Macchars don’t wear sweaters

Chompin’ on Chomsky

Posted on: August 27, 2007

Having milked the internet of every last classical movie, oscar winning movie, latest movie, top 100 movie, YouTube clip, and still having an unlimited download connection and oodles of time to kill, I was inevitably driven to videos available online of debates and lectures – and that is how I discovered my man – Noam Chomsky. I knew the name slightly even before that, and it had evoked vaguely unpleasant associations. My impression of Chomsky was of a pompous academic opposing the liberal forces of “Globalization” – a word which we had grown so attached to during our MBA days.  

Initially he didn’t come across as overly interesting or engaging, as the fiery George Galloway and sardonic Christopher Hitchens, other eminent debaters with substantial internet presence. Mild of manner, sedate personality, voice almost a mumbling whisper tempered with frequent pauses, umms and mmms. But the more I heard the man, the more my respect grew for him, the more I wanted to hear him speak. I am miles from being an authority on the personality or his theses, but what I have come across has been a perspective alterer, and would like to share my reading of his views. 

His antecedents are that of an academic in the field of linguistics. He has been a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the past 50 years, and has propounded groundbreaking theories said to be the most significant contribution to linguistics in the 20th century. But Chomsky was not content with sitting on his academic laurels, and chose to speak out for what he thought was right. He is still more well known as the leading voice of dissent in America and being a vociferous critic of the US Foreign Policy since the days of the Vietnam War, upto the ongoing Iraq debacle.  

Radical, is ones reaction to his thoughts, but one cant help be fascinated and intrigued, even a little disconcerted, as he challenges some of our very fundamental assumptions, and challenges our “Hollywood” view of the world and reveals it for its stark reality. The picture of the world you see, underneath its glossy makeup, is no better than a Darwinian jungle where those who have power exercise it viciously. Individual human life is throttled in the face of ruthless global power games, which have no regard for the shamelessly touted platitudes of justice, right and wrong, morality, fundamental human rights and freedom. The cry of human anguish of utter desperation and helplessness is drowned under political rhetoric and war cries of “democracy” and “freedom”. Lives of hundreds, thousands or even millions mean nothing, what to speak of the “single human life”, in the face of “strategic” decisions made in war rooms. And these stories of suffering are ever untold, because those with power control the media, and therefore control public consciousness, and hence the truth. Being presented with this picture greatly shook my previously held notions about the world order, and lines between what I had previously thought legitimate or illegitimate greatly blurred. I could begin to understand the tremendous concern about a nuclear war where humanity might be wiped out, and the precariousness of a world order based on nuclear “deterrence”.  

Chomsky tirelessly speaks against the repressive and subversive tendencies of the State and conventional capitalistic institutions, which according to him, under a facade of seeming liberalism, work at controlling people and maintaining power in the hands of the powerful. This aim according to him, is achieved not with overt use of force but covert “manufacturing of consent” or molding of attitudes. This is done through propagandist machinery and even the “free” mainstream media, which seek to divert attention towards superficial pursuits like “fashionable consumption”, or constantly thwart attentions and freedoms by perpetual witch hunts with ever new names like the “war on communism”, “war on drugs”, or “war on terrorism”.  

Going by appearances, the “free” media seems to be a counterbalancing force to check State power. But in fact they are only to faces of the same coin. Big media houses are owned by massive corporates, which in turn have a huge stake and influence in election of governments.  Mainstream media only pretends to promote free debate, while in fact the spectrum of this debate is very constricted, and the truth is left out of its ambit. This is exemplified with his example of the “hawks/doves” debate during the Vietnam war. The “hawks” asserted that the US should escalate its military actions to drive out terrorist elements, and the “doves” countered this by saying that American costs of protecting the Vietnamese were growing too large and hence the US should withdraw. The real question of whether the US was in Vietnam legitimately, and whether its aims were noble at all, never figured in the debate. This constriction of dialogue would apply to the Indian State machinery too, where debate on certain sensitive issues such as Kashmir is out rightly discouraged. 

Chomsky is a true democrat at heart, who believes that most of the rights which we cherish today – freedom of speech, equality, justice – have not been gifted from above by benevolent rulers but won by activism and popular struggles such as the feminist movement, environmental movement, solidarity movements, minority rights movements etc. He has deep faith in innate human capacity for love, compassion and creativity and at the same time deeply skeptical of the corrupting potential of Power.

In spite of the bleak state of world affairs, Chomsky is optimistic about the future. The most effective counterbalance against State power for him is popular struggle, and people today are organized like never before. This was well evident in the massive and coordinated global protests around the world against the Iraq war. 

This growing intrigue with his thoughts naturally raised some questions in my mind related my own particular Indian context, and I indulged myself in the evidently futile act of sending him an email. And there lay his reply in my mailbox the very next day. After slapping myself, rubbing my eyes many times over, running amok in the locality and getting everybody by the scruff of thier neck and shrieking “chomsky ne mujhe reply bheja!!” (followed by the invariable response “chomsky kya?”), I managed to recover from my temporary insanity and get down to reading what he had written. It is reproduced as under. 

Dear Dr Chomsky, 

I am an executive in India, and have been introduced to your thoughts very recently through videos of debates and interviews available on the net, and have been tremendously intrigued. You seem to represent in the current age, a Bertrand Russelian voice of reason that I have always looked up to. I have a few questions which I would be honored to have answered if this mail ever gets through to you. 

Question 1 – You seem to see popular movement, i.e., the masses, as a salvation against State and Industrial power which asserts itself in repressive ways. This is opposed to a deep suspicion of the masses, expressed by some eminent figures like Oscar Wilde (in his essay “soul of man under socialism”). One element of an ideal society for you would be community control. But one version of community control which we have here in India, i.e., Panchayti Raj, (the village assembly presided by the village elders) can be tremendously repressive, by upholding medieval social values like ordering a rapist to marry the raped for punishment, sanctioning murder of women who are deemed to be “adulterous” and “immoral”. This effectively leaves the individual at the mercy of the mob, and the values the mob upholds. In light of this, does it not make sense to have some amount of centralized control, for example a centralized legal system which upholds enlightened values like right to freedom, dignity, self determination etc? Or perhaps the system of decentralized control you suggest would be applicable only to an enlightened society like America, where the common person possesses some degree of education and awareness. 

Chomsky’s Answer – There is no salvation, and those who seek it are sure to be disappointed.  The same is true of those who seek “ideal societies,” a vain and pointless quest, surely not one I have ever suggested.  The issue you raise is an old one.  As far as I know, the best answer was given by Thomas Jefferson.  I’ll simply quote a passage of my own about it: 

Much concerned with the fate of the democratic experiment, he drew a distinction between “aristocrats” and “democrats.” The “aristocrats” are “those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes.” The democrats, in contrast, “identify with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the honest & safe…depository of the public interest,” if not always “the most wise.”  

I have read some about the Panchayat system, and have seen one at first-hand, in West Bengal, picked at random, where I spent some time with a well-known agricultural economist and the Minister of Finance, who I had known slightly when he received his degree in economics at MIT.  Among other things, we observed a planning meeting, which was not run by village elders, but by elected representatives of quite a wide range, including a tribal woman for example.  We saw small cooperatives that had been established, the use of simple technology to allow groups of families to sink wells, a school and clinic, various forms of economic development run by villagers, etc.  Is it an “ideal society”?  That would be absurd.  Does it offer opportunities for more democratic and productive life for the majority?  I think so.  Can it be abused in the manner you suggest?  Doubtless.  Is it inconsistent with “a centralized legal system which upholds enlightened values like right to freedom, dignity, self determination etc.”? Not in the least.  Popular democracy is the only foundation for such a legal system, which, otherwise, will tend to serve power and privilege, as history amply demonstrates.  Successful experiments in decentralized control have commonly taken place in less developed societies, and I think you overlook an important observation of George Orwell‘s: that one typical effect of a “good education” instills obedience and subordination to power, and undermines awareness and enlightenment, facts for which there is more than ample evidence. 

Question 2 – I saw one of your interviews in the mid 90s where you were asked of your opinion of the democratizing potential of the Internet, and you had said that it was a two edged sword, and it could go either way – work at democratizing information or reinforce conventional power structures. Which way do you think it has gone since then? The advent of things like YouTube and Bittorrent seem like a good thing to me since they have allowed me access to a gamut of previously inaccessible information, like for example your videos :). 

Chomsky’s Answer – The internet remains a double-edged sword, operating in both of the directions you mention.

I hope the questions are worthy of your attention and make some sense. 

Thanks!
Pankaj Taneja

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7 Responses to "Chompin’ on Chomsky"

Congrats on your joyful experience
the kind of color democracy is taking in the two world powers – US & India – has made me doubly
skeptical of this form of system.
But is there an alternative to that?
there are so many loopholes in our political system that it drives away merit and calibre and those who stay back are a disillusioned lot. If the leaders of the future decide to abondan the ship then it is symtomatic of the days to come.
Whatever I know of US & dynamics of its capitalism and political cliques, doesn’t offer any vision . As it is India is divided into two different planets- each far away from the other; one going the US way and the other is still stuck in some age.
Personally I don’t like the path US has blazed ( acc to the world)and i so much wish to be positive about the future of not just India but the world , we all are far too interlaced to have an isolated kingdom.

amen to “too many loopholes in the political system”. also at every level of the administration. the system can be bent any which way if you have the power. i had a minor brush with policewalahs recently. i shudder to think of the extent of moral degradation of the very people who are supposed to uphold the laws and your rights.

I am tellin ya, put this in your resume! and give me the link to ur old blog. if u have not deleted it, that is 🙂

great going man, however dot put this on your cv( ref above ), he is very anti capitalism !

his reply didnt have anything to do with me…its more the fact that he is not an intellectual snob and likes to reach out to wider audiences and respond to questions from all quarters…

pankaj,

this is a very well-written synposis of Chomsky’s ideas.
i read Chomsy almost a decade ago when I was studying Linguistics. Chomsky was the champion of the now widely-accepted idea of “cognitive lingusitcs” which means that humans are born with the sense of language and linguistic structure. Hence, whatever language they are exposed to, esp. till the critical age of 5, they absorb. Otherwise, languages have innumerable permutations to be learnt fully.
The political Chomsky has been in my to-read list for long. Now, you have inspired me to jump the queue and grab a copy from swhere :).

abbey am getting sick of seeing the chomping healdine! add something new!

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