"Freedom is never a gift from above"
Extracts from an interview with Noam Chomsky by Nermeen Al-Mufti
On politics bending truth
My feeling on reading George Orwell's 1984 was that it was old news even when it appeared. Whatever his intentions, what Orwell was describing was the way American history was taught in schools here, and British history in British schools ... Simply ask how Britain's role in Iraq, or India, or Egypt or elsewhere was taught in British schools, or even its domestic history, for that matter. And Orwell was describing the classic role of respected intellectuals through recorded history, almost everywhere, though there is always a margin of exceptions, commonly punished in their efforts to speak the truth. This basic picture goes right back to the Old Testament and classical Greece. It is a very common pattern -- close to a historical universal.
How can we deal with the latest manifestations of this persistent disease of power? By the old familiar ways, there are no others. Try to find out the truth, through our own efforts and in combination with others, and try to bring it to public awareness as best one can, recognising that these efforts will not be welcomed by the powerful, and that retribution will often be severe; how severe depends on the nature of the state and attendant society.
Over time such efforts often succeed, in the present case too. Lies about Iraq told by governments and today's "false prophets" who dominate elite discussion are regarded with far more scepticism, eliciting more protest, by the general public than in even the recent past. Simply compare the reaction to the US assault against South Vietnam 40 years ago for a graphic illustration.
On overcoming voicelessness
I think it is much easier now than in the past. When the US was destroying South Vietnam, later all of Indochina, there were virtually no ways for Vietnamese to reach American public opinion. Today there is a great deal of ignorance about Iraq in the United States, but a great deal of sympathy also, and a widespread belief that we should place the responsibility for Iraq in the hands of its people as quickly and as efficiently as possible. And some also recognise that we owe Iraq a great deal in compensation for the pain and suffering we have caused: in supporting Saddam Hussein through his worst atrocities; imposing cruel and savage sanctions that punished the population, not the tyrant; military attacks and occupation. That is a small minority, but it can grow, and through interactions among Iraqis and Americans a spirit of solidarity and engagement in constructive action can grow with it.
On politics without principle: the United Nations
Security Council resolutions almost always have ambiguities because they reflect compromises between opposing interests and views. The origins and development of the UN and related institutions are a complex matter. The role of the IMF, for example, has changed considerably over the years. During the neoliberal period -- roughly the last quarter-century -- it has virtually reversed its earlier functions: from helping to constrain financial mobility, to enhancing it while serving as "the credit community's enforcer", in the words of the US executive director of the IMF, Karen Lissakers.
When the US led the way in forming the UN, it had a position of global dominance without historical parallel, one far greater than today in the economic dimension. Not surprisingly, it expected the UN to serve its interests. With decolonisation, and the recovery of other industrial societies from wartime destruction, the UN became less subject to US control and -- again not surprisingly -- Washington became more hostile to it. One indication is the use of the veto. Before the mid-1960s, there were no US vetoes. Since then, the US has been far in the lead of vetoing Security Council resolutions, with Britain second and no one else even close. The US has also taken the initiative in undermining and marginalising those components of the UN that were primarily concerned with Third World interests: UNCTAD, UNESCO and others. The Bush II administration has taken an extreme stand in its contempt for the UN, but that is an extension of an earlier trajectory, and is only one example of its extremism. Iraq illustrates the general pattern. The US was willing to act through UN channels when that served its interests. In other cases, it blocked UN actions or simply disregarded the UN, for example, in undermining efforts to condemn Saddam's murderous campaign against Iraqi Kurds when he was regarded as a valued trading partner and regional ally, or in the 2003 war.
Those patterns, however, are not fixed in stone. They can be changed by popular forces within the US, and these can gain strength through their collaboration with others committed to the same ends, including of course the people of Iraq.
On the "free press" and freedom
Freedom is never a gift from above. It has to be won through hard struggle, and when partially won, has to be defended from attacks and carried forward. The same goes for the freedom of the press. It has many dimensions. In some of these, the US media is very free by comparative standards: freedom from state coercion, for example -- a matter of enormous significance. In other dimensions, American's leading social philosopher, John Dewey, was quite right in describing what he called America's "unfree press" as a tool of business power, just as he was right in observing that "politics is the shadow cast over society by business", and will remain so, as long as the economy is based on "industrial feudalism" rather than "industrial democracy". The US has a severe "democratic deficit" because of the immense concentration and influence of private power, and the severe deficiencies of press freedom are only one reflection of that. The struggle for freedom takes many forms, in different societies and at different times. There are no simple formulas that guide it at all times and places.
On preemptive wars
How established the practice of destroying states for reason of their alleged "intent" becomes depends on whether the people of the powerful states will become civilised enough, and organised enough, to prevent such crimes. There has been considerable progress in that direction over recent years. Thus no American president could even dream of following the model of John F Kennedy when he attacked South Vietnam in 1962, with intensive bombing by the US air force, chemical warfare to destroy crops, programmes to drive millions of people into what amounted to concentration camps surrounded by barbed wire, to "protect them" from the indigenous guerrillas that they were willingly supporting, as Washington conceded. That was carried out without domestic protest, almost without notice. Concern was so slight that it has scarcely entered history. In dramatic contrast, there were huge protests against the invasion of Iraq, both in Europe and the US, even before the attack was launched, for the first time in the history of Europe or the US. There is a long way to go, but we should not forget how much has been accomplished, even in very recent years, which means that today's efforts can begin from a higher plane, and also with far more international solidarity and cooperation than before -- a very important matter. There was nothing remotely like the World Social Forum until just the past few years, to take but one important example.
On imperial assumptions in Iraq
I think it was simply a combination of arrogance, incompetence and deep-seated racism on the part of the political leadership ... The arrogance and incompetence led to the assumption that when we show up in our magnificence and power, we will be greeted by adoring hordes who will throw flowers at us and worship at our feet, so no preparations are required. The racism leads to easily dismissing the cultural pretensions of the "ragheads" as not worthy of attention.
On the "marginalisation" of the left
Helplessness and marginalisation are mostly constructions of frightened conformist intellectuals and media that serve power. Popular movements are vibrant and active. Most do not focus attention on presidential politics, but are working to create a culture of democracy and commitment to social justice that will allow electoral politics to be more than the choice between factions of the ruling business party, as the large majority of the population recognises it to be.
On the growing spirit of critique
It's impossible to give numbers, but there isn't the slightest doubt that the popular audience for critical writing -- and for talks, discussions and activism -- is vastly beyond what it was only a few years ago. It has been growing for years, but that growth rapidly accelerated after 9/11, and later in response to the Bush administration's aggressiveness and violence. Just keeping to books, small publishers can now barely keep up with demand, and are reprinting books from earlier years that could barely sell at the time. Audiences are huge and engaged. Like just about anyone who is available for speaking, I cannot keep up with even a small fraction of requests. And these are just symptoms of much broader and significant developments in our societies. Of course that is just one tendency. There are others, some of them quite ominous. But the picture is nothing like what is presented in the media and other doctrinal institutions.
On the next target
To be a target for attack a country must meet several conditions. Crucially, it must be defenceless and sufficiently important to bother with. After a decade of sanctions that had devastated society, while strengthening the ruling tyrant, it was understood that Iraq was defenceless. And undoubtedly Iraq is enormously important. It was recognised by the State Department 60 years ago that the Gulf is a "stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history". And control over Iraq will significantly strengthen Washington's control over the strategic power and material prizes that the region affords.
The dream of Wolfowitz and others is to turn Iraq into a client state (which will be called "democratic" and granted nominal sovereignty) and a US military base; its first stable base right in the heart of the world's major energy-producing region. North Korea, in contrast, as somewhere often mentioned on the "who's next" list, had a deterrent: not nuclear weapons, but massed artillery aimed at Seoul and American troops in the South. And while not insignificant within the northeast Asian economic complex, it was not remotely like Iraq. Iran, while important, is not defenceless: the goal of the reactionary extremist planners of the Wolfowitz variety is presumably to induce Iran's internal collapse, so that conquest (called "liberation") will become an option.
The same is true of Cuba. Though tiny, and a target of intense US terrorism and illegal economic strangulation for 45 years, it is not yet defenceless, so other means must still be found to overcome what US planners 40 years ago called its "successful defiance" of US policies going back to the 1820s; policies that demand subordination to US rule. There are other perhaps more likely targets for intervention, notably the Andean region, from Venezuela to Bolivia (and on to Argentina), increasingly out of control, with very significant independent popular movements developing, and a region of very considerable strategic and economic importance for US planners, including its oil supplies and other resources. Again, there are no simple formulas. Global planning has to be attuned to varying and complex circumstances.
On America's worldly credentials
The US has always been a highly insular society. Though it was by far the richest country in the world a century ago, it did not become a true global power until WWII. Even after that American citizens took little notice of the outside world. Many probably did not know where France is, let alone Iraq. One of the consequences of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was to open up the society considerably. Many people came to realise that they cannot simply ignore the world, but must try to learn and understand something about it, and their own role in it. These are quite healthy developments and account for the sharp increase in activism and constructive engagement, including entirely new developments, such as the enormous growth of the global justice movements -- absurdly called "anti-globalisation" movements. At the same time there are conflicting tendencies: jingoism, extremist religious fundamentalism, deep fear of the outsiders who are trying to destroy us, etc.
On the viability of a bi-national Arab-Jewish state
Pre-1948, there was a slim chance to set up a bi-national state in Cis-Jordan, the territory of the British mandate. I was strongly committed then to the idea of a bi-national socialist Palestine based on Arab-Jewish working class cooperation in collectively run enterprises and communities. There was a real chance, I think. After partition, that possibility faded, but it became alive again in 1967. At that time Israel could -- and I think should -- have instituted a bi-national federation in Cis-Jordan, which would grant each group rights of autonomy within a federated system The inevitable discrimination of one sector would be balanced by the other, and as interactions developed along non-national/ethnic lines, the two societies might become more integrated. That could have been combined with full peace with the major Arab states. Egypt offered a full peace treaty in 1971 in return for Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai, and Jordan was ready for peace on similar terms. Return of the Golan Heights could have led to peace with Syria, and there might have been a possibility to develop further regional arrangements that would have led the way to a more healthy future. Proposals to that effect -- I made several myself -- elicited no interest among Israelis and Palestinians.
By 1973, when war broke out, the opportunity was lost. Perhaps that can still be conceived as a long-term vision. The mentality of the two sides is not, I think, capable of dealing with the matter now. There will have to be a long transition, passing through a two-state settlement, then closer integration, then finally, perhaps, true bi-nationalism. In the long run, that seems to me the right outcome. No one who has travelled through Cis-Jordan could be satisfied with the borders that yield artificial and coarse separations.
On renown and infamy
I am far from the most important intellectual alive, as The New York Times once labelled me. The concept "self-hating Jew" is an interesting one, which actually has biblical origins. The Prophet Elijah was causing King Ahab much trouble by calling for freedom and justice and criticising the king's militaristic plans. The king, who was the epitome of evil in the Bible, summoned Elijah and asked him why he is an "ocher yisrael", which is commonly translated now in Israel as "hater of Israel". He was the original "self-hating Jew". And from the perspective of the evil king, it made sense. Ahab identified himself with Israel, so if Elijah condemns Ahab's actions and practices he must be condemning Israel, hating Israel, no matter how he loves the culture, the style, the life of the people. These concepts are also found in totalitarian states. Thus Russian dissidents were condemned as "anti-Soviet", and I suppose opponents of Saddam might have been condemned as "anti-Iraqi". In cultures where there is any respect for freedom and democracy, such practices would simply elicit ridicule. Think of calling someone an "anti-Italian" if he criticises Berlusconi's policies. Italians would simply laugh. It is, therefore, rather striking that the term "anti-American" is commonly used to refer to critics of US policies, in the style of Ahab, Stalin, Saddam and other totalitarians. That suggests that there is a deep totalitarian streak in our culture, one not completely hidden.