Has linguist and sociopolitical critic Noam Chomsky, now eighty-six, become hopelessly cynical about the survival of the human species? The article he wrote for the Sept. 4, 2014, issue of In These Times magazine carried a stark headline: “The End of History?” The piece is pure Chomsky, brimming with historical perspective, classical allusions, symbolism, and frequent references to reports, articles, and scholars. Yet somehow it all seems plain-spoken. He wonders what must be going through the mind of the Owl of Minerva — the wise Roman goddess’s learned sidekick — as “she undertakes the task of interpreting the era of human civilization, which may now be approaching its inglorious end.” He describes events in the “Fertile Crescent,” including the 2003 Iraq War, which, he says, many Iraqis compare to the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, and the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic state. He looks gloomily at what’s going on in Egypt and Jerusalem. He links German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who thought the Nazi Party would save “the glorious civilization of the Greeks from the barbarians of the East and West,” with the German bankers who, Chomsky says, are currently crushing Greece. But where he finds the “likely end of the era of civilization” is in the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was in draft form when he wrote his piece. He takes us back 11,000 years to the Holocene epoch, the period when human culture began, and links it with the mass extinction of reptiles 65 million years past. “Today, it is humans who are the asteroid, condemning much of life to extinction,” he writes.
Chomsky appears at the Lensic on Wednesday, March 18, with author, lecturer, and Alternative Radio host David Barsamian as part of the Lannan Foundation’s In Pursuit of Cultural Freedom series. Asked if this end-of-times thinking reflects a turn in his worldview, Chomsky is quick to say no. During a phone conversation from his office at MIT, where he’s taught linguistics since 1955, Chomsky told Pasatiempo, “A little over 30 years ago, I wrote an article entitled ‘The Rationality of Collective Suicide’ — a discussion of how it was made to seem quite rational to accept this pathological framework of thinking that’s driving the world toward collective suicide. Then, it was the concentration of nuclear weapons. And that remains a problem.” He noted that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently reset its Doomsday Clock back to three minutes before midnight. “The last time it was at that level was when I wrote ‘The Rationality of Collective Suicide,’” he said. “The recent declaration associated with the move of the clock has brought up the failure of world leaders to deal with huge catastrophes: nuclear in 1983, now the environment. Both these clouds have been looming over human beings ever since August 1945.” This isn’t Chomsky’s only doomsday warning. He opens his 2003 book Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance with a discussion of biologist Ernst Mayr’s calculations concerning the probability of any extraterrestrial intelligence (roughly one in 50 billion). He wonders if “humans were a kind of ‘biological error,’ using their allotted 10,000 years to destroy themselves and, in the process, much else.”
The MIT professor is something of a publishing industry — both in his chosen field of linguistics and, more popularly, in political commentary — dating back to the “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” which was printed in The New York Review of Books in 1967, at the height of America’s Vietnam buildup. (“It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies,” he wrote.) His subjects are often timely and prophetic, such as 1999’s Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order, which was written just before the World Trade Organization protests that year in Seattle and served as inspiration for the Occupy movement years later. Chomsky often throws political hyperbole back at those who spin it. Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy, published in 2006, finds the label used to justify American aggression more and more applicable to the U.S. itself. Many of his appearances, which often include long Q & A sessions, have been made into documentaries. Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, a 2013 documentary of conversations with director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), explores the notion of its subject’s unhappy worldview through hand-drawn animation.
Chomsky has been accused of being bitter — even hysterical — in his condemnation of American imperialism, of the ruling class and its exploitation of workers and consumers, and of the subservient media, which operates under what he calls “the propaganda model” in his 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Yet it’s hard to think of him as hysterical. He’s a thorough, matter-of-fact speaker with an almost gentlemanly way of deflecting naive or loaded questions by suggesting better ones. While he’s sometimes accused of name-calling when drawing historical comparisons, he’s far from sensationalistic. Even his prognosis for the end of the world comes without discernible panic. “If I’m a persona that attracts people, the world is really in trouble,” he states at the beginning of the 2003 documentary Noam Chomsky: Rebel Without A Pause. “I’m a boring speaker, and I like it that way.”
Asked about the current flap over use, or nonuse, of the word “Islamic” in connection with terrorists, Chomsky predictably took a semantic position far from the shrillness exhibited in public forums. In his unique style, he explained the evolution of the “so-called” Islamic State, dubbing it a “radical offshoot.” “Anders Breivik, who killed 77 in Norway [in a 2011 terror attack], was a radical Christian, but you don’t hear this called ‘Christian terrorism.’ It can be misleading. Yes, these are Islamic terrorists — an extreme version of Islam using an extremist interpretation rejected by Islamic scholars and theologians and the vast majority of Islamics. Using [the label] is a choice you make.”
Chomsky, who says he keeps politics from his classroom, questions the function of higher education in an era of career and technical emphasis. “How do you deal with the university — to encourage and cultivate independence of mind, critical thought, intellectual self-defense, an understanding of institutions — how [students] make decisions based on present information so that an educated person, a person functioning in a democracy, can compensate?” The trend, he suggested, is to erase any notion of a truly informed citizenry. “I think one aspect of the whole neoliberal assault has been the measures that have degraded higher education, and continue to do so, as we’re seeing now in Wisconsin. The corporate, big-business model gains authority and power as it imposes rather natural pressure to turn higher education into something serviceable for the masters of the world.”
At this far point in his prodigious career, Chomsky doesn’t seem to be slowing down. “There’s a lot of challenges now, lots of demands, also personal ones. I don’t know what to say [about the pace of my work]. I don’t travel as much as I used to. I don’t teach at the same level. I’m on campus. I come in regularly. But I don’t have a full teaching schedule.” Ask him what it will take to get Americans to see beyond the propaganda model, to get past political diversions and commit to the social and environmental problems of the day, and he reframes the query. “It seems to me that the question should be different. Why are we not committed? Think of what’s at stake in the face of environmental catastrophe. Do we care whether or not our grandchildren have a decent chance at survival? Either we care or we don’t. If we’re not committed, we don’t care. And that’s a very strange attitude — not to be committed, not to care.”