Episode 30 – Professor Noam Chomsky on Propaganda, Advertising, and Oppression

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Professor Noam Chomsky is a hugely eminent philosopher, author, activist, linguist, and public speaker whose career has spanned close to seven decades. Guy Evans of the Smells Like Human Spirit Podcast traveled to MIT in Cambridge, MA for a thirty minute interview, in which the following topics were discussed:

-Western nations’ use of ‘necessary illusions’ to control the attitudes and opinions of their citizens;
-How tactics of propaganda, spearheaded by Edward Bernays, eventually manifested into the advertising industry;
-Woodrow Wilson and his mission to turn a pacifist public into jingoist warmongers;
-The general goal of commercial advertising which is to undermine markets, creating uninformed consumers making irrational choices;
-Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 Presidential Election, and why it can be seen as much as a marketing campaign as a political one;
-How the commitment of commercial advertising to undermine markets leads to attempts to undermine democracy;
-The tone of political activism in the 1960′s, and its resemblance, at least in visibility, to the political movements of recent times;
-Martin Luther King – how he was villifed, how he is now remembered, and what he did following the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech;
-The actions of President Kennedy in escalating the Vietnam War and the antiwar movement that followed;
-The political movements, including campaigns for Global Justice, that set the stage for the Occupy movement;
-Potential environmental catastrophe, and why its threat is multiplied due to the ‘profit over people’ ethic dominating the world today;
-The continued possibility of nuclear war, and why a very straightforward solution to this issue is being prevented by the U.S./Israel relationship.


Guy Evans: Welcome everybody to Episode 30 of the Smells Like Human Spirit Podcast. I’m Guy Evans, and I’m very grateful to be joined today by Professor Noam Chomsky. He is, as I’m sure most of you, if not all of you listening are aware, an incredibly impactful linguist, public speaker, author, an activist, so like I say it is a great privilege to be here. Professor Chomsky, thank you and how are you this morning?

Noam Chomsky: Ok. I’m fine. My voice isn’t. I hope it’ll carry.

Evans: Oh I’m sure it will. So first of all, I just want to say that I’ve always been astounded by your sheer output as far as not only your authorship, but also your public speaking and the interviews that you do. I think it’s really a testament to just how productive a human being can be in their lifetime quite frankly. It’s always amazed me how much that you do. So just to get started here, this has always been a point of curiosity for me: how do you manage to do so much?

Chomsky: By not doing other things. Time and energy are finite, so you decide how you’re gonna distribute them. These are my choices.

Evans: So it’s more of a case of prioritizing more than anything?

Chomsky: Most of it you don’t even know about. And you couldn’t. I probably spend six hours a day just answering e-mail inquiries.

Evans: Interesting. Well you’ve made such a fabulous contribution to so many fields, and I know a lot of our listeners will echo that as well. It would be impossible to try to reduce your work to a single theme or buzzword, but one of the themes that I’ve seen crop up again and again is oppression. The idea that the establishment are holding down the public, disabling them from achieving freedom of mind and independence and autonomy. Now in some countries this is very literal, there’s physical repercussions for standing up to the state. How does oppression work in Western countries, notably the United States?

Chomsky: It’s interesting to look at the history. For the last, say, century and a half or so, the freest countries were England and the United States. Both countries by about a century ago, dominant sectors, power centers, came to the realization which was pretty explicit in fact, and articulate, that it’s becoming difficult to control people by force. They just want too much freedom. So there were parliamentary labor parties, there were unions, women were about to get the right to vote, the U.S. 1920′s, and there was a lot of ferment, and people were just able to become directly engaged in the political arena to an extent that hadn’t been true before. And since it was necessary to keep them under control, it was necessary to turn to other means. And the other means were, the obvious ones – control of attitudes and opinions.

Out of that came the huge public relations industry, which was advertising and the rest, which is an extraordinarily huge industry now, and was explicitly designed to carry out that task. If you read the founding documents of the P.R. industry, for example, the most interesting is the book ‘Propaganda’ – they used the term honestly in those days. Since the Second World War, it took on a bad connotation so they don’t use it [anymore]. But they called it propaganda, and the guru of the industry, Edward Bernays [who] was the author [of 'Propaganda'], he had experience, he came out of Woodrow Wilson’s committee on Public Information, which of course means Disinformation. Wilson had to drive the pacifist American public into a spirit of jingoism and fanaticism and hatred of everything German so that we’d join the war, and it was tricky. He was elected in 1916 on a pacifist program: peace without victory, and he quickly had to do something to get the U.S. into the war. This Commission, the Creel Commission, was dedicated to that task and it was remarkably successful, and the people that were on it learned lessons. One of them was Bernays, another was Walter Lippmann, who become the leading public intellectual of the 20th Century in the United States, a very distinguished figure. Also, [he] was a theorist of democracy.

Both of them learned the same lesson. As they put it, obviously the intelligent minorities, as they called them, have to rule. That’s us and our friends. The rest of the population, as they put it, are too stupid and ignorant to be able to allow them to enter into management of public affairs. It would be like allowing a 3 year old to cross the street, and so on. So for their own benefit, we have to find ways to marginalize and control them. We have to provide them with necessary illusions and emotionally potent over-simplifications. We have to defend ourselves from the roaring trampling of the bewildered herd, the ignorant and meddlesome outsiders. These are all quotes, standard views. It’s all basically the same view, we’re very benevolent, and we want to take care of the public, and they obviously can’t do it themselves, they’d get in trouble. So therefore we have to somehow marginalize them. You look at the business literature of the period, it talked about how it’s necessary to focus people on the superficial things of life, like fashionable consumption, and of course kind of atomize them, break up groupings so [that] the ideal unit will end up being you and your television set. And this just then turns into a huge industry. The advertising industry itself which is enormous, is actually quite interesting if you look at it closely. It has a very definite commitment, I mean it’s primary goal, it’s primary involvement is [in] commercial advertising. Incidentally, its success in commercial advertising even by the 1920s impressed many others, so for example Goebbels explicitly modelled Nazi propaganda techniques on the methods of American commercial advertising, which he realized were quite effective.

But if you think of the general goal of commercial advertising, its primary goal is to undermine markets. That’s never discussed this way but if you think about it, it’s pretty obvious. If you’ve taken an economics course, you’d know that markets are supposed to based on informed consumers making rational choices. On the basis of that assumption, you prove various theorems, and so on and so forth. But if you turn on a television set, you see in one minute that the goal of advertising is to create uninformed consumers making irrational choices. In fact, that’s the obvious thrust of advertising. And it has a political significance too. Overwhelmingly over the years, much more so in the United States than in other countries, although its seeping in everywhere, electoral campaigns are being run by the advertising industry. In the United States, it’s just overwhelming. Ads, framing, the way you present personalities and whole business, designed by the advertising industry and they know it. So for example, the 2008 campaign, Obama’s victory in 2008. A couple of months later, the advertising industry had its annual convention and every year they give an award for the best marketing campaign. That year they gave it to Obama. Terrific marketing campaign, delud[ing] everyone with crazy talk.

Evans: Change.

Chomsky: Yeah, and all that stuff. And in fact then you look at the business press, Financial Times, [there was a] wonderful article which I don’t know if it was intended to be ironic or not. They were quoting CEO’s and others who were really euphoric about the success, this new model for how to project themselves. ‘We used to use the Reagan model, but now we can start using this model’. But it’s all just advertising. And what they’re doing is carrying over from their commitment to undermine markets, carrying that over to a commitment to undermine democracy. Take a look at the American electoral campaign that just passed, or any other. The goal is to create uninformed voters who will make irrational choices. That is to undermine what you’re taught in school [which] is ‘democracy’. Lippmann and others knew better – [in their view], democracy they understood is a danger, you have to keep the people out of things, and this is one of the ways to keep them out. And it works, so for example, Political Science literature. There’s some very good work done in academic Political Science. If you take the topics, among one of the main ones is the study of attitudes and policy. So there’s a lot of very good work, [and] the kind of gold standard right now is a book that just appeared, ‘Influence and Affluence’ its called, which does a detailed study of how public attitudes and public policy correlate. What it concludes, and I think, pretty well establishes, is that if you just take income levels, the bottom 70% have no influence whatsoever on policy, so they’re effectively disenfranchised. And as you move up the income level, you get somewhat more influence, like you get to the very top basically, they get what they want. So what they’re describing is traditional plutocracy, and the goal of the commercial advertising and the advertising industry is to just ensure that it works, and [sarcastically] it’s all for the good of the public. Just total benevolence. The rationale is developed by the leading intellectuals, by the top figures in the industry and so on, that makes perfectly good sense. If you can’t control by force, you gotta control in some other ways, and there aren’t a lot of whole other ways. This is the obvious way.

Evans: Now you’ve been speaking about these things [for many decades], and really your work has crossed generations. You’ve been highly active and I would say highly relevant for a very long period of time, possibly unparalleled. One of the periods where you were highly active is an era that I think has been romanticized by a lot of political activists, the 1960′s, and over the last few years some have argued that we’ve kind of seen a resurgence of political activism and that activist spirit in America, notably [with] the Occupy movement. How would you compare the tone of what was going on in the 1960′s to now?

Chomsky: Well first of all, there are a lot of illusions about the 1960′s. The 60′s were pretty quiescent. There was an upsurge in the early 60′s about the civil rights movement, but remember that that was somewhere else. That was Alabama, and Georgia and so on, there’s a lot of excitement about it, but what’s less remembered is that that didn’t end the effort, the civil rights movement, it just ended its successes. So when you listen to the speeches on Martin Luther King, he’s now a hero in retrospect, [but] he wasn’t at the time, he was vilified, but they typically end with his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, The March on Washington and that’s the culmination of all our hopes.

[However], King didn’t stop there, he immediately went on, he went to the North, began working on urban poverty, he started trying to develop a popular movement of the poor, to press for class issues, class demands. As soon as he moved in that direction, he was cut off. The Northern liberals were quite happy to have him condemn racist Alabama sheriffs but leave us alone, y’know. Racism in the North is extreme, [it] shows up in all kind of ways, and it interlinks with oppression of the poor so as soon as you turn to class issues you’re in trouble, because you’re running into major interests. If you look at the rest of Martin Luther King’s career, he was killed in 1968 – it continued. He also started criticizing the Vietnam War, [and] contrary to much manufactured illusion, the intellectual classes strongly supported the war, including the liberal democrats, who later claimed that they were always opposed, but the record is very clear, because these were articulate people so they were writing – you can see what they wrote. That already cast a shadow over King but turning to class issues, even worse. He was finally killed in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was there to support a public workers’ strike, just the people who were being vilified, sanitation workers. He gave another ‘I Have A Dream’ speech there, quite an eloquent one, but pretty hard to find. He used his biblical, rhetorical style and he described himself as like Moses, standing on a mountain, he can see the promised land, he realizes he’ll never get there but if we struggle on, you can get there. Then he was assassinated almost immediately. He was about to lead a march to Washington to petition Congress for rights for the poor. This is part of his poor people’s movement. Well, his wife Coretta King lead the march and they went through the main places in the South where they’d been major struggles, and they made it to Washington, they set up a tent city, like Occupy, a resurrection city. This [was] the most liberal Congress in American history, [and] they let them stay there for a while, then they sent the police, in the middle of the night and tore it to shreds and drove them out of town. That was the end of the poor people’s movement. So the civil rights movement had its successes, very important ones, but [it was] limited, it was focused.

What about the anti-war movement. That was pretty slow in coming. I mean, Kennedy launched the war in 1961, ’62. [He] sent the American air force to start bombing South Vietnam and authorized Napalm, which was described as something that really terrifies gooks, y’know, used then. [He] launched crop destruction programs, chemical warfare, destroyed crops and ground cover, started programs to round people up and drive them into what amounted to concentration camps – they called [them] strategic hamlets. We call that war if anybody else did it, with no opposition. I mean I was trying to give talks about the war at the time, it was comical. I’d sometimes be able to talk in someone’s living room with a couple of neighbors, things like that. It was years before anything developed but by about ’66, ’67, there was large scale opposition, though still denounced by the majority of the educated sectors. It was beginning to seep in, but not much. I mean, I could give you details if you like, it’s pretty interesting. Anyhow there was a period, roughly ’68 to ’71, that period in which there was extensive anti-war activism and demonstrations. When Nixon invaded Cambodia in 1970, the colleges were closed down, delegations of elite intellectuals were going to Washington to tell them to stop destroying our country, and business leaders turned against the war, and so on. So there was that brief period, and then activism declined, so the war continued. For example, some of the worst periods of the war were right then. [In the early] ’70′s, the United States was bombing…late ’60′s, and primarily early ’70′s, the U.S. was intensively bombing Northern Laos and rural Cambodia, and that was a real horror story. I mean, Henry Kissinger, he transmitted to General Hague [what] Nixon’s orders [were], which were [on] Cambodia: ‘anything that flies against anything that moves’. [Sarcastically] It’s one of the most articulate calls for genocide in the archival record. That was, I think 1970. After that came bombing of Cambodia, rural Cambodia, poor rural communities at a level of intensity that had no parallel anywhere – the closest was Northern Laos just before. It converted the Khmer Rouge who were a marginal force at the time into a huge army of enraged peasants, and we know what happened afterwards. Well a lot of talk [has been had] about what happened afterwards. What about what happened before. No protests, virtually no protests at the time, virtually none, and in retrospect, it’s been wiped out, so it’s not part of history. That’s the antiwar movement.

However [activism] remained, and it’s continued, and in fact right through the ’70′s, activism continued. It wasn’t as visible as in those few years, but it was there, and in fact some of the most important movements with really lasting effects are from the ’70′s. The feminist movement, for example, had its roots in the ’60′s, kind of beginning, and as usual vilified, bra-burning, crazy women, that sort of thing. But by the ’70s, it had become a major movement, [and] by now it’s just changed the country, enormously. The environmental movement began around 1970, and incidentally Nixon was one of the people how helped support it. The country has changed so much that today the Republicans are trying to dismantle Nixon’s environmental efforts. By today’s standards Nixon would be considered a radical leftists or something, [so] it tells you about what’s happened to the country. But the movement continued. The anti-nuclear movement continued, [and] by the early ’80s, it was an enormous movement. It compelled Reagan to move in to the ‘Star Wars’ fantasies to try to shut it up, and it just continues on. The Global Justice movements, the solidarity movements for Central America in the 1980′s had absolutely no historical parallel. There’s never been a moment in the history of imperialism, Western imperialism, in which large numbers of people from the imperial power not only protested on-going atrocities, but went to live with the victims. Nobody ever thought of that in any earlier period, but it was happening all over in the ’80s, and it wasn’t Eastern colleges, it was Midwestern Americans, rural areas, Evangelical Christians, all over the main part of the country. That’s a phenomenal development, never anything like it. That’s the ’80s. It’s not called the history of activism, because of the way intellectuals write history, not because of what was happening. And it continues on. The Global Justice movements of really the last ten years or so, and really they’re quite substantial. So I think it’s not the usual picture in my opinion. Occupy was quite important I think, but I don’t think you can say it somehow sprung out of nothing.

Evans: Absolutely. With all that being said, for this particular generation, what do feel are the most important issues for them to focus their energies on?

Chomsky: Well there are two issues which are of transcendental importance because they have to do with species survival. We live in unique moment of human history. Humans have been around for maybe 100,000 years and we’ve gotten to the point where we can now destroy the species and most other species, and we’re on the verge of doing it. That’s not remote.

[So there's] two aspects – one is environmental catastrophe. I mean, if you’re a Republican Congressman, or Mitt Romney, you can deny that it’s happening, but as the business press says recently, that’s insane. Yes, it’s very calculated insanity – it means we want our short-term profits and we don’t give a damn what happens to Earth.

Evans: Profit over people.

Chomsky: That’s basically what it amounts to. So it’s kind of a pathological stance but very widespread, but what we don’t do now, or what we do do now, is going to have very significant impact not too far in the future. That’s one.

The other is nuclear war. We’ve managed to survive since 1945, [and] it’s kind of a miracle. In fact, right now, it happens to be that we’re just past the 50th Anniversary of what historians call the most dangerous moment in human history, correctly, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I think that’s been pretty seriously misinterpreted. It’s important to think through what actually happened. It came very close to a war that wouldn’t have killed everybody, but would’ve had a devastating impact. By now, it’s known, that in a first strike, if there was a first strike with a Great Power, it would destroy the victim, but it would also destroy those who were launching the strike, because it would lead to Nuclear Winter and all sorts of other horrible effects. And it came very close. We were basically saved from it by Khrushchev’s sanity. I mean, I could go through the details if you like. The standard view of [it being] Kennedy’s finest moment, I think it’s one of the lowest moments of human history. But that’s very alive. In fact we’re building up to another configuration right now. Just take a look at the Persian Gulf, the U.S. has enough destructive capacity in the Gulf naval vessels and so on to destroy the species a hundred times over. That’s the piece of it, there’s also the huge destructive forces going from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean all focused mainly right now on Iran. The interesting question is what it’s for, we could talk about that, but it’s pretty clear that even an accident could set something off, and there’s been a couple of accidents. Wars have started that way, and we don’t know where we’d go.

But interestingly, there’s a very straightforward way of dealing with it, very straightforward, but thanks to the internalized system of imposing necessary illusions, it’s not being discussed. Very straightforward way. First of all, most of the world doesn’t regard Iran as a particular threat, that’s a Western observation. But let’s agree, let’s say it’s a threat, whatever the threat may be. How do you deal with it? Well the simplest way would be to move towards establishing a nuclear weapons-free zone in the region, with inspections. Well it turns out [there's] almost universal support for that, including [from] Iran. But there’s a barrier: the United States won’t permit it. The United States and Israel, but Israel is not an independent actor, they can [only] do what the U.S. permits. Their position was restated by Obama recently [which was] that it’s a wonderful idea, but not now – and it has to exclude Israel. It can’t be entertained until Israel’s ‘right to exist’ and permanent peace is guaranteed. Well, that can’t happen. Nobody’s ‘right to exist’ is even demanded except for Israel and certainly can’t be guaranteed. So besides, we continue to put off a peaceful settlement forever, as we’ve been doing for 35 years. So essentially no nuclear no weapons-free zone. This is very eminent. There’s an international conference coming up in Helsinki, in December, to try to carry forward this effort. Now here’s an exercise for you. Do a database search in the American press and see how many references you can find to it. I’ll tell you what you’ll find. Nothing. Maybe a word here and there, like the Chicago Tribune had five lines on a Reuters report, but effectively nobody knows about it. If nobody knows about it, they can’t be any pressure to get the United States to participate seriously, therefore there can’t be any steps towards the very straightforward settlement, at least reduction, of whatever anybody thinks the Iranian threat is. That’s a pretty impressive case of what Walter Lippmann called ‘Manufacturing Consent’, ensuring that the ‘ignorant and meddlesome outsiders’ don’t interfere with our affairs, because they can’t even hear about it. There’s no government pressure and there’s no conspiracy. This is just internalized which maybe goes back to your original question, how does it work in free societies? Well, it works by indoctrination that is so profound that it’s completely internalized and not even perceived. So like if you ask newspaper Editors, they just say ‘look, we tell the truth about important things’, by their lines. But here’s something of overwhelming importance, and it can’t even be reported. You couldn’t achieve that in a totalitarian state by force, because if you do it by force, people would see it. In the old Soviet Union, people just didn’t believe the propaganda, it was too vulgar and overt. But here it works brilliantly, and this is one of the most extreme cases I remember. Going back to your question, for young people and their priorities, it’s of urgent necessity. They don’t want to have wars, [but] you could easily have nuclear wars. And there are plenty of other things, but those two are predominant.

Evans: So I guess our time has pretty much come to our close. It would be amiss if you didn’t ask about your new book, which I believe is coming out in January, “Power Systems”, if you could perhaps let us know what to expect from that?

Chomsky: I’m not even sure what’s coming out frankly, it just keeps going on and on.

Evans: Ok. There’s always going to be something coming from you. We know that much for certain.

Chomsky: [I'm just the] Energizer bunny. Keep going.

Evans: Absolutely. Ok thank you very much Professor Chomsky for your time, it’s been fantastic.

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Smells Like Human Spirit is a DAILY podcast that covers society, culture, and everything in between! Previous guests include Professor Noam Chomsky, Dan Carlin, Michael Ruppert and many others…

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