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Chat With Chomsky

Noam Chomsky
Linguist, Author and Professor
Friday, March 24, 2006 2:00 PM

Noam Chomsky, noted international activist and professor of linguistics at M.I.T., was online to offer analysess and insights on the latest headlines on domestic and international affairs.

Noam Chomsky received his Ph.D. in linguistics in 1955 from the University of Pennsylvania. From 1951 to 1955, he served as a Junior Fellow of the Harvard University Society of Fellows. The major theoretical viewpoints of his doctoral dissertation appeared in the monograph Syntactic Structure, 1957. This formed part of a more extensive work, The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory, circulated in mimeograph in 1955 and published in 1975.

Chomsky joined the staff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955 and in 1961 was appointed full professor. In 1976 he was appointed Institute Professor in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.

Chomsky has lectured at many universities in the U.S. and abroad and is the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and awards. He has written and lectured widely on linguistics, philosophy, intellectual history, contemporary issues, international affairs and U.S. foreign policy.

Indeed, along with his linguistics work, Chomsky is also widely known for his political activism, and for his criticism of the foreign policy of the United States and other governments.

His most recent books are A New Generation Draws the Line; New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind; Rogue States; 9-11; Understanding Power; On Nature and Language; Pirates and Emperors, Old and New; Chomsky on Democracy and Education; Middle East Illusions; Hegemony or Survival; and Imperial Ambitions.

According to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, between 1980 and 1992 Chomsky was cited as a source more often than any living scholar, and the eighth most cited source overall.

A transcript follows.

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Arlington, Va.: Why do you think the US went to war against Iraq?

Noam Chomsky: Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world, it is right in the midst of the major energy reserves in the world. Its been a primary goal of US policy since World War II (like Britain before it) to control what the State Department called "a stupendous source of strategic power" and one of the greatest material prizes in history. Establishing a client state in Iraq would significantly enhance that strategic power, a matter of great significance for the future. As Zbigniew Brzezinski observed, it would provide the US with "critical leverage" of its European and Asian rivals, a conception with roots in early post-war planning. These are substantial reasons for aggression -- not unlike those of the British when they invaded and occupied Iraq over 80 years earlier, at the dawn of the oil age.

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State College, Pa.: Noam - I heard you talking about international law on alternative radio and (I think) expounding the idea that the Bush administration's flavor of premtive war is illegal. I agree that the Bush administration's actions are illegal. Would you comment on how much we should submit to international law in that area?

Noam Chomsky: That depends on whether we want to be what's called an "outlaw state," which dismisses international law and norms and treaty obligations, or a law-abiding member of the international community. Public opinion studies strongly indicate that the general public wants the latter. State policy, to an extreme extent under Bush II, adopts the former conception, quite explicitly, in words and in practice. I think this country and the world would be far better off if the US is not an outlaw state.

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Forest Glen Park, Md.: Professor Chomsky, I don't recall your exact quote, but I believe you have said something to the effect, that in your opinion, the mainstream media outlets in the US have gotten better since 9-11 with getting out accurate, more accessible, less-censored news to the general public. My husband disagrees, he thinks that the editorial boards of too many mainstream news outlets slant too much to the right. I agree in some situations. Look at how NPR is now. Can you expand on your opinion of the current state or trends, of US mainstream news outlets? Thank you!

Noam Chomsky: I don't recall the statement. It's hard to give a measure. There are too many dimensions, too much variability. There are outstanding reporters and commentators, but as a broad generalization, I think it is fair to say that the media adopt the basic framework of state and private power, mostly uncritically. It's not hard to demonstrate, and plenty has been written revealing these unfortunate but typical patterns -- which are by no means new.

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Cleveland, Miss.: Are you really so much of a stereotypical "say as I do, not as I say" liberal icon that you deride tax shelters and trust funds, all the while setting up one of your own, or is the story that's been a hot topic on the internet the past few days a lie?

Noam Chomsky: A person who issues that charge that someone adheres to the principle "do as I say, not as I do" (the actual charge) has three options: (1) produce an example; (2) withdraw the charge; (3) take the coward's way out and slink away silently. So far, no one has provided even a single example (if you can find one, I'd be glad to know about it and correct the practice). Thzt leaves (2) or (3). The examples you mention obviously won't work unless you can produce a statement of mine saying that others should not do exactly what I do. You'll find no such statement, either in the literature to which you are referring, or elsewhere. I'm omitting the many pure fabrications that accompany these charges.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Why is the Republican spin (propaganda) so effective with the American public?

Noam Chomsky: It's not so clear that it is all that effective, a long story. But to some extent it doubtless is effective. There's no space to go into the matter here, but there is a perceptive and accurate analysis of the techniques of deceit and misrepresentation that the current administration has refined to a high art in a recent book by political scientists Hacker and Pierson, called "Off Center."

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Elgin, Ill.: Everyone in basic linguistics knows of your work. What are you doing these days in linguistics? I've had some interesting discussions with several neurobiologists... turns out the Language Organ may actually exist, heh heh.

Noam Chomsky: That a "language organ" exists is almost impossible to deny. The questions have to do with the nature of the genetically determined capacities that enable an infant, but not her pet kitten (songbird, chimp, etc.), to develop the capacities we are now using, even if they all have exactly the same data. That's the topic I'm continuing to work on, as are many others. There are I think quite interesting recent insights and discoveries, but I can't go into them here.

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Austin, Tex.: From a sociolinguistic perspective, do you think that the way that the US conveys messages is affecting the perception of the US negatively in the international community? If so, what would you suggest to government officials to keep in mind as they shape public statements?

Noam Chomsky: It's not a matter of public relations and rhetorical style but of actions. It's the actions and policies that have left the US government remarkably isolated, feared and often hated to an extent with no historical precedent. International polls show that very clearly, in the past few years.

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Inverness, Fla.: Professor Chomsky,I am curios if you have any understandings and, or opinions of the global water situation? Where do you see us in 10-20 years trying to sustain and distribute water?

Noam Chomsky: I'm no expert on this matter. It is, however, pretty clear that the problems are severe and perhaps dire. Right now, huge numbers of people cannot obtain even drinking water, and the situation is likely to become worse with predicted climate change and failure to take the actions that are necessary.

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Washington, D.C.: I've read a lot of your works and i can't figure out where exactly to locate you in terms of political philosophy: social democrat, socialist, communist? One useful barometer would be to know if you believe in a right to private property? if, yes, what are the limits of that right?

Noam Chomsky: The terms have been so debased that they are hardly usable. I think a decent society should protect rights to private property within limits, but not concentrations of private power that infringe on the freedom and rights of others, including exploitation of labor, and that convert any democratic forms into what have been called sometimes "hierarchical democracies," like ours, in which some have vastly greater influence over public policy than others. Spelling all of this out is a complex matter that raises many issue and problems that are impossible to address here.

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New York, N.Y.: Noam, there is a general conception that the public is much more cynical and jaded these days than past; and yet it also seems that the public is gullible ("Manufacturing Consent"). How can I reconcile these 2 notions? Or is it as simple as anticipating and manipulating people's distrust (in 9/11's case, xenophobia)?

Noam Chomsky: One should be cautious about "general conceptions." I think a strong case can be made that activism today is as high as ever, perhaps more so, and is also taking new and significant forms. There has never been anything like the international solidarity movements that began to take shape in the 1980s, right in the mainstream, or the global justice movements that have become a very powerful force in later yeasr. It's true that the society is highly atomized, which does induce a sense of hopelessness often -- quite mistakenly I think. There are enormous opportunities to work for a world that is more free, peaceful and just. The phrase "manufacturing consent" (which my co-author Edward Herman and I borrowed from Walter Lippmann) does not have to do with the success of efforts at manipulation, but rather with the nature of the institutions dedicated to these efforts, and what they produce. How effective it is. and among which sectors of the population, is a different matter.

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Lancaster, U.K: What do you feel are the limits to 'free speech' given the arguments recently over racial hatred and religious intolerance?

Noam Chomsky: My feeling is that the Supreme Court reached a reasonable standard of protection of speech in the 1960s, a standard higher than any other country in the world, to my knowledge. In brief, speech should be protected up to participation in imminent criminal action. So if you and I go into a store to rob it, and I say "shoot," that's not protected. Like all judicial decisions and legislation, this leaves plenty of gray areas, including many of great significance that are rarely discussed: advocacy of imminent war crimes, such as aggression, for example. I think we would all agree that such speech should be protected, despite the often horrific consequences, but it's worth noting that that stretches the doctrine to its limits.

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Austin, Tex.: You stated in a previous response that "It's the actions and policies that have left the US government remarkably isolated, feared and often hated to an extent with no historical precedent. " What if any, have been the most negative international reaction from those actions which have adversely affected the US? I am familiar with losing partners in the "war on terror", but I am looking more at business decisions of other countries/international corporations.

Noam Chomsky: The response had to do with public opinion. Business decisions are a diffeent matter.

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Wellfleet, Mass.: Mr. Chomsky:

Many fear the country is moving towards a "police state" where the Executive acts according to its desires, without constraint. What possibilities do you see, if any, for the trend towards consolidation of power in the Executive to be thwarted?

Noam Chomsky: The concerns are justified. Thus in this morning's press it was reported that after signing the new version of the Patriot Act with grandiose flourishes, President Bush quietly issued a "signing statement" that exempted him from its requirement to notify Congress of FBI actions that go beyond court authorizaton. That is yet another brazen affirmation of executive power. There are many others. There is little doubt that this administration is at an extreme in seeking to establish a powerful state executive, free from interference by Congress or public awareness of its actions. The justification is the "war on terror," but that can hardly be taken seriously. Terror is doubtless a very serious threat, but it is all to easy to demonstrate that it does not rank high in administration priorities.

Though the concerns are valid, we should not exqggerate. The public is not likely to give up the achievements of centuries of struggle easily.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you believe that Latin America can be successful in developing alternatives to Washington Consensus neoliberal policy and do you believe that Globalization is a real thing as often portrayed by writers like Thomas Friedman?

Noam Chomsky: The term "globalization," like most terms of public discourse, has two meanings: its literal meaning, and a technical sense used for doctrinal purposes. In its literal sense, "globalization" means international integration. Its strongest proponents since its origins have been the workers movements and the left (which is why unions are called "internationals"), and the strongest proponents today are those who meet annually in the World Social Forum and its many regional offshoots. In the technical sense defined by the powerful, they are described as "anti-globalization," which means that they favor globalization directed to the needs and concerns of people, not investors,financial institutions and other sectors of power, with the interests of people incidental. That's "globalization" in the technical doctrinal sense. Latin America is now exploring new and often promising paths in rejecting the doctrinal notions of "globalization," and also in the remarkable growth of popular movements and authentic participation in the political systems. How successful this will be is more a matter for action than for speculation.

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washingtonpost.com: Thank you for joining us for a thoughtful and wide-ranging discussion today.

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