David Barsamian’s interview with Noam Chomsky [“The Common Good,” November 1997] both answered and raised a lot of questions for me.
Chomsky made some cogent points about our capitalist system. I don’t think, however, that there is a conspiracy by the powers that be to purposely manipulate the media, as Chomsky implies. The superficiality of our media is a result of what the people demand, which is not very much. True, the spectrum of debate is limited, but it’s more than enough for most people, who would rather be entertained than informed. As a society, we have a very limited attention span.
Chomsky’s point about our infrastructure is also well taken. Our car-centered society has fostered communities that are anonymous at best, and vicious at worst. And where will we be when the oil runs out?
It would be nice to know where the global economy is taking us. But in the mad rush to jump on the train before it leaves the station, no one is asking about the destination — nor does anyone seem to care, as long as the Dow Jones average continues its upward climb. Meanwhile, our society is unraveling from lack of leadership, because no one is asking the tough questions about drugs, jobs, education, research, community, transportation, and so on. I guess as long as we have The Cosby Show and Home Improvement, who cares?
I was appalled by Noam Chomsky’s comments regarding public libraries: “Going to the library is not the kind of thing you do anymore.” Clearly, Chomsky is unaware of the kinds of services public libraries all over the country are providing.
The Central Library of the Queens Borough Library System is located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City, but, believe me, the joint is jumping seven days a week. There are homework help sessions for children, free classes on how to use the Internet, a busy adult-literacy center, English-as-a-second-language classes, and free literary and arts programs every day. The Queens Borough Public Library lends materials — in fifty languages — at a rate many times the national norm. Apparently, urban people do have “the time and resources to go [to the library]” and “the education to know what to look for.”
I’m surprised that a person of Chomsky’s intellect would make assumptions without investigation. I invite him to visit our library at any time and enjoy the sight of people waiting in line with piles of books at the checkout desks. Happily, going to the library is the sort of thing people still do.
Noam Chomsky’s writings have been enormously helpful to me. He sees well enough that our worship of the economy will lead to our destruction. The only alternative he offers, however, is to place our faith in government power, even though much of what he says illustrates how easily wealth controls government. The unholy trinity of politics, business, and crime is not going to be brought low by anything so puny as democracy.
I believe Madison is a more useful guide than Chomsky thinks. Madison saw the protection of freedom, not the promotion of equality, as the government’s proper role. Chomsky is probably quite adept at getting what he wants from committees and bureaus, but a week in a food-stamp line might sour his romance with paternalistic government.
Madison found no evidence that the sort of democracy Chomsky envisions could be made to work. The only way to control greedy, ruthless people, Madison concluded, was to ensure that other greedy, ruthless people were free to compete with them. “Ambition must be made to check ambition,” as he put it. And so it has been. Rotten people are always in competition with each other. Every Bill Clinton provokes his own Newt Gingrich.
Chomsky is correct that Madison designed a government full of obstacles to democracy, but this was because he knew from experience and history that charismatic tyrants make short work of democracies. Once a Hitler has charmed the masses, who can stop him? But when Nixon charmed the masses, impeachment proceedings — put in place by Madison and gleefully invoked by Nixon’s own ruthless and powerful enemies — brought the criminal down.
Of course, the government Madison and friends designed isn’t pretty. You might trust it to build a bridge, but you wouldn’t want it to educate your children or supervise your household finances or scrutinize all your affairs for compliance with a tax code. That’s why Madison believed in a limited government, and helped design the best mechanism developed so far for constraining attempts to merge government with business.
Chomsky is on the right track to suggest “killing” corporations. We don’t need to grant these legal creatures the rights enumerated in the Constitution. And we certainly shouldn’t let them become more powerful than government. If we do, we will live in a world governed by criminals.
But, while government may be preferable to big business, for the higher things in life we need to turn elsewhere. If we want both freedom and equality, then the rich are going to have to share their wealth of their own free will, rather than having it stolen through government mechanisms. Our government should tend to those few duties assigned to it in the Constitution, while we band together in our churches to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, minister to the sick and afflicted, and liberate the captive. In an ideal society, we would gather in hundreds of free associations to support the arts and sciences, feasting on the spirit of truth; and we would cooperate in a thousand enterprises to tend the gardens that provide for us.
Here’s what one of my religious guides, Ezra Taft Benson, has to say on the subject: “The Lord works from the inside out; the world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums; Christ takes the slums out of people, and they take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment; Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature.”
We need to be good people and to love one another. If we can’t do that, we are going to kill one another, and all the democracy in the world won’t stop us.
Noam Chomsky responds:
The letter writers raise some interesting issues. I offer a few comments in the hope of clarifying — not settling — them.
Is there “a conspiracy by the powers that be to purposely manipulate the media”? No more than there is a conspiracy by General Motors to increase profit and sales. Powerful institutions of course seek to realize their goals — which in this case are (quoting business leaders) to overcome “the hazard facing industrialists” in the form of “the newly realized political power of the masses”; to win “the everlasting battle for the minds of men”; to conduct “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses” by “regimenting the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments the bodies of its soldiers”; and so on. Governments, too, seek to manipulate opinion and the flow of information. But the question of a “conspiracy” does not arise.
Is the media product “a result of what the people demand”? We have to look at individual cases. Take news reporting on recent trade agreements. Would New Yorkers have been interested in knowing ahead of time the predicted impact of NAFTA on their city? Specifically, that it would greatly benefit banking, telecommunications, Wall Street, public-relations firms, and investors, but harm women, blacks, Hispanics, and “semiskilled production workers” — that is, most of the city’s population? I suspect they would have. But this expert prediction was published in the New York Times the day after the Congressional vote on NAFTA. New Yorkers might also have wanted to hear about the alternatives proposed by the labor movement and the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment — alternatives designed to benefit the general population, not just investors. And they might be interested today in a recent study that showed the Times’s predictions to be accurate. But no such luck. The major media didn’t report any of it.
I am pleased to learn about the Queens library; I know of many others like it, including the one in my town. But the question was: has there been an overall decline in library resources and accessibility? My statement did not imply that every library has been empty for years.
I do not believe we should “place our faith in government power,” or engage in a “romance with paternalistic government.” That is the opposite of my view. I do believe we should make use of the mechanisms available in the public arena (i.e., government) to serve the public’s needs. To do so, however, requires substantial efforts to overcome the Madisonian concept that government must “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” To prevent the public from using the vote to advance its own interests, Madison urged that power be vested in “the wealth of the nation,” not the common people. The issue is not “freedom” versus “government.” Rather, it is the nature of governance: who decides?
As for an “ideal society,” my own view is that it should be structured around “free associations,” and that we should ultimately dismantle state authority — but it’s much more crucial to dismantle the authority of unaccountable private conglomerates, which I think would have appalled Madison and other classical liberal thinkers.
Regarding Judith Joyce’s “My Fat Lover” [November 1997]: I can only say that there are many ways besides eating too much that we all indulge in excess. I ask you, does anyone ever feel truly full?
When I first read Mark Hetts’s “A Joy to Have Around” [November 1997], I couldn’t see the page for my tears of laughter. Then I showed it to a friend, whose own response had me again doubled up and gasping for air. Now, two weeks later, I’ve read it once more. Even better. What a wonderful gift.
The family I live with loves your magazine. I enjoy it, too, and was deeply moved by Alison Luterman’s “Virus” [October 1997]. I appreciated the hard truthfulness of her essay, and even looked through some back issues trying to find something similar, but no such luck. You should print more stories that address the struggles of city life.
I was about to drop a thousand dollars in the mail for a lifetime subscription when I read editor Sy Safransky’s “Safety” [August 1997]. I finished it with tears streaming down my face. But then I realized that either his neurotic tendencies (probably the reason The Sun has been so successful) or his age would get him before I got my money’s worth.