Question: Why the passivity of the American population given the high literact rate…?
Chomsky: Well, let’s be concrete about it. It’s true that there’s a fairly high literacy rate – I wish it were higher, but it’s resonably high. On the other hand, does a high literacy rate do you any good in discovering for example that you’re sending attack helicopters to Israel to attack civilian concentrations?
No, it doesn’t do you any good because you can’t read it anywhere, except in dissident literature that is effectively marginalized. Not much point in having a high literacy rate if there’s nothing to read. And that generalizes. Take the document that I just mentioned, the March 1990 Bush administration document.* Clearly that’s going to be important. And it’s there, it’s public. But a high literacy rate is not enough to find it. You can’t find it in the mainstream; as far as I know, it wasn’t even mentioned apart from dissident literature. And to look elsewhere, you have to know what you’re looking for.
If you want to be a physicist for example, it’s not enough that there’s a ton of data. You have to know what to look for. That requires some understanding of how things work. And to get some understanding requires an education that gears you to picking out the things that are important. Our educational system doesn’t. In fact quite the opposite.
It tries to keep you safe from such dangerous thoughts. And it often succeeds. That’s why we don’t pay attention to things like the easy ways to end human rights abuses. The easiest way, surely, is to stop carrying them out. That should be to ask, “what are we doing to harm human rights?” Let’s stop doing it.
That’s not the way it works, however. Not for the schools and colleges, the media, the general intellectual culture. One might even say without much exaggeration that their task is to prevent it from becoming a concern. That’s exactly why you have a huge focus on humanitarian intervention and the dilemmas when somebody else does something bad, but virtually nothing about terminating participation in crimes when we’re doing it. Well, this generalizes. So it means is what has to be done is to move from literacy, which is a prerequisite, to understanding, which requires organization and education and all the things that every activist knows about. It’s true on every issue.
* This is a reference to the annual White House plan, submitted to Congress, for military spending. The challenge that year was to maintain or increase the military budget despite the collapse of the Soviet Union – the perennial pretext for massive military spending, Chomsky says: “All that’s changed is the pretext. So we have this huge military budget, not because of the Russians, but because of, I’m quoting ‘the technical sophistication’ of Third World countries….As far as our intervention forces, what it says is that these have to be maintained, aimed primarily at the Middle East as before. Then comes the following phrase: “where the threat to our interests could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door.” In other words, ‘sorry folks, we’ve been lying to you for fifty years, but we’ve gotta tell the truth now because the Kremlin’s not around’.”
From “Prospects for Peace in the Middle East”
Presented at the First Annual Maryse Mikhail Lecture
The University of Toledo, March 4, 2001
May 13, 2001