Interview with Professor Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Allison Kilkenny and Jamie Kilstein

Citizen Radio, May 13, 2009

Kilstein: [If Barack Obama is] neutral and doesn’t do anything radical, so let’s say by the next election, we don’t have universal health care, or we’re not out of the slump. Do you think that this was kind of our chance, and do you think that if things are, let’s say, the same — stagnate — that [Republicans will] just be able to use that and completely …

Chomsky: Well, I think if people are still feeling — I mean they have a very good reason to feel that something’s wrong. There’s a reason why 80% of the country thinks it’s going the wrong way. It’s been the worst period of economic history.

Kilkenny: But it’s just misdirected.

Chomsky: Well, it’s misdirected, but you could say the same thing about Nazi Germany. You know, it wasn’t the Jews … and in this case, it’s even more plausible. If it’s the rich liberals who own Wall Street, and run the government, and run the media, give everything to the illegal immigrants, don’t care about us sort of “fly-by” people, and that sort of thing.

Kilkenny: But at the same time, it’s also “Socialism,” the fear of Socialism. So you have the fear of the rich —

Chomsky: It’s the rich. [laughter]

Kilstein: That’s kind of a massive contradiction.

Kilkenny: Sure

Chomsky: It’s no more crazy than the belief — the very widespread belief on the left — that the Republicans stand for free markets, which is totally ridiculous. Reagan was the most protectionist president in post-war American history. But it’s kind of drummed into your head over and over. I read it even in the left journals.

Kilstein: Last time we talked a lot about religion and economics, and first of all, thanks for doing the show so soon again. We want to rename the show “Chomsky and Friends” [laughter]

Kilkenny: Leach off your name

Kilstein: Every time you’re not on just say, “He’s not feeling well today.” I’ve heard you talk a lot about how a lot of the people you grew up with didn’t have a high school education. You’ve often said that they were just as educated as the people you went to Harvard with, or you met at Harvard, and these kind of higher institutions, and I wanted you to talk about the difference between self-education and formal education, and how a lot of the times formal education can lead to apathy.

And the second part of the question is for someone whose new to politics, which a lot of our audience is because they were sort of disenfranchised the media, and what not, where a good place to start is because I think sometimes when you want to get into it, you’re so overwhelmed, and you just feel like you’re being lied to, and you just don’t know where to begin.

Chomsky: It’s pretty much the same answer in both cases. It wasn’t self-education. These were my unemployed, working class relatives. They were parts of organizations. A lot of them were in the Communist party. We misinterpret the Communist party as a result of decades of propaganda. For them, the Communist party didn’t have that much to do with Russia. Yeah, okay, so they said some things about Russia, but they really didn’t care. It had to do with unemployment, with civil rights. For my seamstress aunts, it was a place they had a social life. They could spend some place in the summer for a week. They had educational activities, cultural activities, so it was kind of a community. A community, bound together not by ethnicity, or having been through the Second World War, or something, but by common ideals. And they were progressive ideals. The unions were very intimately related to it.

In that general milieu that these people grew up and became educated. But it’s not really self-education. It’s mutual education in a culture of support and creativity. And remember too that in those days, unlike now, left intellectuals (many of them Communist party intellectuals, famous physicists and mathematicians, and so on) were involved in popular education. They were writing really good books worth reading today like Mathematics for the Millions, J.D. Bernal’s books on physics, and so on. It was just part of an interrelated culture that involved left intellectuals and working class people, some of whom had very little in the way of formal education. Some got through high school, but some didn’t even get through elementary school. Even there, it was self-education, but in a community — a community of emigrants, left emigrants fleeing from Europe, who would hang around these groups. One of them was one of my uncles, who never did get past fourth grade. He had a newsstand. He was disabled, so under the New Deal programs, he was able to get a newsstand. But it just became a center for émigré, educated émigré life. Psychiatrists, doctors, professionals, they would hang around, and he was a bright guy, they liked him, and would have discussions. He ended up getting quite an education.

Kilstein: Do you see anything similar to those groups today? Or do you think if you don’t have a college education, if you don’t have a high school education, do you think it’s possible to obtain that kind of knowledge by reading, or do you think there really is something to a support group and gathering?

Chomsky: Doing these things alone is extremely hard. There’s been a huge effort — I don’t know if it can be called propaganda — the whole doctrinal system is geared towards atomization. You know, be out for yourself, get as much as you can in the way of consumer goods, and forget about everything else. But it means there’s very little in the way of community. You can see it in all kinds of ways. Say care for the elderly. In those days, it was just taken for granted. People get older; they live with their families instead of in nursing homes. My grandfather lived with his daughter until he was 95. He was totally impossible, but they just worked it out and the family took care of him. But you were part of a group, and I think there still are pockets of ethnic communities that are like that. But these were not just ethnic. They were also — especially the ones I’ve been talking about — social, cultural, political, and so on. All of that’s been torn apart. People are very much alone, and on your own, it’s extremely hard to do anything.

And that goes back to your other question: Where do I start? If somebody comes in here and says, “I’m interested in biology. Where do I start?” You can’t start alone. You can’t start reading every biology journal in the world. You have to know what you’re looking for. You have to develop a framework of understanding, and that takes interaction. That’s how science works. Take the work on this floor [at MIT] or almost anywhere here, take a look around. People are working together. You go out to the room there, you’ll see one guy standing at a blackboard, and another guy talking to him, stuff like that. You work things out together. Maybe Einstein could do it himself, but even that wasn’t true. There was a very complex community including his wife who did a lot of the stuff, but it’s very hard to be thrown into a complicated world and say, “Where do I start?” And if there are real, live social structures that you can be a part of, you can work at your own ideas, hear what other people have to say … that’s how a democracy — that’s what unions were in many ways.

Part of the passion about breaking unions, which is overwhelming, is it does leave people alone. Even unions in the United States, which is distinct from other countries, had this highly self-centered character to it. You can see it in the breakdown of the healthcare system.

Take Canada and the United States, very similar societies. Canada has a functioning national healthcare system. The United States is alone in the industrial world in that it doesn’t. Part of the reason for that is the difference in the ways the unions acted. If you go back to the initiation of the healthcare system in Canada came from the labor unions. Except, what they fought for is healthcare for everyone. The American unions fought for healthcare for themselves. So UAW got a good social welfare package: healthcare, pension, stuff like that, for themselves. Not for anyone else. Part of this deep indoctrination into “We’re all in it together,” “no class struggle,” there’s only one group of people who are highly class conscience: business. So they’re always fighting a bitter class war. But everyone else is supposed to be classless. The unions were willing to just trust management. Since we’re all in it together, you guys will take care of us. Well, you can see what happened. Management decides, “Sorry, game’s over.” They ended up with nothing. If they had worked for social welfare for everyone, it wouldn’t be a utopia, but at least there would be some functioning system for everyone.

My own feeling is that’s part of the reason why there’s such a constant effort to try to malign and undermine social security. For example, a lot of young people think that it’s unfair that they have to pay for elderly people, which is true. Social security takes money from working people and gives it to elderly people. Now, any civilized society would say that’s very fair. They were working, they took care of you when you were young, why shouldn’t you take care of them when they’re old? This sense of immoralism is really driven into people. In fact, a lot of young people think they’ll never get social security because they’re drowned in propaganda about how the system’s collapsing-

Kilkenny: So we have to privatize it.

Chomsky: … but it’s as healthy as it ever is. Tweak it a little, it’ll go on forever. There’s a constant effort to privatize it, get rid of it, and I think part of the reason is that social security is residue of that sense of community that was alive in the 30s. You really should take care of each other. Form the CIO, that’s for everybody, not just me. Labor slogans are: Solidarity, not: I Gotta Get What I Want. Social security fortifies it. It relies on it, and also fortifies it. From the point of view of the class warriors in the business world, that’s dangerous. You really want people to be atomized. If they’re atomized, they’re controlled. You can’t control people by force anymore, but you can get them to focus on nothing but maxing out five credit cards, okay you got them under control. They don’t talk to anybody. They have no ideas. They don’t think you can do anything. If you want to talk about American exceptionalism, that’s what it is.

Kilstein: That would be an awful UAW slogan: “I Gotta Get What I Want.” [laughter]

Chomsky: And now they’re stuck with it. There was a time around 1979, or so, when Doug Fraser, the head of UAW — You know, UAW was getting smashed for something or other, I forget for what, he came out saying, you know, I never realized this before, but you, management, you’re fighting a class war. And sure, they’re always fighting a class war. They’re vulgar Marxists, basically. But everyone else is supposed to think it’s classless. Harmony. Americanism. That kind of stuff.

Kilkenny: Speaking of American exceptionalism, America always likes to present itself as this great democracy, but in fact, in South America, we see actual democratic movements happening. What do you think the central difference is between an American culture where we vote to uphold leader that don’t really represent us, and a South American culture where leaders represent the people?

Chomsky: I think the most democratic country in the world right now is Bolivia. So the United States is trying hard to undermine it. But if you think about what happened in Bolivia in the last ten years, it’s pretty astonishing. The most repressed population in the hemisphere (the indigenous population), which happens to be the majority, and has been totally marginalized for 500 years, ever since the Spanish, they managed to get themselves organized, active, and elected a president from their own ranks. Not some rich guy. They elected a poor farmer. They developed programs, and the programs are serious, everybody knows what they are. You’re not waiting for some leader to tell you, “Here’s the programs.” On crucial issues: cultural rights, justice, multiculturalism, control of natural resources, really basic things. And furthermore, election is just one day in an ongoing process. On that day, you push the levers, but then you go back to the struggle you were part of before, struggles against privatization of water, and all sorts of things. That’s real, functioning democracy. So of course, the old elites are trying to break it up, and the U.S. is supporting it. We don’t know exactly how much because USAID will not release information on who its funding, but you can be pretty sure that it’s funding the quasi-secessionist sort of mostly white elites in the eastern provinces to try to break up the system of democracy.

And our system is almost the opposite. Policies don’t come from the public. They come from above. The public isn’t supposed to know about them, and usually doesn’t. So campaigns are run so they keep away from issues and talk about personalities, body language, and rhetoric, and that sort of thing. The front page of the New York Times has pictures of Michelle Obama wearing a designer dress in the morning, and a different one in the afternoon. That’s what you’re supposed to be interested in, not what’s happening with healthcare, and what’s happening is extremely interesting.

I don’t know if you saw this, there’s a Senate committee — a [Max Baucus (D-MO) committee — which is meeting on healthcare, and they had a session several days ago, which fortunately was filmed by CSPAN.

Kilkenny: We say that. The protesters.

Chomsky: I asked a friend who does database research … no coverage. It was astonishing. Here’s health care reform. The only people who testified-

Kilkenny: The blogs picked up on it. The mainstream media ignored it entirely.

Kilstein: Just watching the Senators laugh at them.

Kilkenny: Actually, I forget what Senator it was, but he said, “We need more police.” And everybody laughed. They thought it was great.

Chomsky: I didn’t see it, but people told me about it. That sounds incredible. And that’s the Obama administration. That’s our kind of democracy. It’s none of your business. And these guys are doctors, after all. They’re not just the general population, though they do represent the general population. The polls for fifty years have shown that a large majority is in favor of [healthcare reform], but they’re not part of the system. In fact, it’s even interesting in the way that the Obama campaign, and the media, have pictured Obama’s populist triumph. There were articles, after the election, that talked about how he had this army of people he’d mobilized, and so on. But the tone of them, at least the ones I saw, including the campaign itself, was that this is really important, now the Obama army is awaiting instructions. We’re going to tell you, “Here’s the next thing on our agenda. You go out and push the doorbells. Push for brand Obama.” That’s what they call it, in fact. That’s a straight totalitarian concept. But that’s called a new model of democracy here. Even the primaries work that way.

Kilkenny: So why do you think in Bolivia they could see how democracy works?

Chomsky: For one thing, they’ve been fighting about it for 70 years. It goes way back. They had a very radical tin miner’s union. In fact, they technically had a Trotskyite government in the late 40s and early 50s. The U.S. managed to co-opt it in various ways.

It’s kind of interesting, if you look back at the history. In the late 40s, the internal U.S. records identify two major problems in Latin America. One was Bolivia and one was Guatemala. In both countries, which had traditionally been nice dictatorships, there were bad things happening. In Bolivia, it was the tin miner’s union. In Guatemala, they had the first signs of democratic revival ever. It was about the same problem in both cases. But the government reacted to them in different ways. In Guatemala, they just threw out the government and imposed a military dictatorship. In Bolivia, they realized — correctly, as it turned out — that they could co-opt the government. They acted in a supportive manner toward the government by bringing them into the U.S. system and separating them away from their working class base, and giving them privileges, and so on. It ended up a dictatorship, and the two systems ended up the same way, but with different techniques. And those were the two problems because both of them had democratic movements. It was just understood. You can’t tolerate that. What’s different now is that the U.S. can’t do much about it. It’s forced now to accept governments that it would have overthrown 40 years ago.

Kilkenny: When Evo Morales is on The Daily Show, it makes it difficult to disappear him.

Chomsky: Well, [Lula da Silva, the President of Brazil’s] positions aren’t very different from the Brazilian government that the Kennedy administration organized a coup to overthrow. It’s just that now the U.S. doesn’t have the power to do it. And it’s a little on another level. It’s kind of like what we were talking about before. The countries are getting organized, and they’re even getting integrated for the first time. Latin America has been very separated. I mean, road systems, everything else, but there’s a move towards integration, and that’s a prerequisite for independence just as in personal life social organizations are kind of a prerequisite for independence of thought.

And also they have other options now that they didn’t have like China’s an option. The European Union’s an option. Trade is diversifying. Other connections are diversifying. The U.S. has basically weakened its two main weapons: one was violence (overthrow the government) and the other was economic strangulation, which doesn’t work as easily so the U.S. is compelled to tolerate and even pretend to approve of governments it would have opposed like Brazil.

Kilstein: My next question was about the twenty-four hour news networks, but just to tie it into this real quick, do you think that maybe part of the reason in places like Bolivia they did accomplish everything they did, and the people worked together, is because they didn’t have this kind of twenty-four hour news network either just throwing out propaganda, or having them scared about swine flu instead of health insurance, and they just didn’t have that constant barrage of fear and government memos?

Chomsky: If you look at the media — I don’t know about Bolivia specifically — but in most of Latin America, the media are very right wing. Venezuela must be the only country in the world where the major media not only oppose the government but want them hung and quartered. You don’t have media like that in any other country. But that’s been true in Latin America for a long time because it’s the nature of the societies. There’s a very high concentration of wealth, huge poverty, and the media is in the hands of the rich. So, yes, of course they’re ultra-right wing. How much they reach the population, I don’t know.

Kilstein: I guess it is just us [laughter]

Chomsky: I’ve been told that radio and television are even worse. I’ve looked at the print media.

Kilstein: I wanted to ask you about our media. We were watching the pretty famous debate between you and William F. Buckley, and right afterwards– the contrast was really weird — right afterwards we watched Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, who is kind of known as the left’s hero now, but he’s never actually debated anyone with opposing views on his show, and I wanted to ask do you see the new liberal pundits like on MSNBC for example as being either important as kind of conduits of information that we might not hear on other news networks, or do you see them as left wing versions of FOX news, and a substitute for actual independent journalism?

Chomsky: I really can’t say because I’ve never seen them. [laughter]

Kilstein: That may be for the best.

Kilkenny: Yeah, I think it is.

Chomsky: I think they’re on cable.

Kilstein: Yeah, they are. No, that’s better. We’ll go with that.

Chomsky: I hear about them from friends.

Kilstein: Well, it’s this really bizarre thing where they kind of just do the same thing that the right does where instead of actually going out and doing journalism like say an Amy Goodman, and bloggers like Glenn Greenwald, they instead just kind of make fun of the right wing like FOX News makes fun of us. And then, I think the scariest problem is now everybody kind of assumes we have our liberal voices, right? But because they’re on MSNBC, and because they’re owned and their bosses are these giant corporations, by default there are going to be some things that they aren’t allowed to say, so it kind of puts us at ease because we have our voices but then-

Chomsky: Do they interview left wing activists?

Kilkenny: Never activists. They’ll have left wing personalities, so like a comic whose left wing, but never a Greenpeace activist or anything.

Chomsky: People like Howard Zinn?

Kilkenny: No, certainly not Howard Zinn.

Chomsky: See, that’s the difference with — you know, Amy you get information from. It’s not just that she makes fun of somebody. She doesn’t make fun of people. She says, look, here’s thing you don’t know about. Why are there Somali pirates? If toxic wastes are being dumped in the water, and the multinationals are fishing out the waters illegally, then yeah, people have to survive. You certainly don’t hear that in the press.

Kilstein: No, it’s the opposite. One of our biggest left wing people, Rachel Maddow, whose very liberal on social issues, so people just kind of assume she’s gentle, when the pirates came up, she–

Kilkenny: It was gross. It was just Navy Seal worship.

Chomsky: Really?

Kilkenny: Yeah, showing the graphics of [the Seals] shooting [the pirates] in the heads.

Chomsky: That’s kind of an interesting case because there’s quite a background there. Part of it, which I think Amy did show — I didn’t see it, but people told me she showed it — was that it’s the direct result of illegal overfishing and toxic dumping by Europe and — mainly Europe, but probably Saudi Arabia and others, which drives the fishermen out of the water.

But there’s a further background. During the so-called War on Terror, the Treasury department found a charity — a big charity, which they claimed was funding terrorists. So that was their big triumph. They closed down this charity. I mean, they later conceded that they were wrong, they weren’t doing anything, but it turned out that this charity they helped close down was keeping Somalia alive. It was a major source of income for Somalia, and it even was developing banks, and businesses, and so on. So when they pulled the rug out from under them, that really shafted the economy, not much of an economy to begin with, but when you pull out a big segment like that, it’s harmful.

Kilkenny: Do you think it’s ever acceptable to use military intervention, and how do you think the military should be used in the case of a situation like genocide in Darfur or the Taliban’s takeover of the Swat valley [in Pakistan]?

Chomsky: First of all, those are different cases. Darfur — It’s a good question why Darfur is such an issue. I mean, there’s a lot of killing in Darfur. The numbers are apparently mostly made up, but it’s substantial. On the other hand, it isn’t a fraction of the dead in Iraq, let’s say, and it isn’t even a tiny fraction of the dead in the Congo right near by. So why is there a huge campaign about Darfur, and not one about a hundred times as bad about the Congo, and one a thousand times as bad about Iraq? Because we’re doing them. It’s not for pretty reason, I think.

In Darfur, it’s presented as a morality play. Poor blacks being killed by bad Arabs. There’s no such differences, but you’re supposed to hate Arabs, and it’s sort of nice to be in favor of the blacks. There are “Save Darfur” committees all over the place, but apparently not much funds — if anything — goes to Darfur. So it’s become a huge morality play. Now, what are you going to do with intervention?

In fact, one of the decent things the Bush administration did — there weren’t many, but there were some — one of them was that it did help negotiate a partial settlement of a major civil war, the north-south civil war. There were other complexities in the western (inaudible) of Darfur, in Sudan. It’s very complicated multiethnic problems, problems between nomads and farmers. Desertification is driving the nomads off their land, and they had a kind of organic interaction with the farming communities in the past, but it’s just become extremely hostile.


… It’s striking that the few people who know something about Sudan are against military intervention like Alex de Wall or Mahmoud Mamdani, and others. They actually have — probably because they know something about it. (inaudible)

So military intervention: the answer is that they need political settlement, and economic aid, and so on.

The Taliban in the Swat valley … again, it’s part of a much bigger issue. First of all, what we call Taliban are probably — to a large extent — just the northwest tribes. They’ve never accepted central government control. Ever. They have never accepted the Durand Line, the line that separates Pakistan from Afghanistan.

It cuts right through Pashtun territory. For them, it’s as if we — somebody outside power separate Cambridge from Boston. (laughter) There are Taliban there. Also, that’s just one of the uprisings that’s tearing Pakistan apart. There’s a big revolt in Balochistan (southwest area of Pakistan) that’s been put down very brutally.

There’s disturbances in Sindh (southeastern area of Pakistan), the Pashtun (people of southeastern and northwestern Pakistan, constitute the majority of Afghanistan) hate the Punjabi (people in the region straddling the border between India and Pakistan)

The army’s mostly Punjabi. It’s a very difficult situation. Foreign invasion — even if it’s conceivable, which it isn’t. I mean, there’s a reason why the US is using drones. It’s an internal Pakistani problem, and it’s a much bigger one than just Swat Valley.

There’s a segment [in Pakistan] that’s radical Islamists, but it’s a small segment. It’s a pretty democratic country in many ways. When you have a vote, the vote is against the radical Islamists. On the other hand, the people in these areas — it’s a feudal society. A tiny percentage of the population has all the wealth. There’s tremendous poverty there.

There’s no functioning society. There’s no security, there’s no health, there’s no nothing. No agricultural support. When these so-called Taliban come in, they are brutal, but at least they impose some kind of order, which apparently for many people is better than nothing. That’s one reason the (inaudible) is not sending the army after them. It’s using Special Forces and air force probably because they just don’t trust the army (inaudible) there’d be sympathy for [the Taliban].

And in fact, we have a big hand in that. That’s one of Reagan’s legacies. It’s never been pretty in Pakistan. The US has supported military dictatorships all along, but in the Reagan years it went out of control. Pakistan had a vicious military dictator, Zia ul-Haq, who wanted to radically Islamize the country, so money was pouring in from Saudi Arabia, which is a very extreme, fundamentalist version of Islam, different than the softer Sufi kind they had in Pakistan. They had madrasahs all over the country where kids are doing nothing but studying Koran and becoming Islamic extremists, and Reagan was pouring money in.

It was also Reagan — or whoever in his administration who was doing these things — they were pretending Pakistan wasn’t developing nuclear weapons. They knew perfectly well that they were, so that they could keep the flow of funds from (inaudible) Congress. The purpose of it was to kill Russians. They said so. The Russians were in Afghanistan; this was a great opportunity to kill them. It wasn’t to help the Afghans. In fact, they armed them, but they were killing plenty of Russians, so if Afghanistan and Pakistan go down the tube, somebody else will worry about it.