By Noam Chomsky
On May 3, 2002,
MIT linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky was interviewed by
CommonSense: The Intercollegiate Journal of Humanism and Freethought
CS: You have made
an analogy between the conflict in Palestine and apartheid South Africa
- do you think universities should respond to Israel in the same way
they did to South Africa? Specifically, do you think universities should
divest from companies doing business in Israel?
Chomsky: The circumstances
aren't identical. With South Africa, the crucial thing was not so much
university divestment, which was a slow and enduring process, as pressure
to ensure that our own government did not participate in criminal activities.
There were arms and oil embargoes against South Africa, for example.
University divestment was a marginal factor in the scheme of things.
In the case of Palestine, the critical demand in the petitions ought
to at least be a call for a suspension of arms sales transfers as long
as certain minimal conditions are not met. That call has been in the
petitions that I signed. CS: But if students want to be local activists,
do you think that calling for university divestment is an effective
method? Or should students be concentrating their efforts on national
issues? Chomsky: I think it's a reasonable activity but we shouldn't
have any illusions - it's a highly indirect mode of affecting the behavior
of states. There is one fundamental difference between South Africa
and Israel. While, the US was supporting the apartheid regime, it wasn't
the decisive factor in maintaining apartheid. In the case of Israel,
however, the United States is the decisive factor in maintaining the
occupation. That should affect our choices. They should be directed
specifically against the US government. Apartheid was a crime, but you
couldn't blame apartheid on decisions made in Washington. On the other
hand, you can blame the occupation on decisions made in Washington -
that's crucial difference, and it ought to color the way we choose to
direct our activities. The occupation looks like it's something happening
over there, but it's really something that's happening here.
CS: Working with
the comparison to South Africa, it would seem like the analogous solution
to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be a one-state solution with
Israelis and Palestinians living together. But you've favored a two-state
solution. Why is that?
Chomsky: The situation
is totally different in many respects. In South Africa, the white minority
was a small minority. If the black majority in South Africa, say the
African National Congress, had preferred a two-state solution, one in
which they would have received 80% of the land and given the white population
20%, I would not have objected. It is simply not up to me to decide,
and that holds true in the Israel-Palestine case. My own view is that
the one-state solution is not a good one and I've held that position
for sixty years. There was a time several decades ago when there were
better alternatives, but there aren't enough options now and neither
side wants it.
CS: Do you think
the conflict in the Middle East is fundamentally about religion?
Chomsky: It is not
about religion; religion cuts many ways. Secular and religious Jews
may have different goals on lots of things, but they both want a separate
state in which they are the majority and they control things. The same
is true of secular and religious Palestinians. Many of the people on
both sides are secular
CS: Some people
claim that the September 11 attacks show the dangers of religion, or
more broadly, the danger of religion mixing with politics and governments.
Do you think that's a correct analysis of the situation?
11 is a false starting point in this case. We should really be looking
at the 1980s for evidence to support this notion. Twenty years ago,
the CIA began supporting and training the best killers it could find.
Not to help the Afghans - which would have been a reasonable, legitimate
endeavor - but to harm the Russians. The results for Afghanistan were
devastating. The best killers the CIA could find for their purposes
were extremist, radical Islamists from North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula,
and other places. They gathered, trained and armed them, knowing perfectly
well what they were up to. And yes, that was exploiting religion. In
fact, fundamentalist Islam has been, to a significant extent, supported
and initiated by outside forces. It was often a weapon against secular
forces. I mean, when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, the goal, quite
explicitly, was to undermine the secular, nationalist PLO, which was
pressing hard for negotiations over the Occupied Territories, and Israel
didn't want that. So, Israel succeeded in undermining the secular PLO
for a while, but ended up with Hezbollah on their hands. Something of
the same sort happened in the Occupied Territories. The religious elements,
which ended up being Hamas, were actually supported by Israel in opposition
to the secular nationalists.
CS: So do you think
there are lessons that we can learn from those examples for the US?
Christianity in the US is a serious danger, but there are broader implications.
The lessons we should learn from the events of the 1980s that I just
described is that we should not - neither we nor others - use force
to try to attain our ends, whether that force involves recruiting radical
Islamists or people who want to take over the world. When the Contra
armies that the United States organized in the 1980s carried out massive
terrorists attacks in Nicaragua, they weren't religious fundamentalists,
but the consequences were just as bad.
CS: Is Zionism today
morally equivalent to racism?
Chomsky: No, it's
not morally equivalent to racism. Zionism covers lots of different things.
The positions I hold now were at one time called Zionist. Were they
racist? Well, there was an element of racism in them. There's an element
of racism in my living where I do - someone else lived there before
they were driven out. That's true for all of us. But we don't want to
use racism that loosely. There are a lot of things wrong in the world
that may involve ethnic and cultural and other conflicts, but we don't
call them racism.
CS: How do you distinguish
between good and bad terrorism or, perhaps, necessary and unnecessary
terrorism? Or do you think terrorism is just a bad term to be throwing
Chomsky: I don't
think there's any good terrorism. There are just and illegitimate confrontations
and conflicts in which illegitimate measures such as terrorism are used,
but that doesn't make terrorism legitimate. For example, the American
Revolution was a basically just cause, but there was plenty of terrorism
involved, and that wasn't just. If there has been a national liberation
movement of any kind that didn't involve terrorism, I'd like to hear
CS: Some elements
of the anti-globalization movement have used property destruction as
a tactic, especially in big demonstrations like in Seattle. Do you think
that's appropriate or useful?
Chomsky: For one
thing, I wouldn't call it an anti-globalization movement; that's a term
invented by those who want to pursue the dominant form of globalization.
The people opposed to what I would call "investor rights globalization"
are not opposed to globalization. I don't know of anybody who's opposed
to globalization. Certainly not the Left and the labor movement - they
were founded on the concept of internationalism, and that's a kind of
globalization. Should those who are opposed to the contemporary form
of investor rights and international integration use property damage
as a tactic? I don't think so. It's a dubious tactic at best. Any form
of violence against property or people has to be justified, and I don't
see the justification.
CS: How generally
should we put our ideals into action in everyday life? For example,
would you buy coffee at Starbucks?
Chomsky: I don't
know much about Starbucks, so it's a hard question to answer. But should
we put our principles into operation? Yes, we should, although there
are obvious limits. You can't live a life as a saint every moment, making
sure that you do nothing that will harm any human being. That's a physical
impossibility. You have to make choices, and you have to set priorities
as to how much energy you're going to put into trying to improve the
world - it can't be 100% of your time.
CS: With so many
different ways to improve the world and problems like animal rights
and world hunger, how should activists determine their priorities?
Chomsky: You should
go with your personal concerns, with what you think is important. You
can make a case that the most important thing in the world now is preventing
the militarization of space because that might destroy the world very
quickly. You could also make a case that the most important thing is
preventing destruction of the environment because that may end the conditions
for a viable human existence in a couple of generations. Or you can
make a case that the most important thing is that, even in the United
States, there are millions of hungry people, and around the world, close
to a billion of them. People have to decide what is important to them,
considering who they are and what they are able to accomplish. You can't
do everything, and there's no way to rank these problems.
say that their responsibility is to educate students, with the result
that they can't be bothered by "social" concerns, such as
living wages and harmful investments. Do you think that's correct and
what has your experience at MIT been?
a university? A university is an abstract entity. It's a collection
of people who come together for certain ends, and among those people
are students, faculty and staff, and they have to decide what they're
into. As a member of a university, I believe that one of our ends ought
to be that people have decent wages. Notice that paying a living wage
is not something that the university does, it's something that the faculty
and students do. A university is not an infinite source of money, it
has certain resources that can be used for particular purposes. If they're
used for one purpose, they're not used for another purpose. So if students
support a living wage, as I think they definitely should, they should
understand that this money is not coming from an infinite source. It's
coming from an existing institution with finite resources - if these
resources go to paying living wages, they will not go to other things.
CS: University administrations
say that it's their fiduciary responsibility to the alumni and others
to see that university resources are used in a specific way: for the
education of students.
Chomsky: They might
say that, but that's accepting a picture of the university that I don't
think we ought to accept. It's saying that the university is a totalitarian
institution that is owned by outsiders who decide what it will do. If
they decide that the university ought to be used for training terrorists,
then that's what the university ought to do. I don't agree with that,
and I don't think anybody does. The university is the people who participate
in it. It's true that is set up as a business operation, but that's
what we ought to be upset about. If it's a public university, would
we say that the legislature has a right to decide what the university
does while the participants don't? A decently run university leaves
decision-making in the hands of participants. Take my university, which
is technically private: nobody would dream of allowing the trustees
to come in start dictating courses. If it's the fiduciary responsibility
of the administration to respond to the trustees why won't they allow
CS: Your debate
with Michel Foucault seems to symbolize an intellectual challenge posed
by postmodernism - to both the Left and Right. Do you think postmodernism
is a "threat" in the context of the academy or is it activism?
Chomsky: This was
30 years ago, and I don't think Foucault would have called himself a
postmodernist. I don't think those are the issues that came up in the
debate. I don't even know what postmodernism is. There are people who
call themselves postmodernists. I read them. Sometimes I find something
interesting and useful, sometimes I find things that are unintelligible
and irrelevant. I think their contributions have to be evaluated on
their own, independent of what label you give them. If you ask me what
postmodernism is, I couldn't tell you. There is a tendency in the intellectual
world to inflate what one is doing. Most of the time it's pretty straightforward
and simple. There are areas of quantum physics where you have take special
training to really understand what's going on, but most of what's done
is accessible with relative ease to people who are interested enough
to pursue it and find out about it.
CS: Some feminists
argue that by participating in marriage one is perpetuating a system
of oppression against women. Do you agree?
Chomsky: No, I wouldn't,
having been married some 53 years. It can be, but that's a choice. There's
nothing inherently oppressive about marriage, and in fact non-marital
relations can also be oppressive. If you really pursue that argument,
then sex ought to be outlawed, language ought to be outlawed. Language
has been used as a technique of oppression forever. We should stop talking.
CS: Richard Posner
recently published a book that included a ranking of the top 100 public
intellectuals. Do you think it is healthy to have "public intellectuals"
speak to Americans about moral questions.
Chomsky: First of
all, I think the book is an exercise in such silliness that I can't
even talk about it. Putting aside the silliness of that particular effort,
to be an intellectual is a vocation for anybody: it means using your
mind and applying it to issues of human significance. Some people are
privileged, powerful and usually conformist enough that they can make
their way into the public arena. That doesn't make them any more intellectual
than a taxi driver who happens to be thinking about the same things
and may be much smarter and much more understanding of them. It's a
question of power. What's a "public intellectual?" A public
intellectual is someone who can make it into the mainstream. How do
you make it into the mainstream? Not by talent. For the most part, by
conformism. That's not a high value.
CS: I've seen your
name in lists of celebrity atheists - would you characterize yourself
as an "atheist" and do you think atheists are marginalized
in today's society?
Chomsky: I never
felt marginalized because of my lack of religious beliefs. On the other
hand, if you ask me whether or not I'm an atheist, I wouldn't even answer.
I would first want an explanation of what it is that I'm supposed to
not believe in, and I've never seen an explanation.
CS: Do you think
we have a problem when the rhetoric in elections, for example during
the Gore-Lieberman campaign in the last presidential election, seems
to be so much dwelling on God and religion?
Chomsky: Those people
are about as religious as I am. But if you want to run for public office
where, say, 40% of the population believes that the world was created
6000 years ago, then you have to put on an act of being religious. But
if you bother to look, I suspect that Ronald Reagan, George Bush and
Bill Clinton are approximately as religious as I am.
CS: Is that problematic,
though, that you have to put on this act of being religious?
Chomsky: It's very
problematic. But the problem isn't only that they are pretending to
be religious. What's problematic is that we have a political system
in which candidates are crafted by the public relations industry to
take positions which nobody trusts nobody believes and to avoid issues
that are of great significance to the public. To avoid them, because
quite systematically, public opinion and the opinion of powerful sectors
- the elite opinion - have been different. But this is a problem about
American democracy. And what's more, the general population is well
aware of it. Politicians are not talking about the issues that the population
is concerned with. For example, polls show very clearly, that what are
called globalization issues - the trade deficit, trade agreements, opening
up public functions to private control, privatization - are major issues
for the public and they didn't come up in the election. There was no
discussion about the Free Trade Area of the Americas that was coming
up for a decision at the Summit of the Americas. A lot of people knew
about it because they live and function outside the domain of mass media.
But there's a huge effort to keep this information away from people,
and it does not arise on elections. What arises in the electoral system
is, "Is this the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with in
a bar?" And people know that this is a joke and that's why there's
so much cynicism.
CS: Have you seen
a change in the students who pass through MIT over the decades, especially
with respect to their political interests and leanings?
Chomsky: An enormous
difference. If you walked through the halls here forty years ago, you
would have found a white, male, straight-laced, very professionally-oriented
institution. If you walk through the halls today, it's about half women,
maybe 30% minorities, anything but straight-laced, interested in all
sorts of things. It's been a tremendous change over the last 40 years.
There was a big change in the 1960s, but then it extended and expanded.
CS: Activists look
back nostalgically now, though, saying that one could have a thousand
students out at a protest against the Vietnam War, whereas now
there are thousands and thousands and there isn't even anything like
the Vietnam War. Activism is far beyond what it was in the 60s. Protest
against the Vietnam War was so limited that we don't even remember the
war took place. March 2002 happened to be the fortieth anniversary of
the public announcement, by the Kennedy administration that the US Air
Force was starting to bomb South Vietnam. That was the month that they
began the use of chemical warfare to destroy crops, which had horrible
effects, when they authorized Napalm, when they began to drive millions
of people into concentration camps. A major war against South Vietnam
that was publicly launched 40 years ago - did anybody mention it in
March of this year? No. Of course nobody at the time even cared. You
know, attack another country, good, attack another country. There was
protest later, years later, but very little until a major war was going
on with hundreds of thousands of American troops rampaging around South
Vietnam.At that point you finally got protests, but by now the protests
are much greater in incidents that are bad enough but have much less
severity than that.
CS: In 20-30 years,
when the people who are now in college will be running the world, so
to speak, where do you see the US going?
Chomsky: Human affairs
is a very low-confidence activity and the record of prediction is horrible,
partly because we don't understand very much about complicated things
like that, but largely because these are matters of choice. There was
no way of predicting in 1960s if you looked at MIT or the rest of a
country that in a few years, developments would take place, that would
enormously change the country and make it far more civilized than it
was. There was no way of predicting that, and nobody did. Those were
the days, the 1960s, in which public intellectuals were talking about
what they called the "end of ideology," which meant no more
controversy, no more discussion, end of history. A common line of thinking
was that henceforth it was just a matter of technical manipulation of
small problems, which were done by experts. These experts explained
that there would be no more economic problems because they knew how
to run an economy with 3% growth just by tinkering. So, all the problems
were basically over and there was nothing much to talk about. A couple
of years later the country was blowing up. There's no way of predicting.