Noam Chomsky ~ An interview
by Maxwell Steer for CataList Magazine © 1993

Instead of saying "cheese" for the camera my children always says "Chomsky" because you can't say it without smiling! They've seen his books around the house and like the way the name sounds. But for the power elite in Washington & New York the name is unlikely to be uttered except thru pursed lips, or with a venomous sneer. They do not like neither the word or its sound, for Noam Chomsky is about as popular with the political elite as John the Baptist was at the court of King Herod, or Dave Nellist at a Labour Party Conference.

Why such notoriety for a harmless Professor of Linguistics? Because for nearly 30 years he has been the unremitting scourge of the intellectual laziness and venality by which the American media has allowed itself to be sucked into a collusive silence about the realpolitik of US foreign policy. Explaining his latest book Deterring Democracy in a recent Rolling Stone Chomsky says "Democracy has two quite different meanings. According to the dictionary, a system is democratic to the extent that its citizens have ways to participate in decisions about public affairs. In the ideological sense of democracy -the Orwellian sense- a society is Democratic" as judged by the US, only "if its business is run in a way subordinate to the interests of US business." He cites the way in which legitimate democracies were subverted in Guatemala in the 50s and Nicaragua in the 80s as just two examples of the double standard of successive US administrations. Even the Vietnam war was justified as 'making the world safe for democracy.'

It is part of the unique quality of Noam Chomsky's world view that he simply refuses to accept the second definition of democracy. He believes that his government should not say and do things which are at variance with its constitutional principles, and in particular that it should not do things (such as invading neighbouring countries &/or supporting terror regimes) which it attacks in other less 'free' nations. And that if it does, it is the business of a free press both to bark and to bite. So, finding the watchdog both emasculated and ani-lingually engaged with power interests, Chomsky is not afraid to hunt like a lone wolf, stalking his prey thru thickets of reportage, until he has finally and conclusively fastened his teeth on the lie for all to see.

In Necessary Illusions - thought control in democratic societies he produces a withering analysis of this unholy alliance between power and media privilege, for to would-be professionals belief formation, he claims, works like this: if you are ambitious for success, "you make up a belief system that makes it look right, and then you believe the belief system. So the people who are capable of believing what is supportive of power and privilege," that is journalists and other 'cultural managers' "but coming at it, in their own view, independently - those are the best" at maintaining thought control in democratic societies.

The lesson Chomsky reminds us is that what goes around comes around - and you'd better not forget it! If you support unjust regimes, expect injustice! What, and how, he writes is profoundly empowering to individuals, for he shows what can be done, single-handedly if need be. For him, truth, justice and public integrity are not abstractions, they are a living everyday reality. Chomsky describes himself as a libertarian socialist, but his moral ancestry really springs from the 18thC Radicalism of independent thinkers like Tom Paine and bypasses Communism altogether. Laughingly, he talks of himself as "one of the few true 'conservatives' in the US." To Chomsky Marxism is 'the bigotry of organised religion' yet his profound moral clarity about complex political issues feels religious in the strength of its conviction. I started by asking him something about his inner motivation, knowing how lonely and often disheartening it must be assembling high calibre argument.

I've been offered huge advances for an autobiography, but the questions make me uncomfortable; don't exactly know why. Fundamentally I believe people do have an instinct for freedom and justice, they can understand complex political issues if you can break thru the shell of indifference. My position is that of Pascal's wager: we don't know if trying to help ordinary people will improve their lives - but know exactly what will happen if we don't!

What need in you does your pursuit of political truth answer?

I think a better question would be: 'Given that someone in your position could do so much to relieve suffering and misery throughout the world, to contribute to the social and policy change that are desperately needed, to help compensate for the extraordinary commitment of the intellectual culture to deceit and lies in its service to power - why do you do so little?' That's a question I find troubling.

64 this month, Noam Chomsky was born in Philadelphia. His parents were Ukrainian immigrants, Hebrew scholars with strong pacifist leanings, and he grew up in an atmosphere strongly coloured by the inter-war labour movement. Gaining his PhD in linguistics from Pennsylvania in 1955 he was appointed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is now Professor of Foreign Literature and Linguistics.

Since his first published work, Syntactic Structures, a stream of professional writing has followed that has established Chomsky as the central figure in the field of neuro-linguistics, the relationship between structure of language and the physical memory structures of the brain. "If a smart Martian came to Earth he would see that all human languages are the same. The trick is to find the fundamental rules of all languages - a formidable but reachable goal."

It was the Vietnam War which radicalised Chomsky. He began to be appalled by the façade of wholesale deceit on which US involvement was based. Tho by now married with a young family, Noam was one of the founders of Resist and "came unpleasantly close to a 5 year jail sentence, avoided only by a historical accident it seems." In 1967 he was imprisoned briefly after a Pentagon demo, and refused to pay taxes until the mid seventies.

He jokes about "the usual run of death and bomb threats."

I am sometimes followed by undercover police, even at professional seminars. Not infrequently, if I'm speaking on the Middle East.there are extensive and very visible security measures, and organisers have felt it necessary to accompany me to and from the auditorium as well. I've occasionally been under threat from security forces in other countries, but that's another matter.

Tho ethnically Jewish himself, the State of Israel's civil rights record has no harsher critic than Noam Chomsky. His exposure of the blatant anti-Palestinian bias of the US news media has earned him the unremitting hostility of the New York Times, whose claims to be an independent Newspaper of Record he delights to puncture by revealing its deliberate omissions of fact on Government-sensitive issues.

Are there any crossovers between his views on politics and linguistics?

I'm constantly asked about a connection. In England, there's an amusing cottage industry involving various state-worshipping cranks (notably Paul Johnson) who have even written books explaining that my anarchist views are derived from syntax. Putting aside such imbecilities, the obvious answer is that my general views on the world were formed long before I ever heard of linguistics.

My first impressions of the man were that he was entirely without vanity, or a sense of humour Ñ tho I was to find myself wrong on the second point. He seemed as heroically indifferent to his appearance as he is to physical fear, his fresh, cheap, ordinary clothes being part of a refusal to 'role play' which bespoke true self-confidence. I asked him if he undertook the immense research for his books single-handedly?

On this side of the political fence, one gets no help, except for the occasional volunteer, and, of course, informal networks of mutually-supportive dissidents around the world. In fact, I could get myself paid a lot more not to do it!

How do you handle all the reading and cataloguing?

Innumerable piles of books, clippings, articles, that litter my house and office, without much rhyme or reason, except that I seem to be able to remember that something I saw a couple of years ago is in the pile over there 3/4 of the way up. Sometimes! It's awfully frustrating when it isn't, which is unpleasantly often.

The only talent for writing I'm aware of is a certain form of schizophrenia, which makes it possible for me to work on things in a very scattered fashion, in airplanes, late at night, driving somewhere, and so on. I'm sure everything suffers from the attempt to keep 2 demanding work lives going, along with much else.

What about close friendships?

My feeling is that that's not anyone's business. I live a very public life, but am a very private person.

(In fact, Chomsky has been married for 43 years to a fellow-linguist, and has 3 grown children.)

We then turned to more directly political matters. I put it to him that de facto censorship occur more as a bi-product of 'the confederacy of mediocrity' - time-servers and careerists whose lazy minds don't want trouble on their watch.

I quite agree with you, insofar as you are talking about the cultural managers or intellectual elites.

But isn't the brutal reality that the general public gets the news media it wants Ñ and it doesn't want bad news? Infotainment sells because it creates the illusion of well-being and camaraderie among those whose lives are filled with anxieties and uncertainty.

Claims of offering the public what it wants are quite implausible. History doesn't provide controlled experiments, but there are many cases that are close enough. Not infrequently, public opinion diverges radically from the output of the doctrinal institutions (universities, the media). It is hard to see how this can be reconciled with the comforting belief that 'we give the public what it wants.' In contrast, the category of cases in which the output of the doctrinal institutions diverges from the basic demands of power and privilege is vanishingly small, despite much pretence. On the contrary, I agree with the Commissar class that the general public prefers the truth, and must be protected from it É or helped to discover it - depending on one's commitments. There are obvious explanations for this, on guided free market assumptions that are hardly controversial.

What would you say to journalists /producers who might argue that in an ideal world they'd cover more of the stories you write about, but in the real world of uncertainties and deadlines they have to balance more immediate pressures against the cui bono of attacking targets we may not yet clearly see? Look at what happened to Thames TV when it broadcast Death on the Rock.'

It's worth noting that the vast efforts of Governments to deceive and distort take a lot more effort than telling the truth - but are consistently considered necessary. There is only one plausible explanation: those who share in or serve power and privilege believe that the rascal multitude must be deluded, or they will attempt to enter the forbidden arena of political decision making where 'ignorant and meddlesome outsiders' (as Walter Lippmann described the public in his Progressive Essays on Democracy) do not belong.

Your new book, and the lectures you're giving in England, are called Year 501: The Conquest Continues ...

It's a reference to the European world conquest that has been in progress for 501 years; and offers a framework for discussion of 2 major, persistent themes: one is the way in which the European world conquest now manifests itself in the North-South confrontation, and the function served by internal conflict within the conquering societies. In a little quoted section of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith suggests how the Architects of Policy design society in their interest. To make 18thC capitalism work in England the conquered peasantry had to be driven off the land and into wage slavery. The same is true of the poorer countries of the world today, but an interesting development of the North-South conflict is found in the renewed subjugation of Eastern Europe, which is rapidly being reduced to third world conditions.

When Russia pulled out of Europe in 1917 it sent shock waves all over Euro-centric consciousness. Just as Grenada forming fishing cooperatives was deeply threatening to the US. But Grenada you can knock off in a weekend. Communist Eastern Europe took 70 years, but we did it!

The second aspect of the book is the breakdown of the postwar global economic system (the Bretton Woods Agreement) which had delivered a unique affluence. By 1971 the tripolar emergence of Germany & Japan led to US dissatisfaction with the decline of its position; and as a result Nixon accelerated an existing trend towards the international free flow of capital.

Altho everybody now lives in a global casino, the facts are that 40% of international trade is the centrally managed internal transfer of resources within major corporate structures, and has no remote relation to a free market.

'Corporate mercantilism', as we might call it, is already developing its own de facto World Government: the World Bank, the GATT Directorate, the Bilderberg Conference and so on - a global system completely geared to needs of business. The idea is to remove economic decision-making from any institution that reflects popular control.

The 18thC process of driving the poor into wage slavery is to be continued by de-industrialising the major economies in favour of low-cost, high-repression regimes. American cities are beginning to look like Third World now with characteristic sectors of privilege amid a sea of misery. In Harlem male life expectancy is roughly on a level with Bangladesh. On my visits to London I notice the same deterioration.

Internationalisation of the capitalist economic system levels down not up, but then business and politicians knew that all along. Reagan's great achievement was to drive us so deep into debt and there can be no social program. His budget director, David Stockman, admitted as much.

The other aspect of this class war is the continuing attack on Unions, Welfare & Education, which are all superfluous and unacceptable because they promote people above profit. Under capitalism 'freedom' is just another commodity. That's why those who have most money have most freedom!

In the US I wouldn't be surprised to see Education put on the 'free market' (ie available only to rich) which is what they've done with mental health. As a result the US has highest per capita prison population in the world, way over a third of which are psychotic. I've been committed to jail on several occasions and it's horrific.

The only good thing to be said of our prison development is that it does give Keynsian stimulation to the community! It must be almost the fastest-growing white collar profession!

Can you see anything positive?

Despite appearances, I believe the US now has a much healthier attitude to all sorts of problems, such as ethnicity. I think the cultural renaissance in the 60s was absolutely seminal. There's a much greater awareness of broader political issues in middle America. Hundreds of thousands of middleclass people got involved with the Central America Solidarity movement in the 80s and thousands of them actually went there to inhibit attacks on rural communities!

Just think what the Quincentenary celebration would have been like if it had happened 30 years earlier! The old attitudes are crumbling for the first time in hundreds of years. They simply couldn't carry off that Euro-centric imperialism in 1992. Or think of the Clarence Thomas /Anita Hill affair. Even 10-years ago sexual harassment would have been laughed off the page. Everybody would've said "sure it happened. What's new?"

And I think the environmental movement is very, very positive.

I do in fact believe that the US is the freest society in 501 years, but there's no cause for complacency here. What I draw attention to is the lies told by those wo could just as easily tell the truth.

Did you vote?

I voted for Clinton or, rather, I voted against Bush. As you know, there's only one party in America, the Business Party. Clinton's basically a candidate for one faction within the party. The one sensible thing he ever did [evade the draft] he's trying to hide. So we shall have to wait and see.

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