Three Philosophers: Noam Chomsky, Doug Rushkoff, George Carlin

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Earlier this week I wrote about the work of environmentalist Bruce Sterling, one of the interviewees in David J Brown’s Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse. Three other philosophers interviewed in the book steal the show, and for those unfamiliar with their work and ideas I thought I would summarize what they told Brown.

Noam Chomsky (his blog is here) seems to get both more political and more pragmatic in his thinking as he ages. He remains one of the US’s most conspicuous, articulate and controversial anti-war activists, although he sees war not as a moral issue but as one that is foolish simply because history shows it is incapable of achieving the war-mongers’ intended results. Chomsky loathes our cynical political system and wasteful, ruinous economic system, but blames these as much on human passivity, ignorance and indifference as on ruthlessness and abuse by the power elite.

In his interview with Brown, he warns “there are major efforts being made by the corporate owners and advertisers to shape the Internet, so that it will be used mostly for advertising, commerce, diversion, and so on.” I recall in the early days of the Internet there was a plan by major corporations to create a more secure, business-oriented “Internet 2”, which they would own and control. Now we’re facing court cases holding software vendors liable for what customers do with their (free) products, laws banning certain uses of the Internet like online gambling, and other restrictions. What interests me about this is not that corporatists want one set of rules for themselves (a completely untrammeled, unregulated, amoral ‘market driven’ corpocracy) and another for everyone else (laws indemnifying them from litigation by victims of their criminal conduct, expanded rights to sue and invade the privacy of customers, and hamstringing the Internet to the point of dysfunction), but that political leaders are rolling over so meekly and acceding to these inequitable and discriminatory demands, and that the public is not up in arms about it.

The reason for this, Chomsky tells Brown, is that “3/4 of the population regard presidential elections as essentially a farce — just some game played by rich contributors and the PR industry which crafts candidates to say things they don’t mean and don’t understand… The same has been happening in Latin America and much of the world… John Dewey once said that politics is the shadow cast over society by big business, [and he called for a shift] from industrial feudalism [which we still have today] to industrial democracy.”

Chomsky warns that nuclear war “is not far away”, and “if you were watching from Mars, a rational person would be amazed that the species has survived this long and wouldn’t put very high odds on it for the future”. Being hopeful “doesn’t really matter”, however, he concludes: “We should do exactly the same things no matter what our [guesses about the future] are”.

Media commentator Doug Rushkoff (his blog is here) is on a mission to convince the world that we’re each more powerful than we think, and that our ‘learned helplessness’ can be unlearned. “The corporation doesn’t really exist”, he tells Brown. “The corporation is paperwork. It’s a list of rules, through which people are supposed to interact, or priorities that they’re supposed to follow, but there’s nobody home”… Rather than actually taking down a corporation, [all that is necessary is] just demonstrating to everyone in a community that they don’t have to buy their stuff at Wal-Mart. That they have a say in what goes on. That they can choose how they think. That they don’t have to work seven days a week. That they might have enough stuff. That there are ways to have fun without buying products. That they can get laid without buying those jeans.” He continues:

I come from a tradition. The tradition is not one of media theory so much as a trickster tradition. The object of the game to me is to exist in this kind of liminal space between the way things are and the infinity of the way things could be, and help people open their minds to other possibilities… Most people are afraid of possibility because they can’t deal with a shifting reality, and they can’t accept their own responsibility for the way things are… So they would rather shut down, and agree to the consensus reality where they are victimized and unhappy, than accept a more plastic, open-source conception of reality where everything is possible.

Rushkoff also has an interesting metaphysical take on what happens to us after our deaths: “The only way for a person to have anything approaching a consciousness after [physical] death would be, while that person is alive, to learn to identify so profoundly with something other than his or her own ego that when the self dies, the identification goes on. But most of us believe in the illusion of individuality. We believe who we are is us… The only way out would be to get out while you’re here. I don’t think you can get out after you’re dead.”

George Carlin (his website is here) also talks about how we as individuals have abrogated our responsibility to the Earth by turning it over to ‘those in control’. “I think we’ve turned everything over — mankind in general, not just our culture — to the high priests and the traders. Everything was turned over to those who wanted to control us through mysterious beliefs… They twisted and distorted that into these narrow, superstitious belief systems, where you have this invisible man in the sky who’s judging you.. And then the traders, the businesspeople, the commercial, the merchant class, they turned everything into acquisition and ownership, to having the latest thing… We’re given many choices to distract us from the fact that our real choices have been diminished in number. [Oligopoly control over political machinery, oligopoly ownership of the media and every industry but] 35 flavors of popcorn.”

Carlin is a cynic about our current situation. “There’s no real enlightened self-interest”, he says. “I don’t think [recent wars] have anything to do with spreading democracy and giving people free choice, because there are no free choices… There is an ownership class in America… People say, What about the antiwar movement and Vietnam? Yeah, how long did it take? And it didn’t happen until the ownership class decided it was no longer in their interest. Same thing with the civil rights movement… People are dreaming if they think they have rights. They’ve never had rights. There’s no such thing… These are privileges, temporarily granted to the people to keep them placated so that the market economies [and corporatist political systems] can function.”

And people say, Oh, your conspiracy thing. Listen, don’t be making fun of the word “conspiracy”. It has meaning. Powerful people have convergent interests. They don’t always need a meeting to decide on something. They inhabit the same clubs. They sit on the same boards. They have all this common ownership and they are very few in number. They control everything, and they do whatever they want. [Their] two-party system keeps the people at bay. They give them microwaves, fanny packs, sneakers with lights in the heels, dustbusters, to keep them distracted, keep them just calm enough that they’re not going to try something.

You know, of course, that he doesn’t think it’s that hopeless. “Scratch a cynic, you’ll find a disappointed idealist. That really rang a bell with me. Within me there is this flame of wishing it were better, wishing people had better lives, that there was more of an authentic sharing and harmony with nature. So this thing that sometimes reads as anger to people is largely a discontent, a disappointment in what we have allowed to happen to us as a species and as a culture.”

Carlin’s prognosis for the future reflects this ambivalence — cynicism tinged with idealism:

Some sort of cataclysm will alter this thing. There are too many people… I’m a little bored with the almost Christian fervor of [environmentalists]. I do like vandalism, by the way — spiking the trees and vandalizing the SUVs, that’s fun. But the idealistic sitting around kind of bores me. But I also understand that Earth is an organism and that life is completely interdependent, everything upon everything… We will always overstep. We will always use our brains to our self-disadvantage, ultimately. And there’ll be a tipping point. Either it’ll be environmental, or one of these lovely germs will get loose… And then the systems will be compromised enough, and the numbers reduced, so that there will be — not a fresh start, because it won’t be that — but a regearing. Maybe there’ll be 100 thousand people left. Maybe there’ll be 10 million… I have no idea. But let it be violent, and let it be funny. That’s all I ask.

If there’s a common message of these three eloquent gentlemen it is that the power, influence and control of the rich elite in our society is substantial but far from insuperable, and that we as individuals and collectively have a lot more power to act and change things than we might think. And that no one is really in control — we cannot expect our leaders and big corporations and governments to get us out of the mess we have created for ourselves, even if they are inclined to do so. It’s all up to us, and it’s fraught with danger, but it’s possible. As Carlin says “Those who can dance are considered insane by those who can’t hear the music.” We need to help others to hear the music, and then it will be more than possible — there’ll be no stopping us.

[If you’ve clicked the links above, you know another thing these three guys have in common is that they all have crappy websites. What is it about celebrity that changes good people from a willingness to converse with real people to a preoccupation with touting their books? Is it just that there’s only so much bandwidth for any human to share with others, and once you reach a certain level of popularity you run out of that bandwidth and shift automatically from two-way to one-way communication?]

Image ‘Chemical Bonding’ by David Nash

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20 Responses to Three Philosophers: Noam Chomsky, Doug Rushkoff, George Carlin

  1. Zephyr says:

    I think it’s unwise to be charting the future of society, according to past modelsand paradigms. I saw a documentary film on Noam Chomsky this last year… Itused footage from various moments over the past 15 years. And it really mademe see how society changed about 1995 – with the spread of the internet. Youcould see how people addressed controversial topics before that point, and howthey addressed them after that point. People didn’t feel free to think, before 1995.And what does that mean about a society?The problem in the USA, at least, is our government. The government is not equivalent with it’s people. We say that the USA makes war on the middle east. Well, that’s ridiculous.The USA government has made war on the middle east. Hollywood film, andcable television present stories according to their own whim – these things do notreflect the tastes of the general public.What we need is people to take up a proactive agenda. The internet allows any newperson or volunteer organization to have as much or more influence than establishedmainstream 1900s organizations.I believe that the internet will allow a broad cultural shift back to a nation of cottageindustries – something that happened in europe and european derivative nationsonly prior to the industrial revolution. What does that mean? People don’t haveto schedule their lives around a 40 hour work week. That’s quite a refreshing change.I do like listening to Noam Chomsky’s analyses, and I’ve always loved George Carlin’s humour. I beg to differ with Chomsky when it comes to the idea that”corporations are shaping the internet.” People and organizations with moneywill always pour that into whatever endeavor they choose to. In recent years,they’ve poured it into internet advertising. But if anything, that advertising creates clutter and gridlock in the web surfer’s experience. Corporations alsoseem fond of creating 300-500kilobyte webpages – which are literally impossible to surf through on a dial up connection. Quality resourceson the internet are not created by corporations, but by volunteers. Your weblog,for instance, or wikipedia. Wikipedia has, in the last few months, got some veryhigh accolades in the mainstream press, and it has begun to be quite well usedby the general public. The fact is, that organizations which rely on volunteershave more resources to draw from – and so they can produce a better product.Those who care about the future of the internet, have to be responsible to create a navigation hub which allows people to find all these little gems like your blog.The websites of these three gurus being not up to par? Well, that shows you that the internet is a very new place and many people want to hop on right awayand say something, without having first spent the years and years surfing it,where they would have learned what proper etiquette is.

  2. What a truly excellent post! I ate up every word, and will probably link my blog to those sites you provided links for. Thanks, Dave! I ought to visit here more often.~ bonnie ~

  3. Raging Bee says:

    …[Chomsky] sees war not as a moral issue but as one that is foolish simply because history shows it is incapable of achieving the war-mongers’ intended results.This statement is laughably stupid even by Chomsky’s low standards; and it’s even more laughable that you would pass it on without doing a double-take. Let’s do a little reality-check, shall we?British settlers in North America wage war to secede from British Empire and form independent nation…DONE.US government (see above) wages war to crush secessionists in southern region…DONE.Muslims wage war against non-Muslim neighboring tribes with intent to subject them to Islamic law and force their people to convert to Islam…DONE.Americans attack Indian tribes to force them off of land they want for their own nation…DONE.US, Britain and USSR attack Germany with intent to crush Nazi regime…DONE.Ho Chih Minh attacks US forces and allies in Vietnam with intent of establishing independent Communist regime…DONE.Ayatollah Khomeini leads Iranian people in war to overthrow the Shah…DONE.Do I really need to go on? Every war has a winner – those who accomplish their goals – and a loser – those who are prevented from accomplishing their goals.Chomsky warns that nuclear war “is not far away”, and “if you were watching from Mars, a rational person would be amazed that the species has survived this long and wouldn’t put very high odds on it for the future”.Hello? A rational person, seeing his predictions of our imminent self-destruction fail to happen, would revise the prejudices that led him to make an erroneous prediction.Being hopeful “doesn’t really matter”, however, he concludes: “We should do exactly the same things no matter what our [guesses about the future] are”.This sounds like the voice of clinical depression. Being hopeful does indeed matter, because people with hope are the ones who actually think of solutions, while those without hope have nothing to offer. This is one of many reasons why Chomsky himself is completely irrelevant to Americans who actually want to accomplish something.

  4. Zephyr says:

    War is foolish, angry bee – and does not achieve it’s intended results.The only thing that achieves it’s intended results is a full blown genocide.What the europeans did to the native north americans – gave them the landthey wanted for themselves.(a)New England USA settlers did not achieve independence with war. Thatindependence would have occurred through other means. (b) No religion can make other people convert through war. (c) Is crushing the nazi regime a thing which made peace in europe? No. Modern communication and a raised standard of living has made peace between these different languages and cultures. (d) Establishing an independent communist regime in Vietnam was not achievedthrough war… a society and a political system is built after the war ends.This is a very detailed process and war only delays the time when thatprocess can begin. (e) Overthrowing the Shah in Iraq was not the goal. The goal would be the creation of a different political system – which was done afterwards.(f) Nuclear war will not happen? the first time an arab guerilla blows upa nuclear device in the USA, it will have commenced.I would say that you should stop defending the inane kinds of reasoningthat go through the minds of this group of ruffians on capitol hill in the USA.

  5. Raging Bee says:

    Is crushing the nazi regime a thing which made peace in europe? No. Modern communication and a raised standard of living has made peace between these different languages and cultures.Excuse me, but the violent destruction of a bigoted and genocidal regime was indispensible for creating peace in Europe. The modern communication and raised standard of living would not have made any difference unless, and until, that backward and wealth-destroying regime was gone.Establishing an independent communist regime in Vietnam was not achieved through war… a society and a political system is built after the war ends. This is a very detailed process and war only delays the time when that process can begin.War did not delay the creation of that state; it hastened it by removing a major roadblock – specifically, the US-supported regime in South Vietnam.Overthrowing the Shah in Iraq [wrong country, but that’s another matter] was not the goal. The goal would be the creation of a different political system – which was done afterwards.This is just plain wrong: the Iranians wanted the Shah out, plain and simple. That was the objective of the revolution. Of course the “different political system” was created afterwords – the Shah didn’t allow it when he was in power, therefore he had to be forcibly removed before it could happen.Do you really think you can accomplish anything by denying verifiable historical fact?

  6. Zephyr says:

    I don’t want to use Dave Pollard’s blog as a debateforum… raging bee. In fact, I’m sorry I replied toyou and contested your assertions. However, it irks me when people want to make these baseless claims about violence being a thing which accomplishes real goals in the world, today.History is a very interesting thing.Unfortunately, it’s not taught in the USA. Teachershere typically believed that history needs to be taught in terms of the dates of wars, and in terms of inferencesof what occurred as the result of those wars.History lessons ought to be a thing which bring into focus the contexts for how people lived at various points of time, and in various parts of the world. What would it be like to live in the 1700s, the 1800s, the 1200s? We look back with a good deal of ethnocentrism at these previous civilizations – “oh, pity them!” we say – they wouldn’t have had the computer, the television, the book. But, in fact, because they didn’t have these things – their society had a different focus. A lot of beauty, I believe, has been lost as we have shifted our focus in the centuries which have followed.I saw a film recently which very poignantly describedvillage life in Senegal, Africa. And you could seein that film, the way people think about life who don’thave a written language which they use daily. Words are thought to be things which are insidepeople. The ideas inside the minds of everybodyin the community are seen to be the thing whichmakes the society live and evolve. In the european derivative nations, we think of words only as being things writtendown in a book somewhere. I haven’t read it, you haven’tread it, but I can judge you based on what I think iswritten there. Odd, isn’t it?

  7. Raging Bee says:

    “Baseless claims?” Excuse me, but for better or worse, violence does indeed accomplish real goals in the real world, for better or for worse. If you don’t believe me, read the history we Americans allegedly aren’t taught. Or, better yet, talk to a woman who fought off a rapist, a boy who put a bully in his place, a cop who collared a murderer, or a US soldier who pulled a bunch of kids out of a Nazi death-camp. As the Marines say, nobody wants to fight, but somebody [preferably those with the best character and morals] has to know how.

  8. Zephyr says:

    You are quite melodramatic

  9. Chris says:

    Noam Chomsky? Are you kidding me? I thought you were a little off by supporting Dennis Kucinich for President, but now I know you’re not to be taken seriously. Maybe you just stumbled upon him and haven’t had the ludicrous Chomsky conversations with a sophomore in college (“manufacture of consent, man!”), but I assure you, do a simple google search on this nutball and you will see that basically everything he has ever said (outside of his brilliant work as a linguist) has been thoroughly pummeled. He’s simply a chronic anti-american and is the reason he is so loved by so many.

  10. Raging Bee says:

    Here’s an eloquent and coherent debunking of Chomsky by someone who has actually read his stuff:http://emphasisadded.com/2005/08/13.htmlIn the comments, you’ll find defenses of Chomsky that use nearly every logical fallacy and con-game known to Man. Especially amusing is the bit about how “persecuted” the poor tenured professor is. Sort of like a far-left version of “al Qaeda Pat” Robertson.

  11. Erin Hendrick says:

    How stupid and yet common. The most important thing Dave writes is completely ignored.

  12. Chris says:

    Yes Erin,It is completely common to simply take the point and forget the reference. The reference shall not be questioned. Ever. The point will stand as complete proof and how dare you question the reference to the point. I must be “stupid and yet common”. Hey, as long as you think the important thing has been said, then to hell with the backup! You go girl!

  13. Raging Bee says:

    So, Erin…what WAS the “most important thing,” anyway? Do YOU have anything to add about it?

  14. Erin Hendrick says:

    Heh. For months I’ve been writing comments to this blog to clarify my thoughts, even though a window always appeared that said “403:Forbidden” Anyway, you guys obviously have a problem respecting me, are easily offended, and are snotty. I’m not going to respond.

  15. Way to go, Erin! :-)

  16. Dave Pollard says:

    Zephyr, Bonnie, Erin: Thank you! *Sigh* I guess I need to post more “Don’t feed the troll” notices on my blog so that my readers don’t waste time trying to respond to completely unreasonable, preposterous and unconstructive comments such as RBs and Chris’. It’s really futile. They prejudge and twist and misread and take out of context everything you say, and when you try to set them straight they just go off on another tangent and rant about something else. I have tried not to delete critical comments on my articles, because I think it’s important to allow debate, but I sure wish the calibre of these criticisms was higher than ad-hominem, dismissals and raving. Something along the lines of my fellow Salon blogger Rob Salkowitz’ Emphasis Added (who RB refers to above) would be nice. Rob and I have had some intelligent debates on a number of issues (Emphasis Added is on my blogroll, and mine is on his). I can only hope RB and Chris spend more time on Rob’s blog — maybe they’ll learn to post more constructive and reasoned comments.

  17. Zach says:

    I just couldn’t resist commenting. To recap, RB and Chris did make some fairly well reasoned points. Then Erin hurls personal insults and when asked to clarify, claims disrespect!! Circus of the bizarre!

  18. Raging Bee says:

    Dave: you sang the praises of someone you call a “philosopher” who “steals the show.” Then I cited specific statements of his (which you had considered important enough to quote), and explicitly debunked them. You failed to defend the statements, but instead accused me and others of “ad-hominem, dismissals and raving” — right after thanking the respondent who had hurled the most insults! Then you say you’ve “tried not to delete critical comments” — as if someone’s trying to force you to do so.Your definition of who is a “troll” is rather unclear. IIRC, the last time you deleted a post of mine, it was a response to another post that was explicitly anti-Semitic — a post which you left in place. You are, in fact, one of only two bloggers who have deleted posts of mine — the other being that bat$h1t right-winger LaShawn Barber (who is basically one step below Michelle Malkin (who does not allow comments at all) on the Ann-Coulter-wannabee ladder). Do you realy feel comfortable working at her level of tolerance and open-mindedness?PS: not that it matters, but I’ve never actually seen you debating Rob on anything. Do you have (for example) anything to say in response to his post on Chomsky?

  19. Chris says:

    Hi Dave,Don’t meant to “prejudge and twist and misread” everything you said.I was just pointing out that your source (Noam Chomsky) is ridiculous. A simple google search would have shown that to you.I love George Carlin by the way, but would not put him in charge of anything important, necessary or political. I love you too man, but I think the same way about you brother.

  20. Spence says:

    Thanks Dave, I enjoyed reading your thoughts regarding the three philosophers and their points of view. It’s interesting to me how almost everything has become so politicized these days (including even matters of science and the environment)and this is reflected in the comments section. It seems as though loyalty to a certain ideology trumps the desire to see things in the objective environment which is required for learning to take place. It’s a pity folks don’t spend as much time examining their beliefs and opinions as much as they reflexively act to protect them.

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