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different story, conjuring up ethnic cleansing and atrocities that can-
not be found in the detailed records produced by the State Department,
NATO, and other Western sources “ which, interestingly, have been
largely ignored in the extensive literature of justification of the NATO
war. A fairly typical instance of the preferred version, taken from the
International Herald Tribune/Washington Post, is that “Serbia assaulted
Kosovo to squash a separatist Albanian guerrilla movement, but killed
10,000 civilians and drove 700,000 people into refuge in Macedonia
and Albania. NATO attacked Serbia from the air in the name of pro-
tecting the Albanians from ethnic cleansing [but] killed hundreds of
Serb civilians and provoked an exodus of tens of thousands from cities
into the countryside.” Crucially and uncontroversially, the order of
events was the reverse, but the truth is harder to bring into confor-
mity with the “principles and values” that provide a more comforting
Nuclear weapons enhance credibility, STRATCOM explains,
because they “always cast a shadow over any crisis or conflict.” They
are preferable to the weapons of mass destruction of the weak because
“unlike chemical or biological weapons, the extreme destruction from
a nuclear explosion is immediate, with few if any palliatives to reduce
its effect.” Washington™s nuclear-based “deterrence statement” must
be “convincing” and “immediately discernible.” Furthermore, the US
must “maintain ambiguity.” It is important that “planners should not
On nature and language

be too rational about determining . . . what the opponent values the
most,” all of which must be targeted for destruction. “It hurts to por-
tray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed.” The “national
persona we project” should be “that the US may become irrational and
vindictive if its vital interests are attacked.” It is “beneficial” for our
strategic posture if “some elements may appear to be potentially ˜out
of control.™”
In brief, the world should recognize that we are dangerous,
unpredictable, ready to lash out at what adversaries value most, using
weapons of vast destructive force in preemptive strikes, if we see fit.
Then they will bend to our will, in proper fear of our credibility.
That is the general thrust of current high-level strategic plan-
ning, insofar as it has been released to the public. These plans too re-
main much as before, but with a fundamental change after the collapse
of the superpower enemy. Now “an important constraint is missing,”
STRATCOM observes: the Soviet deterrent. Much of the world is well
aware of that, as was revealed, for example, during NATO™s war in the
Balkans. Western intellectuals generally portrayed it in the manner of
Vaclav Havel: a historically unprecedented act of pure nobility. Else-
where the war was commonly perceived as Solzhenitsyn depicted it,
even in US client states. In Israel, military commentators characterized
NATO™s leaders as “a danger to the world,” reverting to the practices of
the colonial era under the cynical guise of “moralistic righteousness,”
warning that these practices would lead to proliferation of weapons
of mass destruction and new strategic alliances to counteract the su-
perpower that is perceived much as STRATCOM recommends: as “out
of control.” Hard-line strategic analysts in the United States have ex-
pressed similar concerns.
A world-dominant superpower that is “out of control” has con-
siderable freedom to act unless constrained by its own population. An

The secular priesthood and the perils of democracy

important task for the secular priesthood is to reduce such internal
constraints. It is necessary to focus laser-like on crimes of current en-
emies, avoiding those we could mitigate or terminate by such simple
means as withdrawing participation. Recent literature on “humanitar-
ian intervention,” a flourishing genre, illustrates the guiding princi-
ples well. One will have to search diligently to find a reference to the
decisive contribution of the US and its allies to major atrocities and
ethnic cleansing: within NATO itself, or in Colombia, or East Timor,
or Lebanon, or all too many other corners of the world where people
live in misery and subjugation.
The project of keeping the public uninformed, passive, and
obedient traces far back in history, but constantly takes new forms.
That is particularly true when people win a degree of freedom, and
cannot so easily be subdued by the threat or exercise of violence.
England and the United States are the primary examples in the past cen-
tury. During World War I, both of the leading democracies constructed
highly effective state propaganda agencies. The goal of Britain™s
Ministry of Information was “to control the thought of the world,”
and particularly the thought of American intellectuals, who could
be instrumental, it was reasonably expected, in bringing the US
into the war. To help achieve this goal, President Woodrow Wilson
established the country™s first official propaganda agency, called the
Committee on Public Information “ which of course translates as
“public disinformation.” Run by leading progressive intellectuals, its
task was to turn a pacifist population into hysterical jingoists and en-
thusiasts for war against the savage Huns. These efforts had enormous
success, including scandalous fabrications that were exposed long
after they had done their work, and often persist even after exposure.
The successes greatly impressed many observers, among them
Adolf Hitler, who felt that Germany had lost the war because of

On nature and language

superior Anglo-American propaganda and vowed that next time
Germany would be ready on the propaganda front. Also deeply im-
pressed was the American business community, which realized the
potential of propaganda for the shaping of attitudes and beliefs. The
huge industries of public relations (PR), advertising, and mass cul-
ture are in part an outgrowth of this realization, a phenomenon of
enormous significance in subsequent years. Reliance on the success
of wartime propaganda was quite conscious. One of the founders of
the PR industry, Edward Bernays, observed in his industry manual
Propaganda that “it was the astounding success of propaganda during
the war that opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments
of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind.” A dis-
tinguished Wilson“Roosevelt“Kennedy liberal, Bernays was drawing
from his experiences as a member of Wilson™s propaganda agency.
A third group that was impressed by the propaganda successes
was the secular priesthood of elite intellectuals, the “responsible men”
as they termed themselves. These mechanisms of regimentation of
minds are “a new art in the practice of democracy,” Walter Lippmann
observed. He too had been a member of Wilson™s propaganda agency,
and went on to become the most eminent figure of the century in
American journalism, and one of the most respected and influential
commentators on public affairs.
The business world and the elite intellectuals were concerned
with the same problem. “The bourgeoisie stood in fear of the com-
mon people,” Bernays observed. As a result of “universal suffrage and
universal schooling, . . . the masses promised to become king,” a dan-
gerous tendency that could be controlled and reversed by new meth-
ods “to mold the mind of the masses,” Bernays advised.
The same threat was arising in England. In earlier years, formal
democracy had been a rather limited affair, but by the early twentieth

The secular priesthood and the perils of democracy

century working people were able to enter the political arena through
the parliamentary Labor Party and working-class organizations that
could influence political choices. In America, labor had been crushed
with considerable violence, but the franchise was extending and it
was becoming harder to maintain the principle on which the coun-
try was founded: that government must “protect the minority of the
opulent against the majority,” in the words of James Madison, the
most important of the framers of the Constitution, which was insti-
tuted to “secure the permanent interests of the country against inno-
vation,” these “permanent interests” being property rights, Madison
held. Those “without property, or the hope of acquiring it, cannot
be expected to sympathize sufficiently with its rights,” he warned.
The general public must therefore be fragmented and marginalized,
while the government is in the hands of “the wealth of the nation,”
“the most capable class of men,” who can be trusted to safeguard
“the permanent interests.” “The people who own the country ought
to govern it,” as the principle was formulated by Madison™s colleague
John Jay, President of the Constitutional Convention and first Chief
Justice of the Supreme Court.
These arrangements face constant challenges. By the 1920s,
they were becoming serious. The British Conservative Party recog-
nized that the threat of democracy might be contained by “applying
the lessons” of wartime propaganda “to the organization of political
warfare.” In the US variant, Lippmann called for “the manufacture of
consent” to enable the “intelligent minority” of “responsible men”
to set policy. “The public must be put in its place,” he urged, so that
the responsible men will be protected from “the trampling and the
roar of a bewildered herd.” The general public are “ignorant and med-
dlesome outsiders,” whose role in a democracy is to be “spectators,”
not “participants.” They are entitled to lend their weight to one of the

On nature and language

responsible men periodically “ what is called “an election” “ but are
then to return to their individual pursuits.
This is good Wilsonian doctrine, one element of “Wilsonian
idealism.” Wilson™s own view was that an elite of gentlemen with
“elevated ideals” must preserve “stability and righteousness.” It is
good Leninist doctrine as well; the comparison is worth pursuing, but I
will keep to the secular priesthood of the Western democracies. These
ideas have deep roots in American history, and in British history back
to the first democratic revolution of the seventeenth century, which
also frightened “the men of best quality,” as they called themselves.
In the post-World War I period, the issues were addressed by
the academic intelligentsia as well. The Encyclopaedia of Social Sciences
in 1933 contained an article on “propaganda” written by one of the
founders of modern political science, Harold Lasswell. He warned
that the intelligent minority must recognize the “ignorance and stu-
pidity of the masses” and not succumb to “democratic dogmatisms
about men being the best judges of their own interests.” They are not;
we “responsible men” are the best judges. For their own benefit, the
ignorant and stupid masses must be controlled. In more democratic
societies, where force is unavailable, social managers must therefore
turn to “a whole new technique of control, largely through propa-
Edward Bernays explained in his 1925 manual Propaganda that
the “intelligent minorities” must “regiment the public mind every bit
as much as an army regiments the bodies of its soldiers.” The task
of the intelligent minorities, primarily business leaders, is “the con-
scious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opin-
ions of the masses.” This process of “engineering consent” is the very
“essence of the democratic process,” Bernays wrote shortly before
he was honored for his contributions by the American Psychological

The secular priesthood and the perils of democracy

Association in 1949. A good deal of modern applied and industrial
psychology developed within this general framework. Bernays him-
self had won fame by a propaganda campaign that induced women to
smoke cigarettes, and a few years after receiving his award, confirmed
his methods by running the propaganda component of the destruction
of Guatemalan democracy, which established a terror regime that tor-
tured and massacred for forty years. Both “habits and opinions” must
be “intelligently manipulated.”
Manipulation of opinion is the responsibility of the media, jour-
nals, schools, universities, and the educated classes generally. The
task of manipulation of habits and attitudes falls to the popular arts,
advertising, and the huge public relations industry. Its goal, business
leaders write, is to “nullify the customs of the ages.” One method
is to create artificial wants, imagined needs, a device recognized to
be an effective technique of control from the early industrial revo-
lution, and later after the liberation of slaves. It became a major in-
dustry in the 1920s, and has reached new heights of sophistication
in recent years. Manuals explain that the industry should seek to im-
pose a “philosophy of futility” and “lack of purpose in life.” It should
find ways to “concentrate human attention on the more superficial
things that comprise much of fashionable consumption.” People may
then accept and even welcome their meaningless and subordinate
lives, and forget ridiculous ideas about managing their own affairs.
They will abandon their fate to the responsible men, the intelligent
minorities, the secular priesthood, who serve and administer power “
which of course lies elsewhere, a hidden but crucial premise.
In the modern world, power is concentrated in a few powerful
states and the private tyrannies that are closely linked to them “ becom-
ing their “tools and tyrants,” as Madison warned long ago. The private
tyrannies are the great corporations that dominate economic, social,

On nature and language

and political life. In their internal organization, these institutions
approach the totalitarian ideal about as closely as any that humans
have devised. Their intellectual origins lie in part in neo-Hegelian doc-
trines about the rights of organic suprahuman entities, doctrines that
also underlie the other major forms of modern totalitarianism, Bolshe-
vism and fascism. The corporatization of America was bitterly attacked
by conservatives “ a category that now scarcely exists “ as a return to
feudalism and a “form of Communism,” not unrealistically.
Well into the 1930s, debate on these matters was very much alive
in mainstream discussion. The issues have largely been eliminated
from the public mind by the onslaught of corporate propaganda after
World War II. The campaign was a reaction to the rapid growth of
social democratic and more radical commitments during the depres-
sion and the war years. Business publications warned of “the hazard
facing industrialists in the rising political power of the masses.” To
counter the threat, large-scale efforts were undertaken to “indoctrinate
citizens with the capitalist story” until “they are able to play back the
story with remarkable fidelity,” in the terminology of business leaders,
who dedicated themselves to “the everlasting battle for the minds of
men” with renewed vigor. The propaganda assault was enormous in
scale, a major chapter in the history of manufacture of consent. There
is a fairly good scholarly literature on the topic, unknown to the
These were the methods of choice within the rich and privileged
societies. Elsewhere, as already discussed, more direct measures were
available, carrying a terrible human cost. These were applied from the
last days of World War II to undermine and destroy the anti-fascist
resistance and to restore the traditional order, which had largely been
discredited by its association with fascism. They were then adapted to
ensure that decolonization did not get out of control.

The secular priesthood and the perils of democracy

The ferment of the 1960s aroused similar fears in respectable
circles. Perhaps their clearest expression is in the first major publi-
cation of the Trilateral Commission, a group constituted largely of
liberal internationalists in the three major industrial centers, Europe,
Japan, and the United States: the Carter administration was largely
drawn from its ranks, including the President himself and all of his
senior advisors. The Commission™s first publication was devoted to
the “crisis of democracy” that had arisen in the trilateral regions.
The crisis was that in the 1960s, large parts of the population that
are normally passive and apathetic sought to formulate their inter-
ests and concerns in an organized way and to enter the political arena
to promote them: women, minorities, youth, elderly, etc. “ in fact
virtually the whole population. Their “special interests” are to be dis-
tinguished from “the national interest,” an Orwellian term referring
in practice to the “permanent interests” of “the minority of the
The naive might call these developments a step towards democ-
racy, but the more sophisticated understand that they are an “excess
of democracy,” a crisis that must be overcome by returning the
“bewildered herd” to its proper place: spectators, not participants in
action. The American rapporteur of the Commission, a distinguished
Harvard University political scientist, described with a trace of nostal-
gia the world of the past, when Harry Truman “had been able to govern
the country with the cooperation of a relatively small number of Wall
Street lawyers and bankers,” a happy state that might be recovered
if “moderation in democracy” can be restored.
The crisis set off a new attack on democracy through policy
decisions, propaganda, and other methods of control of belief, cus-
tom, and attitudes. In a parallel development, options for public action
have been sharply constrained under the regime of “neoliberalism” “ a

On nature and language

dubious term; the policies are neither “new” nor “liberal,” if we
have in mind anything resembling classical liberalism. The “neolib-
eral” regime undermines popular sovereignty by shifting decision-
making power from national governments to a “virtual parliament” of
investors and lenders, primarily organized in corporate institutions.
This virtual parliament can wield “veto power” over government plan-
ning by capital flight and attacks on currency, thanks to the liber-
alization of financial flows that was part of the dismantling of the
Bretton Woods system that had been instituted in 1944. That brings us
to the current period, raising major issues that I will have to put aside,
reluctantly, given time constraints.
The results, and the methods used to bring them about, should
be ranked as among the most significant achievements of power and
its servants in the twentieth century. They also indicate what may lie
ahead “ always with the crucial proviso: if we allow it, a choice, not a


3 Language and the brain
1 Ned Block (1990), “The computer model of the mind,” in D. N. Osherson
and E. E. Smith, eds., An Invitation to Cognitive Science vol. 3, Thinking
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
2 “The Brain,” Daedalus, Spring 1998.
3 Mark Hauser (1996), The Evolution of Communication (Cambridge, MA: MIT
4 C. R. Gallistel (1997), “Neurons and memory,” in M. S. Gazzaniga, ed.,
Conversations in the Cognitive Neurosciences (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press);
(1999), “The replacement of general-purpose learning models with
adaptively specialized learning modules,” in M. S. Gazzaniga, ed., The
Cognitive Neurosciences, 2nd edition (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
5 David Hume, Dialogue on Natural Religion.
6 N. Chomsky (1990), “Language and cognition,” welcoming address for the
Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, MIT, July 1990, in D. Johnson
and C. Emeling, eds. (1997), The Future of the Cognitive Revolution (New York:
Oxford University Press). Chomsky (1995b), “Language and nature,” Mind
104.413: 1“61, Jan., reprinted in Chomsky (2000b), New Horizons in the Study
of Language and Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). See the
latter collection for many sources not cited here.
7 Alexandre Koyr´ (1957), From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).

Notes to pages 69“95

8 Arnold Thackray (1970), Atoms and Powers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press).
9 Cited by Gerald Holton, “On the Art of Scientific Imagination,” Daedalus
(1996), 183“208.
10 Cited by V. S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee (1998), Phantoms in the
Brain (London: Fourth Estate).
11 Bertrand Russell (1929), The Analysis of Matter (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner).
12 R. D. Hawkins and E. R. Kandel (1984), “Is there a cell-biological alphabet
for simple forms of learning?,” Psychological Review 91: 376“391.
13 Adam Frank, Discover 80 (1997), Nov.
14 N. Chomsky (1959), Review of B. F. Skinner, Verbal Behavior, Language 35.1:
15 Richard Lewontin (1990), in Osherson and Smith (1990), 229“246.
16 Terrence Deacon (1998), The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and
the Brain (New York: Norton).
17 For current discussion of these topics, see, inter alia, Jerry Fodor (2000), The
Mind Doesn™t Work That Way: Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press); Gary Marcus (1998), “Can connectionism
save constructivism?,” Cognition 66: 153“182.
18 See Chomsky (1959), and for more general discussion, focusing on
language, Chomsky (1975), Reflections on Language (New York: Pantheon).
19 On the non-triviality of this rarely recognized assumption, see Fodor
20 C. R. Gallistel, ed. (1990), Animal Cognition, Cognition, special issue, 37.1“2.

4 An interview on minimalism
We would like to thank Marco Nicolis and Manola Salustri for editorial
1 Noam Chomsky (1981), Lectures on Government and Binding (Dordrecht: Foris
2 See, for instance, the articles collected in Noam Chomsky (1977), Essays on
Form and Interpretation (New York: North Holland).
3 Noam Chomsky (1995a), The Minimalist Program (Cambridge, MA: MIT
Press). See also Juan Uriagereka (1998), Rhyme and Reason (Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press), for an introduction to the basic concepts and empirical results
of minimalism.

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