Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Noam Chomsky, fully Avram Noam Chomsky

American Linguist, Philosopher, Cognitive Scientist, Historian and Activist, Professor at MIT

"As people with their freedom, the elites recognize that they cannot control the masses by force anymore; they have to control public opinions and attitudes. The more freedom you win, the more ways privileged groups—usually an amalgam of state and private powers—devise to control you."

"Even at the depths of the 1930s Depression, which was objectively much worse than today, people were never hopeless the way they are today. Most people felt it's going to get better, we can do something about it, we can organize, we can work. Today what people mainly feel is, it's going to get worse, and there's nothing we can do about it. So what we're faced with is a combination of a very high degree of disillusionment, and a very low degree of hope and perception of alternatives. And that's exactly where serious organizers ought to be able to step in."

"Every aspect of the culture implicitly involves an expression of what a "proper" life and a "proper" set of values are, and that's all indoctrination."

"Every government has a need to frighten its population, and one way of doing that is to shroud its workings in mystery. ... That's the standard way you cloak and protect power: you make it look mysterious and secret, above the ordinary person - otherwise why should anybody accept it?"

"Everybody's worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there's a really easy way: stop participating in it."

"As soon as questions of will or decision or reason or choice of action arise, human science is at a loss."

"If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all."

"In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than just ideals to be valued - they may be essential to survival."

"If persons are going to be independent thinkers, they are probably going to pay a cost. One has to begin with the way the world works: the world does not reward honesty and independence, it rewards obedience and service. It's a world of concentrated power, and those who have power are not going to reward people who question that power."

"It's extremely hard to lead a deeply committed life in several different areas and have them all work."

"It is worth remembering - particularly since it has been so uniformly suppressed - that the U.S. is the only country that was condemned for international terrorism by the World Court and that rejected a Security Council resolution calling on states to observe international law."

"Government secrecy is not for security reasons, overwhelmingly it's just to prevent the population from knowing what's going on. I mean, a lot of secret internal documents get declassified after thirty years or so, and if you look over the entire long record of them, there's virtually nothing in there that ever had any security-related concern."

"It's true that things like violence and rotten schools are destroying the cities - but they're destroying them because of a social structure that we've got to change, from the bottom up."

"If you ask people, "Do you want new taxes?" they'll say no; but if you ask them, "Do you want better medical services?" they'll say yes."

"The [United States] educational system is geared toward obedience."

"More democratic societies, including the United States, instituted measures to impose discipline on the domestic population and to institute unpopular measures under the guise of "combating terror," exploiting the atmosphere of fear and the demand for "patriotism" - which in practice means: "You shut up and I'll pursue my own agenda relentlessly." The Bush administration used the opportunity to advance its assault against most of the population, and future generations, in service to the narrow corporate interests that dominate the administration to an extent even beyond the norm."

"Mass public education first was introduced in the United States in the nineteenth century as a way of training the largely rural workforce here for industry."

"Typically the elites are the most indoctrinated segment of a society, because they are the ones who are exposed to the most propaganda and actually take part in the decision-making process."

"The reality is that under capitalist conditions - meaning maximization of short-term gain - you're ultimately going to destroy the environment: the only question is whe...dealing with that problem is going to require large-scale social changes of an almost unimaginable kind."

"We have to make big decisions about how to produce energy, for one thing - because if we continue to produce energy by combustion, the human race is not going to survive very much longer."

"You learn by trying out ideas, and hearing reactions to them, and hearing what other people have to say about the topic, and formulating programs, and trying to pursue them, and seeing where they break down, and getting some experience, and so on."

"We really don't know what the fundamental principles of moral judgment actually are, but we have very good reason to believe that they're there."

"[Spectator sports] occupies the population, and keeps them from trying to get involved with things that really matter. In fact, I presume that's part of the reason why spectator sports are supported to the degree they are by dominant institutions."

"It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies."

"We shouldn't be looking for heroes, we should be looking for good ideas."

"I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom."

"All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume."

"If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world."

"Education is imposed ignorance."

"The whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don't know how to be submissive, and so on -- because they're dysfunctional to the institutions."

"Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so."

"That's the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody's going to be against, and everybody's going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn't mean anything."

"The Bible is one of the most genocidal books in history."

"For the powerful, crimes are those that others commit."

"I was never aware of any other option but to question everything."

"Most problems of teaching are not problems of growth but helping cultivate growth. As far as I know, and this is only from personal experience in teaching, I think about ninety percent of the problem in teaching, or maybe ninety-eight percent, is just to help the students get interested. Or what it usually amounts to is to not prevent them from being interested. Typically they come in interested, and the process of education is a way of driving that defect out of their minds. But if children['s] ... normal interest is maintained or even aroused, they can do all kinds of things in ways we don't understand."

"The death penalty can be tolerated only by extreme statist reactionaries who demand a state that is so powerful that it has the right to kill."

"Our ignorance can be divided into problems and mysteries. When we face a problem, we may not know its solution, but we have insight, increasing knowledge, and an inkling of what we are looking for. When we face a mystery, however, we can only stare in wonder and bewilderment, not knowing what an explanation would even look like."

"If you look at history, even recent history, you see that there is indeed progress. . . . Over time, the cycle is clearly, generally upwards. And it doesn't happen by laws of nature. And it doesn't happen by social laws. . . . It happens as a result of hard work by dedicated people who are willing to look at problems honestly, to look at them without illusions, and to go to work chipping away at them, with no guarantee of success — in fact, with a need for a rather high tolerance for failure along the way, and plenty of disappointments."

"How it is we have so much information, but knows so little?"

"Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state."

"Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation."

"We need not stride resolutely towards catastrophe, merely because those are the marching orders."

"The intellectual tradition is one of servility to power, and if I didn't betray it I'd be ashamed of myself."

"Responsibility I believe accrues through privilege. People like you and me have an unbelievable amount of privilege and therefore we have a huge amount of responsibility. We live in free societies where we are not afraid of the police; we have extraordinary wealth available to us by global standards. If you have those things, then you have the kind of responsibility that a person does not have if he or she is slaving seventy hours a week to put food on the table; a responsibility at the very least to inform yourself about power. Beyond that, it is a question of whether you believe in moral certainties or not."

"Over the last 25 years, the major popular movements that have had significant impact on the general society and have changed it, that have had a major civilizing effect – the feminist movement, the environmental movement, and so on – these are mostly developments of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Their roots might be in the activism of the ‘60s, but the movements themselves developed and extended later. The same is true of the changes in respect for other cultures, rights of oppressed people, and so on. These are quite significant changes. If you compare the United States now to what it was, say, 35 years ago, the changes are quite dramatic. These are changes in popular consciousness that are quite deeply embedded."

"Thomas Jefferson, the leading Enlightenment figure in the United States, along with Benjamin Franklin, who took exactly the same view, argued that dependence will lead to "subservience and venality", and will "suffocate[s] the germs of virtue". And remember, by dependence he meant wage labor, which was considered an abomination under classical liberal principles."

"Roughly speaking, I think it's accurate to say that a corporate elite of managers and owners governs the economy and the political system as well, at least in very large measure. The people, so-called, do exercise an occasional choice among those who Marx once called "the rival factions and adventurers of the ruling class.""

"In the United States, the political system is a very marginal affair. There are two parties, so-called, but they're really factions of the same party, the Business Party. Both represent some range of business interests. In fact, they can change their positions 180 degrees, and nobody even notices. In the 1984 election, for example, there was actually an issue, which often there isn't. The issue was Keynesian growth versus fiscal conservatism. The Republicans were the party of Keynesian growth: big spending, deficits, and so on. The Democrats were the party of fiscal conservatism: watch the money supply, worry about the deficits, et cetera. Now, I didn't see a single comment pointing out that the two parties had completely reversed their traditional positions. Traditionally, the Democrats are the party of Keynesian growth, and the Republicans the party of fiscal conservatism. So doesn't it strike you that something must have happened? Well, actually, it makes sense. Both parties are essentially the same party. The only question is how coalitions of investors have shifted around on tactical issues now and then. As they do, the parties shift to opposite positions, within a narrow spectrum."

"By comparative standards, the country is undertaxed. And it's also regressively taxed, the tax burden falls mostly on the poor. What we need is a progressive tax system, of, incidentally, the kind that Jefferson advocated. You know, traditional libertarians, like Jefferson, advocated sharply progressive taxes, because they wanted a system of relative equality, knowing that that's a prerequisite for democracy. Jefferson specifically advocated it. We don't have it anymore, it's sort of there in legislation but it's gone. What we need is different social policies. And social policies which ought to be funded by the people who are going to benefit from it, that's the general public. So we'd be a lot better off if we were higher taxed, and it was used for proper purposes. And we know what those are. I mean, for example, for women taking care of children. You know, it makes sense to pay them for that work, they're doing important work for the society. [applause] And they should be paid for it, but that requires tax payments. And the same is true about protection of the environment."