M.I.T. professor emeritus Noam Chomsky reflects on eight decades of
struggle. Plus, Smiley and West share highlights from their favorite
conversations and say goodbye.
THE HOT STUFF
Smiley: From PRI, Public Radio International in Los Angeles I'm Tavis Smiley.
West: And in Princeton I'm Cornel West and this is the final episode of Smiley & West.
Smiley: It has been one of the great joys of my life to share this microphone with Doc on this program. In so many ways it was a beautiful experiment. Safe to say there is nothing quite like it on public radio. Today we'll bring you the very best of our conversations over the past 3 years. So many good memories, so many good guests, Doc.
West: Yeah, it's true though, brother. I want to thank you for facilitating this though brother. It has been a magnificent time with you. We're going to end it with our dear brother Noam Chomsky, towering democratic intellectual that he is.
Smiley: That’s all just ahead but first it’s time for the Hot Stuff.
This program, I speak now of Smiley & West, we are dedicated to doing our small part to make the world safe for the legacy of Dr. Martin King, Jr.
Vincent Harding: Martin saw one of our deepest addictions as the addiction to militarism. When you put that together as he did with our addiction to materialism and our addiction to racism then he saw that we were in trouble and that we needed to find a way to break out.
Andrew Young: Why they needed Martin Luther King was made very clear to me by a CBS reporter who said “Now Andy, you know, I've been around since Montgomery. I know you all don’t like us to get in the way with these cameras but I've got to keep a camera on Dr. King because if they kill him and I don’t get a picture of it I'll lose my job.
Dorothy Cotton: I remember we were going to Oslo, Norway. Martin, Doc, is getting his Nobel Peace Prize. You know, that was a nice little interlude. Dr. King, he felt the same way.
Smiley: I'm laughing, Dr. West, because only Dorothy Cotton in the spirit of the work that they did you have to respect it. But only Negroes working in the Movement can see the Peace Prize as an interlude.
West: As an interlude.
Cotton: That’s right. We had miles to go before we slept.
Smiley: Yes, yes, yes, yes.
West: Miles to go.
Cotton: We have miles to go still.
Smiley: That’s right.
West: That’s right.
West: Something is happening in Chicago.
Father Michael Pfleger: We got out of the bus and it was just pouring and raining but I was thinking, Tavis and Doc, how right that it's pouring like a monsoon because people are drowning in our society today.
Smiley: Now is the time for us to start to speak with courage and conviction and commitment and character about those who are being left behind.
Female: We went from $60,000 a year to less than $15,000 overnight.
Jack: I'm Jack. I'm homeless. I’m here and there wherever I can bunk.
Female: My dreams are being crushed as soon as I get out of school.
Smiley: With a part time job now you live here still because you have to or at this point because you want to?
Female: Because I have to.
Smiley: A part time job still doesn’t allow you to make a…
Female: No, it does not.
Smiley: Make a monthly apartment.
Female: Not at minimum wage.
Smiley: Yeah, yeah.
West: We just left a tent city where our precious homeless brothers and sisters don’t have a house. Does it get cold in Detroit?
West: Real cold in Detroit?
West: What's it like to be in a tent in the wintertime? It's freezing.
Smiley: Do you still believe that there is an Uncle Sugar that folk in this country are relying on? Look at what's happening to poor people all across this country. Uncle Sugar?
Mike Huckabee: Well, Uncle Sugar is a good old southern term, Tavis that we call Uncle Sam. Uncle Sugar has been there for a lot of folks. Even when I talked about food stamps, I didn’t say we shouldn't have them. We should have them. There are a lot of people for whom that’s the only way they're going to put food on the table for their kids.
Female: Housing is a human right, that’s where we're here to fight.
West: A democratic awakening is taking place. It's the U.S. fall responding to the Arab Spring in terms of getting at the greed of Wall Street oligarchs and being sensitive to the misery and suffering of poor and working people of all colors, man.
Medea Benjamin: We are very excited to be launching the Occupation here in the Nation’s Capital because people are starting to get used to this idea that maybe we shouldn't occupy other countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. How about occupying our own country?
Slavoj Zizek: We know what we don't want. But we definitely do not yet know what we do want. But this is just a startling point and we need time to think. A space has opened for something new. What lies ahead now is long hard work.
Nawal El Saadawi: I'm going to Cairo so I will be in the streets. This is our hope that we should be in the streets until we realize our goals. The revolution we continue, it will never stop. But we need to do more cooperation together.
Peter Gelderloos: I think people need to accept that fighting, freedom fighting for a better world is worth it. Even if we're not going to win we have to accept the fact that those in power are a whole lot more powerful than us.
West: Brother Edward Snowden is the John Brown of the U.S. national security state, the canary in the mine.
Julian Assange: Bradley Manning, of course I have personally seen him under fire where he's been, tried to get him to crack against me. They weren't able to make him crack. One of the reasons is that the more that they pushed him the more he saw how unjust they were, how immoral their position was. That is probably something that I've seen common with courageous people.
West: Bradley Manning, he revealed war crimes of the U.S. government, revealed lies of the U.S. government. But he himself, of course, is being criminalized. He's the one up for trial. What ought to be on trial are those who committed those war crimes, those who told the lies that led toward the loss not just of U.S. troops but of civilians of all colors and various nations.
Ron Paul: When I left Congress I gave a little talk on the floor and said that the most crucial trend that I think that we should worry about is the violations of civil liberties because if we lose it, if we lose our privacy and our right to speak out we can't even have these discussions.
Ron Dellums: Put those giant hands on my shoulders and he said “Ronald Dellums, we have heard much of you. You gave us hope. You kept us alive.” He hugged me, man, and tears just came to my eyes.
Bob Edgar: Dr. King reminded us that you and I will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of bad people but for the appalling silence of good people. I think faithful civil disobedience is a tool that needs to be used prayerfully with a sense of mission and passion.
Wangari Maathai: When you begin to tell those leaders that instead of serving their people they're actually trying to facilitate the exploitation of the resources within their countries then you are going to get into trouble with the government. That’s exactly I was finding myself constantly being arrested.
West: And you're part of a great tradition from Jesus to Fanny Lou Hamer. Most great freedom fighters do end up spending some time in jail.
Helen Thomas: I kept asking questions at the age of 5. I was accused of being so inquisitive I didn’t even know what the word meant. I knew that it was a man’s world and I was determined that it was not going to be forever.
Smiley: We knew when we start this program that we wanted to mix up our guest list. We wanted some folk influential in Washington, others who were influential on the street.
West: Indeed. To go beyond the headlines, beyond the current events, to focus also on those artistic geniuses out there.
Smiley: Here now some those artistic geniuses. The best of our creative conversations over the past 3 years.
Laurence Fishburne: Dr. West, what kind of car do you drive?
West: A 25 year old Cadillac, baby.
Fishburne: Oh my goodness. I love that.
West: It's the coldest ride on the road.
Fishburne: I know that’s right. I know that’s right.
Phylicia Rashad: The Cosby Show years were, oh my goodness, the best years. I couldn't get to work fast enough.
Smiley: That must be a good feeling.
Rashad: It's a great feeling.
Smiley: When you can't wait to get to work.
Rashad: Couldn't wait to get to work.
West: Were there any moments where you felt as if you were in danger or your life was in danger?
Alice Walker: Oh yes. Practically every moment.
West: Every moment.
Walker: It reminded me a lot of being in Mississippi in the ‘60s because that was a time too when people felt a lot of insecurity and a lot of fear and had to understand deeply in themselves that love was more important to them than being afraid.
Bill Maher: But what should Israel do to a government that avows that it wants to wipe them off the face of the earth? What would the United States do if there was a government on the border of Maine, say, that was avowed to wiping us out?
George Takei: They took us to the horse stables and we were told that we were going to stay in this narrow horse stall still smelling of horse manure. My mother remembered it as the first of many degrading, humiliating experiences. But for me, I thought it was kind of fun to sleep where the horsies sleep.
Smiley: So much of what allows people to be a long distance runner is not just the gift, not just the intellect, but you have to be blessed or cultivate stamina.
Angela Lansbury: Absolutely. Stamina, I mean here I've just come off a 6 month tour with my darling friend James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy. We're both over 80 now. Boy, we did 8 performances a week.
James Earl Jones: I'm 81 now. The older I get the more I can memorize words.
Smiley: The more you can do it.
Jones: As long as my mind is full of oxygen. I have a little device you put on your finger and it tells you what your blood oxygen level is. If it's low you take a hit for your lungs.
Stephen Sondheim: Music is mysterious and I think it's as necessary to human life as breathing.
Sondheim: I really do. Which is why there are so many musicians making millions of dollars.
West: That’s true. In every culture that we know.
Sondheim: They're supplying air and everybody needs it.
Sonny Rollins: One of the things I learned was that blowing my horn was meditation. I didn’t have to sit in the Lotus pose and be quiet and everything. No. See I mean jazz is a spirit. Jazz is not individual people, it's really a spirit. You get some of that spirit and that’s it.
Herbie Hancock: Jazz is very spiritual and very humanistic. In jazz we don’t have any competition among musicians. We don’t judge each other. If you're on the stage and you're judging what the musicians are doing that you're playing with the music is going to immediately stop. The only way to keep the music moving forward is to have the attitude of no matter what happens how can I enhance that? How can I use that, how can I bring that out? How can I turn, if anything, turn poison into medicine?
Smiley: Dr. West called me one day and he went and got himself a new phone. We have a real problem now because he won't go to sleep at night. He won't go to sleep at night because he's up watching YouTube videos and he's watching Curtis Mayfield.
Sinead O’Connor: I know. I can't stop if I start. Love to talk about Curtis because it's rare that you find a Curtis freak.
West: That’s what it is. Curtis Mayfield.
Jerry Butler: When I met Curtis he was 8 years old.
West: Eight years old. Singing in the church, huh?
Butler: Singing in the church. Curtis was the little guy who was tagging along. We used to chase him away. You know how you do little brothers, get out of here, boy. This is for the big boys. Then one day we realized that he was the most talented of the big boys so we had to let him play.
I had this board, this old drafting board that somebody gave me. I had sawed it in half and carpeted it. I would stomp my foot on it so when you hear stuff like Ain’t No Sunshine and stuff…
Smiley: I know where you're going there.
Bill Withers: The first part of that is there’s no drummers, it’s just me stomping my foot. Man, they told me get this thing out of here. They threw me out with my stomping board and everything.
Smiley: When Dr. West and I discovered that you actually listen to the show we were just tickled beyond explanation. Thank you for listening, first of all.
Ry Cooder: No, I get so much information from you guys, so much learning, you know. Especially this particular story about Marcia Coleman. Tavis, at one point you said to her well you were a real team player. You really tried to do your job as you understood it. She said “Yes, I drank the Kool-Aid.”
Coleman: Drank the Kool-Aid.
Cooder: Man, I floored it. I said get home fast because that’s the way to tell this story.
Smiley: Let me ask how a kid growing up in Canada got turned onto the blues in the first place.
Dan Ackroyd: We had the opportunity as teenagers and kids, all my friends and I, to see Howlin” Wolf. I saw him a dozen times.
Ackroyd: I saw Muddy Waters, Willy Dickson, James Cotton, Mussel White Butterfield, Otis Clay, Otis Spann, Otis Rush, SP Leary. I jammed behind Muddy one night. When SP Leary was late coming to the stage Muddy asked for a drummer. I went up and played a song with him. Elvin Bishop. Basically everybody who was playing and doing this music at that time. The original Butterfield Blues band with Mike Bloomfield. Saw them all in this little club. Of course listening to the black radio stations, Detroit and Boston. I had Chicago on my shortwave. Jimi Hendrix at the Capitol Theater, I watched him burn his guitar from the second row.
Buddy Guy: I was putting on a show, man, and all of a sudden somebody would scream that’s Jimi Hendrix, that’s Jimi Hendrix. I said so what. Who in the hell is that? Come to find out we became pretty close the last 2-1/2 or 3 years of his life.
Garrett Morris: We didn’t have a lot of comedy and our improvisational space went from hate whitey to kill whitey which was a very small space. When I got there…
Smiley: A very small space. Get over it. You've got a black president. Get over it.
Paul Mooney: A what?
Smiley: You've got a black president, get over it.
Mooney: You have a half black president. You're getting carried away. Get half over it. You're getting carried away.
Roseanne Barr: We still need a third party that isn’t working for bankers. Both the Democrats and the Republicans work for bankers.
West: I also believe in hitting the streets and going to jail.
Barr: That’s where we're at and that’s what we got to do next. I'm so glad you said it and not me. Thank you.
West: Oh no, I'll say it again. Hit the streets and go to jail.
Barr: That’s right.
West: Oh, yes, that’s it.
Bob Newhart: Richard Pryor, he looked up at me, he said “I stole your album.” I said “What did you say, Richard?” He said “I stole your album. I was in a record store, I put it in my jacket.” I says “Well Richard, you know I get 25 cents an album.” He said “Yeah. Somebody give me a quarter, give me a quarter.”
Ed Asner: Ho, ho, ho, ho. I think your black suit is wonderful. How can we judge people by what color suits they wear. You'd think we would judge them by the color of their skin as well, wouldn't you.
Smiley: Dr. West, I've been listening to this voice and it took me a minute to figure this out but I recognize that voice. I recognize…
West: No, but that’s Santa Claus. Don’t break the…
Smiley: No, but I...
West: They can only be Santa Claus. You think it's somebody else?
Smiley: This is my kind of Santa Claus because this Santa Claus happens to be Ed Asner.
West: The Ed Asner?
Smiley: The Ed Asner.
Mae Jemison: Hello, Neal. This is Mae Jemison. How are you?
Smiley: Oh, my god.
West: My god. Mae Jemison. My God.
Smiley: I'm told, Dr. West, that we have a caller on the line. Caller, are you there?
Barbra Streisand: Yes.
Smiley: I'm Tavis Smiley. Who are you?
Streisand: Barbara Streisand.
West: Oh my god. You've got to be kidding.
Alan Bergman: Oh my goodness.
West: Sister, sister. Barbara Streisand herself. Oh Lord.
Smiley: Ms. Streisand, I'm honored. I'm almost speechless. I say almost, I'm never quite speechless.
Streisand: Don’t be speechless now, Tavis.
West: What matters most, Tavis? What matters most?
INTERVIEW OF NOAM CHOMSKY
West: From PRI, Public Radio International in Princeton I'm Cornel West.
Smiley: And in Los Angeles I'm Tavis Smiley.
West: We come to the final chapter in this 3 plus year experiment. It's been so wonderful working with Tavis Smiley. But we decided to go out with the one and only Noam Chomsky. Of course he's known to the world for the genius that he is with magnificent breakthroughs and linguistics transformational grammar. He's known to the world for one of the great democratic intellectuals trying to tell the truth about especially those in power, the mendacity, the hypocrisy and the criminality, be it in Asia, Africa, Europe, America or the Middle East.
We now have him here. He’s 85 years old I'm told you turned earlier this month. Is that right though Professor Chomsky?
Chomsky: That’s right.
West: What a blessing though, brother. I want to just begin with a question about childhood and education. Take us back to growing up as a child and being at the University of Pennsylvania with I think the Nelson Goodmans and Eugene Fontaines and others. What went into the young Noam Chomsky?
Chomsky: I was fortunate in that from about the age 2 to 12 I attended an experimental school run by Temple University along Dewey-ite lines. It was a very creative experience. There was no ranking, there were no grades. There was a structure of the educational system but the student kids were encouraged to develop their own capacities to work with one another, to be independent, creative, to come to learn the joy of discovery and learning. That was a great experience.
I then went to an academic high school which was actually the first time I learned that I was a good student. In elementary school I knew I'd skipped a grade but nobody paid any attention to that. It just meant I was the smallest kid in the class.
In high school it was graded exams, competition. I really disliked it.
I went off to college looking… in my last year I was younger, 16, I looked at the college catalogue. Of course in those days you just went to the local school. There was no… lived at home and worked. There was no question about going anywhere else. The college catalogue looked really exciting so I was looking forward to it.
Then every course I took as a freshman, almost every course just turned me off the subject. It was done in such a boring and unimaginative way. In fact, after about a year I was thinking seriously of just dropping out. I had other interests.
Then I ran into, through political connections I ran into the faculty members, Zellig Harris, very impressive person, who turns out was the leading theoretical linguist in the country. He suggested to me that I start taking his graduate courses. I presumed he was trying to get me to get back into college. I took his courses.
He then suggested that I take graduate courses in several other fields. One of them was Nelson Goodman, who you mentioned, also in mathematics and other areas. I got interested in it. I didn’t really have an undergraduate education. I just pursued personal interests, weaving together different disciplines which I had not much background in. But there were outstanding faculty like the ones I just mentioned. They cultivated independent thinking in pursuit of one’s own concerns.
Then I was lucky enough to get to Harvard for a couple years just for a research fellowship in which I was on my own completely.
Then another stroke of luck, I actually had no credentials but I was able to get a position at MIT which didn’t care very much about credentials. That’s where I've been for almost 60 years.
West: Sixty years. My God, my God. When you were at Harvard though did you spend time studying Quine or studying under Quine? Did you have a relation with WV Quine?
Chomsky: Oh yeah. That was the main reason I went there, to study with Quine.
West: Oh, okay, okay.
Chomsky: I took all his courses and got to know him pretty well, though we disagreed about almost everything.
West: I can imagine. I can imagine.
Chomsky: But I learned a lot.
Smiley: Over these 60 years, Professor Chomsky, of being a public intellectual, I'm curious as to how you, I don’t want to say rank or rate, but how would you define the times that we live in? You've seen some good days and some bad days. How dark are things right about now in this country?
Chomsky: They're quite dark. We've been through… after the Second World War there was a period of expansive growth, the highest growth rate in the history of the country. It was a fairly egalitarian growth, that is the lowest quintile did about as well as the highest quintile. It was also a period of advances in many other ways. The Civil Rights Movement finally after many years of struggle made some achievements. The anti-war movement developed. There was the beginnings of granting rights to women which had not happened through all of our history. It was a progressive and forward looking period.
That changed in the ‘70s. There was a sharp reaction, especially by the late ‘70s and through the Reagan years and since. Since then there, just in straight economic terms there has been economic growth. But as you know, it's gone into very few pockets. For the majority of the population it's been a period of stagnation or decline. It's continued through… there was a little change in the late Clinton years but it was mostly based on a bubble, a tech bubble which burst.
The economy has been financialized. The core of the economic institutions these days are financial institutions. They are quite different from what banks used to be. They're probably a drag on the economy overall. Some analysts may take a much harsher stand. They survive primarily on the basis of government support. The government insurance policy, it's called informally too big to fail, not only bales them out repeatedly since the Reagan years, but also provides access to cheap credit, to high rankings, to be known to be essentially risk free since the tax payer is going to bail them out.
In fact there was a recent IMF study that estimated that virtually all the profits of the big banks can be traced back to this government insurance policy. In general they're quite harmful, I think probably quite harmful to the economy. Economists haven’t studied it much so it looks. That’s changed things.
Beyond what's happening in the country which is ugly enough there are 2 major dark shadows that hover over everything and they're getting more and more serious.
One is the continuing threat of nuclear war that has not ended and it's very serious. Another is the crisis of ecological, the environmental catastrophe which is getting more and more serious. We're racing towards a precipice eyes open, racing towards disaster. It will undoubtedly have a harmful effect, could have almost lethal effects. There isn’t a lot of time to worry about it.
If there ever is a future historian they're going to look back at this period of history with some astonishment. The danger, the threat is evident to anyone who has eyes open and pays attention at all to the scientific literature. There are attempts to do something about the threat, to retard it. There are also, at the other end, attempts to accelerate the disaster.
If you look who’s involved it's pretty shocking. In the lead in trying to limit and overcome the potential disaster are the people we call primitive. First nations in Canada, indigenous people in Latin America, Aborigines in Australia, tribal people in India and so on. They're trying to retard the crisis.
In countries where there's a substantial indigenous population like Bolivia and Ecuador they’ve actually made some significant progress in this regard. First nations in Canada are leading the effort to prevent the highly destructive use, exploitation of Canadian tar sands. That’s one extreme.
At the other extreme we have the richest, most advanced, most powerful countries in the world like the United States and Canada which are racing full steam ahead to accelerate the disaster.
When people talk here enthusiastically about 100 years of energy independence what they're saying is let's try to get every drop of fossil fuel out of the ground so as to accelerate the disaster that we're racing towards.
The irony of this is shocking. These are problems that overlie all of the domestic problems of repression, of poverty, of tax on the educational system, massive inequality, huge unemployment. If you just take a look at the economic system itself it's pretty remarkable. There are tens of millions of people unemployed, looking for work, wanting to work. There are huge resources available. Corporate profits are going through the roof.
There's endless amounts of work to be done. Drive through a city you can see all sorts of things that have to be done, infrastructures collapsing, the schools have to be revived.
We have a situation which huge numbers of people want to work. There are plenty huge resources available, an enormous amount to be done. The system is so rotten they can't put them together.
Of course the reason is there's plenty of profit being made by those who pretty much dominate and control the system.
We've moved from the days where there was some kind of functioning democracy. It's by now really a plutocracy.
West: In light of that very powerful but bleak assessment I go back to your powerful and wonderful essay The Responsibility of Intellectuals in the New York Review of books about 1967 or so.
What would be your assessment of the intelligencia in the American empire? Then you said the role was to what, tell the truth and expose lies as well as act. Where are we now when you talk about the dominant tendencies that the intelligencia is on?
Chomsky: The history of intellectuals is not very stellar. Intellectuals are the ones who write history so they kind of come out looking good. If you take a look at the reality it's quite different.
First of all the term intellectual in its modern usage comes along around the late 19th Century mostly with a Dreyfus swords in France. There are people all the way back who are what we today would call intellectuals.
For example, take the Bible. There were people in the biblical record who were carrying out geopolitical analysis condemning the acts of the evil kings, warning of the disasters that they're bringing to society, calling for justice and mercy for the weak and downtrodden and so on. People who were called prophets. That translation is an obscure Hebrew word. But they were in our sense dissident intellectuals.
How were they treated? They were driven into the desert, jailed, persecuted, denounced as haters of Israel. That’s the fate of dissident intellectuals.
There were others who were respected and honored. The flatterers of the court. Centuries later, centuries later they were condemned as false prophets but not at the time.
That’s the pattern that exists right to the present.
Going to the Dreyfus swords, we now honor the Dreyfus swords but that wasn’t true at the time. The defenders of Dreyfus were bitterly attacked by the most prominent intellectuals of the day, the immortals of the Academie Francaise, French Academy. Emile Zola, the leader, had to flee the country. Later they were honored, not at the time.
That’s the general pattern almost over the entire world. In Eastern Europe the dissident intellectuals were treated pretty harshly. In U.S. domains in the past 50 years they were treated much more harshly. In Latin America, there they could get their heads blown off by U.S. run security forces. That was monstrous.
In the United States itself or other wealthy developed societies there is a group of critical intellectuals, people like you. But they're marginalized. They're not thrown into concentration camps, they're not killed, but they're marginalized, disregarded, condemned. Typically the mainstream intellectuals as in the past remain supporters of power. That’s the way it's always been.
Smiley: Professor Chomsky I wonder if I can cut in here now and ask, I heard, as we all did, your wonderful compliment and tribute to Professor West for his courage. We all agree with that assessment. Because I've known him for so long I know how he navigates this, but this is the one question I have always wanted to ask you, to your point because trying to be a truth teller can get you marginalized and demonized.
How have you navigated personally, this isn’t a political or social or economic question it's a personal question, how have you personally navigated all these years of people not just disagreeing with you but in fact going a step further to deny you the stage. Your voice is one that we so often don’t hear in the mainstream media. You're the easiest person in the world to find at MIT. It's not like you're hiding under a rock. But how do you deal not just with people disagreeing with you but denying that kind of truth telling out of your lips, from your lips, even a platform to be heard?
Chomsky: There's also a typical stream of condemnation and denunciation. I don’t personally find that much of a problem. When I go home tonight, like every night, I'll have to turn down with regret a dozen invitations to come and give talks, have interviews and so on. They are highly receptive audiences, people are engaged and active and want to do things, often huge numbers, overwhelming opportunities among the people I care about. These are people who I would really like to be able to interact with. I don’t consider that any kind of problem.
As for the condemnations and denunciations, that’s what happens to critical dissident activists all the time. As I say, it goes all the way back through history.
For example, when I'm condemned, as I often am, for being a hater of Israel, okay, I'm perfectly happy to take my stand alongside the prophet Elijah who was condemned for that by the epitome of evil in the Bible, King Ahab. Sure, that’s the standard pattern. Disregard it and go ahead and do the things that can be done.
We do have opportunities here, plenty. We should be happy about that. With all the problems of the country it remains in many respects a pretty free country, at least for people with a degree of privilege. Not for say black kids in the ghetto, that’s quite different.
For those of us who have a degree of privilege there’s plenty of opportunities to do things that ought to be done and if you get condemned and denounced and ignored by mainstream media, okay, who cares. There's more…
Smiley: But how do you influence the debate more significantly if you are denied those opportunities by the mainstream media which arguably most people pay attention to?
Chomsky: Well, I'm not convinced of that. If you take a look at the progressive changes that have taken place in the country, say just over the past 50 years, the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-war Movement, opposition to aggression, the Women’s Movement, the Environmental Movement and so on, they were not led by any debate in the media. No, they were led by popular organizations, by activists on the ground from Snacka to the anti-war activists to the resistance movement to the early feminist groups and so on.
That’s the way it's always been. Progressive changes are going to come. People with power are not going to say thank you, I'll give it up and hand it over to you. They're going to struggle to retain their right, their power and domination. The effort to undermine that, which is a constant human commitment, comes from the grassroots typically. That’s where the influence is.
One of the main reasons I give talks, actually, if I go to some town, is that in our highly atomized society people don’t even know in a particular region that they're working on the same issues. It's an opportunity for people to get together. It's mutual stimulation I learned from it they do. They interact with each other and that’s the kind of influence that’s significant.
Take the anti-Viet Nam War Movement. The way that started in the early ‘60s, I remember very well, I was giving talks in the early ‘60s literally in people’s living rooms to a group of neighbors or in a church with maybe 4 people. Bitter hostility.
In Boston, which is a liberal city, until as late as early 1966 we couldn't have a public meeting in the Boston Common, even in a church, without being physically attacked and attacked by the media as well. Over time that became a very significant mass movement and it's lasted.
Ronald Reagan, for example, tried… when he came into office he tried to duplicate what Kennedy had done in the early ’60s in South Viet Nam, almost to a T, followed exactly the same pattern. Had to back off because there was too much public opposition. When Kennedy did it and Johnson there was almost no public opposition. That’s a big change.
What happened in Central America under Reagan was hideous enough. Could have been a lot worse as it was in Indochina. Take the Iraq War, another worst atrocity of the new millennia. This is the first time in the history of imperialism that there was massive public protest before the war was officially launched.
It's often claimed that it had no effect. I don’t agree. I think it had a big effect. It sharply limited the means that were available to the government to try to carry out the invasion and subdue the population.
In fact it's one reason why the U.S. ended up really defeated in Iraq seriously. It had to abandon all its major war aims. The major victor in Iraq turns out to be Iran.
That was quite different in Indochina. There the United States actually did achieve its major war aims. That was concerned, the deep concern all the way back to the early ‘50s was that Viet Nam would become a model of successful development that would influence others in the region. It was presented to the population as the domino theory. If you look back it's a rational concern that its successful, independent development may induce others to follow the same line. That has to be crushed. That’s one of the major themes of modern history. In Indochina it was crushed. In Central America partially crushed.
In the case of the Middle East it's just turned into a total disaster. By now one of the worst consequences of the Iraq war was exacerbating, actually largely creating a sharp Sunni-Shia split that existed before but not very much. There was intermarriage, people lived together and so on.
During the Iraq war that grew into a real horror story. It's now a total monstrosity. Just this week, almost every day you read of dozens of people being murdered. It's spread over the entire region. There's now a sharp Sunni-Shia split over the entire region. It's kind of symbolized by Iran versus Saudi Arabia. It's tearing Syria apart. It's having a hideous effect.
The United States is now involved in a global terror campaign, largely against the tribal people of the world. Happen to be mostly Muslim tribes. It's all over. The intention is to go on and on.
These are all terrible consequences but nevertheless they're not as bad as they would be if there weren't public opposition.
West: That’s part of your deep faith in the capacity of ordinary people to think, act, organize, mobilize and resist.
I want to ask you this question, though, Brother Noam. There's no doubt in my mind that in the years to come when people write the history of the latter part of the 20th Century, first part of the 21st Century that Noam Chomsky will be viewed as one of the few towering intellectual and prophetic figures who tried to tell the truth and expose lies.
Is it true that the 3 pillars that would motivate you would be both prophetic voices out of Judaic tradition, the enlightenment, commitment to science, empirical evidence, conclusions drawn, and then the anarchist tradition that we associate with northern Spain and other places where autonomous organizations of ordinary people, suspicion of concentration of power in the state as well as suspicion of concentrated power in the private sector would somehow inform your own thinking and action?
Chomsky: Very much. In fact that goes back to childhood. Even as a child I was very much interested and followed as closely as I could events in Spain, in revolutionary Spain. Of course I had a limited understanding of it at the time but enough so to be quite upset.
For example, I can remember probably maybe the first political article I wrote which is easy to date because of a particular event. It was after the fall of Barcelona in February 1939. It was a fourth grade newspaper which I was the editor and probably the only reader. Maybe my mother, I don’t know.
I remember the article was about the rise of fascism in Europe started off by Austria fell, Czechoslovakia fell, cities in Spain were falling, not Barcelona fell. Barcelona had been the center of the anarchist revolution. It was actually crushed by the combined forces of the fascists, the communists and the liberal democracies. Nevertheless, the republic fought on, was finally defeated. Final defeat was in Barcelona. That was frightening.
A couple years later when I was a little bit older I was able to spend a lot of time just hanging around anarchist offices and small bookstores in New York. There were a lot of them then. Many of them run by émigrés, some of them from anarchist Spain. I picked up a ton of literature, learned a lot talking to them. Ever since then the achievements of that year of revolution have been inspiration to me as well as the thinking and activism that lay behind it. I think those are very valuable tendencies in human affairs.
Everything else you mentioned as well. The achievements of the enlightenment, the prophetic tradition far back in the Biblical record. I think you can find a thread that runs through that’s of great significance.
Smiley: As insightful as this conversation has been I feel like I'm just scratching the surface on all that there is to discuss with one Noam Chomsky. He is professor emeritus at MIT. His latest text is called On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare.
Professor Chomsky, an honor, sir, to be able to spend this time with you. Thank you so much for taking the time to do it.
Chomsky: Very pleased to have been able to be with you.
West: Indeed. Salute you, my dear brother. Your work, your witness and your spirit.
Smiley: You may have heard by now that after 3 years of doing this program Smiley & West is signing off the air. Dr. West has a full schedule of activities and I have a full schedule of activities and we've enjoyed these 3 years together but we are moving on to do some other things individually and I suspect collectively down the road.
By way of history for those who weren’t around 3 years ago when this program started let me take you back right quick and then I'll yield to the gentleman in Princeton.
Smiley & West was started 3 years ago as a platform that I created for the nation’s leading public intellectual in my mind, Cornel West. He is the nation’s leading public intellectual. I've said that time and time again.
I've been blessed over these 20, 25 years of knowing him to talk to him on a regular basis, sometimes daily, to get some insight and to get some advice and to get wisdom and to get some guidance about the critical issues of our day.
It just occurred to me a few years ago that what I need to do is to provide a democratic space on public radio for Dr. West and others to engage in critical dialogue about the issues of the day. I love reading Paul Krugman in the New York Times. I love reading Frank Rich in New York Magazine. I love reading so many other public intellectuals. I love listening to Amy Goodman.
But there was not a regular space for Cornel West to be heard. The real reason for Smiley & West was, one, because I just wanted more time to spend hanging out with Dr. West. But also because I thought the country needed to hear his voice. I've said many times that my hero in death is Dr. King. My hero in life is Cornel West.
I've asked myself many times what happens when your hero becomes your friend. What happens when your hero becomes your brother. That happened to me by way of a friendship with Cornel West. It has for me, Doc, been 3 years of an absolute honor to sit alongside you in this studio to share with you this microphone, to listen and to learn and to laugh and to spread love with you.
Thank you for the distinct honor of doing this program with you for 3 years. It's been one of the great joys of my life.
I certainly want to thank the only exec producer we've ever had on this program, Joe Zefran. We call him JZ. He has been the person who has brought in the guests and laid out the segments and booked this show week in and week out. I want to thank JZ for all the wonderful work he has done.
Certainly to my long time engineer. The back story on Johnny Morris is simply this. When I first got started in radio 25 years ago the very first person to be my engineer was Johnny Morris. What a blessing it's been for me all these 25 years later to be reunited with him on this program called Smiley & West.
Dr. West, I love you. Thank you for loving me. Thank you for the opportunity.
I now yield for his final thoughts to the gentleman in Princeton.
West: My dear brother, as you know I don’t have a language to express the depths of my gratitude to you. All the struggles we've been through together, the ups and the downs, around the corners, the various attacks and assaults. But also there were various offensive, which is to say going on the offense in the name of truth and justice. Whatever failures or foibles that any of us may have I want the world to know that you are one of the great voices in the American media. You've been a pioneer. You have been a path blazer.
We want the world to know that in so many ways it is just the beginning. We intend to go down swinging in the name of truth and justice the way Ella Fitzgerald swings and the way Duke Ellington swings and the way Muhammad Ali swings. We're going to keep swinging because it don’t mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.
Keep swinging, Brother Tavis. I'll keep swinging.
Smiley: Most importantly to all those persons who listened to us over these 3 years we don’t have the language, as Doc would say, to thank you for tuning in week in and week out to Smiley & West.
Thank you. We ain't going nowhere. You'll be hearing from us well into the future if the Lord says the same.
Doc, I love you. Stay strong.
West: Indeed. Love you right back.
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