Democracy Is a Threat to Any Power System

NICHOLS: Almost fifty years ago, you debated William F. Buckley on public television—on national TV, nationwide—about issues of war and peace, and the state, propaganda, so many issues—just like this, debating on national television—and it struck me: I haven’t seen you a lot on national television since.

[laughter]

NICHOLS: But it’s perhaps a good way to begin, because the fact of the matter is: you are—and I don’t think it’s news—you are America’s—the world’s, I would argue—leading public intellectual, and yet you are rarely seen on television, our main vehicle of communications in the United States. Why is that?

CHOMSKY: Actually, every once in a while I’m on Fox News.

NICHOLS: I know!

[laughter]

CHOMSKY: But one of my great honors that I’m most proud of is that National Public Radio has a primetime program, All Things Considered, their big program in the afternoon—the co-host actually is on record as saying I’m one of the people he will never permit on that program.

[laughter]

NICHOLS: Really?

CHOMSKY: Yeah.

NICHOLS: No small accomplishment.

CHOMSKY: Yeah.

NICHOLS: But also go deeper, because the fact of the matter is—as somebody who’s been involved for a long time in media reform efforts and efforts to kind of tackle the many challenges of American media—we have an incredibly narrow discourse in our major media in this country. And it is a discourse that does, in fact, move all sorts of folks out to the margins. And does that cover movements?

CHOMSKY: Does it?

NICHOLS: Does it cover movements? Does it cover what’s really happening, a lot, on the ground? And I think in many senses that disempowers folks, because they’re never told about what all is happening or the ideas that are in play.

CHOMSKY: Actually, the most interesting media, in my opinion, are what are called the liberal media. In fact, most of my own writing, discussion, and analysis is about them. They kind of set the limits; they say you can go this far and not a millimeter farther. And that’s true pretty much around the world. And, of course, it does cut out popular movements, popular activism—very occasionally something will break through. Zucotti Park finally broke through, slightly, with [what] actually is better coverage than I expected for a while. But, generally, the idea that people might get together, organize, act to change the world—that’s frightening. That’s like some small country deciding to go off on an independent course—that’s quite dangerous.

NICHOLS: And when that does happen, how does media—you mentioned coverage of Occupy, and, in fact, we had a brief period—I think in 2011—where there were great popular uprisings in a lot of capitals around the United States, [with the] labor movement seeming to be out there—and how does so much of our media—and our liberal media—shut that down? What’s the strategy, what’s the tactic that you see?

CHOMSKY: Actually, I think it was pretty well-described by George Orwell. He didn’t say much about it, but everyone here, I’m sure, has read Animal Farm. But probably very few people have read the introduction to Animal Farm; the reason is it wasn’t published.

[laughter]

CHOMSKY: It was discovered about thirty years later in his unpublished papers. Today, if you get a new edition of Animal Farm, you might find it there. The introduction is kind of interesting—he basically says what you all know: that the book is a critical, satiric analysis of the totalitarian enemy. But then he addresses himself to the people of free England; he says, “You shouldn’t feel too self-righteous.” He said in England, a free country, I’m virtually quoting: unpopular ideas can be suppressed without the use of force. And he goes on to give some examples, and, really, just a couple of common-sense explanations, which are to the point. One reason, he says, is: the press is owned by wealthy men who have every reason not to want certain ideas to be expressed. And the other, he says, essentially, is: it’s a good education. If you have a good education, you’ve gone to the best schools, you have internalized the understanding that there’s certain things it just wouldn’t do to say—and I think we can add to that, it wouldn’t do to think. And that’s a powerful mechanism. So, there are things you just don’t think, and you don’t say. That’s the result of effective education, effective indoctrination. If people—many people—don’t succumb to it, what happens to them? Well, I’ll tell you a story: I was in Sweden a couple years ago, and I noticed that taxi drivers were being very friendly, much more than I expected. And finally I asked one of them, “Why’s everyone being so nice?” He pulled out a T-shirt he said every taxi driver has, and the T-shirt had a picture of me and a quote in Swedish of something I’d said once when I was asked, “What happens to people of independent mind?” And I said, “They become taxi drivers.”

[laughter]

NICHOLS: Man, that is good! See, now if you could get a quote like that for every industry…

CHOMSKY: Yeah.

NICHOLS: …you’d rule the world!

CHOMSKY: Yeah.

NICHOLS: Well, this gets to a deeper question, because it’s clear in the United States today—and you see it, you travel an incredible amount around this country—and you see the movements that are there. Immigrant rights, Black Lives Matter, get rid of Citizens United, get money out of politics, labor struggles, all sorts of things that are there. So many movements, and yet, not enough coalescence, not something coming together there. And I wonder if the lack of that cohesive center—that is, a place where people can get their information in some sort of steady way—if that has a role in creating a situation where we’re sort of—we’re compartmentalized, we’re, I think, often neglected and disrespected… and it has an actual political impact.

CHOMSKY: It’s even worse than that. I’ve lived in Boston since 1950, but I go to sections of Boston for talks and discover that there’s very significant activism going on in that neighborhood that people don’t know of in the next neighborhood, where they’re doing similar things. Part of the reason is simply the absence of a labor movement; throughout history, the labor movement has been—with all of its defects and deficiencies and limits—it’s been a kind of a center around which things coalesce. In other countries, when I give talks—even countries like England—the talks are often in labor movement centers, union centers. Not in the United States; very rare. You can talk to labor activists, but somewhere else: in a church, or in a university, the few institutions that exist. But there’s been a great success in the United States—the United States is, to an unusual extent, a business-run society. That goes way back to early days, for all kind of reasons. And it has a very violent and repressive labor history. Workers were being murdered in the United States by the hundreds at a time when nothing like that was taking place in Europe, or Australia, or other places. And, repeatedly, the labor movement has simply been crushed. It’s revived again, and when it did revive it was a center around which activism coalesced, it had its own journals—as late as the late nineteenth century the labor press was very lively, active, widely read. As late as the 1950s there were still about maybe eight hundred labor journals that were reaching maybe thirty million people a week. All of that has succumbed to the massive attack of concentrated capital—you’re seeing it right now, pretty dramatically, right where you live.

NICHOLS: In Wisconsin. Scott Walker.

CHOMSKY: Yeah.

NICHOLS: Our great contribution to the American political process.

[laughter]

CHOMSKY: Right. Even the rhetoric is pretty remarkable. Like, take the so-called ‘right-to-work’ law that just passed.

NICHOLS: Yeah. You are in a right-to-work state.

CHOMSKY: Yeah. ‘Right-to-work’ means right-to-scrounge! It has nothing to do with ‘right-to-work.’ It means the right to be represented by a union to defend you, and not to pay for it. That’s ‘right-to-work.’ So it’s a right-to-scrounge law, but it’s not described that way, and it’s not interpreted that way. This is one part of a huge—in the 1920s, the labor had been virtually crushed. One of the great works of labor history is called, I think, something like The Fall of the House of Labor, referring to the 1920s; David Montgomery. And visitors from Europe and Australia were shocked to see the weakness of the labor movement and the ability to denounce, condemn, and destroy it. Well, in the 1930s it rose again: CIO organizing, a lot of labor activism during the Second World War… [during] the Depression and the Second World War there was a real wave of radical democracy that spread all over much of the world, including the United States, and it led to a very quick backlash in many ways. So, for example, in Europe—as U.S. and British troops finally began to enter the European continent late in the war, moving up through Italy—the first thing they had to do was to disperse the anti-fascist resistance, to restore traditional order, including fascist collaborators. As they reached northern Italy, they were appalled to discover that the partisan resistance had developed a functioning society with worker management, worker ownership—this, incidentally, was the time of British Labour Party—and they were appalled to discover that there were enterprises without managers and owners. All of that had to be dismantled. In Greece, same thing; and it was a very brutal war, killed hundreds of thousands of people, and so on all through Europe. The same thing happened here. Not with that much violence, but immediately after the war—1947—came the Taft-Hartley Act, undermining basic labor rights, organizing rights, secondary boycotts, and so on. Shortly after, a huge campaign began of corporate propaganda which was pretty remarkable in scale. There’s pretty good scholarship on it, like Elizabeth Fones-Wolf’s book. The concentrated capital was penetrating churches, schools, clubs…

NICHOLS: Education.

CHOMSKY: …education, and began a massive attack on labor. I mean, the labor unions are not faultless in this; the radical militant element of the labor movement was eliminated within the context of Cold War propaganda, ‘Communist’ and so on. So they were crushed, and the labor leadership accepted that. And furthermore they entered into a kind of class collaboration. It’s kind of interesting to compare the same union in the United States and Canada, like, say, UAW in the United States and Canada; same union, acted quite differently. One reason why Canada has national healthcare and the United States doesn’t, is that in Canada the labor movements militantly advocated for national healthcare. In the United States the same unions militantly advocated for good healthcare for themselves. So, the autoworkers did have decent healthcare with a compact with management. Now, a compact with management is a devil’s choice, because management can decide at any time, “It’s over.” And, as you recall, it was pretty striking—[it] must’ve been 1979 or so that Doug Fraser, head of UAW, pulled out of a cooperative enterprising that he’s discovered that capital is fighting a one-sided class war against the labor movement. Big discovery.

NICHOLS: It took a while.

CHOMSKY: Yeah, it took a while. But by that time it was pretty late.

NICHOLS: But that war has really stepped up, especially in the last few years where we’ve seen… at one time, Arizona got to be right-to-work, and a lot of southern states, but it didn’t move north. Now we have Michigan becoming a right-to-work state; Indiana, a great steel center, becoming a right-to-work state; Wisconsin, the center of American progressivism, becoming a right-to-work state; public center unions being busted down, losing collective bargaining rights…. I mean, this is a very aggressive, concentrated initiative that’s happening right now.

CHOMSKY: Happening right now…

NICHOLS: Why?

CHOMSKY: …and it goes back to the 1940s.

NICHOLS: No, go ahead; it’s history, but why now, why does it all come now?

CHOMSKY: Well, if you look at the last period since the Second World War, the counterattack against labor, popular democracy began immediately. It was held back for twenty years by a number of factors: one was the strong appeal of the New Deal measures, which a large part of the population strongly supported. You may recall that Eisenhower said that anyone who questions the legitimacy of New Deal programs is crazy.

NICHOLS: Is a nut!

CHOMSKY: Is a nut. I mean, Eisenhower, today, would be way out on the left of the political spectrum.

[laughter]

NICHOLS: Well, your buddy Howard Zinn would occasionally say that, in many ways, Eisenhower was a pretty impressive president because he didn’t send troops to the Middle East, but he did send them to Arkansas.

CHOMSKY: That’s right.

[laughter]

CHOMSKY: Actually, he did send them to the Middle East.

NICHOLS: I realize. We’re gonna get to the rest of the world in a minute, yeah.

CHOMSKY: Yeah. But through the fifties and the sixties there was the remaining, powerful appeal of the New Deal measures, there still was a labor movement—also, these were periods of very high growth. Mostly based on the state sector of the economy—which you’re not supposed to know—but it was high growth; this is sometimes called the Golden Age of American Capitalism. And it was egalitarian growth, so the lowest quintile did about as well as the highest quintile. Furthermore, capital was regulated—very crucial.

NICHOLS: And taxed. The wealthy were taxed.

CHOMSKY: The wealthy were taxed, but capital was regulated. Banks were banks. Banks were places where you could put your money in, they’d lend it to somebody to buy a car or something—not like today. This system broke down in the early seventies, and that had a major effect. In fact, there were no financial crises in the fifties and the sixties, because the regulatory system was intact. Internationally, the Bretton-Woods system of regulated capital was intact. That was dismantled in the early seventies. You begin to get what has become the global neoliberal assault on the global population everywhere, taking one or another form. In the United States, the form that it’s taken is an increasing attack on the general population, including the labor movement. So, for example, for most of the population, since, say, the mid-seventies—it’s escalating under Reagan, continuing under Clinton, and on—but for most of the population, real wages have stagnated or declined. For male workers today, real wages are about what they were in 1968. There’s been growth, but it’s going to very few pockets—narrower and narrower. And this has had a striking and dramatic effect even on things like popular opinion. So take—the last couple years of Obama’s kind of major initiative was the Affordable Care Act. And it’s interesting to look at public attitudes towards it, and to look back at the past. This is a very heavily polled country; we know a lot about people’s attitudes. Ever since the 1940s, there’s been strong support for national healthcare. Polls depend a little bit on how the question’s asked, but it’s often a large majority; very substantial. As late as the late 1980s, about a majority of the population thought that there ought to be a constitutional guarantee for healthcare, and actually about forty percent of the population thought it was in the Constitution.

[laughter]

CHOMSKY: That’s not that long ago. Well, when Obama’s initiative began, almost two-thirds of the population supported a public option: meaning, of the various options you could choose, one would be, essentially, Medicare—public national healthcare. That wasn’t even mentioned; it wasn’t even proposed.

NICHOLS: They jettisoned it right away. Along with single-payer which was what we [unintelligible].

CHOMSKY: It disappeared. One of the strange—maybe unique—features of the U.S. healthcare system is that the government is not permitted, by law, to negotiate drug prices. The VA is, so drug prices are lower there. The Pentagon can negotiate prices for paperclips, let’s say, but the government cannot negotiate—say, for Medicare and Medicaid—drug prices; so of course they’re out of sight. Obama never even tried to touch this, even though eighty-five percent of the population are opposed to it. And if you look at the following years, the propaganda has so changed people’s expressed attitudes, whatever their actual attitudes are, that even the mild reforms of the Affordable Care Act—which are some kind of a step forward, they don’t really deal with the problem—even those are opposed. And think that not that many years ago—like, 1990—forty percent of the population thought there was a constitutional guarantee for public healthcare. This is a tremendous triumph of propaganda.

NICHOLS: And we’ve created a system now where it is so easy to flood so much money into the communication process—Citizens United, McCutcheon, all these decisions of the courts—which, whatever minimal barriers are knocked down, you hear the Koch brothers planning to spend close to a billion dollars in the next election—and then you find out they spend hundreds of millions to do just these things, to take apart.

CHOMSKY: And some of the things that’ve been done are really sophisticated. There’s an interesting study by Suzanne Mettler [of] Cornell University, a sociologist: it’s called The Submerged State. And what she shows, pretty convincingly, is that there’s been a change from visible government programs of reform and subsidy and support, where you see that the government is doing something for you, to indirect means, where you don’t see that the government is doing it. What you see is some private entity doing it, which is being subsidized by the government. And the end result is that people think the government is harming them, it’s not helping them. And, of course, as the submerged state develops, [it] turns out most of the subsidy is going to the wealthy. So, for example, a home mortgage interest deduction, which is a very substantial sum of money. Overwhelmingly, it goes to the wealthy. In the for-profit educational system, which is a big thing here, most of the funding comes from the taxpayer, but you don’t see it. And of course it’s going to the corporation. And there’s devices like that all across the country; the result is that—some strange results—people who are most subsidized by the government tend to be most opposed to government subsidy.

[laughter]

CHOMSKY: It’s very striking.

[applause]

NICHOLS: Do they not know they are subsidized, or are they just cynical?

CHOMSKY: You don’t know.

NICHOLS: They do not know.

CHOMSKY: I mean, who would know that a tax deduction for employer health insurance is a huge subsidy to the corporations? Or that the home mortgage deduction is a subsidy to the wealthy? I mean, you can figure it out if you think about it, but it’s not obvious on the surface. And that goes case-by-case.

NICHOLS: So, in this terrific new book from Haymarket Books—Noam Chomsky, Masters of Mankind—which, on the cover, Glenn Greenwald says, “There is no living political writer who has more radically changed how more people think in more parts of the world about political issues than Noam Chomsky.” Which is kind of nice.

[applause]

CHOMSKY: You have to realize that he’s a friend, and you [unintelligible].

[laughter]

NICHOLS: He is a friend, I realize.

CHOMSKY: I say nice things about him.

NICHOLS: You say it back and forth, it’s wonderful.

[laughter]

NICHOLS: We are at a book festival, so some people are aware of blurbs on books. But I have the sense that Glenn probably means it. And also, this is a collection of essays, and one of the interesting things is… for a variety of reasons, my favorite one is an essay that you wrote some years ago titled, “Consent Without Consent.” And I think that comes [to] a lot of what we’re talking about with the submerged state, but also this notion that—an awful lot of what’s happening when you assault labor, when you assault so many of the vehicles by which people might organize, might push back… it’s really an assault on democracy itself.

CHOMSKY: Democracy is a threat to any power system.

[applause]

CHOMSKY: It doesn’t matter what it is. For pretty obvious reasons. So, yes, the general assault on the population includes a major assault on democracy. And what’s happened in the United States is extremely revealing; one of the main topics in mainstream academic political science is comparison between public attitudes and public policy. Which is a pretty straightforward inquiry; we see public policy, there’s extensive polls—they’re pretty reliable, they’re consistent over time—so you get a pretty good sense of public attitudes. And the results are quite intriguing. By now, about seventy percent of the population is literally disenfranchised. They’re the lower seventy percent on the income/wealth scale. Their political representatives simply pay no attention to them, so it doesn’t matter what they think. As you move up the scale, you get a little bit more influence. When you get to the very top, policy’s made. That correlates very… one of the major students of political participation, Walter Dean Burnham, years ago pointed out that if you look at the non-voting—in the United States it’s very high—said if you look at the non-voters, and their demographics, and compare it with Europe—they are the people who, in Europe, would vote for some laborite or social democratic party. But since no such thing exists here, they don’t vote. Maybe they don’t—they may not read academic political science, but they know that nobody’s paying attention to them. So why bother voting? This is a plutocracy; it’s not a democracy. And the effects are pretty striking. The last election, November 2014, was carefully analyzed by two really fine political scientists, Walter Dean Burnham and Tom Ferguson, [who] wrote a careful analysis of it (voting participation). Turns out that voting participation was about at the level of 1830.

NICHOLS: Well, it was also—it was thirty-six percent.

CHOMSKY: But if you compare it state-by-state…

NICHOLS: But what was interesting was, is it was the lowest since 1942.

CHOMSKY: Since 1942. It’s worse than that; take a look at their analysis, state-by-state. It’s about 1830; that was a time when voting was restricted to propertied white males. And this has been declining; and by now, most people, as they point out, just don’t vote.

NICHOLS: Well, in fact, when we flood so much money into politics, and so much of it goes to pay for negative ads on televisions—one side saying don’t vote for this guy, one side saying don’t vote for that guy, a lot of people make the logical choice and don’t vote for either.

[laughter]

NICHOLS: And the interesting result on that is that you do have one entity that comes out getting really rich by this politics that drives so many of the people away: and that is the big broadcast companies. They make a fortune.

CHOMSKY: They do.

NICHOLS: But not in any way, I think, advancing democracy.

CHOMSKY: I mean, what’s happening now is indeed extreme. But we should remember that it goes way back…

NICHOLS: It wasn’t good before.

CHOMSKY: …way back.

NICHOLS: Yeah, yeah.

CHOMSKY: Remember about a century ago, Mark Hanna, the great campaign manager, was asked, “What do you really need to run an effective campaign?” He said, “There are three things. The first one is money. The second one is money.” And the third? He said, “I can’t remember.”

[laughter]

CHOMSKY: That was around 1900.

NICHOLS: But there were sort of some interventions between 1900 and now…

CHOMSKY: There were changes.

NICHOLS: …we sort of tried to address some of those problems.

CHOMSKY: There were changes.

NICHOLS: And now we are…

CHOMSKY: Now we’re going back. In fact, it’s worse than it was, probably, ever.

NICHOLS: Now, that’s an important thing—do you think that it is worse, that we are maybe at the worst point now when we look through the history of this country?

CHOMSKY: Well, it’s a mixed story, because there is plenty of political activism, and, in fact, if you look at people’s attitudes closely, they tend to be pretty social democratic. There have been studies of the subclass of people who say, “Get the government off my back. I don’t want a government,” and so on. You take a look at them: what they want is more spending on healthcare, more spending on education, higher taxes on the wealthy, a range of positions which you and I would probably agree with. But they’re the ones who say, “Get the government off our back. We don’t want any government.”

NICHOLS: I don’t want the government messing with my Medicare.

CHOMSKY: Yeah, “Don’t mess with my Medicare,” that kind of thing.

NICHOLS: We’ve got this wonderful group of folks—they are actually graduates of this university who started a little company here to democratize how we do Q&A, how we actually talk.

CHOMSKY: Good.

NICHOLS: And, it’s…

CHOMSKY: I know how it works.

NICHOLS: Yeah?

CHOMSKY: The amount of money you put in determines who’s question [gets asked].

[laughter, applause]

NICHOLS: No, no no, that’s the next application. These guys, they call it “Two-Shoes” app—as in ‘goodie two-shoes,’ like, the person who raises their hand. And they actually created something—that you featured it on your Facebook site or someplace—where…

CHOMSKY: I don’t have a Facebook site.

[laughter]

NICHOLS: I know. Somebody who does something, someplace…

CHOMSKY: Somebody put something on Facebook.

NICHOLS: Yeah, it’s like the person who made the T-shirt in Sweden… they asked what we could ask you in the “Two-Shoes” app. And it was very interesting that a lot of the questions—the hopeful questions, actually—focused on things going on outside the United States. Which I find frustrating because I do believe there’s a lot of great activism here, but there were questions especially about Greece and Spain, and particularly about the rise of Syriza and the rise of Podemos. Both political parties that did not exist—or political groupings that did not exist—but, in Greece, have now risen to being the governing party, and potentially, in Spain, could do so. You’ve been watching these closely.

CHOMSKY: Very closely.

NICHOLS: And I’m very interested, first off, in your general impressions—and many people ask questions about this—but also your sense of why they are coming together and functioning politically and something happening, that we are still waiting for in the U.S.?

CHOMSKY: Actually, I’ve just been at an international conference in Buenos Aires—that’s where I was yesterday—an international forum on emancipation and inequality, where it drew groups like this from all over the world; Podemos activists and leaders were there, Syriza activists, and so on.

NICHOLS: And you were very impressed by the Podemos ones.

CHOMSKY: They were pretty impressive, yeah. But we have to remember what’s been happening in Europe; one of the great successes of Europe in the post-Second World War era has been to construct a reasonably well-functioning social democratic welfare state society—a lot of problems, but by comparative standards, pretty successful.

NICHOLS: Due to the nightmare circumstance of Norway.

CHOMSKY: Oh, that, yeah. But all over the continent. And, of course, the business classes hate it. And Europe has been subjected to an extreme form of punishment in the past few years which is an attack on democracy, an attack on living standards, and an effort to undermine and dismantle this achievement. And the policies that have been followed are policies of austerity during recession, which even the IMF (the International Monetary Fund) says is economically ridiculous. But it may be economically ridiculous, but it’s politically and socially sensible from the point of view of class war. It is slowly achieving a result which has long been hoped for by the ruling sections, by the dominant sections of capital. But it’s very severe. And it’s been worst—the worst hit have been the peripheral countries: Greece…

NICHOLS: Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland…

CHOMSKY: …Spain, Portugal, Ireland. What’s actually happened is that the banks—the northern banks, the German banks, and so on—have made very risky loans to countries which were unable to sustain them. When the crash came and they couldn’t pay them back, the big banks—like other sectors of capital—don’t believe in capitalism. In a capitalist system, say, if I lend you money—and I know that you’re a risky borrower, so I put heavy conditions on it—I make a lot of profit. And then you can’t pay; in a capitalist system it’s my problem. But not the way the world works.

NICHOLS: But that would never happen in the U.S. The banks would never get bailed out here.

[laughter]

CHOMSKY: In fact, I’ll come to that in a moment. But the response of the so-called troika—the European Commission, the bank, and the IMF—[has] been to pay back the culprits. Pay the bankers. So, when there’s money given to Greece—what’s called money to Greece—means give it back to the banks that lend money to Greece and want to be repaid. Very anti-capitalist. The same thing happens here. So take, say, the big banks here. There was recently a study by the IMF of the profits of the big banks in the United States. It turns out that they make virtually no profit. Their profit almost entirely depends on the implicit government insurance policy; the business press estimates that it’s over eighty billion dollars a year. You can argue about the numbers, but it’s very high. It’s not just the bailouts—that’s a small part of it. It’s inflated credit ratings, access to cheap money, the ability to make risky loans which are profitable—knowing you’re gonna be bailed out. All of that amounts to quite a lot. Same in Europe. And alongside of this is an attack on democracy so extreme that even The Wall Street Journal commented, correctly, that no matter who’s elected in a European country—Communists, right-wing, whatever it may be—policies are the same because policies are made by the Brussels bureaucrats and the Bundesbank. Doesn’t matter what the public wants.

NICHOLS: And those policies are [to] cut the pensions, make people work longer…

CHOMSKY: …austerity, neoliberal attack during periods of recession.

NICHOLS: Attack trade unions, attack the ability [to bargain]—the whole list.

CHOMSKY: The whole list. And sometimes it’s pretty dramatic. So, right now, for example, Syriza and Greece hinted that they might undertake a referendum. The roof fell in on them! How dare you ask the public about policies that they’re being subjected to? This happened a couple years when Papandreou, the prime minister, suggested mildly that maybe there should be a referendum in Greece to see if they should accept these extremely harsh and savage policies that are being imposed. Again, across the spectrum, he was bitterly denounced; he had to back off. This idea that the public should be asked about policies that are being imposed on them is considered outrageous. Policies have to be made by the Brussels bureaucrats and the big banks. That’s a major attack on democracy. Now, in reaction to this there have been popular uprisings: Podemos—the party in Spain—is just a couple years old, but the indignados, the activism of young people, is quite insistent.

NICHOLS: You said, in many ways, something—not exactly, because it’s a different country—but in many ways something we might see is parallel to what we saw with Occupy…

CHOMSKY: Occupy, very much so.

NICHOLS: …when Occupy became a political movement.

CHOMSKY: It went on in Spain, to everyone’s surprise—nobody could have predicted this three or four years ago—but out of it came a political organization which is now running ahead in the polls [and] could take over. Syriza in Greece, it’s pretty similar—in fact, they did take political power. But you couldn’t have predicted it a couple years ago. And there’s a very challenging and, in a way, frightening situation. If Podemos, Syriza, and similar organizations fail, the likely outcome is popular movements of the far-right.

NICHOLS: Yes.

CHOMSKY: That’s happened before: late twenties, early thirties. We’re seeing something similar. If the organized left doesn’t succeed in taking control, we may very well get the organized right—with horrible consequences, which we’ve seen before.

NICHOLS: The great British parliamentarian Tony Benn said that he was old enough to remember when countries around the world were essentially making the choice, and at exactly the same time…

CHOMSKY: Yeah.

NICHOLS: …some going toward fascism, some going toward a progressive democracy.

CHOMSKY: They all had the choice; it was the same in all of them. And it depended [on] who won.

NICHOLS: And obviously in Greece that’s a reality, because there is a far-right…

CHOMSKY: Oh, yeah.

NICHOLS: …that is very fascist.

CHOMSKY: Yeah; Spain, too. France, England [we can] look at, for example.

NICHOLS: And yet, so many of our political leaders in America seem to be… at the very least, disinterested—at least publicly.

CHOMSKY: They’re paying plenty of attention.

NICHOLS: I know they are, yeah, but they’re not—we hear very little discourse about this among our political figures.

CHOMSKY: Because it’s dangerous to talk about it. You don’t want people to know that it is possible for the population to become organized, active, effective; take power, take control of their fate, and create a different society. For example, you don’t hear in the United States about the fact that, in Spain, there’s a major conglomerate which is worker-owned and which, in fact, survived the recession: Mondragon, which includes manufacturing, finance, health, housing… it’s a huge and effective conglomerate. Worker-owned—directors picked by the workers—and working quite well. You don’t see headlines about that.

NICHOLS: Not at all. And yet very cutting-edge; they’re actually ahead of the curve…

CHOMSKY: They are.

NICHOLS: …on developing new technologies, developing new industries.

CHOMSKY: Yes. And you also don’t see much about the fact that something similar is happening here. Not on that scale, but—[unintelligible] is one person who’s written about it—in areas of the old Rust Belt, as you know…

NICHOLS: Cleveland, and other cities…

CHOMSKY: Yeah, Northern Ohio, other places… there’s the beginnings of [the] development of worker-owned enterprises—which are not on the Mondragon scale, but not insubstantial either. Incidentally, they also get conservative support.

NICHOLS: What’s that?

CHOMSKY: They even get conservative support.

NICHOLS: Oh, yeah. And one of the things that struck me—[it] got remarkably little attention in the United States—was when the bankers crashed the economy of Iceland. Tiny little country. And then, basically, they cut a deal that Iceland’s going to pay the banks. And then, because it was a small-enough country, the people went to the president’s house and said, “We don’t want to do this.”

[laughter]

NICHOLS: And they basically forced a referendum on the issue, and, amazingly enough, Iceland voted not to pay back the banks.

CHOMSKY: And what’s more, they did pretty well.

[applause]

NICHOLS: And they’ve come out okay, yeah! Or, at least, not to pay back quickly.

CHOMSKY: The British were infuriated, but it worked well. In fact, something similar happened in Argentina.

NICHOLS: Tell us what happened.

CHOMSKY: Around 2000. They essentially defaulted on the debt, and the economists and the governments around the world said, “You’re going to destroy yourselves.” They have practically the highest growth rate in Latin America since then. They’re now under attack by U.S. vulture funds backed by the judicial system, which has really undermined them. Actually, the judge in the United States, Judge Griesa, made the ruling. It was requiring—demanded—that Argentina pay back the vulture funds without the so-called ‘haircut’: the cutting-back of profit that they demanded. And he’s now insisting that institutions like, say, Citibank, not deal with Argentine bonds because they’d be in violation of his order. They’ll be in violation of Argentine law if they don’t do it. And they’re caught in the midst of this conflict between the U.S. vulture funds backed so far by the U.S. judiciary and a country which, correctly, didn’t pay back the money. Notice that these debts are really not legitimate debts; these are what are called ‘odious debts.’ That’s a concept [that] was invented by the United States, actually. When the United States took over Cuba in 1898, it did not want to pay Cuba’s debts to Spain. And the U.S. argued, quite correctly, that these debts were illegitimate—‘odious,’ they were called. The people of Cuba had not incurred the debt, so why should they be forced to pay it? But that’s true of debt all over the world. The people don’t incur the debt; the rulers do. Why should the population pay?

[applause]

NICHOLS: And, we actually—we’re looking at the questions people have submitted, we have quite a few questions in this range, or in this area—and there is… again and again people come back to this question of, “How do we get folks focused on that?” And Naomi Klein wrote a book…

[applause]

NICHOLS: …This Changes Everything…

CHOMSKY: Important book.

NICHOLS: …arguing that perhaps torching the planet might get people interested. Other folks have suggested—we have a number of questions on this—other folks have suggested that the decline of work—the fact that we are replacing people with robots and apps and it’s harder and harder to find meaningful work, or at least work of a decent pay—that there may be issues that bring us together. What’s your sense on this? Is there something that—be it climate change, be it some sort of economic shift—that could, in the United States, spark a mobilization, a change?

CHOMSKY: Well, a prediction in human affairs is a very low-probability affair.

[laughter]

NICHOLS: Yeah, I realize. See, I read Chomsky’s old essays for that.

[laughter]

CHOMSKY: For good reasons. I mean, an awful lot depends just on will and choice.

NICHOLS: Yeah.

CHOMSKY: And we don’t know. Nobody knows. Podemos, for example, you couldn’t have predicted. CIO organizing in the 1930s, you couldn’t have predicted. The United States could’ve gone towards fascism—could’ve. These are questions of people’s choices and decisions. Take Naomi’s Klein’s point; whether she’s going to be right or wrong, we don’t know. But if she’s wrong, we’re doomed.

NICHOLS: Well, there’s a tough puppet, yeah.

CHOMSKY: And we are coming towards a precipice. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the threat of environmental catastrophe is quite real. And not in the very distant future—maybe the next generation—it could be extremely serious. We also can see that the race towards disaster is being carried out with almost euphoric intensity. Take a look at this morning’s Wall Street Journal; [the] lead article, the top article, is about how the energy corporations in the U.S. are—there’s an oil glut at the moment—and they’re preparing right now that if this [oil glut] declines, they’ll immediately put into motion enterprises they’ve already established which will greatly increase the flow of oil. In other words, drive us farther toward the precipice. We’re racing towards this. And what Naomi Klein is pointing out is, we’d better organize to stop it, or else the prospects for a decent existence are going to disappear. Now, will it work or won’t it? Well, that’s a matter of will and choice.

NICHOLS: [gesturing to audience] These folks [have] got to decide?

CHOMSKY: And take the question of work.

NICHOLS: Yeah.

CHOMSKY: It’s an interesting question… take a look around the country. This country is falling apart. Even when you come back from Argentina to the United States, it looks like a Third-World country. When you come back from Europe, even more so. Infrastructure’s collapsing, nothing works, the transportation system doesn’t work, the health system is a total scandal—twice the per capita cost of other countries and not very good outcomes. Point-by-point. The schools are declining, they don’t have enough teachers… there’s a huge amount of work to be done, there are plenty of idle hands who want to do it, there’s ample resources, but the system is so corrupt that it cannot put together massive resources, idle hands, and needed work. That can be overcome.

[applause]

CHOMSKY: And the extent of this is really astonishing. So take, say, transportation. Now, you can take a high-speed train from Beijing to Kazakhstan. You can’t take one from Boston to New York. That’s the most heavily travelled corridor, I suppose, in the world: Boston to Washington. It’s about the way it was sixty years ago. The first time I took a train from New York to Philadelphia to Boston [was] 1950; I think if I take the [Hima-]Sella—the fast train today—I think it’s maybe fifteen minutes faster. As it goes along the Connecticut Turnpike, it’s not keeping up with the cars.

[laughter]

CHOMSKY: Literally. I mean, a couple years ago, I was giving talks in Europe—I ended up in southern France—and I had to take a train from Avignon, southern France, to the [Charles] de Gaulle airport in Paris; there happens to be a direct train, not surprisingly. It’s about the distance from Washington to Boston. It took two hours. Boston to Washington is like seven hours. And this is just symptomatic of what’s happening to the country.

NICHOLS: But I’m sure an election between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush would sort this all out, though.

[laughter]

CHOMSKY: [laughing] Right, right. Well, they have private jets—it doesn’t matter.

NICHOLS: [laughing] They have private jets, it doesn’t matter!

There’s so many things to bring in here and discuss—we’ve been bouncing a little bit on the rest of the world—before we come back into U.S politics for a second, I would be remiss if I didn’t note that on Tuesday, Israel’s going to have an election. And the prime minister of Israel recently visited the United States to give our Congress some advice.

[laughter]

NICHOLS: Which, intriguingly enough, if you read the polls may not have helped him in Israel, in fact. But give us a sense of the—as we look at the Netanyahu visit, and then also the play-out with our forty-seven Republican senators who have just decided to become diplomats.

[laughter]

CHOMSKY: Actually, there was an interesting article on the Netanyahu speech to Congress by [unintelligible], he’s one of the…

NICHOLS: One of the great thinkers in Israel.

CHOMSKY: …smartest, really fine Israeli intellectuals and activists; he’s a little older than me. And he started—believe it or not—he started the article by saying that when he was watching Netanyahu in Congress, it reminded him of something. And he had to think what it was reminding him of, and finally it dawned on him. It was Hitler’s speeches to the Reichstag. He said all that was missing was, “Heil!”

[applause]

CHOMSKY: And it was quite a performance. It was a really demeaning performance. And it’s a combination of a number of factors. One factor is—just as you mentioned before—money; a ton of money goes into funding Congressmen who will support the latest [unintelligible]. Another part is evangelical Christians. A large part of the base of the Republican party—now these are Republicans, mostly—is evangelical Christians who succeed in combining almost extreme support for Israel with extreme anti-Semitism.

[laughter]

CHOMSKY: It’s an interesting combination. I mean, if you look at their theology—the theology of a large number of them—the idea is that there’ll be a great war between Israel and its enemies, it’ll end up at armageddon, everyone will kill each other. The saved souls will rise to heaven, the rest go to eternal damnation.

NICHOLS: Won’t be so good for them, yeah.

CHOMSKY: Which includes virtually all the Jews. 160,000, for some reason, will be saved; they will have found Christ in time. Now, you can’t get more anti-Semitic than that.

[laughter]

CHOMSKY: Even Hitler didn’t go that far. But this [anti-Semitism] combined with what’s called support for Israel to such an extreme extent that the Israeli government has to try to control it, has to try to prevent people from blowing up the Temple Mount to create the war which will lead to armageddon. And this is pretty broad in the United States; actually, something like that even included the second President Bush. As perhaps you know, when Bush was trying to gain international support for the invasion of Iraq, he met the French president, Chirac. And he—well, I’ll tell you how I learned about this, and then tell you what the story is. Around that time I got a letter from a Belgian theologian, who sent me a disquisition that he wrote on a very obscure passage in the Book of Ezekiel about Gog and Magog coming and doing terrible things to Israel. Nobody knows what it means—are they people, are they places? It’s just a very obscure passage. But in an extreme of evangelical theology, this means an evil force will come from the north, attack Israel, lead to armageddon, [and] then all these things happen. Well, what happened with Bush and Chirac? Bush apparently started—this is January 2003, right before the war—he went off and started talking to Chirac about Gog and Magog. Chirac didn’t know what the heck he was talking about.

[laughter]

NICHOLS: I’m sure.

CHOMSKY: So he asked his aides at the French Foreign Office, “What’s this guy raving about?” They didn’t know, so they contacted this Belgian theologian, who explained to them what it’s about. I learned about this at the time, but I didn’t believe a word of it, so I never wrote about it.

[laughter]

CHOMSKY: But I did mention it to an Australian academic—a researcher, Clive Hamilton—and he looked into it, and it’s true.

NICHOLS: Hm.

CHOMSKY: It shows up in the French biographies of Chirac. This tells us that—speaking of the dangers we face—our fate is sometimes in the hands of people who are, by any rational standards… hard to believe.

[laughter]

CHOMSKY: And it’s not the only case. Actually, Reagan talked about Russia as Gog and Magog.

NICHOLS: Well, we seem to be having a little trouble in our relations with Russia right now.

CHOMSKY: Serious trouble.

NICHOLS: Yeah?

CHOMSKY: And it’s a complex story; it goes back to 1990—around then—when the Soviet Union collapsed. There was an agreement made between Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russian leader, and George Bush I, the first Bush president.

NICHOLS: George Bush the Greater, versus George Bush the Lesser.

CHOMSKY: The statesman-like Bush; the first [one], yeah.

[laughter]

CHOMSKY: Gorbachev agreed to allow Germany to be reunited and to join NATO—[a] hostile military alliance. It’s quite a concession if you look at the preceding history of the century. Germany alone had practically destroyed Russia several times, and he was agreeing to allow the united Germany to join a hostile military alliance. There was a quid pro quo; the phrase that was used was that “NATO would not expand one inch to the east,” which meant East Germany. That was the agreement. And NATO immediately expanded to East Germany. Gorbachev complained, naturally; and he was informed that this was only a verbal agreement. It wasn’t on paper. The unstated implication—I’ll add it, not them—is if you’re naïve enough to make a gentleman’s agreement with us, it’s your problem.

NICHOLS: Not ours.

CHOMSKY: Not ours. Clinton came along, expanded NATO further—right to the borders of Russia. The current issue over Ukraine is, in a region of enormous geo-strategic significance to Russia—it’s right at the heart of Russian concerns—any Russian leader would not accept Ukraine joining NATO; even joining the European Union is problematic for them. It’s kind of like Mexico joining the Warsaw Pact in the 1970s or 1980s; we’d have a nuclear war to block that. And, in fact, the new Ukrainian government—the one that came in after the coup—the parliament voted overwhelmingly—something like 300 to 10, or something—to take steps toward joining NATO. That’s a serious threat to Russia. I mean, whatever you think about Russian actions—however horrible you believe them—this is a real strategic threat. Now, there’s a solution, and everyone knows what it is: declare Ukrainian neutrality. Ukraine should be neutral; not part of any military alliance. There has to be a settlement about autonomy, which is not a trivial issue, but can be solved—that could prevent what could be escalation up to the level of nuclear war. It’s very serious. It doesn’t take much to set off a war. Small things can set off a war, we know that. Look back one century and you see an example, but there are plenty of them since. This is really playing with fire. And it makes no sense to press a nuclear arms state to the limit, or it might react violently. That’s saying, “Let’s commit suicide.” It literally is. I mean, it’s been known for a long time that there’s absolutely no escape from nuclear war. None. You cannot have a limited nuclear war among major powers. Back in 1962, at the time of the [Cuban] Missile Crisis—which came very close—there were war games run in Washington; they all showed that any limited war is going to explode to a total war.

NICHOLS: A couple questions, actually: do you have any optimism as regards to the U.S. negotiations with Iran? As regards to nuclear power or nuclear weapons?

CHOMSKY: It’s interesting the way it’s discussed here. First of all, the standard line is, “The international community demands that Iran give up its nuclear programs.” Who’s the international community? Well, the term ‘international community,’ again, comes straight out of Orwell: it means the United States and whoever happens to agree with it.

[laughter]

CHOMSKY: That’s the international community. What about the world?

[applause]

CHOMSKY: I mean, there happens to be a world out there. This is a pretty insular country, but you can’t deny its existence. The non-aligned countries—the G77, the old non-aligned countries; that’s a large majority of the world’s population—they had their regular meeting in Tehran a couple years ago. And they once again vigorously supported Iran’s right to develop nuclear power as a signer of the non-proliferation treaty. Well, why shouldn’t they have that right? Now, in the United States the standard line about Iran is, “It’s the greatest threat to world peace.” As Netanyahu said: it’s aggressive, violent, wants to conquer the world, and so on. There are a lot of things wrong with Iran, not my favorite place by any means—but is it aggressive? Where’s ‘aggressive’ taking place? There are actually two countries that are very aggressive in that region: one, of course, is the United States, carrying out aggression all the time. The other’s Israel, which has invaded Lebanon five times.

[applause]

CHOMSKY: And, of course, Israel has a huge nuclear weapons capacity: probably hundreds of nuclear weapons. What is the actual concern about Iranian nuclear weapons? The standard talk is, “Well, if Iran has nuclear weapons, it’s going to destroy Israel, it’s going to attack the United States, it’s going to the conquer the world.” I mean, anyone with a gray cell functioning—including every intelligence agency—knows that if Iran had nuclear weapons and even tried to load a missile, the country would be vaporized. Period. And whatever you think about the ruling clerics, they’ve given no indication of being suicidal, of wanting to lose everything they have. Actually, U.S. intelligence has explained publicly the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons—publicly. There are regular reports to Congress on the global security situation; it’s all public. And what they’ve pointed out is that Iran’s strategic doctrine is defensive. For understandable reasons, if you look at their surroundings. They have low military expenditures, even by standards of the region, and their strategic doctrine is to try to prevent an attack long enough for diplomacy to begin to operate. They add that if Iran is attempting to develop nuclear weapons—which no one knows—it would be part of their deterrent strategy. Now, the United States and Israel cannot tolerate a deterrent. If there’s a deterrent, you cannot use force and violence freely. I think that’s the heart of the matter. Is there a solution to this? Yeah, several possible solutions. So, for example, a couple years ago—2010—there was an agreement reached between Iran, Turkey, and Brazil, under which Iran would transfer its low-enriched uranium to Turkey, and, in return, the Western powers would provide the radioactive isotopes for Iran’s medical reactors and so on. And as soon as that agreement was reached, there was a bitter attack here by the government and the press against Brazil and Turkey for implementing this agreement. The Foreign Minister of Brazil was kind of upset about it, and he released a letter from President Obama to the president of Brazil proposing this [agreement]. Presumably because they assumed Iran would never accept, and it would be a propaganda weapon. Well, they accepted. What do we do? We bitterly denounce them for breaking ranks and accepting, and so on. And there were all kind of pretexts offered, but they didn’t amount to much. A couple of years later—December 2012—there was to be a meeting in Helsinki to carry forward a program that was initiated by the Arab states in the early nineties to try to impose a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region. There’s enormous international support for that; support so strong that the United States, England, and others kind of formally agree, but they say, you know, “Not right now.” This meeting was an attempt to carry it forward; it’s under U.N. auspices. Israel said they wouldn’t attend the meeting. The next question is: what’s Iran going to do? Iran said it would attend the meeting, without preconditions. A couple days later, Obama canceled the meetings. This was barely even mentioned in the U.S. press—try to find it. The meetings did go on, but only with nongovernmental organizations; if the U.S. is not going to take part, nothing is going to happen. Now, this might or might not work—but it might work, that’s the point. Now, why is the U.S. opposed to it? Because Israel would have to give up its nuclear weapons. And the U.S. is not willing to agree to that. But these are possible answers to a manufactured crisis. Again, it’s not that Iran is a nice place. A lot of things wrong there—incidentally, by the standards of our allies, it’s pretty regressive. Compare it to, say, Saudi Arabia, it looks like a free and open society.

[laughter]

CHOMSKY: So this is by no means supportive of Iran’s clerical quasi-dictatorship. But the fact of the matter is that there are potential solutions which are within reach, but are not being discussed. And the reason, I think, goes back to what the U.S. intelligence reports: the U.S. and Israel are unwilling to accept the possibility—it’s a remote possibility, but some possibility—of a deterrent. Chances are, if you try to guess what Iran’s probably trying to do—we of course don’t know—but the chances are that they’re probably trying to develop what’s sometimes called nuclear capability; that is, the capability to produce nuclear weapons if they decide to do it. There are many countries in the world that have that capability. And conceivably—not implausibly—they might be trying to do the same thing. It wouldn’t be surprising if you look at the region. They’re surrounded by nuclear weapons states: the United States of course, Israel, Pakistan, India. They’re in an environment of extreme threat, and the conflicts with Iran now are reaching a level which is almost surreal. Take a look at Iraq. The United States—it’s main enemy in Iraq is supposed to be ISIS. Who’s fighting ISIS? Iran. Iran is backing the government of Iraq; it’s providing the military support, the training, the arms, and so on to try to press ISIS out of its recent conquests. In fact, the Iraqi military, the Iraqi leadership is saying openly—thanking Iran and saying, “The U.S. isn’t helping us.” Well, if you really want to eliminate ISIS, you’ve got to cooperate with the people who are doing it. Iran is the one state that’s doing it. There’s also fighters on the ground who happen to be on the U.S. terrorist list: the PKK.

NICHOLS: The Kurds.

CHOMSKY: Patrick Cockburn, a great correspondent…

NICHOLS: Fabulous. Very important book.

CHOMSKY: Yeah. What he’s pointed out is that U.S. policy, he says, has come straight out of Alice in Wonderland. We’re refusing to cooperate with the people who are fighting our enemy—and, in fact, we’re attacking them!

NICHOLS: Well, you’ve spent the better part of sixty years now suggesting U.S. policy has an Alice in Wonderland component to it. And as we circle around here—I think probably most people in the room would love it if we sat up here for another three or four hours—but you’ve just flown all the way from South America to be with us. So, we’re over our time limit, but I did want to ask you… you’ve been so consistent. And very consistent for a very, very long time in your assessment of a whole host of domestic and international issues. And If I’m right about it—I interviewed you some years ago about this—a lot of it roots back to your youth. You used to hang out at your uncle’s newsstand; your political education came in New York City at a newsstand, where I’m sure The Nation was prominently displayed.

CHOMSKY: 72nd and Broadway.

NICHOLS: 72nd and Broadway. But this was… tell us about where this started.

CHOMSKY: Well, I was a kid…

NICHOLS: You were about ten, eleven?

CHOMSKY: Eleven, twelve years old. But one of the first things I learned at the newsstand is that’s there’s a newspaper in New York which you’ve probably never heard of: it’s called The Noosnmira. And the way I knew that is when people—it was at a subway station—when people came out of the subway station, racing out, they asked for The Noosnmira, and I handed them two tabloids. Later, I discovered it’s two newspapers: The News and The Mirror.

[laughter]

NICHOLS: This is the beginning of your study of linguistics.

CHOMSKY: The beginning of my political education. The next part was to notice that as they took The Noosnmira, the first thing they did is open the racing forms. So I got some insight into society. But the fact of the matter is, there were—my uncle’s a very interesting person. He’d never gone past fourth grade; very self-educated, very intelligent, very perceptive person, long story. But he attracted around the newsstand émigrés who were—this was the late thirties, early forties—who were coming from Europe; so German psychiatrists, other people… there were interesting discussions going on. As a child, I listened to them. Meanwhile, at the same time I was hanging out at anarchist offices in Union Square, bookstores on 4th Avenue…

NICHOLS: Yiddish newspapers…

CHOMSKY: Yeah, Freie Arbeiter Stimme… I was there. And there were again refugees coming: a lot of Spanish refugees, Spanish anarchists, and I learned a lot from that. That’s one part of my education.

NICHOLS: You’ve been pretty consistent on keeping a lot of those values alive in our discourse, at a time when to suggest that you might be a libertarian socialist is not necessarily something that every major reporter understands.

CHOMSKY: Libertarian socialism is just the traditional name for anarchism.

[applause]

CHOMSKY: Left-wing anarchism. The United States—the term ‘libertarian,’ in the United States, has a different meaning than it had traditionally, a very different meaning. It’s very anti-libertarian.

NICHOLS: So, you’re telling me Rand Paul is not really libertarian at all?

CHOMSKY: You take a look at American-style ‘libertarianism’—it’s basically advocacy of private tyranny.

[applause]

CHOMSKY: Not that the people say it, or even believe it, but if you think about the policies that’s what it ends up being.

NICHOLS: And the number one question that people asked—and it’s genuinely democratic, they get to vote, they vote a question up the ladder, and so far there’s no campaign advertising, so it’s reasonably legitimate, I think—the number one question they asked you… they all know you. Well, there was actually somebody [who] asked whether you, having grown up in Philadelphia, had a favorite Philly cheese steak.

[laughter]

NICHOLS: But the number one question was: “Noam, you’ve been at this political commentary for a very long time. Have you ever gotten anything wrong in your interpretation? And if so, have you ever publicly admitted as much?” And a somewhat related question, “What are the two most important subjects that you’ve changed your mind on, and what prompted you to do so?” Pretty long question, but it’s an interesting [one].

CHOMSKY: Well, plenty of mistakes. The usual mistake—which happens over and over—is getting involved in things too late. It’s a serious mistake. So take, say, what we were talking about before: global warming. The time to get involved in that was the 1970s. I remember very well when the two friends, one who was head of earth sciences at Harvard, the other head of meteorology at MIT, both around the same time came with very gloomy countenances; they were getting information indicating that the effect of human contributions to carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere were reaching severe proportions. I didn’t do anything, very few people did anything. It wasn’t until years later that I and others became seriously involved: at the point when it’s a real crisis. All right, that’s a bad mistake. The same is true of the Vietnam War, for example. I was very much involved in anti-war activism, in resistance, and so on—but from the early sixties. And the time to become involved was 1950. That’s when the policies were set that led to this destruction. I could go over case after case. The general error—at least my own, when I look back—is just not getting involved sufficiently when it matters.

NICHOLS: Is that the underpinning of your great essay on the responsibility of an intellectual?

CHOMSKY: Like most of my articles, that was a talk. It’ll surprise you to find out where it was given: to the Harvard Hillel Association. This is before 1967, when everything changed.

NICHOLS: So much has changed, but for so many years you have been a remarkable voice, and one that people have… maybe people disagree with you. You never seem to mind it when people disagree with you; you like the debate, you like the argument.

CHOMSKY: Well, often they’re right.

[laughter]

NICHOLS: But also, many people have learned to look at media, politics, economics, and society in fundamentally different ways. And as a person who’s been involved in media reform for an awfully long time, I can tell you that a month ago, when the media reform movement in this country succeeded in getting the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission…

CHOMSKY: That was important. That was really important.

NICHOLS: …to protect net neutrality, and to protect the Internet itself…

[applause]

NICHOLS: …I think an awful lot of them—I believe almost every activist who came to every rally—was carrying a copy of Manufacturing Consent. Ladies and gentlemen, Noam Chomsky.

[applause]

CHOMSKY: Thanks.

— source chomsky.info

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