- Noam Chomsky
author and Professor Emeritus of linguistics and philosophy at MIT, where he taught for over half a century. He is author of dozens of books, most recently, Occupy, part of the Occupied Media Pamphlet Series. He was recently awarded the Latin America Peace and Justice Award from the North American Congress on Latin America.
Noam Chomsky says the Occupy movement has helped rebuild class solidarity and communities of mutual support on a level unseen since the time of the Great Depression. “The Occupy movement spontaneously created something that doesn’t really exist in the country: communities of mutual support, cooperation, open spaces for discussion … just people doing things and helping each other,” Chomsky says. “That’s very much missing. There is a massive propaganda—it’s been going on for a century, but picking up enormously—that you really shouldn’t care about anyone else, you should just care about yourself. … To rebuild [class solidarity], even if it’s in small pieces of the society, can become very important, can change the conception of how a society ought to function.” Chomsky also gives his assessment of President Obama, whom he says has attacked civil liberties in a way that has “gone beyond [George W.] Bush.” [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We return to my conversation with the activist, scholar, author, Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I asked for his assessment of President Obama’s presidency.
NOAM CHOMSKY: In many ways, it’s a little worse than what I expected, but I didn’t expect anything. After I wrote about Obama before the primaries, just looking at his webpage—so, take the Middle East. Take a look at his webpage before the primaries. A lot of stuff about the Middle East. Most of it is how—you know, his undying love for Israel, which just, you know, overcomes everything else. There’s almost no mention of the Palestinians—I mean, a phrase. This was, remember, the time—this was right after the last—the last of the Israeli invasions of Lebanon—actually, the fifth—in 2006. And one of the things he’s proud of about the Middle East and he boasted about is that, he says—in fact, he did very little in the Senate. But one of the things that he did was co-sponsor a resolution in the midst of the war, insisting that the United States do nothing that might impede the Israeli attack on Lebanon until it reaches its objectives, and censuring Syria and Iran because they’re allegedly supporting the resistance to the Israeli attack. That’s his one great achievement with regard to the Middle East. So nothing that’s happened there is any surprise.
With regard to other issues, he was, as he himself put it sometimes, a kind of a blank slate, didn’t say anything. There was vague talk about all kind of nice things. I don’t usually admire Sarah Palin, but when she was making fun of this “hopey-changey” stuff, she was—she was right. There was nothing there. And it was understood by the people who run the political system. So it’s no great secret that the U.S. electoral system is mainly public relations extravaganzas. They keep away from issues. It’s sort of a marketing affair, and the people who run it are the advertisers. And they had their national convention right after the 2008 election, and it revealed that they understood perfectly what was going on. They gave Obama the award for the best marketing campaign of the year. And if you go to the business press, they were reporting how executives were really excited. I mean, we have this new model as to how to, you know, delude people, enacted in the—we used to use the Reagan model, now we can use the Obama model for our delusional systems that we construct, which is pretty much what the PR industry is about. So, that captured it properly.
I mean, he’s—there are a couple of things that he did that are, I think—he had a couple good appointments to the NLRB, National Labor Relations Board. There are a few actions here and there that, you know, you can kind of clap.
AMY GOODMAN: He just announced his support of same-sex marriage, first U.S. president to do that.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, not quite. Yes, he did, but he said it has to go to the states. So, a states’ rights version. That kind of means that states can do what they like. He said something.
AMY GOODMAN: And 30 states have constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Another one just a couple of days ago, yeah. But, I mean, you know, I’m glad he said it, but it’s a pretty safe stand.
Labor—there was a huge effort by the labor movement to get him into office. The first thing he did was kick them in the face, the no card check. In fact, what happened with the health program was quite interesting, because, you know, of course, there was a very important senatorial election in—must have been January 2010, after Senator Kennedy died—in Massachusetts, liberal state. And what was at stake was not just Kennedy’s position, but the filibuster-proof majority, which was quite critical. Well, the Democrats lost that election, which was pretty dramatic. And if—that was carefully analyzed. One of the main—there was, first of all, a ton of money pouring in to support the Republican candidate, who was a kind of a vacuum. I don’t know if you followed it. “I’m Scott Brown. Here’s my truck.” You know, that was the campaign. But what was quite interesting was the—and in the suburbs, more or less affluent suburbs, voting was pretty high. In the downtown areas, the urban areas, where the working class and poor people live, voting was quite low. And what was quite interesting was the union vote, which was analyzed. Union members, the majority of them, voted against—well, for the Republican, meaning against Obama. Why? That was investigated, too. They were furious. They had worked really hard to put Obama into office. He broke all his promises to them.
But furthermore, the health plan—one of the promises was there would be some kind of national healthcare. And he could have—I think he could have achieved that. For example, support for the public option was about three to two, I think. If he made any effort, he could have gotten it through. But not only did he not put that through, but the one thing that he insisted on was cutting back what were called “Cadillac health plans,” that actually should be called “Chevrolet health plans.” And those are the health plans that union workers had fought for, for years. You look at the history of the American labor movement, it’s kind of abandoned all sorts of things all along the way—you know, the rights of workers in the workplace, all kinds of things. But it insisted—it did make one gain: it made a compact with management, a contract that they’d get good benefits—all benefits for themselves, not for the country. Of course, a compact like that lasts only as long as business decides to keep it. I mean, give it up, it’s over. But they did have reasonable health plans for themselves. Those are the Cadillac health plans. So the one thing Obama wanted to do was to kill the health plans that they had sacrificed for and fought for for 50 years, giving up plenty of other things in the struggle. And they were pretty angry about it, and understandably.
And I think if you look at other constituencies, it’s approximately the same. Take, say, environmental issues. I mean, you know, his attitude toward the tar sands and the fracking, the XL pipeline, is characteristic. So, in his State of the Union address, last State of the Union address, he emphasized the fact that we’re in a great position. We have maybe a hundred years of energy independence ahead of us using these methods, which are going to destroy the environment. So, who knows what things will be like in a hundred years? Maybe unlivable. But that’s—but it sounded nice. “I’ll put off the decision for a couple months and just have the southern part of the pipeline built, not the part that crosses the border.” That’ll come next, when you’re not looking. But it’s been that way on issue after issue.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, it’s under President Obama, or you might say because of President Obama, that the Occupy movement has blossomed in this country. Talk about the significance of Occupy.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, the Occupy movement is—it was a big surprise. You know, if anybody asked me a year ago, “Is this possible?” I would have said, “It’s crazy. Don’t even try.” But it lit a spark, took off. There are now Occupy movements in thousands of American cities, spread overseas. I was in Australia recently, went to the Occupy movement in Sydney, in Melbourne. There’s one in Hong Kong. You know, everywhere. And there are parallel movements in Europe.
It’s the first—and it’s very significant, I think. Already in—it’s only been around for a couple of months, so, you know, you can’t talk about huge achievements. But there are two kinds of the achievements which I think are—have already had an effect that probably is permanent, but anyway significant. One is, they just changed the national discourse. So, issues that had been, you know, marginalized—they’re familiar, but you didn’t talk about them—like inequality, shredding of the democratic process, you know, financial corruption, environmental issues, all these things, they became—they moved to the center of discussion. In fact, you can even see it from the imagery that’s used. You read about the 99 percent and the 1 percent in the considerable press of the business press. That’s just changed the way lots of people are looking at things. In fact, the polls show that concern over inequality among the general public rose pretty sharply after the Occupy movement started, very probably as a consequence. And there are other policy issues that came to the fore, which are significant.
The other aspect, which in my estimation may be more significant, is that the Occupy movement spontaneously created something that doesn’t really exist in the country: communities of mutual support, cooperation, open spaces for discussion. They just developed a health system, a library, a common kitchen—just people doing things and helping each other. That’s very much missing. There is a massive propaganda—it’s been going on for a century, but picking up enormously—that you really shouldn’t care about anyone else, you should just care about yourself. You pay attention to yourself; we don’t want anything else. You take a look at the attitudes among young people, that’s—it’s polled, it’s studied. It’s remarkably high. So, there was just a study that came out from the Harvard Public Policy Institute, found that—pretty scary results, I thought. Less than—this is kids 18 to 24, you know, college students, basically. Less than half of them think that the government has a responsibility to deal with things like healthcare or food, and so on. When they say the government doesn’t have a responsibility, that’s kind of an interesting concept. If people thought they were living in a democracy, they would say—they would ask the question whether it’s a public responsibility. But again, the propaganda system is designed to make you feel that the government is some alien force, and it’s against you. You know, you want to keep it away from your affairs.
In a democratic society, it would be quite different. Like, you can see it on April 15th. And a good measure of the extent to which a democratic system is functioning is how people feel about taxes. If you had a functioning democratic society, April 15th would be a day of celebration. It’s the day on which we get together and fund the policies that we’ve decided on and that we’ve gotten our representatives to approve of. It’s not what it is here. It’s a day of mourning, because this alien force is coming to steal things from you. Well, that’s the kind of thing that the Occupy movement began to break. It said, “Yeah, we’re in it together.” That’s what the old labor movement used to be. I mean, I can remember, as a kid in the '30s, when the situation was objectively much worse. But then, my family was mostly unemployed working-class here in New York. But there was a sense of hopefulness, largely because of labor organizing, which not only provided benefits to the people involved, but also made them part of something in which we can work together. The term “solidarity” wasn't just a vacuous term. And to rebuild that kind of thing, even if it’s in small pieces of the society, can become very important, can change the conception of how a society ought to function.
AMY GOODMAN: There’s this whole issue of the Posse Comitatus, which most people agree with this act, that U.S. soldiers should not be marching in the streets of the United States. But do you think authorities are getting around this now by militarizing the police, the kind of response we’re seeing to the Occupy encampments all over this country and—well, we’ll see what happens as the protests build around the Democratic and Republican conventions, NATO, that’s happening in Chicago, and beyond?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, power systems don’t say “thank you” and disappear. Of course they’re going to respond. And they’ll respond in various ways. I mean, what’s happening now is wrong, but we ought to bear in mind that it’s nothing like what happened in the recent past. So, for example, we don’t have COINTELPRO. Remember, not many years ago, the national political police, the FBI, was organizing Gestapo-style assassinations of organizers, like Fred Hampton, totally undermined the New Left. They tried to destroy the women’s movement. They were all over the place. That’s—mostly the black movements were just pulverized by government repression. Well, what’s happening now is bad, but it’s not that. And sure, but there’s going to be responses.
And that’s not the only case, after all. I mean, the part—you’re looking at Obama’s programs, the part that really did surprise me—and I don’t, frankly, understand it—is his attack on civil liberties, which is extreme. He’s gone beyond Bush. Some of the worst cases aren’t even discussed, like one—I think one of the worst cases is the Supreme Court case, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, which was initiated by the Obama administration, brought to the court by the administration, argued for the government by Elena Kagan, you know, his latest Supreme Court appointee. And if you look at the decision, it was kind of welcomed by the—even the right-wing justices didn’t accept all of it, but they accepted part of it. The crucial—at issue was whether this group, Humanitarian Law Project, was criminally liable for giving material support to a terrorist group. The material support in question was legal advice to the PKK, a Turkish group, giving them legal advice. That was material support. You read the wording, you and I, many people we know, are liable under this. If we’ve met people who the government calls or claims are terrorists—they don’t have to give any reason for it, they just say, “You’re a terrorist,” like Mandela, for example—if you meet with them and you talk to them and you advise them, in fact, if you advise them to carry out nonviolent tactics, you’re giving material support under the Obama interpretation of “material support.” Material support used to mean giving them arms or something, but it was extended by this to your speech to them. That’s a very wide-ranging and ominous stand.
And it was—I should add, on the side, that the whole concept of on the terrorist list or being accused of a terrorist is something that should not be tolerated in a free society. I mean, you know, Mandela is a good example. If the government says you’re a terrorist, that ends it. No recourse, no argument needed, no justification. They can put anybody they like on the terrorist list. The idea that they decide who’s a terrorist is a granting to state power something we’ve never had in a free society. So, not only is that—should that be intolerable—and that’s, of course, not Obama, it goes way back—but extending the notion of material support to discussions with them or advice to them, I mean, that’s—it should be beyond discussion. It’s barely discussed.
There are others that are pretty bad, too, like the attack on whistleblowers. As I’m sure you know, more whistleblowers have been under attack by this administration than all of American history put together. This is an attempt to strengthen executive power and executive privilege, keeping secret from the population. And if it was—and there’s another case. I mean, it’s not his initiative, but [inaudible]. But all of these extensions of state power and violations of civil rights are significant. But we should bear in mind that we’re a lot freer than people here have been in the past, and certainly a lot freer than other countries. So, it’s bad, but we shouldn’t exaggerate. There’s plenty of opportunities to do things.
AMY GOODMAN: MIT Professor Noam Chomsky. If you’d like a DVD of today’s show, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. Coming up, he speaks about WikiLeaks, the assassination of bin Laden, Occupy, Latin America and what gives him hope.