Interview. MIT Professor Noam Chomsky discusses the U.S. elections, science, the Turkish persecution of Kurds and the illogical rise of right-wing xenophobia.

Chomsky: The West is in profound moral crisis

MIT Professor Noam Chomsky is visiting Italy as guest speaker of the “DICE2016” conference organized by the University of Pisa and the Municipality of Rosignano “Spacetime-Matter-Quantum Mechanics.” He spoke with il manifesto at a press conference about the world’s political and economic situation.

Professor Chomsky, what is the condition of American democracy on the eve of these presidential elections?

It does not make sense to talk about the candidates in terms of popularity, given their lack of popularity … but this should not lead us astray, because there is extensive dissatisfaction with the institutions in the United States. If you ask people what they think about Congress, the majority of people will tell you we must send them all home: Everybody hates banks, multinationals, the government, etc.

The only institution that seems to keep the respect of the citizens is the military. The scientific political research, which is not funded because it is deemed inconvenient, shows that 70 percent of the population, those with the lowest income, do not see any correlation between their attitudes and the positions of their political representatives; as we move up in the income spectrum, there is progressively more relevance, until you get to that fraction of 1 percent that does not need to read political science because it is perfectly represented.

This generates tremendous effects, and you in Europe know it well, how the collapse of governments and a violent decline of democracy translate into disillusionment and anger that come up often in rather frightening ways: I’m thinking about the Canadian neo-Nazi party, the elections in Austria. … A bit of the same thing is happening in the United States, to a lesser extent.

These current elections are surprising: Hillary Clinton is a mainstream political figure. She is a Democrat, but at other times she would have called herself a modern Republican: both parties have moved so far to the right in the era of neoliberal policy, they are barely recognizable.

Speaking of climate change, every [Republican] candidate in the primaries denied it is real and therefore it is no longer being discussed. Donald Trump, however, thinks that we need to increase the use of fossil fuels, especially coal, remove restrictions, dismantle the COP21, and refuse all assistance to poor countries that try to invest in sustainable energy. His campaign is also bringing out situations similar to those of northern Europe, with incidents of xenophobia, anger and fear. The white population, which has a strong tradition of white supremacy, however, is crossed by a disturbing and new demographic phenomenon: There is an increase in the mortality rate among white working class males (35-55 years), and this has never happened in a developed country that is not at war. … It’s not so easy to go back from this situation.

Is there any relationship between the collapse of the great cultural models, like the one you talked about in your documentary, Requiem for the American Dream, and the growing xenophobia?

Yes, even in Europe. A couple of days ago, Merkel suffered a blow in her regional elections from an ultra right-wing party; I believe that only 1 percent of the population in Denmark is immigrant and yet, it is literally collapsing from the idea that anything that might interfere with their purity is unacceptable. When I refer to the collapse of the American dream, I allude to social and economic issues that are very important for the working class, whose salaries have not changed in 40 years. Despite the growth in GDP over the past 15 years, 95 percent of the generated wealth has gone into the pockets of just 1 percent of the population.

The United States is the richest country in the world, but if we compare its GDP to the social justice measures and the OECD statistics, its position is very low, in the neighborhood of countries such as Greece and Turkey. There are no social safety nets, wages are locked and more jobs become temporary rather than permanent. Jobs in the manufacturing industry are lost partly due to technological advances and partly because corporations are choosing to produce abroad, where wages are lower.

But immigrants have nothing to do with this. Or rather, they improve the state of the economy: They work, they pay taxes, and in some cases they invest. For this reason, it is worrying that in European countries like Germany, that enjoy a high rate of migrants, racism increases instead of decreases.

What are the risks for scientific research in the contemporary world?

Science in totalitarian states runs very serious risks, but also in other areas there may be severe limitations. And sometimes they’re also very difficult to overcome. In the U.S., for example, there are barriers on stem cell research, especially cultural and social barriers. In most fields related to scientific research, the political dispute is much more evident. For example, in the debate on climate change, which affects us all, the Republican Party simply denies its existence.

Lamar Smith, a Republican representative who is an evangelical Christian, harrasses scientists, requesting them to provide printouts of their correspondence between colleagues, looking for a trace of conspiracy, insisting that cutting the use of fossil fuels would destroy the economy. Even in political science, as in the socio-political field, the effects can be very important; research on the relationship between public opinion and public policy, as I said, are almost never financed, given that they often lead to the uncomfortable conclusion that public opinion matters very little in politics.

On Sept. 24, a big demonstration in Rome in solidarity against Erdogan’s attack on the Kurdish people. What do you think about it?

The conflict dates back to the ’90s: thousands of people killed, hundreds of villages destroyed, hundreds of thousands of people fled. And all these operations were supported by the U.S. and the NATO countries. Among the horrible atrocities there were also executions, like my publisher of the time, because my book contained five pages on repression in Turkey.

After a period of greater tolerance — in one of my recent trips, I made a speech in memory of the brave publisher Hrant Dink, who wanted to shed light on the massacre of the Armenians, and was killed for it — but in the last year, the repression has increased. There were attacks against the Kurdish population, hundreds of intellectuals have been threatened, fired, imprisoned. Attacks in Syria, in theory against ISIS, have been directed at Kurdish Syrians to prevent them control of the border with Turkey.

It is a very bitter conflict that shows no signs of improving, and it is shameful that Europe pays so little attention to it, probably due to the cynical negotiations that it’s pursuing to keep away the Syrian refugees. The U.S. has welcomed 10,000 refugees, a small number that reveals the profound moral crisis of all Western countries: the same, including in Italy, which has created the conditions for this conflict, which provided arms and diplomatic cover.

In terms of responsibility, it is a very heavy humanitarian crisis for NATO countries.