MIT Professor Noam Chomsky

One of our nation’s most renowned intellectuals discusses how the seemingly harmless elements of our socialization — from our language, to the way we draw our maps — in fact promote one world view over another.

Referred to by the New York Times as “arguably the most important intellectual alive," Noam Chomsky has been one of the world's most active and critically engaged political theorists over the past five decades. Born in Philadelphia in 1928, Chomsky was an intellectual prodigy growing up in Depression-era America -- fertile ground that sprouted a life of outspoken activism addressing the harsh realities of the times.  Chomsky went on to earn a PhD in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1955 joined the professorial staff at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he continues to teach linguistics. Both his groundbreaking contributions in his field and his political criticisms have resonated around the globe with leaders, educators, and thinkers of all kinds.


Tavis: Noam Chomsky is, of course, internationally recognized as one of the world’s most critically engaged public intellectuals. The MIT professor of linguistics has long been an unapologetic critic of both American foreign policy and the ideological role of the mainstream media.

He joins us now from MIT to talk about the seemingly innocuous elements of our socialization that promote one-world view over another. Before we start our conversation, a clip from “The West Wing” that I think will set this conversation up quite nicely.


Tavis: Professor Chomsky, good to have you on this program. Thank you for your time, sir.

Noam Chomsky: Glad to be with you.

Tavis: I think that clip, again, sets up our conversation nicely. Let me just jump right in. Why all these years later is the west better than the east, the north better than the south, Europe better than Africa? These notions continue to persist. Tell me why.

Chomsky: There’s a generalization. We are better than they, whoever we are. So if you look through the whole history of China, one of the most ancient, most developed, civilizations which, in fact, was one of the centers of the world economy as late as the 18th century, China was better than everyone else.

It’s unfortunately a natural way of thinking, very ugly and destructive one, but it’s true. We are the west, the north, Europe and its offshoots, not Africa. So, of course, we’re better than them.

Tavis: When you say it’s a natural way of thinking, unpack that for me. What do you mean by a natural way of thinking?

Chomsky: It’s not unusual for people to think that our group, whatever it is, has special traits that make it better than others. So, for example, I happen to be Jewish. If you look at the Jewish tradition, the leading rabbis and so on, many of them held the position that Jews are a special race above ordinary mankind.

China had similar views. The north and the west had the same views and, of course, it’s enhanced by the imperialist history which ended up with Europe and its offshoots conquering and controlling most of the world.

Actually, this world view about, you know, the north somehow being on top and the south being on the bottom goes way back to the origins of what’s called western civilization.

So, for example, it was believed in classical times that nobody could live south of the equator because their heads would be pointed downward. I think even St. Augustine held that view, if I remember correctly.

And it carries over up to the present when Henry Kissinger says, “Nothing important ever came from the south.” He’s essentially expressing a modern version of the same racist conception.

Tavis: Since you mentioned Henry Kissinger, I was just about to ask, so I will now, Professor Chomsky, how our socialization–or as you might put it–how this natural way of thinking ultimately impacts and affects our foreign policy. If we think that we are better than everybody else, how does that impact and affect our foreign policy?

Chomsky: Oh, very definitely. You see it very clearly if you study internal documents, you know, declassified documents discussing how leaders plan things among themselves.

So go back to, say, 1945 when the U.S. pretty much took over domination of the world. It was incredibly powerful without any counterpart in history, half the world’s wealth, incomparable security, military powers.

So, of course, it planned detailed plans as to how to run the world. Now a lot of it was laid out by the State Department policy planning staff. It’s head was George Kennan, one of the highly respected diplomats, one of the framers of the modern world.

And he and his staff parceled out different areas of the world and described what they called their function within the U.S.-dominated system. So, for example, the function of southeast Asia was to provide resources and raw materials for the industrial countries of Europe and the United States and so on.

When he got to Africa, he said, well, we’re not that much interested in Africa, so we will hand Africa over to Europe for them to exploit–his word–for them to exploit for their reconstruction. If you look at the history of relations between Europe and Africa, some slightly different conception might come to mind, but it never entered the thought of the planners.

So the idea that Europe should exploit Africa for Europe’s reconstruction passed without comment. This is just deeply imbedded in the consciousness of what’s sometimes called white supremacy which is an extraordinary doctrine.

Comparative scholarly studies, George Frederickson, for example, one of the main scholars who dealt with it, concludes that in the United States, white supremacy was even more extreme than in apartheid South Africa. It’s a very powerful concept here. It’s buttressed by imperial domination.

The more powerful you are, the more you dominate others, the more you create justifications for that in ideology and education and media and so on. If you’ve got your boot on someone else’s neck, it’s typical to provide a justification for it. We’re doing it because we’re right, they deserve it, we’re better and so on.

Tavis: I want to come back to how we change that thinking before our conversation ends. Let me go back one more time, though, to your Kissinger reference when Henry Kissinger said that, “Nothing good ever came out of the south”.

If the earth is a sphere–think about this–if the earth is a sphere and we’re constantly in motion, what is to be gained by drawing consistently certain countries on the top half and other countries on the bottom half? What is to be gained by that?

Chomsky: What’s to be gained by that is a graphic representation of the fact that we are more important and better than them. We’re the north, they’re the south. We dominate because of our essential superiority of character, qualities, righteousness and so on.

It’s a graphic manifestation of the we are better than them conception that, as I said, is unfortunately pretty natural and is greatly enhanced by when it’s associated with power. So when you actually dominate others, that enhances the natural we are better than them conceptions.

Tavis: Speaking of conceptions, it seems that every other day now someone else is announcing that he or she is running for president. And I suspect, between now and November 2016, we will hear the term “American exceptionalism” over and over and over again.

By any other definition or espoused any other way, is this notion again that we’ve been talking about tonight that the USA is all that and then some, what do you say to the American people about how we challenge our own thinking, how we reexamine our assumptions, how we expand our inventory of ideas, as it were, about this notion that we hold onto so dearly?

Chomsky: Well, the best way to do it is to look carefully at the facts that are easily available to us. So take the phrase, “American exceptionalism”, which is supposed to express our unique superiority to other countries, the unique benevolence of our intention with regard to others. You get this across the spectrum.

So a recent issue of the New York review of books, the kind of ideological journal of the left liberal intelligentsia, has an article by the former head of the Carnegie Institute for Peace saying that it’s just obvious beyond discussion that the United States is unique. Other countries work for their own interests. We work for the interests of mankind.

That’s American exceptionalism. There are two problems with it. For one thing, it’s flatly false. As soon as you look at the record, you see nothing like that is true.

The second problem is it’s not uniquely American. Take other great powers in their day in the sun, they had the same doctrine. England was British exceptionalism. France was France’s civilizing mission. Anywhere you look, you find the same thing.

We happen to be the world dominant power for a long time, certainly since the Second World War economically, even before that. Sure, American exceptionalism is our version of the same disgraceful conception of history that’s concocted by the powerful. And how do you combat it? With the facts.

Tavis: Easily said, not easily done. Always pleased to be in conversation with this brilliant thinker, Noam Chomsky, challenging us tonight to reconsider our world view. Professor Chomsky, thanks for your time. Never enough time with you, but I’m honored to have had you on this program tonight, sir.

Chomsky: Thank you.

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Last modified: May 29, 2015 at 2:43 pm