Noam Chomsky Turns 92: Here Are His Most Memorable Quotes

A precious compilation of his thought-provoking remarks on subjects ranging from US terrorism to whether he's an atheist to where the Covid-19 pandemic will take us

Empire Diaries Desk

New Delhi, December 7, 2020: Noam Chomsky, arguably one of the most prominent voices of dissent in half a century, turns 92 today. The US-based linguist, activist, social scientist and writer has been inspiring people around the world for decades – still standing tall as one of the biggest critics of modern-day imperialism. dug into his works from right back into the 1960s to curate the classiest comments he’s ever made, drawn from talks, interviews, debates, books, essays, televised remarks and verified WikiQuotes resources.

Here are some of the most memorable ones, spanning 1969-2020:

What can one say about a country where a museum of science in a great city can feature an exhibit in which people fire machine guns from a helicopter at Vietnamese huts, with a light flashing when a hit is scored? (1969)

It is the fundamental duty of the citizen to resist and to restrain the violence of the state. Those who choose to disregard this responsibility can justly be accused of complicity in war crimes (1970)

Freedom is one of the commodities that is for sale, and if you are affluent, you can have a lot of it. It shows up in all sorts of ways. It shows up if you get in trouble with the law (1974)

One reason that propaganda often works better on the educated than on the uneducated is that educated people read more, so they receive more propaganda. Another is that they have jobs in management, media, and academia and therefore work as agents of the propaganda system (1987)

If you have to have nuclear tests, why not have them in southern France? Why have them in some island in the Pacific? Well, the answer to that is clear: they’re just a bunch of little brown people or something (1982)

Everybody says they’re for peace. Hitler was for peace. Everybody is for peace. The question is: What kind of peace? (1984)

Cuba has probably been the target of more international terrorism than the rest of the world combined (1985)

Where the voice of the people is heard, elite groups must ensure their voice says the right things (1986)

Observers have called our era the age of Orwell. But the fact is that Orwell was a latecomer on the scene. As early as World War I, American historians offered themselves to President Woodrow Wilson to carry out a task they called historical engineering, by which they meant designing the facts of history so that they would serve state policy. In this instance, the US government wanted to silence opposition to the war. This represents a version of Orwell’s 1984, even before Orwell was writing (1987)

A young Chomsky argues in defence of whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg at The Advocates, a critically-acclaimed televised programme in the US, in 1969

Israel has developed a very sophisticated system of propaganda. They don’t call it propaganda. It is the only country I know of in the world that refers to propaganda as explanation. The Ministry of Propaganda is the Ministry of Explanation (1988)

Lenin was a right-wing deviation of the socialist movement. Bolshevism was a right-wing deviation (1989)

Non-violent resistance activities cannot succeed against an enemy that is able freely to use violence (1989)

If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged (1990)

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 (1990)

Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state (1992)

The intellectual tradition is one of servility to power, and if I didn’t betray it I’d be ashamed of myself (1992)

One might ask why tobacco is legal and marijuana not. A possible answer is suggested by the nature of the crop. Marijuana can be grown almost anywhere, with little difficulty. It might not be easily marketable by major corporations. Tobacco is quite another story (1992)

Control of thought is more important for governments that are free and popular than for despotic and military states. A despotic state can control its domestic enemies by force, but as the state loses this weapon, other devices are required to prevent the ignorant masses from interfering with public affairs, which are none of their business (1992)

When the rights of investors are threatened, democracy has to go (1993)

The goal is to keep the bewildered herd bewildered. It’s unnecessary for them to trouble themselves with what’s happening in the world. In fact, it’s undesirable – if they see too much of reality they may set themselves to change it (1993)

Spectator sports make people more passive, because you’re not doing them – you’re watching somebody doing them (1994)

I never criticised United States planners for mistakes in Vietnam. True, they made some mistakes, but my criticism was always aimed at what they aimed to do and largely achieved (1995)

Noam Chomsky speaks during a debate with philosopher Michel Foucault at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, in 1971. The debate was titled Human Nature and the Ideal Society

 ‘Reform’ is a word you always ought to watch out for. Reform is a change that you’re supposed to like. So as soon as you hear the word ‘reform’, you can reach for your wallet and see who’s lifting it (1996)

We’re very fortunate in the United States, we’ve never had a charismatic leader who weren’t a gangster. Every one of them was a thug, or a robber, or something. Which is fine, then they don’t cause a lot of trouble. If you get one who’s honest, like Hitler, then you’re in trouble – they just want power (1997)

Nobody is ever involved in an aggressive war; it’s always a defensive war – on both sides (1998)

If you look into the history of what is called the CIA, which means the US White House, its secret wars, clandestine warfare, the trail of drug production just follows (1998)

Because they don’t teach the truth about the world, schools have to rely on beating students over the head with propaganda about democracy (1999)

If you take an economics or a political science course, you’re taught that humans are supposed to be rational wealth accumulators (2001)

The list of the states that have joined the coalition against terror is quite impressive. They have a characteristic in common. They are certainly among the leading terrorist states in the world. And they happen to be led by the world champion (2001)

There’s a good reason why nobody studies history. It just teaches you too much (2003)

Chomsky attends a discussion via video link during the height of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year. He may have aged, but the sharpness remains

Somebody’s paying the corporations that destroyed Iraq and the corporations that are rebuilding it. They’re getting paid by the American taxpayer in both cases. So we pay them to destroy the country, and then we pay them to rebuild it (2003)

It’s certainly true that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein, and also without the people who supported him through his worst atrocities, and are now telling us about them (2004)

The threat of China is not military. The threat of China is they can’t be intimidated. Europe you can intimidate. When the US tries to get people to stop investing in Iran, European companies pull out. China disregards it (2006)

There is a history of Christianity. In the first three centuries of Christianity, it was a radical pacifist religion, which is why it was persecuted. It was the religion of the poor and the suffering. In the fourth century, it was taken over by the Roman Empire. Emperor Constantine turned the church into the religion of the persecutors (2010)

I don’t even know what an atheist is. When people ask me if I’m an atheist, I have to ask them what they mean. What is it that I’m supposed to not believe in? Until you can answer that question, I can’t tell you whether I’m an atheist (2011)

We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic (2011)

WikiLeaks… compromised the security that governments are usually concerned about: their security from inspection by their own populations (2013)

There will be recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, at severe and possibly horrendous cost, particularly for the poor and more vulnerable (2020).


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