Q: We asked some Middle School students to submit questions. We framed it around the idea that you are a philosopher. They can identify with what a philosopher does … think about the big questions. So, these are questions from kids …
NC: I was in California a couple weeks ago and my daughter-in-law wanted me to give a talk to a group of Cub Scouts; so I gave a talk to a bunch of eight year olds.
Q. How long was the talk?
NC: It stopped as soon as they got up and started walking around.
Q: Actually, the first question we have is from a seven year old.
NC: OK. I only talk to eight year olds.
Q: Beyond the seven year old, the questions are from Middle School students, 12, 13, 14, but I was talking with a friend’s seven year old daughter and I mentioned that we would be interviewing you, and tried to give her a little context, and I asked her, “If you were sitting down and asking Noam a question, what would you ask.” She said, “Hmmm … that is easy … I would ask ‘Why are we here?'”
NC: There are two views about that which go back to classical Greece, maybe before. One is we are here for the same reason that rocks and trees and grass are here. That is just the way the rules of nature worked out, and they happened to lead to us just like they led to other things.
The other answer, which goes back to Aristotle actually, is that everything in nature has a purpose and a function. And the purpose of rain is to let crops grow. That is its essence, and so on for everything else. And the purpose for humans is to be rational and thoughtful and to live “a considered life” thinking about how to do the right thing. And then Aristotle drew some pretty ugly conclusions from that. He said that is only true for educated Greeks. Others are not fully human. And for some, he said, their purpose is to be slaves. Their purpose is to serve the “real humans,” and therefore we should not deprive them from their function. So, to liberate slaves would be criminal … even the failure to enslave people, so they can fulfill their function as providing service to real humans, that would be immoral. But, we are here because the creator assigned us a function. Then there are variations of these.
The modern view among educated people who pay attention to what has been discovered about the world is the first one. We are here for the same reason that other things in the universe are here. It is the way the laws of nature work.
Q: And that would be the Chomsky view?
NC: Yes, that is my view.
Q: Along those same lines, should we assume that humans are more important than other animals on the planet?
NC: The fact of the matter is we do assume that. There is a kind of intuitive view that almost everyone has, even for people who do not believe it in the rational side of their minds. That is a view which is traditionally called The Great Chain of Being. There is a Great Chain of Being and at the top of it is God, the creator, and right below it is angels. Right below that are humans and then you keep going down until you get to worms, and plants, and the bottom of the Great Chain of Being.
You even see it in the sciences. For example, there is a lot of work in trying to teach apes the rudiments of language. Nobody tries to teach humans the rudiments of bee communication. It would seem ludicrous, what would be the point? It is just as ludicrous to try to teach apes bits of human language. We do it because intuitively we tend to think of the world in terms of the Great Chain of Being. So apes are kind of less evolved than humans, which is totally false. Just as bees are not less evolved apes. We’ve all evolved the same amount of time; we’ve just evolved in different ways. But this intuitive conception that somehow we are the ruling species … and then of course it differentiates further.
So, some of us are real humans, others are not real humans, or semi-humans, and a lot of ugly things come out of that. It is all pretty deeply engrained. Something like that is true of just about every culture that has been found. Maybe not with all of this differentiation … but something like it. It is completely irrational. It is kind of like our seeing the sun go around the earth. You can’t help seeing it even if you know it is false. We all know it is false, but you just see it; or, seeing the moon illusion; so the moon looks bigger on the horizon when it comes up. OK, rationally we know it is not any bigger, but you can’t help seeing it as bigger, and we somehow can’t help it … since it is cognitive rather than perceptual we can overcome it, but only with a great effort can we overcome the conception of the universe in terms of something like the Great Chain of Being. And it shows up all the time.
Q: So, you don’t really believe in inter-species communication?
NC: There is nothing to it at all. We are not any more evolved than protozoa, just in a different line. In many ways, they do a lot better than we do. Actually, if you take a look at this morning’s newspaper, there is a recent discovery that cockroaches have evolved in such a way as to overcome the main poisons that are used to kill them. The poisons are based on the idea that certain things are bitter and cockroaches keep away from them. Rapid selection has shifted their sensors around so that things that are supposed to taste sweet taste bitter, so they don’t go to them and therefore the poisons don’t work. So, they are doing better than we do. We can’t evolve that way.
Q: To take the Devil’s Advocate position for a second, suppose there are other sentient species on this planet besides human beings, and not to say that we are the best, or at the top of this chain, but you don’t see any value in trying to communicate with other species?
NC: Sure, you can communicate with your pet dog, and your pet dog can communicate with you, and does, and there is nothing wrong with it. But the idea of trying to compel apes to mimic in a rudimentary way what humans do is scientifically just as interesting as training humans to communicate in a rudimentary way the ways that bees do which nobody would ever dream of because we think of ourselves intuitively as somehow higher than bees, although they can do all kinds of things we cannot do, cognitively as well. Like you and I can’t navigate as well as an ant.
Q: So, this is from a fourteen year old living in a world in which they are constantly surrounded by tragedies, and the reality of human mortality, it is a simple but complex question: how do we make sense of dying?
NC: Well, it has been a big problem throughout reflective human life, probably all of human life. In most cultures and societies it is just understood as part of life. Whoever asked the question has to work it out for himself. I know the way I did. How old are they?
NC: When I was that age I was terrified of dying. What struck me as terrifying was not that I would die but that this point of consciousness would die so the whole world would disappear. Because, after all, there is nothing out there except what I perceive and if that consciousness disappears everything disappears. What happens then? Over time you get to recognize that it is just part of life. As you get older, at least to me, it seems less of a problem.
Actually, just to illustrate, dramatically, last night I came very close to dying, closer than I realized. There was carbon monoxide. I’d forgotten to turn the car off and closed the garage. The garage is under the house and carbon monoxide was seeping into the house, you can’t smell it, it is odorless. Actually, I would have died except for the fact that Bev Stohl had put a battery into an alarm that I didn’t even know was there, and the alarm went off. And I managed to get the car off, but it was that close. So, if it had happened, it would have happened.
Q: But … that is tragic … if it would have happened.
NC: Well, you know, I don’t see it that way anymore.
Q: How do you see it then?
NC: It is just one of the things that happens in life. Life goes on for everyone else.
Q: What about the contributions you are able to make because you are here. For example, we would not be sitting here talking today. And that would be a tragedy.
NC: The same is true of everyone else. Everyone has contributions to make; every animal has contributions to make. OK, so the way the universe works is you have a fixed time on earth and then it is over. And it just doesn’t seem tragic to me anymore like it used to. Actually, my brother, who is a doctor, and does a lot with elderly patients, tells me that at the very end, constantly, they really fight for life, as much as they may have decided that they don’t think it matters.
Q: Do you think that has something to do with human consciousness?
NC: Have you ever seen a fly in a spider web? It is really fighting to get out. I don’t think flies are thinking about it much.
Q: Let us extend it a bit because this question came out of the context of young people looking out at a world that is constantly immersed in human tragedy. So I think in the background of this question, for young people, is “how do we make sense of a world in which we are constantly bombarded with tragedy?” For example, for most of human history, it seems, if a tragic event happened even fifty miles away you would never hear about it. Now, you turn on the radio in the morning and it is one tragedy after another … constant bombardment …
NC: Well, that is selection. I mean, you don’t see in the front pages of the newspaper that there is a happy couple fifty miles away who just had a lovely baby and they are just overjoyed because this wonderful creature just entered their lives and changed them totally, but that is not a news item. But that doesn’t mean it is not happening.
So, the world is full of all sorts of things. What it should do, I think, is impel you to try to do what you can to mitigate the tragedies and pay attention to what we may have to do with the tragedies, which is often a lot, and see if we can do something about them so there will be more happiness and joy and promise for the future and less suffering and less tragedy.
We happen to be in a position where we can do a lot. Right here we are citizens of the most powerful state in human history. It has enormous potential for good and for harm and we can shift the balance if we try and we can make a lot of difference.
There are a lot of tragedies you don’t read about. So, for example, we read about the genocide in Rwanda. 800 days, 10,000 people killed every day. We don’t read about the fact that in Southern Africa alone, forget the rest of the world, just Southern Africa alone, about the same number of children are dying every day from easily preventable disease or malnutrition. They could be saved for pennies per day from the rich countries. But we don’t read about that because if we read about it we would have to do something about it, and we could. And that is only one case. That is Rwanda every day, and just in Southern Africa, and just children. We could do something about it. And that is only one case.
Q: In a way this points to the tragedy of last evening because if Noam Chomsky perished last night that would be one less voice in the world willing to have the courage to address what most people are unwilling to address.
NC: Then others should do it. It doesn’t take any special skill or talent or even courage. It doesn’t take any courage to say this.
Q: With all due respect, I think you are being overly modest.
NC: Well, I’ve got a lot to be modest about (laughter).
Q: We will slightly modify a question from a student. If we are the only sentient creatures on this planet, why are we destroying the environment?
NC: Probably for that reason. The fact is, we are a very unusual species. There is nothing like it ever through all of evolutionary history and in the world today. Animals, and plants of course, generally, typically live in the world that is presented to them. They are presented with a world that is fixed. They have internal ways of reacting to it, and that is pretty much it. To some minor extent they modify the world, but not much, and not voluntarily. We are different. We live in a world that we mentally construct.
So, yes, we react to the world but we also create mental images and thoughts and plans and intentions which allow us to deal with the world in a totally different fashion. Language is in fact a crucial factor. That is why paleoanthropologists, people who study human origins, typically think of language as the defining feature that separated humans from the rest of the organic world and sent them off in a very different direction.
Now, if we look at our history (and by “our history” I mean way back before there were humans), modern humans, before homo-sapiens, going back to our origins it is a very predatory and destructive species. So, back as far as we can trace it, where pre-humans, or proto-humans, where they spread, large animals disappeared, mega-fauna, big animals, because they were killed. A couple of hundred thousand years ago there were many different hominids, creatures like our ancestors, our ancestors were one of many groups … we are the only ones that survived. The only one, and the reason for that may be, nobody really knows, is we just killed the rest of them off.
Geologists break up the geological past into eras. So, there was the Pleistocene era from 2 ½ million years ago up to about ten thousand years ago. Then there is the Holocene which is ten thousand years ago up until now, except now they are introducing a new one called the Anthropocene which is on humans, the human era, which is from maybe 1750 until today, and that is the period when we began radically modifying the environment, so much that it is a new geological era, and we’re destroying it in fact.
But just take a look at these eras, and I could have gone farther back. As you go through the eras each one gets shorter. And the Holocene is very short, and the Anthropocene is like an instant of geological time and it may not last long because we may end it pretty soon. So, why are we doing it? That is the way we are using our intelligence, just as proto-human intelligence was used to kill big mammals. It is not a pretty picture. And we can control it of course, because we do have this capacity to kind of create the world in which we function, but it has to be understood and used.
And it is pretty striking to notice what is happening right now, before our eyes. There is no serious doubt that there is a very serious environmental crisis coming. You can debate details but the general picture is clear. There are people who deny it of course, but nevertheless it is extremely hard to deny if you are at all serious. And there are people reacting in different ways. There are some who are reacting by trying to do something about it and arrest the disaster or maybe save the prospects for a decent survival. And there are others who are trying to race forward towards disaster. It is quite interesting to see who they are.
The ones who are trying to save the species from disaster are the ones we call “primitive,” “tribal peoples,” “aboriginal,” first nations people in Canada, Adivasi tribal peoples in India, they are trying to save the planet, and in fact in places where they have a degree of power they are actually doing something about it. Bolivia happens to be in the lead in trying to do something. There the indigenous population is actually a majority, and by now there are even Constitutional provisions for what they call “rights of nature;” nature has rights we have to preserve which is an aspect of traditional societies that shows up in one way or another.
Ecuador, which has a large indigenous population, and an influential one, Ecuador is an oil producer, and right now they are trying to get assistance to keep the oil in the ground where it ought to be. They are trying to get assistance from the richer countries to enable them to do that which they probably won’t get. Well, that is happening all over the world, opposition to mining, to resource destruction, to fossil fuel use, everywhere.
Go to the other extreme, the richest and most powerful countries in the world, like the United States and Canada, particularly. We are leading the race to disaster. When the president and the political opposition are euphoric about what they call a hundred years of energy independence they are talking about a hundred years of race toward destroying the environment, because that is what it means. Of roughly a hundred relevant countries, the United States and Canada are probably the only ones who have no national programs for limiting fossil fuel use, no national conditions on renewable energy. We can’t say others are doing magnificently, but at least they are doing something. We’re not.
So, you have on the one hand a race to disaster, kind of like the proverbial lemmings going off the cliff, led by the richest, most powerful, most advanced, most educated, and supposedly enlightened sectors of the world, and on the other hand you have an effort to prevent the disaster, to mitigate it, to deal with it, coming from those we call primitive and uneducated. If there is ever a future historian they are going to look back at this period with amazement.
Q: You said that started around roughly 1750, this race to disaster, does that correspond to the growth of capital as well?
NC: Industrialization, which quickly became capital. The Holocene begins about the time of the rise of agriculture and the receding of the ice ages which coincided.
Q: It was announced recently that we have passed a dangerous climate threshold.
NC: Yes, 400 parts per million CO2. We have reached what has been regarded as a threshold from which there may be no return. It is a very serious finding. It’s been coming. There has been plenty of evidence for it. If you follow these things closely, every issue of a science magazine has some new serious warning. A couple of weeks ago there was a report in Science, the main science weekly in the United States, that there had been the first studies of 500 years of analysis of permafrost, of Siberian permafrost. And you can detect how climatic warming affected the melting of the permafrost. And according to the conclusions of this article, which are pretty dire, even the anticipated level of warming, not the projected ones, the conservative anticipated level, even that would be sufficient to melt the permafrost which means allowing the escape of enormous masses of methane which is even more destructive than carbon dioxide, and that sets off an escalating process that could just take off.
Q: From a 13 year old, and in some sense you’ve addressed this, but they ask it in this manner. You have mentioned that “the fate of the species is at stake,” and that might mean that our future as young people is at stake, so what can we do as young people to ensure that we even have a future?
NC: Well, I don’t want to be too alarmist about it. It is not that the species is going to die off. It will mean that the conditions for what we regard as minimally decent existence may sharply deteriorate. So, for example, all of Boston could be under water. Of course, for poor countries such as Bangladesh it is an utter catastrophe for hundreds of millions of people. In South Asia the glaciers are melting in the Himalayas. If that melting reaches a certain point, South Asia, with hundreds of millions of people, could become unlivable. These are really serious consequences. Humans will survive but in a very different world. So what can we do about it? We can do what the so called “primitive” people are doing, arrest it. You don’t have to lift every drop of hydro-carbons out of the earth. It could stay in the earth where it ought to be. And, we could devote our energies not to wasting as much fossil fuel as we can but to developing alternatives which will allow a survivable society. It is technically feasible, it is a matter of choices, and we have the choices. And young people, the questioner is exactly right, this generation may already begin to see it in a serious way … their children even more so.
Q: When you were addressing a roomful of eight year olds, what was the general topic of discussion?
NC: I talked about this in a way that I hoped was understandable to eight year olds.
Q: What was topical for them?
NC: What is topical for them, unless somebody gets them to think about it, is just what is immediate, like “can I get an iPad?”
Q: Or an ice cream?
NC: Probably an iPad is more likely. (laughter)
Q: Suppose they were sitting here, how would you take up these issues with eight year olds?
NC: Essentially what I just said, which you can say at any level. You can talk to graduate students in the sciences, or you can talk to eight year olds at one level or another. It is the same issues. I don’t know if I am the one to do it properly but you can try to do it. You can do it with your own children, which we did in fact.
Q: If someone suggested that the United States is moving more and more toward forms of fascism, would you find evidence that it is true?
NC: Oh yea, very striking evidence. In fact, I never really expected much from Obama, I thought it was mostly hot air, but one thing has surprised me and that is the intensity of his attack on civil liberties which goes beyond any rational explanation I can think of [unintelligible] … and it shows up in a lot of ways. Some of the ways are very dramatic and not having to do with the Executive Branch, it is the way the society and the economy are developing.
So, for example, a couple of weeks ago there was an article in the New York Times “Business Section,” maybe you saw it, on something called “Google Glass.” Google is manufacturing glasses, they may be on the market already, which have a small computer embedded in them, a tiny computer, which allows you to be on the Internet twenty-four hours a day. That in itself is such an indictment of modern society I don’t even want to talk about it. But, it is worse than that because this device also takes photographs of anything that is going on, and I presume either already or soon it will take recordings of everything that is going on. So everything that is going on around the person wearing this thing goes up on the Internet.
The reporter asked Eric Schmidt, one of the founders of Google, whether he didn’t think this was an invasion of privacy. And his answer I think may be the slogan of the coming age. His answer was “Well, if you are doing something you don’t want to be on the Internet then you shouldn’t be doing it.” I don’t know if fascism is quite the right word, it goes beyond that … this conception that anything has to be public, and to some extent I think that is seeping into the consciousness of young people. I don’t look at Facebook but people who do tell me the exhibitionism of young people is just frightening … anything has to be on the Internet, anything I do. And the conception that everything has to be public goes beyond anything that Big Brother ever thought about.
If you look at the technology journals, like the MIT Technology Review, you see more and more of it coming out. So there was a news item in a recent issue which said that corporations are beginning to be cautious about using computers with parts that are manufactured in China because it is now apparently technically possible to build into the components of a computer some device that detects everything the computer is doing, every keystroke and sends it back to “People’s Liberation Army Headquarters” in China. Well, they did not go on to say that if they can do it in China they can do it here much better. So that holds for every computer that is manufactured here or manufactured by a U.S. corporation, and if it isn’t happening now it could be happening and it may be soon which means that everything you do on your computer goes off to Big Brother into the huge database Obama is constructing in Utah. And, it gets worse.
There was just a report from one of the main robotics labs. They’ve been working for I think ten years trying to develop robots, meaning drones essentially, controlled robots the size of flies. The military has been interested in this because it could mean that you have surveillance of what is going on in your living room or your kitchen and you wouldn’t notice it because it is just a fly up there. That makes everything public. Well again, you can’t call it fascism because fascists never dreamed of it. Orwell never dreamed of it. It is beyond anything. And it is within reach and may be happening. And it is being accepted. We live in a surveillance society of a kind that really has not existed before and it is accepted. Some are more extreme than us, like Britain, cameras everywhere, recording everywhere. Chances are anything you do electronically at least can be picked up, maybe is being picked up by surveillance systems. And Eric Schmidt’s thesis, which he wasn’t criticizing, he said that is the way it ought to be, could well become the slogan of the coming age unless something is done to prevent it. There can be force behind it too. I’m just talking about the surveillance aspect. Once data is collected that tells you everything about a person, maybe including a lot of fabrication, which also happens, then there is a lot of control that can go along with it.
Q: What you are describing sounds like the worst aspects of a Philip K. Dick novel.
Q: Philip K. Dick, the science fiction writer.
NC: I don’t know him. But this is worse than any science fiction I know of, and it is real, straight out of the technology journals. It is not science fiction.
Q: What about the psychic effect of knowing that you are living in a society where you understand that you are under constant surveillance, even in terms of the impact on the activist community?
NC: What I think is most worrisome is what I’ve been told at least about children and Facebook, that they are accepting it as legitimate, that you should expose everything to the public.
Q: So, in other words, from our perspective, based on our age, we see that there should be limits, there should be some privacy, but these kids are not seeing that?
NC: That is the impression I get. As I say, I don’t investigate it myself, but I have friends who basically try to monitor their children on Facebook and a lot of them are just appalled by what they see. Things that you and I would never have dreamed of making public. This idea that you somehow have to be in touch with anything that is happening in the world shows up in all kinds of ways.
You may have seen over the winter, there were reports in the press, maybe the Boston Globe, a strange epidemic that was spreading among teenage girls in Boston, and they could not figure out what it was, but there was a lot of illness. They finally traced it. It was fatigue. It was fatigue because the kids were going to bed with their cell phones in their hands so that in case, at three o’clock in the morning, somebody you know had a sandwich you have to know about it, and you can’t let it go so therefore they were not sleeping.
Q: You have got to be joking?
NC: I don’t think it is a joke.
Q: This applies to another question a student asked. On the one hand life is sort of a hyper-spectacle, but then the student asks “Why is school so boring?”
NC: That is a very good question. School doesn’t have to be boring. School can be the most exciting experience you ever had, and it sometimes is. If schools are boring it is because decisions are made to make them boring, and some of these decisions are at a federal level, and some at a state level, but they are decisions. So the conception of teaching to tests is designed to make education as boring, and stupid, and stultifying as possible.
In a place like MIT, a research oriented institution, the idea would be outlandish. You are trying to encourage people to question, to challenge, to create, to think for themselves. You can use tests but only as a monitor, you know, let’s see how well things are going, or see the things we are missing. But the idea of making the goal teaching to tests is grotesque. Actually, this goes back to the Enlightenment.
If we go back to the Enlightenment, hundreds of years ago, there were debates … this was the beginning of thinking about large scale education, not just for the aristocracy. And there were kind of two models that were presented. This is hundreds of years ago, eighteenth century. In one model, the image that was used was thinking of education as pouring water into a vessel. That is teaching to tests. You pour water into a vessel then it is returned to you. Anybody our age, or who has been through school, has had plenty of experiences where you had to study for an exam in some course you weren’t interested in, and you studied and you learned everything you had to learn, and you passed the exam and a week later you forgot what the course was about. That is pouring water into a vessel.
The other model, the image that was used by one of the founders of the modern higher education system [Wilhelm von Humboldt], in the eighteenth century, was that education should be like laying out a string along which the student progresses in his or her own way. There is some structure, you are trying to achieve something, but the idea is to encourage individual inquiry, and the joy of discovery, and of challenge, and maybe moving the string, because it should have gone some other place.
One of the great modern physicists who taught here, Victor Weisskopf, was famous for a comment he would make to freshmen classes, he taught freshmen physics, if students asked him “What are we covering this semester,” he would say “It doesn’t matter what we cover, it matters what you discover,” because then you will learn how to discover, and you will learn how important it is, and if he didn’t cover something, fine, you will do it yourself after you know how to learn. There is a lot of discussion about this, particularly in science education where you just have to have constant challenging and questioning. You know, pressing the boundaries or the field is going to die. So there the idea of teaching to the test is really anathema, but that is now the national program.
Q: Why impose such a boring project of education on a whole population of youngsters?
NC: You can speculate about the reasons, but I should say this was discussed in the 19th century here, right here in fact in Massachusetts, when the beginnings of mass public education were starting which was a positive development. It is important to have mass public education and the U.S. was a kind of pioneer in that. But Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote at the time that he sees that powerful people are favoring mass education and when he asks them why they say, “Well, it is because millions of voters are coming along, people are gaining the right to vote, and we have to make sure to educate them to keep them from our throats.” In other words, educate them for passivity and obedience and not for thinking and questioning for themselves, because then they are going to come after our throats. They are going to say “we don’t want to be subordinated to your power.”
These are concerns that go way back in history. So, in the 17th century in England were the first modern democratic revolutions. And it was during the English Civil War. The English Civil War pitted parliament against the king, but there were also itinerant preachers, activists, pamphlets, a lot of popular organizing which was pretty radical democratic. And the gentry, the rich guys were afraid of it. And they lamented that they hear people saying, and I am quoting here, “We don’t want either king or parliament; we don’t want to be ruled by gentlemen, knights and gentlemen who but oppress us. We want to be governed by countrymen like ourselves who know the people’s sores.” Well, that is dangerous and you have got to make sure that you have an educational system that drives any thoughts like that out of people’s heads. The rabble is not allowed to think for themselves.
These thoughts run right through to the present. They enter into the public relations industry, into liberal intellectual thought about how democracy ought to work, and into the educational system. Whether this is the reason for trying to dumb down the education system or not, well you can speculate, but there certainly is a history that goes far back and it is intelligible.
Q: Wasn’t there an incentive for the business class to train the public so that way they would have useful workers in the factories and so forth, but now that is no longer the case?
NC: Oh, it is. Actually, if you go back to the origins of the mass education system in the United States, a large part of the goal was to take independent farmers, who tended to be pretty radical, and to turn them into tools of production in a disciplined factory setting. And people resisted it enormously, but that was a large part of the education system. But you still need it. You may not need people to turn screws and so on but they want a service population. They need people who are going to make the world work, not just be predators on Wall Street eating away at and destroying the social order while they pour money into their pockets. Somebody is going to have to do the work of the society.
Q: Given the world that you’ve been describing, when you’ve been asked over the years what people can do to fight back, typically you begin by saying people have to learn how to organize. Do you think that organizing in 2013 calls for some different tactics and strategies than organizing in the 1930s or 1960s?
NC: Sure, there are different issues. There are a number of issues that are very striking now that weren’t or at least we didn’t know were fifty years ago, for example, the things we have talked about. Fifty years ago I, and others, didn’t understand how dire the environmental crisis is. Now we know, so we should be organizing about that. We did know, and didn’t do enough about it, how dire the threat of nuclear war is, and that is maybe even growing. It is still very serious.
The changes in the economic system in the last forty years have raised new dangers. If you go back forty years ago the banks were basically small institutions in which you put your excess funds and they lent them to somebody to buy a car or something like that. That has changed enormously. By now what are called banks are investment firms and are close to half of the economy and they are mostly destructive. Some estimates coming from the International Monetary Fund are that practically their entire profits come from the government insurance policy which is huge. It is not just the bailouts that people see; that is just the froth on the top. They have a lot of consequences, the “too big to fail” policy; credit ratings improve, you get cheap money in all kinds of ways, and it adds up to huge profits. It is mostly destructive to the economy.
Economists don’t study it very much, which is interesting because it is an enormous phenomenon. But the few who do suggest that it is probably pretty harmful. In fact, probably the leading financial correspondent in the English speaking world, the most respected one, is Martin Wolf of the London Financial Times. He describes the modern financial institutions as like a larva that eats away at its host from the inside and destroys it. The larva being the market system. It is a pretty potent image and he has got a lot to suggest it. So that is a new topic. And that leads to all sorts of specific issues like say a financial transactions tax, breaking up the big banks, ending the government insurance policy … I mean all kinds of things … turning the huge resources that are available into productive work.
If you take a look at the society today it is really kind of surreal. You’ve got over twenty million people in the United States looking for work, many more who have simply given up looking, and many more than that who are underemployed, either part time or way below their skill level. It is a huge human cost. I mean these people are kind of destroyed, and it is just a straight economic course. There is a lot we can do; there are resources that aren’t being used. It is not that there is nothing to be done. You just take a look around the country and you can see the immense numbers of things that ought to be done. And it is not because there are no resources. Corporations have money coming out of their pockets. They don’t know what to do with it, higher profits than ever. The financial institutions are bigger and richer than ever to do more destruction.
So, you have got this situation in which there are a huge number of idle hands wanting to work, eager to work, you have a huge amount of work that needs to be done, you have enormous resources to do it, and the system is so corrupt it can’t put these things together. That is kind of an astonishing situation. And it is not because of laws of nature. These are just the way the institutions are structured. They can be changed. Actually, we are doing better than Europe. It is not that we are at the bottom of the pile.
Q: We just passed the 10th anniversary of the U.S. led attack on Iraq and subsequent occupation. Thousands died, and by one account perhaps more than a million people were unnecessarily killed. Unless I missed it I did not see any arrests, any trials, or any prosecution of the people in this country responsible for these deaths.
NC: It is worse than that. It is bad enough, yes, hundreds of thousands died, perhaps more, there were maybe four million refugees, millions of them displaced out of the country, probably forty percent of the intellectual class, the educated class is gone, the cultural system is destroyed, it was practically at first world standards, the most advanced in the Arab world … devastated. The society is barely emerging from the destruction. You read the newspapers there are bombings every day, struggles every day. Apart from the destruction the invasion triggered an ethnic conflict, a Sunni/Shiite conflict which had not existed before and became extremely bitter and brutal in Iraq, but furthermore has now spread all over the region. That is the heart of the destruction in Syria for example. It is developing regional conflicts which could be enormously harmful. All of these are consequences of the invasion.
Now there are some principles which maybe we don’t like to think about but they are there and we created them, we established them. Those are the founding principles of modern international law which comes straight out of the Nuremberg Tribunal, and they can’t be repeated too often. The Nuremberg Tribunal which led to the hanging of German war criminals declared that “aggression is the Supreme International Crime differing from other war crimes in that it includes all of the evil that follows,” all, like everything I just described. And another comment made by Robert Jackson, Justice Robert Jackson who was Chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg, he addressed the tribunal and said that “we should understand that we are handing the defendants here a poisoned chalice by killing them and if we sip from it ourselves we must have the same judgment or else we must concede this is just farce, victor’s justice.”
This was as clear a case of aggression as you can imagine. It meets every criterion for aggression, so all the rest follows. And what also follows it what you just said. Not a word about it.
Q: U.S. supported Guatemalan General Rios Montt was found guilty of crimes against humanity, and a few days later he was freed. Do you think it was pressure from the U.S. to release him so as not to create a precedent?
NC: I suspect it is from the Guatemalan elite. But when you speak about the Guatemalan elite you have to ask the question of why they are there. How come this vicious group of Europeanized elite elements is running the society? There is a reason for that. It goes back fifty years and everything since.
Fifty years ago there were the beginnings of a democratic revolution in Guatemala. The United States would not tolerate it. It is actually sixty years, 1954. And the U.S., under Eisenhower, carried out a military coup which eliminated and destroyed the rising democratic system which would have increased popular power and reduced, maybe eliminated the voracious, destructive Europeanized elite. We put them back in power, instituted military dictatorships which have been tearing the country to shreds ever since with constant U.S. support, including the period of Rios Montt’s genocidal acts in the highlands, strongly support by Ronald Reagan. Congress put some limited restrictions on it, so he turned elsewhere, primarily to Israel to provide the weapons and the training and so on which were used to implement the virtual genocide, but it actually goes beyond.
To this day, Mayans are fleeing to the United States, trying to cross the border in Mexico to get away from the destruction that we are responsible for. Do you see any talk about that? You do see reports about the immigrants and what a big problem it is, and you see some reports about the Rios Montt trial, and sometimes you see a report saying that Clinton apologized. OK, nice. Did the Nazis who were hanged at Nuremberg apologize? No. But putting it all together? Try to find that!