The Chomsky Reader

book by Noam Chomsky

The Chomsky Reader (1987) is a collection of political writing by Noam Chomsky, edited by James Peck, featuring selections of the author's work from the 1960s through the 1980s. Also included is Peck's interview with Chomsky.

Quotes edit

Pantheon, ISBN 0-394-75173-6

  • When I'm driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I'm listening to is a discussion of sports. These are telephone conversations. People call in and have long and intricate discussions, and it's plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount. They know all sorts of complicated details and enter into far-reaching discussion about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday and so on. These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding. On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it's at a level of superficiality which is beyond belief.

    In part, this reaction may be due to my own areas of interest, but I think it's quite accurate, basically. And I think that this concentration on topics such as sports makes a certain degree of sense. The way the system is set up, there is virtually nothing people can do anyway, without a degree of organization that's far beyond anything that exists now, to influence the real world. They might as well live in a fantasy world, and that's in fact what they do.

    • Interview (undated) by James Peck, p. 33
  • My guess is that you would find that the intellectual elite is the most heavily indoctrinated sector. It's their role as a secular priesthood to really believe the nonsense that they put forth. Other people can repeat it, but it's not that crucial that they really believe it. But for the intellectual elite themselves, it's crucial that they believe it because, after all, they are guardians of the faith. Except for a very rare person who's just an outright liar, it's hard to be a convincing exponent of the faith unless you've internalized it and come to believe it.
    • Interview (undated) by James Peck, p. 35
  • JP: Do you think people are inhibited by expertise?
    NC: There are also experts about football, but these people don't defer to them. The people who call in talk with complete confidence. They don't care if they disagree with the coach or whoever the local expert is. They have their own opinion and they conduct intelligent discussions.
    • Interview (undated) by James Peck, p. 35
  • Most people are not liars. They can't tolerate too much cognitive dissonance. I don't want to deny that there are outright liars, just brazen propagandists. You can find them in journalism and in the academic professions as well. But I don't think that's the norm. The norm is obedience, adoption of uncritical attitudes, taking the easy path of self-deception.
    • Interview (undated) by James Peck, p. 39
  • After decades of anti-Communist indoctrination, it is difficult to achieve a perspective that makes possible a serious evaluation of the extent to which Bolshevism and Western liberalism have been united in their opposition to popular revolution.
    • Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship (1968), p. 90
  • The official historian of the Kennedy administration, Arthur Schlesinger, regarded as a leading dove, does indeed refer to aggression in 1962: "1962 had not been a bad year," he writes in his history, A Thousand Days ; "aggression [was] checked in Vietnam." That is, the year in which the United States undertook direct aggression against South Vietnam was the year in which aggression was checked in Vietnam. Another respected figure in the liberal pantheon, Adlai Stevenson, intoned at the United Nations that in Vietnam we were combating "internal aggression," another phrase that Orwell would have admired; that is, we were combating aggression by the Vietnamese against us in Vietnam, just as we had combated aggression by the Mexicans against us in Mexico a century earlier.
    • The Manufacture of Consent (1984), p. 130
  • The more intensely the debate rages between hawks and doves, the more firmly and effectively the doctrines of the state religion are established.
    • The Manufacture of Consent (1984), p. 132
  • The many modern critics who sense an inconsistency in the belief that free creation takes place within — presupposes, in fact — a system of constraints and governing principles are quite mistaken: unless, of course, they speak of "contradiction" in the loose and metaphoric sense of Schelling, when he writes that "without the contradiction of necessity and freedom not only philosophy but every nobler ambition of the spirit would sink to that death which is peculiar to those sciences in which that contradiction serves no function." Without this tension between necessity and freedom, rule and choice, there can be no creativity, no communication, no meaningful acts all all.
    • Language and Freedom (1970), p. 153
  • It must, needless to say, be stressed that social action cannot await a firmly established theory of human nature and society, nor can the validity of the latter be determined by our hopes and moral judgments.
    • Language and Freedom (1970), p. 155
  • Being able to do as one pleases is the natural goal of the libertarian, but having nothing to do is not. While it may be correct to say that the human species is badly prepared for having nothing to do, it is quite a different matter to say that it is badly prepared for the freedom to do as one pleases. People who are able to do as they please may work very hard, given the opportunity to do interesting work.
    • Psychology and Ideology (1972), pp. 179-180
  • It would not be absurd, but grotesque, to argue that since circumstances can be arranged under which behavior is quite predictable — as in a prison, for example, or the concentration-camp society "designed" above — therefore there need be no concern for the freedom and dignity of "autonomous man." When such conclusions are taken to be the result of a "scientific analysis," one can only be amazed at human gullibility.
    • Psychology and Ideology (1972), pp. 181-182
  • In principle, we have a variety of important rights under the law. But we also know just how much these mean, in practice, to people who are unable to purchase them. We have the right of free expression, though some can shout louder than others, by reason of power, wealth, and privilege. We can defend our legal rights through the courts — insofar as we understand these rights and can afford the costs. All of this is obvious and hardly worth extended comment. In a perfectly functioning capitalist democracy, with no illegitimate abuse of power, freedom will be in effect a commodity; effectively, a person will have as much of it as he can buy.
    • Equality: Language Development, Human Intelligence, and Social Organization (1976), p. 189
  • Discussion of egalitarian views is often misleading, in that the criticism of such views is commonly directed against a straw-man opponent, as egalitarians have been quick to point out. In fact, "equality of condition," much deplored by contemporary ideologists, has rarely been the express goal of reformers or revolutionaries, at least on the left. In Marx's utopia, "the development of human energy" is to be taken as "an end in itself" as humans escape the "realm of necessity" so that questions of freedom can be seriously raised. The guiding principle, reiterated to the point of cliché, is: "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." The principle of "equality of condition" is nowhere invoked. If one person needs medical treatment and another is more fortunate, they are not to be granted an equal amount of medical care, and the same is true of other human needs.
    • Equality: Language Development, Human Intelligence, and Social Organization (1976), pp. 190-191
  • I am personally quite convinced that no matter what training or education I might have received, I could never have run a four-minute mile, discovered Gödel's theorems, composed a Beethoven quartet, or risen to any of other innumerable heights of human achievement. I feel in no way demeaned by these inadequacies. It is quite enough that I am capable, as I think any person of normal endowments probably is, of appreciating and in part understanding what others have accomplished, while making my own personal contributions in whatever measure and manner I am able to do so. Human talents vary considerably, within a fixed framework that is characteristic of the species and that permits ample scope for creative work, including the creative work of appreciating the achievements of others. This should be a matter for delight rather than a condition to be abhorred. Those who assume otherwise must be adopting the tacit premise that people's rights or social reward are somehow contingent on their abilities. As for human rights, there is an element of plausibility in this assumption in the single respect already noted: in a decent society, opportunities should conform as far as possible to personal needs, and such needs may be specialized and related to particular talents and capacities. My pleasure in life is enhanced by the fact that others can do many things that I cannot, and I see no reason to want to deny these people the opportunity to cultivate their talents, consistent with general social needs. Difficult questions of practice are sure to arise in any functioning social group, but I see no problem of principle.
    • Equality: Language Development, Human Intelligence, and Social Organization (1976), pp. 198-199
  • It is important to understand that the massacre of the rural population of Vietnam and their forced evacuation is not an accidental by-product of the war. Rather it is of the very essence of American strategy. The theory behind it has been explained with great clarity and explicitness, for example by Professor Samuel Huntington, chairman of the Government Department at Harvard and at the time (1968) chairman of the Council of Vietnamese Studies of the Southeast Asia Development Advisory Group. Writing in Foreign Affairs, he explains that the Vietcong is "a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist." The conclusion is obvious, and he does not shrink from it.
    • After "Pinkville" (1969), p. 259
  • Cuba has probably been the target of more international terrorism than any other country, and, therefore, in the American ideological system it is regarded as the source of international terrorism, exactly as Orwell would have predicted.
    • Intervention in Vietnam and Central America: Parallels and Differences (1985), p. 328
  • Democracy doesn't mean much if people have to confront concentrated systems of economic power as isolated individuals. Democracy means something if people can organize to gain information, to have thoughts for that matter, to make plans, to enter into the political system in some active way, to put forth programs and so on. If organizations of that kind exist, then democracy can exist too. Otherwise it's a matter of pushing a lever every couple of years; it's like having the choice between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola.
    • Intervention in Vietnam and Central America: Parallels and Differences (1985), p. 334
  • We attack Nicaragua precisely because it is committed to a model of development that we cannot tolerate. Of course, this is presented as defense against the Russians, and as proof that it's defense against the Russians we note that the Nicaraguans receive weapons with which they can defend themselves against our attack.
    • Intervention in Vietnam and Central America: Parallels and Differences (1985), p. 336

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