External Affairs

Chomsky Interview: ‘The US is One of the Most Fundamentalist Countries in the World’

Professor Noam Chomsky of Linguistics and Philosophy. photo: Donna Coveney/MIT

Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Credit: Donna Coveney/MIT

Cambridge, MA (US): The United States is a very fundamentalist, religious country – one of the most extreme in the world, says Noam Chomsky, arguably that country’s best-known political dissident of our times.

“And that’s been true since its origins,” he says, explaining this apparently ultra-religious facet of the US and its impact on electoral politics in an interview to The Wire.

There are not too many countries in the world where two-thirds of the population awaits The Second Coming, Chomsky said, adding that half of them think it is going to be in their lifetimes. “And maybe a third of the population believes the world was created 10,000 years ago, exactly the way it is now. Things like that are pretty weird, but that is true in the United States and has been for a long time.”

However, the religious fundamentalists have become a political force more recently, notes Chomsky, tying the country’s “religious-fundamentalist” side to what we see in the run up to the US presidential elections, particularly the mobilisation of the religious right and the soaring popularity of Republican candidate Donald Trump.

At 87, Noam Chomsky shows few signs of fatigue or cynicism. Sitting amid overflowing bookshelves at his office at MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy – where he has taught for over half a century – he speaks slowly, with professorial pauses. A few plants stand in the corners of his room lit by the muted winter sun. And there is Roxy, his personal assistant’s particularly gentle cocker spaniel – Chomsky calls her a cat – quietly roaming about, occasionally fixing her curious gaze on visitors.

Chomsky’s dissenting voice may have shaped the politics of generations, but nothing about him fits the stereotype of a “brooding intellectual”. He makes fun of his colleagues and seems quite happy to be made fun of. “You have started resembling Bertrand Russell,” jokes his personal assistant Beverly Stohl, suddenly struck by their similarity as her boss walks across the philosopher’s imposing black and white portrait on the wall. “Oh, I do?” he asks with a laugh, barely audible. I too find myself distracted, comparing him with Russel. They did look a bit alike if you looked at the pearl-white hair — Chomsky’s curling around his ears— and the pointed noses.

Over the last six months, Chomsky has been commenting extensively on the 2016 US presidential elections. On the one hand, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders – who has brought income inequality on to the table – is drawing considerable support. He has managed to raise about $33 million for his campaign, shattering individual donor records. On the other, someone like Trump on the Republican side is leading in the polls.

In Chomsky’s view the apparently contradictory trends are reflections of the same phenomenon. “It is also something you see in Europe. The impact of the neoliberal programmes of the past generation almost everywhere has been to undermine democratic participation, to impose stagnation or sometimes decline on the majority of the population and to concentrate wealth very narrowly, which of course then in turn affects the political system and how it works.”

And this is seen in different ways, in different places, but some phenomena are common. In Europe, the mainstream more or less traditional parties – Social Democratic, Christian democratic – are declining. “At the edges you are getting increased activism and participation, both Left and Right. Something similar is happening here [in the US].”

An ever-growing anger among wide sections of the population and a hatred of institutions is visible. “There is plenty of anger and good reasons for it, if you look at what is happening to people.” Citing a recent study in the United States that points to increasing mortality rates of less educated, white men in the age range of 45-55 years, he says: “that just does not happen in developed societies.”

“It is a reflection of depression, hopelessness, concern that everything is lost – nothing is in our lives, nothing is in our futures, then at least show your anger.” The propaganda system in the US, in England, in continental Europe is designed to focus that anger on people who are even more deprived and miserable – such as “immigrants, ‘welfare cheats’, trade unions and all kinds of people who somehow you think are getting what you are not getting”.

The Trump phenomenon

Donald Trump at a political rally. Credit : Michael Vadon

Donald Trump at a political rally. Credit : Michael Vadon

The anger then is not focused on those who are really responsible – the power-hungry private sector or the huge financial institutions which are basically supported by tax payers. “But don’t look at them, look at the people who are even below you – like a mother with dependent children who lives on food stamps, she is the one who is a problem. Some of the immigrants fleeing from the destruction that the US caused in Central America and are trying to survive, so look at them – and that’s the Trump phenomenon,” says the political theorist, presenting his analysis of Trump’s ever-growing hate speeches that seem to resonate with some sections of the US’s population.

The data is not precise enough to be sure. It is commonly said that these are angry blue collar males, but they are probably lower middle class when you look more closely. They are white collar professionals, those running small businesses and people who have been pushed out of the system. “You can understand the appeal – at both edges of the political system. It is coming from similar roots, but pointed at a different direction.”

The other group that leaders like Trump seek to please are the nativists, according to. Chomsky. Therefore, they employ the rhetoric of “They are taking our country away from us.” ‘They’ being, minorities, immigrants and others. “It used to be a nice white Anglo-Saxon country but it’s gone.” That sentiment, he says, makes the US an increasingly terrified population, probably the most frightened country in the world. “It has been the safest country in the world for a long time, but if you look at fear it is overwhelming. The fear of ISIS is higher in the United States probably than it is in Turkey.” This sense of deep insecurity also explains the “crazy gun culture”.

Even the Republican establishment – essentially bankers and corporate executives that run the party – are unable to get rid of candidates like Trump. Earlier in the case of Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum the party establishment managed to “crush them” using advertising and other such means. “This is the first election they can’t do it. They are amazed, they are upset, and the Republican establishment is going berserk.”


Also read: Why people around the world are rooting for Bernie Sanders


And that, Chomsky says, is because the anger around the anti-Washington sentiment, which he thinks should actually be anti-corporate sentiment, is so overwhelming. “You can see it – like the Supreme Court right now is probably going to undermine what remains of public service unions.”

That sentiment is popular in much of the country, he says, where people ask ‘why this fireman should get a pension when I can’t get a good job.’ “Well the reason why he has a pension is because he accepted lower wages, that’s why he has a pension. That requires thought and organisation. In a society of isolated people where each person is alone with his Fox News and iPhone people don’t understand what is happening. It is happening here in this fashion and it is happening in Europe in other ways, but I think these phenomena are very real.”

‘Sanders, a New Dealer’

He sees Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, as appealing to a huge part of the population which is basically traditionally progressive. “Though he happens to use the word socialist, it just means New Dealer.”

Chomsky considers Sanders a New Deal democrat, which in today’s political spectrum is way off on the left. President Eisenhower would look like a radical leftist in today’s spectrum, literally. Eisenhower said that anyone who questions New Deal measures – a series of domestic measures introduced in the US in the 1930s as a response to the Great Depression – is just out of the political system. “By now practically everyone questions them, Sanders is unusual in that he upholds them.”

Bernie Sanders. Credit: Mark Nozell/Flickr CC 2.o

Bernie Sanders. Credit: Mark Nozell/Flickr CC 2.o

On earlier occasions Chomsky has said that the Sanders campaign is valuable for flagging some important economic issues, but the senator wouldn’t be able to do much even if he is elected president – “which was unlikely in the system of bought elections” — for Sanders would be alone with virtually no Congressional support .

Situating the Sanders movement within broader political shifts in the US and globally, Chomsky says one of the things that has happened in the neo-liberal period, in Europe too, is that all the parties have moved to the right. “Today’s Democrats, Clinton-style Democrats, are pretty much what used to be called moderate Republicans. And the Republicans just went way off the spectrum. They are so dedicated to service to wealth and the corporate sector that they simply cannot get votes on their own programmes.” In order to just try and stay in the political system, they try to mobilise sections of the population that have always been there but were never really politically organised — like evangelical Christians.

On state spending on public services, which repeatedly figures in the US election campaign, Prof. Chomsky says people’s opinion is varied and nuanced, often coloured by racist ideas.

Obama, a target for racists

Even people who call themselves conservatives say they want more spending on education, on health, but not on welfare which, he says, has been demonised by “Reagan racism”. Foreign aid presents another interesting case. “When you ask people what they think about foreign aid they say it is way too high, we are giving everything away to undeserving people. When you ask them what they think foreign aid is they estimate it way beyond what it is. When you ask them what it should be, they want it to be much higher than what it actually is. Things like that are consistent over a long period.”

Chomsky calls the US healthcare system “an international scandal”, and an outcome of what he terms the neoliberal assault. This is happening in England too. The National Health Service in England is probably the best health system in the world. They are now trying to dismantle it and turn it into something like the American system which is one of the worst in the world.”

The American healthcare system is about twice the per capita cost of comparable countries and has some of the worst outcomes. The reason, he says, is straightforward. It is privatised, it is very inefficient. There is a huge bureaucracy. And companies are interested in profit, not health. “Ask the population what they think. For years, people have been in favour of national health care. When Obama came along with his proposal, almost two thirds of the population was in favour of what was called a public option. But despite public opinion, national health care was not even considered.”

Obama’s proposal, which was a mild improvement on the scandalous system, is opposed by most of the population because they see it through the propaganda system as the government harming their healthcare. “In fact, it is kind of interesting that it is called Obamacare even by the Democrats, even by his supporters. Why is it called Obamacare? Medicare was introduced during the Johnson administration. Is it called Johnsoncare? This is just a reflection of straight racism.” It became rather evident during Obama’s presidency. “A lot of hatred of Obama, which is unbelievable, is really visceral racism. There is still a large part of the Republican that thinks he was born somewhere else – Kenya, he is a Muslim.”

“In fact, recent polls show that about a quarter of Republicans think that he maybe Antichrist. That is tied up with the fundamentalist, religious tales about Armageddon, Antichrist and Jesus having a battle, and the saved souls rise to heaven maybe in our lifetimes. These are big things in the United States. That’s where the Republican base is now.”

(Meera Srinivasan is the IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow 2015-16)

  • ashok759

    Lots of Americans have funny ideas about religion but they put a man on the moon, have done a lot of worthwhile stuff. They may not be so crazy after all ! Half the world wants a passport with E pluribus unum embossed on it.

    • S Brown

      Your sentences don’t really support one another. Lots of people want to become U.S. citizens, but would be very happy becoming citizens of just about anywhere other than where they may be at that moment. Either way this point does nothing to refute what Chomsky is saying: Americans are easily manipulated.

      • Sean

        Far fewer people want to become US citizens than you might think. For most of us it is a sideshow – indistinguishable from your media industry (it might be worth giving consideration to that relationship). To some (Christians, mostly) it is the modern embodiment of Sodom and Gomorrah.

    • Ross Vassilev

      I have just such a passport and I wish I had a Norwegian or Swedish passport.

  • Greg

    Chomsky is just wrong about the US and religious extremism. We aren’t strapping bombs to our chests yelling jihad like a bunch of animals. We dont mutilate female genitals. We don’t prohibit women from competing with men, and restrict their wardrobe and most forms of freedom. We don’t murder gays as a matter of law. We dont have a government ruling by the whims of god’s revelation to our dear leader. Western culture and values are just plain better than what we see in the Islamic world. The losers will always do everything they can to steal power. This victim culture Chomsky and the Left advocate is not based in reality. He is just rooting for the underdog. He is wrong. Islam is the problem because Islam is a system of government. Contrary to popular fallacy, the Crusades were in large part a response to Islam’s violent overreach. And the West evolved and learned from the mistakes of the past. Islam is stuck in the Dark Ages. It is time we end our politically correct censorship.

    • matti81

      “We’re aren’t strapping bombs to our chests”

      No, instead you’re voting for political representatives that are responsible for dropping bombs and using drones to murder women and children in the thousands, you Americans vote for this, yet have the audacity to whine about “evil mooslum turrists”.

      “We’re don’t mutilate female genitals”

      This isn’t an Islamic practice, it’s cultural, in fact Christian majority Eritrea has one of the highest rates of FGM.

      Western cultural of consumerist self worship ego mania, narcissism and blood thirsty imperialism is not very different in fact it’s worse; despite ancient primitive acts of some other cultures only Western culture is committing ecocide and mass death through war and corporate imperialism.

      “Contrary to popular fallacy ”

      You mean academic facts that conflict with your ahistorical, right wing, racist and ignorant narrative, correct?

      • Chethan Udayashankar
      • Chethan Udayashankar

        Seven of the top eight countries with very high rates of female circumcision are majority Muslim, including the “almost universal” levels in Somalia, Egypt, Guinea and Djibouti. But Eritrea is No. 5 among countries with a high prevalence at 89 percent. Female genital mutilation is prevalent in Indonesia. 97.5% of the surveyed females from Muslim families are mutilated by age 18. 93% of females from Muslim families have been mutilated in Malaysia. In Islam, it’s debated whether the Hadith recommends female circumcision but obviously many Muslims believe it does.. The Christian bible doesn’t mention FGM. So to say it isn’t an Islamic practice is kind of disingenuous. It’s true not all Muslims practice it, but a lot of them do because they believe it’s prescribed in the Hadith.

    • fasdak jackl

      We aren’t strapping bombs to our chest because we eviscerate people from the sky. And FGM has zero to do with Islam, as Christian cultures in Africa practice it.

      You claim secularism is so great, yet America has killed far more innocent people than Muslim nations ever will.

    • richard

      I think he is merely using the term fundamentalist in a very literal way, which is a very literal interpretation of their own religion. Fundamentalist has more to do with belief than actions. It means you believe your holy book to be true in every way, whereas one could still be Christian even when faced with the facts proven by science by interpreting these fallacies allegorically. These more rational Christians are more prevalent in the younger generations, but folks over 50 are still very fundamentalist in their belief in things like 7-day creation vs evolution and Noah’s Ark.

    • dontcallmeking

      No, you are the one who is wrong. We bomb churches, burn them, shoot up congregations, schools, shopping malls, work places, planned parenthood centers, and murder blacks as a matter of fact. We also blow up federal buildings, occupy others and gleefully support the mass murder of dark-skinned peoples in other countries simply because they follow a different religion. When 4 of 6 people believe the bible over science, that there is a war on christmas, etc., it is clear that the US is a fundamentalist nuthouse. There is no such thing as politically correct censorship, that is one of the biggest lies there is. Not a myth, not a misunderstanding – it is a LIE. And yes, we do indeed prevent women from competing with men, and fundamentalist extremists have been fighting to deny women their rights since the beginning of the US. It’s time that people like you start thinking for yourselves and do it honestly.

    • free2b1956

      Several things are apparent in your statement: 1) You have never read a factual history book. I would suggest that you start with ” The Crusades Third edition by Jonathan Riley Smith. You will find that the Christians in order to get acceptance into heaven and forgiveness for their sins attack the Muslims first in 1005. 2) You are in love with propaganda and have never been outside the U.S. There are a few hotspots where it is ultra religious in the Middle East but you can go into any country and find women in Western Dress and no head covering, and vice a versa you have non muslim religions here which dictate head covering for women. Amish and Hudderite women cannot be anywhere ( even home) without a cap on . Orthodox Jewish women have to wear head scarves in public. 3) Yes Religious extremism is taking over the country and we have always restricted women. Maybe not so much by law but by shaming women. Here is a fact that I bet you didn’t know : Until 1936 it was illegal for men or women to show their nipples, somehow men won the right to bare their chests but women still have not won that right. Don’t get me wrong I have no desire to bare my chest , however just trying to point out that your little world is so clouded with prejudice you consider it normal. How do you measure what culture is better ? The Culture of the Western world demands that both parents work and that a stranger raise your child ( sounds totally barbaric to me for a child to be raised by someone else) . It demands that when you reach a certain age you get shipped off to a nursing home because your children consider you a burden and it’s best if you go off and the rest of the family can pretend you are happy. Western technology and education is the worst of all the developed countries………. Sounds like Uncle Sam told you what you should think and you unable to think for yourself bought it lock stock and barrel.

  • Vinay Tandon

    If a majority of Americans could elect G W Bush twice as President, there must be something fundamentally wrong about the way they think of or imagine the world, and in this predicament their weird ideas of religion certainly play a BIG role. How can we blame the jihadis for blowing themselves up (with many others) when ‘advanced’ people are so maniacal about their beliefs?

    • Raphael Pinard

      The American people did not elect GW Bush the first time, the popular vote was something like 49.9% Bush/ 50.1% Gore. The second time Bush excellently took advantage of the terror that was instilled from 9/11. You are correct on the rest of your statement though, I would say. There is too much fear in the mind of the average American.

      • free2b1956

        There also was a lot of Democratic votes not counted in Florida. There is documented proof that Jeb prevented Seniors and others from reaching the polls.

      • brunssd

        The R’s stole Ohio in 2004. GWBush never actually won the presidency.

      • Phlunge

        That is correct, and the fact that it was 49.9% to 50.1% in the first election, just underscores Vinay Tandon’s point.

    • EVcine

      They did not both elections were stolen but the Dems refuse to put up a fight over the fact.


        that’s still a hell of a lot of people who voted for GW and i think it was a carefully orchestrated by both sides just like hillary’s eventual presidency will be.

      • free2b1956

        They took it to the supreme court and that is the law of the land. Face it we live in a corrupt society

  • Eamon Rocks

    I can join this discussion! Awesome! Greg, I sat in the basement of a mosque and read where a Muslim might viloently impose Islam onto an “unbeliever” and burned with vengance that anybody tried that around me would only know me as a fighter. Being a bit older now I don’t see Christianity as much better. Sure, I lived and loved among the South, but Faith Hill doesn’t excuse how y’all got your land in the first place; in the name of Christianity. Christian freedom. I came as a boy from N. Ireland and watched my people turned into terrorists by the British propaganda machine because they copied the MLK marches for the equality that colonialism dun wrought, and then the British Army used us for practice. Most people can fight.
    The trick is to see the universal aspects of all people and that circumstances reveal not just differences, but the similarities of the struggle to become. I could vilify Christianity at least as well as you vilify islam, and then I could say “those people” are different.
    What I would rather do though is realize that I am in a terrifying and beautiful place and that my prayers have always been whispers.

  • fasdak jackl

    You misunderstand Marx’s quote. WHY do people need the religious opiate? Because of capitalist oppression. That is what Marx said.

    • Joan Small

      Which came first, chicken or egg?

  • richard

    I will laugh, but not because you are wrong. Check out “post-hypnotic suggestion” and “self-fulfilling prophecy”. The bible didn’t predict an inevitable outcome. It planted the seed of prophecy. The more people believe a prophecy, the greater chance that prophecy has of coming to pass, insofar as their actions or behavior can influence whether or not it does. The Christian belief in the nonsense prophecy of Armageddon has had a very real effect on shaping the politics of the whole region.

  • Bayesian_Rationalist

    Good to see Chomsky praising the National Health Service (NHS) in Britain. In terms of which health system is the most efficient, it is indeed the case that the NHS is the best healthcare system in the world, but at the moment it’s being deliberately and chronically underfunded by the Conservative government, leading to targets and health outcomes being missed and lowered.

  • dontcallmeking

    The ‘only’ woman? Now who has the blinders on? …. Jill Stein for President!

  • KareemAbdul

    The goofy thing is, which “Islam”?
    Wahhabism? Shia? Sunni? Which “christianity”? Catholicism or the 34,000 Protestant sects?
    So much of the evangelical community is what we are (or Prof. Chomsky is) calling radical fundamentalism.

    There are a lot of peaceful religious (I can think of quite a few Jews, Catholics and Sikhs) that do not fit the radical, violent, end-times profile but are quite peaceable people. Peace and thanks for the good commentary.

    • Vinay Tandon

      Of course there are good people who follow all kinds of “beliefs”. The problem of fundamentalism arises when whole crowds of believers believe that their god alone is the ‘true’ one and their book is the real holy one. So, for real peace to begin why can’t the educated clergy (if there are any; if not, then world leaders?), of all the various sects of Islam or Christianity or whatever, simply say that their god is one among many other gods who are equally un-understanable? (is that the right word?). Enigmatic?

  • Good Wine

    If he says so then he is wrong, US is NOT the best country to live in.

    • miranda_c

      I know. But we can’t really count San Marino.

      • Frank

        Canada, Germany, Norway, Denmark, France, Sweden, Finland, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Czeck Rep., Belgium, Holland, Austria, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, are all better than the US to live in.

  • namewon

    They resort to Armageddon because they see no other way out.

  • Burford Clunchman

    I like Chomsky and Sanders, but when they go after the private ownership of guns they lose me. An estimated 263 million people were murdered by their own governments in the 20th century, the vast majority of them previously disarmed “for their safety.” This is more than were killed by invading armies. On the subject of guns, I am with this guy: “Under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered; any attempt to disarm the workers must be frustrated, by force if necessary.” — Karl Marx

    • Frank

      That quote from Marx referred to when workers have taken over society, not in a situation where even the mentally handicapped can get guns and workers kill each other.

  • Frank

    Anti-Sodomy laws in Michigan now. 15 years for first offense.

  • Frank

    The US is the third world. Lets face it. It’s a sea of shit with islands of wealth. And if you live in a sea of shit and have no education, you will call some god for help. “This country has had it.”-George Carlin

  • Vinay Tandon

    But then, WHO does (elect the President)?