A Countercultural Conversation With Noam Chomsky
Posted on Aug 5, 2010
By Mr. Fish
MF: I’ve heard people making the same apology for Barack Obama whenever he makes idiotic statements about Iran or Israel or gay marriage or whatever. They roll their eyes and explain to me that he has to say that stuff to be elected, that he doesn’t really believe it, as if there’s ever been an example anywhere in the history of politics where somebody was elected to public office and suddenly became more humane than he or she was on the campaign trail.
NC: Right, and the assumption isn’t true, either [that a politician says what the public wants to hear]. If you take a look at public opinion, which is very carefully studied in the United States, both parties are well to the right of the public on many major issues. So, if Obama’s trying to appeal to the public he should move in the other direction. He’s not the candidate of the public—he’s the candidate of his funders.
MF: Maybe it’s more a question of defining for people what the actual profession of the presidency really is, specifically that the gig, regardless of whatever [benevolent] talents a politician thinks he needs to parade before the public, is really the job of mob boss and not the job of Jesus Christ. Maybe we should be redefining the qualifications of the office, say that humanitarianism is in the job description and then demand nothing less.
NC: To an extent we could, but the point is that we don’t have a functioning democracy. Centers of power invest in the presidency and they expect to control it.
MF: I guess that the whole Jeremiah Wright controversy was about just that. I was at a party a few weeks ago with some people from the L.A. Times and the LA Weekly and I couldn’t find a single person in the room who didn’t think that Wright should just shut his mouth—“how dare he say those things about Barack Obama, saying that he was behaving like a politician!” I mean, imagine if Obama had the balls to speak truth to power and to talk about Palestine like Wright, or to say, “Goddamn America!” when talking about American imperialism.
NC: Alex Cockburn pointed out, I think rightly, that about 95 percent of what Wright said is absolutely on target.
MF: The willful ignorance that otherwise intelligent people, even journalists from major newspapers, are capable of is dizzying sometimes. Doesn’t that kind of thing make you crazy? I mean, you must deal with it all the time. Don’t you sometimes feel frustrated to the point of real rage that you can’t talk about some things, like Israel for example, without prefacing everything with a preamble of historical facts just so the person you’re talking to doesn’t want to knee you in the groin after your first sentence?
NC: It can be done. The last interview I had was with Ross Gelbspan, who I knew back in the ’80s, who was a reporter for the Boston Globe, a good reporter, a good guy, who had to leave the paper because it was shifting to the right.
MF: Where did he go?
NC: Freelancing. He writes on environmental issues and very well. But I’ve watched closely in the Globe over the years, and it’s very striking what happened; the main editor, who was a personal friend—I got to know him in the late ’60s—I met him because his son was a resister and I was working with the resistance and he was a pretty strait-laced New England Unitarian, really honest, decent guy, but very conservative—and his son kind of got to him and we met then and I had a lot of contact and he just changed the newspaper through the ’70s and ’80s; it [became] a pretty decent paper. As soon as he retired, the influence stopped and the paper went back to what it was, but this was the effect of the popular pressures of the 1960s, which had an effect.
MF: Something that we’ve lost as a culture, though, over the last 30 years is our willingness to invite nonpolitical perspectives into our political discussions. Let me give you an example. I was at a Nation [magazine] event a few months ago—it was a panel moderated by Bob Scheer called “Eight Years of Bush: What Do We Do Now?”—and much of the conversation was about how Obama was going to get into office and how innumerable social programs were going to be reinvigorated, race relations would be improved, the war [in Iraq] would be ended and that this was a time of celebration, and so on. Everybody was happy and the mood of the room was very high, and then came the Q&A part of the night and dread started to seep in. People started to realize that their intellects were being stimulated, but their souls were still wanting—you could feel it in your chest. Eventually, the question came from somebody, spoken in a shaky voice, “The panel is called ‘Eight Years of Bush: What Do We Do Now?’ so … what do we do now?” And that’s the rub always with events like that, and political rallies, and talks from people like you, there’s always an underlying feeling of frustration, of disempowerment, because so much of political debate, at least publicly, is about theory and not direct experience. The best analogy I can give is that listening to pundits and journalists strategizing over how best to move the ball down the field is like watching ESPN guys talk about sports. Where is the person on the panel to question the folly of the game? This, I think, was the most outstanding strength of the counterculture [of the mid-20th century]— there was always somebody at the table to discuss the virtues of non-athleticism. There was somebody to provide a bigger picture and to offer an alternative other than either honoring the glory of the game or, at the very least, legitimizing the rules of the game. When [politics] are allowed to persist as a game—a game that we all have to play, with rules that we have to honor—then what these rallies and talks essential tell us is, “All right, we’ve gotten you all psyched up to win, so get out on that field and win! We’re not going to give you a helmet or a cup or any expertise to help you compete against the professionals, but good luck!” That can create a lot of anxiety in a society. Without a philosopher to offer a philosophical perspective of politics, people don’t even know that they can take one step back and consider the [larger reality] and attack politics as a logic problem.
NC: Well, I didn’t go to the panel, but what the panelists should have told [the audience] was to try to organize enough mass popular pressure so that whoever is in office will have to react to it.
MF: But, you see, that just sounds like more work to people.
NC: Well it is work. And it’s hard work.
MF: Sure it is, but I wasn’t inspired to become politically involved from somebody talking about work. I learned about humanitarianism and dissent from art and popular culture, which made it cool and sexy. I joined the movement because I wanted to grow my hair, to piss off intolerant people, to own myself.
NC: That’s just a personal statement. What really changed things in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s was popular organization. I mean, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the environmental movement, the women’s movement, and so on, there were personal statements, but that was only a small part of it.
MF: The personal statement is what gets people involved.
NC: It may get people involved, but the personal statements are all fine for you, but when you want to organize an anti-nuclear movement or a solidarity movement with Central America, your personal statements don’t matter.
MF: But they’re indispensable with issues of sexism and racism and classism. They’re uniforms—unifying ones.
NC: There’s nothing wrong with them. They’re, at most, a first step towards more serious commitments, but not always. Take the civil rights movement. It wasn’t about personal statements. It was SNCC workers riding Freedom buses.
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