JR'S Free Thought Pages
Noam Chomsky Interview with Eleanor Wachtel of CBC Radio
A world-famous linguist and dissident intellectual, described as a “latter-day Copernicus,” Noam Chomsky has turned around the way we think about language, the media and political discourse. The most frequently quoted praise of Noam Chomsky is from the New York Times Book Review: “Judged in terms of the power, range, novelty and influence of his thought, Noam Chomsky is arguably the most important intellectual alive today.” That last phrase appears on the dust jackets of his books, and is mentioned whenever reporters talk about his political activism.
The irony is that, for Chomsky, the New York Times is one of the major perpetrators of what he calls a “web of deceit,” or “thought control in a democratic society.” The story goes that Chomsky’s dentist noticed that he’d been grinding his teeth. His wife observed that it wasn’t happening at night when he was asleep. Eventually, he realized it was occurring every morning while he read the New York Times.
Noam Chomsky is an iconoclast and gadfly of power. He speaks for no particular ideology, and no party claims him. Despite his fierce critique of American foreign policy during the Cold War, he was no favourite of the Soviet Union. His works—even his scholarly writings on linguistics—were banned there. In Chomsky’s view, the responsibility of intellectuals is to speak the truth and expose lies. He said that almost forty years ago and he believes it today.
The Oxford Companion to the English Language says that Chomsky is considered to be “the most influential figure in linguistics in the later twentieth century.” In the late fifties and sixties, Chomsky argued that humans have an innate capacity to learn language, a kind of “deep grammar” that is bred in the bone, that’s part of our genetic makeup. “A fundamental element of being human,” he said, “is the ability to create language.”
The impact of his work was so great that it’s been dubbed the Chomskian Revolution. According to the citation indexes in the Arts and Humanities and in the Social Sciences, Chomsky is the most-cited living author, and he ranks eighth if you include living and dead writers, beating out Hegel and Cicero.
Noam Chomsky was born in 1928 in Philadelphia. Despite his age, he maintains a daunting schedule—traveling, lecturing, writing, dealing with the media, as well as teaching linguistics at M.I.T. He produces more than a book a year. I estimated sixty titles; he said he didn’t know. He wasn’t sure. The first was Syntactic Structure (1957); more recently, The Architecture of Language (2000) and 9-11 (2002).
The Interview: Important to keep in mind is the fact that this interview is dated June 2002 - before the US attack on Iraq.
WACHTEL The picture that I have of you is of a man with a really tireless, dedicated and even ascetic life. A long time ago that’s how Norman Mailer described you after sharing a jail cell briefly because of a Vietnam War protest. He used the word ascetic. How does that word sit with you?
CHOMSKY It’s more or less accurate, I guess, although I do plenty of things that are quite self-indulgent, increasingly so, now that I have grandchildren.
WACHTEL Can you give me an example of your self-indulgence?
CHOMSKY Playing with my grandchildren, for example. That’s the maximum self-indulgence.
WACHTEL I was waiting for something a little richer, you know.
CHOMSKY Richer? Well, you know, over the summer I go into total hermit-hood. I’ve discovered over the years that the only way I can survive my schedule from the beginning of September through the end of June is to disappear entirely over the summer and barely answer the telephone. I see a couple of old friends, and family comes by—that sort of thing—but my wife and I both work most of the day. We’ll take off in the late afternoon and go swimming or sailing.
WACHTEL Even during the summer you work most of the day.
CHOMSKY Yes, most of the day.
WACHTEL You once said that it’s likely that literature will forever give far deeper insight into what is sometimes called the “full human person” than any modes of scientific inquiry may hope to do. And yet, you rarely refer to works of the imagination. How have you been influenced by fiction?
CHOMSKY That’s hard to say. I read a lot of fiction. I read a lot more when I was younger. I do actually refer to it now and then, but it creates one’s sensibility in ways that are hard to explain. Understanding of people and what they do enriches one’s intuition in particular ways I find hard to articulate.
WAC HTEL When you read fiction, what do you turn to?
CHOMSKY I have fairly conservative tastes, usually nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature. Sometimes modern things.
WACHTEL What books have influenced your beliefs?
CHOMSKY Too many to list or even sample, from childhood, when summer vacation in particular meant many delightful hours curled up in a chair working through the shelves of classics brought home from the local library. But perhaps I might mention one aspect that is rather personal. From childhood, every Friday evening was set aside for reading Hebrew classics with my father, including much of the great Yiddish literature translated into Hebrew (sometimes by the authors). One particular favourite, not as well known as he should be, was Mendele Mocher Sforim. And one great regret is that I haven’t had time to revisit those early experiences, and savour them from the point of view of a life in retrospect rather than prospect. Someday, I hope.
WACHTEL I was struck by a remark of yours about how you’d always been resistant—consciously resistant—to allowing literature to influence your beliefs and attitudes.
CHOMSKY Insofar as I can. I’m not just referring to literature, but also to the visual arts, to documentaries, and so on. It’s one thing to have your imagination stimulated and heightened; it’s another thing to find the truth. Literature has always had a great impact on me. However, I try to base conclusions not on personal convictions and attitudes, but on evidence that is independently available—with what success, others can judge. I don’t try to hide my beliefs and attitudes; in fact I try to make them as prominent as possible—as everyone should, I think, to allow others to understand where they’re coming from and to interpret what they say accordingly. But that is quite consistent with the attempt to keep what one privately thinks and feels from shaping conclusions about particular matters, as much as possible. One can’t get out of one’s skin, of course, but to the extent that self-awareness and self-criticism allow, I try to put to the side intuitive feelings, emotional reactions—perspectives that are not determined by the evidence itself. That’s obviously an unattainable ideal, and I don’t claim to achieve it, even to the extent that I try, but at least one ought to try. As a normative principle, I think it’s a good one.
WACHTEL Do you think there are truths to be found in art, in literature?
CHOMSKY In my own professional work, I’ve always held, very insistently, that in the domains that are important for our lives, we generally learn a lot more about people from art and literature than from the most sophisticated work in the sciences, including my own special areas of interest, and probably always will. That shouldn’t be a great surprise. It’s only rather recently that even the core hard sciences have had much to contribute to practice in the various crafts.
WACHTEL I’d like to get at the origin of your sense of justice, your sympathy for the underdog.
CHOMSKY The origin? It comes from having grown up in the Depression, I suppose, and from early childhood memories of people coming to the door and trying to sell rags or apples or something like that. From traveling in a trolley car past a textile factory where women were on strike and watching a riot where police beat the strikers. Then there’s experience that isn’t immediate, the kind of experience that comes from reading, from film, from secondary sources, as well as personal experience. From another point of view, it comes out of the assumption that human beings have fundamental, intrinsic rights that are infringed upon in numerous ways, leading to sometimes grievous injustice, right before our eyes. This is a particular concern, to the extent that we ourselves—I myself—am involved in it. So I’m much more concerned about crimes committed, say, by the United States, where I have some grave responsibilities, than about the crimes of Genghis Khan. I can get upset about those, but I can’t do much about them.
WACHTEL What effect do you think it had on you to grow up in a neighbourhood in Philadelphia that was pro-Nazi during the early days of the war?
CHOMSKY That was frightening. For a large part of my childhood, we were the only Jewish family in a neighbourhood that was mainly German and Irish Catholic. Very anti-Semitic. Most of the kids went to Catholic school. I should say that until I was well past the age of reason, I had a visceral fear of Catholics and Catholic schools. It was hard to overcome when I met people like, for example, the Berrigans, although I knew it was irrational. The neighbourhood was pro-Nazi. This was the 1930s, and I recall celebrations when Paris fell. My brother and I knew that we had particular routes that we could take—not others—to get to the bus or to the store or wherever. I don’t want to exaggerate this, either. The anti-Semitism was real, but you could still play with the neighbourhood kids. You just never knew what was going to happen next, so there was a little wariness. But that was to some extent part of the neighbourhood, always in the background. Of course, what was happening in Europe was very frightening. I can remember listening to Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies, not really understanding my parents’ reactions. By the time I was eight or nine, and able to understand what was happening, watching one part of Europe after another fall to Hitlerism, I was frightened. Especially when right around me I could see resonances of it.
WACHTEL You say that your anarchist interests go way back to early childhood. How did that come about? I find it hard to picture a young kid having a grasp of or an affinity for anarchism.
CHOMSKY This was the 1930s, remember, which was a very lively, exciting period with lots of political debate and discussion. Although there was deep depression, there was lots of hope for the future. A large part of my family was unemployed and working class. Nevertheless, there was a sense of hopefulness and discussion and debate and work. I grew up in the midst of that and became very much involved and interested in all these issues. By the time I was old enough to act on my own I was frequenting Fourth Avenue bookstores in New York, and picking up anarchist literature in anarchist offices, talking to members or relatives who were involved in these movements and concerns. The Spanish Civil War was one event that caught my interest enormously. The first article I can remember writing was right after the fall of Barcelona, and a year or two later I was handing out anarchist pamphlets and literature and thinking about what had happened and what it meant. Those interests and concerns simply never changed. My own greatest political involvement at that time was with what was then Palestine, what later became Israel.
This was the early 1940s. I grew up in a virtual ghetto, I suppose. My parents were in a primarily Jewish environment, a first-generation immigrant environment. They were both Hebrew teachers, and the important thing in their life was the revival of Hebrew culture and the cultural revival in Palestine. I read Hebrew literature with my father from childhood—nineteenth- and twentieth-century Hebrew literature, and older sources, of course. I spent my time in Hebrew school and later became a Hebrew teacher. All of this became very connected with my political interests. I was, at that time, committed to a wing of the Zionist movement that was still significant in the 1940s, one that was opposed to a Jewish state, though it was considered a live part of the Zionist movement and was concerned with the possibility of Arab-Jewish co-operation in a framework of co-operative socialist institutions. I never actually joined anything. I wasn’t much of a joiner, and, while I was associated with the actual movements that were involved in these things, I could never join them because they were all either Stalinist or Trotskyist. I was already very anti-Leninist at that time—anti-Marxist, in fact. And so, while I agreed with them about lots of things, I could never really become a member. I lived on a kibbutz formed by those groups some years later for a brief period, and in fact thought of staying there, but joining was an impossibility because of my anarchist commitments.
WACHTEL These anarchist commitments go back to such a young age—writing about the fall of Barcelona for the school newspaper when you were ten, saying that your views haven’t really changed that much since you were twelve or thirteen. Obviously they’ve gotten more sophisticated, but what does that say about you that your views would be so firmly fixed at such a young age?
CHOMSKY Maybe it means I’m obtuse. Or maybe it’s a matter of seeing that something’s right and just sticking to it and trying to understand. I think that these ideas are the right ideas. It seems to me that the intellectual tradition that led to modern anarchism—and that includes, incidentally, the mainstream of classical liberalism—is very much misinterpreted. By that I mean Adam Smith, Wilhelm von Humboldt, who inspired John Stuart Mill—the libertarian side of Rousseau. Rousseau is complex, but there is a libertarian side that developed into the classical liberal tradition, which was then seriously aborted, in my opinion, by the rise of industrial capitalism. That tradition is a very valid one. It leads to modern libertarian socialism or parts of the anarchist tradition, and I think that it’s basically a sense that human beings have a fundamental right to self-realization, to self-fulfillment under conditions of freedom and voluntary association. The classical liberals like Humboldt were not individualists in the primitive style of Rousseau. As Humboldt put it, he wanted to remove the fetters from human society and to increase the bonds—these being bonds of voluntary self-association. Classical liberalism in this form was sharply critical of property values. So, for example, Humboldt argued again, the worker who cultivates a garden is more its owner than the person who simply enjoys the fruits of the other’s labour but may technically own it. Adam Smith’s anti-capitalism derives from the same root. He recognized that division of labour is ultimately intolerable because it will turn every human being into something as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a creature to be, thereby undermining the essence of human nature, which is the right to create freely and constructively under one’s own control and without external constraints. Out of this comes a conception of freedom and rights and social organization that challenges any form of authority and domination that asks it to justify itself. Sometimes such justifications can be given—maybe under contingent historical circumstances or maybe more deeply—but the burden of proof is on the system of authority and domination. Quite typically, that burden can’t be met, in which case one will try to work with others to overcome those structures of authority and domination and to increase positive freedom, not simply in the sense of removal of, say, state controls but freedom in the sense of forms of social organization that allow people to realize their potential, their need to be active and creative.
WACHTEL Have there been any societies where these ideals have been put into effect?
CHOMSKY In every society, to some extent. In our society, to some extent those ideals are realized; in other respects they’re not. And what we seek, if we’re honourable, is, in my opinion, to confront and remove the enormous ways these ideals are not met. Remove the fetters, create new social bonds, in Humboldt’s terms.
WACHTEL In 1964 you made a decision to become an activist, to commit much of your life to political action. You were already a successful linguist. You had a family. Things were good. Have you ever looked back? Have you ever thought about the things that you had to give up?
CHOMSKY Oh, sure. Lots. As we’ve discussed, I didn’t really change my views at that point, but I did decide that it was just intolerable—and intolerably self-indulgent—merely to take a passive role in the struggles that were then going on: signing petitions and sending money and showing up now and then at a meeting. I thought it was critically necessary to take a more active role and I was well aware of what that would mean. It’s not the kind of thing where you can put a foot in the water and get it wet and then leave. You go in deeper and deeper. I knew that I would be following a course that would confront privilege and authority. My own views were highly critical but didn’t have much of an effect when I expressed my opinions in small groups. It would become a larger and more damaging part of my life as I proceeded. I have no illusions about the nature of the intellectual community, with conformism, its techniques for marginalizing or trying to eliminate critical and independent thought. It’s always been true; it remains true. I had a fair picture of where it was going and I was unhappy about it. I gave up lots of things but felt it was necessary. And there are many compensations, of course.
WACHTEL What sorts of things did you give up and what sorts of damage did you have to endure?
CHOMSKY I live in a world of constant lies, vilification, denunciation and marginalization. What I gave up was lots of free time to work on things that I find really exciting.
WACHTEL What pushed you over into that level of activism back then?
CHOMSKY It was a combination of what was happening in the civil rights movement and the growing U.S. war in Vietnam, which by 1964 was very serious. I felt completely hopeless about it at the time. I recall that in 1964 there was virtually no opposition to the war, no organized or vocal opposition. In fact, that didn’t develop until years later. It seemed highly unlikely to me that it would ever develop. What did develop a couple of years later came to me as a big surprise.
The early stages were by no means pleasant. In late 1966, there were a couple of hundred thousand American troops in South Vietnam, and the U.S. had been bombing North Vietnam regularly for a year and a half. Now, Boston, where I live, is quite a liberal city, maybe the most liberal city in the country. Yet it was virtually impossible in Boston to have a public, outdoor demonstration against the war. In 1966, even public meetings in churches were attacked, physically attacked. And that was considered right. There was no protest by the liberal community. On the contrary, there was protest against the people who were daring to question and criticize American state power and its exercise. That’s pretty much what I expected. I also got involved very quickly in the resistance movement and anticipated that there would be unpleasant consequences, like, for example, years in jail. Which was not remote at that time.
WACHTEL You’re sharply critical of American foreign policy everywhere in the world. I think that’s probably even an understatement. I get the sense that it’s not so much that the United States behaves badly, because you recognize that all countries act out of self-interest. You have said, “Violence, deceit and lawlessness are natural functions of the state, any state,” and given that the United States is such a big and powerful state, it only follows that it will do all that in spades. But what really seems to enrage you is the hypocrisy of the American system; that it claims to take a high road. Is that right?
CHOMSKY The hypocrisy of the political leadership doesn’t particularly enrage me. I just take that for granted. But what I do find enraging—I never get over this emotion, though I realize its impropriety—is the way in which the educated sectors behave in the manner of the commissar class. It’s their deceit and distortion and subordination to power, their unwillingness to face the realities in front of them, which just promote an aesthetic or emotional point of view, that I find hardest to tolerate. Maybe because I live in those circles. I should understand that, objectively, that’s their role, as much as it’s the role of a person who wields state power to be deceitful, but the distinction is nevertheless there, emotionally.
WACHTEL By commissar class, you’re referring to the intellectual world, the media? A world that you expect more from?
CHOMSKY I don’t expect any more from them and I never did. I don’t want to exaggerate. But in large parts of the media and in educated, respectable sectors rather generally, that strikes me as just appalling and intolerable. If you look back at history, to the earliest sources, this is the way it’s always been. Take the Bible, the earliest literary source that we have, and consider the people who are now respected—the prophets. They were reviled then. They were imprisoned, driven into the desert and hated, in large part because of their moral teaching and because of their geopolitical analysis. A large part of what they gave is what we would today call political or geopolitical analysis. They warned of the consequences of policies that were being taken. The people who were honoured at that time were those whom we now call false prophets, and I think that there are good reasons for that. Obviously, pandering to power will lead to respect and authority and privilege. Condemnation of immorality, of the abuse of power, of the destructive-ness for the general public of the use of power—such policies will lead to antagonism on the part of those who have the capacity to use violence or to organize the masses against people who question that authority. That’s obvious, and the picture that you see in the Bible is one that replicates itself over and over again in every society, including ours.
WACHTEL I don’t want to accuse you of presumption, but do you identify with the prophets in the Bible?
CHOMSKY No. I would say that this is true of every critical element in any society. I mention that because it’s a classic example.
WACHTEL How does the media do what it does? As a target of your critiques, the hypocrisy of the media is a key subject. They claim to be gadflies, but you find that they work in a blinkered and complicit way. How do they do that, and how does it work so well?
CHOMSKY I should say, incidentally, that the media are not fundamentally different, in my opinion, from a substantial part of scholarship and intellectual opinion. The journals of opinion and the operations of those who call themselves public intellectuals are not very different from the media. The media are a lot easier to study because there’s a ton of material and you can look at it systematically and it’s there day by day. But what they bring out is not unique.
How does it work? They operate within a framework of assumptions and understanding that supports existing power structures that tend to exclude or downplay or sometimes totally eliminate or even lie about actions of domestic power—state and other powers—in our society. That means corporate, financial, state power—actions conducted by these power centres that are inhuman, violent and harmful to human values and human interests. These actions are marginalized and downplayed, and a picture of the world is presented that is conducive to, and that tends to justify, their authority and their actions. In fact, if the institutions didn’t behave that way, they themselves would be undermined and replaced by others that do. So, for example, if the New York Times, let’s say, started telling the truth about the world, including the truth about the exercise of domestic power, financial, corporate and state power, it would not exist for very long. It, after all, is a major corporation selling a product to other businesses. It relies on its relations to the state for a good bit of its function, and this would be gone. Also, if individuals who enter into the major media at high managerial positions—I include here cultural managers like editors and columnists—hadn’t internalized those values, they wouldn’t last very long. Now, it’s not that the people are lying. I think they’re being honest, for the most part, but they get where they are because they’ve internalized values that are supportive to power. I don’t want to claim that it’s monolithic. The Boston Globe just ran an op-ed of mine a couple of weeks ago. And I have had personal friends there among the top editors over the years.
It’s a complicated country. A simple description of any complicated system is going to be misleading. We happen to have a highly effective doctrinal system and a very narrow ideological spectrum, but there are exceptions. Furthermore, it’s widened over the years, in my opinion. So, for example, the media are considerably more open now, in my judgement, than they were, say, thirty years ago.
WACHTEL Why do you think that is so?
CHOMSKY I think it’s because the country has changed, and when the country changes, its institutions change. The public is far more critical and far more dissident, by orders of magnitude, than it was thirty or thirty-five years ago. I mentioned a little while back that even in the mid-sixties, in a liberal city like Boston, public demonstrations on the Boston Common or even meetings in churches were attacked, often by students, incidentally, with the support of the media—liberal media— in this city. That’s inconceivable today. In fact, the attitudes and perceptions and understanding of the general population have changed radically on a whole host of issues.
Let’s take what is in some ways the most striking. The original sin of American society is what the founding fathers were honest enough to call the extermination of the Native population. People like John Quincy Adams were pretty appalled by this, at least in his later years, but in American culture this genocide was really not recognized until the 1960s. When I was growing up, we played Cowboys and Indians. We were the cowboys, and thought nothing of it. Until the 1960s, when a major cultural change took place in the United States, there was no recognition of the horrifying atrocities that led to our living where we are and doing what we do. The fact is that the American Industrial Revolution was based on the extermination or expulsion of the Native population in the United States and then the enslavement of masses of people—it was known in a certain sense, but it wasn’t recognized as the major crime that it was. It’s only since the 1960s that there has been— even in scholarship, I should say—a recognition of the enormity of what happened to the Native population and a general willingness to at least try to come to terms in some ways with that extremely ugly aspect of our history. You could see it in 1992. It was assumed that the quin-centennial would be a celebration of the discovery and liberation of the hemisphere. That didn’t happen. Not at all. And it didn’t happen because the public simply wouldn’t tolerate it. Thirty years ago, that’s exactly what it would have been.
That’s one aspect of an improvement in moral values, of a cultural advance which is quite significant. It shows up in many other ways with regard to feminist issues, ecological issues, solidarity with Third World peoples in many different respects. Multiculturalism is a case in point. As is the case with any popular movement, there’s going to be a fringe that is unpleasant, ridiculous - maybe intolerable. But the main development is quite significant, I think, and it has affected the media, as well. So the kind of support for U.S. violence and terror that would have proceeded without question in the 1960s, while you might find it in short bursts today, would be open to criticism in a manner that was not true then.
WACHTEL What’s come to be called the Chomskian Revolution in linguistics suggests that we’re born with a linguistic silver spoon in our mouths, the capacity to acquire language—that nature has given us a head start on language. It also seems to go beyond language. It seems, at heart, a more democratic, a more optimistic view of humankind.
CHOMSKY That could come out of it. I don’t want to push it too hard because when you get beyond language and some aspects of vision, real scientific knowledge begins to drop off very fast and we’re back in the area where we started at the beginning, looking at literature and history and experience and intuition. But it can be used as the basis for a rather optimistic view and, indeed, was. If we go back to the Enlightenment again, these connections were, in fact, drawn. Humboldt and Rousseau, whom I mentioned earlier, developed an optimistic view of human nature, the idea that human nature is based on what was later called an instinct for freedom, a drive to be free of external constraints, to be creative and so on. And that, indeed, came from a basically Cartesian picture, which stated that the fundamental aspects of human nature, in particular human freedom, are simply beyond the range of any mechanism. At the core of human nature is what was called, as far back as the sixteenth century, “generative capacity,” a capacity to create, to innovate, to construct from the resources of your own mind the principles on which your knowledge is based, and, in fact, to construct new thoughts, to express new thoughts. The idea that intelligence is a generative faculty in this sense goes back at least to the late sixteenth century, and was developed richly in the Cartesian revolution and later picked up by the Romantics in the Enlightenment. This notion of intelligence entered into political theory in a way that is rather natural, though by no means proven, as the belief that the core of human nature is this drive for self-fulfillment under the conditions of free action, undertaken by oneself and out of one’s own volition. So from Humboldt’s point of view, every person is at heart an artist. A craftsman, let’s say, who acts under his or her own volition, is an artist. If the same craftsman does the same thing under external control, as Humboldt puts it, we may admire what he does, but we hate what he is.
WACHTEL You have a lot of faith in ordinary common sense—that people, if only they had all the information, would make the right decisions. And at the same time, you—probably more than most of us— have spent a lot of time scrutinizing international atrocities, being aware of what goes on in the world and looking at it when most of us, even if the information were available to us, don’t really want, or are too preoccupied elsewhere with our daily lives, to pay that kind of attention.
CHOMSKY Well, how optimistic or pessimistic I am isn’t really important. Suppose I were to believe that there’s a 2 percent probability that people, if brought to see the actual facts of the world around them, would act in a moral and humane way. I would still devote myself to enhancing that 2 percent probability and seeing what can be done with it. Now, I happen to think it’s a much greater percentage than that. I should say, incidentally, that this kind of optimism about people’s capacity to act in decent, humane ways when they understand the realities is shared by people in power almost universally. If you look through history, or even today, you’ll very rarely, if ever, see a statesman or a leader turn to the public and say, “Look, it would be in our interest to go slaughter those guys over there or to rob them or torture them or terrorize them, so let’s do it.” You never find that. What you do find is an elaborate set of rationalizations and excuses and quite elaborate constructions developed by intellectuals, which make it appear as if robbing them and torturing them and killing them is right and just. Well, why bother with that unless you’re afraid, at some level of your consciousness, that if people know the truth they’re not going to let you get away with it.
WACHTEL You’ve occasionally been chided for not coming up with enough positive alternatives, for not coming up with some revolutionary strategy to get at the root of the problems. How do you respond to that? Is that part of your job?
CHOMSKY Sure. First of all, I don’t think that anybody, certainly not me, is smart enough to plan in any detail a perfect society or even to show in detail how a society based on more humane commitments and concern for human values would function. I think we can say a lot about what it would be like, but we can’t spell it out in great detail. Furthermore, what it would be like is, I think, reasonably well understood and has been, in some ways, for centuries. We would like to see a society in which we overcome coercive institutions. Absolutist, unaccountable institutions should not be tolerated. In our time, that means primarily the financial and corporate centres that are basically totalitarian in character and now transnational in scale. It also means the state powers—and now larger-than-state powers—that respond to their interests. And the same is true for structures of authority and domination down to the level of the family. Those should be combated and overcome. We should work for democratic control in communities, in workplaces over investment decisions, eliminating hierarchic relations and relations of dominance among people and states and ethnic groups. All of that’s understandable. I think you can go on to describe in greater detail how freer and more democratic structures might function, but the real answers will come by experience and testing. You couldn’t spell out in detail in the mid-eighteenth century how a parliamentary democracy might work. You had to try it. The general ideas could be there, but you had to try them and explore them and experiment with them. And the same is true of the expansion of freedom and democracy and justice today. As for revolutionary strategy, I’ve never heard of one. When I look over history, the only strategy I see is trying to educate yourself to help others become educated, to learn from others, to organize and, to the extent that organization proceeds, to take action to try to relieve injustice and to extend freedom. Now, that action can take many different forms. So just in my own life, I’ve been involved in things ranging from direct resistance, to giving talks or taking part in meetings. There are no further secrets, as far as I’m aware. The problem is one of dedicating oneself, to the extent you can, at least—nobody is a saint—to the tasks that have to be undertaken. And, you know, we can see what they are.
WACHTEL You used to draw parallels between the Soviet Union and the United States as two power blocs. The Soviet Union, as the dictatorship, resorted to violence to maintain control; the United States, as the democracy, relied more on propaganda. It hasn’t been an unalloyed good, but what positive things do you see coming from the breakup of the Soviet Union?
CHOMSKY The elimination of Soviet tyranny is a major step for human freedom. In fact, in my view it’s a great victory for socialism. Contrary to the propaganda of both of the great power blocs—the Western power bloc and the Eastern power bloc—the Soviet Union, from its first days when Lenin and Trotsky took power, was militantly anti-socialist in every respect. They immediately destroyed the socialist institutions and understood what they were doing. It was done on principle. The former Soviet Union, and most of Eastern Europe, quite predictably, in my opinion, is now being driven back to a Third-World level. To a large extent, that’s what the Cold War was about. In an international society dominated by private capital and private power and its state manifestations, a large part of the world is just a service area—the South, the Third World, the former colonial world—and no part of it is permitted to pursue an independent path. To a large extent, the Cold War was fought about that.
It really began in 1917 and 1918, as the better historians have noticed. The West, the more powerful combatant, won the war, meaning the rich and powerful sectors in the West won the war. The larger part of the population in the West lost the war, in fact. Eastern Europe, or large parts of it, is now returning to its Third World origins, pretty much where it was in the early part of the twentieth century. That means a very serious decline, but it also means enrichment. Remember, a Third World society has sectors of great wealth and privilege, and Eastern Europe does, as well. So take Russia: the economy’s collapsing; people are suffering. UNESCO recently reported that there’s an estimated half-million deaths a year in the former Soviet Union since 1989 that are a result of the collapse and the neo-conservative reforms that have been imposed on them. Yet they’re selling more Mercedes-Benzes for $150,000 a shot in Moscow than they are in New York. The people who are buying them are often the old Communist Party leaders. That is what’s sometimes called nomenclature capitalism. They’re the victors of the Cold War, not the people of Russia. Large parts of Eastern Europe are returning to a Third World service model. That offers new weapons against working people in the West. So multinationals like General Motors or Audi can find workers in Eastern Europe at a fraction of the cost of Western workers, who are now being called upon by the business press to abandon what are called their luxurious lifestyles and to become more competitive, meaning that they need to face the fact that it’s easy to gain profits and power by exploiting much cheaper labour in the East. When General Motors moves over to, say, Poland, they insist on something like a 30 percent tariff protection, like Volkswagen does when it goes to the Czech Republic, because they don’t believe in free markets. They believe in free markets for the poor, not for the rich. They believe in state power and protection for the rich. These are the consequences of the end of the Cold War, and they’re not pretty. But one of the worst systems of tyranny in human history has been eliminated, and that offers all sorts of possibilities of liberation and a new scope for human spirit and human freedom.
WACHTEL You seem to have moved from being a voice at the margins, a gadfly, to becoming virtually a spokesman for a new left, thanks to the anti-globalization movement. What do you make of what’s going on now?
CHOMSKY First, the term anti-globalization is misleading. The term globalization has been pre-empted by power centres to refer to their specific version of international integration, based on “free trade agreements” that the business press sometimes more accurately calls “free investment agreements.” No one is anti-globalization, certainly not the left and workers’ movements; international solidarity has always been among their central themes. The question is, What kind of globalization? In whose interest?
As for what’s going on now, the movement concerned with globalization directed to the needs of people rather than investors and financial capital has become a powerful force. Its origins are in the South: in Brazil and India, for example, where very important popular movements developed years ago, opposing the neo-conservative version of globalization and seeking alternatives. In the past few years, they have been joined by significant sectors in the North, drawing from the substantial popular opposition to the forms of globalization instituted by private and state power—one reason for the very limited public disclosure. The meetings of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre have brought together a very broad and diverse constituency, and might constitute the seeds of the kind of genuine international movement that has been a vision of the left and workers’ movements from their modern origins. But although I’ve been speaking and writing about these issues for many years, and participate as much as I can, I’m not a spokesperson for this or any other movement—and participants, I’m sure, don’t see me as such.
In specific response to your question, there was a time, forty years ago, when I felt very much like a “voice from the margins.” It was hard not to feel that way when talks about, say, the Vietnam War, drew massive audiences of three or four people, and intense hostility. By the late 1960s that had changed, and in later years popular movements have extended substantially, not only in scale but in the range of issues that they address. I don’t feel at the margins. In fact, on many central issues I suspect I’m rather close to substantial and often majority popular currents, which often diverge sharply from the elite attitudes and commitments. The growth of the popular globalization movements hasn’t led to much change—for me, at least—in these respects. There have, however, been major changes in this respect since the September nth atrocities, which were a kind of wake-up call for many people. Requests for talks, discussions and interviews escalated very quickly with the growth of interest and concern about many issues that had been pretty much off the agenda for most people.
WACHTEL Do you think these groups concerned with globalization can be an effective voice of dissent?
CHOMSKY More than dissent. Also development of constructive alternatives, which are badly needed, maybe even desperately needed if the species is to survive very long—a statement that is, unfortunately, no exaggeration.
WACHTEL There’s a sense after the attacks of September 11, the invasion of Afghanistan and the delineation of an “axis of evil” that the public discourse has become more polarized. What do you think?
CHOMSKY In some respects, yes. Intellectual discourse has followed a rather normal path in times of crisis, shifting towards greater subordination to power, sometimes with a kind of fanaticism. The general public, in contrast, has become more open-minded, concerned, engaged, in ways that cannot be characterized in simple terms.
WACHTEL How has your own life—the division of your own resources, in terms of activism, scholarship and family—been affected by the events of the last year or so?
CHOMSKY For many years, demands (in the “activist” domain, roughly) have been very intense, but since 9-11, they have gone into orbit. I must spend at least an hour a night just turning down invitations, with real regret, and scarcely a moment has been left unscheduled. There are only twenty-four hours in a day, so there are inevitably conflicts with family and professional engagements. What gives is personal life; there’s no other choice.
JR Postcsript: Noam Chomsky speaks with greater clarity and articulation than most people who take hours to prepare a written statement. The acuity of his intellect literally “blows me away”.
If there is such a thing as a hero, Chomsky surely qualifies. He has never killed anyone in the name of god, flag or so-called patriotic duty but he has done more to enlighten people about social and political injustice than possibly any human being alive today. In this respect, he ranks with Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Now in his late seventies, he still undertakes a grueling schedule of speaking engagements. There are scores of web sites devoted to Chomsky but some of the best are:
http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/people2/Chomsky/chomsky-con0.html (Interview at U of C, Berkeley)
Some provocative quotes by Noam Chomsky
Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.
The Bible is one of the most genocidal books in history.
Three quarters of the American population literally believe in religious miracles. The numbers who believe in the devil, in resurrection, in God doing this and that - it's astonishing. These numbers aren't duplicated anywhere else in the industrial world. You'd have to maybe go to mosques in Iran or do a poll among old ladies in Sicily to get numbers like this. Yet this is the American population.
The United States is unusual among the industrial democracies in the rigidity of the system of ideological control - "indoctrination," we might say - exercised through the mass media.
Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it's from Neptune.
Everybody's worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there's a really easy way: stop participating in it.
All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.
Any dictator would admire the uniformity and obedience of the U.S. media.
I have often thought that if a rational Fascist dictatorship were to exist, then it would choose the American system.
If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged.
If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all.
If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion.
Personally, I'm in favor of democracy, which means that the central institutions of society have to be under popular control. Now, under capitalism, we can't have democracy by definition. Capitalism is a system in which the central institutions of society are in principle under autocratic control.
The principle that human nature, in its psychological aspects, is nothing more than a product of history and given social relations removes all barriers to coercion and manipulation by the powerful.
To some degree it matters who's in office, but it matters more how much pressure they're under from the public.
We can, for example, be fairly confident that either there will be a world without war or there won't be a world - at least, a world inhabited by creatures other than bacteria and beetles, with some scattering of others.
You never need an argument against the use of violence, you need an argument for it.
JR Note: On the demise of the Universities
The marketplace of ideas does for ideas what the free, competitive market ostensibly does for material products. It winnows out silly opinions, just as the market winnows out shoddy widgets. Universities have become pawns in the hands of huge corporations and this has turned them into glorified trade schools. Noam Chomsky, in particular, articulates the mood of Campus Inc in contending that universities, once institutions for change, are becoming factories for the reinforcement of the status quo and endorsers of intellectual and moral stasis. The university should challenge the system. Healthy institutions, Chomsky argues, encourage students to be critical, skeptical, inquiring and creative rather than obedient corporate drones.