Going Nuclear with Noam Chomsky

Activist Luminary Chats in Advance of S.B. Appearance

Noam Chomsky
Courtesy Photo

You don’t need to have a brain the size of Noam Chomsky’s to figure out that, with 4,650 nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal alone, humans have created a very efficient means of destroying themselves. But when Chomsky, as he does in his most recent book, identifies nuclear war — along with environmental catastrophe — as one of two “dark clouds … threatening decent survival of the species,” you might as well listen.

Chomsky, the linguist whose theory of a universal grammar revolutionized his own academic discipline and changed the directions of many others (including psychology, philosophy, literature, and anthropology), might best be known as the single most indefatigable bulwark against the American imperial instinct. Ever since penning a 1967 essay called “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” in the New York Review of Books, excoriating fellow scholars for dishonestly rationalizing the Vietnam War, Chomsky, a self-proclaimed anarchist, has been speaking and writing about the injustices of U.S. policy, at times putting his career on the line, all the while publishing books faster than most of us fire off single email messages.

On October 23, he will visit Santa Barbara to address the dangers of nuclear weapons at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s annual Evening for Peace before participating in a symposium the following two days. A couple of weeks ago, Chomsky chatted over the phone with The Santa Barbara Independent to explain why the nuclear codes aren’t just a rhetorical device for scaring voters away from the Republican candidate running for president. Following is an edited version of our conversation.

In your book Who Rules the World?, you say that the threat of nuclear war is increasing. Can you tell our readers why? It’s not just my personal position. It’s a widely held position among the leading specialists. William Perry, for example, is one of the most respected figures in the national security establishment, former Secretary of Defense, a specialist in nuclear issues. He’s actually warned that the threat is greater now than during the Cold War. The doomsday clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been moved to three minutes to midnight, which is as close as it was 30 years ago when there was a very serious war scare.

This is by no means abstract, and the threats are building up at the most dangerous point in the world, right at the Russian border. NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] expansion has gone up the Russian border. Both sides are increasing their military expenditures, improvement of nuclear weapons systems, and engaging in pretty adventurous actions near the border that even just by accident can lead to explosions. [Nuclear conflict] has come dangerously close in the past, and it looks quite threatening now. So I think there is merit in the opinion of leading specialists that this threat is quite serious and expanding.

Is it a concern that Russia is trying to reassert itself as an international power? Reasserting itself against what? U.S. domination of the world? It’s been the dominant power since the end of World War II and alone since 1991, [after] the fall of the Berlin Wall. So Russia is reasserting itself but in its own region. The conflicts today are not on the border of Mexico and Canada.

What about China? In the case of China, it’s reasserting dominance in East Asia, which it has traditionally dominated for millennia. In fact, the expansion that is threatening conflict with the United States and some neighboring countries is in the South China Sea, but the major Chinese expansion is westward. Chinese strategists understand very well that on the ocean side, they are partially hemmed in by hostile powers, the ring that goes from South Korea south through the Philippines, U.S. bases in Okinawa, Japan, and South Korea.

What did you think about the Obama administration’s deal with Iran to curtail its nuclear program? The deal with Iran wasn’t perfect, but it was a positive move. There was fundamentally no sound reason for strong objections to Iran’s [nuclear] programs. Of course nobody wants another nuclear power, but it wasn’t a threat really. The agreement that was made does eliminate any possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons within the reasonable future. And it does much more significantly open the opportunity for Iran to be integrated into the global system from which it’s been excluded.

President [Hassan] Rouhani the other day at the UN quite properly complained that the U.S. Treasury Department is improperly intimidating European banks and others, preventing them from moving to closer financial and commercial relations with Iran to help it break out of its isolation. The Republican Party particularly is a serious barrier to integration.

Tom Wolfe lampoons your theory of universal grammar in his latest book, The Kingdom of Speech. Did that bother you? If you take a look at his Harper’s article [an essay version of the book titled “The Origins of Speech”], there was one paragraph that was accurate. The rest was either fanciful or outright fabrications and slanders. The one paragraph that was accurate was a quote from me. We did have a telephone conversation in which I explained to him why what he was claiming just didn’t make any sense. And one paragraph remained. It was where his pièce de resistance is this Amazonian language, Pirahã [which does not include recursion, one of the distinctive features of human language identified by Chomsky].

What I pointed out is that speakers of this language learn Portuguese perfectly. They have the same language faculty that we have. The universal principles that are proposed — including recursion, which he doesn’t understand — are about the language faculty. They are not about languages. To take an analogy — it’s very explicit in the papers he refers to — suppose you are a biologist studying binocular vision in humans and you find a tribe somewhere where people wear a black patch over one eye so they don’t use binocular vision. It’s of no use to biology. … That basically ends the discussion.

I thought the fact that he paints you as someone who doesn’t leave the Ivory Tower was ironic since you are very engaged in the world. That’s what really bothers him. The main thing is his attack on politics, and that’s fabricated, too. He makes it look as if it’s all just fun and games. Anyone who is involved knows that’s not the case.

You quote Ernst Mayr in the beginning of your book Hegemony or Survival. He points out that there’s a negative correlation between a species’ intelligence and its length of survival. Where do you see hope for us? A lot of the activism of young people is impressive. I was surprised by the Sanders campaign. I think it revealed that substantial sectors of the population could offer serious ways out of serious dilemmas.


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