Noam Chomsky Interview: "Enormous Sense of Hopelessness and Anger" Reflected in Appeal of Trump and Sanders
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Noam Chomsky is a renowned intellectual, an eminent theoretical linguist, cognitive scientist, philosopher, author, political activist and a major figure in analytic philosophy. He has spent most of his career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where his current title is Institute Professor Emeritus. Chomsky is the author of over 100 books on politics and linguistics. Politically speaking, he describes himself as a libertarian socialist.
In 1949, Chomsky married Carol Schatz, and they were married until her death from cancer in 2008. They had three children together, Aviva, Diane and Harry. In 2014, he married Valeria Wasserman.
“There’s an enormous sense of hopelessness and anger, and it shows up in pretty dramatic ways. You’ve probably seen the revelation a couple of months ago that among less educated, white, middle-aged males, mortality is actually increasing. That is unheard of in rich, developed societies outside of real catastrophes.”
At the age of 87, Chomsky remains as active as ever in his work as a world-renowned political dissident and pioneering linguist.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How have you been, Professor Chomsky?
Noam Chomsky: Busy (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): We last spoke about a year ago, and there have been a few presidential debates since then.
Noam Chomsky: I never watch them (laughs). I read the transcripts later.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, tell me who the final two candidates will be when the dust settles.
Noam Chomsky: I assume that Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination just because of the nature of our electoral system, which is basically now “bought” elections overwhelmingly, and the major funders will probably succeed at putting her across. What Bernie Sanders has achieved is pretty remarkable, but I doubt very much, in our existing system, he can make it beyond the primaries. So I think a fair guess is that Clinton will be nominated.
On the other side, it is probably going to be either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. In my opinion, Cruz is scarier than Trump. Trump is a kind of wildcard, but Cruz is really dangerous, if he means anything he’s saying.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have a personal friendship with Bernie Sanders?
Noam Chomsky: That’s kind of an exaggeration. When he was mayor of Burlington about 30 years ago, he did invite me up for a couple of days to give some talks at town hall, and I also spent time with him. We talked, and I kind of followed him around in his daily duties talking to firemen, people in old age homes, just discussing with people about their personal problems. I was struck by the fact that Sanders was able to engage very easily with people over quite a broad spectrum of attitudes, thoughts and class lines. I thought he was very effective.
Sanders calls himself a Socialist, but I think what that means is New Deal Democrat basically. A New Deal Democrat in today’s political spectrum is way off to the left. President Eisenhower, who said that anyone who doesn’t accept New Deal measures is out of the political system, would be regarded as a dangerous leftist today. Everything has moved so far to the right. I don’t agree with Sanders on everything, not surprisingly, but I think he’s a respectable New Deal Democrat whose proposals would help the country considerably.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I think some Americans may be sort of repelled when hearing the word “Socialist.”
Noam Chomsky: I don’t know what the term “Socialist” is even supposed to mean anymore, but whatever it is, it’s nothing like traditional socialism. The Sanders phenomenon and the Trump phenomenon both reflect something quite significant about the country and about the world. In the United States and in Europe, in different ways you see the same tendencies developing. It’s largely a result of the neoliberal programs of the past generation, that were neither new nor liberal, which have had fairly similar effects wherever they’ve been applied. They’ve been quite harmful to the majority of the population and have led to stagnation in income, wages, decline of benefits, deterioration of the social structure and even the infrastructure, resulting in enormous wealth concentrated in very few hands and mostly in the hands of sectors who are essentially predatory.
Take the financial sector, for example, which has harmed the economy. That’s a large part of it. This has also been accompanied by the decline in the actual functioning of democracy. That is, governments are less and less responsive to the concerns of the population they’re supposedly representing. There’s plenty of work on this which demonstrates it. One of it is that the center is kind of collapsing. In Europe, the traditional mainstream parties of social Democrat and conservative are declining, and what you’re seeing is an increase in engagement in participation at both edges of the political spectrum.
Something similar is happening here. This is a somewhat unusual country. People are very atomized and isolated. There’s very little in the way of any kind of organization. If you compare it with the 1940s, which I’m old enough to remember, objectively the situation was much worse then. But psychologically, it was much better. My family were mostly working class living on a pittance, but they were hopeful. It was a sense that “We’re going to get out of this together. There’s a lot we can do. There’s a sympathetic administration.” There was quite a range of active, political organizations. There were things happening that made people say, “Look. It’s bad now, but it’ll get better.” It’s quite different today.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): A sense of hopelessness?
Noam Chomsky: There’s an enormous sense of hopelessness and anger, and it shows up in pretty dramatic ways. You’ve probably seen the revelation a couple of months ago that among less educated, white, middle-aged males, mortality is actually increasing. That is unheard of in rich, developed societies outside of real catastrophes.
It’s a reflection of depression, anger and hopelessness. It shows up in the appeal of Donald Trump from one perspective and Bernie Sanders from another. In Europe, it shows up in Podemos in Spain as a left-wing populist party along with quite right wing ultra nationalists, sometimes neo-fascist on the other side.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Believing that our country was founded on Christian principles seem to give Republicans, in particular, some hope for the future. But they have consternation that the government is not totally immersed in religious ethics. What are your comments about mixing religion and politics?
Noam Chomsky: First of all, the country was founded as a secular country. There’s rhetoric about religion, but the basic founding of the Constitution separated a religion from the state sharply. Thus the First Amendment. That meant that there was no established religion, no Anglican Church like England or no Catholic Church like in Spain and so on. That left the field open for a wide variety of religious groupings to flourish on their own, mostly Protestant groups of all kinds. Their popularity was enormous.
Even though it’s a secular country in its legal and foundational structure, it’s a very religious country in terms of religious beliefs and commitments. It’s one of the most fundamentalist countries in the world. It’s very hard to find any country where over a third of the population thinks that the world was created a couple of thousand years ago, or where the majority of the population is expecting the Second Coming, and about half of them expect it in their own lifetime. Things like that are just unknown in other countries except maybe Saudi Arabia or something. I’m not even sure there.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And you mentioned earlier that everything has moved so far to the right. Religion has played a bigger part since that happened?
Noam Chomsky: As the Republican Party drifted way off the spectrum to the right in its actual policy commitments to corporate sectors, in order to get votes they’ve had to mobilize these sectors so that a large part of the base of the Republican Party is evangelical Christians, many of whom are extreme. In fact, if you look over the recent years, we’ve had three presidents who were born again Christians. Jimmy Carter was one, but it didn’t mean much in his administration.
Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were born again Christians, and there were policy consequences. Reagan brought in extremists at times, even evangelicals, to talk to the National Security Council about the day of Armageddon not being too far off. When George W. Bush went to war in Iraq, he told us it was because he was following the commands of his Lord. He tried to get France to join in by invoking weird notions from the strange evangelical interpretations of the Bible about Gog and Magog. The President of France wondered how anyone could think that way. It’s very strong in the country.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Recent stories have indicated that Christianity faces a sharp decline in America. Could that be true?
Noam Chomsky: You could probably find polls saying that the number of people who are secular is increasing. That’s possible. On the other hand, religious commitment here is quite beyond what you find in Europe or in comparable developed countries, and it always has been.
Through American history, there have been repeated periods of revivalism, the revival of religious fanatics, or whatever you want to call it … religious excitement, enthusiasm. One of them was in the 1950s. That’s when you got the “One Nation Under God” and all of that. But it’s pretty constant throughout American history. Now it’s politically much more significant because of the way it has affected the Republican base.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): President Obama receives much criticism and even hatred from his detractors almost on a daily basis. How do you feel about his executive orders regarding stricter gun control laws?
Noam Chomsky: Well, that’s a real pathology in the United States which goes way back. It happens to be kind of peaking in the last few years again, but deep roots go back to the early part of our history. About half of the history of the country, there were two major problems that required guns. One was eliminating the indigenous population. They had to be eliminated or exterminated. They fought back which meant you needed guns.
The other was that the United States was running the most hideous slave labor camps in human history in the South, which is a large part of the basis of their economy. It was not done just for the wealth of the plantation owners, the manufacturing system was based for a long time on textile production that was largely cotton based. The banks were developing credit for cotton. Cotton was the main commodity of the early part of the Industrial Revolution. Same in England. A large part of their economic wealth and power developed from the slave labor camps. Well, you know, running slave labor camps means you’ve got to be afraid of the slaves. Maybe they’ll erupt.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So they needed guns to protect themselves from the slaves. Thomas Jefferson had some radical views on slavery.
Noam Chomsky: Thomas Jefferson had a mixed attitude toward slavery. He thought it was wrong. In fact, he thought it was a terrible crime. But he kept slaves. The way he described it once was saying, “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” In other words, we want to hold onto it because we shouldn’t punish the wolf, and we can’t let it go because it’ll destroy us. Jefferson thought that if you don’t keep the slaves in the slave labor camps, there’d be a race war, and they’d wipe us out. All of this required guns, of course.
In fact, in the South, guns were part of the culture for other reasons, not just for fear of the slaves, but in order to show that you were not a slave. Like if you wanted to stand up to another white man and say, “Look. You’re not going to push me around.” You had to have a gun. All of that shows up today while keeping your gun ostentatiously on your hip when you enter a coffee shop or walk around a university with it, all those crazy things. The effect is very clear.
The United States is pretty much like other industrial counties, but deaths from guns are way out of sight. If you look at what are called massacres, meaning the killing of four or more people, I think the majority is families where a kid picks up a gun and shoots somebody. It’s just a plague.
With the president, it seems that gun sales have increased considerably during the Obama years. That’s probably straight racism of which there’s plenty. We pretend it’s not there, but that’s a pretense, and it shows up all over the place. The visceral hatred of Obama by Republicans is just shocking. You can dislike a president without thinking he’s the antichrist or that he was born in Kenya or something like that. They even make words like Obamacare. It’s an interesting term if you think about it. Medicare was signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, but does anybody call it Johnsoncare? No. But even supporters of Obama call it Obamacare.
For decades, most of the population has been in favor of some kind of healthcare. But still probably the majority of the population is opposed to what they want because it’s Obamacare. These are deep facts about the country and its history which cannot simply be obliterated in words by saying, “Yeah. We’re a post racial society.” No. I’m sorry. We’re not.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): ISIS attacked Paris last November and just recently claimed 10 lives in Istanbul, Turkey, in a major tourist area. What should be done to combat ISIS?
Noam Chomsky: The first thing we have to do is understand what it is and where it’s coming from. Scott Atran, for example, has done extensive work investigating the appeal of ISIS, studying ISIS members, former members and the communities in which they draw support. It’s a very important phenomenon. It’s a monstrosity. There’s no doubt about that. But where does that monstrosity come from? If you look back, it comes largely from the United States invasion of Iraq which destroyed the country, killed hundreds of thousands of people, created a couple of million refugees and incited a sectarian conflict. There was none before in Iraq. There were disagreements between two protestant sects or something, but the country was integrated. Shiites and Sunni families lived in the same neighborhoods.
One of the consequences of the invasion was to instigate a sectarian conflict which was tearing the country and region apart. And one of the out-groups of it was Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Out of that came ISIS. That was one factor. The other factor in the development of ISIS is Saudi Arabia which is an extremist, fundamentalist, Islamic state, the most extreme in the world and far more than Iran. Furthermore, it’s a missionary state. They have plenty of resources because of the oil, so they put huge resources into trying to expand their extremist Wahhabi and Salafi doctrine by direct funding of Jihadist groups not excluding ISIS, but also by funding koranic schools. Madrassa is an Islamic religious school and where the Taliban comes from.
Journalist Patrick Cockburn calls the rise of the Islamic state as one of the most dangerous developments of the modern era. That’s another factor. ISIS is an extremist offshoot of the Wahhabi version of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, our ally. The Sunni populations in Syria and Iraq where ISIS is based may hate ISIS, but they also see it as a protector. In these horrible sectarian conflicts that have been instigated, they see it as a kind of protector and a source of stability. That’s the same way lots of people in Afghanistan think that the Taliban were protecting themselves from the extremists Mujahideen, mujahid elements that the United States has been supporting.
If you look elsewhere, say in France or other countries where the Jihadists are coming from, they are coming from seriously oppressed neighborhoods where people are humiliated and degraded. There’s a racist contempt for them. They live without hope, without any chance of entering the society they come from in countries which have been devastated by French atrocities for well over a century, Algerians and other parts of West Africa.
They’re very bitter, young people who want something in life. They want something. They want some cause. They want something that will give them dignity. That’s where the Jihadists are coming from. Most of them come from backgrounds with very little Islamic background. They don’t know the Koran or anything at all. They’re just looking for something in their lives, and that’s drawing them to it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So in a sense, you’re saying that we need to really examine the psychology behind these terrorist groups?
Noam Chomsky: The first thing we have to do in combatting ISIS is understanding what all this is about. Not just screaming imprecations, but asking what it’s about. Undoubtedly they commit horrible atrocities, but we’re not exactly immune to that. Belgium is now one of the countries suffering from the offshoots of Islamic terrorism. What’s its record? The potentially richest colony in Africa which could have led Africa to enormous development is a Congo that was run by the Belgians. They were just slaughtering people, maybe 10 million people, because they weren’t bringing in enough rubber.
In 1960, Congo was liberated. It had a very promising young nationalist leader, probably the most promising one in Africa who campaigned for independence from Belgium, named Patrice Lumumba. He could have led Congo on with its enormous resources to help the development of Africa. So what happened? The Belgians murdered him. The CIA was under orders to murder him, but the Belgians got there first. They didn’t just murder him. After he was murdered, his body was hacked to pieces and dissolved in sulfuric acid. There’s plenty of stuff like that, so I could go on and on. But we have to understand those things. We do not like to look at them, but we need to understand them.
If we do understand them, we’ll begin to treat ISIS at its roots. We’ll ask where it’s coming from, and we will deal with those problems. It is a monstrosity. We should undoubtedly support anyone who’s defending themselves against ISIS crimes like the Kurds and Syria definitely. Take Turkey where the ISIS crimes take place today. It has been allowing jihadists to flow into ISIS territories right across its borders. It has been allowing funding for ISIS. It has been openly supporting Jihadi groups different from ISIS like the al-Nusra Front. Well, okay. That’s not part of ancient history. That’s today. We have to look at those things.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): But the answer is not US military intervention?
Noam Chomsky: There are plenty of ways to combat ISIS seriously, but not by Ted Cruz’s carpet bombing. In fact, hit any of these things with a sledgehammer and you’ll make it worse. There’s a long record that shows that when you attack radical insurgencies or even individual terrorists with violence, you usually end up with something much worse. That’s the Ted Cruz reaction.
If you want to be serious about it, you’ll follow the proposals of people like Scott Atran and William Polk who understand the actual circumstances and who pay attention to the nature of their roots and who come up with pretty sound proposals. Polk worked many years at the highest level of US government planning as well as being a very good Middle East specialist. The proposals are sensible. They’re not dramatic. They’re not like carpet bombing which kind of sounds good until you think about what the consequences would be.
Just take a look at the records of the last 15 years. The last 15 years is what’s called the “Global War on Terror.” The method that has been used in the “Global War On Terror” is violence. That’s what we’re good at. Violence. So we invade. We kill people with drones. We have all kinds of ways of killing people. What has been the effect? Take a look. Fifteen years ago terrorist groups were concentrated in a small tribal area in Afghanistan. That was it. Where are the now? All over the world.
The worst terrorist crimes are going on in West Africa with Boko Haram, a lot of which is an offshoot of the bombing in Syria. They’re in West Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia. They carry out attacks in Turkey, in Paris and so on. We’ve succeeded in spreading it from a little corner of tribal Afghanistan to most of the world. It’s a great achievement for the use of violence. Can we draw some lessons from that? Yeah. We can.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I recently interviewed Steven Pinker and asked him if you two had a love/hate relationship because of your disagreements (laughs).
Noam Chomsky: There are things I disagree with him on, and some things I agree with. It’s okay. We’re perfectly friendly.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And the debates between you two are fascinating. Your energy is remarkable, Professor Chomsky. Any plans to slow down from that very busy schedule?
Noam Chomsky: Well, I’d love to do lots of things, but there’s just too much going on in the world. I don’t know. As long as I’m upright, I guess I’ll keep going.
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