Wednesday, June 20, 2007

An interview with Dr. Noam Chomsky, from "Interpol Magazine," February 1995 (Part 2 of 2)

This was an interview conducted through the mail with Dr. Chomsky while I was finishing my degree in American History at Ball State University. Just two-months after I received his answers in the mail, we all witnessed the Oklahoma City bombing, and the first stirrings of the war on terror (really a domestic one against all of us). It's been a long road from the Spring of 1995. At that time, the internet was just starting to become accessible, and its impact on the political and cultural discourse is only now being realized. 1995 was a year when the "zine revolution" was occurring, and it was quickly-supplanted by the high-price of paper and the internet.

This interview was done for one of those little zines--my own--called "Interpol." I actually got copies of it in zine-central, the legendary Quimby's Queer Store in Chicago. It was pretty surreal going up to the Windy City and seeing those copies in the store (I never got paid, incidentally), it felt pretty good.

All that said, I would never trade the blog format, it's superior in every respect to that old digest format, and it's getting better all the time. Dr. Chomsky is a very friendly and encouraging person, and when he passes from this world, we will have lost a wonderful human being. Appreciate the flowers in life, they are fleeting. Try to be that person you admire, and strive to make a better world for all. That's the meaning of life.

Matt Janovic: Is "Leftism", as defined by the mainstream culture, more a problem of semantics, rather than a cohesive movement? It seems that throughout much of the 20th century, when groups worked and protested and acted for honest political change, the press and various "populist" elements resorted to labeling them "anarchists," "reds," "communists/commies," "pinkos," etc. . Do you agree with the analysis that often mob actions are stimulated from above, or are there complex social and economic reasons behind scapegoating and vigilantism?

Noam Chomsky: If I were a PR specialist trying to indoctrinate and marginalize people(as they do, quite consciously), I'd try to deprive all words of meaning, so that it's impossible even to think and talk coherently about things that matter (the powerful will continue in their own ways). To a large extent, that's happened. Personally, I keep away from words like "left," "liberal," "conservative," etc.

They have been so deprived of meaning as to become useless. Take "conservatism." The Reaganites were called "conservative." In fact, they were statist reactionaries; a genuine conservative would have turned over in his grave to hear the way the term is used today. There's also been a massive falsification of the "sacred texts." Take Adam Smith. We are supposed to worship at his shrine, but if anyone takes the trouble to read him, they'll find a very different picture from the official version handed down in the doctrinal system.

As for "mob action," it has so many different causes and sources that one can't generalize. CIO organizing and the civil rights movement were "mob action" from one point of view; the rampages of Hitler's organizations were too. Usually, when destructive mob action is stimulated from above, as it often is, it appeals to genuine social and economic concerns, manipulated for that purpose. Those are the tools in trade of demagogues, of every stripe. We've got plenty of experience with it throughout US history, dramatically right now.

Matt Janovic: What can the average person learn from the fall of the Soviet Union?

Noam Chomsky: The simplest lesson is a familiar one: in a conflict, the more powerful adversary tends to win. Europe began to separate into two parts in the 15th century, the West beginning to develop, the East becoming its "third world." That continued right to the early years of this century--for much of Eastern Europe, until 1945. There are some rules of the international game: (!) service areas have to fulfill their function, not get uppity about following an independent path; (2) if they do take off on their own and turn out to be successful in terms that appeal to others in the same boat, they really have to be crushed--in official rhetoric, they are a "virus" that might "infect others," a "rotten apple" that might "spoil the barrel."

If it's a speck in the Caribbean, it takes a weekend. If it's 1/6 of the world, it takes 70 years. But the logic is rather similar; and not surprisingly, much of Eastern Europe is returning to its earlier origins. Sectors that were part of the industrial West, like the Czech Republic, are returning to that status; parts that were basically service areas are returning to the typical third world model. There are all sorts of nuances and complications, but that's a fair approximation.

It's worth stressing that despite much pretense, Western leaders had no serious objections to Stalin's awesome crimes, any more than they had fundamental objections to Hitler or Mussolini, or to Saddam Hussein, or to a host of similar and lesser monsters. On that, the documentary record is very clear, and one can learn about it in arcane monographs (or the marginalised dissident literature). In a really free society, it would be on the front pages and in the school texts, along with much else that is consigned to the memory hole, as Politically Incorrect (in the operative sense of this ridiculous term).

Matt Janovic: Dr. Chomsky, what kind of direct improvements would you envision for the American worker in the workplace, if there was more democracy in most institutions of our society? How do you think that could be brought about?

Noam Chomsky: Right now [1995] one can't look for any improvements; the immediate problem is to preserve the rights that were finally achieved at least in part in the 1930s, after a century of bitter struggle, and have been eroding ever since. They are now under very sever and cruel assault, not just for working people: the same is true of family values, as I mentioned. A traditional stance within the US labor movement and intellectual life, as American as apple pie, is that industrial democracy must be a central component of operative democracy.

If the central decision-making institutions of a society--in production, commerce, finance, ideology, etc.--are in the hands of unaccountable private power, then democracy is a thin reed at best. That's traditional and mainstream. Today it sounds exotic, but that's because the American tradition has largely been demolished, also being "Politically Incorrect." How can democratic practices be extended to the central institutions of the society? There's only one answer, always: the same way they were slowly extended to governmental functions. That was never a gift; it was the result of committed popular organization and action.

Matt Janovic: In a truly democratic society, what do you think our educational system would be like?

Noam Chomsky: Education in a democratic society would try to encourage the natural curiosity and independence of mind of children, instead of suppressing it and channelling them into obedience and conformity. It would celebrate the traditional values of the Enlightenment and classical liberalism, which held that teaching should not be like filling a vessel with water, but helping a plant grow in its own way by allowing it to have proper food and light. These traditional conservative values are, of course, anathema to contemporary statist reactionaries.

Matt Janovic: Lastly, what is your idea of international humanism, and do you believe that to impose Western democratic and humanistic ideals (as the Chinese communists/nationalists loyal to the party argue) on non-Western nations is cultural imperialism?

Noam Chomsky: The idea that the West tries to impose "western democratic and humanistic ideals" on the rest of the world is one of the most ridiculous scams that the commissar class has indulged in. Western leaders, including intellectual elites, are dedicated to undermining these professed ideals at home, and centuries of brutal history show how they have "fostered" them elsewhere. Take simply the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UD).

The official line is that we courageously defend its universality, fighting off the "cultural relativists" of backward countries who say it doesn't fully extend to them. As even a moment's attention will show, the US flatly rejects about half of the UD even in principle, and grossly violates the rest. That's not controversial; the documentation is readily available. But for the doctrinal managers, it doesn't matter: what is important is ideological warfare, not truth or honesty--in fact, those are the values that have to be undermined.

Link to Part 1:

End of Part 2 of 2 (and statement of intellectual ownership): This interview is the intellectual property of Dr. Noam Chomsky and Matt Janovic, in toto. Permission to reprint, quote, or reproduce can be obtained through written permission from the authors. Quotes of up-to four lines are acceptable without permission. All rights reserved as of 2007, Noam Chomsky and Matt Janovic.