Universal Soldiers of Resistance to Fascist Thinking: Chomsky on Extinction

“Earth abides.”

– Toilet stall graffiti, West Bank

I reckon, after all is said and said about the man, he’ll end up being considered the closest we modern political movement types have had to a real life Socrates. In more recent photos, Noam Chomsky, with his glasses off, even resembles the ancient dialectician. Check it out. And what a world class Gadfly he is. A neigh sayer, a hoarse whisperer, if there ever was one. Along with Ralph Nader, I’m gonna miss him when he’s gone. And if the recent photos of him looking grizzled and unkempt are any indication, he ain’t gone yet, as Dylan would say, but he’s getting’ there.

Gaud help me. All those years of education in Boston — telling the Young Republicans on campus to go fuck themselves, as a work-study cub reporter, at the student newspaper; watching the tie-dyed t-shirt clad women dance at the Nelson Mandela release festival held at the Hatch Shell on the Charles; writing napkin poetry at the Wursthaus (Black Forest steaks marinated in German folklore, at least 48 hours) in Harvard Square; even letting a love interest drag me over to the MIT student pub (empty, summer) where a beer and boredom soon settled in and I caved to male gazing at my would-be girlfriend across the table, who was dating an anarchist with a skateboard. Hmph. And Chomsky giving lectures everywhere in Cambridge at the time, and me never attending one. Not one. On the other hand, I wasn’t one of those types that trotskies him out to prop up slurring proclamations about every five fucking minutes either, like the skateboarder.

I don’t know why I didn’t attend any of his lectures, until the Internet was up and running for a few years. Maybe his emotionless delivery did nothing for me, maybe it was the intellectual intimidation factor. I found Hegel more accessible at that time. (Aced the course, too.) But now — come to think of it, that new dishevelled look reminds me of some other image in my memory buried like a manufactured consent egg — I am beginning to Woke to Noam’s clarion call. He’s been described as our beloved “Public Intellectual,” and I get that now; it’s an apt and meet description. And at least he’s not bitter, like Socrates was in the end, knocking back the hemlock brewsky.

Reading through his latest book, Internationalism or Extinction (Universalizing Resistance), I came across a passage toward the end, in The Third Threat section, where Chomsky discusses how democracy is under the pressure of collapse everywhere — historical dialectical energy sapped everywhere, us reaching not Absolute Spirit (as Hegel promised, if we were good), but Absolute Neurasthenia, which is to say, going down not with a Bang but a Whimper.

Chomsky, whose surname sounds like food-for-thought, references 1939, the Spanish Civil War, Franco’s Fascists, the fall of Barthelona, and the flight of anarchists to foreign shores. He remembers:

When Barcelona fell, there was a huge flood of refugees from Spain. Most went to Mexico, about 40,000. Some went to New York City, established anarchist offices in Union Square, secondhand bookstores down 4th Avenue. That’s where I got my early political education, roaming around that area. That’s 80 years ago. Now it’s today.

Once he got his first intellectual joyride in a souped-up vehicle under his belt, he became the rebel cause célèbre he is today, constantly reminding us of how close we are to the precipice of Anthropocentric doom. We want to jump out of Big Oil, but our cuff is caught on the door handle. Cue the pulsing violins. “Three minutes to Doom,” says Chomsky (actually, not to be pedantic, but it’s now – gulp100 seconds to Doom).

Internationalism or Extinction is less a book than a kit or package of materials. The short book (119 pages) is essentially based on a lecture he gave just before the 2016 presidential election at the Old South Church in Boston on the subject of his book title. There are five chapters that outline the threats we face as a species now (Climate Change, Nuclear War, the erosion of Democracy) and in addition the familiar disillusionments traced in his speech, he follows with a short interview with Shawn Wallace (My Dinner with Andre), an Ask-and-Answer with community activists, a roundtable with the books editors, and updated reflections at the end of Trump’s tenure in office. There’s also a website where a companion film, including the lecture, is available for free. And tools — research resources, lists, books to read — offered up to the newbie shitgiver or journeyman intellectual unfamiliar with the Public Intellectual’s work.

Chomsky’s lecture — referred to by the editors as a “Chomsky Event” — covers a lot of the same ground he’s poked at before publicly. Chomsky didn’t meander much as he is wont to do, raging as he now is against the dying of his light, and talked about the continuing threat of nuclear proliferation, citing the continuing Cold War saga with Russia, and Israel’s refusal to allow nuke inspectors; the role of the Republican party in the Climate Change debacle; and the erosion of Democracy and the growing collective awareness that we are entering what Chomsky referred to as the Sixth Extinction, when the Shit Hits the Fan. It’s a grim talk from a wizened old man who isn’t in the mood to pull punches. However, on that front at least, he’s mercifully succinct.

Chomsky recalls for us that we are in our 75th year of nuclear proliferation, and that, almost counterintuitively, given our understanding of their existential threat, and the collapse of the Soviet Union (providing an opportunity to step back from the brink), we are closer to nuclear disaster than ever before. Chomsky begins the lecture with this sober thought:

Extinction and internationalism have been linked in a fateful embrace ever since the moment when the threat of extinction became an all too realistic concern, August 6th, 1945.

He is referring to the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima that leveled the city and brought hundreds of thousands of casualties — on the day, and in cancers later.

Most of the young adults sitting in the church pews, many of them millennials who’ve grown up as the first American generation to be under the thumb of the Surveillance State and its dystopian panopticon, don’t have those chilling memories that most Earthlings had when they saw those mushrooms clouds rise into the sky on TV. Such young Americans have had to settle for the scenes and aftermath of 9/11 to partially understand the terror wrought by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. They have heard an older generation refer to the Manhattan event as a new Pearl Harbor.

Such millenials — and so many other truly brainwashed citizens — have had to find themselves conned by their own government into becoming war criminals by presenting false evidence before the public on TV, including Condoleeza Rice’s criminal allusion to not wanting “the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud” before acting against the danger that Saddam Hussein and Iraq represented. For Chomsky it was yet another example of our apostasy. He adds,

On that day, we learned that human intelligence had devised the means to bring the human experiment of 200,000 years to an end.

And with Iraq propaganda, leaders had discovered a cynical means to terrorize its own people and force them to accept a politically motivated decision derived not from existential fears, but geopolitical ambitions and the promise of making lots of cash later.

Climate Change and the pandemic are now holding the world’s attention, says Chomsky, but there are three volatile regions where there exists a high danger of catastrophic human error regarding nuclear armaments. Take the Middle East. The regional instability caused by Israel’s “secret” possession of nuclear arms has long concerned Chomsky. He tells the attentive crowd, “the failure to move forward on a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East imperils the Non-Proliferation Treaty – the most important of all arms control treaties.” Arguably, their failure has led to the subcontinental nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, from joining the NPT. “Protecting Israel’s nuclear arsenal from inspection is evidently a high enough priority,” he continues, “so it justifies a threat to the major arms control treaty.” The Kashmir region between Pakistan and India continues to be a flash point.

But the real nuclear threat to the world continues to be the Cold War posturing between Russia and the USA. Chomsky refers to tension-building exercises by the US in the early 80s that he says led to several “Miracle” near-misses of all-out terminal war. Specifically, he alludes to “Operation Able Archer,” a fuck-with teasing of the enemy’s capabilities that reminds one of how the evil of a virus is drawn out in gain-of-function exercises designed to help us learn about their capabilities ahead of time so as to be ready with solutions. In the case of viruses, such research can result in early vaccines, but the risk of such research is such that potentially a pandemic could result from an “escape” from the lab of such a “Cape Fear” virus. In the case of teasing the Russkies to get intel on their moves when provoked, well, it could result in WWW3 and the Whimper.

Chomsky told us, “A couple of years ago, some Russian archives were declassified, and it was learned that the Russians took Able Archer very seriously.” He said that “Washington understood right away that Able Archer was bringing the world to the verge of terminalwar.” We were sufficiently aware of this threat in the early 80s under Reagan that two films graphically depicting our nuclear self-annihilation came out — on TV — within six months of each other: The Day After (US, 1983) and Threads (UK, 1984). Despite the public response to these films and the pressure their newly-realized terror brought to politicians to change the posturing, America has still found it indispensable to push NATO on Ukraine, with a view to bringing nukes right to Russia’s lap, despite previous assurances otherwise.

This has led one “respected” national security analyst, William Perry, to virtually throw his hands up. Chomsky says,

William Perry has warned, in his words, that “we are facing nuclear dangers today that are in fact more likely to erupt into a nuclear conflict than during the Cold War.”

Given the nuclear near-misses Chomsky outlines, and the anthropocentric crises we face, this is un-sobering, unsettling, and unbelievable. During the Reagan era, the Atomic Scientists Doomsday Clock moved to Three Minutes before midnight. That’s scary.

And when Chomsky’s lecture moves into Climate Change he doesn’t sugar coat the shituation (h/t Peter Tosh) with cliches: The Sixth Mass Extinction is here. And what have we done to adjust to it, mitigate or change our behavior? If anything, he believes some of us have gone out of our way to make things worse, almost out of spite. He is especially contemptuous of the Republican Party. Citing their climate denial behavior, which has led to fracking and more oil production, at a time when it’s crucial we pull back, Chomsky tells us all,

When you consider the stakes, it’s a fair question whether there has ever been a more dangerous organization in human history than today’s Republican Party…][They have totally ignored] the most critical questions that have ever arisen in human history – questions of literal survival in the short term. This is amazing blindness as the lemmings march to the precipice!

This is as hot as the Cold Worrier gets during the lecture.

But there’s more and you can hear the worry in the old man’s voice when he tries to process the fact that, at a time when we need intelligent, coordinated action to deal with our crises, we are stuck with the fact that although “the United States has been the richest country in the world for a long time, way back into the 19th century, it has always been a kind of cultural backwater.” He says,

For example, for 40% of the US population, these crucial issues of species survival are of little moment because Christ is returning to Earth within a couple of decades and then all will be settled, that’s 40% of the population. [Chomsky’s emphasis]

I’m with Chomsky on this one.

It means we have some 140 million people who are living hopeless lives of illusion — and may be unreachable by fact-based reality. Hell, even by their own standards, something;s wrong: The Second Coming is terrible swift sword time, Christ comes back to kick some ass and takes no prisoners, not even the innocent are spared. Who can overcome the effects of such Kool-Aid? Such antiquated beliefs lead to supporting demagoguery and heave up populists, like Donald Trump, who has so eroded our democracy in such a short time, and who have brought us closer to the cliff’s edge than ever — four years gone by without any significant action on Climate Change.

Some scientists have posited 2030 as the point of no return — when we will have crossed a global threshold we can no longer do anything about. Even now, at best, we can only slow a certainty, delay the inevitable. How do we educate these people in science? No wonder Chomsky looks bleakened:

Well humans are now facing the most critical questions that have ever arisen in their history, questions that cannot be avoided or deferred if there is to be any hope of preserving, let alone enhancing, organized human life on Earth. We surely cannot expect systems of organized power, state, or private systems to take appropriate actions to address these crises – not unless they are compelled to do so by constant, dedicated, popular mobilization and activism. A major task as always is education.

This is succinct and requires no further comment.

In a follow-up section titled Reaching People, Shawn Wallace, over a table, asks, “What do you think of civil disobedience, chaining yourself to things and going to jail? Is that…?” Chomsky game for civil disobedience, reminding Wallace of the number of times he has gone to jail to protest abuses of power. But he does say that civil obedience requires previous groundwork being laid, that it be part of a larger, more cohesive plan. He tells Wallace:

For example, when peace activists break into a submarine base and bang missile nose cones without any preparation; the net effect is to anger the workers. “Why are you taking away our jobs?” The anger of other people, “Why are you getting in our way and annoying us?” What’s the point? Just because it makes you feel good? That’s not the right kind of civil disobedience.

It ain’t the 60s anymore. There’s a lot of educatin’ to be done. And Chomsky’s looking dishevelled.

In Thinking Strategically, Ray Matsumiya, an educator about the Bomb, whose family is from Horoshima and who were victims of the blat, asks Chimsky if there are practical steps the US can take to eliminate nuclear weapons at home, Chomsky noted, first, the obvious — land-based missiles are targets for attacks. Chomsksy tells Matsumiya,

The land-based [missiles] are known by strategic analysts to be both useless and dangerous… In fact, people who have investigated the [land-based] Minuteman bases say that the soldiers who are in charge know perfectly that this is a dead end. There is no point in these things. They don’t pay any attention to it. They don’t bother guarding them. They are off doing something else. It’s a very dangerous phenomenon and useless.

Gone fishin’ signs hangin’ on the doorknob of the silo. Hmph.

In the end, as the title suggests, for Chomsky the solutions to our global woes are to be sought in international cooperative agreements, the sooner the better, time is almost up. During the Reagan era, the Doomsday Clock was set to Three Minutes to Midnight. After Trump took office the Clock was re-set again to 100 seconds — we’d lost 80 seconds. Chomsky wants to believe the kids can get it right — educate themselves and others, demand legislative, ethical and practical changes to slow down the speed with which we have thrust the future generations into the horror show ahead. Soon we may be seeking two bedroom spider holes through the Morlock Real Estate Agency. Personally, I hope to make it back to Cappadocia. There’s a city there with my name on it. If I put my back into it, I may be able to roll that big ball of rock up against the entry and block out the world forever, become like one of the blind, monkish golden catfish of the Kalahari. I’m sure there’s a link somewhere.

The Chomsky Event reviewed above can viewed in its entirety for free at ChomskySpeaks.org. It’s recommended.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.