Five Minutes With: Noam Chomsky
Niral Shah, Dartmouth College -- Thursday February 1, 2007
Noam Chomsky is as prolific and controversial as ever. Beginning his
career with pioneering and immense contributions to the field of
linguistics and early cognitive science, Professor Chomsky of M.I.T.
turned his attention to politics during the Vietnam War. He has published
condemnations and critiques of corporate media control, American foreign
policy and imperialism, global capitalism, and economic inequality in an
unrelenting torrent since then. Chomsky’s contrarian and sweeping
dissents, and unreconstructed (some would say anarchistic) politics have
earned him adulation in some quarters and derision in others. He has been
described by the New York Review of Books as “the most widely-read voice
on foreign policy on the planet” and an “anti-American fascist“ by David
Horowitz. In his forthcoming book, Interventions, Chomsky continues this
wide ranging and impassioned contribution to the policy debate with a
collection of 30 essays covering issues from Hurricane Katrina to Iraq,
and from Intelligent Design to Hamas. Campus Progress called Chomsky this
week to talk about the current state of the globalization, the United
States, activism, and why there is still hope for the future.
Campus Progress: People are often surprised, given your association with
contemporary political issues, to find you are a professor of linguistics.
How much overlap is there between the academic study of linguistics and
your more political work?
Noam Chomsky: It’s approximately zero. Nor is there any reason why there
should be an overlap. We don’t stop being human beings because we are
involved in scientific work. If you look more closely, if you really
pursue it, there are deeper abstract connections which in fact go back to
18 th century thinkers, but it’s a very abstract connection. There’s
almost nothing to do with a direct application to contemporary affairs.
What do you think of the work of George Lakoff, who has applied
linguistics in his political work?
NC: I don’t see any place in that work where linguistics and cognitive
science enters. A lot of it seems to be sort of common sense.
CP: What do you see as most fundamental obstacle to a functioning and
socially-just democracy in America?
NC: Well the most pressing obstacle was one of the themes of the leading
American social political philosopher of the 20 th century, John Dewey. He
pointed out that, as long as we live under what he called industrial
feudalism, rather than industrial democracy (by industrial feudalism he
meant the corporate, capitalist structure) then politics will be nothing
more than the shadow cast by business over society. Industrial democracy
would mean placing economic decisions and workplaces under democratic
control. And yes, that’s true. As long as there’s a very high
concentration of private power, essentially unaccountable to the public
and overwhelming influence in state policy, then yes, politics will be the
shadow cast by business over society. That’s a major obstacle. You can’t
have a democratic society, a functioning one, where the major decisions
are out of public control.
CP: How does current antiwar activism compare to that of the Vietnam era,
and what effect has it had?
NC: Activism is much higher than it was in the ‘60s. You hear the
opposite. People say, “Well how come we don’t have a 1960s style anti-war
movement,” [but] people have completely forgotten that antiwar protest was
so limited in the ‘60s. Most people don’t even know that John F. Kennedy
attacked South Vietnam outright in 1962. That was war, but there was no
protest. You could barely get three people in a room to talk about it. It
was years before a protest developed. In October 1965, when there were
already hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops in South Vietnam and the
country had been destroyed, we had the first national day of protest in
Boston. It was broken up by counter protests, and to the applause of
At any comparable stage, the protest is far higher right now than it was
in the ‘60s. It did develop in the late ‘60s into a significant enough
force to truly influence policy, as has already happened with Iraq. That’s
part of the reason there are constraints on the extent to which the U.S.
can use violence in Iraq. There should be a lot more in my opinion, just
as there should’ve been far more in Vietnam, but what’s happened is
CP: Why have college students organized a very large and effective
movement against the genocide in Darfur, but not against the war in Iraq?
NC: You can say the same about columnists in the press, or commentators
and editorial writers. They’re very upset about the atrocities in Darfur,
but not the atrocities that we carry out. There’s a very simple reason.
It’s extremely easy to condemn the crimes of others, especially when
you’re not making a proposal to do anything about it. The condemnations of
the crimes in Darfur are not accompanied by any proposal about what we
should do. Nobody’s saying “let’s send an expeditionary force to end it.”
The proposals are all in the form of, “Why don’t you do something about
it, and we’ll applaud.”
Furthermore, in the case of Darfur, the crimes happened to be carried out
by an official enemy, Arabs. There’s nothing easier than condemning the
crimes of an official enemy. On the other hand, looking at your own
crimes, that takes moral integrity. And that’s difficult. You don’t get
praised and lauded: You get denounced and vilified. It’s not just true of
the United States. If you were in the old Soviet Union, it would’ve been
very easy to protest American crimes, with great drama and breast-beating,
but how about Soviet crimes? That would’ve been different.
That’s not saying there shouldn’t be protests about Darfur—there should
be. And there should be constructive proposals about it. But if you want
to explain the difference, it’s elementary, and it runs right through
CP: You are listed as one of the enemies of America in Dinesh D’Souza’s
new book, The Enemy at Home. What are your thoughts on that?
NC: I feel proud, of course, just as dissidents in any country are proud
to be denounced by supporters of state violence.
CP: Income inequality and the growing income disparity in America are
becoming increasingly prominent public concerns, but what is the solution?
NC: The post-World War period has been divided into two clearly different
economic and social phases. There was a phase from the ‘50s to the
mid-‘70s when there was very high economic growth—in fact unprecedented—
but it was also egalitarian. As growth increased very sharply, so did
social indicators of quality of life. In the ‘70s, that began to reverse.
Growth continued, even though slower than before, but it became highly
inegalitarian. Today, real wages for the majority of the population are
barely different than what they were 30 years ago. There’s been enormous
wealth concentrated in very few hands.
The neoliberal measures that were instituted starting in the late ‘70s, at
different times in different countries, have had the effect of slowing
growth rates, increasing inequality, slowing rate of productivity growth
and flattening social indicators. There are countries that have escaped
this effect, but they violated all the rules. They did it by using the
principles that the rich countries had used in the past, and grew and
developed in violation of the rules of the IMF, the World Bank, and the
Washington Consensus. But where the rules have been followed, it’s
generally been harmful if not disastrous.
CP: Will the leftward movement in Latin America create a sustainable bloc
that is meaningfully independent from, or even effectively critical of
NC: Latin America is the region that most religiously followed the
IMF-Washington Consensus rules, and it was disastrous, and there’s a
reaction to it. This is the first time since the Spanish conquest, 500
years ago, that the Latin American countries have begun, slowly, to
integrate with one another, and to deal with their internal problems.
The new party line in the United States is that, yes, there’s kind of left
center governments, but there’s a good left and a bad left. The good left
is Lula in Brazil, and García in Peru. The bad left is Chávez in
Venezuela, and Morales in Bolivia.
President Kirchner of Argentina said, “We are going to rid ourselves of
the IMF,” and they did by partly defaulting and refusing to pay the debt,
an illegitimate debt in the first place, and partly by just buying off the
debt with the help of Venezuela. Brazil, in its own way, did the same
thing. Bolivia will probably do the same. The IMF is losing its effective
control over Latin America. This economic weapon of control is weakening,
and the military weapon is also weakening.
The U.S. used to routinely overthrow governments in Latin America. It went
on for decades, but it can’t anymore. The last time the U.S. backed a
military coup, in 2002 in Venezuela, it had to back down very quickly.
There are tremendous barriers, and it’s very hard to know if Latin America
can overcome them. But there is development of a kind that’s never
happened before. It is, in many ways, the most exciting part of the world.
CP: Your long record of dissent against U.S. policy suggests that your
misgivings are certainly more enduring than the Bush administration,
making prospects for change seem limited. Do you see your work as being
NC: First of all, you’re quite correct. The Bush administration happens to
be at the extreme, or perhaps off the extreme of the spectrum, but it’s a
pretty narrow spectrum. What are the chances of change? Well, we’ve seen
it. Things are a lot better now than they were 30 or 40 years ago, and a
lot of it’s because of people of your age, who didn’t just sit and watch,
but did something about it.
Niral Shah is an intern at Campus Progress. He is working on a dual major
in Government and Economics from Dartmouth College.