Noam Chom­sky on our prospects for sur­vival

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Bill Kohlhaase

Noam Chom­sky dis­cusses our chances for sur­vival; he ap­pears in a Lan­nan event

Has lin­guist and so­ciopo­lit­i­cal critic Noam Chom­sky, now eightysix, be­come hope­lessly cyn­i­cal about the sur­vival of the hu­man species? The ar­ti­cle he wrote for the Sept. 4, 2014, is­sue of In Th­ese Times mag­a­zine car­ried a stark head­line: “The End of His­tory?” The piece is pure Chom­sky, brim­ming with his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive, clas­si­cal al­lu­sions, sym­bol­ism, and fre­quent ref­er­ences to re­ports, ar­ti­cles, and schol­ars. Yet some­how it all seems plain-spo­ken. He won­ders what must be go­ing through the mind of the Owl of Min­erva — the wise Ro­man god­dess’s learned side­kick — as “she un­der­takes the task of in­ter­pret­ing the era of hu­man civ­i­liza­tion, which may now be ap­proach­ing its in­glo­ri­ous end.” He de­scribes events in the “Fer­tile Cres­cent,” in­clud­ing the 2003 Iraq War, which, he says, many Iraqis com­pare to the Mon­gol in­va­sions of the 13th cen­tury, and the rise of the self-pro­claimed Is­lamic state. He looks gloomily at what’s go­ing on in Egypt and Jerusalem. He links Ger­man philoso­pher Martin Hei­deg­ger, who thought the Nazi Party would save “the glo­ri­ous civ­i­liza­tion of the Greeks from the bar­bar­ians of the East and West,” with the Ger­man bankers who, Chom­sky says, are cur­rently crush­ing Greece. But where he finds the “likely end of the era of civ­i­liza­tion” is in the Fifth As­sess­ment Re­port of the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC), which was in draft form when he wrote his piece. He takes us back 11,000 years to the Holocene epoch, the pe­riod when hu­man cul­ture be­gan, and links it with the mass ex­tinc­tion of rep­tiles 65 mil­lion years past. “To­day, it is hu­mans who are the as­ter­oid, con­demn­ing much of life to ex­tinc­tion,” he writes.

Chom­sky ap­pears at the Lensic on Wed­nes­day, March 18, with au­thor, lec­turer, and Al­ter­na­tive Ra­dio host David Barsamian as part of the Lan­nan Foun­da­tion’s In Pur­suit of Cul­tural Free­dom se­ries. Asked if this endof-times think­ing re­flects a turn in his world­view, Chom­sky is quick to say no. Dur­ing a phone con­ver­sa­tion from his of­fice at MIT, where he’s taught lin­guis­tics since 1955, Chom­sky told Pasatiempo , “A lit­tle over 30 years ago, I wrote an ar­ti­cle en­ti­tled ‘The Ra­tio­nal­ity of Col­lec­tive Sui­cide’ — a dis­cus­sion of how it was made to seem quite ra­tio­nal to ac­cept this patho­log­i­cal frame­work of think­ing that’s driv­ing the world to­ward col­lec­tive sui­cide. Then, it was the con­cen­tra­tion of nu­clear weapons. And that re­mains a prob­lem.” He noted that the Bul­letin of the Atomic Sci­en­tists re­cently re­set its Dooms­day Clock back to three min­utes be­fore mid­night. “The last time it was at that level was when I wrote ‘The Ra­tio­nal­ity of Col­lec­tive Sui­cide,’” he said. “The re­cent dec­la­ra­tion as­so­ci­ated with the move of the clock has brought up the fail­ure of world lead­ers to deal with huge catas­tro­phes: nu­clear in 1983, now the en­vi­ron­ment. Both th­ese clouds have been loom­ing over hu­man be­ings ever since Au­gust 1945.” This isn’t Chom­sky’s only dooms­day warn­ing. He opens his 2003 book Hege­mony or Sur­vival: Amer­ica’s Quest for Global Dom­i­nance with a dis­cus­sion of bi­ol­o­gist Ernst Mayr’s cal­cu­la­tions con­cern­ing the prob­a­bil­ity of any ex­trater­res­trial in­tel­li­gence (roughly one in 50 bil­lion). He won­ders if “hu­mans were a kind of ‘bi­o­log­i­cal er­ror,’ us­ing their al­lot­ted 10,000 years to de­stroy them­selves and, in the process, much else.”

The MIT pro­fes­sor is some­thing of a pub­lish­ing in­dus­try — both in his cho­sen field of lin­guis­tics and, more pop­u­larly, in po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary — dat­ing back to the “The Re­spon­si­bil­ity of In­tel­lec­tu­als,” which was printed in The New York Re­view of Books in 1967, at the height of Amer­ica’s Viet­nam buildup. (“It is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of in­tel­lec­tu­als to speak the truth and to ex­pose lies,” he wrote.) His sub­jects are of­ten timely and prophetic, such as 1999’s Profit Over Peo­ple: Ne­olib­er­al­ism and Global Or­der , which was writ­ten just be­fore the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion protests that year in Seat­tle and served as in­spi­ra­tion for the Oc­cupy move­ment years later. Chom­sky of­ten throws po­lit­i­cal hy­per­bole back at those who spin it. Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the As­sault on Democ­racy , pub­lished in 2006, finds the la­bel used to jus­tify Amer­i­can ag­gres­sion more and more ap­pli­ca­ble to the U.S. it­self. Many of his ap­pear­ances, which of­ten in­clude

long Q&A ses­sions, have been made into doc­u­men­taries. Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? , a 2013 doc­u­men­tary of con­ver­sa­tions with direc­tor Michel Gondry ( Eter­nal Sun­shine of the Spot­less Mind ), ex­plores the no­tion of its sub­ject’s un­happy world­view through hand-drawn an­i­ma­tion.

Chom­sky has been ac­cused of be­ing bit­ter — even hys­ter­i­cal — in his con­dem­na­tion of Amer­i­can im­pe­ri­al­ism, of the rul­ing class and its ex­ploita­tion of work­ers and con­sumers, and of the sub­servient me­dia, which op­er­ates un­der what he calls “the pro­pa­ganda model” in his 1988 book Man­u­fac­tur­ing Con­sent: The Po­lit­i­cal Econ­omy of the Mass Me­dia . Yet it’s hard to think of him as hys­ter­i­cal. He’s a thor­ough, mat­ter-of-fact speaker with an al­most gen­tle­manly way of de­flect­ing naive or loaded ques­tions by sug­gest­ing bet­ter ones. While he’s some­times ac­cused of name-call­ing when drawing his­tor­i­cal com­par­isons, he’s far from sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic. Even his prog­no­sis for the end of the world comes with­out dis­cernible panic. “If I’m a per­sona that at­tracts peo­ple, the world is re­ally in trou­ble,” he states at the be­gin­ning of the 2003 doc­u­men­tary Noam Chom­sky: Rebel With­out

A Pause . “I’m a bor­ing speaker, and I like it that way.” Asked about the cur­rent flap over use, or nonuse, of the word “Is­lamic” in con­nec­tion with ter­ror­ists, Chom­sky pre­dictably took a se­man­tic po­si­tion far from the shrill­ness ex­hib­ited in public fo­rums. In his unique style, he ex­plained the evo­lu­tion of the “so-called” Is­lamic State, dub­bing it a “rad­i­cal off­shoot.” “An­ders Breivik, who killed 77 in Nor­way [in a 2011 ter­ror attack], was a rad­i­cal Chris­tian, but you don’t hear this called ‘Chris­tian ter­ror­ism.’ It can be mis­lead­ing. Yes, th­ese are Is­lamic ter­ror­ists — an ex­treme ver­sion of Is­lam us­ing an ex­trem­ist in­ter­pre­ta­tion re­jected by Is­lamic schol­ars and the­olo­gians and the vast ma­jor­ity of Is­lam­ics. Us­ing [the la­bel] is a choice you make.”

Chom­sky, who says he keeps pol­i­tics from his class­room, ques­tions the func­tion of higher ed­u­ca­tion in an era of ca­reer and tech­ni­cal em­pha­sis. “How do you deal with the uni­ver­sity — to en­cour­age and cul­ti­vate in­de­pen­dence of mind, crit­i­cal thought, in­tel­lec­tual self-de­fense, an un­der­stand­ing of in­sti­tu­tions — how [stu­dents] make de­ci­sions based on present in­for­ma­tion so that an ed­u­cated per­son, a per­son func­tion­ing in a democ­racy, can com­pen­sate?” The trend, he sug­gested, is to erase any no­tion of a truly in­formed cit­i­zenry. “I think one as­pect of the whole ne­olib­eral as­sault has been the mea­sures that have de­graded higher ed­u­ca­tion, and con­tinue to do so, as we’re see­ing now in Wis­con­sin. The cor­po­rate, big-busi­ness model gains author­ity and power as it im­poses rather nat­u­ral pres­sure to turn higher ed­u­ca­tion into some­thing ser­vice­able for the masters of the world.”

At this far point in his prodi­gious ca­reer, Chom­sky doesn’t seem to be slow­ing down. “There’s a lot of chal­lenges now, lots of de­mands, also per­sonal ones. I don’t know what to say [about the pace of my work]. I don’t travel as much as I used to. I don’t teach at the same level. I’m on cam­pus. I come in reg­u­larly. But I don’t have a full teach­ing sched­ule.” Ask him what it will take to get Amer­i­cans to see be­yond the pro­pa­ganda model, to get past po­lit­i­cal di­ver­sions and com­mit to the so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems of the day, and he re­frames the query. “It seems to me that the ques­tion should be dif­fer­ent. Why are we not com­mit­ted? Think of what’s at stake in the face of en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phe. Do we care whether or not our grand­chil­dren have a de­cent chance at sur­vival? Ei­ther we care or we don’t. If we’re not com­mit­ted, we don’t care. And that’s a very strange at­ti­tude — not to be com­mit­ted, not to care.”

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