Looking for the Magic Answer?

Noam Chomsky interviewed by David Barsamian

Excerpted from Class Warfare, 1995

QUESTION: You’ve just returned from a series of talks … There were the by now customary huge turnouts and standing ovations and the like. But I sense you feel some disquiet. What’s that about?

CHOMSKY: To tell you the honest truth, when I see a huge mob, which is pretty common these days, I have a mixture of feelings. Partly, I’m sort of depressed about it, for a lot of reasons. For one thing, there’s just too much personalization. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s worrisome. The other thing is that the ratio of passive participation to active engagement is way too high. These were well-arranged talks. For example, they did what a lot of people don’t do and ought to do. Every place I went there were a dozen tables outside with every conceivable organization having leaflets and handouts and sign-up sheets and telling what they’re up to. So if people want to do anything, there are easy answers to what you can do in your own community. The question that comes up over and over again, and I don’t really have an answer still — really, I don’t know any other people who have answers to them — is, “It’s terrible, awful, getting worse. What do we do? Tell me the answer.” The trouble is, there has not in history ever been any answer other than, “Get to work on it.”

There are a thousand different ways to get to work on it. For one thing, there’s no “it.” There’s lots of different things. You can think of long-term goals and visions you have in mind, but even if that’s what you’re focused on, you’re going to have to take steps towards them. The steps can be in all kinds of directions, from caring about starving children in Central America or Africa, to working on the rights of working people here, to worrying about the fact that the environment’s in serious danger. There’s no one thing that’s the right thing to do. It depends on what your interests are and what’s going on and what the problems are, and so on. And you have to deal with them. There’s very little that anybody can do about these things alone. Occasionally somebody can, but it’s marginal. Mainly you work with other people to try to develop ideas and learn more about it and figure out appropriate tactics for the situation in question and deal with them and try to develop more support. That’s the way everything happens, whether it’s small changes or huge changes.

If there is a magic answer, I don’t know it. But it sounds to me as if the tone of the questions and part of the disparity between listening and acting suggests — I’m sure this is unfair — “Tell me something that’s going to work pretty soon or else I’m not going to bother, because I’ve got other things to do.” Nothing is going to work pretty soon, at least if it’s worth doing, nor has that ever been the case.

To get back to the point, even in talks like these, the organizers told me they did get a fair amount of apparent engagement. People would ask, Can I join your group? or What can I do? or Do you have some suggestions? If that works, okay, it’s fine. But usually there’s a kind of chasm between the scale of the audience, and even its immediate reaction, and the follow-up. That’s depressing.

QUESTION: You continue to be in tremendous demand for these speaking engagements. Are you considering stopping?

CHOMSKY: I would be delighted to stop. For me it’s not a great joy, frankly. I do it because I like to do it. You meet wonderful people and they’re doing terrific things. It’s the most important thing I can imagine doing. But if the world would go away, I’d be happy to stop. What ought to be happening is that a lot of younger people ought to be coming along and doing all these things. If that happens, fine. I’m glad to drift off into the background. That’s fine by me. But it’s not happening much. That’s another thing that I worry about. There’s a real invisibility of left intellectuals who might get involved. I’m not talking about people who want to come by and say, “Okay, I’m your leader. Follow me. I’ll run your affairs.” There’s always plenty of those people around. But the kind of people who are just always doing things, like whether it was workers’ education or being in the streets or being around where there’s something they can contribute, helping organizing — that’s always been part of the vocation of intellectuals from [Bertrand] Russell and [John] Dewey on to people whose names you never heard of but who are doing important things. There’s a visible gap there today, for all kinds of reasons. A number of people involved in these things have been talking about it. I’m sure you’ve heard of others.

QUESTION: I wouldn’t entirely agree. There are some voices out there, like Holly Sklar, Winona LaDuke, and others that represent a younger generation.

CHOMSKY: It’s not zero. But I think it’s nothing like the scale of what it ought to be or indeed has been in the past. Maybe it was that way in the past for not great reasons. A lot of those people were around the periphery of, say, the Communist Party, which had its own serious problems. But whatever the reasons, I think there’s a very detectable fact. There’s plenty of left intellectuals. They’re just doing other things. Most of those things are not related to, are sometimes even subversive to these kinds of activities.

QUESTION: A talk you gave in Martha’s Garden in late August on corporate power was broadcast on C-SPAN a couple of weeks ago. What’s been the response to that?

CHOMSKY: The usual. There’s a huge flood of letters that I’m trying to answer, slowly. Many of them are mixed. Many of them are very engaged, very concerned. People say, “It’s terrible. I’m glad somebody’s talking about it. I think the same way. What can I do?” very often. There’s a strange fringe. A fair number of people interpret me as saying things that are very remote from what I mean. I’ll get a very enthusiastic letter saying, This is great, I’m so glad to hear it, marvelous and wonderful, thanks, etc. I’d like to share with you what I’ve done about this. Then comes some document which is in my view often off the wall, but anyway completely unrelated to anything I’m talking about. So somewhere we’re not connecting. I think I even sort of know why. There’s a strange cultural phenomenon going on. It’s connected with this enormous growth of cultism, irrationality, disassociation, separateness, and isolation. All of this is going together. I think another aspect is the way the population is reacting to what’s happening to them. By margins that are now so overwhelming that it’s even front page news, people are strenuously opposed to everything that’s going on and are frightened and angry and reacting like punch-drunk fighters. They’re just too alone, both in their personal lives and associations and also intellectually, without anything to grasp. They don’t know how to respond except in irrational ways. In some ways it has sort of the tone of a devastated peasant society after a plague swept it or an army went through and ruined everything. People have just dissolved into inability to respond.

It’s kind of dramatic when you take, say, the opposite extreme in the hemisphere: Haiti. Here’s the poorest country in the hemisphere. It’s suffered enormous terror. People live in complete misery. I’ve seen a lot of Third World poverty, but it’s pretty hard to match what you find in the marketplaces in Port-au-Prince, let alone the hills. Here you have the worst conceivable situation, unimaginably horrible conditions. Poor people, people in the slums, peasants in the hills, managed to create out of their own activity a very lively, vibrant civil society with grassroots movements and associations and unions and ideas and commitment and hope and enthusiasm and so on, which was astonishing in scale, so much so that without any resources, they were able to take over the political system. Of course, it’s Haiti, so the next thing that comes is the hammer on your head — which we [the U.S.] sort of help to wield, but that’s another story. However, even after it all, apparently, it still survives. That’s under the worst imaginable conditions.

Then you come to the U.S., the best imaginable conditions, and people simply haven’t a clue as to how to respond. The idea that we have to go to Haiti to teach them about democracy ought to have everyone in stitches. We ought to go there and learn something about democracy. People are asking the question here, What do I do? Go ask some illiterate Haitian peasant. They seem to know what to do. That’s what you should do….