Author of Manufacturing Consent, Hegemony and Survival and Understanding Power (among others), Noam Chomsky is a professor of linguistics and modern languages at MIT. Although his work in syntactic theory has revolutionized how languages are currently taught and studied, he is more widely known for his outspoken and incisive analysis of contemporary American foreign policy and public affairs.
His appeal among young people is undeniable - he's been called everything from "the Elvis of academia" by U2 front man Bono to "the devil's accountant" by The New Yorker. At 76, Chomsky still keeps an office at MIT and tours college campuses for part of the year.
Chomsky visited Santa Fe, N.M., in early 2005 and was interviewed by Julia Goldberg of the Santa Fe Reporter, where this interview originally appeared.
Julia Goldberg: What was your take on the criticisms that the U.S. didn't react quickly enough to the tsunami?
Noam Chomsky: The initial response was really scandalous. It was virtually nothing and then, after criticism -- international criticism and domestic criticism -- the US involvement was increased, funding was increased, but it's still a tiny fraction if you compare it to the scale of the economy. It's a tiny percentage and, in fact, that's true of foreign aid generally -- it's not unique to the United States. The percentage of total foreign aid is tiny, but in fact the U.S. has the worst record among the industrialized countries in percentage of the economy, the gross domestic product. The public's attitude toward this is interesting. The public thinks we give way too much money for public aid, but when asked how much we should be giving, thinks we should be giving far more than we're actually giving. There's just gross illusion about the amount.
JG: It's been said the United States is improving its international image by helping the tsunami victims.
NC: Yes, there's that total cynicism. You don't give aid because you hope it's going to improve your image. The P.R. aspect of it is overwhelming, which is disgraceful, and the actual amount given is far below what it should be, but in a way we're kind of missing the point. The tsunami disaster was horrible, the latest figures are 150,000 killed ... in eastern Congo that many people are killed every five months. Are we doing anything about that? There are about 1,000 people being killed a day there, or if you take a look at easily preventable deaths in southern Africa alone, just among children, the number dying from easily preventable deaths is probably on the order of 1,000 a day or something. It's Rwanda-level killing every day, and that can be prevented by providing medicine or infrastructure.
JG: CNN pointed out that Bush wanted Mahmoud Abbas to visit the White House but he never invited Arafat because Bush viewed Arafat as standing in the way of peace. Does this seem like a legitimate characterization to you?
NC: We're watching an interesting illustration of how doctrinal systems work. The main principle of a doctrinal system is you have to turn attention from yourself and onto the misdeeds of others. Here's a perfect example of it. Whatever you think about Arafat, he was not the obstacle to peace. The obstacle to peace was the U.S. The U.S. has been refusing to accept a political settlement that has overwhelming international support, but the U.S. refuses and the Bush administration is extreme in refusing...so therefore, take a look at the framework for media coverage or commentary. What you have to focus on are the alleged differences between Arafat and Abbas because that, you know, blames it on the Palestinians...if it doesn't work the way the U.S. wants, they can blame it on Abbas.
JG: You wrote an article, I think on Znet, which said that the Nov. 2 elections told us very little about the state of the country. Can you elaborate?
NC: For a very simple reason. The elections very self-consciously evaded issues of political significance and were focused almost entirely on projecting images in an effort to elude the public into purchasing the candidate who was being sold by the imagery creation. That's not very surprising. The elections are run by the P.R. industry and that's what they do in their everyday lives. What they're doing is trying to delude you into purchasing this commodity rather than that identical one. When the same industry is given the task of selling candidates they do it the same way. That's not a democratic election. It's as much of an election as when you can delude someone into buying a Chevy instead of a Ford by deceit and, in fact, it's much worse than that because right before the election the major institutions in the country that monitor public attitude ... released important studies of the public's opinion on major issues that were almost completely suppressed in the media -- and what they showed was the two political parties are way to the right of the public on issue after issue.
JG: So the subsequent discussions of blue states and red states and moral values, you don't see that as legitimate?
NC: First of all, what do people mean by 'values?' Suppose people say 'I'm voting because of values.' That tells you right off they're not voting on issues and in a democratic society people should be voting on issues. The second issue is what are people's values? That's rarely been investigated and the few times it's been looked at it turns out the values are the country is too materialistic and should be more fair and egalitarian or their values are that they are opposed to the war in Iraq. The red/blue state business, yeah there are differences and, in fact, look the factors that differentiate them. Probably the most striking one, statistically, has to do with rising inequality. The states where inequality has been rising, and it's rising very fast -- especially under Bush, but for some years -- the states where it's risen the most rapidly are the blue states, which suggests people are voting on economic issues even though the economic issues aren't coming up in the election.
JG: What are the domestic issues in this country that interest you right now?
NC: One major issue in the country is the collapse of the democratic system -- as illustrated, for example, in the last election. Another crucial issue is health care costs. These are really significant. This could well bankrupt the economy -- they are going up very fast, they are out of control. A lot of it has to do with the fact it's privatized and the enormous power of the pharmaceutical industry. And it's being evaded in favor of a non-issue, mainly Social Security -- the huge fuss about the Social Security crisis, which, first of all, doesn't exist. It's all a fraud. Everyone in the press is talking about it and there's no crisis and to the extent that there's any problem at all, it's tiny when compared with medical care. But the point is the ideological reason behind it. Social Security is a democratic system based on the principle that people care about each other, that we have a community responsibility to make sure vulnerable people are taken care of, so therefore there's a huge attack on Social Security to try to dismantle it, even though there's no issue. The transformation of the military to an extremely aggressive posture which is leading to the ultimate doom that mainstream strategists are correct in predicting -- that's another major problem. It's kind of interesting. When you read the mainstream analysts, they barely even hope that it could be dealt with by the American population. Their faith in American democracy is so slight they barely bring that up. What they hope is a coalition of peace-loving states will counter U.S. aggressiveness. They don't think we can. That's a very serious problem domestically.
JG: Do you disagree with the analysis there's little to be hopeful about in American democracy?
NC: I think there's a tremendous amount to be hopeful about. Look at public opinion polls. What they show is that the large majority of public opinion probably agrees with you and your paper. I don't know the position of your paper, but I'm guessing. Take the activist positions -- that's a hopeful a sign. The point is the activists happen to be in the mainstream. That's hopeful because it means there are ways to overcome what's going on now by creating a more democratic society.