Noam Chomsky Interviewed by Vincent Navarro
July 25, 2008 By Noam Chomsky
Source: Progressive Summer University of Catalonia (UPEC)
Interviewed by Vincent Navarro. at M.I.T.,
Vincent Navarro: Thank you so much for welcoming us here.
Noam Chomsky: Delighted to have a chance to talk to you.
VN: We are here on behalf of the Summer Progressive University of Catalonia. As I told you before the interview, the University's intention is to recover the history of
NC: I hope so.
VN: I want to chat with you about yourself and about the
NC: I should say that the place where I am most feared and despised is probably in left liberal intellectual circles. If you want to see a graphic indication of this, take a look at one of my favorite journal covers, which is framed and posted right outside my door. It's the more or less official journal of left liberal intellectuals, The American Prospect, and the cover depicts the terrible circumstances in which they try to survive - the enormous forces that are virtually destroying them.
In the picture, two figures are depicted; two faces, sneering and angry. On one side is Dick Cheney and the Pentagon, on the other side is me. The left liberal intellectuals are caught between these two huge forces. This depiction is indicative of the paranoia and concern that there might be some small break in orthodoxy. The liberal intellectuals (and not just in the
One of the reasons it's too dangerous is that the political establishment, both political parties and the political class, is, on many major issues, well to the right of the population. On health care, for example, which you've written about for decades, the population is to the left of the establishment, and has been so forever. And the same is true for many other issues. So, permitting issues to be discussed is threatening, and permitting deviation from a kind of party line is dangerous and has to be carefully controlled.
So, yes, this is a very free country, but at the same time there's a very rigid ideology.
VN: But this is surprising because, from outside the
VN: It's as if they are afraid of critical voices, such as your voice.
NC: Yes, I think they are afraid. There's a terrible fear that a slight deviation might lead to disaster. It's a typical totalitarian mentality. You have to control everything. If anything is out of control, it's a disaster. And, in fact, the stability of
One of the reasons for the extraordinary pressure of consumerism, which goes back to the 1920s, is the recognition by the business world that unless it atomizes people, unless it drives them to what it calls the "superficial things of life, such as fashionable consumption," the population may turn on them. Right now, for example, about 80% of the
VN: Another thing that happens abroad is the idealization of the
NC: People have these illusions, and you have to ask, what is the source of these illusions? But it's clear what has happened, and the establishment understands it very well.
For example, on one day, called Super Tuesday, February 5th, there are a couple of dozen primaries, so there's big excitement. Take a look at the Wall Street Journal: its front page story on Super Tuesday, with a big headline, reads: "Issues recede in '08 Contest as Voters Focus on Character." Shortly after, a poll appeared, which I did not see reported, finding that three-fourths of the public want coverage of candidates' positions on issues. Exactly the opposite of the standard doctrine, expressed in the headline. That's not new. The same has been true in earlier elections But issues are carefully kept out of sight by the party managers. It's not true that voters prefer character over issues. Voters would be perfectly happy to vote for the national health care system that they've wanted for decades. It's just that those things aren't options. The party managers - or, basically, the public relations industry that sells commodities on television and markets candidates in the same way that they market commodities. When you see an ad on television, you don't expect to learn anything from it. If we had a free market of the kind economists discuss, in which informed consumers make rational choices, General Motors would post on television the characteristics of the cars they're selling. They don't do that. What they do is try to create illusions, using complicated graphics, a famous actress driving up to heaven, or something like that. The point is to delude and marginalize the public, so that uninformed consumers will make irrational choices. When you market candidates, it's the same thing - keep away from the issues, that's too dangerous because the public doesn't agree with you on the issues. So what you have is character, trivialities, personal issues - somebody's pastor says something,
Popular opinion in the
The Obama phenomenon is an interesting reaction to this. Obama's handlers, the campaign managers, have created an image that is essentially a blank slate. In the Obama campaign the words are hope, change, unity - totally vacuous slogans said by a nice person, who looks good and talks nicely - what commentators call "soaring rhetoric" - and you can write anything you like on that blank slate. A lot of people are writing on it their hopes for progressive change. In the campaign, as the Wall Street Journal correctly notes, issues have received little attention. Personal characteristics are the key element. It's character that's up front.
But, yes, the support for Obama is a popular phenomenon, and I think it reflects the alienation of the population from the institutions. People are grasping at a straw: here's a possibility that maybe somebody will stand up for what they want. Even though he's not saying so, he looks like the kind of person who might do it. It's quite interesting to look at the comparisons that are made. Obama is compared to John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan - Kennedy and Reagan were media constructions, Reagan particularly. He probably didn't even know what the policies were, but he was a creation of the media. He wasn't particularly popular, incidentally, but the media created the image of this wonderful cowboy who would save us, and so on and so forth.
The Kennedy administration was more in control; they were the first ruling group to understand the power of television and they created a kind of charisma through good public relations: the image of Camelot, this marvelous place, with wonderful things happening, and a great president. When you look at the actual actions, it's grotesque. Kennedy is the president who invaded
So, yes, the Obama phenomenon, I think, reflects the alienation of the population that you find in the polls: 80% say the country is run by a few big interests. While Obama says we are going to change that, there's no indication of what the change is going to be. In fact, the financial institutions, which are his major contributors, think he's fine, so there's no indication of any change. But if you say "change," people will grasp at it; you say "change" and "hope," and people will grasp at this and say, OK, maybe this is the savior who will bring about what we want, even though there is no evidence for it.
NC: So I think the Obama phenomenon and people's alienation go hand in hand.
VN: What would be the difference between a McCain administration and an Obama administration?
NC: McCain is another example of very effective propaganda-creation imagery. I mean, suppose there was a Russian pilot who was bombing civilian targets in
VN: Would you foresee any difference between McCain and Obama administrations in terms of foreign policy?
NC: Yes. McCain may be worse than Bush. He doesn't say much, because you're not supposed to say much about issues, but the few things he has said are pretty frightening. He could be a real loose cannon.
VN: Could you explain the sympathy that
NC: I suppose Europeans are also writing what they want on the blank slate. And it's no secret that they feared and disliked Bush. The American establishment itself was afraid of Bush. Bush came under unprecedented criticism even from officials of the Reagan administration, and from the mainstream generally. For example, when his national security strategy was announced in September 2002, calling for preventive war, virtually announcing a war in Iraq, immediately, within weeks, there was a major article in Foreign Affairs (the main establishment journal) condemning what they called the New Imperial Grand Strategy - not on principle, but because it would be harmful to the United States. And there has been a lot of criticism of the Bush administration as extremist, if not at the far extreme of radical nationalism, and McCain is probably in the same territory. Obama very likely would move back to the center right where the
The Bush doctrine itself, the doctrine of preventive war - you know, brazen contempt for our allies and so on - is an interesting example. The doctrine, however, was not new.
VN: Do you see room for the left in the
NC: I think this country presents an enormous opportunity for organizers. You see this if you look at public opinion, which is very well studied. Your own work on people's opinion on national health programs shows that people want such a program in the
The same is true for a host of other issues. So, as I say, the
The propaganda says that the so-called anti-globalization movement began in
VN: The "anti-globalization" movement has indeed been a splendid movement. But sometimes there's a feeling that maybe it's stuck and paralyzed. What do you think about the idea of establishing a Fifth International, or some form of organization that could come up with an alternative to the current worldwide system?
NC: I've talked at the meetings of the World Social Forum, which are always in the South, and I've mentioned that this movement may carry the seeds of a real International and, in my view, the first real International. What was called the First International was important, but it was highly localized. It was part of
But this is the first authentic International, or at least it seems so. I don't mean just the World Social Forum, but, say, the Via Campesina. The last time I went to Puerto Alegre in
I don't know whether the new International will fail. Perhaps. But its failure would raise the level of action for the next try. So I think it makes sense, what you say. We may see the seeds of the first authentic International, constituted by popular classes from all over, trying to overcome the extraordinary alienation that people everywhere are feeling, in the United States and elsewhere - the feeling that the institutions don't work for us, that they work for someone else. These groups may mobilize and organize, using the freedoms that we do enjoy. That's a very significant prospect.
VN: One thing that is very worrisome is the Americanization of European politics, which I think is happening everywhere. Even the European left has lost its language. For example, even left-wing leaders do not speak about the working class, but about the middle class. Class struggle has completely disappeared from left-wing discourse. So there is a very worrisome development: American political language is now appearing in
This Americanization of European political life seems paradoxical, because it is happening at the same time that
NC: That's a large topic, but let's just pick a few elements. If you look over a longer historical sweep,
This, of course, was associated with racist arrogance of the most extreme kind. And it finally culminated in two world wars. Since the Second World War,
The Second World War was also a sharp shift of global power. The
The Second World War changed all that. The
It's not that the radical democrats lost entirely in
The political classes, the business classes, and so on, don't have any objection to this. What you call Americanization is really the spread of business control. The business classes are quite happy. They're closely integrated. There is some conflict, but they are really closely integrated with the
If you look at the conflict, that is interesting. We supposedly have a free market, or so the ideology says. In fact, we have a state-based economic system. The dynamism of the high-tech economy comes largely from the state sector, places like where we are sitting right now [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], and then it's handed over to private capital to exploit. Sometimes it becomes almost comical. One of the leading exports is civilian aircraft. The civilian aircraft industry is now dominated by two companies, Airbus and Boeing, and they are constantly having battles in the World Trade Organization as to which one gets greater state subsidies. In fact, they are both offshoots of state power. In the
I suspect that, underneath the surface, a class struggle still exists and is understood, and is ready to burst out at any moment. It's true you're not supposed to talk about it. One of my daughters teaches in a state college that has students from relatively poor families whose aspirations are to be a nurse or a policeman, or something like that, for the most part. In her first class she asks them to identify themselves, their class background, give a classifying word. Most of them have never heard this, you're not supposed to use that word. The answers that she gets are "underclass" or "middle class." If your father has job as a janitor somewhere, you're middle class. If your father is in jail, you're underclass. Those are the two classes. That's an ideological trap. The understanding that class has something to do with who gives the orders and who follows them has been driven out of consciousness, at least on the surface. But it is there, right below. As soon as you talk to working-class people, they respond quite promptly because they feel it.
VN: Thank you. I had promised not to take too much of your time. Just one last question, a personal one. A lot of people in the world thank you so much for the work you do, but where do you get your strength? How do you carry on? Here you are, in the center of the Empire, speaking quite clearly to the powerful forces and being silenced, ostracized, marginalized. Meanwhile, all over the world, people admire you, read your work, find it extremely helpful.
NC: I don't feel marginalized in the
VN: I meant marginalized by the power structures.
NC: I don't care about the power structures, that's not where I live. If I wasn't their enemy I'd think something was wrong. That's why I have that picture of the magazine cover [The American Prospect] I described earlier so prominently displayed.
VN: It's the best way to indicate you're doing the right thing.
NC: Yes, that I'm doing the right thing. It's partly that. But what keeps me working is things that are illustrated by some of those photographs over there [pointing]. One shows the worst labor massacre, probably in history. In
That one over there [pointing] is - you know what it is, of course - a painting given to me by a Jesuit priest. On one side, Archbishop Romero, who was assassinated in 1980. In front of him, six leading intellectuals, Jesuit priests, who had their brains blown out in 1989 by U.S.-run terrorist forces who had already compiled a hideous record of massacre of the usual victims. And the Angel of Death, standing over them. That event captures Reagan - not the cheerful uncle. That's the reality of the 1980s. I just put it there to remind myself of the real world. But it's been an interesting "Rorschach" test. Almost no one from the
VN: Thank you. It has been great. You have a standing invitation to come to