Noam Chomsky answers questions after delivering speech at the University of Maryland Friday, January 27, 2012
M.C.: So we got started a little late so that many of you could join us, and we’re delighted to have you. We’ll set up here. I believe we already have a couple of microphones set up. So we have some time for some dialog with Professor Chomsky. And we also have some handheld microphones up in the balcony. So if you could, please line up here. And I hope we can get some questions from some undergraduates as well tonight. That would be terrific. Okay. So the gentleman over on the side.
AUDIENCE: Dr. Chomsky, I absolutely love your work. I’m just wondering if you could comment and give some of your criticisms over the State of the Union speech the other night.
M.C.: A question about the State of the Union speech.
NOAM CHOMSKY, LINGUIST AND U.S. GOVERNMENT CRITIC: Of the State of Union speech?
AUDIENCE: Yeah, if you had any criticisms.
CHOMSKY: Well, I don’t know about you, but I never listen to State of the Union speeches. They’re kind of predictable, which means they carry essentially no information, even in the technical sense of information. You can predict what they’re going to say. It’s mostly boilerplate. In this case it’s a campaign speech for the next election. There were a couple of things in it which I read about later. I mean, there were a couple of things which are reasonable if they’re carried through.
There are some things which are quite threatening. Just to pick one of those, Obama made it clear that they’re going to go ahead with the XL pipeline. It’s delayed. It’ll go through, and the fracking operations. And these are kind of like a death sentence for the species. I mean, you can argue about the other things, but these are very serious.
The advanced technology that’s been developed for getting gas, from the natural gas, other hydrocarbons, products from shale and tar sands, the predictions areâ€”nobody knows if the predictions are right, but the predictions are that they will lead toâ€”it’s kind of hailed they’ll lead to energy independence for the United States, maybe for a century. So the United States will be kind of the Saudi Arabia of the world. Of course, at the end of that century, there won’t be any world to care about. But that’s not part of the calculation.
I think it’s kind of amazing to see these discussions. I mean, what the facts are you can debate. But take again The Financial Times. It’s probably the most responsible and serious journal in the world, a very good journal. They had a full page devoted to a euphoric account of how fracking techniques and the pipeline could lead to a century of energy independence and global hegemony for the United States because of the vast resources that would be opened up, and some comment, a couple of sentences, on the local environmental effects, which are very severe. You know, it destroys water resources and all sorts of things. So a couple of words about that, but literally not one word relating it to the emissions reports that had just appeared at that time, the ones I mentioned.
And you just put these things together and you can see that the species is kind of like lemmings happily walking over the cliff. You know, it’s pretty much what he said. It’s going to lead to lemmings.
Other proposals, you know, it kind of varies. Some of them make some sense, some don’t. There’s not much detail, so you don’t really know what they mean. And you don’t know whether he’s going to really pursue them.
So, for example, take, say, health care reform. I mean, Obama came into office with a mandate, a very strong mandate, also controlling both congressional bodies. And part of the mandate was for serious health reform. A majority of the population was in favor of some kind of national health care, you know, maybe extending Medicare to the whole population or what’s called single-payer. It’s Canadian style. And not ’cause Canada has the best health system in the world, but because this is a very insular country and people kind of know that Canada’s there somewhere, and they don’t know that Australia, say, has a much better health system. So people want a Canadian style health system, which would in fact sharply cut the deficit and so on. And that was the mandate.
He gave it away without a struggle. Heâ€”it was reduced to a public option, at least an option for this. Obama gave that away without trying. Even though he was supported by maybe close to two-thirds of the population, he quickly made a deal with the big pharmaceutical companies to continue legislation that I think is unique to the United States. In the United States, Congress isâ€”the government is prevented by law, the executive is prevented by law from negotiating drug prices. So, of course, drug prices are, you know, two or three times as high as anywhere else.
Actually, there’s one part of the medical system which is treated, is handled like every other industrial country. That’s the Veterans Affairs program. There the government is allowed to negotiate drug prices, there’s guaranteed health care, there’s preventive care, you know, and the costs are a fraction of the general system, the public system, and the outcomes are quite good. And this, remember, is a vulnerable part of the population. These are people who are not kind of like a random section of the population. A lot of them have war injuries, traumas, and so on, so forth. Well, there they’re allowed to do it, but for the rest of the population, not allowed to.
At that time, there was about 85 percent of the public was in favor of getting rid of that provision. And so it went, step by step. It actually ended up with, by about Augustâ€”I guess it must’ve been August 2010, the insurance industry were euphoric about their victory. They said, it’s great. We got a huge victory. The Obama system is going to give us a huge number of new people signing up, and we’ll make a ton of money on it. Of course they turned against it, because nothing is ever good enough. I mean, unless you get everything, you don’t have anything. So after having celebrated the victory, they finally turned against it and said, no, we want even more. You know. Well, of course. But that was an example of how he handled the mandate.
Same with other things. Like, take the bailout legislation that I mentioned. There were two parts to it in the legislation: save the banks who were responsible, pay them off for their crimes, and do something for the victims. Only half was done. It wasn’t because of lack of public support. So we don’t know. Even the kind of positive parts of it, it may not mean anything. In fact, whether they will mean anything depends on whether there’s massive public pressure to force them to mean something. There’s always pressure coming from concentrated capital. You know, the business classes are always fighting a very self-conscious class warâ€”highly class-conscious business community. And if that’s a one-sided class war, well, they win. And so it depends whether there’s another side in the class war. But I think that’s the fate of whatever’s decent in the State of the Union speech.
AUDIENCE: Good evening. My name is David [dÉ™’ÊƒÉ‘n]. I’m a former Marine veteran who survived the hideous war of atrocity against the Vietnamese peoples. After my return, I was trained as a community organizer by Saul Alinsky and was very active in Veterans Affairs, including being a core member of the group of volunteers that built the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, also known as the Wall. I invite everyone here to go there, and as you reflect during the spirit of Tet, healing and reconciliation, to try and imagine how vast a similar memorial would be in Vietnam and how much we owe the Vietnamese and the Indochinese.
My question. In the afterword to Failed States, you note the opportunities for education and organizing abound, and warn that failure to grasp them will have ominous repercussions for our country, our world, and future generations. I strongly believe that the media is mightier than war. And then I ask: how do we the people defend our Constitution, occupy the foreign-policy establishment and the national media, to ensure sustained democratic empowerment and access to unimpeachable ground intelligence to redress these foreign-policy grievances? Semper Fidelis.
CHOMSKY: Was that a question? I didn’t understand. I don’t really hear very well.
AUDIENCE: How do we occupy the foreign-policy establishment?
M.C.: Okay. How do we occupy the foreign-policy establishment?
CHOMSKY: The same way you bring about other changes. It’s a very free country. By comparative standards, it remains a very free country. You get a lot of opportunities. They range from demonstrations to electoral politics to resistance to organizing, organizing public pressure. You know, that’s the way you do it.
In fact, you don’t have to go very far. The educational establishment, the intellectual establishment, is up to their neck in this. And we live right in the middle of it. Of course that can be influenced, you know, in classrooms and writing and organization and all sorts of things.
And, I mean, I hear the question often, and I don’t really understand it. We can do almost anything we want. It’s not like, say, Egypt, where you’re going to get murdered by the security forces. Here there’s some repression sometimes, but by international standards, by comparative standards, it’s so slight that it hardly counts, certainly for privileged peopleâ€”I mean, not for, say, Martin Luther King, not for the people of the wrong color or, you know, poor people and so on. Yeah, they can get it in the neck. But for people like us, the opportunities are just overwhelming. There’s nothing to stop all kinds of action, from education and organizing to political action, to demonstrations, toâ€”all kinds of resistance are possible, and a whole range of things, I mean, the kind of things that have succeeded in the past.
After all, we have a history of success in getting policy changes. The New Deal legislation, for example, that didn’t come out of nowhere. That came out of very large-scale popular activism, which reached the point where the business world and the government agreed to allow progressive legislation to pass. The business world quickly tried to undermine it, but they had to accept it, because the next thingâ€”. I mean, take, say, sit-down strikes. By the time sit-down strikes were taking place, the business world could easily see that the next step is just taking over the factory, running it, and kicking them out. Well, you don’t want to allow that, so some legislation, important legislation passed. And under other massive popular organization and pressure, other things happened.
And it’s happened again. I mean, in the 1960s, for example, the antiwar movement, which I mentioned, it got from essentially nowhere to a mass popular movement so strong that by 1968â€”if you read the Pentagon Papers, one of the most interesting sections is the final section. It ends in mid-1968. And the first few months of 1968, you take a look at that section, there the president wanted to send a couple of hundred thousand more troops to South Vietnam, and the military, the Joint Chiefs were opposed, because they said that they would need the troops for civil disorder control in the United States. The population was just going to get out of controlâ€”young people, women, minorities, others. They’re just going to need the troops to control the population here. And they didn’t send the troops. Well, you know, when the government gets that wary, you’ve had an effect. They did other horrible things. Could’ve been worse, but it was bad enough, like I mentioned. But it had to be kind of clandestine.
Actually, the same thing happened in the Iraq War. I mean, a common view is that the protestsâ€”the protests against the Iraq War were historically totally unique. I think it’s the first war in history where there was massive protest before the war was officially launched. I can’t think of a case where that ever happened. And it’s claimed that there wasn’t any effect, but I don’t think that’s true. It should have gone on. Unfortunately, it reduced, and that allowed more leeway for aggression.
But the Iraq War was nothing like the war against South Vietnam. I mean, the policies that Kennedy and Johnson routinely carried out without even thinking about it were never tried in Iraq. There was no chemical warfare, there was no saturation bombing by B-52s, there was noâ€”what are called population control measures, where you drive the population into concentration camps. None of these measures were even tried. And I think the reason they weren’t tried is partâ€”a lot of reasons, but one of them was just the publicâ€”it was understood that the public was not going to tolerate them this time. So, okay, it had a kind of a retarding effect.
There are other kinds of popular organization that have had major effects. I mean, look, the country’s a much more civilized place now than it was in the 1960s in many respects. I mean, take, say, women’s rights. I mean, in the 1960s, women literally still were not allowed to serve on juries. I mean, they hadn’t gotten the vote long before, but in the ’60s they stillâ€”women could notâ€”there were some states where they could, but in many states they couldn’t serve on juries. And, I mean, you take a place, say, my own university in 1960, almost 100 percent white male. You know. Now it’s kind of like this. And that’s changed all over the country.
Well, that’s a big change in the nature of the society and the culture. It didn’t happen by magic. It wasn’t a gift from above. It came from extensive organizing activities and corresponding actions which finally broke down a lot of barriers and freed things up. That’s the way changes take place. It’s not a big secret. There’s no magic. And all those methods are still available.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
M.C.: So let’s see if we can go up to the balcony. Do we have a microphone with a questioner up there?
AUDIENCE: I was wondering if you’d read Gar Alperovitz’s book America Beyond Capitalism, and if you have, what you thought of his ideas in the book.
M.C.: Could you repeat the title and author of the book, please? I didn’t catch it either.
AUDIENCE: I was wondering if he’d read Gar Alperovitz’s America Beyond Capitalism and what he thought of it.
M.C.: Okay. Gar Alperovitz’s book America Beyond Capitalism.
CHOMSKY: Yeah. That’s a very important book, and the work that he’s doing that’s described there is extremely important. I mean, that’s one of the things that can be done. It’s very feasible. The book reviews work that Alperovitz mainly has been involved in for some years in trying to develop worker-owned enterprises, mostly in Ohio.
It took off in Ohio for very interesting reasons. In I guess it was 1977, as part of this change in the socioeconomic policy that I was discussing, the U.S. Steel Corporation decided to close down its operations in Youngstown, Ohio. Youngstown is a steel town, and it was built by and around the steel industry. The working people, the community were, you know, extensively involved in steel production and everything that flows off of it. And a manufacturing plant spawns all sorts of other things. So it was a steel town.
U.S. Steel decided to sell it off, kill the town. Instead of just giving up, the workers in the community, what are called the stakeholders, offered to buy the plant and run it themselves. That could have been done; with enough public support, it could’ve happened. These were not public issues at the time. It did go to court. The union took the case to court to try to get the right to do it. They lost in the court, but they could have won, and it could have been carried forward.
Well, so it was a kind of defeat, but like a lot of defeats, it wasn’t the end of the story. It was the basis for moving on to something else. And what it spawned was a lot of much smaller-scale efforts to establish worker-owned enterprises. A lot of it’s called the Cleveland model. A lot of them are around Cleveland and other parts of Ohio, which are not huge enterprises, but there’s a lot of them. Alperovitz in his book reviews all of this. You can look at it for details. And these are, notice, worker-owned. That’s short of worker-managed. That would be another step towards liberation. But it’s real, and it’s a way of reacting to the kind of collapse of the productive system for the 99 percent by just taking it over.
Actually, if you could take a look at standard texts and business economics, you know, nothing radical, standard texts and business economics point out that there’s no economic principle or any other principle that says that corporations should be controlled by shareholders. Shareholders, incidentally, doesn’t mean somebody whose pension fund has two dollars of theirs in theâ€”as a share. Shareholders are very narrowly concentrated. Shareholding’s, like, top 1 percent of the population, most of it, and that means big banks, interlocking directorates, and so on. There’s no economic principle that says they are the ones who should determine investment policy, like shipping production to Foxconn. There’s no law of economics that says that that should happen. It could just as well be done by stakeholders, by the workforce and the communityâ€”perfectly consistent with anything that anyone claims about economic theory.
Well, you know, there’s no reason for, say, the Occupy movement to be less imaginative and ambitious than standard business texts. So, yes, stakeholders could take over parts of the economy that are being dismantled, run them effectively, and direct them to different purposes. These are very feasible tasks.
So, for example, one of the things that Obama’s praised for by the kind of left liberal economists, Paul Krugman and others, is for having essentially nationalized the auto industry and reconstructed it. That’s pretty much what happened. Well, once the auto industry was nationalized, which is essentially what happened, there were alternatives. And one alternative was to reconstruct it and hand it back to, essentially, the original ownersâ€”not the same names, but same class, same banks, and so on. That’s what was done.
Another possibility would have been to hand the auto industry over to the workforce and the communities, the stakeholders, and redirect it towards things that the country really needs, that we badly need, high speed rail, for example. It’s a kind of a shameful situation when you compare the U.S. with other countries, even much poorer countries. And it would be a tremendous economic benefit and just a human benefit in all kinds of respects. It means I could have got here in two hours instead of wasting time at the airport, for exampleâ€”literally two hours.
I happened to be in France a couple of months ago giving talks, and the last talk I gave was in Southern France. And I had to get from Avignon in southern France to the airport, de Gaulle airport. And, of course, there’s a train that goes directly to the airport. And it took two hours. It’s the same distance as Washington to Boston. Here it takesâ€”I don’t know whatâ€”eight hours or something. All of this isâ€”these are human costs, they’re economic costs, the things the country badly needs. The skilled workforce in the auto industry could easily beâ€”it could be reconverted to producing things like this and other things that people need, and it could be done under the ownership and management of the workforce and the community. Well, that was an alternative.
But getting back to Gar Alperovitz, this is the kind of thing he’s talking about. I don’t remember if he talked about that particular case, but it’s the kind of case that’s coming up all the time. And these are very feasible things. They’re not far out in Utopia. That could have a big effect on the society. And Alperovitz is one of the very few people who’s really doing very good work on this. The book is certainly worth reading and thinking about what it describes, what options it suggests.
This comes up all the time, I should say, like at Boston. I live in Boston. About a year ago there’sâ€”in a suburb of Boston, Taunton, a manufacturing town, there was a reasonably successful high-technology, small manufacturing plant. It was producing equipment, high-tech equipment for aircraft. And they apparently were doing okay, but they weren’t making enough profit for the managers and the multinational corporation who own them. So the corporation wanted to just dismantle it. The union, United Electrical Workers, wanted to buy the operation and just run it themselves. Well, the corporation wouldn’t agree. I suspect that they wouldn’t agree mostly on class grounds: it’s kind of not a good idea to let people own and manage their own workplacesâ€”you get the wrong idea. Anyhow, whatever the reason, it didn’t work.
But if, say, the Occupy movement had been around and if it had been active and energetic enough and had reached out sufficiently, that’s the kind of thing it could have participated in and supported, and maybe gotten it over the edge. Well, that’d be important in maintaining, say, manufacturing in Massachusetts. And that kind of thing goes on all the time. These are options that are all over the place.
M.C.: Soâ€”and Gar Alperovitz, by the way, who’s also had a long, distinguished career, starting with his book Atomic Diplomacy about 50 years ago, is here at the university.
So our dilemma is that we could go on all night with Professor Chomsky, but we need to get back home safely, so let me take one more question, and we’ll wrap it up. From this side.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: Can you do the other side? ‘Cause I’ve been waiting here to talk. Please?
AUDIENCE: Can we get a question from a woman?
M.C.: Fair enough. Thank you for yourâ€”.
CHOMSKY: It’s kind of interesting that after allâ€”.
M.C.: So if we can do both and get a question from the other side of upstairs from a woman, do we have anyone to fit the bill?
ASSISTANT: We have two women over here.
M.C.: Yes, we do.
AUDIENCE: So, hi. I’m Lindsay, and I am an adjunct professor, what’s known as a Beltway adjunct. I teach eight classes a semester, and I have no health insurance and no retirement benefits. I’m a communications scholar, and I’ve studied your work for the last 15 years. And I want to know, beyond the critiqueâ€”which was a marvelous critique, by the way, thank youâ€”what are the discursive strategies that we can use to combat this kind of ideologically driven discourse that dominates the politics that we deal with in the classroom and beyond every day? I mean, I know I have friends, colleagues, and family members who are staunchly, you know, staunch supporters of Republican worldview, and it’s hard to have dialogs, meaningful dialogs with them, because in late modernity, facts no longer matter, which is hard because there’s some legitimacy in late modernity for challenging the notions of truth that historically grounded us in the Enlightenment. But what I’m wondering is, with that being the case, how do we begin to talk about truth in a meaningful way? What kind of linguistic strategies do we use to drive change? That’s what I’m wondering.
CHOMSKY: I only heard about half of it.
M.C.: Okay. Soâ€”.
CHOMSKY: Sorry. I just don’t hear very well.
M.C.: Short version: what discursive strategies can we use in a time when facts seem to have little foundation?
CHOMSKY: Yeah. Well, before answering, let me just make a comment expanding on the statement I made before about one of the great victories of the past generation, namely, establishing a much higher level of women’s rights. It’s a huge progress. But notice how far we are from having reached any proper point. Just about every talk I give, the same question comes up: how about allowing a question from a woman? Why does that question even arise? You know? Like, we don’t ask the question, how about allowing a question from somebody with blonde hair, let’s say. Why is the discrimination so deeply embedded, and in fact internalized, that you still have to raise the question? And it’s uniform. I can’t remember a talk where this didn’t come up. So that’s something to think about that’s still a battle to be won internally and in the society.
As far as the discursive strategies are concerned, I don’t think there are any answers other than the ones we all know, the ones that have succeededâ€”not a 100 percent, of course. Every success is limited. There are failures. But there are successes.
M.C.: Watch your hand.
CHOMSKY: Oh. Sorry. We’veâ€”. Yeah, one discursive strategy is to keep your hand away from the microphone.
But there are things we can all do. I mean, we’re allâ€”practically everybody here, I’m sure, is from a pretty privileged sector of the population. You have lots of opportunities. You can speak, you can write, you can organize, you can reach out to other people. If you keep doing it, it can have an impact.
Take, say, something like the women’s movement. I mean, a lot of you are old enough to remember how that happened. I mean, it began with very small consciousness-raising groups, groups of women getting together and talking to each other and coming to comprehendâ€”and a lot of it’s internalâ€”to comprehend that you don’t have to accept oppression, that there is oppression, first of all. Like, if you’d asked my grandmother, is she oppressed, she wouldn’t have known what you were talking about. Of course, she was hopelessly oppressed, but it just wasn’tâ€”that’s life. You know, it’s like asking, do you breathe? So just getting to understand that you don’t have to accept oppression, you can be a free, independent person. And then came efforts to expand. And there was bitter resistance; you know, it wasn’t easy by any means. And, in fact, there still is, and there’s a backlash, and so on and so forth. But you just keep struggling for it.
The civil rights movement, it didn’t get anywhere near Martin Luther King’s dream, but it did have effects. Big change from, say, Alabama in 1960. You know, things are bad, but not like that. And it had the same way. It started withâ€”you know, it goes back decades, of course, but it really took off when a couple of young black students sat in at a lunch counter 60 or 51 years years ago. And they were arrested, beaten, and so on. Pretty soon, SNCC formed, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The students got some support in Spelman College in Atlanta, where a lot of the SNCC activists came from. There were two faculty members who supported them, Howard Zinn and Staughton Lynd, both expelled. But they did get some support. And the Freedom Riders’ Freedom Buses started. There was little participation from the North. It was very brutal. People were killed, beaten. You know, not fun. I mean, I remember demonstrations laterâ€”it was 1965â€”in the South, where there was just brutal police violence and repression. Federal marshals there kind of watching them, not doing anything. But they didâ€”it did get some gains.
It hit a limit. It hit a limit as soon as it reached the North. It’s kind of striking. Martin Luther King in 1966 expanded the movement to Chicago; then they were just dumped on miserably. It was an effort to mobilize the poor, mobilize people around slums. Moved on to the war in Vietnam. Huge antagonism. They ended up the way I described, just kind of written out of history by Northern liberals. But it did have success, and the successes are real, and we know how they were won.
Same with everything else. I mean, the Vietnam War protests did reach a substantial level, but remember what it was like for years. I mean, when I started giving talks about the Vietnam War in the early ’60s, it was in somebody’s living room or in a church with four people. You know. And in fact, if we tried to do it at the college, say, MIT, you’d have to bring together half a dozen topics and make one of them Vietnam in the hopes that somebody would show up. As late as October ’65â€”that’s after what Bernard Fall was describing, what I quotedâ€”in Boston, which is a liberal city, you could not have a public demonstration against the war, literally. It would be violently broken up, often by students. It’s a fact.
In March 1966, you know, at this time the hundreds of thousands of troops rampaging in South Vietnam, huge destruction, country virtually destroyed, in Boston (again, a liberal city), since we couldn’t have public demonstrations ’cause they’d be broken up, we tried to have one in a church, a downtown church, [dÊ’É™’rÉ”ntÉ™n] Street Church. The church was attackedâ€”you know, tomatoes, cans, defaced. Actually, Iâ€”there was a police contingent. I walked outside and stood next to the police captain and asked him, you know, can’t you do something to stop the defacing of the church? And he said, no, he can’t do anything. About a minute later, a tomato hit him in the face, and in about 30 seconds the place was cleared. But that was going on in March 1966. A year later they were big demonstrations.
And there were no special kind of tricky strategies, just what we all know how to do. If people don’t want to think about facts, try to bring up the importance of understanding facts, which, after all, everyone knows. In fact, if you look at public attitudes, even Tea Party attitudes, they’re kind of social democratic, literally. So, for example, among Tea Party advocates and, of course, the rest of the population, a considerable majority are in favor of more spending for health and more spending for education. They’re against welfare, but more spending to help, say, women with dependent children.
That’s the result of very effective propaganda. Ronald Reagan, one of his great successes was to demonize the concept of welfare. So welfare means, for Reagan, you know, Reaganite rhetoric, a rich black woman driving to a welfare office in a chauffeured Cadillac to take your hard-earned money and spend it on drugs or something. Well, nobody’s in favor of that. But are you in favor of what welfare actually does? Yeah, that ought to supported.
And I just don’t think it’s true that people don’t want to hear about facts. I mean, the same’s true on health, on the deficit, on the things I mentionedâ€”you know, not 100 percent, but there’s a fairlyâ€”for example, aboutâ€”I think it’s two-thirds of the population thinks that corporations should be deprived of personal rights. That’s a pretty significant move. That would undo a century of court decisions. It’s not just Citizens United. It goes back a century. And that’s against the will of about two-thirds of the population. Well, all these things offer plenty of opportunities for discussion, interchange, education, organizing, activism. The opportunities are all there. It’s mostly the will to undertake them that’s lacking. And it’s not easy. I mean, there’s costs associated with it, soâ€”you know, undoubtedly even for privileged people; but, you know, not the costs that people like us can’t bear, not that kind of cost.
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