Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Inconceivable! His Dinner with Chomsky

Wallace Shawn sat down for a chat with Noam Chomsky (video link here), and here's what they talked about - slightly abridged and loosely quoted (for clarification purposes) with links. It's a great recharge for activists!

Shawn - Many people are shocked to see the president is now a cruel, brutal, greedy type of a man, and this is now the face of America, but I'm not shocked because this has been the face of the United States for decades. What do you think is not new, and what do you think actually IS new?  [For more on this, check out Cenk Uygur's interview with John Cusack. It's pre-election, and the president he's criticizing at the beginning is Obama.]

Chomsky - My wife is from Brazil, and she predicted the Trump win before the primaries. From the outside, there's much that is not new. Recently the U.S. demanded that Cambodia pay back a debt incurred when the U.S. was destroying their country. There was secret bombing. It seems probably hundreds of thousands were killed. The Khmer Rouge was a small group, but ended up become a mass army of peasants starving and driven off the land by American bombing. The U.S. offered aid to get them to purchase American agricultural produce, and now they want payback. The American ambassador to Cambodia couldn't understand why Cambodians often make anti-American comments, but that's the America plenty of people see all over the world.

What is new, and dramatically new, is the U.S. withdrawal from the rest of the world on the issue of greatest significance for the prospect of human survival: climate change. The Washington Post had images of receding glaciers that will raise sea levels by many feet and pretty much drive tens of millions off land. A good part of organized life in coastal cities will be devastated. Every country in the world with the exception of the United States is committed to at least some actions on this issue. The US alone is not only refusing to participate, but is actually moving in a dedicated fashion in the opposite direction: trying to maximize the damage.

In early November, COP 22 in Morocco was a follow up to the Paris negotiations. In Paris, the intention was to reach a verifiable treaty, but that couldn't be done because of the Republican Party. This follow up conference was intended to put teeth in the agreement. The conference ended with, "Is there any point in continuing?" This departure from the rest of the world is pretty striking. It's a case of enormous significance.

The other crucial issue is nuclear weapons. Trump's positions on this are all over the map, but some are frightening. With Putin, they've indicating they're opposed to the START Treaty, which would reduce weapons. This is another departure from the world on a critical issue.

Shawn - Do you think the people who deny climate change are sincere, or do you think they simply want oil drilling profits to continue so they pretend they don't believe the scientists?

Chomsky - You said an obscene word that I can't even say because there might be children present: it's spelled- p-r-o-f-i-t-s. The way you should pronouns the word is 'jobs'.  Short term profits for tomorrow outweigh the question of whether human beings survive. Who believes it, who doesn't believe it, probably varies. The leading senate figure dealing with the environment, James Inhofe [with the snowball to prove climate change isn't real], is an evangelical Christian running what's left of the EPA. His position is that if God has decided to warm the earth, then it would be sacrilegious to do anything about it, and that resonates with a good part of the population. A pew poll indicated that 40% of Americans do not regard climate change as important to act on because they're waiting for the second coming. The Koch brothers and rational people know what's happening, but they want jobs tomorrow.

Shawn- For all of my lifetime, and probably before it, there's been an enormous amount of denial on the part of both the elites and ordinary people about what the role of the U.S. has been. A lot of what you have written has dealt with the different ways we whitewash or minimize or outright deny or forget the things that we've done. You would think, with a history like ours with genocide of indigenous, slavery, killing tw million Vietnamese, we would think we're the worst country that's ever been. But most of the people I don't know still think America is the greatest country that ever lived. But a lot of people that I know, think it's really not so bad, and it's just on the brink of being a model for other countries. This is in enormous contrast to at least one country, Germany, where everybody you meet is very well-aware of the crimes of Germany. What do you think the consequences of living in a country where the list of things we deny increases every day in a big pile - bombing in Yemen or Iraq that we're responsible for, and that's just thrown on the pile of things that are minimized. What are the consequences of living in a place where everything that's happened in the past is denied?

Chomsky - There's a big differences between the US and Germany in that Germany lost the war, and in losing were compelled to recognize what happened. The US has never been defeated, so they don't have to recognize it. The term "American exceptionalism" is a very bad term. It's not in the least exceptional. Every great power during its day in the sun had the same point of view. The French were carrying out a "civilizing mission" while the French minister of war was calling for the extermination of Algerians. Japanese fascists were carrying out horrendous massacres in the 30s and 40s, and we have the internal documents and discussions that describe their dedication for creating an earthly paradise despite their benign attentions going unrecognized.

Some of the most distinguished people you can think of believe this, like John Stuart Mill. He wrote an essay on intervention which is worth remembering. In 1859, Mill was writing about the question of should we become involved in affairs of the ugly world out there or not. It's regarded as an anti-intervention essay, but that's because it's not read very carefully. What he says is, England is a unique country, an angelic country, that acts only in the interest of others, but we're so benevolent that others can't believe it, so they ascribe base motives to us. So if we intervene, they're going to believe we're doing it for some motive of our own. Nevertheless, despite the fact that we'll be condemned for these actions, it's still necessary for us to intervene to save the barbarians (India) from their own horrendous acts. He advocated an extended British conquest of India in order to try to gain control of the opium trade and to break into China. This is when India talked about free trade, but China didn't want British manufacturers because they had their own. They could only do it by turning the Chinese into opium addicts, so they'd accept British manufacturers. This was 1859, and then immediately after, there were horrifying British atrocities in India, a mutiny put down with extreme brutality. It's well known and discussed openly, and this was a distinguished, well respected writer writing about this.

To what extend is this an elite intellectual phenomenon, and to what extent is it the attitude of the population? There's some interesting evidence that's not been well investigated. Take the Vietnamese war, the worst crime of the post WWII period: pure aggression, millions were killed. It ended in 1975. Look at the record. The U.S. had two views: it was a noble effort but we didn't try hard enough; and the other view, the left, is illustrated by Anthony Lewis who wrote the war began with blundering efforts to do good - by definition everything we do is an effort to do good, but by 1969 it had become clear the U.S. couldn't bring democracy to Viet Nam, so it became a disaster. As for the general population, polls were taken at the time with one question: What do you think of the war in Viet Nam? 70% said the war was fundamentally wrong and immoral. This was interpreted as Americans thought it was immoral because too many Americans were killed, which is possible, but another possibility is that they thought it was wrong and immoral. This is so contrary to environment at the time that it couldn't be raised. The understanding of these issues aren't far below the surface. Take two founding crimes: extermination of natives and slavery. In the 1960s they weren't crimes, but activism had a significant civilizing effect on the country. It showed a substantial recognition of the nature of theses crimes and produced big change. 

What kind of country it is? A mixture. Many are admirable. One of the fundamental human rights, freedom of speech, is protected in the United States, but it's not in the bill of rights or in the constitution. It was not established until the 1960s because of the will of the people. There are many respects in which there are awful crimes, but there's a good streak too. At one point Arkansas tried to ban Howard Zinn's A People's History, but that was defeated, and now it's read in schools.

Shawn - You've always had a suspicion of authority, an unwillingness to grant powerful people the right to make decisions on everyone else's behalf, and you've criticized people who worry about an excess of democracy: Madison to Walter Lipmann and de Toqueville. You're critical of those that worry if you give the ordinary too much influence, they might make wrong decisions and go in the wrong direction. Today, you have a situation where an enormous amount of people get their news from Fox News, and we've seen a lot of people voted for Trump; a lot are coming out of the woodwork expressing racists attitudes. What do you say to people who say that these people (Madison, etc.) were right? How can you be enthusiastic about giving power to people who are controlled by Fox News?

Chomsky - Well, let's take James Madison, who like Mill, was a distinguished, respected figure in European enlightenment, a slave owner like all the others - I think Adams was the only one who wasn't. Virginia was the centre of power in the colonies, so presidents came from there for thirty years or so. It wasn't just a slave-owning state; it produced slaves as a commodity. When Britain banned trafficking in slavery in 1808, Virginia applauded it because it stopped competition. That's the elite. Take a look at factors behind the American Revolution. We talk of taxation without representation, but more significant factors are coming out. One of them was a decision by the British courts, Lord Mansfield, 1772, in which he declared that slavery is so odious that it cannot be tolerated in Britain. American elites saw the writing on the wall, and that was a factor in their concern to liberate themselves from a country that might impose that here. Another issue was that Britain was trying to ban expansion across the Appalachians to protect Indian nations for their own reasons, not noble reasons. That's elites. The Viet Nam war and Iraq invasion were elites. Today's Republican leadership is trying to carry out some of the most savage attacks on people in history. The budget proposals, which is from Paul Ryan, not Trump, that's elites. If you ask why people voted for Trump, there are a lot of reasons that are quite understandable. Among American white working class males, something remarkable is happening: an increase in mortality that doesn't happen in advanced societies. It's a condition of despair after 30-40 years of neoliberal policies have led to stagnation or decline for the majority of the population. Take a look at the figures. In 2007, right at the peak of euphoria, the real wages for American workers were lower than they were in 1979. Reagan,  and later Clinton's policies were harmful to much of population. Many people who voted for Trump, voted for Obama and believed in his propaganda of hope and change, but didn't get either. If there were serious progressive alternatives, they would reach these people. A Fox News poll asked "Who's your favourite political figure," and one person was way ahead of the rest: Bernie Sanders.

Look at people's attitudes towards issues, not Paul Ryan's proposals. Take health care being discussed right now. It's an international scandal with twice the cost and the worse outcomes because it's privatized which leads to inefficiencies and bureaucracies and profit producing institutions. It's a disaster. Right now, of the options for health care, the majority want a public option. This goes way back to the Reagan years. 70% wanted health care written into the constitution, and 40% thought it already was in the constitution. For forty years, polls on people show the majority thinks we need higher taxes on the rich, but taxes go down because of elites. When national heath care is discussed as an option, it's considered politically impossible because financial and corporate institutions don't want it.

There's racism, xenophobia, and fear. The attitudes of people who voted for Trump are interesting. In Appalachia, people recognize that policies are cutting funding that enables them to live in their house, but they think it's worth it because bad people are coming over the border, and we have to protect ourselves from them. This is the safest country but also the most frightened, and this shows up in decisions and choices, which could be changed. There are real opportunities, like Sanders. Look at the success of his campaign, which was pretty instructive. Go back well over 100 years: American elections are pretty much bought. We can predict the results by looking at campaign funding. Her's a guy with no corporate funding or private wealth, using the word 'socialist', and he probably would have won without all the shenanigans. The media dismissed him, nevertheless he broke records.

Shawn - I've been thinking about something you wrote which gets to this question of democracy: teenaged girls, if they have a free Saturday afternoon, they like to walk around in the shopping mall rather than going to the library. I found that thought-provoking. I think many people believe that deep down, what we all really want is material comfort for ourselves more than anything else. We may make an effort and go to the library, or vote or go to work or visit a sick friend, but what we really would like to do is sit on a comfortable sofa and watch an entertaining program, and maybe have somebody bring us bonbons while we're watching the program. This is what I'm really like, what everyone is: selfish and really seeking material comfort, and that is human nature. A lot of political attitudes come from the fact that we think we can never get away from that. Do you share that view?

Chomsky - Not in the least. There has been a massive effort over the past hundred years to try to convince people that's who we are; it's called 'advertising.' It's a huge industry dedicated explicitly to try to direct people to the superficial things in life. Get them out of our hair by getting them involved in consumption. 20-30 years ago, they realized a sector not reaching - children - and they figured they can get around this with direct TV programs for children to induce nagging: "Get me this thing or I'm going to die." Every aspect of life is devoted to this. Baseball stadiums and taxi cabs have every inch covered with ads. Human nature? I don't think so.

Look at Trump voters in rural towns. These are people who want to work in coal mines rather than take a government hand-out. They don't want to sit on the couch because that undermines their dignity and self-worth. That's what people are. Go back further to a study of reading habits of the British working class late 19th century by Jonathan Rose. It turns out they're better educated than aristocrats.  An Irish blacksmith would hire a boy to read to him while he was working. I remember this from my childhood. It's taken huge efforts to drive this out of people's heads. It's in our nature to want to be independent and creative. People want dignity and a sense of doing something important. It's taken enormous efforts and a huge part of economy to make you think you want more commodities. 

Studies of working class press during the industrial revolution in England written by factory girls - material indicate they wanted dignity. They hated the industrial system which was destroying rights as independent people. They attacked the slogan "gain wealth forgetting all but self" and taught that we are condemned. They regarded wage labour as not much diff from slavery; it's selling yourself. If you take what you create and sell it, you're not selling yourself. If you sell labour for someone else to sell the product, then you're selling yourself. Human nature has been constructed and contrived with enormous effort. Look at the TV industry: they have content and fill - the content is the ads, the fill is the car chase you pull off the shelf to keep people watching the ads. See that the funding is going into the ads. The newspapers have the news hole: they lay out the paper with ads, then there's a hole that you put stuff to keep people reading.

Anyone who took a course in economics knows the market economy is supposed to be based on informed consumers making rational choices. That's what we're taught our economy is. Turn on the TV, and take a look at the content: are they trying to create informed consumers? If we had a market economy, the ads would be announcement with characteristics of car and consumer reviews on them. but that's not what you see. There have been huge efforts to create uninformed consumers to make irrational decisions. 

Shawn - You've been opposed to each of the wars that the U.S. has been involved in, and you quote Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein who said, in 1955, "Shall we put an end to human race, or shall mankind renounce war?".  Is it just a coincidence that you opposed these wars, or do you share the view of Einstein and Russell? And how could mankind renounce war?

Chomsky - Take a look at the wars. The worst crime of post WWII is the Indo-China war. Did we have to fight it? Look at the history of the nuclear age; it's a miracle that we've survived. Time after time, we've come close to a political leader making a decision within minutes of destruction. Look at the Doomsday Clock; it's very revealing. It started in 1947 at 7 minutes to midnight. In 1953, when Russia and the U.S. both tested hydrogen bombs, we were at 2 minutes to midnight - very close to total destruction, which probably could have been prevented. It tells us something about elites culture worth thinking about. Go back to 1950: the U.S. had levels of security unmatched in human history - 40% of the world's wealth, control over the hemisphere, oceans, industry quadrupled over WWII. It had enormous security, and one potential threat: intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), which didn't exist but were being developed.

A major study of nuclear strategy by George Bundy, describes security situation in the 1950s, about the time the us developed ICBMs. He was unable to find any discussion, proposal, hint in the entire record that maybe we ought to negotiate an end to this before it develops. There's good reason to believe Russians would have been interested in negotiation because they were way behind weaponry, so it's reasonable that they'd want to terminate the sole program that could have threatened us. It was not only not proposed, but apparently it never even occurred to anybody.

Go back to the Doomsday Clock: two years ago it was pushed forward to 3 minutes to midnight. A week into Trump, and it's at 2.5 minutes: the closest since 1953. That's the world we live in. These are human choices. That's what Russell and Einstein were talking about. Humans are faced with a choice that is stark and unavoidable. We'll either renounce war or destroy the human species. If you look at the record of near accidents, adventurous acts by political leaders, it's literally miraculous that we've escaped. Now that's combined with global warming.

We're ignoring the two most crucial issues in human history. It wasn't discussed in the last election, not by participant, media, or commentators. Think about what happened November 8th: here's a meeting of 200 countries trying to deal with problems of existential significance - Will the human species survive into coming generations? - and a major country pulls out. Now we're looking for China to save us from disaster when our own country is racing towards the precipices. And there's no comment on it. It's so astonishing we can't find words to describe it. That's elite opinion here. Einstein died, but Russell lived on and was asked will there ever be peace? He said, when everything has been destroyed and all that's left is bacteria and mollusks. That's how we're running the world.

An interesting debate happened 20-30 years ago between Carl Sagan and Ernst Mayr, an American biologist, on will we find extraterrestrial intelligence. Sagan calculated the number of planets like us to show the possibility. But Mayr took the opposite view. He said, we have one instance, Earth, and there have been 50 billion species on earth. We have a record of survival that shows which species are better at survival is inversely related to intelligence. The species that really do well are those that mutate quickly, like bacteria, or have a fixed niche and stick there, like beetles, do well. As you go up the scale, there's less and less survival. We have very few primates. It's just a blip that there are a lot of them now. The history of life on earth refutes the claim that it's better to be smart than stupid. I think we're trying to prove that right now. 

Questions from the Audience

1. You have confidence that the populace supports sensible solutions, but half who bothered to vote, were sold by insensible promises. Given our history, isn't it inconceivable that people will pivot towards sensible solutions to societies ills?

Chomsky - Look at the last election: the outcome is optimistic because of the remarkable success of Sander's campaign. It shows a sharp break from 100 years of political history. In the 1890s, Mark Hanna, said there are two things necessary to run as successful campaign: The first is money, and I've forgotten the second one. Now there's lots of political science research that shows literally the direct prediction of electability. Sanders totally broke with that. Now he's most popular candidate in the country. If someone could approach people with policies that mean something - people who voted for Obama and were disillusioned don't have to be disillusioned. It's not hopeless, but a dysfunctional economic system which CAN be changed. It's not in stone. The fact that it IS a free country gives us the opportunities; we just have to grasp them.

2. With respect to Syria, do you believe it was a failed regime change, and is the relationship with Russian and the U.S. at the position of the Cold War Era?

Chomsky - There's potential for conflict developing between Russian and the U.S. that will be worse. William Perry, a nuclear strategist, has a history of saying that he can't believe the fact that people aren't concerned that we're approaching potential conflict. The reason for this is not Syria, but the Russian border where both sides are engaged in highly provocative activities. NATO is hundreds of yards away from border. Russian planes are buzzing American planes. Obama expanded military. at the Russian border, not Mexico. It's the border through which Russia was invaded by Germany, and now it has NATO, a more powerful force, on the border and expanding since the cold war. Provocative actions there could easily explode, but it doesn't have to happen.

The one ray of light in the Trump proposals is the indication that he might have been inclined to reduce tensions with Russian. That's what democrats focus on. They're trying to extinguish the one ray of light. instead of focusing on the budget, climate, etc., they're going after the fact that maybe they talked to Russians, but talking to Russia might reduce tensions. Syria is horrible. Russia and Assad are monstrous with forces supported by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. doesn't have a great role there either. Something could go wrong there, but the real threat is at the Russian border.

3. What can we do?

Chomsky- I get mail every day asking exactly that. Just about anything you want to! There are a lot of opportunities. We are very free. There are many options: electoral process, or take climate change, which is a monstrous problem. The federal government is in the hands of a wrecking ball. It sounds outrageous, but it's true. The Republican Party is the most dangerous organization in human history. It's racing towards destruction openly. Look at the decision of Trump's admin so far: the EPA is virtually dismantled, major government operations on energy slashed and commenting on it is prohibited. But don't give up; there's plenty to be done at state and local levels for instance. San Diego is looking at reaching 100% renewable energy. Individuals can do things as simple as changing to LED bulbs and reducing consumption of industrial meat. All sorts of things can be done, from the electoral scene where government can be changed to direct action on all kinds of issues. There's simply no shortage of things we can do. What there's a shortage of is the will to do them.

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