“Speaking Truth to Power Makes No Sense”

Noam Chomsky, The Common Good  [1998]


I first read this collection of interviews between Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian twenty years ago. The interviews were from the second half of the nineties, the Clinton years when the UN/US sanctions on Iraq were decimating thousands of Iraqi children each month and people like Madeline Albright justified it.  The following are some passages  worth understanding…


Truth to Power:  “Speaking truth to power makes no sense.  There’s no point in speaking the truth to Henry Kissinger — he knows it already.  Instead, speak truth to the powerless — or, better, with the powerless.  Then they’ll act to dismantle illegitimate power.” 158 

Prophets:  “True prophets like Amos — ‘dissident intellectuals,’ in modern terminology — offered both elevated moral lessons, which the people in power weren’t fond of, and geopolitical analyses that usually turned out to be pretty accurate, which the people in power were even less fond of.  Naturally, the true prophets were despised, imprisoned, driven into the desert.  The public also hated the true prophets — they didn’t want to hear the truth either.  Not because they were bad people, but for all the usual reasons — short-term interest, manipulation, dependence on power.”  148

Looking for the Magic Answer:  “When I speak to elite audiences, I constantly get asked, What’s the solution.  If I say obvious things like Pick your cause and go volunteer for a group that’s working on it, that’s never the answer they want.   They  want some kind of magic key that will solve everything quickly, overwhelmingly and effectively.  There are no such solutions.  There are only the kind that people  are working on in Massachusetts towns, in self-governing villages in India, at the Jesuit Center in Colombia.” 152

Illusion of class harmony:  Like in the faculty departments, “we’re all in this together.”

Business Week Survey:  “95% of the people — there’s a number you almost never see in a poll — said corporations have a responsibility to reduce profit for the benefit of their workers and the communities they do business in.  70% thought businesses have too much power, and roughly the same number thought business has gained more by deregulation and similar measures than the general population has.”  61

Miracles for whom?:  The IMF prescriptions can work economic miracles for the rich, which are catastrophes for the poor.  78

Famine in India, But Who Cares?:  “Right after independence, in the early 1950s, India had a very serious famine, in which millions of people died.  US internal records show that we had a huge food surplus, but Truman refused to send any, because we didn’t like Nehru’s independence.  When we finally did send some, it was under stringent conditions.” 111

Rejectionist:  The US and Israel are “rejectionist” — “that is, they reject the rights of one of the two contestants in the former Palestine.  In the US, the term ‘rejectionist’  is used in a racist sense, applying only to those who reject the rights of Jews.  If we can bring ourselves to adopt nonracist usage, we will describe the US as the leader of the rejectionist camp.” 91  

The Allon Plan by any other name:   gives Israel control of the resources, water and usable territory  while giving up responsibility for the Palestinian population.  92  What the Palestinians govern will be closer to Bantustans than a real state.  

Israel & the Gulf War:  “if Israel had become directly involved, it would have been impossible for the US to keep the passive support of the major oil-producing countries in the region, and that’s all Washington was really concerned about.  Certainly they didn’t need Israel’s support to fight a war against a virtually defenseless Third World Country.  After the war, the US reestablished its domination of the region very strongly and told everybody, ‘What we say, goes’ (as George Bush put it).” 89

The 1967 Turn-Around:  “Israel showed how to deal with the lower orders — really kick them in the face — and that won them a lot of points among American intellectuals.”  96 

Nobel Prize & East Timor:  “The recognition of the struggle is very important — or it will be, if we can turn it into something.  The mainstream media will suppress it as quickly as possible; they’ll give it some polite applause and then try to forget about it.  If that happens, it will be our fault — nobody else’s.”  97

Neo-liberalism:  “basically nothing more than the traditional imperial formula:  free markets for you, plenty of protection for me.  The rich themselves would never accept these policies but they’re happy to impose them on the poor.” 84

Globalization:  “What’s spreading is a kind of corporate mercantilism that’s supported by — and crucially relies on — large-scale state power.”  66-7  “The public assumes the risks and the costs, and is told it’s defending itself against foreign enemies.  That’s supposed to be an illustration of democracy and markets.  The delusion is so ingrained that nobody even comments on it.” 69 

Really existing market theory — “The big transnationals want to reduce freedom by undermining the democratic functioning of the states in which they’re based, while at the same time ensuring the government will be powerful enough to protect and support them.” 17

Genius of the Propaganda System — “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum –even encourage the more critical and dissident views.  That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”  43 Example: the peace process — to even enter the debate is to concede the US position which is a denial of Palestinian rights.  

Democratic media — they would be under public control, public would have access.  Note that there’s a business page, “But I’ve never seen a labor section in a newspaper.  When labor news is run at all, it’s in the business section, and is looked at from that point of view.  This simply reflects, in a very transparent way, who’s in power.”  51  “You don’t find messages on TV about how to join a union and do something about the conditions of your life.”  53  TV today as a kind of pacification program.  

Technology:  “You can’t ask, Is a hammer good or bad?  In the hands of somebody who’s building a house, it’s good; in the hands of a torturer, it’s bad.  The Internet is the same.” 149

Insistence on All Kinds of Options:   “When you get away from the really top, agenda-setting media, there are plenty of opportunities.  It isn’t just a matter of writing op-eds and making telephone calls, but insisting, by all kinds of public pressures, that there be openings to your point of view.” 157

Turning back the popular church:  The Vatican has tried to undermine the LA church of the poor, e.g., installing as archbishop a Spaniard from the right-wing Opus Dei who basically said to the poor:  “Don’t worry about social conditions.  If you keep away from sin, everything will be fine in the next life.” 147

Role of UN:  “The UN most does what the US — meaning US business — wants done.  A lot of its peacekeeping operations are aimed at maintaining the level of ‘stability’ corporations need in order to do business.  it’s dirty work and they’re happy to have the UN do it.”  114  “The basic reason there’s hostility to international institutions  here is that they don’t always do exactly what the US orders them to do.  The World Court is a perfect example.”  116  Albright’s view:  the US will act “Multilaterally  when we can and unilaterally when we must.”  So would anyone else, if they had the power.  117


Protest at the School of the Americas, Fort Benning, Georgia, November 1999; photo by Eric Sears


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