PERILS AND ALTERNATIVES IN THE POST
Gabriel Matthew Schivone
Chomsky, University Professor at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, founder of the modern science of linguistics
and political activist, is a powerhouse of anti-imperialist
activism in the United States today. The interview is republished
with the permission of
MATTHEW SCHIVONE: In a recent interview, Abdel Bari Atwan, author
and editor of the London-based Arabic daily newspaper Al-Quds
Al Arabi, said that President Bush is not ending terrorism
nor is he weakening it, as is one of his strongest assertions
in his so-called "War on Terror," but that now Al-Qa'ida
has powerfully developed into more of an ideology than an organization,
as Atwan describes, expanding like Kentucky Fried Chicken, opening
franchises all over the world. "That's the problem,"
he says. "The Americans are no safer. Their country is
a fortress now, the United States of Security." Is this
CHOMSKY: Except for the last sentence, it's accurate. There's
good reason to think that the United States is very vulnerable
to terrorist attacks. That's not my opinion, that's the opinion
of US intelligence, of specialists of nuclear terror like Harvard
Allison, and former Defense Secretary Robert
McNamara and others, who have warned that the probability of
even a nuclear attack in the United States is not trivial. So,
it's not a fortress.
of the things that Bush hasn't been doing is improving security.
So, for example, if you look at the government commission after
9/11, one of its recommendations -- which is a natural one --is
to improve security of the US-Canadian border. I mean, if you
look at that border, it's very porous. You or I could walk across
it somewhere with a suitcase holding components of a nuclear
bomb. The Bush administration did not follow that recommendation.
What it did instead was fortify the Mexican border, which was
not regarded as a serious source of potential terrorism. They
in fact slowed the rate of growth of border guards on the Canadian
quite apart from that, the major part of Atwan's comment is
quite correct. Bush Administration programs have not been designed
to reduce terror. In fact, they've been designed in a way --
as was anticipated by intelligence analysts and others -- to
take, say, the invasion of Iraq. It was expected that that would
probably have the effect of increasing terror -- and it did,
though far more than was anticipated. There was a recent study
by two leading terrorism experts (using RAND Corporation government
data) which concluded that what they called the "Iraq effect"
-- meaning, the effect of the Iraq invasion on incidents of
terror in the world -- was huge. In fact, they found that terror
increased about seven-fold after the invasion of Iraq. That's
quite an increase -- a lot more than was anticipated.
the invasion increased the threat of nuclear proliferation --
for very good reason. One of Israel's leading historians, Martin
van Creveld, discussing the possibility of Iran developing a
bomb, pointed out the obvious. He said that, after the invasion
of Iraq, if Iran isn't developing a nuclear deterrent, "they're
crazy" (that's his word, "crazy"). Why?
Because the United States made it explicit that it is willing
to invade any country it likes, as long as that country can't
defend itself. It was known that Iraq was basically defenseless.
Well, that sends a message to the world. It says, "If you
don't obey what the US demands, they can invade you, so you
better develop a deterrent."
going to compete with the United States in a military capacity.
I mean, the US spends as much on the military as the rest of
the world combined, and it's far more sophisticated and advanced.
So, what they'll do is turn to weapons of the weak. And weapons
of the weak are basically two: terror and nuclear weapons.
sure, the invasion of Iraq predictably increased the threat
of terror and of proliferation, and the same is true of other
actions. And we can continue. One of the major parts of the
so-called "war on terror" is an effort to carry out
surveillance and control of financial interactions which enter
into terrorist activities. Well, yeah, that's been going on.
But according to the Treasury Bureau [Office of Foreign Assets
Control] that's been responsible for it, they're spending far
more time and energy on possible violations on the US embargo
on Cuba than they are on Al Qa'ida transactions.
GABRIEL MATTHEW SCHIVONE: Why would elites be making the United
States, as you say, more vulnerable to attacks in the future?
It doesn't seem reasonable, logically speaking, as educated,
sensible, intelligent people, that they'd endanger themselves
personally and endanger their families, in the short or long-term,
with raising the threat of terror to manifold levels now. Terror
would surely threaten them personally, especially with regard
to more attacks being committed inside the U.S. and throughout
the world. I mean, isn't there something peculiar in this sort
CHOMSKY: I think there's something pathological about it but
it's not peculiar. I mean, if you look at it within the framework
of elite perceptions, it has a kind of rationality. Short-term
considerations of profit and power quite often tend to overwhelm
longer term considerations of security and welfare, even for
your own children.
take environmental concerns. Take, say, lead. It was known in
the early 1920s by the huge corporations that were producing
lead-based products that lead was poisonous. They knew it. We
now know -- there's been extensive discussion and revelations
-- and they knew it right away. But they concealed it. And they
paid huge amounts of money and effort and legal maneuvers and
lobbying and so on to prevent any constraints on it. Well, you
know, those windowsills poisoned with lead paint are going to
harm their own children, but the interests of profit overwhelmed
it. And that's standard.
take, say, tobacco. It's been known for decades, from the very
beginning, that it's a very poisonous product. That didn't stop
the tobacco producers from trying to get everyone possible to
smoke. Make women smoke, children and others -- even their own.
These are conflicting demands of profit and power on the one
hand, and care about even your own family on the other hand.
And very commonly profit and power win out. I think it's pathological.
But it's not a pathology of individuals, it's a pathology of
GABRIEL MATTHEW SCHIVONE: When you say the common loyalty to
power and profit among elites superseding any care of other
human beings is a "pathology of social institutions"
and not individuals, are you referring to certain values of
CHOMSKY: It is not specific to American society. These are institutional
properties of semi-competitive state capitalist societies.
for example, that there are three US-based conglomerates that
produce automobiles: GM, Ford, Chrysler (no longer). They were
able to gain their status through substantial reliance on a
powerful state, and they were able to survive the 1980s only
because the president, Ronald Reagan, was the most protectionist
in post-war history, virtually doubling protective barriers
to save these and other corporations from being taken over by
more advanced Japanese industry. But they (more or less) survive.
that GM invests in technology that will produce better, safer,
more efficient cars in 20 years, but Ford and Chrysler invest
in cars that will sell tomorrow. Then GM will not be here in
20 years to profit from its investment. The logic is not inexorable,
but it yields very significant anti-social tendencies.
MATTHEW SCHIVONE: Since the so-called "reconstruction"
throughout the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2004, one of the
policy-initiatives championed by the Bush Administration right
up to the present was the dismantling of the New Orleans public
school system. The New York Times reported that, of
those who could return, children and families were coming back
to a "much different" New Orleans with "a smaller
[educational] system dominated by new charter schools,"
along with the termination of nearly 7000 public school employees.
What are the implications of private control of public resources,
such as education, in this instance, or healthcare, telecommunications,
social security, etc.?
CHOMSKY: Well, there are actually two components to that, both
of them leading themes of the Bush Administration's domestic
policies, and of reactionary policies generally. One of them
is, to put it simply, to put as many dollars as you can in the
pockets of your rich friends: that is, to increase profits for
the wealthy -- to increase the wealth and power of concentrated,
private capital. That's one driving force in the administration's
policy. The other is to break down the social bonds that lead
to people having sympathy and supportive feelings about one
another. That contributes to transferring profit and decision-making
into the hands of concentrated private power. A component of
that is to undermine the normal relations -- sympathy and solidarity
-- that people have.
social security. Social security is based on a bond among people.
If you earn a salary today -- somebody your age -- [young people
of twenty or so] you're paying for the welfare and survival
of your parents' generation. Well, okay, that's a natural feeling.
If you want to increase the control of concentrated private
power you have to drive that out of people's heads. You have
to create the kind of people that Ayn Rand is talking about,
where you're after your own welfare and you don't care what
happens to anyone else. You have to think, "Why do I have
to care about that disabled woman across town who doesn't have
enough food to eat? I didn't do it to her. That's her problem.
She and her husband didn't invest properly; she didn't work
hard enough, so what do I care if she starves to death?"
Well, you have to turn people into pathological monsters who
think that way, if you want to ensure that unaccountable, concentrated,
private power will dominate the world and enrich itself. So,
these things go together.
happen to have children in the local school -- I did, but my
kids are all grown up. So, if I were to follow this line of
reasoning, I would say, "Well, why should I pay taxes?
My kids don't go to school; I'm not getting anything out of
it. What do I care if the kid across the street doesn't go to
school?" You can turn people into pathological monsters
who think like that. And eliminating the public school system
is one part of it.
public school system is a sign of solidarity, sympathy and concern
of people in general -- even if it doesn't benefit me, myself.
There's a pathological brand of what's called Libertarianism
which wants to eliminate that and turn you into a monster who
cares only about yourself. And that's one aspect of undermining
democracy, and undermining the attitudes that underlie democracy,
namely, that there should be a concern for others and a communal
way of reacting to community concerns.
MATTHEW SCHIVONE: Well, let's consider the elimination of the
public school system altogether. Would that imply something
like what we see in countries in the Third World, where those
who can afford to send their children to school, do, and much
of the remaining population simply does not have an education?
Is this a direction private power might be moving toward in
CHOMSKY: There are significant forces driving the country in
that direction, quite apart from Bush-style reactionaries seeking
to enrich the powerful and let the rest fend somehow for themselves.
the reliance for school funding on property taxes. In earlier
years, when communities were not so sharply separated between
rich and poor, that may have been more or less acceptable. Today
it means that the wealthy suburbs have better schools than impoverished
urban or rural areas. That's only the bare beginning. Suburban
elites who work downtown do not have to pay the taxes to keep
the city viable for them; that burden falls disproportionately
on the poor. Studies of public transportation have shown that
the poorer subsidize the richer and more privileged. And these
measures proliferate in numerous ways.
MATTHEW SCHIVONE: Everywhere from high school and college campuses
to bus stops and dinner tables, we hear a lot about what a "quagmire"
and "costly mess" Iraq has become for the United States,
now being blamed as a Republican war, for how the Bush Administration
handled the occupation -- that ‘it should've been done
this or that way -- and ‘now that we're there we can't
leave, it's our ‘responsibility' to fix the problem we
made because it'll only get worse if we leave -- those people
will kill each other', and so on. What do you say to these arguments
that seem to interweave with each other? And what would you
suggest in terms of what some might call an ‘honorable
solution'? International measures, immediate withdrawal -- both?
CHOMSKY: The position of the liberal doves during the Vietnam
War was articulated lucidly by historian and Kennedy advisor
Arthur Schlesinger, when the war was becoming too costly for
the US and they began their shift from hawk to dove. He wrote
that "we all pray" that the hawks will be right in
believing that the surge of the day will work, and if they are,
we "may be saluting the wisdom and statesmanship of the
American government" in gaining victory in a land that
they have left in "wreck and ruin." But it probably
won't work, so strategy should be rethought. The principles,
and the reasoning, carry over with little change to the Iraq
is no "honorable solution" to a war of aggression
-- the "supreme international crime" that differs
from other war crimes in that it encompasses all the evil that
follows, in the wording of the Nuremberg Tribunal, which condemned
Nazi war criminals to death for such crimes as "pre-emptive
war." We can only seek the least awful solution. In doing
so, we should bear in mind some fundamental principles, among
them, that aggressors have no rights, only responsibilities.
responsibilities are to pay enormous reparations for the harm
they have caused, to hold the criminals responsible accountable,
and to pay close attention to the wishes of the victims. In
this case, we know their wishes quite well. Poll after poll
has yielded results similar to those reported by the military
in December, after a study of focus groups around the country.
They report that Iraqis from all over the country and all walks
of life have "shared beliefs," which they enumerated:
The American invasion is to blame for the sectarian violence
and other horrors, and the invaders should withdraw, leaving
Iraq -- or what's left of it -- to Iraqis.
tells us a lot about our own moral and intellectual culture
that the voice of Iraqis, though known, is not even considered
in the thoughtful and comprehensive articles in the media reviewing
the options available to Washington. And that there is no comment
on this rather striking fact, considered quite natural.
GABRIEL MATTHEW SCHIVONE: Is there anyone saying the war was
CHOMSKY: In the case of Vietnam, years after Kennedy's invasion,
liberal doves began to say that the war began with "blundering
efforts to do good" but by 1969 it was clear that it was
a mistake that was too costly to us (Anthony Lewis, at the critical
extreme, in the New York Times). In the same year,
70% of the public regarded the war as not "a mistake"
but "fundamentally wrong and immoral." That gap between
public and elite educated opinion persists until the most recent
polls, a few years ago.
the media and journals, it is very hard to find any voice that
criticizes the invasion or Iraq on principled grounds, though
there are some. Arthur Schlesinger, for example, took a very
different position than he did on Vietnam. When the bombs started
falling on Baghdad he quoted President Roosevelt's condemnation
of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as "a date which
will live in infamy." Now, Schlesinger wrote, it is Americans
who live in infamy as their government follows the path of fascist
Japan. But that was a lone voice among elites.
of course, describe "the supreme international crime"
as fundamentally wrong. I haven't seen polls about public attitudes
on this question.
GABRIEL MATTHEW SCHIVONE: What about when it is that people
know to undertake more serious or severe resistance efforts
after the point at which "the limits of possible protest"
are reached? In a letter to George Steiner in the NYR,
in 1967, you gave the example of what this might look like,
now 60 years ago during the Spanish Civil War, when people found
it quite necessary to join international brigades to fight against
the army of their own country; or, applied to Vietnam, the possible
action one might undertake in such circumstances of traveling
to Hanoi as a hostage against further bombing. That's pretty
far-reaching, relatively speaking, to what we see in current
resistance efforts today against the war. What's your feeling
about the possibilities for such methods today in relation to
the Iraq war, border action, or other criminal policy in the
Middle East and elsewhere? Do situations have to get worse before
people or individuals might deem this sort of action necessary?
CHOMSKY: In the case of Vietnam, serious resistance began several
years after Kennedy's invasion of South Vietnam. I was one of
a few people trying to organize national tax resistance in early
1965, at a time when South Vietnam, always the main target,
was being crushed by intensive bombing and other crimes. By
1966-67, refusal to serve in the invading army was beginning
to become a significant phenomenon, along with support for resistance
by organized groups, primarily RESIST, formed in 1967 (and still
functioning). By then the war had passed far beyond the invasion
of Iraq in destructiveness and violence. In fact, at any comparable
stage, protest against the Iraq invasion considerably exceeds
anything during the Indochina wars.
for living with the victims to help them or provide them some
measure of protection, that is a phenomenon of the 1980s, for
the first time in imperial history, to my knowledge, in reaction
to Reagan's terrorist wars that devastated Central America,
one of his many horrendous crimes. The solidarity movements
that took shape then have now extended worldwide, though only
in limited ways to Iraq, because the catastrophe created by
Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz and the rest is so extraordinary that
it is almost impossible to survive in the wreckage -- the main
reason why reporting is so skimpy; it is simply too dangerous,
unlike earlier wars of imperial aggression.
MATTHEW SCHIVONE: Let's talk about the role of intellectuals
in all of this. Here's a question that might be relevant for
students to hear especially: You've suggested that the major
inducements to becoming absorbed into the ideology of the overall
scholarship in this country, largely subservient to power interests,
are the significant rewards in prestige and affluence, as well
as access to power and authority. So, what are some of the things
you've observed in your own time in the academy as a kind of
source of this process in American education?
CHOMSKY: Educational institutions like universities don't exist
in a social vacuum; they rely for their existence on the external
resources of the society. They rely on the state and contributions
from, basically, the wealthy. And the state and the wealthy
sectors are very closely linked. So, the universities are in
a certain social system in which they reflect a certain distribution
of power. They're embedded in it. And that means the struggle
for university independence -- or independence of thought, and
willingness to challenge -- that's a hard struggle. You're struggling
against social conditions that militate against it.
it's true, what you said is correct, there are rewards and privileges
that come along with conformity, but there's more to say. There
are also punishments and abuse, loss of jobs, and so on, that
come from challenging systems of power. Both factors operate.
So, yes, there's a constant struggle to try and maintain university
independence, and it's a hard one.
it's argued that the universities should just be neutral, that
they shouldn't take positions on anything. Well, there's merit
in that, I would like to see that in some abstract universe,
but in this universe what that position entails is conformity
to the distribution of external power.
let me take a concrete case, aspects of which are still very
much alive on my own campus. Let's take some distance so we
can see things more clearly. Back in the 1960s, in my university,
MIT, the political science department was carrying out studies
with students and faculty on counterinsurgency in Vietnam. Okay,
that reflected the distribution of power in the outside society.
The US is involved in counterinsurgency in Vietnam: it's our
patriotic duty to help. A free and independent university would
have been carrying out studies on how poor peasants can resist
the attack of a predatory superpower. Can you imagine how much
support that would have gotten on campus? Well, okay, that's
what neutrality turns into when it's carried out -- when the
ideal, which is a good ideal, is pursued unthinkingly. It ends
up being conformity to power.
take a current case. Right now there's a lot of concern about
nuclear weapons in Iran. Well, again, take my own campus, MIT.
In the 1970s Iran was under the rule of a brutal tyrant who
the United States and Britain had imposed by force in a military
coup overthrowing the democratic government. So Iran was therefore
an ally. Well, in the government, people like Henry Kissinger,
Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and others, were
calling for Iran to develop nuclear capacities and nuclear power
and so on, which means a step short of nuclear weapons. And
my own university, MIT, made an arrangement with the Shah of
Iran, the dictator, to train Iranian nuclear engineers. It was
the 1970s. There was enormous student protest about that. But
very little faculty protest, in fact, the faculty approved it.
And it was instituted. In fact, some of the people now running
the Iranian nuclear programs are graduates of MIT. Well, is
the university neutral in those respects? No, not really; it's
conforming to power interests. In this case, to go back to an
earlier part of our conversation, they did conform to short-term
commitments to power and profit but with long-term consequences
that were quite harmful to the very same people who instituted
Kissinger, who at least has the virtue of honesty, was asked
by the Washington Post why he is now objecting to same
Iranian programs that he was instrumental in instituting when
he was in office back in the 70s. And he said, frankly, Well,
they were an ally then. They needed nuclear power. And now they
are an enemy so they don't need nuclear power.
he's a complete cynic, but he's an honest one, fortunately.
But should universities take that position?
MATTHEW SCHIVONE: For the last question I'd like to talk a little
about providing alternatives, for people trying to figure out
things, searching for answers, seeing through propaganda, developing
solidarity, initiating movements. Here's a good quote I came
across that might be a good starting point, from the notable
novelist E.M. Forster, writing at the beginning stages of the
Second World War, in 1939, in his essay "What I Believe:"
I do not believe
in Belief. But this is an age of faith, and there are so many
militant creeds that, in self-defense, one has to formulate
a creed of one's own. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy...in
a world rent by religious and racial persecution, in a world
where ignorance rules, and science, who ought to have ruled,
plays the subservient pimp." He repeats: "Tolerance,
good temper and sympathy—they are what matter really,
and if the human race is not to collapse they must come to
the front before long.
What are some of the things he's getting at here that we can discuss
in terms of alternatives for the future, and social organization?
CHOMSKY: I'm often asked questions like that, in maybe a dozen
emails a night or in talks and so on, and I'm always at a loss
to answer. Not because I can't think of an answer, but because
I think we all know the answer. There aren't any magic keys
here; there are no mysterious ways of approaching things. What
it takes is just what has led to progress and success in the
past. We live in a much more civilized world than we did even
when Forster was writing, in many respects.
women's rights, or opposition to torture -- or even opposition
to aggression -- environmental concerns, recognition of some
of the crimes of our own history, like what happened to the
indigenous population. We can go on and on. There's been much
improvement in those areas. How? Well, because people like those
working in alternative media, or those we never hear about who
are doing social organizing, community building, political action,
etc., engage themselves in trying to do something about it.
the modes of engagement are not mysterious. You have to try
and develop a critical, open mind, and you have to be willing
to evaluate and challenge conventional beliefs -- accept them
if they turn out to be valid, but reject them if -- as is so
often the case -- they turn out to just reflect power structures.
And then proceed with educational and organizing activities,
actions as appropriate to circumstances. There is no simple
formula; rather, lots of options. And gradually over time, things
improve. I mean, even the hardest rock will be eroded by steady
drips of water. That's what social change comes to and there
are no mysterious modes of proceeding. They're hard ones, demanding
ones, challenging, often costly. But that's what it takes to
get a better world.
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