Propaganda vs persuasion

Published : Dec 22, 2002 00:00 IST


Propaganda and the Public Mind: Conversations with Noam Chomsky, Interviews by David Barsamian; Madhyam Books, Noida; pages 247, Rs.250.

PROFESSOR Noam Chomsky's recent visit to India and the excellent coverage that Frontline gave to the meetings addressed by him in different cities would have created renewed interest in the views of this outstanding thinker and bold social critic. Those who had the opportunity to listen to him would agree that Chomsky is at his best when he responds to questions. Prepared speeches, carefully read out, are fine. But the responses during the "question hour" enable one to get an idea of the vast body of knowledge that he carries in his mind and the manner in which that mind works, and to appreciate his subtle sense of humour. Having correct information is part of Chomsky's creed. In response to the question "How do you give criticism?", Chomsky replied: "Accurately. The right way to do it, whether you can handle it or not, is not to be in an adversarial fashion but just accurately." It also fits in with his basic approach: "I'm not a charismatic speaker, and if I had the capacity to be one I wouldn't. I'm really not interested in persuading people. What I like to do is to help people persuade themselves."

The book under review consists of a series of interviews that David Barsamian had with Chomsky between May 1998 and June 2000 and covers a wide range of topics. As a social critic Chomsky's primary concern is to enable people to understand what society is or, perhaps more accurately, how to approach society. This issue came up in one of the interviews, and Chomsky replied: "Generally, what you should do when you're looking at any society is to begin by asking, 'How is power distributed? Who makes the main decisions? Who is going to be in the political world? Who makes the decisions that are going to affect people's lives?"' And, from this it follows that the key to evaluating any public issue is to consider how it will affect the lives of people - the majority of people, the ordinary people. This is important because usually social policies and programmes are projected (by those in power) as being beneficial to "society". Obviously those people who sponsor them do so because it is good for them and they assume (or pretend) that what is good for them must be good for everyone else.

This is the subtle role of propaganda. Normally propaganda is associated with dictatorships and authoritarian regimes of all kinds. Sure enough; such regimes have their machinery for propaganda. But strange as it may appear, Chomsky draws the attention of his listeners and readers to the role of propaganda in democracies. The logic is clear. "Because in a democracy you have to control people's minds. You can't control them by force." Under such conditions the role of propaganda is to reduce citizens to be spectators of action, instead of being participants.

But how can one know what is genuine information and what is propaganda? Chomsky has the answer. Any major issue related to life in society is so complex that arriving at a unanimous view about it is virtually impossible. Hence, he says, anything that is being given with near-unanimity should be suspected and one should immediately ask "Is it correct?" The question is not to be just posed. One should probe into it, become as accurate as possible and place before the public the alternative explanation. This may be the path of dissent, but dissent is an important element in a democracy provided, of course, that the alternative version is based on accurate facts and sound judgment. Chomsky suggests that this is a major responsibility of intellectuals in a democracy, but notes also that ironically "intellectuals are both the main victims of the propaganda system and also its main architects".

Chomsky substantiates this observation with reference to two specific cases. The first relates to military interventions which are justified on the ground that they had become unavoidable on "humanitarian grounds". The latest instance of this kind was the intervention by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in Kosovo in 1999, which many intellectuals described as fighting for "principles and values". Chomsky examines the evidence, particularly the sequence of events, to show that it was nothing of that kind. He looks at some earlier instances, such as Mussolini's attack on Ethiopia, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the U.S. involvement in Nicaragua and Indonesia's military intervention in East Timor, and comes to the conclusion that "virtually every use of military force is described as humanitarian intervention". This does not mean that Chomsky is a pacifist. According to him in the post-Second World War period, there were two military interventions that could be defended on humanitarian grounds - the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to get rid of Pol Pot and the Indian invasion of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1971, which stopped a huge atrocity.

IN the realm of economics, Chomsky finds a rich source of subtle propaganda with intellectuals playing a major role in it. The cases and examples he gives are taken from the U.S. and may not be particularly relevant for India, but the logic used to unmask propaganda comes through clearly. A case discussed in some detail is the clamour to reduce social security provisions. The main argument of those who press for it is that with the increase in life expectancy more and more retired people will be dependent on the contributions of those who are actually working and that, therefore, soon social security for the aged will turn out to be a burden for society.

Chomsky argues that if the proportion of those going out of the workforce is increasing, but of those yet to enter it is decreasing (because of a fall in the birth rate and the longer period of training) the dependency ratio may not be becoming adverse at all. Further, if those who are too old to earn a living must be cared for, the expenses have to be met either collectively through the agencies of the state or by those who are directly responsible for such care, and so social security provisions do not necessarily add to society's burden. To those who suggest that social security provisions can be individualised and privatised through appropriate insurance procedures, Chomsky points out that social security is not just for retired workers, but for their spouses, for disabled workers and so on and that therefore the real issue is whether society has a responsibility towards the aged, the infirm and the indigent and that that question cannot be settled by economic considerations alone.

To those who claim that the "free market" is the solution for all economic problems Chomsky refers to the Russian experience of market imposition after "the reforms" and claims that if the market is imposed on backward and poor countries, there will be starvation, demographic catastrophes and sufferings of all kinds. He also says "Reform" is one of those words you should watch out for because "changes are called reforms if the powerful are in favour of them". Is this the reason why planning and nationalisation will not be considered "reforms" but liberalisation and privatisation will?

Many more topics are scrutinised in the volume - globalisation and the role of finance capital in it; the manner in which the U.S. consistently ignores the United Nations Security Council and defies the International Court of Justice when its own interests have to be protected, as if to proclaim to the world, "In Force we trust"; the use and abuse of the information technology revolution; the Israel-Palestine conflict, and so on.

Here is an anecdote about Chomsky that he himself narrated in one of the interviews. Born to Jewish parents, Chomsky was first named Avram, that is Abraham. But his parents did not want the son to be called Abie, and decided to call him by his second name Noam. Later in life, when Chomsky obtained a copy of his birth certificate from the city office, he noticed that Noam had been changed in pencil to the more familiar Naomi which, however, is a feminine name. But, said Chomsky: "They didn't change M to F, so I was still male."

Madhyam Books deserves to be thanked for making this ''Chomsky'', originally brought out in the U.S., available to Indian readers at an affordable price.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment