Noam Chomsky: the American Socrates on an Upbeat

Chantal Berman photo

Chantal Berman photo

Noam Chomsky, after all these years, retains the power to shock — in the bright title of his new collection, Hopes and Prospects, and with what sounds like good news in this conversation.

It’s Professor Chomsky’s cheerful conviction, drawing on his own trials in the Vietnam War resistance, that anti-war understanding and feeling run much deeper and stronger today in a freer, more humane America. It’s because of that popular war opposition today — inarticulate and ill-led, perhaps, but nonetheless verifiable — that the US assaults on Iraq and Afghanistan have not incuded the saturation bombing and chemical warfare that were standard fare in Vietnam and Cambodia.

He is sure that the anti-incumbent rage reported in the Tea Party overlaps substantially with his own chronic dismay at elite manipulations and moral corruption in our politics. The larger part of the Tea Party, he says, is built on real grievances in longer hours, shorter pay, ever-rising job insecurity.

In short, there’s a vast pool of discontent out there to be organized by the Left, he says, if the United States had a functioning Left even as it did in the 1930s. As we say, “If we had ham, we could have ham and eggs — if we had eggs.”

Noam Chomsky does not pine idly, as I do, for the Anti-Imperialist League of a century ago — when Mark Twain, the biggest rock star in the land, declared: “I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle puts its talons on any other land;” and the impeccable William James, father of philosophical Pragmatism, fulminated Jeremiah-Wright-style: “God damn the U.S. for its vile conduct” in the Philippines, as James put it in 1903. Nor is Chomsky compelled, as I often am, to reach back to the Transcendentalist purity of the great Thoreau, who withheld his taxes and went to jail during the war with Mexico and roared in protest, in the Tea Party spirit, “Why the United States Government never performed an act of justice in its life!”

No, Professor Chomsky is inclined to believe there is more and stronger anti-imperialist sentiment today than in Concord, Massachusetts in 1846, when Thoreau spent his night in jail, or even in 1967, when thousands of young men decided to leave their country rather than be drafted, and Chomsky himself risked a long prison sentence for counselling them.

We live in the gravest of emergencies — nuclear and environmental. Our country is led by a president that Noam Chomsky never much celebrated. And still he observes that “general consciousness has changed” in his time, fundamentally for the better.

General consciousness has changed on all sorts of issues. There are lots of things that were considered perfectly legitimate in the early 1960s that are almost out of the question now.

Women’s rights, environmental concerns, gay rights, civil rights for blacks… a lot of things have changed in the country. It’s gotten a lot more civilized. And one part of that is anti-imperialism. Take a look at polls now. The majority for some time has been in favor of withdrawing from Afghanistan. Now that didn’t happen in the case of Vietnam till it was way beyond the level of any fighting now. So it’s important, it’s real. The Anti-Imperialist League was an important pocket of American intellectual history. It did not succeed in impeding the war effort [in the Philippines]… In the case of the Iraq War, it’s probably the first time in the history of imperialism, the only time I can think of, when there was massive popular opposition to the war. My students here, for example, insisted on calling off classes and joining a big demonstration in Boston, and it happened all over. This was before the war started, before the war officially began. There was massive protest, and that’s one of the reasons why, awful as it was, it was somewhat constrained, certainly as compared with Indo-China. Well, these are signs of anti-imperialism. You’re perfectly right that they’re not organized, but we shouldn’t romanticize Thoreau and Mark Twain. They were important. It’s good that they did what they did, but it was nothing like the scale that we take for granted now.

Professor Noam Chomsky with Chris Lydon in his MIT office, October 19, 2010

Noam Chomsky is the closest thing we have to Socrates in the American public square: a scathing questioner of virtually every common premise about who we Americans are and what we’re up to in the world. We’ve never heard him as mellow as this — ever wary of a hemlock ending, but good-humored about that, too.

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  • Absolutely. Brilliant. Tea Partiers seem more hell-bent on blind rage than on making any coherent arguments against the people and institutions in power. (The fact that a raving lunatic like Glenn Beck is the closest the movement has to a spokesman speaks volumes.) Chomsky — a name that still causes right-wingers and not a few left-wingers too to go apoplectic — is ultimately the closest we have in our time to the voice of history. It’s scary to hear sometimes. And it’s frightening to ponder just how many lies and distortions regularly pass for truth and received wisdom. But his is a tonic that’s gravely needed today, more than ever.

    As Chomsky says, nuclear war and environmental catastrophe are twin perils that require our species to sit up and act immediately and responsibly on. And yet all we’ve been doing to date is squabbling amongst ourselves for the best deck chairs on that beautiful, unsinkable ocean liner.

    Hearing this remarkable interview — excellent job, as ever, Chris — just serves to remind how completely out-of-touch even the most “informed” Americans are with the reality of our history, our present and our future. I wish there was an easy way to package these most incisive and blistering perspectives for those many Americans who instead think Noam Chomsky is some ivory tower academic who just “hates America.” Chomsky is, in fact, the voice of pure and undiluted reason whose straightforward ideas and truisms are simply too earth-shaking for American media to bring to American ears and eyes.

    In truth, as this hour unfolds, it becomes plain that Tea Pariters are no more than a sideshow today, playing tiddly winks with kitty cats, compared to what a REAL voice of opposition sounds like. “Hell no,” soon-to-be-Speaker Boehner? Hell yes. Listen and learn, for those with ears to hear. And then go out and DO something.

  • scott

    Chris, an insightful and inspiring interview with Noam Chomsky who maintains a level of rigorous interrogation of reality and a sense of human possibilities for overcoming dangerous and destructive institutions that is as striking as it is uplifting. Looking forward to your next sit-down with Noam. Your attempt to bring science into the discussion suggests another interview in which you focus on Noam’s work in linguistics and philosophy of mind. Any chance of that happening?

    Great interview. Keep up the important work. in peace and solidarity.

  • Potter

    General consciousness has changed but is the pace of that change enough to forestall the dangers that Noam Chomsky names. I am not so upbeat.

    “If we had ham, we could have ham and eggs — if we had eggs.”

    The Tea Party will not be harnessed by the left because it needs the left to push against, to demonize, to give it definition and force. Business interests, though incongruous with TP, will ride that horse to power. The Tea Party appears a Republican movement; polls show they are 80-85% Republican. TP core values, when they are untangled from confused contradictory myopic opinions, are not in sync with liberal or leftist values either. The latter need to be energized articulated and elevated into the public conversation. This is where Obama disappoints as a compromiser and centrist. A younger or louder Chomsky is needed to make those very valid strong moral arguments that take into account the whole planet.

    Chomsky makes a point about that NYTimes ad against the Iraq war. He would not have signed it because he was against the war on the basis of morality ( and international law), not because it was not in our national interest. It was the moral arguments against that impending war.For me it includes the dishonest way it was being sold to the American public ( for which leaders have not been held accountable and paid a price.) We were waltzed into that “war of choice” after 9/11, after the decade of ineffectual anti-Saddam policies, UN supported, designed to break his tyranny. The suffering of the Iraqi people was a real issue. But we made it worse. With all the demagoguery, by the time we were about to go to war, 65% of the public was not for us going it alone. Then of course people got behind it— American flags were flying out of cars ( SUV’s), yellow ribbons “support our troops” slapped on bumpers..

  • Potter

    It was heart-warming to see the Sanity-Fear rally today, a push-back and response to the Beck Tea Party rally. The crowd was enormous. One guy had a sign that said “raise my taxes please”.

    When Chris asked Noam whether that Tea party anger ( energy) could be harnessed by the left, I don’t remember what Noam said but it did not seem so to me, as I said above.. However there is still a lot of energy out here that can be harnessed in opposition to the Tea Party and in a more positive direction. Today’s rally was reminiscent of the original excitement/enthusiasm that Obama managed to give voice to. Stewart & Colbert deserve credit for making this point. People are still looking for a voice that has been lost. I hear it in Chris’s questioning in several interviews. That voice Obama lost when he started the business of governing and moving to the center looking for a bi-partisanship that was not to be had, and easily compromising progressive goals away. Also, because of the compromises, now everyone is unhappy with the results- including l Democrats in Congress who started running away from the President, not supporting or defending him.

  • Pete Crangle

    Excellent show. If Professor Chomsky is playing the role of Socrates (sans hemlock), I’ll nominate Glen Beck for the role of Girolamo Savonarola (the not-so-ascetic version).

    Regarding the nature of compromise: You’re unhappy. I’m unhappy too. Have you heard of Henry Clay? He was the Great Compromiser. A good compromise is when both parties are dissatisfied, and I think that’s what we have here. — Larry David Curb Your Enthusiasm

  • alex kramer

    Excellent interview! Is there a transcript available?

  • Excellent, timely interview.

  • Pete Appleton

    If a functioning left existed in the US, people with legitimate grievances (such as the Tea Party activists and sympathizers) would be mobilized to take back what is rightfully theirs, namely jobs. Chomsky has previously cited the absurdity of US Government offers of lucrative high speed rail contracts to companies in Spain as only one example of how the current reign of the business party (republican and democrat politicians alike) has helped cut-off a real sense of hope for a promising future. Another crucial point made by Chomsky is collusion between the financial industry and institutions of higher education, which inflates tuition to unaffordable extremes as an attempt (an oftentimes successful one, but not always) to create a culture of conformity, subservience and what would in other times be called debt peonage in the political class itself. This strategy is played out by the financial industry in other sectors of the economy, such as real estate and tech, which result in, as Chomsky points out, bubbles that burst and crashes.

    Professor Chomsky (indeed the modern Socrates) notes the Philippines as being the “one country” in Southeast Asia that has missed out on economic growth. Of course there are others, like Laos for instance, a country Chomsky briefly spent time in during Vietnam War (see his At War with Asia) along with Cambodia to the south, that have not seen any type of economic achievement either.

    Indeed careful attention should be paid to the two major problems facing the human species, nuclear war and environmental catastrophe. It is interesting to see how the two are linked. Thanks Noam.

  • Thank you Pete, that aspect of what was in regards to the Philippines, and the opposition to the Iraq war being unique to the history of imperialism were the two minor things that gave me pause. Cambodia has had periods of growth in the past twenty years, but they have been limited. Laos, as far as I know (and I am willing to concede I know very little) is stagnant. If Myanmar is included in the region, there are problems. While this is true everywhere except for Singapore, Indonesia offers the most obvious example that development is geographically uneven within each country.

    But in Chomsky’s defense, there certainly is something -extremely- bizarre about the economy here in the Philippines. A very large portion of the population, most of the most skilled portion, leave to the mideast and United States to send remittance money back to their families. While some of this remittance money does go towards internal development, more often it seems that families realize that they can survive on remittance alone, sometimes even selling their farmland to foreigners. The economy is almost completely dependent on money coming from abroad, and increasingly from material from abroad. The high quality food is shipped out as “export quality” (good enough for foreigners, not good enough for you) while the poorest quality rice from Thailand is imported. What internal development the oversees Filipino workers are funding seems to be going largely into real estate that is already only being kept afloat by the money coming in from these overseas workers. The Philippines, which at certain points in the past century has been among the richest countries outside of Europe or North America now has a lower per capita GDP than Indonesia. There certainly is far more economic activity here than in Laos, but so much of it seems to be of a destructive type! To say nothing of the government’s corrupt relationship with private, often foreign, companies…

    I’m very interested in learning all I can about the United States’s role in the Philippines. I have found a lot of documentation of the war atrocities, and that profound and disturbing American influence exists here is very obvious on the ground, but I have not had a lot of success finding what I want about the colonial and post-independence periods. Jeff Sharlet’s book “The Family” hints at a relationship between Doug Coe and Ferdinand Marcos, but understandably doesn’t go into too much depth, but I know there is a lot of information out there, just out of my reach! What little Chomsky hinted at in this conversation sounds like more of what I am looking for, am I right to assume I can find more in his books? More of the substance I am looking for?

    Very much appreciate the conversation, as always! Everything is maddening, but to know one is not alone in seeing it is a relief, to know more is out there to be learned is even exciting.

  • robert clayton

    While I have a profound respect for Mr. Chomsky I am dismayed by his analysis. The reasonining behind this tends towards Mr. Chomsky’s loyalty towards the academic sphere of our country. I would love for him to be transperant regarding his salary. The academic institutions of America are supported with funds from our military sector. Honestly, I want Noam to shut up. Mailer got his head cracked. What did you do.

  • Jazzman

    I love Noam Chomsky and his spirit – I have attended a couple of his lectures (each SRO) and he is as brilliant as Socrates (if Plato is to be believed.) This interview was classic post-linguistic analysis Noam and my only complaint is his ever pessimistic view of humanity’s future (viz. nuclear destruction and environmental disasters.)

    He is so even tempered and level headed about so many thorny issues/personalities that it is too bad that he is fearful about our prospects in those areas (although he is hardly alone.) He however puts his money where his mouth is talking the talk and walking the walk in efforts that many see as tilting at windmills. I, often accused of being a solipsist (I disagree), do my walking & talking through discussion and suasion but mainly on a mental level. I don’t see how divulging his MIT salary or his speaking fees as Robert Clayton desires would change anything except to perhaps engender jealousy (shut up???) – the monies are fungible and I’m sure that if Noam felt he was compromised by his associations with any organization he would disassociate himself.

    Thanks, Chris for this interview and may you interview him many more times.

    Peace to ALL,

    Jazzman – p.s. CheeseChowMain drop me a line sometime: Jazzbo9 at

  • Mark Texas

    A most enjoyable interview. For once, honest intelligent questions and reparte. Can you imagine a orator with the Chomsky mind? Zimbardo says we have to use the same methods hat opress us, to elevate us. I love your characterization of Noam as the Socrates of our time. His clarity and common sense truth can’t be beat, IMHO. Great job Mr. Lydon, bravo.

  • Robert M Stahl

    Somewhat induced by the discussion about the Tea Party movement, there remains a curious anamoly to structure itself, or its absence. As an aside, it would be fascinating to hear Randell L. Mills speak, CEO of Blacklight Power in New Jersey because the premise of his work is such a paradigm shift. That is, contained in the literary work he offers for free on his website there is, also, basis in philosophy along with reality, but the first foot it gets off on is STRUCTURE. Furthermore, the implications of his text would have a lot to do with changing the contemporary dialogue, or as Gregory Bateson puts it, introducing the metalogue needed where structure would have to be introduced in parallel discussions in science and literature all over. Anyway, this is my proposal, and I am all ears.

    p.s. If you ever saw the movie of Ryan Thurston’s called Who Killed John O’Neill and disected it as a work of art, you might want to track this guy down and interview him as well. It might add another component that is missing of the assertions the tea party movement can’t get past, hopefully making all aware of the ecological imperatives that are heartily being ignored by these Job-ites requiring an artistic component.

  • Luci Smith

    Dr Chomsky always makes so much sense.