Described as the “father of modern linguistics,” Noam Chomsky has spent more than 50 years as both an analytic philosopher and as a staunch (but no less influential) social and political critic. His work on language acquisition and generative grammar theory helped burgeon the fields of cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, computer science, and music theory. Politically, Chomsky has spent his career engaged in rigorous power analysis, confronting state mechanisms for popular persuasion and the circumvention of international law. He has been an adamant critic of the illegitimate exercise of state power and the way media suppresses and shapes popular discourses. Yet despite such negative political criticism, Chomsky also remains an unfaltering proponent for human creativity and individual freedom—hoping that through his work, he may provide knowledge and help foster active political engagement among a citizenry atomized and estranged by government policies. World Policy Journal‘s Joshua St. Clair traveled to Cambridge to sit down with the professor at his MIT office and discuss his career, the repeating patterns of U.S. foreign policy, and the state of American citizenry.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: I want to begin by recognizing your work outside of what many of our readers are probably familiar with—your writing on U.S. foreign policy and media—and mention your career in linguistics. These two fields act as the different fronts of your academic career. On the one hand you have linguistics/philosophy of mind, and on the other hand you have your political writings. A lot of commentators wish to establish a connection between these two areas. You’ve noted over the years that these domains only have a tenuous connection. Has that changed at all?
NOAM CHOMSKY: [shaking head] There’s an abstract connection of some historical interest. (I’ve written about it). If you look back, say around the Enlightenment—that period and the early Romantic period—there were connections drawn. And they’re not totally without basis. There’s some fundamental concept that grew out of early 17th century Enlightenment thought, about creativity being a core element of human nature. Human language has always been understood to be the basic, fundamental element of human nature—the fundamental distinction between humans and others. At its basis is a kind of creative capacity. The kind of thing we’re doing, for example, which is unknown elsewhere in the animal world, is unbounded creation of—first of all—thoughts and expressions of thoughts, which are, in Cartesian terms, [those] we’re incited and impelled but not compelled to produce—that they’re appropriate to situations, but not forced by them, and that they’re unbounded in their scope. Others understand them, and that same concept—that basic human nature has at its core a commitment to independent creativity—from that it follows (from Rousseau and others) that any institution that limits human independence has a heavy burden of proof to bear. It inspired classical liberalism on to further libertarian philosophy. So there’s a loose connection.
WPJ: Some have gone so far as to suggest that your work in both domains might be used to generate a “theory of man”—perhaps you try and resist this systematic approach to your thinking.
NC: A general theory of humans—I don’t even know what it means. Do we have a theory of bees? Humans are very complex objects. The central property of humans that distinguish them from other animals was probably the emergence of language—giving a means to create unbounded thinking, creative action. If you take a look at the archaeological record, at the point where homosapiens emerged (maybe 200,000 years ago) there’s pretty good evidence that language came along with homosapiens—maybe a little bit later, but not much. And at that point you start getting a record of creative and complex activity, ranging from tool-making to symbolic decorations and representational objects, which you don’t see elsewhere in the hominid world—certainly not in the animal world. Out of that comes the rest. We’re just a very unique species, and this is probably the basic element of it.
WPJ: Does the study of language then have a political component?
NC: Not directly. Anything about humans is going to have some consequences for human life. It was believed at one time (and in many sectors still is) that some languages are inferior, some are superior, and black English isn’t a true language, and so on. All of that’s gone—among people who know anything about language at least. Humans are remarkably similar. Some biologists will point out to you that if you take a look at a tree outside and you see two grey squirrels on it who have lived on or near that tree all their lives (and their ancestors did, and so on) and you study them genetically, you will find that they’re more different than any two humans you pick anywhere in the world. Humans are extremely uniform genetically and cognitively they seem to be identical. Take, say, linguistic capacity—fundamental human capacity. As far as we know, it’s identical among all human groups. There are individual differences, but no group differences. These are discoveries over the past century that have significance, political and social significance.
WPJ: Just abstractly?
NC: These are not the real results of linguistics. Language has always been regarded as some extremely complex phenomena, very diverse; languages differ from one another [only] in arbitrary ways. Go back, say, 60 years and you read professional literature, technical literature would say that there’s nothing general you can say about language; with language, each has to be studied on its own, they can vary in arbitrary ways, and so on. By now, we know pretty well that language is pretty much cast in the same form, that differences are rather superficial. Aspects, the core properties of language—how you construct and interpret expressions that articulate your thoughts—that seems to be pretty much uniform among all languages. And it’s, again, probably a reflection of the cognitive uniformity of humans altogether.
WPJ: The topics [outside linguistics] that you have wrestled with over your career—topics of power relations, media manipulation, civic engagement, etc. These are not the standard topics of analytic philosophy. Many have accused that tradition of sidelining themselves, taking themselves out of political speech, social analysis. Do you find academic work to be obscure or esoteric?
NC: It varies. For example, there’s a very good work that just came out a couple months ago on propaganda by a very fine young analytic philosopher, Jason Stanley. It is a philosophical and concrete analysis of how propaganda works, and so on. I don’t criticize analytic philosophers who work on arcane questions of epistemology—that’s important and significant. But there are many [fields], for example, political philosophy that has just burgeoned in the last generation, mainly beginning with the work of John Rawls who was here at Harvard back in the 1960s. And his theory of justice has spawned a huge amount of work which has very significant implications for the organization of society and policy and so on. But it’s very serious analytic philosophical work.
WPJ: The other end of those traditions then, postmodernism/continental philosophy, has been perhaps more [socially and politically] engaged.
NC: That’s the general viewpoint, but I don’t share it. Have you read postmodern literature?
WPJ: I have.
NC: You’ve read Derrida, Lacan?
NC: [smiling] Do you know what they’re talking about? The idea that this is related to human life I think is very strange.
WPJ: You’ve said before that some of these French thinkers have had destructive effects in third world regions.
NC: In the third world, what I think to a large extent has happened is that [postmodern thinking] has drawn popular movements—and this is very significant in poor societies, third world countries. They really need engaged intellectuals. This tendency in intellectual life is so disengaged and arcane and specialized and remote; it’s almost unintelligible unless you’re part of the cult, and it makes a point of that. And it draws intellectuals away from direct engagement in the day-to-day struggles that people need. I’ve seen that over and over.
WPJ: You’ve seen it divert intellectuals from substantive causes into obscure writings?
NC: Yeah. I mean, you’ve read it. It’s like getting into another universe to try and understand what the sentences say. And it’s not because it’s as profound as some quantum physics.
WPJ: So it’s an issue of articulation?
NC: I think it is an issue of thinking, not just articulation.
WPJ: It seems as though many of these thinkers will approach similar topics as yourself though—trying to understand how the media is constructing information, trying to understand how power relations work. The topics are similar.
NC: Take, say, the work on deconstruction. Has it given you any insight into the way the media treats ongoing events?
WPJ: I think it help fosters skepticism.
NC: Skepticism, sure. But let’s take a look and see just how events of the world are transmuted through the prism of ideological institutions—let’s see some insight into how it’s actually done on particular things. I can’t see any of it; it’s just kind of general talk. Maybe there’s no truth, maybe you should be skeptical of powers everywhere. Okay, well, I knew that when I was 10 years old.
WPJ: Right. Instead of going through case examples and showing—
NC: Show it. Show how it works. Show what the principles are, what it’s reflecting. There’s a very extensive media analysis, but it doesn’t draw from [postmodern thinking]. Let’s take—if I still have it here [pulls out trash can, rummages through papers]. It came in the morning. One of the best journals [Extra!]. Here it is. This is one of the best regular journals of media analysis; they do very good work—very good instructive, informative work. Ask how much of it draws from postmodern thinking.
NC: Nothing. I couldn’t tell you. [pauses] I’m not throwing it away because I think it’s no good, [laughing] but because I read it; it’s the first thing I read.
WPJ: You write on the ways these political realities become distorted—how corporate interest or elites manipulate information through these various forms of media. And that what’s needed to overcome this is a kind of critical engagement, “common sense.” One wonders if this maybe assumes too much of the public: It’s very simple for them so long as they can just tune into it more critically, etc.
NC: I don’t think so; I don’t think any of this is very profound. When I meet with, say, union activists, it’s the same discussion that I have when I meet with Harvard-graduate fellows. Often, they know more because of their personal experience. I mean, I grew up as a child with a community of mostly unemployed working class who were highly intellectual, lived in high culture, who had discussions about Freud and Stekel and different varieties of Marxist theory, and analysis of what was happening in the world. Many of them barely went to school. These are matters easily accessible to the general public.
WPJ: Do you think that’s happening with working-class Americans now?
NC: Things have changed. It’s one of the striking differences between the reaction to this recession and the depression years, which I can remember. Now, there’s just a general sense of helplessness: What can we do? I get a dozen letters every night from young people saying, “I’d like to do something in the world; what can I do?” It was quite different then; people knew what to do. They were organized, there was labor activity, there were political groups, and there was a sense of hopefulness. Objectively it was much more depressed than it is now. There was the threat of fascism, which was no joke; it was a real menace spreading over the world. And, nevertheless, there was a sense that somehow we’ll get out of all this together. Now people are atomized—alone—can’t see what to do, don’t have any institutional base.
WPJ: Is it a matter of estrangement or of being distracted?
NC: I think it’s what you see in the Trump phenomenon and—in some sense—also with the Brexit phenomenon. People have simply been cast aside by neoliberal globalization; they don’t know where to turn. They’re turning against people even more vulnerable than themselves. They’re being caught up in irrational passions and don’t have constructive commitments and programs that they can work from. For example, here in the United States, I think that the Sanders and Trump constituencies aren’t too far apart in many ways. In fundamental ways, I think they’re aiming at the same things. They just don’t see the connections because there’s nothing continuing and institutionally-based that draws them together. If there were a militant labor movement like CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] organizing in the 1930s, that could bring them all together.
WPJ: You think the similarity is a kind of anti-establishmentarianism?
NC: Well now it’s just against everything. But what are you for?
WPJ: Do you think it’s not simply an issue of time? You get home after an eight or nine hour workday and you don’t want to think about the complexity of the information you are receiving. You don’t want the thought crossing your mind that the news that you’ve just turned on is at best skewing things, at worst falsifying them. It is very easy to just flip on the news and hope that it has the best intent.
NC: That, again, is a striking difference. Look at the 1930s: things like workers education were major activities. And that was just part of life. And people didn’t work eight hours a day, but maybe 10 hours a day (if they had jobs, which often they didn’t but were working on WPA [Workers Progress Administration] projects or something), but, nevertheless, there was—and I don’t want to exaggerate—sectors of the working class which were heavily engaged in high culture, political and social knowledge, and learning about science.
WPJ: What’s driven the wedge between workers and that same [political and social] engagement now?
NC: Now I think there’s a general disorientation in the society, which has in fact been studied. It’s a much more atomized society. The consumer culture—which is much more deeply entrenched—separates people from one another, focuses on individual aspiration rather than community action. Even things like social media have a way of alienating people. It’s one thing to really work with people; it’s another to have 50 “friends” on Facebook.
WPJ: You don’t think that the Sanders campaign did anything to bring about a popular left [movement]?
NC: I think it did. It illustrated how much of an almost yearning there is for common, committed action to achieve the kinds of goals that are significant to us. And something could come out of it in the way of organized, committed social movements.
WPJ: Some of the things you’ve been studying and critiquing in U.S. foreign policy since the 1960s are the general patterns in the strategy, intention, and—of course—the mechanisms for persuasion when it comes to intervening globally on the part of the U.S. And behind all this is a kind of “American political axiom”: We have a right (almost duty) to extend American power indefinitely overseas. And even the stronger claim that this value that we are transporting is somehow universal and must be applied everywhere. Have you seen this model changing at all, or do you feel as though over the past few decades you’ve just played witness to repetition after repetition of the application of this axiom?
NC: There were some nice comments on this back in the 1940s from the British Foreign Office, from people who’ve been drawing from centuries of experience in world domination, diplomacy, and force. They recognized that their day has passed; they’re being replaced by the United States, which is putting them in a secondary position. (And they didn’t like it very much). But they talked about the message that they hear and perceive from their American—by now—superiors, which is: there is something that the world needs, namely, us. And there’s something that we’re going to give the world. And there’s something the world is going to get whether it likes it or not. That’s the way it looks from the point of view of those with plenty of experience in doing the same thing.
Things haven’t changed very much. The capacity of the United States to intervene has changed a lot. We’re not at the stage in the 1940s or the 1950s and 60s where, if you don’t like a government in Latin America, you just initiate a military coup. But that’s a matter of distribution of power in the world.
WPJ: And the methods now are more insidious, more subtle?
NC: There are other ways. Take what’s happening in Brazil, which is a kind of soft coup. It’s not what happened in 1964 when a military dictatorship was established with U.S. support.
WPJ: Closely aligned with this axiom is the idea of “Wilsonian idealism”—the idea that we are actually doing good in some way. I remember, I think, last year, I was either watching or reading an interview with Vladimir Lukin who is, I guess, in Moscow considered to be kind of the “American expert.” And he said something about the United States having this American ideology that’s embedded in the country’s genes, that it has this God-given truth that it wishes to extend. And the analysis was just outright dismissed—like oh here’s this Russian who’s projecting aggression onto the United States, etc. I was surprised at how quickly [Lukin’s] observation was just completely rejected. It doesn’t seem too radical to think that the U.S. sees the world through star-spangled spectacles, that we project desires and values.
NC: In this respect it’s very similar to other major powers. The British were the same in their period of glory, the French were carrying out a “civilizing mission,” the Japanese were bringing—what they called—an “earthly paradise” to China and they were defending the population from the Chinese bandits. What’s called “American exceptionalism” is probably uniform across states, to the extent that they have power. To the extent that they have power and influence, they find a way of making themselves exceptionally “good” and justify what they’re doing. It’s exaggerated here to an extent, because this happens to be a pretty insular country—partly just for historical and geographical reasons. I mean, you can travel almost 3,000 miles over the United States, and pretty much [be] in the same place. If you’re in Europe and you go a hundred miles, you’re in a different place, different culture, different language. There is a high level of insularity and it contributes to the sense of our right to give people what they need—and what they’re going to get whether they like it or not.
WPJ: Is this insulation what makes it so difficult for an American to consider the possibility that there exists as complex and as potentially nefarious an intention behind their own government’s action as, say, the Russians’ actions? Because the step is always to think that the aggressor is on the other side.
NC: Take Putin. He’s not a nice guy; I wouldn’t want to have dinner with him. He’s brutally oppressive. But are there Russian tanks on the Mexican border? Are there Russian military maneuvers in Canada? [Pauses] Does the United States have ports that can reach any sea? Take China. There’s conflict over the South China Sea. Is there conflict over the Caribbean? We’re in a unique position.
WPJ: This facade of intentionality (NATO during the war in Kosovo, the United States’ invasion of Iraq, etc.)—this idea that a state will purport altruistic intention (we’re coming here to help you), when, in fact, they are really just trying to maintain national or supranational interest/credibility.
NC: First of all, the claim that “we’re coming here to help you” carries no information, even in the technical sense. It’s completely predictable, no matter who’s carrying out the action. You look over history: Hitler, when he took over the Sudetenland, that was just overflowing with high moral sentiments—that the Germans were going to use their superior culture to help the people advance, that they were going to overcome ethnic conflict, a certain order of peace, be a wonderful world, and so on. You can hardly find an exception. But if you want to know the real reasons [for intervention], it’s not that hard.
Here’s a case of media analysis: How do you find the real reasons for the U.S. invasion of Iraq? Well, a lot of ways. One very simple way is to look at the official formulations. By the time that the scale of the U.S. defeat in Iraq—and it was a serious defeat—was becoming evident, the government finally did come out with pretty explicit statements. If you look at the late 2007 Bush administration on the discussions of the so-called “Status of Forces Agreement” (what’s in place when we formally pull out of Iraq), there were two positions stated: One, the U.S. must have permanent military basis in the center of the energy-producing area of the world; Second, there must be privileged access to U.S. corporations for Iraqi resources, which means essentially oil. That’s a formal declaration of November 2007, but taken so seriously that in January 2008 when the budget was passed and Bush issued signing statements, one of the signing statements was that this is graven in stone—can’t be modified by legislation. It’s a pretty clear statement, which is not very surprising; anyone could have figured it out. In 2003, how much reporting was there?
WPJ: Is it possible that you simply have a case of leaders who do have good, strong moral intent but who simply operate within a structure that doesn’t allow for such realizations?
NC: We all know—just from our personal experience—that it’s pretty easy to make up a justification for whatever we happen to be doing, for whatever reason. It’s not different for political leaders. I suppose most of them believe what they say. So for example, take Lyndon Johnson—real man of the people; he was pretty honest. He gave an interesting speech around 1966 to American troops overseas, in which he was talking about the Vietnam War. What he said was, look there’s only a 150 million of us and there’s 3 billion of them, and if might makes right they’re going to take what we have; they’re going to sweep over us and take what we have, so we have to defend ourselves in Vietnam. I don’t see any reason to doubt that he believed it. It’s almost clinically insane, but it doesn’t mean he didn’t believe it.
WPJ: What then would be America’s appropriate place in the world?
NC: A law-abiding state that uses its enormous advantageous to benefit people instead of trying to impose domination and control over them.
WPJ: Do you think other states are going to ask for this “benefit”?
NC: No. I mean, other states don’t have our power. But if you look through history, it’s generally the case—I mean there’s variation, like the Nazis who were incomparably worse than others—but at some level you do tend to find—have a strong tendency to find— that states will use their power to extend control over others. Remember, states do not exist in a vacuum from domestic society, so there are power centers internal to the states. So the corporate sector in the United States has overwhelming influence in state policy, which is naturally dedicated to their interests. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that U.S. policy since it became a kind of global hegemon in 1945 has been dedicated to trying to create what’s called an “open society” in the world—“open” to U.S. economic penetration, political control—and opposed to what are called “radical” and “nationalistic” regimes that seek to devote resources to the benefit of the masses instead of recognizing their place within the world system where the U.S. has to have access to resources, investment opportunities, and so on.
WPJ: Is it possible for the United States to withdraw [from this role] given the amount of economic investment, entrenchment?
NC: Depends what you mean by “withdraw.” For example, we don’t have to invade Iraq; we don’t have to bomb Libya; we don’t have to be carrying out the JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] operations all over the world; we don’t have to run a global assassination campaign. Instead of that, there are constructive interactions with the rest of the world. It’s not a matter of withdrawing.
WPJ: The rest of the world, though, is already skeptical that anything the United States does, with any kind of interventionary intent, will be anything but harmful.
NC: If you look around the world—first of all—there are popular beliefs about American power which are unbelievable. Every time anything happens in the world, say the coup in Turkey, the immediate reaction is that the CIA is behind it; the U.S. has organized ISIS in order to disrupt the Arab world, and so on. There’s all kinds of mythology around this, resulting from the fact that American power does actually intervene forcefully. But it has nowhere near the capacity that’s attributed to it.
WPJ: If I were to rewind the clock 30 years—back to the end of the 1970s, following the Vietnam War—if I were to ask you then “30 years from now, what do you want to see have changed?” or “how do you think things are going to develop?” And now that we’re sitting here and you know the answer to that question, does this change the way you look forward 30 years from now?
NC: It’s a mixed story. There have been some areas of significant progress, I think, domestically. So for example, take women’s rights; it’s half the population. That’s much more civilized than it was 30 years ago. Gay rights. Opposition to aggression is much higher than it was. Concern over the environment, which barely existed then is substantial now. On the other hand, the late 1970s is where you get the beginnings of the move towards financialization of the economy, neoliberal policies—beginnings of stagnation or decline for the majority of the population, while the wealth is is very narrowly concentrated—all of these policies were beginning to be put in place. The effect of it we’re now seeing in the hatred of institutions, the discontent, the anti-establishment sentiments, are the reflection of real developments that have harmed people. I didn’t anticipate that, certainly—wouldn’t have liked to see it. Reagan’s wars in Central America in the 1980s were just shocking.
WPJ: Would you say you’re more optimistic now?
NC: No. I think now we’re facing major questions of literal survival. There are two huge questions. One of them is the problem of nuclear war, which has been around for 70 years. The other—which is now understood, and wasn’t understood in the 70’s—is climate change, which could be really disastrous. Unless proper action is taken pretty quickly, we could be in deep trouble. It’s just one of the reasons why a Republican victory would be so frightening. The Republican position is let’s race to the precipice as quickly as possible—deny that it’s happening. That’s pretty scary.
WPJ: Something I’ve found to be inspiring, though, in much of your writings is that despite the critique, despite these kinds of mechanisms that might lie behind power, you maintain a very optimistic portrait of the human individual—the capacity, the intellectual creativity.
NC: I don’t know a better comment on this then the one Gramsci made famous: “We should have pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.” Whatever we can do, we should do. How optimistic you feel as a personal or subjective matter is of no significance. If there are options, we should pursue them.
WPJ: You reject the image of yourself as being this solitary intellectual who stands up and espouses a system (you point out, in fact, that these discussions are made possible by people working on the ground, putting movements together). And yet at the same time, you’re no doubt studied as such a thinker in academia. There are classes where professors teach the Chomskyan philosophy; you will be studied alongside individuals like Russell and Wittgenstein; and you occupy a place in the Western intellectual cannon. Do you think about your significance as a thinker?
NC: [shaking head] The things that I consider most significant of what I do are just engagement with popular groups—all over the world in fact. That’s what’s exciting and important.
WPJ: You never step back to consider your place within the larger tradition? The fact that you have a poster of Bertrand Russell in your office, and certainly there are young academics with posters of Noam Chomsky in their offices.
NC: He wasn’t a god; there are many things to criticize. But in many respects he’s one of the people I regard with considerable respect, both his intellectual and political activism.
WPJ: Do you think that it is somehow wrong to perceive you in that way [as a canonical thinker]?
NC: Totally wrong. [smiling] I certainly don’t perceive myself in that way.
WPJ: And yet you have groups of high school kids coming in wanting to take pictures. [Before the interview, a group of about 20 high school students lined up outside Professor Chomsky’s door excitedly whispering about their meeting “Dr. Chomsky” and seeing his office.]
NC: That’s fine. I wish I had a chance to talk to them; it’s more fun.
WPJ: More fun to talk to kids?
NC: It’s very interesting to talk to kids. (I didn’t have a chance this time). They’re interested, excited, thinking about the future. A couple of them were telling me their plans. One of them wanted to study neuroscience. One of them wanted to study something else. It’s fun to talk to them.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!
[Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]