26th February 2022
24 minutes read
Cold War 2.0
26th February 2022
24 minutes read
on October 4, 2021
We have asked the linguist credited as being the most cited living scholar of our time about race, language, cancel culture, the world order, and the climate catastrophe. At 93 years of age, Professor Chomsky is doing fine. The same cannot be said of the world.
Over the course of roughly the past three decades, we have seen a plethora of theories trying to explain in the assumed relationship between the social construct known as race, biology, and language. Indeed, now there is a trend emerging dubbed “raciolinguistics”, which focuses on how race can be constructed or deconstructed through the lens of language. What is your opinion on these trends, and is there any scientific connection at all between race and language?
First, we have to distinguish between language and language use. There’s an obvious connection between what’s called race and the way people use language. The Nazis used language so that race had a specific meaning depending on how many generations back there was a Jewish ancestor. In the United States up until the 1960s, there were definitions of race which were much more extreme, so much so that the Nazis refused to borrow them. The basic principle in many southern states was called “one drop of blood.” If you could show that someone had one drop of blood, however far back, that was “black,” then it was miscegenation and it was illegal. That was too much for the Nazis. There are other ways in which use of language involves race, but as for language itself, nothing. You can speak English and be racist or anti-racist as far as the language is concerned.
It doesn’t make much sense to say biology is a social construct. It’s a science. With language, again, it depends whether you mean language itself or the way it’s used. Language itself is an organic object like the visual system. The way language is used involves many factors. Race is a much more complex notion. What we call race has no biological meaning. There are elements of biological background, but many other elements too. Take Barack Obama. He is called the first Black president.
Why the first Black president? Why not just another White president?
His mother was White, his father was Black. So why is he a Black president? That’s racist use of language. And it’s ubiquitous. He uses it too. He had a DNA analysis and found he had a slave ancestor on his white mother’s side. His white mother had a slave ancestor. Well, that’s the concept “race”. You can make categories in many different ways, and there’s one, particularly since the Enlightenment and the colonial conquests, that has relied heavily on things like skin color. You could do it some other way. There are biological elements in the way in which people use the concept of race, but it’s not a biological concept.
In fact, the concept “white” keeps changing.
If you go back far enough, I wasn’t white, because Jews – I’m Jewish – were not considered white. That changed. Take today. We’re seeing a transition in which Hispanics are becoming white. They’re the same biology, but they’re viewed differently, they view themselves differently. So, race is a strange concept. It’s a mixture of all sorts.
As for biology and language: biology is just another science, and linguistics is like biology. Language use isn’t a social construct, but it’s deeply connected with social conditions, cultural and political conditions, and so on.
In your book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, written with Edward S. Herman, you laid down the propaganda model of communication and identified various filters, including the sourcing of mass media news and what you referred to as “flak”. While your theories focused on the mainstream, now it seems that the same strategies are dominating all fields of public discussion, especially new platforms of discourse like social media. What are your thoughts about the implications of these recent developments, and what do you think of “cancel culture”?
Let’s start with the notion “cancel culture”, the recent one. It’s interesting, a perfect example of a social construct. As far back as you can trace, there was repression in universities, in the academic profession, in the media and so on, barring people from appearance, but against the left, so nobody cared. I could give plenty of examples from my own experience which would be considered horrifying and indescribable if the person were in the mainstream or on the right. The new cancel culture has to do with the fact that some elements of the left, mostly young people in student bodies, are adopting the techniques that have been standard to repress the left. And I think it’s tactically idiotic, it’s a gift to the right wing, and totally wrong in principle, as it has always been. That’s what’s called “cancel culture”.
As far as social media are concerned, I’m not the best person to ask. I don’t use social media, I only know about them secondhand. And from the experience I have with people who use them and the extensive literature concerning them, there does seem to be a tendency that one can identify. In principle, social media could be and maybe to some extent are used as a mode of interaction, bringing people together, setting up a community of civilized discourses about crucial issues and so on. But it seems that’s not what is being done, at least the major part. Social media seem to be driving people into self-reinforcing bubbles in which they hear more or less their own opinions echoed, amplified, modified, and you end up with groups which aren’t speaking to one another, don’t understand one another, and are often highly antagonistic to one another.
In the US, that has become extreme. Interestingly, in the US, in the last 10 or 20 years, the concepts of Republican and Democrat have shifted from what they used to be. They used to be party affiliations. One could easily shift from one to the other. I’ve voted for Republicans in the past, but that has changed. Now the two parties, especially the Republican Party, are basically religious cults. You belong to them. You hate everybody else. Extremist religious cults. That’s particularly true of the Republicans, who have departed from normal parliamentary politics. This is not just my opinion. You can read discussions about this in the most sober mainstream journals. In the London Financial Times, the world’s major business journal – sober, not given to exaggeration – highly regarded columnists are issuing warnings that the United States might collapse into autocracy, abandoning democracy in anything but form because of one party which has become a radical party with an authoritarian agenda. Rather similar to the far-right parties in Europe with neo-fascist origins. That’s a very severe threat to the country and indeed to the world because of US power. Well, I think social media have contributed to that. I don’t know if it’s possible to demonstrate it, but the evidence seems to be that by separating people into self-reinforcing chambers of common opinion and dismissal of others without understanding, it’s become real. The effects are very serious.
You started your career when the Cold War was a reality. After the recent withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, rumors are already circulating in the EU that the United States might abandon Europe, as America is shifting its focus towards Asia. Is a new Cold War emerging? If so, in what way will it be different from the last one?
First of all, the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is the delayed result of an enterprise that never should have been undertaken in the first place. If you go back to 2001, the Bush administration had no justification for invading Afghanistan. And they made it very clear that their concern was not Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, or bin Laden. That was explicit. For example, when the US attacked, very quickly the Taliban returned to their villages and the leadership offered total surrender. The US reaction was, I quote, “we do not negotiate surrenders”. A surrender would have meant handing Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda over to the US. But “we do not negotiate surrenders”. In fact, President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney made it clear that Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden were not seriously their concern.
They had bigger game in mind.
They wanted to conquer Iraq, that’s a real prize, then expand over the Middle East – major enterprises. If they had been interested in Al-Qaeda And Bin Laden, they could have accepted the tentative extradition offers before the invasion, or a small police operation would have sufficed, probably with the cooperation of the Taliban, who wanted to get rid of Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden, who were just an impediment to them. They couldn’t just throw them out, for reasons of tribal culture, but they presumably would have cooperated. That was never tried. “We do not negotiate surrenders”.
So, what was the reason for the US attack? It had no strategic reason. The US has no interest in Afghanistan. It was a waste. The only plausible explanation I’ve heard was given by Abdul Haq, the leading figure of the anti-Taliban Afghan resistance, a highly respected leader. He was interviewed at the time of the invasion by Anatol Lieven, a respected scholar of Central Asia, who asked him why the US had invaded. Abdul Haq said they’re going to kill a lot of Afghans, they’re going to undermine our efforts to overthrow the Taliban from within – which are promising efforts — but the Americans don’t care about that – they want to show their muscle and intimidate everyone in the world. Which is probably accurate. It fits with all the data that we have.
So now they withdrew, they found that their muscles didn’t work very well, but they’re not pulling out of the region. No indication of that. The US is all over the Middle East. There are conflicts over Central Asia, but it’s not about Afghanistan, it’s a conflict with China. While the US has been showing its muscle and intimidating everyone, China has been quietly integrating Central Asia into a Chinese-dominated Eurasian system. This system includes the Central Asian states, India, Pakistan, Iran, and Russia; the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. And the US requested not membership, but observer status, which was rejected. Now the US is being pushed out of its former bases in Central Asia as the countries are lining up with China, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative and so on. That’s the major conflict. But the US is certainly not pulling out of the region.
In fact, expanding the conflict with Iran is a central part of US policy. It certainly was for Trump, and Biden has taken it over. With regard to the EU, the US is demonstrating its contempt for the Union. We saw that dramatically just recently. The US made an agreement with Australia – Britain joined, but it’s kind of an accessory – to sell Australia a fleet of eight highly advanced nuclear submarines. An extremely provocative act which sharply intensifies potential conflicts with China by telling China it has to build up its military resources to counter this very severe threat. Also, the US totally dismissed Europe. The deal abrogated an agreement between France and Australia for French, conventional submarines, which was very important for the French military industry and for France’s role as a Pacific power. Biden didn’t even bother to inform France until it was over. Well, that’s telling the EU very clearly: here’s where you stand in the world order, which we will dominate. Same with Iran. When the US under Trump tore up the joint agreement on nuclear programs, which was working very effectively, it also imposed harsh sanctions on Iran. Europe didn’t want to go along with the sanctions, it objected to them strenuously, but Europe had to comply. The US essentially informed Europe: either you observe our sanctions or get thrown out of the international financial system, which is run from New York. So Europe complied, it observes the Iran sanctions.
In fact, the whole world complies with US sanctions.
The US is the only country that can impose serious sanctions.
Nobody else has the power. It has very harsh sanctions which amount to the blockade against Cuba, 60 years old now. It was revealed once again at the United Nations a couple of weeks ago that the world is totally opposed to this. They have an annual vote on the US blockade of Cuba, the vote was 184 to 2. The only country that voted with the US was Israel, which is essentially a client state which has to do what the US orders. That’s total opposition. But everyone observes the sanctions because if you don’t, the US can impose harsh penalties on you. That’s the world order. The US is by no means retreating from its insistence on being the global hegemon.
That’s the whole purpose of the nuclear submarine deal. It has no strategic purpose. The submarines probably won’t be in operation for 15 years. By that time, China of course will have expanded its military resources to counter the enormous threat of nuclear submarines. China has nothing remotely comparable, even in its own territorial waters. So this is a way to ensure China builds up its military, and when the nuclear submarines become operative, they will be neutralized. So why do it? Why kick Europe in the face? Why sell advanced submarines which Australia pays for, but which are folded into the US naval command? Only one reason: to show your muscle and intimidate everyone. To make it very clear that the US insists on remaining the hegemonic global power, using the threat of force and violence if necessary.
So yes, there’s a kind of a Cold War developing with China. The US claims to be threatened by China, but where is this threat? Nobody can find it. The threat is not in the Caribbean. It’s not off the coast of California. The threat is off the coast of China. And if we look closely, I don’t know if you want to go into it, but it’s a very interesting story. The US claims to be protecting the right of freedom of navigation when it sends naval armadas into the Chinese exclusive economic zone, which is 200 miles offshore. Countries have exclusive economic zones, part of the law of the sea. The US is the only maritime power that hasn’t even ratified the law of the sea, but it insists that China obey Washington’s interpretation. The law is that, within the exclusive zones, there can be no threat or use of force. Well, the US interprets that as meaning that, within the economic zone, it is permitted to carry out military and intelligence operations. China rejects that, saying that freedom of navigation is fine, no problem, but no military or intelligence operations. China is joined, incidentally, by India, in whose economic zone the US Navy just carried out military operations. India vigorously protested. The US insisted that it has the right to do so. Well, there’s nothing at stake other than showing your muscle and intimidating everyone. This is certainly an area in which diplomacy and negotiations are in order, but the US would prefer to use a show of force. China’s doing ugly things as well, I should say. Chinese military planes have just intruded severely into Taiwanese airspace – also provocative and dangerous. So there are tensions developing along the China coast, which is ringed with nuclear armed missiles in the many US bases. The US has 800 military bases around the world. China has one in Djibouti, but we don’t consider China to be under threat. We are under threat, even though the threat is undetectable. Well, that is a cold war developing.
These conflicts are worldwide, but the most dangerous areas are off the coast of China. A conflict between China and the US is unthinkable, it would be devastating everywhere. It’s hard to know if organized human life could survive it. And there are paths towards negotiation and diplomacy, which was true of the first Cold War as well. In 1952, Stalin made pretty a remarkable offer to allow Germany to be reunited, and some talk about potential elections, which of course the Communists would have lost, on one condition, that a reunited Germany not join a hostile military alliance. Considering the moment of history at which the offer was made, that was hardly unreasonable. Germany alone had virtually destroyed Russia twice in the space of two generations. Stalin was calling for no hostile military alliance but unification of Germany. That would have probably ended the Cold War. The US reaction? Flat rejection. In fact, the US kept the offer secret for a month so that they could pass a huge military budget. One US strategic analyst, James Warburg, said we should consider this. He was simply ridiculed and ignored. Anyone else who mentioned it was also dismissed and ignored. In recent years, the Russian archives came out. US scholars on the Cold War are saying it seems the offer was real. Even Lavrentiy Beria, the KGB chief, was discussing the possibility of neutralization and ending the Cold War. The US wasn’t having any of it.
It wanted the Cold War to go on, and there are many such incidents.
It’s not that China and Russia are blameless. Of course there are lots of criticisms we can make, but as far as the escalating international conflicts are concerned, the record shows that it’s primarily the US, often for Abdul Haq’s reasons.
The US itself has remarkable security. There’s probably nothing like it in history, but if you’re a hegemonic global power, you’re in danger everywhere, just like Britain before. So, yes, there is a very serious threat of a conflict developing with China, and this could be extremely dangerous for the world.
The Islamic State controlled territories as big as Great Britain between 2014 and 2018, with a thankfully sharp decline in the last few years. Now with the US pulling out of the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula, how do you see the long-term effects of this on Muslim societies? Would that change the course of collective discourse on minorities from these regions?
As I suggested, I don’t think the US is pulling out. It’s staying there, just in a different form. The conflict with Iran, not the Middle East, is a clear example. US policy in the Middle East was laid out very clearly by the Trump administration, and this policy has been taken over by Biden. Now, the idea doesn’t simply involve the Middle East. The US seeks to construct an alliance of the world’s most reactionary states, centered in Washington. In the Western Hemisphere, it includes Bolsonaro’s Brazil, a proto-fascist government. In India, Modi is dismantling Indian democracy and turning India into a highly autocratic Hindu ethnocracy, so Modi is a natural member. In Europe, the chief member is Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, who is becoming the darling of the Republican Party. His so-called illiberal democracy is the model. In the Middle East, it’s the most reactionary states, the Gulf monarchies, which are among the harshest, most brutal states in the world. Well, they have all the oil of course. It includes Egypt under the worst dictatorship in Egyptian history. Morocco, a family dictatorship, is important because it has a near monopoly of phosphates, irreplaceable for agricultural purposes. Trump, in fact, authorized the Moroccan conquest of Western Sahara in violation of international law so Morocco could extend its control of phosphates. This is all welded together. The so-called Abraham Accords brought together the reactionary Arab states and Israel. They had relations already, but this raised these ties to formal relations. Israel, which has moved very far to the right in recent years, is a natural member, providing the technology, military force, security systems, and so on. So putting it together, this reactionary alliance does include the Middle East as a central component.
As far as minorities are concerned, they are victims, Palestinians obviously. The Trump administration, policies taken over by Biden, essentially told the Palestinians you have no rights. Israel was given everything it wanted. It can take over the Golan Heights and a vastly expanded Jerusalem in violation of Security Council orders and a World Court judgment. Essentially, it can do anything it wants. As far as the Palestinians are concerned, they’re hung out to dry. The other major minority is the Kurds. The US was very willing to support the Kurds in Rojava, Syria, as long as the Kurds were the foot soldiers for the US effort to drive ISIS out of Syria. The Kurds were the ground forces, they suffered more than 10,000 casualties. As soon as that job was done, President Trump kicked them in the face, in usual fashion. He refused even to allow a small US deterrent force, which would prevent Turkey, the main enemy of the Kurds, from expanding its invasion of Syria further into the Kurdish areas. Trump essentially told the Kurds: you did your job, you lost 10,000 people fighting for us, now I am sending the Turks to attack you. Biden hasn’t changed that. What if you look at other minorities? About the same.
If you don’t have power, you’re worthless.
If you’re a powerful state or a powerful force which fits into the overall US plan of hegemonic control, you’re fine.
In an interview in 2020, you said that “it is quite correct to describe the pandemic as a capitalist catastrophe, exacerbated by neoliberal savagery.” The world is now recovering from the pandemic, while we are facing other major risks like global warming. In your opinion, what kind of social impact could a climate catastrophe bring, and is there a possibility to alter the collective language of a society in a way that would effect a significant change in the current societal order?
Well, global warming is a far more serious crisis than the pandemic. The pandemic is bad enough. It’s killed more people in the US than the terrible flu epidemic a century ago. And completely needlessly. It would have been perfectly possible to save these lives with proper policies. We know that simply from looking at the countries that did impose the kinds of policies that health workers all over the world have advocated. In Asia, in Oceania a few countries have it pretty much under control. The US didn’t follow those policies, so it’s a global hotspot. It’s undoubtedly serious. The most serious part of the global pandemic is probably coming. We don’t know for sure, but the rich countries – and here I should say, Europe has taken a worse role than the US – have been monopolizing the vaccines for themselves and insisting on preserving the exorbitant profits of the pharmaceutical corporations, granted to them by the rules of the so-called free trade agreements, which aren’t free trade agreements at all, but are highly protectionist. Europe, especially Germany, has been insisting that those exorbitant profits be maintained and that the drug companies be protected from any access to their quite illegitimate patents. The US has been a little better, but not enough. But the effect is that huge numbers of people in Africa, Asia, Latin America are not getting vaccinated. Well, we know what that means, it means it’s very likely that a great number of them will die. And furthermore, everyone’s aware that it means the virus has a field in which it can mutate, and the mutations might turn out to be truly lethal, maybe even beyond the control of vaccines. That’ll feed back to the rich countries, just as the Delta variant has. So the rich countries are, out of pure greed, accepting the moral opprobrium – it should be moral opprobrium – of killing lots of people and acting to harm themselves. Well, they’re doing the same on global warming, a much more severe matter.
On August 9, the IPCC, the UN international group of scientists, issued its latest report. Much direr than any before, which were already bad. This one made it very explicit that right now we have to start reducing fossil fuel use, year by year, until we phase out fossil fuels by roughly mid-century, and unless we do that, we’re heading for a cataclysm. That’s the IPCC report. Now turn to the business press, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, other business journals: the headlines are that the Western countries led by the US are pressuring the oil producers to increase production. IPCC says unless you start reducing production immediately, you’re heading for cataclysm; the rich countries are saying increase production right now because we want the oil prices to go down for our benefit. I mean, if an observer from outer space were watching us, they’d think we’re clinically insane. That’s the climate crisis.
The question of how power is distributed is not a matter of language. It is a matter of the social order, and this includes the driving forces which determines how leaders act. These forces have little to do with the interests of the public. They are, rather, the so-called leaders’ need for power and the needs of the corporations that fund them for profit.
Take the US, which is in the lead. There is a major conflict going on in congress about what’s called the reconciliation bill, which tries to reverse slightly the very damaging effect of the neoliberal assault of the last 40 years, to provide Americans with some of what’s taken for granted in Europe, like childcare, for example. It also includes climate policies to mitigate slightly damage caused by fossil fuel production. The Republicans, the radical party, are 100 percent opposed. They won’t permit anything beneficial to the American population because they want to blame the Democrats for whatever goes wrong so that they can come back to power. Very explicit. Well, the Senate is split, so the Democrats can only push something through if they’re unified. The Democrat who happens to be the head of the Senate Energy Committee, a very influential position, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, is opposed to the policies. He will not permit policies that reduce the use of fossil fuels, not because of his constituents, but, so it seems, because he happens to be the largest recipient of fossil fuel funding in all of Congress. And that’s saying a lot, the fossil fuel companies pour money into Congress to buy the representatives. Manchin is the champion. He receives more than anyone. He’s adopting the position of the fossil fuel companies. His position, as he’s made clear, is you can’t touch fossil fuel production, natural gas, just have to expand it, no constraints. He said no elimination, only innovation. That’s straight out of the Exxon Mobil playbook. You can do what you like as long, as you don’t eliminate fossil fuels. That’s the most powerful country in world history. Europe is no different. European leaders are also pressing the OPEC countries and Russia to increase oil production when they all know perfectly well that this is a call for possible species suicide. Well, that says something about what kind of a species we are.