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Noam Chomsky’s Virtual Return to Central

Noam Chomsky, member of Central's 184th class, pictured in 1957, 12 years after his graduation. 63 years later he returned to Central for an interview.

On May 22, 2020, Central students and faculty joined with a very special Central Alum: Noam Chomsky. A member of the 184th class at Central, Noam Chomsky went on to University of Pennsylvania, and then continued on to teach at MIT in 1945. Despite the global pandemic that has plagued our country and the whole world, Dr. Drago’s IB Philosophy class reached out to Professor Chomsky to conduct an interview. Chomsky’s philosophy has been taught at Central for countless years, and we have conducted interviews with him in the past. Dr. Drago extended his offer to Professor Chomsky of a virtual interview conducted by his students, and Chomsky graciously agreed. A group of twelve students worked together to craft questions to pose to the philosopher; these students were: Kate Ratner, Calistha Gunawan, Celia Duhan, Dylan Allender, Grace Jickling, Julia Pastor, Lila Shermeta, Sam Huynh, Zara Kelemen , Sara Heim , Viktor Shamis-Kagan ,  and Tasso Hartzog. Creating a total of nine questions surrounding Chomsky’s philosophy, politics, language, history, and current events, the interview was ready. Together with many students, teachers, and other staff, Noam Chomsky returned to Central, virtually of course. The interview spanned around 45 minutes and although only five questions were answered, each response from Professor Chomsky was full of detail and food for thought. Everyone in attendance was awed by the intelligence and speaking ability possessed by Chomsky even in his old age. It was a true honor to speak to a philosopher who has made such an impact on the world, and we are all very grateful for the opportunity. To experience Noam Chomsky’s powerful words yourself read the transcript of the interview below. 


Interview with Noam Chomsky (184)


Dr. Drago: So we just wanted to say thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak with us. Just so the audience knows, so the folks at home know, Professor Chomsky graduated as part of 184th class of Central High School. Since joining the staff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955- 


Forty five. 


What’s that? Forty five? Wow. He has published hundreds of articles and dozens of books related not only to linguistics, but also philosophy, politics, contemporary issues, and of course, United States foreign policy. In short, Professor Chomsky represents the paragon of what it means to be a critical thinker and we want to thank him once again for taking the time to see us. Thank you. 


Pleased to be with you. It’s my first visit in 75 years. 


Dr. Drago: And he we are! Our first question is going to come from Tasso Hartzog, a senior. 

Tasso Hartzog : Hi Doctor Chomsky. So this is my question: The University of Pennsylvania drew more of its students in the class of 2013 from the top 1 percent than from the bottom 60; the same was true for 37 other elite colleges. What does “better justice” look like for an American university system plagued by such stark wealth inequality?


Let’s go back to 1945 when I graduated from Central and went on to Penn, I was a sixteen year old kid. The other students looked very old to me, they were in their twenties. Men, of course, no women. Men who were 24, 25. Why were they there? Because of the GI Bill. The GI Bill provided not only educational opportunities but subsistence to huge numbers of people who would never have gone to college otherwise. It was very good for them of course, very good for the country. It had its flaws of course, white men with the army, segregated. There was a lot wrong. In fact, looking at the students today, Central looked very different back then, all men. So it had its flaws but it was quite significant and it basically answers the question. It shows college can be available for a very broad number of people to their benefit, to the country’s benefit, and free. You’re thinking of going to college I’m sure, you’re going to end up with a terrible debt. Is there an economic reason for that? Well back in the 1940s and 50s, the United States was a much poorer country than it is today and nowhere near the resources, but there was no problem with offering free higher education. I wasn’t on the GI Bill, I was too young, so I had to pay tuition which was $100 a year but you could very easily get a scholarship. So Ivy League Schools were basically free, if you wanted to go to Princeton or Harvard maybe it would cost you something, but there was essentially free higher education. So why isn’t there today? Interesting question you ask. Take a look at Bernie Sanders’ programs which we consider very radical, too radical for Americans, we can’t accept it. Two basic programs: free higher education, every country has that, all over Europe there’s free higher education, in Mexico free higher education, quite a consistent. Why can’t the United States have it? The other program he is calling for is Universal Healthcare. Can you think of another country that has Universal healthcare? Can you think of a country that doesn’t have it? Practically not! So, for some reason we are being told that the United States is not ready to rise to the level of the rest of the world, we’re only the richest country in the world, the most comparable advantages, but somehow we can’t rise to the level. What does that tell you about the doctoral system, the propaganda system, the nature of  institutions and so on. But going back to the specific question, the wealth inequality, you are right which the university system is plagued by. Take a look at the country now- 0.1%of the population have 20% of the wealth of the country. During the Corona pandemic they’ve been making out like bandits. Take a look at the hedge funds and the private equity funds they are doing great. Jeff Bezos has made tens of b of dollars. What about the rest of the country? Well before the pandemic half of the country had negative net worth, meaning liabilities greater than assets, about roughly 70% of the country are getting by paycheck to paycheck. The richest most powerful country in history, has incomparable advantages that others don’t have. There’s something deeply wrong with the institutional structure, it’s not built in, this is mostly since 1980, that’s when the US wasn’t perfectly formed by any means in fact in many ways it’s better than it was but not in this respect. Since 1980, the so called neoliberal period, policies have been carefully designed to sharply concentrate wealth to diminish options for the rest of the population, mostly stagnation and wages to decrease benefits and so on and crush unions, and one of the things that’s been on the chopping block is education. Yes it’s the way you described, it doesn’t have to be, but that’s something that people like you are going to have to recreate and improve, it’s not going to happen by itself anymore than civil rights or women’s rights or any other activism. 


Dr. Drago: Thank you Professor Chomsky. Next question comes from Zara Kelemen and she is a Junior. 


Zara Kelemen : Good afternoon Professor Chomsky. Although you are a professor of linguistics, you’ve also been involved in various political movements over the years, and I’d like to ask you a question about the intersection between language and politics. What do you think of President Trump’s use of language and why is it appealing to so many people? 


Well Trump is an interesting case, totally different from any president we’ve ever had from any political figure in office at least in any developed country you can find clowns everywhere, it’s totally different. He’s not a president, he’s a performer. His background is reality television, that’s the way he conceives of the presidency, the point of being president is to keep attention on yourself. If you’re a performer and people look somewhere else you’ve don’t something wrong, well how do you keep attention focused on yourself? One way is through use of language. Now I don’t know if what he is doing is conscious or just this is intuitive, but what comes out of his mouth is a stream of lies and self contradictions. It’s actually an effective technique, it means that the concept of truth disappears. You take a look at the last couple of years what happened is Trump makes a speech that has fifty lies in it, the media’s fact checkers start looking through and they cut up all the lies and they publish an article saying there are fifty lies here and so on. By that time it’s all forgotten and he;s found a new episode of lies. Who listens to this? Well we don’t. There are studies   of the media choices of the population, major studies looked at the media choices at print at television, at radio, logs, and it divided it into Republicans and Democrats, and quite an interesting result. For Democrats it was a pretty fair spread for most things, Republicans had three choices: Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and Briteport. That’s who is listening. Fox News is an echo chamber, if Trump says the world floods then Shawn Hannity will say, “Well the President just discovered that the world is flooded,” and the next morning Trump will look at Fox News and say, “Wait flood! Boy I was a genius.” That’s the media system for a large part of the population. So it works, for the country and for the world as well. But it’s not just words, it’s also actions, like I suppose twenty years from now when you get appointed to be dean of a major university, well if you’re a dean you got to do something, you have to be important, you want to get a better job later and if not suppose you don’t have an idea in your head, no idea what to do, if I had one choice, wreck something- that’ll make a difference. That’s President Trump, he wants to be important, has no idea how to do anything constructive so wreck whatever is around. We saw an example this morning, the Open Skies Treaty; it’s quite important, it comes from Eisenhower, not any radical idea, it’s an agreement between Russia and the United States that basically opened each other to a certain amount of inspection to reduce the risk of nuclear war. So let’s wreck it, let’s increase the risk of nuclear war, that’s something, I did something. In fact what he’s doing is dismantling the entire arms control regime, dismantling the Iran treaty, get rid of international institutions, domestically destroy the center for disease control. Why do we have a pandemic? For a couple reasons but if you look to what the country was like when Trump came in there was in fact a pretty well established system for dealing with likely pandemics, it was actually initiated by George H. W. Bush, the first Bush, extended by Obama. The first day in office Trump dismantled it. He did something, he dismantled the way to deal with pandemics. The next thing he did was start defunding the Center for Disease Control, each year it’s defunded, destroy the programs that are working with Chinese and American scientists to identify viruses, destroy the world health organization. “Well I’m doing something.” Okay it’s like the words, if you’re a performer, you wanna stay at the center of attention, you have two constituencies, he has to keep happy, the primary one is great wealth and corporate power. If they don’t like his antics, he’s out, so he’s got to make sure that they keep happy. Now you look at the legislative program, it’s designed  to enrich the very powerful and the very rich and make sure they are happy, they’ll tolerate the antics. Then he has to have a voting base, somehow get people to think you’re doing something. Well, it helps the use of language and other techniques to carry out a pretty remarkable confidence game. You got to be able to stand with one hand holding the sign saying “I love you, I’m working for you, I’m going to defend you, you’re safe here,” while with the other hand stab them in the back. It’s a pretty tricky game to carry off and he’s certainly very successful. But it’s totally no notion of presidency or government, nothing to do with any parliamentary system.   


Dr. Drago: Thank you Professor Chomsky. Our next interviewer here is Kate Ratner, she is also a Junior. 


Kate Ratner : Hi Professor Chomsky, I’m really glad you’re here with us today. It’s an honor. My question is regarding global warming. You have written much about U.S violence inflicted upon the Vietnamese, specifically vulnerable rural communities. Today, the U.S government is hardly taking strides to save our planet from climate change. How do you feel this choice to put economic and political agendas before the lives of vulnerable communities worldwide compare to American imperialism during the Vietnam War?


Your irony is quite in place when you said hardly taking strides to save the planet, that means acting consciously in a determined fashion to destroy the planet. This is very significant for you, you’re not going to have a life if this continues. We’re reaching a point where the climate, what’s called euphemistically climate change, global warming is reaching a point where in several years it may reach irreversible points, four years of Trump may actually bring it to that. There still are ways to deal with what’s happening, but not for long. What’s happening, to be conscious of, we’re approaching pretty close time 120,000 years ago when sea levels were about twenty five feet higher than they were today, and we’re approaching it much more quickly than happened in the past- it’s accelerating. Polar ice caps are melting as speak, the current projections on our present course a large part of the current world will be uninhabitable in maybe 60 or 50 years, South Asia, much of the Middle East, droughts in the United States. We are presently racing towards it because that is the way to increase profits in the fossil fuel industry in general to satisfy contingency. The world goes to pot- not my business, somebody else’s problem. In fact, I’m afraid to say, it’s the whole Republican party behind him on this, Democrats are much better. But there is time to deal with it, well, who is going to suffer worst? Exactly what you said, the more vulnerable communities. There is an inverse mission between contributions to the disaster and the vulnerability; the ones who contributed most are the least vulnerable, the ones who contributed the least, the tropics, they’re taking the neck. The same is true of poor black vulnerable communities domestically, they are the ones who suffer when Trump pursues his deregulation mania eliminating constraints on releasing mercury in the water and so on. Who suffers? Not the rich people in gated communities, they don’t get their water there- black, puerto rican people who live there suffer. So who cares? In fact this is happening worldwide and it is barely being discussed. Take Trump, he is trying desperately to try and find some scapegoat to cover up for the crimes he has committed against Americans in the past few months, his mishandling of the virus has killed tens of thousands of Americans, but we can’t let that go in the history books so let’s find someone else to blame, one of the ones he wants to blame is the world health organization, because there is a strain of nationalism in the United States which is negative about foreign institutions, so I’ll appeal to them by attacking the world health organization, not just defunding it, but destroying it. Does that have an affect, what’s the effect in Africa? People are suffering from serious diseases, they are being kept alive by the World Health Organization, so let’s kill them because it would improve my electoral prospects. Interestingly you don’t see one word about that in the discussion and commentary, it’s only the United States was harmed and so on. It’s not quite American Imperialism, the Vietnam War was the worst crime since the second World War, but it had a rationale, it wasn’t just let’s slaughter everyone in sight because it will improve my electoral prospects. I don’t think much of the rationale but it had one, let’s prevent Vietnam from moving towards successful independent development, that might be a problem so lets stop it. Like it or not it was a rationale. This is just let’s destroy for my benefit, something pretty unique in even human history. Take Hitler, the worst person who ever lived, horrible programs, but there were programs. Let’s kill the Jews because they’re cancer eating away at German civilization, let’s kill 30 million Slavs because we need Lebensraum. Something. Not just let’s kill anybody in sight because it will improve my standing, something pretty new in world affairs. It’s happening here it’s under air control- it’s not happening in outer space- that’s a challenge and an opportunity. 


Dr. Drago: Thank you Dr. Chomsky. Lila Shermeta is a Junior and she has a question for you. 


Lila Shermeta: Hello, it is such a pleasure to meet you. Can you explain the American concept of freedom vs the global concept of freedom? What does American’s belief of our “freedom” say about our belief of being “exceptional”?


That’s a very interesting question and it leads to a number of directions. Let’s start with the notion of “exception;” there is a doctorate of American exceptionalism, we’re somehow uniquely wonderful and the rest of the world is terrible. There’s two things wrong with it: one, that’s exactly what every other major power has claimed, nothing exceptional about it, in fact Britain, which ran the world before World War II, they were the most magnificent country ever, great figures like John Stuart Mill, great thinkers, serious persons. Britain is so angelic that other countries just can’t understand it and attribute evil motives to it, we have to just ;live with that because we are too magnificent for it. Go to France, another great imperial power, France was carrying out its civilizing mission when the top general of Algeria said our program is to exterminate the population, that’s called a civilizing mission. Take Japan during the period of its imperial power, 1930s, 1940s, Japan was carrying out incredible massacres in China and massacres in Manchuria. We actually have, since Japan was defeated as a country, we have their internal documents, their counterinsurgency documents, I wrote about them about 60 years ago- they’re pretty interesting- this is just talking to each other, not propaganda, they’re saying we’re utterly magnificent, we’re sacrificing ourselves to bring an earthly paradise to the people of China and we have to save them from the Chinese bandits who are resisting us. I don’t think you can find an exception of this in history, anyone who is carrying out brutal, horrendous massacres will tell you these things, will tell you they’re doing it for the highest reasons. So there is nothing exceptional about American exceptionalism. Well then comes to the concept of freedom. Internationally how have we advanced freedom? I’m not going to run through it but take a look at it and there are records of overthrowing parliamentary governments, aiding other countries, ensuring that the fundamental principle that we demand is observed. Now you can find the principle, it’s a very free country, we have a lot of access to internal documents about other countries, so we are able to learn, you have to choose whether to do it, but it’s possible. But you can go back to 1945 when the United States was in a position to basically run the world for the first time, hadn’t been a major player in international affairs before but now they were and careful plans were laid as to how to run the world- you can read them. For example for the western hemisphere a hemispheric conference was called and February 19th, 1945, to impose on the hemisphere what was called a “Economic Charter for America,” the others had to accept it to keep going. The principle was, quoting, “we have to struggle against what is called the new internationalism, which believes that the primary beneficiaries of the country’s resources should be the people of that country. We got to knock that out of people’s heads. The primary beneficiaries of a country’s resources have to be American investors, other countries can get by somehow, but we got to dissamuse them of this crazy notion that their country can be the primary beneficiary of their resources, that’s not the way the world was working.” So we extended around as much of the world as we could and our concept of freedom followed through that case after case. What about at home? There it’s more interesting, they’re really questions you should ask yourself, so today people of your age are saying “I want to get a job,” the highest goal in life is to get a job. What does it mean to get a job? It means to become the surf in a tyranny, if you get a job you are subject to somebody’s orders, there is somebody up there telling you what to do, that’s total control, way beyond what any totalitarian dictator did. Stalin never published anything that said you are allowed to go to the bathroom for five minutes at 3 o’clock, you gotta wear these clothes, this is the way you gotta talk and so on. That’s extending now in very interesting ways, a lot of people are forced to work at home. Lawyers likely can see what they’re doing, so they are starting to install new technology which allows the remote employer to monitor your computer screen and your presence to make sure you are doing exactly the right thing, you don’t go up and get a cup of coffee when you’re not supposed to. To get a job means to subject yourself to total control to someone else, that’s the highest ideal of life. That wasn’t always the case, go back to the mid-19th century, getting in to the industrial revolution, take the Republican party, the slogan of the Republican party, Abraham Lincoln’s party, was that wage labor is no different from slavery except that it’s temporary until you are able to free yourself from it. That was also what working people believed, they believed, it was a very free press at the time, working people had their own press and young women from the farms and factory girls had their own press, very interesting reading, their principle was that those who work in the mills should own them, no one should be subject to the orders of a foreign absentee owner, feudalism, the fundamental attack at our rights and freedom. That’s the concept of freedom that has in fact existed for 2,000 years back to Greece and Rome, the idea that you were subject to someone else’s orders was considered a fundamental attack on your rights and dignity. That’s changed since the last century, a lot of indoctrination and struggle against it. I don’t think that the ideas of freedom that existed 150 years ago disappeared from people’s minds, they’re right below the surface, they break out, they often do. That’s another aspect of freedom- that it is worth thinking about seriously. 


Dr Drago: Thank you Doctor Chomsky. Grace Jickling who is one of the Editors-in-Chief of the Centralizer which is the school newspaper, she is a senior, she has a question for you. 


Grace Jickling : Hello Professor Chomsky, thank you so much for joining us today. My question is how do you believe that the rise of digital mass media and the subsequent decline in the traditional public press has shifted the ideas that you raised in Manufacturing Consent in 1988, and how has this change affected the nature of information and the dynamic of society as a whole?


Let’s take information: there have been studies showing how young people, high school, college students, get their information about the world, turns out an overwhelming number get it from Facebook. What are you seeing when you read Facebook? Well you’re seeing somebody’s shallow selection of the news that came in the major media, Facebook doesn’t have reporters. So major sources of information are what they were, they are being filtered and reduced in content and made simplified and modified by, I won’t call them sensors, but people who are choosing what to show you, what not to. So for one thing it is much shallower than reading a newspaper, for another thing it goes through another distorting prism- that’s true of the major media too, they don’t just present the world as it is, they present somebody’s version of the world as it is. The basic reporting is serious, honest, courageous as usual, but the question is what’s left out, what’s not presented? You can see this all the time, take what’s right in front of us: the pandemic. There are some very serious questions about the pandemic, they are not being raised, they’re not being discussed. For example, it is known today that we’re very likely to face a future and worse pandemic if we don’t do anything about it, and it’s known what we should be doing about it, but it’s not being done. The same happened in the year 2003, there was the SARS epidemic, unlike Corona it was contained, but in 2003 scientists were telling us just what they’re telling us today, “there is going to be another one coming, there is going to be a Corona Virus, it’ll be more serious that this one, here’s what we have to do to prepare for it.” Wasn’t done. Why? Who’s going to do it? Could be the drug companies, they have profits coming out of their ears, all the labs, all the resources, but there is something to stop it, it’s a word you’re not allowed to use, it’s called capitalism. Capitalist logic prevents it. Drug companies are like other businesses, they are supposed to make money for their management and shareholders. You don’t make money preparing for catastrophe coming a couple years down the road, so the drug companies are out. There’s another possibility, the government does most of the research, public funding does most of the research and development for vaccines and drugs anyway and hand it over to private corporations to adapt it for the bargain, that’s what we call a free enterprise. So the government is basically doing all of it anyway, so why don’t they come along and take care of the Corona virus? There’s a barrier for that too, it’s called Ronald Reagan and Neoliberalism; when the neoliberal programs began in 1980, if you read you’ll find out that his inaugural address started by saying, “the government is the problem, not the solution.” There’s a way of translating that into English, it means instead of decisions being made by the government at least partially under the influence of the public, we should transfer it all over to private institutions which are totally unaccountable to the government and to the populations- that’s called liberty, libertary. But that’s the initiation of the neoliberal programs of the last 40 years, that says the government can’t step in, so nobody can step in. Well there were some preparations but nothing like what should have been done. Do you see any discussion of this in the newspapers? I don’t. It is maybe one of the most important questions we face, but you can’t discuss it because it does right to the core of our basic institutions, and that’s undiscussable. Free country, we’re talking about it now we’re not getting sent to the torture chamber, there is a lot of freedom, but freedom is only worthwhile if you make use of it. You’re not going to see it in the media, they have their own agendas: maintain the institutional structure as it is. You can criticize mistakes they have made, let’s go back to the Vietnam war, you’re allowed to criticize the mistakes they made: bad planning, we didn’t do this right, made a mistake here- you’re not allowed to say it was the kind overt aggression for which Nazi war criminals were hanged for, you can’t say that. Actually a lot of people think it, it’s interesting when the Vietnam War ended there were major polls taken by the public on all sorts of topics, about 70% of the public believed the war was not a mistake, it was fundamentally wrong or immoral, you could not find a word about that in the major media. Since only 70% of the population, what could they know, they’re not part of the media system. So yes the media is very important, it is the best way to get decent information about the world, but you have to think about it very critically. You have to ask, “What are they not saying? How are they framing things?” If we were to say the World Health Organization, are they telling you that dismantling it is a way of slaughtering huge numbers of people in Africa? You could do a media search and see how much that is being said, it’s right in front of your eyes it’s not something you couldn’t see, but that’s the type of thing that’s not being said. George Orwell had an interesting comment about this, I’m sure you’ve all read Animal Farm but I suspect you haven’t read the introduction to Animal Farm, because it wasn’t published, it was kept from publication. You can find it now in some of the new editions but mostly not. The introduction is addressed to the people of England, it says: look, this book is satire about the totalitarian enemy. You shouldn’t feel too self righteous or free because even in England ideas can be suppressed even without the use of force. He goes on to talk about it a little, gives a couple sentences of explanation and says one reason is the press is owned by wealthy men who have every interest in seeing ideas not expressed. Another comment he makes is more interesting, he says that if you had a good education, go to the best schools, Central High, others, you have instilled into you the understanding that there’s just certain things it wouldn’t do to say, we can add even to think. You can ask yourself to what extent that is true, that’s the kind of thing you have to bear in mind when you read the media. So I think what we said in Manufacturing Consent is pretty much the same just the world has changed, the generations have changed how people get their information, they tend to get into bubbles where you look for the websites that say what you believe not the others, to read a newspaper at least you get some variety, not much but some. All of this has importance you have to think about.  


Dr. Drago: Thank you Professor Chomsky. Our final question will come from Grace. I just want to say thank you for your time, thank you for all your help and you are the paragon of what it means to be a critical thinker and scholar but also someone who actually gives back and continues to give back so we really appreciate that. I’m going to leave it in the hands of Grace Jickling, and once again thank you Professor Chomsky. 


Grace Jickling: Yes, once again thank you very much, we all incredibly appreciate it. The last question is actually from Viktor Kagan who sadly could not ask it, but it is “In the wake of these surreal times, what words of wisdom could you bestow upon today’s graduates?”


A message to today’s graduates? Very simple. Today’s graduates, people like you, are facing challenges that have never been faced in human history. You have to decide whether organized human life will continue, not just human life there is also the huge number of species that we are on the way to destroy, the sixth extinction. So you have to decide, you have a short period of time ahead to make a decision. Every problem that arises has a solution, global warming, war, pandemics, whatever they are. There are solutions but they have to be executed, people have to do something about it and you have a short period of time ahead where you have to make that decision. What the decision is will determine the entire future of life on Earth. That’s a challenge that has never arisen in human history. I mean when I was your age we had problems but not this problem.  But challenges are also opportunities, it means you are living in an exciting moment, you have opportunities that no one else has ever had to shape the world for the future. After that it’s your choice, do you take the opportunities or do you let it go off into the abyss?


Dr. Drago: Thank you Professor Chomsky once again, really appreciate your time. We hope to see you back in a year. Have a great day. 


Thank you very much. 



Transcribed by Grace Jickling (279)


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