M.I.T. professor emeritus Noam Chomsky reflects on eight decades of struggle.   

Progressive changes are going to come. People with power are not going to say thank you, I’ll give it up and hand it over to you. They’re going to struggle to retain their right, their power and domination. The effort to undermine that, which is a constant human commitment, comes from the grassroots typically. That’s where the influence is.   


Source: Soundcloud.com  Saturday, December 28, 2013  zcommunications.org  Noam Chomsky’s ZSpace Page

West: From PRI, Public Radio International in Princeton I’m Cornel West.  Smiley: And in Los Angeles I’m Tavis Smiley.

West: We come to the final chapter in this 3 plus year experiment. It’s been so wonderful working with Tavis Smiley. But we decided to go out with the one and only Noam Chomsky. Of course he’s known to the world for the genius that he is with magnificent breakthroughs and linguistics transformational grammar. He’s known to the world for one of the great democratic intellectuals trying to tell the truth about especially those in power, the mendacity, the hypocrisy and the criminality, be it in Asia, Africa, Europe, America or the Middle East.

We now have him here. He’s 85 years old I’m told you turned earlier this month. Is that right though Professor Chomsky?

Chomsky: That’s right.

West: What a blessing though, brother. I want to just begin with a question about childhood and education. Take us back to growing up as a child and being at the University of Pennsylvania with I think the Nelson Goodmans and Eugene Fontaines and others. What went into the young Noam Chomsky?

Chomsky: I was fortunate in that from about the age 2 to 12 I attended an experimental school run by Temple University along Dewey-ite lines. It was a very creative experience. There was no ranking, there were no grades. There was a structure of the educational system but the student kids were encouraged to develop their own capacities to work with one another, to be independent, creative, to come to learn the joy of discovery and learning. That was a great experience.

I then went to an academic high school which was actually the first time I learned that I was a good student. In elementary school I knew I’d skipped a grade but nobody paid any attention to that. It just meant I was the smallest kid in the class.

In high school it was graded exams, competition. I really disliked it.

I went off to college looking… in my last year I was younger, 16, I looked at the college catalogue. Of course in those days you just went to the local school. There was no… lived at home and worked. There was no question about going anywhere else. The college catalogue looked really exciting so I was looking forward to it.

Then every course I took as a freshman, almost every course just turned me off the subject. It was done in such a boring and unimaginative way. In fact, after about a year I was thinking seriously of just dropping out. I had other interests.

Then I ran into, through political connections I ran into the faculty members, Zellig Harris, very impressive person, who turns out was the leading theoretical linguist in the country. He suggested to me that I start taking his graduate courses. I presumed he was trying to get me to get back into college. I took his courses.

He then suggested that I take graduate courses in several other fields. One of them was Nelson Goodman, who you mentioned, also in mathematics and other areas. I got interested in it. I didn’t really have an undergraduate education. I just pursued personal interests, weaving together different disciplines which I had not much background in. But there were outstanding faculty like the ones I just mentioned. They cultivated independent thinking in pursuit of one’s own concerns.

Then I was lucky enough to get to Harvard for a couple years just for a research fellowship in which I was on my own completely.

Then another stroke of luck, I actually had no credentials but I was able to get a position at MIT which didn’t care very much about credentials. That’s where I’ve been for almost 60 years.

West: Sixty years. My God, my God. When you were at Harvard though did you spend time studying Quine or studying under Quine? Did you have a relation with WV Quine?

Chomsky: Oh yeah. That was the main reason I went there, to study with Quine.

West: Oh, okay, okay.

Chomsky: I took all his courses and got to know him pretty well, though we disagreed about almost everything.

West: I can imagine. I can imagine.

Chomsky: But I learned a lot.

Smiley: Over these 60 years, Professor Chomsky, of being a public intellectual, I’m curious as to how you, I don’t want to say rank or rate, but how would you define the times that we live in? You’ve seen some good days and some bad days. How dark are things right about now in this country?

Chomsky: They’re quite dark. We’ve been through… after the Second World War there was a period of expansive growth, the highest growth rate in the history of the country. It was a fairly egalitarian growth, that is the lowest quintile did about as well as the highest quintile. It was also a period of advances in many other ways. The Civil Rights Movement finally after many years of struggle made some achievements. The anti-war movement developed. There was the beginnings of granting rights to women which had not happened through all of our history. It was a progressive and forward looking period.


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That changed in the ‘70s. There was a sharp reaction, especially by the late ‘70s and through the Reagan years and since. Since then there, just in straight economic terms there has been economic growth. But as you know, it’s gone into very few pockets. For the majority of the population it’s been a period of stagnation or decline. It’s continued through… there was a little change in the late Clinton years but it was mostly based on a bubble, a tech bubble which burst.

The economy has been financialized. The core of the economic institutions these days are financial institutions. They are quite different from what banks used to be. They’re probably a drag on the e
conomy overall. Some analysts may take a much harsher stand. They survive primarily on the basis of government support. The government insurance policy, it’s called informally too big to fail, not only bails them out repeatedly since the Reagan years, but also provides access to cheap credit, to high rankings, to be known to be essentially risk free since the tax payer is going to bail them out.

In fact there was a recent IMF study that estimated that virtually all the profits of the big banks can be traced back to this government insurance policy. In general they’re quite harmful, I think probably quite harmful to the economy. Economists haven’t studied it much so it looks. That’s changed things.

Beyond what’s happening in the country which is ugly enough there are 2 major dark shadows that hover over everything and they’re getting more and more serious.

One is the continuing threat of nuclear war that has not ended and it’s very serious. Another is the crisis of ecological, the environmental catastrophe which is getting more and more serious. We’re racing towards a precipice eyes open, racing towards disaster. It will undoubtedly have a harmful effect, could have almost lethal effects. There isn’t a lot of time to worry about it.

If there ever is a future historian they’re going to look back at this period of history with some astonishment. The danger, the threat is evident to anyone who has eyes open and pays attention at all to the scientific literature. There are attempts to do something about the threat, to retard it. There are also, at the other end, attempts to accelerate the disaster.

If you look who’s involved it’s pretty shocking. In the lead in trying to limit and overcome the potential disaster are the people we call primitive. First nations in Canada, indigenous people in Latin America, Aborigines in Australia, tribal people in India and so on. They’re trying to retard the crisis.

In countries where there’s a substantial indigenous population like Bolivia and Ecuador they’ve actually made some significant progress in this regard. First nations in Canada are leading the effort to prevent the highly destructive use, exploitation of Canadian tar sands. That’s one extreme.

At the other extreme we have the richest, most advanced, most powerful countries in the world like the United States and Canada which are racing full steam ahead to accelerate the disaster.

When people talk here enthusiastically about 100 years of energy independence what they’re saying is let’s try to get every drop of fossil fuel out of the ground so as to accelerate the disaster that we’re racing towards.

The irony of this is shocking. These are problems that overlie all of the domestic problems of repression, of poverty, of tax on the educational system, massive inequality, huge unemployment. If you just take a look at the economic system itself it’s pretty remarkable. There are tens of millions of people unemployed, looking for work, wanting to work. There are huge resources available. Corporate profits are going through the roof.

There’s endless amounts of work to be done. Drive through a city you can see all sorts of things that have to be done, infrastructures collapsing, the schools have to be revived.

We have a situation which huge numbers of people want to work. There are plenty huge resources available, an enormous amount to be done. The system is so rotten they can’t put them together.

Of course the reason is there’s plenty of profit being made by those who pretty much dominate and control the system.

We’ve moved from the days where there was some kind of functioning democracy. It’s by now really a plutocracy.

West: In light of that very powerful but bleak assessment I go back to your powerful and wonderful essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” in the New York Review of books about 1967 or so.

What would be your assessment of the intelligencia in the American empire? Then you said the role was to what, tell the truth and expose lies as well as act. Where are we now when you talk about the dominant tendencies that the intelligencia is on?

Chomsky: The history of intellectuals is not very stellar. Intellectuals are the ones who write history so they kind of come out looking good. If you take a look at the reality it’s quite different.
First of all the term intellectual in its modern usage comes along around the late 19th Century mostly with a Dreyfus swords in France. There are people all the way back who are what we today would call intellectuals.

For example, take the Bible. There were people in the biblical record who were carrying out geopolitical analysis condemning the acts of the evil kings, warning of the disasters that they’re bringing to society, calling for justice and mercy for the weak and downtrodden and so on. People who were called prophets. That translation is an obscure Hebrew word. But they were in our sense dissident intellectuals.

How were they treated? They were driven into the desert, jailed, persecuted, denounced as haters of Israel. That’s the fate of dissident intellectuals.

There were others who were respected and honored. The flatterers of the court. Centuries later, centuries later they were condemned as false prophets but not at the time.

That’s the pattern that exists right to the present.

Going to the Dreyfus swords, we now honor the Dreyfus swords but that wasn’t true at the time. The defenders of Dreyfus were bitterly attacked by the most prominent intellectuals of the day, the immortals of the Academie Francaise, French Academy. Emile Zola, the leader, had to flee the country. Later they were honored, not at the time.

That’s the general pattern almost over the entire world. In Eastern Europe the dissident intellectuals were treated pretty harshly. In U.S. domains in the past 50 years they were treated much more harshly. In Latin America, there they could get their heads blown off by U.S. run security forces. That was monstrous.

In the United States itself or other wealthy developed societies there is a group of critical intellectuals, people like you. But they’re marginalized. They’re not thrown into concentration camps, they’re not killed, but they’re marginalized, disregarded, condemned. Typically the mainstream intellectuals as in the past remain supporters of power. That’s the way it’s always been.

Smiley: Professor Chomsky I wonder if I can cut in here now and ask, I heard, as we all did, your wonderful compliment and tribute to Professor West for his courage. We all agree with that assessment. Because I’ve known him for so long I know how he navigates this, but this is the one question I have always wanted to ask you, to your point because trying to be a truth teller can get you marginalized and demonized.

How have you navigated personally, this isn’t a political or social or economic question it’s a personal question, how have you personally navigated all these years of people not just disagreeing with you but in fact going a step further to deny you the stage. Your voice is one that we so often don’t hear in the mainstream media. You’re the easiest person in the world to find at MIT. It’s not like you’re hiding under a rock. But how do you deal not just with people disagreeing with you but denying that kind of truth telling out of your lips, from your lips, even a platform to be heard?

Chomsky: There’s also a typical stream of condemnation and denunciation. I don’t personally find that much of a problem. When I go home tonight, like every night, I’ll have to turn down with regret a dozen invitations to come and give talks, have interviews and so on. They are highly receptive audiences, people are engaged and active and want to do things, often huge numbers, overwhelming opportunities among the people I care about. These are people who I would really like to be able to interact with. I don’t consider that any kind of problem.

As for the condemnations and denunciations, that’s what happens
to critical dissident activists all the time. As I say, it goes all the way back through history.

For example, when I’m condemned, as I often am, for being a hater of Israel, okay, I’m perfectly happy to take my stand alongside the prophet Elijah who was condemned for that by the epitome of evil in the Bible, King Ahab. Sure, that’s the standard pattern. Disregard it and go ahead and do the things that can be done.

We do have opportunities here, plenty. We should be happy about that. With all the problems of the country it remains in many respects a pretty free country, at least for people with a degree of privilege. Not for say black kids in the ghetto, that’s quite different.

For those of us who have a degree of privilege there’s plenty of opportunities to do things that ought to be done and if you get condemned and denounced and ignored by mainstream media, okay, who cares. There’s more…

Smiley: But how do you influence the debate more significantly if you are denied those opportunities by the mainstream media which arguably most people pay attention to?

Chomsky: Well, I’m not convinced of that. If you take a look at the progressive changes that have taken place in the country, say just over the past 50 years, the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-war Movement, opposition to aggression, the Women’s Movement, the Environmental Movement and so on, they were not led by any debate in the media. No, they were led by popular organizations, by activists on the ground from Snacka to the anti-war activists to the resistance movement to the early feminist groups and so on.

That’s the way it’s always been. Progressive changes are going to come. People with power are not going to say thank you, I’ll give it up and hand it over to you. They’re going to struggle to retain their right, their power and domination. The effort to undermine that, which is a constant human commitment, comes from the grassroots typically. That’s where the influence is.

One of the main reasons I give talks, actually, if I go to some town, is that in our highly atomized society people don’t even know in a particular region that they’re working on the same issues. It’s an opportunity for people to get together. It’s mutual stimulation I learned from it they do. They interact with each other and that’s the kind of influence that’s significant.

Take the anti-Viet Nam War Movement. The way that started in the early ‘60s, I remember very well, I was giving talks in the early ‘60s literally in people’s living rooms to a group of neighbors or in a church with maybe 4 people. Bitter hostility.

In Boston, which is a liberal city, until as late as early 1966 we couldn’t have a public meeting in the Boston Common, even in a church, without being physically attacked and attacked by the media as well. Over time that became a very significant mass movement and it’s lasted.

Ronald Reagan, for example, tried… when he came into office he tried to duplicate what Kennedy had done in the early ’60s in South Viet Nam, almost to a T, followed exactly the same pattern. Had to back off because there was too much public opposition. When Kennedy did it and Johnson there was almost no public opposition. That’s a big change.

What happened in Central America under Reagan was hideous enough. Could have been a lot worse as it was in Indochina. Take the Iraq War, another worst atrocity of the new millennia. This is the first time in the history of imperialism that there was massive public protest before the war was officially launched.

It’s often claimed that it had no effect. I don’t agree. I think it had a big effect. It sharply limited the means that were available to the government to try to carry out the invasion and subdue the population.

In fact it’s one reason why the U.S. ended up really defeated in Iraq seriously. It had to abandon all its major war aims. The major victor in Iraq turns out to be Iran.

That was quite different in Indochina. There the United States actually did achieve its major war aims. That was concerned, the deep concern all the way back to the early ‘50s was that Viet Nam would become a model of successful development that would influence others in the region.
It was presented to the population as the domino theory. If you look back it’s a rational concern that its successful, independent development may induce others to follow the same line. That has to be crushed. That’s one of the major themes of modern history. In Indochina it was crushed. In Central America partially crushed.

In the case of the Middle East it’s just turned into a total disaster. By now one of the worst consequences of the Iraq war was exacerbating, actually largely creating a sharp Sunni-Shia split that existed before but not very much. There was intermarriage, people lived together and so on.

During the Iraq war that grew into a real horror story. It’s now a total monstrosity. Just this week, almost every day you read of dozens of people being murdered. It’s spread over the entire region. There’s now a sharp Sunni-Shia split over the entire region. It’s kind of symbolized by Iran versus Saudi Arabia. It’s tearing Syria apart. It’s having a hideous effect.

The United States is now involved in a global terror campaign, largely against the tribal people of the world. Happen to be mostly Muslim tribes. It’s all over. The intention is to go on and on.
These are all terrible consequences but nevertheless they’re not as bad as they would be if there weren’t public opposition.

West: That’s part of your deep faith in the capacity of ordinary people to think, act, organize, mobilize and resist.

I want to ask you this question, though, Brother Noam. There’s no doubt in my mind that in the years to come when people write the history of the latter part of the 20th Century, first part of the 21st Century that Noam Chomsky will be viewed as one of the few towering intellectual and prophetic figures who tried to tell the truth and expose lies.

Is it true that the 3 pillars that would motivate you would be both prophetic voices out of Judaic tradition, the enlightenment, commitment to science, empirical evidence, conclusions drawn, and then the anarchist tradition that we associate with northern Spain and other places where autonomous organizations of ordinary people, suspicion of concentration of power in the state as well as suspicion of concentrated power in the private sector would somehow inform your own thinking and action?

Chomsky: Very much. In fact that goes back to childhood. Even as a child I was very much interested and followed as closely as I could events in Spain, in revolutionary Spain. Of course I had a limited understanding of it at the time but enough so to be quite upset.

For example, I can remember probably maybe the first political article I wrote which is easy to date because of a particular event. It was after the fall of Barcelona in February 1939. It was a fourth grade newspaper which I was the editor and probably the only reader. Maybe my mother, I don’t know.

I remember the article was about the rise of fascism in Europe started off by Austria fell, Czechoslovakia fell, cities in Spain were falling, not Barcelona fell. Barcelona had been the center of the anarchist revolution. It was actually crushed by the combined forces of the fascists, the communists and the liberal democracies. Nevertheless, the republic fought on, was finally defeated. Final defeat was in Barcelona. That was frightening.

A couple years later when I was a little bit older I was able to spend a lot of time just hanging around anarchist offices and small bookstores in New York. There were a lot of them then. Many of them run by émigrés, some of them from anarchist Spain. I picked up a ton of literature, learned a lot talking to them. Ever since then the achievements of that year of revolution have been inspiration to me as well as the thinking and activism that lay behind it. I think those are very valuabl
e tendencies in human affairs.

Everything else you mentioned as well. The achievements of the enlightenment, the prophetic tradition far back in the Biblical record. I think you can find a thread that runs through that’s of great significance.

Smiley: As insightful as this conversation has been I feel like I’m just scratching the surface on all that there is to discuss with one Noam Chomsky. He is professor emeritus at MIT. His latest text is called On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare.

Professor Chomsky, an honor, sir, to be able to spend this time with you. Thank you so much for taking the time to do it.

Chomsky: Very pleased to have been able to be with you.

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