Living Legend - Noam Chomsky

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Living Legend - Noam Chomsky Photo by Donna Coveney/MIT

Noam Chomsky

Saving the World from Self-Destruction

Linguist, cognitive scientist, philosopher, logician and political commentator–all of these have been used to describe Noam Chomsky, one of the greatest minds in the world today. Born in 1928 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Avram Noam Chomsky studied linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania where he earned his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. He was later appointed as a professor of foreign languages and linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He became a pioneer in the field of psycholinguistics, helping to establish a relationship between linguistics and psychology. Today, he is one of the world’s most highly influential academic figures, being cited in the Arts & Humanities Citation Index more often than any other living scholar between 1980 and 1992, influencing such fields as mathematics, computer science, artificial intelligence, logic, cognitive science, music theory and analysis, political science, programming language theory and psychology. Outside of academia, Chomsky is internationally recognized as a political activist for his writing and speaking on U.S. foreign policy, capitalism and the mainstream news media. In 2005, he was named the most important public intellectual in the FP Top 100 Global Thinkers poll conducted by Foreign Policy magazine. Tokyo Journal Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie spoke with Professor Noam Chomsky about his views on Japan and some of the greatest threats to the survival of the human race.

TJ: As we’re the Tokyo Journal, let me begin with Japan. You’ve been to Japan many times over the years. Has Japan made a strong impression on you?
: Yes. The first time I went was just about 50 years ago. I’ve been there several times and returned earlier this year for lectures, meetings, interviews and so on. The country has changed a lot.

TJ: Are there any aspects of Japanese culture that particularly attract you?
: Well, traditional Japanese culture has a kind of mysterious, seductive quality that is very engaging. So just going to the stone garden in Kyoto, the temples, music and food … it’s kind of a delicacy and has a strange attractiveness, which is extremely appealing and strangely captivating, but there are other things which I have been surprised at over the years that have changed somewhat. For example, I give talks all over the world. I am often invited to give professional talks on linguistics, cognitive science, philosophy and so on. But everywhere I am asked to give political talks as well–whatever the issues of the period are. The one exception was Japan. Until quite recently Japan was the one country where I had interviews or I was asked to give talks pretty much on technical subjects and I’ve noticed that’s changed over the years for reasons I don’t know. The change, at least to me, is quite perceptible.

TJ: With that said, I’d like to ask you about Fukushima.
: The last time I was there I met with people from Fukushima. A group came to Tokyo, a group of activists that works with survivors there, and we had a very moving experience listening to them and talking with them.

TJ: Because the Japanese have been impacted by multiple nuclear disasters, do you feel they have a special responsibility to the world to oppose nuclear power?
: Well, I would put it a little differently. I think the one country in the world that has used nuclear weapons on civilian populations is the country that has real responsibility to do something about it. If you look at the record it’s not very attractive, to put it mildly. Two atom bombs, the first in Hiroshima was horrible enough. The second one in Nagasaki was, in a way, kind of an experiment to try a new design and after the Nagasaki bombing about five days later, if you read the official U.S. Air Force history, they describe what they call a “grand finale.” General Arnold succeeded in gathering a thousand planes, which was no small logistic triumph in those days to carry out a thousand-plane raid on completely defenseless Japanese cities, killing many people. But according to people on the ground, one of them Makoto Oda, a well-known Japanese novelist who was a young boy at the time, wrote an article later in which he said he was in Osaka as the bombs fell and there were leaflets falling with them saying, “Japan has surrendered.” The surrender had already been offered but not officially received. Before the planes returned to their bases the surrender was received and it goes on from there. It’s very striking to see how little concern there has been right up to this moment for the threat of use of nuclear weapons. We’ve come very close several times. During the Cuban Missile Crisis ... a very close encounter with total catastrophe. Ten years later, Henry Kissinger called a nuclear alert in the latter stages of the Arab-Israeli war. The classified records now explain the reasons. Russia and the United States had issued an order for cease fire but, Kissinger secretly told the Israelis that they didn’t have to abide by it so they continued and Russia threatened to react, and in order to ensure that they would not become involved, Kissinger called a nuclear alert and the Russians backed off. Well, 10 years later in the Reagan years, the Reagan administration initiated a program to probe Russian air and sea defenses by simulating attacks on Russia, including simulating nuclear attacks and even declaring nuclear alert for the Russians to know that’s what the U.S. was doing. They wanted to see how Russian defenses – sea, naval and air systems – would react. The Russians, it turns out, took it very seriously – much more so than was known. It came pretty close to an automatic nuclear strike. We just learned about a year ago that at one point the Russian automated response systems detected a nuclear attack, a missile attack. It was an error but this happens over and over. So they detected the attack. The protocol was for them to transmit that information to the Russian military command, which would launch a retaliatory attack. Well, this one person, Stanislav Petrov, who had to transmit the message ... he decided not to. That’s why we are here to talk about it. That’s how close it’s come. That’s not the only case. There are detailed studies of that by now. It continues. Now, President Obama, who came into office with a call for reducing nuclear weapons, has just agreed to spend an estimated trillion dollars in upgrading the nuclear weapons forces in the next couple of decades. It’s the fastest increase since Reagan, or even beyond. We’re playing with fire. Sooner or later this is going to blow up. The probability of a war is very slight, but when you repeatedly face something with a slight probability, ordinary arithmetic tells you sooner or later the worst is going to happen, and there is very little concern about it. That’s the worst part.

TJ: Do most informed people like you agree that nuclear disaster is one of our biggest threats?
: Well, it’s interesting if you look at the archival record. We have plenty of evidence now. The United States is an extremely open society so we have lots of documentary material and I’m sure it’s as bad or worse in other countries. If you look at the record, there has been very little concern over it. Let me give you just one example. In 1950, the United States was in a position of overwhelming power. I mean it had about half the wealth of the world and a position of astonishing security, controlled the whole hemisphere, controlled both oceans, and controlled the opposite sides of both oceans. There was one serious potential threat, namely ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) with advanced hydrogen bomb warheads. They were a real potential threat. They didn’t exist at the time, but it was pretty clear that sooner or later they were going to exist. There is a standard scholarly history of American nuclear policy written by McGeorge Bundy who was the national security advisor for Kennedy and Johnson. He had access to the highest level internal documents. He kind of mentions in passing a couple of sentences that it was understood that there was this enormous threat. Nobody cared. He couldn’t find one paper where anybody even considered the possibility of seeking to establish a treaty with the Russians to prevent the development of these weapons. Now there’s no certainty that it would have worked, but there was the possibility that it would have worked. The Russians were way behind technologically and they might have had an interest in preventing the development of weapons. They could have quickly destroyed them but the interesting thing is no one even thought about it. He could not find any indication that the possibility was even considered. That’s how little attention was paid to the one threat that could have destroyed the United States and in subsequent years has come pretty close several times.

TJ: Obviously you feel the United States has a big responsibility. As I understand it, General Electric (GE) designed the Fukushima nuclear plant. Do you feel they should have played a bigger role in the cleanup process?
: Well, the reaction to Fukushima is pretty shocking. For one thing – you know better than I do, the government and the corporation, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, just didn’t release information. They had information but didn’t release it and it’s slowly been leaking out. More and more actual physical leaks from the plant and information is leaking. They have kept it quiet. Fukushima victims are being told that nothing is happening. When I met people from Fukushima last March, one woman who was there with her daughter told us that in her daughter’s class (she is still living there) her young daughter, maybe 10 years old, was taught that radiation was not a very serious matter because even flowers give off radiation – that kind of thing. There are many volunteers who have studied the radiation levels, the cancer levels and so on, but the government itself, who has responsibility for this, has been by no means living up to it. It’s not carrying out serious inquiries and it’s not protecting the victims. That’s a shocking reaction.

TJ: Do you feel the Japanese are treating it like a domestic disaster as opposed to an international one?
: Well, it is a domestic disaster, but it has meaning to the world and it’s been picked up in [other] parts of the world. That’s one of the reasons, for example, why Germany, which has been the most successful of the capitalist countries, has eliminated nuclear power and is making an effort to move towards sustainable energy – no fossil fuels or nuclear power.

TJ: Do you feel eliminating nuclear power is a possibility in the future?
: It’s not only a possibility. It’s a necessity. If the world continues to massively exploit fossil fuels it will be a death sentence for the species and not in the very far distant future. There are two huge shadows that loom over everything we talk about in the world. One is the threat of nuclear war, which is always there and could be devastating. The second is climate change. It’s happening. The overwhelming majority of scientists, virtually 100%, are convinced this is an extremely serious danger, and not in the far distant future. It could be our grandchildren. The signs of it are already pretty evident all over the world that support the poorest countries will be hit first but it’s hitting everyone and in my own city, Boston, where I’m sitting, if the current predictions are correct, in a century it could be underwater with enormous consequences all over the world, and unfortunately the use of fossil fuels is increasing. The major energy corporations like Exxon Mobil have announced they are simply putting no efforts into developing alternative energy. They want to maximize the use of fossil fuels. They have new techniques – fracking, deep underground digging to exploit new sources, exploiting deep water sources, very expensive sources, just to get every drop of fossil fuel out of the ground that they can. They are putting billions of dollars of investment into it and basically in an effort to write a death sentence for the species. We are already destroying plenty of other species.

TJ: What’s the solution?
: Sustainable energy – solar primarily, wind to a certain extent, hydropower, waves. There are many sources of sustainable energy. The most significant is solar energy, which in large parts of the world can become a substantial, very large part of energy production. There are many possibilities and there is work on it. China, which is using coal at a massive rate and is very destructive to the environment, is also pretty much in the lead of developing solar energy.

TJ: So do you feel education is going to play a major role in making the shift towards sustainable energy?
: It had better play an important role. We are really playing with fire. Right now the level of species destruction from climate change is about at the level of 65 million years ago when an asteroid hit the earth, a huge asteroid, a big catastrophe. That’s what ended the age of the dinosaurs and offered an opening for little mammals and our remote ancestors to begin to develop. Right now, the level of species destruction is at the level it was at that catastrophic moment, except now we are the asteroid and we are making it worse. If some observer from Mars, let’s say, was watching what’s happening on Earth, they wouldn’t believe it. I mean here is the species that is supposed to have achieved the highest level of intelligence and what it is doing is racing towards destruction. We are already destroying many others and it’s on the verge of destroying itself.

TJ: If you were in charge of the education system, would you make the study of sustainability an important part of American education?
: Not just American – worldwide. Everyone is involved in this.

TJ: What subjects do you feel are important that we are not studying now?
: Well, I think the list of subjects that would be important is very wideranging from preserving and enhancing traditional cultures, engaging young people in the cultural wealth that has been created in the past and getting them to participate and carry it forward, whether it is music, the arts, philosophy, history, and so on right through to the sciences. There are very exciting prospects in the biological sciences and the science of the brain; trying to understand brain mechanisms and how simple organisms, say bees, for example, that have tremendous cognitive capacities, and how humans carry out the kinds of unique activities that you and I are now engaging in without thinking about it. All of these marvels could be understood if we give ourselves the opportunity and then understanding how our societies work. Why do our societies act in the way they do? Why is there massive poverty? Huge numbers of people on the brink of starvation in the midst of enormous resources? Why is that happening? What are the social and political and economic mechanisms that are leading to such crimes as this? Why is the Middle East right now enflamed in shocking, horrible wars that are tearing the region to shreds largely as a consequence of the American and British invasion of Iraq 10 years ago, which has ignited simmering conflicts that are now devastating to the region? Why have some five million people been killed in the Congo in the last several years with practically no concern of the world? On and on are subjects students ought to study.

TJ: Would you say intercultural relations is a subject we should be studying to help prevent war?
: It should be independently of war. It should be encouraged. We should want to understand other civilizations to enrich our own lives and our own comprehension of human potentialities and capacities. It often doesn’t but it could lead to more peaceful and human relations among people, but it is a value in itself quite apart from any political or social consequences.

TJ: How do you feel about English being the de facto language in global communication?
: The language of global communication simply is the language of the most powerful, dominant states and cultures in the world. That happens to be English at the moment. Chinese is probably growing. It could be something else. You can’t ask if it’s good or bad. Things are going to happen and we should ask how to adapt to them most successfully.

TJ: Do you see great value in sister-city relationships and sister-school relationships?
: Yes, they have been very valuable. I don’t know all of the countries but in the United States there are many sister-city relationships with usually poorer countries, which have been very effective – first of all in offering them help, but also in helping the rich countries in trying to understand what the world is like and what we do in the world so we can change what we do. Many of these relationships, kind of like the U.S. Peace Corps program started by Kennedy, which sends people with certain skills to other countries, usually poorer countries, maybe to remote villages to help develop simple wells, stoves, and other things that are helpful that people need, have been useful. It’s helped the places to which the volunteers are sent, but I think the best achievement, the most important achievement is right here in the United States. People have come back from these experiences with an understanding of the world and the problems of the world and our role in the world, which otherwise they don’t have living in a cocoon where they have very little contact with the realities of the world outside or for that matter even the world within. Right here, take this particular moment. I am sure in Japan there has been coverage of what has been happening in Ferguson, Missouri, where a young black man was just basically murdered by the police. Well, that’s bringing out facts about the way that racism kind of infects many aspects of life in very profound ways. That’s after 500 years. The first slaves came here 500 years ago and this cancer still exists and bursts out in shocking ways every now and then. These are things that are kind of under the radar for most people. You just don’t see it. Occasionally, you will see it in cases like that but it should be understood constantly, not only because we should understand the world in which we live, but crucially because we can do something about it. It doesn’t need to be like this.

TJ: How can we go about creating solutions to prevent war in the future?
: There is no single answer to questions like these. It depends on the circumstances, the place, the opportunities for engagement, and so forth. I mentioned a few cases – the Congo, the Middle East. The solutions are quite different in those two cases. We look at others – still plenty of potential conflicts right around Japan and China and that has different approaches required there. There is no magic solution for everything.

TJ: Is war ever a good thing?
: Well, war is never a good thing but, unless you are a really committed absolute pacifist, there are occasions when the use of force can be [necessary], I think, though it has a very heavy burden of proof to meet. The defense against Hitler’s aggression, in my view at the time when I was a child, was justified. In retrospect, I still think so. Though, there would have been ways to prevent it. The same complicated story about the Pacific War. No time to talk about it now. There would have been ways to prevent it and I think the same holds right at this moment. There is a potential war brewing, a major war, that could break out over Ukraine, and this is the time for serious thought about ways of preventing it, not just being caught up in the journalist propaganda of one side or the other, but coming to understand the issues, the significance in the Western case, the significance of Ukraine for Russia. It’s the relationship of this crisis to the expansion of NATO hostile military alliance right to the borders of Russia in violation of explicit promises to Mikhail Gorbachev back around 1990. All of these are really serious issues that ought to be thought about and thought about before some accident leads to an explosion of war. It’s now a century after an accident, pretty much an accident, ignited the dry kindling which was there and broke out in a major war. This should certainly be a warning to us. tj

The original article is available in Issue #276. click here. to order from Amazon

Written By:

Anthony Al-Jamie

Dr. Anthony Al-Jamie lived and worked as an educational administrator and journalist in Tokyo for over 20 years. His in-depth understanding of Japanese language and culture has allowed him to carry out interviews with many of the most renowned individuals in Japan. He first began writing for the Tokyo Journal in the 1990s as Education Editor, later he was promoted to Senior Editor, and eventually International Editor. He currently works in higher education publishing and serves the Tokyo Journal as Executive Editor.

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