America’s Public Enemy #1

Noam Chomsky interviewed by an anonymous interviewer

London Student, March 11, 1993

QUESTION: Professor Chomsky, the Guardian [a UK newspaper] recently described you as ‘America’s Public Enemy No.1’. Is this a fair comment?

CHOMSKY: It depends which America you mean. If it’s the general public, the statement would be absurd, if only because few have ever heard of me. Within that fraction, reactions vary. Among the general public (outside of elite intellectuals and the like) there seems to be considerable interest, to judge by reactions. On the very rare occasions when I have a chance to appear within the mainstream, there is invariably a very large response; I’ve often been told that it goes far beyond the norm. Typically the response is something like, ‘I thought I was the only person who had such thoughts. Where can I find out more?’

If by ‘America’ you mean those [who] hold effective power, and those who serve their interests in the doctrinal institutions under the guise of journalism and scholarship, the remark might have some merit. At least, I hope so; if I were to find, say, reference to anything I write in such circles — say, by the current Washington correspondent of the journal you cite — I’d begin to worry. Anyone who keeps to the most elementary commitments of honesty and decency, if known at all, should make it to the ‘enemies list’ of the commissar class.

QUESTION: Bill Clinton claims to be ‘of the Sixties’, part of a new generation. You’ve said that the sixties was a time of positive change in America. Does this mean that the Clinton Presidency will be a good thing, or at least better than the Reagan/Bush years? What do you think we can expect from the new US administration? Did you vote for Clinton?

CHOMSKY: The Sixties was a very complex period. There was much ferment among the generally passive and obedient majority, along with efforts by marginalized groups to organise, to enter the political arena to press their interests and concerns, to come to understand something about their world, and to do something about it. Unsurprisingly, that aroused great apprehension and anger among those used to giving orders and running the show without interference. They saw the ferment as a ‘crisis of democracy’ — in plain English, a threat of democracy, a grave danger that must be overcome. The fear has often reached sheer hysteria; one could read in ‘Encounter’, for example, lurid fairy tales – possibly believed by their authors – about libraries burning and calls to destroy universities thundering throughout the land, coupled with demands to ‘squeeze the pus’ out of the universities, where black students were ‘a curse’, and other Stalinist-style rhetoric of the kind that is second nature in such circles.

These reactions, ranging from concern to comical tantrums, reflected something real, important, and I think lasting. Cultural and moral progress is manifest in a great many areas: with regard to racist and sexist oppression; respect for other cultures; environmental and ecological concerns; the right of the state to engage freely in violence, terror, aggression and subversion (a right endangered by the dread ‘Vietnam syndrome’, a disease that spread widely outside of elite circles, who remained largely immune); and much else. It even became possible, for the first time in hundreds of years, to face the ‘original sin’ of American history: what the Founding Fathers frankly described as the explusion and ‘extermination’ of the native population, a terrible story that had been buried and falsified for centuries.

As late as 1969, one could read, in a respected scholarly diplomatic history, that after the revolution, Americans ‘concentrated on the task of felling trees and Indians and of rounding out their natural boundaries’ (Thomas Bailey). Such vulgarity would be impossible today, just as a whole range of racist, sexist and jingoist rhetoric is now regarded as what it is.

The movements of the Sixties have grown and proliferated since, and sunk significant roots in the general society. Like any large-scale popular movement – particularly one that involved young people to an unusual extent – there has been a periphery of nuttiness and sometimes outrageous actions, though even when the tales are true, the crimes alleged would scarcely merit a line in an honest history; similarly, abuses of freedom of expression and rights charged to ‘PC left fascists’ exist, but are scarcely detectable in the mountain of abuses conducted regularly by the powerful, and considered proper or insignificant by the reigning culture.

Whether Clinton took part in any of the serious and significant activities of these years, I do not know. If so, it has been suppressed. He has presented himself, and has been presented by others, as a careerist, attending to his own concerns and future prospects, modelling himself on John F. Kennedy and his ‘action intellectuals’ – one of the more dangerous groups to have come close to power in US history. Nevertheless, in answer to your question, I voted for him; or, to put it more accurately, I voted against Bush, joining the majority of the fraction of the electorate that bothered to take part. Clinton was not a popular candidate, to put it mildly, and his major policy positions, shared with the Republicans, are opposed by the majority of the population, as has been the case throughout the 1980s, contrary to standard propaganda.

QUESTION: What’s your opinion of the recent intervention in Somalia? Under what circumstances can military intervention be justified? What about Bosnia?

CHOMSKY: The intervention in Somalia is largely a PR operation for the Pentagon, a fact scarcely disguised. One hopes that it will help Somalis more than it will harm them in the long run, but if so, that is incidental; basically they are props for photo opportunities. These are major issues that merit much more comment than is possible here.

There is no military intervention in Bosnia because someone might shoot back; the PR goal would not be achieved. If the West does intervene to limit the slaughter there (which I doubt) it will be for other reasons, perhaps fear of reactions in the Islamic world.

QUESTION: You’ve been very critical of British Government policy towards Indonesia. We don’t hear much about Indonesia here in the UK. What’s going on there? What are the British Government doing? Why do you think it’s wrong?

CHOMSKY: If Britain were a functioning democracy, you would hear a lot about what it has been doing in Indonesia ever since the euphoric response to the huge bloodbath in 1965, when General Suharto presided over the slaughter of hundred of thousands of people, mostly landless peasants, destroying the only mass-based popular movement in the country, and opening it to foreign investors. He then distinguished himself with one of the world’s worst human rights records, and in 1975, invaded East Timor, slaughtering hundreds of thousands more, probably the worst atrocity relative to population since the Holocaust. The terror there continues today. Accordingly Suharto is considered a pleasant enough fellow; he is ‘at heart benign’, as the ‘Economist’ puts it, thinking, no doubt, of his attitude towards foreign investors.

As for Britain, it has responded to the terror in East Timor (and within Indonesia) by labouring to become the largest military supplier to the murders. Your Government merits semi-praise for its semi-honesty. ‘The point of selling Hawk aircraft to Indonesia is to give jobs to people in this country,’ Armed Forces Minister Archie Hamilton stated, using the conventional Orwellism ‘jobs’ to refer to profits. As explained by Alan Clark of the Ministry of Defence with respect to another favoured client, Saddam Hussein, ‘I don’t think [his human rights record] is any of our business frankly’; ‘the arms trade is… extremely… prosperous… it’s very good for employment and industrial activity in this country.’

The British intellectual class have had to work overtime to cloak the US-UK war in the Gulf in the mantle of Virtue and High Principle while British Aerospace entered into huge military contracts with Suharto, the Saddam Hussein clone who is still ‘at heart benign’, not yet having disobeyed orders.

Why do I think it is wrong to provide the means for the slaughter and terror of Saddam Hussein, General Suharto, and a host of other favoured gangsters? I presume the question is rhetorical.

QUESTION: What motivates you to keep going with your political writing? Are you optimistic about anything? What gives you hope?

CHOMSKY: We know that – and to some extent why – it is impossible to predict the weather at all closely. Weather is a triviality compared with human affairs, hence to ask whether one is optimistic about the future is vastly more ridiculous than to ask whether one expects a white Christmas in Boston in 1997. Of course, I have my own judgements about likely outcomes, very often wrong. The US attacked South Vietnam in 1962 (what is called ‘the defence of South Vietnam’ in the amusing construction labelled ‘history’). I became active in protest sometime after that, far too late, to my constant regret since. At the time, I was utterly pessimistic. There seemed not the slightest possibility that the apathetic and conformist US population could ever face the realities, and the circumstances supported that conclusion. It was not until late 1966 that in Boston, perhaps the centre of American liberalism, public protest against the war could proceed without violent disruption – by students, incidentally, and with the approval of liberal elites.

When I became involved in resistance and support for it, the prospects seemed to me to be close to zero; the more active of us expected to end up with long jail sentences, and probably would have, had it not been for the Tet offensive of January 1968, which convinced corporate America that the game was not worth the candle. My pessimism was completely wrong – at least for the general population which regards the war as ‘fundamentally wrong and immoral’, not ‘a mistake’, by a relatively stable 70% majority. That’s only one case. I don’t have the slightest faith in my judgements on these matters, nor should others.

To put it in personal terms, I’d like to see some progress towards a world in which my grandchildren will be able to live without suffering, and without shame because of the suffering of others. People with privilege — I’m one — have the unusual advantage, denied to most people, that they can dedicate part of their lives to that goal at slight personal cost. What difference does it make what my personal judgements might be about the prospects?