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The propaganda system

February 12, 1986
Noam Chomsky interviewed by David Barsamian

QUESTION: You've talked extensively about the politics of language and semantics, and you've said, "We have to peel away veil after veil of distortion to see the truth." My question is, in the age of Orwell, and given the U.S. educational system, what intellectual tools is that system providing to students to decode, decipher, and translate those Orwellian terms?

CHOMSKY: Let me first comment that although we always, I too, call our era the age of Orwell, the fact is that Orwell was a latecomer on the scene. The American public relations industry, which is a very sophisticated industry, already in the early 1920s was developing tools, writing about them, and so on. In fact, even earlier, during the First World War, American historians offered themselves to President Woodrow Wilson to carry out a task that they called "historical engineering," meaning designing the facts of history so that they would serve state policy. That's Orwell, long before Orwell was writing. Shortly after that, American journalists like Walter Lippman, the famous American journalist said in 1921 that the art of democracy requires what he called the "manufacture of consent," what the public relations industry calls the "engineering of consent," another Orwellism meaning "thought control." The idea was that in a state in which the government can't control the people by force, it had better control what they think. So well before Orwell this was understood, the techniques were designed and had been implemented extensively.

As to what the schools teach to defend people against this, the answer is simple: zero. In fact, the schools are quite on the opposite side. They are part of the disinformation apparatus. In fact, this is well understood too. It's even well understood by liberal intellectuals, democratic theorists and so on. For example, in the important study called Crisis of Democracy, another Orwellism meaning "beginnings of democracy," published by the Trilateral Commission, a group of international, essentially liberal elites, people of whom [Jimmy] Carter was a kind of representative, the ones who staffed his administration, international liberalism, they refer to the schools as "institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young." Of course, they're talking to one another there, that's not what you say in public. But that's the way they're understood. They are institutions for indoctrination, for imposing obedience, for blocking the possibility of independent thought, and they play an institutional role in a system of control and coercion. Real schools ought to provide people with techniques of self-defense, but that would mean teaching the truth about the world and about the society, and schools couldn't survive very long if they did that.

QUESTION: C.P. Otero, who has edited a collection of your essays entitled Radical Priorities, has written in its preface, "The totalitarian system of thought control is far less effective than the democratic one, since the official doctrine parroted by the intellectuals at the service of the state is readily identifiable as pure propaganda, and this helps free the mind." In contrast, he writes, "the democratic system seeks to determine and limit the entire spectrum of thought by leaving the fundamental assumptions unexpressed. They are presupposed but not asserted."

CHOMSKY: That's quite accurate. I've also written about that many times. Just think about it. Take, say, a country which is at the opposite end of the spectrum from us domestically, the Soviet Union. That's a country run by the bludgeon, essentially. It's a command state: the state controls, everybody basically follows orders. It's more complicated than that, but essentially that's the way it works. There, it's very easy to determine what propaganda is: what the state produces is propaganda. That's the kind of thing that Orwell described in 1984 -- not a very good book, incidentally, a very bad book. One of the reasons it's so popular is because it's kind of trivial, and another reason is that it's talking about our enemies, so that makes it popular. If he was dealing with a serious problem, ourselves, then it wouldn't have been popular, in fact, in fact it probably wouldn't have been published. In a country like that, where there's a kind of Ministry of Truth, propaganda is very easily identifiable. Everybody knows what it is, and you can choose to repeat it if you like, but basically it's not really trying to control your thought very much; it's giving you the party line. It's saying, "Here's the official doctrine; as long as you don't disobey you won't get in trouble. What you think is not of great importance to anyone. If you get out of line we'll do something to you because we have force."

Democratic societies can't really work like that, because the state can't control behavior by force. It can to some extent, but it's much more limited in its capacity to control by force. Therefore, it has to control what you think. And again, democratic theorists have understood this for 50 or 60 years and have been very articulate about it. If the voice of the people is heard, you'd better control what that voice says, meaning you have to control what they think. The method Otero mentions there is one of the major methods. One of the ways you control what people think is by creating the illusion that there's a debate going on, but making sure that that debate stays within very narrow margins. Namely, you have to make sure that both sides in the debate accept certain assumptions, and those assumptions turn out to be the propaganda system. As long as everyone accepts the propaganda system, then you can have a debate.

The Vietnam War is a classic example. In the major media, the New York Times or CBS or whatever -- in fact, all across the spectrum except at the very far-out periphery which reaches almost no one -- in the major media which reach the overwhelming majority of the population, there was a lively debate. It was between people called "doves" and people called "hawks". The people called hawks said, "If we keep at it we can win." The people called doves said, "Even if we keep at it we probably can't win, and besides, it would probably be too costly for us, and besides maybe we're killing too many people," something like that. Both sides, the doves and the hawks, agreed on something: we have a right to carry out aggression against South Vietnam. In fact, they didn't even admit that it was taking place. They called it the "defense" of South Vietnam, using "defense" for "aggression" in the standard Orwellian manner. We were in fact attacking South Vietnam, just as much as the Russians are attacking Afghanistan. Like them, we first established a government that invited us in, and until we found one we had to overturn government after government. Finally we got one that invited us in, after we'd been there for years, attacking the countryside and the population. That's aggression. Nobody thought it was wrong, or rather, anyone who thought that was wrong was not admitted to the discussion. If you're a dove, you're in favor of aggression, if you're a hawk you're in favor of aggression. The debate between the hawks and the doves, then, is purely tactical: "Can we get away with it? Is it too bloody or too costly?" All basically irrelevant.

The real point is that aggression is wrong. When the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia, they got away with it. They didn't kill many people, but it was wrong because aggression is wrong. We all understand that. But we can't allow that understanding to be expressed when it relates to the violent actions of our state, obviously. If this were a totalitarian state, the Ministry of Truth would simply have said, "It's right for us to go into Vietnam, period. Don't argue with it." People would have known that's the propaganda system talking and they could have thought what they wanted. They could have seen that we were attacking Vietnam just like we can see that the Russians are attacking Afghanistan.

You couldn't permit that understanding of reality in this country; it's too dangerous. People are much more free, they can express themselves, they can do things. Therefore, it was necessary to try to control thought, to try to make it appear as if the only issue was a tactical one: can we get away with it? There's no issue of right or wrong. That worked partially, but not entirely. Among the educated part of the population it worked almost totally.

There are good studies of this that show, with only the most marginal statistical error, that among the more educated parts of the population the government propaganda system was accepted unquestioningly. On the other hand, after a long period of popular spontaneous opposition, dissent and organization, the general population got out of control. As recently as 1982, according to the latest polls I've seen, over 70 percent of the population still was saying that the war was, quoting the wording of the Gallup poll, "fundamentally wrong and immoral," not "a mistake." That is, the overwhelming majority of the population is neither hawks nor doves, but opposed to aggression. On the other hand, the educated part of the population, they're in line. For them, it's just the tactical question of hawk vs. dove.

This is, incidentally, not untypical. Propaganda very often works better for the educated than it does for the uneducated. This is true on many issues. There are a lot of reasons for this, one being that the educated receive more of the propaganda because they read more. Another thing is that they are the agents of propaganda. After all, their job is that of commissars; they're supposed to be the agents of the propaganda system so they believe it. It's very hard to say something unless you believe it. Other reasons are that, by and large, they are just part of the privileged elite so they share their interests and perceptions, whereas the general population is more marginalized. It, by and large, doesn't participate in the democratic system, which is overwhelmingly an elite game. People learn from their own lives to be skeptical, and in fact most of them are. There's a lot of skepticism and dissent and so on.

Here's a case which is an interesting one because, while the technique of thought control worked very effectively, in fact to virtually 100 percent effectiveness among the educated part of the population, after many years of atrocities and massacres and hundreds of thousands of people killed and so on, it began to erode among the general population. There's even a name for that: it's called the "Vietnam Syndrome", a grave disease: people understand too much. But it's very striking, very illuminating to see how well it's worked among the educated. If you pick up a book on American history and look at the Vietnam War, there is no such event as the American attack against South Vietnam. It's as if in the Soviet Union, say, in the early part of the 21st century, nobody will have ever said there was a Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Everyone says it's a Russian defense of Afghanistan. That's not going to happen. In fact, people already talk about the Russian invasion of Afghanistan -- maybe they defend it, maybe not -- but they admit that it exists. But in the United States, where the indoctrination system is vastly more effective, the educated part of the population can't even see that it exists. We cannot see that there was an American invasion of South Vietnam. It's out of history, down Orwell's memory hole.

QUESTION: Who engineers this, who pulls this off, who are the mandarins, or to use Gramsci's term, the "experts in legitimation"?

CHOMSKY: The experts in legitimation, the ones who labor to make what people in power do seem legitimate, are mainly the privileged educated elites. The journalists, the academics, the teachers, the public relations specialists, this whole category of people have a kind of an institutional task, and that is to create the system of belief which will ensure the effective engineering of consent. And again, the more sophisticated of them say that. In the academic social sciences, for example, there's quite a tradition of explaining the necessity for the engineering of democratic consent. There are very few critics of this position. Among them is a well-known social scientist named Robert Dahl who has pointed out -- as is obviously true -- that if you have a political system in which you plug in the options from a privileged position, and that's democracy, it's indistinguishable from totalitarianism. It's very rare that people point that out.

In the public relations industry, which is a major industry in the United States and has been for a long time, 60 years or more, this is very well understood. In fact, that's their purpose. That's one of the reasons this is such a heavily polled society, so that business can keep its finger on the popular pulse and recognize that, if attitudes have to be changed, we'd better work on it. That's what public relations is for, very conscious, very well understood. When you get to what these guys call the institutions responsible for "the indoctrination of the young," the schools and the universities, at that point it becomes somewhat more subtle. By and large, in the schools and universities people believe they're telling the truth. The way that works, with rare exceptions, is that you cannot make it through these institutions unless you've accepted the indoctrination. You're kind of weeded out along the way. Independent thinking is encouraged in the sciences but discouraged in these areas. If people do it they're weeded out as radical or there's something wrong with them. It doesn't have to work 100 percent, in fact, it's even better for the system if there are a few exceptions here and there. It gives the illusion of debate or freedom. But overwhelmingly, it works.

In the media, it's still more obvious. The media, after all, are corporations integrated into some of the major corporations in the country. The people who own and manage them belong to the same narrow elite of owners and managers who control the private economy and who control the state, so it's a very narrow nexus of corporate media and state managers and owners. They share the same perceptions, the same understanding, and so on. That's one major point. So, naturally, they're going to perceive issues, suppress, control and shape in the interest of the groups that they represent: ultimately the interests of private ownership of the economy -- that's where it's really based. Furthermore, the media also have a market: advertisers, not the public. People have to buy newspapers, but the newspapers are designed to get the public to buy them so that they can raise their advertising rates. The newspapers are essentially being sold to advertisers via the public. Since the corporation is selling it and its market is businesses, that's another respect in which the corporate system or the business system generally is going to be able to control the contents of the media. In other words, if by some unimaginable accident they began to get out of line, advertising would fall off, and that's a constraint.

State power has the same effect. The media want to maintain their intimate relation to state power. They want to get leaks, they want to get invited to the press conferences. They want to rub shoulders with the Secretary of State, all that kind of business. To do that, you've got to play the game, and playing the game means telling their lies, serving as their disinformation apparatus. Quite apart from the fact that they're going to do it anyway out of their own interest and their own status in the society, there are these kinds of pressures that force them into it. It's a very narrow system of control, ultimately.

Then comes the question of the individual journalist, you know, the young kid who decides to become an honest journalist. Well, you try. Pretty soon you are informed by your editor that you're a little off base, you're a little too emotional, you're too involved in the story, you've got to be more objective. There's a whole pile of code words for this, and what those code words mean is "Get in line, buddy, or you're out." Get in line means follow the party line. One thing that happens then is that people drop out. But those who decide to conform usually just begin to believe what they're saying. In order to progress you have to say certain things; what the copy editor wants, what the top editor is giving back to you. You can try saying it and not believing it, but that's not going to work, people just aren't that dishonest, you can't live with that, it's a very rare person who can do that. So you start saying it and pretty soon you're believing it because you're saying it, and pretty soon you're inside the system. Furthermore, there are plenty of rewards if you stay inside. For people who play the game by the rules in a rich society like this, there are ample rewards. You're well off, you're privileged, you're rich, you have prestige, you have a share of power if you want, if you like this kind of stuff you can go off and become the State Department spokesman on something or other, you're right near the center of at least privilege, sometimes power, in the richest, most powerful country in the world. You can go far, as long as you're very obedient and subservient and disciplined. So there are many factors, and people who are more independent are just going to drop off or be kicked out. In this case there are very few exceptions.

Let me just give you one example. In March 1986 came the major vote on contra aid. For the three months prior to the vote, the administration was heating up the atmosphere, trying to reverse the Congressional restrictions on aid to the terrorist army [the Contras] that's attacking Nicaragua, what they internally call a "proxy army," a proxy terrorist army, which is of course what it is.

QUESTION: Also called "freedom fighters."

CHOMSKY: To the public they call them freedom fighters. If you look at the internal documents they're a proxy army which the Pentagon described a couple years ago as a terrorist army, but that's internal, so I'll call them by the accurate internal terms: proxy terrorist army.

So the question is: Could we reverse the Congressional restrictions on this? That was the government's problem. The first three months of that year were very interesting in that respect: how were the media going to respond to the government campaign to try to reverse the Congressional vote on Contra aid? I was interested, so I took the two national newspapers, the Washington Post and the New York Times, and I went through all their opinion pieces, every column written by one of their own columnists, every authored submitted opinion piece and so on for January, February, and March. There were eighty-five. Of the 85, all were anti-Sandinista. On that issue, no discussion was tolerable. So 85 out of 85 followed the party line: Sandinistas are bad guys. It's incidentally interesting that there is one person of those 85 who has written elsewhere, in a more nuanced fashion, but not here. Perhaps he knows he could never have gotten in unless he took that position. So, on the major issue, Are we against the Sandinistas?: 100% control. Not a whisper of debate.

Now comes the next point. There are two very striking facts about the Sandinista government, as compared with our allies in Central America: Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, and so on. These facts are undeniable, whatever you think about them. One is that the Sandinistas, among these Central American countries, are unique in that the government doesn't slaughter its population. That's just not open to discussion. That's a fact. Second, it's the only one of those countries in which the government has tried to direct services to the poor, has in fact diverted resources to social reform. Again that's not under discussion; You can read that in the Inter-American Development Bank reports or anywhere you like. So these are two rather striking facts about facts that differentiate Nicaragua from Guatemala, El Salvador, and in fact, even Honduras where about half the population is starving to death. Those three countries, especially Guatemala and El Salvador are among the world's worst terrorist states. So far in the 1980s they have slaughtered over 150,000 of their own citizens, with ample U.S. support and great enthusiasm. They are simply violent terrorist states. They don't do anything for their population except kill them. Honduras is a little different. In Honduras there's a government of the rich that robs the poor. It doesn't kill on the scale of its major allies, but a large part of the population is starving to death.

In contrast, the Sandinista government, whatever you think about them, has not slaughtered the population and has diverted resources to them. That's a big difference. So, the next thing I looked at was: how often were those two facts about Nicaragua mentioned in these 85 editorials? The fact that the Sandinistas are radically different from our allies in that they don't slaughter their population was not mentioned once. No reference to that fact. The fact that they have carried out social reforms for the poor was referred to in two phrases, both sort of buried. One was an oblique reference which said that because of the contra war they can't do it anymore. It didn't say what they were doing. The other was a passionate attack against the Sandinistas as totalitarian monsters and so forth and so on, which said that, Well, of course, they did divert resources to the poor. So, two phrases in 85 columns on that crucial issue. Zero phrases in 85 columns on the not insignificant fact that, as distinct from our allies, they haven't slaughtered their population, they haven't killed 100,000 people. Again, that's really remarkable discipline.

After that I went through all the editorials in the New York Times from 1980 to the present -- just editorials -- on El Salvador and Nicaragua. And it's essentially the same story. For example, in Nicaragua on October 15, 1985 the government instituted a state of siege. This is a country under attack by the regional superpower, and it did what we did in the Second World War in Hawaii: institute a state of siege. Not too surprising. There was a huge uproar: editorials, denunciations, it shows that they're totalitarian Stalinist monsters, and so on. Two days after that, on October 17, El Salvador renewed its state of siege. This is a state of siege that was instituted in March 1980 and had been renewed monthly since, and it's far more harsh than the Nicaraguan state of siege. It blocks freedom of expression, freedom of movement, virtually all civil rights. It's the framework within which the army we organized has carried out massive torture and slaughter. They're still doing it, in fact, all you have to do is look at the latest Amnesty International report.

So, here within two days, Nicaragua instituted a state of siege and El Salvador renewed its state of siege under which they had carried out a major mass slaughter and torture campaign. The New York Times considered the Nicaraguan state of siege a great atrocity. The Salvadoran state of siege, far harsher in its measures and its application, literally was not mentioned. Furthermore, it has never been mentioned. There is not one word in about 180 editorials that mentions it, because that's our guys, so we can't talk about it. They're a budding democracy, so they can't be having a state of siege.

In fact, the editorial comment and the news reporting on El Salvador is that this is a moderate centrist government under attack by terrorists of the left and terrorists of the right. It's complete nonsense. Every human rights investigation, the church in El Salvador, even the government itself in its own secret documents, concedes that the terrorism is being carried out by the centrist government, they are the terrorists. The death squads are simply the security forces. Duarte is a front for terrorists, as he knows. But you can't say that publicly because it gives the wrong image. You can go on and on, but these are very dramatic examples of the utter servility of the media right at the top. They will not even permit opinion pieces, not only editorials, even opinion pieces won't be permitted to stray from the party line, because it's just too dangerous.

Similarly, throughout the whole Vietnam War there was never an opinion piece in the New York Times or any other newspaper that I know of that said that the United States was wrong to attack South Vietnam. Here's a research project for someone: if you can find one word in any opinion piece in any American newspaper or in the media, I'd be very surprised. I haven't read everything, of course, but I've been following it pretty closely for years, and I've never seen it.

QUESTION: Is the control of capital the source, the bedrock of power in the American state?

CHOMSKY: Certainly, there's no doubt of it. The first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the President of the Constitutional Convention, John Jay, expressed it very accurately. He said, "The people who own the country ought to govern it." And that's the way it works. There are all sorts of mechanisms. For one thing, they have the resources to participate in politics. They can get information, they can put pressure, they can lobby, they can build platforms. They, in fact, are the real market for the political parties, they allow the parties to survive. They staff the executive, by and large. They staff Congress even. Furthermore , if any government got out of line, even in the slightest way, they could stop it simply by cutting back investment, by capital flight, and so on. Here [in the U.S.] this isn't a problem because the corporations so totally own the government that it never gets out of line. But in other countries, especially Third World countries, that problem sometimes arises, and then very quickly, if the government tries to carry out social reform, it's stopped. Why? Just a little bit of capital flight is enough to do it, and it means the country grinds to a halt. So an effective control over the basic decisions in the society is in private hands, narrowly concentrated, that's going to control the state.

Many terms in political discourse are used in a technical sense that's very much divorced from their actual meaning, sometimes even the opposite of it.

Take the "national interest." The term is commonly used as if it's something good for all of us. If a political leader says, "I'm doing this in the national interest," you're supposed to feel good because that's for you.

But if you look closely, it turns out that the national interest is not defined as the interest of the entire population. It's really the interests of small, dominant elites who command the resources that enable them to control the state - basically, corporate-based elites. Correspondingly, the "special interests," of whom we're all supposed to be suspicious, really refer to the general population.

This became very clear during the last few presidential campaigns. President Reagan is largely a figment of the public relations industry, and the public relations aspects of it, including control over language, are very striking. Every choice of terms by the Reagan public relations machine was carefully crafted.

In both the 1980 and 1984 elections, Reagan and his handlers identified the Democrats as the "party of special interests." That's bad, because we're all against the special interests. But if you asked who the special interests were, they listed women, poor people, workers, young people, old people, ethnic minorities - in fact, the vast majority of the population. One group was not listed among the special interests - the corporations. In the campaign rhetoric, that was never a special interest, and in their terms that's right - because that's the national interest.

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Updated: Wednesday, 03/06/2002, 19:53