The Professorial Provocateur
Interview by DEBORAH SOLOMON
Q: 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.”
Chomsky: 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.
Q: I assume you are not referring to your own efforts as a professor emeritus at M.I.T. and world-renowned linguist.
Chomsky: 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.
Q: 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?
Chomsky: I see virtually no connection.
Q: But you must admit that politicians, much like you, earn their living with words and see language as the ultimate reality.
Chomsky: Language is a weapon of politicians, but language is a weapon in much of human affairs.
Q: True. I’ve often wondered why there are more slang words for death and genitals than any other words.
Chomsky: Death and genitals are things that frighten people, and when people are frightened, they develop means of concealment and aggression. It is common sense.
Q: Do you ever doubt your own ideas?
Chomsky: 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.
Q: 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.
Chomsky: 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.
Q: Your father was a respected Hebraic scholar, and sometimes you sound like a self-hating Jew.
Chomsky: 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?
Q: Have you ever been psychoanalyzed?
Chomsky: 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?
Q: How would you explain your large ambition?
Chomsky: 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.
Q: If you feel so guilty, how can you justify living a bourgeois life and driving a nice car?
Chomsky: 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.
Q: Have you considered leaving the United States permanently?
Chomsky: No. This is the best country in the world.