In conversation with Noam Chomsky – Part 1: American culture and politics
This conversation with Professor Noam Chomsky is presented as a three part series. Part 1 covers American culture and politics. Part 2 covers media, intellectuals and imperialism, along with science, language and human nature. Part 3 includes a conversation regarding religion and spirituality, alongside a discussion about the Indian subcontinent, climate change and the migration crisis.
My email exchange with Professor Noam Chomsky began in 2017. I had read many of his writings and was curious about his views on a variety of topics. I sent him an email out of curiosity and what had started as an occasional email exchange at first soon turned into a habit. As a result, I kept writing to him for the next few years, and he was always generous enough to answer my questions. What I eventually learnt from him is that the world is a complex and dynamic place which does not lend itself easily to stereotypes, dichotomies and simplistic explanations. Also, I learnt that having an open mindset is an antidote to many, if not all, of the problems we face as a species.
The interview presented below is a compilation of some of the most interesting questions and responses over the course of our correspondence. Professor Chomsky himself has read and approved the material and was satisfied with the quality and content. I hope you derive as much value from this conversation as I have.
American culture and politics
Hassan Mirza (HM): Let’s talk about the United States (US); I am interested in the US economy for several reasons. Its economics departments and STEM research centres attract the best students from the developing world.
Noam Chomsky (NC): It makes good sense to be concerned with what goes on in the US, whether in academic departments of economics or in the general economy and society. Namely, US power, which is unparalleled.
HM: What were the real reasons which caused the US to wage wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Was it for oil and natural resources or only for power projection? Did these wars benefit the US financially?
NC: Both. In 2007, when Bush had to reach a status of forces agreement, a formal declaration made the war aims pretty clear: permanent military bases and preferential treatment for US energy corporations. Both were rejected. Costs to the society were huge. Some benefited from the war and occupation, of course. Arms manufacturers, contractors, etc.
HM: Which major or famous American and British newspapers do you trust and read the most? Which newspapers do you think are less trustworthy?
NC: I read the major national press: New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, foreign press on matters that interest me, journals from across the spectrum. Everything has a point of view. Up to the reader to understand and compensate for it.
HM: Are there any significant differences between the Democratic and Republican positions on politics, economics, other domestic policies (support for big business, abandonment of working classes) and foreign policy affairs of the US?
NC: There are great differences, in many areas. Simply compare the policies. The gulf now is far wider. Moderate Republicans used to be quite similar to liberal Democrats. Now they barely exist.
HM: Why was the Democratic party not able to strengthen American labour unions in the last half a century? There are many Democrats who want, or at least claim they want, to improve the situation of the American working classes. What is stopping them from doing so?
NC: The Democratic party shifted to the right during the neo-liberal period. The leadership has separated from the base. It now consists mostly of Clintonite New Democrats, who are rather like former moderate Republicans. Rather like the New Labour in Britain.
HM: I was wondering, was there any moment in your life when you met any American president and they informed you of their opinion about your criticisms regarding American foreign policy?
NC: I’ve testified in the Senate, and met senators and representatives, but never presidents of the US – sometimes other countries.
HM: Was Barack Obama not an exceptional president and incorruptible? Better than Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Ronald Reagan, etc.?
NC: Better than Bush, Reagan is a very low bar. Arguably better than Clinton. Nowhere near as good as he could have been.
HM: Where did Obama go wrong?
NC: Obama could have done a great deal to prevent the current mood. He was elected with working class support, people who believed his message of “hope” and “change.” He quickly sold them out, and many turned to Donald Trump in despair that the Democrats, Obama included, would care about their fate. Jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
HM: Yet he is routinely lionised by the American entertainment industry, late-night show hosts, liberal newspapers?
NC: It’s true that Obama is lionised, very much like John F Kennedy. And in other circles, like Reagan and Trump
HM: Why is it so difficult to have a democracy and so easy to have an autocracy, monarchy or other kinds of authoritarian forms of government?
NC: It’s easier for one or a few individuals to amass power than for a community to act together in an informed and cooperative way. Nevertheless, there has been great progress. For much of the world, highly autocratic structures are a thing of the past.
HM: It is a common narrative in the Western world that a secular state is necessary for the co-existence of different groups in a state. Can a nation state still be inclusive, peaceful and democratic without being secular?
NC: It depends on whether the religious character of the state is more than symbolic.
HM: Income inequality appears to be increasing in the developed world. Why does the situation appear to be grimmer in the US than in Western Europe? America appears to be spiralling down the most.
NC: By design. But those who matter, the 1%, are spiralling up, also by design. The tax bill is practically a caricature of ruling class savagery, but it’s far more general, including European “austerity”. To an unusual extent, the US is a business-run society, for historical reasons. The US has many admirable features, but also deep flaws.
HM: Who is carrying out these neo-liberal reforms?
NC: The neo-liberal reforms are supported by powerful sectors of the corporate world and private wealth. All over the world. It takes a powerful and popular counter-force to resist them, as always.
HM: Does affirmative action at the universities work for minority groups and help improve society in general? Is the idea of affirmative action in academia sensible?
NC: Every civilised country, rightly, tries to compensate for discrimination and repression in many ways, one is to assign some degree of priority to students from severely disadvantaged groups. The US does it much less than others, including much poorer countries like Brazil and India.
HM: There are many prominent intellectuals (conservatives) in the Anglo American media like Roger Scruton, Jordon Peterson, etc. who say that most North American and British universities are infiltrated by mostly left wing, Marxist and anti-capitalist intellectuals who have a contempt for even the moderate of conservative values. They discriminate against conservative scholars and hire only the liberal ones as tenured professors in the social sciences departments. The conservatives are only left with privately funded think tanks and forums like the Hoover Institute. Is this all true in your opinion?
NC: Scruton is worth reading. Peterson is an utter fraud. They both know very well that there is virtually no Marxist, anti-capitalist faculty in the universities. The faculty consists mostly of moderate liberals (in the US sense of the term – moderate social democrats in the European sense) and conservatives. There is a small fringe tolerated on the left, something considered outrageous by those who demand nothing less than total conformity to the doctrines of the powerful. One part of the far-right lament is true: they do have very well-funded centres and think tanks, something lacking outside the right-wing.
At my own university, for example, though it is a state university, the Republican state legislature provides almost no funding, apart from lavish funding for a “Freedom Center” established by the far-right Koch Brothers oil magnates and academic programmes supported and funded by it, teaching doctrine so far to the right that Scruton would approve of it (I ignore Peterson). In general, those who expect total control consider it an intolerable disaster if anything escapes from complete conformity, rather like a spoiled three-year-old who wants all the toys and thinks the world is coming to an end if one of them falls into another child’s hands.
HM: It is astonishing to me that you are saying that Scruton is worth reading. I actually liked his book How to Be a Conservative. Do you like him as an author? I am asking because he denounced you in his article If Only Chomsky Had Stuck to Syntax. He has also attacked Edward Said in his books.
NC: I would pay attention to what he says about me if it made any sense. Since it was simply ignorant ranting, I couldn’t care less. And I’m sure he produces stupidities about Said and probably others. But he at least makes an effort to present a reasoned form of conservatism.
HM: You said in an interview that a lot of funding for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) comes from the Pentagon, if I remember correctly, and you also mentioned that a lot of departments at MIT are ‘compromised’. Is the university’s independence compromised?
NC: The Pentagon was the main funder for a long time, but that had little impact on teaching or research. The only department I know of that was ‘compromised’ was the Political Science department some years ago (no longer), but that was not under any pressure: it was their choice. Same with the Koch’s. It’s highly unlikely that they had any impact on research or teaching. Where one does find an impact is in the (perfectly open) corporate research grants, which typically have specified short-term goals.
HM: Does this mean that funding by the Pentagon or the Koch brothers at MIT was not actually a bad thing? You told me that the University of Arizona has a Freedom Centre financed by the Koch family. Maybe this is an example of a compromise?
NC: One has to look at each particular case. Pentagon funding for universities, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, was part of a general national development programme, which created the modern high tech economy and greatly enriched educational resources. MIT, where I was, was at the heart of it. There was no Pentagon involvement in research or teaching, though of course, the Pentagon is interested in anything that comes out from anthropology to zoology. The Koch funding of the cancer research centre at MIT I’m sure involves no interference. The University of Arizona Freedom Centre is different. It’s an explicitly ideological institution, fostering right-wing libertarian ideas. As far as I know, there’s no direct interference in what faculty members do, but the general framework is explicit.