Noam Chomsky has been called many things over the course of his 84 years: a dissident, an anarchist, a linguist, a professor. He has been called the most important living intellectual and even that doesn’t seem to do him justice. Having published over 100 books Noam Chomsky has been shaping the way that we see the world through a relentless pursuit of honesty and objectivity, and his political views have challenged the actions of some of the most powerful people in the world. Never one to shy away from controversial and heated topics, Chomsky shared his thoughts with Think Lab Editor Sasha Grujicic on everything from climate change to the US deficit. Exploring the wider context of international issues, he spoke from experience, revealing tidbits from his childhood and earliest memories growing up in a “bitterly anti-Semitic” neighborhood. It’s personal and it’s political – this is our interview with the one and only Professor Noam Chomsky.
SASHA GRUJICIC—I was speaking with Bev, your assistant, and she mentioned you hold your lunch hour very sacred. You go for walks, and you don’t let many people join you on your walks…
SG—She said you use that time to clear your mind, and just think. My question is: what’s on your mind these days?
NC—Well there are two huge shadows that are probably on everyone’s minds, in the background, at least, whatever the immediate issues are. For the first time in the history of the human species we’re facing the possibility, and indeed the likelihood, of destroying the possibilities for decent human life. One of these shadows has been there since 1945 – it’s nuclear war – and it’s kind of a miracle it’s never happened. It’s come very close. Take Kashmir – India and Pakistan are both nuclear powers. They’ve come quite close to nuclear war a couple of times. And that would have an enormous effect. That’s one. At least that one we know what can be done about it. There’s another one, which we don’t know what can be done about it, or if anything can be done, and that’s the environmental crisis. And that’s getting quite serious here. Canada’s right in the forefront of trying to destroy the species and the States is cooperating. What’s happening with regards to that, if you can kind of look at it dispassionately, it’s intriguing but it’s very worrisome.
SG—You mentioned that you have five grandchildren. Is this a lot of the impetus of your work now, to try to preserve a future for them?
NC—My grandchildren will live through the 21st Century, by mid-century it could be very serious, maybe even earlier. It’s kind of amazing that people, especially in the wealthy countries, the United States and Canada, are just unwilling to think about it. If you look across the spectrum of reactions around the world – everyone knows about it – it’s quite dramatic what’s happening. The groups who are in the forefront of trying to do something about it, are what we call the “uncivilized societies,” – the aboriginal societies, First Nations… they’re way in front. And the countries where they have some influence, like Bolivia where they’re the majority, or Ecuador where they’re close to the majority, they’ve actually passed pretty strong legislation. In fact, Ecuador, which has oil, is trying to figure out a way to keep the oil in the ground. Unlike Canada, which is trying to make sure that the most dangerous, polluting oil – the tar sands – quickly gets out. So here you have two countries with opposite extremes of poverty, of development, and it’s the indigenous populations that are pressing it. And they’re at the opposite ends of trying to save the species.
SG—Why do you think we struggle so much to relate to it. We see it in the news, we see loads of coverage about the demise of the environment, but we don’t connect to it on an individual or personal level?
NC—First of all, that’s not quite true. I don’t know the polls in Canada, but in the United States, I follow them closely. The population in the United States is less committed to do something than say, Europe, but still much closer to the scientific consensus than policy is. It’s the political class, and policy, which are refusing to do anything about it. I think there are 110 relevant countries that have opportunities to use renewable energy, 109 of them have programs for renewable energy, one doesn’t. The United States doesn’t. In fact the United States is going backwards on this. And the United States and Canada are now cooperating – the final step hasn’t been taken, but will be before too long when Obama passes the Keystone Pipeline – to strike the most lethal blow you can imagine to the environment. That’s the two richest countries in the world, and then you go to the tribal societies, and it’s the same with the First Nations in Canada – they’re trying to save the species. This is all over the world, incidentally, I was in Australia recently… there the indigenous population is almost exterminated but there’s some left, and they’re in the forefront of trying to keep the uranium in the ground – they don’t want to mine the uranium because they can see what it can do. The rich educated folks like us they want to get it out and do as much damage as possible.
SG—It is interesting because our countries are held up as bastions of democracy and you’d think with all the popular support for serious policy addressing climate change something would happen. Instead we have protests rather than formal representation on these issues. Are we not supposed to be the world’s model for what a democracy is supposed to be like?
NC—No, we’re not. In fact, in the United States it’s radically undemocratic. One of the main topics in political science is the study of popular attitudes, public policy, and it’s quite striking – about 70 per cent of the population has absolutely no influence on policy, they’re disenfranchised, totally. They’re the lowest 70 per cent on the income/wealth scale – they might as well not bother voting and most of them don’t. As you move up the income/wealth scale you get a little more influence, when you get to the very top, which is a tiny group, they essentially get what they want. That’s very remote from democracy.
SG—Do you think the bottom 70 per cent believe that they don’t have that power to change?
NC—The whole country does. There was just a poll that came out, asking the question: Does your congressional representative represent you? And about 10 per cent agreed. People know that perfectly well, and in fact it takes strange forms; sometimes it takes pathological forms. For example, the gun culture in the United States, which really is pathological, but if you look into attitudes of people who say, “I’ve got to stock up on guns,” quite a lot of them say, “We have to stock up on guns to protect ourselves from the federal government.” Aside from the fact it’s total lunacy – if the federal government comes after you with a tank your assault rifle isn’t going to be much help – but apart from the lunacy, what’s interesting is it shows the attitude towards the government: it’s not our government, it’s an enemy. An even more striking example of it, which is never discussed, but is very obvious, is the attitude towards taxes. If you had a functioning democracy people would celebrate paying taxes. We’re paying taxes because we’re getting together to fund the initiatives that we decided on – what’s better than that?
SG—It’s the use of public good, right?
NC—That would be the attitude towards taxes. Here the attitude is: “There’s an alien force stealing our money from us.” That tells you something very deep about the understanding of democracy. The population understands that it doesn’t exist. The political class, the educated sectors, they have to indulge in rhetorical excesses about the wonders of democracy – that’s their job – but the population knows it’s not true. And if you study the relation between policy and attitudes, you see it very clearly.
Global warming is one case where it’s a lethal problem, but take the main issue on the front pages every day now – what to do about the deficit. I drove in this morning, listened to the liberal public radio station, NPR, [they were having a] big discussion about what to do. They all take for granted we’ve got to do something about the deficit. The public doesn’t think so. The public regards the deficit as a minor problem. They regard the main problem as joblessness. And, in fact, the deficit contributes to getting jobs; it’s good for jobs. It creates demand, and business isn’t investing because they don’t want to bother, so only government spending can create demand. So the public thinks, let’s get after the jobs. They’re not alone – the business press agrees with them – but not policy.
SG—You point out these fundamental contradictions in society today but take me back to when you were young. I’ve heard a lot about how contradictions, in terms of what you were reading and what you were seeing, in the thirties and forties, led you to start to think this way, and to approach critical thinking in that manner. Can you talk to me about some of the influences back then?
NC—First of all I was growing up in the Depression. My parents were teachers,
so they had jobs, but most of the family was unemployed, working-class, so as a young child we had aunts and cousins and nieces around the house because they’d congregate to the one place where there was something there.
My cousins would come visit us over the summer because they could go to the beach. And I just grew up with it. Back in the thirties there would be people knocking on the door trying to sell rags, let’s say; trying to do anything to survive.
One of my earliest childhood memories is riding in a trolley car with my mother somewhere, and we passed a textile plant where there were women on strike outside and police brutally beating them, which was standard. The US has a very violent labor history – workers were being murdered on the job into the late-thirties, and all of these are childhood memories. And also just discussions about everything. My own family, uncles, aunts, and so on, many of them barely went to school – a couple of years of elementary school – but it was a very educated population. Incidentally, that’s traditional. If you go back to the British and American working classes in the 19th Century, they were self-educated but highly educated. You can see it in the labor press – there was a very lively labor press back then.
SG—You must have been only eight to 10 years old at this time?
NC—Yes. The first thing I can remember writing was when I was 10 years old, and I can date it exactly because it was right after the fall of Barcelona in 1939, and it was about the spread of fascism over Europe, which was a very somber development, particularly for a Jewish family. We were Jewish but we lived in a mostly German and Irish neighborhood, which was bitterly anti-Semitic. Boy, on the streets you’d see it. I don’t think my parents ever knew because you didn’t talk to your parents in those days. I grew up knowing you can’t walk down that street because the Irish kids are there. I can remember beer parties at the time of the fall of Paris, for obvious reasons – the Germans were for Germany, the Irish hated the British. And in addition you could see what was happening around the world. My parents would have the radio on. [We’d] hear Hitler at the Nuremberg rallies – didn’t understand what he was saying but you could get the tone. And I could see my parents’ attitudes, my mother terrified that fascism was coming everywhere. And I was reading about it. And a couple of years later I was pretty active – as active as you can be at 13, 14 – in opposing things like the British invasion of Greece, which was a brutal, vicious invasion.
SG—You’re 13 years old and you’re protesting. What did your peer-set look like? At 13 years old I was playing baseball.
NC—I was playing baseball too. Most of the kids didn’t care much, but there were people around. I talked to my uncle, or something like that.
SG—Was he a big influence?
NC—Yeah. I had one uncle in particular who never went passed fourth grade; he ran a newsstand, and his newsstand was sort of a center of political activism. There were a lot of European émigrés who hung around and talked. That was fun selling newspapers. For a couple of years I thought there was a newspaper in New York called “The Newson Mirror.” The newsstand was at a subway kiosk, and people would run out of the subway and say “Newson Mirror” and I’d give them two tabloids. I later realized it was The News and The Mirror.
NC—But it was a lively atmosphere, generally. By the time I was about 12 or 13 I was hanging around second-hand bookstores. We lived in Philadelphia but I could go by myself to New York by train and stay with my relatives. Do you know New York at all?
NC—You know where Union Square is?
NC—Well down Fourth Avenue from Union Square – it’s now all built up, but it used to be rows of second-hand bookstores. Most of them were émigrés, Spanish refugees, a lot of them Spanish anarchists, and I’d hang around the bookstores. The main anarchist office was in Union Square, and I’d hang around there and talk to people and pick up pamphlets.
SG—Did you have any issues with the law at that age? There were a lot of crack downs.
NC—Well, in Philadelphia where I lived there were race riots during the Second World War, and there actually was a teenage curfew – 7pm teenage boys, I’m not sure about girls, had to be at home, or you had to have parental permission to go out. The main contact I had with the police was protection. I went to Hebrew school, and the kids had to have police protection from the subway station to the school a block away. Once you’re in the subway, you’re on your own. But I had no real conflict with them.
SG—So critical thinking was embedded in you at a very young age.
NC—A good childhood.
SG—Absolutely. So where are the gaps today? It seems that the average person, doesn’t necessarily approach things critically, as you described in the way in which we look at global warming, or take a look at the sheer contradictions that you see in sections of the news.
NC—It’s not entirely true. There’s a lot of activism today; it’s very substantial. If you compare with the fifties, countries like the US and Canada are very activism involved. On the other hand the labor movement has been beaten back. The labor movement was always a center of organization and activism, education. One of the ways in which my aunts and uncles who were unemployed developed a rich cultural life, which they did, was through union activities. There were worker education programs, free Shakespeare plays in the parks. This was just part of life. This has declined since the Second World War in many ways. For one thing, the labor movement was under severe attack, starting right after the Second World War. There was a huge business backlash, very strong in the United States, less so in Canada – the US is more of a business-run society, in fact the most business-run society in the world. It’s a very class-conscious [society], constantly fighting a vicious class war. In fact, it’s happening right now.
Take this gap on climate change. Business is worried about the fact that the public is too committed to scientific rationality. There’s been a huge corporate offensive to try to sponsor climate denialism, and it’s had some effect but not enough for them. So right now there’s a new project by an organization called ALEC – American Legislative Exchange Council – it’s a corporate-funded organization which designs legislation that they try to introduce into state legislatures. Business has a lot of clout in the States, so they often succeed. They’re all pro-business legislation of all kinds. One of their new projects is to get states to introduce into their children’s education programs, what they call “balanced teaching” about the climate – that’s a code word for climate change denial. Other groups, the religious groups, try to do the same thing with creationism. But the idea is to really make it a stupid country. That’s very important for business, because they want to make sure they turn profits – they don’t care what happens 20 years from now.
SG—It’s a form of oppression through legislation then?
NC—There are a lot of efforts to control the educational system. It’s been quite striking in recent years. Here it’s called “No child left behind” or “Race to the top,” which is basically a way to make kids as dumb as possible.
It means training to test. It’s a way of training for obedience and passivity, and making sure you don’t understand the significance
of discovery, creativity, working for others, and you just listen and obey. That’s the way school curriculums are being redesigned.
There’s other modes of controlling students. One of them is just debt. College debt in the United States now is higher than credit card debt and that’s a terrific way to trap young people. If you come out of college with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, that sharply restricts your choices. You better go into a corporate law firm, not become a public defender, and so on. All of this started in the early seventies, I think in reaction to the activism in the sixties. There’s a lot of concern there was too much democracy, literally, too much involvement in public affairs. There was a failure of what was called “the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young” – that’s the liberals incidentally. On the right it was much harsher.
SG—You’ve talked a bit about the sixties, and about the protest movement now, and the arts tends to have an interesting role to play there – sixties music is always heralded as being quite powerful. Did the arts have an effect on you when you were younger, and do they have an effect on your life today?
NC—I’m pretty conservative. I was very involved in the activist groups in the sixties and since, with young kids, so I had to listen to plenty of rock music and smell funny smells which I didn’t recognize. And I kind of endured it, but it wasn’t part of me. Fortunately for me, my wife and I, our own kids like to listen to Joni Mitchell, and so on. That was fine.
SG—You’re OK with just influencing the music as long as you don’t have to listen to it?
NC—[Laughs] As long as I don’t have to listen to it! I can listen up to about late-Stravinsky, and then I tail off.
SG—Fair enough. You’ve got a long and storied career, are there moments in time where you either regretted what you did or wished you had done something different?
NC—Quite a lot. Pick almost any issue, [and I] could have done a lot more. For example, it was pretty clear in the early seventies that there was a serious climate crisis coming. Two of my personal friends, one happened to be the head of meteorology at MIT and the other the head of Earth Sciences at Harvard – both well-known scientists – and I remember they started talking about how new data that was coming along looked pretty ominous. But very little was done about it. Or take, during the sixties, I was extremely active in the Vietnam War resistances. I came pretty close to a long jail sentence, but it was way too late. I didn’t get involved until the early sixties, the time to have gotten involved was around 1950. Tens of thousands of people were killed in the fifties, and nothing was done.
SG—So your partner in crime throughout this time, your wife, has always been heralded as being this very caring, but very protective person. And I’m just wondering, did she have a role in shaping the way you got involved in these movements?
NC—She was involved. For example, when I was facing a likely jail sentence she went back to college after 16 years, because we had three kids, somebody was going to have to take care of them, so she needed a job. I remember once the two of us both got arrested at the same demonstration. We had three kids, and our oldest daughter was 12. You got a phone call, and my wife called our oldest daughter and said, “We’re not going to get home tonight, can you take care of the kids?” And she said, “Oh yeah, sure, fine.” They just grew up that way.
SG—Well, Doctor Chomsky, thank you very much for your time.
NC – Thank you. It was nice speaking with you.