According to linguist Noam Chomsky, this generation is faced with a decision that has never arisen before: “Is the human experiment going to continue?”
In a wide-ranging Zoom webinar put on by the Stanford Speakers Bureau and Stanford in Government on Friday, Chomsky also encouraged Stanford to “set priorities,” with one being “to clean its own house.”
The webinar’s moderator, drama and classics professor Rush Rehm, who teaches the course TAPS 180Q: “Noam Chomsky: The Drama of Resistance,” acknowledged that over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, the legitimacy of certain Stanford affiliates, such as Hoover Fellow Scott Atlas and Sen. Josh Hawley ’02, has been called into question. Atlas had popularized claims that face masks do not work and Hawley faced backlash after he was the first senator to announce he would oppose Joe Biden’s presidential victory, and continued to oppose certifying Electoral College votes after the Capitol riot.
On the president himself, Chomsky said that “Trump was a genius at picking every malicious element in the undercurrents of American society.” He added, “that’s not going to be so easy to push back into the bubble.” But he also offered encouragement during the session to student activists.
In addition, Chomsky had several reactions to the ongoing “poisons” in the political climate — racism, white supremacy, xenophobia and denial of science. These forces can be traced far back into the history of the United States, according to Chomsky. He said there is currently an anti-mask “epidemic,” adding that citizens feel their rights are being restricted by the government.
“I mean, do you have an individual right to take an assault rifle and go to the supermarket or mall and start shooting randomly?” he questioned. “That’s what it means not to wear a mask. It’s a strange kind of individualism.”
Over the past 40 years, Chomsky said that “there has been a transfer of wealth from the lower 90% of the population to the super-rich fraction of 1%,” adding that this transfer is conservatively estimated to be $47 trillion and attributing Americans’ skepticism of politicians and medical professionals to it.
“Roughly, 70% of the population says they’re barely making it from payday to payday,” he said. “That has an effect on people’s attitudes.”
These people tend to use what is happening in their own lives as grounds for distrust in institutions, according to Chomsky. It is a “rational response,” and “leads in irrational directions.”
Chomsky also highlighted climate change and the use of nuclear weaponry as the two threats facing humanity that will end up being the most significant in the long run.
“The only possible way of dealing with the existential crises, which are right upon us, is an engaged, informed citizenry,” he said, adding that it is important to take action to meet people on the other side of an argument.
Nearing the end of the discussion, a student activist asked Chomsky for advice at a time when progressive activism often feels “fruitless.”
“People of college-student age around the country are very despondent, disillusioned,” Chomsky responded. “They think everything’s failed. Everything’s hopeless.”
This state of mind is “wrong,” he said, for the matter at hand is “too significant.” He added that advocacy for change has historically succeeded. “You can’t give up at this point.”
Chomsky sought to assure students that there are known solutions to the problems he discussed. Now, he said, is the time when humanity will have to address the question of “whether the species will destroy itself.”
“You have no choice but to answer it,” he said.
Contact Matthew Turk at mjturk ‘at’ stanford.edu.