Noam Chomsky
Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
02:54

Noam Chomsky’s Trick for Avoiding Political Letdown: Low Expectations

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Obama hasn’t disappointed Chomsky yet--but the linguist didn’t expect much from him anyway.

Noam Chomsky

Noam Avram Chomsky was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 7, 1928. He attended the University of Pennsylvania where he studied linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy. In 1955, he received his Ph. D. from the University of Pennsylvania, however, most of the research leading to this degree was done at Harvard between 1951 and 1955.  Since receiving his Ph. D., Chomsky has taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he now holds the Ferrari P. Ward Chair of Modern Language and Linguistics.

Among his many accomplishments, he is most famous for his work on generative grammar, which developed from his interest in modern logic and mathematical foundations. As a result, he applied it to the description of natural languages.

His political tendencies toward socialism and anarchism are a result of what he calls "the radical Jewish community in New York." Since 1965 he has become one of the leading critics of U.S. foreign policy. He published a book of essays called American Power and the New Mandarins which is considered to be one of the most substantial arguments ever against American involvement in Vietnam.

Transcript

Question: What is the most commendable thing Obama has done in office? 

Noam Chomsky:  Well, I guess the most commendable thing he's done is not decide to bomb Iran or something.  I can think of things he hasn't done, and it's commendable that he hasn't done them, but you can point to very little that, at least by my standards, that's commendable. 

He's retracted some of the more extreme [George W.] Bush positions.  So, for example, say on Cuba, Bush imposed conditions—the normal conditions are totally outlandish and ridiculous, which is why everyone, except Israel, votes against them at the UN.  And why the majority of Americans object to them.

But Bush went way beyond.  He imposed even harsher conditions and Obama withdrew some of those.  On nuclear issues, he has indicated that the US should return to the mainstream of international affairs, assign the—consider again the comprehensive test ban treaty move towards reducing nuclear weapons.  Okay, that's a step forward from Bush's position, but it's a step towards the center and towards the international mainstream and also towards American public opinion.

And there's a number of other cases like that where the [George W.] Bush administration, especially its first term, was quite extreme, which is why the US’s standing in the world fell to historic lows. 

And in the second [term], Bush sort of moderated that to some extent.  And Obama's continues to move back to what I always thought he was frankly—and wrote about it before the election—a familiar center democrat.

Question: What has Obama done that has disappointed you?

Noam Chomsky:  Nothing much because I never expected anything.  I was a little surprised by the fact that he re-instituted some of the judicial practices that were kind of unconscionable, that [George W.] Bush made use of.  Like, he wants preventive detention permanently.  He's been waffling about torture.  He's refusing to grant normal criminal trials to people that they have no evidence against, they claim to have none.  Things like that have been a little surprising.  I don't think he had to be that extreme in his interpretation of—actually deviation from any reasonable legal system.

Recorded on: Aug 18, 2009.


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