A Chat with Chomsky

Noam Chomsky in Conversation with Nathan J. Robinson

June 24, 2019. Current Affairs Magazine.

For over fifty years, Noam Chomsky has been one of the world’s foremost public intellectuals. Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson recently spoke with Chomsky at his office in Tucson, Arizona. The text has been cut down and lightly edited for clarity. Transcript by Addison Kane. 

Nathan J. Robinson: Hello! Nice to talk to you, finally.

Noam Chomsky: Very good to see you.

NR: We’ve corresponded a bit.

NC: Yes, and I’ve been reading you for a long time.

NR: And you were kind enough to forward a couple of my articles to a couple of people who inquired on your opinions of Jordan Peterson.

NC: That’s one of the things I send out more than anything else — sitting on a special place on my computer, so I can get it right away.

NR: To avoid the agonizing task of having to go through his work and dissect it.

What I wanted to actually talk to you about today was academia and universities, because one of the reasons that I wrote that—and his rise kind of disturbed me—was I looked at the main book he wrote, and it was just sort of gobbledygook, yet he’s a tenured professor at the University of Toronto, a person who has academic credentials and accolades. The book was blurbed by the chair of the Harvard Psychology Department, and perhaps I’m not cynical enough, but that strikes me as rather strange that people rise to the top of academia who seem to be saying things that I find to be nonsensical. You don’t find that strange, but I do think that’s inherently strange.

NC: How much time have you spent in the academic world?

NR: Yeah, but shouldn’t that be weird?

NC: Spend some time there and you’ll be disabused of this illusion.

NR: It is odd to me, though. I mean, you spent 60, 70 years in universities now, and do you think that a substantial portion of what is done in these places is just a waste of time or is empty nonsense?

NC: First of all, there’s very serious work done. So I think the universities are probably the best institutions in our society, so I’m going to be critical, but we should recognize the value. They are unique. They’re the one place where you do really have some degree of openness and ability to question and pursue your own interests and concerns. There is nothing really comparable. On the other hand, some of the things that happen are unbelievable. So I’ll just give you an example. In the 1960s, I was at MIT. I started teaching undergraduate courses on my own time, on social and political issues. It’s not what I was hired for, so I used my own time. Good classes. Lots of students came. It was quite interesting. My co-instructor and I once — this must have been ’68 or so — decided to assign Henry Kissinger’s book, which had just appeared, on American foreign policy. This was quite an experience. The students were rolling in the aisles. You cannot expect MIT undergraduates to read an essay, in which the theme is that there’s a lot of people who worry about the superficial, peripheral things like wars, and famine, and torture and so on. But the real issue in the world is the fundamental divide between the West, which underwent the Newtonian Revolution, and therefore knows that there’s a world external to the observer, and the rest of them who haven’t quite mastered this. And then he said the Russians have got a foot in each camp. They’ve sort of half made it. So the implication would be that when you bomb the North Vietnamese, they maybe think it’s a headache, because they don’t know there’s a world out there. I mean, can you expect MIT undergraduates to read that? No. But is he a senior professor at Harvard, highly recognized? Well, sure.

NR: What sort of criterion do you use to evaluate what kinds of inquiry are valuable? What kinds of knowledge are worth developing and pursuing?

NC: There’s no simple criterion. So for example, today there was an article in one of the journals, maybe the New York Times, on the study of a Denisovan cave, in Siberia, where they’re finding some quite remarkable things about a branch of the species of humans that were from homo-sapiens that seemed to have developed surprising beginnings of technology, right around the time that homo-sapiens developed. This is very hard work. There are people who have been working on it for a long time, trying to dig out little bits of a bone, or a tooth and experimenting with it. Is that valuable information? I think it is. It doesn’t increase GDP, but it increases our understanding of the history of the human species, and its various branches, and so on.

NR: There’s a lot of pressure to make universities develop a more kind of instrumental approach to knowledge, cutting history departments, and increasing business studies, and what have you — the argument being that knowledge is a tool and we have to teach young people the tools that will help them succeed in the world. When Barack Obama talked about education, he made a joke about art history degrees and talked about preparing kids for life. And it’s hard for me, because I think, well, how do I argue against a pragmatic approach to knowledge, because I do think that knowledge is somewhat pragmatic.

NC: Is it pragmatic? Is your life improved if you have no understanding of the rich tradition of the arts and literature? Or is it improved if you do have knowledge of that? If you can go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and look at the latest exhibit, and appreciate and understand it, is your life improved more than by having another hamburger at McDonalds, let’s say?

NR: It’s very difficult for me, though, to know how I would make the case to someone who didn’t appreciate it?

NC: If you don’t appreciate it, don’t have it. I don’t appreciate apps, so therefore I don’t have any. I don’t use social media, nobody is forcing me to. I’d rather do other things. If somebody would rather spend their life looking at the latest thing on Facebook, they can do that. Fine. But that doesn’t mean others should be deprived of the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate the great intellectual and artistic achievements of the world, and to use that for their own development.

NR: I think the University of Akron just cut a bunch of history and sociology programs and replaced them with an E-sports program, which is a euphemism for video games. All they said was, “we’re responding to the market. This is what people want to study, this is what people want to learn, so this is what our university should become.”

NC: By that standard, you should drop all courses that involve reading, and move just to having students look at Facebook all day.

NR: I’m sure there are people who argue for that.

NC: Probably. That’s what the market says. Okay. Is that a serious proposal? Would we have wanted that to happen anytime in the past? What kind of world would we live in if that were the case? First of all, you wouldn’t have Facebook, and you wouldn’t have computers, and you wouldn’t have literature, and you wouldn’t have arts. You would have — we would maybe be individual farmers, peasants somewhere, trying to keep alive through the next harvest.

NR: I think there are a lot of people who think the dominant consensus, for example, in economics, is that market demand is our measure of human value, that whatever people subjectively choose in a world of plenty.

NC: Economists do say that. But they overlook some not very obscure facts. So let’s turn around to the television. If you took an economics course, one thing you learned, Econ 101, is that markets are based on informed consumers making rational choices. Okay? Did anybody ever notice that industry in the United States, one of the hugest industries in the country spends billions and billions of dollars trying to create uninformed consumers who make irrational choices. It’s known as the advertising industry, public relations industry. It’s exactly what they do. If we had a market, suppose we had a market, you would turn on the television set and there would be an ad for a car which says “here are the characteristics of the car, here are the critiques of it in Consumer Report. So now you could make a judgement as an informed consumer. You can make a rational choice. Is that what you see? No. What you see is some football hero, or model, standing on a car which is going into the air into the stratosphere — anything to make you uninformed and irrational. So what are we talking about?

NR: There was a Dodge ad last year where they overlaid a Martin Luther King speech over the ad for the truck, and they showed the truck, and they had King’s voice booming over the truck, just to try to create the association between justice — this truck is not just a truck, this truck means [laughs] —

NC: If we want invented worlds, we could talk about markets in which informed consumers make rational choices, but it has almost nothing to do with this world.

NR: I want to get back to universities and academia. I was looking at the syllabus you have for the course you have here called “What Is Politics?” You know, I was a political science, political theory undergrad, and when they asked a question within this course of “What Is Politics?” you would begin with The Republic, and then you would do Locke and Rousseau, and you begin sort of with capitalist realism and the threats of nuclear war and climate change as “What Is Politics?” I understand that approach, because those are things that matter, and politics is about things that matter. But does that mean that — how would you reconfigure political science to actually have insight into what politics is?

NC: Well I think a lot of political science has great insight into it. So let’s take the conception that the United States is a democracy. A democracy is presumably a society in which the general population has a voice in how decisions are made, about social, economic, and political conditions. Now let’s take a look at serious political science research. What does it show? There’s very good work on this. So my close friend, Thomas Ferguson, has done leading political science.

NR: The Golden Rule.

NC: The Golden Rule. He’s done remarkable work showing very persuasively, up until the present moment — Golden Rule is years ago. He’s carried forward, up until the present, you can predict the outcome of an election with remarkable precision by simply looking at campaign spending, one variable. Well, there’s a corollary of that. “Elected representatives” assumes they’re elected. The first thing they have to do is appeal to the donor class — somebody in the house of representatives may spend five or six hours a day just calling the donors. And meanwhile, what happens to the legislation? Well, the lobbyists come in from the corporations. They meet with the staff. They of course overwhelm the staff with information and background, and they basically write the legislation — a fact that’s been studied by other fine political scientists who have showed very convincingly that a large majority of the population are literally disenfranchised, meaning their own representatives pay no attention to their preferences. They listen to other voices, and we know which voices those are. Is this a functioning democracy? Well, you take a look at the Economist Intelligence Unit and they just did a big study on democracies throughout the world, and they regard the United States as a flawed democracy.

NR: That’s generous.

NC: I think it’s ranked 25th among the democracies of the world. But it’s ranked that high only because of the narrowness of the conditions that they use. They don’t ask these questions. They’re just asking “does the president lie” or something like that. But if you look at the actual basic features of the society, you see something very different than what’s commonly believed. And just like this matter of “markets responding to informed consumers making rational choices,” everywhere you look you find this. When you begin to look into the specific details, it’s extremely revealing. So take the gun culture in the United States, fanaticism about filling your closet with a half a dozen assault rifles, and so on. Where did this come from? Well, it turns out, there’s good studies of it. These are things that can be studied.

There’s a woman, named Pamela Haag, who did a very good study on the origins of the gun culture. Turns out that after the Civil War, the gun manufacturers had lost their market. There was no gun culture in the 19th century. The gun was like a tool, like a shovel. A farmer had a gun to keep critters away from his sheep, or something, and the farmers — it was an agricultural society, they didn’t want these fancy guns that the gun manufacturers were producing. So you could sell some abroad, and so on, but there wasn’t much of a market. So they started what is probably the first major public relations campaign in modern American history to try to create the image of the “Wild West,” in which noble cowboys had pistols. They were fighting off the bad guys and shooting faster than someone else. All of this is total fantasy. There was nothing like it. Cowboys were kind of the people at the fringe of society who couldn’t get a job, so someone would hire them to push their cows around. It’s not wild. And then comes along the things that were later imitated by the tobacco industry — the Marlboro Man, and so on. “Your son won’t be a man unless he has a Winchester rifle. Your daughter has to have a pink revolver to defend herself.” Pretty soon you have a gun culture. Is it because people wanted guns? It was a created — it was what Thorstein Veblen, a little over a century ago, called “fabricating wants.” It’s a large part of the society.

Then the supreme court comes along in 2008 with the the Heller decision, written by Scalia, a great originalist. It’s a very interesting decision worth reading. If you read his decision, you notice that he avoids all the reasons why the founders wanted people to have guns. Actually, it’s a very learned decision. He is a great scholar, quotes all sorts of documents from the 17th century and so on. But we know exactly why the founders wanted people to have guns. The first one was, there was almost no standing army. And the British are hovering around. They’re the big enemy. Suppose they attack again. Well, you know, we’re going to have to have guys with guns. We can form a well-regulated militia, that’s the first phrase in the Second Amendment. That’s one. Second is, with the British out of the way, we can now expand into the west, into what was called “vacant territory,” so we have to go out there and kill the people who are living in this vacant territory — attack the Indian nations. In fact, the United States is one of the rare countries in the world that’s been at war since the first day of its founding — attacking, and for that, you needed guns. And also, it’s a slave society. There’s a lot of slaves around, not many people controlling them. Got to have guns. There are slave revolutions taking place in the Caribbean. They could extend here, and they pretty soon did in Haiti. You got to have guns. Take a look at Scalia’s decision. Are any of these things mentioned? Not a word. There are debates in the law profession about whether the Second Amendment conveys a militia right, or an individual right. Okay, you can debate that, but it’s kind of beside the point. The point is: The Second Amendment, as the founders understood it, is irrelevant in the 21st century. But that’s considered holy writ. Well, as soon as you begin to look at the actual world, the illusions collapse pretty quickly.

And going back to “What Is Politics?” that’s what the study of it should be. So we actually start the course by talking about Gramsci and hegemonic common sense, and asking how it’s established, what’s its basis, what happens when we investigate it, and so on. And I think that’s what a “What Is Politics?” course ought to be about.

NR: I went to law school, and one of the most striking things to me was the disjunction between what’s happening in the world of the court opinion, and what is happening in the actual world — Right To Work being discussed as an issue of worker freedom, and so on. To finish then, talking about illusions, I think, for me, your writings have been very important to me since I was a teenager, and to a lot of people who have had the same experiences. And I think one of the common reasons for that is that it is difficult to see through illusions, and it can make you feel like you’re crazy in many ways. As I was walking through campus today, I was thinking about a sentence of yours, which was that “tens of millions of people have been killed by what is taught in American economics departments,” which is just factually true. But then you look and the campus is idyllic, and all the students going about, doing their readings of Heidegger, and Nietzsche, learning philosophy, and learning politics, and you feel sort of out of your mind if you think that there’s something sort of not quite real here, or there’s something different between the real world, and everything that’s around me.

NC: Most of these, I don’t think are hard to expose. It’s true that you kind of reflexively just accept what you’ve heard. Actually, Orwell has a nice comment about this in — did you ever read the introduction to Animal Farm?

NR: Oh yeah, this is the deleted —.

NC: The deleted, the suppressed introduction. Well in it, he’s talking about how in free England, ideas can be suppressed without the use of force. And he doesn’t say much about the reasons, but one of them I think is much to the point. He says, basically, that if you’ve had a good education, you’ve gone to Oxford, and Cambridge, and so on, you just have instilled into you the understanding that there’s certain things that do to say “he didn’t go far enough.” It wouldn’t do to think. You just can’t think them. Because the education instills into you the common sense of the day. And it’s not really hard to break out of it. You have to be willing to do the kind of thing that actually led to modern science. So you go back to the time of say, Galileo, neo-scholastic physics more or less had an answer for everything. You know, objects fall because they’re going to their natural place, steam rises for the same reason, perception is a matter of the object moving through space and implanting it in your brain, and so on. Galileo and his contemporaries made a breakthrough. They decided to be puzzled about these things. Somebody decides to be puzzled, you find everything’s wrong. Just the willingness to ask yourself, “look, everybody believes it, is it true?” In fact, there’s kind of a rule of thumb, if everybody believes something, and it’s a contentious issue, something should light up in your brain, and say “you better ask about this. It’s probably not true.” And as soon as you make that simple move, all sorts of things open up. Modern science opened up, and the kinds of things we’ve been talking about now open up.

NR: That’s funny, because you know, on the surface, that’s like the definition of a crazy person. If everyone says something is true, if it’s the established consensus, the idea of being the only one who thinks something and wonders something, it’s very lonely.

NC: People who ask these questions usually aren’t treated very well. Go back to Athens, who was it who had to drink the hemlock?

NR: Right, in every generation it’s the Socrates who gets killed. Just on the subject of “things you’re not allowed to think” —  I just wrote an article about how if we applied tort law consistently, fossil fuel companies would be sued out of existence, because obviously if you cause massive damage to other people, and under tort law, you owe them damages. But there’s a court opinion on this where the judge says, “well, the implications of this would be radical. They’d go out of business.”

NC: Let me give you a simpler example: every leading political figure, Obama, Trump, all of them, with regard to an official enemy, say, Iran, says “all options are open.” Okay, we have something called the constitution. It has something called Article VI, which says that treaties entered into by the U.S. Government are the supreme law of the land. One of those treaties, in fact the foundation one for the modern period, is the U.N. Charter. It has an Article II, Article 2.4, which says the threat or use of force in international affairs is banned. Okay? There are a couple of exceptions, but they’re irrelevant. So that means that every leading political figure is violating the constitution. Right? But does anybody care?

NR: Your quote about how if we apply the Nuremberg principles consistently, every U.S. president would be hanged —

NC: This is violating the U.S. constitution.

NR: There are things that are very difficult to dispute if you actually look at it objectively.

Well, let’s finish up then, and thank you very much, and that willingness to be puzzled I think is one of the most important — certainly the most important thing I’ve ever gotten from reading you. It’s not the specific analyses, which have been important, but it’s that idea of trying to ask questions even when you’re discouraged from doing so.

NC: It’s not that you’re told not to. It’s just that the issue doesn’t come up. So like in economics courses, the issue doesn’t come up that there’s a huge industry designed and succeeding and undercutting your major thesis. Designed to do it and succeeding in doing it. It just doesn’t arise.

NR: Sometimes you’re just implicitly discouraged. In grad school, I was told one of my papers seemed as though it was too sympathetic to the tenants, rather than the landlords. They said this isn’t objective, you’ve got to be neutral.

NC: It’s all equal. They’re making a contract so it’s free.

NR: There’s a real fear of being seen as an activist in the academy. And that’s the thing, it’s not actually a left-wing place, even though it’s seen as that.

NC: There’s a historical reason for that. Look at the way activists are treated throughout history — not nicely.

NR:It was really a most striking thing to me in grad school, with how the supposed liberal academia has actually got a real fear of doing anything that would be seen to be engaging in politics or activism.

NC: “Don’t rock the boat. You’re better off.” And you may not say it to yourself — it’s Orwell’s point again. It just wouldn’t do to say those things.

NR: Wouldn’t do.

NC: Okay, I’ve got to go to this class.

NR: I bet, okay. You’ve given me far more time than I could have ever reasonably expected.