Chomsky on Civil Liberties, Obama and the Future of Progressive Politics


Linguistics professor Noam Chomsky has been America’s premier political dissident since the Vietnam War. As a vocal critic of US foreign policy, the self-described “libertarian socialist” has been beloved by generations of students and activists. In the wake of the recent presidential election, I scaled Mount MIT to pose questions to the academic Yogi.

Steven Durel: President Obama was just re-elected with a majority of the vote. How do you feel about his first term in office?

Noam Chomsky: I frankly never expected much. I never liked him much in the first place and did not succumb to the beliefs about the great changes that would take place. In fact, I wrote about him before the 2008 primaries, critically, just using his web site. So I can’t say I was much surprised, except by some things I was.

I hadn’t anticipated his attacks on civil liberties, which went way beyond what I would have expected. I don’t really understand them. I don’t think they did him any good politically or otherwise.

I didn’t anticipate the expansion of the global assassination campaign, or the methods of it.

There were some things that were sort of half-positive. The healthcare reform is an improvement over the existing situation, but doesn’t go anywhere near where it should have gone, nor where I think it could have gone.

There were a couple of other things, but nothing particular, and I don’t expect anything more in the second term.

Durel: You’ve said that various administrations have pursued many of the same policies. Do you think that any administrations were better than any others?

Chomsky: I think that Obama is better than McCain or Romney would have been. If I had been in a swing state in the last two elections, I would have uncomfortably voted for Obama.

Over the years, and there’s some pretty good studies of this, by and large the Democratic administrations have been somewhat more advantageous for the general population than Republican administrations. Larry Bartels is one political scientist who has studied this in some depth.

So, sure, there are differences.

Who would you say was the best President that this country has ever had?

It’s hard to compare the 19th, 18th centuries with today. But, keeping to the 20th Century, I’d say Roosevelt, probably.

Durel: Franklin Roosevelt?

Chomsky: Yes, Franklin Roosevelt, not Theodore.

Durel: And who would you say was the worst?

Chomsky: A lot of them did some pretty awful things. But George W. Bush, I guess, might win.

Durel: You mentioned swing states. I know you endorsed Jill Stein earlier this year, the Green Party candidate.

Chomsky: In the primaries. And toward the end I did think that in safe states it was a good idea to vote for her. That’s what I did.

Durel: I remember back in 2004 it seemed as though you were encouraging voters in swing states not to vote for Ralph Nader.

Chomsky: I did the same this time, except it was Stein, not Nader.

Durel: What do you think about Ralph Nader? Do you think he has helped the political dialogue at all?

Chomsky: I think he did extremely important work, and still does, on public interest issues. He has all of his life.

On the political sphere, there were some good aspects. He brought into the public domain things that weren’t being talked about. But I don’t think that he did it in the proper way.

For example, I think it’s wrong not to participate in the primaries. That’s the one place where you get some coverage. So Dennis Kucinich got some coverage. He could bring up issues of the kind that Nader might have brought up.

Keeping just to the presidential campaign guarantees that you’ll get no coverage. Then you can’t complain that you didn’t get any coverage because once you get to the presidential campaign, the media focuses like 100 percent, virtually, on the electoral campaign.

He argues, and a lot of his supporters argue, that his participation in the campaigns didn’t undermine the Democratic candidates. I don’t agree with that. I think that it did, predictably. It might have spoiled the 2000 election.

Also, I understand Jill Stein. She’s not intending to be elected President; she’s party-building. She’s developing a party.

But what does it mean for an individual to run for President? Suppose, by some miracle, Nader was elected. He wouldn’t have a single Congressional representative, not a single governor, no institutional support, nothing in state legislatures, nothing in local city councils. Even if he were elected, he’d be totally paralyzed.

Durel: Going back to the primaries, on the other end of the two-party spectrum, do you feel as though Ron Paul had any positive influence on the dialogue within the Republican Party?

Chomsky: The Republican Party is so off-the-wall, it’s really hard to describe. In the last 20 or 30 years, Republicans have basically abandoned any pretense of being a political party.

Literally, they’re not like any parliamentary party anywhere. They’re totally committed to service to the very rich in the corporate sector, in lockstep uniformity. Everyone has to say the same words and sign the same demands, kind of like the caricature of the old Communist Party.

There’s a little deviation around the fringe—Olympia Snowe and so on—but not much. And as a result, they lost any possible voting base.

So to even be able to run, they had to create a voting base, which is putting together segments of the population that are, by world standards or even historical American standards, pretty strange.

This is a very religious country, much more so than any other that I know of. So they’ve kind of mobilized the religious Christian right, who are kind of off the spectrum internationally.

It’s a very frightened country. It has been all the way through in history. A lot of people are very scared. And that’s probably the reason for the crazy gun culture—you’ve got to defend yourself.

So they’ve kind of organized this nativist element. You know, “They’re coming after us. We have to defend ourselves.” Now we move into not-so-hidden racism and anti-immigrant feelings. It’s a strange conglomerate of what are called anti-government elements. That’s what Ron Paul appealed to. But they’re a very strange bunch when you look at them.

There are studies of the attitudes of people who call themselves anti-government. You know, “Get the government off my back,” the Tea Party. It turns out they’re pretty much social democrats. They want increased spending on health, on education, on aid for families with dependent children, but of course not “welfare,” because “welfare” was demonized by Reagan’s racism.

They say, “Don’t get involved with the world, but do it sometimes.” It’s a very strange collection.

You remember this guy who stood up at a town hall meeting somewhere and said something like, “Don’t fiddle with my Medicare.” Though the government people laughed, it’s not a joke.

If you look at studies of opinion, it turns out that, by and large, the more people get from the government, the less they think they get, and the more they’re opposed to government. It’s pretty steady. There are some deeply conservative, rural counties in California, which are radically libertarian, which are practically funded by the government.

Those people just don’t seem to understand what’s happening in the world. And, in fact, this anti-government feeling itself is pretty interesting. It’s a kind of pathology in the United States, which reflects a lack of functioning democracy.

Take, say, taxes. Everybody’s against taxes. In a functioning democracy you’d be in favor of them. April 15th would be a day of celebration. You’re getting together to fund the programs that you decided on.

Here it’s a day of mourning. Some alien entity is pouncing on us to take away our hard-earned money, meaning we don’t have a democracy that way.

Ron Paul plays a very strange roll. Whatever his personal goals are, or whatever his understanding is, I have no idea. But if you look at his policies, first of all, they’re pretty vicious. And also, I think they lead to a kind of corporate tyranny. He might not want that or think it, but I think that’s what it means.

The anti-redistributive policies say everybody’s on their own. If you’re a disabled widow across town and your husband didn’t happen to make enough money, you starve.

Durel: In the past you were critical of the Soviet Union, saying that it was a “State capitalist” country, and that it was totalitarian. Do other supposedly Communist countries—China, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam—deserve similar criticism?

Chomsky: They deserve plenty of criticism, but they’re quite different from one another. I’m not giving grades, but there are some things that they do that are okay.

Take Maoist China, which everyone is supposed to hate. If you look at it, during the years of Maoist China, about 100 million lives were saved, as compared to democratic capitalist India, just by virtue of rural health programs. Saving 100 million lives, that’s not a small number, including the great famine, incidentally.

Nobody can talk about this. And, in fact, if you look at the capitalist reforms, the mortality rates declined very sharply under Mao, but in 1979 they started to level off. They’re now about where they were then.

Those are aspects of society too.

Durel: Which nation-states do you think are the closest to getting it right in terms of your idea of libertarian socialism?

Chomsky: In terms of libertarian socialism, there are all kinds of dimensions.

So, for example, take the United States. There’s a project around Cleveland, the Cleveland Model, an interesting project. Gar Alperovitz is the main person working on it. It’s developing elements of a libertarian socialist society.

There are a lot of worker-owned enterprises, a lot of cooperatives. The United Steelworkers are linking up with Mondragon, which isn’t libertarian socialist, but it’s kind of up in that direction—it’s worker-owned, big conglomerates and so on, hospitals, banks, manufacturing, communities. If they could bring the Mondragon style, constructive institutional structures, into the United States, it would be pretty revolutionary.

But that’s the United States, the most extreme so-called capitalist society. If you look around the world, I think there are more or less decent societies.

Norway is pretty decent in many ways. In fact, even culturally.

Like, if you followed the Breivik trial, this mass-murderer, this guy who murdered 80 people. It’s kind of remarkable to see how humanely, and in what a civilized way he was treated. It was ridiculed here because it was so civilized.

They didn’t kill him right away, which we would have done. He had a trial in which he was allowed to rave and do every crazy thing. He is, of course, guilty. There is no question. In fact, he’s proud of it. But he wasn’t sentenced to a maximum security prison that makes Guantanamo look decent. He got pretty humane prison conditions. That’s civilized.

And if you look at the attitudes, in fact, he’s coming up for parole in 20 years. He won’t get it, but at least in principle he’s not there forever. By our standards, that’s kind of unimaginable. We’re a very vengeful, brutal society. We don’t do things like that.

Durel: Do you believe that there’s any truth behind American exceptionalism? Do you think that there is anything that sets this country apart, in its ideals, from the rest of the world?

Chosmky: In its ideals, sure. In the 18th Century, the US became probably the most free society in the world, which isn’t saying a lot. But look at the slaves, Native Americans, women. Still, by 18th Century standards, it was pretty free.

A lot of the ideals have been, to some extent, developed. There are some dimensions of freedom, like say freedom of speech, which I think is really important, where the United States is in the world lead—not since the 18th Century, but since the civil rights movement, which changed things. Supreme Court decisions in the 60’s established a very high standard of freedom of speech, which is a good thing.

We have freedom of speech, freedom of the press. On the other hand, the press can be more uniform than in a totalitarian state on crucial issues. And I’m not exaggerating.

So take right this minute. If you listened to the last Presidential debate, on foreign affairs, the big issue was Iran, the great threat to world peace. That’s just repeated in the press as though it comes straight out of the gospels.

Who thinks in those terms? It turns out it’s mainly a US obsession. Some third world Arab dictators might agree, but not the populations. The Non-Aligned Movement doesn’t agree. Europe is kind of mixed.

Is there a way to deal with the threat, whatever it is? There’s a very simple way: they could move towards establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region, with inspections. It would certainly reduce the threat.

Probably the entire world is in favor of that and has been for years. The US is blocking it. There’s an international conference coming up in Helsinki in a couple of months, which will try to deal with it. It’s an obvious way to deal with what is regarded as the greatest threat to peace in the world.

Let’s turn back to the press: not one single word. I’ve had some friends do some database searches on it. You couldn’t achieve that in a totalitarian state. And with no government pressure; it’s just kind of internalized. You don’t talk about things the government doesn’t want.

Durel: But what about liberal comedy shows that focus on the news—The Daily Show with John Stewart, The Colbert Report, Real Time with Bill Maher? Do they add any kind of other perspective?

Chomsky: I don’t look at television. I don’t know.

Durel: Haven’t you been on Real Time? I thought you were on Bill Maher’s show.

Chomsky: I was once on for about five minutes or so, which was kind of silly. I didn’t watch the follow-up, but I was told that after my five minutes the rest of it was hysterical denunciations.

Durel: Do you give any credence to Christian conservatives when they say that the corporate media is debasing our culture and undermining traditional family values? Is there any truth to that?

Chomsky: In their sense of “traditional family values.”

The corporate media, like CEOs of corporations for that matter, tend to be socially what’s called “liberal.” Not Fox News, but most of them, say the New York Times. The corporate elite, they tend to be socially liberal. They’re not opposed to gay rights, they think women should have a degree of rights of choice over their bodies, they are generally opposed to patriarchy, harsh patriarchal structures.

So that is, if you like, “undermining traditional values.”

They’re also opposed to the imposition of Sharia law, which the Salafis would say undermines traditional values.

So the criticism is kind of true. I’m glad it’s true.

Durel: How do you view criticism of the Federal Reserve?

Chomsky: I’m not under any illusions about the Fed. I mean, you just can’t have a modern State capitalist society without a central bank. And if money isn’t printed, fiat currency, you’re going to have radical contractions in the economy will be terrible for most of the population. Not bad for creditors, they don’t care much about economic growth.

I think all of this is wild delusions. And, in fact, compared to the European counterpart, the European Central Bank, the Fed is pretty progressive.

Durel: Do you think that we are facing global financial collapse, or do you think that it won’t happen?

Chomsky: It could happen, but I don’t think that’s the worst crisis we face.

Durel: What do you think is?

Chomsky: The environmental crisis is the worst. And the second-worst is the possibility of nuclear war, which is not small.

Steven Durel is a freelance writer living in Connecticut.

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