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Noam Chomsky

capitalist society, the media are highly concentrated and very business-run. But South Korea is the most wired-up country in the world, I think, and through the use of the internet it was possible to develop what amounted to alternative media, independent media, which were on a very substantial scale. And they a were major factor in the political victory of the current president, who was reformist–a party which had plenty of popular support, and was able to organize it through internet-based media. 

The same is true much more generally. So, for example, international organizing that blocked the multilateral agreement on investments was done almost entirely by internet. The media simply wouldn’t cover the issue. Groups–like, say, the World Social Forum, which is now a huge organization, like a hundred thousand people show up at the meetings, and many more are involved from all over the world–are almost entirely internet organized. The mass media won’t permit any information to appear about it. There are many other examples.

David: What are your thoughts on the debate over medical marijuana, and about the Drug War in general?

Noam: The United States is unusual, very unusual, in the industrial world, the world in general, with its fanaticism about drugs, marijuana in particular. So the ban on the use of marijuana for medical purposes is, in my opinion, just outrageous. But the extreme obsession with marijuana use is also highly irrational. I mean, it’s probably not good for you, but eating red meat isn’t good for you either. There’s no medical evidence that it’s particularly harmful. It’s an obsession. We know the history. It’s been largely manipulated as a technique of control. 

If you compare the United States with other similar industrial societies, the United States is unique in its severity of drug laws, and the fanaticism that’s associated with it. I mean, in other countries the use of hard drugs–forget marijuana–is considered a problem that you try to deal with. In the United States, it’s a matter of fanatic obsession. In fact, that’s the main reason why the U.S. has such a huge prison population, as compared with other comparable countries. A lot of it is victimless crime, just people found with drugs. 

And this is artificially stimulated. There’s very little doubt of that. It’s stimulated through government and media propaganda that has the effect of frightening people. I mean, there are other substances that are much more dangerous than marijuana or, for that matter, cocaine. Take tobacco for example. The number of tobacco-related deaths is far in excess of all hard drugs combined, but that doesn’t lead to the same kind of hysterical obsession. So these are really irrational fears that are in large part artificially stimulated.

They have a basis, and it’s not that they’re lacking basis. Most paranoid obsessions have some basis, and this one does too, but a large part of it is artificially stimulated. It’s a pathology of the culture that we ought to overcome. You can see right now the reaction to the fact that Canada is taking a very moderate and sane step towards joining most of the rest of the world in overlooking small-scale use of marijuana. In the United States the reaction to that is really pathological.

David: Besides reading your books, and attending your lectures, how can the average person become better informed about the biases in corporate media, and the truth about what the U.S. government is doing?

Noam: It requires hard work and common sense. It’s very hard to do by yourself. It’s hard to carry out a struggle against a massive propaganda system by one’s self. But joining together with others it becomes a lot easier–just as in other human endeavors, like science. There’s no magic key for it. It’s just takes work, a reasonable degree of questioning and skepticism, a willingness to take ordinary beliefs and put them to the test, and some understanding of the way the institutions function. Wide reading helps. Interaction with others and discussion helps. But it’s like asking, how can I solve a problem in mathematics or chemistry? There’s no simple answer. It just takes hard work.

David: Do you think that our species is making progress with regards to human rights and democracy?

Noam: Well, there’s progress and there’s regression, so it’s a difficult trajectory to plot. By and large, with regard to human rights, I think there is notable progress. With regard to democracy, it’s a much more complicated story. Formal democracy is increasing. So democracy in the sense of, say, the ability to vote for people in office is increasing. On the other hand, the barriers to effective use of democratic rights are also increasing. That’s why skepticism and disillusionment with democracy are very notably increasing throughout a good part of the world, including the United States.

So, in the United States, for example, which is one of the most free and democratic societies there is, by now about three quarters of the population regard presidential elections as basically a farce–just some game played by rich contributors and the public relations industry, which crafts candidates to say things that they don’t mean and don’t understand. And those proportions have been increasing. The same has been happening through Latin America, and much in of the world. So formal democracy is definitely increasing, but with regard to substantive democracy, I don’t think one can easily draw that conclusion.

David: What do you think can be done to help bring about greater democracy in America and the world?

Noam: The greatest American social philosopher of the Twentieth Century, John Dewey, once said, correctly I think, that politics is the shadow cast over society by big business. What he meant by that is, as long as you have a massive concentration of private power and wealth, there will essentially be dictatorial systems within the economy. A business firm is basically a dictatorship, with orders coming from top to bottom. As long as those phenomena continue, democracy’s going to be very limited. The way to extend democracy is to overcome this massive concentration of power and wealth, and to introduce democratic procedures throughout all institutions–what Dewey called going from industrial feudalism to industrial democracy. And not just in industry, but in every other institution. That’s a traditional view–Dewey’s not a far-out Leftist–and I think it’s correct.

David: Has your work in linguistics lead you to believe that there is anything like a universal morality, similar to a universal grammar, that is inherent in people?

Noam: Well, my work in linguistics hasn’t led to that, but I think it’s correct. In fact, the insight goes back well beyond the emergence of modern linguistics. The Eighteenth Century British philosopher David Hume pointed out correctly that–as he put it–the number of duties is infinite. This means that we have an understanding of what we ought to do in a unbounded range of circumstances, many of them novel. And this can only happen, he said, if there were some fixed principles of human nature from which we derive an understanding of what our moral responsibilities are. And that’s obviously got to be given to us, as he put it in the Eighteenth Century, by “the original hand of nature”. You could say it’s evolved as part of our nature.

It’s hard to see what other possibility there could be, and that’s very similar to the question of how linguistic knowledge develops. It must be part of our nature, and it is available for a unbounded range of circumstances. 

So you and I, for example, may be producing expressions right now which neither of us have ever heard in our lifetimes, or may never have been produced before, but we understand them, because we have a fixed nature that provides the computational and interpretive mechanisms to use and understand them over an unbounded range. So in that sense there’s a similarity, you could say, but it seems to be that Hume’s observation is correct, whether or not you know anything about language.

David: How do you think the innate structure of our minds imposes limits on our understanding?

Noam: Well, if we are organic creatures, and not angels, then our innate characteristics provide scope for our development, as well as limits on it. The fact that I have human genes and not mouse genes determined that I could become a human being, but I was unable to become a mouse. The same has to be true of our cognitive capacities. So whatever the genetic basis for our cognitive capacities is, it plainly provides a rich scope of options. But it must also provide limits on those options. They’re logically connected–if there’s a cognitive scope, then there’s cognitive limits, just as with physical capacities.

David: How do you think language effects consciousness and what we experience as reality?

Noam: Your guess is as good as anyone else’s. I mean, what we know is mostly by introspection. If you pay attention for, say, the next few hours, you’ll discover that you’re constantly talking to yourself. It’s almost impossible to go through a moment of time without internal dialogue taking place, and that’s just an enormous part of our consciousness. And it’s in language, most of it, at least the part that’s accessible to our consciousness is in language. How it effects our thought, and our general awareness, it’s pretty hard to say. The

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