Noam Chomsky: speaking of truth and power

One of the world’s major intellectual voices and a leading critic of Israel, Noam Chomsky has sided with the powerless throughout his career, while at the same time reminding the powerful of the inconvenient truths they would rather forget. He spoke to David Tresilian in Paris

Known as much for his professional work in linguistics and philosophy as for his writings on politics and social issues, Professor Noam Chomsky was in Paris last weekend at the invitation of Le Monde diplomatique and the Collí¨ge de France. Divided between an academic seminar organised by Jacques Bouveresse, holder of the chair in the philosophy of language and knowledge at the Collí¨ge de France, and a series of interviews on political issues that culminated in a public meeting organised by Le Monde diplomatique , Chomsky’s schedule testified both to the range of his work and to the respect with which he is held in France.

Born in 1928 and now into his eighties, this schedule would have exhausted a man half his age. Chomsky nevertheless appeared to take it in his stride as he answered questions from the audience late into the evening at both events, speaking continuously for several hours in wide-ranging lectures on American foreign policy, contemporary world politics, and the situation in regions of the world of which he has made a special study, such as Latin America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Both the seminar at the Collí¨ge de France, focusing on issues of truth and public rationality in a tradition associated with the English philosopher Bertrand Russell and writer George Orwell and simultaneously broadcast on the Web, and the later public meeting were heavily over-subscribed, and Chomsky’s appearance at both was greeted with enthusiasm and affection by those who had in some cases traveled from across Europe to be present.

Drawing on more than half a century of political activism and dozens of books and articles, among them his powerful works on the Vietnam War, American Power and the New Mandarins (1969) and For Reasons of State (1973), his works on the place of intellectuals in American life and the role played by the media, Manufacturing Consent (with Edward Herman, 1988), and his specialised works on Israel and Palestine, Fateful Triangle: the United States, Israel and the Palestinians (1983 & 1999), on the Middle East, Perilous Power: the Middle East and US Foreign Policy (with Gilbert Achcar, 2007), and on American foreign policy, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (2003), Chomsky spoke authoritatively on contemporary issues, indicating that his extraordinary intelligence and commitment to social change are as undimmed as ever.

A new book appeared in the same week as Chomsky’s Paris visit, this volume, entitled Hopes and Prospects , bringing together recent articles on Latin America, the United States and the Middle East and Israel.

Despite his heavy programme, Noam Chomsky found time to speak to Al-Ahram Weekly about his views on the present situation in the Middle East and on American policy towards Israel, Palestine and the region as a whole. The Weekly is honoured to be able to present this interview in the lightly edited version below.

Could I ask you for a statement on Israel’s attack on the Freedom Flotilla this week while it was in international waters on its way to Gaza?

Hijacking boats in international waters and killing passengers is, of course, a serious crime. The editors of the London Guardian are quite right to say that “If an armed group of Somali pirates had yesterday boarded six vessels on the high seas, killing at least 10 passengers and injuring many more, a NATO taskforce would today be heading for the Somali coast.”

It is worth bearing in mind that the crime is nothing new. For decades, Israel has been hijacking boats in international waters between Cyprus and Lebanon, killing or kidnapping passengers, sometimes bringing them to prisons in Israel including secret prison/torture chambers, sometimes holding them as hostages for many years. Israel assumes that it can carry out such crimes with impunity because the US tolerates them and Europe generally follows the US lead.

Much the same is true of Israel’s pretext for its latest crime: that the Freedom Flotilla was bringing materials that could be used for bunkers for rockets. Putting aside the absurdity, if Israel were interested in stopping Hamas rockets it knows exactly how to proceed: accept Hamas offers for a cease-fire. In June 2008, Israel and Hamas reached a cease- fire agreement. The Israeli government formally acknowledges that until Israel broke the agreement on November 4, invading Gaza and killing half a dozen Hamas activists, Hamas did not fire a single rocket.

Hamas offered to renew the cease-fire. The Israeli cabinet considered the offer and rejected it, preferring to launch its murderous and destructive Operation Cast Lead on December 27. Evidently, there is no justification for the use of force “in self-defense” unless peaceful means have been exhausted. In this case they were not even tried, although — or perhaps because — there was every reason to suppose that they would succeed. Operation Cast Lead is therefore sheer criminal aggression, with no credible pretext, and the same is true of Israel’s current resort to force.

The siege of Gaza itself does not have the slightest credible pretext. It was imposed by the US and Israel in January 2006 to punish Palestinians because they voted “the wrong way” in a free election, and it was sharply intensified in July 2007 when Hamas blocked a US-Israeli attempt to overthrow the elected government in a military coup, installing Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan. The siege is savage and cruel, designed to keep the caged animals barely alive so as to fend off international protest, but hardly more than that. It is the latest stage of long-standing Israeli plans, backed by the US, to separate Gaza from the West Bank.

These are only the bare outlines of very ugly policies.

You were also refused entry to Israel recently. How do you see the situation in the Occupied Territories and Gaza?

Well, just to make a small correction, I was denied entry to the Occupied Territories and not to Israel. In fact, if I had been going to Israel, they would have admitted me, and then I would have been able to go to the Occupied Territories. The reason they gave is that I was only going to Bir Zeit and not to an Israeli university.

Israel is becoming extremely paranoid, overtaken by ultra- nationalist sentiments, and is acting pretty irrationally, from its own point of view. They are harming their own interests. My own denial of entry was a minor example of that. If they had just let me in to give a talk at Bir Zeit, that would have been the end of the story. In fact I wasn’t even talking about the Middle East. I was talking about the United States, and they knew it of course.

In the case of Gaza, it’s just savage torture. They are keeping the population barely alive because they don’t want to be accused of genocide, but that’s it. It’s limited to survival. It’s not the worst atrocity in the world, but it is one of the most savage. Egypt is cooperating fully by building a wall and refusing to allow concrete to go in and things like that, so it’s an Israeli-Egyptian operation that is literally torturing the people of Gaza in a way that I can’t think of a precedent, and it’s getting worse.

In the West Bank, first of all it’s not Israel: it’s the United States and Israel. The United States sets the bounds of what they can do and cooperates with them. It’s a joint operation, just as the attack on Gaza was. But they’re continuing to impose their stranglehold, and they’re taking what they want. The land inside the separation wall, which is in fact an annexation wall, they’ll take that. They’ll take the Jordan Valley, and they’ll take what’s called Jerusalem, which is far larger than Jerusalem ever was, as it’s a huge area expanding into the West Bank.

And then they have these corridors going to the east, so there’s a corridor going from Jerusalem through Maal Adumim towards Jericho. If that’s ever fully developed, it’ll bisect the West Bank. Interestingly, the United States has so far blocked their efforts to fully develop this corridor.

About ten years ago, there was advice from Israeli industrialists to the government, saying that in the West Bank they should move, in their phrase, from ‘colonialism’ to ‘neo- colonialism’. That is, they should construct neo-colonial structures on the West Bank. Now, we know what those are. Take any former colony. Typically, they have a sector of extreme wealth and privilege that collaborates with the former colonial power, and then a mass of misery and horror surrounding it. And that’s what they suggest, and that’s what’s being done. So if you go to Ramallaha — I wanted to see it for myself, but I didn’t get there — it’s kind of like Paris, you live a nice life, there are elegant restaurants, and so on, but of course if you go into the countryside, it’s quite different, and there are checkpoints and life’s impossible. Well, that’s neo-colonialism. There’s only totally dependent development, and they will not allow independent development, and they’re trying to impose a permanent arrangement of this kind.

Salam Fayyad, who I had hoped to meet in Ramallah — we talk by telephone — has described his programmes, which sound sensible to me. First of all, calling for a boycott of settlement production, which I think is very sensible, and I think that should be done all over the world, while trying to arrange for Palestinians to have forms of employment other than working in the settlements so they don’t contribute to settlement growth: taking part in non-violent resistance to the expansion and doing whatever construction they can manage to do within the Israeli framework, maybe even in Area C, the Israeli- controlled area, and just taking small steps towards trying to lay the basis for a future independent Palestinian entity.

Then it becomes very delicate because Israel might very well accept it. In fact, the Israeli deputy prime minister I think he is, Silvan Shalom, had an interview about this in which he was asked how he would react to this, and he said it’s fine, if they want to call the cantons we leave to them a state, then that’s fine, but it’ll be a state without borders… and that’ll essentially implant the neo-colonial structure.

There’s another element to it, which is the military force. There is an army run by an American general, Keith Dayton, which is trained by Jordan with Israeli cooperation, and has caused a lot of enthusiasm in the United States. John Kerry, who is head of the Senate foreign relations committee, gave an important speech on Israel-Palestine — he’s kind of Obama’s point man for the Middle East — he said that for the first time Israel has a legitimate negotiating partner. Why? Because during the Gaza attack, the Dayton army was able to prevent any protests, and Kerry thought that was very good, and the press thought that was very good, and now they are a legitimate partner. If you read Dayton himself, he says that they were so effective during the Gaza attack that Israel was able to shift forces from the West Bank to Gaza to extend the attack, and Kerry and Obama think that’s a fine thing, so that’s more of the traditional neo-colonial pattern, with para-military forces controlled by the colonial power that keep the population under control.

These are very ambivalent steps… Unless the United States changes its position and joins the world on a political settlement, then I think it looks very grim, and I don’t think the Egyptian position is helpful at all.

Will change come about as a result of the role played by world public opinion, perhaps in the manner of what happened in South Africa?

South Africa is an interesting case, and it’s worth looking closely at the history. In about 1960, South Africa was beginning to realise that it was becoming a pariah state, and the South African foreign minister called in the American ambassador — we now have the records of their conversation — and he told the American ambassador, ‘we know we are becoming a pariah state, and everyone is voting against us at the United Nations, but you and I understand that there’s only one vote at the United Nations — yours,’ meaning that as long as you back us up we don’t care what the rest of the world says. And that turned out to be very accurate.

Over the next several decades, protest against South Africa increased, and by the end of the 1970s there were sanctions, and corporations were pulling out. The US Congress was passing sanctions resolutions, which Reagan had to evade, in order to keep supporting South Africa, as he did, continuing right to the end of the 1980s, at a time when major atrocities were taking place, such as the wars in Angola and Mozambique, killing hundreds of thousands of people, and it was done within the framework of the war on terror.

The ANC was condemned by Washington in 1988 as one of the more notorious terrorist groups in the world, and just last year Mandela was removed from the US terrorist list. South Africa looked impregnable: the world was against them, but they were winning everything and they were fine. Then the US shifted policy in about 1990. Mandela was allowed out of prison, and apartheid collapsed within a few years, so the South African minister was correct.

I think Israel is following the same path. It doesn’t matter if the world is against us, as long as you support us. But they’re treading on dangerous turf: the US can decide its interests lie elsewhere. Getting back to your question on the role of world public opinion, opinion in Europe and the Middle East influences things substantially. The US can’t live alone in the world. There are political figures that think we should just put ourselves in a cage and not care what happens in the world… that we should just build a wall round the country, get out of the UN, and not care what they say. There’s a strain of that in America’s policy, but the leadership and the multinational corporations can’t accept that, so they care about the rest of the world.

Europe is not helping. Take admitting Israel into the OECD: that’s an affirmation of the legitimacy of the occupation. Europe is funding the survival of the Occupied Territories, but it is not making any moves to try to bring the US to accept international opinion, and it can. Right now, for example, there are proximity talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis with the US being the honest broker in the middle. Europe can expose this as a farce: what there ought to be are proximity talks between the US and the rest of the world, with maybe the UN as the neutral broker, as the US is standing alone in blocking an overwhelming international consensus, and until that changes nothing is going to happen, and Israel is relying on that.

In his June 2009 speech in Cairo, president Obama said that he would be putting American policy towards the Middle East and the Muslim world on a new footing. Do you see any evidence of that?

There are slight differences. But first of all there were differences between the two Bush terms. The first Bush term was extremely arrogant, abrasive and aggressive. The United States went to the United Nations and said very openly, ‘you either do what we say or you are irrelevant.’ And that caused a lot of antagonism, even among allies. People don’t like to be insulted to their faces. It led to a lot of criticism, and the prestige of the United States in the world declined to its lowest point ever in international polls, and there was also plenty of protest from the inside, even from the establishment, because it was harming US interests.

The second Bush term was more accommodating, and it went back more toward the norm and had a kind of centrist support. Obama carried through there, so he’s extending the second Bush term. The rhetoric is more moderate, and the stance is more friendly, but the policies have barely changed. Take Cairo. First of all his speech had very little content: he just said, ‘let’s love each other.’ But on the way to Cairo he did have a press conference, and he was asked by one reporter, ‘are you going to say anything about the authoritarian Mubarak regime?’ And he said, his words were, ‘I don’t like to use labels for folks. He’s a good man. He’s doing good things. So, he’s a friend.’ I don’t have to tell you what the human rights situation is like in Egypt, but for people in the Middle East, if they were awake, they should have understood that nothing was going to change.

And the same is true of the policies with regard to Israel. His policies are if anything harsher than those of the two Bushes, first and second. Right now there is, for example, a controversy over settlement expansion. It’s very similar to the controversy that erupted 20 years ago when the first George Bush and when James Baker, the secretary of state, were in office. You may remember there was a time when whenever Baker would come to Jerusalem the prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, would take that occasion to announce a new settlement, and Baker was insulted — he was a patrician, and he didn’t like being insulted by Israel — and Bush actually penalised Israel slightly. He imposed slight sanctions in the form of a cutback in loan guarantees that was supposed to match the expenses on settlements, and Israel quickly changed policy.

Well, that’s pretty much what’s happening now, with one difference. Obama has said that he will not impose any sanctions, and that his protests are purely symbolic — it was his press spokesperson that said that in response to a question. That aside, the whole talk about settlement expansion is really a footnote: the question is the settlements, not the settlement expansion. Obama’s position has just been reiterating what George W. Bush said and what’s in the Road Map, the words of the Road Map, that in the first stage there is to be no more expansion, even for natural growth. So Obama reiterated it, but in a way that made clear that he wouldn’t be doing anything about it, and the same is true for other issues.

When he announced the appointment of George Mitchell he did give a talk on the Middle East. He said, basically, ‘there’s a good hope for peace, there’s a constructive plan on the table,’ and then he addressed the Arab countries and said you should live up to what you say and you should move towards normalisation of relations with Israel. He knows perfectly well that that’s not what the proposal was. The proposal was to establish a two-state settlement and in that context to move towards normalisation, so he very studiously ignored the content of the proposal and focused on the corollary, which is a way of saying that we’re not going to change our position, and we’re not going to join the rest of the world in supporting a two-state settlement, and that’s the way it’s been ever since.

At the time of the election people were hopeful about seeing a new American president, particularly after eight years of George Bush. In your new book you describe Obama as being a ‘blank slate,’ on which people can write whatever they like. How do you evaluate Obama?

I actually wrote about it before the election, before the primaries even, and I wouldn’t change anything I said. If you looked at his programme, he came across as a familiar centrist Democrat with pleasant rhetoric and a good salesman. Actually, as you may know, he won an award from the advertising industry for the best marketing campaign of 2008, which is true. He’s literate, he’s intelligent, he knows how to put a sentence together, he’s affable, and he acts as if he likes people. But what was the call for change? It was empty. It was actually a blank slate: you could write on it whatever you liked. He never said what the change was going to be, or what the hope was going to be. It was just, ‘we’re going to have change.’

Actually, McCain had the same slogans, and it’s obvious why. The elections in the United States are pretty much run by the advertising industry, and the party managers read polls, and they know that the polls showed that 80 per cent of the population thought the country was going in the wrong direction. So, your campaign platform is reflectively ‘hope and change,’ and that’s Obama. And he put it rather nicely, and he did encourage a lot of people to get them energised and excited, but the fact of the matter is that the main reason he won is because of the support of the financial institutions. They preferred him to McCain, and they provided his funding, and that carried the elections. He did have popular support, but it was mainly the financial institutions, and they expected to be paid back — that’s the way politics works — and they were.

There were huge bailouts, and the big banks are richer and more powerful than before, and finally when Obama began to react to the popular fury and started to talk about ‘greedy bankers’ and so on, they very quickly told him, ‘you’re out of line,’ and they shifted funding to the Republicans. Now most financial institution funding is going to the Republicans, who are even more in favour of big business than Obama is. But that’s the nature of American politics.

During the Bush presidency, we saw the US use torture in Iraq, extraordinary rendition, and force in international affairs, sidelining the UN despite international protests. Will we see efforts by the US to restore its image in world opinion, given that Obama’s record so far has been underwhelming?

More than that, almost nothing has been done, and in fact in some respects it’s worse than Bush. This is discussed in more detail in my book. But there was a Supreme Court case, in which the Supreme Court determined that the prisoners in Guantanamo had habeas corpus rights, and the Bush administration accepted that and argued that it didn’t apply to Bagram. This went to the courts, and a lower court judge, who was a Bush appointee, a right-wing lower court judge, overruled them and said, yes it applies to Bagram too. Obama’s justice department is trying to overturn that, to try to say, no, it doesn’t apply to Bagram. In this respect, he’s going beyond Bush.

If I were a lawyer for the Bush administration, I would point out that the charges against Bush on torture don’t really hold very well under American law. Almost everything that Bush did and authorised was within the framework of American law. The United States didn’t sign the Torture Convention, or it signed it but with reservations. It was rewritten very carefully to exclude the modes of torture that the CIA had developed and put in their torture manuals. That’s called, ‘torture that doesn’t leave marks,’ psychological torture, mental torture. The CIA was borrowing from KGB manuals, and it turned out that they had found that the most effective way to turn a person into a vegetable is psychological torture, like solitary confinement, humiliation, and other things like that. If you look at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, that’s mostly what it was. It was mostly what they call ‘psychological torture,’ not electrodes to the genitals. So they could argue that they were operating from right within the framework of American law.

In fact, probably the only difference between the Bush and earlier administrations was that in the Bush case the torture was carried out by Americans. Usually, the United States farms it out to others: it’s done by South Vietnamese, or Guatemalans, or Egyptians. That’s what ‘extraordinary rendition’ is. You send it to other countries that will carry out the torture. But in this case it was done right in Guantanamo.

Actually, the only really interesting revelation in the torture memos, which wasn’t very widely reported, is that the interrogators testified that they were under severe pressure from Cheney and Rumsfeld to get information tying Saddam Hussein to Al-Qaeda. And there was no such information, because it wasn’t true. But when they couldn’t come up with information, they got instructions to use harsher measures, so most of the torture was an effort by Cheney and Rumsfeld to get some kind of corroboration for their position that we had to invade Iraq because it was tied to Al-Qaeda, which was a ridiculous claim. But that’s apparently what drove most of the torture.

Your latest book is called Hopes and Prospects . What are the hopes?

The first part of the book is about South America, and in South America there are many quite hopeful developments. For the first time in 500 years, since the Conquistadors, South America is beginning to move towards some degree of independence and integration and at least facing some of its severe internal problems. The colonial structure is extreme in South America, where there is a very narrow concentration of wealth in a mostly Europeanised, sometimes white elite, surrounded by an awful tragedy and some of the worst inequality in the world, in a region that has a lot of resources and a lot of potential. Some steps are being taken to deal with this.

In the US itself there also are changes. Whether they are fast enough to overcome the major problems I don’t know, but just take Israel and Palestine. Not many years ago, if I wanted to give a talk on this I had to have police protection at a university, because the meetings would be broken up violently. I can remember when the police insisted on accompanying me and my wife back to our car after a talk at a university. That’s not completely changed, but it’s been changing over the years, and it changed radically after Gaza. Now there are enthusiastic audiences, very much engaged, very involved, very much wanting to do things.

It hasn’t affected the media, and it hasn’t affected the political class, or the intellectuals, but it’s changing around the country, and sooner or later those things do have effects. In a way it was diverted by the Obama phenomenon, because that did bring about a lot of expectations and it diverted a lot of activism. But now disillusionment has set in. If the changes continue to develop, they can eventually bring about significant change, as they did in the case of South Africa.

Much of your work has been about the control of the media and the shortcomings of the intellectual class in the United States, where it is difficult to stand outside a narrow spectrum of opinion. How do you see your own position today?

First of all, I should say I don’t think the US is very different from other societies in this respect. There may be different issues, but in England or France it’s not very different. In every society there is a fringe of dissenters. That’s been true throughout history. How do they do it? They are committed to certain values and ideals, and they decide not to conform. Usually they are not treated very well, and how they are treated depends on the nature of the society, but it is never very polite. In some societies you’ll get your head blown off, in another you’ll get the Gulag, in another you’ll get vilified. Power systems do not like criticism, and they use whatever techniques they have to undermine and condemn it.

Very typically, over history, the intellectual classes have subordinated themselves to power, with very few exceptions. Yet, still there are people who don’t go along and pursue an independent path. The US is not really very harsh in this regard, so a person of a limited amount of privilege, which is a great many people, and certainly me, are pretty much immune to harsh repression. I’ve faced a long prison sentence, and almost was sentenced, but that was because of open, overt resistance. I couldn’t object to it as I was doing things that were openly and consciously illegal in resistance to the war, so if I had gone to jail I couldn’t have called that repression. For speaking and writing and so on, the punishment is marginalisation and vilification, but I can live with that. There is plenty of support among the public.

Journalist Chris Hedges is doing research on the New York Times, and a few weeks ago he came across a memo from the managing editor of the New York Times to the writers and columnists, saying that they were not allowed to mention my name. National Public Radio has said in print that I’m the one person who will never be allowed on their primetime news and discussion programme. But it’s not great punishment, and when I go home they’ll be hundreds of email messages, and among them they’ll be a couple of dozen invitations to give talks all over the country, and at almost all of them they’ll be a substantial audience of interested and engaged people who are sympathetic and want to do something, and that’s more than enough encouragement to keep going.

I do have access to the media abroad under certain circumstances, such that if I’m criticising the United States, I have access to the media. But if I am criticising those countries to which I’m invited, it stops, systematically. I’ve noticed it even in Canada. If I go to Canada, they like to hear criticisms of the United States, but if I start criticising Canada it closes, and it’s the same elsewhere.

Finally, why have you criticised the formula ‘to speak truth to power,’ which was used by the late Edward Said to describe the role of intellectuals?

That’s actually a Quaker slogan, and I like the Quakers and I do a lot of things with them, but I don’t agree with the slogan. First of all, you don’t have to speak truth to power, because they know it already. And secondly, you don’t speak truth to anybody, that’s too arrogant. What you do is join with people and try to find the truth, so you listen to them and tell them what you think and so on, and you try to encourage people to think for themselves.

The ones you are concerned with are the victims, not the powerful, so the slogan ought to be to engage with the powerless and help them and help yourself to find the truth. It’s not an easy slogan to formulate in five words, but I think it’s the right one.

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