If ever there were two names that didn’t go at all together it would have to be these two. The one, Chomsky, is a major figure in a world cultivating reason and truth. The other, Fox News, is perhaps the major source in the country, if not yet in the world, of a constant stream of unreason and untruth, that which is undoing the values that up until now, at least in good part, have made us exceptional among nations.
Interview with George Yancy
George Yancy: Given our “post-truth” political moment and the growing authoritarianism we are witnessing under President Trump, what public role do you think professional philosophy might play in critically addressing this situation?
THE POST TRUTH MOMENT
Noam Chomsky: We have to be a little cautious about not trying to kill a gnat with an atom bomb. The performances are so utterly absurd regarding the “post-truth” moment that the proper response might best be ridicule. …Quite generally, that’s how the Trump administration deals with a truly existential threat to survival of organized human life: ban regulations and even research and discussion of environmental threats all in the interests of short-term profit and power. Of course, ridicule is not enough….
G.Y.: What are the weightiest issues facing us?
MOST IMPORTANT ISSUES WE FACE
N.C.: These are the two truly existential threats we face: climate change and nuclear war. On the former, the Republican leadership, in splendid isolation from the world, is almost unanimously dedicated to destroying the chances for decent survival….
On nuclear war, actions in Syria and at the Russian border raise very serious threats of confrontation that might trigger war, an unthinkable prospect.
SENSE OF SOCIAL JUSTICE
G.Y.: But what is it, Noam, that motivates this sense of social justice for you? Are there any religious motivations that frame your social justice work? If not, why not?
N.C.: No religious motivations, and for sound reasons. One can contrive a religious motivation for virtually any choice of action, from commitment to the highest ideals to support for the most horrendous atrocities. In the sacred texts, we can find uplifting calls for peace, justice and mercy, along with the most genocidal passages in the literary canon. Conscience is our guide, whatever trappings we might choose to clothe it in.
My suspicion is that those who seem oblivious to suffering, whether it is nearby or in remote corners, are for the most part unaware, perhaps blinded by doctrine and ideology. For them, the answer is to develop a critical attitude toward articles of faith, secular or religious; to encourage their capacity to question, to explore, to view the world from the standpoint of others. And direct exposure is never very far away, wherever we live — perhaps the homeless person huddling in the cold or asking for a few pennies for food, or all too many more.
WILLIAM PERRY AND THE NUCLEAR THREAT:
G.Y.: Returning to Trump, I take it that you view him as fundamentally unpredictable. I certainly do. Should we fear a nuclear exchange of any sort in our contemporary moment?
N.C.: I do, and I’m hardly the only person to have such fears. Perhaps the most prominent figure to express such concerns is William Perry, one of the leading contemporary nuclear strategists, with many years of experience at the highest level of war planning. He is reserved and cautious, not given to overstatement. He has come out of semi-retirement to declare forcefully and repeatedly that he is terrified both at the extreme and mounting threats and by the failure to be concerned about them. In his words, “Today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War, and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.” Perry is right to be terrified.
G.Y.: Yet despite his unpredictability, Trump has a strong base. What makes for this kind of servile deference?
N.C.: I’m not sure that “servile deference” is the right phrase, for a number of reasons. For example, who is the base? Most are relatively affluent. Three-quarters had incomes above the median. About one-third had incomes of over $100,000 a year, and thus were in the top 15 percent of personal income, in the top 6 percent of those with only a high school education. They are overwhelmingly white, mostly older, hence from historically more privileged sectors.
It’s true that a segment of the Trump base comes from the industrial sector that has been cast aside for decades by both parties, often from rural areas where industry and stable jobs have collapsed. Many now disillusioned have turned in desperation to their bitter class enemy, clinging to the hope that somehow its formal leader will come to their rescue. … For much of the base, the sources of information are Fox News, talk radio and other practitioners of alternative facts. Exposures of Trump’s misdeeds and absurdities that arouse liberal opinion are easily interpreted as attacks by the corrupt elite on the defender of the little man, in fact his cynical enemy.
RUSSIAN INTERFERENCE IN OUR ELECTIONS
G.Y.: How does the lack of critical intelligence, that is, the sort that philosopher John Dewey saw as essential for a democratic citizenry operate here?
N.C.: We might ask other questions about critical intelligence. For liberal opinion, the political crime of the century, as it is sometimes called, is Russian interference in American elections. The effects of the crime are undetectable, unlike the massive effects of interference by corporate power and private wealth, not considered a crime but the normal workings of democracy. The word interference is so laughably inadequate, as anyone with the slightest familiarity with recent history must be aware.
Is Russian hacking really more significant than what we have discussed — for example, the Republican campaign to destroy the conditions for organized social existence, in defiance of the entire world? Or to enhance the already dire threat of terminal nuclear war? Or even such real but lesser crimes such as the Republican initiative to deprive tens of millions of health care and to drive helpless people out of nursing homes in order to enrich their actual constituency of corporate power and wealth even further? Or to dismantle the limited regulatory system set up to mitigate the impact of the financial crisis that their favorites are likely to bring about once again?…
(George Yancy, a professor of philosophy at Emory University, is the author of “Black Bodies, White Gazes” and “On Race: 34 Conversations in a Time of Crisis,” and a co-editor of “Pursuing Trayvon Martin” and “Our Black Sons Matter.”)
But here in rural Iowa what I do hear from my conservative friends — most still ardent Trump supporters — is a collective yawn at the Washington maelstrom.
Few care about his tweets — even about Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough and the CNN body slam. The whacking of James Comey? About time. President Obama’s appointee anyway. Mr. Trump’s asking if Mr. Comey could drop the Michael Flynn investigation? It was a simple question, not obstruction of justice. The Comey testimony? Vindication for Mr. Trump! Mr. Comey is a leaker, he lied under oath, and he’s going down. He’ll be lucky if he doesn’t serve prison time….
Here, conservatives celebrate the successes in Mr. Trump’s short time in office: a conservative Supreme Court justice now seated; Mexico and Canada back to the trading table; red tape cut; the E.P.A. hamstrung; climate change nonsense tossed aside. It’s exactly what they elected him to do — victory after victory in a bigger battle than just policy, a battle for America’s soul.
For many conservatives, they support Mr. Trump because he’s their de facto leader in a cultural war. Liberals mock Christianity and demean Christian morals. Conservatives respect our police and military, while liberals romanticize street thugs. Conservatives’ tax dollars help pay for public schools and colleges that indoctrinate liberal values. Out here some conservatives aren’t even calling them “public” schools anymore. They call them “government schools,” as in, “We don’t want to pay for your damn ‘government schools.’ ” They’re afraid to send their kids to them.
They bend over backward to justify everything Mr. Trump does, largely because they don’t believe what anyone in the news media is telling them, except for maybe Fox News.
A prominent businessman here, for example, views the “whole fake Russian story” as “a coup attempt by the media.”…
I see only one thing that might give my conservative friends pause about turning against Mr. Trump — Fox News. After all, it helped create him. Most people here watch Fox News, and have for a generation.
Fox News is always on the TV in diners and other restaurants. In bars, if there isn’t a game on, Fox News is there. If there are a couple of televisions or more, one will most likely be tuned to Fox.
And it’s not only TV. It’s radio. Our big “blow torch” conservative radio station out of Des Moines blasts conservative indignation and self-righteousness for hours a day and serves up Sean Hannity for hours every night.
I once grumbled to a friend that I didn’t think Fox was “Fair and Balanced” at all. He started to argue with me, then thought better of it, saying, “But at least they try — no one else does.”
To me, only that network has the power to convince conservatives that, if one or more of the investigations raises the question of impeachment, it’s in the best interest of the party and the conservative agenda to dump Mr. Trump.
Mr. Hannity and other Fox hosts could provide cover for congressional Republicans to consider impeachment. If you believe that impeachment is a political and not a legal question, they need that cover. Right now, Mr. Hannity might have more power over an impeachment process than Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell.
Even if the investigation turns up clear evidence of presidential misconduct, I believe it would be impossible for the party to consider impeachment without Fox’s support. The first Republicans to even mention impeachment would probably be vilified by Fox and find themselves facing an angry constituency and a primary opponent next election. The network has that kind of power among most of the conservative rural voters I know….
(Robert Leonard is the news director for the radio stations KNIA/KRLS.)