Monday, October 20, 2008

Authors@Google: Noam Chomsky

This event took place on April 22, 2008 at the Google Cambridge office, as a part of the Authors@Google Series.

27:40 Q: Due to the Internet, mass media is increasingly becoming more distributed: blogs, independent news, etc. How does the Internet media impact the propaganda model described in Manufacturing Consent?

NC: Well, literally, the propaganda model described in Manufacturing Consent does not…narrowly hold of the Internet. I mean, that’s the model that’s concerned with the institutional structure of the media. OK, the media―their institutional structure is major corporations selling audiences to other businesses, to simplify it. And that’s not true of the Internet. So it doesn’t apply directly, but it’s not completely inapplicable.
So, the Internet, like almost the entire high-tech economy, is a product of the state sector. I mean contrary to illusions, the United States is very far from a free enterprise market economy. Those of you…I’m sure that all of you people know that things like computers, the Internet, micro-electronics and biotechnology and go on across the list, come out of the state sector, places like MIT. In fact, for long periods the Internet was in the state sector for about 30 years or more before it was handed over to private enterprise for profit.

But the Internet, nevertheless, there is a question. And in fact, it’s a live question now about keeping the Internet neutral: neutrality of the Internet. So, will the few private systems that have control of access to the Internet once it became privatized―will they be able to use that control to differentiate access to yield preferred, say, fast and easy access to the places where they want you to go and make it harder and more devious and so on for the places they don’t want you to go?
So, net neutrality is a big issue. You people know more about this than I do, so I’m not going to talk about it. But in that respect, in that corner of the system, yes, the propaganda model still holds. But other than that, it’s been, at least in its early years, a very free system.

When it was under state control, like controlled by the Pentagon, it was totally free. That’s an illusion that many people have. The Pentagon is…actually, we know that here, MIT, was like maybe 90% Pentagon funded-up until the early 70s. And it was the periods of the greatest freedom-no classified work, complete free interchange of work, anything you wanted, nobody cared, because the generals, unlike many economists, are well aware that it’s the state sector that’s providing a large part of the initiative, the dynamism, the inventiveness and so on that keeps the high tech economy going. So, they didn’t put many constraints in. As it gets more corporatized, there’s more constraints. But for a long time it was just in the army, in the military. It was ARPA. That was the former Internet.

And just to give you an illustration of how it worked, I happened to have a daughter who was living in Nicaragua in the 1980s. And the United States was carrying out a major terrorist war against Nicaragua, practically destroyed the country. And communication was impossible, you couldn’t go by phone, mail wasn’t going and so on. But I could communicate with my daughter through the Pentagon system. Since I’m at MIT, I was on the ARPA net and she found some place where she was on the ARPA net. So, thanks to the Pentagon, we were able to communicate during the period when the US was trying to destroy the country. That’s an indication of how free it was. And the question is: can it be kept free? So yes, that’s a problem.
But there are other issues that arise with the Internet that are serious. It’s undoubtedly a tremendous contribution. If you are interested in research for example, it’s just fantastic. I probably do 50 google searches a day or something like that. You can get things that you really have to…I haven’t been to library for a long time. Thankfully, I have some friends and colleagues who go to the library for me. But a lot of what you had to go to the library for, you can just pick up quickly and in fact a lot more. If you want to find out about information about say, what’s going on in the world, news and so on, yes, if you know where to look you can find it. A much wider array of information is available.

All of that is positive but it also has a negative side, in fact a number of negative sides. Imagine, say, that you are a biologist. And you now have available every article that’s been published all over the world on the field that you’re interested in. And you spend your time reading those articles. The end result is that you’re the worst biologist in history. It’s a total waste of time. In order to become a serious biologist, you have to know what you’re looking for. If you’re flooded with massive information, and you sort of try to wade through it, you’re totally paralyzed. You have to know what to look for. You have to have a framework of understanding, you know, some background conception of what’s going on. The framework can’t be rigid. Like, you have to be willing to let it be modified. But it’s indispensable. If you don’t have it, you’re just flooded with meaningless information.

 The problem is that a large majority of people who are using the Internet do have a framework, but it’s the framework that comes from the indoctrination that they’ve been subjected to. Namely, what the propaganda model applies to and it also generalizes to the academic, you know, to the schools and the colleges, and to the general intellectual community. There is an intellectual community of which the media are a part, which, I don’t have time…I’ll talk about it if you like, but it does give an extremely skewed picture of the world, l could illustrate it from this morning’s newspapers, if you want. In fact you can always…when I give talks on the media, I almost never prepare them for a very simple reason: that morning’s newspapers give all the evidence you need. It never failed yet, in Europe or here. So I can talk about it. But it is an extremely narrow doctrinal universe and in fact the participants have it internalized.

If you want to see a good example of that, do a google search and find a program, an interview with Charlie Rose. You know, the intellectual man’s interviewer. He interviewed the most respected correspondent in Iraq, John Burns, who is kind of like the dean of foreign policy…foreign correspondents. That’s a very interesting interview. He asks Burns various questions about reporting in Iraq, and Burns expresses quite clearly, and I’m sure unconsciously, the doctrinal framework that shapes coverage and interpretation.

To put it simply: we have to be cheering for the home team--so, because the home team is perfect. That’s the picture. So what he says is…you have to get his words but the picture is that the United States, certainly since the Second World War, has been the major force in the world in protecting human rights, freedom, justice, all kind of wonderful things. History is irrelevant. We don’t look at that. It’s boring. But that’s the nature of the United States, like it’s the essence. And he says if the outcome of the Iraq War was that we would lose our willingness to intervene all over the world with force to protect human rights and everything the way we’ve been doing for the past 50 years, there will be dark days. OK, that’s the picture. It’s not unlike the picture that you would have heard from a correspondent at Pravda in 1985 about how Stalin was defending democracy and human rights and so on against the fascist attack, and probably would have believed it and I’m sure John Burns believes it. But if you look at actual coverage, it conforms pretty well to what he describes. Well, if that’s the approach you take towards using the Internet, you might as well be reading some local tabloid. That’s what you’ll find. If you have a different framework of interpretation and understanding, you’ll find other things, whether it’s science, or public affairs, or anything else. To achieve that requires something way beyond access. It requires understanding and that comes out of other factors.

Q: Politicians are adept at changing public opinion by inventing new phrases such as “enemy combatants” and “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Does this expose some flaw in humans that we reason based on surface words rather than their underlining meanings?

NC: I don’t think it’s a flaw of humans, and I’m not sure how much…to determine…you see, there’s kind of these questions that you have to distinguish here. So, go back to the propaganda model.
That was a discussion of what the media are doing as institutions. And in fact it generalizes to the intellectual culture much more broadly, but there’s a separate question and that is how much people are influenced by it. That’s quite a separate question. So, to what extent do people accept and internalize the doctrinal system, that’s say, described by John Burns? Well, the answer is pretty complex when you look.

So for example, say, take the Vietnam War, it’s far enough back so we can think about it a little bit objectively, perhaps. If you look over the Vietnam War, there was never in the main stream--“never” is a strong word but close to never, like 99.9% --a principled critique of the war. A New York Times correspondent, C.J.Chivers, who was there recently and talks about “booming Grozny,”―it used to be rubble and now it’s booming. They have electricity run by Chechens. Of course, the Russians are in the background but a great success. I mean if Petraeus could achieve anything remotely like that in Iraq, he’d probably be crowned King. But we don’t praise Putin, at least we shouldn’t. We condemn it[sic]. Even though it succeeded in their terms like the Germans succeeded in Vichy France―it was a French-run society more or less stable. But we don’t praise it. However, for ourselves, we take totally different principles. We never, almost never permit or can even think of a principled critique of our own crimes. You can test it. But what about public opinion? Well, there you get a striking gulf.
So, for example, when the Vietnam War ended, everyone, every serious analyst had to write a commentary on it. And the most interesting ones, as always, are way out on other ones at the left extreme of the mainstream.
So, take Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, who’s about as far out as we can get, you know, and not be from Neptune or something. He wrote a critical commentary and he said that the Vietnam War began with what he called “blundering efforts to do good.” Notice that that’s mostly tautology: since we carried it out, it was efforts to do good. Period. No further discussion necessary. That’s by definition. It was blundering because it didn’t entirely work. So it began with “blundering efforts to do good,” but he says by 1969, come back to the date, it was clear to most of the world that it was too costly to ourselves. OK? That’s the left end of the critical spectrum. You can search and see if you can find anything that goes beyond that.

But what did the public think? Well, we know. In 1969, it happens the first general polls were taken of public opinion on the Vietnam War. General, important ones, the Chicago Counsel on Foreign Relations. They continue to be taken up till today, quadrennial.
In 1969, 70% of the public said the war was fundamentally wrong and immoral, not a mistake. Try to find that anywhere in main stream discussion. OK? Good exercise. And those figures persist up until the latest polls, a little vacillation, but basically. There’s a huge gulf between public opinion and intellectual elites, the doctorinal managers. And that’s true on a lot of other issues. That’s true on the Iraq war―that’s true on the threat to invade Iran. That's true on national health care. That’s true on relations with Cuba. You know, just run across the list. It turns out there’s the huge gulf between public opinion and intellectual opinion, hence, doctrine, media and so on.

So that does raise a question about the extent to which the public actually accepts this. To what extent they do is… take your example, the enemy combatant. What’s an enemy combatant? Well, actually one of them is coming up for trial. I think maybe the first trial from Guantanamo. It turns out it’s a kid, who was picked up as an enemy combatant when he was 15 years old because he did something, maybe threw a stone or did something. Maybe shot or something, some American soldier. OK. So therefore we have to try him. Maybe, sentence him…he’s been in Guantanamo for years now, who knows what will happen to him? What kind of framework is that? I mean if the United States was invaded by Iran, let’s say, and some 15-year-old kid tried to do something to the invaders, is he criminal? You know? The framework, the conception is kind of like in outer space, unfortunately it’s real.

“Enhanced interrogation,” in other words, torture. Like there’s a huge fuss now about Guantanamo. Delegations are taken there by the army to show how beautifully the prisoners are treated, and there’s books and articles about is there torture and so on and so forth. It’s all totally beside the point, entirely beside the point. As soon as you hear that those who are captured are taken to Guantanamo, you know it’s a torture chamber. There is no other reason for sending them to Guantanamo. Why not send them to a security prison in New York, let’s say? OK? Perfectly safe, they’ll never get out and so on. Well, the problem is if you send them to New York, automatically, you start getting the whole civil rights system coming in. Did they have lawyers, you know, can they be tortured, are they told the charges against them and so on. You send them to Guantanamo, you can do anything you like. So therefore, soon as we hear the word Guantanamo, we know it’s a torture chamber without the investigations, without the inquiries, anything.


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