Noam Chomsky on Language, Left Libertarianism, and Progress (Ep. 182)

At 94, why does Noam Chomsky still answer every email?

Noam Chomsky joins Tyler to discuss why Noam and Wilhelm von Humboldt have similar views on language and liberty, good and bad evolutionary approaches to language, what he thinks Stephen Wolfram gets wrong about LLMs, whether he’s optimistic about the future, what he thinks of Thomas Schelling, the legacy of the 1960s-era left libertarians, the development trajectories of Nicaragua and Cuba, why he still answers every email, what he’s been most wrong about, and more.

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Recorded February 27th, 2023

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TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m chatting with Noam Chomsky, who needs no introduction. Noam, welcome.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Good to be with you.

COWEN: If I think of your thought, and I compare it to the thought of Wilhelm von Humboldt, what’s the common ontological element in both of your thoughts that leads you to more or less agree on both language and liberty?

CHOMSKY: Von Humboldt was, first of all, a great linguist who recognized some fundamental principles of language which were rare at the time and are only beginning to be understood. But in the social and political domain, he was not only the founder of the modern research university, but also one of the founders of classical liberalism.

His fundamental principle — as he said, it’s actually an epigram for John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty — is that the fundamental right of every person is to be free from external illegitimate constraints, free to inquire, to create, to pursue their own interests and concerns without arbitrary authority of any sort restricting or limiting them.

COWEN: Now, you’ve argued that Humboldt was a Platonist of some kind, that he viewed learning as some notion of reminiscence. Are you, in the same regard, also a Platonist?

CHOMSKY: Leibniz pointed out that Plato’s theory of reminiscence was basically correct, but it had to be purged of the error of reminiscence — in other words, not an earlier life, but rather something intrinsic to our nature. Leibniz couldn’t have proceeded as we can today, but now we would say something that has evolved and has become intrinsic to our nature. For people like Humboldt, what was crucial to our nature was what is sometimes called the instinct for freedom. Basic, fundamental human property should lie at the basis of our social and economic reasoning.

It’s also the critical property of human language and thought, as was recognized in the early Scientific Revolution — Galileo, Leibniz — a little later, people like Humboldt in the Romantic era. The fundamental property of human language is this unique capacity to create, unboundedly, many new thoughts in our minds, and even to be able to convey to others who have no access to our minds their innermost workings. Galileo himself thought the alphabet was the most spectacular of human inventions because it provided a means to carry out this miracle.

Humboldt’s formulation was that language enables language and thought, which were always pretty much identified. Language enables what he called infinite use of finite means. We have a finite system. We make unbounded use of it. Those conceptions weren’t very well understood until the mid-20th century with the development of the theory of computation by Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing, and other great mathematicians, 1930s and ’40s. But now the concept of finite means that provide infinite scope is quite well understood. In fact, everyone has it in their laptop by now.

COWEN: Was it the distinction between natural and artificial language that led Rousseau astray on politics?

CHOMSKY: That led . . . ?

COWEN: Rousseau. You’re a left libertarian. Rousseau is in some ways almost a totalitarian, right?

CHOMSKY: Rousseau is a very mixed character. He’s not a systematic thinker. You can find all sorts of things in Rousseau. If you look at the Second Discourse on Inequality, it’s highly libertarian, deriving from basically Cartesian principles about the uniqueness and creativity of human thought and language onto a fairly libertarian conception of social organization. That’s one Rousseau. You can also find a very different one.

On evolutionary approaches to language

COWEN: Why are you skeptical of evolutionary approaches to language?

CHOMSKY: I’m not. I’m skeptical of mistaken misunderstandings of evolution, which lead to all sorts of errors in thinking about how language evolved. In the modern period, 20th century, mainly under the impact of behaviorism, some other modern tendencies, a misunderstood version of Darwinism, it generally came to be believed — and still is believed in many quarters — that human language, and first of all that language was — the tradition from classical Greece up through the 19th century was that language is fundamentally an instrument of thought. Thought is what is generated by language. Language generates thought. They’re intimately related, if not indistinguishable. Language was described as audible thought. It need not be audible, we know now.

The 20th century changed that. Under behaviorist influences, it came to be thinking of language as basically an instrument of communication, which evolved from animal systems. Every animal down to bacteria has some kind of communication system. Even trees communicate. The assumption is human language is a more developed form of communication.

It’s controversial, but my own view is that recent work shows that the tradition was quite right, that that’s not the way human language and thought evolved at all. They evolved in quite a different way, which is completely consistent with the actual theory of evolution, not the naive version that’s often believed. It may be, for example, that natural selection played very little or almost no role in the evolution of language and thought, but that’s quite consistent with the theory of evolution.

Many other things happen in evolution beyond natural selection, and, in fact, there’s pretty good evidence for that. We have only fragmentary evidence from the archeological record, but it’s pretty clear by now that humans appeared on Earth very recently — modern humans 200,000 to 300,000 years ago. It’s nothing in evolutionary time.

And we now have genomic analysis — pretty sound — that shows that the small modern homo sapiens groups that emerged very quickly began to separate quickly again in evolutionary time, maybe 50,000 years. We know that they all share the faculty of language and thought. There seems to be no distinction among living humans in this regard, including the descendants of those who separated maybe 150,000 years ago. That indicates that these capacities were already in place before the separation.

If you look in the archeological record prior to the appearance of modern humans, there’s almost no evidence of any more than very superficial symbolic activity, notches on a bone or something like that. Not long after the appearance of humans, you start getting extremely rich records of advanced creative activity — the cave paintings, for example, which are pretty remarkable.

I was lucky enough to be able to get into Lascaux before it was sealed, and it’s astonishing. You can understand why Picasso, when he saw it, said, “We haven’t learned anything in tens of thousands of years.” Well, Lascaux is fairly recent, maybe 30,000 years ago, but no, goes back to maybe 80,000 years. These seem like long numbers, but in evolutionary time, these are the flick of an eye.

Well, what does all this suggest? Suggests that something happened along with the appearance of modern humans, namely the emergence of these capacities that we’re talking about, that amazed Galileo, Humboldt, and others. And nothing’s changed since. There’s been no change that we can detect in the nature of these cognitive capacities, which seem to be species properties of humans in the technical sense, meaning common to all humans (apart from extreme pathology) and completely unique — nothing like them anywhere in the animal world.

Will misunderstandings of Darwinian evolution lead you to think that this is inconsistent with it? It’s actually quite consistent with the modern theory of evolution. Darwin did have a famous statement saying that all evolutionary changes have to be very small. He even said, “If this turns out not to be true, my total theory collapses.”

Well, it’s now known that that’s just not true. There are major changes that take place. Suddenly, a lot is known about this. One of them may well have been, seems to have been whatever happened pretty much along with the appearance of modern humans which provided these capacities, which again have no analog in the animal world and are common to the species.

On large language models

COWEN: Now, you’ve been very critical of large language models. There’s a recent essay by Stephen Wolfram, where he argues the success of those models is actually evidence for your theory of language — that they must, in some way, be picking up or detecting an underlying structure to language because their means are otherwise too limited to be successful. What’s your response to that view?

CHOMSKY: He’s a brilliant scientist. I’ve talked to him sometimes. I think this is partly true but partly misleading. The large language models have a fundamental property which demonstrates that they cannot tell you anything about language and thought. Very simple property: its built-in principle can’t be modified, namely, they work just as well for impossible languages as for possible languages. It’s as if somebody came along with a new periodic table of the elements which included all the elements and all impossible elements and couldn’t make any distinction on them. It would tell us nothing about chemistry.

That’s what large language models are. You give them a data set that violates all the principles of language, it will do fine, doesn’t make any distinction. What the systems do, basically, is scan an astronomical amount of data, find statistical regularities, string things together. And using these regularities, they can make a pretty good prediction about what word is likely to come next after a sequence of words.

A lot of very clever programming, a lot of massive computer power, and of course, unbelievable amounts of data, but as I say, it does exactly as well with impossible systems as with languages. Therefore, in principle, it’s telling you nothing about language.

Like all organisms, we have innate capacities. There’s something about our genetic endowment that determines that the embryo grows arms not wings, and there’s something about the genetic endowment that says that a newborn infant can instantly pick out parts of the noise that surrounds it and say to itself, “Those parts are language. I’m going to” — not consciously, of course; it’s all totally reflexive — “These parts are language. I’m going to pursue a course of maturation, a well-determined course of maturation, which means that by about two or three years old, I’ve basically absorbed the fundamentals of language.”

Now, you can take the smartest chimpanzee or the dogs under my desk — they can listen to this noise forever. They have no idea there’s anything there but noise. Well, that’s a fundamental property of humans built in. It’s the reason why you and I can be having this discussion now, but a troop of chimpanzees can’t be.

COWEN: Do you think your critiques of media and the idea of manufacturing consent in any way spring from your underlying views on language?

CHOMSKY: More from my views on social and political structure. In fact, the phrase manufacturing consent was not mine. I borrowed it from Walter Lippmann, as you know, the leading public intellectual of the 20th century. Good liberal, the Wilson-Roosevelt-Kennedy liberal. He was a member of Woodrow Wilson’s propaganda machine.

I don’t want to tell you this — you know it as well as I do — but for the record, Wilson was elected in 1916 on a pacifist program. “I’m going to keep you out of war.” The US population didn’t want to get into the European war. Very quickly, he decided that the United States should enter the war on the Allied side, and he had a problem. How do you turn a pacifist population into raving anti-German maniacs?

He succeeded brilliantly. Part of the device was a commission that Wilson set up called the Committee on Public Information, which, of course, means disinformation. Creel commissioners, it was called. Walter Lippmann was a member of it. Another member of it was Edward Bernays, who went on to be one of the main founders of the public relations industry.

Both Wilson and Bernays were very impressed with what Lippmann called “manufacture of consent” and Bernays called “engineering of consent” — how these techniques could control the public, shape opinion, completely turn them into, in this case, fanatic anti-German people who wanted to kill everything German. Can’t say frankfurter; you have to say hotdog. You have to change your name if you’re German to something else.

Also, a huge attack on labor came out of it. It was very effective for the corporate sector. They meant to smash the labor unions with all kinds of claims of anti-patriotism and so on. Well, Lippmann, in particular, was very persuaded by this, as Bernays was. Lippmann called it a new art in the practice of democracy. It’s important to understand that both Lippmann and Bernays adopted the standard liberal position, that the population is, as the terms were, stupid and ignorant. They don’t know what’s good for them. We, the responsible men, have to do their planning for their benefit, of course.

Meanwhile, we have to, as Lippmann put it, protect ourselves from the roar and the trampling of the bewildered herd. A very Leninist doctrine, if you think of it. Very similar rhetoric. That goes right up to the present distinction that was made in the Kennedy years between what were called the technocratic and policy-oriented intellectuals, the good guys who worked on policy and so on, and the value-oriented intellectuals, the bad guys — what McGeorge Bundy called “the wild men in the wings” — who talk about ridiculous things like justice and rights and so on.

This is a very consistent property of the intellectual classes from way back, pretty much independent of political commitment. In any event, manufacture of consent was, just to quote some more Lippmann — he said the public can be spectators but not participants in action. They are not supposed to take part in any public affairs. We do that. As Reinhold Niebuhr put it, they have to be fed necessary illusions and emotionally potent oversimplifications while we take care of things for the common good.

One aspect of this was separating the economy from public affairs. Economists played a major role in this, including liberal economists. Mainly liberal economists separate the economy, which is just pure science. We take care of the science. The public should have nothing to do with it.

All of these are major strains in modern thought. They have much earlier origins. In the book that Edward Herman and I wrote about manufacturing consent, we selected these conceptions, looked at the structure of the media, and tried to show that, in fact, the institutional structure of the media — these conceptions of the nature of the intellectual were combined to yield a very effective propaganda system.

On the prospect of progress

COWEN: You seem to be relatively optimistic about the future. If human beings are so susceptible to propaganda, why be so optimistic? Shouldn’t you just think we’re stuck in a continual illusory equilibrium where people feed us BS and we just keep on believing it?

CHOMSKY: First of all, I wish I could say that I were relatively optimistic. If you look at the way the world is going today, it’s extremely hard to be optimistic. We are facing two enormous crises. There’s a reason why the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was recently moved to 90 seconds to midnight. One is the growing threat of nuclear war, which will be terminal war. Another is the failure to take the necessary and feasible steps to deal with an existential crisis of environmental destruction.

We are moving in the opposite direction on both, and there’s not a lot of time. The leadership elements across the board and around the world — very few exceptions — are dedicated to racing to the precipice as quickly as possible. That’s not much grounds for optimism.

Nevertheless, there are grounds. If you look over history, people have organized, resisted, stood up, overthrown repressive autocratic structures, created a broader reign of freedom and justice. Plenty of awful things remain, but if you look back at what used to be perfectly acceptable, you can see we’ve come a long way, even just in the last couple of decades.

Go back to the 1960s, for example. In the 1960s, the United States had anti-miscegenation laws which were so extreme that the Nazis refused to accept them. We had federally mandated housing segregation that meant that Afro-Americans, Black Americans — maybe in the growth period of the 1950s and ’60s, that a Black man could get a decent job at an auto plant, but he couldn’t buy one of the homes in Levittown. He couldn’t.

Of course, wealth in the United States, for most people, is property owning. The Black population was cut out from this opportunity in the ’50s and ’60s to enter, at some level at least, into mainstream American society by federal laws which mandated segregation, less in the late ‘60s.

Women’s rights. Women were still, in the 1960s, under federal law, not regarded as peers, basically regarded as property. Wasn’t until 1975 that the Supreme Court finally ruled that women have the right to serve on a federal jury, for example, would be peers.

All sorts of changes have taken place. Country’s much more civilized than it was just 50 or 60 years ago. Didn’t happen by magic. It happened by lots of popular struggle. You go back in history — there’re more and more examples of that. You can see it right now. I mentioned that the leadership class is racing to disaster, but there’s a lot of activism among the public, mainly young people saying, “We insist on a better future.” You see it at the COP meetings, the regular meetings, COP26, 27.

Now there are actually two meetings going on, like in Glasgow — last time was Sharm El Sheikh. That’s so far away nobody could come. But in Glasgow, there was a meeting going on inside the halls, where the elegant ladies and gentlemen were doing nothing, and outside in the streets, there were tens of thousands of young people demonstrating, saying, “We have to take steps to prevent a disaster that you all know is coming from heating the environment, and we demand it and insist on it.” One of those meetings is a reason for pessimism; the other’s a reason for optimism.

COWEN: On nuclear war, what has been your opinion of the doctrines of Thomas Schelling?

CHOMSKY: It’s okay. At an abstract level, yes, you can talk about these things. Fact of the matter is that even contemplating the possibility of nuclear war is insane, literally insane. There cannot be a nuclear war between major powers. The country that launches a first strike will be destroyed, even if there’s no retaliatory strike, just from the effects of nuclear winter. There’s a lot of casual talk about these things, and Schelling can carry out his game theoretical analyses and so on. But the basic point is, every step has to be taken to ensure that there is no possibility of this happening.

There are people who understand that, people like former Defense Secretary William Perry, for example. He spent his whole life in the nuclear establishment in the state system. He says he’s terrified, doubly terrified. Terrified once because we’re racing toward disaster day by day. Doubly terrified because there’s no attention being given to it.

Sometimes it’s just astonishing. The Pew polling agency, a couple of weeks ago, came out with . . . They give regular studies of public attitudes on all sorts of things, very valuable. The latest one, they gave people a couple of dozen choices of issues and asked them to rank them in terms of urgency. Nuclear war was not even on the list. Climate change was on the list. It was ranked at the bottom of the 21 choices. That’s manufacture of consent in a form which is going to destroy us all.

On the left libertarian legacy

COWEN: Why does the whole left libertarian tradition, at least to me, seem to be so weak today? If I mention Rudolf Rocker to someone, the chance they have heard of him is extremely small. I’m sure you experience the same. Maybe they’ve heard of him because they’ve read your writings, but to have heard of him separately? That hardly ever happens. The New Left of the 1960s mostly has vanished. How and why did that happen?

CHOMSKY: I don’t think it’s true. I think the New Left of the 1960s, which incidentally was a very brief period — it scattered, splintered, but it left a major imprint. What I’ve just described was largely an effect of the New Left of the ’60s. It civilized the society in many ways. Things were just taken for granted in the ’60s. You couldn’t possibly even say no. Well, that’s the effect of the activism of mostly young people, what was called the New Left.

It’s not a movement, but it’s all over the place. It’s changed the way we see and think of things, almost everybody. It’s libertarian, socialism, anarchism. Of course, they’re not going to be popular. We have a class-based society, rigid class-based society. The business classes, the ultra-rich are dedicated to class war. They’re basically vulgar Marxists, fight values inverted, constantly fighting a harsh class war. They control the resources, control the institutions, control the economy. So yes, ideas that they don’t like, you don’t hear. Nothing novel about that.

Go back to George Orwell. In one of his essays, he wrote about how in England . . . It was set in free England. Unpopular ideas can be suppressed without the use of force just because of the class nature of the society and the subordination of intellectuals to power. Incidentally, his essay was suppressed, just to make it a little more dramatic. Found later in his unpublished essays.

COWEN: If I think of some of the New Left critics of say, the Cold War, the revisionists — you have Seymour Melman, Pentagon Capitalism, Sidney Lens, D.F. Fleming. I’m sure you knew many or all of these people. To me, they sound, if anything, more like the Trumpian right than, say, the Democratic Party. There’s been this odd inversion where foreign policy ideas, fears of a deep state manipulating the system — those have shifted to the Trumpists. What do you make of that? How do you feel?

CHOMSKY: The revisionists didn’t talk about a deep state. They talked about the existing public institutions; the corporate sector, which has an overwhelming role in determining state policy; the military-industrial system, which is a large part of the economy. You read people like the main writers at the time — Gabriel Kolko, others — they were talking about how this determines the nature of policy.

The new right has some of that rhetoric, but it’s a joke. The right wing of the Republican Party are just servile worshipers of the very rich in the corporate sector. Just take a look at their legislative programs. During the Trump years, there was one major legislation — what Joseph Stiglitz called the Donor Relief Act of 2017 — a tax cut that was a gift to the super-rich in the corporate sector at the expense of everyone else.

Take a look at their programs right now. Main programs are, first of all, guarantee that it’s a red line. You cannot touch the huge Trump tax cut. Now, what you have to do is defund the Internal Revenue Service. Why? Because they go after tax cheats, who are the wealthy and the privileged. Can’t do that. We have to protect them, save them.

Meanwhile, what Trump managed to do pretty effectively, as a good demagogue, is stand up with a banner in one hand that tells working people, “I love you,” while with the other hand, you stab them in the back. That’s basically the policy. When you look at foreign policy — Tucker Carlson and the rest, who say, “We don’t want to waste money in Europe,” but there’s a bottom line to that. “We want to save our resources for a war against China.” It’s insane.

You’re right about the Democrats. Their foreign policy group is in the hands of, basically, old neoconservatives. That’s true, the group around Biden, but the GOP is even more dangerous.

COWEN: If I look back on someone like Susan Sontag — she becomes, it seems to be, a Maoist. Why is it that left libertarianism touches her and many others so little? What’s the appeal of Maoism? Isn’t that the opposite of left libertarianism and what you stand for?

CHOMSKY: There was a tendency in what’s called, among left intellectuals, late ’60s, early ’70s, to flirt with Maoism. They had no idea what it was. It was a very mixed story. Had very brutal, harsh elements, destructive elements. There are also aspects of Maoism which aren’t discussed much here.

The scholarship is aware of them. One of the things that the Maoist policies did was save a hundred million people. A hundred million people were saved from death and starvation, as compared with democratic, capitalist India in the same years. You look from 1949 liberation to 1979, compare the demographics of the two countries. There’s a gap of a hundred million people killed in India as compared with China, simply because of the lack of carrying out rural development and healthcare programs.

There’s no big secret about this. It’s discussed by some of the leading scholars like Amartya Sen, for example, a Nobel Laureate in Indian economics. This is one of his main specialties, hardly obscure, but you don’t hear about it. That’s manufacture of consent again. But this is not why people on the left flirted with Maoism. They had all sorts of confused ideas about Maoism.

In fact, if you want the most enthusiastic Maoist in the country, his name happens to be Henry Kissinger. He adored Mao, he worshiped him. If you want a picture of this, I urge that you take a look at a very important scholarly work that just appeared, Carolyn Eisenberg’s extensive, detailed study of the Nixon-Kissinger years, using extensive archival material. One of the things that comes out is Kissinger’s starry-eyed adoration for Mao. He himself was a terrible sycophant for Mao in particular.

On the development trajectories of Nicaragua and Cuba

COWEN: Which do you feel has seen a better trajectory if you compare the two countries: Nicaragua, which has experimented partially with socialism, and Panama, which has been more capitalistic? Hasn’t Panama just done much, much better than Nicaragua? And I’ve been to both countries in the last 10 years. To me, it doesn’t seem close. What am I missing?

CHOMSKY: You’re missing what actually happened. Nicaragua in the 1980s was the second-poorest country in Latin America after Haiti. The Sandinista Revolution in the early ’80s began to change that. It began to institute programs which were very much praised by the World Bank, international financial institutions, organizations like Oxfam, which were finally doing something. Nicaragua had been in the hands of the United States since late 19th century, and it was a catastrophe like just about every country in US hands. It began to escape from this in the early ’80s. Very successful.

Well, Ronald Reagan launched a war against Nicaragua. The United States was actually brought to the World Court and condemned for international terrorism, technically unlawful use of force in its war against Nicaragua, ordered to pay substantial reparations. The Reagan administration and Congress responded by stepping up the war.

Well, the war had an effect. It destroyed the programs of development, destroyed the hope, restored Nicaragua back to pretty much US control. It hasn’t completely succumbed. It’s now dictatorial. It maintains some social programs, but it’s never been able to carry out the programs that were begun in the early 1980s.

Now, Panama’s a totally different story. It’s a place for US investment, capital investment. Panama Canal is a huge income resource. There’s just no comparison between the two.

COWEN: Wouldn’t Cuba be better off today — much better off — if it had gone the path of, say, Dominican Republic? Invite in a lot of multinational corporations, have free trade zones, special enterprise zones. Dominican Republic is now one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America.

CHOMSKY: So, let’s take Cuba. Cuba is the oldest issue in US foreign policy. Goes back to the 1820s, when the US intended to try to take Cuba from Spain and turn it into another slave state. John Quincy Adams, secretary of state, realized that you can’t do that now. The British are too powerful. They won’t let us do it. We’ll wait until, as he put it, Cuba falls into our hands by the laws of political gravitation. We’ll get stronger. Britain will get weaker. Then we can take it over.

1898 — it happened. Cuba was liberating itself from Spain. US invaded on the pretext of liberating Cuba. In fact, it was for preventing Cuba’s liberation from Spain. US turned Cuba into a virtual US colony. Stayed that way. It was a massive corruption mafia. Brutal conditions, horrible conditions for most of the population.

1959 — Cuba freed itself. Within a few months, US planes from Florida were bombing Cuba. March 1960, year later, Eisenhower administration formally determined to overthrow the government of Cuba. Kennedy came in, launched an invasion, failed, initiated a major terrorist war against Cuba.

COWEN: That was a long time ago, right? Cuba’s had plenty of time to grow and recover, and it’s done terribly.

CHOMSKY: Cuba has been under savage attack for 60 years. It’s astonishing that it’s even survived. Well, it’s survived, barely. It has better health statistics than the United States. It’s developed a biomedical system which is one of the wonders of the world despite US sanctions, which are so strict that if Cuba wants something to use for vaccines from Sweden, they can’t get it.

The United States is a very violent and brutal country. When the United States imposes sanctions, they are third-party sanctions. Every country in the world has to accept them. The world is overwhelmingly opposed. Look at the United Nations. The votes are 184 to 2, United States and Israel. Total opposition. Everybody obeys the US sanctions out of fear of the most violent country in the world.

The fact that Cuba has even survived is an astonishing thing, and if you look at things like health statistics, quality of life, and so on, it’s one of the best in the hemisphere. Even better than ours.

COWEN: The European Union can trade with Cuba, right?

CHOMSKY: No, it cannot.

COWEN: And a lot of the health statistics have been revealed to be fraudulent. Latin America can trade with Cuba. You can fly from Mexico to Cuba.

CHOMSKY: If the European Union tries to trade with Cuba, the US threatens it with throwing it out of the international financial system. The European Union obeys the US sanctions.

COWEN: Who’s the thinker on the left, say in the last 20 years, whom you admire the most?

CHOMSKY: The people I admire most are the young people in the streets who are on the front line of trying to save the world from disaster. There are a lot of very good people, but not up to me to rank them.

COWEN: But as a writer, who is it you learn from, you look forward to their next book, you try to meet with?

CHOMSKY: I found recently that in this day and age, the easiest way to write and reach people is through the internet because a lot of people don’t read books much anymore. I’ve been doing regular books of interviews and discussions. Several have come out in the last year and others are in the works, will be out soon.

COWEN: Who’s the thinker on the right whom you’ve admired the most over, say, the last 20 years?

CHOMSKY: That’s the same point. I read plenty of good work from what’s called right to left, but it’s the quality of the work that counts, not the person. I don’t rank people.

COWEN: A few questions about the Noam Chomsky production function. How have you stayed so mentally vital so late in life?

CHOMSKY: Just the incentive of so much to do of such enormous significance. I don’t see any way to stop in both of the areas that we’ve been talking about. I try to maintain a lively commitment to intellectual work. A lot of new work there, but the issues of human concern are just overwhelming. We have to face the fact that we are in a unique moment of human history. Nothing like this has ever happened in the couple hundred thousand years that humans have been on earth.

We now have to decide within a couple of decades whether the human experiment is going to continue or whether it’ll go down in glorious disaster. That’s what we’re facing. We know answers, at least possible answers to all of the problems that face us. We’re not pursuing them. The leadership is going in the opposite direction. How can anybody relax under these circumstances?

COWEN: Do you think it’s genetic that you’re still going, or just essentially voluntarist?

CHOMSKY: Nobody knows a thing about it.

COWEN: It’s you and Henry Kissinger, right? Who would’ve thought there would be the two of you?

CHOMSKY: It’s a mystery, sir, a mystery.

COWEN: Why do you answer every email?

CHOMSKY: Because I take people seriously. I think people deserve respect.

COWEN: Two final questions. First, what’s the biggest misperception people have about you?

CHOMSKY: Depends what they read. [laughs] People reading Newsweek, for example — they’ll have the assumption that I think we should hand Ukraine over to the Russians. Sure, that’s the way manufacture of consent works in the ideological journals. If people read what I say, they’ll have a different opinion.

COWEN: Final question: What is it that you will do next?

CHOMSKY: Well, the thing I’ll do next, in 10 minutes, is have a long discussion at a major conference — happens to be in Texas — on social and political issues. An annual conference that takes place there. After that, go back to the regular work of the two sides of my brain, social and political issues, and intellectual contributions.

COWEN: In your career, where do you feel it is that you’ve been most wrong?

CHOMSKY: There are a lot of things that I have been wrong. For example, take the Vietnam War. I was very much involved in it. In fact, it was my whole life for a couple of years, but I got involved much too late. I got seriously involved in the early ’60s, when Kennedy sharply escalated the war. There was almost nobody concerned with it at that time, but the time to have gotten involved was 10 years earlier. I didn’t know it at the time.

We know now when the government made the basic decisions — early ’50s. That set the stage for what became the most hideous crime of the 20th century. That was the time to be getting involved, not when I did. Many other things like that. There’s so much that should be done that I haven’t managed to do. Right now, you can say the same thing.

COWEN: The Holocaust isn’t the most hideous crime of the 20th century?

CHOMSKY: The late 20th century.

COWEN: Oh, late 20th century. Noam Chomsky, thank you very much.

CHOMSKY: Thank you.

Photo credit: Duncan Rawlinson -