Rarely a day goes by when I‘m not grateful for the teachings of Noam Chomsky.
Just before I go into that, here’s a half-remembered half-joke…
A man from the USSR travels to the USA. He says: “This place is amazing. Everybody here thinks the same way. Where I’m from, to get the same result we have to pull fingernails, use secret police, The Gulag…” *
The thing that always springs to mind when I think about Noam Chomsky is that at political talks people often ask him: “This is all well and good, but what can we do?”, and he often says something like: “It’s interesting. I get this question a lot in privileged societies. When I travel to less privileged places they don’t ask me ‘what can we do?’ – they tell me what they’re doing. There’s a feeling of helplessness that goes along with being in relatively free societies. Truth is, we can do just about anything we want.” **
Then why don’t we?
In totalitarian states, it doesn’t matter what people think, they can hate the government all they want, they can think anything they want, all day long. Violence and the threat of violence is what keeps people in line.
In more free societies this is inverted.
Maybe, if you’re reading this, you might be lucky enough to be living in a society made a bit freer by the struggle and sacrifice of organised, disobedient, nameless, faceless people in mass movements. Abolitionists, suffragettes, freedom riders, unions… people who had a vision and maybe gave up life and limb. Yes, there’s a long way to go, but I think the thing about civilisation not living up to its name is not to get down-hearted, but to see how far the powerless have come and pick up where brave people left off.
Chomsky often underlines that in societies which are relatively free from state violence, it becomes more important to regiment what people think – that’s what replaces physical coercion.
So for me, the gift Noam Chomsky gave us, which I am constantly grateful for, is a very practical way to understand the mass media. I think it should be taught in primary school.
Here’s an overview of what I’m talking about, it takes five minutes to read, but if you’re in a rush, I’ll boil it down like this…
These days, when we’re using Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc and getting angry about them selling our personal data, I’m sure we’ve all got a clever friend who will remind us: “If you don’t pay for a product, *you’re* the product”.
Well, Noam (and Ed Herman) said that in 1988.
Another favourite Chomsky quote:
“Changes and progress very rarely are gifts from above. They come out of struggles from below.”
What can we do? Just about anything.
*this is a half-remembered joke. Apologies for almost certainly getting it wrong!
**this is a paraphrase. Couldn’t find an exact quote in print, but this is something like it.
Oh, and of course – happy (belated) 90th, Noam!