A Countercultural Conversation With Noam Chomsky
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.Mr. Fish:
I’ve already talked to people like Mort Sahl, Paul Krassner, Victor Navasky, people like that, to find out why there seems to be fewer artists and public intellectuals creating art and social commentary that inspires people to conceptualize a worldview [that is able to exist] contrary to the one offered by the dominant culture. I’m trying to find out why we no longer seem capable of creating art that is sufficiently weaponized to combat and inflict real damage to those values that seem more interested in maintaining the status quo — values that may be counterintuitive to our survival as a free society. Before I go on, do you perceive a change?
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.
MF: All right, let’s step away from the individual expression of art for a moment and get back to the corporate sort — the sort written in high-rise office buildings by committee and not in lofts by one person. When you consider some of the shows that appeared on network television in the ’60s and ’70s– shows like “All in the Family,” “Free to Be You and Me,” “Laugh-In,” “That Was the Week That Was,” “The Smothers Brothers,” shows that would never appear outside of cable television today because they’d be considered too dangerous — is it not easy to see that there’s been a cultural shift in the wrong direction?
NC: Well, there are commercial pressures within commercial institutions. That’s not a big surprise.
MF: The question is what happens over time? Doesn’t the integrity of the art degrade when no new ideas are allowed to flourish?
NC: I’ll occasionally look at an old movie from the ’40s and it’s kind of fun because I remember them from when I was a kid, but you couldn’t really call them high art. The actors were very wooden, there’s no storyline. It’s fun to watch Cary Grant and Greta Garbo and people like that –Humphrey Bogart was fun, but he wasn’t subversive.
MF: In all fairness, though, the job of cinema back then was different. [Drama] was exaggerated to serve the artistry of the craft more than to mirror reality, which is more subtle — duller even. You don’t go to a ballet and then ridicule the dancers because you don’t see people walking down the street like that.
NC: This is really an area that I really can’t comment on. I really don’t know enough. I don’t watch television, but I’d be surprised if there were major differences between then and now.
MF: There is really a certain amount of sameness [in commercial entertainment], but the differences are glaring and I don’t think I’m over-romanticizing the time period.
NC: When my wife and I were college students we were movie fans and we’d go down to New York and watch movies, but they were foreign movies. We’d watch “The Bicycle Thief” and that sort of thing. We didn’t have much time for American movies.
MF: Well, with the possible exception of Orson Welles and a few others, once you get past the ’40s and early ’50s, there was an attempt from guys like Mike Nichols and even Peter Fonda to sort of Europeanize American cinema, to tinker with different concepts of heroism.
NC: Did it reach mainstream cinema?
MF: Oh, yeah. If you look at “Catch 22,” based on the Heller book, or even “The Graduate”. …
NC: Yeah, I saw it, but only because I had a friend who had a part in it.
NC: Remember at the end when the protagonist stops at a gas station?
MF: He was the gas station guy?
NC: He was the gas station guy. It made his career, one line.
MF: “Need any gas, Father?!”
NC: He was a kid I grew up with. But take that film. Is that what’s regarded as an innovative, exciting film? I mean, Dustin Hoffman is a great actor and I love to watch him, but what was the message of the film?
MF: The message was that the world is plastic. It addressed the tremendous sadness of discovering that right at the moment when you feel as if you’ve suffered through all your obligations to finish school and to fulfill everybody else’s expectations suddenly you find out that your identity has been erased.
NC: And that you’re completely caught up in the commercial world.
MF: And that life is not going to be a great adventure. It’s a different kind of heroism that’s [portrayed] on the screen. Nichols said that [“The Graduate”] was about a guy who tries to save himself through madness.
NC: You don’t have to tell anybody that because they already know it. Don’t forget that there was a tremendous reaction to the — I mean, the ’60s were a democratizing era and that frightened the hell out of people and there was a big reaction to it from the academic world. One of the consequences was to discipline young people and one of the ways you discipline them is to make sure that when they get out of college they have a heavy debt and that was very conscious. So, in the ’60s you could think, I’m going to take off a year or two, be an activist and then come back and pursue my career — can’t do that now. You can say that you’re going to law school to become a public interest lawyer, but by the time you get out of law school you have such a heavy debt that you’re going to have to go into a corporation and that has a tremendous disciplinary effect. You can see it with students, and it’s conscious. Have you read “The Crisis of Democracy”?
NC: Well, you should read it. They advocate it, and this is the liberal internationalist wing of the public intellectuals, the Carter administration. The crisis of democracy that they were worried about was that the ’60s had too much democracy [and] that people were supposed to be passive and apathetic. [In the 1960s] people were actually entering into the political arena and pressing their own demands and that’s no good, they have to be beaten back. And one of the things that they talked about was imposing more discipline within what they called the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young: schools, universities, churches. They should be run like the Marine Corps, that’s what we liberals want. Those are the public intellectuals — we shouldn’t have any illusions. They’re very anti-democratic. The greatest public intellectual of the 20th century was Walter Lippmann, far and away, and he thought the public were just a bunch of rabble. Got to get them out of our hair — we’re the smart guys, we run things. Those are the public intellectuals.
MF: You’re right and that speaks to my own experience of dropping out of art school.
NC: What years?
MF: I started in ’84 and eventually dribbled all the way out in ’86-’87. But many of my friends who continued on had no real expectations that they’d be able to survive as fine artists and talked endlessly about how they were going to join a corporation, advertising usually, and start making changes from the inside out, like a happy cancer.
NC: You think that, but then you absorb the mentality of [the corporation] and it’s pretty hard to break out of.
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.
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.