Like most people, one of my favorite subjects is how the United States is going to hell in a hand-basket. I’m not that different from the average rabid Tea Partier in this sense really, except that I tend to attribute certain problems to different causes.
Noam Chomsky is in my pantheon of household gods. My favorite attribute of his is not his intellect, or apparently eidetic memory for facts, or his empathetic humanism and compassion– these are everywhere (though not often in the same person). It is his iconoclasm and contrariness. Even the most doe-eyed supplicants to his genius often find that when they attend a talk and voice their assumptions in questions to him they are casually, effortlessly shot full of holes.
Also, he enjoys sticking it to elites. After speaking at length about the vices and interests of the “secular priesthood” of so-called intellectuals in the US, he was asked who he thinks the true intellectuals really are. His response was, “I think there’s less real intellectual work going on in a lot of university departments than there is in trying to figure out what’s the matter with my car, which requires some creativity.” And it seems, like I think that I think, that he doesn’t believe in the authority of individuals– it is only the ideas and expressions of individuals that should carry any authority (or not). He advises his listeners that we are as capable as he in finding answers ourselves, as his opinions come from reading mainly material that is available to anyone. When was asked what kind of specific qualifications or authority he has to speak about these issues, being as how he is supposed to be only a linguist… his response:
None whatsoever…. I don’t pretend to have qualifications, nor do I pretend that qualifications are needed. I mean, if somebody were to ask me to give a talk on quantum physics, I’d refuse– because I don’t understand enough. But world affairs are trivial: there’s nothing in the social sciences or history or whatever that is beyond the intellectual capacities of an ordinary fifteen-year-old…. In fact, I think the idea that you’re supposed to have special qualifications to talk about world affairs is just another scam– it’s like Leninism: it’s just another technique for making the population feel that they don’t know anything, and they’d better just stay out of it and let us smart guys run it.
In early 2009 I wrote to Professor Chomsky, asking a question about the liquidity crisis:
Possible remedies to the current financial crisis that have been discussed in the major media outlets, that I have heard, have not included the idea of simply annulling the contracts concerning the questionable financial instruments often blamed for much of the trouble. Have a big bonfire: the material and intellectual capital of the world has not substantively changed since before the “financial crisis” until now; all that seems to have really changed is the Sense of Value foisted upon people by the “authors of The Sense of Value.” (this last statement sounds sort of schizophrenic… I’m not a good writer)
I.e: Just cancel the Credit default swaps, etc., back to, say, 2000 [I was referring to the time of the repeal of Glass-Steagal]. Since there is so much circularity to the debt, it seems that if it is all called off then there would be a general restoration of a sense of liquidity. The beneficiaries of these techniques have had their fun, but it isn’t as if wealth has been metabolized and expended as heat into the cosmos any more than usual, is it? This seems a question of efficiency, not of the dynamics of capital. We could stop it all now– the idea of balance book receivables derived from what seem to be totally fraudulent means. There would be no need for phony “bailout” schemes.
I was shocked that he actually responded to me…!:
There have been proposals from leading figures to “wipe out” shareholders, break up the banks, charge CEOs with criminal fraud, etc. But wiping out all of these contracts would have unknown and possibly catastrophic effects, for just the reason you mention: “circularity,” or more fully, the opacity of the whole system.
This shows that he actually is one of those people who thinks that important things should be done carefully and deliberately, whereas I have a tendency to run roughshod over everything I see. So… I still sort of like my bonfire idea, even though it’s a bit late for that now.