Interview by DEBORAH SOLOMON
Published: November 2, 2003
Your new book on American foreign policy, ”Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance,” includes a blurb on the jacket that calls you ”arguably the most important intellectual alive.”
I don’t like the intellectual label. In the academic world, most of the work that is done is clerical. A lot of the work done by professors is routine.
I assume you are not referring to your own efforts as a professor emeritus at M.I.T. and world-renowned linguist.
I have known people who are working class or craftsmen, who happen to be more intellectual than professors. If you are working 50 hours a week in a factory, you don’t have time to read 10 newspapers a day and go back to declassified government archives. But such people may have far-reaching insights into the way the world works.
Your critiques of U.S. foreign policy have brought you a new following in the wake of 9/11 — you haven’t been this revered since the sit-ins and teach-ins during the Vietnam War. Do you see any connection between your work in linguistics and your work in radical politics?
I see virtually no connection.
But you must admit that politicians, much like you, earn their living with words and see language as the ultimate reality.
Language is a weapon of politicians, but language is a weapon in much of human affairs.
True. I’ve often wondered why there are more slang words for death and genitals than any other words.
Death and genitals are things that frighten people, and when people are frightened, they develop means of concealment and aggression. It is common sense.
Do you ever doubt your own ideas?
All the time. You should read what happens in linguistics. I keep changing what I said. Any person who is intellectually alive changes his ideas. If anyone at a university is teaching the same thing they were teaching five years ago, either the field is dead, or they haven’t been thinking.
But, unlike many reconstructed leftists, you have not changed your political views one iota since the 60’s. For instance, you have remained a vocal critic of Israel.
I objected to the founding of Israel as a Jewish state. I don’t think a Jewish or Christian or Islamic state is a proper concept. I would object to the United States as a Christian state.
Your father was a respected Hebraic scholar, and sometimes you sound like a self-hating Jew.
It is a shame that critics of Israeli policies are seen as either anti-Semites or self-hating Jews. It’s grotesque. If an Italian criticized Italian policies, would he be seen as a self-hating Italian?
Have you ever been psychoanalyzed?
I do not think psychoanalysis has a scientific basis. If we can’t explain why a cockroach decides to turn left, how can we explain why a human being decides to do something?
How would you explain your large ambition?
I am driven by many things. I know what some of them are. The misery that people suffer and the misery for which I share responsibility. That is agonizing. We live in a free society, and privilege confers responsibility.
If you feel so guilty, how can you justify living a bourgeois life and driving a nice car?
If I gave away my car, I would feel even more guilty. When I go to visit peasants in southern Colombia, they don’t want me to give up my car. They want me to help them. Suppose I gave up material things — my computer, my car and so on — and went to live on a hill in Montana where I grew my own food. Would that help anyone? No.
Have you considered leaving the United States permanently?
No. This is the best country in the world.