Interview with Noam Chomsky

© Noam Chomsky and Figure/Ground
Dr. Chomsky was interviewed by Laureano Ralón and Axel Eljatib. December 17th, 2010.*

Noam Chomsky is an internationally renowned scholar, author, and activist. He has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1955, where he developed a theory of transformational grammar that revolutionized the scientific study of language. He is a prolific author whose principal linguistic works after Syntactic Structures include Current Issues in Linguistic Theory (1964), The Sound Pattern of English (with Morris Halle, 1968), Language and Mind (1972), Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar (1972), and Knowledge of Language (1986). In addition, he has wide-ranging political interests. He was an early and outspoken critic of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and has written extensively on many political issues from a generally left-wing point of view. Among his political writings are American Power and the New Mandarins (1969), Peace in the Middle East? (1974), Some Concepts and Consequences of the Theory of Government and Binding (1982),Manufacturing Consent (with E. S. Herman, 1988), Profit over People (1998), and Rogue States (2000). Chomsky’s controversial bestseller 9-11 (2002) is an analysis of the World Trade Center attack that, while denouncing the atrocity of the event, traces its origins to the actions and power of the United States, which he calls “a leading terrorist state.”

As you probably know, South America has for some time now been undergoing an intense process of democratization in the broadest sense. Most governments in the region are now popular governments, and Argentina, in particular, has adopted a number of progressive measures: the country no longer follows the neo-liberal recipes of the 1990s; its economy has been growing at an unprecedented rate; human rights became a top priority; same-sex marriage was legalized, and supplements to help low-income families with children are now in effect. Why is the United States unable to be on the same page with South America on these fundamental issues, and is the American media partly to blame for this disconnect between north and south?

Well, the United States has a long-standing policy towards Latin America. It goes back almost 200 years, to the Monroe doctrine of the 1820s, which could not be implemented at the time because we were not powerful enough. But over the years it came to be implemented, and that policy is that Latin America must be under our control. If you go back a little earlier, let’s say, to Thomas Jefferson – the most libertarian founding father – his view was that Latin America must be settled by the United States to eliminate the inferior races (the red, the black, the Latin) and replace them by Anglo-Saxons. Well, that was restricted in the Monroe doctrine to the conception that the US would control Latin America, which of course we could not do because the British were much too powerful; but by the end of the century that came to be pretty much the case. Then in the 1970s, during the Nixon administration, when there were concerns over the control of Latin America because things were getting out of hand, the National Security Council took the position that if we cannot control Latin America, how are we going to control the world? That was considered a necessity. I will not run through the whole history, but that has essentially been the history. Now, essentially in the last 10 years, Latin America has moved towards integration, which is a pre-requisite for independence – an independence which is what you describe: Argentina’s rejection of the IMF rules, and much else happening in the continent. The US government is concerned that its traditional control over Latin America is eroded, and many other factors are entering into it too; for example, the growing foreign trade with China, which is eroding Washington’s position as the leading economic partner of Latin America in terms of investment, resources, and so on. And the American press pretty much follows along whatever the proper line is. So yes, there is a disconnect.

The role of the media is also being re-assessed in South America. For example, in Argentina, a new media bill aimed to democratize the broadcasting system was recently passed into law. What do you make of this scenario?

Traditionally in Latin America, the media have been almost entirely under the control of very small sectors of extreme wealth and concentrated power. That has been the nature of the societies and it has been the nature of the media. Yes, to an extent that is changing, but exactly what the new Argentine law will do I could not say without looking at it more carefully.

Do you think that regulation can democratize the media in a capitalist framework? What would your “utopian” model of media ownership consist of: worker ownership, community oversight, a combination both?

Well, I do not really have Utopian visions. I think that a better system – and one that we ought to strive towards – is a democratic media, which is under the control of the workforce and the community. In fact, there were approaches to that in the late 19th century, which was a period in the United States of extreme proliferation of media of all kinds (labour, ethnic, community, national) with very substantial participation, very widely read, and in the case of the labor papers, they were written often by the workforce. That great variety of media was a major contribution to the functioning of the democratic system, but it collapsed under the pressure of concentration of capital, which enabled media to be owned by a few wealthy families and later conglomerates and corporations. And also reliance on advertisers: advertising reliance changed the nature of the media quite radically, because the content and choices and so on naturally catered to the market, which is advertisers. So it is almost necessary for regulations that limit media concentration, that provide for community participation and participation of the workforce and so on. That can democratize the media; it depends very much on how it is done.

What makes a good responsible citizen in this day and age?

In every day and age, a good responsible citizen is one who participates in the management of public affairs. That is what citizenship is in a democratic society. It is an ideal that is never reached but can be approached, and it holds in all institutions – from the workplace, to community, to media, to commerce, everywhere. The more opportunity there is for direct and meaningful citizen participation in making the decisions that affect our lives, the closer we reach the ideal of a functioning democracy.

What do you think about the notion of “populism”, which is often used to criticize Latin American governments from a neo-liberal perspective in Europe and the United States?

Well, populism is a term that has a great many meanings, but if populism is understood to mean participation of citizens in decision making, it is the same as democracy.

What is the importance of social media as a gateway for dissident voices, and what do you make of the contradiction that many of these outlets for “self-expression” are supported by one of the most powerful corporations on earth?

Well, it does not matter who supports them if they play no role in how they function. Of course, that is very unlikely to be the case; we have just seen it in the WikiLeaks case, where Amazon for example refused access to it. So if there is control by a sector of power, state or private, then you can be pretty confident that it is going to be misused. In fact, it should be under popular control; but in the existing society – which has very high concentrations of power – then access to social media can be a positive force. It has negative aspects too in my opinion, but in general it is fairly positive.

What are some of those negative aspects?

Well, let’s take, say, Twitter. It requires a very brief, concise form of thought and so on that tends toward superficiality and draws people away from real serious communication – which requires knowing the other person, knowing what the other person is thinking about, thinking yourself of what you want to talk about, etc. It is not a medium of a serious interchange.

Do you think your propaganda model is in need of a revision in this age of digital interactive media?

Well, the latest edition of our book on this came out in 2002, and at that point the electronic media was pretty much beginning to flourish. I did not see any changes and I do not see any dramatic changes to date. Of course there are differences: the Internet has opened up many new possibilities that did not exist before, but as far as I can see the general picture is approximately the same.

*This interview has been reprinted in Spanish by La Nave (Argentina)

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Noam Chomsky
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. & Eljatib, A. (2010). “Interview with Noam Chomsky,” Figure/Ground. December 17th.
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