Noam Chomsky Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Activism, Anarchism, and Power: Conversation with Noam Chomsky, Linguist and Political Activist; 3/22/02 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Not everyone is Noam Chomsky and can produce the extraordinary opus of works on these issues. What is your advice for people who have the same concerns, who identify with the tradition that you come out of, and who want to be active in opposing these policies? What is it they need to be doing that would be productive?

The same as the factory girls in the Lowell textile plant 150 years ago: they joined with others. To do these things alone is extremely hard, especially when you're working fifty hours a week to put the food on the table. Join with others, and you can do a lot of things. It's got a big multiplier effect. That's why unions have always been in the lead of development of social and economic progress. They bring together poor people, working people, enable them to learn from one another, to have their own sources of information, and to act collectively. That's how everything is changed -- the Civil Rights movement, the feminist movement, the solidarity movements, the workers movements. The reason we don't live in a dungeon is because people have joined together to change things. And there's nothing different now from before. In fact, just in the last forty years, we've seen remarkable changes in this respect.

In that sense, in addition to ending the war in Vietnam, the protest movement of the sixties really did change our consciousness.

Totally changed the country.

It changed the behavior of governments, what they had to do to get what they wanted.

Yes. This is a good time to talk about it. This month, March 2002, happens to be the fortieth anniversary of the public announcement by the Kennedy administration that they were sending U.S. pilots to bomb South Vietnam, that's U.S. bombing of South Vietnam. It was the initiation of chemical warfare to destroy food crops, driving huge numbers of people into concentration camps. Nobody was there except the U.S. and the South Vietnamese. And it was a U.S. war against South Vietnam, publicly announced. Not a peep of protest. You know, the war went on for years before a protest developed. But by the time it did, not just the antiwar movement, the Civil Rights movement, and other rising movements changed the popular consciousness. The country just became a lot more civilized. No American president could possibly dream of doing that today.

The same is true in many other areas. Go back to '62, there was no feminist movement, there was a very limited human rights movement, extremely limited. There was no environmental movement, meaning rights of our grandchildren. There were no Third World solidarity movements. There was no anti-apartheid movement. There was no anti-sweat shop movement. I mean, all of the things that we take for granted just weren't there. How did they get there? Was it a gift from an angel? No, they got there by struggle, common struggle by people who dedicated themselves with others, because you can't do it alone, and made it a much more civilized country. It was a long way to go, and that's not the first time it happened. And it will continue.

I gather it's your belief that when we focus on heroes in the movement, that's a mistake, because it's really the unsung heroes, the unsung seamstresses or whatever in this movement, who actually make a difference.

They're the ones, yes. Take, say, the Civil Rights movement. When you think of the Civil Rights movement, the first thing you think of is Martin Luther King. King was an important figure. But he would have been the first to tell you, I'm sure, that he was riding the wave of activism, that people who were doing the work, who were in the lead in the Civil Rights movement, were young SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] workers, freedom riders, people out there in the streets every day getting beaten and sometimes killed, working constantly. They created the circumstances in which a Martin Luther King could come in and be a leader. His role was extremely important, I'm not denigrating it, it was very important to have done that. But the people who were really important are the ones whose names are forgotten. And that's true of every movement that ever existed.

If students were to watch or read this interview, how would you advise them to prepare for the future if they identify with the goals that you are putting on the table?

Be honest, critical, accept elementary moral principles. For example, the principle that if something is wrong for others, it's wrong for us. Things like that. Understand the importance of the fundamental anarchist principle, namely, prior illegitimacy of power and violence, unless you can justify it, which is not easy. It's their burden of proof, not yours. And that's true whether it's personal relations in a family, and whether it's international affairs. Beyond that, try to join with others who share your interests to learn more and to act responsively to improve the many very serious problems of the world, which can be done.

There's an important element of courage in this kind of work, is there not? And what is involved in that courage?

In a country like the United States, the level of courage that's involved is extremely low. If you're a poor black organizer in the slums, yes, it takes courage, because you can get killed. If you're a relatively well-off, educated white person, the level of courage is minuscule. I mean, just see what other people face elsewhere. Like I said, I just came back from Turkey. The people in the southeast living in a dungeon, millions of them, show real courage when they wear Kurdish colors, or speak open Kurdish as a language. They can end up in a Turkish prison or worse, and that's not fun. But let's even go to Istanbul, more Western. I actually went there for a political trial. The government was putting on trial a publisher who had published a couple of sentences of mine on repression of the Kurds. Well, in Istanbul, the leading writers -- journalists, artists, intellectuals, and others -- are constantly carrying out civil disobedience. When I was there, they purposely co-published a book of banned writings, writings of people in jail which are banned. Co-published it. They went to the prosecutor -- I went with them -- demanding to be prosecuted. That's no joke. Some of them have been in jail; some will go back to jail. They face repression, but they're not making a big fuss about it, they just do it in their normal behavior, and not waving flags and saying, "Look how courageous I am." That's just life. That takes courage.

As compared with what they face every day, what we face is so pathetically small that we shouldn't even be talking about it. Yes, unpleasant things can happen, but not in comparison with what goes on in the world.

Coming out of science and the level of complexity in your field of linguistics, I'm curious as to whether this accounts for what I think I detect is a moderate or almost conservative view on your part of how much things can change in the short term. I don't know if that's a fair comment on you. But is it the case that, in some sense, by seeing so much you understand that very little sometimes can be accomplished, but that may be very important?

Very important. What's more, I don't think we should give up long-term visions. I agree with the factory girls in Lowell in 1850. I think wage slavery is an attack on fundamental human rights. I think those who work in the plants should own them. I think we should struggle against what was then the "new spirit of the age": gain wealth, forgetting everybody but yourself. Yes, that's all degrading and destructive, and in the long term -- I don't know how long -- it should be dismantled. But right now there are serious problems to deal with, like 30 million Americans who don't have enough to eat, or people elsewhere in the world who are far worse off, and who are, in fact, under our boot, we're grinding them into the dust. Those are short-term things that can be dealt with. There's nothing wrong with making small gains, like the gains that I was talking about before, from the sixties until today. They're extremely important for human lives. It doesn't mean that there are not a lot mountain peaks to climb, there are. But you do what's within range.

The same in the sciences. You might like to solve the problems of, say, what causes human action, but the problems you work on are the ones that are right at the edge of your understanding. There's a famous joke about a drunk under a lamppost looking at the ground, and somebody comes up and asks him "What are you looking for?" He says, "I'm looking for a pencil that I dropped." They said, "Well, where did you drop it?" He says, "Oh, I dropped it across the street." "Well, why are looking here?" "This is where the light is." That's the way the sciences work. Maybe the problem you would like to solve is across the street, but you have to work where the light is. If you try to move it a little further, maybe ultimately you'll get across the street. The same is true in human affairs. I think the same is true in personal relations. You have problems with your kids, that's the way you have to deal with it.

One final question, and I understand your unwillingness to focus on heroes or to be made into a hero, but if an activist is watching or reading this interview, what lesson might they draw from your life about what they can do in their life, with regard to the issues that are of concern to them?

Last night I gave a talk in Berkeley to a big mob of people about U.S. and the Middle East, and Israel and Palestine, and Turkey, and these things. Who is responsible for that talk? Not me. I flew in from Boston, came over and gave a talk. The people responsible for that are the people working on it, the people working day after day to create the organizational structures, the support systems, to go up and back to work with oppressed people over there. Maybe their names won't enter some record, but they're the ones who are leading everything. I come in and it's a privilege for me to be able to join them for an hour, but that's easy. You know, get up and give a talk, it's no big deal. Working on it day after day, all the time, that's hard, and that's important, and that's what changes the world, not somebody coming in and giving a talk.

Noam, thank you very much for joining us today. It was a fascinating discussion of at least some aspects of your life and your work. Thank you.

Thank you.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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