On Noam Chomsky

The other day I saw the words CHOMSKY KNOWS scratched into the wall of a toilet stall. This is how word of Noam Chomsky tends to spread: you hear the guy, your life changes and you share the news however you can. (7, 1)

While sitting in a café, I saw a young woman walk by in a denim jacket. On the back she had written with bright-colored markers the imperative, READ CHOMSKY. (2, 2)

One would imagine that a man whom some people are as fanatical about as Noam Chomsky would be considered a near-celebrity, or at least someone whom most people have heard of. Why, then, is his name so unfamiliar to most Americans? Well, for the same reasons that the genocide in East Timor is so virtually unheard of – the “free press” isn’t as free as one would like to believe.

The public is taught to believe that the media is a good source of unbiased information. That is merely one of several of what Chomsky calls “necessary illusions,” deceptions that are vital to keeping the public appeased. (1) “In American society the role of the mass media, overwhelmingly controlled by large corporations, is to manufacture the majority’s consent for the continuing rule of the rich and powerful.” (3, 48) A great deal of propaganda is sent via the media every day, all in order to keep the public from actually becoming involved in the workings of the nation. (1) “Our society is not really based on public participation in decision-making in any sense… It is a system of elite decision and periodic public ratification.” (5, 25) The evening news can’t really be considered informative, but more like a carefully arranged selection of propaganda. The televised sports and sitcoms that people love so much are intended for the sole purpose of numbing the public mind and diverting attention from the real issues. (5,25)

People are “using their common sense and intellectual skills, but in an area which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence and affect because the power happens to lie elsewhere… Some intellectual skill and capacity for understanding… and thinking through problems could be used – and would be used – under different systems of governance which involve popular participation in important decision-making, in areas that really matter to human life.” (5, 24-25) Chomsky states that in order to protect the interests of the elite, they must keep the general public from actually trying to affect the nation’s fate. “Since we don’t participate, we don’t even think about questions of crucial importance; we hope somebody who has some competence is paying attention.” (5, 25) The public is conditioned to believe that they are not as qualified to make decisions about national affairs as the elite are, therefore allowing said elite to remain in control and serve their own interests.

One of the factors behind the fact that only conventional views are presented by the media, is the “need for concision.” Airtime is money, and they want speakers to be quick about presenting ideas. That takes controversial topics off the agenda because anything not with the standard ideology generally requires an explanation, which networks won’t take the time for, thereby reiterating the standardized views of those in control, hence Chomsky’s lack of recognition by Americans, and the filtering out of other independent thinkers from the mass media. This need for concision “makes life easy, and permits expression of a good deal of nonsense or ignorant bias with impunity, also sheer slander. Evidence is unnecessary, argument beside the point.” (5, 25) This gives the government an excuse as well as a means to keep the public in the dark, and therefore makes it much easier for the elite to get away with things. After all, “too much public awareness might lead to a demand that standards of integrity be met, which would certainly save a lot of forests from destruction, and would send many a reputation tumbling.” (5, 25) All of these methods contribute to the “huge concentrations of private power which are as close to tyranny and as close to totalitarian as anything humans have devised, and [the elite] have extraordinary power. They are unaccountable to the public.” (2, 1)

So, then, the next question one may ask is, “What is it that the elite aren’t taking responsibility for?” Well, according to Chomsky, the United States government “has pursued, in blunt fashion, the right to rob and plunder the Third World, and… the dominant intellectual class describes this theft in the most noble and grandiose terms… The US government will insure our transnational corporations have an inviting arena for lucrative investment and profit, regardless of the cost to the local populations.” (2, 1) In short, the United States has seriously violated basic human rights in order to make a few dollars for the very same corporations that run the façade of a democracy that is our government.

Although there are numerous examples of such atrocious happenings, only a few are necessary to illustrate the government’s practices. First of all, there is evidence of a strong correlation between the United States and torture. In a study by Lars Schoultz, it was found that US aid tends to “flow disproportionately” to countries in Latin America that tend to torture their citizens. There is also such a correlation where there is a favorable market for US business investments. “In other words, the better the climate for business, the more the aid, which is in turn achieved by murdering union organizers, torturing priests, massacring peasants, and anyone else attempting to achieve ‘democracy.’” (6, 1)

Another example is the infamous Cambodia/East Timor discussion from the mid-seventies. While Pol Pot’s actions in Cambodia were openly shunned by the American press, the US was sponsoring a similar genocide by Indonesia in East Timor. Pol Pot was on the US’ “official enemies list” and the “killing fields” were highly publicized, but the US wanted access to the oil reserves and submarine passages near East Timor and therefore didn’t make any mention of Indonesia’s atrocities, let alone the US’ involvement in them. (1) The government manipulated the press, and therefore the public, by picking and choosing which battles to condemn based on which it could benefit from the most by supporting.

Finally, there is the issue of the “silent genocide.” Chomsky notes that about eleven million children die every year due to easily treatable diseases, such as diarrhea, and half a million children from “debt repayment.” This is created when banks, including US banks, lend money to dictators in the Third World and the loans were not repaid. Those loans then become “bad debts” which the general public has to pay back, causing much-needed money to leave the country rather than remaining local to alleviate disease, hunger, et cetera. (6, 3)

Once disturbing facts such as these have been brought to one’s attention, what can one do in response? Chomsky suggests that one take steps to ensure that these horrors can never be born. He refers to “intellectual self-defense,” or resisting the ever-present brainwashing of the government and elite. He believes in the idea of challenging authority figures and testing them for legitimacy before allowing them to lead the public away like the Pied Piper. Change is not brought about by a few catalytic people, but by many, many people getting the ball rolling, however slowly, in their communities and raising awareness. Finally, he reminds people that as long as the elite have control of the media, they will use it to benefit only themselves. (1) Should they really be the ones in control? That is the question one must ask oneself.

The juggernaut still goes on, but you can throw a lot of sand in its gears.

~Noam Chomsky (3, 49)


1. Archbar, Mark and Peter Wintonick, Directors. “Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media.” Necessary Illusions & the National Film Board of Canada, 1993, Canada.

2. Chmiel, Mark. “Chomsky’s Lover’s Quarrel With the World.” Catholic Reader of America, 1997.

3. Dwyer, Victor. “Against the Grain.” Maclean’s, 22 March 1993, pages 48-49.

4. Everett, Daniel, Ph.D. “Chomsky, Noam.” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000. http://encarta.msn.com/concise

5. Peck, Jim. “Noam Chomsky: an American Dissident.” The Progressive, July 1987, pages 22-25. From The Chomsky Reader. 1987, Pantheon Books, Random House.

6. Shelden, Randall G., Ph.D. “Noam Chomsky: The Concentration of Power and the Political Economy of Human Rights.” Radio Free Maine, 27 September1994. http://radiofreemaine.com/rfm/chomrev02.html

7. Young, Charles M. “The Role of the Media in Manufacturing Consent.” Playboy, May 1995.

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