Q&A Noam Chomsky: Dictatorships, US relations & state propaganda

A darling of the left, Noam Chomsky is well-known for his articulate criticisms of US foreign policy. The American intellectual takes special interest in how the US coddles authoritarian regimes under threat, in particular when political and economic interests are involved.

Chomsky is a longtime professor in the department of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is also famous for developing theories involving the “manufacture of consent” and the dissemination of propaganda through mass media.

Recently, he offered to share his personal views on post-Mubarak Egypt with Egypt Independent.

Egypt Independent: What is your view on the unfolding of events regarding the military’s transitional period? And where do you think the US stands on this?

Noam Chomsky: From the outset, there has been every reason to expect that the US and the military, which are of course closely allied, would do what they can to limit functioning democracy.  

Egypt Independent: For what particular reasons, in your opinion?

Chomsky: The military, for obvious reasons: they want to maintain the maximum of political control and protect their considerable economic interests.  The US government, for a range of reasons: The narrowest is that they are well aware of Egyptian public opinion, as reported in polls run by the most prestigious US polling agencies, and the last thing they want is for those opinions to be reflected in policy, as would happen in a functioning democracy. The broader reason is that in general, democracy is considered a threat to power interests, at home as well. Abroad, it is well-established in mainstream scholarship that the US has supported democracy if and only if it conforms to strategic and economic interests, and there isn’t the slightest evidence that these understandable, if deplorable, commitments have changed.  

Egypt Independent: Why the continued statements from Washington condemning military brutality and advocating the flourishing of democracy?

Chomsky: Of course there is a rhetorical commitment to democracy and all good things, but only the most naïve take such protestations seriously, on the part of any state.  And practice, including very recent practice, fully accords with the traditional doctrines.

Egypt Independent: What do you mean by “traditional doctrines?”

Chomsky: When a favored dictator is endangered, as happens over and over, Washington follows a fairly straightforward procedure: Support him as long as possible. If it is no longer possible, for example, if the army turns against him, then issue ringing declarations about our yearning for democracy and then work hard to keep the former system of domination and control in place, as much as possible.  Examples abound: Somoza, Marcos, Duvalier, Chun, Ceausescu, Mobutu, Suharto, and others.  That the same procedure was followed in the case of Mubarak should surprise no one.

Egypt Independent: Do you sense that the US would be willing to compromise principles such as human rights in order to maintain interests such as Israel and the Camp David accords?

Chomsky: Principles such as “human rights” cannot really be compromised, because they are not seriously upheld in the first place — except, of course, with regard to enemies, or where major power interests are not at stake.  The evidence on this is overwhelming, not just for the US of course, so much so that it is superfluous even to recall some of the numerous examples.  US power centers, state and private, have longstanding strategic and economic concerns in the region, which they continue to regard as vital.  Government policies reflect these concerns, as did those of Britain and France in their days in the sun (and still, even as minor powers).  And the same is true of others.  

Egypt Independent: With regards to the US, do you believe everyone is on the same page across the board? i.e: state department, congress, white house, defense etc.

Chomsky: Systems of power are not homogeneous, so there are some differences within the government and the business-based power centers that have an enormous role in setting domestic and foreign policy. But the spectrum is not very broad.  There are of course those who depart from the consensus, those whom Kennedy-Johnson National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy called “wild men in the wings.” And there are forces outside, including public opinion when large segments of the public are organized and active.  But within the operative spectrum, only restricted options are tolerated, as the record clearly reveals.

Egypt Independent: Recent reports have surfaced alleging that the US Senate has motioned to make its annual US$1.3 billion in military funding in fiscal year 2012 contingent on the transfer of power to a civilian government — on the basis human rights violations and “misuse” of tear gas, etc. What do you make of this?

Chomsky: The word “allegedly” is important.  The US has laws prohibiting transfer of arms to states that resort to torture, serious human rights abuses, and other crimes — for example, Israel’s gross violation of the Geneva Conventions in the occupied [Palestinian] Territories.  Are they applied in any significant measure when they interfere with strategic and economic interests?

Egypt Independent: With regards to public opinion, what are your views on the persistent use of counter revolutionary propaganda through the state media, particularly with regards to distorting news reportage of collisions between the military and protestors, in post-Jan 25 Egypt?

Chomsky: Authoritarian regimes of course try to restrict and control thought and its expression.  Some, like Nazi Germany, seem to have been quite successful in doing so, Bolshevik Russia somewhat less so, but that was over a much longer period without ongoing military conflict as a mobilizing force.  

Egypt Independent: But despite increased skepticism from Egyptians towards state media earlier this year, state propaganda continues to prove particularly effective in diverting and distorting public opinion over time. What do you think makes it so?

Chomsky: I presume it is a reflection of more fundamental concerns.  Struggle against harsh and brutal systems is costly.  People have to survive, a matter of particular concern for those at the edge of survival in the first place.  As the struggle goes on, and people do not see concrete gains in their daily lives — rather, disruption and insecurity — it is natural that many would seek stability, which means subordination to power.  A side effect might be greater willingness to accept propaganda that places the blame for hardships on the struggle for freedom and justice.  That is a common phenomenon in such struggles, throughout history.

Egypt Independent: Recently, there has been what some have described as “media warfare” between independent journalism and state mass media. Do you think that this is actually a two-sided “struggle” with increasing horizontal/social media platforms posing a threat, or is it too marginal to have an actual impact on established information hierarchies?

Chomsky: On the likely impact, I do not know enough to express a judgment with any confidence.  Whatever the judgment, it is clear what should be done: extend the challenge, and enlist larger groups into participation with it. It is no doubt an unequal battle, but systems of power do not necessarily win.  The overthrow of Mubarak is only one illustration.  It is not necessarily a losing battle.  What to do depends on judgments of those directly involved.  

Egypt Independent: Speaking in regards to previously threatened dictatorships with strong US ties, as you mentioned with respect to “traditional doctrines,” any views on how you see things playing out this time and/or hopes for optimism?

Chomsky: The greatest hope for optimism is offered by the courageous people who have been risking great danger in Tahrir Square to overthrow a brutal regime, inspiring others throughout the world; and by the many like them today and throughout history who have refused to cower in silence in the face of oppression and injustice.  That is how the world has become a more decent place, not without regression, often at an agonizingly slow pace, but with many significant victories.

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