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Democracy and Education in the 21st Century: Part 1, Daniel Falcone Interviews Noam Chomsky, June 2009

We’re in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the office of Professor Noam Chomsky. Thank you for having us, Dr. Chomsky. The first question I’d like to ask is mainstream media and schools promote that the United States and for the most part, only the United States fights wars for moral concerns and a desire to promote the spread of democracy. What do you see as the most serious ramifications of this idea of American exceptionalism?

Falcone: We’re in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the office of Professor Noam Chomsky. Thank you for having us, Dr. Chomsky. The first question I’d like to ask is mainstream media and schools promote that the United States and for the most part, only the United States fights wars for moral concerns and a desire to promote the spread of democracy. What do you see as the most serious ramifications of this idea of American exceptionalism?

Chomsky: Well, there are several things to notice about it. For one thing, it’s not American. Every great power, every aggressive power has always regarded itself as exceptional and as doing things only for the most moral ends. I can’t even think of an exception, take say Hitler Germany, the absolute depths. When Hitler took over Czechoslovakia, it was just overflowing with warmth and kindness. Germany was doing it in order to resolve ethnic tensions and ethnic conflicts so that everyone could live in peace under the order of Germany, the most advanced civilization in the world, which would take care of them. When he attacked Poland, it was purely in self-defense. Germany had to defend itself from what he called the wild terror of the Poles and he was going to help Poles and so on. I would say go to Japanese fascism. And while they were carrying on the worst atrocities, you know the rape of Nanking and so on. You read the internal documents, they were bringing an earthly paradise to China and what they called Manchukuo, you know, their colony and Manchuria. They were going to help protect the people from the Chinese bandits, you know, bring them peace and justice.

You take a look at the internal Russian archives that are now coming out, these ridiculous thugs are talking to each other, you know – they’re not for the public – about how we have to protect the democracies of eastern Europe from the fascist attack coming from the west. And we have to sacrifice ourselves for this and, in fact, they did, you know, objectively Russia. It was one of those rare imperial countries that subsidized its colonies, used satellites to the extent that they were richer than it was. I mean, it’s unique, you know, and they thought it was just, you know, total kindness and generosity. And if we could get records from Attila the Hun, I’d suspect we’d find the same thing.

And so, I won’t go through the rest of the record, but the exceptionalism, as far as I know, is exceptional-less. So, there’s no exceptionalism. There’s another point about the exceptionalism; it’s thoroughly refuted by the historical record. And that’s even been noticed. So, one of the leading American scholars, one of the people who founded modern international relations theory – a highly respected and a very decent person – was Hans Morgenthau who wrote a book during the Camelot years when everyone was dazzled by Camelot called The Purpose of America. Already you know something’s wrong. Countries don’t have a purpose, but it’s The Purpose of America and he was the founder of a realistic school, you know, and hard-headed, no sentimentality, that kind of thing. And he said America’s different from every other country because America has a transcendental purpose to bring democracy and freedom, all wonderful things, to the world, but he’s a good scholar.

So, he goes briefly through the record and he says well, you know, in case after case, in fact like maybe a hundred percent, we’ve done the opposite of what our purpose is. He says, however, to focus on this is to make an error, a logical error. What actually happened, he said, is the abuse of history, the history itself is the way events are reflected in our consciousness. So, in other words, if we see ourselves as benevolent, that’s real history. What actually happened, well kind of like on the side, that’s the abuse of history. Then he goes on to make an interesting comment. He says to question the transcendental purpose of America on the basis of the abuse of history and what really happened is like the error of Atheism which questions divine goodness on the same grounds, you know. To find all these terrible things happening and question God’s goodness. That’s the error of Atheism.

So, to pay attention to the real facts is the error of Atheism because the transcendental purpose is there, whatever the real facts – even if it’s in contradiction to them. And he’s basically correct. So, first of all, there’s no exceptionalism. It’s probably universal. And secondly, it’s if the facts contradicted it, it doesn’t matter because we’re perfect anyway because that’s the way we see ourselves. Actually, the origins of this – which as far as I know have kind of been ignored for hundreds of years – are extremely interesting.

So, the phrase that’s trumpeted all over the place is “city on a hill.” We’re a “city on the hill.” Again, you know, we’re the shining city on the hill and so on and so forth. Where does that come from? Well, it’s interesting to look. “City on the hill” is a phrase from a sermon given by John Winthrop, leader and Massachusetts colonist, in 1630. One year before that, the Massachusetts Bay Colony got its charter from the king and created its Great Seal, which you can look up on the internet. The Great Seal should be on every classroom in the country. It pictures an Indian holding spears. The spear is pointed downward as a sign of peace and out of his mouth comes a scroll which has written on it “Come over and help us.”

So, here’s the colonists coming over to conquer the country and exterminate the population as they agreed, but they’re doing it completely benignly because the Indians, the poor suffering Indians, are pleading with them, “please come over here and help us by exterminating us and taking over our land.” And that’s the city on the hill. I mean, you know, it takes real, I don’t know what to call it, I mean, you find the right word, to ignore this for hundreds of years. Actually, this is kind of like the symbol of humanitarian intervention. That’s a combination that’s replicated over and over the years.

And so, when the French were going into Algeria, let’s say, they were on a civilizing mission to raise the natives. Meanwhile, a kind of quiet little voice in the background, the French Minister of War, was saying okay, we got to exterminate everybody in Algeria. That’s exceptionalism. And for us, it goes right back to the city on the hill which is probably repeated over and over.

Falcone: Could you comment on the phenomena of memes, the verbal viruses that become entrenched in society in the face of decades of evidence to the contrary, like tax-and-spend Democrats or the liberal media, Republicans as the party of fiscal conservatism and small government? And why and how do these successful memes seem to originate from the right side of the spectrum, if they do?

Chomsky: I don’t think so. I think they originated all across the spectrum.

So, I mean, the examples you mentioned about, you know, Republicans, the fiscal conservatism. Yeah, sure, that’s the Republicans. But the city upon a hill, I mean, American exceptionalism, the fact that I just quoted Morgenthau – he was a Democrat, you know, a strong supporter of Kennedy. It’s all over and it takes – President Obama – he’s greatly praised for his principal of opposition to the invasion of Iraq from the beginning. All right, what was his principal of opposition? He said he thought that invading Iraq was a strategic blunder. Okay. You could’ve read that and, in 1983 about the war in Afghanistan. There were plenty of people who thought it was a strategic blunder. You could’ve read in the Nazi Press after Stalingrad. Plenty of German generals thought it was a strategic blunder to fight a two-front war. We should’ve gotten rid of Britain first, you know. We don’t call that a principled objection. We call it moral depravity when it’s others. But when it’s us, it’s a principled objection, a blunder, and there’s a reason for that.

The abusive history, what matters is the way we think about ourselves. We think about ourselves as incapable of committing crimes. Everything we do, we make a lot of errors, you know, you can’t help it. Mistakes all over the place, but out of naïveté or, you know, misplaced kindness or something like that. I just happened to be listening to NPR driving in this morning and there’s a discussion going on about Obama’s speech in Cairo. And there’s a debate, you know, is he too apologetic about America. I’m getting sick and tired of all this apologetics that, you know, apologizing for everything we do. And others say well, you know, we have to admit that we’ve made mistakes. How about the truth?

We have to admit that we carried out substantial crimes. I think one caller pointed it out, but that’s just not there. I mean, if you say we made mistakes, that’s the farthest you can go. But it’s irrelevant anyway. Even the worst monsters, like Hitler, you know. Yeah. Sure. They made mistakes but, in fact, one of the, in my view, the most kind of dangerous phrases that’s a bandaid about it is Talleyrand’s phrase that””it’s worse than a crime; it’s a mistake.” Now that’s repeated over and over again as if, you know, a really wonderful comment when it’s just, I mean, it’s a wonderful comment for murderers and torturers. The worst murderers and torturers, sure, they like that. It’s worse than a crime; it’s a mistake, as if, it would say if Hitler threw Jews into gas chambers, it’s worse than a crime; it was a mistake because he could’ve used them in factories. I mean, is that, how would we react to that, you know? But for us, it’s just fine because the worst thing that can happen is a mistake.

It’s interesting that there’s – it’s not really even studied – but I think there’s a difference between the population and elite opinion on this. And this goes back to the liberal press. So, let’s take the liberal, actually I agree with the comment that the press is a liberal press, a standard of liberalism. I disagree with a lot of my friends on this. So, by what we call liberalism, the Washington Post and the New York Times are liberal. But take a look at what they write. So, take say the Vietnam War. It’s a very striking case. At the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, there were, you know, kind of wrap-ups and there were also polls. Take a look at the polls around that time: about 70 percent of the population said the Vietnam War was not a mistake. It was fundamentally wrong and immoral. Okay. That’s 70 percent of the population. Take a look at the liberal press. So, maybe out of the extreme, take someone like Anthony Lewis who may be the most, you know, liberal, strongest civil libertarian on the press. His analysis was the war began with blundering efforts to do good. That’s kind of like a tautology. We did it. So, it’s efforts to do good by definition. Blundering, yeah, it didn’t work out so well. So, it began with blundering efforts to do good.

But by 1969, it was clear that it was a mistake or maybe a disaster that was too costly for us; we couldn’t bring democracy to Vietnam – which was, of course, our purpose by definition – at a cost acceptable to us. I mean, that’s the extreme left of the liberal press and in contrast, you have the population, not a mistake, fundamentally wrong and immoral. Well, you know, but as I say, it’s never really been studied, so I’m guessing, but my suspicion is that people have a kind of fundamental decency which is sort of driven out of their heads by the educational system, by the scholarship, the media, the whole indoctrination system you go through and you end up talking about the abusive history and the real history and the era of atheism, you know, and our blundering efforts to do good and so on. Yeah, that’s just driven into you from not just schools with, of course schools too, but the whole cultural environment you’re part of.

Falcone: You have mentioned before the tendency for Americans to look for quick solutions for problems that need committed effort over time. In what ways are students reinforced in the educational system that there are quick fixes to problems in society?

Chomsky: The educational system is pretty much geared to passing the next exam. In fact, with the new programs, like No Child Left Behind, it’s pretty explicit. You’re educated to pass tests and not to understand. I’m sure you’ve been through this in school yourself, you know. You know, you want to get into college. Okay. You got to pass the SATs or, you know, whatever they are, and so, you train for them. Like I remember when I graduated high school I wanted to take an advanced course in German in college. I didn’t know any German, but I didn’t want to waste time in the freshman course. So, I memorized a 3,000 word dictionary. It’s not that hard. And if you take the trouble, you can memorize it. So, I memorized it and I faked my way through the AP exam and, of course, I forgot it all a week later, you know, because that’s what happens when you study for an exam.

But the entire framework of training is a quick fix: I’ll do something which will be good for me, it will get me to the next step. Well, you know, that’s mis-education and it’s very much a part of the framework. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with making errors. You should, I mean, a good educational assistant could be, should be like what graduate school was like in the sciences. So, say here, it’s a good college and the graduate department in the sciences. So, you don’t give tests in which students regurgitate what was in the lectures or in the textbook. They’re supposed to challenge, you know, they’re supposed to think things through, challenge and pursue new ideas which most of the time fail because that’s the case with new ideas. And if it does, that’s fine. You know, that’s the way you discover things and that’s what elementary school would be like too. I actually went to an elementary school that was like that. So, it can be done, through school and then you explore. And then when you turn to the problems of the world, you should carry over the same attitudes.

You have to understand what’s you’re doing. You have to think it through, you know. If say, professional economics has just suffered an incredible blow, I mean, if it was carpenters, they’d all be thrown out. They couldn’t see the housing bubble; they couldn’t see that the efficient market hypotheses, you know, is kind of hot air. Well, yeah. If you start to think, it’s obvious, but if you just work with the tools at your hands, you know, the tools you’ve been trained to use. Okay. I mean, these technical tools they’re hard and, you know, smart guys have results within their own framework. You just don’t see what’s happening in the world.

Falcone: Do you think that there’s a connection to the American students’ idea that they can bring about social change through quick protests then when you give lectures and people ask you well, what can I do? And then you tell the audience, well, I go to developing sectors of the world and they don’t ask what to do. They tell me what they’re doing.

Chomsky: And it’s a long-term thing. You don’t do it in a minute. Also, it takes a, Bolivia which is maybe the most inspiring democracy in the world today, the most repressed, that’s not the way it’s described here, but just think what happened. The most repressed part of the population is the indigenous population here. Most of them were exterminated, so the question doesn’t come up. But in Bolivia they are majority and, you know, forever the country’s been run by small Europeanized elites, mostly white Europeanized elites. Well, you know, they now, in 2005 they were organized enough to enter into the political arena and elect someone from their own ranks on programs that they had advocated and he follows. Okay. That’s democracy – but it didn’t happen on Election Day – they were organizing and struggling about it for years.

Actually, five years before, they succeeded in throwing out the World Bank and DeKalb, the American corporations and the French corporations who were trying to privatize water. In an academic economic seminar you can probably prove a theorem saying, you know, it works better if it’s privatized. And, of course, there’s a small flip note: a lot of the population can’t pay for it. Well, you know, you can’t have perfection. But they wanted to be able to drink water, so they threw out the World Bank and the corporation and they prevented the privatization of water – not so simple. A lot of people were killed and so on. And it’s a long continuing struggle. I mean, Election Day was just one day in the midst of an ongoing struggle and if the government is not doing what you want, you know, you throw them out, you do it in some other way. Well, that requires, you know, a memory; it requires, you know, you have to know what struggle is.

Here, one of the great successes of American sort of ruling institutions in ideology is that it’s kind of disaggregated people. They’re atomized, you know, and there’s very little memory. So, every time a group of students gets involved in a protest, it’s from the beginning. You know, there’s no memory of how you did it before. Nobody remembers how to, you know, organize or put out leaflets, where do you go and so on. Oh yeah, and if you think about the, so take the New Deal, which made real achievements, but you know, one of the reasons was that there was a core part of it that did have this kind of institutional memory. We’re not supposed to talk about it. But the fact is that the Communist part, whatever you think about it, was always there. They were there if there was a civil rights struggle, an imperial struggle also, you know, a lot of rotten things – but they were there and there was somebody around who remembered how to run a mimeograph machine and knew how to get organized to do things. I mean, that’s why these Communist cells, for example, tended often to take over movements. They, maybe not the small minority, but they kind of knew what they were doing.

And that’s lacking here and so, it’s a part of the social doctrinal policy which is sort of directed to destroying this. The attack on unions is a case in point. You don’t want unions because they do have this kind of memory. They’re democratizing forces. They bring people together and so on. So, break them up; break everything up and, you know, start everything from fresh. That’s why a lot of the activism in the United States comes from churches because they’re there, you know, and somebody remembers everything the last time.

And so, it’s been a real success – one of the great business successes in the United States – to break down organization, to separate people too: it’s part of consumerism. If you can drive people toward individual consumption, that’s the highest goal in life. And furthermore, drive them into debt so they’re trapped. You don’t have to worry about a democracy function because people are trapped and they’re alone. Like maybe 70 percent of the population thought the war was fundamentally wrong and immoral, but then you don’t have any idea how to do anything about it. I mean, this shows up in pretty striking ways. For example, I don’t remember the exact figures, but a pretty substantial part of the population, you know, like maybe a third or some more think that the Bush administration had some responsibility for 9/11. That’s a pretty striking fact. I mean, here is a big part of the population thinking the government is a gang of mass murderers who are trying to kill Americans. And do they do anything about it? I mean, does it even occur to them to do anything about it? You know, like do they even march on Washington and storm the White House and take the guys out?

So, we’re run by a bunch of mass murderers who want to kill us all. Let’s go onto the next television program. You know, that’s, I mean, this sense of a kind of infancy: I can’t do anything; it’s all out there; I’m just a victim,. It is a pretty striking victory of the strongly anti-democratic forces that essentially run things. And the anti-democratic commitments are very explicit. They’re not hidden among the liberals too. Actually, the country was founded that way, after all. You know, Madison’s view was essentially that the most powerful force in the country ought to be the Senate, not the Legislative branch because it is sometimes said that the Senate and not the House because the Senate piece of it is composed of the wealth of the nation, the most responsible group of men, those who have respect for property and so on. So, they’re the ones who really ought to be in charge. In fact, if you take a look at the framing of the Constitution, you know, it’s basically the powers, the executive who was supposed to be like an administrator. And the House of Representatives, which is more responsive to the population, was marginalized. They’re the danger. But the Senate is the solid core of, you know, the wealthy and the responsible. And, you know, there have been battles about this throughout American history and over time things have surely changed, but the basic thesis is pretty well predominant in liberal intellectual circles as well.

I mean, probably the most striking case and the most important one is the leading public intellectual of the 20thh century in the United States, Walter Lippmann, who was, you know, the kind of archetypal wise man. He also, was a progressive, you know, a Wilson, Roosevelt, progressive. He wrote an order called progressive essays on democracy. And they’re very explicit. He’s writing from the kind of liberal progressive end of the spectrum. He says the population has to be kept out of the political arena. They’re too stupid and ignorant. They’re what he called ignorant and meddlesome outsiders. That’s the population. Democracy will function only if it’s in the hands of the responsible men, people like me, you know, whatever he writes about this is always part of it. And we have to be protected from the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd and how do we do this? Well, he was the one who invented the phrase “manufacturer of consent.” He said we can’t do it by force, you know, too many, too much freedom.

So, we have to manufacture consent, the public relations industry which developed at approximately the same time – the 1920s – its leading figure was another liberal progressive, Edward Bernays, and he said that the real function of the public relations industry is engineering of consent which is necessary to make sure that the intelligent minority runs things and not the mass of people out there. They have to be spectators, not participants, kind of not unlike the Bolivian peasants who want to be participants, not spectators. And, you know, this is the liberal end, you know. If you go over to the right, of course, it may be more extreme. I’m not sure even. But these are dominant concepts and you can understand them. That’s what you’d expect an elite opinion to believe and be committed to and certainly those who concentrate power in their hands, like let’s say corporate executives and so on. So, it’s a natural ideology. It goes back to the founding of the country. The population may not like it and they do struggle against it and you get progress coming out of this conflict.

But so, for example, take just the extension of the franchise, that’s important, you know, the franchise back in the early days of the republic was extremely limited. White propertied males, you know, pretty much. That’s still substantially true, but not anywhere near like it was then. So, women were allowed to right to the vote, incidentally, a year after it was permitted in Afghanistan. So, it’s not exactly a magnificent breakthrough, but yeah, it finally happened. Maybe the Afghans can teach us something about democracy. It has happened, but the effort to try to beat it back is constant and understandable. So, there’s a constant tension about it. You can see it in today’s meetings in the Senate.

So, the big domestic issue is healthcare. It has been for decades. The healthcare system is a catastrophe. There is a Senate committee, Max Baucus’ committee, dealing with it, the finance committee. There was a pretty dramatic incident a couple of weeks ago. But the large majority of the population wants a single-payer plan and has for decades. But that’s kind of like off the agenda because the insurance industry is opposed and the pharmaceutical industry is opposed and so on. And the way the liberal press has described this, like the New York Times, is well kind of an interesting idea, but politically impossible. It lacks political support – meaning just the majority of the population. But that’s not political support.

So, there was a hearing and I think every witness was coming either from the drug companies or the insurance companies or someone. But there were doctors and nurses in the audience. And some of them stood up in the audience and said something about the, why isn’t anyone testifying for a single-payer plan which doctors want, nurses want, the public wants and so on. But first, they were just ridiculed by the senators. But then the chair called the police and dragged them out. This happens to have been filmed on C-Span. So, people can see it if they want. I don’t think it was reported, at least I didn’t see any report on it. But it’s a pretty striking example of the way democracy functions in reality. And the principal position of, you know, liberals of the Lippmann variety would be yeah, that’s what it should be. The ignorant meddlesome outsiders have no right to be heard. We have to be protected from them. They can be spectators, like they can sit in the Senate chamber, but they can’t be participants. They cannot testify in favor of what the majority of the populations wants because the people that matter, like the financial institutions and the pharmaceutical corporations, they don’t want it.

Falcone: President Obama has recently expressed support for Merit Pay in public schools and an expansion of charter schools. What are your views on these controversial initiatives?

Chomsky: Personally, I think it’s a bad idea. Anything of this kind separates out the minority of privileged and automatically lowers the standards of the rest. You can’t have one without the other. So, a dedicated teacher should be rewarded by the fact that their students are doing well and not that they have a bigger paycheck. And if what’s rewarding them is a bigger paycheck, they’re not dedicated teachers. So, they’re just the ones who shouldn’t be rewarded, in my opinion. Now, I think that should go to the university level too, like I’m privileged, so I get a big salary. But I don’t think it’s the right way to do it. It seems to me there should be equal pay and that would include staff. But that requires, you know, a big cultural revolution kind of.

It’s not out of the question. It’s found in other places. You know, there are other countries where teaching is basically like, you know, it’s unionized and people get the same pay up to the college level, the university level and they’re rewarded by – which it ought to be rewarded by – seeing that your students are doing great things. So, for example, I have somebody I know very well and won’t mention who was teaching in a, you know, one of these kind of elite New England colleges, high pay, tenure, this and that and the other thing, but couldn’t stand it. And went on to teach in a state school, a state college, much lower pay, no tenure, you know, no facilities, the students mostly, many of them older people who are coming back to try to become a nurse or a policeman or something.

But a lot of people who, like kids that don’t even know how to sit in a classroom, you know, think they can’t, deserve an education. And she likes it much, she’s much happier. And some of her students, you know, they’re perfectly smart kids. They just never had an opportunity and she’s got some of them who have gone to the point where they’re giving talks in professional societies. Again, that’s rewarding. You bring people out, you know, get people’s real capacities to show up and get them to want to do things. Now, that’s rewarding. Teaching, you know, if you have a place where rich parents are sending their kids so they can have parties and not bother the parents. Okay. You get a bigger salary but, you know, there’s a downside too. And that’s what teaching ought to be.

Falcone: Thank you very much, Dr. Chomsky.

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