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A Countercultural Conversation With Noam Chomsky
Posted on Aug 5, 2010
The following is an interview with professor Noam Chomsky that was conducted on June 19, 2008 (the 126th anniversary of the invention of American baseball and on what would have been Moe Howard’s 111th birthday), at MIT in Cambridge. The purpose of our conversation was to examine (for a graphic memoir/critique of contemporary culture that I’d just begun working on) the question of why the counterculture, which had been so endemic to the politics of dissent in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, no longer seemed to exist in any viable way. Having used only a small portion of our talk for my book, I felt that the complete exchange was sufficiently interesting to offer up to those who, like me, consider professor Chomsky to be, all by himself, The Beatles of all smart guys, with every interview that he participates in between the publication of his books being the equivalent of Beatle bootlegs, fascinating in their improvised eloquence and revelatory in their matter-of-factness.
Noam Chomsky: No, not particularly. There are probably more critics today than there were in the past.
MF: In the arts?
NC: Well, who are the public intellectuals who people talk about in the past—the dissident public intellectuals?
MF: People like [Norman] Mailer, [Kurt] Vonnegut.
NC: They were fine, but they were novelists. They said almost nothing about public events. I mean, yeah, Norman Mailer, I knew him—he would write an article every now and then, a pretty good article, but I don’t think it comes anywhere near to what Norman Solomon does.
MF: Yeah, but when you compare audiences, more people know who Norman Mailer is than Norman Solomon.
NC: Because he was a novelist and one who put himself in the public eye, so he was something of a showman. That doesn’t mean he was reaching anybody with his political views. The fact that he knifed his wife may have put him on the front pages, but it didn’t change anybody’s political views.
MF: He changed mine. I mean, in a society gripped by [political correctness], public urination can be a political act.
NC: I wouldn’t call him a public intellectual. I’m glad he was around and did some of the things he did. In fact, the best book of his that I know of, that I read, was “Armies of the Night,” and that was his single foray into political activism.
MF: Well, that’s not completely true. There was “The Prisoner of Sex,” “The White Negro,” his coverage of political conventions. …
NC: Covering conventions isn’t dissident journalism. That’s playing a role in creating illusions about how the political system functions.
MF: Actually, when it’s done by somebody like Mailer, it’s a piece of writing that explores the humanity of the event, the fallibility of the players, and turns it into a debate that can take place in public, where it can then grow into a conversation and inspire some deeper understanding [of the event].
NC: If that’s what a public intellectual is then I think we have plenty more of them today. I think they’re just illusions about the past. The fact of the matter is that, when you look over time, intellectuals, by and large, are servants of power. There are very few exceptions to that and the exceptions are usually punished one way or another. We think about the Dreyfus Affair and the great intellectuals, they were a small minority. The mass of French intellectuals supported the state.
MF: Was that more about some form of academic freedom than artistic freedom? Are they more or less the same thing?
NC: There are always attacks on academic freedom, but I think it’s better protected now than it has been in the past. There is repression and [there are] bad things that happen, but if you look over time it’s nothing like what it’s been in the past. I mean, take surveillance, let’s say, bad thing. What was in the ’60s? The FBI was all over the place, the Army had surveillance systems, the CIA had surveillance, way more than what it is now. Now you can do things with electronic surveillance, OK, big deal. I was active in the resistance and took for granted that the phone was probably tapped, but it never constrained us. If you had to do something that you didn’t want the FBI to hear, you did it privately. Everybody knew that whatever group you were in was infiltrated, and you could usually guess who the infiltrators were, but if you wanted to do something serious, say help a deserter, you did it with an affinity group. If you think about repression, as bad as it may be today, it doesn’t even come close to COINTELPRO. That was running through four administrations—mainly Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, where it was stopped—and it went all the way to political assassination. Is that happening now?
MF: Depends on who you ask, I guess.
NC: And [Woodrow] Wilson’s Red Scare made it all look tame. So, sure, bad things are happening, but we shouldn’t exaggerate. There have been a lot of gains.
MF: Still, and getting back to my point about the mollification of the artistic community, there seems to be fewer and fewer expectations that an artist will or even should engage in world politics.
NC: Expectations from whom?
MF: From the public, the dominant culture, the government, certainly.
NC: The corporate media aren’t going to encourage them to be subversive, but has that ever been the case for art?
MF: No, but the amount of discouragement from the private sector seems new. At one time, it wasn’t so outlandish for a person to say that he or she wanted to become a painter or a novelist or a playwright—it was a lifestyle, in fact, that suggested its own spiritual reward, and politics was traditionally considered to be part of the lifestyle, usually dissent.
NC: But that’s a different kind of change. The freelance intellectuals, whatever they were, the writers and artists, over the years have drifted towards institutions, so now instead of being a [full-time] novelist you’ll be a novelist on the side and teaching creative writing at the university. That wasn’t an option in the ’40s and ’50s.
MF: And that’s the loss, the sidelining of passion, of truth-seeking.
NC: Well, it’s an institutional change. To some people it may have restrictive consequences, maybe impose internal conditions on the work they do, but it certainly doesn’t have to.
MF: But it always will. Consider the size and makeup of the two audiences: an instructor in a classroom writing part time versus a full-time writer whose celebrity comes from a full-time writing career [that’s] lived large in the public eye.
NC: Give talks. I spend half my life just giving talks.
MF: But that’s not novel writing.
NC: Still, being at the university gives you tremendous privilege. If you want to use it, you can use it. It’s a lot more privilege than if you’re in a loft somewhere trying to get enough money for the next meal.
MF: Ah, but that’s so romantic.
NC: Sounds romantic, unless you’re living it. “La Bohème” doesn’t have a happy ending.
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