Weapons of Mass Delusions: Noam Chomsky on the Guilt of a Nation

Your latest book, Hegemony or Survival, deals largely with America’s imperialistic goal of global domination. But what is the ultimate aim? I mean, even if an elite group of people manage to amass all the world’s money and power for themselves, they won’t really be able to enjoy it if their faces have melted off in a nuclear showdown, which is where you often seem to caution that we’re headed.
Throughout history, leaders have been perfectly willing to face destruction—including their own—for short-term profit and interest. There are some dramatic examples of this. Let’s go back 50 years. In 1950, the U.S. had a position of security with no historical parallel. They controlled the whole hemisphere, opposite sides of both oceans, had half the world’s wealth and the most powerful military force in the world. But there were some potential threats. One was ICBMs—Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles with thermonuclear warheads. Well, how’d they deal with that potential threat? There is a standard history of this by national security advisor McGeorge Bundy. In passing, he mentions that he was unable to find any internal document which even raised the possibility of ameliorating this threat by treaty arrangements with the Russians. Now, since the Russians were way behind and far more in danger, it’s conceivable, and in fact likely, that if there had been an effort to reduce the threat, it might have worked. But that was never raised as a possibility. Because it doesn’t matter if you carry out a policy which might lead to the destruction of the country, as long as you achieve short-term ends of domination, power and wealth. And that is consistent.
I mean, take this moment. By now, even the Pentagon is producing documents warning that global warming could have extremely dangerous effects. We don’t know this for sure, but it’s not impossible that in 20 years the Gulf Stream will shift and carry out vast devastation in much of the world. It could probably convert a lot of the United States into arid desert. Maybe that won’t happen in 20 years, you can’t say it with certainty, but it’s enough of a threat that scientists and even the Pentagon are severely concerned. How do we react to that? By increasing the threat. By refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol, refusing to take steps to carry out conservation, building more and encouraging people to buy more SUVs and Humvees. That’s how we deal with a threat that might lead to massive destruction in our children’s lifetimes.

So even animalistic levels of self-interest and survival don’t apply? What about the fact that what we’re doing could have terrible repercussions even five years from now?
What happens five years from now is somebody else’s business. That’s exaggerated in a state capitalist system like ours. Our system is based on the principle that you’re supposed to be concerned with short-term gain. In fact, if you take an economics course in college, they’ll teach you that the ideal is for each person to be a “rational wealth maximizer,” meaning you rationally maximize your own wealth, and if we have a perfect market, the market will respond perfectly to each person’s input as a rational wealth maximizer.
Of course, there are consequences to that. It means that people who don’t have votes in the market, who don’t have a dollar to put into the market, their interests are valued at zero. That includes your children. Therefore, by the ideology that’s drummed into our heads, your children’s concerns are of zero value, unless you want to feel sentimental about it. It’s your right to destroy the possibility for a decent existence for your children, your right to face the danger of nuclear war. That’s drilled into your head in all sorts of ways, not only in courses on rational utility systems in graduate school, but in sitcoms.
What do you see in a sitcom? Do you see people warning about global warming or nuclear war, or even the fact that they don’t have a job, or they can’t take care of their disabled mother because they don’t have a healthcare system? No. What you see are people who have problems with their girlfriend or something of that sort. That’s massive propaganda [that] from infancy tries to turn people into mindless consumers of goods. When I watch television with my grandchildren, you take a look at these cartoons that they’re watching, and they’re interspersed with massive propaganda. They don’t see it as propaganda, but any adult can see what it is. It’s an effort to try to get them to want things.
In the academic profession of applied psychology, there’s a subdivision which is concerned with studying nagging. That’s been a big problem in the business world—children don’t make money, so how do you get them to consume? Well, the way you get them to consume is to get them to nag their parents. By now there’s an analysis of half a dozen different kinds of nagging, and the advertising industry pours huge resources into trying to stimulate children to nag their parents to buy things that they are going to throw away in five minutes. That is drilled in from infancy, in a perfectly conscious attempt to create a passive, obedient population that is just concerned with amassing consumer goods, which is supposed to be healthy for the economy. It doesn’t care about anybody else and doesn’t care about tomorrow. If you’re a CEO of a corporation, you’ve got to worry about the bottom line and the next quarter, not whether somebody’s going to survive in 10 years. In government, it’s the same: You maximize power and don’t worry about what’s going to happen in the future; it will take care of itself somehow. This is extremely dangerous.

You never endorse candidates. But what would you say to humane and peace-loving Americans—or for that matter, people with a survival instinct and genuine concern for their children, regardless of their zero market value—about this year’s election?
There are two separate things, one short-term and one long-term. There isn’t a lot of difference between the parties—they’re basically one business party with different factions. But there are some differences, and small differences in a system of enormous power can translate into substantial effects. The Bush administration, if it gets another mandate, may do very serious harm to the world and the country. Maybe even irreparable harm. So a short-term goal is to not grant them that mandate.
There’s a much longer term and more significant goal, and that is to recreate something that has been severely eroded, namely, a democratic culture. A culture in which people feel they have some participation in the democratic process. They don’t now. In the last election, before Florida or any of that stuff, about 75% regarded it as a farce. It’s just rich people and the public relations industry framing candidates who you can’t understand what they’re talking about. It’s none of our business. It’s an open secret that elections are basically bought. You have a ton of money, you can deluge the television with lies and distortions, and that’s an election.
For example, a large majority of the population is in favor of some kind of universal healthcare, which would be a much more efficient and humane system. If it’s ever mentioned at all it’s called politically impossible, because the insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies are against it. That tells you what kind of democracy we have. But it doesn’t have to be like that. It’s possible to construct a democratic culture in which people can participate, in which issues matter and not just attributes. You can have something other than a contest between two factions of a business party. But that takes work. It’s not a matter of going to a poll once and then going home, like buying shoes. It’s a matter of keeping at it, day after day. If that can be done, you can have real elections. This way it will always be choosing the least bad of two bad alternatives.

What do you think?

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