Interview with Professor Noam Chomsky
Citizen Radio recently interviewed professor Noam Chomsky about the War on Drugs, religion, and what makes him happy. A transcription of the interview is available below.
Listen to the entire episode here.
Called “arguably the most important intellectual alive” by the New York Times, Noam Chomsky is also known as a political activist.
In the 1966 essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” Chomsky challenged intellectuals “to speak the truth and expose lies,” and he carried his protests beyond the printed page: he became a tax resister and he was arrested in 1967 at the Pentagon while protesting military involvement in Southeast Asia.
Chomsky’s criticism of U.S. governmental policies has continued unabated since that time. In Deterring Democracy and in other books he has focused on trade and economic issues and accuses the Government of being a “rogue superpower.”
“I’m a citizen of the United States,” says Chomsky, “and I have a share of responsibility for what it does.”
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Allison Kilkenny: In an unpublished article for the Washington Post, you wrote that the NAFTA protests during the 90s in Mexico gave, quote: “only a bare glimpse of time bombs waiting to explode. Do you thinks the drug cartels in Mexico are a byproduct of the trade inequalities you explained in that Post article? Also, if you could talk about the roles international banks and corporations play in the War on Drugs.
Noam Chomsky: I can’t really talk about it because there isn’t any war on drugs. If there was a war on drugs, the government would take measures which it knows could control the use of drugs.
And it’s pretty well understood. Years ago — maybe twenty-five, thirty years ago — around the time Nixon’s first War on Drugs was called, there was a big study by the army and the RAND corporation (the main, outside advisory research bureau) analyzing the effects on drug use of various approaches to it. They studied four. The one that came out the most cost effective was prevention and treatment by a large margin. Next, much more expensive and less effective, was police work. Still less effective and more costly was border interdiction. And least effective and most costly was out-of-country operations like chemical warfare in Columbia. Well, the methods that are used are the exact opposite. Most of the funding goes into cross-border operations (least effective, most costly,) next, interdiction and police action, and least to prevention and treatment. And there’s pretty independent evidence that this is correct.
So, for example, smoking is far more destructive than drugs by orders of magnitude. Now, you don’t carry out chemical warfare in North Carolina or Kentucky. You don’t interdict the borders because it’s produced here. You don’t arrest kids for having a cigarette. But in fact, prevention and treatment have sharply reduced smoking.
Throughout the 1980s, there was a general shift among young people toward more healthy lifestyles, so you have a reduction in smoking, a reduction in the use of red meat, in alcoholism, a whole pile of things. If you walk around a college campus, you rarely see kids with cigarettes. If you go down to the slums, you do. But that’s because the social-cultural change was kind of class-based. But it worked. And as I said, it’s even things like red meat. People eat healthier diets. And that’s pretty much what the RAND-Army approach predicted. So that suggests, since policies have been followed for decades, which were known in advance to have exactly the wrong properties (and it’s shown by evidence that they do have the wrong properties,) but they continue with them. Well, to a rational person, that suggests that something else is going on with the planning. And I don’t think it’s hard to figure out.
Out-of-country operations are just a cover for counter-insurgency, or for clearing land in Columbia and driving out peasants so multi-national corporations can come in for mining, and resource-extraction, and agribusiness, and macra production, and so on. Which is why you have (outside of Afghanistan) probably the largest refugee population in the world in Columbia. [The War on Drugs is] not effecting drug production. In fact, it’s going up by, I think, 25% last year. But it’s going to continue because that wasn’t the purpose.
Here in the United States, the drug war has been associated, clearly, with a very sharp rise in incarceration. If you go back to 1980, the prison population in the United States, per capita, was approximately like other industrial countries – kind of toward the high end, but not off the chart. Now, it’s five to ten times as high and still going up. And most of it is drug related (also, length of sentences, and repeated sentences, and so on.)
And it mostly targets what are called the “dangerous classes,” the poor, minorities, and so on. So like, black males, is astronomical. On the other hand, drug use among wealthy people is barely prosecuted. So it’s a class-based form of control of superfluous population, and for that purpose, it seems to be working.
It’s also making a lot of money for commercial enterprises. What some criminologists call the prison-industrial complex has been a pretty substantial development, especially for rural counties, it’s a Godsend. When they build prisons, it brings in construction work, jobs, and surveillance. A couple of years ago, maybe still, the fastest growing white-collar profession was security officer, and it gets rid of people you don’t want anything to do with. They don’t have a place in the current industrial system. And there’s also racial elements involved. So you can say the drug war is a success for what its real purpose is, but not for its proclaimed purposes.
There was just a study initiated by three pretty conservative former Latin American presidents: [Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico,] and they came out with the conclusion, which anybody whose watching it knows is correct, but because it comes from that source, it was publicized, namely that the drug war in Latin America has been a complete failure in terms of its proclaimed objectives. But that just tells you those weren’t the proclaimed objectives. Rational people don’t keep pursuing a policy that’s failing when they know there’s a better policy unless there’s some other reason, and I think the other reason is not terribly hidden. So you can’t really talk about a war on drugs. You can go back to the question and formulate it differently (laughter), but it would be based on a different assumption.
Jamie Kilstein: For a country predicated on a separation of church and state, why do you think that we let religion dictate so much of our lives and public policy?
Chomsky: Well, those are two questions that are different. As far as our lives are concerned, the United States has always been an unusually religious country. The country was founded by religious extremists. The Puritans who came over were waving the holy book, and following the Lord’s commands when they exterminated the Amalekites, and the Scotch-Irish immigration that followed – German immigration – were also highly religious, and it’s been a very fundamentalist country. And there are repeated continentalist revivals, one of the last ones in the 1950s. That’s where you get things like “In God We Trust”, “One Nation Under God,” and all that kind of business. It’s a streak in American society that differentiates it from other industrial societies, pretty sharply in fact, but those are individual choices.
As far as influencing public policy is concerned, that’s mostly the last twenty or thirty years. I think [President Carter] inadvertently taught a lesson to party managers, namely that if you pretend to be religious, you can pick up a big electoral block. And in fact, every candidate for president since Carter has made a big show of being in church. Even people like Clinton, who is probably as religious as I am, makes a show of walking out of the Baptist church every Sunday morning. That’s a way to pick up a lot of votes cheap, and it was understood. That has an associated effect. Namely, the constituency begins to have an effect on policy, and that was exploited.
It’s been a funny economic period for the last thirty years. We’ve been through thirty years with real wage stagnation. That’s never happened before. There’s been economic growth, there’s been a sharp rise in productivity, but the effects have flown and gone into very few pockets. For a majority of the population, it’s been a bad period. Stagnation, sometimes decline, reduction of benefits, higher working hours, a lot of breakdown of social structure, it’s hard for people to deal with. Now, the parties don’t want to deal with this because their constituency is basically business and the wealthy, so they’d like to divert attention to other topics. Those are called social issues like stem cell research, abortion, and so on. These become not individual matters anymore, which they were before, but rather social policy, and are used (and I presume designed) to keep away from the issues that really affect people.
Take the drug war. People would like to reduce drugs, but you don’t want to pay attention to the real issue because the drug war is serving other purposes.
Or take health care, let’s say. Health care has been the top issue, or close to the top issue, for the population for decades for good reasons. The health care system is a complete disaster. It’s about twice the per capita cost of other comparable countries and some of the worst outcomes, and there are enormous numbers of people either uninsured or underinsured. And that’s something people feel in their lives, so they care about it, and they also have an opinion. Ever since polls have been taken, a large majority want a national healthcare system (getting rid of the privatized healthcare system).
But here you have a real conflict because the pharmaceutical corporations and the insurance industry, and related industries, want a privatized system, and the public is opposed, so you have to somehow marginalize that question.
It’s usually described in the press as “politically impossible,” meaning the only thing for it is a large majority of the population, but “lacking political support,” or “how difficult it would be to put it through.” But it’s not particularly difficult. You’d extend Medicare to the whole population, which is what a large part of the majority wants. But it runs into the interests that really set policies, so the goal is to divert attention away from those things to some other things. That’s the sort of Reagan Democrat phenomenon, and in that respect, religion can be mobilized. The religious commitments, which have always been there, can be mobilized into a political force. And I think that’s happened.
So to go back to your question, there’s a difference between the fact that it’s individual choice, and it happens to be an extremely religious country (way off the charts,) to policy. In fact, our policy has been mostly recent, pretty much coinciding with the period of harsh economic and social realities in the population, and I think it can be understood plausibly as a conscious diversion from issues party manages, and their constituencies, don’t want discussed.
In fact, during this period, the public relations industry, which is a huge industry, has been very frank about the fact that they are marketing candidates like commodities. It wasn’t published much here, but after the Obama election, the advertising industry gave Obama an award for best marketing campaign of the year. And they’re right. It was a great marketing campaign. “Hope.” “Change.” No content. (laughter) They went on to say, and this is top executives who are quoted, that they’ve been marketing candidates ever since Reagan, (laughter) and this is the best achievement they’ve ever had.
Kilstein: It’s unsettling
Kilkenny: Yeah (laughter)
Chomsky: No, it makes good sense. These guys study public opinion closely, and they’re perfectly aware that on a host of major issues, both political parties are pretty well to the right of the population, so it makes good sense to keep away from issues, and to focus on personalities, qualities. It’s not just true for the general population. It’s also true for the intellectual elite.
I sometimes torture myself by listening to NPR. (laughter) And I happened to pick up an interview that they were having after one of the Clinton-Obama debates during the primaries. And they were interviewing the New York Times political correspondent. I forget her name. They were on about for ten, or fifteen minutes, and the discussion was mostly about things like this: Apparently, at the beginning of the debate, Clinton walked in, and Obama sort of held her chair while she sat down, and the question was about his body language. Was he deferential: White Lady…
Kilstein: (laughter) Jesus
Chomsky: …Black Boy? Or was he kind of contemptuous? But that was the discussion. Not about what they were talking about, not about the issues. Maybe it’s not even conscious anymore. It’s so internalized. It’s internalized that you want to keep away from issues.
Kilstein: I bet it was Maureen Dowd (laughter)
Kilkenny: Do you think fascism is inevitable in a Capitalistic society?
Chomsky: Well, you know, the term “fascism” has taken on a special connotation. In the 1930s – pre-Hitler, or before the real effects of Hitler were concerned – it wasn’t considered a particularly negative term. It was considered a notion of social organization. So for example, [President Roosevelt] was a great admirer of [Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini.] That “admirable, Italian gentleman.” American investors loved Mussolini. They poured money into Italian Capitalism.
Chomsky: …It was controlling the work force. It was orderly. It was running things. They were making plenty of profit. In fact, Fortune magazine had a story in the early ‘30s, which had a headline about Mussolini saying, ‘The Wops are Un-Wopping Themselves.’ (laughter) You know, the ‘Wops’ are finally getting things straight. They had a real, good fascist government.
Chomsky: …And pretty much the same thing was true with Hitler. The state department in 1937, I think, described Hitler as a moderate, standing between extremes of right and left. Sumner Welles, Roosevelt’s main adviser, came back from the Munich Conference in ’38, saying “Real Hope. We can really work with Hitler. He’s kind of a good guy,” and again, American investment shot up in Germany. The business classes liked him. It was even more so in England.
In fact, if you read back, the really serious political economists like Robert Brady, one of the best, kind of Veblenite political economists, he just described fascism as a tendency that the industrial world is moving towards, including the New Deal as an example. Coordinated state planning for corporate structures in the interest of business controlling things, and so on. In that sense, you could say, yeah, some kind of fascism is like an aspect of Capitalism. But what the term has come to mean now is storm troopers, extermination camps, other such things, aggression. In that sense, there’s no reason to expect it. Counterproductive.
Kilkenny: But do you think there’s a way to be sort of an egalitarian society…
Chomsky: In principle?
Kilkenny: With Capitalism being the main…
Chomsky: It’s kind of interesting. If you read Adam Smith, a great hero, one of his arguments, he had the argument in favor of markets, but kind of nuanced arguments, not as extreme as is thought. But one of his arguments, like one of his main ones, was that under conditions of perfect liberty, markets would lead to perfect equality. Not a very good argument, but that was the argument. And he took perfect equality to be something we’d want. And he meant equality of condition, not opportunity. He said that’s what markets should lead to, and there’s an argument for that.
But under real world conditions, it goes the other way for all kinds of reasons. One reason, and there are a lot of built-in, serious inefficiencies to markets. In fact, we’re suffering from some of them right now.
One of the major properties of markets – if you take a good economics course you learn this in the first term – is that they under price social effects. So if you sell me a car, we can make a good deal for ourselves. We both gain from it, but [Kilstein] is paying a cost. So there’s more pollution, more congestion, the price of oil goes up, and these effects are spread through the population, the count of all can be quite large. It’s called externalities. Economists put them in a footnote, but they’re not so small.
Now, when you get financial institutions, there’s an effect called systemic risk. So if Goldman Sachs makes a loan, if they’re managed well, they take into account the effect to themselves if the loan go sour, but they don’t count in the consequences to the system as a whole if the loan goes sour. And that’s what’s happening now. You under price risk, and so there’s too much of it. There are other factors that also lead to too much of, and sooner or later, it all unravels, and you have a major crisis.
These are just properties of markets. And there are other properties. Say, when I go home tonight, I have a choice on the market. I can choose to go home in a Ford or a Toyoto. But I can’t choose to go home on a public transportation system because that’s not one of the options that a market provides. I can choose this doctor or that doctor, but I can’t choose a national health system. That’s not an option on the market. These are options for societies that are reasonable, world democratic societies, more reasonable societies where everything is under popular control (socialist societies, anarchist societies,) but markets don’t allow any of that.
So they’re heavily biased in favor of certain kinds of outcomes, which are in many ways anti-social outcomes. With regards to public transportation, one of the outcomes may be the destruction of the species. There’s nothing in markets that gives any incentive to care whether your grandchildren survive. The choices aren’t there. So even human survival isn’t very likely under market societies.
In fact, there are a lot of illusions about that. It’s commonly believed that the United States is a market society with entrepreneurial initiative and consumer choice, and all of those wonderful things, but it’s very far from that.
In fact, the very place where we’re sitting is a good illustration. What’s MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]? MIT is technically a private institution, but it’s publically funded through the government. What is it funded for? Well, it’s funded to create the technology of the future, which private corporations can make profit on. So the main elements of the productive economy now, like computers and the Internet, were developed right here, and similar places, under Pentagon funding for decades, not short periods. The public was paying the cost for a long period. The public was taking the risks, and it finally ends up in Bill Gates’s pockets.
Kilkenny: Right, right
Chomsky: …And that’s the way most of the high-tech economy works. So where’s the market society? Well, it’s there, it’s at the marketing end. Even there, marketing is carried out in a way intended purposefully to undermine markets. In fact, we all kind of know it, but we parrot the words without recognizing it.
So you’ve seen television ads. Suppose there’s a television ad for a drug, or a car, or something. In a market society, what you would have is a description of the properties of the commodity because then you get what are called ‘informed consumers making rational choices.’ But that’s not what you get. What you get is forms of delusion because the business wants to create uninformed consumers, who make irrational choices. That is, they want to undermine markets. Which is very much like the political system. You want an electorate, which is uninformed and makes irrational choices under modern democracy, so the whole kind of ideology is so remote from reality that it’s almost impossible to discuss.
And this is not something like Quantum physics. This is something right in front of everyone’s eyes. It takes tremendous amounts of indoctrination to be able to produce journalists and commentators and academics, and others, who can talk about it as a Free Market society because it’s right in front of your eyes that it’s nothing of the sort. So that really takes effective indoctrination.
And it’s not that people are lying. It’s worse than that. It’s internalized. You really believe the falsehoods you’re producing. Like a well-run totalitarian society, or a well-run religious faith where people don’t lie when they say there are miracles. They believe it. And people aren’t lying when they say it’s a market society. It’s just sort of driven into them that you don’t question it even though the counter-evidence is right in your face.
Kilstein: What gives you hope and makes you happy?
Chomsky: People like you. That’s where the hope is. In fact, there have been a lot of positive changes in the last – let’s say in my lifetime – last thirty, forty years, sort of active political lifetime. As a matter of fact, since I was a kid. Things are nowhere near as bad as what I was watching during the Depression. A lot of achievements were made during the New Deal, and they didn’t come from above. They came from activism.
By the time workers were carrying out sit-down strikes, which is like one step before taking over the factory and running it for yourself, which really put the fear of God into the business world, so there were measures introduced, which were good measures: Social Security, welfare state measures, some degree of regulation, and so on. That was positive. And it happened again in the ‘60s. There was a lot of popular activism, and it made a huge effect.
First of all, it led [President Johnson] to introduce extensions of welfare state measures, but it also just changed the culture. The role of minorities, women, environment, all sorts of things that weren’t questions even came to the center of the agenda, and it ended up being a much more civilized society.
In the 1980s, there was a growth of international solidarity movements, something which had never existed in the history of imperialism. In the whole history of imperialism, nobody thought of going to the country that is under attack and living in villages with people to help them and protect them with a white face. The idea didn’t occur to anybody. Tens of thousands of people were doing in the ‘80s. And it’s grown all over Central America.
And incidentally, a lot of them were coming out of Conservative religious circles. Religion in the United States is a very multifaceted affair. A lot were affected by liberation theology. A lot were coming out of the evangelical movement.
One of Obama’s half a dozen pastors is Jim Wallis, who comes out of that sector: Evangelical Christianity, which was dedicated to social service. Out of that came the solidarity movement, which extended into the current global justice movement, mostly young people, world social forum, and other social forums. That’s positive advances. And there’s no particular reason why that should stop.
In fact, we’re better off now than earlier because you can build on the successes of earlier generations and start from a higher level. So there’s plenty of problems, but no reason to lose hope.