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Chomsky Turns 86: Happy Birthday, Noam

Dan Falcone revisits some of his best interview questions to Noam Chomsky.

Noam Chomsky. (Photo: jeanbaptisteparis / Flickr)

Noam Chomsky, the renowned linguist and philosopher, turned 86 years old on December 7. Throughout his career, he has authored scores of books, most recently, with Marcus Raskin, Masters of Mankind: Essays and Lectures, 1969-2013.

Dan Falcone has interviewed Chomsky for Truthout and is currently working on Noam Chomsky’s Letters from Cambridge: A High School History Teacher’s Correspondences With the Leading Intellectual in the Entire World, by Noam Chomsky and Dan Falcone.

Here are some of Falcone’s best interview questions, and Chomsky’s thoughtful responses.

Chomsky on US Policy in Latin America

Dan Falcone: I was wondering if you could explain why the global South became entangled with the West in the first place, even after colonization and they attained independence; why didn’t they choose to remain uninfluenced and reject foreign aid (with all its expectations and conditions)? Why could they not be self-sustaining and independent? What instead caused the opposite to occur? Wouldn’t they be better off not having engaged with Westernized practices of capitalism?

Noam Chomsky: One reason is that they didn’t attain independence, beyond formal independence, and often not even that, when independent governments were overthrown by US-sponsored coups (as throughout Latin America) and the Congo (with Belgium help there), and Iran (with British help). Also by Britain and France in much of Africa – one reason why we’re seeing the uprisings now and Western-backed dictatorships. In other cases, Western (usually US) invasions left the countries utterly wrecked, as in Vietnam, or Nicaragua; or constant US terror and economic warfare, as in Cuba.

Even where there was a modicum of political independence, the former colonial powers left structures of elite collaboration in place that made it almost impossible to act independently. In the ’60s and ’70s, the global South did make efforts via the UN to set up a new world order that would be responsive to their needs. That was quickly and brutally shot down by the US and its allies. Particularly grotesque as usual was Reagan. That’s why he kept the US from paying UN dues, in fact, until the [global] South capitulated. Plenty of good scholarship about all of this, though it’s marginalized in the mainstream. It’s a long story, differing around the world, but if you look into it, you’ll find that the premise about attaining independence is only very partially accurate.

Chomsky on Hopes and Prospects

You have a book coming out in January 2010. I have preordered it. (Hopes and Prospects) Can you give me a hint on the main argument? Also, what motivated this title?

It’s based on talks given in Chile, updated and extended, concerned with global issues of democracy, development, economy, state violence and related topics, along with updated versions of papers from the past year or two. The title simply means what it says: There are hopes, and there are prospects, and our task is to modify the prospects to accord with the hopes.

As a teacher, I like to read Dewey. Do you believe that John Dewey is one of the outstanding figures of the 20th century, or was he too hawkish in your estimation?

Dewey was a mixed bag. Some of his positions are very admirable, some awful. But yes, he’s an outstanding figure.

Chomsky on Health Care Reform Coverage

Have you seen the latest work by Amy Goodman and Juan González on health care reform?

Judging by the summaries, they’re accurate. Despite majority public support for a long-time, and the fact that it clearly makes most sense, single payer has been barred from the start. Similarly, despite 85 percent public support, and the massive contribution it would make to reducing costs, completely off the agenda and rarely even mentioned is the proposal that the US should join every other country and allow the government to use its purchasing power to negotiate drug prices (in fact, Obama made a secret agreement with drug companies that it will never happen).

A recent issue of Businessweek has a front cover with a headline reading “Business Has Won, Health Care Debate Over,” or something like that. Now Obama’s retreating on even a weak public option. It’s interesting to see how long it will take Obama supporters to recognize that he is and always has been in the pocket of Wall Street, as even mainstream economists write. The easiest way to institute it would be to extend Medicare to the whole population. That would save huge amounts of money (administrative costs are a fraction of the privatized system). And eliminate constraints that are unique to the US. Drug prices here are far higher than abroad – for one reason because the government is banned, by law, from using its purchasing power to negotiate drug prices. The Pentagon can do it for paperclips, but the government can’t for health care. There are other improvements that could easily be made if the government were to pay any attention to public opinion.

Chomsky on Iran’s Protests

No one in the American media is questioning whether or not we even have the right to be concerned with the protests in Iran. The media outlets and American commentators assume that American benevolence must kick in at some point. Do you see it this way as well?

As individuals, we have every right to be concerned, I think – and I disagree with many friends and associates on this. It was, of course, outrageous for Obama to say that Iran has been traditionally hostile – after over half a century during which we have tortured Iranians severely with no let up. And the non-response was just another proof of the subordination to power in our deeply indoctrinated society. The election was a travesty and the courage of the protesters worthy of admiration and such support as we can individually give them, in my opinion.

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