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Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has for many decades been one of the most prominent critics of U.S. foreign policy.
In this week’s conversation, Noam Chomsky and Yascha Mounk discuss the theory of universal grammar, whether identity politics can be left-wing, and how the world should treat an ascendant China.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: I want to start our conversation by asking you about the core of your scientific work. What is the idea of universal grammar, and what does that tell us about how we should think about human nature?
Noam Chomsky: Humans have a special trait common to all humans but, as far as we know, unique to the human species. There's no analog in any other animal system. That's the faculty of language. It enables infants very quickly, with very little evidence, to acquire the capacity that you and I are now using. Universal grammar is the study of the nature of this faculty. How did it get into our minds? What's the general basis for it? What are its properties? Those are the topics of universal grammar.
There is a traditional notion of universal grammar, which is somewhat different. It was in the past the study of regularities generally found in languages. Now the term is used differently. It's used for the theory of the built-in, genetic basis for the acquisition and use of language—a somewhat different notion.
Mounk: One of the implications of this theory is that there is a limit to the extent to which language varies, and that there's a limit to the extent to which human psychology may vary. If we accept universal grammar and some of the broader psychological ideas that go with it, how does it contrast with notions that human culture is completely dependent on the local cultural context?
Chomsky: Well, there are several issues there. For one thing, any biological trait necessarily has limits. If it has scope, it has limits. You and I are capable of walking; the capacity for walking prevents us from flying. That's just logic. If you have a system that has a certain scope, it's because it has a built-in nature, and that nature will impose limits. So, scope and limits are connected. It's true of every trait. It's true of language.
Now, there's a different issue—which you raised—and that is how culture affects language, or how language affects culture. That's been studied for 70 years. There's very little evidence of any linguistic effect on perception, understanding, and so on. Our culture, of course, affects the way we use language, but you could have the same language for radically different cultures.
Mounk: In the United States, for example, there are attempts to get people to say “Latinx” rather than “Latino” or “Latina”, not just because it will be more inclusive, but because it will actually counteract existing power structures. Do you think that those kinds of linguistic changes can have a powerful impact?
Chomsky: That's an old story. I'm Jewish. The kind of terminology that was used for Jews in my childhood would not be used now because of the consequences, the effects that terminology has. So that's an old story. Yes, we can argue about particular cases, but the general issue is not in doubt. You don't go around calling Jews “kikes,” for example, or calling Italians “wops,” which was done 60 or 70 years ago.
Mounk: One interesting change that has happened on the left is a shift in stance against universalism. Today it seems to me—and you may disagree—that a much larger part of the left wants to organize around identity groups, and perhaps even envisages a future for society in which identity groups play as big a role as they do today, except with historically oppressed identity groups treated much better.
Chomsky: What we're talking about is not really the left; it's what's called “identity politics.” The greatest, most powerful form of identity politics is white supremacy. That outweighs all the others combined—but that was always just taken to be natural, so you didn't bother talking about it. Male supremacy, white supremacy—these are deeply built into the culture. They are enormous factors that have enormous consequences. But they were just taken for granted.
What's happened now is that other groups are pressing for their own rights and identity, maybe doing it wrongly, maybe doing it in the right way, but basically joining in the game. These are groups that are saying, “We don't want just the overwhelming dominance—so overwhelming that no one even comments on it—of the white supremacy and male supremacy that's been built into the culture for centuries.” You can ask whether they're doing it in the right way. Sometimes not. But it's not the left; it's just a search for rights over a broader range than just the dominant sectors.
Mounk: I think a lot of people would object to that. They would say, “No, we are the left, and the right way to be on the left is precisely to counter white supremacy and those forms of white identity politics with a range of different forms of identity politics that can stand up to that.”
Chomsky: People can call themselves whatever they want, but the traditional left was concerned with class issues. It's true that many people who have progressive ideas on political issues and so on, also are concerned with women's rights, minority rights and so on. But that particular issue of identity politics is basically dissociated from the left, and the obvious reason is to look at the major forms of identity politics. The major forms are, again, overwhelmingly, white supremacy and male supremacy. That's real, powerful identity politics. We don't notice it, because we just take it for granted. But that's not an argument. It's true. It's a deep problem.
White supremacy and male supremacy have an extraordinary impact on politics. They are dominant parts of it and have been for centuries. When groups other than the dominant groups begin to say, “We have rights too,” of course, it will have an effect on politics. There was a time when it was taken for granted that blacks are simply inferior: “It's built into their nature. They're just not capable of entering a modern society.” Thomas Jefferson believed that. Abraham Lincoln believed that. Some of the most progressive people you can think of believed it. That's a form of radical identity politics which, fortunately, many—not all—of us have escaped from. And the same is true of prevailing white supremacy, patriarchy, male supremacy, and so on. These are cultural pathologies that should be overcome. You can ask whether they're being overcome in the right way or the wrong way. That's a serious question.
Should we say “Latinx”? That's up to the group in question to decide, in my opinion, just as it's up to Italians to decide whether they like being called “wops.”
Mounk: What do you think is the right way, from a left perspective, to stand up against white supremacy or other forms of right-wing ideologies?
Chomsky: By organization—the way that was used to overcome the belief that blacks are genetically incapable of being anything but cotton pickers and servants. It takes education, organization, activism. So, a long battle.
Take the struggle for women's rights, which has gone on for centuries, but sharply increased in the 1960s and 1970s. Part of the general civilizing effect of the activism of the 1960s, which significantly changed the country in many ways, was that it essentially ignited a much more sophisticated, advanced, broader women's rights movement which changed things enormously. Remember, in this country until the mid-1970s, women were not even legally regarded as total persons. The country was founded on British common law. Under British common law, women were the property of the father, handed over to the husband.
Going back to the Constitutional Convention, one of the arguments against allowing women to vote was that it would be unfair to unmarried men, because a married man would have two votes: himself and his property. Well, that actually was built into American law until 1975. Not that long ago. The Supreme Court finally ruled that women have a legal right to serve on federal juries. That's a battle, and that's only one aspect of it. There are many other aspects. The change in recognition of women's rights has been enormous since the 60s—nowhere near enough, but enormous progress.
A very large part of society today wants to maintain white supremacy to prevent what's called the “Great Replacement”—beliefs that the evil Democrats are fostering migration so as to undermine and destroy the white race. There are people who want a Christian evangelical, white, male-run society. That's a very substantial part of the population. Benjamin Franklin, the most enlightened figure in American society in the 18th century, thought that we should exclude Germans and Swedes from the country because they're too swarthy. That was the most enlightened belief in the 18th century. We don't believe that today, I hope, but there are residues that are similar. You see it in the concerns about the Great Replacement, or about critical race theory, whatever that is. So yes, they're there, and they do turn on what kind of society we want to live in. There are divisions about that, as there always have been.
Mounk: You had a famous debate with Michel Foucault, and I wonder how you feel about that debate now. It seems to me that you won the argument intellectually, but that Foucault won the argument in terms of political influence—that actually, his side of the debate has proven to be much more powerful in determining the shape of the activist left today. Do you share that impression?
Chomsky: What struck me most in the debate was that I had never seen such an amoral—not immoral, amoral—person in my life. There were no questions of right or wrong, just “Who has power?” At that time in his history, he was regarded—he regarded himself—as on the left. If you listen to the debate, he said, “Look, what's important is to support the proletariat.” And I said, “Even if they're doing something wrong?” He said, “Well, that question doesn't arise.” That's a kind of amoral position that I had never really come across to such an extent before. That's my main recollection of it. Plus, of course, disagreements on things like what actually happened during the Enlightenment, and so on—factual disagreements.
Mounk: Today, there's also a lot of attention paid to questions of who has power, and in many ways, that's understandable. What is the moral and the principled way of standing up for those who are powerless?
Chomsky: The Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the women's movement all did it quite effectively. There's no shortage of ways to stand up in support of those who are oppressed, attacked, or subjected to improper force and control. But you can do it in ways that go overboard. Take a real case: by the early 1970s, a lot of young people were so outraged by the horrendous atrocities in Vietnam, that they decided that the only way to deal with it was to go down Main Street and break windows. Well, the Vietnamese were horrified by this. They tried to prevent it. They didn't care about whether people felt good here, but they wanted to survive, and they knew that this only builds up support for the war that's destroying them. There were plenty of arguments about this at the time, which I can remember very well. But yes, it's possible to pursue a just cause in ways that are, first of all, wrong in principle, and secondly, harmful to that cause.
Mounk: What principles should guide those who are standing up for the weak?
Chomsky: There's no algorithm for these things. You have to think it through. Reflect, challenge your own beliefs, question them. Try the best you can to see what decent principles should guide life, and then apply them. You will make mistakes—you can’t help it. But that's the only thing we can do. There's no catechism. You can't spell it out. It depends on circumstances and evaluation of complex human conditions. That's life. Just as there are no specific rules for how to raise children; it depends on the child, the conditions, and the environment. There are some general guidelines, but most of the work is in sympathetic understanding. And the same is true with other human relations. You're not going to be able to find simple instructions.
Mounk: When you think of some of the guarantees of the U.S. Constitution, or some principles like due process, the effective criticism of them is that historically they have been enjoyed much more by some dominant groups than by others. How should we think about the role of neutral principles that historically haven't been neutrally applied?
Chomsky: There are two questions here. One is, “Do we want to understand our own society?” Do we want to understand where wealth comes from? Do we want to understand how much of our wealth came from the most hideous system of slavery in human history? Remember, cotton was the oil of the 19th century. Cheap cotton was the basis for manufacturing, finance, and retail commerce in the United States and in England—an enormous basis of the wealth of these societies. Cheap cotton came from hideous, vicious slavery of a kind that had never existed in human history. Should we know that, or should we just say “Oh, well, I don't care about that. I'm just not interested”? That's up to each of us to decide.
The second question is, “What do we do about the hideous legacy that is left?” Take a look at the wealth of blacks and whites. Take a look at the conditions in which they live. Take a look at the educational levels. All of that is the legacy of a hideous system of oppression. You can't just say, “Okay, let's start off and use the principles properly.” Suppose Germans said, “Let's forget about all this Holocaust business. Who cares about that? It's over. From now on, we're just treating Jews nicely. We can stop worrying ourselves about Auschwitz and all that nonsense.” I don't approve of that, I don't think others do, and I don't think we should approve it for ourselves.
Mounk: I think what I was speaking to is some of the ways in which people, for example, want to reject an idea like freedom of speech. I would like to understand why you think that we should defend those principles (which doesn't mean we should ignore history).
Chomsky: Well, I have two comments. For one thing, of course, I agree. In fact, I've been on the forefront of taking exactly that position for years. But there's another point to look at. It's interesting that this question is arising now. Suppression of speech—cancel culture—is endemic in our society. It's been going on as far back as I can remember: in the academic world, in the publishing world, everywhere. I could give you a long list from my own experience, which is not the worst by any means. My office at work gets vandalized because of my opinions. The campus post office has to have special observation of packages that come to me because of death threats. Meetings I talk in are broken up by students. I have to have police protection on campus if I'm talking about certain topics. Books of mine have not only been canceled, but entire publishing companies have been put out of business because they dared to publish a book of mine. That's cancel culture with a vengeance.
It's not just me, of course—it's much worse for many others. Since that was targeting people on the left and dissidents, nobody noticed it. So yes, I'm very glad that some people are finally beginning to notice it when their ox is gored. They didn't care about it when it was happening massively to the usual targets. It's very much like suddenly being worried about identity politics among Latinos when you've had white supremacist identity politics all over the place. Yes, it's good to be concerned about it. Let's ask ourselves why we were never concerned about it when it's going on massively, constantly, but against people who were regarded as what George Orwell called “unpeople.”
If there's somebody whose views you don't like, you don't kick them off campus. You don't break up their meetings. You don't vandalize their offices. You don't send them death threats. You let them come to campus and speak. I've agreed with that all my life, and it's been a lonely life for that reason.
Mounk: You take a very bleak view of the nature of American power in the world. I assume you also take a rather bleak view of the state of Russia and China today. What do you think the prospects for free societies are in the 21st century?
Chomsky: There is very little that you and I can do about harsh repression in China, or about Putin's corruption and repression in Russia. We can deplore it, and we can say it is a bad thing. We can't do much about it. We can do a great deal about our own society. Our own society is in a state of serious collapse. That’s not just my opinion. You can read the most sober, respected commentators in the world. Take the London Financial Times, the world's leading business journal. Its major columnist, Martin Wolf—a highly regarded, sober columnist, not given to exaggeration—has written columns expressing his deep concern about how the United States is moving to harsh autocracy. The democratic system is collapsing. It's a widely recognized fact, and we can do a lot about it. So let's worry about that.
As far as foreign policy is concerned, there are some things that have to be borne in mind. With regard to China, a rising power, we should be asking ourselves, “What is this China threat that we're mobilizing to combat?” What is it, exactly? Take a look. It's not so easy to identify. The former prime minister of Australia is right in the claws of the dragon. A distinguished international statesman, he recently had an article about that in the Australian press in which he asked, “What is the China threat?” And his answer was, “its existence.” China's existence. That's the threat. What we call the China threat is on the borders of China. It's not in the Caribbean. It's not on the borders of California. We say China is doing things on its borders, like in Hong Kong, that we don't like and we shouldn't like. Is that a China threat? China has one overseas military base, in Djibouti. The United States has 800 military bases, many of them off the coast of China, posting nuclear missiles aimed at China. We have just decided to send nuclear submarines to Australia. They probably won't even be operative for 15 or 20 years. One effect is to impel China to sharply increase its military force in order to counter this new, major threat to them.
Second, we should recognize that either China and the United States will cooperate in the coming years, or else we're all doomed. It's as simple as that. The crises that we face are borderless: nuclear war, global warming, and pandemics have to be dealt with at an international level. Can we move towards cooperation, or must we move towards provocation, like the nuclear submarine deal? Well, I think we should move against provocation, towards cooperation, and towards a sober, honest reckoning of what the so-called China threat is. And I think we will find that Paul Keating, the former prime minister who I quoted, was pretty accurate.
It's not new. Why have we been torturing Cuba for 60 years? Is there a threat from Cuba? Why have we run major terrorist campaigns in Cuba, or an embargo that is opposed by the entire world? Look at the latest vote in the UN: 184-2, United States and Israel—Israel, a client state, has to vote with the United States—so effectively unanimous.
One of the good things about the United States is that it’s a very free and open society, so we have unusual access to internal documents, and we can understand the reasons for policy, if we choose. We can go back to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and see what they were saying. What they're saying is the problem of Castro's Cuba is its successful defiance of U.S. policies, going back to the Monroe Doctrine, which established, at least in words, the right of the United States to dominate the hemisphere. Cuba is carrying out successful defiance of that, and therefore, we have to torture the Cuban people, destroy their economy and disdain the opinion of the entire world—and in fact, because of U.S. power, even force the world to observe an air embargo. Europe doesn't like it. Asia doesn't like it. But we force them to observe it, or else we throw them out of the international financial system. Is that the kind of country we want to be? Well, ask yourself about the threat of China.
Mounk: Where would the limits of cooperation lie? Is there anything that the Chinese regime could do that would make you think that we should not cooperate with China in a substantive way?
Chomsky: If China began to emulate our behavior—if it began to treat Taiwan the way we treat Cuba—then we would have to worry about it. But they're not. It's we who are doing that all over the world. It's we who are torturing Cuba. It's we who are creating the worst humanitarian crisis in the world in Yemen, by providing arms and intelligence to our Saudi allies. It's we who are imprisoning 2 million people, half of them children, in Gaza, in conditions in which the children are being poisoned because they have no drinkable water. That's what we are doing. And I can go around the world giving more examples. So, if China ever begins to emulate our behavior around the world, that would indeed be a threat.
Mounk: How do you feel about what China is doing in Xinjiang?
Chomsky: It's terrible. It's highly repressive. I don't know if it's as bad as what we're doing in Gaza—probably not—but it's certainly bad. There are a million people who have gone through reeducation camps. There's ample evidence that there were serious human rights abuses. We can ask ourselves—just to take one of the many crimes we’re committing in the world—how this compares with what we're doing to not 1 million people, but 2 million people, in Gaza, where children are being poisoned because there is no drinkable water, thanks to the fact that our weapons and diplomatic support have destroyed the sewage systems, the power systems, and regularly massacre people. That happens to differ from Xinjiang in a crucial way. We can't do much about what China's doing there. We can do a lot—everything—about what we are doing. So let's look at that.
Mounk: How would you respond to critics who worry that just to focus on what we can do in our own country, and just to focus on the ill effects of American power has led you, over the course of your career, to underplay the suffering imposed by enemies of the United States?
Chomsky: That's a very revealing question, very common. The fact of the matter is that we're committing vast atrocities all over the place and the only thing we discuss is the crimes of others. And the question is “Why should we not discuss the crimes of others?” Sure, we should be concerned with the crimes of others, but to a much lesser extent than our own crimes, because of a simple moral principle: what matters is what you can affect. There's no point condemning the crimes of Attila the Hun, because you can't do anything about it. There's a lot of point to being concerned with our own crimes.
And what we're doing, notice, is not only rejecting the moral principle, but doing the exact opposite. Just compare the amount of concern over Xinjiang with the amount of concern over say, Gaza. The concern is 100% about things that others are doing—and we can’t do anything about—and there’s no concern about what we can do everything about. So the question is common, but totally misplaced. Yes, we should be concerned about the crimes of others, but not totally concerned, to the extent that we pay no attention to our own crimes. Rather, we should follow the proper moral principle of being concerned mostly about what we can affect.
Mounk: I'd like to close with a very different question. I have three friends who all have stories of sending you emails when they were undergraduates or even high school students, and all of them were very surprised to receive a gracious response from you. Some of them kept up a conversation with you over the course of many years. How do you find the time to engage with so many people, and why do you think that's important enough to take up your valuable time?
Chomsky: It's just a matter of taking people seriously. I get a deluge of mail. Some of it is junk. But a lot of it is perfectly serious people, people who radically disagree with me but are worth taking seriously. If they want to have a serious discussion, then I think they deserve respect and attention.
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