International Unions

Initial Moves and the Coming Crisis Elite Planning-Slipping Out of Hand Disturbed Populations Stirring

The Verge of Fascism

The Future of History

363 363 367 370 373 377 382 383 387 390 395 398 400


Editors' Preface

This book brings together the work of one of the most remarkable polit­ical activists and thinkers of our time. The discussions span a wide array of topics-from the workings of the modern media, to globalization, the edu­cation system, environmental crises, the military-industrial complex, ac­tivist strategies, and beyond-and present a revolutionary perspective for evaluating the world, and for understanding power.

What distinguishes Noam Chomsky's political thinking is not anyone novel insight or single overarching idea. In fact, Chomsky's political stance is rooted in concepts that have been understood for centuries. Rather, Chomsky's great contribution is his mastery of a huge wealth of factual in­formation, and his uncanny skill at unmasking, in case after case, the work­ings and deceptions of powerful institutions in today's world. His method involves teaching through examples-not in the abstract-as a means of helping people to learn how to think critically for themselves.

The opening chapter introduces two themes that underlie nearly every aspect of the book: the progress of activism in changing the world, and the role of the media in staving off that activism and in shaping the way we think. The book follows a roughly chronological order, and begins with four discussions that took place in 1989 and 1990-the dawn of the post­-Cold War era. These first chapters lay a foundation for Chomsky's subse­quent analysis. The remaining chapters explore more recent developments in U.S. foreign policy, international economics, the domestic social and po­litical environment, as well as activist strategies and problems. The book and its accompanying footnotes bring Chomsky's analysis right up to the present day.

The internet has enabled us to place extensive documentation in our footnotes, which appear at the book's website. These vast online notes go well beyond mere citation to sources: they include commentary on the text, excerpts from government documents, significant quotations from newspa­per articles and scholarship, and other important information. Our goal was to make accessible much of the evidence supporting each of Chomsky's factual assertions. The notes also add additional depth for those interested in a given topic.

The complete footnotes-which are longer than the text itself-can be easily downloaded from the book's website,


xii Editors' Preface

(they can also be accessed through Information about obtaining a bound printout of the notes is available on the website, or by writing us in care of the publisher.

The book was put together as follows. We transcribed tapes of dozens of question-and-answer sessions, edited them for readability, then reorgan­ized and combined them to eliminate repetition and present the analysis in a coherent progression of topics and ideas. Our aim was to compile an overview of Chomsky's political thought that combines the rigor and docu­mentation of his scholarly books with the accessibility of the interview for­mat. Always we remained faithful to Chomsky's own language and answers-and he reviewed the text-but it was necessary to make superfi­cial alterations for structural and stylistic reasons.

Most of the material is from seminar-style discussions with groups of ac­tivists, or from question periods after public talks, held between 1989 and 1999. Some of the answers in chapters 6, 7, 8 and 9 are taken from conver­sations between Chomsky and Michael Albert. Questioners are identified as "Man" or "Woman" because frequently this device reveals when the same person is pursuing a line of questioning, or whether somebody else has taken over.

We have personally checked and verified the sources cited in the foot­notes, except for certain foreign language materials. Most of the sources are those Chomsky relied upon when making his comments in the text, but some are not. Emily Mitchell's assistance in retrieving reams of this mate­rial in the final months of our work on this project was invaluable. We di­rect readers to footnote 67 of chapter 1 for discussion of one common misunderstanding regarding the footnotes: that the frequent citation to ar­ticles from the mainstream media is at odds with the "Propaganda Model" of the media, which Chomsky outlines in chapter 1.

We want to thank our parents-Emily and George Mitchell and Ron and Jone Schoeffel-whose support made the book possible.

-The Editors

Note on the Events of September 11, 200 1

As this book was going to print, hijacked airplanes hit the World Trade r and Pentagon, killing thousands and potentially triggering major repercussions in U.S. society and in the world. The U.S. media devoted huge rage to the attacks and their aftermath. But, overwhelmingly, the media omitted a critical, accurate discussion of the context in which they occurred.

When President Bush and U.S. officials announced that "America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and op­portunity in the world," the mainstream media in the U.S. mostly echoed : refrains. A lead analysis in the New York Times stated that the perpetrators had acted out of "hatred for the values cherished in the West as free­dom, tolerance, prosperity, religious pluralism and universal suffrage." Glaringly missing from the U.S. media's coverage was a full and realistic acc­ount of U.S. foreign policy and its effects around the world. It was hard ;0 find anything but a passing mention of the immense slaughter of Iraqi

civilians during the Gulf War, the devastation of Iraq's population by U.S.­-instigated sanctions throughout the past decade, the U.S's crucial role in supporting Israel's 35-year occupation of Palestinian territories, its support for brutal dictatorships throughout the Middle East that repress the local populations, and on and on. Similarly absent was any suggestion that U.S. foreign policy should in fundamental ways be changed.

This book was compiled before the events of September 11,2001. But answers to many of the most important questions presented by those at­tacks will be found here. Why does the media provide such a limited and uncritical perspective, and such inaccurate analysis? What is the basis of U.S. foreign policy and why does it engender such widespread hatred of the U.S.? What can ordinary citizens do to change these situations?

As Chomsky noted right after the attacks, "The people in the advanced countries now face a choice: we can express justified horror, or we can seek to understand what may have led to the crimes. If we refuse to do the latter, we will be contributing to the likelihood that much worse lies ahead." From our frightening, current vantage point, the discussions collected in this book seem more urgent than ever. We hope that the book will provide a starting point for understanding, and will contribute to the critical de­bates-and changes-that must now occur.


Understanding Power


Weekend Teach-In:

Opening Session

Based primarily on discussions at Rowe, Massachusetts, April 15-16, 1989.

The Achievements of Domestic Dissidence

WOMAN: Noam, I think the reason we've all come out here to spend the weekend talking with you is to get some of your perspectives on the state of the world, and what we can do to change it. I'm wondering, do you think activism has brought about many changes in the U.S.A. in the past few de­cades?

Oh sure, big changes actually. I don't think the structure of the institu­tions has been changed-but you can see real changes in the culture, and in a lot of other ways too.

For instance, compare two Presidential administrations in the 1960s and 1980s, the Kennedy administration and the Reagan administration. Now, in a sense they had a lot in common, contrary to what everyone says. Both came into office on fraudulent denunciations of their predecessors as being wimpish and weak and letting the Russians get ahead of us-there was a fraudulent "missile gap" in the Kennedy case, a fraudulent "window of vul­nerability" in the Reagan case. Both were characterized by a major escala­tion of the arms race, which means more international violence and increased taxpayer subsidies to advanced industry at home through military spending. Both were jingoist, both tried to whip up fear in the general popu­lation through a lot of militarist hysteria and jingoism. Both launched highly aggressive foreign policies around the world-Kennedy substantially in­creased the level of violence in Latin America; the plague of repression that culminated in the 1980s under Reagan was in fact largely a result of his ini­tiatives.1

2 Understanding Power

Of course, the Kennedy administration was different in that, at least rhetorically, and to some extent in practice, it was concerned for social re­form programs at home, whereas the Reagan administration was commit­ted to the opposite, to eliminating what there was of a social welfare system here. But that probably reflects the difference in international affairs in the two periods more than anything else. In the early 1960s, the United States was the world-dominant power, and had plenty of opportunity for combin­ing international violence and commitment to military spending with social reform at home. By the 1980s, that same opportunity wasn't around any­more: the United States was just not that powerful and not that rich relative to its industrial rivals-in absolute terms it was, but not relatively. And there was a general consensus among elites, it wasn't just Reagan, that you had to break down the welfare state in order to maintain the profitability and competitiveness of American capital. But that difference apart, the two administrations were very similar.

On the other hand, they couldn't do the same things. So for example, Kennedy could invade Cuba and launch the world's to-date major interna­tional terrorist operation against them-which went on for years, probably still is going on.2 He was able to invade South Vietnam, which he did after all: Kennedy sent the American Air Force to bomb and napalm South Viet­nam and defoliate the country, and he sent troops to crush the peasant in­dependence movement there.3 And Vietnam's an area of minor American concern, it's way on the other end of the world. The Reagan administration tried to do similar things much closer to home in Central America, and couldn't. As soon as they started moving towards direct intervention in Central America in the first few months of the administration in 1981, they had to back off and move to clandestine operations-secret arms sales, covert funding through client states, training of terrorist forces like the con­tras in Nicaragua, and so on.4

That's a very striking difference, a dramatic difference. And I think that difference is one of the achievements of the activism and dissidence of the last twenty-five years. In fact, the Reagan administration was forced to cre­ate a major propaganda office, the Office of Public Diplomacy: it's not the first one in American history, it's the second, the first was during the Wilson administration in 1917. But this one was much larger, much more exten­sive, it was a major effort at indoctrinating the public.s The Kennedy ad­ministration never had to do that, because they could trust that the population would be supportive of any form of violence and aggression they decided to carry out. That's a big change, and it's had its effects. There were no B-52s in Central America in the 1980s. It was bad enough, hun­dreds of thousands of people were slaughtered-but if we'd sent B-52s and the 82nd Airborne, it would have been a lot worse. And that's a reflection of a serious rise in domestic dissidence and activism in the United States over the past twenty-five years. The Reagan administration was forced into clandestine tactics rather than direct aggression of the sort that Kennedy

Chapter One 3

was able to use in Vietnam, largely in order to pacify the domestic popula­tion. As soon as Reagan indicated that he might try to turn to direct mili­tary intervention in Central America, there was a convulsion in the country, ranging from a massive flow of letters, to demonstrations, to church groups getting involved; people started coming out of the woodwork all over the place. And the administration immediately backed off.

Also, the Reagan military budget had to level off by 1985. It did spurt, pretty much along the lines of Carter administration projections, but then it leveled off at about what it would have been if Carter had stayed in.6 Well, why did that happen? Partly it happened because of fiscal problems arising after four years of catastrophic Reaganite deficit spending, but partly it was just because there was a lot of domestic dissidence.

And by now that dissidence is kind of irrepressible, actually. The fact that it doesn't have a center, and doesn't have a source, and doesn't have an organizational structure, that has both strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses are that people get the sense that they're alone-because you don't see things happening down the street. And it's possible to maintain the illusion that there's no activism going on, because there's nothing dra­matically visible, like huge demonstrations or something; occasionally there are, but not most of the time. And there's very little in the way of inter-communication, so all sorts of organizing can be happening in paral­lel, but it doesn't feed into itself and move on from there. Those are all weaknesses. On the other hand, the strength is, it's very hard to crush­--because there's nothing to cut off: if one thing gets eliminated, something else just comes up to take its place.

So looking over a long stretch, I don't think it's true that things have got­ten more passive, more quiescent, more indoctrinated and so on. In fact, if anything, it's the opposite. But it's sort of neither more nor less, really, it's just different.

And you can see it in all kinds of ways. I mean, public opposition to the policies of the Reagan administration kept rising-it was always very high, and it rose through the Eighties.7 Or take the media: there have been slight changes, there's more openness. It's easier for dissidents to get access to the media today than it was twenty years ago. It's not easy, like it's 0.2 percent instead of 0.1 percent, but it is different. And in fact, by now there are even people inside the institutions who came out of the culture and experiences of the Sixties, and have worked their way into the media, universities, pub­lishing firms, the political system to some extent. That's had an effect as well.

Or take something like the human rights policies of the Carter adminis­tration. Now, they weren't from the Carter administration really, they were from Congress-they were Congressional human rights programs which the Carter administration was forced to adapt to, to a limited extent. And they've been maintained through the 1980s as well: the Reagan administra­tion had to adapt to them somewhat too. And they've had an effect. They're

4 Understanding Power

used very cynically and hypocritically, we know all that stuff-but never­theless, there are plenty of people whose lives have been saved by them. Well, where did those programs come from? Where they came from, if you trace it back, is kids from the 1960s who became Congressional assistants and pressed for drafting of legislation-using popular pressures from here, there and the other place to help them through. Their proposals worked their way through a couple of Congressional offices, and finally found their way into Congressional legislation. 8 New human rights organizations de­veloped at the same time, like Human Rights Watch. And out of it all came at least a rhetorical commitment to putting human rights issues in the fore­front of foreign policy concerns. And that's not without an effect. It's cyni­cal, doubtless-you can show it. But still it's had an effect.

The U.S. Network of Terrorist Mercenary States

WOMAN: It's curious that you're saying that, because I certainly didn't have that impression. The only human rights issue the Reagan administra­tion seemed to be concerned with was that of the Soviet Jews-I mean, they resumed funding the terror in Guatemala.

But note how they did it: they had to sneak it in around the back. In fact, there was more funding of Guatemala under Carter than there was under Reagan, though it's not very well known. See, the Carter administration was compelled to stop sending military aid to Guatemala by Congressional legislation in 1977, and officially they did-but if you look at the Pentagon records, funding continued until around 1980 or '81 at just about the nor­mal level, by various forms of trickery: you know, "things were in the pipeline," that kind of business. This was never talked about in the press, but if you look at the records, you'll see the funding was still going through until that time.9 The Reagan administration had to stop sending it alto­gether-and in fact, what they did was turn to mercenary states.

See, one of the interesting features of the 1980s is that to a large extent the United States had to carry out its foreign interventions through the medium of mercenary states. There's a whole network of U.S. mercenary states. Israel is the major one, but it also includes Taiwan, South Africa, South Korea, the states that are involved in the World Anti-Communist League and the various military groups that unite the Western Hemisphere, Saudi Arabia to fund it, Panama-Noriega was right in the center of the thing. We caught a glimpse of it in things like the Oliver North trial and the Iran-contra hearings [Oliver North was tried in 1989 for his role in "Iran-­contra," the U.S. government's illegal scheme to fund the Nicaraguan "con­tra" militias in their war against Nicaragua's left-wing government by covertly selling weapons to Iran)-they're international terrorist networks of mercenary states. It's a new phenomenon in world history, way beyond

Chapter One 5

what anybody has ever dreamt of. Other countries hire terrorists, we hire terrorist states, we're a big, powerful country.

Actually, one significant thing came up in the North trial, to my sur­prise-I didn't think anything was going to come up. One interesting thing was put on the record, this famous 42-page document that they referred to; I don't know if any of you saw that. to See, the government would not allow secret documents to appear, but they did permit a summary to appear, which the judge presented to the jury saying, "You can take this to be fact, we don't question it anymore because it's authorized by the government." That doesn't mean it's not disinformation, incidentally; it means that this is what the government was willing to say is the truth, whether it's true or not is another question. But this 42-page document is kind of interesting. It out­lines a massive international terrorist network run by the United States. It lists the countries that were involved, the ways we got them involved. All of it is focused on one thing in this case, the war in Nicaragua. But there were plenty of other operations going on, and if you expanded it to look at, say, Angola, and Afghanistan, and others, you'd bring in more pieces. One of the main players is Israel: they've helped the United States penetrate black Africa, they've helped support the genocide in Guatemala; when the United States couldn't directly involve itself with the military dictatorships of the southern cone in South America, Israel did it for usY It's very valuable to have a mercenary state like that around which is militarily advanced and technologically competent.

But the point is, what was the need to develop this huge international terrorist network involving mercenary states? It's that the U.S. government couldn't intervene directly whenever it wanted to anymore, so it had to do it in what amounted to quite inefficient ways. It's a lot more efficient to do what Kennedy did, and what Johnson did-just send in the Marines. That's efficient, it's an efficient killing-machine, it's not going to be exposed and put a crimp in the works, you don't have to do it around the corners. So you're right: the Reagan administration did support Guatemala-but indi­rectly. They had to get Israeli advisers in there, and Taiwanese counter­insurgency agents and so on.

Just to take one example of this, the Chief of Intelligence for the ED.N., the main contra force in Nicaragua, defected about six months ago, a guy named Horacio Arce; he's the most important defector yet. This was of course never reported in the United States, but he was very widely inter­viewed in Mexico.12 And he had a lot of things to say, including details of his own training. He had been brought illegally to Eglin Air Force base in Florida, and he described in detail what the training was like there and then in San Salvador where he was sent for paratroop practice. The trainers were from all over the place: they had Spanish trainers, plenty of Israeli trainers, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Taiwanese, Dominicans, separate Japanese trainers for the Misquito Indian recruits-they've got a huge operation running. And it's all clandestine, and all obviously illegal.

6 Understanding Power

And it's lethal alright. I mean, in Guatemala alone maybe a hundred thousand people were killed during the 1980s, and the popular movements were decimated.13 But lethal as it is, it would have been a lot worse without the restrictions that have been imposed by u.s. domestic dissidence in the last twenty-five years. I think that's the important point. If you want to measure the achievement of the popular movements here, you have to ask, what would things have been like if they hadn't been around? And things would have been like South Vietnam in the Sixties-when the country was wiped out, and may never recover. And remember, Central America's a much more significant concern for the United States than Vietnam: there's a historical commitment to controlling it, it's our own backyard, and Ameri­can business wants it as the equivalent of what East Asia is to Japan, a cheap labor area for exploitation. Yet the Reagan administration was un­able to intervene there at the level that Kennedy did in an area of marginal American concern, Vietnam. That's a big change, and I think it's primarily attributable to the domestic dissidence.

After all, what are the Iran-contra hearings about? What they're about is the fact that the government was driven underground. Well, why was the government driven underground, why didn't they just come out and do everything up front? They couldn't. They couldn't because they were afraid of their own population. And that's significant, you know. It's very rare that a government has had to go this deep underground in order to carry out its terrorist activities. It's an unusual situation; I don't even think there's a his­torical precedent.

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