CHomsky discusses America in decline, how the US literally has a standard game plan to block democracy, some thoughts on civilization, and on Gaza how to reply to people who try to defend Israel's actions.
Rob: What level do you think economics and marketing are at, compared to"
Noam: Not even in the same ball park.
Rob: Are you talking about pre-Copernican?
Noam: All.. Look, it's not a criticism. The reason why physics and chemistry make significant progress is that they're dealing with artificially simple systems. So physics makes huge progress, because it really isn't dealing with what's going on in the outside world. Like, physicists don't take video tapes of what's happening in the outside world and try to construct physics from it. It's concerned with extremely simple systems understood within the highly abstract context of sophisticated experiments. And doing that, you can make really enormous progress - tremendous intellectual achievements. But, if a physicist gets to, say, a molecule that's too complicated, they hand it over to chemists. And if it becomes too complicated for the chemists, they hand it over to the biologists, and if it's too complicated for them, they hand it over to the historians or sociologists. And of course, as you move to higher and higher levels of complexity, you (quite naturally) get less and less fundamental understanding. That's almost automatic. So it's not that deep understanding is inconceivable, it's just going to be a lot harder. And when we talk about those issues of unification that you were quoting in connection with the sciences, or the shift from teaching engineering to teaching basic science, remember that's very recent, after literally thousands of years of intensive study and progress.
Rob: And, you know, you mention in that same article -- and frankly that article grabbed me, because my first encounter with you was back in the early 70s as a psychology major reading about psycholinguistics. And so I think of you, not just as an activist, but of course as a scientist. You mention in that article, and I quote, "At some point in human evolution, and it's apparently pretty recent given the archeological record (maybe the last hundred thousand years), a computational system emerged which had new properties that other organisms didn't have, that has kind of arithmetical type properties"" Now, you were talking about language acquisition skills there, I think.
Noam: It's language"go ahead, sorry.
Rob: Just to wrap up the question; others have written about how small changes in language, like the onset of writing, or the beginning of the Gutenberg press, have had -- like people like Leonard Shlain and Walter Ong - they've explored how these changes have had major effects on how people function in our culture. I'm just curious; now we have the internet, and with this it's massively changing things, I really think that it had a big effect on the Occupy Wall Street Phenomenon. I'm asking, so, we go from one hundred thousand years ago, a computational system emerges, and arithmetical brain properties, and language, and writing, and now we have the internet, and where do you see us all moving with this as humans, so we don't kill ourselves with our intelligence?
Noam: Well, I think we have to be careful not to mix apples and oranges. The emergence of language, and with it, apparently, other properties of cognitively modern humans - us basically -- that's probably within, maybe roughly seventy five thousand years ago, plus or minus some. But there hasn't been any change since then! We're the same humans we were then. In fact, we know pretty well with high confidence that for at least fifty thousand years, there's been no evolution, no detectable evolution of the human cognitive capacities. The way we know this is quite straight forward. If you take an infant from a tribe in the Amazon, which hasn't had contact, which has been isolated, from other humans for ten thousand years or so, and you bring that infant to, say, New York City, it'll be just like a kid growing up in New York. It'll speak the same way; it'll go to MIT and study Quantum Theory, and so on. And, conversely, you take an infant from New York, and put him in that tribe in the Amazon, it'll be like the other children there. Well, that tells us that they have essentially the same cognitive capacities.
Now, there are individual differences (not very large, but some) in cognitive capacities, and of course there is pathology at the extremes, but there are really no known group differences. And from that we learn that evolution of human language and, as far as we know, other cognitive capacities, hasn't taken place (or at least at most is very marginal) for at least fifty thousand years, since humans began to leave Africa maybe seventy five thousand years [ago]; I mean, the numbers are kind of indefinite, but something on that order.
So, yes, something apparently quite sudden happened from an evolutionary point of view roughly in the fifty to one hundred thousand year time window. You know, you can double the numbers if you like, nothing changes. From an evolutionary point of view that is the flick of an eye. So, something sudden happened. It led to cognitively modern humans, and they really haven't changed since then. Now, the other things you're talking about don't involve evolutionary change; no change in the genes, no change in the way our brains are organized in any significant way, but there are changes, and there are big ones. Like, the internet is undoubtedly a big change, but the fact of the matter is that the invention of the printing press was a much bigger change, or take, say, speed of communication: communication is much faster now than it was, say, ten years ago, but the shifts in the last generation are very slight as compared to the shifts a century earlier. I mean, the shifts, say, from sailing ships to telegraph, was dramatically greater than the shift from telephones to iPads (or whatever they are), or to the internet. I mean, a shift from the sailing ships to the telegraph meant that instead of a letter to England waiting maybe two months for an answer, it could be almost instantaneous. The development of the printing press had a huge effect on human life, I think greater than the current ones. So, these changes that are taking place are significant. And you're right about the internet and the Occupy movement.
In fact, activist movements constantly use the internet for organizing. These are all important developments. And the same with the kinds of things that Walter Ong and others are talking about. But, they are not changes in human capacity. They are not evolutionary changes, so they're quite different than whatever it was that took place that led to cognitively modern humans -- humans with human language and other cognitive capacities.
Rob: Along these same lines, I've been wrestling with the idea of Civilization itself. There are a couple of people who are saying civilization is unsustainable the way it is. And I believe that we are transitioning from a world that is what civilization created, that is hierarchical and top down and centralized, to a more bottom up, decentralized world. And, it seems to me that that started with the onset of agriculture, when humans transitioned from being hunter-gatherers to becoming farmers, domesticators of animals, and then the builders of cities, and what became Civilization. It seems to me like the way it has evolved, to now, your Civilization has become a Corporatist State, we don't have a great looking future. Do you have any ideas about this transition of humans from hunter-gatherer foragers to Civilization, and where we are now in civilization?
Noam: Well, you know, probably ninety-five percent of human history is hunter gatherers. The agricultural revolution was very recent; roughly ten thousand years ago. The formation of city-states came a couple of thousand years later. And the corporatization that you are talking about is the last century or so. So, almost all of human history is hunter gatherer. And those societies, many of which still exist around the world, tend to be relatively egalitarian. I mean, there is plenty of complexity to them, but they don't have the kinds of hierarchies and authoritarianism and centralization that took place with the development of cities, wasn't true in those days. There is some debate about this among anthropologists, but I think the weight of evidence shows that, just war in the modern sense developed pretty much with city-states. Hunter gatherer societies might have some fighting, but there's nothing like war. Contrary to a lot of the stuff in literature, there is pretty good evidence to this. And now, when you talk about our corporate society, you are talking about advanced Western societies; that is not most of the world. Maybe they are moving in that direction, maybe not. And it has self-destructive features in it, some of which we've discussed. Can they be overcome and replaced by more cooperative systems, based on Democratic participation and mutual support and so on? You know that's possible. In fact, I agree with you that that is what we should be working for, but you just can't predict how far it will go. These are matters for action not for speculation. And there are signs of it.
Rob: Now, in your interview with Amy Goodman, "America in Decline," you talked about America being in decline, and then you get into the idea of how one of the main things America has done is block democracy in developing states and nations. You say the Vietnam War was fought primarily to ensure that an independent Vietnam would not develop successfully to become a model for other countries in the region. And then you talk about how, in the last ten years, South American countries have begun to develop independence, and a degree of integration. And the Arab Spring is another such threat, you said, that threatens to take that big region out of the grand arena. It is a lot more significant than Southeast Asia or South America. And that, you said, so far the Arab Spring has been pretty well contained. And you said, and I quote, "We managed to ensure that the threat of Democracy would be smashed in the most important places. In Egypt, the United States followed a standard operation procedure when one of your favorite dictators gets into trouble." Now, that's really interesting. The US has a standard operating procedure when one of its dictators gets in trouble? Could you describe that?
Noam: Well, it's happened so many times it takes real effort not to see it. So, let's take, just in recent years, Somoza and Nicaragua. It was the Carter administration, which is, you know, maybe the most human rights oriented administration. They supported Somoza right to the end after his troops literally had killed maybe forty thousand people.
The US continued to support him when the business world turned against him, and it was going to be impossible to support him any longer. The Carter administration tried to rescue the remnants of the regime, even rescue the hated National Guard, and move them elsewhere, and then try to reconstitute them. And then Reagan came along and was forced to essentially reconstitute them and overthrow the new government. That's Somoza. A couple of years later, Duvalier in Haiti, another favorite dictator, came under internal threat. Again, the US supported him (this is Reagan now) to the bitter end. Finally the army turned against him, and then the Reagan Administration flew him out of the country with half the country's treasury on an air force plane, to Paris. Marcos, in the Philippines, about the same time, same story. Mobutu in the Congo, Suharto in Indonesia.
I mean this is just retainment. "If you have a favorite dictator, support him for as long as possible. If it becomes impossible, send him off somewhere, and essentially try to reconstruct the old system." That's pretty much what happened in Egypt. The Obama administration supported Mubarak to the very end, practically the last minute, and finally even the army turned against him, and they realized they've got to ditch him. So, they sent him off to Sharm El-Sheikh, and since then have been trying to reconstruct a regime that would somehow follow the same Neoliberal policies. You know, they don't control everything, but that's certainly what they are trying to influence. And, in the countries that really matter to the west, the oil dictatorships that the US has supported, the dictatorships have really harshly repressed any significant effort at reform, and the US has backed them all the way. France did the same in Tunisia, which was its dependency. They supported the dictator Ben Ali up to the point where it is becoming a joke, even after people were demonstrating, wildly demonstrating, in the streets. But that's exactly the way powerful systems act. It shouldn't surprise us. No system of power wants Democracy. It is a threat to its interest. I mean, of course they'll all talk about democracy, but you know everybody talks about democracy; Stalin talked about it, the Japanese Fascists talked about it, you know, everyone says democracy is great, but systems of power are not going to like it, because it erodes their power. I mean, it is as simple as that.
And, the evidence for it is just overwhelming. Incidentally, there is also scholarly discussion of it by people who are considered by major scholars, who are considered to regard themselves as strongly in favor of democracy promotion. I've written about the scholarship, I can tell you about it. But, the basic conclusion, which shouldn't surprise anyone, is that the United States supports Democracy if, and only if, it conforms to strategic and economic objectives. I mean, you've got to be pretty naïve to expect anything different. And the fact that it's clearly established by scholarly work, even scholarly work that doesn't like the outcome, but honest work - that's good. That shouldn't surprise us. I'm sorry; I'm afraid I've got to take off. I've got another interview online. (laughs)
Rob: Ok. Thank you so much. You know, the one question I had left for you was about Gaza. Do you have a minute for Gaza?
Noam: Yeah. Go ahead. I just came back from there you know.
Rob: Yeah, I know. So, what is your take on what's happening there? I know a new balance taking place, and that Qatar is now giving money, which is changing the balance without Iran funding them. Where do you see things happening in going there? What should we be doing?
Noam: Well, first of all, the punishment of Gaza has been going on since 1948. In 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either were expelled or fled in terror from what is now Israel. In fact, Israel was still trekking them across the border years after the cease-fire. After 1967, there was a new -- then Israel conquered Gaza - there was a new expulsion of refugees. The goal at the time -- and we know this from internal records - was just drive them all out of Gaza. Well, they couldn't quite do that, but they sent out plenty in violation - and wouldn't let them return - in violation of Security Council resolutions, and worse in the West Bank. Since then, it has been a constant record of violence and repression.
The most recent period of severe repression by the US and Israel (they worked together since 2006), there was a free election - carefully monitored free election, in January 2006. It was actually the first one in the Arab world - the only one really - and the US didn't like the way it came out. Nor did Israel; they wanted it to come out a different way. So, they immediately turned to harsh punishment of the people of Gaza, of Palestine altogether. It is a nice indication of how much they love Democracy: It's got to turn out the right way. Well, the US also turned to another standard operating procedure: when you don't like the government, organize a military coup to overthrow it. OK, that military coup was beaten back a year later, and the elected government took over, the Hamas government. At that point, the punishment of Gaza got far more extreme, both by Israel and the US, with European Union tailing along. Then came this hideous operation Cast Lead, which is a mass murder operation. So, it continues. This is just the latest upsurge - the last month. If you read the cease-fire accord in brief statement, it says that within twenty-four hours after the cessation of hostilities, the major fundamental issues like the siege and -- which is an act of war of course - and the barring of constraints on people leaving and so on - that that will all be addressed. Well, you know, nothing is being addressed, and so the main situation, the main story, the primary story, is that the US and Israel have been and are continuing to maintain a harsh regime of punishment and siege in Gaza, while at the same time they are pretty much taking over what is of value to them in the West Bank, and separating Gaza and the West Bank from one another in direct violation of the Oslo Accord. Those are the major issues. There are a lot of minor ones.
Rob: Now, you're Jewish, I'm Jewish. I hear from Jewish people I know all the time, "Oh, Israel treats the people in Gaza good. They bring them to Deborah Hospital, and what else could Israel do with all of those bombs raining down on them?" What is your reply to that, and what did you see when you were there in Gaza? What do you have to report from your actual visit there?
Noam: Well, I wrote about it, so you can look it up, but it's basically a prison. People are imprisoned. The Israeli policy is to prevent them from starving to death - that wouldn't look good - but to essentially prevent development. So, at the start, just to give you one indication, at the beginning of this latest Israeli upsurge of violence, November 14th, about half of the essential medicines required in Gaza were not available; they weren't there. That's because of the siege. You know, you go to visit hospitals and they don't have simple medicines; they don't have surgical equipment; there's very little construction, because the system won't allow real construction to take place, except in limited ways. The idea that they let them in the hospitals is a joke. They actually bar going to the hospital -- occasionally they'll let somebody in. But, the question, "What do you do when you're under attack by missiles?" is a fair question. And there are answers: very straightforward answers. One answer, a simple one, is to accept a truce. There were constant truce offers right before this latest upsurge to, there was another one before, Cast Lead. And, during the truces - we know from Israeli official sources - that Hamas observed the truce completely; like the pre-Cast Lead truce. There wasn't a single Hamas missile fired until Israel broke the truce.
So, one simple answer is accept a truce. Another simple answer is: follow the principals of International Law, which are quite clear. You can read the UN charter. It's very explicit. Forces are permitted under one circumstance, unless authorized by the Security Council, one circumstance: If a country thinks it's under armed attack, it is supposed to notify the Security Council, and it is allowed to use force in self-defense until the Security Council acts. That is the one exception. Well, Israel of course didn't do that, because it knew that if it approached the Security Council, the whole array of pretexts would fall apart. But that's the second answer, and there is a third answer, a much more significant one.
Actually, by interesting coincidence, one of the conservative national security journals just published an article about it, not referring to Israel; they were referring to China in the Western Province, the Xinjiang province; there was an uprising. The weaker population started slaughtering Han Chinese. Well, if it had been Israel or the United States, we know how they would have reacted. But China reacted differently. The Prime Minister flew there, security officials were removed, policies were introduced to deal with the underlying problems - development, reconstruction and so on - and the violence reduced. That is the more far reaching approach. The US and Israel should be paying extensive reparations to Gaza for what they have been doing to them for the last, as far back as you want to go, at least since 1948. Well, so there are answers, it's a fair question, and there are answers to it. I'm sorry, I've really got to leave.
Rob: Ok. Thank you so much. "Radio ID" I've been speaking to Noam Chomsky, a legend in activism and The Left.
Here's a link to the first half of the interview.