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Interview with Noam Chomsky, professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, conducted by Scott Harris
SCOTT HARRIS: Right now, I'm very honored to introduce to you Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in linguistics and philosophy. Professor Chomsky, the founder of the modern science of linguistics, is one of the world's most widely read progressive dissident intellectuals. He is the author of nearly 100 books. Noam Chomsky has dedicated his life to exposing the hidden agenda of U.S. foreign policy married to corporate power, the pervasive unseen influence of corporate media, and the power of grassroots resistance movements. Throughout his career, Professor Chomsky has always challenged the status quo and the conventional wisdom, and for his principled activism, has way too often been marginalized in our national debates. Thank you so much Professor Chomsky for being here tonight.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Glad to be with you.
SCOTT HARRIS: You have so much on your list of things you assess and analyze, so I'm going to start with what we've talked about very recently, and it's certainly a topic of conversation around the country: the Tea Party Movement, which has been the subject of extensive coverage in the U.S. media. Angry people often saying pretty outrageous things about president Obama and others--"he's a communist, he's a socialist, he's a Marxist, etc. Since Obama's election, we've witnessed a dramatic rise in the membership of so-called patriot groups, armed militias, and other right-wing and white-supremacist groups. And you've said recently that progressive activists make a big mistake in ridiculing or dismissing the grievances of these individuals and these groups.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, first of all, we have to decide exactly who we're talking about. I mean, Tea Party activists are estimated at under 20 percent of the population. On the other hand, close to half the population says that the Tea Party Movement pretty much expresses their attitudes and beliefs. So that's quite a broad swath of the population. And it really hasn't been analyzed carefully, but chances are it's probably not unlike the listeners to say, Rush Limbaugh, who has been studied. Of them, close to half have incomes of less than $50,000 a year. That's less than the median. Those are people who really do have grievances.
For the past 30 years, the majority of Americans have seen their incomes pretty much stagnate. There have been fits of decline; quality of life has declined as measured by standard social indicators. Their distrust and extreme dislike of institutions, the government, corporations, everybody, has increased very sharply. And they have seen tremendous wealth accumulated. But in very few pockets. And of course, all this came to a head with the bailout of the financial institutions that essentially created the crisis and are responsible for the extremely high unemployment, and are generating the greatest profits in their history.
Well we can go on, but all those are legitimate grievances. I mean, they may be expressed in ugly and destructive and even self-destructive ways, but that's not to deny that the grievances are real. Now these people rightly want some answers. "Why is this happening to me,"you know? "I'm hard-working, I do all the right things I've been taught to do, I'm a God-fearing Christian, I take care of my family or try to, what's happening to me? I'm a white male, now why is this happening to me?" Well it's fair for them to ask for answers. They're not getting them from say, liberal Democrats, who are not going to say, "Well, this is happening to you because back in the late 1970s, we agreed with the business classes that we should move towards financialization of the economy, sharply increasing the role of financial institutions in the economy as a corollary to that. Hollowing out domestic productions so your fairly decent jobs will go off to, you know, Mexico or China or wherever it may be next." They're not going to hear that.
They're not getting answers from -- the correct, what I think are the correct answers -- from the left critics, are being voiced, but in an atomized fashion which doesn't even reach a fraction of the population. So, and they are getting a voice from talk radio--an answer from talk radio. It may be a crazy answer, but at least it's an answer: "It's the fault of, you know, the liberal Democrats who are on the banks and are giving everything away to illegal immigrants, that don't care about you people between the coasts" and so on and so forth. Well, OK. It's kind of an answer. It doesn't have anything to do with reality, but it's an answer, it's internally coherent. And instead of ridiculing the often ridiculous claims that they come out with, and self-destructive ones, we should be asking ourselves, "Well, why aren't we organizing them?"
SCOTT HARRIS: I think that's so important to realize that, as you said, these grievances are real. And the answers given by Rush Limbaugh, as you said, simple answers--not going to solve the problem, but --
NOAM CHOMSKY: They'll make it worse. And he knows that, he's not a fool.
SCOTT HARRIS: Yeah. It's entertainment, as he says.
NOAM CHOMSKY: I don't think its entertainment, it's service to the rich and powerful.
SCOTT HARRIS: He claims it's entertainment, but --
NOAM CHOMSKY: That's what he claims, but it's in fact, and I'm sure he's smart enough to know it, service to the rich and powerful.
SCOTT HARRIS: Professor Chomsky, in recent talks and writings, you said that the resurgence of the extreme right in this country is unlike anything you've ever seen. Is the economic uncertainty and dysfunction you described of our political system a cause for concern about the rise of a unique brand of American neo-fascism?
NOAM CHOMSKY: It's a cause for concern. In the latest polls, about 20 percent of the population think it's their government, you know, that the government regards them as a concern. About half the population thinks every member of Congress should be thrown out, including their own representative. And it goes on like that. I mean, this is a degree disillusion and dislike of governmental authority that's quite extreme and reminiscent of other times. I mean, for example, you take late Weimar Germany, 1920's, early 30's. The one of the striking things in that period was the collapse of the traditional political parties, the liberal and conservative parties, more or less centrist parties, who had dominated Germany ever since the second Reich was established. Well, they just became discredited; people couldn't stand their wrangling, the fact that they weren't doing anything with the population. They were either serving their own interests or serving other powerful interests. There was a great wave of disillusionment with established power. And a charismatic figure came along who said, "Well, I've got the answer--it's the Bolsheviks and the Jews and I'm going to bring back the grandeur of Germany" and so on and so forth. And, well we know what happened.
SCOTT HARRIS: But as far as these armed groups, they're pretty fringe, marginalized, or do you think this could catch on, especially with the election of a black president, and the native racism that we see among a lot of people in this country. Do you have concerns that these groups will somehow gain in popularity?
NOAM CHOMSKY: I think the major problem----- um, the armed groups are dangerous. You know, you don't want to have militias running around. And the gun culture in the United States is a unique phenomenon. It's different from other industrial societies. Quite different. And that has its dangers. But I don't think that's the real problem. I think the real problem is the frustration, disillusionment, anger, concern that nobody's doing anything for us, they're doing it for someone else, illegal immigrants, blacks, you know, welfare mothers, whatever.
These are tendencies which in fact were sparked by Ronald Reagan, pretty consciously I'm sure. And they have since expanded, I mean they were kind of held back a little because of the artificial prosperity, and it was artificial, of the past several decades. Now the prosperity was based on two things, basically: one, increasing debt, and second, asset inflation. So, sharp inflation and well beyond their real value, of the assets that people had in the last ten years it's been the huge housing bubble, $8 trillion housing bubble. That's not small. Gave people a feeling of wealth. And they could consume and they could get a second mortgage, and think that well, things are not too bad, but it was all built on sand. Just like the tech bubble was, and just like the savings and loans scandal that developed during the Reagan years.
But through asset inflation and debt, which are concomitants of the financialization of the economy, they're all connected, it gave a sort of--it sort of held back tides of anger and frustration that really were well rooted. Have been, about 30 years of pretty much stagnation of the incomes of the majority of the population. That's very unusual. The country hasn't had a severe crisis, you know, hasn't been defeated in a war, had an enormous depression or anything like that, but nevertheless, there has been a regular stagnation, and a decline in living standards by many measures. You know, not as counted by the number of iPods per person, but in terms of the work hours, childcare, other standard measures of social health.
If you look at them they rose, right through the boom years, 1950s, 1960s, into the mid-70s. They increased steadily, tracking economic growth, which was at historically high levels and was also egalitarian. So the poorer sectors, the lowest quintile, did about as well as the upper quintile. Well, in about 1975 that began to shift. Since then, quality of life standards, social indicators have steadily declined. The latest that they were measured, a couple of years ago they were about at the level of 1960. Well, people feel that in their lives. It can be papered over, by debt and by illusions about the value of your home, you know, your $8 trillion housing bubble, but that's illusory. Now that it's collapsed, people are pretty upset.
SCOTT HARRIS: Professor Noam Chomsky is our guest here tonight on Counterpoint on WPKN radio in Bridgeport and WPKM in Montauk, New York. Professor Chomsky, it's been two years since the U.S. economic meltdown and Congress is now debating re-imposing some financial regulations, although they are judged by many to be very weak. And with the increasing economic inequality you just referred to, and the outlaw behavior by Wall Street, and big corporate America, many people in the U.S. see the government as their enemy. And in your view, what must progressive activists do to help restore some balance, so that government has the credibility to rein in what many refer to as crony capitalism?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, the only way to give government credibility is to have government do things that people want and that work. I mean, if government is the pocket of Wall Street, it's not going to have credibility. Take the healthcare reform. I mean, if you look at the bill that was passed, it's sort of better than nothing, a little better than continuing the way things were, but it doesn't even touch the major problems. And most of the population is opposed. And a lot of that opposition, maybe a majority of it, is because it didn't go far enough.
So for decades, the public has -- a substantial part of the public, often a big majority -- has been in favor of a national healthcare system, like other industrial countries have. Here, it's sometimes called a single-payer system. That's just because Canada is next door and that's what they have, but there are other forms of it. That's been a majority opinion. Well, you know, that didn't even enter discussion. I mean, it entered discussion briefly, it was immediately thrown out. The next sellout was on a residual part of it, a public option; Obama gave up the public option at a time when public support for it was up about 3:2, 60 percent support. Gave it up. Medicare buy-in, same support, gave it up. A deal with the drug companies to maintain something that's unique to the United States, as far as I know this is the only country where the government is barred by law from negotiating drug prices with big drug companies, and Obama gave that up. That was over the objections of 85 percent of the population.
And so it continues. Everything was given up to the insurance companies, to the financial institutions. The bill that, had Big Pharma, you know, the--I think by last August, Business Week had a lead story, front page cover story, about how the insurance companies have won. Well, they had. Of course, no victory is enough, so they kept charging ahead to get even bigger victories. But meanwhile the public was left behind and left out. It was pretty striking, right here in Massachusetts where I am, the Massachusetts election was a surprise to a lot of people, the election of a Republican to replace Ted Kennedy, the liberal lion. And a lot of it was about healthcare.
The election has been very closely analyzed, the reasons are pretty clear, in the affluent suburbs, Scott Brown, the Republican candidate, was very popular, he's going to do things for the rich, and enthusiasm was very high, voting was high. In the downtown areas, the mostly urban, working class, poorer, mostly Democratic, there was apathy and low voting, among union members voting was pretty low, but they did vote, and the majority of union voters voted for Brown. I mean, that's Obama's natural constituency. And when it was analyzed, as it was, it turned out they were voting for Brown because they were furious at Obama. In the healthcare program, he gave away everything they wanted, you know, public option, negotiated drug prices, gave away everything they wanted, without a fight. But he insisted on one thing, which he would not give up, taxing their health benefits.
Now those health benefits are sort of caricatured as these Cadillac benefits. Well, you know, they're pretty good health benefits. But by international standards, they're not that great. And they have a history in the labor movement, over decades the American labor movement has been collaborationist. It made a pact with big business, in which labor gave up lots of rights. It gave up better wages, gave up better, you know, control on the shop floor, and so on and so forth. Gave up many things. And in return, it got a commitment, or so they thought, to health benefits. Well, Obama insists on taxing those health benefits. And a pact with big corporations is something of a devil's bargain.
I mean, it's a little unfair to condemn them for being greedy or, you know, out for themselves, and so on, that's their legal obligation. You can't condemn greedy bankers, when they are legally obligated to maximize profit. They're just playing by the rules. Terrible rules, but they're playing by them. Anyhow, the working people who had really struggled had over decades to get those health benefits, and now see them, see that that's the one thing that Obama stuck to. Taxing their health benefits. So they're furious and they voted against him. So what should progressives do? They should be pressuring, as far as they are working with the government, which is only one aspect of what you do, they be pressing for legislation that responds to people's needs, and to people's wants, in a constructive way.
And, of course, that's only one thing you do. I mean you have to say the New Deal, which did make new progress in people's rights; it wasn't just, you now, Congress sitting off in some cloud somewhere. And there was plenty of popular activism going on. Those were the days of the organization of the CIO, of sit-down strikes, which scared the daylights out of business leaders because a sit-down strike is one step before the next logical move, "Oh, let's just take over the factory and run it ourselves; what do we need the bosses for?" That's when the business world started business publications, being extremely concerned about what they called "the hazards facing industrialists and the rising political power of the masses." We have to beat them back somehow; we have to win the everlasting battle for the minds of men.
These things were all happening on the ground. And in that context, the (Franklin D.) Roosevelt administration, which won with an overwhelming majority, passed progressive legislation. Way beyond anything that's being considered now. Of course, now it's building on it, so it goes a little beyond, but nothing anywhere near as substantial. Same thing happened in the 1960s. The, sort of, what are called the Great Society measures, Medicare, and so on. Well, you know, those were on a groundswell of popular activism, which most of us are old enough to remember. I'm old enough to remember the 1930s. But that's the more important aspect of progressive activism. Developing that groundswell. Not leaving it to Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh to organize.
SCOTT HARRIS: Right, wasn't Roosevelt famous for telling progressive activists and labor activists that they should get out in the street and make him do it.
NOAM CHOMSKY: That's right.
SCOTT HARRIS: And they did.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Yeah. And it was the same in the 1960s. It was that wave of activism that enabled (Lyndon B.) Johnson to put forth and carry forth voter rights and Medicare and other benefits.
SCOTT HARRIS: Professor Chomsky, before you go, I wanted to reflect on a loss we had recently. Myself and many of my coworkers here at WPKN were greatly saddened to hear about the death of your good friend historian Howard Zinn. Professor Zinn joined us for some interviews over the years, and came down to New Haven for a public forum, and we got to know him. He was certainly not only an important figure in telling the truth about American history, but he was a wonderfully sweet and generous guy. People who have met him know that. Before we say goodnight to you, could you say a few words about professor Zinn's contributions to our understanding of American history.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, Howard Zinn was a very close friend for 45 years, ever since the moment he arrived in Boston. And we went through a lot together, and also the families were close personal friends. So yeah, it was a severe loss just personally on many levels. But he represented something, unique and irreplaceable. In interpretation of American history, he had an effect on perception and consciousness of a generation that's hard to duplicate. He wasn't the first historian to talk about the fact that popular struggles were significant. But he did it in a, with a comprehensive sweep and eloquence and depth, and also participation--he was directly involved all the time--that's unmatchable. Quite apart from his remarkable personal characteristics which you mentioned, he's just the most engaging person you can imagine. I think about the only person I can think of like him is Ros (Roslyn), his wife, who is just a marvelous person.
And the two of them were kind of irresistible. Just apart from the intellectual content of the work, the courage and direct participation and engagement and, everything from the early days of the civil rights movement on through the antiwar movement, on through the workers movement and everything else you can imagine. And the bringing to the fore the voices and the achievements of what he called "those countless unknown people whose many small actions create--plant the roots from which major events follow." It's kind of like the theme of his life both in his work and his direct participation. With just remarkable personal qualities, that's a combination that's unmatchable. An immense impact.
SCOTT HARRIS: Well, Professor Chomsky, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on what's going on in this country these days and your thoughts about the life and work of Howard Zinn as we sign off here, but, I'm sure you know many people who listen to this radio station and all over this country and the world value so much your work, and again, I appreciate your making some time for us tonight.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Thanks a lot.
SCOTT HARRIS: That was Professor Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in linguistics and philosophy, and one of the world's most prominent dissident intellectuals. We're happy you could join us tonight to talk about the state of America's politics and economic realities.
Scott Harris is host of the live talk show, Counterpoint, and executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 50 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at www.btlonline.org. This interview was featured on Counterpoint, broadcast on WPKN Radio, April 26, 2010. This interview was compiled by Melanie Muller and Anna Manzo.
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