American Socrates: The Life and Mind of Noam Chomsky
Below is the full transcript of our show for the week of June 1st, 2017:
I’m Christopher Lydon. This is Open Source. A world in trouble beats a path to Noam Chomsky’s door, if only because he’s been forthright for so long about a whirlwind coming. Not that the world quite knows what do with Noam Chomsky’s warnings of disaster in the making. This was the famous faltering of the patrician TV host William F. Buckley Jr., meeting Chomsky’s icy anger about the war in Vietnam, in 1969:
William F. Buckley: the reason I do raise this — and I rejoice in your disposition to argue the Vietnam question, especially when I recognize what an act of self-control this must involve…
Noam Chomsky: It does. It really does. Sometimes I lose my temper.
WFB: Maybe not tonight…
NC: Maybe not tonight…
WFB: Because if you would I’d smash you in the goddamn face. *laughs*
NC: That’s a good reason for not losing my temper.
Strange thing about Noam Chomsky: the New York Times calls him ‘arguably’ the most important public thinker alive, though the paper seldom quotes him, or argues with him, and giant pop media like network television never do. And yet the man is universally famous in his 89th year, and almost familiar: he’s the scientist who taught us to think of human language as something embedded in our biology, not a social acquisition; he’s the humanist who railed against the Vietnam war and other projections of American power, on moral grounds first, ahead of practical considerations. Noam Chomsky is a rock-star on college campuses, here and abroad; he’s still an alien where policy gets made. On his home ground at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he is a notably accessible old professor who answers his email and receives visitors, like us the other day, with a twinkle. I’d written him that we wanted to hear not what he thinks, but how. He’d written back that hard work and an open mind have a lot to do with it, plus, in his words, a “Socratic-style willingness to ask whether conventional doctrines are justified.” My agenda was open-ended:
Christopher Lydon: All we want you to do is to explain where in the world we are at a time–
Noam Chomsky: That’s easy.
CL: [laughs] –When so many people were on the edge of something, something historic. Is there a Chomsky summary?
NC: Brief summary?
NC: Well a brief summary I think is if you take a look at recent history since the Second World War, something really remarkable has happened. First, human intelligence created two huge sledgehammers capable of terminating our existence–or at least organized existence–both from the Second World War. One of them is familiar. In fact both are by now familiar. The second World War ended with the use of nuclear weapons. It was immediately obvious on August 6 1945, a day that I remember very well. It was obvious that soon technology would develop to the point where it would lead to terminal disaster. Scientists certainly understood this.
In 1947 the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists inaugurated its famous Doomsday Clock. You know: how close to midnight hand to midnight? And it started seven minutes to midnight. By 1953 it had moved to two minutes to midnight. That was the year when the United States and Soviet Union exploded hydrogen bombs. But it turns out we now understand that at the end of the Second World War the world also entered into a new geological epic. It’s called The Anthropocene, the epic in which humans have a severe in fact maybe disastrous impact on the environment. It moved again in 2015, again in 2016. Immediately after the Trump election late January this year, the clock was moved again to two and a half minutes to midnight, the closest it’s been since ‘53.
So there’s the two existential threats that we’ve created–which might in the case of nuclear war maybe wipe us out; in the case of environmental catastrophe severe impact–and then some. A third thing happened. Beginning around the 70s, human intelligence dedicated itself to eliminating, or at least weakening, the main barrier against the threats. It’s called neoliberalism. If you ask yourself what, there was a transition at that period from the period of what some people call “regimented capitalism,” 50s and 60s, the great growth period, egalitarian growth, a lot of advances in social justice and so on–
CL: Social democracy…
NC: Social, yeah. That’s sometimes called “the golden age of modern capitalism.” That changed in the 70s and with the onset of the neoliberal era that we’ve been living in since. And if you ask yourself what this era is, it’s crucial principle is undermining mechanisms of social solidarity and mutual support and popular engagement in determining policy.
It’s not called that. What it’s called is “freedom,” but “freedom” means a subordination to the decisions of concentrated, unaccountable, private power. That’s what it means. The institutions of governance–or other kinds of association that could allow people to participate in decision making–those are systematically weakened. Margaret Thatcher said it rather nicely in her aphorism about “there is no society, only individuals.”
She was actually unconsciously no doubt paraphrasing Marx, who in his condemnation of the repression in France said, “The repression is turning society into a sack of potatoes, just individuals, an amorphous mass can’t act together.” That was a condemnation; for Thatcher, It’s an ideal, and that’s neoliberalism.
We destroy or at least undermine the governing mechanisms that might in which people at least in principle can participate to the extent that society’s Democratic. So weaken them, undermine unions, other forms of association, leave a sack of potatoes and meanwhile transfer decisions to unaccountable private power all in the rhetoric of freedom.
Well what does that do? The one barrier to the threat of destruction is an engaged public, an informed engaged public acting together to develop means to confront the threat and respond to it, and that’s systematically weakened consciously. I mean, back to the 1970s we’ve probably talked about this. There was a lot of elite discussion across the spectrum about the danger of too much democracy and the need to have what was called more “moderation” in democracy, for people to become more passive and apathetic and not to disturb things too much, and that’s what the neoliberal programs do. So put it all together and what do you have? A perfect storm.
CL: What everybody notices is all the headline things, including Brexit and Donald Trump and Hindu nationalism and nationalism everywhere and LePen all kicking in more or less together and suggesting some real world phenomenon.
NC: it’s very clear, and it was predictable. You didn’t know exactly when, but when you impose socio-economic policies that lead to stagnation or decline for the majority of the population, undermine democracy, remove decision-making out of popular hands, you’re going to get anger, discontent, fear take all kinds of forms. And that’s the phenomenon that’s misleadingly called “populism.”
CL: I don’t know what you think of Pankaj Mishra, but I enjoy his book Age of Anger, and he begins with an anonymous letter to a newspaper from somebody who says, “We should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled. Nothing since the triumph of vandals in Rome and North Africa has seemed so suddenly incomprehensible and difficult to reverse.”
NC: Well, that’s the fault of the information system because it’s very comprehensible and very obvious and very simple….take say the United States, which actually suffered less from these policies than many other countries. Take the year 2007, crucial year right before the crash.
What was the wondrous economy that was being praised? It was one in which the wages, the real wages of American workers, were actually lower than they were in 1979 when the neoliberal period began. That’s historically unprecedented except for trauma or you know war or something like that. Here is a long period in which real wages had literally declined while there was some wealth created but in very few pockets. It was also a period in which new institutions developed, financial institutions. You go back to the 50s and 60s, a so-called Golden Age, banks were connected to the real economy. That was their function. There were also no crashes because there were New Deal regulations.
Starting in the early 70s there was a sharp change. Banks, first of all, financial institutions exploded in scale. By 2007 they actually had 40 percent of corporate profits. Furthermore, they weren’t connected to the real economy anymore. That was the period of euphoria except for the population.
In Europe in many ways it got worse under what was called “austerity,” and… in Europe the way democracy is undermined is very direct. Decisions are placed in the hands of an unelected troika: the European Commission, which is unelected, the IMF, of course unelected, the European Central Bank. They make the decisions so people are very angry, and you see it. They’re losing control of their lives. The economic policies are mostly harming them as in these cases, and the result is anger, disillusion and so on.
We just saw it two weeks ago in the last French election. The two candidates were both outside the establishment. Centrist political parties have collapsed. We saw it in the American election last November. There were two candidates who mobilized the base: one of them a billionaire hated by the establishment the Republican candidate who won the nomination but notice that once he’s in power it’s the old establishment that’s running things. You can rail against Goldman Sachs on the campaign trail, but you make sure that they run the economy once you’re in.
Same thing happened on the Democratic side. The most remarkable feature of the November election was the Sanders campaign. I mean that broke. It’s not all that startling if a billionaire wins a nomination, but if somebody comes from the outside with no support from any of the funding sources, corporate America or wealth, disdained or ignored by the media, even used a scare word “socialist,” would have won the Democratic nomination if it hadn’t been for the machinations of party managers.
NC: But I don’t understand why it’s incomprehensible. It seems pretty obvious.
Coming up: a bit of biographical background in Chomsky thinking. It starts with astonishment at the inborn capacity of the human brain, unlike any other, to form thought in language. This is Open Source.
I’m Christopher Lydon. This is Open Source with the Noam Chomsky Hour, but how did he come to be the most widely cited author / innovator in the literature of contemporary science, and after that a by-word for rational humanism in the politics of dissent? We asked Robert Barsky, the author of two books on Chomsky, for the short form:
Robert Barsky: If you look to his early work and his work on Cartesian Linguistics, you realize that it comes out of a few principle, basic insights. The first one is that we are not machines, that we don’t learn on the basis of a blank slate, that we don’t learn language the way that we learn other things. The evidence being that very young children say things that they have never heard before, which would suggest that we have the equipment already present in our brains to produce and understand human language from birth. Any human being who is subjected even to the smallest amount of linguistic input is able to create a very complex and rich linguistic world.
Chris Lydon: But it’s different then from walking, or dancing, or fighting.
RB: It’s different, and it’s not. He talks about it as an “organ” but I think even more interestingly as a “deferred ability” such as sexuality. We are clearly sexual beings. We’re endowed with the propensity, proclivity and so forth for sexuality. It makes itself manifest at 12 years old, 13 years old, 14 years old or later on, but it’s already present so it is a natural ability. On the other hand, it’s also affected by the context within which it is made manifest.
So, in that sense, interestingly although we’re more or less identical, we’re also all different because our endowment will react with the environment around it.
CL: People like to see two Chomskys, Robert. I try to imagine one, synthesizing the scientific impulse to explain how language makes babies human incredibly fast, but also in the peacenik side of his social activism, how we’re missing something in our language to preserve the species for all time. Is there any uniting these two impulses?
RB: I have discussed this with him a lot and suggested that in fact there are very interesting points in which the two come together. One of them is his resistance to those powers and ideas that are imposed upon us.
At the end of the day, so much of Noam Chomsky’s work is about power. It’s about those people who are in power, those people who are disempowered, those people who are seeking power, those people who are outside of the realm of seeking power. And the question for him becomes: how do we catalyze that profound ability that everybody has?
Because if power is in the business of teaching us how to be good consumers, if power is in the business of keeping us down, if power is in the business of teaching us how to vote against our own best interests, then what is the opposite? The opposite is: how do you promote creativity? How do you promote people’s ability to think for themselves? How do promote people’s understanding of their connection to the people around them in ways that are going to benefit themselves and their environment as opposed to just allow them to have more power.
That I think is at the very heart of Noam Chomsky linguistically, in terms of academics and in terms of his social thought.
Robert Barsky wrote Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent twenty years ago, and then The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory Tower. Professor Barsky teaches law and literature at Vanderbilt University.
Back in Noam Chomsky’s office, I was looking for a bridge between his linguistic science and his politics:
CL: But let me ask, Noam Chomsky, several times recently I’ve read from you a kind of one-sentence history of science, and it goes roughly that the moment when people admit that they are puzzled are the moments when things actually happen. When Newton, for example, discovers that to his own dismay that the world does not operate like a machine and then demands it fertilized.
NC: Which he didn’t believe, incidentally. He discovered it, but he regarded it as what he called an absurdity that no person with any scientific understanding could ever accept.
CL: But he broke the turf…: But I think also of the moment when…at some moment when the apple fell on your head and you said, “Wait a sec, it’s impossible that babies could learn language by imitation in so short span,” and a whole new field blossomed.
NC: In fact, they couldn’t learn it by imitation if they had 10,000 years. Course there’s no way to do it…
CL: So, the question is at a moment when people are almost ready…when they’re ready to act and almost ready to recognize that this game is not working, this social system, do we have the endowment as a species to act on it, to move into that zone of puzzlement and then action?
NC: I think the fate of the species depends on it because remember it’s not just inequality, stagnation. It’s terminal disaster. We have constructed a perfect storm. That should be the screaming headlines every day. Since the Second World War, we have created two means of destruction. Since the neoliberal era, we have dismantled the way of handling them. That’s our pincers. That’s what we face, and if that problem isn’t solved we’re done with.
CL I want to go back Pankaj Mishra and the Age of Anger for a moment–
NC: It’s not The Age of Anger. It’s The Age of Resentment against socio-economic policies which have harmed the majority of the population for a generation and have consciously and in principle undermined democratic participation. Why shouldn’t there be anger?
CL: Pankaj Mishra calls it–it’s a Nietzschean word– “ressentiment,” meaning this kind of explosive rage, but he says, “It’s the defining feature of a world where the modern promise of equality collides with massive disparities of power, education, status and–
NC: Which was designed that way, which was designed that way. Go back to the 1970s. Across the spectrum, elite spectrum, there was deep concern about the activism of the 60s. It’s called the “time of troubles.” It civilised the country, which is dangerous. What happened is that large parts of the population–which had been passive, apathetic, obedient–tried to enter the political arena in one or another way to press their interests and concerns. They’re called “special interests.” That means minorities, young people, old people, farmers, workers, women. In other words: the population. The population are special interests, and their task is to just watch quietly. And that was explicit.
Two documents came out right in the mid-Seventies, which are quite important — opposite ends of the political spectrum, both influential, both reached the same conclusions. One of them, at the left end, the Trilateral Commission — liberal internationalists, three major industrial countries, basically the Carter administration, that’s where they come from — which is the more interesting one. The American rapporteur Samuel Huntington of Harvard, he looked back with nostalgia to the days when, as he put it, Truman was able to run the country with the cooperation of a few Wall Street lawyers and executives. Then everything was fine. Democracy was perfect.
But in the 60s they all agreed it became problematic because the special interests started trying to get into the act, and that causes too much pressure and the state can’t handle that–
CL: I remember that book well.
NC: We have to have more moderation in democracy.
CL: Not only that, he turned Al Smith’s line around. Al Smith said, “The cure for democracy is more democracy.” He said, “No, the cure for this democracy is less democracy.”
NC: It wasn’t him. It was the liberal establishment. He was speaking for them. This is a consensus view of the liberal internationalists and the three industrial democracies. They–in their consensus–they concluded that a major problem is what they called, their words, “the institution’s responsible for the indoctrination of the young.” The schools, the universities, churches, they’re not doing their job. They’re not indoctrinating the young properly. The young have to be returned to passivity and obedience, and then democracy will be fine. That’s the left end.
Now what do you have at the right end? A very influential document: The Powell Memorandum, came out the same time. Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer, later Supreme Court justice, he produced a confidential memorandum for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has been extremely influential. It more or less set off the modern so-called “conservative movement.” The rhetoric is kind of crazy. We don’t go through it, but the basic picture is that this rampaging left has taken over everything. We have to use the resources that we have to beat back this rampaging new left which is undermining freedom and democracy.
Connected with this was something else. As a result of the activism of the 60s and the militancy of labor, there was a falling rate of profit. That’s not acceptable. So we have to reverse the falling rate of profit, we have to undermine democratic participation, what comes? Neoliberalism, which has exactly those effects.
CL: You famously said about neoliberalism that it’s not new, and it’s not liberal. Do you want to define it for people who just landed from Mars?
NC: Well, it’s a kind of a mixture. The rhetoric is free market, individual choice and so on. That’s the rhetoric. The reality is rather different. It’s individualism and market for you but state power for me. So take a look, say, at the actual institutions like the World Trade Organization or NAFTA, what are called the “free trade agreements.” The media calls them “free trade agreements.” They’re not free trade agreements. They’re investor rights agreements. They’re highly protectionist. They provide unprecedented protection backed by state power for major conglomerates like the pharmaceutical industry, media conglomerates, others.
CL: Oftentimes, you have said that politics is simple, child’s play compared to the science that’s done you know within a stone’s throw of this building, if not in this building. Why is it the science though gets more effectively to the simple rules, the simple understanding that gives clarity than politics does? Especially in this age, people are dying for some, I think, the bold headline that you’re suggesting, but it’s harder somehow.
NC: –in the economy. I mean, take that trivial, obvious example. You’ve taken an economics course, or everybody has, and what do you learn about markets? They’re marvelous because in a market, informed consumers make rational choices. That’s us. Turn on the television set. Are you seeing an effort to create rational, informed consumers who make rational choices? What you see is a massive effort–and hundreds of millions of dollars a year spent on it–to create uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices, meaning business is dedicated to undermining markets.
CL: And what about political choices?
NC: Same thing. We’re told that we have a choice between the left and the right. We’re told for example–let’s be concrete. We’re told that Sanders represented a political revolution…
CL: Left-wing demagogue…
NC: Yeah. Take a look at his programs, and ask a simple question: what would Eisenhower have thought about those programs? He would have regarded them as normal. In fact, he himself said many of the same things. Are we told that? Just read what Eisenhower said about the New Deal or about labor unions…
CL: Or told that the Democratic candidate was a breakthrough for the females of the species and would make history in that dimension…
NC: I’d put it a little differently. There was a woman’s movement which became so significant and powerful that the elite had to react to it in some fashion by a weakening of the glass ceiling slightly so that some women could get in.
But in fact if you take a look at the history it’s…I mean, you look at the history of the treatment of women, which we ought to know, you go back to the founding of the country. The U.S. of course took over British Common Law, Blackstone. Women weren’t people. They were property. A woman was the property of her father who handed her over to her husband. He was the owner of the property. In fact, some of the arguments against allowing women to vote were that it would be unfair to unmarried men because a married man would have two votes: himself and the property, like a slave owner. You had the three-fifths rule, which gave more representation to slave owners.
Well, it changed slowly over the years, but pretty slowly. In fact, it wasn’t until 1975 under the pressure of the feminist movement that the Supreme Court determined that women can be peers, that they have a right to serve on federal jurors as peers. It’s not that long ago, and it wasn’t that the Democratic Party said, “Oh yeah. This is a great idea.” It’s that they were pressed to accept this. So, why are people uninformed? I mean, why don’t they see what’s in front of their eyes?
CL: They see enough to act against what the establishment was telling them.
NC: They react the way Mishra’s describing: with anger. That’s not the right response. The right response is understanding and constructive action. Change it. Not anger, not fear, not hatred of others, not saying, “Let’s make sure that Central Americans can’t get here.” That’s diverting the anger from the target to some scapegoat.
Same in Europe. I mean, in Europe it’s shocking. There’s a recent poll in Europe which found that a majority of Europeans think that no Muslims should be allowed into Europe. I mean, anybody who can remember the 1930s, as I can, has to be pretty frightened about that.
The gatekeeper in and out of Chomsky world at MIT is a sprightly writer and wit named Beverly Stohl. She has learned over most of two decades that a lot of laughter helps in living with genius, and she let me ask her a question I hadn’t put to him:
Chris Lydon: Bev, it’s my premise–sort of serious–that in 2117, a hundred years from now, he might be the only person in this neighborhood that anybody ever remembers. Of all the celebrities, thinkers, teachers and whatnot, Noam Chomsky might be remembered as the dissenting spirit of the age, and people will say, “What the hell was he like?” What drove him?
Beverly Stohl: Noam is just about the truth.
CL: Who is is audience out there?
BS: I’ve seen old hippies. I’ve seen young students. I see all colors. I see all nationalities, and some cry just out of gratitude for what he does.
CL: What does he mean to them, do you think?
BS: Freedom. They talk about democracy when they see him. You know, we’ve had people come who were presidents, prime ministers, but it’s the people, the regular people. You know, I often wonder when he goes out and talks is he preaching to the converted? You know, are these all of his fans? But every day I hear from people: “Gee, I just heard about you. I just read one of your books.”
It’s really everybody. I’ve had 14-yr-old boys come in here with their parents, making their parents wait outside so they can come in and discuss all the books that they’ve read of Noam Chomsky’s with him. That just blows me away because it’s not easy to get through a Noam Chomsky book.
CL: What are the rest of the people missing who don’t see him every day coming into work?
BS: I would say the thing that they’re missing is his sense of humor, his sense of playfulness. He loved when his grandchildren were little to make up games. For instance, he’d take a stick, and he’s put it in the sand–and this is very Noam-like. He’d put a stick in the sand on The Cape when the kids were there, and then they’d go to bed and overnight he would take a larger stick and he’d tell the kids that the stick has grown. *laughs* And they sort of always went along with it knowing that he was only joking, but maybe in a way they thought it was a little magical. So, he loves magic. He loves the magic of childhood, and he’s playful.
Coming up: What feels like a turn in Noam Chomsky’s taste, from confrontation to kinship. This is Open Source.
I’m Christopher Lydon. This is Open Source. Over the years Noam Chomsky has defended his heavyweight debating title against all comers: YouTube has him in the ring with Michel Foucault on the nature of human nature; with Alan Dershowitz on Israel; with John Silber on Central America. Far the most-watched is the almost 50-year-old tape of Noam Chomsky in a very personal tangle with the host of “Firing Line” on PBS, William F. Buckley Jr., on the killing in Vietnam:
William F. Buckley: You say the war is simply an obscentity, a depraved act by weak and miserable men.
Noam Chomsky: Including all of us, including all of us. That’s the next sentence.
WFB: Oh sure sure sure, because you count everybody in the company of the guilty.
NC: I think that’s true in a sense. See one of the points I was trying–
WFB: This is, in a sense, a theological observation, isn’t it?
NC: No, I don’t think so.
WFB: Because at some point in time if everybody’s guilty of everything, then nobody’s guilty of anything. *laughs*
NC: Well, no. I don’t believe that. See, I think that the point that I’m trying to make, and I think ought to be made, is that the real–at least to me, and I say this elsewhere in the book–what seems to me a very, in a sense, terrifying aspect of our societies and other societies is the equanimity and the detachment with which sane, reasonable, sensible people can observe such events. I think that’s more terrifying than the occasional Hitler, or LeMay or other that crops up.
Chris Lydon: I just want to say about the Buckley debate, I look back on it–millions of people do too on YouTube–with a certain amazement. He’s doing all of his lordly debating tricks, and you’re unflapped, incredibly…words well chosen, facts clear, and you win by kind of patience and decency. And it strikes me we can see your career in that tape. I’m also thinking that you know among all the stars of our university neighborhood around here you may be the one who’s remembered 100 years from now. I mean, so I don’t mean to overdo it, but we listen to you with huge respect.
Noam Chomsky: But remember, this is all very simple. It’s all in front of our eyes. All we have to do is look. It takes no profound intelligence. It takes no special insight. Just look at what’s in front of your eyes. It’s right there, and in fact I think a lot of people see it in various ways.
The U.S. healthcare system is an international scandal. It has about twice the per capita costs of comparable countries, relatively poor outcomes, slightly improved by the Affordable Care Act which is some improvement but nowhere near other countries. You go to Mass General Hospital, take a look at what they’re doing there. On every floor there’s a desk with a bunch of people doing paperwork, administrative work, billing, figuring out how the insurance companies can get paid off on something or other. You go to the same hospital in Canada. There’s nothing there. In fact, that’s been studied.
When health care is in the hands of organizations that have no interest whatsoever in health only in making money, you can imagine what’s going to happen.
CL: This is the problem. How can the people be so shrewd, so decisive, say it and be ignored? In our country last 2016, we had the same kind of warning: Beware of the people! You know, Plato said democracy can get out of hand. This dangerous.
CL: Oh yeah.
NC: What happened?
CL: Well, they did get out of hand.
NC: What democracy gave us two candidates, both from outside the establishment: Trump and Sanders who mobilized the base. Clinton didn’t. Actually the policies they were calling for were not that different and not that crazy, and the policies that are being enacted kick them in the face. Trump’s policies are almost specifically…It’s as if some evil demon is sitting there laughing. You take a look at the policies. They are directed to kicking his constituency in the face, literally. Case by case. It’s a rural, white working-class, that sector of his voters. Every step that has been taken–including the budget that came out this morning–is aimed at undermining them, step after step. The question is: how long are they going to take it? And when they decide –
CL: That is the question. We’re awaiting the Galileo moment in politics when people say, “Wait a sec. That theory just plain doesn’t hold up anymore.”
NC: Yeah, but think what’s going to happen. Suppose that the white, rural working-class base recognizes that Trump is their worst enemy, that every program that’s getting pushed through–basically, the Paul Ryan programs–are aimed at undermining them, how are they going to react? And what is the Republican Party going to do? We know. They’re going to turn to scapegoating, try to divert the anger somewhere else: immigrants, Muslims, homosexuals. Who knows what it’ll be? We’ve been through this before in history over and over. It can turn out pretty ugly.
CL: Help us with the analogy of the scientific process and the political process. In the scientific world, after Galileo, the whole scientific community adjusts. We seem to see a great mass of American people and voters seem to understand that there’s something profoundly wrong here by our own standards. Not the standards of perfection but a moderately free, open, give-and-take, egalitarian spirit that people remember either sentimentally or from their childhood, and it’s in danger. How do you activate the political decision the way our scientific world activates itself around new principles, new understanding, a new understanding of old fallacies?
NC: That’s what activism is about. It’s trying to reach people in their own terms, in their own lives, in their own problems and trying to help them perceive what’s happening.
And there’s very interesting things happening. Actually, one of the best discussions of the problem, not the solution, that I’ve seen is a very important book by Arlie Hochschild. I don’t know if you’ve seen…
CL: Yeah. We’ve interviewed her.
NC: It’s a wonderful book, but she lived with–you’ve talked about it I’m sure–but she picked the reddest red state, right: Louisiana Bayou.
CL: Oil country Louisiana.
NC: And the results are extremely interesting. She’s a liberal sociologist from Berkeley. It turned out that she and the people there agreed on a lot of things. So like, the people she was dealing with are environmentalists. They don’t like the fact that the Bayou is being destroyed by chemical plants and that it’s become Cancer Alley, and the result is they vote for a congressman who is the strongest opponent of environmental regulations. And they do it rationally, as she pointed out. It looks crazy, but when you look into it there’s a reason because their understanding of the EPA is a guy in a suit who comes down and tells them that you can’t fish anymore but does nothing about the chemical plants. So why shouldn’t they be opposed to the EPA? That’s rational. That’s our fault.
CL: Noam Chomsky, a lot of people separate your life as a scientist or your scientific mind and your political activism. I try to synthesize them or see what’s in common, and what strikes me is that in your language work… in your work on the child’s acquisition of language, you locate that endowment inherent in the human being to communicate, but you locate an ability for language that makes the human being in a way. So, in your politics it strikes me we’re all looking to you to locate the endowment that lets us work together for the common good and the survival even.
NC: I mean, we don’t understand a lot about the human nature, but one of its aspects is mutual aid and solidarity. Other aspects are greed and hatred. Social economic conditions help effect–they don’t determine–but they certainly influence which of these aspects of human nature come to predominate. If you live in a society that respects and rewards greed and disregard of others and getting ahead and look out for number one and the hell with everything else, yes. Those aspects of human nature will come to predominate. If you have something like a functional family where people actually help each other and care for each other, other aspects come out.
We actually have both. So, one advantage of the United States over Europe, crucial advantage, is that institutions have a kind of built in solidarity. So for example, if Nevada is suffering from a recession and New York pays for it, we don’t even pay attention to it. Mississippi gets subsidized by New York. That doesn’t happen in Europe. Greece doesn’t get subsidized by Germany. Quite the opposite, Germany tries to punish Greece. That’s an advantage of the U.S. system, and it’s built in. There are all kinds of things, you know.
CL: Do you analogize the activation of language equipment that suddenly blossoms like a huge garden and then keeps varying, do you analogize that to a sort of social instinct for preservation of species, for solidarity, for mutual support, and how in the world do we activate it under a deadline now?
NC: It would be nice to try to connect them, and in fact if you look back at earlier periods–say the Enlightenment, read say the Rousseau’s second discourse on inequality–there’s kind of an effort, not in these terms, to link the kind of creativity that’s inherent in normal language use to a conception of society that says that anything that constrains creative, independent thought and action is illegitimate. Wilhelm Von Humbolt, founder of the modern university systems, he had similar ideas. There’s an effort to connect them, but it’s not a logical connection. It’s a sense that somehow there might be some unity there, and maybe there is.
CL: Your authorities go way back, and it’s the part of Noam Chomsky that doesn’t surface in day-to day-interviews. I mean, speak of some of them, including…I’d love you to speak about Bertrand Russell in the modern time but even your favorites in the Scottish Enlightenment, enlightenment generally. Who of them speaks to our situation today?
NC: Well, we have to pick and choose, and take say David Hume who had some real insights into the nature of politics. He said you have this strange paradox. He says, “In every society, power is in the hands of the governed. They’re the ones who really have power, but they don’t use it. They’re willing to subordinate themselves to authorities.” And he says, “By what miracle is this reached?” And he said it’s control of opinion. It’s by control of opinion alone that the nobles and the autocrats and the gentleman succeed in getting the public to accept being abused and repressed. Well, there’s some point to that.
CL: “Manufacturing consent,” so to speak.
NC: He didn’t use the phrase. That waited for Walter Lippmann who advocated it incidentally. We forget that the phrase was used by liberal Democrats who advocated it. They said that’s the essence of democracy. They were Hume’s noblemen and autocrats.
CL: I want your take on something I observed about Noam Chomsky in recent times. I mean, you are famous as a controversialist, as a debater and famous for confrontation.
Noam Chomsky: Now, if we had the slightest concern with democracy–which we do not in our foreign affairs and never have–we would turn to countries like El Salvador. May I continue? I did not interrupt you.
John Silber: *unintelligible arguing*
For example, this was Chomsky versus Boston University president Silber debating the Contra war in Nicaragua in the 1980s, in front of me on public television.
Noam Chomsky: I’m talking about 1980–
John Silber: You are a systematic liar.
NC: Did these things happen or didn’t they?
JS: These things did not happen in the context in which you suggest at all. It’s time that the people read you correctly.
NC: Well, it’s clear why you want to divert me from the discussion–
JS: No, it’s not. I just get tired of rubish.
NC: Excuse me.
Chris Lydon: More recently, I’m just fascinated by the kinships in your life that I wouldn’t have expected. Three for example: Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister. You did a marvelous show with him at the New York Public Library. But also I’m thinking Arundhati Roy, the Indian writer, and for me most touching in a certain way was you and Harry Belafonte at the Riverside Church in New York. Two men, well into their 80s, incredible contrasts of their focus, their fame and yet, one sensed a terrific harmony. It was beautiful to see. What’s that like for you, to becoming known now for these convergences as well as the hostilities?
Noam Chomsky: These are all three people who I like and respect very much. They’re very different, quite different, but they’re all extremely important and courageous and honorable in their own ways.
CL: Speak of them for you. I mean, Yanis. How did you get to know Yanis?
NC: Well, through common interests really. I’d never met them before. This was our first meeting. I’d read his work. He’d read my work. We would actually collaborate to some extent. One of the important things that he’s done, I think, is to initiate a movement in Europe. It’s called Diem 25, which is an effort to try to mobilize Europeans to combat the — in Europe it’s called “austerity,” — the neoliberal programs that are severely harming Europe and undermining democracy but to do it in a way which saves the European Union, doesn’t undermine it. It tries to maintain and develop the positive aspects of the European Union, and there are many. I mean the fact that you can travel from France to Poland without knowing where you are instead of shooting each other, that’s a big improvement. So, it preserves the good parts of the European Union while overcoming the very harmful parts, like the stranglehold of the euro without a political union that’s destructive.
NC: Arundhati is an amazing person, absolutely amazing. Have you met her?
CL: Sure, and she’s got a new book out which I’m dying to read.
NC: Yeah. One of the most interesting encounters I had with her–there have been a number–was at the World Social Forum in Brazil back in the early 2000s. The two of us were on a forum with about 20,000 people there in a huge auditorium, and she’s a tiny little person with a soft voice. She had the audience sitting in her hand. It was unbelievable for good reasons, and she’s done some wonderful things.
CL: Fought a lot of dams in India and staying strong in the Hindu revival…
NC: Standing up to the Supreme Court. She’s under constant threat of severe punishment. When the court goes after, she just goes right back after them.
CL: And you and Harry Belafonte. What’s that like?
NC: Well I mean, I’d never met him before either, but of course I’ve followed his career, which is a very distinguished career of significant, courageous dedication to important causes.
CL: Also on your wall here I never asked you about Bertrand Russell, this kind of British Einstein, 20th century genius in mathematics also unbelievably active militant against war all his life. He stayed in William James’s house in Cambridge in 1896 when he was 20 years old, and he was out in Trafalgar Square 1962 saying, “Why does Jack Kennedy want to blow up the world?” What’s your connection?
NC: To Bertrand Russell?
NC: First of all, I’ve been very much interested in his philosophical and logical work. But the other is exactly what you’re describing: his dedication to serious causes, and in World War one he was in jail protesting the war. He was pretty much excluded from polite British society as a result. And then again as you say he was demonstrating in his late 70s, early 80s in Trafalgar Square about the Vietnam war and nuclear war. In fact,he was asked then–I think in the late 50s–he was asked once, “Why are you wasting your time with CND demonstrations when you could be working on logic and philosophy and doing something of lasting significance?” And his answer wasn’t bad. He said, “If I’m not out there demonstrating, there won’t be any around to read the logic and philosophy.” That’s a pretty good response.
CL: Noam Chomsky, it’s a great pleasure. It’s an educational experience to sit and listen. Thank you.
Noam Chomsky’s latest book is Requiem for the American Dream: The Ten Principles of Concentration of Wealth and Power. Thanks also to Bev Stohl and Robert Barsky. We also had invaluable help from George Scialabba. There’s loads more on our website: links, extras and illustrations from Susan Coyne. You can also read a transcript of the interview and see a video of it at thenation.com.
Our show this week was produced by Conor Gillies, Zach Goldhammer, Frank Horton and Becca DeGregorio. George Hicks is our engineer. Mary McGrath is our executive producer. I’m Christopher Lydon. Join us next time for Open Source.