BB interviews...Noam Chomsky

Feb 15, 2013

By Matt Kennard

Ask your average political nerd to guess Noam Chomsky's favourite newspaper and few would tender the Financial Times. But the emeritus professor of linguistics and philosophy at MIT, revered the world over by left-wing intellectuals and social activists, believes the pink 'un is the only global newspaper "that tells the truth".

"My impression in general is that the business press is more open, more free, often more critical, less constrained by external power and external influences," he tells beyondbrics. "I guess that's also true for the reporting in the Wall Street Journal and Businessweek, although the range of opinion that appears is different. So, for example, in the Wall Street Journal -- and there are exceptions -- but overwhelmingly the coverage is constricted and very reactionary, and the Financial Times has a much broader range, more terse, and I find it more instructive."

Chomsky says he is a fan particularly of chief columnist Martin Wolf, before adding "the commentators on particular regions, some of them are very good".

For many with knowledge of Chomsky's extensive critiques of the Western corporate media, this would seem counter-intuitive. His media analysis, outlined famously in the book Manufacturing Consent, co-authored with Edward S Herman, posits that the corporate media is structurally biased. Although it appears open and democratic, the "filters" which act on what news gets in the papers -- including advertising, flak and access to power-brokers -- mean that the actions of the West are reflexively sanitised, and those of official (ie, government-designated) enemies are demonised.

He compares power systems -- including corporate newspapers -- to biological organisms, and remarks that no organism builds itself to self-destruct (for this reason they eject the few journalists who do not conform to their ideological strictures). Chomsky says that corporate journalists working within this framework learn subconsciously and by cultural accretion what they can and can't write in their articles (which results in most adhering to a very tight ideological spectrum). He is fond of quoting George Orwell's remark that establishment journalists working in the "free press" know instinctively "what it wouldn't do to say". No one is telling them what not to write, Chomsky avers, but the self-censorship is the all the more powerful because it is done automatically, without thought.

There is no need for any cognitive dissonance or crisis of conscience.

Hezbollah is an "Iranian-backed Islamist movement", for example, but Saudi Arabia is not a "US-backed fundamentalist dictatorship".

But the business press has a different incentive to get the facts right, Chomsky says, which is why the FT is his regular read. "Those who Adam Smith called 'the masters of the universe' have to understand the universe. They have to have a tolerably realistic understanding of the world that they are managing and controlling. That's true of political elites as well, but the business world particularly. Also, the business press essentially trust their audience. They don't have to impose propagandistic illusions to keep the rabble under control."

Before the age of 40, Chomsky had singlehandedly re-founded the discipline of linguistics, reviving the rationalist thought of philosophers like Wilhelm van Humbolt from the early 19th Century, while dispatching the empiricist (later called behaviourist) current that had dominated the discipline, and philosophy of mind more generally, in the first half of the 20th Century. This is now called in psychology departments the "Chomskyan revolution".

He argued that humans all share a "universal grammar" and a genetically-endowed language faculty, and that the thousands of languages around the globe are really all the same idiom with minor surface grammatical differences and semantic coding. The theory that the language faculty is genetic is now as deeply embedded in linguistics as the theory of evolution is in biology. Debate, however, rages over the nature of this "deep grammar" and the transformational rules that govern the creation of different languages (to the uninitiated attempts to explain these rules look like impenetrable and extremely complex algebraic formula). Chomsky remains at the cutting edge of these debates at the ripe age of 84.

The New Yorker has as a result termed Chomsky "one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century", while the New York Times has him as "arguably the most important intellectual alive". But judged by the range, influence and novelty of his ideas, many argue that Chomsky is, in fact, the owner of one of the greatest minds in the history of our species. There is barely a domain of human understanding that has not been touched in some way by his thought. In the half-century since the 1960s, reverberations from his work have shaken the foundations of cognitive science, epistemology, media studies, psychobiology, computer science (to name but a few). Alongside Marx and Shakespeare, he ranks among the ten most-quoted writers in history.

But perhaps more than anything else Chomsky retains his global fame and stature for his trenchant and unremitting criticism of Western violence and war-waging since the Vietnam War. His no holds barred polemics against the mass-murder inflicted by the US and its allies (he points to the estimated two million Vietnamese killed in the US war in Indo-China, or the genocide in East Timor in the 1970s carried out by the US-armed dictator General Suharto) have won him few friends in the power centres of the West, including its media. Despite being frequently voted the most important intellectual alive, he tells me he has never been interviewed by the FT before.

His media analysis would say this is not so surprising. His perspective on the rise of the "emerging economies" and the BRICS, and more specifically the independence movement in Latin America, gives an indication. Chomsky sits far outside the spectrum of "acceptable discourse" in the corporate media, and his views are of obviously the type that automatically get "filtered" out.

"There is definitely an increase in diversification of power in the world," Chomsky says when asked about the rise of the "emerging markets". "The US remains by far and away the most powerful state in most dimensions. In the military obviously, but others too. However, there definitely are changes. Latin America is maybe the most striking case. For the last couple of hundred years Latin America has been pretty much under the control of the imperial powers, first Europe, including England, later the US. In the past decade, in this millennium, Latin America for the first time in literally 500 years begun to break out of that system of domination, it has moved towards integration, haltingly but significantly. The countries have chosen their own paths independently of the demands of the great powers, particularly the US. One rather striking sign of this is that the US now has no military bases in Latin America, it has been kicked out of all of them; the last one was Manta in Ecuador."

Chomsky has been a vocal supporter of the democratic socialist governments of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, pointing to their "large successes" in bringing down poverty over the past decade or so, as well as the inclusion of many previously marginalized groups in the democratic process.

He continues: "Latin America has begun to address its horrendous internal problems. This is an area of the world that ought to be pretty rich and successful. A century ago Brazil was heralded as the coming colossus of the South, that hasn't happened, but its beginning. These are countries that are typically internally under the rule of a very small, Europeanized, often white elite, which is extremely wealthy, highly privileged, has its connections really with Europe and the US, not their own countries. This is in the midst of incredible poverty, some of the worst poverty and suffering in the world. And it has lots of resources, there's no justification in terms of geography or resources why it should be this way. Compare it with East Asia which is far poorer in resources, many faced with hostile powers and internal conflicts, which South America isn't -- but it's grown extensively and developed."

Chomsky says that has to do with East Asia ignoring "neoliberal orthodoxy" and restraining capital flows out of the country, while capital gushed out of Latin America during that same growth period. Chomsky adds that the neoliberal policies of the Bretton Woods institutions, which have been implemented most forcefully since the 1970s, have been a disaster for the populations "almost everywhere they have been applied".

US efforts at reversing gains in Latin America have continued apace over the past decade, Chomsky says. But, crucially they now have fewer options available to them to get rid of unwanted governments.

"Take Brazil, the policies that Lula instituted are not radically different from the ones that were suggested in the 1960s by [President Joao] Goulart. Well, in the case of Goulart the US simply implemented a military coup which threw out the parliamentary regime, instituted a murder, torture state, kind of a neo-Nazi state, in which dissent and resistance was crushed. In the case of Lula that was not even an option for them. In fact, the US didn't like a lot of what Lula was doing but he became the sort of darling of US commentators because he was much less extreme than others we were more worried about."

He adds, however: "What happened in Brazil set off a plague of brutal, violent military coups and repression and terror from country to country, finally ended up in Central America in the 1980s with big massacres and atrocities -- maybe the worse plague of oppression that Latin America has ever suffered."

But he says this US desire for control in the region has not diminished, merely been restricted. In this millennium, he tells me, there have been three US-backed coup attempts, "two of which worked".

"The first was in Venezuela in 2002 when the US quite openly backed a coup attempt which was successful for a few days but was then overturned. The US had to turn from implementing a military coup to substantial subversion and other means. The second was in Haiti in 2004 when the traditional torturers of Haiti, France and the US, combined to give not-so-tacit support to a military uprising, and intervened to kidnap the elected president and send him off to central Africa and to this day not permit him or his political party to participate in the electoral system. The third case was Honduras, where the elected president, Zelaya, was expelled by the military. We now know from Wikileaks that the embassy sent back close analysis to Washington and concluded it was unconstitutional and illegal.

"Washington took a different view -- it initially mildly condemned it, but then basically supported it and has supported the coup regime since."

Like this brief history lesson, a lot of what Chomsky has written about on international affairs over the past 50 years has been depressing in the extreme. So I ask him as we finish up what gives him hope for the future. He tells me he finds it in places like Bolivia. "If you look at the countries of the world and ask how are they dealing with climate change -- probably our biggest challenge as a species -- one of the worst records is in the US, the richest country, and one of the best, maybe the best, is in Bolivia, the second-poorest country of South America. It's striking that countries that have large indigenous populations are at the forefront of this battle." He pauses. "They are pressing very hard for what is often called 'rights of nature' but should be called 'right to survival'".