Life in the United States — the richest country in world history — doesn’t need to be like this. This country’s endless wars, deaths of despair, rising mortality rates and out-of-control gun violence did not come out of nowhere. In this second installment from an exclusive transcript of a conversation aired on Alternative Radio, public intellectual Noam Chomsky discusses the roots of gun culture, militarism, economic stagnation and growing inequality in the U.S. Read the first installment of this interview here: “Noam Chomsky: Trump Is Trying to Exploit Tension With Iran for 2020.“
David Barsamian: Do you ever make the connection between the external violence of the U.S. state and what is happening internally with all the shootings and mass murders?
Noam Chomsky: The U.S. is a very strange country. From the point of view of its infrastructure, the U.S. often looks like a “Third World” country…. Not for everybody, of course. There are people who can say, “OK, fine, I’ll go in my private jet or helicopter.” Drive around any American city. They’re falling apart. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the U.S. regularly a D, the lowest ranking, in infrastructure.
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This is the richest country in world history. It has enormous resources. It has advantages that are just incomparable in agricultural resources, mineral resources, huge territory, homogeneous. You can fly 3,000 miles and think you’re in the same place where you started. There is nothing like that anywhere in the world. In fact, there are successes, like a good deal of the high-tech economy, substantially government-based but real.
On the other hand, it’s the only country in the developed world in which mortality is actually increasing. That’s just unknown in developed societies. In the last several years, life expectancy has declined in the U.S. There is work by two major economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who have carefully studied the mortality figures. It turns out that in the cohort roughly 25 to 50, the working-age cohort of whites, the white working class, there is an increase in deaths, what they call “deaths of despair”: suicide, opioid overdoses, and so on. This is estimated at about 150,000 deaths a year. It’s not trivial. The reason, it’s generally assumed, is the economic stagnation since Reagan. In fact, this is the group that entered the workforce right around the early 1980s, when the neoliberal programs began to be instituted.
That has led to a small slowdown in growth. Growth is not what it was before. There is growth, but very highly concentrated. Wealth has become extremely highly concentrated. Right now, according to the latest figures, 0.1 percent of the population holds 20 percent of the country’s wealth; the top 1 percent holds roughly 40 percent. Half the population has negative net worth, meaning debts outweigh assets. There has been stagnation pretty much for the workforce over the whole neoliberal period. That’s the group that we’re talking about. Naturally, this leads to anger, resentment, desperation. Similar things are happening in Europe under the austerity programs. That’s the background for what’s misleadingly called “populism.” But in the U.S., it’s quite striking. The “deaths of despair” phenomenon seems to be a specific U.S. characteristic, not matched in other countries.
Remember, there is no country in the world that has anything like the advantages of the U.S. in wealth, power and resources. It’s a shocking commentary. You read constantly that the unemployment rate has reached a wonderful level, barely 3 percent unemployed. But that’s pretty misleading. When you use Labor Department statistics, it turns out that the actual unemployment rate is over 7 percent. When you take into account the large number of people who have just dropped out of the workforce, labor force participation is considerably below what it was about 20-30 years ago. There are good studies of this by economists. You have roughly a 7.5 percent unemployment rate and stagnation of real wages, which have barely moved. Since the year 2000, there has been a steady decline in just median family wealth. As I said, for about half the population, it’s now negative.
In terms of guns, the U.S. is an outlier. We have 4 percent of the world’s population with 40 percent of the globe’s guns.
There is an interesting history to that, very well studied. There’s a recent book by Pamela Haag called The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture. It’s a very interesting analysis. What she shows is that after the Civil War, the gun manufacturers didn’t really have much of a market. The U.S. government market had declined, of course, and foreign governments weren’t much of a market. It was then an agricultural society, the late 19th century. Farmers had guns, but they were like tools, nothing special. You had a nice old-fashioned gun. It was enough to chase away wolves. They didn’t want the fancy guns that the gun manufacturers were producing.
So, what happened was, the first major, huge advertising campaign that was a kind of a model for others later. An enormous campaign was carried out to try to create a gun culture. They invented a Wild West, which never existed, with the bold sheriff drawing the pistol faster than anyone else and all this nonsense that you get in the cowboy movies. It was all concocted. None of it ever happened. Cowboys were sort of the dregs of society, people who couldn’t get a job anywhere else. You hired them to push some cows around. But this image of the Wild West and the great heroes was developed. Along with it came the ads, saying something like, ‘If your son doesn’t have a Winchester rifle, he’s not a real man, If your daughter doesn’t have a little pink pistol, she’ll never be happy.’
It was a tremendous success. I suppose it was a model for later on, when the tobacco companies developed the “Marlboro man” and all this kind of business. This was the late 19th, early 20th century, the period in which the huge public relations industry was beginning to develop. It was brilliantly discussed by Thorstein Veblen, the great political economist, who pointed out that in that stage of the capitalist economy, it was necessary to fabricate wants, otherwise you couldn’t maintain the economy that would generate great profit levels. The gun propaganda was probably the beginning of it.
It goes on, pushing up to the recent period since 2008, the Supreme Court Heller decision. What they called Second Amendment rights have just become holy writ. They’re [considered by some] the most important rights that exist, our sacred right to have guns, established by the Supreme Court, overturning a century of precedent.
Take a look at the Second Amendment. It says, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” Up until 2008, that was interpreted pretty much the way it reads, that the point of having guns was to keep a militia. Scalia, in his decision in 2008, reversed that. He was a very good scholar. He’s supposed to be an originalist. He would pay attention to the intentions of the founders. If you read the decision, it’s interesting. There are all kinds of references to obscure 17th century documents. Strikingly, he never mentions once the reasons the founders wanted the people to have guns, which are not obscure.
One reason was that the British were coming. The British were the big enemy then. They were the most powerful state in the world. The U.S. barely had a standing army. If the British were going to come again, which in fact they did, you’ve got to have militias to fight them off, so we have to have well-regulated militias.
The second reason was, it was a slave society. This was a period where there were slave rebellions taking place all through the Caribbean. Slavery was growing massively after the revolution. There was deep concern. Black slaves often outnumbered whites. You had to have well-armed militias to keep them under control.
There was yet another reason. The U.S. is maybe one of the rare countries in history which has been at war virtually every year since its founding. You can hardly find a single year when the U.S. wasn’t at war.
When you look back at the American Revolution, the textbook story is “taxation without representation,” which is not false, but far from the whole story. Two major factors in the revolution were that the British were imposing a restriction on expansion of settlement beyond the Appalachian Mountains into what was called “Indian country.” The British were blocking that. The settlers wanted to expand to the West. Not just people who wanted land, but also great land speculators, like George Washington, wanted to move into the Western areas. “Western” meant right over the mountains. The British were blocking that. At the end of the war, the settlers could expand.
The other factor was slavery. In 1772, there was a very important and famous ruling by a leading British jurist, Lord Mansfield, that slavery is so “odious,” his word, that it cannot be tolerated within Britain. It could be tolerated in the colonies, like Jamaica, but not within Britain. The U.S. colonies were essentially part of Britain. It was a slave society. They could see the handwriting on the wall. If the U.S. stays within the British system, it’s going to be a real threat to slavery. That was ended by the revolution.
But that meant, going back to the guns, you needed them to keep off the British, you needed them to control the slaves, you needed them to kill Indians. If you’re going to attack the Indian nations — they were nations, of course — you’re going to attack the many nations to the West of the country, you’re going to have to have guns and militias. Ultimately, it was replaced later by a standing army.
But take a look at the reasons you had to have guns for the founders. Not a single one of them applies in the 21st century. This is completely missing not only from Scalia’s decision, but even from the legal debate over this. There is a legal literature debating the Heller decision, but almost all of it is about the technical question of whether the Second Amendment is a militia right or an individual right. The wording of the amendment is a little bit ambiguous, so you can argue about it, but it’s completely beside the point. The Second Amendment is totally irrelevant to the modern world; it has nothing to do with it. But it’s become holy writ.
So, you have this huge propaganda campaign. As a kid, I was affected by it. Wyatt Earp, guns, “kill Indians,” all that. It’s spread all over the world. In France, they love cowboy movies. A totally fabricated picture of the West, but it was very successful in creating a gun culture. It’s now become sanctified by the reactionary Supreme Court. So, yes, everybody has got to have a gun….
Talk about the First Amendment and press freedom and journalism, a trade which has come under attack from the self-styled “extremely stable genius” in the White House as “the enemy of the people.” Talk about that and also about the Assange case.
The First Amendment is a major contribution of American democracy. The First Amendment actually doesn’t guarantee the right of free speech. What it says is that the state cannot take preemptive action to prevent speech. It doesn’t say it can’t punish it. So under the First Amendment, literally, you can be punished for things you say. It doesn’t block that. It was nevertheless a step forward in the environment of the time that the U.S. in many ways did break through. With all of its flaws, the American Revolution was progressive in many respects by the standards of the time, even the phrase “We the people.” Putting aside the flaws in implementation, the very idea was a breakthrough. The First Amendment was a step forward.
However, it wasn’t really until the 20th century that First Amendment issues really came on the agenda, at first with the dissenting opinions of Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Louis Brandeis in cases around the First World War, a little bit later. It’s worth looking at how narrow these dissents were. The first major one, in the Schenck case in 1917, was a case of somebody who published a pamphlet describing the war as an imperialist war and saying you don’t have to serve in it. Support for free speech under the First Amendment was very narrow, as Holmes’s dissent and then support for punishment showed. The case was a complete scandal, but even Holmes went along.
In fact, the real steps toward establishing a strong protection of freedom of speech were actually in the 1960s. A major case was Times v. Sullivan. The State of Alabama had claimed what’s called sovereign immunity, that you can’t attack the state with words. That’s a principle that holds in most countries — Britain, Canada, others. There was an ad published by the civil rights movement, which denounced the police in Montgomery, Alabama, for racist activities, and they had sued to block it. It went to the Supreme Court. The ad was in [The New York Times]. That’s why it’s called Times v. Sullivan. The Supreme Court for the first time, basically, struck down the doctrine of sovereign immunity. It said you can attack the state with words. Of course, it had been done, but now it became legal.
There was a stronger decision a couple years later, Brandenburg v. Ohio, in 1969, where the Court ruled that speech should be free up to participation in an imminent criminal action. So, for example, if you and I go into a store with the intent to rob it, and you have a gun and I say, “Shoot,” that’s not privileged. But that’s basically the doctrine. That’s a very strong protection of freedom of speech. There’s nothing like it anywhere, as far as I know.
In practice, the U.S. has not a stellar record, but one of the better (maybe even the best record) in protection of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. That is indeed under attack when the press is denounced as the “enemy of the people” and you organize your rabid support base to attack the press. That’s a serious threat.
And Julian Assange?
The real threat to Assange from the very beginning, the reason he took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, was the threat of extradition to the U.S., now implemented. He has already been charged with violations of the Espionage Act; theoretically he can even get a death sentence from it. Assange’s crime has been to expose secret documents that are very embarrassing for state power. One of the main ones was the exposure of the video of American helicopter pilots about how much fun they were having killing people.
Yes. But then there were a lot of others, some of them quite interesting. The press has reported them. So, he’s performing the journalistic responsibility of informing the public about things that state power would rather keep secret.
It seems to be the essence of what a good journalist should be doing.
And what good journalists do. Like when [Seymour] Hersh exposed the story of the My Lai massacre, and when Woodward and Bernstein exposed Nixon’s crimes, that was considered very praiseworthy. The Times published excerpts from the Pentagon Papers. So, he is essentially doing that. You can question his judgment — should he have done this at this time, should he have done something else; lots of criticisms you can make — but the basic story is that WikiLeaks was producing materials that state power wanted suppressed but that the public should know.
This is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that was aired on Alternative Radio.