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Noam Chomsky

November 04th, 2009

On the wall in Noam Chomsky’s book-strewn office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston there is a large poster of the British philosopher, mathematician and pacifist Bertrand Russell. Just as Albert Einstein owed “innumerable happiness to the reading of Russell’s works”, the even-tempered Noam Chomsky has adopted Russell as a father figure, as a beacon of sanity.

Incarcerated for his refusal to serve in World War One, Bertrand Russell came to teach in New York City and inflamed public opinion by attacking the United States as a monger of atomic warfare. Chomsky has since adopted Russell’s mantle as North America’s leading ‘refusenik’, dismantling White House hypocrisy and doublespeak on a daily basis, seemingly immune to egocentric indulgences and unfettered by conformist tendencies.

Now there are posters of Noam Chomsky on the walls of college dorms in the United States and Canada. For some, the grandfatherly professor has become a symbol of America’s best qualities, as inspiring as the Statue of Liberty. For others who support the regimes of the current White House, he is anathema.

In the verbatim transcript of his interview with Noam Chomsky, A Hated Political Enemy (Flask Publishing), Victoria screenwriter and poet Allen Bell offers America’s senior political dissident an opportunity to respond to attacks on his character (“mirthless”) and his beliefs.

In particular, Bell cites innuendoes from a Globe & Mail book review [Feb. 15/03] and a 16-page article in the New Yorker [March 31/03] that maintains Noam Chomsky “long ago became alienated from the American political center” and “elsewhere in the world he is a superstar.”

“That’s not an article,” Chomsky replies. “That’s an exercise in character assassination against a hated political enemy…. Part of the scheme there is to say, well, you know, these crazy people elsewhere are coming to talks of mine. But in the United States nobody would pay attention.”

In fact, Noam Chomsky is a hugely popular speaker in the U.S. and he spends about an hour every night turning down offers to speak. He has always been estranged from the flip-flopping, liberal intelligentsia. His disenchantment with toadying liberal intellectuals dates from the Dwight Eisenhower era, long before Michael Moore was in diapers.

The individuality of Noam Chomsky and his reluctance to pledge allegiance to power has made him an unlikely hero—a linguistics professor who stands like Horatio at the bridge against sophistry and deceit.
Bell’s understandable respectfulness as an interviewer allows Chomsky to ramble somewhat, but A Hated Political Enemy is a revealing and intimate window into Chomsky’s personality. It shows him in a relaxed mode, seemingly immune to the conceits of performance.

Bell asks Chomsky, towards the end of their conversation, if Bertrand Russell were alive today, would Bertrand Russell consider George Bush I, George Bush II, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Tony Blair, Condoleeza Rice and Dick Cheney to be war criminals? Chomsky gives his most succinct answer, “I take that for granted but I can’t speak for the dead.”
Here are samples from the book:

“My impression is that over the years the Canadian media have become less open, more restrictive, probably more corporatized. There’s massive corporate takeover, by CanWest Global I guess it is, who are forcing editorials on the papers and cutting down content. There have been a lot of objections from journalists, and that really is ominous. I mean if the press gets taken over by a couple of corporate magnets—Conrad Black, Israel Asper, a couple of other guys—then it really is bad news. Independent media are critically important for a democratic society. If you eliminate independent media, you undercut the functioning of the democratic society. Which is, of course, the purpose.”

“The New York Times rather honestly called Iraq the Petri dish test cast for the new doctrine announced in the National Security strategy which basically comes down to a dismantling of international law and institutions and a very brazen announcement that the U.S. intends to dominate the world by force and to do so indefinitely and to destroy any potential challenge to its dominance.

“That has precedents but no precedent that I know of as a statement of national policy except for cases we’d rather not think about. Which is why it caused plenty of shudders in the foreign policy elite here as well as around the world. And Iraq was a test case that shows how it’s done. Why Iraq? Well, you pick a country that’s first of all defenceless—you don’t want to attack anybody that can defend themselves, that would be ridiculous—and also worth controlling. No point in attacking Burundi, which is also defenceless but who wants it?

“On the other hand, Iraq has the great advantage of being both defenceless and disarmed, and also very valuable. It’s got the second largest energy reserves in the world. With the United States firmly implanted right in the middle of the energy producing center of the world, it increases enormously the leverage for global control. So Iraq was the perfect test case for the military.”

“They didn’t want him [Saddam Hussein] overthrown from within. Because then Iraqis would have been in charge. In fact, Bush practically announced that on the eve of the invasion. On the eve of the invasion there was a summit meeting in the Azores with Bush and Blair. And if you take a look at what they said, they said even if Saddam Hussein and his family leave Iraq we’re going to invade anyway. Because we’re not just interested in regime change. We’re interested in putting in our regime, not one the Iraqis want.”

“The military system has several functions. One is to control the world. But there is another function that is very significant and rarely discussed. And that is to maintain the economy. If you look at what’s called the new economy—the advanced sectors of the economy like computers, and electronics generally, telecommunications, the Internet, automation and so forth—where did they come from? They came from places like MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] under the cover of military spending to socialize the costs and risks of research and development.

“It’s costly, it’s risky. So you socialize that. And then, after it gets to the point where it’s marketable, you put it into the hands of private power. That’s why IBM is producing computers and not typewriters. They have their fingers in the military-run programs at the research centers in places like MIT. That’s what these institutions are for and that’s the way the economy runs. The military system has been the basic backbone of the development of high technology industry. And many other sectors of the economy.

“Take what’s called civil aviation. Many of these planes are modified bombers. The avionics, the metallurgy, the hard research, is usually done under a military cover. And then adapted to private commercial gain. Quite apart from the infrastructure—the airports and everything else. That’s the way the public pays the costs, and you privatize the benefits. Aircraft extends enormously. It also leads to the biggest service industry, namely tourism. Trace all these things back and you find that quite typically they go back to the dynamic state sector of the economy and a lot of it is under military pretext.

“So quite apart from the task of controlling the world, there’s the task of maintaining what amounts to a state capitalist economy by socializing risk and cost and privatizing profit.”

“If you can’t deal with arguments and evidence, and you don’t have the power to throw the people in jail as they probably wish they did, then what you do is vilify them. So it’s expected. And it hasn’t been any different in the past. You should see the way Bertrand Russell was treated. He was an object of hatred and contempt because he was doing some decent and honest things.”

“The main UN (United Nations) disarmament commission has been paralyzed by a conflict between the United States and the rest of the world over militarization of space. I mean, every other country just about is trying to institute measures to prevent the militarization of space and the U.S. is blocking them. There have been votes at the General Assembly reaffirming and strengthening the outer space treaty which bans the militarization of space. The U.S. alone abstained—the U.S. and Israel. Same with the disarmament committee.”

“It’s been known by specialists for some years that, with contemporary technology, the monopoly of violence in the hands of the rich and powerful is probably gone. It’s now more balanced. They still have an overwhelming preponderance of the means of violence but they don’t monopolize it anymore. That’s what 9/11 showed as did the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 which came pretty close to succeeding. People tend to forget that. That wasn’t [even] high technology. That was explosives. The wealthy and the powerful no longer have the monopoly of violence that they had in the past and it’s driving them up the wall. If you do these things to other people it’s no big deal. But when you do it to us—it’s not allowed.

“I mean, take a look at 9/11. Look at the horrible atrocity, everyone in the world agreed with that. But if you look around the world, the reactions from much of the world were, yeah, a horrifying atrocity, but welcome to the club. You’ve been doing this to us for centuries.”

“a massive government media propaganda campaign began depicting Saddam Hussein as an imminent threat to the security of the United States—as involved in September 11, as tied up with al-Qaeda, planning new atrocities and right away, [in] a couple of weeks, about 60% of the population regarded Saddam as a threat to the security of the United States. They didn’t think that in Kuwait even. Nobody thought he was a threat to their security. They hated him but he’s not a threat to anybody. Except within Iraq. But pretty soon close to half the population, maybe more, thought he was involved in September 11. A complete fabrication . They succeeded in frightening probably a majority of the population.”

“The U.S. is probably not intending to use the oil. The U.S. has never really been much concerned with accessing the oil of the Middle East. It’s concerned with controlling. Which is something totally different.

“Since the Second World War a leading feature of policy has been to control the oil, not use it. In fact, the U.S. was, and to an extent remains, a major producer. But to control it. World control is a source of enormous wealth which doesn’t flow into the pockets of the population. Rather the energy corporations and the construction companies and high tech industry and so on.

“The U.S. is not interested in lowering the price too far. Never has been. It wants the price kept within a certain range. Not too high because if it’s too high it harms certain power interests and if it’s too low it cuts into the profits that largely flow back to the United States. There’s no reason to believe that it’s helpful to the people of the United States any more than the British Empire was helpful to the people of England.

“The propaganda does not say let’s conquer Iraq because there will be more money in your pocket. The propaganda says let’s conquer Iraq because it will save you from destruction by terrorists. And it will let in freedom and democracy. That’s the way the propaganda works. It never appeals to people’s vulgar interests. And the reason is the people who make the propaganda make the assumption that the general population is not like them. The general population is not a bunch of gangsters. They’re decent, honest people so you have to lie to them about threats to their security and noble ideals. You have to make it attractive to the population in their terms. Which are usually moral and decent terms.”

“The bad guys are the countries where the governments took the same position as the overwhelming majority of the population. Germany and France are the bad guys because the governments took the same position as perhaps 70% of the population. Turkey is hated because the government took the same position as 95% of the population.

“Who are the good guys? Spain and Italy where opposition to the war was higher than in France and Germany. But they’re the good guys because the governments disregarded 80% of the population. In Eastern European satellites the populations are even more against the war than in France and Germany. But the leadership said, yeah, we’ll go along. In fact, it was the former Foreign Minister of Latvia who was asked—I think [by] the Wall Street Journal—why they went along with the United States, and he said something like, ‘Well, we know you have to say, yes, sir.’ So they’re the good guys.

“And it wasn’t just Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld [saying it]. That was all the commentary. What’s wrong with the French? What’s wrong with Germans? What’s the matter with the Turks? How come the governments don’t disregard 95% of the population and do what we tell them?

“How can you have a deeper contempt for democracy than that? You find that in Stalin’s Russia. And it passes without comment because it’s so internalized. It’s so deeply internalized that what they’re supposed to do is take orders from us.”

“I must say, I’m shocked at this, [that is] they’re having trouble. I thought it would be a walkover. To fail to take control of Iraq and make it a viable society—that takes real talent. Just think of the situation they’re going into. I mean, here was a country that was virtually devastated by sanctions. The sanctions are over. It was destroyed by war. The wars are over. It was being ruled by a brutal tyrant. Bad as the U.S. façade may be, it’s not going to be that. How can you fail?

“I mean, compare it with other military occupations. Take the Nazis in Europe. They ran Europe with collaborators without much trouble. Every country had its collaborators that ran things for them pretty efficiently. There was a resistance but if it hadn’t been supported from abroad they would have crushed it instantly. And they were under attack.

“Or take the Russians in Eastern Europe. They ran it without much trouble with collaborators all over the place.

“How come the U.S. can’t do it under the most optimal circumstances?… Now they’re in trouble. It’s costing them too much. They can’t pay for it. The army is starting to erode. It may get harder to go on to the next one. But it does reflect extraordinary incompetence.”

[Interview conducted by Allen Bell on May 9 and September 11, 2003]


Essay Date: 2003

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