Noam Chomsky has been a central figure on the American left for over five decades. His New York Review Of Books article from 1967, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” was called “the single most important piece of anti-war literature” from the Vietnam period. That helped launch him on a course to being “the most widely-read American voice on foreign policy on the planet,” as the New York Times described three and a half decades later, in 2004.
Chomsky’s academic field is linguistics, where he’s won numerous prizes for work developing theories like universal grammar, but he’s famous mainly as an anti-propagandist. A chief attraction to his work for readers across the spectrum is his relentless, Cassandra-like habit of calling out official untruths, especially American ones, be they about war or domestic politics or the subject he seems lately to care most about, the environment.
Chomsky calls himself a “libertarian socialist,” which he defines as a belief that “enterprises ought to be owned and managed in a democratic fashion by the people who participate in them.” The left has always claimed him as a champion and some on that side of the aisle regularly appeal to him to settle disputes, as something like a Papal authority (humorously, he seems to intensely dislike this). I’m not so sure any particular political label fits him, however.
He’s certainly an internationalist — even in the interview below he argues for “citizens’ international solidarity.” One of the things that mainstream American pundits have always loathed and resented about Chomsky is his habit of blithely judging America as one would any other country. Ask him about al-Qaeda after 9/11, and he pivots to the “far more extreme terrorism” of American foreign policy in the third world. Ask him about China’s repression of the Uighurs, as Katie Halper and I do here, and he asks, “Is it as bad as Gaza? It’s very hard to argue that.”
What grinds critics of Chomsky is that he seems to push the rejection of geographical chauvinism to unbelievable degrees. Phil Donahue once asked him, seriously, if he liked sports. Chomsky replied he didn’t really get it. What did he care which group of professional athletes won a game? None of them had anything to do with him.
Donahue pressed: come on now, you really don’t get it? Don’t you remember being a kid, rooting for the home team, the smell of the field, the memories? “Why wouldn’t you celebrate that?”
Chomsky offered the following reply:
I did the same thing. I can remember the first baseball game I saw when I was 10 years old, I can tell you what happened at it — fine. But that’s not my point. See, if you want to enjoy a football game, that’s great. You want to enjoy a baseball game, that’s great. Why do you care who wins?
Note the use of “fine” there, a staple of Chomskyian argument! When Donahue later tried to tweak him with a comment about how it was “no wonder you grew up to be such a radical who doesn’t like high school football,” Chomsky doubled down: “Unfortunately, I did like it,” adding, “I’m sorry for that.”
Chomsky’s Spockian insistence that his adult self is immune to such temptations has led some fiercer critics to scoff at his habit of batting away questions about atrocities committed by other countries as a kind of reverse chauvinism, a calculated pose rooted in some unknown pathology, leading to overcorrections back in the direction of America’s bad behavior. Surely he doesn’t really believe the U.S. government is worse than al-Qaeda?
Then you watch “Collateral Murder,” or film of American cluster bombs dropped in the cities of Yemen, or our Air Force dropping thousands of tons of bombs on civilians in North Vietnam — speaking of sports, one such bombing campaign was called Operation Linebacker — and Chomsky becomes harder to argue with. Suddenly we’re glad he’s no flag-waver, because who else is going to point these things out?
This is why I’ve always admired Chomsky a great deal, even if I sometimes disagree with his politics (or his takes on sports for that matter!). Unafraid of criticism, few people of his stature in American life are willing to do what he does. He is clearly a man of principle, a character trait that might have gotten him in even more trouble had he come of political age in the Internet era. His defense of the speech rights of Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson is still brought up by critics and sticks to his name like flypaper on Twitter. He doesn’t care.
More evidence that he’s honest broker lay in the fact, as Christopher Hitchens once noted, that over time, “the more Chomsky was vindicated, the less he seemed to command ‘respect’” from mainstream pundits. His fame has grown in inverse relationship to the quantity of his green room invites. Although American political life has moved toward him, as noted below, he’s still largely an unperson to the networks and the newsrooms of the great dailies like the Times, who’ll never forgive him for being right about everything from the civil rights movement to Vietnam to Iraq. Even his views on Russiagate (“farcical,” he said) identified him as an outside-the-tenter, confirmed in his shameful lack of deference to the manufacturers of consent.
Chomsky has other, little-remarked-upon qualities that mark him as a true egalitarian, like his habit, still, of trying to answer every serious query sent to him. Although not a fan of tweets — “If you thought for two minutes… you wouldn’t have sent it” is his mordant assessment of a lot of Twit lit — he gives nearly every other kind of correspondence generous consideration. He’ll prioritize responding to an obscure blogger over a major daily newspaper if the blogger has the better question.
Chomsky’s stubbornness is clearly his great strength, but it can make interviewing him a challenge. When I approached him before writing Hate Inc., which I initially tried to model after his great book of media criticism, Manufacturing Consent, I tried over and over to get his take on how the press had changed since he and Edward Herman first started looking at the subject forty-odd years ago. What about the role of Facebook, Google, Twitter?
In the age of data mining and push notifications, couldn’t a company like Facebook — which has completely taken over the distribution authority regional newspapers once claimed for themselves — individually shape the news-reading habits of billions of people in ways never imaginable previously? I thought the new algorithm-fueled emphasis on divisive media was a truth-smothering innovation that fit with his famous propaganda model, but Chomsky wasn’t having any of it.
“Take a look at the Facebook phenomenon,” he said. “Where are they getting their news from? They don’t have any reports. They’re just getting it from the New York Times, so it’s the same sources of information.” I tried again in the interview below, but he dunked on me quickly. Some issues are no-fly zones. But there are plenty he loves talking about.
His most recent book, Chomsky for Activists, traces the aforementioned undeniable truth, that the arc of American politics has moved in his direction, thanks in large part to activism. Chomsky wrote The Political Economy of Human Rights and Manufacturing Consent around the same time that Howard Zinn was writing The People’s History of the United States. At the time, all three books (and especially Zinn’s) were almost universally denounced as scandalous anti-American provocations. Today there’s a debate over whether the Zinn/Chomsky view of American history has become too hegemonic in academia. I’m not sure The 1619 Project isn’t a clever subversion of Chomskyan politics rather than an affirmation of it, but the influence of his mode of thinking in modern American culture is clear from any angle.
Noam Chomsky at 92 is voluble, energetic, and quick. Except for the werewolf beard, which gets a big yes vote from me, he’s still the same far-ranging, defiant thinker he was twenty or thirty years ago. In a recent interview with Useful Idiots, he offered his thoughts on Joe Biden, Donald Trump, a rising nuclear threat, the media, and other topics:
Matt Taibbi: Can you tell us a little bit about Chomsky For Activists, and what prompted you to do this book now?
Noam Chomsky: Well, actually, I was prompted by a friend who is editing it, and he thought it might be a good idea to put together some discussions, and interviews and back articles, or the things about activism. So I went along.
MT: The book is very optimistic in tone. You talk about the distance that people have traveled since the sixties. How do you account for the improvement in the level of engagement in political activism today versus, say, back in the early sixties?
Noam Chomsky: Overall, it’s probably greater today. There were peaks in the sixties. There was a brief peak, and with regard to the civil rights movement, and roughly around 1963, a couple of years before that, and that terminated. Then there was a brief peak in the late sixties and early seventies, with regard to the antiwar movement. It was a couple of years. Meanwhile, other things were being developed, barely developing.
You got the bare beginnings of what became later the feminist movement, the beginnings of environmental concerns, some labor concerns, a couple of others. A lot of them flourished later, the seeds were laid.
But today it’s much broader, much more extensive. But one of the reasons for the book is there is a sense among young people that everything’s hopeless. It’s just, “You can’t fight City Hall. It’s too big.” That partly comes from not understanding what’s happened in the past. If you look at the differences that activism has made, just in half of my life, the fifties, sixties, to the present, that’s enormous. You go back earlier, it’s even more.
MT: Especially since Trump was elected, there’s been a lot of this rhetoric that democracy doesn’t work, that people left to their own devices make bad decisions, etc. As a result of this pessimism, a lot of people believe the road to progress is lobbying big companies like Facebook and Google and PayPal, and even MasterCard and VISA, to create the society that we want. How do you feel about that kind of corporate-based activism, lobbying corporations to exercise their power?
Noam Chomsky: Lobbying corporations is activism. If corporations are doing anything, it’s because they’re under pressure to do it. A corporation has one purpose, to profit. There’s variation, but very generally the fact is, that a corporation is following the principle that it should maximize its own gain and market share. Now, corporate executives are not stupid.
If they realize that they’re losing a customer base, they’re facing what they call reputational risk, meaning, “The peasants are coming with the pitchforks, we better do something.” Then they’ll react and maybe do something, sort of generally decent, within limits.
But to ask them to do it on their own, makes no sense. It’s like asking a totalitarian state to be nice. The corporations are sort of being dragged along slightly, but the real activism is having other effects. I mean, take the most important issue we face, by far, destroying the environment.
Well, change is not going to come from corporations. In fact, take a look at this morning’s papers. Even with the pandemic and the reduction of economic activity, methane and carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere has increased. Because, for example, as oil prices have gone up, you’re getting the automatic reaction, the fracking industry revives.
One of Trump’s great deeds was to eliminate the regulations on controlling methane release, which is extremely dangerous, in the short term, much more than carbon dioxide. So they do that. They can make more money that way. You’re getting more releases of poisons into the atmosphere, which reduces the time span that we have to try to deal with this. Well, that’s the way businesses are going to behave. They can make more money doing something, they’ll do it. You put plenty of pressure on them, or on the banks that finance them.
But if you do things like what Sunrise Movement did, a young activist group, sit in, occupy congressional offices, get some support from the progressive legislators who came in, kind of on the Sanders wave, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in this case, pick up some support from a long term Democratic Senator who was interested in the environment, Edward Markey, then you can get the idea of the Green New Deal, which is essential for survival, in some form.
You can get it from way off in the outer space somewhere, to the legislative agenda. Keep the pressure up, you can get something done. We can see it happening right before our eyes. Biden’s environmental program, climate program, it’s not what’s needed, but it’s much better than anything that preceded. And it’s not because he had a sudden revelation. There are pressures constantly.
MT: How about on the antiwar front? Is there progress there?
Noam Chomsky: If you want to take, say, the protest about the Vietnam War that began in the late sixties, it became really substantial in the late sixties. 1967, 1968, you’re getting huge demonstrations.
Early in the sixties, couldn’t get a whisper. I was giving talks in somebody’s living room, you’d get three neighbors together, that’s other people doing the same thing. When we’d try to have a meeting at the university, to bring in Vietnam, we had to have ten other subjects to bring somebody in. Well, it takes a lot of work like that, by lots of people, before anything finally breaks through.
You may not see it for a long time, you may forget the people who were involved, but that’s the way things happen. The same is true today. And it is happening on a lot of fronts. Take, say, the demonstrations that took place after the Floyd murder. Pretty astonishing. There’s never been anything like that before.
I mean, there was some real dedicated solidarity, black and white, all over the country, all over the world, in fact, enormous public support, way beyond anything that Martin Luther King achieved. That didn’t come because one black man was murdered by the police. It came from years of activist organizing and education. The New York Times published its 1619 series. That wouldn’t have happened a couple of years earlier.
Katie Halper: In a recent interview, you emphasize that there wasn’t that much of a difference between Biden and Trump on foreign policy. You specifically go over the narratives about China and Russia, and the threat they do or don’t pose to the United States. What do you think the United States should be doing, in terms of cooperation? And also, if you think that having a kind of a multipolar world, in which the United States is not the most powerful, if that’s something that’s better for the world?
Noam Chomsky: It’s better for the world to have less concentration of power than more concentration of power. The kind of multipolarity we need is citizens’ international solidarity. I was talking about China and Russia, because that was the question that was asked. But what we need today is international solidarity, at the public level, on the major issues that confront us. There are major issues. They’re all international in scope. The great powers aren’t going to deal with them.
Take, say the immediate one, the pandemic. There are no borders. Everyone understands. So understand, on all sides, that unless we control the spread of the disease in the poorest countries in the world, not only will they suffer severely, but so will we. Not to do so is suicidal, but it’s not being done.
So, to take ourselves, the United States happens to have a surplus of AstraZeneca vaccines, a big collection of them, because they haven’t been authorized yet, so they’re sitting there. Biden actually did distribute them to some other countries, which ones? Africa? No. Asia? No. Canada and Mexico.
Canada has one of the biggest surpluses drugs of any country, and Mexico, it was kind of a payoff for keeping people from our border, who were fleeing from disasters that we were mostly responsible for. That’s not the way to do it.
KH: How far apart, or not, are Biden and Trump on foreign policy?
Noam Chomsky: Take nuclear weapons. Fortunately, Biden was able to renegotiate to agree, to agree with the Russian requests to maintain the new START treaty. Managed it, literally, by hours. It’s going to run out on February 5th. Trump vacillated, and refused to sign it. That’s the last of the arms control regime.
But now we’re engaged in provocations provocative of NATO, military actions, right at the Russian border, not at the US border, in the Arctic. Russia responding with its own actions sharply increases the danger of some accident happening. It’s not the way to deal with the threat of nuclear weapons.
Same is true elsewhere. There are lots of threats, but one of the most severe is in the Middle East. There’s this supposedly great concern, I would say alleged concern, about Iranian nuclear programs, that’s considered in mainstream circles the major threat to world peace, so what are we doing about it? Exacerbating the threat.
There was an agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. The Trump administration, in 2018, pulled out of it, violating Security Council orders that all states are committed to observing, and imposed very harsh sanctions on Iran. It’s harmed the population, and our effective leadership, the way sanctions were insisted on, revoking the treaty altogether, and imposing a different one, with much harsher terms.
US allies are totally opposed to this. They made it very clear, to the Security Council and elsewhere. It doesn’t matter. We’re the boss. Greatly increases the threat of confrontation.
On the day in which the new negotiations began in Vienna, the Israeli Navy attacked an Iranian ship run by the Revolutionary Guards, which is hard to imagine that that wasn’t a signal to try to undermine the negotiations. All of this is going on.
What are we doing? Basically taking over Trump’s program. The Biden administration has some nice words about wanting to renew the negotiations, but what does it mean? We pulled out, we’re imposing the sanctions. They have to make the first move. And we insist on Trump’s version, not the JCVOA.
Biden’s not calling for going back to the joint agreement that we pulled out of. What he’s saying so far, at least according to Tony Blinken and the guys who talk for him, that we’re insisting on the Trump version. “Let’s negotiate to get to the harsher version, that we’re not going to stop the sanctions, until you agree to that.” Is that the way to reduce the threat of tensions in the Middle East, possibly leading to general war?
Well, there are things like this all across the board, and those are the things that popular forces should be working on. You can’t trust the major power centers do it on their own. They go in different directions.
KH: I know you signed a letter recently about Syria. What is your position about the U.S. intervening abroad? Is that ever appropriate? Is it appropriate now?
Noam Chomsky: Depends on what kind of intervention. Biden just made a very good intervention, I applaud it.
With the extraordinary savagery characteristic of the Trump administration, Trump withdrew all aid to Palestinians. Two million Palestinians in Gaza are facing some of the worst conditions anywhere in the world.
The area’s becoming unlivable. They’re constantly under attack. The sewage system’s been destroyed, the power system. There’s no food, there’s no drinkable water. So what did Trump do? Withdrew the US aid to UNRWA, which was some sort of a slight lifeline, same in the West bank.
Why? He said, because Palestinians weren’t treating him with enough respect. Okay. Biden did renew, he intervened, if you want to call it intervention, and renewed the US funding to UNRWA, that’s the right kind of intervention. And you can do things like that everywhere.
KH: A lot of people criticize China’s human rights abuses, or will criticize the Assad regime. What should the United States government be doing around those two countries, if anything? What’s the American role in alleviating human rights abuses in other countries?
Noam Chomsky: With regard to human rights violations, the US should be doing everything it can to alleviate and overcome them. What’s the easiest way to do that? Very simple, stop the ones we’re responsible for.
That’s the easiest way to do it. So take Gaza again. There are severe human rights violations against the Uighur population in China. Is it as bad as Gaza? It’s very hard to argue that.
They’re not under the kind of attack that Gaza’s under constantly. If we’re concerned with human rights violations, we can stop them right away. Namely, stop participating in them. Easy way.
With regard to the Chinese rights violations, it’s much harder to do anything, just as they can’t do anything about our human rights violations. We can protest. Makes sense. We should try to raise international commitment, to pressure China to end them, lots of things we can do. But it’s limited.
Suppose that China or Russia or anybody was imposing sanctions on the United States, because of the way American client states are treating people, say, in Gaza, because we’re talking about that. I could pick many other cases.
How would we react? Would we say, “Okay, good. I’m going to stop doing it?” No, no, we’d make it harsher. If we really care about human rights violations, we’ll try to do something to alleviate them.
Now, the real protest is fine, it should be protested. We should be accurate about it. Not make up charges on the basis of very dubious evidence, but keep the things that are well supported, same with Iran violations. We don’t look at Russian propaganda to find out what violations we are carrying out. We look at our own evidence, which is ample, and do something about it. Do something, do the things we can do, very easily.
Take another example. There was just an interesting article that appeared by Helen Epstein in the New York Review of Books on Uganda. Major atrocities being carried up by the government, with our support.
It’s not the main part of the article, but if you read it, we continue to support it. Do we have to? That’s a way to alleviate atrocities. There’s plenty of things like that all over the world.
We can do the best we can with other people’s atrocities, but we should do it to whatever extent we can, and in a constructive way, not a way that’s just going to increase them, because you can get propaganda points that way. Not that.
MT: Your famous media book is entitled Manufacturing Consent, which stressed the idea that the media can organize the population behind official deceptions. Now, it’s become harder and harder to organize “consent,” because the country is so divided, and the media has an enormous role in that. Is that a change in your model? And who benefits from all of this division that is now such a central feature of how the media operates?
Noam Chomsky: Well, actually, manufacturing consent is much easier now. And it goes on at a level that’s never happened before. Fox News, Breitbart, the rest of them have succeeded, along with the administration and the GOP generally, in creating a large mass of the population, almost half of it, which is living in another universe.
I mean, take a look at the poll results. They believe things that are just so far from reality, that it’s even hard to talk about. That’s very effective. The mainstream media, CNN, New York Times, the rest, have done the same on other issues.
Take what we’ve just been talking about. Take, say, the so-called Iranian threat, the return, the efforts to deal with it. This is described everywhere as, “Iranian nuclear weapons is the greatest threat to world peace. We’ve got to do something about it.” Where’d that come from? What makes them a threat to world peace?
I mean, is it the reports of US intelligence? No, not at all. What they tell us is, if Iran is developing nuclear weapons, it would be part of their deterrent strategy. Well, the US government doesn’t like a deterrent strategy, nor does Israel. That’s why they’re attacking Iran constantly.
The countries that rampage in the region don’t want deterrence. How about telling people that? Anybody read that anywhere? How about simple ways of solving the problem, if you think it’s a problem?
There’s a very simple way, if you think Iranian nuclear weapons are a problem. Let’s move to establish a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region, with intensive inspections, which we know work very well.
US intelligence agrees that the inspection regime under the JCPOA was working perfectly. So let’s extend it, and make it a total weapons-free, WMD-free zone in the region, get rid of nuclear weapons.
What’s blocking that? The United States, period. Everybody else is in favor of it. Iran’s strongly in favor of it. The Arab States have been in favor of it for 25 years, with no protests from Europe.
Every time it comes up, the United States, most recently from Obama, it’s coming up again in a couple of weeks. It’ll be vetoed again. What is that? Everybody knows the reason. It’s just, you’re not allowed to say it.
The reason is, the United States will not permit Israeli nuclear weapons to be inspected. In fact, the US does not recognize their existence, even though everybody knows they’ve got a huge arsenal. And there’s a reason for that, US law.
According to US law, countries that have developed nuclear weapons systems outside the international framework, cannot receive US aid. Nobody wants to open that door. How about that for the triumph of manufacturing consent?
Here’s what’s called the greatest threat to world peace, an elementary way to overcome it, we can’t carry it out, and nobody can talk about it. That’s way beyond the WMD story in Iraq. I mean, there, maybe some of them actually believed it? Okay. Here, there’s nothing.
I mean, there are things like this all the time. That’s manufacturing consent at such a level, that you can’t even see it.