A letter from Noam Chomsky
By Spiros Tzelepis, Greece
When I was sending the e-mail with my questions to Noam Chomsky of MIT and asked him to be interviewed, I had a feeling of awe. I had known of Noam Chomsky and his ideas from a very early age since my mother teaches literature, and I always had a passion for reading newspapers. Then some years ago, some of his words were put in as a topic in the General Exams in Greece (these are the exams someone has to pass in order to enter a university). Since then I have frequently stopped by the shelf with his books at a big bookstore in the center of Athens where I shop for my literary books. Knowing how famous he is, I had never thought that he would get into the trouble of answering my questions. So, while sending the e-mail, I was obviously feeling awkward. Three days later while downloading my mail, I was skim reading the e-mails that were flooding my Inbox when I came across an unexpected surprise, a message with "Noam Chomsky" as the sender. Being overly curious about its content, I opened it quickly. Having read the first two lines I went to celebrate, I then knew that Noam Chomsky had answered me. Below is the content of this message:
Interested to hear about what you are doing. Don't recall whether we did get together last year -- but that's not surprising. Life is so intense I often can't remember what happened yesterday. For the same reason, I'm afraid, I can't visit the website -- never have time to do that. And for the same reason, have to be very brief in (completely inadequate) response to your queries. The flood of email alone is beyond what I can handle, and that's only a fragment. A few very brief answers, interspersed.
Like most things in life, I got into linguistics more or less by accident. Actually, by way of political connections, at a time when I was thinking of dropping out of college, because it was too boring (at about age 16). Through those connections happened to meet someone very impressive who was also one of the world's leading linguists. Began to take his graduate course. After that, one thing led to another. I'd had some childhood experience, in connection with my father's work on medieval Hebrew grammar (read his main scholarly work in proof when I was a kid). Probably that was a factor. How did it affect my life? Substantially. Where I teach, live, what work I do, etc.
It was the other way around, as noted.
I happen not to be much involved with technology, though I've been at the Research Lab of Electronics for 45 years. But that's just personal. Other linguists, including in my department, are deeply involved in technology, ranging from computers to neural imaging. Life offers lots of things to awaken one's interests. Is technology good or bad? In general, the question has no answer. There may be some kinds of technology that are inherently one or the other, but over a broad range, the answers lie in the use to which it is put. A hammer doesn't care whether it is used to build a house or to murder someone.
The internet has vast possibilities -- many already achieved -- and poses vast dangers as well -- ditto. It's a public creation, only recently handed over to private power. It's now a terrain of struggle: Will it retain the free and open character it had when it was in the public sector (including Pentagon)? Will it be taken over by private power and used for domination and control (home marketing, guiding people to favored sites, etc.)? That's an important question for the future, but it's a question for action, not speculation.
Personally, I suppose that genetically developed food is probably not harmful, but the truth is: no one knows, and there are many imponderables. The policy question is whether people should have a choice, or whether the choice should be made for them by unaccountable power systems constructed by state-corporate power, like the WTO. Suppose Europeans decide that they don't want to be "experimental subjects" for genetically-modified food. Do they have a right to make that choice, through their parliamentary systems? Or are they to be forced to be subjects, by decision of some collection of private tyrannies? That's the issue. We may have our own judgments about the (uncertain) outcome of these vast experiments.
Everyone has always assumed that we have a right to change nature. Animal breeding for example. Or killing mosquitos that carry yellow fever, or bacteria that cause disease and death, or raising vegetables where brush was growing,... The conclusion that we have no right to change nature is a verdict of collective suicide. Do we have the right to do so through genetic engineering? There's no general answer to that. It's a hard question, to be dealt with seriously, on a case by case basis, with norms developing as understanding increases.
There are a great many causes. What is important is the causes that are under our control, and that covers a huge range. Current socioeconomic systems are designed to sustain, even increase poverty. There's no reason why people should tolerate that. We have the means to reduce it by large factors, and it is a matter of choice, not historical law, whether we pursue these means.
Lots of people are against various aspects of the foreign policy of the US (and other states), just as I am. I'm not opposed to US policy in general (some aspects seem to me OK, even excellent), or the US specifically. I pay more attention to the foreign policy of the US than, say, Norway for elementary moral reasons. One is that the US is vastly more powerful, so what it does makes far more difference. Another is that I can participate in influencing US policy, and am correspondingly responsible for it, vastly more than in the case of Norway. What motivates me to do that? I think it's odd that people often raise that question. Suppose you see a child being robbed or attacked on the street and choose to intervene to protect it. Does it make sense to ask what motivated you? Questions of foreign policy are similar, but on a hugely greater scale of human significance and import.
Human society can become better in a great many ways, too many to list. As for the planet, we have the capacity to destroy it, and may well do so -- we already are reducing biodiversity very sharply, and acting in ways that may be extremely harmful to the general ecology.
The wish list is very long, and pretty obvious. You can make it up as easily as I can, and I'd wager that our lists would be very similar.
Reconstruction: July-August-September 2002
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