Noam Chomsky – Problems of Knowledge & Freedom (Ideas at the House)

Noam Chomsky – Problems of Knowledge & Freedom (Ideas at the House)

Tonight at the University of Sydney,
Professor Noam Chomsky will be awarded Australia’s only
international prize for peace. Last night, Noam Chomsky delivered the City of Sydney
Peace Prize Lecture in the Sydney Town Hall. Now, Noam Chomsky, as you know, has been leading at least three
very busy distinguished lives – linguist, philosopher
and political activist. A great number of questions were submitted to the Opera House
for this session. They fell into broadly
a dozen categories, and I’m going to put a question to
Professor Chomsky in each category that will attempt to reflect
the thrust, the main thrust, of your interests. We will also try and take some
questions from the floor later in the interests of free speech. Now, Noam Chomsky is institute
professor and emeritus professor in the Department of Linguistics
and Philosophy at MIT. Among other things, that means that
he can supervise PhDs in any faculty. Hailed even by his critics as arguably the most important
intellectual alive, he ranks with Marx, Shakespeare
and the Bible as one of the ten most quoted sources
in the humanities. In addition to his significant work in linguistics and philosophy,
though, he is celebrated for
his unfailing moral courage and the inspiration and oxygen
he has given globally to the cause of peace with justice. Please welcome the 2011 recipient of
the Sydney Peace Prize, Noam Chomsky. (APPLAUSE) Welcome to Australia, Noam. Glad to be here. In your lecture last night,
you essentially talked about an integral part of what constitutes
a civilised human being. You said, “One of the great moral
and universal responsibilities “is to address injustice “and the grievances that are
at the heart of much violence, “and in particular
to cease to be complicit “on crimes for which
we share responsibility.” You also reminded us that our wealth in no small measure derives
from the tragedy of others, that we support dictators
when it suits us, and happily set aside the rule of law
when we’ve had a change of heart. My question is this – how can we
reconcile what you’re advocating with the three most frequently
used words to engender unquestionable
public legitimacy, “the national interest”? Indeed, given that so many
of our problems are global, how are they to be tackled when we are each protecting
our national interests? That’s an interesting term,
‘national interest’. Of course, it’s the core notion of academic
international relations theory, so-called realist
international theory, international relations theories, based on the concept that states
pursue their national interest. It’s always seemed to me that the
concept is very far from realistic – in fact, has a touch of
mysticism about it. It assumes that there’s
a common national interest shared by everyone in the country. So the CEO of General Electric and the janitor who cleans the floor have the same interest. Well, actually, they have
very different interests, often sharply conflicting interests. It turns out that
the interest of the CEO is what ends up being
the national interest, not the janitor. So it’s a concept that relates to elite conceptions of
what’s in their interest, and if you look closely,
that’s the way it’s actually used. Well, there are some shared
interests, of course, like not being destroyed by, say, destruction of the environment
or by nuclear war. Well, what about those interests?
How do we protect them? Suppose, for example,
it was determined that the Australian national
interest, in this sense, could be advanced by enslaving the population
of sub-Saharan Africa and sending them to work
under miserable conditions in mines owned by
Australian companies. Suppose that that increased
the wealth of Australia and hence its national interest. Should we – should you –
therefore be in favour of it? Well, I think if we took a vote
among people of Australia, very few would be in favour of it. And I should say that this is not
really a hypothetical example. After the Second World War, when the United States was in a
position of just overwhelming power – I won’t go into the details, but there’s nothing like it in
history, and planners knew it – they made detailed, sophisticated
plans to organise the world so that it would serve what they took
to be the American national interest. They assigned every region of the
world what they called its function. So for example, the function
of South-East Asia was to provide resources and raw materials for
the former colonial powers so that they could then reconstruct, which was in the American
national interest, and be allies and purchase
the US manufacturing surplus which was enormous at the time
and so on. Well, as they went
around the world… This was incidentally George Kennan and his policy planning staff
at the State Department. When they got to Africa, they decided that the United States is not
particularly interested in Africa, but we are interested in
the reconstruction of Europe, so we will hand over Africa
to the Europeans to exploit – the term they used – hand it over to
the Europeans to exploit to help in their reconstruction. Well, these are the liberal democrats
we’re talking about. George Kennan himself
was considered so dovish he was soon thrown out of
the State Department, considered too soft-hearted
for this harsh world. Well, do we accept that? Thinking back, is it correct? Would Americans then, even,
have said that it’s right to hand over Africa to Europe
to exploit for its reconstruction? Not many would accept that, I hope,
certainly not now. And those are real issues. If it turns out to be in the so-called, mostly mythical,
‘national interest’ to exploit, harm and destroy others,
is that a conflict? I mean, are we in a conflict about
whether to accept it or not? I don’t really think so. Noam, the election of Obama engendered a lot of hope
in the US and internationally. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Rambo-style execution of Osama
bin Laden under a Democrat president came as a disappointment
and surprise – at least to some. Guantanamo Bay hasn’t been shut down. Has the post-9/11 neoconservative
agenda been more successful, more entrenched and pervasive
than you anticipated? I frankly did not share the… ..hopefulness when Obama was elected. I thought it was mostly illusion. In fact, I wrote about it
even before the primaries, just basing myself on his record,
his webpage and so on. So it’s not entirely afterthoughts. Nevertheless, it was worse
than I expected. So I did not expect things like… In many ways, it’s worse
than Bush’s programs, and that’s been pointed out by
conservative military analysts. So for example…
Take, say, Guantanamo Bay. Bush’s program was his way
of dealing with suspects – and let me stress ‘suspects’. There used to be a principle
in Anglo-American legal tradition that people are innocent until
proven guilty in a court of law. So the term ‘suspect’ is correct. The Bush approach to suspects
was to kidnap them, send them to Bagram or Guantanamo –
essentially torture chambers – and keep them there
without charges indefinitely. That’s pretty awful. Why, incidentally, did they
send them to Guantanamo rather than to, say, Kansas? Nothing to do with security.
That’s ridiculous. It’s because they anticipated that Guantanamo would be
regarded by the courts as outside of the applicability
of American laws. Actually the Supreme Court,
even the conservative Supreme Court, disappointed them on that, and did rule that they have habeas corpus rights and so on –
limited rights. Well, that was the Bush program. Kidnap suspects, no matter whether
you know anything about them or not, send them to torture chambers,
and then maybe have military trials, which are no trials at all. Obama’s expanded that. He does the same things,
but it’s expanded. Now the program is
to assassinate suspects. So there are several places in
the world, quite a few by now, in which people like us
can be walking around the streets wondering whether a minute from now there’s going to be
a massive explosion directed by someone
halfway across the world – a drone attack, which is aimed at killing a suspect and whoever else happens to be
around, so-called ‘collateral damage’,
maybe us. That’s the Obama
global assassination program, and just in the last few weeks
it’s been extended a little beyond, and for the first time got a little
bit or criticism for this. It was extended to purposeful
assassination of American citizens. It’s the al-Awlaki case, and another American citizen who
happened to be collateral damage. Well, that’s a little bit
of an extension. There’s an elite assumption that
American citizens are human beings and have certain rights. Others are what are sometimes
called ‘un-people’ – a term of the British diplomatic
historian Mark Curtis in his discussions of the crimes
of the British Empire. So there are people and un-people,
and the non-citizens are un-people, so it’s OK to assassinate them
if they’re suspects. But people, it’s a little
expanding it beyond, so a little criticism about that. And in many other ways –
I won’t go through the details – Obama has stretched violation of
civil liberties and also expanded war to an extent beyond what I expected. In fact, in Afghanistan, for example, the US and its allies,
like Australia, now have forces well beyond
the peak of Soviet forces during their occupation
of Afghanistan. And in fact, last year was
the most violent year in Afghanistan since 2001. It’s not a pretty picture,
and in many ways I think he’s – I won’t go through further details – has gone beyond
at least what I expected in pursuing pretty much
the same agendas. It’s not the whole story. I mean, there have been a few steps
that I think are positive, and better than would have
taken place under, say, a McCain administration. Like he appointed quite a good
Secretary of Labor, and some of the labour laws were beginning to be
implemented a little bit, and there were a few other things. But in general,
the picture is not pretty. I think the strongest thing
he has going for him, and what may, in fact,
win the election, is just that the opposition
is practically off the planet. I don’t know if you’ve been
following this. There’s nothing like it in the history of parliamentary
democracy that I can think of. And maybe for that reason
he’ll be re-elected with maybe parts of his base
voting for him. But he’s actually lost
a large part of the base that enthusiastically worked for him and not just voted but
organised and so on, and are terribly disillusioned,
and with justice. We turn to Israel and Palestine, and, of course, there are many issues
that we could take up. But let’s look at prospects. You’ve said that under Obama, “the Palestinians will be offered
fried chicken, nothing more.” What do you mean by that? That phrase, ‘fried chicken’,
is actually not mine. It comes from the
Netanyahu Administration. In 1996, Shimon Peres
was Prime Minister, and he was then replaced by
Benjamin Netanyahu in a vote in 1996. In Peres’s last press conference,
he was asked, “Will there ever be
a Palestinian state?” He said, “There’ll never be
a Palestinian state. “We’ll never permit it.” Now, actually,
that wasn’t well reported – for an interesting reason. He was actually giving
a press conference to a group of American correspondents –
‘Newsweek’ and others – but there were some Israeli
correspondents there too, and you can read about it in the
Israeli press, in the Hebrew press. There was no translations
at that time. The reason it wasn’t
in the American press is that in the middle of Peres’s
press conference, news came through that a verdict
was coming in the O.J. Simpson trial. So all the American reporters
scampered out of the room to get the important news, and Peres could make these comments to a small number of
Israeli reporters. Well, that was the
Peres Administration. Then Netanyahu came in. This was his first term.
He’s now in his second term. And his information minister
was asked what did he think about whether
there could be a Palestinian state? And he answered, “Well,”
he said, “our plan is to leave “a few fragments of the West Bank
in Palestinian hands. “We’re not interested in them. “We don’t want to bother
with the population. “And if they want to call it
a state, we don’t mind, “or they can call it fried chicken.” That’s their conception
of what a state would be. And that’s essentially the conception
that Obama’s adopted. For 35 years,
the United States has… ..almost unilaterally barred a diplomatic negotiated settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict along lines that are well-known, and, in fact, accepted
by virtually the entire world. It’s an overwhelming
international consensus. The basic form of it is
a two-state settlement on the internationally
recognised border, the pre-June ’67 border, and then this phrase, from the formal US position
in the early ’70s, when the US was still
part of the world on this, “with minor and
mutual modifications” – to cease fire lines,
straighten it and so on. So that’s the international
consensus, and other provisions
for other issues. That was vetoed by the United States
at the Security Council in 1976. And I won’t run through the record,
but it stays about the same. Obama has pushed it even further. For example, his last veto,
last February, did get some international attention, because he was actually vetoing
a Security Council resolution that called for the implementation
of official US policy, namely, barring
settlement advancement, which is, of course, illegal – everyone agrees to that,
even the state of Israel. That was pretty extreme,
so it got some notice. In general, Obama has taken
a position in many ways harsher and more extreme than previous
American presidents, which is saying something. Now, if you think about
the current situation and indeed the role of Australia, there’s a sort of
a standard conventional view that the United States has been
kind of an honest broker desperately trying to bring together two recalcitrant opponents –
Israel and the Palestinians, Palestinians being the guilty ones
most of the time – and trying to reach a settlement. It’s just totally untrue. If there were meaningful negotiations
proceeding, they would be organised
by some neutral party. Pick it as you wish – maybe Brazil, a respected state
that’s fairly neutral. And on one side would be
the United States and Israel, on the other side would be
the rest of the world, almost without exception. Well, the United States
and its allies don’t want honest negotiations. They want negotiations which meet
a variety of crucial preconditions. Now, again, the conventional view is the Palestinians are
asking for preconditions and Israel wants just negotiations,
and of course the US is neutral. But if you look at it closely,
it’s the US and Israel who are imposing strict
preconditions, and important ones. One is that it has to be
run by the United States. Well, yeah, that’s run by an extremist rejectionist state which has been blocking
a settlement for 35 years. So that’s precondition one. The second precondition is that
Israel must have the right to continue expanding settlements. That’s a precondition,
and it’s a precondition… Again, I stress it’s not in dispute that the settlements themselves
are illegal, and certainly expansion of them
is multiply so. Expansion in what’s called
Jerusalem – vastly expanded region – annexed by Israel,
that’s doubly illegal. Today’s announcements, for example. It’s doubly illegal because
it’s also in violation of explicit Security Council demands that nothing be done to change
the status of Jerusalem. Goes back to 1968. In fact the US, which at that time
was part of the world, voted with everyone. Unanimous vote,
so it’s doubly illegal. But that’s a precondition. Furthermore, Israel
has made it clear – you can read it in today’s papers – that the expansion is proceeding in regions which will
be annexed to Israel. Illegally, of course.
Well, that’s a further precondition. They’re already establishing
the borders officially which they’re going to
illegally annex. That’s another precondition. Under those conditions,
preconditions, everyone who has
a grey cell functioning, and certainly the Palestinians,
can see that nothing will happen. Negotiations of this kind
can go on indefinitely while Israel, with US support – diplomatic, military,
economic support – simply takes over
what’s left of the… ..what they don’t want
in the West Bank, and let the population sort of
rot in these fragments, and it’ll be a kind of fried chicken. If they want to call it a state, OK. Also, the US and Israel insist
that it be separated from Gaza. That’s been US-Israeli policy
since the early ’90s, in explicit violation of
the Oslo agreements which insist that Gaza and the West
Bank are a single territorial entity. But Israel and the United States have been trying hard to separate
them since the early 90s – an interesting story, I don’t
have time to go into it here, but you should know about it –
and the reasons are pretty obvious. That means that if any fragments are
left to Palestinians in the West Bank they’ll be completely imprisoned
with no access to the outside world. They’ll be imprisoned between the regions annexed to Israel
in the West Bank, Israel and the Jordanian
dictatorship. Gaza would be the only
access to the outside, so of course it has to be separated. Those are the preconditions,
and you can understand… You can ask whether
the Palestinian Authority made a wise or
an unwise tactical move in trying to approach the
United Nations to get around this, but it’s perfectly understandable
that they would seek some way to get around the farcical
negotiations of this kind with their obvious consequences. Noam, have a drink because I’d like to move on
to talking about money next. -About?
-Money. Money, OK. We’re getting crass. Wealth, wealth. (LAUGHTER) Seems that the simple narrative…
has been that it’s in all our interests
that the rich get richer because that’s how they create
more jobs for the rest of us. Is the Occupy Wall Street movement a sign that there’s a widespread
shift in that perception? Where do you think
the movement will go? What impact do you think
it will have? Well, first of all we should ask
about this perception. That is the perception of the media,
the corporate boardrooms, the editorial boards, elite opinion –
established elite opinion. Certainly not the general population. It’s certainly not the view
of the general population. The United States is a very heavily
polled society, and for good reasons. It’s a business-run society. Business wants to keep its finger
on the public pulse. That’s how you know how to run
the propaganda, advertising, so on. So we know a lot about public opinion
in the United States, and the careful polls
are worth looking at – not all of them,
but a lot of them are. The population overwhelmingly
disagrees with this, and has for a long time. So right now, for example, the population
overwhelmingly thinks that first of all, that the deficit
is not the serious problem – it’s a minor one – joblessness is. But if you pay attention
to the deficit, the way to deal with it is
higher taxes on the wealthy and preserving social benefits. The decision of the
bipartisan commission’s probably going to be the opposite. But that’s part of the huge gap
between public opinion and policy which lies at the basis of
the anger and frustration that’s just
sweeping over the country. So first of all,
it’s not the public perception, and secondly, the public is correct. That’s not the way jobs come. And we see it right in front of us
at this minute. I mean, corporate profits
are reaching records. They don’t know
what to do with their money. Are they creating jobs?
No, they’re not creating jobs. Maybe they’re creating jobs
in northern Mexico or in China where you can…
labour’s cheap and can be exploited, and people can be treated brutally, but they’re not doing it
in the United States. In fact, it’s worth noticing if you read the business press
carefully, you’ll notice that there are signs that corporate investment might
come back to the United States. The reason is that working conditions
and wages in the Southern states like, say,
Mississippi, are becoming so rotten that they can actually
maybe begin to compete with Foxconn’s kind of prison camps
in China where people work under
horrendous conditions. So maybe jobs will come back. Now, that’s the way putting money
in the pockets of the rich might create jobs. Furthermore, just to make it clear that this is not just
a temporary phenomenon, there was a period not that long ago of very extensive economic growth
in the United States – in fact, much of the world – the ’50s and the ’60s, when it was still basically under sort of New Deal-style
social democratic structures. That was the period of the greatest
growth in American history, and the taxes on the rich were
far higher than they are now. But there was economic growth
for many reasons – large part of it, state intervention. But it was real, it was extensive. If you’re a businessman
who wants to invest, you might invest if there’s demand. But you don’t invest because
you have money in your pocket. I mean, everyone knows that. This is just an elite myth
which has been concocted, and which the population
has never accepted, rightly. The Occupy Movement,
yes, it’s expressing it, but I don’t really
think it’s a shift. The shift is that public opinion
is finally reaching… ..having some kind of an expression
in organised activity. Well, how far can this go? It’s an important question. It’s, in my view, an extremely
important movement. It’s the first large-scale
active response to 30 years of what’s called
neoliberal globalisation which have been a disaster
for just almost everywhere where these concepts
have been applied, and the United States as well. It’s a worse disaster
in Egypt or Mexico, but it’s a disaster
in the United States too. People are angry about it,
upset about it. They haven’t had a voice
in the political system or certainly not in the media – maybe a few marginal people. And now there’s an active,
engaged popular movement that’s beginning to express those
concerns, and might go on – we’ll see. It’ll obviously meet a strong
backlash of repression. That’s predictable. If it can withstand it
and overcome it, it could be of historic significance. You mentioned growth, and that’s another term
that has a terrific ring to it. I mean, what could be
bad about growth? We don’t challenge the notion
that growth is good. But are we breeding and consuming
our way to extinction? And what’s it going to take for us to recalibrate our expectations
in a finite world? Well, first of all, again, we should
be careful to think about consumerism and the consumption culture. That’s to a large extent
artificially created – and not my opinion. Go back say a century to the origins of
the public relations industry, including the advertising industry. It’s an interesting history. Back around a century ago,
in the freest countries in the world, England and the United States,
there was a recognition – conscious, articulated recognition
on elite sectors – that enough freedom has been
won by popular struggle so that people can’t be
controlled by force anymore. So there’d have to be
other ways to control them, and the other way to control them is
control of attitudes and opinions. That’s when you get the call
for manufacture of consent on the part of
progressive intellectuals – the Wilsonian, Roosevelt
progressives and so on. We have to have
manufacture of consent. But we also have to have
creation of wants. People have to be driven to
the more superficial things of life, like fashionable consumption – actually, I’m quoting
from the business press – because that way
we can control people. If we can fabricate wants – the term used by the great political
economist Thorstein Veblen, who understood this
and wrote about it… If we can fabricate wants,
create wants, we can trap people. We can trap people into
consumerism, debt, and so on. And it’s very interesting
the way this was done. If there was time,
I could go into it. To a large extent,
we live in a society in which enormous resources are devoted
to fabricating wants. I mean, if you take a look at… I presume it’s the same here
as in the United States. If you look at television
directed to infants, 2-year-olds, it’s already trying to create a culture of demand – demand goods. In fact, there’s now
an academic discipline, part of applied psychology, which is concerned with nagging,
literally. The reason is the advertising industry recognised
a couple of decades ago that there’s a big
part of the population that doesn’t have any money, so they can’t buy, so we gotta do something to make them
buy – that’s children – and the way they can buy
is by nagging their parents. “I gotta have that video cam,”
whatever it is. And so the advertising aimed at
children, television and so on, devises various types of nagging that could be used for
different kinds of purchases. Well, the point is…the idea is
to trap infants, children into a culture of fabricated wants so they can then be trapped
into a consumer culture, and then they can be
effectively controlled, along with manufacturing of opinions. All very conscious, incidentally. There’s some quite good studies
of this, if you’re interested. One very good book by a Canadian
law professor, Joel Bakan, has just come out. I forget what it’s called – something about stealing childhood
or something like that. It’s a very concerted effort. But quite apart from that, suppose
we are to some extent trapped in it. How do we react to the fact that of course, as you say, it’s
a finite world, finite resources, we’re going to hit limits. Well, there’s two ways.
One is the way of the lemmings. We just march happily
toward the cliff, and then when it turns out
there’s a cliff, we go over it and we’re finished. Well, that’s one way to react, and that’s what the business world
is driving us to for the purposes of
short-term profit. But they’re going to fall off too. They’ll fall off too, but you don’t
think about that if you’re… Literally. So for example, in the United States, quite openly, the Chamber of
Commerce, the main business lobby, American Petroleum Institute
and others, are very openly – they say it –
organising propaganda efforts to convince people that global
warming is a liberal myth. And it’s affected popular opinion. You can see the polls reacting
as the campaign continues. Now, the people who are
running this campaign, as individuals,
probably share your attitudes. Maybe they’re members
of the Sierra Club, and they contribute
to environmental programs. But in the capacity of
a CEO of a corporation, you have a duty
that you must perform. If you don’t perform it,
you’re out and someone else is in. This is an institutional property.
Much harder to deal with. The property is you have to maximise
short term profit and market share. In fact, that’s a legal requirement
in Anglo-American law. If you don’t do that, you’re
displaced and somebody else comes in. So there’s an institutional
imperative to destroy the planet, to march off the cliff. That’s a serious problem. It traces back to well-known
inefficiencies of market systems which you can probably learn about
in your first economics course. They ignore externalities,
technically, and that’s a built-in
institutional property. And it does lead to
the leaders of the lemmings knowing that they’re going to
fall off the cliff too. But we don’t have to be lemmings. I mean, we can deal with
these problems sensibly. Consuming more of
the world’s resources is the advertising industry’s
image of happiness, but it doesn’t have to be ours, and I think any sensible person
knows that it isn’t. It makes me think we’re not coming
across as being very smart here. I do want to get onto the brain,
but before we do that, can we talk about WikiLeaks
for a moment? Julian Assange has lost
his extradition appeal. Recently, our prime minister
dismissed him on a public broadcaster as “just anarchic”. The implication is that
all sensible people know anarchism is ridiculous
and irresponsible. Common sense, right? Depends what you mean by ‘anarchism’. If you mean by ‘anarchism’
the media image, which goes back to
the late 19th century, ‘anarchism’ just means people running
wild, breaking windows and so on. OK, and that conception of anarchism,
I would agree. But there’s another conception
which is the actual conception, which is the core of traditional
anarchist thought and activism. It goes back to the Enlightenment,
in fact. Literally, it comes
pretty much out of the origins of classical liberalism, which one great anarchist thinker,
Rudolf Rocker – anarcho-syndicalist analyst – argued,
and I think with some plausibility, that classical liberalism which
grew out of Enlightenment ideals – and, incidentally,
is rather different when you actually read Adam Smith,
from the imagery that’s concocted – but the classical liberal ideas,
as he put it, ran aground on
the reefs of capitalism. It was blocked by capitalism,
couldn’t survive capitalism. And he argues that his
particular strain of anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism, was the natural outgrowth
of classical liberalism in an age where you have to overcome the barriers introduced
by the rise of capitalism, later corporate capitalism. And I think there’s
some sense to that. The core of the anarchist tradition,
which again has Enlightenment roots, is to raise questions about authority, hierarchy and domination, and to point out that
they’re not self-justifying, whatever structure they are. You know, master/slave, patriarchal husband/obedient wife, imperial power dominating the world. Whatever the structure
of authority is, it is not self-justifying
and it should be challenged. And if it cannot justify itself,
it should be dismantled. That’s a core principle of anarchism. In that sense, I think everyone
should be an anarchist. And if you look at the… (APPLAUSE) Notice I say,
“If it cannot be justified.” I think there are cases
where justification can be given. So just to take a personal example. I once – only once, thankfully – slapped my little daughter
on her hand. She didn’t like it. You can ask her
now what she thinks about it. She’s grown up.
Now she slaps my hand. But the occasion was when
she was about three years old. And we had an electric stove. And as you know, the grills
or whatever they’re called, they stay hot after they turn black, and she was reaching to
put her hand on the stove. So I grabbed her hand
and slapped it – one and only time. I think that was… can give
a justification for that. But it takes effort to justify. It was an act of authority,
of course. You have to work pretty hard to justify structures of
authority and domination. Usually they’re not self-justifying, and as moral consciousness expands, which I think it does over time, there have been repeated challenges
to these structures – in our own lifetimes, in fact. And I think they’re moves
in the right direction. And that’s the basic
anarchist conception. It leads on to a conception
of social order in which voluntary free association, creative work under
one’s own control and so on assume major proportions
and revise the nature of the society. Actually, these questions are
coming up in the Occupy Movements for long-range commitments, and I think that’s good – that’s the way the social
moral evolution should go. I don’t think Julia’s here, but
she might listen to the podcast. Moving on to… free speech
and democracy, Noam, it’s probably fair to say
that there’s probably no support among media organisations
for more regulation. You’re a great advocate
of free speech, you’ve also written about media bias. But given the critical role
of media in a democracy, why shouldn’t the general news
and comment media be subjected to the same requirement
as public broadcasters to provide balance? So if a public broadcaster is lined
up in a spectrum of other media, many pumping out redneck propaganda,
where’s the level playing field? Isn’t this an example of where freedoms, in fact, lead to
a lack of diversity, and indeed undermine
democratic principles? And in the end, isn’t it in fact
money that’s doing the talking? Money is, of course,
doing the talking. That’s inherent, and what
I was just talking about. For example, fabrication
of a consumer culture. That’s manufacture of consent. That’s money talking –
no secret about it. As for balance in public media, I can’t comment on Australia, but
I’ll talk about the United States. There is a kind of balance
in the public media. They’re different than,
say, Fox News. On the other hand, the balance
is of a very specific kind, which is actually taught
in journalism schools. So if you go to one of the better journalism schools
in the United States, you’re taught a concept
of objectivity, how you can be an objective reporter. You’re an objective reporter
and an honest reporter if you report accurately
what’s going on… ..the phrase is “inside the beltway”,
meaning inside Washington circles. If you report that accurately –
you say “The Democrats say this, the
Republicans say that,” and so on, that’s balanced. It happens, if you look, that
that balance excludes the opinions, and often the overwhelming opinions,
of the large majority of the public. I gave an example, and it’s
not the only one by any means. There’s an enormous gap between
public opinion and public policy. An objective reporter – and balance in the public media – is to present the views of
elite sectors accurately. Again, “Democrats say this,
Republicans say that.” If the large majority of the
population is against it all, that would be subjective, biased
and so on if you presented it. So I think there are questions to
raise about the notion of balance, which is not… But turning to your actual question, it’s certainly true that
money is going to talk. Personally, I’d be against
efforts to regulate that. Because where would
the regulation be coming from? Well, it would be coming
from state power. But I think we should be very
cautious about assigning the state the power to determine
what’s said and what isn’t said. I think we have to go
after the core problem which is the fact
that money is talking. The fact that there’s such
a disparity of wealth and power that a democratic system
simply can’t function properly and that shows up at every point. For example, the United States
in the last 30 years has become rather extreme
in this respect, but it’s an extreme version of
something that exists generally. So for example, now
and for the last roughly 30 years, in the United States – the Reagan,
Thatcher, neoliberal period – elections, increasingly,
are simply bought. Literally, you can predict the
outcome of an election quite well by just looking at
the amount of campaign spending. And you can predict
the policies that are pursued by asking about where
that campaign spending comes from. So it should surprise no-one
that Obama, despite his nice talk, is essentially pursuing the policies
of a small financial elite. That’s where his funding came from, it’s where it’s going to come from
in the next election. Actually, this goes back very far. There’s good studies of it
by fine political economists. But it’s been very
sharply exaggerated in the neoliberal structures. Not just in the United States,
everywhere. By now it’s reached the point
where even in Congress, the old traditions of
parliamentary functioning have been pretty much dissolved. So it used to be the case that someone in Congress would
get a position of influence, say, chair of a committee, on the
basis of seniority and performance. A lot of questions about that,
but at least that was the idea. That’s been pretty much
thrown to the winds. If you want a committee chair
at this point, you have to buy it from the party. You have to put money
in the party coffers. Then maybe you’ll get the chair. That simply drives
members of Congress into the pockets of
the corporate sector, by now mostly the financial sector, and further erodes democracy. And what you describe in the media
is part of that. Incidentally, it holds
with not just the media. I do write about the media. But personally, I don’t think
it’s very different from the general
intellectual community. If you look at the elite media,
you know, the opinion… Sometimes called
the agenda-setting media. The ones that provide the framework
that smaller newspapers adhere to – you know, ‘New York Times’,
CBS News and so on. I don’t think there’s much difference between their conceptions
and their boundaries and those that you find in,
say, the academic world. They share the same
general academic culture. It’s easier to study the media
than to study scholarship, because it’s just easier
to carry out careful analyses and so on and so forth. But I’ve done a lot on this. I’ve written a lot about it
if you’re interested. But I don’t think
it’s very different. And it all reflects
to a substantial extent the actual distribution of power
in the society. That’s an observation
that’s considered radical, but it’s as old as Adam Smith. I mean, Adam Smith
was not the caricature that you read about
in elementary school. Smith, for example, recognised that in England,
the England of his day, the people who basically
owned the society, the merchants and manufacturers… He said, “They are the principal
architects of government policy, “and they design policy so that their
own interests are very well served “however grievous
the impact on others, “including the people of England.” Well, you know, this is
‘Wealth of Nations’, 1770s, and that’s basically correct. Now it’s not merchants
and manufacturers, it’s multinational corporations, you know, investment firms
and so on. But the same principle holds, and it holds increasingly
in an exaggerated form. Under the impact of
neoliberal ideology, to an almost grotesque form. These are real problems,
deep social problems. And I think we have to go after those rather than calling on state efforts to regulate speech and publication. We better talk about the brain,
Noam, before we run out of time. So, what I’d like to know is why the study of how we acquire
language was important to you, and what has it revealed to us in a
broad sense about how the mind works? Well, traditionally,
the capacity for language has been understood to be almost a defining property
of the human species. If you go back… Say take Cartesian philosophy,
17th century – the dominant philosophy out of which
grew the Enlightenment and so on. For Descartes, it literally
was the defining property. Remember, for Descartes
it was critical to distinguish creatures with minds –
souls or minds – from those who didn’t have them. The ones who didn’t have souls
and minds were machines. That was the mechanical philosophy that was the basis for
early modern science. They were machines. Those with
souls and minds were human. Well, how would you determine
whether some creature has a mind? The proposals that come from
Descartes and his followers were “By testing their
language abilities.” You ask, “Do they have this
fundamental creative capacity “that humans have, “and that they exhibit in
their normal use of language?” What’s the creative capacity? I think they captured the essence
of it pretty accurately. It’s the ability which
all humans share – and according to them,
no animal or machine shares – to create and produce freely new expressions which are
appropriate to situations, but not caused by situations. They’re not the result of stimuli
coming from the outside or for that matter
even internal stimuli. There’s a big difference between
being caused and being appropriate. It’s a crucial difference. A hard one
to capture, but we recognise it. And this innovative behaviour
has no limits. It can go on indefinitely. In fact, most linguistic
performances, new sentences, maybe never produced in
the history of the world, or your own experience at least. And they’re also intelligible
to others who recognise, “I could have expressed that thought
in that way if it had come to mind.” Well, that capacity, the sort of
creative aspect of language use, it was regarded,
and I think plausibly, as a kind of a core component of
human cognition, human morality, moral judgment and, in fact, human activity. This was connected, especially in the
early days of classical liberalism – people like Smith,
von Humboldt and others… This was connected with the belief
that humans basically have a need, a fundamental need to carry out creative work
under their own control. This was put very nicely
by Wilhelm von Humboldt, the founder of
the modern university system, also a great linguist, and one of
the founders of classical liberalism. His point was… The way he put it is that if an artisan creates a beautiful
piece of work on command, we may admire what he did,
but we despise what he is – namely, a tool in
the hands of others. On the other hand, if that artisan
produces the same beautiful work under his own control and initiative, we admire not only the piece of work but also the artisan himself,
who it is. Actually, Adam Smith
said the same thing. Everyone has read the first paragraph
of ‘Wealth of Nations’ where, you know, talks about
the butcher does this and the baker does that
and everybody’s happy. It comes out in favour of
division of labour. Very few people have gone on
a couple hundred pages into this rather dense book when Smith returns to the notion
of division of labour and says that division of labour
cannot be tolerated because it will turn people
into creatures as stupid and ignorant
as a human being can possibly be just routinely under command performing the same actions
over and over. And he says in any civilised society, the government’s going to have to
step in to do something about it – education, other things. If you take a look at the scholarly
editions of ‘Wealth of Nations’, the University of Chicago
bicentennial scholarly edition – when you take a look under
‘division of labour’, you’ll notice this passage
isn’t even listed in the index, the most important passage
about division of labour. I’m sure it was not intended deceit, I think they just
couldn’t understand it. It’s just an unintelligible view
in the modern conception. You kind of read the words
but they don’t get beyond the eyes. But that conception is really
fundamental to classical liberalism. I think it’s correct. They related it loosely to the
creative aspect of language use. Well, we’re very far
from having answers to any of these questions,
I should say. But there are steps towards it, and the major steps do happen to be
in the study of language. There are applications,
thoughts about it elsewhere, but that’s where the main work is. And some rather surprising things
have come out, I think. It’s sort of useful to compare what’s been done in
the last roughly 60 years to the very early days
of modern science. One of the great breakthroughs
in modern science, let’s say the Galilean period, was to be willing to be puzzled
about things that seemed obvious. That’s a tremendous step forward. For example, for literally
thousands of years, it had been accepted
by important scientists that we have answers to
some very simple questions. Like, when I hold this thing up, if I let it go,
the cup’s going to drop. If this happened to be
boiling water inside, and I lift the lid,
the steam will go up. So the cup drops and the steam rises. Well, Aristotle had an answer to why. “They’re seeking their
natural place.” And that was taken to be
the appropriate answer for thousands of years. Galileo and others said,
“Let’s be puzzled about this, “let’s just not take it for granted
because it comes from authority.” And when you start being puzzled
about it, modern science begins. You see you don’t know the answers, and when you try to find out
the answers, they break down – it shows all sorts of intuitions
are just wildly off – and finally, out of this
slowly comes modern science. And I think that’s what’s been
happening in the study of language since roughly the early 1950s,
approximately. A lot of things that seem completely
obvious were looked at carefully, and they all turned out
to be extremely puzzling. So take a simple example, which has kind of evolved
in industry of analysis. Take the sentence – short sentence… ..”Can eagles that fly swim?” OK, we all understand it. We know that the word ‘can’
is associated with ‘swim’, not ‘fly’. We’re asking “Can they swim?”
not “Can they fly?” Similarly, we can say things like
“Are eagles that fly swimming?” But we can’t say
“Are eagles that flying swim?” Actually, if you think about it,
that’s a fine thought. It says “Are the eagles
that are flying swimming too?” So “Are eagles that flying swim?” But you just can’t say it that way. That thought can’t be
expressed in that form. Well, if you think about it, it was taken for granted forever that that was just
intuitively obvious. But if you think about it,
it’s not at all obvious. Aristotle defined language
as ‘sound with meaning’. Well, what the pursuit of
this inquiry tends to show is that that’s not correct, that actually language is
meaning with sound. And it need not be sound – it can be sign or some other
mode of externalisation. That’s a big difference. It means that the core
character of language is the set of principles that
yield structured expressions and assign them a meaning. And that part of language
is probably… We can’t show it yet, but it looks
like it’s uniform among humans. It doesn’t seem to vary much,
and if we knew enough, maybe at all. It’s just a core property of humans
that we have this set of principles that yields an unbounded array
of structural expressions that have a semantic interpretation
that mean something, and when you look into it,
it’s pretty strange what it means. But that just seems to be
shared among humans altogether. There’s no known difference
among remote tribes in Papua who haven’t had other human contact
for tens of thousands of years and children who grew up here. If you interchange them at infancy, they’ll grow into their own society
without any problem. So that seems to be a core property
of human nature. The externalisation – what we call
the sound part – is marginal, and it also follows from that
that communication is marginal. I mean, it’s kind of like a dogma among…even scientists
who write about these topics that language is basically
a means of communication and evolved as
a means of communication. You look at current publications
on evolution of language, that’s just taken for granted. It apparently is all false. It turns out that from
the closer analysis of language, it’s actually a tool for thought. It’s a means of expressing thought. And on the side, you can
use it for communication, as you can use
anything else for communication. Actually, if you just
introspect for a minute, that shouldn’t be surprising. Just ask yourself what is
most of your own use of language? Well, if you introspect, it turns out that probably 99% percent of it
is talking to yourself. Talking to yourself
is not communicating. It takes a tremendous act of will
not to talk to yourself. -(LAUGHTER)
-Try it. You know, it’s very hard. You’re walking down the street, you’re talking to yourself
in fragments of sentences. It goes on all night, unfortunately. (LAUGHTER) And sometimes it’s used
for communication but even the external part
is not much. Well, that’s a radically
different conception of fundamental human nature, and it does lead to other directions like at least exploring these
thoughts about creative work, about moral judgments and so on. I think…
I don’t want to exaggerate. This is by no means universally
accepted, even among scientists, but I think that’s the direction
in which work has been moving. And I think it is
a way of finding out basic things about
what kind of creatures we are. Noam, thank you, but we are
running out of time, and a decision has to be made. There’s so much left to ask you. We haven’t spoken about
a universal moral grammar, we haven’t spoken about free will,
the existence of free will, and I also want to know what the
sources of your own inspiration are. But we also need to take
questions from the floor. So I propose a referendum. We have 10 minutes left. Would you like us to continue
with these questions or… (APPLAUSE) OK, those who object? (SILENCE) OK, alright. Thank you.
Noam, just quickly… -(WOMAN SHOUTS INAUDIBLY)
-(AUDIENCE LAUGHS) I didn’t hear that, sorry. WOMAN: Questions from the floor. Oh, look, I’m sorry, but I think you know being
a democracy, you’ve been outvoted. Maybe Professor Chomsky will take
one from you personally at the end. Would you be happy with that? (SMATTERING OF APPLAUSE) So just quickly, Noam,
if possible, please, you’re an institute professor at the most distinguished engineering
institute in the world. Can you comment briefly about the
role of elite academic institutions? They don’t appear to be
very radical places, but you’ve been there now
for over half a century. Can they contribute to social change
or are they a barrier to change? Well, my own institution’s
a good example. It is, I think it’s fair to say, the greatest engineering,
science-based university in the world, and it was back in the 1950s
when I got there. In the 1950s, first of all, it was
almost entirely Pentagon-funded. But contrary to what a lot of people
believe, that was the freest period. The Pentagon didn’t care
what you were doing. During the 1960s,
the laboratory in which I worked was 100% funded by
the three armed services. It was also the centre
of anti-war resistance. I don’t mean protest,
I mean resistance. That meant support for deserters,
tax resistance – technically criminal activities. I was coming up for
a long jail sentence. Other colleagues were
involved in this too. It was all coming out of the same… It was the main academic centre
in the country on this. It was coming from
the same laboratory that was 100% funded by
the three armed services. That has to do with a fact
about the advanced economies, which is pretty well understood
by participants – engineers – and doesn’t seem to
be well understood by economists or the general public, and that is that the modern economy depends very heavily on
massive state intervention. If you use a computer, the internet,
satellites, microelectronics, the IT revolution and so on, you’re feeding off of public funding
and public initiative. The Pentagon understood that. It was the funnel for raiding
the taxpayer under false pretences. You know, “The Russians are coming.” So it wasn’t democratic at all. But it was essentially
telling the public “You pay us, we’re going to create
the technology of the future.” They didn’t say that,
but that’s what was happening. So they didn’t really care
what you were doing. You want to overthrow the government,
that’s your business. Just do your work. But although that was the fact, it was a very small part
of the institute. Most of the institute
was extremely conventional. People did their work,
they didn’t ask questions, you just developed science
and technology. You know, this Tom Lehrer song
about Wernher von Braun which you may know – “The rockets go up, where they come
down is not my business.” That was essentially the conception. Well, there was a small group of
students – very small, maybe a dozen or so in the 1960s who began to be caught up in the
general student activism of the 60s and worked quite hard to
try to change the atmosphere. I won’t go through the details,
but they succeeded – succeeded to the point
that by the end of the ’60s, ’69, it got to the point where actually
the administration called a day off just to focus on seminars,
discussions, talks, and so on about the uses of technology. Should we be concerned with how
science and technology are used? And a lot of self-criticism
came out of that. Quite important groups formed – Union
of Concerned Scientists and so on. It just changed
the atmosphere of the place, and by now,
those are common attitudes. What was once “You just
do your work and shut up” has become “We have to think about
what we’re doing and why.” That expands into other forms
of social activism too in all sorts of ways. I mean, one very dramatic change
at MIT, you can just see it
walking down the halls. When I got up there, in the ’50s, it was white – all white – male, well-dressed, conventional,
“Do your work.” You walk down the halls today,
it’s like universities elsewhere. Half women, a third minorities,
informal dress – which is not insignificant,
that means informal relationships – and a lot of activism. Those are quite big changes. They came about largely through the activism of small
groups of students – a couple of faculty,
but mostly students – who just essentially organised the
place through their own activities. A lot of interesting actions
took place which changed things. So, what is a university? Well, you know, it depends on
the people in it. These are very free institutions
in many ways. A lot of things wrong with them –
I don’t want to exaggerate. But among the institutions
of the society, these are perhaps the most free. And that’s particularly true
of the sciences. In the sciences, you just can’t
institute external controls and expect them to survive. You could see that
in the old Soviet Union. Biology couldn’t survive
under external controls. The sciences are based on… They’re basically anarchist, in the
sense that I was describing before. Students are expected, in a good
scientific university or courses… They’re not expected to just
repeat what they were told. They’re expected to challenge. In fact, a lot of the new ideas
and innovation comes from that. So a student’s expected to say
“I don’t believe what you’re saying, “and here’s an argument
to the contrary.” That’s good. That’s what
you try to encourage. And if you didn’t try to encourage
that, the sciences would die. So there’s a built-in dynamic
that kind of frees them up. It doesn’t mean that they’re going to
go to the point of raising questions about the use of
technology and science. No, they didn’t, and in fact there
are classic crazed examples of this which people should think about. Take, say, creating the atom bomb. There were two main institutions
in the United States – Chicago and Los Alamos. Chicago, they were basically
constructing the materials. In Los Alamos, they were
turning it into a weapon. Now, you go to places like
Chicago and Los Alamos, they had some of the most outstanding
intellectuals in the world. These were, many of them, European
emigres who were Einstein types. Very impressive people – cultured, literate, many of them
what we would call pretty radical, interested in music, the arts,
thinking about things. They were working in
closed environments, in which about the only thing
that they pursued was how to carry out huge,
massive destruction in Japan – they were pretty sure they were
never going to use it in Germany – in Japan, which might
end the human race, because they weren’t really sure. And it was a single-minded pursuit
of that objective. Now, if you look closely,
the first protests, questioning, came out of Chicago, not Los Alamos. And the reason was that
the Chicago phase of the operation was completed earlier. They were providing the materials, and, of course, that was prior
to turning it into a weapon. It wasn’t until their phase of
the scientific activities was over that some of them began to
raise questions about “What in the heck are we doing?” You know, things like the Pugwash
movement and so on grew out of that. At Los Alamos, it didn’t happen until
after the bomb went off, literally. When they began reflecting
about it later, there was a lot of justified
self-criticism. Here you had the most amazing group
of intellectuals you could imagine – lots of broad interests,
all sorts of things – and they were single-mindedly
pursuing highly dangerous,
maybe potentially lethal activities, not just for the victims but even
beyond, without thinking about it. Well, that can happen too. And the question about
what a university can be or what academic life or
free intellectual life can be, these questions always arise. You can get caught in what was called
‘the sweetness of the problem’. “It’s a sweet problem –
we really want to solve it.” You can easily get caught up in that,
or you can ask “What am I doing? “What’s the purpose of it? “What’s the right way “to distribute your energies
in the world, and in life?” There’s a lot to say about that, so I don’t think there’s
a simple answer to your question. -No, and…
-(LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE) My next question was about free will,
and I’ve been contemplating how I can possibly turn it
into a multiple choice where the answer’s either yes or no, but I don’t think that’s
going to work, folks. So I think that’s where
we’re going to have to leave it. I’d like to thank
all of you for coming. I’d like to thank the many of you
who sent in questions. I’d like to thank the inimitable
Professor Stuart Rees, his executive officer
Dr Hannah Middleton, Dr Peter Slezak,
Dr Clinton Fernandes, who is a fountain of knowledge and his generosity knows no bounds. And of course I’d like to thank
Professor Noam Chomsky. I know that you would not travel to Australia
for some time because you were taking care
of your wife at home, and in times when we have outsourced caring for
our dying loved ones, I think that is the ultimate act
of humanity in personal life. You continue to be a beacon
for how to live. Thank you. NOAM: Thank you. -Thank you, Noam.
-Thanks for chairing that.

45 thoughts on “Noam Chomsky – Problems of Knowledge & Freedom (Ideas at the House)

  1. I learn more by watching these interviews and looking stuff on wikipedia than i do in half my university courses. Supposedly mine is one of the top in the world.

    Fuck that. <3 Chomsky <3

  2. @bossofworld

    You denigration of Chomsky says more about your own shallowness than anything else. At 85 years old you might have brown teeth or maybe none at all!

    Whatever you say about Noam one thing is certain – unlike you, he's not an arsehole!

  3. Look at the chairs and the clothes she is wearing and you can see the background, taken for granted, luxury and privilege people working in academia have. Will they rock the boat.. Doubt it. Chomsky goes about his work very modestly indeed.

  4. I really wanted to hear Chomsky on Free Will. Sam Harris has been very convincing on the subject, and I'd love to see Chomsky counter… Let's partition for a debate/ conversation!

  5. I'd give this Communist asshole a shithead award. That's all this piece of work deserves.
    This ASSHOLE is anti-USA, Anti-American, and anti-YOU if you don't trash any everything related to this GREAT Country. Shit for brains never had a dirty hand in his life, never worked a day in his life. He's an instigator.

  6. Oh how easy it is to criticize Obama's decisions on fighting terrorism. Only if they were in his shoes would they think twice before being so quick to judge. 

  7. America has been trending toward oligarchy before, such as at the turn of the 20th century and after the Wall Street crash of 1929, and we've managed to pull ourselves back from it not much but enough to prevent utter meltdown.  Can we do it again?

  8. Thanks for posting this. No matter how much I listen to Chomsky I always learn something new. My favorite quote from this talk, I think this sums up one of Chomsky's main ideas about language: "Aristotle said language was sound with meaning… language is in reality meaning with sound or other externalizations such as sign"

  9. I don't know why I can't listen to him.

    As mark twain supposedly said about the book of Mormon (but in respect to its writing).

    …chloroform in print, ladies and gentleman..

    Chloroform in print.

  10. irony trvmp's palm beach overrun by opioid od's and fundy cop outs… Google search "opioids palm beach. no es bueno.

  11. 1:00:23 Imagine being the mind of Chomsky. He can talk a lot. I have a hard time tuning myself out and I don't have much going on. Also, am I wrong to cringe at the interviewer a few times?

  12. I could listen to him forever. There isn't a talk of his that I don't come away richer in knowledge, angrier at the machinations of power, and sadder for the prospects of humanity where each day our fragility and vulnerability becomes more exposed to be nothing more than expendable consumers/commodities.. but god bless him and protect him for telling the truth and bravely showing us the reality without illusions, however horrendous it is to see and hear. He is the Socrates of our time.

  13. Chomsky abhors corporations and refers to them as "fascist", but his own retirement fund is invested in large capitalization NYSE companies and the TIAA-CREF stock fund.

    "A look at the stock fund portfolio quickly reveals that it invests in all sorts of businesses that Chomsky says he finds abhorrent: oil companies, military contractors, pharmaceuticals, you name it." – Do as I Say (Not as I Do), by Peter Schweizer

  14. We had no problem with these matters for hundreds of years beforehand, when the West set up puppet rulers in these nations. Now, however, it's gotten out of control. Why not conquer them again, and do what we always have done?

  15. Dear Mr. Chomsky…  How many US bombs does it take to make women wear Burkas?  Here's a hint buddy…  The answer is zero.

  16. I'm so sorry my interests are not the same as the janitor's Mr. Chomsky.  Does that mean I should kill myself now, or continue to invest in America just like your MIT pension and personal trust accounts do?

  17. 1:00:30 "It takes a tremendous act of will not to talk to yourself" Noam Chomsky
    Yep, that would be meditating and I can't succeed it. At some point, I always find myself itchy, feel like scratching a part of my body and fail miserably.

  18. Yes because who could be better qualified to judge such important topics as, ' Terrorism ', than a Linguistics Professor, with ZERO Real World Experience in Government, Military, International Affairs, or National Security! And whose criticisms of others all have the great luxury of 20/20 Hindsight-This make perfect sense-Right???
    UGH-It is a tragedy that anyone actually takes this ridiculous old man seriously! smh

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