On What Matters
Noam Chomsky interviewed by Julia Goldberg
Santa Fe Reporter, January 19, 2005
SFR: What was your take on the criticisms that the US didnít react quickly enough to the tsunami?

NC: The initial response was really scandalous. It was virtually nothing and then, after criticismóinternational criticism and domestic criticismóthe US involvement was increased, funding was increased, but itís still a tiny fraction if you compare it to the scale of the economy. Itís a tiny percentage and, in fact, thatís true of foreign aid generally, itís not unique to the United States. The percentage of total foreign aid is tiny, but in fact the US has the worst record among the industrialized countries in percentage of the economy, the gross domestic product. The publicís attitude toward this is interesting. The public thinks we give way too much money for public aid but when asked how much we should be giving thinks we should be giving far more than weíre actually giving. Thereís just gross illusion about the amount.

SFR:Itís been said the US is improving its international image by helping the tsunami victims.

NC: Yes, thereís that total cynicism. You donít give aid because you hope itís going to improve your image. The PR aspect of it is overwhelming, which is disgraceful, and the actual amount given is far below what it should be, but in a way weíre kind of missing the point. The tsunami disaster was horrible, the latest figures are 150,000 killedÖ in eastern Congo that many people are killed every five months. Are we doing anything about that? There are about 1,000 people being killed a day there, or if you take a look at easily preventable deaths in southern Africa alone, just among children, the number dying from easily preventable deaths is probably on the order of 1,000 a day or something. Itís Rwanda-level killing every day, and that can be prevented by providing medicine or infrastructure.

SFR: Will your Santa Fe appearance with Tariq Ali focus on Palestine and the Middle East?

NC: Precisely for that reason it wonít. Iíll talk about other issues, obviously Iíll have to bring up Iraq. Iíll try to focus on other issues assuming that in the conversation with Tariq weíll discuss the Middle East.

SFR: CNN pointed out that Bush wants Mahmoud Abbas to visit the White House but he never invited Arafat because Bush viewed Arafat as standing in the way of peace. Does this seem like a legitimate characterization to you?

NC: Weíre watching an interesting illustration of how doctrinal systems work. The main principle of a doctrinal system is you have to turn attention from yourself and onto the misdeeds of others. Hereís a perfect example of it. Whatever you think about Arafat, he was not the obstacle to peace. The obstacle to peace was the US. The US has been refusing to accept a political settlement that has overwhelming international support, but the US refuses and the Bush administration is extreme in refusingÖ so therefore, take a look at the framework for media coverage or commentary. What you have to focus on are the alleged differences between Arafat and Abbas because that, you know, blames it on the PalestiniansÖif it doesnít work the way the US wants, they can blame it on Abbas.

SFR: You wrote an article, I think on Znet, that said the Nov. 2 elections told us very little about the state of the country. Can you elaborate?

NC: For a very simple reason. The elections very self-consciously evaded issues of political significance and were focused almost entirely on projecting images in an effort to elude the public into purchasing the candidate who was being sold by the imagery creation. Thatís not very surprising. The elections are run by the PR industry and thatís what they do in their everyday lives. What theyíre doing is trying to delude you into purchasing this commodity rather than that identical one. When the same industry is given the task of selling candidates they do it the same way. Thatís not a democratic election. Itís as much of an election as when you can delude someone into buying a Chevy instead of a Ford by deceit and, in fact, itís much worse than that because right before the election the major institutions in the country that monitor public attitudeÖreleased important studies of the publicís opinion on major issues that were almost completely suppressed in the media and what they showed was the two political parties are way to the right of the public on issue after issue.

SFR: So the subsequent discussions of blue states and red states and moral values, you donít see that as legitimate?

NC: First of all, what do people mean by Ďvalues?í Suppose people say ĎIím voting because of values.í That tells you right off theyíre not voting on issues and in a democratic society people should be voting on issues. The second issue is what are peopleís values? Thatís rarely been investigated and the few times itís been looked at it turns out the values are the country is too materialistic and should be more fair and egalitarian or their values are that they are opposed to the war in Iraq. The red blue state business, yeah there are differences and, in fact, look the factors that differentiate them. Probably the most striking one, statistically, has to do with rising inequality. The states where inequality has been rising, and itís rising very fastóespecially under Bush, but for some yearsóthe states where itís risen the most rapidly are the blues states, which suggests people are voting on economic issues even though the economic issues arenít coming up in the election.

SFR: What are the domestic issues in this country that interest you right now?

NC: One major issue in the country is the collapse of the democratic system as illustrated, for example, in the last election. Another crucial issue is healthcare costs. These are really significant. This could well bankrupt the economy, they are going up very fast, they are out of control. A lot of it has to do with the fact itís privatized and the enormous power of the pharmaceutical industry. And itís being evaded in favor of a non-issue, mainly Social Security. The huge fuss about the Social Security crisis which first of all doesnít exist. Itís all a fraud. Everyone in the press is talking about it and thereís no crisis and to the extent that thereís any problem at all itís tiny when compared with medical care. But the point is the ideological reason behind it. Social Security is a democratic system based on the principle that people care about each other, that we have a community responsibility to make sure vulnerable people are taken care of, so therefore thereís a huge attack on Social Security to try to dismantle it, even though thereís no issue. The transformation of the military to an extremely aggressive posture which is leading to the ultimate doom that mainstream strategists are correct in predicting, thatís another major problem. Itís kind of interesting. When you read the mainstream analysts they barely even hope that it could be dealt with by the American population. Their faith in American democracy is so slight they barely bring that up. What they hope is a coalition of peace-loving states will counter US aggressiveness. They donít think we can. Thatís a very serious problem domestically.

SFR: Do you disagree with the analysis thereís little to be hopeful about in American democracy?

NC: I think thereís a tremendous amount to be hopeful about. Look at public opinion polls. What they show is that the large majority of public opinion probably agrees with you and the position of your paper. I donít know the position of your paper but Iím just guessingÖTake the activist positions. Thatís a hopeful a sign. The point is the activists happen to be in the mainstream of opinion. Thatís hopeful because it means there are ways to overcome whatís going on now by creating a more democratic society.

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