Noam Chomsky: You Ask The Questions
Do you believe Israel is doing the West's dirty work? And what do you think of Elvis's music?
Published 28/08/2006 | 00:00
How did you feel about the lack of a swift UN intervention in the recent Lebanon crisis?
The first requirement was an immediate cease-fire. That was blocked by Washington, presumably to allow maximal destruction by the invasion - the US-Israeli invasion, according to the (accurate) perception of 90 per cent of Lebanese. That call should have been accompanied by a demand for withdrawal of the invading army and reparations, unthinkable given the distribution of power. The resolution that was passed is deeply flawed, a separate matter.
Can Israelis and Palestinians ever live peacefully together in one state?
Matthew Peters, Philadelphia
Perhaps, but it would have to be approached in stages. Since the 1970s, an international consensus has crystallised on the first stage: a two-state settlement on the internationally recognised borders, with minor and mutual adjustments. That has been barred by the US and Israel, with inconsequential departures. The US-Israeli alliance is now working to undermine the option by their programs of "convergence": annexation, dismemberment, and imprisonment (by takeover of the Jordan Valley), cynically described as "courageous withdrawal". If these policies can be reversed, and the first stage achieved, then further steps are possible.
Do you believe Israel should exist, why and in what form?
As a Zionist youth leader in the 1940s, I was among those who called for a binational state in Mandatory Palestine. When a Jewish state was declared, I felt that it should have the rights of other states - no more, no less.
Why should the US exist, sitting on half of Mexico, including Florida, conquered in a violent racist war carried out in violation of the Constitution?
And we can ask much the same about other states. State formation has been a brutal project, with many hideous consequences. But the results exist, and their pernicious aspects should be overcome.
Would you describe the US as it is now as a fascist state?
T Summers, Cornwall
Far from it. In many respects it is the most free country in the world.
In 2002 you said that anti-Semitism in the US was no longer a problem but was raised because a "privileged people" wanted to make sure they had total control, and not just 98 per cent control. Do you really believe Jews have 98 per cent control of America?
Rohan Planck, London
You misunderstood. It was an ironic reference to people who would not be satisfied even if they had only 98 per cent control. Of course there is nothing even remotely like that.
What can be done to hamper what is presumed to be the Pentagon's ambition to "take out" the Iranian leadership?
Not really the Pentagon. The military appears to be strongly opposed to an attack on Iran. What de facto President Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others are planning we do not know. But we know what we can do. We enjoy incomparable privilege and freedom. Accordingly, we can act in a great many ways to prevent such actions. There is no shortage of means; rather of will and dedication.
You have said you see a "hint of anti-Semitic implications" in the work of Robert Faurisson, the notorious French Holocaust denier. Is Jew-baiting merely a hobby of yours, or is it vocational? Laurence Cole, Kent
The facts and the principle have been spelled out dozens of times since 1980 (so it is a bit boring), but once again, briefly.
The last time I had anything to do with this affair, Faurisson was accused of raising questions about gas chambers. Several years later, he was tried and sentenced for "Falsification of History", but there was no charge of Holocaust denial or anti-Semitism (according to Le Monde). The only issue concerning my connection with this sordid affair is whether we should adopt the Goebbels-Zhdanov doctrine that the State has the right to determine Historical Truth and punish deviation from it. As I wrote then, and am happy to repeat, it is a gross insult to the memory of victims of the Holocaust to adopt the doctrines of their murderers. The remark you are misrepresenting is from a personal letter - an interesting source. It reviewed the facts and went on to point out that even denial of huge atrocities would not in itself be evidence for racism, giving a few of the many examples. Thus neither you, nor I, conclude that Americans are vicious racists because they estimate Vietnamese deaths at about 5 per cent of the official figure, or because for centuries even scholarship vastly understated the scale and character of the destruction of the indigenous population. The point generalises to England and others, of course. There can be many reasons for denying horrendous crimes, even in the cases that are the most serious on moral grounds: our own. One special case - purely hypothetical in this personal correspondence - was that denial of the Holocaust would not establish anti-Semitism, for exactly the same reasons.
You have spent a lifetime researching human intelligence and communication, have you seen any sign we humans are evolving a wisdom from our experience? If so, what is it?
In the literal sense, there has been no relevant evolution since the trek from Africa. But there has been substantial progress towards higher standards of rights, justice and freedom - along with all too many illustrations of how remote is the goal of a decent society.
How did the current US administration get railroaded by the neo-cons?
Eira Tovey, Australia
The neo-cons constitute a radical reactionary fringe of the planning spectrum, but the spectrum is narrow. Some of the more extreme - Perle, Wolfowitz, Feith and others - have been removed, with little policy change. The administration adopted neo-con principles when they accorded with their strategic and social/economic objectives, dismissing crazier ideas. A serious question is how the clique in charge used its extremely narrow hold on power to carry out radical domestic and international policies opposed by the large majority of the population. I've written about it, as have others, from various perspectives. One valuable study is Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Off Center.
Can the curtailment of personal freedoms and the heightened fear among many Western populations be compared to life in the years preceding the Second World War and is it an overstatement to imagine that current events are a precursor to another global conflict?
Ray Long, Dublin
I'm sceptical about such comparisons. There is a serious risk of global conflict, but for different reasons. We should take seriously the judgement of prominent strategic analysts that current policies, particularly Bush administration aggressive militarism, significantly increase the threat of "ultimate doom".
Since American foreign policy in the Middle East has throughout history been primarily interventionist, do you think the War in Iraq was inevitable, even if Bush had not stolen the 2000 election?
David Keelaghan, Monaghan, Ireland
Not at all. There was unprecedented criticism of the war plans within elite sectors, compelling Bush-Blair to resort to considerable deceit to manipulate their countries into war. That aside, the US has been no more interventionist than Britain or France, often less so, as in 1956.
Surely the US, UK and Israel are guilty of war crimes?
In the case of Lebanon, there is little doubt. Ample reasons have been given by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and that's a bare beginning. But guilt extends far beyond. The Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq, for example, is a clear example of what the Nuremberg Tribunal determined to be "the supreme international crime", which encompasses all the evil that follows. We would do well to recall the eloquent words of Nuremberg chief counsel Justice Robert Jackson: "We are handing the defendants a 'poisoned chalice', and if we sip from it, we must accept the same judgement." The conclusions seem clear enough.
Do you think Israel is doing the West's dirty work by combating Hizbollah, i.e., Iran and Syria? Robert Iannone, Paris
For the people of the West, the US-Israeli invasion of Lebanon caused great harm, including the likely creation of new generations of jihadis. I doubt that the US-Israel are seeking "regime change" in Syria. However awful within (a matter of little Western concern), Assad is doing nothing about Israel's takeover of the Syrian Golan Heights in violation of Security Council orders and is generally preserving "stability"; and a successor might well be radical Islamist. On Iran, the US-Israel are pursuing policies that could cause great harm to the West (and the world). No space here to review that.
The first victims of the Communist oppression in Cuba were anarchists, so how can you, as a confessed Libertarian Socialist (Anarchist?) justify ideologically your uncritical visit in October 2003 to dictator Fidel Castro?
Claude Moreira, Welling London
The "uncritical visit" is a fabrication of British editors. As they knew, I was an invited speaker (along with prominent British and American scholars) at an international conference of the society of Latin American scholars, which happened to meet that year in Havana, and used the opportunity to criticise state repression quite harshly on Cuban national TV and in a public meeting. Castro routinely met attendees. I've often actually met high officials of countries that have carried out incomparably worse crimes than anything attributed to Castro, even travelled to meet them, unlike this case: the US, to take the most obvious example.
Will Anarchism ever be taken seriously as a political philosophy?
That's up to us.
Do you regret mocking the accounts of refugees fleeing Pol Pot's Cambodia?
Lijia Freeman, New York
The closest approximation to this ludicrous charge is that Edward Herman and I cited the best-informed sources then available on Cambodia, State Department intelligence and François Ponchaud, who made the familiar point that testimony of refugees must be treated with caution. I certainly do not regret that. The record of deceit on this topic is huge. It has all been refuted, point by point, many times. This is one illustration of an interesting feature of intellectual culture. Periodically, there are atrocities that we can blame on official enemies - what Herman calls "nefarious atrocities", unlike those for which we share responsibility and can therefore easily mitigate or terminate. The latter are regularly downplayed or suppressed. The nefarious atrocities regularly elicit religious fervour, dramatic posturing, baseless claims to inflate them as much as possible - and fury if anyone does not blindly join the parade, but seeks to determine the truth, cites the most reputable authorities, and exposes the innumerable fabrications. The common reaction to such treachery is an impressive torrent of deceit. There is an instructive record, quite well documented in many cases. The reasons are not hard to explain. The topic should be pursued systematically, but that is unlikely, obviously.
The anti-globalisation movement, which you have lent your support to, appears to have run out of steam. Is this a lost battle?
Danny Campbell, Cardiff
The term "globalisation" is conventionally used to refer to the specific form of investor-rights integration designed by wealth and power, for their own interests. The "anti-globalisation movement" is the most significant proponent of globalisation - but in the interests of people, not concentrations of state-private power. The people from all over the world and all walks of life who meet annually in Porto Alegre, Mumbai, etc, are far more representative of globalisation than those who gather at the same time in Davos.
This global justice movement is expanding in significant ways. Among the many illustrations is the proliferation of regional and local social forums, with similar concerns but focusing on more specific problems. Other illustrations are the exciting developments taking place in South America. And there are many others.
Bono called you "The Elvis of Academia"? What do you actually think of his music (Elvis, not Bono)? And how do you find the time to read so much?
Afraid all I know about Elvis is what I hear from my grandchildren. On reading, you're touching a sore point. It's painful to be able to read so little of what I should.
You like to scoff at "elites". But you yourself are an important member of the intellectual elite. Doesn't your position contradict your anti-elitism?
Spyridon Kamvissis, Iraklion, Greece
I don't recall scoffing at prominent figures in the arts and sciences, or at Martin Luther King and numerous others among the "elites". I do of course criticise "elites" and others who I think merit criticism, and the hierarchical and authoritarian structures that confer power on selected "elites". I hope you do so as well.
Don't you find it amazing that the UK is still a monarchy? I know I do.
Marcus Di Stefano, London
Some years ago, there was a debate in Australia over whether it should separate itself from the monarchy. In general, left-liberal opinion favoured doing so, but a philosopher on the left surprised everyone by writing in favour of the monarchy. His argument was that the ceremonies and reverence tend to undermine respect for power, a good thing, generally. But I can't comment on your question. That's up to people of the UK.
Is there any constructive role at all that religion can play in the contemporary world?
B N Patnaik Karnataka, India
Sometimes, and in important ways. There is a good reason, for example, why the School of the Americas, which has trained many Latin American killers and torturers, boasts that the US army helped "defeat liberation theology". They are referring to the US-run wars in Central America, leaving hundreds of thousands of corpses and four countries ruined. The wars were substantially directed against the Church, which had committed a grave sin: taking the Gospels seriously and adopting "the preferential option for the poor". It therefore had to be punished. It's more than symbolic that the hideous decade of the 1980s opened with the assassination of an archbishop who was "a voice for the voiceless", and ended with the murder of six leading Latin American intellectuals, Jesuit priests, at the hands of an elite battalion that had already left a bloody trail of the usual victims, a battalion that was armed and trained by the people now in Washington, or their immediate mentors. We also learn something about ourselves from this gruesome record. Few in the West can even name the assassinated intellectuals. Suppose this had happened in Czechoslovakia in the same years. Those assassinated would be famous and revered. Outrage would have been uncontained. The lesson is not unique, nor insignificant.
After all the lies about the "war on terror", why has nobody in America started procedures to impeach George Bush?
Maricarmen Sandoval De Pasmans, Sint Odilienberg, The Netherlands
There are several efforts, but there is unlikely to be any outcome in the absence of a genuine opposition party.
To what extent does the language of the Piraha tribe (which has no subordinate clauses, numbers or descriptive words) invalidate your work on linguistics?
The reports are interesting, but do not bear on the work of mine (along with many others). No one has proposed that languages must have subordinate clauses, number words, etc. Many structures of our language (and presumably that of the Piraha) are rarely if ever used in ordinary speech because of extrinsic constraints.
Why do you never appear on CNN or Fox News in the US. What are they afraid of?
Christine Nixon, Canada
It's not me, but anyone who goes beyond doctrinal bounds. It's easier for me (and others) to appear on CNN and Fox than on the major channels.
Why do you suppose it is so difficult for us Americans to create a real citizens' movement as a proper counterweight to the administration's power?
Honorable Anna Taylor, US District Court
The question is much too important for a brief answer. The level of activism is high, probably higher than the 1960s. But it is diffuse and not well-integrated. An ideal form of social control is an atomised collection of individuals focused on their own narrow concern, lacking the kinds of organisations in which they can gain information, develop and articulate their thoughts, and act constructively to achieve common ends. By many familiar mechanisms, that ideal has been approached in dangerous but not irreversible ways.
Is it time to give up on liberal democracy?
Paul Rogers, Vietnam
Reminds me of a comment attributed to Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilisation: "It might be a good idea".
Where do you find the courage?
Carole Craig, Ireland
For people as lucky as we are, it takes no courage.