At 84, Noam Chomsky remains the sharpest, most acute, most unrelenting critic of power, particularly American power. He speaks to Priyanka Borpujari about the evolution of protest; the disconnect between the misery he sees on the streets of Delhi and our elites’ chest-thumping pride; the narrow concerns of mainstream media; and his starring role in a Gangnam Style parody.
People do not know this, but it was very tough to oppose the Vietnam war. In the early ’60s, if I was giving a talk, it would be in somebody’s living room or a church with very few people. Right here in Boston, a liberal city, we could not have an outdoor demonstration in the Boston Common until about 1967. Any demonstration would be broken up by force. In March 1966, when we tried to have an indoor demonstration at a church downtown — since we could not have a public one — the church was attacked. The Boston Globe, which was supposed to be a liberal newspaper, denounced the demonstrators. The Harvard University faculty would not even hear about it; nobody would sign a petition. It was a few years of hard slogging. Finally by 1967-68, there were two or three years of intense activism, before it declined. The ’60s were very significant but it was very condensed. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was a very conservative campus until about 1968 and then it became very radical, perhaps the most radical in the country.
Since the late ’60s, activism has expanded but with less visibility, and it is a part of a general consciousness about all kinds of things. In the 1980s, there was a huge anti-nuclear movement. But the most significant phenomenon in the ’80s — although it did not leave much of an impact in history because it did not involve the elites very much — were the solidarity movements with central America. This solidarity was coming mostly from rural United States, like rural Kansas, and the Evangelicals, with tens of thousands of people going down to central America just to be with the victims, to help and defend them. This had never happened before, that people from the imperial state went there not just to protest, but to live with the people and participate with them. And a lot of these people stayed on. So it had a great effect over rural United States.
Towards the end of the last millennium, solidarity was visible on a new kind of global justice movement, on particular issues, like Israel-Palestine. There has been a massive shift in that. I used to have police protection on this (MIT) campus, right until the 1990s, when I talked about it. But now it is the most lively issue on the campus. I am asked to give talks about it all the time. So it’s not militant activism, but there’s a culture of independence and opposition, which I think is pretty bright.
So, who is listening to dissidents like you?
Well, anybody who is willing to talk has people listening. There aren’t too many people who are willing to go around and give talks all the time. The few of us who are willing, are deluged. Every night, I turn down a dozen invitations. When I do give talks, there is a real hunger for something different, but there is very little supply. You can almost count on the fingers of your hands the number of people who are willing to spend their lives going around and giving talks.
But on the other hand, you are in Cambridge, so you get to hear a little about India. In the United States almost nobody knows anything about the outside world — people don’t know where France is. India would be some word that they might have heard in school in passing. It is a very insular society.
What about India baffles you the most?
I have followed India carefully, and have been there a number of times. It is an exciting country in many ways with its rich culture. But what is really striking to me about India, much more than most other countries I have been to, is the indifference of privileged sectors to the misery of others. You walk through Delhi and cannot miss it, but people just don’t seem to see it. Everyone is talking about ‘Shining India’ and yet people are starving. I had an interesting experience with this once. I was in a car in Delhi and with me was (activist) Aruna Roy, and we were driving towards a demonstration. And I noticed that she wasn’t looking outside the window of the car. I asked her why. She said, “If you live in India, you just can’t look outside the window. Because if you do, you’d rather commit suicide. It’s too horrible. So you just don’t look.” So people don’t look, they put themselves in a bubble and then don’t see it. And those words are from somebody who has devoted her life to the lives of the poor, and you can see why she said that — the misery and the oppression are so striking, much worse than in any country I have ever seen. And it is so dramatic. There is a lot of talk about how India is slated to be a major power, and I can’t believe it, with all its internal problems; China too for that matter, but less so.
When my wife and I went to India a couple of years ago, my friend Iqbal Ahmed had told me that I would discover that the press in Pakistan is much more open and free than the press in India. I did not believe him first but when I looked into it, he explained, “The English language press in Pakistan is for you and your friends, and the government just lets them say whatever they want, because there are so few of them to cater to, just a couple of hundred thousand people.”
You have hailed the Mexican newspaper La Jornada as “maybe the only real independent newspaper in the hemisphere”. Do you think something similar can be founded in India?
It could. The interesting thing about La Jornada is that the business world hates it. They don’t give it any ads. It is the second largest newspaper in the country with a very high level of journalistic acumen and very smart people, and they are all over the country. You see people reading this newspaper on the streets. Actually, I noticed that in Kerala, the only part of India where you can see people reading on the streets.
In the recent past, India witnessed a scam that exposed the deep nexus between journalists and businessmen, but nothing happened…
That is a bit different here (in the United States). One good thing about this country is that there is very little state repression, no censorship, so they can speak out what they can. On the other hand, the internalisation of doctrine here is just overwhelming, that is, with the intellectual community in the universities. And it is partly a reflection of the freedom, I think. You get an impression that everything is free and open because there are debates that are visible: the Democrats are debating the Republicans, and the press does its share of condemning. But what people don’t see — and the seeming openness of the debate conceals it — is that it is all within a very narrow framework. And you can’t go even a millimetre outside that framework. In fact, it is even taught in journalism schools here as the concept of ‘objectivity’ — that means describing honestly what’s going on inside that framework and if there is something outside, then no, that is subjective. You see that all the time and that is a big domestic problem.
For example, domestically, for the population, the big problem is jobs. They don’t care about the deficit. For the banks, the problem is deficits. So the only thing discussed (in the media) is deficits. You do have an occasional different viewpoint, but it doesn’t show up at all in the media coverage of the deficit. During the 2012 presidential elections, the two countries that were mentioned way more than anyone else in all debates were Israel and Iran. And Iran was described as the greatest threat to world peace. And that’s what’s repeated in the media all the time. There is an obvious question that no journalist would ask: who thinks so? They don’t think so in India; they don’t think so in the Arab world, they don’t think so in South America. The only countries to think so are the United States and England. But that you can’t report.
And then comes the question: is there anything you can do about it? This is quite spectacular when you talk about the media because it does not say this. There is something very obvious one could do about it — move to establishing nuclear-free zones. There is an overwhelming support for that all over the world. In fact, in December 2012, there was supposed to be an international conference in Finland to carry it forward under UN auspices. But in early November 2012, Iran announced that they would participate. Within days, Obama called off the conference. Not one word about that in the newspapers. Literally, not one word. The same in England. I don’t know about India; probably not there too.
On a less serious note, how did you come to feature in mit’s Gangnam Stylevideo?
I didn’t know what they were talking about. They were just a bunch of kids who seemed to be having some fun.
Did you have fun?
I was just saying what they wanted me to say.