"Even if there’s core, deep problems with the institutions, there still are choices between alternatives, which matter a lot,” says the MIT professor. “Small differences in a system with enormous power translate into huge effects. Meanwhile, you don’t stop with a lesser evilism; you continue to try to organize and develop the mass popular movements, which will block the worst and change the institutions. All of these things can go on at once. But the simple question of what button do you push on a particular day? That is a decision, and that matters. It’s not the whole story, by any means. It’s a small part of the story, but it matters.” - Author and activist Noam Chomsky.
After a harrowing discussion about humanity’s undeniable march toward a dystopian future, world-renowned thinker Noam Chomsky and Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer move on to other pressing topics related to current events and end on a positive note.
Beginning with the issue that inspired the two-part interview, Scheer explains that an episode of his podcast, “Scheer Intelligence,” which featured Susie Linfield discussing her book, “The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky,” led to an ongoing exchange with Chomsky. The linguist, who has been an outspoken critic of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, argues that “The Lion’s Den” and its chapter on Chomsky’s criticisms “is the most extraordinary collection of lies and deceit that I have ever seen.”
Admitting that before his interview with Linfield, Scheer had not paid close attention to the chapter in question, the Truthdig editor in chief goes on to say that upon rereading it, he found it incredibly “unfair.”
“The people attacked in this book,” Scheer says, “are all attacked for daring to raise questions about the performance of [the Israeli state] and the Zionist experiment, particularly in its relation to the Palestinians and notions that many of us, myself included, who are Jewish, had thought were built into a kind of universalism of the Jewish experience, and a concern for the other.”
To Chomsky, the dilemma Israel poses to Jewish intellectuals such as himself, who are concerned with the state’s future, has always been clear: criticize the state’s actions or remain silent in the face of decisions that would endanger it. The thinker’s criticisms take root in the 1970s, when Israel rejects viable two-state solutions more than once, an inconvenient historical reality he argues Linfield “lies about like a trooper.”
“If you care about Israel, what you tell them is you’re sacrificing security for expansion,” Chomsky argues. “And it’s going to have a consequence. It’s going to lead to moral deterioration internally, and decline in status internationally, which is exactly what happened. […] You go back to the 1970s, Israel was one of the most admired states in the world. […] Now it’s a pariah state.”
Chomsky uses the example of how support for Israel within the U.S. had shifted from liberal Democrats to ultranationalists and evangelicals as an illustration of a dangerous shift in Israeli policies that led to the terrible suffering of Palestinians and a moral decline within the Middle Eastern nation. The linguist’s conclusion, based on the biblical story of Elijah, is one that can be applied across the board when thinking of constructing an effective approach to politics, not just in Israel, but around the world.
“You don’t love a state and follow its policies,” says Chomsky. “You criticize what’s wrong, try to change the policies, expose them; criticize it, change it.”
The discussion of Israel then leads to a broader conversation on the topic of “lesser evilism,” especially as applied to U.S. politics as voters face a presidential election in 2020 which could lead to President Donald Trump’s reelection.
“We’ve been living all these years,” Scheer argues, “with the illusion that there’s this lesser evil that somehow will make it better. […] I’m frightened out of my mind that it’s four more years of Trump; yes. However, do we really think that the Democrats are going to propose a serious alternative?”
“There’s another word for lesser evilism,” Chomsky replies. “It’s called rationality. Lesser evilism is not an illusion, it’s a rational position. But you don’t stop with lesser evilism. You begin with it, to prevent the worst, and then you go on to deal with the fundamental roots of what’s wrong, even with the lesser evils.”
While Scheer agrees with Chomsky about the imminent danger Trump poses, not just to Americans, but to humanity as a whole due to his suicidal approach to the climate crisis, the Truthdig editor in chief insists that it is precisely having read Chomsky’s works that instilled in him a profound fear “of what neoliberalism and what that opportunism breeds,” concluding that “it breeds a Trump.”
Chomsky, on the other hand traces the hard-earned progress that has been made by organized movements throughout the history of the U.S., using the examples of Presidents Richard Nixon and Franklin D. Roosevelt as leaders who were forced to amend their policies and actions by political activists.
“So even if there’s core, deep problems with the institutions, there still are choices between alternatives, which matter a lot,” says the MIT professor. “Small differences in a system with enormous power translate into huge effects. Meanwhile, you don’t stop with a lesser evilism; you continue to try to organize and develop the mass popular movements, which will block the worst and change the institutions. All of these things can go on at once. But the simple question of what button do you push on a particular day? That is a decision, and that matters. It’s not the whole story, by any means. It’s a small part of the story, but it matters.”
When Scheer goes on to express his surprise to find in Chomsky a source of optimism, the latter gives him a list of reasons to remain hopeful, including the Green New Deal and the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.
Listen to the full second part of the engrossing conversation between Chomsky and Scheer below, and listen to the first part here. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the media player and find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.
—Introduction by Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Robert Scheer: OK. Because I know, you know, you got to go somewhere. So please, let me get to the original subject that brought us together. Because I was much too easy in reviewing a book–a podcast, Susie Linfield from NYU–From Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky–I actually forget the title, but–do you remember the title? I don’t either. But it was all a depiction, almost everyone attacked in this book was Jewish. I think there was one exception. And I, frankly, just true confession, I try to read every book from cover to cover every time. And this one, I thought I knew the subject quite well, and at five in the morning, I don’t know, I dozed off or something at the Chomsky chapter. I will admit it, I skimmed it and so forth. And then rereading it, I felt it was quite unfair. And what I thought was unfair–and so I want to make amends here, [discussing] this issue. I think all of the people in this book–and I’ll just summarize it.
They all started out as kind of sympathetic to some notion of Zionism. And a lot of that was informed by the Holocaust, the tragedy that had occurred for Jews, and the feeling that maybe there could not be assimilation, or a place for Jews in the world. We know those arguments. And they all–and the people attacked in this book, From Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky, are all attacked for daring to raise questions about the performance of this state and the Zionist experiment, particularly in its relation to the Palestinians and notions that many of us, myself included, who are Jewish had thought were built into a kind of universalism of the Jewish experience, and a concern for the other, and so forth.
And we are at a moment, again, as we are with this description of the secret documents about Afghanistan, it happens also the other day Donald Trump spoke to the Republican Sheldon Adelson’s sponsored group in Florida about Israel, and took them to school saying: Hey, you guys should be giving me a lot more support; I’ve done what every president promised or was scared to promise; I’ve done the bidding. And it struck me, reading that–and I’ve felt this since the election–for all the talk about meddling in our election, you know–Russian meddling, whatever that turns out to be–and it’s really bizarre that the United States, which has meddled in just about every election–you can go back to certainly the Italian election of ’48, and whatever, but all over the world–somehow Russia and the evidence for any significant impact is not–but really, whether covertly or openly, Israel certainly meddled in the 2016 election, and most prominently by Netanyahu speaking to the U.S. Congress and condemning Barack Obama’s major foreign policy achievement, which was the international agreement with Iran, going back to our nuclear weapons concern, to not make weapons and to yet, you know, be able to have a modern scientific society for their–and blah, blah, blah.
So that was working. And when we look at this election, the interference by the leader of Israel was quite direct, and we’re not even talking about any of the other stuff. The leading contributor to Trump was this same Sheldon Adelson; I believe he gave $35 million, his biggest funder. He happens to have one of the most influential newspapers in Israel, as well as gambling interests in Las Vegas. And you have this bizarre situation, I think, where Donald Trump has delivered to a foreign government, everything from recognizing the embassy in Jerusalem to attacking settlements to destroying what remained of any peace process; you could go down the line in terms of Israel–but also accepting the foreign policy agenda of Israel that the main danger was Iran, giving Saudi Arabia a blank check. Another irony of this weekend, we have Saudi officers, air force officers, one officer killing other people at a base and raising questions about Saudi Arabia.
So our policy under Trump has been strongly pro-Israel, and the alliance, really, between Israel and Saudi Arabia. And yet that doesn’t come up at all. And the reason I want–so I wanted to say, I thought going back to Hannah Arendt, the people who had been criticized for daring to speak up actually are not speaking up out of any hostility to the concern of Jewish people for security, and the response to the Holocaust, but concern over the contradictions presented, I think, by Israel.
Noam Chomsky: Well, again, a lot of points. First, I won’t go into it because it’s kind of irrelevant, but the book you mentioned is the most extraordinary collection of lies and deceit that I have ever seen. If we had time I could go through it, but it’s not significant, so put it aside. The crucial issue is what you just mentioned. Trump brought it out very clearly: You don’t love Israel enough. He said, You’ve got to love Israel. What does that mean exactly? Actually, we know what it means. This morning the New York Times has a long story about William Barr, the Attorney General, about how we have to bring religion and the Bible back into our lives.
So let’s go to the Bible. That’s–you can find the model that Trump is following in the Bible. It’s King Ahab, the evil king, the epitome of evil in the Bible; he called the prophet Elijah to him, and condemned the prophet Elijah because he doesn’t love Israel enough. In fact, he’s a hater of Israel, the proof he was condemning the acts of the evil king. So loving a country, from Trump’s point of view, is follow its policies; whatever its policies are, you got to support them. That’s loving a country. So Trump and Ahab, the evil king, agree on that. The prophet Elijah and the ones who Linfield is attacking, they agree, no, you don’t support the policies. What you do is if you care about a country, it’s like caring about a friend. If you have a friend who’s doing something to harm himself, and to severely harm others, you don’t say, Great! I support you all the way. You try to change what the friend is doing.
And in the case of a state, you first have to dismantle the cloud of propaganda and myth that every state constructs to justify what it’s doing. And when you do that, then what do you find? You go back to the early seventies, which actually is the point she emphasizes. At that point, Israel had a fateful decision. Namely, is it going to pursue expansion or security? That was very clear. On the table, there were very clear options for negotiation and political settlement.
Linfield, incidentally, lies about this like a trooper. I actually described it with exact precision, and she claims I made it up by the clever technique of avoiding every single thing I said about it, OK, which happened to be exactly accurate. What happens is this. First of all, in 1971, Gunnar Jarring, international mediator, presented proposals to Egypt and Israel for a political settlement, pretty much in line with the international consensus. Egypt accepted it; Israel rejected it. In 1976 the Security Council debated a resolution calling for a political settlement, two-state settlement, on the international border with guarantees for the rights of each state, Israel and a Palestinian state, to live in peace and security within secure and recognized borders.
It was vetoed by the United States; Israel was hysterical. The Israeli ambassador Chaim Herzog, later president, claimed that the PLO had written this as a device to destroy Israel, which of course was complete nonsense. The PLO kind of tacitly supported it, but certainly didn’t write it. The resolution, crucially, was supported by the three Arab confrontation states: Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. That was ’76. That’s a tough one for people like Linfield who support Israeli policies, so what she does is just lie about it, OK, in the way that I mentioned. But it was real, and there were other options, and it continues like this.
Now, if you care about Israel, what you tell them is you’re sacrificing security for expansion. And it’s going to have a consequence. It’s going to lead to moral deterioration internally, and decline in status internationally, which is exactly what happened. You mentioned that people who used to be one or another form of Zionist are now very critical of Israel. It’s much more general than that. You go back to the 1970s, Israel was one of the most admired states in the world. Young people from Sweden were going to Israel to see the wonderful social democracy, and so on. Now it’s a pariah state. What’s happened? It’s not–the same that’s happened in the United States. Support for Israel used to be based in basically liberal Democrats; that was support for Israel. No longer. Most of them support the Palestinians. Support for Israel now is in the Christian evangelical community and ultranationalists.
That reflects the changes that have taken place. Is this good for Israel? I don’t think so. It’s turned Israel into, as I said, a pariah state which is declining–internally, morally–and it’s horrible for the Palestinians. So I think the ones who were following the path of Elijah were correct. You don’t love a state and follow its policies. You criticize what’s wrong, try to change the policies, expose them; criticize it, change it. And exactly what was predicted in the seventies has happened.
Now, take Trump’s policies. As I said before, in connection with Vietnam and other cases, it’s–we should be, just not race right off to say there’s no rational policy. Often there is. And there is in the case of what Trump is doing in the case of the Middle East as well. It’s pretty hard to find a sensible geopolitical strategy in the chaos around Trump, but if you look, you can find one. He might not even understand it, but his advisors certainly do. And it’s even articulated clearly by people like Steve Bannon. The idea is, what they’re doing is forming an alliance of the most reactionary states, headed by the White House, in the Middle East. It includes Saudi Arabia, of course, the most reactionary state in the world; Egypt under the Sisi dictatorship, the worst dictatorship in Egypt’s history; Israel, as it’s moved very far to the right–and of course as a technological commercial center, supported pretty much by Modi’s India, ultranationalist, destroying secular democracy in India and moving to ultranationalist Hinduism as a natural ally. And then there’s Orbán in Hungary is another; Le Pen in France; it’s a kind of an international alliance of reactionary states with the Middle East, run by the White House.
Now, you can say that it’s incompetent, but you can’t say there’s no policy. It’s a very clear policy. It’s understandable. I think it’s disgraceful, but that’s a different point. And I think if we look carefully, that’s what we find. Trump’s giving everything to Israel is just like sending troops to defend Saudi Arabia from Iran, destroying the Iran Treaty, which would have undermined any possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons for a long time, even though there was one. And I should say that in the background–it’s getting late, but let me just end with this–there’s a very straightforward way to end any possible threat of Iranian nuclear weapons–assuming there is a threat, which is a very dubious assumption, but let’s assume it. How do you end it? It’s straightforward. Move to establish a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. Is there any objection to that? The Arab states are strongly in favor of it; they initiated it 20 years ago. Iran is in favor of it, strongly supports it, backed by the G77, the former Non-Aligned Movement–actually about 130 countries now; strongly support it. Other countries pretty much support it. If you had it, along with an inspection system–which is certainly possible, as we’ve seen in the case of Iran–that would end any possible threat. What blocks it? Us. Bipartisan objection–
RS: Well, Israel.
NC: Israel refuses, but they’ll do what we tell them to do. They have to. If the United States supported it, they’d have no choice. The United States opposes it; it comes up every five years, in the non-proliferation treaty review committee. Last time was 2015. Obama blocked it. Everybody knows the reason why; nobody says it. If the United States accepted it, Israel’s huge nuclear weapons system would have to be inspected, which the U.S. doesn’t want. And furthermore, U.S. military aid to Israel would have to stop. U.S. law, Symington Amendment, requires that the United States not provide aid to any country developing nuclear weapons outside the non-proliferation treaty. That’s why the United States pretends–of course, pretends–that it doesn’t know that Israel has nuclear weapons. Of course it knows; everybody knows. But you have to pretend you don’t know, or that brings into operation U.S. laws which ban aid.
The U.S. is not ready to do that. Therefore, we block the one way to end any threat of nuclear weapons in the Middle East–which is a very severe threat, not because of Iran, but because of Israel and other countries that may be duplicating. Is that a rational policy? Well, it has a certain rationality to it. Is it a policy that benefits human society, or that benefits the United States? No. But you can say the same about the policy of racing towards climate destruction, racing towards nuclear war. They’re not policies designed for the benefit of the people of the country. Quite differently. That’s not the way state policy is designed. It’s not–the myth is you represent the people; the truth is quite different. You represent centers of power. Now, we can change that, and to some extent it has been changed. But we have to begin by at least recognizing it. And in case after case, including what we’ve discussed, I think that’s what we see.
RS: So finally, the reason I wanted to have your point of view is because I think it’s really quite courageous. And it’s the third rail issue. The only candidate that has really discussed this–and I’m very proud of the fact that a Brooklyn Jewish guy from our generation, Bernie Sanders, at least brought up the Palestinians as people in the primary debate. And to my mind, it’s truly appalling that when people like yourself speak up–in the name of a Jewish tradition of speaking up against oppression, you know, and state power and so forth–and defend the rights of Palestinians, they’re smeared in the most vicious way. And, you know, whether it’s Democrat or Republican.
And so I want to end with something that gets me in trouble with everyone I know, even though I recognize the danger of Trump, and I think a second Trump term would be incredibly dangerous because–
NC: It’d be terminal for the species.
RS: Oh. Well, there–
NC: Another four years of Trump’s policies, we may be past the tipping point, literally.
RS: Well, that’s as serious an indictment as you can make, terminal for the species, coming from probably the smartest man alive. And I mean that seriously. However–and here I’ll get in trouble. Trump, to my mind, is the pus in the wound. He did not create the wound. And as I read your writings, the body of your work, that’s quite clear. And on any policy–he didn’t create the immigration policy; we’ve neglected it, we’ve exploited it, we’ve been contradictory about it. Ever since we captured part of Mexico, you know, and created the immigration problem. He didn’t create the problem of–we haven’t had a chance, but one of the strengths of your writing is the reminder of class.
We were raised, you and I, in a society driven by the myth of a classless society, and we know that’s not the case. We know we’ve had the most glaring income redistribution for the rich in the last forty–ever since Reagan-Clinton, and they did the same thing up to now. And we don’t talk about class, and Occupy movements and so forth are brutally destroyed, up to this point actually more effectively than, say, in Hong Kong or other places where movements are destroyed.
And so I just wonder whether this Trumpwashing, as sort of what I tried to begin with, gets everybody off the hook. You know, and yet suddenly they’re all heroes now, all the [Democrats]–the CIA’s heroes, the FBI’s heroes, militarism. They voted for the big–Democrats and Republicans, biggest military budget, the languages of war-mongering. And I don’t see a peace movement now. I think we’re in a particularly dangerous moment, because there really is not much of a–even the people who are progressive candidates in the Democratic Party hardly talk about foreign policy. Sanders’ remarks were quite an exception. And I just wonder, you know, whether this Trumpwashing for everyone else is really not–is, I think, to my mind, really the big danger of the moment. We’ve lost a progressive base.
NC: I think you’re right to say that Trump is a symptom, but a very ugly and dangerous symptom of something much deeper. We can ask the question: What drove the Republicans off the rails? The Republican Party is the most dangerous organization in human history, literally, for just reasons of global warming and militarism–forget the rest, there’s plenty more–but that alone. And what happened? Notice it’s happening all over the world. All over the world there’s anger, resentment, bitterness; contempt for the established institutions takes one or another form. What’s happened all over the world? Well, something much deeper. We’ve been through 40 years of a neoliberal assault on the population. Every place you look, it’s been harmful. Take the United States, the most privileged country.
Real wages are about what they were in the 1960s and ’70s. There’s been plenty of growth; it’s gone into very few pockets. We’re now in a situation where 0.1%–not 1%–0.1% of the population have over 20% of the wealth. Half the population has negative net assets, losses bigger than gains, and people are in very precarious jobs. The majority of the population thinks their jobs are no good, uncertain. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. No organization, no way of defending yourself. That’s happening even more in Europe in many ways.
But there’s, in that kind of situation, a demagogue–this is very fertile terrain for a demagogue to come along and say, I’m your savior, I’m going to save you from all these terrible things, while in fact he’s working for them. Trump’s an example, Salvini in Italy is an example, Orbán in Hungary. It’s what’s happening all over. Modi in India. That’s–it’s a broad development. Trump is a particularly dangerous case of it because of the power of the United States. He happens to be the demagogue that came out of this situation in the United States, the most powerful state in history. So when the U.S. pulls out of any effort to deal with global warming, it’s much more serious than if, say, Italy does, OK. I think that’s the broader situation.
But I agree with you: just focusing on Trump as a depraved individual, which he is, is not really the point. It’s his–what he represents, and the enormous danger that’s posed. Just go back to that transportation document that I quoted. These guys are perfectly happy to see organized human society destroyed in the next generation, as long as they can be rich and powerful. And it’s not just Trump; it runs across a very broad spectrum. That’s what we should be worried about.
RS: So that sort of–I mean, I think that effectively, and in a chilling way, sums it up. Because the real question is, is the lesser evil significantly lesser?
NC: It is.
RS: It is in this election, perhaps, depending on how it works out. But again, going back through your body of work, and warnings that were offered–of course not just by you; we mentioned plenty of people, you know. First Pope John, and you know, Martin Luther King, lots of people issued these warnings about everything–about poverty, about class, about war, about violence, about American jingoism, et cetera. They were not heeded. And when you–it’s sort of, it’s actually more depressing than anything to consider that we don’t have adults–forget about smart people. We don’t–we used to say in the Bronx, you know, you can’t leave the candy store in the hands of your kid, you know; you got to have an adult watching the store. And really, the lesson of all of your work is not that we didn’t know what to do. You are–yes, you are very smart, but you also were stating what should have been the obvious. And then the real question is, why didn’t this cast of characters, who presumed to be knowing and concerned and everything, behave as adults?
NC: They do, within a certain institutional structure. So let’s go back to the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, OK. When he devotes huge financial resources to fossil-fuel production–including the most dangerous, like Canadian tar sands–he knows perfectly well what the consequences are going to be. But what are his choices within the institution that he’s controlling? He has two choices. One, he can say, I’m not going to do this, in which case I’m going to be thrown out, and somebody else will come in who will do it. Or he’ll just say, I’ll do it. It’s not just a personal problem, it’s an institutional problem, and the institutions are very dangerous. At the same time, when we look at specific choices like the electoral choice in 2020, personally I think the stakes are huge. Almost anyone you can pick up off the streets would be less dangerous than Trump.
We know what Trump’s policies are going to be. Probably not in his head; the policies are just directed by what’s good for me. But if you look at what they are, it’s maximizing–it translates into maximizing the use of fossil fuels, racing towards developing more devastating weapons, and encouraging others to do the same. Now, others we might not like, but they’re not going to do that. That’s a very significant difference, a fatal distinction. The fate of organized human society, and the existence of many other species, actually depends on this choice. So sometimes you can say, yeah, so all the choices are not great. But there are differences that matter. And I don’t think that can be forgotten.
RS: Well, just to underscore it, and I do think it’s an important point, you’re saying it is not just about manners. You’re saying that really, the people–you describe it as the most evil force we’ve had, the Republican Party. And it’s funny, because we’re doing this from Arizona, and there was a time when the senator from Arizona was running for president against Lyndon Johnson, and Barry Goldwater was described as the most evil Mad Bomber, and the world would be destroyed, and so forth. And we know this war in Vietnam that you protested against, and wrote so eloquently about, it was pursued by–we know because we have the Johnson tapes. We have the data, we have the evidence, we have the real news. And he says to Senator Russell–right there, on the eve of that election–he said, I have to be in Vietnam; I can’t get out, because the Republicans will destroy me. And then he goes in, and what, somewhere between 4 and 6 million Indo-Chinese people, and 59,000 Americans, et. cetera, get killed. And yet–we saw with Richard Nixon, we would have probably seen it with Barry Goldwater–maybe these guys can do reversals, maybe they can change.
Now, I’m not saying that’s a reason, but we’ve been living all these years with the illusion that there’s this lesser evil that somehow will make it better. And I’m just wondering–yes, it’s true. I’m frightened out of my mind that it’s four more years of Trump; yes. However, do we really think that the Democrats are going to propose a serious alternative? And won’t we be–if they don’t address the question of the growing immiseration of American people and their real incomes, the 80% that you write about, if they support bigger military budgets. You know, it’s not just you pick Exxon or JPMorgan–who, by the way, they were close to Obama–you could pick Goldman Sachs, you could pick Robert Rubin, you could pick the Democrat billionaires and so forth.
And I just wonder whether once again, lesser evilism will not lull us into–and we see it with the celebration of the FBI and the NSA and the CIA now, and everything. You know, yes, I can have the two thoughts in my head at once. Yes, I’m frightened of Trump, and I agree with Noam Chomsky on that. On the other hand, I’ve read Noam Chomsky, and I’m frightened to death of what neoliberalism and what that opportunism breeds, and it breeds a Trump. I didn’t go to his wedding; the Clintons did.
NC: There’s another word for lesser evilism. It’s called rationality. Lesser evilism is not an illusion, it’s a rational position. But you don’t stop with lesser evilism. You begin with it, to prevent the worst, and then you go on to deal with the fundamental roots of what’s wrong, even with the lesser evils.
RS: Or is it a rationalization? Far be it from me–
NC: It’s not a rationalization. Take Richard Nixon. You say that he changed. Why did he change? Because of something we haven’t mentioned. Because of a massive popular movement, which prevented him from doing what he might have done, OK. That’s what changed Nixon finally. He probably would have used nuclear weapons, just as Goldwater would have. Well, what happened in Vietnam was bad enough. Could have been worse. Let’s go back to the INF Treaty and Reagan. There was a background to that, too. A huge, popular anti-nuclear movement in the eighties, here and in Europe. That was a large part of the background. And if you take case after case, the reasons why the worst didn’t happen were because of popular movements that blocked it, and did make things better.
It goes back to when we were kids in the 1930s. There could have been things–there were problems with the New Deal. Could have been things much worse. Why weren’t they? Because of labor movement activism, popular activism, political parties–all the stuff we both remember from childhood that led to developments which greatly improved life for people. So even if there’s core, deep problems with the institutions, there still are choices between alternatives, which matter a lot. Small differences in a system with enormous power translate into huge effects. Meanwhile, you don’t stop with a lesser evilism; you continue to try to organize and develop the mass popular movements, which will block the worst and change the institutions. All of these things can go on at once. But the simple question of what button do you push on a particular day? That is a decision, and that matters. It’s not the whole story, by any means. It’s a small part of the story, but it matters.
RS: But last little footnote, is it also a trap? Is it an illusion? And I–I can’t sit here and disagree with what you said. And I’ll probably push the button–as I’ve done all my life; I’ve voted for lesser evil people. I’ve voted for war criminals. I’ve voted for the people–I always fail this test. True confession. I have voted for some of the worst, you know.
NC: That’s the right thing to do.
RS: OK. However, reading Noam Chomsky–and I’m saying this with great respect–does not lead me to think that we’ve been on a curve of progress. It leads me to think that, you know–no. We blew chances, we blew the opportunities, we endangered the world. And we have created, for the first time, this very idea that life on this planet is at issue. Now, if I had listened–I remember with Ehrlich and his Population Bomb, I remember the discussions of the sixties–this stuff about climate change and wasted resources and protecting the environment–this is not new. We’ve known this.
NC: There was no environmental movement in the sixties. Scientists knew it, but the–
RS: But people who wrote the Whole Earth Catalog, and talked about how we’re wasting resources, and–
NC: But it’s not a matter of wasting resources. It’s a matter of global warming, which is going to destroy the possibilities of human life. That didn’t really reach the public consciousness until the eighties. Now, when you say there’s no progress, I disagree. I think there’s been a lot of progress. In many respects, things are much better than in the sixties. Just take, for example, in the 1960s the United States had federal laws mandating segregation, preventing blacks from moving into federal housing. Do we have those now? No. The United States had anti-miscegenation laws so extreme that the Nazis wouldn’t accept them. Do we have them now? It had anti-sodomy laws, right until about 20 years ago. We don’t have them. Did women–were women regarded as, legally, peers? Entitled to be on a federal jury? No. That’s changed enormously.
And it didn’t change by gifts from above. It changed by the popular activism. Now, you say that Russell and Martin Luther King were vilified, but they also helped crucially to develop popular movements which made a difference. So, OK, they were vilified. Profit Elijah was vilified. Everyone who tries to do anything decent will get vilified. But they have an effect. They have an effect by reaching the public, helping to develop things that are developing from a groundswell. It wasn’t just Bertrand Russell and Martin Luther King. It was people working on the ground. In the case of the Civil Rights Movement, it was students in Greensboro, North Carolina who sat in on a lunch counter. SNCC workers who were going, riding on freedom buses, and so on. All of these things develop and they interact, and they do lead slowly to some kinds of progress. Not always; there are regressions. And there are points where you make choices that make a big difference.
I’m afraid I–it’s way my past my bedtime. [Laughs]
RS: Well, Noam Chomsky, I–look, it’s really refreshing and exciting for me to find you to be a source of optimism. I’m looking for sources of optimism, and I’m not going to play–
NC: Well, that’s easy to find. Take the Green New Deal. Something like a Green New Deal is essential for survival. Five years ago, nobody’d heard of it. Now it’s on the legislative agenda. Why? A bunch of young kids in the Sunrise Movement made a big difference. They didn’t come out of nowhere. The background of that is the Sanders campaign, and other agitation, and so on. That’s how things change.
RS: The Sanders campaign is a miracle of American politics. I thought he would get one or 2% of the vote, and then I saw my students, their laptops open, and I never saw a Hillary sticker. And I teach at the University of Southern California, which can be pretty conservative. But I was educated by my students about Sanders, no question about it. And I–the real issue [is] you talk about these institutions or organizations, but your work is about co-option, about manipulation and corruption. What we had–and it runs through your books. There was a time in our youth where you had, the unions really were a great hope. That’s the only thing that came out of–maybe in the black community was the church at some point, and so forth. But there really were not counter institutions until the development of industrial unions and so forth. And what we have now is a total fragmentation of people.
I mean, I got here with an Uber driver, you know, who seems to be a retired citizen trying to make do, you know. And the very idea of organizing for the rights–we have some of that with the service employees, and so forth. But in the main, we have almost no attention to economic condition, except for a few candidates in the primary. We’ve lost a base. And I’m not saying then that’s an excuse for inaction; I’m here doing this podcast [Laughs] because I’m trying to–
NC: Take a look at a little history. In the 1920s, the labor movement was totally crushed. There was nothing left. In the 1930s it revived, spearheaded the social democratic innovations which changed life. It can happen again.
RS: And let me just say as a footnote, when he says it can happen again, he’s not talking about the Holocaust. You’re talking about a mass–and I will hand you that other old codger; Bernie Sanders has certainly set a sterling example.
And thank you, Noam Chomsky, for doing this. This has been another–oh, a very special edition of “Scheer Intelligence,” where clearly I have been taken to school, and I enjoy it. I like learning, even at my advanced age. I want to thank Arizona Public Radio for hosting this, and the University of Arizona for hosting Noam Chomsky. Get ’em away from the New England elite. And our producer is Joshua Scheer, and Christopher Ho at KCRW in Santa Monica helps get these things up, and the University of Southern California. And see you next week with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence.”
Robert Scheer, editor in chief of Truthdig, has built a reputation for strong social and political writing over his 30 years as a journalist.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata holds a Creative Writing M.F.A. from Boston University and both a B.A. in Spanish and a B.A. in English with a creative writing concentration from the University of California.