2017.07.12

Noam Chomsky on the State of Our Union

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NY Times, The Opinion Pages, July 5, 2017

Noam Chomsky: On Trump and the State of the Union

George Yancy interviews Noam Chomsky

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Excerpts from the Interview

N.C. = Noam Chomsky

G.Y. = George Yancy

Note: excerpt descriptions in bold print are just me

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Chomsky on the role of philosophers

N.C.: I am not sure just what Marx had in mind when he wrote that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Did he mean that philosophy could change the world, or that philosophers should turn to the higher priority of changing the world?

If the former, then he presumably meant philosophy in a broad sense of the term, including analysis of the social order and ideas about why it should be changed, and how. In that broad sense, philosophy can play a role, indeed an essential role, in changing the world, and philosophers, including in the analytic tradition, have undertaken that effort, in their philosophical work as well as in their activist lives — Bertrand Russell, to mention a prominent example.

G.Y.: Yes. Russell was a philosopher and a public intellectual. In those terms, how do you describe yourself?

N.C.: I don’t really think about it, frankly. I engage in the kinds of work and activities that seem important and challenging to me. Some of it falls within these categories, as usually understood.

Chomsky on the consideration of human suffering

G.Y.: There are times when the sheer magnitude of human suffering feels unbearable. As someone who speaks to so much suffering in the world, how do you bear witness to this and yet maintain the strength to go on?

N.C.: Witnessing it is enough to provide the motivation to go on. And nothing is more inspiring to see how poor and suffering people, living under conditions incomparably worse than we endure, continue quietly and unpretentiously with courageous and committed struggle for justice and dignity.

Chomsky on activism and hope for the future

G.Y.: If you had to list two or three forms of political action that are necessary under the Trump regime, what would they be? I ask because our moment feels so incredibly hopeless and repressive.

N.C.: I don’t think things are quite that bleak. Take the success of the Bernie Sanders campaign, the most remarkable feature of the 2016 election. It is, after all, not all that surprising that a billionaire showman with extensive media backing (including the liberal media, entranced by his antics and the advertising revenue it afforded) should win the nomination of the ultra-reactionary Republican Party.

The Sanders campaign, however, broke dramatically with over a century of U.S. political history. Extensive political science research, notably the work of Thomas Ferguson, has shown convincingly that elections are pretty much bought. For example, campaign spending alone is a remarkably good predictor of electoral success, and support of corporate power and private wealth is a virtual prerequisite even for participation in the political arena.

The Sanders campaign showed that a candidate with mildly progressive (basically New Deal) programs could win the nomination, maybe the election, even without the backing of the major funders or any media support. There’s good reason to suppose that Sanders would have won the nomination had it not been for shenanigans of the Obama-Clinton party managers. He is now the most popular political figure in the country by a large margin.

Activism spawned by the campaign is beginning to make inroads into electoral politics. Under Barack Obama, the Democratic Party pretty much collapsed at the crucial local and state levels, but it can be rebuilt and turned into a progressive force. That would mean reviving the New Deal legacy and moving well beyond, instead of abandoning, the working class and turning into Clintonite New Democrats, which more or less resemble what used to be called moderate Republicans, a category that has largely disappeared with the shift of both parties to the right during the neoliberal period.

 

G.Y.: What are the weightiest issues facing us?

N.C.: The most important issues to address are the truly existential threats we face: climate change and nuclear war…”

Chomsky on the connection between religion and social justice work

G.Y.: But what is it, Noam, as you continue to engage critically a broad range of injustices, that motivates this sense of social justice for you? Are there any religious motivations that frame your social justice work? If not, why not?

N.C.: No religious motivations, and for sound reasons. One can contrive a religious motivation for virtually any choice of action, from commitment to the highest ideals to support for the most horrendous atrocities. In the sacred texts, we can find uplifting calls for peace, justice and mercy, along with the most genocidal passages in the literary canon. Conscience is our guide, whatever trappings we might choose to clothe it in.

***

Chomsky on the demographic composition of the President’s political support base

G.Y.: Yet despite his unpredictability, Trump has a strong base. What makes for this kind of servile deference?

N.C.: I’m not sure that “servile deference” is the right phrase, for a number of reasons. For example, who is the base? Most are relatively affluent. Three-quarters had incomes above the median. About one-third had incomes of over $100,000 a year, and thus were in the top 15 percent of personal income, in the top 6 percent of those with only a high school education. They are overwhelmingly white, mostly older, hence from historically more privileged sectors.

Is Russian hacking really more significant than what we have discussed — for example, the Republican campaign to destroy the conditions for organized social existence, in defiance of the entire world? As Anthony DiMaggio reports in a careful study of the wealth of information now available, Trump voters tend to be typical Republicans, with “elitist, pro-corporate and reactionary social agendas,” and “an affluent, privileged segment of the country in terms of their income, but one that is relatively less privileged than it was in the past, before the 2008 economic collapse,” hence feeling some economic distress. Median income has dropped almost 10 percent since 2007. That’s apart from the large evangelical segment and putting aside the factors of white supremacy — deeply rooted in the United States — racism and sexism.

For the majority of the base, Trump and the more savage wing of the Republican establishment are not far from their standard attitudes, though when we turn to specific policy preferences, more complex questions arise.

A segment of the Trump base comes from the industrial sector that has been cast aside for decades by both parties, often from rural areas where industry and stable jobs have collapsed. Many voted for Obama, believing his message of hope and change, but were quickly disillusioned and have turned in desperation to their bitter class enemy, clinging to the hope that somehow its formal leader will come to their rescue.

Another consideration is the current information system, if one can even use the phrase. For much of the base, the sources of information are Fox News, talk radio and other practitioners of alternative facts. Exposures of Trump’s misdeeds and absurdities that arouse liberal opinion are easily interpreted as attacks by the corrupt elite on the defender of the little man, in fact his cynical enemy.

Chomsky on critical intelligence and the Union’s double standards in the international political arena

G.Y.: How does the lack of critical intelligence operate here, that is, the sort that philosopher John Dewey saw as essential for a democratic citizenry?

N.C.: We might ask other questions about critical intelligence. For liberal opinion, the political crime of the century, as it is sometimes called, is Russian interference in American elections. The effects of the crime are undetectable, unlike the massive effects of interference by corporate power and private wealth, not considered a crime but the normal workings of democracy. That’s even putting aside the record of U.S. “interference” in foreign elections, Russia included; the word “interference” in quotes because it is so laughably inadequate, as anyone with the slightest familiarity with recent history must be aware.

G.Y.: That certainly speaks to our nation’s contradictions.

N.C.: Is Russian hacking really more significant than what we have discussed — for example, the Republican campaign to destroy the conditions for organized social existence, in defiance of the entire world? Or to enhance the already dire threat of terminal nuclear war? Or even such real but lesser crimes such as the Republican initiative to deprive tens of millions of health care and to drive helpless people out of nursing homes in order to enrich their actual constituency of corporate power and wealth even further? Or to dismantle the limited regulatory system set up to mitigate the impact of the financial crisis that their favorites are likely to bring about once again? And on, and on.

It’s easy to condemn those we place on the other side of some divide, but more important, commonly, to explore what we take to be nearby.

Link to the Full Interview & Original Source:

Noam Chomsky on the State of Our Union

 

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