Noam Chomsky on America ‘s Declining Empire, Occupy and the Arab Spring

By Joshua Holland, AlterNet
Posted on April 24, 2012, Printed on April 24, 2012
http://www.alternet.org/story/155116/noam_chomsky_on_america%27s_declining_empire%2C_occupy_and_the_arab_spring

Editor’s note: AlterNet is proud to offer readers an opportunity to purchase Noam Chomsky’s new book, Occupy, available here.

Last year, the Occupy Movement rose up spontaneously in cities and towns across the country, radically shifted the discourse and rattled the economic elite with its defiant populism. It was, according to Noam Chomsky, “the first major public response to thirty years of class war.” In his new book, Occupy, Chomsky looks at the central issues, questions and demands that are driving ordinary people to protest. How did we get to this point? How are the wealthiest 1 percent influencing the lives of the other 99 percent? How can we separate money from politics? What would a genuinely democratic election look like?

Chomsky appeared on this week’s AlterNet Radio Hour. Below is a transcript that’s been lightly edited for clarity. (You can listen to the whole show here.)

Joshua Holland: I want to just ask you first about a few trends shaping our political discourse. I’ve read many of your books, and the one that I probably found influential was . You co-authored that in the late 1980s and since then we’ve seen some big changes. The mainstream media has become far more consolidated, and at the same time we’ve seen a proliferation of other forms of media. We have the alternative media outlets — online outlets like AlterNet — various social media. Looking at these trends, I wonder if you think that the range of what’s considered to be acceptable discourse has widened or narrowed further?

Noam Chomsky: Actually Ed Herman and I had a second edition to that about 10 years ago with a new, long introduction. At that time we didn’t really think much had changed, but if we were to do one now we would certainly want to bring in what you’ve just mentioned. Remember we were talking about the mainstream media. With regard to them I think pretty much the same analysis holds, although my own feeling is that, say since the 1960s, there has been some broadening and opening through the mainstream — the effect of the activism of the ’60s, which changed perceptions, attitudes, and civilized the country in many ways. Topics that are freely talked about today were invisible, and, if visible, then unmentionable 50 years ago.

Furthermore, a lot of the journalists themselves are people whose formation was in the ’60s activism and its aftermath. These are changes that have been going on for a long time. With regards to the alternative media, they certainly provide a wide range of options that weren’t there before — that includes access to foreign media. On the other hand, the Internet is kind of like walking into the Library of Congress in a sense. Everything is there, but you have to know what you’re looking for. If you don’t know what you’re looking for you might as well not have the library. Like you can’t decide you want to become a biologist — it’s not enough to walk into Harvard’s biology library. You have to have a framework of understanding, a conception of what’s important and what isn’t important; what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense. Not a rigid one that never gets modified, but at least some kind of framework.

Unfortunately that’s pretty rare. In the absence of activist movements that draw in a very substantial part of the population for interaction. Interchange — the kinds of things that went on in the Occupy community for example — in the absence of that most people are kind of at sea when they face the internet. So yes, they can find things of value and significance, but you have to know to look for them and you have to have a framework of analysis and perception that allows you to weed that out from a lot of the junk that surrounds it.

JH: Separating the wheat from the chaff.

NC: Basically. That does require an organized activism. That’s the kind of thing you have to do with other people. You have to be able to try ideas and get reactions. You have to sharpen your perceptions. That really doesn’t take place without substantial organization. Now, there is interchange over the Internet, but it tends to be on the superficial side.

JH: That may be an understatement looking at the comments on our Web site. Let’s turn to your book on the Occupy movement. It’s called Occupy. It’s a quick and really good read. Professor, you do a good job of explaining the class war that’s been waged from above by our economic elites over these past 30-40 years. But privation is relative — Americans living at the poverty line still have a greater amount of wealth than 80-90 percent of the world’s population. Given that very few people are actually starving in this country, and these economic trends go so far back, what do you think was the tipping point here? What set off this movement now? Was it just the severity of the Great Recession, or do you think something else helped open people’s eyes?

NC: Well, you’re certainly right that we’re better off than most of the world. In fact just before talking to you I happened to be talking to a wonderful woman from India who’s been working for many years living in villages in one of the poorest areas, describing their activities — their successes and failures. Of course that’s a radically different world. People here, or anywhere, don’t compare themselves with the Stone Age. They compare themselves with what ought to be available for a decent life in the kind of society they live in. This is the richest, most powerful country in world history. It has extraordinary advantages. Comparing what ought to be, given those circumstances, with what is for the large majority of the population — the 99 percent in the imagery of the Occupy movement — that’s a huge gap.

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