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Noam Chomsky Interview

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  • Dan Clore
    News & Views for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo The Progressive May 2004 Issue Longtime MIT professor Noam Chomsky has spent much
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      News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo

      The Progressive
      May 2004 Issue

      Longtime MIT professor Noam Chomsky has spent much of his
      political life peeling away the layers of lies and exposing
      the hypocrisies of the powerful.

      "The premises are accepted, and within that framework you
      can have criticism," he told me. He advises citizens to
      break down the embedded assumptions. Few have been doing
      that for so long and with such consistency as Chomsky.

      I talked with him in his office at MIT in mid-February.

      It was a typical day for the seemingly tireless
      seventy-five-year-old Philadelphia native. He had just come
      from a BBC interview. But before we sat down to do ours, he
      had an office matter to tend to. He took me down to a
      basement filled with file cabinets. He was tossing out old
      files and doing a running commentary on practically each one
      of them. As they were mostly about linguistics, almost all
      the references went right by me. Chomsky is a pioneer in
      linguistics. His Syntactic Structures, published in the
      1950s, revolutionized the field. I recall years ago someone
      said that in Europe some people thought there were two Noam
      Chomskys, one who did linguistics and the other the
      political activist. His book 9-11 was hugely successful. His
      latest, Hegemony or Survival, is on many national and
      international bestseller lists. It even got on The New York
      Times business bestseller list.

      The "newspaper of record" has an odd history with Chomsky.
      It doesn't publish his letters. His name is used
      disparagingly as a synonym for anti-Americanism. Yet in the
      past few months he has been the subject of a profile in the
      Sunday magazine, and the paper has published one of his
      op-eds. That Chomsky has a legitimate point of view may
      finally be dawning on the editors on West 43rd Street.

      Chomsky views the Bush Administration as a group of "radical
      nationalists" dedicated to "imperial violence." He is
      worried about what four more years might bring. Ever the
      scientist, he is acutely aware of threats to the environment
      and the militarization of space. So concerned is Chomsky
      that, in a move that surprised some, he just gave his tepid
      endorsement to John Kerry, calling him "a fraction" better
      than Bush. But that fraction "can translate into large
      outcomes." He said the Bush Administration is so "savage and
      cruel" it was important to replace it.

      Chomsky maintains a punishing speaking schedule in the U.S.
      and abroad. I was with him at the World Social Forum in
      Porto Alegre, Brazil, last year. After speaking to 20,000 at
      a stadium, we marched in the streets. People were calling
      out his name and saying, "Thank you, thank you for coming."
      The level of appreciation and affection was moving. But that
      kind of adulation doesn't affect his steady demeanor. As
      I've heard him say many times, he considers it a privilege
      to do what he is doing.

      I've been working with him for more than twenty years, and
      people are always asking me, "What's Chomsky like?" Under
      that relentlessly logical and rational brain is a man of
      great compassion, warmth, and humor.

      After I finished this interview with Chomsky, I passed two
      journalists from Greece outside his office waiting to
      interview him. That's how it is for him almost every day.

      Question: Bush's attack on Iraq was based on lies and
      violated international law. Why has there not been any
      discussion about war crimes, and why aren't people talking
      about impeachment?

      Noam Chomsky: They are. In fact, various lawyers' groups--to
      some extent in the U.S. but mostly in England and Canada and
      elsewhere--are bringing demands for a war crimes trial for
      the crime of aggression. However, though the invasion of
      Iraq was plainly an act of aggression, it doesn't break any
      records.

      What was the invasion of South Vietnam, for example, in
      1962, when Kennedy sent the Air Force to bomb South Vietnam
      and start chemical warfare? That's aggression.

      Or what was the Indonesian invasion of East Timor?

      What was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which ended up
      killing 20,000 people?

      These last two were carried out thanks to decisive U.S.
      diplomatic, military, and economic support. And the list
      goes on.

      The invasion of Panama, what was that? The U.S. killed,
      according to the Panamanians, 3,000 civilians. Maybe they're
      right. We don't investigate our own crimes, so nobody knows.
      But it certainly killed plenty of people--on the scale of
      the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, roughly the same casualties.
      The U.S. used its veto power on the Security Council and
      voted against the condemnation in the General Assembly.
      Manuel Noriega was illegally brought back to Florida, tried
      in a ridiculous trial in which he was convicted of crimes
      which he had indeed committed, almost all of them when he
      was on the CIA payroll. It was just like the trial of Saddam
      Hussein will be, if he ever comes to trial: He will be
      convicted of crimes that the U.S. supported, but that part
      won't be mentioned.

      The case of Iraq was a bit unusual, for a lot of
      reasons--for one, because it was over such overwhelming
      international opposition. I don't think there has ever been
      a case where global opinion was so overwhelmingly against an
      action.

      How does the international law community deal with this?
      That's quite interesting. In fact, if you have the time, I
      would suggest reading professional journals like The
      American Journal of International Law. When something like
      this takes place, the international law professionals have a
      complicated task. There is a fringe that just tells the
      truth: Look, it's a violation of international law. But most
      have to construct complex arguments to justify it as defense
      counsel. That's basically their job, defense counsel for
      state power.

      They say that the Security Council doesn't have the military
      force to carry out the will of the community of nations, so
      therefore it implicitly delegates this to states that do
      have the force, meaning the United States. And therefore,
      the U.S., by invading Iraq, under a communitarian
      interpretation of the Charter, was in actuality fulfilling
      the will of the international community. It's irrelevant
      that 90 percent of the world's population and almost all
      states bitterly condemned it.

      This is a large part of the academic profession: to make up
      complex, subtle arguments that are childishly ridiculous but
      are enveloped in sufficient profundity that they take on a
      kind of plausibility. The basic principle is that the losers
      have to confess, not the victors. When they do it, it's a
      crime. When we do it, it's not. And more generally, it's the
      defeated who are tried, not the victors. Every one of these
      trials, almost without exception, is victors' justice.
      Sometimes they're legitimate, but that's kind of incidental.

      Q: What is the Bush imperial strategy?

      Chomsky: It has two components. One is that we declare that
      we have the right to carry out offensive military actions
      against countries we regard as a security threat because
      they have weapons of mass destruction. Many criticized it,
      not so much because they disagreed but because they thought
      the brazenness was ultimately a threat to the United States
      and therefore shouldn't be done that way. Even Madeleine
      Albright, in an article in Foreign Affairs, pointed out,
      quite accurately, that this is not the kind of thing you do.
      Of course, every President has that doctrine, but you don't
      advertise it. You keep it in your pocket, and you use it
      when you want to. So this is just kind of stupid and dangerous.

      The most interesting comment, perhaps, was Kissinger's. He
      described it as a revolutionary new doctrine in
      international affairs which, of course, tears up the whole
      Westphalian system from the early seventeenth century. It's
      a good doctrine, he said, but added that we have to
      understand that it is not in the national interest for this
      doctrine to be universalized. That's a nice way of saying
      the doctrine is for us, not for anyone else. We will use
      force whenever we like against anyone we regard as a
      potential threat, and maybe we will delegate that right to
      clients, but it's not for others.

      Q: And the other part?

      Chomsky: It says states that harbor terrorists are as guilty
      as the terrorists themselves and will be treated as such.

      How does that one work? What are the states that harbor
      terrorists? Let's put aside harboring leaders of states who
      are terrorists. If we count that, it reduces to absurdity in
      no time. So let's talk about the kind of terrorists whom
      they regard as terrorists, what I call subnational
      terrorists, like those in Al Qaeda and Hamas. What states
      harbor them?

      Just to give a little background, the U.S. launched a
      terrorist war against Cuba in 1959. It picked up rapidly
      under Kennedy, with Operation Mongoose--a major escalation
      that actually came close to leading to nuclear war. And all
      through the 1970s, terrorist actions against Cuba were being
      carried out from U.S. territory, in violation of U.S. law
      and, of course, international law. The U.S. was harboring
      the terrorists, and quite serious ones.

      There is Orlando Bosch, for example, whom the FBI accuses of
      thirty serious terrorist acts, including participation in
      the destruction of the Cubana airliner in which
      seventy-three people were killed back in 1976. The Justice
      Department wanted him deported. It said he's a threat to the
      security of the United States. George Bush I, at the request
      of his son Jeb, gave Bosch a Presidential pardon. He's
      sitting happily in Miami, and we're harboring a person whom
      the Justice Department regards as a dangerous terrorist, a
      threat to the security of the U.S.

      Here's another example: The Venezuelan government is now
      asking for extradition of two military officers who were
      accused of participation in bombing attacks in Caracas and
      then just fled the country. These military officers
      participated in a coup, which, for a couple of days,
      overthrew the government. The U.S. openly supported the
      coup, and, according to British journalists, was involved in
      instigating it. The officers are now pleading for political
      asylum in the U.S.

      Or take, say, Emmanuel Constant, whose death squads killed
      maybe 4,000 or 5,000 Haitians [during the early 1990s while
      he was on the payroll of the CIA]. Today, he is living
      happily in Queens because the U.S. refused to even respond
      to requests from Aristide for extradition.

      So who is harboring terrorists? If the most important
      revolutionary part of the Bush Doctrine is that states that
      harbor terrorists are terrorist states, what do we conclude
      from that? We conclude exactly what Kissinger was kind
      enough to say: These doctrines are unilateral. They are not
      intended as doctrines of international law or doctrines of
      international affairs. They are doctrines that grant the
      U.S. the right to use force and violence and to harbor
      terrorists, but not anyone else.

      Q: Do you think the reverence toward Bush is showing signs
      of withering?

      Chomsky: No. The withering does not question what he's
      trying to do, only that he's doing it badly. If you want to
      find weapons of destruction, you can find them all over the
      place. Take, say, Israel. There is a very great concern
      right now about proliferation of nuclear weapons, as there
      should be. Israel has a couple of hundred nuclear weapons
      and also chemical and biological weapons. This stockpile is
      not only a threat in itself but encourages others to
      proliferate in reaction and in self-defense. Is anybody
      saying anything about this?

      Q: Why do elite decisionmakers--who have children and
      grandchildren--pursue policies that are potentially so
      destructive?

      Chomsky: Around 1950, the U.S. had a position of security
      that's unparalleled in human history. It controlled the
      hemisphere, controlled both oceans, controlled the opposite
      sides of both oceans. There wasn't a threat within shouting
      distance--except for one. The potential threat was
      intercontinental ballistic missiles with thermonuclear
      warheads. They weren't yet available, but they were
      beginning to be developed. And that would be a threat to the
      U.S. heartland. It could destroy it, in fact. If you cared
      about your children and your grandchildren, you would do
      something to prevent that threat from developing.

      Could it have been done? It wasn't tried, so we don't know.
      But it would at least have been possible to explore treaties
      that would have blocked the development of these weapons.
      The Russians were so far behind, and legitimately frightened
      and threatened, that they might well have agreed to not
      develop these weapons. They also understood that the U.S.
      was trying to spend them into economic destruction. It's
      possible, in fact likely, that they would have accepted it.

      What's the historical record? There is a standard
      magisterial history on this by McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy's and
      Johnson's national security adviser. And he writes, more or
      less in passing, that he was unable to find any mention of
      even the possibility of pursuing this option. It's not that
      it was suggested and rejected; he said it wasn't mentioned.

      Secretary of State Dean Acheson, arms control negotiator
      Paul Nitze, and the rest were not stupid people. But it
      didn't occur to them, because it doesn't occur to you that
      you might try to save a world in which your children and
      grandchildren can survive when you have higher aims, like
      maximizing short-term power and privilege.

      Q: Why do so many people in the United States just go along
      with U.S. policy?

      Chomsky: What's striking is that this view is accepted
      without coercion. If you're living in a dictatorship or
      under kings and princes or in a place run by murderous
      bishops, you'd better take that view or you're in deep
      trouble. You get burned at the stake or thrown into the
      gulag or something.

      In the West, you don't get in any trouble if you tell the
      truth, but you still can't do it. Not only can't you tell
      the truth, you can't think the truth. It's just so deeply
      embedded, deeply instilled, that without any meaningful
      coercion it comes out the same way it does in a totalitarian
      state.

      Orwell had some words about this in his unpublished
      introduction to Animal Farm. He says straight, look, in
      England what comes out in a free country is not very
      different from this totalitarian monster that I'm describing
      in the book. It's more or less the same. How come in a free
      country? He has two sentences, which are pretty accurate.
      One, he says, the press is owned by wealthy men who have
      every reason not to want certain ideas to be expressed. And
      second--and I think this is much more important--a good
      education instills in you the intuitive understanding that
      there are certain things it just wouldn't do to say.

      I don't think he goes far enough. I'd say there are certain
      things it wouldn't do to think. A good education instills in
      you the intuitive comprehension--it becomes unconscious and
      reflexive--that you just don't think certain things, things
      that are threatening to power interests.

      Not everyone accepts this. But most of us, if we are honest
      with ourselves, can look back at our own personal history.
      For those of us who got into good colleges or the
      professions, did we stand up to that high school history
      teacher who told us some ridiculous lie about American
      history and say, "That's a ridiculous lie. You're an idiot"?
      No. We said, "All right, I'll keep quiet, and I'll write it
      in the exam and I'll think, yes, he's an idiot." And it's
      easy to say and believe things that improve your self-image
      and your career and that are in other ways beneficial to
      yourselves.

      It's very hard to look in the mirror. We all know this. It's
      much easier to have illusions about yourself. And in
      particular, when you think, well, I'm going to believe what
      I like, but I'll say what the powerful want, you do that
      over time, and you believe what you say.

      Q: Someone reading this interview may say, "Chomsky has all
      this command of facts and history. But what do I do as an
      individual?" How would you respond to that?

      Chomsky: The first thing you ought to do is verify what I
      present. Just because I say it doesn't make it true. So
      check it out, see what looks correct, what looks wrong, look
      at other material which wasn't discussed, figure out what
      the truth really is. That's what you've got a brain for.

      If you think that the general thrust of it is correct, there
      should be no problem in doing something about it. We're not
      going to be thrown into prison and face torture. We're not
      going to get assassinated. We have enormous privilege. We
      have tremendous freedom. That means endless opportunities.

      I should tell you that every night I get many letters, and
      after every talk I get many questions from people who say,
      "I want to change things. What can I do?" I never hear these
      questions from peasants in southern Colombia or Kurds in
      southeastern Turkey under miserable repression or anybody
      who is suffering. They don't ask what they can do; they tell
      you what they're doing.

      Somehow the fact of enormous privilege and freedom carries
      with it a sense of impotence, which is a strange, but
      striking, phenomenon. The fact is, we can do just about
      anything. There is no difficulty, wherever you are, in
      finding groups that are working hard on things that concern you.

      But that's not the kind of answer that people want. The
      answer that they want, I think, in the back of their minds
      is, what can I do that will be quick and easy and bring
      about an end to these problems? They remind me of Columbia
      students whom I used to argue with back in 1968, who
      literally thought, "Look, we're sitting in the president's
      office for a couple of weeks. After that, it's all going to
      be peace and love." Or people who say, "I went to a
      demonstration, and it's the same as it was before. Fifteen
      million people marched in the streets on February 15, and
      the war went on. It's hopeless."

      That's not the way things work. If you want to make changes
      in the world, you're going to have to be there day after day
      doing the boring, straightforward work of getting a couple
      of people interested and building a slightly bigger
      organization and carrying out the next move and suffering
      frustration and finally getting somewhere. That's how the
      world changes.

      David Barsamian, director of Alternative Radio in Boulder,
      Colorado, is author most recently of "The Checkbook and the
      Cruise Missile," a collection of interviews with Arundhati
      Roy. His upcoming anthology of interviews from The
      Progressive, "Louder Than Bombs," is coming off the presses.

      --
      Dan Clore

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