Noam Chomsky: From the Strategic Mind to the Radical Politics of Imagination

This week marks the beginning of Obama’s second term as US President. His inauguration on January 21st coincides with the day that honors civil rights leader Martin Luther King, who delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech 50 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial. At the   dedication of the Martin Luther King Monument in 2011, Obama called to make King’s dream a reality for all. In the last four years, with drone attacks and assassination kill lists, with unprecedented assaults on the Constitution, draconian secrecy and domestic spying, the yawning chasm between Obama’s rhetoric and his actions is becoming crystal clear for anyone willing to see.

Renowned linguist and political dissident, Noam Chomsky was recently interviewed by Aljazeera. When questioned about Obama’s policies and moral stance, he concluded that Obama is “a man without a moral center.” Chomsky elaborated:

“If you look at his policies I think that’s what they reveal. I mean there’s some nice rhetoric here and there but when you look at the actual policies … the drone assassination campaign is a perfectly good example, it’s just a global assassination campaign.”

Chomsky’s statement made the headlines of several alternative news outlets and circulated on social media. In the same interview, he talked about his own life taking two tracks: political activism and research. Chomsky spoke of how activism had always been at his core, even before he began studying linguistics. Throughout his career as a prestigious professor he consistently spoke truth to power. His analysis and grasp of the underlying political realities of a global corporate empire has been remarkable, especially his astute and scathing critique of US foreign policy. Chomsky’s assessment of Obama seems to resonate with an increasing number of progressives, who have recently acknowledged that the Obama presidency is far worse than Bush and that he has done greater damage to the Constitution.

How does this stark assessment translate to the electoral arena? Although Chomsky backed the Green Party in the primary for the 2012 presidential election, in general he has practiced and advocated, though reluctantly, the politics of the so-called ‘lesser of two evils’. In 2004 and 2008, he consistently emphasized getting the neoliberal right wing out of office as the highest priority, even saying at one point that it is a matter of the survival of our species. This came up more than once when asked about Ralph Nader and his run for president. At that time, he called the Nader candidacy a mistake. He encouraged people to vote Democrat in the swing states. This is referred to as strategic voting. Anyone following US presidential politics are plenty familiar with it.

When looked at closely, one can see how this method is actually a mental construct. The logic behind it has to do with an addictive voting pattern that for 8 years was also termed the ‘ABB (anybody but Bush) syndrome.’ The rationale goes like this; the candidate of one party might not truly represent ones interests, but compared to the other party, the prevailing fear says that he or she must win. All the rhetoric and fear mongering tends to obscure the fact that people using this logic ended up supporting a candidate who was clearly and fundamentally going to work against their interests. This became the prevailing logic of liberals and was loudly disseminated by the corporate media and even alternative news outlets. It engaged those who subscribed to it in a vicious circle that hindered them from accessing their own civic power. In reference to Noam Chomsky, I am trying to show a particular kind of thinking that he has come to represent, which is typical of the liberal intelligentsia. He has become an influential spokesman for this construct of strategic voting.

One of remarkable things that Chomsky accomplished in his life was to bring deep insight into the insidious role of the mass media in manipulating public perception. He showed how the corporate establishment has become very adept at ensuring that the public is kept ignorant or is misinformed about the real effects of Government policy. He noted how hard it is to counteract the machinations of centralized corporate propaganda. This has never been more true than at the present time. There is a huge gap in perception created by Obama’s PR machine as a progressive brand and his real actions. Those who don’t question and see the real actions behind the rhetoric are carried by PR images and slogans and are easily caught up in the faux opposition between the two parties. During election season, the masses are carried into carefully crafted, emotionally presented and generally overblown domestic issues. Issues such as the growing US poverty, banker lawlessness, illegal wars and corporate welfare are simply not allowed in pre-election discourse.

In the larger historical view, the convergence of economic and foreign policy between both parties has been taking place for some time. Some Democrats may be aware that Clinton was just as responsible as Reagan for sowing the seeds of the current demise of the middle class and rise in power of the corporate feudal system that is nearing its devastating conclusion. After all, WTO-NAFTA, ‘welfare reform’, and the lifting of Glass-Steagall protections against bank corruption occurred on Clinton’s watch. Yet, few progressives want to admit that Democratic presidents are generally selected by and work for the same bosses as the Republicans. Dick Cheney himself lavished praise on Obama’s performance not long after he took office. He could never have imagined a Democrat so effectively implementing what amounts to a furthering of the neocon agenda.

Strategic voting is a method devised for those who are more informed and knowledgeable about candidate’s policies and have an inkling that the two party system is generally flawed. They wouldn’t call it lesser of two evils if they did not think the Democrats were also somewhat evil. Back in 2008, during Obama’s first campaign, Chomsky has said that Obama’s actions are abhorrent. He could explain in depth how an Obama presidency would likely bring deep damage to the world. Yet virtually in the same breath, he flipped around and said progressives need to help him win. In the span of one paragraph, one could see this total contradiction of words and actions being displayed. Chomsky accused Obama of a huge gap between rhetoric and actions. Yet at the same time Chomsky’s implementing the ideology of strategic voting while knowing the extent of the devastation caused by Obama’s policies also reveals a similar cognitive dissonance between his own words and actions. When words do not match with actions, change is not possible. The idea of strategic voting stems from accepting a systemically corrupt two party duopoly. Thinking within this corporate-controlled system tends to reflect its very nature. It is not actual opposition, only making lip service and wishing for policy change, while fundamentally not challenging the system itself. No matter how appalled one is about the nature of the oppressive and brutal state the US has devolved into, supporting this construct means continuing to engage in a system that can never deliver real change, but can only get worse.

The host of First Voices Indigenous radio, Tiokasin Ghosthorse spoke of how the progressive left is the biggest obstacle to real change and healing of the world. He described how it is the mentality of wanting to ‘save the earth’ and looking for the solution to come from outside oneself. This creates a disconnect between intellectual knowledge and action and only helps to sustain this abstract system. He showed how in contrast to hierarchical reasoning processes, the indigenous way of thinking is never separated from the heart. He talked about a brain in the heart and said of indigenous peoples that “We think with the heart” (Lecture, New York University, June 29, 2009).

The mindset of strategic voting is generated through a particular element in thinking that prevails in academia; namely the ‘creed of objectivity’, which is practiced in physical science and has been further extended into the social and political sciences. David Scott and Robin Usher (1996) shed light on the values in this notion of presumed objectivity:

One of the most important aspects of this epistemological “good ground” is that the researcher was “objective”, i.e. he or she was unbiased, value neutral and took care to ensure that personal considerations did not intrude into the research process – in other words, that the researcher’s subjectivity has been eliminated as a factor in the knowledge claim. (p. 12)

The creed of objectivity creates an artificial separation between mind and heart. It trains researchers to consider themselves impartial and objective, as not affecting the outcome. Researchers trained in this identity as ‘neutral observers’ are divorced in their thinking from passion, morality and most of all the actions of their own will. This prevailing creed has helped to encourage citizens to feel passive, powerless or indifferent. With the absence of passionate citizens, democracy gets hollowed out to become a merely a game played by the rich and powerful. From climate change to militarism, extractive monetary policy to increasing poverty, reality gets abstracted and reduced to policies that serve only brutal commercial interests.

Chomsky spoke of how historically, the job of intellectuals in this kind of system has been to silence its critics, round up the chorus to make sure they all sing the same tune in the corporate parade. He often showed how in the West most intellectuals are loyal to the power structure and that speaking truth to power is very rare.

Chomsky himself has been that rare intellectual who does speak truth to power. By breaking out from the obedient role to the status quo, for decades he has been speaking and publishing tomes that illuminate the structural destructive working of the American empire. Yet, he too appears to have been caught within that particular pitfall of the intellect that is chained by the creed of the dispassionate observer. Through professing the theory of strategic voting to his followers, has he become complicit in the oppressive corporate strategy to prevent democracy and shut out alternative voices? With the pretense of expert’s objectivity, the idea of ‘strategic voting’ is presented as superior and reasonable. It is even brought as the only real choice and is not to be challenged.

The mentality of strategic voting has become a most effective tool for corporate power to pull the strings within the duopolistic-plutocratic party politics peculiar to the US. It helps support the false opposition and concocted dichotomies that act as a safety valve for dissent while eliminating voices for real change. In assessing president Obama’ policies, lawyer and author Glenn Greenwald articulated the actuality behind this mechanism:

I think only a Democratic president could have institutionalized the drone war, assassinated U.S. citizens, persecuted whistleblowers. And lots of Bush officials had said, “There was a lot of this stuff that we wanted to do that we knew we couldn’t do, because had we tried, there would have been an enormous storm from Democrats, from the media, and we just couldn’t do it.” But Obama can do it because he brings progressives and Democrats along with him. Mitt Romney never would have been able to cut Social Security or target Medicare, because there would have been an enormous eruption of anger and intense, sustained opposition by Democrats and progressives accusing him of all sorts of things. President Obama has the ability, as he’s proven over and over, to bring Democrats and progressives along with him and to lead them to support and get on board with things that they have sworn they would never, ever be able to support. And for that reason, he is in a much better position, he’s much more effective, at institutionalizing these horrible policies than Mitt Romney or any other Republican would have the ability to do.

Knowledge and intelligent analysis are essential for right action. Yet, knowing and even speaking truth to power is not enough. When faced with the harshness of what seems to be unchangeable reality, the mind is easily defeated and tries to deny possible alternative views. It convinces us with fear that one cannot do it — it is not realistic. ‘A third party is not viable!’ or ‘You can’t change the system itself or walk away from it.’ But this is like living a Catch 22. If someone doesn’t start, no one will start. Every real movement for social change in history started from one person saying that they will break this habitual pattern of thought, take a risk and do something different. If everyone looked around at each other and waited for another to step in first, no movement for change would ever begin. There is a gap between what one knows and the action needed to overcome and transform a given reality.

There is something that makes a person say: ‘I may be the only one who thinks like this. Perhaps no one will follow me, but I will do it anyway, because it is right.’ What is this unique human quality of independent action against all odds? Without it no social progress would ever be made. If either black people or women had said in the last century that it is not realistic to demand the right to vote because no one else is doing it -then nothing would have changed. The same goes for all other great movements in history. It always starts from a small number of people who took the courage to step out of the dominant paradigm of thinking to become that first person to act and then inspired others to follow.

There is another capacity that goes beyond just knowing the political reality that is needed to make a movement and progressives have often failed to cultivate this. The intellect tends to dismiss the creative and courageous voice of the heart as naive or not realistic. This closes the mind to a possible future that can only come from that place. When Chomsky said that Nader’s run for president was a mistake, the motive of Nader’s actions was possibly something that could not be understood by this brilliant mind that could fully penetrate the destructive folly of corrupt corporate politics. The creed of objectivity cannot overcome or transform reality as it is. All it can do is to accept it, lament it or adjust itself to it. It can only reflect what already is. Logical mind cannot create or imagine something new. Inspiration, enthusiasm and even idealism that verges on naivety are what unites the will and the head that is often separated within the liberal intelligentsia. This new capacity can be called the intelligence of the heart.

Heart intelligence encourages people to imagine and take risks. It overcomes the apathetic mind that is disguised as pragmatism and realism. We saw the awakening of this capacity in the rise of Occupy in 2011 when people across political lines came together on the streets of New York and around the world. For a time, people broke out of the prison of corporate-controlled politics, turning to one another to imagine and create a new world.

“The Occupy movement just lit a spark.” Chomsky said. He himself saw it and was touched by the upsurge of passionate energy. Chomsky explained how the movement changed the social condition of corporate control, hooking people’s minds in TV mindsets that subjugate the masses under a manufactured worldview, keeping them separate from one another. He pointed out that the historical significance of the Occupy Movement was the way it brought marginalized discourse back to the center and created something that had never existed before. With cooperative communities and open spaces for sharing; libraries, common kitchens etc., people began learning to live together on a fundamental and unmediated level.

The corporate culture tends to crush dreams and deprive us of the intrinsically human ability to imagine a different future. It ridicules passion as naïve and idealism as unrealistic. It attempts to convince those who break away from habitual patterns of thinking to give up on change and accept the bleak options handed to them. Occupy brought back what had been marginalized and pushed away not only by neoliberal corporatism but also dismissed by our compliance through the fear-driven rationale of strategically voting for evil. What is emerging is a new creed that overcomes the sense of defeat and apathy, which has neutralized dissent against a morally bankrupt system. It is not debate by persuasion, nor the monologue of exclusion, but a striving for listening where diverse voices can enter. It is not rule by top-down experts, but consensus building through a peer network of collaboration. Instead of acting out of fear and trying to restrain the worst effects of an exploitative system, the radical politics of imagination is simply the heart acting as if it is already free.

All his life, Chomsky has followed two tracks; academia and activism. Those two paths do not have to be separate. Academia’s creed of objectivity can at best only defend what it already knows. It engages people with defensive politics and does not have the power to freely imagine the future. The scholarship of all great minds can find the passionate heart;  the source of all creative power to which it becomes subservient.

Recently, Chomsky’s engagement in activism has gone beyond researching. Early in 2012 right after Obama’s signing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that undercuts the Bill of Rights, Chomsky joined journalists and other prominent figures to file a lawsuit against the United States government challenging the law. In October, 2012 he made his first visit to Gaza Strip and actively connected with the struggle of Palestinians.

Chomsky spoke of how having more privilege means more responsibility and how political engagement is a task for all human beings. This responsibility starts first with ourselves. A truly democratic society requires each of us to make honest assessments about our own actions.

On Monday, Obama takes an oath to uphold the Constitution, which has increasingly been dismantled before our eyes. By turning inward toward our deepest fears and dreams, we can free the great power of creativity within that has been captivated by this corporate system. At the age of 84, with the advent of Occupy and people’s uprisings around the world, Noam Chomsky is perhaps beginning to open a path of new possibility where mind and will can come together in the heart with the radical politics of imagination.

Nozomi Hayase, Ph.D., is an essayist and author of WikiLeaks, the Global Fourth Estate: History Is Happening (Libertarian Books, 2018). Find her on twitter @nozomimagine. Read other articles by Nozomi.