Chomsky Sessions II, Science, Religion and Human Nature, Part II
Z Video DVD of with Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert (http://www.zcommunications.org/zstore/products/114)
You've been very skeptical of what are called conspiracy theories, popular conspiracy theories, from the Kennedy assassination through 9-11. What advice would you give to people who are trying to figure out when elites are in fact conspiring and when the view that they are doing that is really just a cultish conspiracy theory?
Take the second world war, the Roosevelt administration, you know, the most liberal administration ever. From 1939 to 1945 there were meetings taking place of high level State department planners and the Council on Foreign Relations -- which is, out of the government, the closest organization of businesspeople and of others who kind of have an interest in foreign policy. It's not a secret organization, I mean there's a lot of conspiracy theories about it, but it's quite open. And they were meeting regularly. They had something called the war-peace studies group, in which they were planning for the post war world.
Why is that a conspiracy?
They were conspiring to figure out what to do in the post war world.
By that argument everybody is conspiring.
Yeah, it is. The board of General Motors is conspiring. They're working together, top level planners, to decide how to run the world. In fact, they laid out principles which were quite interesting which are still carried out -- they're still the guiding principles. They were implemented in the early post war world. Their proposals are almost the same as those that the government developed in the late 1940s. In fact there is one book about it by Larry Shoup and William Minter called Imperial Brain Trust [2004. The people on the left who are looking for conspiracy theories never mention it. It's a conspiracy, an open conspiracy, which had lots of consequences. Still does.
There are some technical conspiracies, where people go to jail for conspiracy. One of them has enormous influence and should be better known. In the 1940s General Motors, Firestone and Standard Oil of California conspired to buy up and destroy the very efficient electric railway systems in Los Angeles and many other places and convert it all to use of fossil fuels -- trucks, cars and so on. That was one part of a huge social engineering project that the government and others, corporations, which just changed the country to something which may destroy the species. It was purposeful. They were taken to court. They were sentenced. They got a fine, I think $5,000 or something like that. That was a real conspiracy and one with enormous consequences. And there are many more like it.
Is there a difference in kind between that and what people are referring to when they're talking about conspiracy theories?
One difference is these are real, major conspiracies which have huge consequences. It's kind of a little bit like the people who listen to Rush Limbaugh. They want an answer. You know, the world is rotten. There must be something going on that we don't know about. And if we could only ferret it out, you know, that would tell us why the world is rotten. Actually, the reason is right in front of your eyes. There's plenty of evidence about it, but that's not exciting enough.
Take, say the Kennedy conspiracy theories. I mean, there's only one interesting question that I know of about the Kennedy assassination. Namely, was it a high level conspiracy with policy consequences? If it wasn't, then unless you worship royalty I don't see why it's different from the last killing in Roxbury, Massachusetts. You know, yeah, you don't want somebody to be killed. But the conspiracy theorists, good friends incidentally, who think I'm kind of like a major criminal for this, they're devoted to something else. They want to show that there was a high level conspiracy which took away from us this magnificent person who was going to do all sorts of terrific things and make it a better world. It's because they killed him that we got into the awful mess that we're in.
There are ways of investigating that. You can look at Kennedy's policies, you can look at his statements, you can look at his actions. You can see that he was one of the hawkish members of his administration. He was dragged, kind of reluctantly, into a little support for civil rights and a few other things. I mean, he was carrying out the terror wars against Cuba right until the day of the assassination and on and on. And furthermore, nothing changed. Even the ones who were advising him on withdrawal, changed their positions because the facts changed. There isn't the slightest particle of evidence of any high level conspiracy.
So therefore you look for something else. You know, the CIA didn't like him for this, that and the other reason. And there's a huge industry about that. If you had no conception of what a theory and an explanation is and, remember that most people outside the sciences don't, what you do is collect factoids. You know, this happened, that happened, how do you explain that, how do you explain this. I mean, if you were to look at scientific experiments that way you could disprove all science. That's one of the reasons why scientists do experiments instead of taking video tapes of what is happening out the window. If you take videotapes, then, yeah, why did that thing move over there? I don't see any reason for it. So, obviously, somebody is pushing it.
It's one of the reasons why I think that in every educational system people ought to study something about the sciences. Just so you learn what an argument is and you see what an explanation is. But for most of education that's gone. So they're trying to put something together and you have all these very elaborate schemes and systems. There's no evidence for them but you got to believe them.
Iit's not that I disbelieve them. Maybe it was the CIA, maybe it was the mafia, maybe it was this, maybe it was that. Who cares? It has, essentially, no significance unless you believe in the Camelot story -- that Kennedy was just about to do the most magnificent things, and that's why he was killed. But then you have to have some evidence for that. And when you look at those stories, they're extremely interesting. Even really good people, I could list them, including historians. The kind of evidence they give is kind of shocking.
The main idea is, Kennedy was kind of a Macchiavellian. He had these plans do all kind of wonderful things, but he had to conceal them from his advisers because they would have blocked them. So he said, “You know, we can't get out of Vietnam, we're there for victory.” But that was in order to delude McNamara and other people so they wouldn't know that he really was going to get out. And it goes on and on like this. I mean, it's all just worship of royalty. Which is kind of nice, you know, you feel something magnificent was happening. And the Camelot story is a very easy one to believe in. Because, Kennedy was no fool. He knew, he understood right away. You want to get good press, a good record, butter up the intellectuals. Make them think you love them. And he did.
In the early 1960s, in Cambridge, every morning on the Eastern shuttle Harvard and MIT professors were flying down to Washington to have lunch with Jackie and to say hello to Jack and talk to Dean and all that kind of stuff. And coming back in the evening just glowing with joy at how they were rubbing shoulders with royalty. And they were treating them nicely -- probably making fun of them when they left -- but they got a very good image. That's where the Camelot story comes from. But if you try to look at the facts it just shrivels away.
The 9-11 one is pretty interesting, actually. It's a huge part of the country. I mean, I think it's like maybe a third or half the population. The activists in it, the people in the center of it, as far as I can tell, very few of them are people with any record or involvement in political activism. You know, doing anything. Maybe a couple here and there. Most of them are just drawn into it. And, there's, and they have factoids too. Like, somebody found nano-thermite, whatever the hell that is, in the bottom of Building 7 or whatever. I have no idea what it means or if it means anything. But, that's the core of a large part of the evidence that it was done by the Bush administration.
Now, the people who are writing about this, they are “experts” in physics and civil engineering on the basis of an hour on the internet. So you spend an hour on the internet, you become an expert in civil engineering, physics and you learn what nano-thermite is and so on. I don't have to tell you what it takes to understand something about physics. It's not an hour on the internet. They've managed to collect a very small scattering of architects and one or two people who are supposed to be scientists and a couple of others, who write articles in the journal of 9-11 studies and maybe sometimes in an online journal somewhere. And so that proves that the scientific world is with us. And then along comes the big story.
Well, there are some obvious questions. Like, suppose the Bush administration did it. Why would they blame Saudis? Are they insane? I mean, they wanted to invade Iraq, right? Everybody agrees with that. So, why didn't they blame Iraqis? Well, if they had blamed Iraqis [they would have had an] open-shot case. You know, the whole country's for you, you get a U.N. resolution, NATO supports you, you can just go ahead and invade Iraq. Since they blamed Saudis, therefore harming themselves, that's their closest ally, they had to go jump through hoops to try to invent stories about weapons of mass destruction, connections to Al Qaeda and all those other things and then they finally invaded Iraq. So are they lunatics? I mean, that's one possibility, of course.
The 9-11 person would say it's because they're very, very subtle, and...
They're very devious, yeah, that's exactly what you get. It would have been too obvious if they had blamed Iraqis, so they had to do it some other way. You can find answers to anything if you try hard enough. And huge efforts are going into this. Nothing is ever going to happen. They tried forvseven years, they never indicted Bush. Of course we're never going to.
It does have an effect, it diverts a lot of energy and effort from trying to do something like stopping the war in Iraq. But, of course, that takes effort and it's costly and so on. They also feel extremely brave, because it's so risky to write a note on the internet saying, you know, I think Bush is a really bad guy.
So you're feeling very brave and bold and then come the stories about the reasons why people like me don't go along. We're secret CIA agents, we're, I think the phrase is "left gatekeepers". The governments inserts into the popular movements people who pretend to be critical. But they're really gatekeepers. They're just trying to stop the real criticism, like, Bush put the bombs in Building 7 and so on. And, you can build up big stories like that and a lot of people believe them. I mean, it's a little bit like believing that the reason for why my life is collapsing is because the rich liberals who own the corporations are giving everything away to illegal immigrants. You know, it's an answer too, you can find some factoids about that. But people who are, you know, kind of at a loss. They don't trust anything, rightly. You know, they don't trust institutions, they think everybody's lying to them, the lies are no good, nothing makes any sense. Okay, these things have a certain appeal. Like Rush Limbaugh, they have an internal logic. And if you don't understand what an explanation is, a collection of factoids is an explanation.
There's one part of it that is pretty striking, at least to me, which is: If thirty or forty percent of the United States' population believes that Bush did it, that means that there is virtually nothing that the left can say to that thirty, forty percent of the United States that's worse. I mean, how bad can you get, right? So, then you have to ask: Why is that thirty, forty percent not doing anything given that they think they live in whatever it is that they think...
Yeah, they think they're run by a mass murderer that wants to kill the American people.
But it is interesting because it says, What do you have to do to talk to that sector of people, not about 9-11, but about changing the world that they live in...
I ask a lot of people that. So, you know, you think you're being run by a maniac who wants to kill all the Americans, why don't you do anything about it? The answer's always the same: It's hopeless. There's nothing we can do. I mean, we're just victims of some powerful force.
But it is an important influence because it says something to us about what our agenda has to be, we have to overcome that.
You have to say, look, there are a lot of things you can do about the real problems. First of all, figure out what the real problems are, then you can do something about them. For the person you're talking to, that's a much harder choice. It's easier to say: I can't do anything, I give up. It's easier to say that than to say, look, there are a lot of things I can do and I can go ahead and do them and they really are risky and so on. It's that way with a lot of things. I mean, take, say, the Israeli lobby story. It's extremely convenient to believe that the Israeli lobby controls the United States. First of all, what can I do? You know, the Jews are so powerful I can't do anything. The other thing is it preserves American innocence. So we are the city on the hill. It's just that we're being led around by these Jews, what can we do? And in many ways it's a very attractive position. It falls apart as soon as you look at it, obviously. But it doesn't make any difference. And it does attract a lot of people on the left. A lot of people.
Is there such a thing as human nature or are the groups or the people who deny the possibility of such a thing, which includes a great many Marxists, correct in denying that there's any such thing as human nature?
Either there is such a thing as human nature or humans are angels, from another planet or another universe. Any organism that exists in the organic world has a nature. That's what distinguishes it from other organisms. So, we're different from insects, we're different from apes, and so on and so forth. And that can either be because we're like other organisms and we have some kind of nature or it's because maybe God implanted us in the world or something like that. Those are the two options. Now you're absolutely right about people who call themselves Marxists. In fact, even well known Marxists like Gramsci say that there's no human nature, there's just history. I think you can find a couple of phrases like that in Marx. They can't have meant what they said.
What they probably meant was human nature has many different exemplifications depending on circumstances, which is true. The same is true of insects. But this has become a kind of a slogan. And if you -- on the left or what's called the left -- deny that there's any human nature you're in favor of change. If you say there is a human nature you’re reactionary, because you're saying people have to be rotten and have slaves and so on. In fact, if you take a look at Marx, who they pay fealty to, he was a dedicated believer in human nature. He took most of his ideas right out of the Enlightenment and the Romantic period when he lived. Then he carried them over, that's his concept of alienation for example. And somehow your fundamental nature is the need for creative work under your own control and if it's dominated by others you get alienated labor, and the whole story comes out of that. It's based on a conception of human nature. Is there any evidence for it?
Well, let's take a real study. Let's assume we're not angels, we're organisms. So therefore there is human nature. Okay, then we try to discover what it is. Well, we do it the way we discover what bee nature is. It's much harder -- we're much more complicated organisms. And unlike other organisms, we can't do direct experiments. But if you want to study the parts of human nature that have to do with the issues that matter in human affairs, you can't do anything much in the way of comparative evidence because humans are just different. There isn't much in the way of comparative evidence. There's some, but it's pretty thin. I mean there's some comparative evidence but not much. Direct experimental evidence in some areas like take, say, language where I work. There's quite a lot of evidence there and that is a unique human property, there's nothing remotely like it in the animal world as far as we know. But you can learn a lot about it, because it's kind of isolated and you can separate it from other things.
Actually, many of the questions you'd like to ask about language are beyond experiment, the traditional questions. Like, for example, how you and I are doing what we're now doing. How are we able to produce freely new expressions, maybe new ideas that have never been expressed and if you say it I understand it and so on and so forth. What's sometimes called the creative aspect of language use, which is a big topic in the tradition -- Descartes, Rousseau, Humboldt, others. But we can't study that. We can study the mechanisms that enter into it. But, there are a lot of topics you can study, there are many that are beyond what we know how to study. But there's got to be a nature.
A baby could grow up to be a penguin.
Yeah, exactly. There's a huge debate about whether there's an innate language faculty. The answer to that is so trivial that you have to wonder who's asking the question. Say, my granddaughter and her pet chimp or, you know, songbird or whatever have exactly the same data. How come my granddaughter picks out of the data something that's language related, reflexively of course, and then, again reflexively, ends up doing what you and I are doing, whereas the other animals don't even take the first step. Well, it's either a miracle or she's got a language faculty. There's no other option. But there's a huge debate about that, even among people called scientists.
On issues that really matter to us the sciences don't tell us very much. For example, why are people altruistic? Why do you help others? OK, there's some evidence from biology. Most of it just sort of gives some basis for what you know anyway. So people tend to be more caring for their children then for their cousins, let's say. OK, you can give a story about kin selection. You know, the genes that proliferate and so on. It tells you something. It doesn't tell you why people on Cape Cod go into icy waters and storms to try to rescue stranded dolphins. You know, no kin relation... (laughs). But they do it. It doesn't tell you why they spend huge efforts in doing that but don't care about a kid starving across the street. It doesn't tell you why you take care of your stepchildren. There's one category, "reciprocal altruism", work done by Robert Trivers, very good biologist, which actually has some interesting results. You help somebody else, they help you and so on. Most things you just have to rely on what we call intuition, meaning introspection, experience, evidence of history whatever they may be.
What's the utility of the view that there is no human nature that causes it to be widespread, particularly on the left?
The utility is that you can convince yourself, if you're sufficiently irrational, that that means we can introduce changes. Incidentally, these views are extremely popular among the Leninist segment. They may deny it. These views are useful for people who want to be managers. If there's no human nature, then if I control people there's no moral barrier to it. Because, if there's no human nature anyway, I can determine what they should be. And of course I'm completely benevolent because there's no human nature of other people, there is for me. So I'm benevolent. And I know what's right. And therefore I can help these amoebas to turn into good things instead of bad things. It's a very convenient doctrine for the managerial class, which includes a lot of the left, unfortunately.
There are people who will respond to the idea of justice, equity, fairness, people controlling their own lives and they'll say: Oh, yeah, sounds nice. But human nature precludes it. Human nature is such that, and I'm talking about caring people, who'll just say: Yeah, of course I would like to live in a better world like that. But it's like asking a tree to fly. It's not possible, because there is a human nature, and human nature is such that it precludes the possibility of that kind of situation and yields instead what we see all around us and what we've seen through history. How would you try to counter that kind of view?
Two ways. First the way you try to evaluate any factual statement. Alright, you've made a factual claim. Back it up. Do you have scientific basis for it? Do you have evidence for it?
They're gonna say: my evidence is all over. I have a history of suffering and conflict.
History tells you all kind of things. The same history can tell you the opposite, if you want. So you're picking out of history certain features which happen to have an interesting consequence. They prevent you from doing anything. They're very self-serving. I mean, if nothing can be changed then it's fine if you just want to be Ayn Rand or something. But, you have no evidence for it. Because if you take a look at history you can just as well find the opposite. You can show in history that Kropotkin was right in saying that mutual aid is a factor in evolution. Well, OK, that's as good as the evidence to the contrary. So you take the range of history and experience and so on and you can pick out something that will justify you in just looking out for number one, or you can take something that will justify you in devoting yourself to the welfare of others. It's your choice. But you can't claim any argument from history.
In fact, if you really take arguments from history seriously there is something noticeable. There is a tendency, throughout history, towards more and more commitment to justice, equity and freedom. And you see it pretty clearly. We even see it in our own lifetimes. Take, say, women's rights, rights of minorities, concern over future generations - the environmentalist movement. That was very limited forty or fifty years ago. Now it's quite broad. If you go back further, say, the right to vote, the right to associate, the right of freedom of speech. There's regression, you know, a lot of horrible things, but one pretty noticeable tendency in history is towards more freedom and justice and equity.