Understanding power : the indispensable Chomsky /
edited by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel.
New York : New Press, 2002.
xiii, 416 p. ; 24 cm.
1565847032 (pbk.)
More Details
New York : New Press, 2002.
1565847032 (pbk.)
general note
Includes index.
catalogue key
"Explanatory footnotes available at"--T.p.
A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel are public defenders in New York City
First Chapter

Chapter One

Weekend Teach-In

Opening Session

Based primarily on discussions at Rowe,

Massachusetts, April 15-16, 1989.

The Achievements of Domestic Dissidence

Woman: Noam, I think the reason we've all come out here to spend the weekend talking with you is to get some of your perspectives on the state of the world, and what we can do to change it. I'm wondering, do you think activism has brought about many changes in the U.S.A. in the past few decades?

    Oh sure, big changes actually. I don't think the structure of the institutions has been changed--but you can see real changes in the culture, and in a lot of other ways too.

    For instance, compare two Presidential administrations in the 1960s and 1980s, the Kennedy administration and the Reagan administration. Now, in a sense they had a lot in common, contrary to what everyone says. Both came into office on fraudulent denunciations of their predecessors as being wimpish and weak and letting the Russians get ahead of us--there was a fraudulent "missile gap" in the Kennedy case, a fraudulent "window of vulnerability" in the Reagan case. Both were characterized by a major escalation of the arms race, which means more international violence and increased taxpayer subsidies to advanced industry at home through military spending. Both were jingoist, both tried to whip up fear in the general population through a lot of militarist hysteria and jingoism. Both launched highly aggressive foreign policies around the world--Kennedy substantially increased the level of violence in Latin America; the plague of repression that culminated in the 1980s under Reagan was in fact largely a result of his initiatives.

    Of course, the Kennedy administration was different in that, at least rhetorically, and to some extent in practice, it was concerned for social reform programs at home, whereas the Reagan administration was committed to the opposite, to eliminating what there was of a social welfare system here. But that probably reflects the difference in international affairs in the two periods more than anything else. In the early 1960s, the United States was the world-dominant power, and had plenty of opportunity for combining international violence and commitment to military spending with social reform at home. By the 1980s, that same opportunity wasn't around anymore: the United States was just not that powerful and not that rich relative to its industrial rivals--in absolute terms it was, but not relatively. And there was a general consensus among elites, it wasn't just Reagan, that you had to break down the welfare state in order to maintain the profitability and competitiveness of American capital. But that difference apart, the two administrations were very similar.

    On the other hand, they couldn't do the same things. So for example, Kennedy could invade Cuba and launch the world's to-date major international terrorist operation against them--which went on for years, probably still is going on. He was able to invade South Vietnam, which he did after all: Kennedy sent the American Air Force to bomb and napalm South Vietnam and defoliate the country, and he sent troops to crush the peasant independence movement there. And Vietnam's an area of minor American concern, it's way on the other end of the world. The Reagan administration tried to do similar things much closer to home in Central America, and couldn't. As soon as they started moving towards direct intervention in Central America in the first few months of the administration in 1981, they had to back off and move to clandestine operations--secret arms sales, covert funding through client states, training of terrorist forces like the contras in Nicaragua, and so on.

    That's a very striking difference, a dramatic difference. And I think that difference is one of the achievements of the activism and dissidence of the last twenty-five years. In fact, the Reagan administration was forced to create a major propaganda office, the Office of Public Diplomacy: it's not the first one in American history, it's the second, the first was during the Wilson administration in 1917. But this one was much larger, much more extensive, it was a major effort at indoctrinating the public. The Kennedy administration never had to do that, because they could trust that the population would be supportive of any form of violence and aggression they decided to carry out. That's a big change, and it's had its effects. There were no B-52s in Central America in the 1980s. It was bad enough, hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered--but if we'd sent B-52s and the 82nd Airborne, it would have been a lot worse. And that's a reflection of a serious rise in domestic dissidence and activism in the United States over the past twenty-five years. The Reagan administration was forced into clandestine tactics rather than direct aggression of the sort that Kennedy was able to use in Vietnam, largely in order to pacify the domestic population. As soon as Reagan indicated that he might try to turn to direct military intervention in Central America, there was a convulsion in the country, ranging from a massive flow of letters, to demonstrations, to church groups getting involved; people started coming out of the woodwork all over the place. And the administration immediately backed off.

    Also, the Reagan military budget had to level off by 1985. It did spurt, pretty much along the lines of Carter administration projections, but then it leveled off at about what it would have been if Carter had stayed in. Well, why did that happen? Partly it happened because of fiscal problems arising after four years of catastrophic Reaganite deficit spending, but partly it was just because there was a lot of domestic dissidence.

    And by now that dissidence is kind of irrepressible, actually. The fact that it doesn't have a center, and doesn't have a source, and doesn't have an organizational structure, that has both strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses are that people get the sense that they're alone--because you don't see things happening down the street. And it's possible to maintain the illusion that there's no activism going on, because there's nothing dramatically visible, like huge demonstrations or something; occasionally there are, but not most of the time. And there's very little in the way of inter-communication, so all sorts of organizing can be happening in parallel, but it doesn't feed into itself and move on from there. Those are all weaknesses. On the other hand, the strength is, it's very hard to crush--because there's nothing to cut off: if one thing gets eliminated, something else just comes up to take its place.

    So looking over a long stretch, I don't think it's true that things have gotten more passive, more quiescent, more indoctrinated and so on. In fact, if anything, it's the opposite. But it's sort of neither more nor less, really, it's just different.

    And you can see it in all kinds of ways. I mean, public opposition to the policies of the Reagan administration kept rising--it was always very high, and it rose through the Eighties. Or take the media: there have been slight changes, there's more openness. It's easier for dissidents to get access to the media today than it was twenty years ago. It's not easy , like it's 0.2 percent instead of 0.1 percent, but it is different. And in fact, by now there are even people inside the institutions who came out of the culture and experiences of the Sixties, and have worked their way into the media, universities, publishing firms, the political system to some extent. That's had an effect as well.

    Or take something like the human rights policies of the Carter administration. Now, they weren't from the Carter administration really, they were from Congress--they were Congressional human rights programs which the Carter administration was forced to adapt to, to a limited extent. And they've been maintained through the 1980s as well: the Reagan administration had to adapt to them somewhat too. And they've had an effect. They're used very cynically and hypocritically, we know all that stuff--but nevertheless, there are plenty of people whose lives have been saved by them. Well, where did those programs come from? Where they came from, if you trace it back, is kids from the 1960s who became Congressional assistants and pressed for drafting of legislation--using popular pressures from here, there and the other place to help them through. Their proposals worked their way through a couple of Congressional offices, and finally found their way into Congressional legislation. New human rights organizations developed at the same time, like Human Rights Watch. And out of it all came at least a rhetorical commitment to putting human rights issues in the forefront of foreign policy concerns. And that's not without an effect. It's cynical, doubtless--you can show it. But still it's had an effect.

The U.S. Network of Terrorist Mercenary States

Woman: It's curious that you're saying that, because I certainly didn't have that impression. The only human rights issue the Reagan administration seemed to be concerned with was that of the Soviet Jews--I mean, they resumed funding the terror in Guatemala.

    But note how they did it: they had to sneak it in around the back. In fact, there was more funding of Guatemala under Carter than there was under Reagan, though it's not very well known. See, the Carter administration was compelled to stop sending military aid to Guatemala by Congressional legislation in 1977, and officially they did--but if you look at the Pentagon records, funding continued until around 1980 or '81 at just about the normal level, by various forms of trickery: you know, "things were in the pipeline," that kind of business. This was never talked about in the press, but if you look at the records, you'll see the funding was still going through until that time. The Reagan administration had to stop sending it altogether--and in fact, what they did was turn to mercenary states.

    See, one of the interesting features of the 1980s is that to a large extent the United States had to carry out its foreign interventions through the medium of mercenary states. There's a whole network of U.S. mercenary states. Israel is the major one, but it also includes Taiwan, South Africa, South Korea, the states that are involved in the World Anti-Communist League and the various military groups that unite the Western Hemisphere, Saudi Arabia to fund it, Panama--Noriega was right in the center of the thing. We caught a glimpse of it in things like the Oliver North trial and the Iran-contra hearings [Oliver North was tried in 1989 for his role in "Iran-contra," the U.S. government's illegal scheme to fund the Nicaraguan "contra" militias in their war against Nicaragua's left-wing government by covertly selling weapons to Iran]--they're international terrorist networks of mercenary states. It's a new phenomenon in world history, way beyond what anybody has ever dreamt of. Other countries hire terrorists, we hire terrorist states, we're a big, powerful country.


Excerpted from Understanding Power by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel. Copyright © 2002 by Noam Chomsky, Peter Rounds Mitchell, and John Schoeffel. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 2002-03-01:
MIT-based Chomsky revolutionized linguistics in the late Fifties, but for nearly as long he has been better known as an energetic and constructive debunker of American establishment politics and behavior. However, the current Chomsky contributes nothing to the legacy he established decades ago. These two most recent productions do not reveal systematic efforts to sustain or develop any aspect of his prolifically expressed critique; indeed, they are not so much authored as collaged, with Chomsky's sanction, from talks, after-talk Q&As, and interviews with generally converted interlocutors. Understanding Power draws mainly on vintage utterances from the Nineties, and its most penetrating passage takes on, of all pressing matters, literary theory. Chomsky, who is relentless in condemning the media as incapable of any function other than converting the masses to elite desires, just as relentlessly samples mainstream reporting sources for instances of corporate and government ill doings. In trying to illustrate that he is not a crude conspiracy theorist, he conveys the opposite impression. The shorter 9-11 could not have been planned, of course, though it mostly consists of interviews conducted while the calendar still read September, suggesting both the urgency Chomsky felt to get his perspective on the record and his utter disinclination to reexamine any of his cemented opinions about world affairs. Chomsky condemns the attacks specifically and then suggests that the deaths are entirely the responsibility of capitalist globalization, which nonetheless he asserts is irrelevant to the September 11 actors. However, consistency is even less a priority for Chomsky than humility. Apparently, Chomsky believes that he has discovered the concept of blowback, not to mention imbalance in coverage of the perpetual Israeli-Palestinian murder-and-misery fetish. For him, a direct line runs from Reagan's mining of Nicaragua's harbors to the flying of commercial airliners into buildings. 9-11 is a worthwhile purchase for public libraries intent on demonstrating (or risking) balance; Understanding Power is not half as useful as Chomsky's earlier, authentic innovations in political literature, especially Manufacturing Consent (coauthored with Edward Herman). Libraries truly wishing to ensure representation of the most lucid nonconventional opinion should first check that their subscriptions to the Nation a proud carrier of Chomsky for 40 years are current. Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2001-12-24:
For the past several decades, Noam Chomsky has become more famous for his trenchant critiques of U.S. foreign policy than for his groundbreaking linguistic theories. In this collection of material from his lectures and teach-ins, public defenders Mitchell and Schoeffel put his challenging, controversial opinions on display. The discussions a format that allows Chomsky to present his views in a conversational, accessible style confirm his wide-ranging engagement with world affairs. Whether the topic is Cambodia (he all but holds the United States responsible for the mass deaths under the Khmer Rouge) or the Middle East (where he sees the peace process as analogous to South Africa's creation of apartheid), he consistently blasts the United States for what he sees as its guiding principle of maintaining its own power while claiming to fight for freedom and democracy. Chomsky, who has published more than 30 books but is best known for his contribution to Manufacturing Consent, a critique of the way public opinion is formed, often excoriates the press for what he sees as a willingness to reflect the views of the "elites" rather than challenge them. But while he maintains a gloomy view of U.S. policies, he preserves a surprising optimism about Americans, arguing that the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements have made citizens more critical of the mass media. Some readers will appreciate the views articulated here and others will be infuriated; but for anyone with an opinion of Chomsky would be wise not to ignore this collection, which provides a useful and wide-ranging introduction to his analysis of power and media in the West. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
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Library Journal, March 2002
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Back Cover Copy
Noam Chomsky is universally accepted as one of the preeminent public intellectuals of the modern era. Over the past thirty years, broadly diverse audiences have gathered to attend his sold-out lectures. Now, in Understanding Power, Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel have assembled the best of Chomsky's talks on the past, present, and future of the politics of power. In a series of enlightening and wide-ranging discussions-published here for the first time-Chomsky radically reinterprets the events of the past three decades, covering topics from foreign policy during the Vietnam War to the decline of welfare under the Clinton administration. And as he elucidates the connection between America's imperialistic foreign policy and social inequalities at home, Chomsky also discerns the necessary steps to take toward social change. With an eye to political activism and the media's role in popular struggle, as well as U.S. foreign and domestic policy, Understanding Power is definitive Chomsky. Characterized by Chomsky's accessible and informative style, Understanding Power is the ideal book for those new to his work as well as for those who have been listening for years.
Publisher Fact Sheet
A major new collection from one of the preeminent public intellectuals of the modern era.
Unpaid Annotation
The best of Chomsky's recent talks on the past, present, and future of the politics of power. In a series of enlightening and wide-ranging discussions, all published here for the first time, Chomsky radically reinterprets the events of the past three decades, covering topics from foreign policy during Vietnam to the decline of welfare under the Clinton administration.
Table of Contents
Editors' Prefacep. xi
A Note on the Events of September 11, 2001p. xiii
Weekend Teach-In: Opening Sessionp. 1
The Achievements of Domestic Dissidencep. 1
The U.S. Network of Terrorist Mercenary Statesp. 4
Overthrowing Third World Governmentsp. 6
Government Secrecyp. 10
The Media: An Institutional Analysisp. 12
Testing the "Propaganda Model"p. 15
The Media and Elite Opinionp. 18
Filters on Reportingp. 24
Honest Subordinationp. 30
"Fight it Better": the Media and the Vietnam Warp. 31
Teach-In: Over Coffeep. 37
"Containing" the Soviet Union in the Cold Warp. 37
Orwell's World and Oursp. 41
Contemporary Povertyp. 45
Religious Fanaticismp. 50
"The Real Anti-Semitism"p. 51
Ronald Reagan and the Future of Democracyp. 53
Two New Factors in World Affairsp. 58
Democracy Under Capitalismp. 60
The Empirep. 64
Change and the Futurep. 67
Teach-In: Eveningp. 70
The Military-Industrial Complexp. 70
The Permanent War Economyp. 73
Libyan and American Terrorismp. 77
The U.S. and the U.N.p. 84
Business, Apartheid, and Racismp. 88
Winning the Vietnam Warp. 90
"Genocide": the United States and Pol Potp. 92
Heroes and Anti-Heroesp. 93
"Anti-Intellectualism"p. 95
Spectator Sportsp. 98
Western European Activism and Canadap. 101
Dispelling Illusionsp. 103
Colloquyp. 106
The Totalitarian Strainp. 106
A Lithuania Hypotheticalp. 109
Perpetuating Brainwashing Under Freedomp. 111
Journalism LeMoyne-Style: A Sample of the Cynical Aspectp. 115
Rethinking Watergatep. 117
Escaping Indoctrinationp. 120
Understanding the Middle East Conflictp. 123
The Threat of Peacep. 126
Water and the Occupied Territoriesp. 129
Imperial Ambitions and the Arab Threatp. 131
Prospects for the Palestiniansp. 134
Legitimacy in Historyp. 135
Qualifications to Speak on World Affairs; A Presidential Campaignp. 137
Ruling the Worldp. 140
Soviet Versus Western Economic Developmentp. 140
Supporting Terrorp. 144
"People's Democratic Socialist Republics"p. 145
The Organ Tradep. 146
The Real Crime of Cubap. 148
Panama and Popular Invasionsp. 151
Muslims and U.S. Foreign Policyp. 154
Haiti: Disturbance at an Export Platformp. 155
Texaco and the Spanish Revolutionp. 159
Averting Democracy in Italyp. 160
P.R. in Somaliap. 163
The Gulf Warp. 165
Bosnia: Intervention Questionsp. 171
Toying With Indiap. 172
The Oslo Agreement and Imperialist Revivalp. 174
Community Activistsp. 177
Discussion Circlep. 177
The Early Peace Movement and a Change in the 1970sp. 180
The Nuclear Freeze Movementp. 184
Awareness and Actionsp. 186
Leaders and Movementsp. 188
Levels of Changep. 189
Non-Violencep. 193
Transcending Capitalismp. 195
The Kibbutz Experimentp. 196
"Anarchism" and "Libertarianism"p. 199
Articulating Visionsp. 201
"Want" Creationp. 203
Dissidents: Ignored or Vilifiedp. 204
Teaching About Resistancep. 211
Isolationp. 212
Science and Human Naturep. 214
Charlatans in the Sciencesp. 217
Adam Smith: Real and Fakep. 221
The Computer and the Crowbarp. 223
Intellectuals and Social Changep. 224
The Leninist/Capitalist Intelligentsiap. 224
Marxist "Theory" and Intellectual Fakeryp. 227
Ideological Control in the Sciences and Humanitiesp. 231
The Function of the Schoolsp. 233
Subtler Methods of Controlp. 238
Cruder Methods of Controlp. 242
The Fate of an Honest Intellectualp. 244
Forging Working-Class Culturep. 248
The Fraud of Modern Economicsp. 251
The Real Marketp. 255
Automationp. 258
A Revolutionary Change in Moral Valuesp. 260
Popular Strugglep. 267
Discovering New Forms of Oppressionp. 267
Freedom of Speechp. 268
Negative and Positive Freedomsp. 272
Cyberspace and Activismp. 276
"Free Trade" Agreementsp. 280
Defense Department Funding and "Clean Money"p. 284
The Favored State and Enemy Statesp. 286
Canada's Mediap. 288
Should Quebec Separate from Canada?p. 291
Deciphering "China"p. 282
Indonesia's Killing Fields: U.S.-Backed Genocide in East Timorp. 294
Mass Murderers at Harvardp. 298
Changes in Indonesiap. 299
Nuclear Proliferation and North Koreap. 301
The Samson Optionp. 303
The Lot of the Palestiniansp. 305
P.L.O. Ambitionsp. 310
The Nation-State Systemp. 313
Movement Organizingp. 318
The Movie Manufacturing Consentp. 318
Media Activismp. 323
Self-Destruction of the U.S. Leftp. 326
Popular Educationp. 331
Third-Party Politicsp. 333
Boycottsp. 337
"A Praxis"p. 339
The War on Unionsp. 339
Inner-City Schoolsp. 342
Defending the Welfare Statep. 344
Pension Funds and the Lawp. 346
Conspiracy Theoriesp. 348
The Decision to Get Involvedp. 351
"Human Nature Is Corrupt"p. 355
Discovering Moralityp. 356
Abortionp. 358
Moral Valuesp. 359
Turning Pointp. 363
Bringing the Third World Homep. 363
Welfare: the Pea and the Mountainp. 367
Crime Control and "Superfluous" Peoplep. 370
Violence and Repressionp. 373
International Capital: the New Imperial Agep. 377
The Fairy Tale Economyp. 382
Building International Unionsp. 383
Initial Moves and the Coming Crisisp. 387
Elite Planning--Slipping Out of Handp. 390
Disturbed Populations Stirringp. 395
The Verge of Fascismp. 398
The Future of Historyp. 400
Indexp. 403
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