Posted by: Sally Ingraham | March 30, 2013

Exercising my right to bear ordinary common sense

A response and reaction to the interviews between Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian collected in Imperial Ambitions: Conversations on the Post-9/11 World

I had a startling revelation while reading Collateral Language, an interview from April 5th, 2003. The topic was propaganda, and Barsamian (founder and director of Alternative Radio and a fellow who has been talking to Chomsky on air since the year I was born) asked how one could recognize it. Chomsky replied that there were “no techniques, just ordinary common sense.”

This comment sent me slamming into a memory, one where a good friend of mine with irritating intensity, and not for the first time, was insisting that common sense was no longer (had never been?) taught in schools. He was half congratulating me on having managed to avoid being ruined by a public school education, while he simultaneously criticized my excessive reading habit – my reliance on book smarts – which he felt was no match for common sense. (He wasn’t much of a reader.)

I guess Chomsky is somewhat in agreement with my friend. In that interview he went on to say:

“But you have to be willing to develop an attitude of critical examination toward whatever is presented to you. Of course, the whole educational system and the whole media system have the opposite goal. You’re taught to be a passive, obedient follower. Unless you can break out of those habits, you’re likely to be a victim of propaganda.”

What sort of propaganda is he referring to? The elaborate fairy tale that for awhile spun popular opinion into supporting the invasion of Iraq, for one. As we passed the 10 year anniversary of the war this month, I read a couple of articles that used words like “hoax”, “swindle”, and of course “scandal” to describe how the American people got flummoxed by an onslaught of propaganda, manipulated by government, corporations, and the ruling class. How did we let them sway us? Why couldn’t we see the obvious (no WMDs, no terrorists, lots of oil)?

Because, as Chomsky and my friend both pointed out to me, common sense is almost too simple of a technique to employ, and the development of critical examination skills are hampered from early on. Habits too, as I learned from Proust, are easy to form and hard to break and often hem us in, restrict our actions to the comfortable norm, make us predictable – make us the sort of folks who, having picked a favorite TV news station, will believe without questioning whatever those cheery, familiar newscasters tell us.

Going back to my big revelation… I was homeschooled by Christian parents, who did their best to protect me from some of the evils of the world. My access to media was limited. I didn’t watch TV and the movies I saw were pretty carefully chosen. My family listened to music that almost exclusively fell into the big 3Cs – Christian, Celtic, and Classical. Interestingly, little or no restrictions were placed on what I read. I even remember my Mom questioning one of my reading choices, and my Dad defending it. Which brings me round to the other side of my conservative upbringing.

My Dad insisted that I develop that attitude of critical examination. It used to infuriate me – I couldn’t just watch a movie or read a book for pure entertainment. He always asked me to think about it. And if being entertaining was the only redeeming quality of a movie or book, that wasn’t enough for him – and it shouldn’t have been for me either.

For awhile, as I became a teen and then a young adult and had access to whatever I wanted to consume, I was angry with my parents. I felt like they had stereotypical sheltered me, and that I had missed out on something essential because I hadn’t stayed in step with pop culture through the 90s. I was constantly playing catch up, and I resented that.

Only in the past year or so have I started to leave that behind, to recognize all the good that came from my so-called sheltered childhood. The thought that hit me so powerfully while I was reading this interview, was that my parents prevented me from developing some bad habits! I didn’t spend the most formative years of my life saturated in media propaganda, passively consuming whatever blatant or subconscious messages the government or corporations felt like spewing out that week. And my Dad’s relentless efforts at forging strong critical thinking skills in me have paid off.

I do, as my friend despaired over, turn to books constantly to help me find the truth in the world. This is an aspect of my experience of common sense, and where I differ from my friend somewhat. It doesn’t make sense to me to rely only on my own vision. I want a bunch of eyes to be watching my back, and my front, and everywhere else. So I read books. (That’s how I wound up reading this one!) And articles, and interviews, and I talk to people, and now I do watch TV (sometimes), and whatever movies I want to, and I listen to music that falls well outside of the big 3Cs. And always I am looking for the truth.

In Chomsky and Barsamian’s interview titled Regime Change, from Sept. 11th, 2003, Chomsky said:

“…just tell the truth. Instead of repeating ideological fanaticism, dismantle it, try to find the truth, and tell the truth. It’s something any one of us can do. Remember, intellectuals internalize the concept that they have to make things seem complicated. Otherwise what are they around for? It’s worth asking yourself what’s really so complicated? … How complicated is it to understand the truth or to know how to act?”

And in Intellectual Self-Defense (Dec. 3rd, 2004) he said, “Intellectual self-defense is just training yourself to ask the obvious questions.”

Asking the obvious, telling the truth, critically examining things, using simple common sense. All fairly straightforward, all tools (weapons?) that you should have close by (clipped to your belt, clasped round your wrist, tucked in your backpack) as you sally forth, turning words into actions. Because activism, as Chomsky (and Sherlock!) said, is just “elementary.”

“There is an enormous amount of human suffering and misery, which can be alleviated and overcome. There is oppression that shouldn’t exist. There is a struggle for freedom all the time. There are very serious dangers: the species may be heading toward extinction. I don’t see how anybody can fail to have an interest in trying to help people become more engaged in thinking about these problems and doing something about them.”

Democracy and Education (Feb. 7th, 2005)

What can you do?

“It’s only in highly privileged cultures like ours that people ask this question. We have every option open to us, and have none of the problems that are faced by intellectuals in Turkey or campesinos in Brazil. We can do anything. But people are trained to believe that there are easy answers, and it doesn’t work that way. If you want to do something you have to be dedicated and committed to it day after day. Educational programs, organizing, activism. That’s the way things change.”

“You aren’t supposed to learn that dedicated, committed effort can bring about changes of consciousness and understanding. That’s a very dangerous idea, and therefore it’s been wiped out of history.”

Collateral Language (April 5th, 2003)

A friend recently told me to read a book – A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn – and in it I am discovering for the first time a whole lot of the history that Chomsky claims has been stifled by the folks in charge. I read a lot as a kid. My education was subject to my whims, but I definitely hit on all the key points. In addition to whatever history book I was perusing, I read tons of historical fiction. I read about kids whose settler parents were scalped by Indians, kids who were indentured servants, drummer boys for the Revolutionary Army, kids who were runaway slaves, girls who worked in the mills, children who rode in wagons across the country to Oregon, Laura Ingalls Wilder etc., young ladies wearing bloomers and becoming the first lady doctors, black and white children going to school together… I felt like I had a good sense of American history – and I did, but perhaps not the best understanding of it.

With Zinn’s help, and Chomsky’s, and various and sundry others (my TBR pile is as massive as ever…) I’m getting closer to understanding I think. And it is dangerous. Reading about the labor strikes, about woman suffragettes, about people who strove so hard and long and sometimes achieved their goals is inspiring, and terrifying, and I can see why the folks in charge might want to keep the population dumbed down, numbed by a cheery onslaught of patriotic and religious propaganda.

“…you have to eliminate the threat that people might get together and try to achieve things like decent health care, decent wages, or anything that benefits the population and doesn’t benefit the rich.”

Another World Possible (Feb. 8th, 2005)

And it’s been helpful to keep us afraid, and exploit that fear (one reason they succeeded in pulling off the invasion of Iraq…and why they’ll probably manage to do similar things in the very near future.)

“…for whatever reasons, the United States happens to be a very frightened country by comparative standards. Levels of fear here on almost every issue – crime, immigration, you pick it – are just off the spectrum.”

“It probably has to do with the conquest of the continent, when you had to exterminate the native population, and slavery, when you had to control a population that was regarded as dangerous, because you never knew when the slaves might turn on you.”

Collateral Language (April 5th, 2003)

A fear-based society seems inevitable when you examine how things went down in this country, starting with Columbus and treading heavily to the present day. We’re a country full of various types of oppression, where “the oppressor is the victim who is defending himself.” (Intellectual Self-Defense, Dec. 3rd, 2004) Yuck.

Those tools I mentioned? We desperately need them – I desperately need them to help me fight against “a huge pressure to turn people into pathological monsters who care only about themselves, who don’t have anything to do with anyone else, and who therefore can be very easily ruled and controlled.” (Intellectual Self-Defense, Dec. 3rd, 2004)

We’ve got to start caring a whole lot more. We’re facing an epidemic of isolation, of not giving a damn. Community as something only the hippy-dippy types believe in, instead of being one of the single most powerful concepts in our tool bags. Caring for the people around us is a principle that “is considered subversive and has to be driven out of people’s heads”. It’s becoming a dying concept – “that we have a communal responsibility to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves, whether they’re children or the elderly” or destitute, or just need a little help. “That’s a community responsibility and, in fact, the community benefits from it collectively.” (Intellectual Self-Defense, Dec. 3rd, 2004)


I’ve been working in a neighborhood in Bend, OR, building a fence, and dozens of folks who live there have driven slowly by, checking out the progress. A few have stopped to actually chat, and without fail, they have all assumed that it’s my house – that I live in their neighborhood. They can’t tell me apart from their real neighbors because they don’t know their neighbors. And frankly, I can’t claim to be better than them. I just met one of my next door neighbors yesterday, although I’ve lived here for nearly 2 months.

On the other hand…and maybe I’ll end this increasingly meandering collection of thoughts here, with a cheery story. Actually, one last thing from Chomsky, which leads into my story. In the final interview in the book – Another World Possible (Feb. 8th, 2005) – Barsamian referenced the World Social Forum, whose theme was that title phrase, not a question but an affirmation. He asked Chomsky, “What might another world look like that you would find attractive?”

To which Chomsky replied, “You start with small things.”

Armed with your tools, and expecting to be in it for the long haul, working slowly but relentlessly to shift people’s perceptions and break their habits, real change can happen. Tiny acts are revolutionary ones. Telling the truth. Caring about people.

My story is this: One of the neighbors who stopped by to investigate the fence inquired about where we got the fence rails. There were a bunch of 12 foot long rails from the old fence, heading toward a landfill somewhere I assumed, so I told this lady (I’ll call her Carry) that if she was looking for some, she should call the owner of the house and just ask if she could have these ones. Carry simply wanted to fix a bit of fence on her own property, and the cast-off rails were in decent enough shape. The idea hadn’t even occurred to Carry – to just ask for them – but she did, and the owner was only too happy to have someone else deal with their removal.

Carry has recently retired, and is in great shape and is very active, but the thought occurred to me that she might like some help fixing her fence. I have to constantly challenge myself to leave my comfort zone and interact with people (not just people in books…!) so it took me a few days to sort of work up the courage to ask her – and then I chickened out and ended up just leaving a note on her door, offering my services for anytime that coming Saturday.

Carry called me Saturday morning, super enthusiastic, and asked me to come over. I did so, and we had a lovely time chatting and made short work of the fence fix. She said more than once that it was so nice to have the company, and that she could have done it herself, but working with someone else made it so much more fun. She fed me enchiladas and a beer for lunch afterward, and insisted on paying me too.

Through our continuing chat over lunch we discovered a whole slew of common interests. She promised that my otherwise car-less self could tag along on any weekend hiking trips she goes on this summer. Sweet!

It gets better. The following week on a horridly rainy, cold day, Carry poked her head out her door and ordered my boss and I to come over for a lunch of hot chicken noodle soup. My boss was flabbergast. I was beside myself with joy.

THIS IS HOW IT WORKS! Building community is so easy. My little offer of an hours work led to lunch, and a few gifted piece of furniture for my barren room, and an upcoming house-siting gig, and, apparently, adoption. Carry is going to adopt me, so Mom, as I was instructed to tell you, rest assured that there is an adult looking out for me here in Bend! 🙂


This book was a pretty powerful first encounter with Chomsky. It is exhilarating to hang out with him – walking a jagged line between inspiration and outrage, definitely getting charged and sharpened. I’m grateful to him.

And I’m grateful to my parents, for teaching me to love knowledge, to bravely go out seeking it whenever I choose to, and for helping me discover the tools that I’m still using today, as I travel this road – the one less traveled I think, as Frost said – through this big crazy world. Thanks!



  1. Tell Carry “thank you”.

    • Will do. 🙂

  2. Okay, daughter, put on your critical thinking cap. The issue with “intellectuals”, which includes Chomsky, is that they think it is their “duty” to “change” people. How is that better, or significantly different than, the opportunistic consumer capitalists and government types who just think it is their “right”? There is an opportunity for some (un)common sense here 🙂

    I learned when I met Christ, that I could not change myself, except through faith and love. it took me a long time to learn that I could not change anyone else. Even my best efforts at faith and love, will not change anyone until they find the faith and love in themselves (though they might keep me sane while i watch.)

    And I worry about the whole conspiracy/oppressor/victim model that runs through Chromsky and Zinn and so many others. It is not how I want to see the world. When victims revolt they become oppressors because, in the that mentality, those are the only two options.

    As you might have learned from Tolkien, the best, the only defense against evil, is to be good…not grandly good like elves and wizards and kings who want to change the world…but commonly good, like hobbits who just want to live a comfortable life. You practiced some common goodness in your fence building, and were repaid in common goodness in your new friend. Faith, trust, expressed as acceptance, and love expressed as a joy in the good of others…those are the common good…ultimate common sense. if we see the world in that light, then we will not oppress, and no one can make us victims.

    And that takes us back to the critical thinking part. Never trust anyone who want’s to change your mind…or the way you view things…or the way you act. Trust your own common sense, rooted in your own sense of common good. Accept no counterfeits! Everything has to have “the ring of truth” (to quote Tolkien again..he is much on my mind after seeing the Hobbit a week ago.) And that, daughter, if I tried to teach you anything is what I was trying to teach…and what I am still learning myself.

    • Okay…if I could edit that last paragraph I would say “never trust anyone who’s primary purpose appears to be to change your mind, etc (including me!) Of course, we do change in response to those we trust and love, because we are confident that their primary motive is NOT to change us, but our good. If that makes common sense.

      • Thanks for jumping in here Dad. The conspiracy thread that you noted is something that I’ve been monitoring and testing as I read these books. I definitely don’t enjoy where my mind goes when I get caught up in the us vs. them game. I’m leaning a little in that direction these days since it seems especially apt, what with the Monsanto Protection Act getting signed off on and other irritating things like that..and that came through pretty strongly in this piece. But like you, it’s not a view of the world that I want to accept.

        I appreciate that Chomsky wants to keep things simple – resorting to truth and common sense and small acts to work change. Is he forcing his own view of the world on others, trying to change their very minds? A curious question. I feel like I haven’t done enough research to answer. I certainly had to seek him out in order to find what he wanted to say, whereas I am slogging through the messaging of those opportunistic capitalists/government types every day even if I’m trying not to. He may be hoping to change my mind, but he simultaneously insists on my using my own common sense to see if he’s right. The feeling I got from reading these interviews was more that he was reporting back on the way he viewed the world, sharing his impressions, offering them up to be added to the collective pot of knowledge. At least that’s how I took his statements, which may reflect more on my intentions than on his. I find some ringing truths in Chomsky and Zinn, but I’m not buying it hook, line, and sinker. Anyway, thanks for asking one of the obvious questions!

        As to your comments regarding Tolkien and being commonly good…yay. 🙂 Exactly. That is the heart of what I believe, and why I think little things like building community and food security and living in comfy, healthy, mud houses is where I want to direct my energy. Living the good life, Hobbit-like. A beer and a pipe in the sun for everyone!

        (As to the movie The Hobbit…I can only imagine why it’s on your mind. I’m exhausted from fighting with Jackson over how much he’s ruining Tolkien… I’m curious about your thoughts, but that’s not a topic for here – maybe an email or FB message if you find the time? Incidentally, Diana Wynne Jones wrote a splendid essay on the narrative of LOTR which I read recently. You might enjoy it!)

  3. […] History of the United States by Howard Zinn. My experience of it has already leaked into several recent posts here, and I know that I’ll be dealing with the frustration that the book filled me with […]

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