When Michael Albert went to Poland in 1980, he discovered that the Poles assumed there were two Noam Chomskys. “In linguistics, he’s the Freud,” says Albert, Chomsky’s editor at Z Magazine and a friend since the Sixties, when Albert, then a physics student, was organizing antiwar protests at MIT. “All the branches of modern linguistics stem from his work. And for over a quarter century his political analysis has inspired the peace movement. The Poles had no idea that one person could do all that.”
Maintaining two full-time careers has required sacrifice, of course. On a recent Saturday Night Live, as an obvious plug, one of the actors carried a copy of The Chomsky Reader throughout a skit. Albert telephoned Chomsky to say, “Hey, you’re on television!” and found himself having to explain what Saturday Night Live is. So Chomsky doesn’t know anything about popular culture. He doesn’t watch TV. He doesn’t listen to rock & roll. He goes to maybe one movie a year. He has little time for a private life.
What Noam Chomsky does know about is how the human brain creates language. Consider for a moment that you are now reading and understanding a sentence that you have never read or understood before. Consider that you do this hundreds of times a day in exchanges of information vastly more complicated than the last sentence. How can such a high level of intelligence and creativity — fully in possession of the average person — be explained? “There’s only one answer to that,” says Chomsky. “It’s built in. We’re born with it. If a smart Martian came to Earth, he would see that. He would see that all human languages are the same. The trick is to find the fundamental rules of all languages — a formidable but reachable goal.”
Chomsky has spent his academic career doing highly technical research (anyone for finite automata theory?) in an effort to find those rules, called fixed universals. He theorizes that what we are born with is, roughly, a box of switches in the brain. The culture a child is born into determines how those switches are set. In one pattern the switches become Hungarian. In another, Urdu. In all cultures, the switches start clicking around the age of two, and the child will start producing original sentences much as he or she will start producing secondary sexual characteristics at eleven. A description of that box of switches will tell us a lot about how the brain thinks, which has hitherto been almost a complete mystery.
One of the implications of Chomsky’s work (it isn’t proved yet) is that human language and most behavior are “appropriate but uncaused,” a highly heretical notion in the behaviorist wing of psychology. In other words, we are born with an enormous, unpredictable capacity for creativity, an “instinct for freedom [actually, a term of Bakunin’s].” This concept places Chomsky at the frontier of psychology, philosophy and linguistics and square in the eighteenth-century tradition of the Enlightenment — Rousseau, the Cartesians and other ferocious libertarians.
Believing that the best way to maximize our genetically endowed freedom is through anarchism, which he defines as “libertarian socialism,” Chomsky has been unrelenting in his attacks on the American hierarchy and the nation-state in general. This has made him a prophet dishonored in his own land. One of the most respected and influential intellectuals in the world outside the United States, he is barely known to the average American. His books are rarely reviewed in the major media or standard academic journals. His essays appear only in small left-wing magazines like Z (150 West Canton Street, Boston, MA 02118). Network TV ignores him in favor of the General Electric-approved weenies who appear on Sunday-morning talk shows. When he is mentioned at all, he is usually smeared as a “self-hating Jew” for his devastating criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. He has left the New York Times in an especially vulnerable spot: How to explain that one of the smartest people on earth thinks the newspaper of record is a reeking pile of lies about U.S. war crimes? Even worse, he proves it on a regular basis. With footnotes. Well, there’s just no explanation for such a thing, so the paper ignores him.
Noam Chomsky was born December 7th, 1928, in Philadelphia. His father, William, a Hebrew scholar, had emigrated from a small village in the Ukraine to avoid the draft. His mother, Elsie, was also a Hebrew scholar and a writer of children’s books. By all accounts, young Noam was highly precocious, and his parents had the foresight to enroll him at an experimental progressive school. By the age of ten he was writing editorials defending the anarchists in the Spanish civil war. As a teenager he often took the train to New York to hang out at his uncle’s newsstand, where working-class Jewish radicals would gather to discuss politics and literature. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania and since 1955 has taught at MIT, where he has revolutionized his field several times. By the early Sixties, Chomsky had a very pleasant life carved out for himself: a house in the ‘burbs, a young family he loved and fulfilling scientific work. Then he noticed the Vietnam War and began speaking against it long before it was physically safe to do so. He refused to pay his taxes (a protest he continued until the mid-Seventies) and helped to organize Resist, which counseled young men against the draft. When Dr. Benjamin Spock was put on trial for just that, Chomsky was an unindicted coconspirator. In 1967 he shared a jail cell with Norman Mailer after a demonstration at the Pentagon. In The Armies of the Night, Mailer noted that Chomsky, “although barely thirty, was considered a genius at MIT.” Mailer saw him then as “a slim sharp-featured man with an ascetic expression, and an air of gentle but absolute moral integrity.” The description remains apt.
Now sixty-three, Chomsky maintains a grueling schedule. By day he does his teaching and research. Several nights a week, in church basements around the nation, he gives lectures on the evils of U.S. foreign policy. In the isolated subculture of the genuine left, a Chomsky lecture will galvanize the atomized and leave a residue of moral energy for months. And he writes books faster than most of us read them. A good place to start is The Chomsky Reader (Pantheon), a collection of biting and often hilarious essays. His latest book is Deterring Democracy (Verso), a stunning evisceration of U.S. policy toward the Third World. If you prefer TV, you might try Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (Necessary Illusions, 10 Pine West, No. 315, Montreal, PQ H2W 1P9), an excellent two-part video biography. And many of his lectures are available on audiocassette (David Barsamian, 1814 Spruce, Boulder, CO 80302).
Oddly, he does not consider himself a writer. “I don’t practice any craft,” he insists. He says he hasn’t even read his essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” published in The New York Review of Books (which won’t touch him now) in 1967. It was transcribed by a student from one of his off-the-cuff talks. Yet it defined the peace movement as much as any document and pushed the name Chomsky up there with Thoreau and Emerson in the literature of rebellion. What is the responsibility of intellectuals? “To speak the truth and expose lies.”
QUESTION: Let’s start with the title of your latest book, Deterring Democracy. What do you mean by ‘democracy,’ what do our rulers mean by ‘democracy,’ and why are they deterring what you mean by ‘democracy’?
CHOMSKY: Well, like most terms of political discourse, democracy has two quite different meanings. There’s the dictionary meaning, and then there’s the meaning that is used for purposes of power and profit. According to the dictionary, you can say a system is democratic to the extent that citizens have ways to participate in some meaningful fashion in decisions about public affairs. That’s not a yes or a no matter. You have a lot of different dimensions in different societies. In the ideological sense of democracy — the Orwellian sense, in which the word is actually used — a society is democratic if it’s run by business sectors that are subordinated to the business sectors that run the United States. If it has that property, it’s a democracy. If it doesn’t, then it’s not.
So, for example, Guatemala in the early Fifties was a capitalist democracy in the dictionary sense of the word. In fact, it was one of the most democratic governments in the Third World anywhere. It had lots of popular support, there’s no doubt about that. Read the CIA analyses. One of the things they were worried about was that the government had so much support. But Guatemala was following policies of which the United States did not approve: independent nationalism, domestic development, land reform and so on. This was harming the interests of the elements that the United States regards as the natural rulers — they being the business classes that are linked to U.S. corporations and the military, insofar as they follow U.S. orders. Therefore the United States had to overthrow that government in 1954 to safeguard what we call democracy.
Or Nicaragua in the Eighties, to take a more recent case. An election occurred there in 1984, in fact, but not according to U.S. ideology. In newspapers, in journals of opinion, there wasn’t an election. The first election was in 1990. In historical reality, there was one in 1984. There has probably never been an election in history so closely investigated. The Latin American Studies Association, the professional association of Latin American scholars, did its first detailed analysis of any Latin American election. The Dutch government, which is very reactionary and pro-American, sent a delegation. The Irish parliament sent a delegation. Masses of observers. And the general conclusion, even by the most reactionary of them, was that this was a pretty effective election.
QUESTION: I recall reading arguments in Z Magazine that there was more democracy in Nicaragua than there is in the United States during most presidential elections.
CHOMSKY: In the dictionary sense, that is certainly arguable. In the formal sense — did the voting machines work and so on — it doesn’t compare with the U.S. It’s a Third World country. But it is quite common in Third World countries for there to be a broader range of choice than in the United States. That’s because we have a democracy in the Orwellian sense. The government doesn’t come in and stop candidates, but the breadth of choice is very narrow. Which is what we call an efficient democracy.
Anyhow, that election in 1984 did not take place, because it did not satisfy the condition that the U.S. could determine the outcome. In fact, the U.S. tried to disrupt the election in every possible way. The contras, who were just a terrorist force run by the U.S., did what they could to disrupt it. And did. They attacked polling booths and so forth. There was a U.S. candidate, a banker who had spent most of his life in the U.S. According to the press here, he was the popular candidate. There was no evidence for that. When it was clear he wasn’t going to win, he was induced to withdraw. He was on the CIA payroll, it later turned out. And then the press here says, “Oh, there was no election, the major candidate withdrew.” It was pooh-poohed as not a real election, which made it legitimate to go on attacking Nicaragua. Somoza didn’t bother us, but this bothered us.
Then when the 1990 election came along, the country had already been driven into total misery. It had been virtually ruined by the combination of contra attacks and economic warfare that was probably even more lethal. When Nicaragua announced the election, the White House announced pretty clearly that a vote for the U.S. candidate would mean an end to economic strangulation.
Meanwhile, in violation of the agreement of Central American presidents that the U.S. terrorist forces should be disbanded, we continued to maintain the contras. This was called “humanitarian aid,” which the World Court had already ruled was military aid. But that was only the World Court. And again we have the Orwellian question of what is law and what isn’t. So we made it clear that the contras would continue their terrorist attacks unless the population voted our way. And then under conditions of terrorist attack and economic strangulation, an election took place. They voted George Bush’s way, so that was an election. You can argue about why they did it. But the White House made it clear: “If you vote our way, you’ll survive. If you vote the other way, Ethiopia will look good in comparison.” Therefore, that was a free election. And the first one, which the U.S. could not control, wasn’t a free election. Incidentally, there was something like unanimous agreement on this in the United States across the articulate spectrum.
QUESTION: Everyone from Michael Kinsley to Patrick Buchanan, the full range of opinion, from left to right.
CHOMSKY: Anthony Lewis. Everybody was just euphoric about the outcome of this democratic election. The New York Times was particularly funny. They had a headline saying, AMERICANS UNITED IN JOY — the kind of headline you’d see in some weird, exotic, totalitarian state, like Albania. Maybe. Another headline said, VICTORY FOR U.S. FAIR PLAY, meaning, “Vote our way or you die.”
So you take your choice. Which language are you going to talk — English or Orwell? Orwell himself didn’t have the imagination to think of these things.
QUESTION: Well, Nineteen Eighty-four was as much about the United States and England as it was about Stalinist Russia.
CHOMSKY: He may have meant it that way, but the only reason he became admired was that you could interpret both Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm as being just about the Soviet Union. That made him acceptable.
QUESTION: Do you get sick when some far-right ideologue like Norman Podhoretz cites himself as being in Orwell’s tradition of standing up to power and seeing through propaganda?
CHOMSKY: Given the part of Orwell that Podhoretz is talking about, he isn’t being completely unrealistic. He’s interested in the part of Orwell that was condemning the official enemy. But you might just as well say that Podhoretz is in the tradition of every Soviet commissar. Any Soviet commissar would condemn U.S. crimes. In fact, you could read Pravda and have tears rolling down your cheeks at the terrible treatment of blacks in the American South or American crimes in Indochina. They’re just terribly emotional about U.S. crimes. Just as Norman Podhoretz is terribly emotional about their crimes.
But honest people, whether in the Soviet Union or here, will care about the crimes of the state that they are a part of and for which they bear some responsibility. We understand this when we talk about the Russians. We don’t honor Russian party hacks who condemn American crimes. We honor Soviet dissidents who condemn Soviet crimes. Except we don’t apply that same logic at home. That would be inconceivable. That would be rational. And honest. And if you’re rational and honest, you’re pretty much excluded from the educated classes, from the privileged classes. Those are properties that are very dangerous.
QUESTION: If you read the standard conservative columnists, they’re very consistent about taking anything that connotes good and attributing it to power and anything that connotes bad and attributing it to the poor or some other scapegoat.
CHOMSKY: Yes, it’s very consistent. And it’s the exact analogue of what you find in Pravda in the days of Stalin. But in the Soviet Union under Stalin, you could sort of understand why somebody would be a party hack or else shut up. It was just too dangerous. Try to be an honest person, you end up in the gulag. Try to be an honest person in the United States, nothing much will happen to you.
QUESTION: Here, they make you poor.
CHOMSKY: And they can vilify you. There’s a penalty involved. But it’s nothing like being tortured or murdered. Here, it’s a lot easier. That means the people who don’t do it here, particularly the privileged ones, are at a much lower moral level than the worst commissars under Stalin.
QUESTION: Why is there less murder and torture here? If you look at Central America, our leaders are plainly capable of it. My interpretation of the Sixties — events like Kent State, the assassination of Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers, the framing of Geronimo Pratt — is that those events were meant to send the message that the death squads can operate here, too.
CHOMSKY: You have to understand the nature of American society. There was assassination of Black Panthers. The worst case I know of was the assassination of Fred Hampton. It’s striking that they would pick him. The Panthers, like a lot of groups that come out of the ghetto, were a very mixed group. They ranged from ordinary thugs to serious organizers who were regarded as a real threat. Fred Hampton was an effective organizer in the Chicago ghetto. He was one of the main targets of the FBI terror campaign, and they ended up killing him with the cooperation of the Chicago police department after an FBI setup. But you’ll notice nobody cared about that. For example, that didn’t come up in the Watergate hearings. Nobody said to Richard Nixon, “Wait a minute, you organized the Gestapo-style assassination of an organizer in the ghetto.” What they said in the Watergate hearings was: “You called a powerful guy a bad name. The Constitution is collapsing.”
So Fred Hampton could be assassinated. But privileged whites did not get assassinated, even ones who were very outspoken. That reflects the nature of American society. It is not a totalitarian state. It is a very free society that is off toward the capitalist end of the spectrum. It’s not pure capitalist society, of course. Such a society couldn’t exist for a week.
QUESTION: Don’t you think that if the left ever gets its act together in the Nineties, we’ll see more of that sort of government activity?
CHOMSKY: No, I don’t think so.
QUESTION: Not like COINTELPRO?
CHOMSKY: Well, COINTELPRO, yeah. COINTELPRO was differentiated. COINTELPRO directed against blacks was murder. Against whites it was disruption, defamation, circulating stories about sexual conduct, things like that. That was a big difference, and the difference had to do with who is privileged and who is not privileged. In our society, people with power and wealth are relatively free. Freedom is a commodity, like anything else in capitalist society. You have as much of it as you can buy. And if you’re wealthy and the right color, you can buy a lot. The privileged people who actually run the country, they don’t want the state to have power to go after people like them. So they’ll actually protect the civil rights of people they hate if they come from the right class.
QUESTION: Do you ever wonder about the psychology of these American commissars? You’ve written about the filtering process by which the obedient rise to the top and the disobedient end up elsewhere, but I wonder what goes on in their heads.
CHOMSKY: I don’t think it’s that hard to figure out. All the people I’ve ever met, including me, have done bad things in their lives, things that they know they shouldn’t have done. There are few people who say, “I really did something rotten.” What people usually do is make up a way of explaining why that was the right thing to do. That’s pretty much the way belief formation works in general. You have some interest, something you want, and then you make up a belief system which makes that look right and just. And then you believe the belief system. It’s a very common human failing.
Some people are better at it than others. The people who are best at it become commissars. It’s always best to have columnists who believe what they’re saying. Cynics tend to leave clues because they’re always trying to get around the lying. So people who are capable of believing what is supportive of power and privilege — but coming at it, in their view, independently — those are the best.
The norm is that if you subordinate yourself to the interests of the powerful, whether it’s parent or teacher or anybody else, and if you do it politely and willingly, you’ll get ahead. Let’s say you’re a student in school and the teacher says something about American history and it’s so absurd you feel like laughing, I remember this as a child. If you get up and say: “That’s really foolish. Nobody could believe that. The facts are the other way around,” you’re going to get in trouble.
QUESTION: Do you remember the fact you came up with?
CHOMSKY: Well, this happened so often. I got thrown out of classes…not a lot…I don’t want to suggest it was any real…there are people who did it constantly, and they end up as behavior problems. You raise too many questions, you ask for reasons instead of just following orders, they put you in certain categories: hyperactive. Undisciplined. Overemotional. It goes all through your education and professional life. A journalist who starts picking on the wrong stories will be called in by the editor and told: “You’re losing your objectivity. You’re getting a little too emotionally involved in your stories. Why don’t you work in the police court until you get it right?”
That does start in childhood. If you quietly accept and go along no matter what your feelings are, ultimately you internalize what you’re saying, because it’s too hard to believe one thing and say another. I can see it very strikingly in my own background. Go to any elite university and you are usually speaking to very disciplined people, people who have been selected for obedience. And that makes sense. If you’ve resisted the temptation to tell the teacher, “You’re an asshole,” which maybe he or she is, and if you don’t say, “That’s idiotic,” when you get a stupid assignment, you will gradually pass through the required filters. You will end up at a good college and eventually with a good job.
QUESTION: To me the question is, Why is that one kid more resistant to lying to get ahead? There is such a thing as moral courage. Some people have it and some don’t.
CHOMSKY: There are individual differences which we don’t understand. Just like we don’t understand why some people like math and some people like rock & roll. Fortunately for the human race, people are very different from one another. If we were all alike, life wouldn’t be worth living. Probably a lot of the differences are genetically determined. Some of them have to do with the effect of early training on your genetic endowment. There are all kinds of reasons. Nobody understands a word of this, so you can speculate or have any intuition you like.
On the other hand, there are some things that if we’re honest, I think we’ll recognize. One of them is the capacity to form beliefs that are self-serving and then to believe those beliefs. If that’s a major feature of your intellectual makeup, chances are you’ll go far.
Take that issue of the New York Times Book Review (October 20th, 1991) and look at the review of the James Reston memoir. It says this was a man that everybody admired, had an independent eye, hated the Vietnam War and so on and so forth. The fact of the matter is, James Reston made a career out of having lunch with Dean Acheson and writing a column the next day from what Dean Acheson told him to say. And that was called an “insider’s scoop.” Very profound. As for hating the Vietnam War — he loved it. He was writing articles about how we were defining the principle that no people should be subjugated to anyone else. And our Creator endowed us with that destiny. The most embarrassing trash. But it doesn’t matter. I’m sure whoever the reviewer was believes everything he was saying. And if he didn’t believe it, he wouldn’t be the reviewer.
QUESTION: It was Fred Barnes of The New Republic.
CHOMSKY: I don’t know him. Maybe he thought he was telling the truth. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he’s laughing.
QUESTION: You’ve never watched him on the Sunday talk shows?
CHOMSKY: No, I’m afraid I can’t tolerate that. I wouldn’t know him from Adam. Without knowing him, I suspect he believes it. My point is, the only people who make it to where they will be allowed to express themselves in that august medium are the ones who have already demonstrated their own subordination to power.
There are some journalists, I should tell you, who are very well aware of this and are trying to work within a system of power and authority that they understand very well. You know people like that. And I know people like that. I think it’s very honorable to see what can be done within the institutions, despite their hierarchical, authoritarian structure.
QUESTION: During every election you read these heart-rending editorials about why it’s so important to vote for whatever office happens to be on the ballot. Yet no one ever asks the question of why, if it’s such a great idea to vote for your senator, it would not be an even greater idea to vote for your boss.
CHOMSKY: No, that’s out. A crucial part of the ideology is that you’re allowed to criticize Congress, the president, local politicians. You’re allowed to say they’re all crooks. But you’re not allowed to say that the corporate system is at the heart of it all. In fact, you’re not even allowed to see that. No, the idea of voting for your boss is just off the agenda.
But if you really believed in eighteenth-century libertarian doctrine, the doctrine of the Founding Fathers, that’s just what you’d be asking. They were not just opposed to a powerful state. They were opposed to concentrations of power. It happened back in their day that the concentrations of power that were visible were the state and the feudal system and the church, so that’s what they were against.
In the nineteenth century a new concentration of power came along that they hadn’t paid a lot of attention to, namely corporate power; that had a degree of influence and domination over our lives well beyond what the Founding Fathers could have foreseen. Yet their principles would lead you to ask exactly that question: Why should we be subordinated to the boss? Why should investment decisions be in private hands? Why should private power determine what is produced and what is consumed and what are working conditions? Why should you follow orders? Why shouldn’t everybody participate democratically and decide what is to be done?
QUESTION: Whenever the Times or any other newspaper writes about the destruction of the ozone layer, they present it as this unavoidable tragedy, like an earthquake or a hurricane. Yet the chemistry of what chlorofluorocarbons do to ozone molecules has been known since 1973. Du Pont and our political rulers have been stonewalling, and now we’re in a situation where hundreds of thousands of people are going to die of skin cancer and get cataracts. If these chemicals had been manufactured in Eastern Europe, we’d surely be blaming communism. But the idea that capitalism did this to us…
CHOMSKY: Did this in its natural workings. Not out of corruption. It did it because what drives the system, and what’s supposed to drive the system, is tomorrow’s profit. People who think about long-term effects are out of the system, by its very nature. And that’s supposed to be a good thing. In the economics literature, future lung cancers are called an “externality.” It doesn’t show up in the market system. When you’re selling chemicals, you’re supposed to be maximizing profit for the stockholders. And if you’re not doing that, it’s immoral. You don’t maximize profit by worrying about people getting cancer in twenty years. If you do worry about that, you won’t be chairman of the board very long. That’s the way the system is built, and it’s admired because of that property. Ask Milton Friedman. If Du Pont had started to worry about the ozone layer and had shifted their resources to deal with it, somebody else could well have driven them out of business. That’s the nature of the system.
This is not a very profound comment. A twelve-year-old can understand it. But they better not. Just like they better not understand that there’s a question about why you shouldn’t be allowed to vote for your boss. Why have a boss at all? Why not have collective decision making? Nobody’s shown that it can’t work. Take any successful scientific enterprise — and MIT is one — people work together. I taught a class yesterday, and I was standing up front and the students were down there, but they were telling me things as much as I was telling them things. And they come in afterwards and tell me that I’m wrong. And then we try to figure it out. That’s the way that you make progress. It’s just taken for granted. If we had a system in which I was telling them what to think and they were not allowed to tell me when they thought I was off the wall, we would have nonsense.
QUESTION: What is the practical difference between an anarchist and a Marxist? The wisdom of having a vanguard party?
CHOMSKY: I’m completely opposed to that. First of all, Marxism, in my view, belongs in the history of organized religion. In fact, as a rule of thumb, any concept with a person’s name on it belongs to religion, not rational discourse. There aren’t any physicists who call themselves Einsteinians. And the same would be true of anybody crazy enough to call themselves Chomskian. In the real world you have individuals who were in the right place at the right time, or maybe they got a good brain wave or something, and they did something interesting. But I never heard of anyone who didn’t make mistakes and whose work wasn’t quickly improved on by others. That means if you identify yourself as a Marxist or a Freudian or anything else, you’re worshipping at someone’s shrine.
If the field of social and historical and economic analysis was so trivial that what somebody wrote a hundred years ago could still be authoritative, you might as well talk about some other topic. But as I understand Marx, he constructed a somewhat interesting theory of a rather abstract model of nineteenth-century capitalism. He did good journalism. And he had interesting ideas about history. He probably had about five sentences in his entire body of work about what a postcapitalist society is supposed to look like. Insofar as he has a legacy of actual policy and organizing, that’s Leninist, which is probably the most reactionary wing of Marxism. Lenin was a pretty orthodox Marxist and, as I read him, never really believed that socialism was possible in Russia. The iron laws of history mandated that it come about in the advanced industrial societies. In fact, he and Trotsky moved very quickly to squash and destroy the socialist tendencies in the Russian Revolution: factory councils, anarchist worker organizations.
Lenin’s idea was that you have a group of revolutionary intellectuals, who are the smart guys, and they’re to drive the society to a better future, which the Slavs are too dumb to understand. That’s basically the idea, which is not all that different from the ideology of capitalist democracy. You can almost interchange them. If that’s Marxism, we ought to be very much opposed to it. In my view, socialism was dealt an enormous blow in Russia in 1917, from which it has yet to recover.
QUESTION: You once pointed out how it was in the interest of both the United States and the Soviet Union to claim that what was going on there was socialism.
CHOMSKY: Oh, yeah. Very much in their interest. For the U.S. it had the obvious purpose of defaming alternatives to capitalist autocracy. And for the Soviet Union it had the benefit of giving the moral appeal of socialism, which was enormous. So for both power systems it was very utilitarian to propagate this outlandish lie that the Bolshevik revolution was socialist. If socialism means anything, it means worker control over the means of production and decision making. That’s the minimum.
QUESTION: Have you ever thought about giving up? A lot of my friends have concluded that people are just sheep. I say that if that’s so, we might as well join the Republicans, steal as much money as possible and live comfortably.
CHOMSKY: If there’s nothing to be done. Well, we don’t know if there’s anything to be done or there isn’t. Outside of science, nobody knows a lot about anything. Especially when it comes to human beings, we know almost nothing except what you feel intuitively or what your experience tells you. But if you look over history, you can see definite improvement in the past twenty or thirty years. I think there’s been a cultural revolution in this country, and people in power are scared to death of it.
That’s why there’s all this comical stuff about political correctness. It’s a kind of joke; it’s so silly. Here are people who have run the ideological system with an iron hand, and then in some literature department somewhere, somebody says something that isn’t orthodox, and they go crazy. I must have read 200 articles about this new orthodoxy taking over the universities, destroying the golden age of absolute freedom of speech. I haven’t read one article defending it. If this is an orthodoxy that has taken over everything, how come everybody is attacking it? To the simple mentality of a commissar, this idea won’t occur.
This stuff about the quincentennial is interesting in this respect. There’s a big fuss now about the “left fascists,” who are dumping on Columbus and denying all the wonderful things Columbus brought. What they’re saying is, for 500 years we went along, denying two of the worst acts of genocide in human history, maybe the worst act — the destruction of the Native Americans, which was tens of millions of people — and the destruction of large numbers of Africans through the slave trade, both of which got their start through Columbus. We’ve been celebrating genocide for 500 years, and that’s not a problem. The problem is that the left fascists are now reversing it.
Anyone with a gray cell ought to be saying, “Thank God the left fascists are taking over and trying to get this straight.” Virtually no one is saying that, of course. Our more educated circles are as retrograde as they ever were. That the controversy is taking place now is a reflection of a very substantial improvement in the cultural climate.
QUESTION: Is that the true legacy of the Sixties?
CHOMSKY: The Sixties left an enormous legacy. Do you think there would have been a word of protest about the quincentennial if it hadn’t been for the Sixties? Would there have been one person who stood up for Anita Hill and said, “This is a form of sexual harassment”? That’s why everyone hates the Sixties. It might lead to real democracy. There was a phrase for it in the Seventies. It was called “the crisis of democracy.” The crisis was that people weren’t apathetic and passive anymore. They’d become organized and were trying to do something. This was the liberals, incidentally, who wrote the book The Crisis of Democracy, the people around Jimmy Carter, the Trilateral Commission.
The important aspect of the Sixties to understand is that the heroes were mostly people you never heard of: the Freedom Riders, the SNCC workers, the guys who were down there week after week getting their heads bashed in for organizing. In the Vietnam movement there was never any illusion about leadership. The leadership was whoever showed up. We’re not allowed to understand that now. We are meant to think of popular movements as things that grow out of individual leadership and individual charisma. The reason we are meant to think that is that it disempowers people. It makes them think they can’t do anything for themselves.
QUESTION: I’d like to ask you about another of your detractors. When Bill Moyers interviewed Tom Wolfe on PBS, Wolfe accused you of subscribing to the “cabal” theory of capitalism. In Deterring Democracy you refer disparagingly to his description of the Reagan era as “one of the great golden moments that humanity has ever experienced.”
CHOMSKY: For people at his income level, that’s quite true. In my view, it was crucially responsible for — not 100 percent — the catastrophe of capitalism that just devastated the Third World in the Eighties. It was what they call the “lost decade” in the Third World. Tens of millions of people suffering and dying. In just the years 1980 to ’88, South African terror around its borders, supported by the United States, was responsible for about a million and a half people killed. If you count up the children who died of malnutrition as income levels dropped, you get a real monstrous toll. It’s bad enough what happened in the United States, if you look at any group other than the privileged. If you add all that up, it’s been a very ugly period. A person who could call that one of the golden moments in history… well, take Germany in 1939. A person who could call that one of the golden moments in history, we’d know what to think of him.
QUESTION: Did you read Paul Johnson’s book Intellectuals?
CHOMSKY: It was quite comical. He concludes there that my opposition to the Vietnam War was deduced from syntax. He literally says that. You have to be technically insane to be able to say a phrase like that.
QUESTION: I’d like you to respond to one quote from it: “Throughout the 1960s, intellectuals in the West…became increasingly agitated by American policy in Vietnam, and by the growing level of violence with which it was executed. Now therein lay a paradox. How came it that, at a time when intellectuals were increasingly willing to accept the use of violence in the pursuit of racial equality, or colonial liberation, or even by millenarian terrorist groups, they found it so repugnant when practised by a Western democratic government to protect three small territories from occupation by a totalitarian regime?”
CHOMSKY: Who were we saving it from? We attacked South Vietnam. There were no Russians, no Chinese, weren’t even any North Vietnamese in the beginning. We attacked South Vietnam. That’s saving? We brought Cambodia into the war by attacking it. We attacked Laos. For the sake of argument, let’s forget that North Vietnam is Vietnam. Let’s even forget that the government he says we were defending, Saigon, claimed that Vietnam was one indivisible country — that was article 1 of the constitution that the United States wrote for them. Let’s forget all that stuff, and let’s pretend that North Vietnam was the most monstrous society in history. We were attacking South Vietnam. As a commissar and party hack, Paul Johnson can’t see that. He’s not alone. Nobody can see it. The fact that the United States attacked South Vietnam, though trivially true, is just not a part of consciousness.
I remember a couple of weeks ago in the New York Times Book Review, there was a review of a book by Zalin Grant, a book about a Vietnamese collaborator. It was very laudatory about this man. He had collaborated with the French. Then he collaborated with the Americans. According to the book, around 1961 or 1962 he devised a technique by which the United States client regime sent out death squads to murder political organizers for the Viet Cong. These were called “counterterror teams.” Talk of the level of perversity here. We invade another country. We set up a puppet government which everyone admits had no popular support. We send out death squads to kill their political organizers in their country, and our death squads are called counterterrorists. That appears in the New York Times, and nobody bats an eyelash. That says a lot about our intellectual culture. Against this background, Paul Johnson can write such perfect nonsense, mirroring his models in Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. And Norman Podhoretz will think it’s fine.
QUESTION: Do you vote?
CHOMSKY: I tend to vote down at the lower levels, local officials, state representatives. Occasionally, I vote for president. I did vote against Ronald Reagan.
QUESTION: You voted for Walter Mondale?
CHOMSKY: I voted for whoever was running against Reagan. The Democrats could have nominated Charlie McCarthy, and I would have voted for him over Ronald Reagan and George Bush, because they’re dangerous people. Well, not so much they themselves. Ronald Reagan wasn’t president. It was a dirty secret that the reporters kept for eight years. During the Iran-contra hearings the Democrats were kind of surprised to discover that the president lied and nobody cared. That’s because the population is sane. What difference does it make if this pathetic clown was told, or remembered, what the policy was. He wasn’t supposed to know what was going on. He was supposed to show up now and then and read his lines. Maybe they told him, maybe they didn’t. There could hardly be an issue of less significance.
But the point is, the people around him were extremely dangerous. They call themselves conservatives, which is nonsense. They’re radical statists. They believe in a very powerful and violent and obtrusive state.
QUESTION: Do you have any wisdom on the current election campaign?
CHOMSKY: It’s like one of the worst Third World elections. Take Honduras. Literally. They always have two rich guys with the same program, and the campaign consists of insults and comedy and circuses. There isn’t any pretense of public involvement.
QUESTION: The only thing I like about Clinton is that he evaded the draft, and they’re using that to nail him.
CHOMSKY: The one sensible thing that Clinton did in his entire life, and he’s unwilling to stand up for it. It reminds me of Dukakis and the ACLU. The most shameful PR initiative in ’88 was that line about Dukakis being a “card-carrying member of the ACLU,” which implies that if you’re in favor of the Constitution, you’re a Communist. And Dukakis wouldn’t say that. All he would say is: “No, I’m not really a member of the ACLU. I don’t really believe in the Constitution.” That was his only response, and that’s what this thing is like. I have a feeling that the Democrats can’t compete on this one. They’re both business parties, but the Republicans make no claim of being anything else. The Democrats have all these pretenses about being the party of the people, and that keeps them so confused that they can’t win these propaganda wars.
QUESTION: Will you bother to vote in November?
CHOMSKY: There is an issue that would make me vote — the prospect of another four years of court packing with ultraright jurists who hate civil rights. The court system has collapsed. The ACLU will simply not take cases to the federal courts anymore. Another four years of this will institute — I’m not joking — a fascist-style legal system in which civil rights just don’t exist. If there’s another issue, I can’t find it.
QUESTION: The other night I was watching TV and a commercial came on for shock absorbers. The slogan was “It’s not just your car, it’s your freedom.” I thought of you and your theory that people have an “instinct for freedom.” Madison Avenue and our politicians must believe the same thing, because whenever they want to sell you shock absorbers or beer or a war, they try to associate it with freedom.
CHOMSKY: Sure. They know that’s what people want. Like everything about human nature, you can’t prove it. But in my experience and intuition, that’s correct. People want to be free, independent, not oppressive, don’t want to rob other people. I think most Americans would be horrified if they knew what they were doing in the world. And I think that’s the reason for this whole edifice of lies.
It’s an obvious question: Why don’t our leaders tell the people the truth? When they’re going to destroy Iraq, say, why don’t they announce: “Look, we want to control the international oil system. We want to establish the principle that the world is ruled by force, because that’s the only thing that we’re good at. We want to prevent any independent nationalism. We’ve got nothing against Saddam Hussein. He’s a friend of ours. He’s tortured and gassed people. That was fine. But then he disobeyed orders. Therefore, he must be destroyed as a lesson to other people: Don’t disobey orders.”
Why don’t they just say that? It has the advantage of being true. It’s much easier to tell the truth than to concoct all sorts of crazy lies. Much less work. Why don’t they say that? Because they know that people are basically decent. In fact, that’s the only reason for all the fabrication. Our leaders believe that people are decent and that there is hope. And I think they’re right. In fact, the more distortion and lies and deceit you hear, the more you know that people have an instinct for freedom.