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A Countercultural Conversation With Noam Chomsky
Posted on Aug 5, 2010
By Mr. Fish
MF: Well, you’re right about fashion sometimes being just fashion. Sometimes fashion can actually confuse a person into thinking that he or she is being politically active when he or she is really just posing. Maybe I’m talking about the personal statement more as a reflection of a public expression of dissent versus a private one. Let me make my point this way: As strong as the political satire is that comes out of Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show” or Steve Colbert or Bill Maher, the experience of sharing their disdain for lousy politics is a private act—it happens in the living room, behind closed doors, and never threatens to spill out onto the streets. Where in the ’50s and ’60s, with somebody like Mort Sahl or Lenny Bruce or Bob Dylan, you had to leave your home to go into the community to really see them. You had to occupy a public space and to be seen with other people, communally. It was a physical act that required some small measure of bravery. It was, in fact, a political act because you were supporting something not sanctioned by the dominant culture, by decent society. Nowadays, with the co-opting of progressive and formerly dissident labels such as the peace sign and the anarchist “A,” and the privatizing of formerly public acts of anti-establishmentarianism, it’s very easy for people to trick themselves into believing that they’re being politically active or heavily engaged in social issues when really they’re not. Get a T-shirt from the Gap with a peace sign on it and, all of a sudden, you think you’re in the peace movement, when you haven’t done anything—in fact, all you’ve done is given more money to a major corporation that actually functions as the antithesis to the values you believe you’re supporting. Buy the Lennon [CD] compilation for Darfur and you’re selflessly rescuing Darfurians, laugh at “Politically Incorrect” when you’re all alone in your bedroom—you don’t even need to be wearing pants!—and believe you’re shaming George Bush so severely that he won’t be able to look in the mirror the next morning. You have to ask yourself, what is the ultimate effect of a bunch of people who believe they’re progressives because they can parrot the language of the movement but aren’t actually engaged in any genuine political activity? People end up marginalizing themselves.
NC: There’s plenty of pressure to privatize your existence in every respect. Take sports, for instance. I can see with my own grandchildren, or even in the suburb where I live, you do not see children engaging in sports—the reason is it’s all organized. You do not see kids the way we grew up, or my kids grew up, where you just go out in the streets and you meet some people and you play. Everything has to be organized and controlled and run by adults, and run in crazy ways. For example, one of my grandsons is kind of a jockey kid, who’s 8. He came back one Saturday afternoon, very disconsolate, from a baseball game. He was playing for whatever the local team is—everything has to be in teams—and I asked him what the problem was and he said they had to call the game off because the other team was one player short. I mean, these poor kids. The adults can’t let them play baseball—can’t take a kid off the bench and put him on the other side. Can’t do it, got to win. Those are control mechanisms, too, and that’s all through the culture and I’m sure it affects the arts as well. It’s just something else to struggle against and it can be done. Take, say, the international solidarity movements. There was never anything like that in the ’60s. They just didn’t exist. Now they’re all over the place and they’re significant.
MF: What did exist in the ’60s, though, that doesn’t exist now is an arts community capable of inspiring people to political action. John Lennon did a tremendous amount for the peace movement, for example—more than just about anybody.
NC: Again, we should remember exactly what happened. The activism against the Vietnam War was late ’60s. There’s no event in the world going on now that comes even close to what the U.S. was doing in Indochina then, and part of the reason is that the public won’t allow it. Public opposition to the Iraq war was way beyond what it was to Vietnam at any comparable stage. Just think back to when there were 150,000 American troops in Vietnam and there was nothing going on—nobody was talking about withdraw, nobody. There’s a higher level of consciousness now and it’s a constraint on policymakers, undoubtedly. Take, say, what’s going on in Iraq. The Maliki government is doing stuff that the Bush administration just doesn’t like. The Diem government was doing stuff the Kennedy administration didn’t like, so they organized a coup and threw him out. Can’t do that now. They can’t even contemplate it. Maybe they’ll think about assassinations, but they can’t contemplate a military coup that will put things back on track to what Congress wants. In ’63 it wasn’t even a question—they just did it.
MF: [The U.S. government] is still fearless about perpetrating massive international crimes. Regardless of how massive the protests were against our invasion of Iraq—and the protests were worldwide and I was part of them—[the U.S.] still invaded.
NC: We shouldn’t underestimate the impact. It was the first in the history of Western imperialism that a war had been massively protested before it was launched and it imposed constraints and you can see the constraints. They don’t want Iraq to have the degree of independence that it has now, but they were forced to permit it. They couldn’t send half a million troops to go over and slaughter everybody and take over. It’s because the public is more opposed. That’s a consequence of the ’60s activism. Things are bad, but you should never overlook the progress—and that’s a lesson. It means we can do more.
MF: Iran is a good example of what you’re talking about. A year ago, everybody was convinced that we were going to war with Iran. Scott Ritter even wrote a book about it, how Bush and Cheney had already decided and that it was a done deal. The fact that the idea seems preposterous now is a testament to public disdain of the idea. It’s heartening.
NC: It is, and there, incidentally, direct political activism has had an effect. The press won’t report it, but Congress over the summer [of 2008] was considering a resolution, which is still alive, that was getting near passage, which would’ve called for essentially a blockade of Iran, which is an act of war. It was being heavily pushed by the Israeli lobby and it was blocked by the peace movement lobby. That’s quite an achievement. Of course, the press won’t report it because people aren’t supposed to have that information, but it happened.
MF: Which is exactly my point. If the press won’t report such things because they’re part. …
NC: Part of the repressive system, so why should they report it?
MF: Right, which means the responsibility of the arts community to tell those stories. …
NC: Absolutely, truth can reach the public in other ways. In fact, you can even shame the press into reporting it. Actually, cartoonists do that.
MF: I know.
NC: It’s an old story. Even in totalitarian states, cartoonists were given a lot more leeway. In fact, it goes back to the medieval period. The court jester was given leeway that other people couldn’t have.
MF: Well, I guess we figured it all out.
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