john orwant: myname is john orwant. i'm with the google cambridgetea party republicans club. and it's a pleasure and an honorto introduce our guest today-- a man whose fame rises to alevel of the kind that renders the standard introductionpattern completely obsolete. i could tell youabout his 123 books. i counted. the seven bookshave been written about him, the 38 doctoral--honorary doctoral degrees--
that he's been granted. i could tell you aboutthe species of bee that has been named after him. instead, i'm actually going totalk about tenure, because it's actually the thingi think of first when i think aboutour guest today. we tend to think of tenuretoday as an entitlement. right? so, professors--they work really hard
for some amount of time. and then they're kind ofgranted this lifetime protection from being fired. and, the institution oftenure has been around for many decades. it really started to solidifyaround the time of the mccarthy era, where a lot ofprofessors in this country were being asked totake oaths of loyalty as part of theanti-communist fervor that
was sweeping the nation. and it wasn't that theuniversity administrations wanted them to take those oaths. they were worried. the universities were worriedabout pressure from government. they were worried aboutwealthy donors saying, i'll give you this checkfor a million dollars, but you have to fire thatprofessor over there. and so that's whyuniversities kind of lept
into this institutionwith gusto. and yet, when youlook at professors today, they very rarelytake advantage of tenure to speak on popular views. but of course, ourguest today, i think, is the world's bestexample of doing that. and i think that gettingtenure perhaps today should come witha mild obligation to speak truth to power.
so anyway, with that,ladies and gentlemen, i want to introduce a man who isto the left of julian assange, but with a less restrictive--but with fewer travel restrictions-- noam chomsky. [applause] interviewer: well we'revery glad to have you back. you were here in 2008. and now, google'sgrown considerably. you have aconsiderable audience.
and as was mentionedearlier, the questions i'm about to pose toyou are from googlers. so you guys went onlineand you posted questions, and you voted on them. all right-- so the first one. your early view ofthe potential abuse of the internet as a politicalmedium seem to convey a wait and see attitude. how has your viewevolved, and where do you
think the balanceof power is headed? noam chomsky: well, theinternet is obviously a tremendous research tool. we use it all the time. i assume by internet, you meanmore generally-- the whole kind of it system that's developed. and, it's certainly usefulfor activists and organizers. almost all activistefforts and enterprises involve intercommunicationthrough the internet.
on the other hand, we don'thave to talk about the fact that it's a tremendoustool for power systems to control and dominatein all sorts of ways. i by now, hardly have tomention the nsa revelations, edward snowden's revelations. commercial institutions,like google, for example, use it to undermineprivacy and independence in all kinds of ways. so the balance of power is whereit always was, and expending.
any technology that'saround is going to be used by systemsof concentrated power to dominate and control. and you can't opena newspaper now without new things appearing. take this morning. if you happened to look atthis morning's newspaper, there was an associated pressreport on some revelations that they've dug outrecently about efforts
to develop by the us governmentthrough usaid, us aid, which is supposed to bea aid organization to carry forward the intensiveus efforts to undermine and overthrow thegovernment of cuba. read the report. it's interesting for what itsays and what it doesn't say. what it says is that thegovernment through us aid has set up-- tried to setup-- a kind of social media inside cuba that could beused to organize the crowds
to protest with thepeople, not really knowing who they're workingfor what they're doing. and the original apreport, most of which didn't get printed, atleast from what i saw, says that this hasalready been used in many other places--philippines, ukraine, and so on-- to try to organizeanti-government protests, which raises quite a fewquestions about what's going on around the world.
well this is one ofthe techniques that's being used for subversion,domination, control. this is an obamaprogram, incidentally. not bush. and what's said is interesting. what isn't said is interesting. and here, the powerof the internet looms in the background. you can quickly find out whatisn't said on the internet
if you look for it. what isn't said is thatthis program-- of course, it's not called subversion. it's called bringingdemocracy and so on. but this program of trying tosubvert the cuban government is part of a longstandingwar that the us has been conductingagainst cuba. longstanding. you look at the historyof the us and cuba--
it starts in the 1820s. cuba was regarded bythe founding fathers as the next conquestthat we have to make. cuba was waiting there. we had to take it for ourselvesas we expand and become the greatest empirein the world. well we couldn't do it in 1823. there was a deterrent--the british. they were too powerful.
the british were the mainenemy through the 19th most of the 19th centurybut the big thinkers, like john quincy adams--great grand strategist-- he recognized and said, whilewe can acquire cuba now, it will fall intoour hands by the laws of political gravitation,just as an apple falls from the tree. meaning, over time, the uswill become more powerful. britain's power will decline,and we'll be able to take cuba.
and in fact, that'swhat happened. in 1898, cuba was liberatingitself from spain, and the us intervened in what'scalled here liberation of cuba, but in fact, was the preventionof the liberation of cuba by cubans. the us took over theisland-- one of several. puerto rico, hawaii wasstolen from its inhabitants the same year, and cuba becamea colony-- a virtual colony. well, somethingquite interesting
happened that'shighly relevant today. highly relevant. but never mentioned, but youcan find it on the internet if you like. at gun point, theus imposed a treaty on cuba, plattammendment, it's called, in which cuba grantedthe united states control over eastern cuba-- sowhat we call guantanamo. happens to includecuba's major port-- it's
only port orientedtowards europe, which is where itsmain trade would be. of course, the cubanshad no voice in this. we just took it over. and we've had it for 110 years. cuba's been trying to getit back, but we refuse. the purpose has nostrategic interest for us. it's used forstorage of refugees, like if haitians flee frommonstrous dictatorships
that we support in haiti,we're supposed to accept them under internationallaw's refugees. but instead, you send themoff cuba-- to guantanamo-- as a storage place, of course,used as a torture chamber. the cubans want it back. we won't give it to them. does this remindyou of something that's happening inworld affairs right now? yeah.
russia took over crimea. just as we've taken over easterncuba for 110 years at gun point. we don't formally annexit, but we dominate it. russia has a much stronger casethan the united states does. crimea is primarily russian. its population overwhelminglysupports russia. it's got majorstrategic significance. it's russia's onlywarm water port.
it's the base for their fleet. it's right on theborder of russia. russia's surrounded by hostilemilitary alliance-- nato. and for them, it's of greatstrategic significance. cuba for us is nothing. guantanamo. it's just a means oftrying to undermine cuba-- preventcuban development. and the unitedstates, of course,
has been at war withcuba since 1959, when cuba finallydid liberate itself. immediately, the us began anattack on cuba under kennedy. a massive terroristoperation was organized "to bring theterrors of the earth to cuba," was arthur schlesinger'sphrase describing it in his biography ofrobert kennedy, who was in charge of it. it almost destroyed the world.
it was a major factor thatled to the missile crisis. and it's gone on. it went on afterwards. the terror based in florida hasgone on almost without a stop. on top of that, there'san economic embargo to strangle the country,opposed by the entire world. take a look at the votes--annual votes in the general assembly, which don'tget reported here. it's 180 to two-- usand israel sometimes.
the marshall islandsor something. well, all of this is part ofthe background to the ap story about today's effort tosubvert the government of cuba. well, coming back to theinternet, what's interesting is what is available, andwhat isn't readily available, because people don't see it. like, you won't finda word about anything i said in the press, or incommentary, or discussion, although it's allextremely timely.
very timely. not arcane scholarship. but it's right in front ofour eyes, but not there. and when you come back tothe power of the internet, i think it comes back to us. we don't use it. we don't use the resource forthe purposes for which it could be used-- to break throughthe silence, oppression, domination, terror,violence, and bring
the reality of theworld to people. so the internet, potentially,is a wonderful tool, but only if youdecide to use it. if you decide to leave it inthe hands of private power, of power systems whetherstate or private, sure-- it'll be used as away to oppress, undermine and dominate. but that's a choice. don't have to.
interviewer: well,on that note, we will be posting this on youtube. noam chomsky: what? interviewer: we're going to beposting this talk on youtube, so your comments willbe on the internet. happy to say. noam chomsky:internet-- but they won't be in the new york times. well our channel is gettingmore and more popular,
so hopefully peoplewill find this. switching gears alittle bit, what is the most interesting insightthe science of linguistics has revealed, but thatthe public at large seems to not knowabout or appreciate? well, there are a number ofdogmas about language, which i think are beingsystematically refuted. and they're held bylinguists, too, i should say. not just in the general public,which are probably false,
which i think are beingundermined by current research. this is a minority view. i'm not speakingfor the profession. the introductorycomments said that i'm supposed to be a contrarian,so i try to keep to that. but for example, onegeneral assumption about language-- almosta dogma in philosophy. common understanding, thelinguistics of psychology, is that language is primarilya means of communication,
and that it evolved as ameans of communication. probably, that's totally false. it seems that language isevolved and is designed as a mode of creatingand interpreting thought. it's a system ofthought, basically. it can be used to communicate. everything people do canbe used to communicate. you can communicateby your hairstyle, style of walk, everything.
and yes, language canbe used to communicate, but it doesn't seem tobe part of its design. it's design seems tobe radically different, and in fact, even seems toundermine communication. if you look carefully atthe structure of language, you find case after case, rightat the core of language design, where there areconflicts between what would be efficientfor communication, and what is efficient for thespecific biological design
of language. and in every case that'sknown, communicative efficiency is sacrificed. it just isn't a consideration. i think that's aconclusion that has very widespread significance. in order to establish it, youhave to look at technical work. it's not the kindof thing you can explain in twominutes of exposition.
but it's not profound. it's not quantum physics. a half an hour wouldcertainly suffice. suppliers and i thinkit's a pretty far-reaching consequence. another generalbelief about language, again, almost a dogma in all therelevant fields-- philosophy, linguistics, and so on--is that the meaningful, the minimal meaningfulelements in language,
sort of word-likethings, pick out entities in theextra-mental world. so the word, say, riverpicks out the charles river, and so on-- something thata physicist could identify. that turns out to betrue for animal systems-- animal communication systems. the symbols that appear-- theactions that are carried out-- do apparently have aone to one correlation with mind independent events.
so some particularcall of a monkey will be related toleaves fluttering, predators coming, sort of-- i'mhungry, some hormonal change. it's just not true of language. linguistic elements donot have that property. actually, this wasunderstood by aristotle. it was understood in the17th and 18th centuries. interesting work on it. the entities that we constructin our communiques, discourse,
expression, interpretation--are largely mental-- partially, mental object. there are ways inwhich they are-- modes in which weinterpret phenomena. but they don't pick outentities in the world that a naturalscientist could identify without looking into our minds. that tells us a lot aboutthe nature of language, and about our own nature.
language is thecore human property. and this wasunderstood by darwin, by a long tradition before him. and it's very different fromthe way it's usually conceived. i think those are amongreally conclusions that have pretty widespreadsignificance. let me stress again,a very minority view. very few linguistswould agree with this. but i think, over time, isuspect it will become clear.
ok. in hopes and prospects, youmentioned your colleague kenneth hale and his workwith native americans. in your opinion, howimportant is the problem of language extinction? that is, how importantis it for humanity to preserve the current levelof linguistic diversity? well, ken hale, who was afriend of anne's as well. the teacher was a fantasticlinguist and person, also.
he worked extensivelywith indigenous languages all over the world. australia-- he wasone of the founders of australianlinguistics-- worked with native americanlanguages, central american, african, and so on. and he did really amazing work,but this particular aspect of his work was somethingthat greatly concerned and interested him--trying to protect.
and as he pointedout, correctly, when a languagedisappears, a lot is lost. a language is a repositoryof cultural wealth. it's a way-- thisactually relates to what i was sayingbefore-- each language is a way of understanding andinterpreting the world. it carries thewealth of tradition in history, oral history,which can be extremely rich. take the bible, for example.
for years, thatwas oral history, before anythingwas written down. homer is oral history. and that's all over the world. and we're losing thosetreasures every time a language disappears. and for the people themselves,they're losing their identity. if english disappeared, we wouldlose our cultural identity, and the same is true if it'sa small group somewhere.
well, one of ken'sachievements in this regard, which was quite spectacular,was to take the language, which was one of the majorlanguages spoken right here beforethe colonists came. remember, theunited states is not an ordinary form of imperialism. the united states is asecular colonial society. in fact, that's trueof the whole-- what's called the anglo sphere,the countries that grew out
of britain'simperial domination. the united states, canada,australia, mostly new zealand-- these are countries wherethe settlers who came in didn't just run the country theway the british did in india. british in indiaprovided the bureaucrats, you know, the officercorps, and so on. but indians ran thecountry under british rule. secular colonial societiesare different, like ours. if you go back to the foundersof the country-- like,
say george washington. he understood very well thatwe have to, as he put it, extirpate the iroquois. they're in our way. we have to wipe them out. they're and advancedcivilization. they, in fact, werethe basis for much of the americanconstitutional system. but we had to extirpate them.
they were in our way. thomas jefferson said,we have to exterminate the native populationsbecause they're attacking us. and why are they attacking us? well, because we're takingeverything away from them. he didn't say that. but in general, thesettler colonial societies have to pretty much exterminatethe indigenous populations, or else marginalize them.
well that's happened here. so where we'resitting was a place where the indigenouspopulation was close to exterminated--pretty close to it. there are survivors. one of the major languagesspoken was one wampanoag. it hadn't beenspoken for a century. the last speakerwas a century ago. ken, and some students, and awoman from the wampanoag tribe,
which still exists,jessie little doe, managed to reconstructthe language using comparative evidencefrom other languages, and missionary texts thatwere taken and preserved. and from this, theywere able to reconstruct what the languagemust have been. and it now has its first nativespeaker-- jessie little doe's daughter, who's a nativespeaker of wampanoag. this has revitalized the tribe.
they're now studying it. they're reconstructingtheir history. they're reviving. it's a prettyamazing achievement. jessie got her ph.d. withus, with ken, her department, it's the first time thishas ever happened, i think. now there are efforts todo it in other places. but if you canrevive-- right now, there's enormousdestruction going on.
species destruction,for example, is taking place at alevel that hasn't happened for 65 million years,literally-- the time when an asteroid hitthe earth, apparently, and wiped out the dinosaurs, andthe majority of living species were destroyed. mammals survived. that's why we're around. but, right now, thesame thing's happening.
species destruction ishappening, about at that level. and now, we're theasteroid, of course. we're destroying thespecies at a massive rate. language destructionis kind of a little like that at a culturaland human level. you're destroying therichness of human civilization and understanding of the world. it's disappearing fast. it's disappearingin europe-- not just
in indigenous cultures. so if you go to,say, italy, there are people allover the place who can't talk totheir grandmothers. the grandmothers speaka different language. they're called dialects,but they're actually different languages. the number oflanguages in europe has contracted radicallyover recent years
through the policiesof state formation. when states are formed,the formation of states is an extremely violent process. it imposes a rigidform on societies, bringing togetherpeople who have nothing to do with eachother, and separating people who have everythingto do with each other. that's why europe wasthe most savage place in the world for centuries whilethe process of state formation
was taking place. you look around the worldtoday, and just about every major conflict is basedon the imperial borders. borders were imposedby the imperial powers for their own interests,forming states which have no significancefor most of the people. so take, say, pakistanand afghanistan. we talk about terroristscrossing pakistan to afghanistan.
they are, many of them,are just pashtun-- moving from one partof pashtun territory to another part ofpashtun territory, which is separated by a line--that the british imposed-- the durand line-- which theafghans have never accepted and the pashtunhave never accepted. now that happens everywhere. president obama, oneof his achievements has been to break allrecords in deporting
undocumented immigrants--almost two million. they're crossing a border--the mexico us border-- which, like stateborders generally, was established by brutalviolence and aggression. the us conquered half of mexico. president grant describedit as, who fought in it, described it as the mostwicked war in history. well, ok, thatestablished the border. it was a pretty open border.
the same kind of peopleliving on both sides until pretty recently. it's been heavilymilitarized now. primarily since nafta. when nafta, the northamerican free trade agreement, was instituted, presidentclinton, his advisers, understood verywell that this is going to devastate mexican--the mexican economy. and it's going to destroymexican agriculture.
it's going to underminesmall business, and so on. mexican compacinos canbe quite efficient, but they can't competewith highly subsidized u.s. agro-business. so there's going to bea flow of immigrants. so we've got to militarizethe border to prevent them. send them back. right now, to this day,right here near boston-- right around us--there are people
fleeing from theguatemalan highlands. mayan indians, fleeing fromthe guatemalan highlands. their languages arealso being destroyed. why are they fleeing fromthe guatemalan highlands? well, under ronaldreagan, the us supported a genocidal attackson the highlands, and the mayan indians by themilitary dictatorship we were backing in guatemala. and the devastationwas so extreme
that they're still fleeing. well, they're fleeing. we deport them. they're comingacross from mexico. that's a state border. that's the way borders work. all over the world,that's the way it works. take a look at the horrorstories all of the world. almost entirely, the resultof the imposition of state
borders, which alsohas the consequence of wiping out lots of languages. when you impose a stateborder, it constitutes, say, france, or italy, orgermany, or guatemala, or whatever it may be, or theunited states for that matter, you're wiping out hugenumbers of languages which are internal to them. well, this is a kind of--it's not species destruction, but it's kind ofanalogous to it.
and it's going on all the time. and the effort to save species,cultures, societies, languages is a major effort. happening in europe, too. so right nowthere's a referendum coming up in catalonia. another one in scotlandasking about autonomy, or independence. that's dissolving the europeanstate system, something
which has beengoing on for awhile, and reconstructingthe languages. actually, i visitedbarcelona in the late '70s. you couldn't heara word of catalan. it was spoken, but secret,because under the dictatorship, which the us backed,it was barred. 10 years later, ifyou go to catalonia, all you hear is catalan. it revived.
the basque languages revived. other regionallanguages are reviving. if you walk around wales,kids walking out of school are talking welsh. things like this are happening. ken's achievementwas unique, but it's a kind of a natural development. i think it should bestimulated myself. but we shouldrecognize that there's
enormous loss when the culturalwealth of a society disappears. that's encapsulatedcrucially in its language. interviewer: all right. so i'm going to changegears a little bit again. can you comment onthe contribution of research and statisticalnatural language processing to linguistics? and that's a yes/no question,i realize, but-- ok. [laughter]
noam chomsky: one of theearly proponents of it, maybe the earliestin 1955, when i was working onlinguistic theory, it seemed to me theonly possible way in which a, let's say, achild, could identify words in continuous text-- you know,you're not hearing single words when you live in the world. you're hearing continuous text. it seemed to me the onlyway that is could be done
was by detecting transitionalprobabilities of sounds or syllables. if you get to a wordboundary, the predictability of the next sound is lowerthan if you're inside a word. for obvious reasons. so if you check thesetransitional probabilities, it looked as if you oughtto be able to detect words. that's probablythe first proposal. maybe the firstproposal of literature.
it turns out not to be accurate. just in the lastcouple of years, there's been somereally careful work on statisticalanalysis of texts. charles yang, who gothis ph.d. at mit-- he's now at penn, a computationallinguist cognitive scientist-- he showedthat if you actually use this technique on connectedtext, that what you get is syllables, not words.
so that doesn't work. he also pointed out that ifyou add a linguistic principle, you do get a betterapproximation to words. linguistic principle is thata word-- well, real words, tend to have stresspeak within them-- stress pitch peek inside them. so if you add thatprinciple, and then you do the statistical analysis,you get a better approximation. there's subsequent work by anumber of cognitive scientists
which has shownthat if you add what are called the prosodicstructure-- the whole pitch stress structure of asentence-- it goes up and down, but really reflectingphrases pretty much, if you look at thepitch structure. if you add all ofthat, and then you do the statisticalanalysis, you get and even better approximation. now this is one of the veryfew cases where there's
any results fromstatistical analysis. there has been-- there'sa kind of a industry in computational cognitivescience and computer science trying toshow that you can get significantknowledge of a language by statistical analysis of text. antecedently, that'sextremely unlikely to succeed. you do not get discoveriesin the sciences by taking huge amounts of data,throwing them into a computer,
and doing statisticalanalysis of them. try to think it through inthe history of the sciences. it just doesn't happen. that's not the wayyou understand things. you have to havetheoretical insights. you have to know whatkind of experiments to carry out-- what kind ofdata are worth looking at, which kind of throwaway, and so on. that's the way the scienceshave always worked.
if you wanted to, say,study the laws of motion, you could take a hugenumber of videotapes of what's happeningoutside the window, and subject them tostatistical analysis. you could get apretty good prediction of the next thing that's goingto happen outside the window-- actually, a betterprediction than what the physics department can give. but it's not science.
it's a way of matching data, andmaybe predicting some new data. but that's not whatunderstanding is. and it's very unlikely towork for language, either. and i think the record showsthat it really fails totally. i could run through examples. but every example that'sbeen carefully studied, it simply doesn't work,for pretty much the reasons that charles yang and hissuccessors discovered. you have to have the-- have tounderstand the principles that
determine whatunderlies the system. and then if you look aroundthe edges of those principles, you can find some sometimesuseful statistical data. i think that's probably theway it's going to continue, but certainly is theway it has so far. interviewer: we're goingto change gears again. what, in your opinion, arethe most effective strategies for building a more andjust peace-- i'm sorry, start over again-- for buildinga more just and peaceful world,
and in your view, what are thebest-- the most significant takeaways-- fromoccupy the arabs bring, and the ukrainianeuromaiden uprising. noam chomsky: well, those areall quite different events, and i don't think youcan consolidate them. over time, there has--you know, history doesn't just go ina straight line. there's progress,there's regression. and they're often in parallel.
so say, take the last say, 50,60 years in the united states. there's beensignificant progress in developing a more peacefuland just and equitable society. probably the most dramaticexample is women's rights. totally different from whatit was 50 or 60 years ago. it may be kind ofhard to remember, but if you look at ushistory, at the time of the american revolution,the women were not people. they were property.
the united states tookover british common law. and under britishcommon law, a woman is the property ofher father, and it's transferred to her husband. so for example, one of thearguments against giving women votes was that it would beunfair to unmarried men, because a married man wouldhave two votes, since obviously the property votes theway the owner votes. that was us law.
if you look at thechipping away of this, it literally was not until1975 that this principle was abandoned. in 1975, the supreme courtruled that women have the right to serve as peersin federal jury. peer means a personjust like you. ok, that goes back to the magnacarta in the 13th century. women were accepted aspeers legally in 1975. now that was part ofa major change that's
taken place in americanculture since the 1960s-- one of the main outgrowthsof '60s activism. and there are plenty ofother things like it. so opposition to, say,violent aggression is far above what itwas 50 or 60 years ago. take, say, kennedy'sinvasion of south vietnam. it's a phrase you'venever heard, i suppose, because it isn'tin consciousness. it happened in the world,but it wasn't reported
and it isn't partof american history. in the 1962, kennedy sentthe american air force to start bombing south vietnam. authorized chemicalwarfare to destroy crops, so to drive the peopleout of the countryside. began big programs toconcentrate people, and put them out at theconcentration camps, to prevent them from supportingthe guerrilla movement, which was overthrowing the usinstalled government.
that's an invasion. it happened, but notin our consciousness. the reason it's notin our consciousness is there was no opposition. it was recorded. it was kind of known. you know, like it wasn't atotal secret, but nobody cared. you couldn't get peopleto talk about it. i mean, literallyi remember trying
to give talks in the early'60s in people's living rooms. you could get more peoplethan that together. well that was the early '60s. in 2003, the unitedstates invaded iraq. it's the first time in thehistory of the imperial world that there have been massiveprotests prior to the invasion, prior to the invasion-- hugeprotests all of the world. here, too. my classes were called offbecause the students wanted
to call them off to godown to the demonstration. that was 2003. well, it didn't end thewar, but it limited it. it's often believedthat the demonstrations didn't do anything. that's a mistake. the united states could notbegin to carry out the policies that kennedy andjohnson could carry out without a second thought.
it was bad enough, butit wasn't b52 bombing of heavily populatedurban centers. it wasn't chemicalwarfare destroying crops. many of the atrocitiesof the vietnam war simply couldn't be contemplated. horrible enough, but not that. ok, all of that is progress. there's also a regression. there's been a bigbacklash from power centers
against the civilizingeffect of the '60s. now, that's theneoliberal attack on the population which hasbeen going on for a generation. that's why, say,real wages, real, for male workers-- real wagestoday are at the level of 1968 for the general public. and real wages are aboutthe level of 30 years ago. there's been somestagnation or decline for the majorityof the population.
tremendous concentrationof wealth in tiny number of-- tiny sectorof the population. mostly a fraction of 1%,which feeds politics. political powerreflects economic power. the supreme court just yesterdayjust struck another blow against democracy andits committed effort to try to underminethe functioning of a democratic systemby placing power in the hands of thosewho are super rich.
ok, that's going on. that's the mccutcheoncase a couple days ago. well, that's regression. and they're goingon in parallel. that's the way history works. so what's the way to go forward? well, you know, asmartin luther king put it-- shiftthe arc of history by your own efforts in activism.
that's the only wayit's ever worked. the arc of history bends theway we decide to bend it. interviewer: in"hopes and prospects" you compare obama and bush ii. that's four years ago. what would you say today? noam chomsky: likewhat i just said about the arc of history--both better in some ways, worse in others.
so, for example, imentioned guantanamo. guantanamo is amajor torture center. ok, today, probablytorture isn't taking place in guantanamo--at least what we call torture. remember, the united states hasa special definition of torture which is different fromthe world's definition. so for example, in theworld, a solitary confinement is considered torture. you take a look at thetorture convention--
internationaltorture convention. solitary confinementis regarded-- and other forms ofmental torture-- are regarded as torture. and they are. you try to lock yourself up ina room for a couple of days, and you'll see what happens. so it's kind of torture. in the united states, it'ssurely going on in guantanamo.
but it's also a routine. it goes on in theprisons all the time. you go to the maximumsecurity prisons, they are torture chambers. people are confined 23hours a day in a small room. it drives you insane. so torture-- whatwe call torture isn't going on in guantanamo. what is torture isgoing on, but it's
going on in the incarcerationsystem generally. and that system is a realinternational scandal on scale [inaudible]. so that's an improvement. no magnificent,but an improvement. on the other hand, there'sthe surveillance programs, which are-- i don't haveto talk to you about them. you know about them. they're mostly obama.
the subversion of cubathat i mentioned-- that's a new obama program. the worst global terrorismcampaign under way right now is obama's globalassassination campaign. the drone campaign. notice that there's adebate in the united states when he decides tomurder americans. like, [inaudible]. you know, is thatlegitimate or not?
and what about the other people? the people that are beingmurdered are suspects. go back 800 yearsagain to magna carta. we're going to commemorateits 800th anniversary next year-- probablymorn its disappearance. the core conceptdeveloped in magna carta was what we callpresumption of innocence. what it stated is that afree man cannot be subjected to state punishmentwithout due process--
without trial bya jury of peers. ok? now, free man was a very limitedconcept in the 13th century. of course, it excluded women. it excluded people whoweren't free and so on. it gradually expandedover the centuries. so it's embeddedin the constitution also with limits-- the 14thamendment, other limits. but now it's being contracted.
the drone campaign eliminatespresumption of innocence. the way it works is,obama and his advisers get together tuesdaymorning and decide who they're goingto kill that day. the concept guilty meansobama decided to murder you. that's the meaning ofthe concept guilty today. that's a regression thatgoes back 800 years. that's pretty serious. and what's even more seriousis, it's not discussed.
the only thing that is discussedis the killing of americans. are americans different species? who says you cankill other suspects? there's some talk aboutcollateral damage. what about the people who arejust standing around and get killed? well, yeah-- that's bad. but what about thepeople you're aiming at? they are suspects.
you haven't shown a proofof anything about them. just somebody thegovernment wants to kill. that's true ofdomestic law, too. actually, i'm one ofthe plaintiffs in a suit that i'm not entirely happyabout for this reason. it's a suit about the ndaabrought by chris hedges. a couple of otherpeople are plaintiffs. the ndaa legislationunder obama-- he says he doesn't likeit, but he signed it.
it permits indefinite detention. it extends the principleof indefinite detention for suspects who are, underthis relatively new legislation under obama. in includes-- it iswritten in such a way that it could includeamerican citizens. it's not explicit. that's what the suit is about. but the concept is-- it permitsindefinite detention of people
charged with providing supportfor enemies of the united states. what's support? well, like saying maybe they gota case, or something like that. is that support? it's not a joke, incidentally. the narrow case--the very narrow case is against one part--the fact that is might apply toamerican citizens.
i think it's way too narrow. it shouldn't apply to anybody. there should neverbe such a thing as independentindefinite detention. it's criminal. and the idea ofsupporting enemies is so meaningless, that such aconcept shouldn't exist as law. but it's a narrowcase about americans. and that's the frameworkof discourse here.
you shouldn't acceptit, i don't think. in fact, take anotherobama case-- one of obama's major attackson civil liberties. it's a case that probably mostof you haven't heard about, but i'd look itup if i were you. it's a nice thingabout the internet. holder v. humanitarianlaw project-- case brought by the government to thesupreme court government one. holder is the attorney general.
humanitarian lawproject was a group that was giving legaladvice-- legal advice-- to a group that's onthe us terrorist list. the group happened to bethe pkk-- kurdish group. the us government callsit a terrorist group, so it's on the terrorist list. humanitarian law project wasgiving legal advice to them. obama's justicedepartment decided to condemn that as materialassistance to terrorism.
material assistanceof terrorism used to mean giving a gun tosomebody in al qaeda. but this extends itto giving legal advice to someone on thegovernment's terrorist list. and if you look at thecourt discussion colloquy, it could maybe applyto somebody who has an interview withnasrallah, you know, the head of hezbollah. or just talks to,maybe advises, a group
to turn to non-violence. that could be regardedas material assistance that's a tremendous attackon the freedom of speech, and just ordinateelementary justice-- passed almost without comment. now we might askourselves-- why should we even takes theterrorist list seriously? what's the terrorist list? the executive branchof the government
simply determinesyou're a terrorist. i put you on the list. no review. no judicial review. no defense. it's just an executive actof an authoritarian state. and if you look at thehistory of the terrorist list, it's mind-boggling. like, nelsonmandela, for example,
was on the terrorist listbecause reagan administration condemned them as-- his group,the african national congress, as one of the more notoriousterrorist groups in the world because they wereopposing apartheid, which reagan supported. ok, so that's theterrorist list. and mandela was on untilabout four years ago, when it took a specialact of congress to get him off theterrorist list.
on the other hand, take,say, saddam hussein. he was taken off theterrorist list in 1982, because the reaganadministration wanted to provide arms to iraq,so in order to be legal, he had to be offthe terrorist list. actually, that left a gapin the terrorist list, so they put cuba in. why? because cuba has been the targetof more terrorism than the rest
of the world combinedin the years before it, mostly based in florida. that's the terrorist list. so apart from being kindof ludicrous in the way it actually works, the veryconcept is an abomination. why should thestate have the right to determine unilaterallywho's a terrorist? do they have that right? no, they don't.
do they have theright to murder people who they put onthe terrorist list? no they don't. do they have the right tocharge people with material assistance to terrorism ifthey give legal aid to somebody that they've designatedas a terrorist? this gets more and moreextreme as you go on. these are obama innovations. well, history doesn'tgo straight line.
and i think, myself,bush would've been worse, but not that there's much tocheer about in this regard. audience: with cultures thatdidn't have a written language until another culturecame in that did, and they adoptedtheir writing system. is there any systematiceffect on languages that adopted someoneelse's writing system? noam chomsky: there is asystematic effect of literacy. it's not so much adoptingthe writing system
as using it for reading. so if we actually want,there's a-- ken hale, same guy we talkedabout before-- he did a very important study inthe 1970s in which he showed that-- an article that appearedon what's called cultural gaps. he studied the languages thathe worked on, mostly australian, and found that many ofthem had all kind of what looked like gaps. like, they didn'thave number words.
they didn't have color words. or they didn't haverelative clauses. a lot of other thingsthey didn't have. and what he showedwas that all of this was just totally superficial. the people had all the concept. they had no problem withdealing with any of them. they used them all the time,but just in more indirect ways. so if they didn'thave number words,
they would still beable to say five, ten. they had no problem dealingwith market societies. they may not havehad the color red, but they could say blood-like. and the same was trueeven of structural things, like embedded relative clauses. well, that was animportant study. ignored, like mostimportant studies. but, shortly after it, somebodyelse in our department, wayne
o'neil, another friendof anne's and mine, who studies thehistory of english, he did a study ofmiddle english. and he investigated, and ifhe was looking for something similar, he discovered that theuse of complex constructions, which had embeddedelements in them, increased as literacy increased. there's a naturalreason for that. when you speak,you're constrained
by short term memory,which is pretty small. short term memory is aroundseven or something like that. the same for humansand other organisms. and that meansyou can't do much. so ordinary speech tends tobe what's called para-tactic. you just kind of tack thingson one after the other, because you can't embed. on the other hand, onceyou move to literacy, you begin to use capacities thatyou always had but never used.
it's like, whenthe people learn. you go to school and, yousay, first grade or something, and they teach youhow to multiply. you begin to use a capacitywhich you always had. it's not taught. it's part of yourintrinsic capacities that you have thecapacity for number. every society has it. every human being has it.
it's kind of a mystery thatbothered darwin and wallace-- the founders ofevolutionary theory. they asked, how could itevolve since it's never used? but it's true thateveryone has it. but you can't doit in your head. like, you can't multiplybig numbers in your head. you'd collapse aftera very short period. but you can multiply themonce you learn the technique, because you'vegot the knowledge.
you just have to exhibit it. and the same thinghappens with literacy. once literacy spreads,you get much more complex linguistic usage, even inspeech, because it carries over from writing to speech. so that effect i thinkis real and documented. but the effect of just using. if you just use the lettersto say, write things, but you never read,i'd doubt if it
would have much of an effect. audience: i'm curious as toyour thoughts, because i'm standing now, asto your thoughts on-- i guess somepeople have said that the effect of technologyon certain languages has made us dumber. so like, texting,lol, or hash tags. and if that's actuallytrue, or if it's just the same asany appendians, like
new words beingadded to languages. noam chomsky: i thinkthe real question about the, what might bethe cognitive effect-- the current kind of teenagetechnology-- it does have a very superficialaspect to it. so, that's true, forexample, of facebook. people think theyhave lots of-- i mean i know ofcases, teenagers, who think they have lots offriends, hundreds of friends.
because if they write,i've got an exam tomorrow, they'll get 100 letters saying,i hope you do well, and so on. and the communicationis very restricted. a simple formula isthings like that. so does it have adumbing down effect? i kind of doubt it, frankly. but, you know, it is atopic that could be studied. it is being studied, in fact. but as far as i know,there are no real results,
and i think itwould be surprising, because it's allkind of superficial. it does add a kindof superficiality to life, which maynot be a good thing. i think it's probablyharmful in the long run. but to try to-- i feel like i'mbringing coals to newcastle. you people know alot more about this than i do, because i don'tuse any of this stuff, except with my grandchildren,when i have to.
is there one last question? we have time fora quick question. there. is the-- so the diversityof languages and cultures is wonderful, but if there ison the other side, if you would say anything, if youwould, sort of allow that having a unifiedlanguage and common culture helps communication andmay advance world peace? well i don't ifit advances peace.
in fact, it seems to havethe opposite, because you're forcing people intosituations of conflict. and the one languagethat dominates is just the most powerfulstate in the world. but there's an advantage,to having, say, a single language for science. ok, so by now, english is prettymuch the language of science. when i got to mit60 years ago, i was teaching scientific frenchand scientific german-- all
graduate studentsin every field had to pass an exam infrench and german. it was a complete fake,but that was kind of like a residue of thepre-second world war period. but it was true. you go back 70 years,a civil engineer had to know french or german. ok now, that's all gone. all around most of the world,the language of science
is english. that's helpful. on the other hand,exactly as you say, there's also-- if thatextend from just some mode of communication to theactual languages of life, it would be a real loss. we would lose cultural wealth. actually, if you livein the united states, and you travel abroad,you see it very quickly.
the united states is anextremely insular society. people don't know anythingabout the outside world. students in colleges don'tknow where france is. it's just-- theydon't know anything. it's remarkably different fromeurope and other countries. and part of thereason is that, you can go 3,000 milesin the united states, and it looks exactlylike where you came from. go to boston to los angeles, theweather's a little different,
but everything else is the same. the accent isslightly different. you go 100 miles in europe, andyou're in a different society. so you just kindof automatically gain comprehension of therichness and complexity of life that's missing whensocieties are homogeneous. of course american societyisn't literally homogeneous. but, comparativelyspeaking, it is. and i think that'sthe kind of loss
you would get if,in fact, you moved towards a universal language. also, i just don't thinkthere's any possibility that's happening. as i said, ineurope, there's now actually a reaction againstthe unifying tendencies of the european union--more regionalization, regional languages, cultures. it's not justlanguages, incidentally.
so take catalonia,which i mentioned. under the franco dictatorship,catalonian language and culture were totally suppressed. they could not beexhibited in public. but, if you go tobarcelona today, let's say, you canon sunday morning, if you're downtown in barcelona,take a look at the cathedral. there's people swarming towardsthe cathedral-- folk singers, folk dances, catalancultures being revived.
it's a rich culturebeing revived. it was kind ofthere, underground. now it's open. and i think that'sjust healthy for life.