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Noam Chomsky Interview

by Jennifer Bleyer Sunday, Oct. 24, 2004 at 12:58 PM

"There are some differences, and small differences in a system of enormous power can translate into substantial effects. The Bush administration, if it gets another mandate, may do very serious harm to the world and the country.."


[This interview by Jennifer Bleyer was published in: The Ugly Planet, No. Two.]

Prophet, blasphemer, genius, traitor-few people’s names are such ready euphemisms for so many things as Noam Chomsky’s. As a linguist, his significance is virtually indisputable. His 1957 book “Syntactic Structures” revolutionized the field with its theory of universal grammar. His activities since then have been quite a bit more controversial. Chomsky has spent the better part of the past forty years laboriously eviscerating the United States government for things of which it is guilty, he declares, beyond a reasonable doubt. In numerous books on US foreign policy and speeches over the world, he has pilloried America for its intervention in Central America in the 80s, its collusion with Israel against the Palestinians, its support of despots from Indonesia to Chile, and its entry into both wars with Iraq.

Chomsky’s indictments can be enough to make you rend your garments in despair. His critics are many, their attacks ranging from the ad hominem (“anti-American” and “self-hating Jew” are typical charges) to the sound, like the point that he cloaks his arguments in extreme rationalism that resists fact and dispute. Still, he has near cult-like status among progressives worldwide, and rock star credit with the kids (how many other scholars can say they’ve released a split seven-inch with Bad Religion?) Going to see Chomsky in his MIT office is like visiting a sort of lefty Yoda-a smiling and wrinkled old anarchist Jew who sits ensconced in a cave of books, quietly dispensing ideas with all the exactitude of precision-guided missiles.

JENNIFER BLEYER: How do you respond to Jews, even progressive Jews who are critical of the Israeli government’s policies and actions, who think that however safe we may feel in the Diaspora, the embers of anti-Semitism will forever smolder somewhere in the world and Israel is therefore necessary to insure against another Holocaust?

NOAM CHOMSKY: A Jewish state doesn’t prevent a holocaust. In fact, the place where Jews are most in danger happens to be in Israel. And what they call anti-Semitism arising everywhere in the world is usually a reflection of antagonism to policies of the state of Israel. So it has nothing to do with preventing another holocaust. Now the question about a Jewish state is something quite different. I was a Zionist youth activist in the 1940s, and I was part of the Zionist movement that thought it was a mistake to establish a Jewish state. That was a Zionist movement at the time. In fact, those who don’t want to go back to King Ahab to understand their tradition can go back to 1942. 1942 was the first time in which a Zionist organization, the American Zionist Organization, officially accepted the concept of a Jewish state. Before that, it had been talked about but it wasn’t officially accepted. In 1942 at the Baltimore Conference, the American Zionist Organization officially committed itself to a Jewish state, and shortly afterwards, the Jewish community did so as well. But before that, it was seen as only one possible way of establishing a national home. I was part of the Zionist movement that thought that was a mistake.

Why, exactly?

For the same reason that I don’t think an Islamic republic of Pakistan is a good idea, and I don’t think a Christian state, if that’s what the US were, would be a good idea. States should be the states of their citizens, not the state of some privileged group of citizens. Now, if this is purely symbolic, then it doesn’t matter very much. Okay, so here you don’t have stores open on Sunday or something. That’s symbolic. Nobody cares. On the other hand, if it goes beyond symbolism it can be very serious. And in Israel it goes way beyond symbolism, by a variety of administrative and legal provisions. It ends up that about 90% of the land is reserved for people of Jewish race, religion and origin. If 90% of the land in the United States were reserved for people of white, Christian race, religion and origin, I’d be opposed. So would the ADL. We should accept universal values. Once Israel was established in 1948-though in my view it was a mistake-once it was established, it had all the rights of any state in the international system, no more, no less. And that has been my position ever since. I think it ought to change, and most of my friends in Israel agree. In fact, even the courts have called for some changes in this. But to say this has anything to do with the Holocaust is just an insult to the memory of the victims. I mean, you can’t think of a worse insult to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust than to conjure them up as a justification for your own oppressive practices. That’s just disgraceful.

Let’s return to anti-Semitism for a moment. You’ve written that you don’t perceive anti-Semitism as a problem anymore, at least in this country, since its institutional applications and casual manifestations have basically disappeared. Do you still believe that?

I grew up with anti-Semitism in the United States. We were the only Jewish family in a mostly Irish- and German-Catholic neighborhood, which was very anti-Semitic and pretty pro-Nazi. For a young boy in the streets, you got to know what that meant. When my father was first able to get a secondhand car in the late 30s, we drove to the local mountains and passed hotels that said “restricted,” meaning “no Jews.” That was just part of life. When I got to Harvard in the 1950s, the anti-Semitism was so thick you could cut it with a knife. In fact, one of the reasons MIT is a great university is that people like Norbert Wiener couldn’t get jobs at Harvard-it was too anti-Semitic-so they came to the engineering school down the street. That was anti-Semitism. Now, it’s a very marginal issue. There is still racism, but its anti-Arab racism which is extreme. Distinguished Harvard professors write that Palestinians are people who bleed and breed their misery in order to drive the Jews into the sea, and that’s considered acceptable. If some distinguished Harvard professor were to write that Jews are people who bleed and breed and advertise their misery in order to drive Palestinians into the desert, the cry of outrage would be enormous. When Jewish intellectuals who are regarded as humanist leaders say that Israel ought to settle the underpopulated Galilee-meaning too many Arabs, not enough Jews-that’s considered wonderful. Violent anti-Arab racism is so prevalent that we don’t even notice it. That’s what we should be worried about. It’s in the cinema, advertising, everywhere. On the other hand, anti-Semitism is there, but very marginal.

What about recent incidents in Europe and the Arab World? It would seem to involve rather acrobatic leaps of logic to say that these are not anti-Semitic.

What’s talked about in Europe is something quite different. In Europe, there’s a large Muslim population, and much of it has been driven to fundamentalist Islam. They display hatred towards Jews that is a reflection of Israeli practices. I mean, if you carry out a brutal and vicious occupation for thirty-five years, subject the people to humiliation and degradation, break their bones and steal their land and resources, it has consequences. Sometimes the consequences can be quite ugly and among them is the burning of synagogues in France. Yes, it’s anti-Semitism. But Israel insists on it. Remember, Israel does not call itself the state of its citizens. The high court in Israel declared over forty years ago that Israel is the sovereign state of the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora. That means Israel is my sovereign state, but it’s not the sovereign state of its Palestinian citizens. Well, if that’s what you declare yourself to be, then you can hardly blame critics of Israeli policy for having negative attitudes towards Jews. After all, it’s my sovereign state-why shouldn’t they go after me? This is one of many respects in which insisting on a state that is fundamentally racist in its basic character and declares itself to be the state of Jews everywhere is harmful to Jews. So to call these manifestations, “anti-Semitism” is misleading. Also, we have to recognize that the search for anti-Semitism is a major drive among American Jewish leaders. Take the ADL. I mean, they’re desperate to seek anti-Semitism. If you want to see how desperate, read what they publish. Twenty years ago, they published a book called “The Real Anti-Semitism in America.” What’s the real anti-Semitism? Well, the ADL recognized that conventional anti-Semitism had basically disappeared. In fact, Jews are the most privileged minority in this country by most measures. But there’s a new kind of anti-Semitism, they said, which is much more serious: opposition to the US military budget. The “real anti-Semitism” is, I quote, “peacemakers of Vietnam vintage who want to undermine the resort to US power throughout the world.” Why is that the “real anti-Semitism?” Well, from their point of view, anti-Semitism is any criticism of the aggressive policies of the state of Israel, and those policies can only be carried out with the support of US power. So therefore, if you criticize the US military budget, you’re an anti-Semite.

Speaking of the US military budget, it’s been enjoying quite a resurrection lately. Were our exploits in Iraq under the since-discredited WMD guise, anything of a surprise to you?

Personally, I expected that there’d be some trace of chemical and biological weapons. If you take a high school in the United States and look in their trash, you’ll probably find evidence that they have the capacity to develop biological and chemical weapons. It’s almost everywhere. So the fact that the US couldn’t find anything is pretty astonishing, but not the real point. The real issue is the fakery beforehand. They suppressed questions, qualifications, and emphasized repeatedly what they knew to be very dubious claims in an attempt to drive the population to support a war they already decided on. There was a massive government media campaign about, you know, the next thing we’re going to see is a mushroom cloud, Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11 and over and over. It was insinuated with such intensity that by the end of September 2002, about 60% of the American population regarded Saddam Hussein as an imminent threat, about half the population thought that there were weapons of mass destruction and that Iraq was supporting Al Qaeda. And Bush continues to repeat that still. He says, without fear of contradiction, that we destroyed a tyrant who was amassing weapons of mass destruction and working with terrorists to destroy us. So yes, a lot of Americans believed that, and the media supported it. This was a conscious effort to terrify the population into support for an aggressive war. Now, if the media and intellectuals were even minimally honest, they would point out that this had been going on for years. This is the same administration that was in office from 1981-1992, entirely drawn from the more reactionary sectors of the Reagan/Bush administration. How did they stay in office for those twelve years? Every year they pushed the panic button. One year it was Libyan hit men wandering Washington, trying to assassinate our brave cowboy leader who was hiding in the White House surrounded by tanks. People actually took that seriously. A year later, the Russians were building a military base in Grenada, from which they were going to bomb us. Terrified about that. A year later Nicaraguan hordes were advancing on Texas only two days driving time, waving copies of “Mein Kampf”. In fact, Reagan declared a national emergency in 1985 because, he said, of “the unusual and extraordinary threat posed to the United States by the government of Nicaragua.” Anyone watching this from outside would think this is insane! Nicaragua’s threatening the United States? But that was a national emergency renewed annually, and, if you look carefully, that’s approximately what Congress passed in October 2002 about Iraq-imminent threat to the United States. It’s a method of driving people into fanatical fear. It’s second nature is this current administration. They did it the first twelve years, they were in office and they’re doing it now. That ought to be the headline.

Your latest book “Hegemony or Survival” deals largely with America’s imperialistic goal of global domination. But what is the ultimate aim? I mean, even if an elite group of people manage to amass all the world’s money and power for themselves, they won’t really be able to enjoy it if their faces have melted off in a nuclear showdown, which is where you often seem to caution that we’re headed.

Throughout history, leaders have been perfectly willing to face destruction-including their own-for short-term profit and interest. There are some dramatic examples of this. Let’s go back fifty years. In 1950 the US had a position of security with no historical parallel. They controlled the whole hemisphere, opposite sides of both oceans, had half the world’s wealth and the most powerful military force in the world. But there were some potential threats. One was ICBMs-intercontinental Ballistic Missiles with thermonuclear warheads. Well, how’d they deal with that potential threat? There is a standard history of this by national security advisor McGeorge Bundy. In passing, he mentions that he was unable to find any internal document which even raised the possibility of ameliorating this threat by treaty arrangements with the Russians. Now, since the Russians were way behind and far more in danger, it’s conceivable and in fact likely, that if there had been an effort to reduce the threat, it might have worked. But that was never raised as a possibility. Because it doesn’t matter if you carry out a policy which might lead to the destruction of the country as long as you achieve short-term ends of domination, power and wealth. And that is consistent. I mean, take this moment. By now even the Pentagon is producing documents warning that global warming could have extremely dangerous effects. We don’t know this for sure, but it’s not impossible that in twenty years the Gulf Stream will shift and carry out vast devastation in much of the world. It could probably convert a lot of the United States into arid desert. Maybe that won’t happen in twenty years, you can’t say it with certainty but it’s enough of a threat that scientists and even the Pentagon are severely concerned. How do we react to that? By increasing the threat. By refusing to sign the Kyoto-Protocol, refusing to take steps to carry out conservation, building more and encouraging people to buy more SUVs and Humvees. That’s how we deal with a threat that might lead to massive destruction in our children’s lifetimes.

So even animalistic levels of self-interest and survival don’t apply? What about the fact that what we’re doing could have terrible repercussions even five years from now?

What happens five years from now is somebody else’s business. That’s exaggerated in a state capitalist system like ours. Our system is based on the principal that you’re supposed to be concerned with short-term gain. In fact, if you take an economics course in college, they’ll teach you that the ideal is for each person to be a “rational wealth maximizer,” meaning you rationally maximize your own wealth, and if we have a perfect market, the market will respond perfectly to each person’s input as rational wealth maximizer. Of course, there are consequences to that: it means that people who don’t have ropes in the market, who don’t have a dollar to put into the market, their interests are valued as zero. That includes your children! They don’t have any votes in the market. Therefore, by the ideology that’s drummed into our heads, your children’s concerns are of zero value, unless you want to feel sentimental about it. It’s your right to destroy the possibility for a decent existence for your children, your right to face the danger of nuclear war. That’s drilled into your head in all sorts of ways, not only in courses on rational utility systems in graduate school but in sitcoms. What do you see in a sitcom? Do you see people warning about global warming or nuclear war, or even that fact that they don’t have a job, or they can’t take care of their disabled mother, because they don’t have a health-care system? No. What you see are people who have problems with their girlfriend or something of that sort. That’s massive propaganda that from infancy tries to turn people into mindless consumers of goods. When I watch television with my grandchildren, you take a look at these cartoons that they’re watching and they’re interspersed with massive propaganda. They don’t see it as propaganda, but any adult can see what it is. It’s an effort to try to get them to want things, in the academic profession of applied psychology, there’s a subdivision which is concerned with studying nagging. That’s been a big problem in the business world-children don’t make money so how do you get them to consume? Well, the way you get them to consume is to get them to nag their parents. By now there’s an analysis of half a dozen different kinds of nagging and the advertising industry pours huge resources into trying to stimulate children to nag their parents to buy things that they are going to throw away in five minutes. That is drilled in from infancy, in a perfectly conscious attempt to create a passive, obedient population that is just concerned with amassing consumer goods which is supposed to be healthy for this economy. It doesn’t care about anybody else and doesn’t care about tomorrow. If you’re a CEO of a corporation, you’ve got to worry about the bottom line and the next quarter, not whether somebody’s going to survive in ten years. In government, it’s the same. You maximize power and don’t worry about what’s going to happen in the future. It will take care of itself somehow. This is extremely dangerous.

You never endorse candidates. But what would you say to humans and peace-loving Americans-or for that matter, people with a survival instinct and genuine concern for their children, regardless of their zero market value-about this year’s election?

There are two separate things, one short-term and one long-term. There isn’t a lot of difference between the parties-they’re basically one business party with different factions. But there are some differences, and small differences in a system of enormous power can translate into substantial effects. The Bush administration, if it gets another mandate, may do very serious harm to the world and the country. Maybe even irreparable harm. So a short-term goal is to not grant them that mandate. There’s a much longer term and more significant goal and that is to recreate something that has been severely eroded. Namely, a democratic culture. A culture in which people feel they have some participation in the democratic process. They don’t now. In the last election, before Florida or any of that stuff, about 75% regarded it as just a farce. It’s just rich people and the public relations industry framing candidates who you can’t understand what they’re talking about. It’s none of your business. It’s an open secret that elections are basically bought. You have a ton of money, you can deluge the television with lies and distortions, and that’s an election. For example, a large majority of the population is in favor of some kind of universal health care, which would be a much more efficient and humane system. If it’s ever mentioned at all, it’s called politically impossible because the insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies are against it. That tells you what kind olf democracy we have. But it doesn’t have to be like that. It’s possible to construct a democratic culture in which people can participate, in which issues matter and not just attributes. You can have something different than a contest between two factions of a business party. But that takes work. It’s not a matter of going to a poll once and then going home, like buying shoes. It’s a matter of keeping at it, day after day. If that can be done, you can have real elections. This way it will always be choosing the least bad of a bad alternative.

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