Noam Chomsky: A beautiful mind
Outspoken intellectual Noam Chomsky spoke to Jon Snow ahead of his Amnesty International lecture as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's. In a wide-ranging interview, he discussed Northern Ireland, terrorism, Israel and the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq, South America, nuclear weapons, climate change, healthcare reform and human rights
Published 14/10/2009 | 14:37
The Amnesty International Lecture returns to the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s on October 30 with one of the world’s sharpest commentators on international affairs and the struggle for human rights and dignity.
A philosopher, linguist, author and political activist, Noam Chomsky was named the world’s leading public intellectual in 2005 in an international poll.
In the 1950s he developed the theory of ‘generative grammar’, which revolutionised the field of linguistics. He has since become one of the foremost critics of US foreign policy, writing numerous groundbreaking books including the best-selling Manufacturing Consent, Hegemony or Survival and Failed States.
Hope and Prospects is the theme of Noam Chomsky’s Amnesty International annual lecture at the Belfast Festival at Queen’s on October 30. The lecture will be followed by a question-and-answer session chaired by William Crawley.
Here are edited extracts from his recent interview with Channel 4’s Jon Snow:
The lesson is that terrorism has causes -- unless the causes are addressed; you’re not facing the problem. Now a lot of it is criminal activity, and criminal activity should be punished in the legal system fairly and honestly. But unless you address the grievances, you are more or less in the position of a doctor who’s injecting a patient with poison and then asking what’s the best way to deal with the symptoms.
That doesn’t make any sense — first stop administering the poison. There were real grievances in Northern Ireland and Britain had a substantial responsibility for them. When Britain finally stopped responding to terror with more violence, and responded to terror by addressing the grievances, there was substantial amelioration.
The response to September 11
After 9/11 there was overwhelming sympathy for the United States, including inside the jihadi movement. There were fatwas coming outcondemning Osama bin Laden. How did the US respond? By alienating the people who were sympathising. By invading Afghanistan and Iraq and energising the support for terror.
That’s injecting the patient with poison. Now they’re surprised there’s an increase in terror. The response to 9/11 — as historian Michael Howard pointed out almost straight away — should have been: it’s criminal, let’s try to identify the culprits, bring them to justice and give them fair trials.
The Bush administration refused. It’s possible that they might have been able to extradite al-Qaida and bin Laden. In fact the Taliban made ambiguous offers of extradition if the US provided evidence, which of course any country would do. The Bush administration rejected that attempt, and [said] we’re going to bomb you because you’re not handing him over to us. Well that’s a major crime that welded the jihadi movement back together; the invasion of Iraq completed the task of reconstructing a massive worldwide terrorist movement.
Non-violent resistance in Iraq
As late as November 2007 the official US position as stated by Bush was that any Status of Forces Agreement would have to permit an indefinite US military presence, including of course huge military bases all over, and a privileged role for US investors.
A couple of months later, Bush was compelled to back down on all of that and, at least on paper, accept withdrawal. Well, these are tremendous victories for non-violent resistance. The US could kill insurgents, but they couldn’t deal with hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating in the streets.
The US approach to Iran
If someone was watching this from Mars, they’d collapse in ridicule. The United States is telling Iran to stop its aggressive militarism? I mean we occupy two countries on their border, US spending on arms is approximately equal to the rest of the world combined, we’re threatening them with attack and violation of the UN Charter and on and on. Iran hasn’t invaded anyone for, probably, centuries, except for two Arab islands that the Shah conquered with the support of the United States.
Israel’s security problems
Israel’s invasion of Gaza in January hadn’t the slightest pretext. They claim they had to defend themselves against rockets and that’s accepted by human rights groups and fairly generally, but it’s perfect nonsense. You don’t have a right to use force in self-defence unless you’ve exhausted peaceful means. They could have accepted a ceasefire for the first time ever.
When they partially accepted one for a few months in 2008 there were no Hamas rockets. They do not have a security problem, except for what they are creating, so as long as they choose expansion over security, they’re going to have a security problem.
Barack Obama’s burden of expectations
If Barack Obama fails to live up to expectations, there are two possibilities. Kennedy also generated enormous enthusiasm, and he quickly disappointed the expectations. He had a good propaganda apparatus, but if you look at what he did, he was maybe one of the most dangerous presidents of the 20th century.
But the energy that was generated then turned into something quite constructive: the activism of the 1960s. Kennedy certainly did not support the civil rights movement, but it was inspired by the rhetoric and it went on and ultimately he had to sign on to it. That’s one possibility.
The other possibility is cynicism. The constructive choice is going to have to be based on a realistic understanding of what is happening, not the illusions based on marketing.
The US democratic deficit
The irrelevance of popular opinion in the US is quite dramatic. Take the leading domestic issue right now, which is healthcare; it’s a catastrophe. The debate that’s going on is in fact surreal in many ways, not just Sarah Palin and the death panels, but there was a front-page story in the New York Times, reporting that the Obama administration had made a secret deal with the pharmaceutical industry in which it promised not to allow the government to use its purchasing power to negotiate drug prices, as is done in every other country and as, for example, the Pentagon can do for buying paper clips.
But it’s legally barred in the United States and that’s the major reason why drug prices are twice as high as in most of the world. About 85% of the population think we should negotiate drug prices – but they’re not even mentioned, in fact I don’t think you can even find a report of the polls.
Progress in South America
It’s commonly said that one of the faults of the Bush administration was that they didn’t pay attention to Latin America. That’s probably one of the greatest boons to Latin America. If the United States would stop paying attention to them, the way it does pay attention to them, they would at least have a little window for maybe moving forward.
The US supports democracy if and only if it conforms to strategic and economic interests. In fact, what’s been happening in South America is quite impressive.
For the first time in hundreds of years, South America is beginning at least to face some of its huge problems. In fact, in many ways, it’s the most exciting region of the world.
The lack of action on climate change
The climate catastrophe will mostly harm the poorer countries. It’ll be pretty awful for everyone — Boston may go under water for example — but the rich countries have ways of dealing with it. The poor countries don’t.
The rich countries have to make a choice: are we going to choose a future in which our grandchildren can survive, or are we going to choose short-term profit for the corporate sector? So far, overwhelmingly, it’s the latter.
The state of human rights
I’ve always been more or less an optimist, which means starting from a very low level of expectation. I think if you look at the trajectory over a longer period, including the recent period, there is a general improvement [in human rights], not only in the Third World but even in the rich countries.
Take say the last US election. The Democratic Party fielded two candidates, a woman and an African-American, inconceivable 30 years ago, even 20 years ago. Intellectuals don’t like to talk about it, but it’s the result of the activism of the 1960s.
Noam Chomsky’s new book, Hope and Prospects, will be published by HamishHamilton on October 29