- Birthday, Books, Politics, Quotes, Reading, Writing

“The intellectual tradition is one of servility to power, and if I didn’t betray it, I’d be ashamed of myself.”

 

Happy birthday, Noam Chomsky! 91, today! Here are some quotes from the linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, and political activist.

 

”The responsibility of the writer as a moral agent is to try to bring the truth about matters of human significance to an audience that can do something about them.”

 

“It is quite possibleoverwhelmingly probable, one might guessthat we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology.”

 

“I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom.”

 

“Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune.”

 

“We shouldn’t be looking for heroes, we should be looking for good ideas.”

 

”There’s a good reason why nobody studies history. It just teaches you too much.”

 

“Growing up in the place I did I never was aware of any other option but to question everything.”

 

“The principle that human nature, in its psychological aspects, is nothing more than a product of history and given social relations removes all barriers to coercion and manipulation by the powerful.”

 

“Personally, I’m in favor of democracy, which means that the central institutions in the society have to be under popular control. Now, under capitalism we can’t have democracy by definition. Capitalism is a system in which the central institutions of society are in principle under autocratic control. Thus, a corporation or an industry is, if we were to think of it in political terms, fascist; that is, it has tight control at the top and strict obedience has to be established at every level—there’s a little bargaining, a little give and take, but the line of authority is perfectly straightforward. Just as I’m opposed to political fascism, I’m opposed to economic fascism. I think that until major institutions of society are under the popular control of participants and communities, it’s pointless to talk about democracy.”

 

”Because they don’t teach the truth about the world, schools have to rely on beating students over the head with propaganda about democracy. If schools were, in reality, democratic, there would be no need to bombard students with platitudes about democracy. They would simply act and behave democratically, and we know this does not happen. The more there is a need to talk about the ideals of democracy, the less democratic the system usually is.”

 

”The most effective way to restrict democracy is to transfer decision-making from the public arena to unaccountable institutions: kings and princes, priestly castes, military juntas, party dictatorships, or modern corporations.”

 

“It is the fundamental duty of the citizen to resist and to restrain the violence of the state. Those who choose to disregard this responsibility can justly be accused of complicity in war crimes, which is itself designated as ‘a crime under international law’ in the principles of the Charter of Nuremberg.”

 

“The question in brief, is whether democracy and freedom are values to be preserved or threats to be avoided. In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than values to be treasured; they may well be essential to survival.”

 

”Modern industrial civilization has developed within a certain system of convenient myths. The driving force of modern industrial civilization has been individual material gain, which is accepted as legitimate, even praiseworthy, on the grounds that private vices yield public benefits, in the classic formulation. Now, it has long been understood, very well, that a society that is based on this principle will destroy itself in time. It can only persist, with whatever suffering and injustice that it entails, as long as it is possible to pretend that the destructive forces that humans create are limited, that the world is an infinite resource, and that the world is an infinite garbage can. At this stage of history either one of two things is possible. Either the general population will take control of its own destiny and will concern itself with community interests, guided by values of solidarity, sympathy and concern for others, or alternatively there will be no destiny for anyone to control. As long as some specialized class is in a position of authority, it is going to set policy in the special interests that it serves. But the conditions of survival, let alone justice, require rational social planning in the interests of the community as a whole, and by now that means the global community. The question is whether privileged elite should dominate mass communication and should use this power as they tell us they must—namely to impose necessary illusions, to manipulate and deceive the stupid majority and remove them from the public arena. The question in brief, is whether democracy and freedom are values to be preserved or threats to be avoided. In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than values to be treasured; they may well be essential to survival.”

 

“Either the general population will take control of its own destiny and will concern itself with community interests, guided by values of solidarity, sympathy and concern for others, or alternatively there will be no destiny for anyone to control.”

 

“Roughly speaking, I think it’s accurate to say that a corporate elite of managers and owners governs the economy and the political system as well, at least in very large measure. The people, so-called, do exercise an occasional choice among those who Marx once called ‘the rival factions and adventurers of the ruling class.'”

 

”In the United States, the political system is a very marginal affair. There are two parties, so-called, but they’re really factions of the same party, the Business Party. Both represent some range of business interests. In fact, they can change their positions 180 degrees, and nobody even notices. In the 1984 election, for example, there was actually an issue, which often there isn’t. The issue was Keynesian growth versus fiscal conservatism. The Republicans were the party of Keynesian growth: big spending, deficits, and so on. The Democrats were the party of fiscal conservatism: watch the money supply, worry about the deficits, et cetera. Now, I didn’t see a single comment pointing out that the two parties had completely reversed their traditional positions. Traditionally, the Democrats are the party of Keynesian growth, and the Republicans the party of fiscal conservatism. So doesn’t it strike you that something must have happened? Well, actually, it makes sense. Both parties are essentially the same party. The only question is how coalitions of investors have shifted around on tactical issues now and then. As they do, the parties shift to opposite positions, within a narrow spectrum.”

 

“Of course it’s extremely easy to say, the heck with it. I’m just going to adapt myself to the structures of power and authority and do the best I can within them. Sure, you can do that. But that’s not acting like a decent person. You can walk down the street and be hungry. You see a kid eating an ice cream cone and you notice there’s no cop around and you can take the ice cream cone from him because you’re bigger and walk away. You can do that. Probably there are people who do. We call them ‘pathological.’ On the other hand, if they do it within existing social structures we call them ‘normal.’ But it’s just as pathological. It’s just the pathology of the general society.”

 

“If you quietly accept and go along no matter what your feelings are, ultimately you internalize what you’re saying, because it’s too hard to believe one thing and say another. I can see it very strikingly in my own background. Go to any elite university and you are usually speaking to very disciplined people, people who have been selected for obedience. And that makes sense. If you’ve resisted the temptation to tell the teacher, ‘You’re an asshole,’ which maybe he or she is, and if you don’t say, ‘That’s idiotic,’ when you get a stupid assignment, you will gradually pass through the required filters. You will end up at a good college and eventually with a good job.”

 

“The logic is clear—propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state…”

 

“Non-violent resistance activities cannot succeed against an enemy that is able freely to use violence. That’s pretty obvious. You can’t have non-violent resistance against the Nazis in a concentration camp, to take an extreme case…”

 

“For those who stubbornly seek freedom around the world, there can be no more urgent task than to come to understand the mechanisms and practices of indoctrination. These are easy to perceive in the totalitarian societies, much less so in the propaganda system to which we are subjected and in which all too often we serve as unwilling or unwitting instruments.”

 

“You have to weep for this country. […] To me it seems that what is needed is a kind of denazification.”

 

“The whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don’t know how to be submissive, and so on—because they’re dysfunctional to the institutions.”

 

“Education is a system of imposed ignorance.”

 

“How it is we have so much information, but know so little?”

 

“Most problems of teaching are not problems of growth but helping cultivate growth. As far as I know, and this is only from personal experience in teaching, I think about ninety percent of the problem in teaching, or maybe ninety-eight percent, is just to help the students get interested. Or what it usually amounts to is to not prevent them from being interested. Typically they come in interested, and the process of education is a way of driving that defect out of their minds. But if children[‘s]…normal interest is maintained or even aroused, they can do all kinds of things in ways we don’t understand.”

 

“Debt is a trap, especially student debt, which is enormous, far larger than credit card debt. It’s a trap for the rest of your life because the laws are designed so that you can’t get out of it. If a business, say, gets in too much debt, it can declare bankruptcy, but individuals can almost never be relieved of student debt through bankruptcy.”

 

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrumeven encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

 

“All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.”

 

“The more you can increase fear of drugs, crime, welfare mothers, immigrants and aliens, the more you control all of the people.”

 

“That’s the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody’s going to be against, and everybody’s going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything.”

 

“If you quietly accept and go along no matter what your feelings are, ultimately you internalize what you’re saying, because it’s too hard to believe one thing and say another. I can see it very strikingly in my own background. Go to any elite university and you are usually speaking to very disciplined people, people who have been selected for obedience. And that makes sense. If you’ve resisted the temptation to tell the teacher, “You’re an asshole,” which maybe he or she is, and if you don’t say, “That’s idiotic,” when you get a stupid assignment, you will gradually pass through the required filters. You will end up at a good college and eventually with a good job.”

 

“You cannot control your own population by force, but it can be distracted by consumption.”

 

“If you want to achieve something, you build the basis for it.”

 

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, it’s unlikely you will step up and take responsibility for making it so. If you assume that there’s no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, there’s a chance you may contribute to making a better world. The choice is yours.”

 

“In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than just ideals to be valuedthey may be essential to survival.”

 

“If you look at history, even recent history, you see that there is indeed progress….Over time, the cycle is clearly, generally upwards. And it doesn’t happen by laws of nature. And it doesn’t happen by social laws…It happens as a result of hard work by dedicated people who are willing to look at problems honestly, to look at them without illusions, and to go to work chipping away at them, with no guarantee of success—in fact, with a need for a rather high tolerance for failure along the way, and plenty of disappointments.”

 

“Everyone’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s really an easy way: Stop participating in it.”

 

“For the powerful, crimes are those that others commit.”

 

“It’s only terrorism if they do it to us. When we do much worse to them, it’s not terrorism.”

 

“The number of people killed by the sanctions in Iraq is greater than the total number of people killed by all weapons of mass destruction in all of history.”

 

“Violence can succeed, as Americans know well from the conquest of the national territory. But at terrible cost. It can also provoke violence in response, and often does.”

 

“As a tactic, violence is absurd. No one can compete with the Government in violence, and the resort to violence, which will surely fail, will simply frighten and alienate some who can be reached, and will further encourage the ideologists and administrators of forceful repression.”

 

“You never need an argument against the use of violence, you need an argument for it.”

 

“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.

 

“Changes and progress very rarely are gifts from above. They come out of struggles from below.”

 

“Rational discussion is useful only when there is a significant base of shared assumptions.”

 

“That is what I have always understood to be the essence of anarchism: the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met.”

 

“Some may remember, if you have good memories, that there used to be a concept in Anglo-American law called a presumption of innocence, innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Now that’s so deep in history that there’s no point even bringing it up, but it did once exist.”

 

“International affairs is very much run like the mafia. The godfather does not accept disobedience, even from a small storekeeper who doesn’t pay his protection money. You have to have obedience; otherwise, the idea can spread that you don’t have to listen to the orders, and it can spread to important places.”

 

“Neoliberal democracy. Instead of citizens, it produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomized society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralized and socially powerless. In sum, neoliberalism is the immediate and foremost enemy of genuine participatory democracy, not just in the United States but across the planet, and will be for the foreseeable future.”

 

“How people themselves perceive what they are doing is not a question that interests me. I mean, there are very few people who are going to look into the mirror and say, ‘That person I see is a savage monster’; instead, they make up some construction that justifies what they do. If you ask the CEO of some major corporation what he does, he will say, in all honesty, that he is slaving 20 hours a day to provide his customers with the best goods or services he can and creating the best possible working conditions for his employees. But then you take a look at what the corporation does, the effect of its legal structure, the vast inequalities in pay and conditions, and you see the reality is something far different.”

 

“It’s ridiculous to talk about freedom in a society dominated by huge corporations. What kind of freedom is there inside a corporation? They’re totalitarian institutionsyou take orders from above and maybe give them to people below you. There’s about as much freedom as under Stalinism.”

 

“The beauty of our system is that it isolates everybody. Each person is sitting alone in front of the tube, you know. It’s very hard to have ideas or thoughts under those circumstances. You can’t fight the world alone.”

 

“Responsibility I believe accrues through privilege. People like you and me have an unbelievable amount of privilege and therefore we have a huge amount of responsibility. We live in free societies where we are not afraid of the police; we have extraordinary wealth available to us by global standards. If you have those things, then you have the kind of responsibility that a person does not have if he or she is slaving seventy hours a week to put food on the table; a responsibility at the very least to inform yourself about power. Beyond that, it is a question of whether you believe in moral certainties or not.”

 

“There are two problems for our species’ survivalnuclear war and environmental catastropheand we’re hurtling towards them. Knowingly.”

 

“One of the problems of organizing in the North, in the rich countries, is that people tend to thinkeven the activiststhat instant gratification is required. You constantly hear: ‘Look I went to a demonstration, and we didn’t stop the war so what’s the use of doing it again?’”

 

“It is important to bear in mind that political campaigns are designed by the same people who sell toothpaste and cars.”

 

“Our only real hope for democracy is that we get the money out of politics entirely and establish a system of publicly funded elections.”

 

“The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.”

 

“Censorship is never over for those who have experienced it. It is a brand on the imagination that affects the individual who has suffered it, forever.”

 

“Any dictator would admire the uniformity and obedience of the U.S. media.”

 

“Everyone knows that when you look at a television ad, you do not expect to get information. You expect to see delusion and imagery.”

 

“If anybody thinks they should listen to me because I’m a professor at MIT, that’s nonsense. You should decide whether something makes sense by its content, not by the letters after the name of the person who says it.”

 

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

1 thought on ““The intellectual tradition is one of servility to power, and if I didn’t betray it, I’d be ashamed of myself.”

  1. Excellent explication. I was describing just this phenomenon to family, a rare friend and some bloggers a few days ago. That as you describe, servility to power/authority/boss/leader/billionaire is so thoroughly enmeshed in American psyches most people accept it as a given, a rule, and natural order of doing business, let alone, surviving in society. And as a formerly good Catholic, I am also wont to finiah my prayer to my friends with the close of the Gloria Patri, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be world without end, Amen.

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