Sixties Radical

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Ron Chepesiuk

Excerpted from Sixties Radicals, Then and Now, McFarland, 1995, pp. 133-146 [late 1992]

QUESTION: Did you vote in the ’92 presidential elections?

CHOMSKY: Yeah, I voted.

QUESTION: You don’t seem too enthusiastic.

CHOMSKY: I voted more against [George] Bush than for anybody.

QUESTION: Does “anybody” mean the other mainstream candidate, Bill Clinton?

CHOMSKY: I voted for Clinton, not necessarily because I approve of his position, but because I think Bush would be worse.

QUESTION: How would you judge Clinton’s performance so far?

CHOMSKY: Some of his rhetoric is in the right direction, although the policies are continuing more or less the same. He has recognized that the problems of the American economy are structural, and he can’t fix them with Band-Aids. He understands that. The impact of the Reagan years has put an extreme burden on the poor and on future generations, which is not going to be easy to overcome. He recognizes that state interventions in the economy are not going to be confined by the forms preferred by radical Reaganite statist conservatives. You can’t hide things behind the Pentagon anymore.

QUESTION: Can anything be done to alleviate the serious social, political, and economic problems facing this country?

CHOMSKY: There are some marginal differences between Bush and Clinton, but they are not enormous. They roughly have the same commitments. They differ on how best to provide for the needs of the corporate sector, although there might be some openings in the Clinton administration for some of the other sectors. One thing that is significant in my mind is that another four years of court packing by ultrastatist reactionaries would be extremely harmful to civil liberties in this country. The Reagan and Bush administrations say they are conservatives trying to give a right-wing thrust to the courts. But they are actually statist reactionaries who believe that the courts should control you. That’s exactly what’s happening in the courts.

QUESTION: And that is quite ironic because conservatives are always preaching about how they are against big government and the intrusion of the state into the lives of citizens.

CHOMSKY: Yes, but the Reaganites are not conservatives. I’m much more conservative than they are. Any old time conservative would turn over in his grave if he could see how the term conservative was used in the 1980s.

QUESTION: It seems that with each presidential election, sound bites, and not the presentation of substantive issues, are becoming more and more important. I know you’ve written extensively about the impact of the media on society. Could you elaborate on what effect that development is having on the American system?

CHOMSKY: In one sense, it’s serving a useful effect. It’s revealing that the system is essentially vacuous. We are becoming like what we derisively call “a banana republic.” Take the election in Honduras, an election that George Bush described as “an inspiring example of democracy in action.” Well, they had two candidates, both representative of landowners and right-wing businessmen. There were no issues because they agreed on everything, so they spent their time throwing mud at each other. It was like a circus. We are getting more like that. The people who own and run this country want to distort and marginalize the public. They are deeply antidemocratic. The idea that the public should have some role in anything that is happening is an idea foreign to both American liberals and conservative right-wing reactionaries. Yes, the circus type atmosphere in which sound bites and mudslinging predominates has been the style in American politics.

QUESTION: But do you really think the average American buys your analysis? He would probably say, “That’s not true. The U.S. is the freest country on earth.”

CHOMSKY: No, he wouldn’t. The polls show that the level of alienation, the feeling that the “institutions do not work for me,” is at the highest level it’s ever been. The Harris polling organization has done a study of this every year for years. The Harris Poll shows that the sense of alienation reached its highest level last year [1991]. About two-thirds of the public feels alienated from every institution. About eighty-three percent respond that the economic system is inherently unfair. You wouldn’t find figures like that in Stalinist Russia. I think that was the reason for the growth of the Perot phenomenon. He came out of nowhere and was the leading candidate, even though he had no positions on any topic. A candidate could come from Mars and the American public would vote for him. They realize the American system is totally bankrupt.

QUESTION: You are one of the most severe and outspoken critics of U.S. foreign policy, and what you have said so far shows that. But you have been shut out of the mainstream press. In fact, I think the only time I have heard you in an interview in the mainstream [broadcast] media was on National Public Radio. Does that frustrate you?

CHOMSKY: National Public Radio … [Laughs] I was on for five minutes in the sixties and maybe an equivalent amount of time in the eighties. But no, I don’t. I do have constant access to the media in Canada, Europe, Australia, and other countries. But if I did have access to the mainstream media, I might begin to wonder if I’m doing something wrong. Am I being so supportive of power that they are willing to let me have access to the media? I would begin to question what I’m doing.

QUESTION: I guess the reason you haven’t been invited to present your views in the mainstream media is because you are considered a “radical.” Are you comfortable with that label?

CHOMSKY: A radical is someone who tries to get at the root of things. That’s what I try to do.

QUESTION: How would you describe the role of the radical in the American political context?

CHOMSKY: In the tradition of Thomas Paine and the better part of Thomas Jefferson. In modern times, Eugene Debs … and other people who have done something decent for this country.

QUESTION: Were your views on politics always outside the mainstream?

CHOMSKY: Yes, ever since I’ve been ten years old.

QUESTION: How did your family background shape your political views?

CHOMSKY: I grew up in the Depression. My family on both sides were immigrants. My parents were teachers and very much a part of the Jewish community. They were [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt Democrats, which is what you would expect. One wing of my family, my father’s side, was extremely conservative Jewish. In fact, they lived in the seventeenth century. The other side, which I gravitated toward, was Jewish working class and mostly unemployed. They had little formal education in the sense of going to school, but were very educated people. In fact, that part of my family life was the most lively intellectual atmosphere I’ve experienced in my life. That includes my years at Harvard. They read and went to concerts and represented every kind and brand of radical politics. That had an influence on me.

QUESTION: Were you a part of the Jewish cultural tradition?

CHOMSKY: Oh, yes. I was a part of an immigrant community that hung on to that tradition.

QUESTION: But you have been described as a self-hating Jew because of your outspoken criticism of Israel and your support of the Palestinian cause. Has that criticism bothered you?

CHOMSKY: It bothered me when my parents were alive because they lived in the Jewish community and were hurt by all the slime and mud that was thrown at me. They felt hurt by it even though they agreed with my position. In fact, in Israel, my position is not particularly controversial. The Jewish community in the U.S. is like other ethnic communities in the U.S. For reasons I don’t entirely understand, ethnic communities in this country regress toward chauvinistic and fanatical aspects of the original culture. That’s apparently true in the Jewish community. In the techniques it uses, the Jewish community these days acts like old-fashioned Stalinists. They are constantly dividing the world up into three categories. You got to follow the straight right-wing party line in Israel. If you do that, you are okay and fit the first category. But if you don’t, you are either one of two categories: Jewish or non-Jewish. By definition, if you are non-Jewish, you are an anti-semite. If you are a Jew, you are a self-hating Jew. Okay, that takes care of the world. Once upon a time in this country, the Jewish Anti-Defamation League used to be a civil rights organization. Now it’s more like a Jewish Stalinist organization. It heaps piles of slime and fabrications on people who are “not loyal to Israel.” They circulate all kinds of lies and fabrications just like the old Communist party.

QUESTION: So you have been cut off from the Jewish community.

CHOMSKY: Well, that’s their decision. If they want to cut me off, that’s fine. I can’t lead my life for them. I don’t belong to any organizations.

QUESTION: Why not?

CHOMSKY: I don’t know of any to belong to. At one time I did. I was one of the founders of RESIST during the 1960s and the anti-Vietnam War movement.

QUESTION: Counseling young people?

CHOMSKY: It began as a support organization for the antiwar resistance and then it expanded to become a support group for all sorts of activism.

QUESTION: Could you recall how you got involved in the antiwar movement?

CHOMSKY: I got involved in 1964 as an individual who was very much opposed to Kennedy’s war, which used to be Eisenhower’s war. I reached the point where I decided I couldn’t keep quiet any longer, and I started to give talks wherever I could — churches, peace groups… It was extremely hard because nobody cared. You just couldn’t find an audience.

QUESTION: That was before the teach-ins, right?

CHOMSKY: Yeah, when sometimes four people would show up — the organizers and a couple of drunks off the street.

QUESTION: What kept you going and wanting to speak up?

CHOMSKY: It got so horrible over there [in South Vietnam] that I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror anymore. I thought there was absolutely no hope of any political opposition to the war developing. What was going on over there was no secret. One could read the front page of the New York Times and find out that the U.S. was bombing South Vietnam. It was a very different culture in those days. If the American people read today about the U.S. bombing a country like it did Vietnam in the sixties, they would get very upset about it. But in those days, people didn’t bat an eyelash. You couldn’t get two people to sit in a room and talk about Vietnam. There has been a big cultural change since the sixties, and it’s a great improvement. By 1965, I was involved with trying to organize tax resistance and had refused to pay taxes. By 1966 and ’67, I was involved practically in every kind of activism. There was plenty to do.

QUESTION: Did the U. S. government put pressure on you because of your refusal to pay taxes?

CHOMSKY: Not on the tax issue, which kind of surprised me because I was one of the organizers of the tax resistance campaign. I expected it, but nothing happened. I knew the FBI kept a file on me, and I was on Nixon’s enemies list. I was an unindicted coconspirator in the Spock trial. In fact, on the first day of his trial, they said I was next in line to be prosecuted. The only reason I wasn’t was because the FBI was so incompetent it picked all the wrong people to prosecute.

QUESTION: How did it come about that you became an unindicted coconspirator in the Spock trial?

CHOMSKY: It was a classic example of the total incompetence of the U.S. government. The national organization was very public. We did little in secret in our efforts to support people in the armed Forces. Our people would get in the town hall and say, “We are going to do this.” So it was an open and shut case. The question was: Who is organizing the resistance? They could never figure that out, although it was public. The authorities zeroed in on two incidents. The first occurred in New York, where an organization called “Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority” held a news conference. The other incident was at the Justice Department where a demonstration occurred. Anybody involved in those two things was considered a coconspirator, except they got people mixed up. In fact, during the whole trial, the FBI couldn’t get the Jewish names right. All during the trial, I was confused with Herschel Kaminsky. The guy they were after was Art Rasko, but the guy they picked up was Marcus Raskin. They didn’t look at all like each other. The whole thing was like a comic opera. Ben Spock and Bill Coffin were asked to come every time we had a public event because they were visible and brought the press. They were quite happy to show up. The only reason I wasn’t picked up was because, while everybody was walking into the Justice Department with their draft cards, I was haranguing the crowd outside and couldn’t go in with them. In fact, I was the guy who brought down the draft cards from Boston where they had been collected. But the FBI investigating was totally incompetent and couldn’t figure any of this stuff out.

QUESTION: What was the outcome of the trial?

CHOMSKY: They were convicted, but it was overthrown on appeal. The judge was out of his mind and made all kinds of errors. In the midst of all this, the Tet Offensive happened. It changed everything. After Tet, the corporate sector decided the war had to end because it was becoming too costly, and they basically fired Lyndon Johnson and told the government that it had to start pulling out of Vietnam. Now that had a big effect and made for an enormous change. Up until December 1967, everybody was a hawk. Starting in February 1968, everybody who was not a dove was saying they had been a dove all along. One of the effects of this was that the government gave up. A classic example was [U.S. Attorney General] Ramsey Clark, who prosecuted the case against the draft resisters, but now he turned against the war.

QUESTION: So, in your opinion, the Tet Offensive was the watershed?

CHOMSKY: Absolutely. No question about it. It changed the country’s elite totally. If you look at the Kennedy intellectuals like [Arthur] Schlesinger and that crowd, they have two versions of what happened [with Vietnam]. There are the memoirs they wrote before the Tet Offensive, and the books they wrote after it; they are radically different. In the books before Tet, there is no hint that anybody wanted to withdraw from Vietnam. The books after Tet are full of explanations about how Kennedy had plans to withdraw from Vietnam. The game was over by that date, of course, and they wanted to cover their asses.

QUESTION: As the war got out of control for the U.S. war machine, U.S. officials constantly lied about their actions in Vietnam …

CHOMSKY: I don’t think the military lied much, to tell you the truth. That’s where I disagree with a lot of people.

QUESTION: But isn’t that why a lot of Americans got disillusioned with the war?

CHOMSKY: I don’t think the military or even the government lied that much. The idea that the government lied and the military lied is really a press impression. Take the secret war in Cambodia or the secret war in Laos that Nixon was attacked for. Were the bombings secret? I knew all about them.

QUESTION: But the average American didn’t know about the secret bombings.

CHOMSKY: Yeah, that’s because the press wasn’t reporting what it knew. Until this day, we don’t know a lot about the secret bombing of Cambodia, for a very simple reason — journalists like Sidney Schanberg, who is supposed to be “the conscience of the press,” were sitting in Phonm Penh, refusing to interview the million and half refugees who were literally across the street. That’s why we don’t know about the secret war. It’s not because of government lying.

QUESTION: That’s an interesting analysis because the people who said we should have won the war blame the press for what happened in Vietnam.

CHOMSKY: The press was totally servile. I wrote a couple of hundred pages about this — in a book called Manufacturing Consent — which deals with the media’s coverage of the Vietnam War. To this day, the American press supports state power. Take a recent news story, for example: A few days ago in the New York Times, there was an article about the Emperor of Japan going to China and how he hadn’t been forthcoming enough in admitting Japan was guilty for its actions against China in World War II. To the left of that story was another one about Vietnam and how George Bush had said he was going to insist on retribution against Vietnam for all the so-called crimes committed and how we want them to come clean finally. Speak of war guilt! If the Emperor of Japan had gone to China and said, “We forgive you guys for allowing us to invade you, but we insist on retribution,” that would be regarded as a reversion to Nazism. That’s the front page of the New York Times, and nobody batted an eyelash. Americans accept that kind of thinking. The [American] elites accept that we are Nazis, that we want to attack a country, wipe it out, and destroy a couple of million people. The U.S. even insists on retribution! Find someone who questions that. That’s a good example of the servility of the press. I don’t think there is any totalitarian state in history that ever achieved this.

QUESTION: You have written that the U.S. has never ended its efforts to win the war in Vietnam and that this is an extension of what the U.S. has been trying to do since 1945 — establish a world imperial economy dominated by U.S. capital.

CHOMSKY: That’s not even arguable. It’s stated in the open record … in the public documents.

QUESTION: What have been the consequences?

CHOMSKY: It’s a long story that began about 1945. The U.S. elite knew at the time that they were in a position of unimaginable power that had no historical precedent. They wanted to organize the world in the interests of the forces they represented, which is the U.S. corporate sector. The first step was to reconstruct the industrial societies of Japan and Germany, which were under U.S. control. The industrial societies, including the minor ones like France and England, had to be returned to conservative business rule. That meant anti-Fascist collaborators, including outright war criminals, had to be put in power. The anti-Fascist resistance had to be destroyed, which was done all over the world. The labor movement had to undermined … things of that kind. That was done everywhere, including throughout the Third World. The next step was to organize that restructured world. The U.S. was the only productive economy at that point, and we had a huge surplus of goods and nobody to buy them. The U.S. elite worried about the dollar gap. “How could we overcome that?” they thought. One way was to implement the Marshall Plan. Another way was to reconstruct the old traditional colonial relationships so there could be triangular trading patterns. The U.S. would use dollars to purchase the raw material from the colonies. So, if we bought, say, rubber from Malaysia, Britain would get the dollars because they would sell that country something or other, and then Britain would use the dollars to buy manufacturing exports. That was the rough idea. The Third World had to be returned to the state it was before World War II — it’s in the documentary record. Africa had to be exploited for the reconstruction of Europe after ’45. Latin America was to belong to the United States. Southeast Asia had to fulfill its main function as a source of raw material. That meant any kind of radical nationalism in the Third World was intolerable and had to be stopped. That was the basis for intervention, which is what happened in Vietnam. If a nationalistic movement looked like it was going to be successful, it had to be extinguished or other nationalist movements might get the same idea. That was history of the post-World War II period to 1970.

QUESTION: So the Vietnam War was not an aberration in American history?

CHOMSKY: It was not an aberration, but it got out of hand. They expected it to be a small war.

QUESTION: Looking back to the period of the late sixties and early seventies, it looked to many activists that America was on the brink of civil war. Did you share that sentiment?

CHOMSKY: The Pentagon certainly shared that belief. In fact, one part of the Pentagon Papers, which surprisingly has not received a lot of attention, has to do with the post-Tet period. In early 1968, the Pentagon Papers showed that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were very concerned about sending another couple of hundred thousand troops [to Vietnam] because they thought they would have to use them here in the U.S. to quell civil disorder. No one really wants to comment on that because it reveals how effective the movement was. The people aren’t supposed to know they can be effective.

QUESTION: So the movement was effective?

CHOMSKY: Oh, yes. If there hadn’t been a movement, the U.S. would have ended up probably using tactical nuclear weapons, or at least escalating the war.

QUESTION: How would you explain the eclipse of the ~peace movement? It seemed to have disintegrated by the end of the Vietnam War.

CHOMSKY: That’s just propaganda. It was big in the sixties and seventies and was much bigger in the eighties than the seventies. The movement began to include much broader sectors of the American public and became more deeply rooted in American life. For example, when Ronald Reagan took office, he tried to emulate Kennedy as far as Central America was concerned. He published a White Paper that was just like Kennedy’s 1961 White Paper. Reagan’s paper was a precursor to a possible invasion of Nicaragua and the sending of troops to El Salvador. But the public reaction was enormous and negative, so he had to back down. He went the clandestine route and developed a secret international network since the public wouldn’t tolerate anything overt. That’s because the antiwar movement was so vast it covered most of the country. So any talk about the demise of the movement is just nonsense. It’s still strong.

QUESTION: But it doesn’t seem to have the cohesion the Vietnam antiwar movement did. The movement today seems fragmented.

CHOMSKY: Yeah, but suppose the Anita Hill episode had happened thirty years ago. Nobody would have given a damn. But things have changed. Or suppose the Columbus quincentennial had happened in 1962 [instead of 1992]. It would have been another celebration of the liberation of the hemisphere. But it wasn’t, and that’s because of the enormous changes in public attitude on every issue.

QUESTION: But if the movement was so strong, why was there so little protest against the Gulf War?

CHOMSKY: That’s a fabrication of the real situation. There was more protest against the Gulf War than against any U.S. action in history. There was a huge protest against the Gulf War before it started. In the case of Vietnam, there were 200,000 troops in Vietnam, and we had been bombing the country for five years before there was any protest.

QUESTION: But I live in South Carolina, and all I saw on television was a few isolated protests, mainly in San Francisco. Polls showed the U.S. public overwhelmingly backed its government in the Gulf War.

CHOMSKY: In January [1991], there were two protests in Washington involving a couple of hundred thousand people, one before the war started and one after. There has never been anything like that in the history of any imperial power. Can you remember another instance where the American people protested a war before it began?

QUESTION: Your essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” defined the sixties peace movement as much as any document of that period. Does that essay still have relevance today?

CHOMSKY: There is nothing particularly profound about that essay. It points out something that goes back to the origins of history and illustrates the fact that any system of power, whatever it is, is going to have a priesthood — a group — that is going to guard the official doctrine and try to indoctrinate the people. You go back far enough in history and you find it was a religious priesthood. Today, it’s a kind of secular priesthood. People that obtain wealth and privilege within a system are those who are overwhelmingly system-supportive; that is, they sell out to the power. They are the so-called respected intellectuals. Then there are people of integrity who take justice and honesty seriously and try to break free of the power.

QUESTION: The mass media is a classic example of what you are talking about, isn’t it? You have a select group of journalists in Washington who represent and are a part of the power elite in Washington…

CHOMSKY: But it’s also true of the universities and many other areas of American society. The mass media is a more visible example because it is easier to study. It’s much more difficult to make a systemic study of the universities.

QUESTION: Looking back to the sixties, apart from your anti-Vietnam War activities, were you ever a part of the sixties counterculture life-style … the drugs and sex, etc.?

CHOMSKY: Not really. I’m kind of old-fashioned. Some people might describe my life-style as being in the mold of “Leave It to Beaver.” [Laughs] I like rock music but the old-fashioned kind.

QUESTION: [Laughs] Today, it’s fashionable to denigrate the sixties. I ran across a statement from Daniel Bell, the noted sociologist, who said, “The decade represented the last gasp of American romanticism gone sour by rancour and impatience.” Is there any merit to Bell’s critique of the sixties legacy?

CHOMSKY: It’s nonsense. In 1959, Daniel Bell wrote a book called The End of Ideology in which he predicted there was never again going to be any more protest; in effect, it was going to be the end of history. Then the country blew up. That shows the value of his analysis. The sixties created a big mass movement involving a lot of young people, so naturally it had a lot of freaky things about it. But it had an enormous impact on this society and other countries. Daniel Bell probably didn’t like what happened. But today, there is much more concern now over oppression and the questions of peace and justice. There is more respect for other cultures. Of course, the elites in this country hate it, but they are the commissars and control the writing of history.

QUESTION: Are you opposed to Western capitalism?

CHOMSKY: I’m not opposed to Western capitalism. Look around the world and you find various systems that differ in many respects. Some have better features than others and that includes the U.S. The U.S., for example, has more provisions for freedom of speech than probably any other country. But there has never been a country that allows any kind of democratic involvement on the issues. There never has been a society like that.

QUESTION: Could you sketch a society that you would like to see?

CHOMSKY: I would like to see a society in which the public plays a meaningful role on matters of public policy. That includes everything from how to run the local schools to where resources should be invested. That requires a lot of functioning organizations. People can’t do it alone. They have to be organized. I would like a society in which workers have control of factories and the community controls what’s in the community — pretty much what the old-fashioned anarchists described.

QUESTION: You are a world renowned linguist, as well as a full-time activist. How do you manage to balance the two careers?

CHOMSKY: It’s pretty wearying. [Laughs]

QUESTION: [Laughs] It was tough scheduling an interview with you. Your schedule is like one the President of the U.S. keeps. You have it laid out by the hour.

CHOMSKY: I’m already working on my 1995 schedule.

QUESTION: Wow! [Laughs] Why have you been at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] so long?

CHOMSKY: I like it. I have plenty of opportunities there. I like the atmosphere … the intellectual atmosphere.

QUESTION: One might ask why do you work at MIT when it’s a part of the military-industrial complex running the “imperial” power you criticize?

CHOMSKY: Isn’t everything in this country [a part of the military-industrial complex]? I have been at universities around the world and this [MIT] is the freest and the most honest and has the best relations between faculty and students than at any other university I have seen. That may be because MIT is a science-based university. Scientists are different. They tend to work together, and there is much less hierarchy.

QUESTION: Has MIT put any pressure on you to curb your radical views?

CHOMSKY: None whatsoever. In fact, by general standards, they have quite a good record on civil liberties. That was shown to be particularly true during the sixties when I got into a lot of trouble. I’m sure they were getting a lot of alumni and community pressure because of my activities.

QUESTION: Is that pressure still there?

CHOMSKY: No, not really. It’s interesting. The MIT faculty would be regarded as very conservative, but we all get along better here than faculty do at a lot of other universities.

QUESTION: In looking back at your long activist career, can you really say you made a difference?

CHOMSKY: Probably, but it’s hard to say. Anyway, people keep wanting me to come back and give more talks. [Laughs] And I have a huge correspondence. I must spend twenty hours a week just answering letters.

QUESTION: Where do the letters come from?

CHOMSKY: From all over the place. A lot of people in this country feel isolated. They may have heard something I said on the radio or read something from one of my books and it struck a chord.

QUESTION: And what about your future?

CHOMSKY: I don’t think I will be doing anything different. I don’t see any major changes in the way things are in the world. Over the last few years, there have been some wins but mostly losses for the kinds of issues I think are important.

QUESTION: Could you give an example?

CHOMSKY: Well, there has been a chipping away of labor rights to the extent that we are now back to where we were sixty or seventy years ago in terms of labor rights. The fact that Caterpillar Tractor was able to hire scabs when its workers went on strike puts us back one hundred years. That that could happen in an industrialized society today is amazing. So I see a lot of things to fight for in the coming years … which is what I plan to do.