Chomsky Says We're Crazier Than Lemmings


For over five decades, Professor Noam Chomsky has been an indefatigable source of moral courage and sophisticated analysis of power. His work has inspired and prepared successive generations of activists for the task of challenging the status quo. He stands on the side of the powerless, at the centre of his work are the "unpeople" — those without rights; unfit to enter history; whose lives are deemed expendable.

Late last year Justin Randle and Elizabeth O’Shea spoke with Professor Chomsky at MIT in Boston about drones, democracy and elite consensus.

JR: The US lethal drone program is still officially secret. And though not new, drones are proliferating at an incredible rate. I wonder if you can speak about the implications of this weapon of "counter-terrorism" and war.

I think they are going to be much more widely used. As you probably know, there are new generation drones, some of them as small as insects, which can be used for surveillance, intrusion and they are a great technique of assassination and murder. And they’re not really protested in the places where the atrocities are carried out. So in the United States there is almost no protest, unfortunately.

There is some discussion, but about the only real discussion was the Al Awalaki murder, because they purposely killed an American citizen, which is not supposed to be okay. There was a study by Stanford and NYU (pdf) which did get some coverage, to my surprise. Not print coverage but there was a good report on CNN, I don’t know how many people saw it. But it is just not arousing any objection. It feels clean, like we’re not actually doing it — no American troops. Kind of like the Bin Laden assassination, if you get away with it, it’s fine. So my guess is there’s going to be more and more.

It’s going to be kind of like cyberwar, it’s going to expand and grow, it’ll come back domestically and could become worse and worse.

EOS: In Australia there was a recent poll which found that 39 per cent of Australians aged between 18 and 29 say that democracy is not necessarily the best form of government. In that same survey, 37 per cent of people agreed with the statement "in some circumstances non-democratic rule can be best". On one level this is understandable, on another it is very troubling.

I think one would have to interpret the reaction. If it is a reaction against what people see on television say, it could mean that what we need is democracy. What we see on television isn’t democracy, its autocratic rule, it’s a farce.

Elections in the US are run by the advertising industry, they keep away from issues because people’s attitudes are so different from policy, you can’t talk about issues so it’s like a TV show. The debates focus on personalities, who can sound more confident, who looks better. It’s been increasingly like that since 1960.

A real shift took place with the 1960 election, it was the first one where television was really used more than casually. Kennedy basically won because Nixon hadn’t shaved, his eyes didn’t look right and Kennedy was an actor. Of course he was lying through his teeth, the worst lies are told in a Presidential campaign. There was the "missile gap" which they all knew was a fraud. So that set the stage, if you can look like somebody personable and you can lie like a trooper and get away with it, who cares. And it really picked up with Reagan, who actually was an actor, a-third rate actor, and that sort of worked and it goes on from there.

If you look at the United States which is heavily polled, contempt for the institutions of government is extraordinary. Support for Congress is in single digits, support for other institutions is equally bad, not quite that bad.

But does that mean people don’t want democracy or does it mean they do want democracy? I mean what they are saying is, we don’t want this. That’s right, you shouldn’t want this, because it is radically undemocratic. So as I say, it depends on how these reactions are interpreted. What are people really saying?

It is the same when you look at other things. So take small government, "I want the government off my back", you know, "get rid of the government". There are some good studies of the sub-category of the population, like the Tea Party people who say get rid of the government. It turns out their attitudes are social democratic, they want more spending on health, more spending on education, more on help for women with dependent children, more on foreign aid, they are basically social democrats.

But they hate the government and with reason, the government is kind of an alien force that is depressing us, let’s get rid of it, just have social democracy, but they can’t put it in those terms because those options are not formulated for them. But that is pretty much what the attitude studies show.

People would like to believe I’m in the 49 per cent and the 47 per cent are the people I hate, like the mythical black women driving in Cadillac’s to the welfare office to pick up their cheques and that is what I hate, so if he is against that, then good. When sensible options aren’t available to people their reactions are very weird. For example, there was just a poll of Southern Whites on taxes, specifically taxes, the poll showed the large majority wanted higher taxes on the wealthy and a large majority favour Romney’s tax plan. I mean if you’re watching television, why not?

JR: There seems to be a large number of issues that are off the agenda because there is consensus on them, for example the war on drugs, civil liberties in general and in relation to the National Defense Authorization Act, financial regulation, anything about prison reform; there are 2.2 million people incarcerated and increasing privatisation of prisons, so I am wondering, for you, what are some of the other issues that are notable by their absence.

Two issues that are off the discussion totally, are the two most important issues facing the human species, because they relate to species destruction. So environmental issues are off the agenda and nuclear war is off the agenda. And the risk of both is increasing. But since the business world doesn’t want to talk about it there is no mention of it.

In fact, it’s even crazier than this poll of southern whites. Last week it was a front page story on the New York Times about the melting of the Arctic ice over the summer that just ended. They took the measure of Arctic ice melting and it broke the record the way it does every year, but it was far higher than predicted by the models, and over and over it has been found that the models are too conservative. So that is the first half of the story — the worst Arctic ice melting ever.

The second half of the story is what great news it is. Because now corporations can go in and invest, get minerals, extract more fossil fuel and in other words make it worse. So it is terrific news because we can make it worse. And, you know, no reaction. But I wouldn’t say there is consensus on these things, there is elite consensus and that is all that matters. Most of the population has no influence on policy and they know it.

But it’s suicide — same with nuclear war. Risks are increasing but we’re kind of like the mythical lemmings going off the cliff.

EOS: Except I hear that lemmings don’t actually do that in real life.

No, that’s why I said the mythical. We’re crazier than them.

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