Thursday, November 23, 2006

2004 Chomsky interview by a Theatrical NewYorker

Interview with Noam Chomsky

by Wallace Shawn, the bald, wan, pucker-mouthed, butterball-framed, lispy-toned gent, who was born to privilege on November 12, 1943 in New York City, Wallace was the son of renown editor William Shawn of 'The New Yorker' fame and educated at both Harvard University, where he studied history, and Magdalen College, Oxford. Wallace initially taught English in India (on a Fulbright scholarship) and English, Latin and drama back in New York. An avid interest in writing, however, soon had him leaving his position and pursuing a stage career as both playwright and actor. During his distinguished career, Wallace turned out several plays. (imdb)

TIME: September 17, 2004

PLACE: Chomsky's office in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at M.I.T.

WS: A lot of what you've written has to do with the ways in
which human beings use their minds -- use their very capacity for
rationality, one could say -- not to seek truth, but on the contrary to
distort truth -- to twist truth, often so as to justify various crimes they
want to commit or have already committed. And this doesn't have
to do so much with our personal behavior but with our behavior in
groups. So-called leaders dream up the justifications, and everybody
else absorbs and accepts them.

NC: It's simply very easy to subordinate oneself to a worldview
that's supportive of one's own interests. Most of us don't go around
murdering people or stealing food from children. There are a lot
of activities that we just regard as pathological when we do them
individually. On the other hand, when they're done collectively,
they're considered necessary and appropriate. Clinton, Kennedy:
they all carried out mass murder, but they didn't think that that
was what they were doing -- nor does Bush. You know, they were
defending justice and democracy from greater evils. And in fact I
think you'd find it hard to discover a mass murderer in history who
didn't think that. . . . It's kind of interesting to read the Russian
archives, which are coming out now. They're being sold, like
everything in Russia, and so we're learning something about the
internal discussions of the Russian leaders, and they talked to each
other the same way they talked publicly. I mean, these gangsters,
you know, who were taking over Eastern Europe in the late '40s
and early '50s -- they were talking to each other soberly about how
we have to defend East European democracy from the fascists who
are trying to undermine it. It's pretty much the public rhetoric, and
I don't doubt that they believed it.

WS: But one has to say about human beings -- well, human beings
did manage to invent the concepts of truth and falsity, and that's a
remarkable accomplishment. And surely if people really used the
concepts of truth and falsity rigorously, if they applied the laws
of rationality rigorously, they would be forced to confront the
true nature of the things they might be planning to do, and that
might be enough to prevent them from doing many terrible things.
After all, most justifications for mass murder flatly contradict the
perpetrator's professed beliefs -- and are based on factually false
assumptions as well. Couldn't education somehow lead people to
use their capacity for rational thought on a more regular basis, to
take rationality more seriously? So that they couldn't accept absurd
justifications for things? As we're sitting here in the Department of
Linguistics and Philosophy, wouldn't it benefit the world if more
people studied philosophy?

NC: Take Heidegger, one of the leading philosophers of the
twentieth century. I mean, just read his straight philosophical
work, "Introduction To Metaphysics." A few pages in, it starts off
with the Greeks, as the origins of civilization, and the Germans
as the inheritors of the Greeks, and we have to protect the Greek
heritage. . . . This was written in 1935. The most civilized people in
the West, namely the Germans -- Germany was the most educated
country in the world -- the Germans were coming under the delusion
that their existence, and in fact the existence of Western Civilization
since the Greeks, was threatened by fierce enemies against whom
they had to protect themselves. I mean, it was deeply imbued in
the general culture -- in part including German Jews. There's a book
by a major humanistic figure of modern Jewish life, Joachim Prinz.
He was in Germany in the '30s, and he wrote a book called Wir
Juden (We Jews), in which he said, Look, we don't like the anti-
Semitic undertones of what the Nazis are doing, but we should bear
in mind that much of what they're saying is right, and we agree with
it. In particular their emphasis on blood and land -- Blut und Boden.
Basically we agree with that. We think that the identity of blood
is very important, and the emphasis on the land is very important.
And the tie between blood and land is important. And in fact as
late as 1941, influential figures in the Jewish Palestinian community,
the pre-state community, including the group headed by Yitzhak
Shamir, who later became Prime Minister, and leading intellectuals,
considered rather left intellectuals, sent a delegation to try to reach,
I think, Himmler -- somebody high up -- to tell them that they would
like to make an arrangement with the Germans, and they would be
the outpost for Germany in the Middle East, because they basically
agreed with them on a lot of things. Like these things. This was, I
think, in January, 1941. Now, no one would suggest this was the
mainstream, by any means, but it also wasn't a pathological fringe.
I mean, George Kennan, who, in the spectrum of policy-makers,
is sort of on the humane liberal side, was the American consul in
Berlin before the war, before Pearl Harbor. And I think it must have
been in mid-April, 1941, pretty late, he was sending back messages
saying, you know, we shouldn't be too critical of the Nazis, they
were doing some bad things, but there are good things about them,
and we have to recognize the importance of what they're doing in
holding back the Bolsheviks and suppressing the labor movement
and so on. Roosevelt, too. Roosevelt was always quite pro-Fascist,
thought Mussolini was "that admirable Italian gentleman," as
he called him. As late as 1939, he was saying that Fascism was
an important experiment that they were carrying out, until it was
distorted by the relation to Hitler. And this was almost twenty years
after they destroyed the Parliament, broke up the labor movement,
raided Ethiopia with all the atrocities . . .

WS: A lot of people feel that hope for humanity lies not so much in the
progress of rationality but rather in the possibility that more people
will fall under the influence of moral principles or moral codes, such
as the ethical systems developed by various religions. After all, if
everyone were seriously committed to moral ideals, then . . .

NC: Moral codes . . . You can find things in the traditional religions
which are very benign and decent and wonderful and so on, but I mean,
the Bible is probably the most genocidal book in the literary canon.
The God of the Bible -- not only did he order His chosen people to
carry out literal genocide -- I mean, wipe out every Amalekite to the
last man, woman, child, and, you know, donkey and so on, because
hundreds of years ago they got in your way when you were trying to
cross the desert -- not only did He do things like that, but, after all,
the God of the Bible was ready to destroy every living creature on
earth because some humans irritated Him. That's the story of Noah.
I mean, that's beyond genocide -- you don't know how to describe
this creature. Somebody offended Him, and He was going to destroy
every living being on earth? And then He was talked into allowing
two of each species to stay alive -- that's supposed to be gentle and

WS: Hmm . . . If moral codes themselves can't be relied upon, it's
hard to know what to cling to if we want to avoid falling into moral
nightmares. In a way, it seems to be simply our obsessive need to
have a high opinion of ourselves that leads us repeatedly into idiotic
thinking. If our vestigial rationality detects a conflict between our
actions and our principles -- well, we don't want to change our
actions, and it's embarrassing to change our principles, so we wield
the blow-torch against our rationality, bending it till it's willing to
say that our principles and actions are well-aligned. We're prisoners
of self-love.

NC: We understand the crimes of others but can't understand our
own. Take that picture over there on the wall. What it is is the Angel
of Death, obviously. Off on the right is Archbishop Romero, who
was assassinated in 1980. The figures below are the six leading
Jesuit intellectuals who had their brains blown out in 1989, and their
housekeeper and her daughter, who were also murdered. Now, they
were murdered by an elite battalion armed, trained, and directed
by the United States. The Archbishop was murdered pretty much
by the same hands. Well, a couple of weeks ago there was a court
case in California where some members of the family of Romero
brought some kind of a civil suit against one of the likely killers and
actually won their case. Well, that's a pretty important precedent,
but it was barely reported in the United States. Nobody wants to
listen. You know, Czeslaw Milosz was a courageous, good person.
And when he died there were huge stories. But he and his associates
faced nothing in Eastern Europe like what intellectuals faced in our
domains. I mean, Havel was put in jail. He didn't have his brains
blown out by elite battalions trained by the Russians. In Rwanda,
for about a hundred days they were killing about eight thousand
people a day. And we just went through the tenth anniversary. There
was a lot of lamentation about how we didn't do anything about it,
and how awful, and we ought to do something about other people's
crimes, and so on. That's an easy one -- to do something about other
people's crimes. But you know, every single day, about the same
number of people -- children -- are dying in Southern Africa from
easily treatable diseases. Are we doing anything about it? I mean,
that's Rwanda-level killing, just children, just Southern Africa,
every day -- not a hundred days but all the time. It doesn't take
military intervention. We don't need to worry about who's going to
protect our forces. What it takes is bribing totalitarian institutions to
produce drugs. It costs pennies. Do we think about it? Do we do it?
Do we ask what kind of a civilization is it where we have to bribe
totalitarian institutions in order to get them to produce drugs to stop
Rwanda-level killing every day? It's just easier not to think about it.

WS: Totalitarian institutions -- you mean the drug companies?

NC: Yes. What are they? The drug companies are just totalitarian
institutions which are subsidized: most of the basic research is
funded by the public, there are huge profits, and of course from
a business point of view it not only makes sense, but it's legally
required for them to produce lifestyle drugs for rich Westerners to
get rid of wrinkles, instead of malaria treatments for dying children
in Africa. It's required. It's legally required.

WS: How do we get out from under that?

NC: Well, the first thing we have to do is face it. Until you face
it, you can't get out from under it. Take fairly recent things like
the feminist movement -- women's rights. I mean, if you had asked
my grandmother if she was oppressed she would have said no. She
wouldn't have known what you were talking about. Of course she
was stuck in the kitchen all day, and she followed orders. And the idea
that her husband would do anything around the house . . . I mean,
my mother would not allow my father, or me, for that matter, into
the kitchen. Literally. Because we were supposed to be studying the
Talmud or something. But did they think they were oppressed? Well,
actually, my mother already felt that she was. But my grandmother
didn't. And to get that awareness -- you know, it's not easy.
India is interesting in this respect. There have been some very
careful studies, and one of the best was about the province of Uttar
Pradesh. It has one of the lowest female to male ratios in the world,
not because of female infanticide, but because of the shitty way
women are treated. And I mean, I was shocked to discover that in
the town where I live, Lexington, which is a professional, upper
middle class community -- you know, doctors, lawyers, academics,
stockbrokers, mostly that sort of thing -- the police have a special unit
for domestic abuse which has two or three 911 calls a week. Now,
you know, that's important. Because thirty years ago, they didn't
have that, because domestic abuse was not considered a problem.
Now at least it's considered a problem, and police forces deal with
it, and the courts deal with it in some fashion. Well, you know, that
takes work -- it takes work to recognize that oppression is going on.
This was very striking to me in the student movement in the '60s.
I mean, I was pretty close to it, and those kids were involved in
something very serious. You know, they were very upset, and they
hated the war, and they hated racism, and their choices weren't
always the right ones by any means, but they were very emotional
about it, for very good reasons. . . .
I was involved particularly with the resisters, who were
refusing to serve in the army. They're now called "draft evaders"
and so on, but that's bullshit. I mean, almost all of them could
have gotten out of the draft easily. A lot of them were theology
students, and others -- you'd go to your doctor, and he'd say you
were a homosexual or something. It was nothing for a privileged
kid to get out of the army if he wanted to. They were choosing
to resist. And facing serious penalties. For an eighteen-year-old
kid to go to jail for years or live their life in exile was not an
easy choice -- especially when, of course, if you conformed, you
would just shoot up there and be part of the elite. But they chose
it, and it was a courageous decision, and they were denounced
for it and condemned for it and so on. . . . At some stage of the
game, the feminist movement began. In the early stages of the
resistance, the women were supposed to be supportive, you know,
to these resisters. And at some stage these young women began
to ask, Why are we doing the shit-work? I mean, why are we the
ones who are supposed to look up in awe at them, when we're
doing most of the work? And they began to regard themselves as
being oppressed. Now that caused a rather serious psychological
problem for the boys. Because they thought, and rightly, that they
were doing something courageous and noble, and here suddenly
they had to face up to the fact that they were oppressors, and
that was hard. I mean, I know people who committed suicide.
Literally. Because they couldn't face it.
So, just in our lifetime, it's different. The kinds of things that
were considered normal -- not just normal, un-noticeable, you
didn't see them -- thirty or forty years ago, would be unspeakable
now. The same with gay rights. There have been big changes in
consciousness, and they're important, and they make it a better
world. But they do not affect class issues. Class is a dirty word in
the United States. You can't talk about it.
One of my daughters teaches in a state college in which the
aspirations of most of the students are to become a nurse or a
policeman. The first day of class (she teaches history) she usually
asks her students to identify their class background. And it turns
out there are two answers. Either they're middle class, or they're
underclass. If their father has a job, like as a janitor, they're middle
class. If their father is in jail or transient, then it's underclass. That's
it. Nobody's working class. It's just not a concept that exists. It's
not just here -- it's true in England too. I was in England a couple of
months ago at the time of the Cannes Festival, when Michael Moore
won, and one of the papers had a long interview with him, and the
interviewer was suggesting that Michael Moore wasn't telling the
truth when he said he came from a working class background. He
said he came from a working class background, but his father had a
car and owned a house, so, you know, what's this crap about coming
from a working class background? Well, his father was an auto
worker! I mean, the whole concept of class in any meaningful sense
has just been driven out of people's heads. The fact that there are
some people who give the orders and others who follow them -- that
is gone. And the only question is, how many goods do you have? --
as if, if you have goods, you have to be middle class, even if you're
just following the orders.

WS: What you possess determines how people see you and
how you see yourself. That defines you -- your role in the social
structure does not.

NC: People are trained -- and massive efforts go into this -- people
are trained to perceive their identity and their aspirations and their
value as people in terms of the things they amass. Nothing else. And
in terms of yourself, not anyone else . . . It's kind of interesting to
watch this campaign against Social Security going on, and to see the
attitudes. I see it even among students. And the reason certain people
hate Social Security so much is not just that if you privatize it, it's a
bonanza for Wall Street. I'm sure that's part of it, but the main reason
for the real visceral hatred of Social Security is that it's based on a
principle that they want to drive out of people's heads -- namely, that
you care about somebody else. You know, Social Security is based
on the idea that you care whether the disabled widow on the other
side of town has enough food to eat. And you're not supposed to
think that. That's a dangerous sentiment. You're supposed to just
be out for yourself. And I get this from young people now. They
say, Look, I don't see why I should be responsible for her. I'm not
responsible for her. I didn't do anything to her. I mean, if she didn't
invest properly or, you know, something like that, that's not my
business. Why do I have to pay my taxes to keep her alive? And
why do I care if the kid down the street can't go to school? I mean,
I didn't keep him from going to school.

WS: But isn't that sort of demonstrably absurd? I mean, the student
who doesn't think he's involved with the other people is simply
wrong. He is not a self-created atom. He's a part of society and was
created by society. He didn't become whatever he is simply through
his own individual efforts. It was society that gave him everything
he has and everything he's ever used. He didn't invent the English
language. He didn't invent the telephone.

NC: Yes, but people are very deluded about this, including
professionals. Take professional economists. Most of them literally
believe what Alan Greenspan and others talk about -- that the economy
flourishes because of entrepreneurial initiative and consumer choice
and so on and so forth. You know, that's total bullshit. The economy
flourishes because we have a dynamic state sector.

WS: You mean, the motor driving it all is the taxpayer's money
being spent -- or given away to private companies -- by the state.
The motor is not the individual consumer spending his money in
the free market.

NC: Just about everything in the new economy comes out of state
initiatives. I mean, what's M.I.T.? M.I.T. is overwhelmingly a
taxpayer-funded institution, in which research and development
is carried out at public cost and risk, and if anything comes
out of it, some private corporation, like the guys who endowed
this building, will get the profit from it. And almost everything
works like that -- from computers, internet, telecommunications,
pharmaceuticals -- you run through the dynamic parts of the
economy, that's where they come from. I mean, with things like,
say, computers and the internet, for example, consumer choice
had no role at all! Consumers didn't even know these things
existed until they'd been developed for years at public expense.
But we live in a world of illusion.

WS: People's view of how it's all working is wrong. And of course
most people are just totally immersed intellectually in their own
personal economic struggle -- their struggle to get, basically, things.
But you know, when you say that people are trained to focus their
aspirations entirely on things -- goods -- well, that has terrifying
implications. To say that people may not even be aware that their
lives consist of following orders -- that's terrifying. It's as if people
don't acknowledge that their ability to make choices about their
lives, their degree of power over their own environment, is an
important issue.

NC: No, what you're taught from infancy is that the only choices
you're supposed to make are choices of commodities. It's none
of your business how the government works or what government
policies are or how the community's organized or anything else. Your
job is to purchase commodities. And that's been put in people's heads
from infancy. And that's why we have farcical elections. I mean, the
elections do not turn on issues. I mean, nobody knows where the
candidates stand on issues. It would take a research project to figure
out where they stand on health care or something -- if they even have
a position. I mean, what you're supposed to focus on are qualities.
You know, Is he a "strong leader"? Is he going to protect us? Is he
likeable? Would you like to meet him in a bar? I mean, the thing
that's called an election here -- we would simply ridicule it if it were
happening somewhere else. I mean, what's the election? -- you know,
two guys -- same background -- wealth, political influence, went to
the same elite university, joined the same secret society where you're
trained to be a ruler -- they both can run because they're financed
by the same corporate institutions. At the Democratic Convention,
Barack Obama said, "Only in this country, only in America, could
someone like me appear here." Well, in some other countries, people
much poorer than him would not only talk at the convention -- they'd
be elected president! Take Lula. The president of Brazil is a guy with
a peasant background, a union organizer, never went to school, he's
the president of the second-biggest country in the hemisphere! Only
in America? I mean, there they actually have elections where you
can choose somebody from your own ranks. With different policies!
That's inconceivable in the United States. And it's true of even the
dissidents. There is a huge propaganda effort to reduce political
participation to showing up every four years to push a lever in a
personalized electoral extravaganza, and then go home and let "your
representatives" run the world. Dissidents are often caught up in this
too, and reinforce these delusions. Presidential elections exist, and
can't be ignored. But the real world of serious political action isn't
a once-in-four-years vote-for-me affair. That's not the way Lula got
A lot of it's conscious. There's a conscious strain in sort of
liberal, intellectual thought, it goes way back, that the people really
don't have any right to participate in the political system. They are
supposed to choose among the responsible men.

WS: But it's funny that the people themselves go along with it,
because it seems insulting. Why aren't people more insulted?
They're not even insulted when they're blatantly lied to! They seem
to laugh it off. But in their own lives, in daily life, people would
resent it a lot -- you know, being lied to.

NC: No -- not when people in power lie to you. Somehow there's
some law that that's the way it works. I mean, do people get upset if
their boss lies to them?

WS: Maybe not, maybe not . . . Well, you know, what you've been
saying is scary, but it's also invigorating in a way. Obviously you're
not a particularly sentimental person, I would say, and it's not your
style to make starry-eyed statements, but in a way you're opening
up a rather extraordinary vision of human possibility here. I feel
like saying that your approach to discussing these things is a bit
like the approach of a sculptor -- with hammer and chisel you attack
the big block of marble, and from a certain point of view, all your
gestures could be seen as rather hostile or aggressive as you pursue
the somewhat negative activity of cutting down the stone, but in the
end something rather glorious is revealed. You're suggesting that
rather than being deluded and passive intellectual followers of the
prevailing world-view of our time and place, we might wake up and
think for ourselves. And I think you're suggesting that all human
beings have the capacity to collaborate in the task of guiding their
own lives, and the life of the place where they work, and the life
of their community, and the life of the world. And that to live in
illusion, to be a slave to the world-view of your time and place, or to
be all your life a follower of orders, or to not even be aware that you
have the capacity to participate in the direction of things -- these are
all in a way different forms of oppression. And it's a terrible thing,
but people go along with it.

NC: Slaves went along with it, women went along with it, oppressed
people often go along with it. Until they -- I mean, to learn that you
are being oppressed, and you don't have to be, is hard.

WS: Right. It's hard. That's an understatement. But it's something
to work for, over the centuries, if we survive. Anyway -- thanks.
For the interview and in general.
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