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Interview: Noam Chomsky
On Biden vs. Trump, his new book, and why manufacturing consent "is much easier now."
Noam Chomsky has been a central figure on the American left for over five decades. His New York Review Of Books article from 1967, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” was called “the single most important piece of anti-war literature” from the Vietnam period. That helped launch him on a course to being “the most widely-read American voice on foreign policy on the planet,” as the New York Times described three and a half decades later, in 2004.
Chomsky’s academic field is linguistics, where he’s won numerous prizes for work developing theories like universal grammar, but he’s famous mainly as an anti-propagandist. A chief attraction to his work for readers across the spectrum is his relentless, Cassandra-like habit of calling out official untruths, especially American ones, be they about war or domestic politics or the subject he seems lately to care most about, the environment.
Chomsky calls himself a “libertarian socialist,” which he defines as a belief that “enterprises ought to be owned and managed in a democratic fashion by the people who participate in them.” The left has always claimed him as a champion and some on that side of the aisle regularly appeal to him to settle disputes, as something like a Papal authority (humorously, he seems to hate this). I’m not so sure any particular political label fits him, however.
He’s certainly an internationalist — even in the interview below he argues for “citizens' international solidarity.” One of the things that mainstream American pundits have always loathed and resented about Chomsky is his habit of blithely judging America as one would any other country. Ask him about al-Qaeda after 9/11, and he pivots to the “far more extreme terrorism” of American foreign policy in the third world. Ask him about China’s repression of the Uighurs, as Katie Halper and I do here, and he asks, “Is it as bad as Gaza? It's very hard to argue that.”
What grinds critics of Chomsky is that he seems to push the rejection of geographical chauvinism to impossible degrees. Phil Donahue once asked him, seriously, if he liked sports. Chomsky replied he didn’t really get it. What did he care which group of professional athletes won a game? None of them had anything to do with him.
Donahue pressed: come on now, you really don’t get it? Don’t you remember being a kid, rooting for the home team, the smell of the field, the memories? “Why wouldn’t you celebrate that?”
Chomsky offered the following reply:
I did the same thing. I can remember the first baseball game I saw when I was 10 years old, I can tell you what happened at it — fine. But that’s not my point. See, if you want to enjoy a football game, that’s great. You want to enjoy a baseball game, that’s great. Why do you care who wins?
Note the use of “fine” there, a staple of Chomskyian argument! When Donahue later tried to tweak him with a comment about how it was “no wonder you grew up to be such a radical who doesn’t like high school football,” Chomsky doubled down: “Unfortunately, I did like it,” adding, “I’m sorry for that.”
Chomsky’s Spockian insistence that his adult self is immune to such temptations has led some fiercer critics to scoff at his habit of batting away questions about atrocities committed by other countries as a kind of reverse chauvinism, a calculated pose rooted in some unknown pathology, leading to overcorrections back in the direction of America’s bad behavior. Surely he doesn’t really believe the U.S. government is worse than al-Qaeda?
Then you watch “Collateral Murder,” or film of American cluster bombs dropped in the cities of Yemen, or our Air Force dropping thousands of tons of bombs on civilians in North Vietnam — speaking of sports, one such bombing campaign was called Operation Linebacker — and Chomsky becomes harder to argue with. Suddenly we’re glad he’s no flag-waver, because who else is going to point these things out?
This is why I’ve always admired Chomsky a great deal, even if I sometimes disagree with his politics (or his takes on sports for that matter). Unafraid of criticism, few people of his stature in American life are willing to do what he does. He is clearly a man of principle, a character trait that might have gotten him in even more trouble had he come of political age in the Internet era. His defense of the speech rights of Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson is still brought up by critics and sticks to his name like flypaper on Twitter.
More evidence that he’s honest broker lay in the fact, as Christopher Hitchens once noted, that over time, “the more Chomsky was vindicated, the less he seemed to command ‘respect’” from mainstream pundits. His fame has grown in inverse relationship to the number of his green room invites. Although American political life has moved toward him, as noted below, he’s still largely an unperson to the networks and the newsrooms of the great dailies like the Times, who’ll never forgive him for being right about everything from the civil rights movement to Vietnam to Iraq. Even his views on Russiagate (“farcical,” he said) identify him as an outside-the-tenter, confirmed in his shameful lack of deference to the manufacturers of consent.
Chomsky has other, little-remarked-upon qualities that mark him as a true egalitarian, like his habit, still, of trying to answer every serious query sent to him. Although not a fan of tweets — “If you thought for two minutes… you wouldn’t have sent it” is his mordant assessment of a lot of Twit lit — he gives nearly every other kind of correspondence generous consideration. He’ll prioritize responding to an obscure blogger over a major daily newspaper if the blogger has the better question.
Chomsky’s stubbornness is clearly his great strength, but it can make interviewing him a challenge. When I approached him before writing Hate Inc., which I initially tried to model after his great book of media criticism, Manufacturing Consent, I tried over and over to get his take on how the press had changed since he and Edward Herman first started looking at the subject forty-odd years ago. What about the role of Facebook, Google, Twitter?
In the age of data mining and push notifications, couldn’t a company like Facebook — which has completely taken over the distribution authority regional newspapers once claimed for themselves — individually shape the news-reading habits of billions of people in ways never imaginable previously? I thought the new algorithm-fueled emphasis on divisive media was a truth-smothering innovation that fit with his famous propaganda model, but Chomsky wasn’t having any of it.
“Take a look at the Facebook phenomenon,” he said. “Where are they getting their news from? They don’t have any reports. They’re just getting it from the New York Times, so it’s the same sources of information.” I tried again in the interview below, but he dunked on me quickly. Some issues are no-fly zones. But there are plenty he loves talking about.
His most recent book, Chomsky for Activists, traces the aforementioned undeniable truth, that the arc of American politics has moved in his direction, thanks in large part to activism. Chomsky wrote The Political Economy of Human Rights and Manufacturing Consent around the same time that Howard Zinn was writing The People’s History of the United States. At the time, all three books (and especially Zinn’s) were almost universally denounced as scandalous anti-American provocations.
Today there’s a debate over whether the Zinn/Chomsky view of American history has become too hegemonic in academia. I’m not sure The 1619 Project isn’t a clever subversion of Chomskyan politics rather than an affirmation of it, but the influence of his mode of thinking in modern American culture is still clear from any angle.
Noam Chomsky at 92 is voluble, energetic, and quick. Except for the werewolf beard, which gets a big yes vote from me, he’s still the same far-ranging, defiant thinker he was twenty or thirty years ago. In a recent interview with Useful Idiots, he offered his thoughts on Joe Biden, Donald Trump, a rising nuclear threat, the media, and other topics:
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