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Chomsky Half Full


November 15, 2009

Noam Chomsky discusses his forthcoming book, the hypocrisy of neoliberalism, where he feels hopeful about democracy despite U.S. terrorism, and his friendship—okay, passing acquaintance—with Hugo Chavez and other “pink tide” presidents.

Update, March 13: Nick Cohen writes for the Observer not the Guardian.

Update, February: see Joel Whitney’s comment below.

chomsky300.jpgIf Noam Chomsky’s critics have a common refrain, it is pointing to his habit of being far too hard on America’s motives and too easy on its opponents. The former, of course, is his métier. The latter criticism has limited (though a few important) instances. In fact, Chomsky’s central question is how do you punish the crook who owns the jailhouse, pays the police their salaries, and fails consistently to see his crimes as such? Or perhaps, how do you get a self-enamored hypocrite to reckon with his pathology? Certainly not by repeating the praise, or what Chomsky sometimes calls America’s “state religion” of self-worship. And despite this, in a very limited way, Chomsky does give credit where credit is due.

In his forthcoming book Hopes and Prospects, Chomsky admits that a black family in the White House is historic. But he credits not “America,” a “system of power” defined by “market interventions” in the economy that once tolerated, and even fought for, the right to own humans as slaves. Nor does he give much credit to “Brand Obama,” as he calls the phenomenon that elected our new president, insisting that the new president is “likely to ‘have more influence on boardrooms than any president since Ronald Reagan.’” In fact, Chomsky gives credit for the 2008 election, in a way, to himself and his ilk.

In an early manuscript of the book, Chomsky writes, “The two candidates in the Democratic primary were a woman and an African-American. That, too, was historic. It would have been unimaginable forty years ago. The fact that the country has become civilized enough to accept this outcome is a considerable tribute to the activism of the nineteen sixties and its aftermath, with lessons for the future.” As such, this small tome is Chomsky’s legacy book.

And high time. His landmark critique of B.F. Skinner that crippled behaviorism’s predominance in psychology and linguistics turns fifty this year. His first book on politics, American Power and the New Mandarins: Historical and Political Essays, turns forty. The Essential Chomsky, edited by Anthony Arnove, came out from the New Press last year, in time for Chomsky’s eightieth birthday. And Chomsky’s wife died of cancer last winter, which would make anyone take stock. Regularly voted into the “top public intellectual” polls various magazines frequently run, the linguist and foreign policy critic, said to be worth two million dollars, remains a polarizing figure.

What’s remarkable is how Chomsky’s criticism of the Vietnam war and America’s many interventions seem even more relevant today, prescient in their understanding of how American greed, dehumanization of others, cultural ignorance, and hypocrisy are rewritten as pragmatic, not moral, mistakes. In “The Remaking of History,” from Toward a New Cold War: Essays on the Current Crisis and How We Got There, he writes, “They may concede the stupidity of American policy, and even its savagery, but not the illegitimacy inherent in the entire enterprise.” He continues a page later, “One may criticize the intellectual failure of planners, their moral failures, and even the generalized and abstract ‘will to exercise domination’ to which they have regrettably but understandably succumbed. But the principle that the United States may exercise force to guarantee a certain global order that will be ‘open’ to transnational corporations—that is beyond the bounds of polite discourse.”

Yet Chomsky has been criticized for accuracy and balance, for the petty (citing statements made by an “embassy” rather than “ambassador”) and the heinous (apologist for Pol Pot; a distortion, he insists, of his views), but most commonly, it seems, for comparing U.S. behavior to Hitler’s. In Prospect Magazine, Oliver Kamm writes of Chomsky’s early political writings as going “beyond the standard left critique of U.S. imperialism to the belief that ‘what is needed [in the US] is a kind of denazification.’” “This diagnosis,” Kamm continues, “is central to Chomsky’s political output. While he does not depict the U.S. as an overtly repressive society—instead, it is a place where ‘money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print and marginalize dissent’—he does liken America’s conduct to that of Nazi Germany. In his newly published Imperial Ambitions, he maintains that ‘the pretenses for the invasion [of Iraq] are no more convincing than Hitler’s.’”

On balance, Chomsky is a vital, even indispensable voice in the American cultural debate, needed to remind us of the outrage we should feel as the modernization of American life brings us to accept as necessary and understandable the devastation of foreign countries with little actual public debate and no input from the citizens of those countries. How do our presidents’ “terrorist” campaigns (in Chomsky’s terms) become a normal functioning of the state? How does a country that so readily welcomes outsiders, or purports to, so easily bury them by “overthrowing governments around the world and installing malicious dictatorships, assassinating people” or write them off as collateral damage? Perhaps we should, or do, on some level, share his outrage. And yet his voice has been every bit as ruthless, and occasionally selective (like most good rhetoricians), as his opponents suggest. Does that run counter to, or complement, the voice and methodology of the systems of power he criticizes?

—Joel Whitney for Guernica

Guernica: You’ve been savaging U.S. foreign policy for a long time. What’s new in Hopes and Prospects? Or would you say that you’re reworking a single thesis with new examples?

Noam Chomsky: There are new things that are happening. But I don’t think the basic principles of international affairs or social organization or aspirations for the future change very much. In fact, they haven’t for a long time.

Guernica: Does that imply that your approach as a critic isn’t effective?

Noam Chomsky: On the contrary, it has been quite effective in ways I have discussed repeatedly and at length, even though it hasn’t reached as far as changing fundamental principles and their institutional basis.

Guernica: One thing that never changes in your work is the meditation on the devastating effects of U.S. foreign policy. Here in the U.S., we endlessly tell ourselves, and our leaders especially do this, that “we’re good.” No matter the results, our intentions are good.

Noam Chomsky: Systems of power don’t have good intentions. You’ll occasionally in history find a benevolent dictator or a king who has the interests of the people at heart. But fundamentally, structures of power are not moral agents. We don’t look for good intentions. Of course, they all profess good intentions. But of course that’s also true of Hitler.

Guernica: Are “structures of power” amoral or immoral?

Noam Chomsky: Structures of power are amoral. The CEO, say, of the American Petroleum Institute may care a lot about whether his grandchildren will have a decent world to live in. But as CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, he’s going to try to make that impossible by doing what they’re doing right now, in fact. Working out ways to try to duplicate the success of the insurance industry in undermining any kind of health reform. They’ve already announced, “We’re gonna try to learn from [the health insurance industry’s] tactics and block any kind of energy or environmental bill.” Now he knows (he’s not an idiot) that could lead to a serious catastrophe which could undermine the prospects for the life of his grandchildren whom he cares a lot about. But as the director of a petroleum institute, he can’t consider that. If he did, he’d no longer have that position.

Consider the systematic dismantling of GM plants, destroying the workforce and communities, while Obama’s transportation secretary is abroad seeking to use federal stimulus money to contract with Spanish firms to provide high-speed transport.

Guernica: You write about how corporations have these super-human rights and that investors and by-laws force them to take every advantage to maximize profits. But what you just said about structures of power being amoral, it seems to me that your work is actually asking them to be moral, no?

Noam Chomsky: I’m not addressing CEOs of corporations or President Obama or anything like that. I’m addressing people, saying, “Look, you’ve got a lot of opportunities. You can effect changes, which will change the actions of structures of power, which will in fact dissolve the structures of power.”

Guernica: What are those changes you mention above that can dissolve the structures of power?

Noam Chomsky: Consider the systematic dismantling of industrial capacity, say GM plants, destroying the workforce and communities, while Obama’s transportation secretary is abroad seeking to use federal stimulus money to contract with Spanish firms to provide high-speed transport—which could be produced by converting the plants that are being dismantled, by the skilled workforce being abandoned. It might require takeover of the facilities by “stakeholders”—workforce and community. There’s no economic principle that bars that, and it could happen with sufficient consciousness and popular support.

Guernica: One group you seem to expect a little more out of, by way of intermediaries between us people and the “power structures,” seems to be intellectuals. In the “Responsibility of—”

Noam Chomsky: The people we call intellectuals aren’t necessarily smarter or more knowledgeable than anyone else. But they happen to have a lot of privilege, and privilege confers responsibility. And so they oughta do things. I don’t expect them to.

Guernica: You’ve called “the inability of educated classes to perceive what they are doing” an “historical universal.”

Noam Chomsky: Close to it.

Guernica: And you cite a story in the New York Times where “the reviewer,” you write, “constitutional lawyer Noah Feldman, described Osama [bin Laden]’s descent to greater and greater evil over the years, finally reaching the absolute lower depths, when ‘he put forth the perverse claim that since the United States is a democracy, all citizens bear responsibility for its government’s actions, and civilians are therefore fair targets.’” What’s significant about this?

Noam Chomsky: What’s significant is what directly follows it. There had been an election in Palestine, actually the first really free election in the Arab world, and two days after Noah Feldman’s article appeared, Steven Erlanger on the front page of the New York Times reported blandly that the U.S. government has just undertaken to punish the people of Palestine for voting the wrong way in a free election. Well, that makes Osama bin Laden look pretty tame. And these things appear right next to each other, and no one notices it.

Guernica: Am I right to believe that you essentially make no distinction between U.S. “terrorism,” i.e. interventions, and, say, al Qaeda’s terrorism?

Noam Chomsky: Yeah, U.S. terrorism is often far worse because it’s a powerful state. Take 9/11. That was a serious terrorist act. In Latin America, they often call it “the second 9/11” because there was another one, namely September 11, 1973.

I’ve been writing about terrorism using the official definition in the U.S. code. Now that’s considered outrageous. And the reason is when you use the official definition, it follows pretty quickly that the United States is a leading terrorist state.

Guernica: In Chile.

Noam Chomsky: Suppose that al Qaeda had not just blown up the World Trade Center, but suppose that they’d bombed the White House, killed the president, established a military dictatorship, killed maybe fifty to a hundred thousand people, maybe tortured seven hundred thousand, instituted a major international terrorist center in Washington, which was overthrowing governments around the world and installing malicious dictatorships, assassinating people, [and] brought in a bunch of economists who drove the economy into its worst disaster maybe in history. Well, that would be worse than what we call 9/11. And it did happen, namely on 9/11/1973. All that I’ve changed is per capita equivalence in numbers, a standard way to measure. Well, okay, that’s one we were responsible for. So yeah, it’s much worse.

Guernica: Some critics of U.S. foreign policy have been arguing for a universally accepted definition of terrorism to standardize in media, governments, etc.

Noam Chomsky: I agree. Reagan declared a war on terror in 1981—he said that’d be the core of our foreign policy. And since then, I’ve been writing about terrorism using the official definition in the U.S. code, and in Army manuals, and, in fact, in British law. It’s a pretty good definition. Now that’s considered outrageous. And the reason is when you use the official definition, it follows pretty quickly that the United States is a leading terrorist state. Now that’s the “wrong” conclusion, so therefore we can’t use that definition. There are academic conferences and sober volumes on terrorism trying to find some appropriate definition, and the “appropriate” definition has a very definite condition to meet. It has to include the terror that they carry out against us but exclude the terror that we carry out against them.

Guernica: True or false: no one did more to oppose the tyrannical communism of the Soviets?

Noam Chomsky: I don’t know what you mean by “tyrannical communism of the Soviets.” That was one particular form of tyranny, one that was out of U.S. control, and perceived as offering a model for others, so naturally the U.S. generally opposed it—though not when it was bearing the brunt of the war against the Nazis. The U.S. has also opposed democracies and repeatedly overthrew them and established tyrannies. And it supported, and still supports, brutal tyrannies. The question is misformulated and can’t be answered.

Guernica: Soviet communism—you don’t know what that is?

Noam Chomsky: I know what I think it is, and has been since 1918: the most severe attack on socialism/communism apart from fascism. What I don’t know is what you think it is.

Guernica: Your definition sounds fine. Utne characterized your work as having “an unflagging sense of outrage.” I’m wondering, when you diligently dissect exactly what your country has done in places like Chile, Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere, when you log numbers of innocent civilians killed, and carefully present these outrageous quotes from members of government or heads of corporations, what you’re feeling. I believe the anger comes through. What else is going on? Shame? Guilt?

Noam Chomsky: All of them. Shame and guilt, of course, because there’s much that we can do about it, that I haven’t done. And outrage because, yes, it’s outrageous. And disgust at the hypocrisy in which it’s veiled. But there’s no point in revealing those emotions. You know, maybe I can talk about them with my wife or something. But what’s the point of going public with them? Doesn’t do any good.

Guernica: Yet those emotions come through in your work as a subtext.

Noam Chomsky: Maybe. And it very much angers supporters of state violence; in fact, they’re infuriated by it, when it comes out.

Guernica: What do you mean?

Noam Chomsky: When it comes out, they are sometimes infuriated by it. I happened to be in England a couple of days ago [for] an interview at BBC. One of the things the interviewer brought up is a statement of mine showing how incomparably awful I am. The statement is “One has to ask whether what the United States needs is dissent or denazification.” And that’s so utterly outrageous; it shows I’m kind of a maniac from outer space. So I asked him what I always do when somebody brings it up. I said, “Did you read the context?” And of course he hadn’t. So I said, “Okay, here’s the context.” During the Vietnam War, the Chicago Museum of Science set up a diorama of a Vietnamese village in which children could be on the outside with guns and shoot into the village and try to kill people. And there was a protest by a group of mothers, a quiet protest, protesting this thing. There was an article in the New York Times condemning—not the exhibit, but the mothers—because they were trying to take away fun from the kiddies. And in that context I said, “Sometimes you have to wonder whether what’s needed is dissent or denazification.” I think it’s just the right thing to say.

Guernica: You’ve written how utterly Iraqis are excluded from the decisions made about their country…

Noam Chomsky: Or Vietnamese or Central Americans, or a long list of others. In fact, we don’t even care about them. If you listen to National Public Radio and happened to have it on last night (or maybe it was PBS), they were discussing the debates about what to do in Afghanistan. One of their correspondents was asked to comment on the costs of the war. She went through the costs of the war, so many hundreds of billions, and then the most severe cost—you know, a thousand American soldiers killed—and then the discussion ended. Now, is that the only cost? There’s no cost to Afghans?

Guernica: One of the ironic “hopes” in your book is the term “hope” as used by what you call “Brand Obama.” Brand Obama seemed to buttress Americans’ assumptions that because we elected a part-black president, we must be over our racism and this is more evidence that we have a noble purpose and a basic goodness. But you point to other countries, India, Bolivia—and where else?—where an outsider was elected.

Noam Chomsky: It’s happening in many parts of Latin America. Bolivia is particularly dramatic. But it’s also true in Brazil. Lula, the president of Brazil; he’s a peasant, steel worker, union organizer, didn’t have much higher education. What put him into power are these vast popular movements. They don’t go along with his policies altogether; by any means, they’re pretty critical of them. But part of the electoral base, like the Landless Workers’ Movement may be the most important mass popular movement in the world. The same is happening elsewhere. Comparing that with our system should lead us to a deal of introspection about just who and what we are.

Guernica: Are you and Hugo Chavez friends?

Noam Chomsky: We’ve met on a friendly basis, but I think you might ask yourself why you are asking this question, and not asking, for example, whether Lula, Correa, and others are friends (for the record, they are, to the same extent). I think we know the answers, but they might be useful for you to think about the matter more carefully.

Guernica: I am unaware of either of those others holding up one of your books and giving your sales a renewed jolt.

Noam Chomsky: It doesn’t answer my question. The fact that he held up my books says nothing about whether we are friends. We’ve never met. I’ve praised work of Hume’s, but it doesn’t mean he was my friend. The question arises about Chavez, not Lula (who I know a lot better) or Correa (who I just spent a few hours with) or many others who are at the heart of the “pink tide” because Chavez is demonized by state/media propaganda. I don’t accept that. Nor, I think, should you.

Guernica: You just said you have met him. Now you haven’t? Your reflexive antagonism aside, I’m happy to give you a moment to explain why we shouldn’t accept state/media propaganda against Chavez.

Noam Chomsky: I hadn’t met him when he held my book up at the UN. Since then, I did spend a few hours with him, like Correa, nothing like Lula, who I spent several days with and got to know pretty well. Sorry if it sounds like reflexive antagonism. It’s rather that I think we should be asking ourselves why the reflexive question is about Chavez—not Lula, or Correa, or for that matter Morales, who I haven’t met but have written about far more than Chavez.

I’m not recommending protectionism. I’m just saying, let’s be honest. Before we preach to others, let’s find out the truth about what we ourselves do.

Guernica: In the new book, you hit Obama pretty hard over his cabinet and the Wall Street types in his administration. You also basically allege that neoliberalism and the free market policies that we recommend to others—not only do we not follow them, but they don’t work, in terms of standard of living, wages, etc. You actually say protectionism does work and point to some interesting examples. Ronald Reagan. South Korea.

Noam Chomsky: Adam Smith had advice for the American colonies in the seventeen seventies. He advised the colonies to follow classical economic principles—they’re not very different from neoliberalism. In fact, it’s pretty much what economists today recommend to the third world. He said, Keep to your comparative advantages—the term “comparative advantage” hadn’t been invented yet—produce what you’re good at, which is catching fish, hunting fur, and growing food, and export it to us in England. And import superior British manufactures. But the U.S. gained its independence, so it didn’t have to follow that advice, and didn’t. It immediately set up under Alexander Hamilton high protective barriers to try to bar superior British textiles, in later years British steel. And it built up its own manufacturing base under protective barriers and by an enormous amount of state intervention. Take, say, cotton, the fuel of American industrialization. Well, how did America produce cotton? First of all, by exterminating the indigenous population. Secondly, by slavery. Those are pretty severe market interventions. Yeah, they worked.

Guernica: So your greater point is…

Noam Chomsky: I’m not recommending protectionism. I’m just saying, let’s be honest. Before we preach to others, let’s find out the truth about what we ourselves do. So take Ronald Reagan whom you mentioned. He’s considered the high priest of free markets. In fact, he was by far the most protectionist president in post-war U.S. history.

Guernica: So what are you recommending?

Noam Chomsky: I think decisions should be made in an entirely different manner for entirely different ends. Should producing more goods and consuming more goods be the highest value in life? That’s not obvious, by any means.

Guernica: And what would be?

Noam Chomsky: Living decent lives, in an environment that provides for people’s essential needs, offers them opportunities to become creative, active, to work together in solidarity, [and lead] more happy, creative lives. That’s a more important goal, I think.

Guernica: Here’s one critic of your work, Nick Cohen in the Observer: “The lesson of 11 September is that no constraints of morality or conscience would stop al-Qaeda exploding a nuclear weapon. If however, it is all our fault, as Chomsky says, perhaps we can avert catastrophe by being nicer and better people. Perhaps we can, but Chomsky is as reluctant to admit that al Qaeda is an autonomous movement as he is to admit the existence of the democratic and socialist opposition to Saddam Hussein.”

Noam Chomsky: They’re mentioning somebody with my name. But it doesn’t relate at all to anything I’ve ever said or believe. Who did you say you’re quoting?

Guernica: Nick Cohen in the Observer.

Noam Chomsky: Oh, Nick Cohen’s a maniac. If you’ll notice, he never cites anything. Does he cite anything? That already gives you the answer. Go back and check. He doesn’t cite anything. These are just diatribes, tantrums. I’m not interested in them.

Guernica: The greater point is that there are maniacs who have sought from their clerics and received permission to use nuclear weapons on civilians.

Noam Chomsky: Yes, there are. And we should try to prevent it. And there are ways to prevent it, and I discuss them, but they’re not his ways. His ways are just bomb everybody in sight. Well, I think that’s the way to increase terror. In fact, it has increased terror.

Guernica: It’s increased terror sevenfold, you write (citing analysts on the Iraq war).

Noam Chomsky: But he doesn’t like what I say, so he’ll scream and shout and slander. Why pay attention to him? Do you read Stalinist party acts?

Guernica: I don’t.

Noam Chomsky: Okay.

Noam Chomsky’s Recommendation:
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

Editor’s Recommendations:
Why We Can’t See the Forest or the Trees: The Torture Memos and Historical Amnesia, by Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky isn’t on the networks because he lacks “concision,” said one network producer. Chomsky agrees; his ideas don’t fit in soundbites. See him at his best here (it runs one hour).

To contact Guernica or Noam Chomsky, please write here.

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67 comments for Chomsky Half Full

  1. Comment by Saut Situmorang on November 17, 2009 at 10:27 am

    The US is so lucky to have an intellectual like Noam Chomsky, and the late Edward Said, giving it great advices and insight. As an Indonesian, I honestly envy this great luck of the people of the US because they actually don’t deserve it!

  2. Comment by Hoslo Jiwa on November 17, 2009 at 10:49 am

    Is it so difficult to understand what Noam Chomsky is saying. We have governments and coprporations telling us they care about the environment and about consumption and over exploitation. Then on the other hand governments and corporations are telling us to spend and consume more so the economy will recover. These two entities are full out creating consumption, consumerism and environmental degradation even a 12 year old kid can understand that it is contradicting itself. Is it so difficult to understand we have to address the system as it is and change it to make it logical and believable?

    Hoslo Jiwa
    Zurich Switzerland

  3. Comment by Christopher Fisher on November 17, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    Many thanks to Guernica for a very interesting interview. I would have preferred, however, fewer attempts to parry with an intellectual super heavyweight, and a greater effort to engage some of Chomsky’s truly fascinating conceptual frameworks regarding policy and prospects.

  4. Comment by vanderleun on November 20, 2009 at 8:52 am

    “Half full….” pretty much covers its, doesn’t it?

  5. Comment by kp on November 22, 2009 at 7:05 am

    Dr. Chomsky resonates the popular opinion all over the world..
    opinion: the dictionary describes it as ‘belief and judgement’.. i m assuming that involves a majority of thinking and little space for biases..
    popular:’generally liked and approved’.. if only the popular was as popular as its meant to be

    big fan from india

  6. Comment by rsmatesic on November 22, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    Chomsky demonstrates with great depth and clarity the deadly consequences of our society’s refusal to confront the true nature of our empire.

    In contrast, the fact that a self-appointed gatekeeper like Whitney could only muster childish retorts to the unassailable and forceful logic of Chomsky’s arguments (few of which Whitney seemed to grasp) lends a critical insight into why the rest of us have devolved into mere spectators of our collective decline.

    That’s about all you’ve accomplished here, Joel.

  7. Comment by cem unver on November 23, 2009 at 3:19 am

    Half-full? Why half-full?

  8. Comment by Lawson on November 25, 2009 at 12:40 am

    Ever wonder what it must be like to be told to put down your net and become fisher of men?

    This is how Noam resonates with me. Like Richard Dawkins teacher, when he found out his life’s work had just be disproven and a previously unthought of solution was the true answer. What did the teacher and Dawkins class do? They applauded the visiting professor and the breakthough!

    I was like you Joel, until I read the Chomsky reader and heard him speak on the YouTube in a BBC interview with Francine Stock and another interview with Andrew Marr (not Bill).

    Of course the real human side came out with the Ali G interview (shame,shame Sacha) and fun see Noam come into his own against the tyrant wf buckley. Bravo Noam, Bravo. Please consider the video, Rebel without a Pause and be prepared to join the solution… ie honesty.
    =
    thanks for reading
    Lawson

  9. Comment by gnm on November 28, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    Oh yes, God for forbid anyone question the mighty, all-knowing Noam Chomsky…

  10. Comment by Jason H. on December 2, 2009 at 9:27 am

    This dude has an amazing amount of shame, guilt, and victimhood in his thoughts. To think that every other nation outside of the US has been subject to its wrath is hard to take seriously. In what way are other nations not in charge of their own destiny? To think that for example the Brazilians have been subject to terrorism of nazifacation from the US is absurd. Brazil has been able to develop its own economy and political class despite any US intervention in its affairs. By the way, why doesnt he mention Honduras? This country has had a constitutional crisis in Zelaya pulling a Chavez, and the people called foul and ousted him. They just resolved the matter by legitimately voting for another leader. But I guess this doesnt fit Chomsky’s outlook. Chomsky’s views are paranoid and inaccurately critical of the US. He takes pride in name dropping who is listening to him, ie the BBC comment. I hope that most people that see his comments then look at their own lives, compare the two, then determine he’s a crackpot.

  11. Comment by Dan B on December 2, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    Really? The US acted worse than Bin Laden with respect to Palestine’s recent elections? The Chilean coup was the same as 9/11?

    As far as I can recall, Chile’s own Congress and Supreme Court went after Allende as well, passing resolutions denouncing his regime. Lots of Chileans had it in for him and his disastrous regime. By contrast, virtually no Americans wanted 9/11. It wasn’t supposed to benefit any Americans. It was pure hostile destruction.

    Chomsky makes himself impossible to take seriously by displaying such congenital blindness to the complexity of political conflicts. He always turns a blind eye when it comes to anybody fighting nationalist imperial power, regardless of how monstrous their actions are or how nightmarish the consequences. He’s never changed in that respect. Sure he denounces the Soviets *now,* just as he denounces Pol Pot *now.*

    Had he been alive at the time, however, he would undoubtedly have joined Neruda in composing poetry in craven praise of Stalin. That’s just who he is.

  12. Comment by Matt on December 2, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    “Had he been alive at the time, however, he would undoubtedly have joined Neruda in composing poetry in craven praise of Stalin. That’s just who he is.”

    Chomsky was alive at the time, and he didn’t join Neruda. FAIL.

  13. Comment by Dan B on December 2, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    Damn, you’re right. Didn’t realize how old he was. So he didn’t join in the Soviet march. Guess he was at least somewhat consistent in opposing imperialist activity in that respect.

  14. Comment by William Ruffian on December 2, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    A enormously skilled and accomplished liar; possibly one of the greatest. One wonders to what extent the expertise in linguistics contributed?

  15. Comment by Anonymous on December 2, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    William, give one example of Chomsky lying.

  16. Comment by bang nguyen on December 3, 2009 at 12:45 am

    Chomsky lacks fairness when he only criticized the young pro-democracy South Vietnamese government. It’s a shame that even after truths came out about the atrocities carried out by Pol Pot and the communist Vietnamese, he still maintains his support for these murderous regimes. As McGovern had said to senator Jim Webb of Virginia when pressed that the Vietnam war was winnable, McGovern told senator Webb that he did not want to win the war. Mr. Chomsky does not care for the truth. He only wants to advance his ideas, many times at the expenses of the poeples he said to care about.

  17. Comment by William on December 3, 2009 at 3:57 am

    Noam’s viewpoints are considered extreme because the mere suggestion that the United States is anything but the most benevolent country in the world is sacreligious to most.

    Actually what Mr. Chomsky says makes perfect common sense. Any seeker of Real Truth will find his assessment to be the correct one. Our foreign policy truly is an exercise in state sponsored terrorism, and is in fact the very model Israel uses in dealing with her Palestinians as well as her neighbors.

    The average citizen is tragically blind to all of this, so much so that it allows them to be controlled and manipulated so very easily. Some of us, however, are not so blind. When he stated that no one noticed the absolute hypocracy between the 2 articles that appeared side-by-side in the NYT’s…one about how evil Osama Bin Laden is & the other about the United States overturning the very first Palestinian free election because the U.S. didn’t like the outcome–well, I certainly noticed, just as I continue to notice the hypocracy inherent in one outrage after another committed by the United States.

    It is magnificently appalling.

  18. Comment by StupendousMan on December 3, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    “Noam’s viewpoints are considered extreme because the mere suggestion that the United States is anything but the most benevolent country in the world is sacreligious to most.”

    Really? Where are these people? First the MSM tells lies when they don’t support the Chomsky narrative. But when the MSM defines how “Americans” are and how they feel it’s exactly correct. Why? those stories follow the Chomsky narrative.

    He seems like a well educated person who just can’t seem to grasp that in general people are greedy and selfish. When a group has power it is generally used for their benefit. This is what he spends his time arguing with people about. Guess what? Many people already know these things. Being blown away by Chomsky seems to be an indication that some need to read a bit more.

  19. Comment by speedo on December 3, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    Chomsky never “supported murderous regimes” like that of Pol Pot. What he did in that case was point out the responsibility the US bears for the misery of Cambodia- thousands were killed by the Khmer Rouge but hundreds of thousands were killed by the secret bombing campaign before the Khmer Rouge came to power.

    Americans like to believe they are the world’s friendly policeman, walking the global beat, keeping the world safe. Chomsky is giving examples to show it just isn’t true.

  20. Comment by Will on December 3, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    I think it’s pretty telling that, the inconsistencies and prejudices of our mainstream media notwithstanding, Mr. Chomsky is unable to identify someone like Hugo Chavez for what he is-a thug, a jerk, and megalomaniac, a militaristic tyrant. Dear Noam: IT’S OKAY TO CRITICIZE THESE PEOPLE EVEN IF THE US HAS IT’S OWN CATALOGUE OF HEINOUS CRIMES.

    Chomsky has been an instrumental ethical voice in our culture, but one wonders how truly isolated his thinking has become that he can no longer distinguish revolutionaries from crass opportunists. And while he may be an astute observer of the mechanisms of power, he is ultimately an inconsistent and unfocused moral philosopher.

  21. Comment by Matt on December 4, 2009 at 7:00 am

    “Mr. Chomsky is unable to identify someone like Hugo Chavez for what he is-a thug, a jerk, and megalomaniac, a militaristic tyrant.”

    How many times does Chomsky have to say we should look at our own faults/crimes before identifying others? Our country assisted in a coup of the democratically elected regime! If Venezuela attempted to overthrow our government, failed, and then said, “Geeze, your leaders are real megalomaniacs,” we might find it a bit hypocritical. You are completely fucking retarded. It is like you have “truly isolated… thinking,” unable to grasp the crimes of your country which occurred just a brief while ago but yet willing to criticize the victims of those crimes to no end. You’re “ultimately… inconsistent and unfocused.” I prefer completely fucking retarded.

  22. Comment by Will on December 4, 2009 at 10:27 am

    Wow, Matt. You’re sort of a jerk yourself.

    Umm, and the argument that “we” (Sorry, I’m not going to self-flagellate for the sins of my fathers. You can if you want.) are precluded from vigorously identifying and critiquing the corrupt and dangerous beyond our borders because our nation has been up to no good over the years is absolute nonsense. And a denial of the human solidarity that Chomsky otherwise advocates. He’s fair game for criticism when he fails to come out strongly against other negative forces and individuals in the world, preferring to focus on massive structures and networks.

    Whatever, dude. Walk it off. Or find solace in your breathless, bullying, tinfoil hat universe of self-righteousness and self-loathing.

  23. Comment by Matt on December 4, 2009 at 11:38 am

    Self-righteous defined: “confident of one’s own righteousness, esp. when smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others.”

    “How many times does Chomsky have to say we should look at our own faults and crimes before identifying others?” Oh yes, I’ve forgotten that attempting to avoid hypocrisy is a self-righteous stance.

    He is “preferring to focus on massive structures and networks.” Which ones are those? In this article he mentions Reagan’s declared a war on terror in 1981, the Chilean Coup of September 11, 1973, Correa, and Lula as evidence of his arguments. These are massive structures and networks? Does he sound like someone from the French Annalist School? Is he talking about the Longue durée or Marxist perspectives?

    Your criticism is hollow as it completely misses the point of Chomsky’s answers to the interviewer’s questions. Why are we so concerned with the crimes of others while we ourselves commit crimes of much greater magnitude? It is splendid that you are able to rationalize it as the “sins of your fathers,” but unfortunately the sins are ongoing. The Venezuelan coup, for example, was in 2002.

    Any criticism of the U.S. Chomsky makes, is excused by those like you by saying he isn’t criticizing others. This is toddler mentality. As he puts it, “If it is wrong for someone else, it is wrong for us.” Look at our own crimes before the crimes of others. It is self-righteous to posture as someone concerned about “negative forces and individuals in the world” when acting exactly as an equally or worse negative force.

    If you can rationalize our crimes, why can’t you rationalize Chavez’s? Why does Chomsky have to make moral judgments on every world leader he references when you can simply rationalize our crimes as “sins of our fathers” or peers? Read the interview again, the point is hypocrisy.

  24. Comment by Will on December 4, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    Jesus, man. Comment sections are a place for brevity, and my comments re: Chomsky are derived from years of listening to his selective admonitions of American imperialism, many of which I completely agree with. I’ve always been impressed by his integrity and fortitude and intelligence, and equally unimpressed by the infallibility ascribed to his observations by acolytes. I don’t know how calling him out on his little tea parties with goons is somehow a denial of American atrocities. He’s used the hypocrisy card over and over to divert legitimate criticisms of despotic regimes toward his unified theory of Western imperialism. Again, though, thanks for the civility of your tone. Kudos.

  25. Comment by Benjamin on December 6, 2009 at 3:15 am

    Chomsky is the epitome of what Camus called a “judge-penitent”, someone who laments and condemns their sins and the evil of the world solely in order to abuse others. I commend Mr. Whitney’s fumbling attempts to challenge this, but he did not go far enough. He could have asked Chomsky if he feels shame over claiming the Khmer Rouge genocide was a fabrication by the NY Times, or the role the anti-war movement played in engineering the communist tyranny in Vietnam, or his portrayal of 9/11 as a just retaliation, or perhaps his blood libel of the United States over the war in Afghanistan (his infamous “silent genocide claim”), or even his claim that American Jews want 100% control rather than 95%. This would have been nice to see, but it is ultimately unnecessary. Chomsky’s own words reveal him to be what he is: a demented sadist who uses pseudo-moralistic rhetoric, emotional blackmail, and hypocritical demagoguery in order to satisfy his perverse need to hate, defame, and control other people.

  26. Comment by Matt on December 6, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    I’d ask Benjamin to provide evidence for every claim he makes about Chomksy. Let’s see some direct quotes where he claims the Khmer Rouge genocide was a fabrication. How did he become involved in engineering a communist tyranny? Which article does he say anything equivalent to “9/11 is just a retaliation[?]” The statement about Jews (what?)?

  27. Comment by Matt on December 6, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    whoops. Change Chomksy to Chomsky.

  28. Comment by Matt on December 8, 2009 at 9:21 am

    If Einstein only knew that a “unified theory of Western imperialism” did truly exist allowing all of the fundamental forces between elementary particles to be written in terms of a single field.

    You must be kidding. Are readers supposed to know what the “unified theory of Western imperialism” is (aside from a theory you just invented)?

    Chomsky has never claimed he is beholden to a framework or theory. If you think otherwise, provide some quotes or evidence.

  29. Comment by Chavez supporter on December 13, 2009 at 10:36 am

    Viva Chavez! Chavez is overwhelmingly elected and has instituted a popular democracy in Venezuela. Poor people benefit vastly , the poster above lies about veneuela and Chavez. Brainwashed by coporate media in us and Latin amexia .

  30. Comment by Overyou on January 17, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    Wow I have never seen so many ignorant people use so many big words…isn’t the internet great!

  31. Comment by Richard on January 19, 2010 at 5:35 am

    Well, Nick Cohen writes for the Observer, not the Guardian.
    Neither is he a manic, nor is he someone who doesn’t cite something. Perhaps Joel Whitney should read Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? So should Noam Chomsky.

  32. Comment by william f on February 16, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    I find it interesting that the author has deleted the part of the introduction which charges that Chomsky’s scholarship has suffered since the death of his wife, something I pointed out as shameful in an earlier comment. Conveniently, that comment has also been deleted.

    That shows very low standards of credibility on behalf of the author (or whomever edits his blog).

  33. Comment by Joel Whitney on March 11, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    –richard,

    Yes, we blogged about that error. Update has been requested.

    –william f,

    Here’s the original sentence you cite in full: “And Chomsky’s wife died of cancer last winter (he cites her below anyway as the person he can go to to air his robust anger, rather than admit its effect on his work).”

    The part you’ve cited (“its effect on his work”) was referring to his anger, not his wife’s death. I had the distinct sense after reading decades of his writing that anger and guilt under-girded much of it, however thorough his scholarship was (say his fans) or wasn’t (his detractors). That’s why I tried to get him to talk about that. When I did, *he* mentioned his wife, and briefly acknowledged those emotions. It reminded me I had caught him while he was still grieving, and of his vulnerability. Then he leaped away quickly to a story about his making *others* angry.

    Still, the original exchange I was attempting to set up remains intact in the interview. Had you read on you might have remembered the modifier usually modifies the thing it lies nearest to. And at that moment in the actual interview I felt nothing but sympathy for an often vilified man (just look at the comments above) who missed the person he could vent his anger to, and spoke of her in the present tense. Nonetheless, yours was a fair mis-reading, as it was an overly conflated thought on my part, and maybe none of our business. So, mea culpa…

    After discussing it with my co-editor, we had it removed from the published version to avoid distracting readers from the discussion it is intended to set up.

    Thanks for writing–and for reading so closely.

  34. Comment by Hockessin on March 14, 2010 at 11:58 pm

    Thats some great basics there, already knew some of that, but you can always learn . I doubt a “kid” could put together such information as dolphin278 suggested. Maybe he’s just attempting to be “controversial? lol

  35. Comment by william f on March 16, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    Joel –

    Good form on your response. You can understand my shock, however, given that no notice was given of the retraction -which is the standard practice in journalism – and my comment was deleted along with the retracted sentence.

    That said, commenting on how the death of Chomsky’s wife prevents him from airing his “robust anger”, which, in turn, effects his work, is certainly charging exactly what I said: “Chomsky’s scholarship has suffered since the death of his wife.”

    Thanks for your reply.

  36. Comment by Joel Whitney on March 29, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    William F,

    You still haven’t got it.

    The question had nothing to do with his wife. It was about his anger at the US and how/if he has any repository for that anger outside his work.

    I don’t think I can be any clearer than that.

    Joel

  37. Comment by Robert on March 31, 2010 at 1:36 am

    Joel,
    This is an outstanding interview because you challenged him personally and professionally.

    I have read a lot of his work and I have checked his sources on numerous occasions. Especially when the things he writes sound outrageous. I have yet to find anything that qualifies as a lie or fabrication. Often he puts an anti-American spin on readily available history.

    Thanks

  38. Comment by Robert on March 31, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    By saying that Chomsky puts an “anti-american spin” on history, I mean that he tells the truth in a way that people are not used to hearing it.

    Thanks again Joel for doing an interesting interview

    Robert

  39. Comment by willaim f on April 19, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    Your tone is regrettable, particularly because it doesn’t bear on my comment, which concerned what was written in the introduction, not the question given in the interview.

    Your comment made an inference based on his response to the interview, charging there was a causal relation between the quality of his scholarship and the passing of his wife. In plain English, this directly concerns his work in the way I stated in a previous comment.

    Notably, however, you did not substantiate the inference with any evidence from his work, i.e. show an increase in his anger after his wife’s passing, and so on. That is, there was no apparent concern to make a justified versus a baseless inference — a fact which I suspect has something to do with the retraction.

    If you think this does not involve commenting on the passing of his wife, I can’t help you other than suggest doing a simple grammatical analysis of the original sentence in question. That should clarify things.

    I think you meant to say that you did not ‘intend’ to make such a comment. But it is important to appreciate the difference between the intended use of the English language and its actual use — I think it’s here you’re running into problems. I would suggest admission of an error and leave it at that, rather than obfuscation.

    Like your tone, your choosing the later is also regrettable.

  40. Comment by Jeff on July 19, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    Really ? Try looking up the articles in the NYTmes concerning the Chicago Museum protests during Vietnam Chomsky refers to. You will see that he mis- characterizes the articles completely. the articles were published March 18th and March 19th of ’68 which should help you with your lookup

  41. Comment by Margaret on September 9, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    Perhaps I’m a masochist, but I read the comments first. Upon reading the interview, I found Chomsky to be his usual clear, steady, unrelenting yet compassionate self. Of course the man is angry; he is committed to looking at things clearly and there is much to infuriate. But his analysis is systemic, and his compassion for individuals is evident.

  42. Comment by Irina Forwood on September 27, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    The grinding of the intellect is for most people as raw as a dentist’s drill.

  43. Comment by Nicholas Foucault on September 30, 2010 at 10:53 am

    I recently came across your web site and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my very first comment. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this website very frequently.

  44. Comment by Allen on October 31, 2010 at 1:19 am

    You’re correct, sir. We don’t deserve Noam Chomsky, but I’m glad we have him anyway. And as an American I apologize for the foreign policy of my country and for whatever I can do as an individual to change it for the better, but haven’t. And I most specifically apologize for the bloodbath in your country in 1965 when my government helpted Suharto to power and kept him in power so many years…..:>)

  45. Comment by Anonymous on December 17, 2010 at 2:39 am

    With all due respect, you have no idea of what you’re talking about when you suggest that Chomsky could ever have been a Stalinist – One thing that characterizes his political thought is a repudiation of authoritarianism in all forms – You would know that if you had actually read any of his works. As to the two 9-11 events: Chomsky’s point is that the US was heavily involved in the brutal, illegal coup which brought Pinochet and his thuggish regime to power for 17 years. Yes, there was good deal of political unrest in Chile in the years before 1973, but only the far right undertook to overthrow the legitimately elected government. And by the way, much of the unrest was the result of US supported efforts to undermine the Chilean economy and thus throw the country into chaos – opening the door to a “rescue” by the fascists.

  46. Comment by Dagwood on December 26, 2010 at 10:45 am

    It’s stunning how many of the comments here (and in the media generally) are about whether Chomsky is Good or Evil, as if all debates should be ad hominim. If Chomsky describes certain American activities accurately, then those activities happened whether or not he also might’ve said something positive about Chavez or Pol Pot. Too often we have descended to the level of our celebrity-oriented surroundings. We ask only “what’s his game?”, “is he conservative or liberal?” and thinking we have a simple answer, we don’t have to think about anything any longer. It’s no wonder Chomsky and others have to repeat themselves so often and feel so pessimistic about what giving information to the public can do. They always spend an absurd amount of their time and energy answering the same simplistic questions, such as “Are you and Chavez friends? Yes or no? Because we want to peg you as a lunatic and a ‘yes’ will do this for us…so…are you?” We should all be ashamed of ourselves. I think that one reason the Chomskys go after the US so relentlessly is because it’s the US population that seems, more than any other, to be living in a dreamworld.

  47. Comment by Anonymous on December 28, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    Dagwood,

    Where are you from?

  48. Comment by Jennefer Lo on January 6, 2011 at 1:35 am

    “You don’t stop laughing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop laughing.” – Michael Pritchard

  49. Comment by Ethan Allen Speaks on May 9, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    An excellent assessment….in the approximately two years since this interview was posted Professor Chomsky’s wisdom and insight regarding the pitfalls hegemonic authoritarianism continue to be evidenced.

    (TO THE EDITORS:) What happened to the topical continuity of comments posted to this thread? It appears that subsequent to the last substantive post(sometime in January 2011), the web lunatics took over???

  50. Comment by Greg on May 10, 2011 at 11:52 am

    haha.. awesome.

  51. Comment by margaret beresford on May 11, 2011 at 12:41 am

    What action could be taken other than protesting for change? Could tax movements not produce more results?

  52. Comment by Syed Iqbal Ahmad on May 11, 2011 at 3:32 am

    Noam Chomsky has always voiced the feelings and sentiments of the peace-loving and democratic people of the world.

  53. Comment by Muhammed Akhtar, Calcutta,India on May 12, 2011 at 7:19 am

    Guernica deserves praise for bringing out Chomsky’s forth right and self critical views on many issues which, we here in India do not get an opportunity to listen to this great philosopher often.It appears he is a right person at a wrong place. Nay I am wrong. It is because of the American Press Freedom he is able to articulate and express his views so fearlessly, not possible in many countries including India!

  54. Comment by hemant karnik on May 14, 2011 at 11:32 am

    It’s a bit late; but thanks for the excellent interview.
    I don’t know the interviewer and I shall go on revising my views of him; but I got the distinct impression that he tried to needle Chomsky on a few occasions so as to appear neutral.
    And I read right through to the last comment. Refreshing debate.
    Thanks again, you are my window to the sane American. May be there are more such windows, but you are the first.

  55. Comment by Ben on May 22, 2011 at 11:02 pm

    Dan B, you’re the one who’s playing the victim buddy. Try reading one or two of his books sometime.

  56. Comment by Anonymous on May 23, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    Dear Ethan Allen,

    The spambot comments took over.

    Thanks for asking

    The editors

  57. Comment by mhtoronto on May 23, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    Chomsky really kept his cool with this interviewer, Joel Whitney.

    Joel Whitney asks a real high-school question:
    True or false: no one did more to oppose the tyrannical communism of the Soviets?

    Whose the “no one” he’s talking about?
    Reagan?
    The U.S. in general?
    Hitler?
    Because after killing 20 million Soviets, I’m pretty sure it’s Hitler. But the question is asked so retardedly.

    And after Chomsky politely lets the the guy know it’s not a good question and gives him a chance to re-phrase it, Joel Whitney comes back with this gem: “Soviet communism—you don’t know what that is?”

    Seriously, Joel Whitney, that was f’n retarded.
    You Failed on this one.
    Chomsky is way too polite of a man.

  58. Comment by Joel Whitney on May 25, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    Dear mhtoronto,

    Your point about Hitler’s legacy with regard to Soviet communism is not very clear to me. If it was meant to be, please elaborate. It seems your main point, though, is not about history, but rhetoric and manners.

    I would just say that if you admire politeness, as you note three times, you may want to reconsider your vocab a little. (There’s a free thesaurus at thesaurus dot com.) Because right now the gap between what you say you admire and how you actually behave is so big it’s self-negating, and leaves me, for one, with little more to take away from your comment than your anger.

    Best,
    Joel

  59. Comment by Lene TPN on June 9, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    It always makes me think how outside the US, most – as I see it – would agree with Mr Chomsky and even perceive his (very articulate) views as quite obvious, while within the US they are deemed outrageous or maniac.

    I don’t have any statistics at hand to evidence the anti-American sentiment (or rather its foreign policy) but if the US citizens would like a reflection on their country, I think Mr Chomsky’s would be worth consulting.

    RE: his alleged anti-neoliberalism. It’s quite troubling that with so many economics graduates as we have around these days, so few people still know the history of protectionism/capitalism. I’m glad it was presented here in that one lucid paragraph – maybe it will one day become an opening quote to standard textbooks.

  60. Comment by Steve on June 20, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    Joel,

    Give it a rest.

    Mhtoronto’s assessment of that juvenile attempt to spar with Chomsky was spot-on, and your peeved and lame response to him simply reinforces this impression that some of us likewise have of you.

    If something is unclear or you can’t grasp his point about Hitler’s legacy with regard to the former Soviet Union as it relates to your statement to Chomsky, then perhaps mhtoronto’s characterization of you is indeed accurate and deserved.

    All the best,
    Steve

  61. Comment by George on June 28, 2011 at 6:47 am

    Thanks Chomsky. In a haze of half educated, narrow minded and loud mouthed American intellectuals, Chomsky stands as a tower of light and reason.

  62. Comment by Paulo Bento on August 22, 2011 at 11:38 pm

    Jason you are at a minimum naive…

  63. Comment by Richard on October 21, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    speedo, the Pol Pot regime did not murder thousands. It murdered between two and three million.

  64. Comment by Linnea Crockarell on November 16, 2011 at 4:22 am

    yh We all live in suspense from day to day In other words, you are the hero of your own story. – Mary McCarthy

  65. Comment by Joseph on January 30, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    Erm, no citations?

    Right: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jul/17/nick-cohen-democracy-murdoch-mladic

    Chomsky (and those who religiously cling to his every word) should conduct a bit more research before speaking out and generalizing others as “maniacs” (or perhaps more ironically, as those who don’t cite anything).

  66. Comment by Anonymous on February 12, 2012 at 3:45 am

    Joseph, All those links are links to blogs or goodreads or the like. Those don’t count as citations.

  67. Comment by Camille on May 30, 2013 at 6:13 am

    Noam Chomsky is a beacon of light in this world. I loved his answer about what would be a more important focus in life.

    I felt embarrassed for joel whitney, he really got shown the door… ouch! Didn’t you learn anything from Buckley or Dershowitz??

    Love you Noam. No one slams like you slam.

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