Simple Virtues

Noam Chomsky on the things that never change, the things that do, and the role of the individual in a mad, chaotic world.

Noam Chomsky is one of the towering intellectual figures of the last half century. As a linguist, his work is revolutionary. As an activist, he’s a legend, loved and loathed in equal measure. Be he anarchist, anarchosyndicalist, libertarian socialist, or whatever label you want to attach, you can’t argue with the International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest’s description of him as “one of the most critically engaged public intellectuals alive today.”

Five decades into his professional life, he remains a constant, often brutally critical voice on the most pressing issues of our turbulent times. In early 2015, with just ten minutes to talk to him on the phone from his office at MIT, we wanted to take a step back from urgent matters and reflect on a life’s work. That’s just enough time, surely, to talk about a life’s lessons learned, the persistence of conflict, humanity’s drive for political and linguistic freedom, and the stubborn tenacity of power?

AR— In all your life, hearing you talk about your two separate careers, you’ve often said you haven’t found an answer for what the connection between those was. Have you come to find a single story, or do they still exist in two solitudes?

Noam Chomsky— There’s a strange belief that if you’re a scientist or a mathematician or an engineer, you can’t also be a human being. I don’t see why one should expect that. It happens that my two domains of interest are pretty much separate. One is as a human being concerned with the problems that affect you, me, my grandchildren, your grandchildren and so on. Those are social or political commitments. The other happens to be questions about the nature of the human mind, of creativity, of the development of language, of thought, of how our minds work, of what kinds of creatures we are. That’s another interest. They’re pretty much separate.

There are points of contact that you can find, that were discussed traditionally back in the early days of modern science and philosophy. Both commitments, as traditionally has been recognized, are based on a belief that there’s something fundamental about human beings which has sometimes been called an instinct for freedom.

At the core of language, my main professional concern is something that Descartes focused on, that what distinguishes humans from the rest of the organic world is their capacity to do what you and I are now doing—to produce and understand an unbounded array of expressions. We use them in ways which are appropriate to circumstances but not caused by circumstances. So under the specific circumstances that I’m facing now, I could start talking about the weather outside or about any other thing. I won’t do it because it’s not appropriate, but the situation doesn’t force me to do what in fact is appropriate. That’s a choice, an act of will of a complex sort which is not understood. This is an unbounded capacity. No other organism has anything remotely like this, certainly in the domain of language. That’s kind of the creative core feature of human existence.

Moving over to the social and political domain, there is modern thought. Classic liberalism and its inheritors, mostly in my view in the left libertarian traditions, are based on the assumption that the fundamental need of human beings within society is to be free to inquire, to create, to think, to act without illegitimate external coercion, and so on. Which means that any institutional structure that illegitimately constrains those rights should be overturned. That’s a core principle of the libertarian tradition in my view. So there’s a weak connection, if you like, but it doesn’t extend very far. It’s abstract.

It’s not so tenuous. It’s a foundational layer. At this stage, in terms of your linguistic work, which you’ve been doing for a long time, are you still driven by constant inquiry, new fields of discovery? Or do you feel like you’ve settled on foundational truths that you now work from?

I keep writing technical papers. A lot of them have to do with new approaches, new ideas. Some of them overturn former assumptions. I think a lot has been learned and there are very considerable prospects for reaching quite surprising conclusions. My view is that this is an exciting period and I hope to be able to continue contributing to it.

Where you struggle to find hope in the sphere of politics and social justice, on your academic side you still maintain hope and excitement. There seems to be a binary there.

It is separate. For example, people can and do work together with me on similar ideas on the linguistics side and have totally different political orientations. It’s not a contradiction.

How do your classic theories of the way the media works, which you outlined in Manufacturing Consent, apply to the contemporary fractured media landscape? How much of that still holds and how much do you reassess?

I think it pretty much holds. In many ways, more so than before. There is a fractured media landscape, if you like, but it’s a complex sort. For example we now have much easier access to a range of media and of opinion and interpretation than before. Instead of walking across the street to the library to try to read the Australian press or the British press, you can do it on the computer. That’s faster. It’s an improvement, and I use it all the time, of course. On the other hand, it doesn’t fundamentally change things. The kind of critical analytic work that I do is expedited by this possibility, but if I look back at what I wrote 20 or 30 years ago, it’s not fundamentally different.

The major sources of information or disinformation or misleading interpretation are about the same as before, in some ways even narrower. In the last generation, we suffered a neoliberal assault on the global population, which among other things has restricted and reduced the number of independent sources of information. Take the city where I live as an example. It happens to be Boston, which is one of the most liberal, educated centers in the United States. It used to have a very good independent newspaper, The Boston Globe, which had bureaus around the world with very good reporters. I personally had close friends among the reporters, even the editor. But now, it barely exists. It publishes local news—things it picks up from wire services, some things it picks up from The New York Times. But you don’t read it to learn about the world. That’s happening all over the country, all over the world.

In England, where I go fairly regularly, I’m often invited for interviews on the BBC. Back in the 1970s, they used to be quite serious. It’s been declining since. The last one was a bad joke. It was worse than American television.

Yes, there are more opportunities, which are valuable, and more access, which is valuable. On the other hand, there’s a diminishing of serious independent journalism within the major institutions, so it’s a complicated story.

It could be argued that something like the tragedy of East Timor, which you talked about extensively, would be more difficult to play out now because of the oversight of social media and independent reporting. I can think of a few West Papuans who might disagree.

West Papua is a good example. It’s a horror story. It should be on the level of East Timor, but very little is being done. It’s not the only case. In the Middle East and Africa, there are effectively two colonies still that have not been decolonized. One is Palestine, which gets at least some attention. The other is Western Sahara, which gets almost no attention.

In 1975, Western Sahara was technically decolonized. Spain had been the colonial imperial master. They left, and they should have been free. Instead, it was invaded by Morocco. They have since then carried out a highly repressive, brutal regime, flooding the country with Moroccans to try to overwhelm the indigenous population if they ever permit the referendum that the United Nations has called for. It continues to be extreme—Western Sahara is where the Arab Spring began. A month before Tunisia, there was a popular protest, a nonviolent protest calling for reforms. Morocco moved in instantly, crushed it, destroyed the tent city. It came to the United Nations security council, which is technically responsible for decolonization, but any action was blocked, mainly by France, because Morocco’s kind of a French client. There’s almost no attention given to it. And you can give case after case like that around the world.

I know you don’t like to talk so much about your impact as an individual, but I’m going to ask anyway. What effect do you feel your work has had over the last several decades?

As you say, I don’t like it. That’s actually for other people to talk about. I know what I would have liked to achieve.

So what’s that?

I should make it clear that my own views on the professional side are very much a minority position, they’re not the position of the field. But in this domain in which I work, which at least by my judgment is where important results can be achieved, I think there has been significant progress. When I look back at what I was writing 20 or 30 years ago, I can see that it can be vastly improved. On the other hand, just recently I’ve had the strange experience that there’s a publisher which is reissuing political books of mine from 20 or 30 years ago. I’ve been asked to write introductions for the new editions, so I’ve reread them. It’s a pretty depressing experience. Some things have improved, but pretty much things are similar and in many cases worse. So that’s a failure.

Is it a failure if maybe you were just right about the fact that power maintains the status quo?

Power does not give up easily, and sometimes it succeeds. If you look over a longer trajectory, I think you do see improvement. But it’s slow, it’s partial, there’s regression, and many fundamental things just cannot be understood. Take the Indochina wars, the worst crime of the post–Second World War period. I’ve had to reread some of what I wrote about that at the time. To this day, it is impossible in the United States, and most of the west, even to face the fact that the United States, under Kennedy and beyond, carried out a brutal and murderous war against South Vietnam then all of Indochina. A major war of aggression with horrifying consequences. To this day, there is no interest in dealing even with the victims of the war, the huge number of victims of chemical warfare. In fact, it’s pretty amazing the way that has passed. The same’s true of Iraq. The major crime of this millennium so far, is the US and UK invasion of Iraq—a shocking act of aggression that’s had horrifying consequences. Sectarian conflicts which barely existed before are now tearing Iraq apart, and tearing the whole region apart. The Shi’ite–Sunni conflict is all blamed on someone else, not us, we didn’t do it.

One final question then, given that landscape. What’s the role of the individual?

The role of the individual is to be a decent, honest, moral, intellectually open person. Simple virtues. Easy to say. Hard to live up to.

That’s all one can do in life, against that landscape, is to be those things?

As far as I can see, I’ve never seen anything else. And it’s within anybody’s reach, at whatever level they can.

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