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Noam Chomsky Speech on Propaganda

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Given the events of this past week — the U.S.-engineered “peace talks” between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the judicial and broadcast network decisions to exclude third-party candidates from the presidential debates — we thought it would be a good time to hear from professor Noam Chomsky on the role of media in a democracy. This is a speech he gave last year, just after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, about the power of propaganda.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Clinton urged Mideast leaders in Washington to settle their explosive differences at peace talks that begin Sunday on the Israeli-Gaza border. The talks will have a U.S. mediator as Clinton heads to Chautauqua, New York, to prepare for Sunday’s presidential debate with Bob Dole. Meanwhile, Dole is criticizing Clinton for his handling of the Mideast peace talks, calling it “photo-op foreign policy.” But as Dole was getting his own photos taken with the Israeli prime minister, he declined to say whether he would have done anything different than Clinton.

Given the events of this past week, the U.S.-engineered so-called peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the judicial and broadcast network decisions to exclude third-party candidates from the presidential debates, we thought it would be a good time to hear from professor Noam Chomsky on the role of media in a democracy. This is a speech he gave last year just after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin about the power of propaganda.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Obvious way to start a talk on democracy and the right to know is perhaps to try to find the least controversial comment that you can dig up about it. And the best I could do was a letter by James Madison toward the end of his life, around 1822, when he says that “A popular government without popular information, or the means for acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” Well, that sounds fair enough, and one might ask, “Who could disagree with that?” There are people. For example, James Madison. Not in so many words, but in principle. And that contradiction tells quite a lot about American democracy and about the media.

James Madison, as you know, was the leading figure in the framing of the Constitution. And in the debates leading to the Constitutional Convention debates, he emphasized that democracy is a problem. It’s a threat to be overcome. And the new government has to be designed to bar that threat. The reason democracy is a threat, he stressed, is because the primary responsibility of government — I’m quoting — is “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” And plainly, if democracy functions, that’s going to be hard to do — in fact, impossible to do. So, he argued, forcefully and, in fact, persuasively, and in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, that view achieved the virtually unanimous agreement of the framers of the Constitution. There was actually only one exception.

And so, the system was designed to protect the minority of the opulent from the majority and to ensure that there would be no threat of democracy. The ways in which this has been done are, or should be, well known. There have been many changes over the past couple of centuries, but that principle remains pretty much in force. And it has a consequence. The consequence is that there is no right to know; rather, there is a need to control and manage opinion, because that’s the only way to guarantee that the minority of the opulent will be protected from a majority who otherwise might act in their own interest, and that’s unacceptable.

Well, there’s a lot more to say about that, but let’s move right on to the 20th century. By that time, a lot had changed. One thing that had changed was that extensive popular struggles and resistance had quite considerably extended the scope of democracy. One reflection of that is the extension of the franchise. And there are many others. However, while this was going on, something else was happening. Namely, actual decision-making power was being more and more concentrated. In fact, it was being concentrated in corporate institutions that are totalitarian in essence and were designed to protect power, protect the minority of the opulent, from market discipline, in large, part of their point. And they were also being, by the early 20th century, being granted extraordinary powers by the courts and by government, which had become, more than ever, the shadow cast by business over society.

Well, what was happening in the 20th century was captured rather neatly by Alex Carey. He’s an Australian social scientist, who actually pioneered the study of corporate propaganda, business propaganda. That’s a huge force in modern life. It extends from the commercial media to the huge entertainment industry to the enormous public relations industry to advertising, schools, universities — in fact, about every aspect of modern life, on quite a remarkable scale. And, fortunately for us, its leaders tell us what they’re up to. They are engaged in what they call the everlasting battle for the minds of men, who have to be indoctrinated with the capitalist story. That’s just standard sample from leaders of the public relations industry talking to each other, of course. And that position is correct on the principle on which the country was founded, if the minority of the opulent are to be protected against the minority — the majority. And if the threat of democracy is to be deterred somehow, then this is really the only way. Force isn’t available, on an appropriate level, and even if it were, control over opinion is the fundamental means for ensuring that people accept rule, whether it’s a military society or totalitarian society or a, more or less, free society. Again, that’s a truism, but goes back to the same years, to David Hume’s principles of government, in fact. So, all that hangs together.

Carey, describing the 20th century, points out that the 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy. That’s a pretty accurate summary, I think. And he gives a lot of evidence to back it up.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Noam Chomsky, speaking at MIT last year. Chomsky said one of the best examples of how American propaganda works is to look at coverage of the Middle East peace process. After the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the American media focused on one question: How will it affect the peace process? But few really explored what that process has been all about.

NOAM CHOMSKY: So, the first question to look at, if you want to look at a doctrinal system, is just ask about how the questions are posed, what are the premises, what’s beyond discussion, what’s the terminology that’s used, and so on. That usually pretty much finishes the story, whether people having felt it truth or not.

So, let’s take the fundamental question again. Will the assassination throw a wrench in the peace process? Well, peace process is a good thing. Everybody’s in favor of peace, so therefore we’re in favor of the peace process, and we hope it won’t throw a wrench in it. And the answer to the question — I mean, the basic set of answers is already given. We all hope that it won’t throw a wrench in the peace process, and maybe it will, and so on. That’s the framework.

So, what is the next question we look, you know, kind of taking this external Martian view, is: What is the peace process? What does it mean? What’s the meaning of the term? Well, you know, it could mean the effort to reach peace. But it certainly doesn’t mean that, and, in fact, really couldn’t mean that, if you think about it, for a very simple reason. Everyone wants peace. So, Hitler wanted peace. You know, Saddam Hussein wanted peace. Everybody wants peace — on their own terms. So, to say you want peace is completely meaningless. Sure, Genghis Khan would be delighted with peace, as long as it was on his terms. So, therefore, that’s not a serious proposal. We have to ask — look a little more closely to see what counts as a peace process.

Well, within the U.S. doctrinal system, which, incidentally, has remarkable power around the world — it’s quite an interesting fact in itself — within that doctrinal system, the term “peace process” has a very clear and specific meaning. It refers to whatever the U.S. government happens to be doing, very often blocking efforts to achieve peace. That, incidentally, is quite easy to show, and there’s plenty of evidence for it in print in a whole variety of areas. And that’s a usage that has lots of useful consequences.

So, for example, take the phrase “The U.S. government is working to advance the peace process.” Well, that turns out to be true by definition, whatever the facts, which is kind of one nice outcome. Take the phrase “The U.S. government is trying to undermine the peace process.” Well, that’s meaningless, self-contradictory or meaningless, hence unthinkable, even if it’s plainly true, as indeed it often is, when you understand the peace process as the effort to achieve peace. Well, that’s — if you can entrench usages like that and not even get people to think about them, the game is over, as in the case of the examples I mentioned. And, in fact, the peace process in the Middle East happens to be an extraordinarily dramatic example of this, of the way the really well-oiled propaganda system works.

So, let’s begin with a couple of just plain factual observations, which are, incidentally, totally uncontroversial, though unthinkable. And you can check them out, and hopefully you will. Facts of the matter are that for — since about 1970, the United States has stood virtually alone in the international arena in blocking diplomatic efforts to bring about a negotiated settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict through peaceful means. That’s evident, for example, from vetoes of Security Council resolutions, from solitary votes annually at the General Assembly of the United Nations, efforts — successful efforts, of course, to block initiatives from Europe, from the non-aligned countries, from the Arab states, from the PLO, over many years.

All of this has been the case since 1971, when the United States made a fateful decision — Henry Kissinger made the decision — namely, to reverse its own policy, which had just been accepted by President Sadat of Egypt, who had offered a peace treaty under U.N. — through a U.N. negotiator, had offered a full peace treaty to Israel in exactly the terms of official U.S. policy — incidentally, with nothing about the Palestinians. It was a totally rejectionist position, but happened to be exactly U.S. policy at the time. And the U.S. had to make a decision and decided to reject it. Israel also did.

Now, all of this is known. So, for example, take the memoirs of Yitzhak Rabin, who was just assassinated, who was then Israeli ambassador in Washington. Well, in his memoirs, he describes Sadat’s 1971 offer as a “famous milestone on the path to peace,” although Israel had to reject it, he said, as indeed it did. Well, what about in the United States? Well, in the United States, the famous milestone does not exist. The events did not happen. You cannot find a reference to them in the media. In fact, they’re even suppressed in most scholarship, including the most recent scholarship. They surely don’t constitute any part of a peace process. Well, actually, if you think about it, that’s true by definition. Since the U.S. blocked that initiative — that is, blocked the acceptance of its own official program — that can’t be part of the peace process, not in the kind of — in the operative meaning of the term, and so it is excluded. And, indeed, the same is true of the entire record. From 1971 up 'til 1991, it's completely down the memory hole, unmentionable, unthinkable, and also uncontroversial, and not very hard to find out about if you choose to go to the margins or to the original documents. That’s a real tribute to an intellectual class, of which we are part, an intellectual class that chooses — and remember, it is, of course, a choice — to subordinate itself to power. You see it in the media. That’s the easiest way to see it, but it’s misleading, because it’s across the board.

Well, since U.S. obstruction of the peace process is self-contradictory, given the operative meaning of the term, and hence unthinkable, you don’t have to proceed to ask the next question, which is why the United States has so consistently and energetically undermined the peace process since 1971. Since the idea is unthinkable, the reasons for it are unaskable. But if we break the rules, we can quickly find them.

There are three basic issues that have led the United States to block every initiative from around the world, whether in the U.N. or elsewhere, to achieve a negotiated settlement. One reason is that the international consensus, which, I stress again, was virtually universal — I mean, very, very little deviation from this. The international consensus called for Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, territories occupied in 1967. And that, indeed, was the U.S. position, too, up until 1971, when Kissinger shifted it. But since 1971, the U.S. has taken a different position, in international isolation with Israel, namely that there should be only partial withdrawal as determined unilaterally by the United States and Israel, according to their decisions and interests. So, that’s U.S. policy, and the rest of the world had a different policy, so therefore it was necessary to block every initiative, as indeed was done.

A second issue arose around the mid-’70s. And at that point, the international consensus, for the first time, began to call — shifted away from rejectionism to acceptance of the principle that there were two national groups that were calling for national self-determination. Israel looked likely the interest of one, and then there was the indigenous population, the Palestinians. So, since the mid-1970s, the same international consensus, with, again, near unanimity, has called for a recognition of the national rights of the indigenous population alongside of Israel. And the U.S. is adamantly opposed to that and remains so.

The third point will be harder to find out about, but it’s been a crucial one, is that the international consensus recognizes — I’m quoting now — “the right of people to resist racist and colonialist regimes and foreign military occupation.” That position is unanimous, except for the United States and Israel, which voted alone at the U.N. a couple years ago against the major U.N. resolution on terrorism. Terrorism is supposed to be something we’re all, you know, real excited about. And the U.N. passed one major resolution, the General Assembly. Security Council couldn’t, because there, the U.S. vetoes everything. But the General Assembly passed a major resolution condemning terrorism in all its forms very strongly and so on. The U.S. and Israel alone voted against it. One country only abstained, Honduras. So, that’s unanimous, essentially. I don’t know. They probably had a stomachache that day or something. But in any event, that’s a universal view outside of the United States and Israel, which refused to condemn — join the condemnation of terrorism, because it included the passage that I just described. Well, all of that, again, is easily established. Facts are there. You can find them, if you like. Also unmentionable and unthinkable.

So, putting this together, we discover that the peace process — the phrase “peace process” — refers to various U.S. efforts to block any form of political settlement that includes these three principles. And, in fact, what it actually refers to is the various U.S. initiatives that have been undertaken unilaterally to achieve its own rejectionist goals in violation of the international consensus. Well, it happens that, for reasons there’s no time to go into — could talk about later, if you like — but it happened. It happened in September 1993 in the Oslo Accords, which, in fact, accept precisely the U.S. rejectionist position, virtually without deviation.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Noam Chomsky, speaking on the Middle East settlement.

Even as the summit was taking place in Washington yesterday, two riots broke out in Hebron. As the president spoke in the East Room of the White House, Palestinian Authority Chair Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu sat in grim-faced silence behind him, alongside King Hussein of Jordan, the third Mideast leader at the summit. President Hosni Mubarak o Egypt, had refused an invitation to attend, saying that the lack of serious preparation and the political inflexibility of the Israeli leader meant that it would be virtually impossible to achieve a useful result. According to The Washington Post, Palestinian and Israeli officials said Netanyahu rebuffed attempts by Arafat to persuade him to close the entrance to the tunnel in East Jerusalem, close to Muslim and Jewish holy places, whose opening sparked the street riots by Palestinians. The Israeli prime minister also brushed aside calls by Arafat and Clinton to set a firm date for the partial withdrawal of Israeli troops from Hebron as foreseen in the September 1993 Oslo Accords. And you’re listening to Democracy Now! We’ll be back in 60 seconds.

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