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Noam Chomsky — ‘Everyday Anarchist’: The Modern Success Interview


Everyone knows what one looks like. They’ve got the leather boots. Maybe some chains. Trench-coats. They wait in dark alleys with perfectly-spherical bombs. A lot of ‘em like to spike up their hair, or shave the side of their head, or do weird things like that to their appearance. You know what I mean. Everyone knows.

That’s what an anarchist looks like.

But the man I’m talking to today, albeit by voice-over-internet, I’m fairly certain doesn’t have a shaved head. No Mohawk that I’m aware of. He doesn’t carry any bombs. Especially not behind any dark alleys wearing a trench-coat. In fact, when he was young he tended to wear a nerdy short-sleeved shirt and necktie and those glasses with the Buddy Holly rims. And the few times I’ve had the opportunity to hear him speak in person, he seemed very … average. Almost disappointingly so. He was more the mild-mannered Clark Kent than the brazen Superman. His manner of speaking is almost mesmerizingly professorial — he rarely changes his cadence or pitch, except perhaps to deliver a satirical remark, and then only using pause, not inflection. His thoughts often fly into contingent — though important or descriptive — fields, before returning to the point. One must use every brain cell to follow his speaking at times since it is so full of starts, pauses, back-tracks, codas, and re-referencing. This is not due to lack of confidence on his part, but because, I think, of all the ideas coming into his mind at once.

If you are absolutely not familiar with who Noam Chomsky is, you are not alone. He almost never appears in the mainstream media, due to factors which should become clear as the interview progresses. Yet his intellectual stature is undeniable:

The New Yorker has … termed Chomsky “one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century”, while the New York Times has him as “arguably the most important intellectual alive.” But judged by the range, influence and novelty of his ideas, many argue that Chomsky is, in fact, the owner of one of the greatest minds in the history of our species. There is barely a domain of human understanding that has not been touched in some way by his thought. In the half-century since the 1960s, reverberations from his work have shaken the foundations of cognitive science, epistemology, media studies, psychobiology, computer science (to name but a few). Alongside Marx and Shakespeare, he ranks among the ten most-quoted writers in history. — Matt Kenard, Financial Times

I remember how shocked people were when I told them I was going to interview M. I. T. Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky. I remember how shocked I was when he agreed to a brief interview. But I also know Professor Chomsky to be a very down-to-earth man, very approachable, someone who seems to draw from a vast pool of inner strength to be able to speak not only to large crowds in Universities around the world, but also to respond to endless individual emails and letters, while continuing with all his other work of research. (He is said to read an average of twelve scholarly journals per week, among dozens of other periodicals and newspapers.) With all the work the man generates, one begins to wonder if Noam Chomsky, now at the youthful age of eighty-four, wasn’t cloned at some point.

Whatever the case, I had the pleasure of interviewing him as I sat in Memorial Union and he in his university office in Boston. So many things have been written about, and discussed by, Professor Chomsky, it was a challenge to think of anything new to ask him: like the grandparent you can’t think of what to get for Christmas because they already have everything.

So I chose to be a bit selfish and ask him what I’ve always wanted to ask him. As an out-spoken, actual, live-and-breathing anarchist, I wanted to know how he could align himself with such a controversial and marginal position.

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MODERN SUCCESS: You are, among many other things, a self-described anarchist — an anarcho-syndicalist, specifically. Most people think of anarchists as disenfranchised punks throwing rocks at store windows, or masked men tossing ball-shaped bombs at fat industrialists. Is this an accurate view? What is anarchy to you?

NOAM CHOMSKY font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>: With the apparent ongoing demise of the capitalist state, many people are looking at other ways to be successful, to run their lives, and I’m wondering what you would say anarchy and syndicalism have to offer, things that others ideas — say, for example, state-run socialism — have failed to offer? Why should we choose anarchy, as opposed to, say, libertarianism?

NC font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>: It seems to be a continuing contention today …

NC font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>: Many people know you because of your and Edward Herman’s development of the Propaganda Model. Could you briefly describe that model and why it might be important to the students at the UW-Madison?

NC font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>: Is there a correlation between that campaign and what’s happening with the big oil industry right now and climate change?

NC font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>: With the few remaining minutes we have left, I’m wondering if you could leave the students with one thing you’d like to say to them about how they can be successful in the future.

NCRainbow Bookstore. To search through subjects about which he has written, you can visit his website at Chomsky.info, where you will find thousands of articles, interviews, and outside news commentary on Chomsky. My personal favorite introduction to Chomsky is the film, Manufacturing Consent: Chomsky and the Media, still considered one of the top-ten documentaries of all time. 

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