Activism, Anarchism, and Power

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Harry Kreisler

Conversations with History, March 22, 2002


Noam, welcome to Berkeley. Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Philadelphia, in 1928. I stayed there until I went through undergraduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, then went on to Harvard for a couple of a years in a research fellowship, and graduate school. When I was done with that, went over to MIT, and I’ve been in Boston ever since, around Boston since about 1950.

Your parents both were Hebrew grammarians and taught Hebrew school?

My father was, professionally, a Hebrew scholar, and worked with Hebrew grammar. And my mother was a Hebrew teacher. My father sort of ran the Hebrew school system in the city of Philadelphia, and my mother taught in it. He taught in Hebrew College later. There’s a Graduate University of Jewish Studies, Dropsie College, which he taught in. But they were all part of what amounted to kind of a Hebrew ghetto, Jewish ghetto in Philadelphia — not a physical ghetto, it was scattered around the city, but cultural ghetto.

Was Hebrew the language spoken at home?

No, it was in the background. So, for example, by the time I was, eight or nine, on Friday evenings my father and I would read Hebrew literature together.

How do you think your parents shaped your perspectives on the world?

Those are always very hard questions, because it’s a combination of influence and resistance, which is difficult to sort out. Undoubtedly, the background shaped the kinds of interests and tendencies and directions that I pursued. But it was independent. More direct influences actually came from other parts of the family. My parents were immigrants, and they happened to end up in Philadelphia, but my mother from New York and my father from Baltimore. When he came over in 1913, for whatever reason, his family went to Baltimore, and my mother’s family from another part of the pale of settlement came to New York. And they were two different families — there was the New York family and the Baltimore family, and we were in the middle in Philadelphia, so we naturally went up and back; they were close by.

The families were totally different. The Baltimore family was ultra-orthodox. In fact, my father told me that they had become more orthodox when they got here than they even were in the shtetl (town) in the Ukraine where they came from. In general, there was a tendency among some sectors of immigrants to intensify the cultural tradition, probably as a way of identifying themselves in a strange environment, I suppose. So that was that family.

The other part of the family, my mother’s, was mainly Jewish working class — very radical. The Jewish element had disappeared. This is 1930s, so they were part of the ferment of radical activism that was going on in the thirties in all sorts of ways. Of all of them, the one that actually did influence me a great deal was an uncle — an uncle by marriage; he married my aunt — who was an extremely interesting person. He came into the family when I was about seven or eight and became a big influence. He had grown up in New York, also from an immigrant family. But he had grown up in a poor area of New York. In fact, he himself never went past fourth grade — on the streets, you know, and this criminal background, and all [the things that were] going on in the underclass ghettos in New York. He happened to have a physical deformity, so he was able to get a newsstand under a compensation program that was run in the 1930s for people with disabilities. He had a newsstand on 72nd Street in New York; lived nearby in a little apartment. I spent a lot of time there.

That newsstand became an intellectual center for émigrés from Europe, lots of Germans and other émigrés were coming. He wasn’t a very educated person, formally; like I said, he never went past fourth grade, but maybe the most educated person I’ve ever met. Self-educated. Without going through the whole story, he ended up being a lay analyst in a Riverside Drive apartment in New York. But the newsstand itself was a very lively, intellectual center — professors of this and that arguing all night. And working at the newsstand was a lot of fun.

So the newspapers and events of the world, mixed up with ideas. Almost like a coffee house without the coffee, I guess.

Yes, the newspapers were kind of like an artifact. So, for example, I went for years thinking that there’s a newspaper called Newsinmira. And the reason is, as people came out of the subway station and raced passed the newsstand, they would say “Newsinmira,” what I heard that way, and I gave them two tabloids, which I later discovered were the News and the Mirror. And I noticed that as soon as they picked up the “Newsinmira,” the first thing they opened to was the sports page. So this is an eight-year-old picture of the world. There were newspapers there, but that wasn’t all there was — that was kind of like the background of the discussions that were going on.

Through him and through other influences, I got myself involved in the ongoing thirties radicalism, and was very much part of the Hebrew-based, Zionist-oriented — this is Palestine, pre-Israel — Palestine-oriented life. And that was a good part of my life. I became a Hebrew teacher myself, a Zionist youth leader, combining it with the radical activism in various ways. Actually, that’s the way I got into linguistics.

Formative influences, as I understand it, in this period for you, are reading George Orwell, and also, in terms of events, the Depression and the Spanish Civil War. Tell us a little about that.

It came the other way. Orwell’s great book, in my opinion, his greatest book, Homage to Catalonia, I think was first published in 1937, but it was suppressed — a couple hundred copies published, both in England and the United States; it was essentially suppressed. The reason was it was very anticommunist, and in those days that didn’t sell. During the Second World War, it was totally suppressed because you couldn’t [criticize] “Uncle Joe.” So it didn’t sell, what he was doing. His book finally reached the public — this is from memory, so maybe the dates are wrong — but I think it was around 1947 or ’48, with an introduction by Lionel Trilling, and it was presented as a Cold War document at that time. I mean, Orwell, who had died already, would have hated it. And that’s when I found Homage to Catalonia. But I had been interested in the Spanish Civil War long before.

You actually wrote, your first essay was as a ten-year-old …

… On the Spanish Civil War.

What did you say then, and what do you think now about how that event and your response to it influenced you?

Well, the article was … you know, like you said, I was ten years old. I’m sure I would not want to read it today. I remember what it was about because I remember what struck me. This was right after the fall of Barcelona, the Fascist forces had conquered Barcelona, and that was essentially the end of the Spanish Civil War. And the article was about the spread of fascism around Europe. So it started off by talking about Munich and Barcelona, and the spread of the Nazi power, fascist power, which was extremely frightening.

Just to add a little word of personal background, we happened to be, for most of my childhood, the only Jewish family in a mostly Irish and German Catholic neighborhood, sort of a lower middle-class neighborhood, which was very anti-Semitic, and quite pro-Nazi. It’s obvious why the Irish would be: they hated the British; it’s not surprising the Germans were [anti-Semitic]. I can remember beer parties when Paris fell. And the sense of the threat of this black cloud spreading over Europe was very frightening. I could pick up my mother’s attitudes, particularly; she was terrified by it.

It was also in my personal life, because I saw the streets. Interesting; for some reason which I do not understand to this day, my brother and I never talked to our parents about it. I don’t think they knew that we were living in an anti-Semitic neighborhood. But on the streets, you know, you go out and play ball with kids, or try to walk to the bus or something, it was a constant threat. It was just the kind of thing you didn’t talk to your parents about, and knew for some reason, you didn’t talk to them. To the day of their death they didn’t know. But there was this combination of the knowing that this cloud was spreading over the world, and picking up, particularly, my mother’s attitudes, very upset about it — my father too, but more constrained — and knowing from the uncles and aunts some of the background, and living it in the streets in my own daily life, that made it very real.

Anyhow, by the late thirties, I did become quite interested in Spanish anarchism and the Spanish Civil War, where all of this was being fought out at the time. It was right before the World War broke out, but a kind of microcosm was going on in Spain. By the time I was old enough to get on a train by myself, like around ten or eleven, I would go to New York for a weekend and stay with my aunt and uncle, and hang around at anarchist bookstores down around Union Square and Fourth Avenue, There were little bookstores with émigrés, really interesting people. To my mind they looked about ninety; they were maybe in their forties or something, who were very interested in young people. They wanted young people to come along, so they spent a lot of attention. Talking to these people was a real education.

And out of that, when I wrote the article, it was with that background. It was long before I heard of Orwell.

Anarchism and Power

These experiences we’ve described, you were saying they led you into linguistics, but also led you into your view of politics and of the world. You’re a libertarian anarchist, and when one hears that, because of the way issues are framed in this country, there’s often many misperceptions — and also because of things that you’ve written. Help us understand what that means. In other words, it doesn’t mean that you favor chaos or no government, necessarily.

The United States is sort of out of the world on this topic. Britain is to a limited extent, but the United States is like on Mars. So here, the term “libertarian” means the opposite of what it always meant in history. Libertarian throughout modern European history meant socialist anarchist. It meant the anti-state element of the Workers Movement and the Socialist Movement. It sort of broke into two branches, roughly, one statist, one anti-statist. The statist branch led to Bolshevism and Lenin and Trotsky, and so on. The anti-statist branch, which included Marxists, Left Marxists — Rosa Luxemburg and others — kind of merged, more or less, into an amalgam with a big strain of anarchism into what was called “libertarian socialism.” So libertarian in Europe always meant socialist. Here it means ultra-conservative — Ayn Rand or Cato Institute or something like that. But that’s a special U.S. usage. There are a lot of things quite special about the way the United States developed, and this is part of it. There [in Europe] it meant, and always meant to me, socialist and anti-state, an anti-state branch of socialism, which meant a highly organized society, completely organized and nothing to do with chaos, but based on democracy all the way through. That means democratic control of communities, of workplaces, of federal structures, built on systems of voluntary association, spreading internationally. That’s traditional anarchism. You know, anybody can have the word if they like, but that’s the mainstream of traditional anarchism.

And it has roots. Coming back to the United States, it has very strong roots in the American working class movements. So if you go back to, say, the 1850s, the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, right around the area where I live, in Eastern Massachusetts, in the textile plants and so on, the people working on those plants were, in part, young women coming off the farm. They were called “factory girls,” the women from the farms who worked in the textile plants. Some of them were Irish, immigrants in Boston and that group of people. They had an extremely rich and interesting culture. They’re kind of like my uncle who never went past fourth grade — very educated, reading modern literature. They didn’t bother with European radicalism, that had no effect on them, but the general literary culture, they were very much a part of. And they developed their own conceptions of how the world ought to be organized.

They had their own newspapers. In fact, the period of the freest press in the United States was probably around the 1850s. In the 1850s, the scale of the popular press, meaning run by the factory girls in Lowell and so on, was on the scale of the commercial press or even greater. These were independent newspapers — a lot of interesting scholarship on them, if you can read them now. They [arose] spontaneously, without any background. [The writers had] never heard of Marx or Bakunin or anyone else; they developed the same ideas. From their point of view, what they called “wage slavery,” renting yourself to an owner, was not very different from the chattel slavery that they were fighting a civil war about. You have to recall that in the mid-nineteenth century, that was a common view in the United States — for example, the position of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln’s position. It’s not an odd view, that there isn’t much difference between selling yourself and renting yourself. So the idea of renting yourself, meaning working for wages, was degrading. It was an attack on your personal integrity. They despised the industrial system that was developing, that was destroying their culture, destroying their independence, their individuality, constraining them to be subordinate to masters.

There was a tradition of what was called Republicanism in the United States. We’re free people, you know, the first free people in the world. This was destroying and undermining that freedom. This was the core of the labor movement all over, and included in it was the assumption, just taken for granted, that “those who work in the mills should own them.” In fact, one of the their main slogans, I’ll just quote it, was they condemned what they called the “new spirit of the age: gain wealth, forgetting all but self.” That new spirit, that you should only be interested in gaining wealth and forgetting about your relations to other people, they regarded it as a violation of fundamental human nature, and a degrading idea.

That was a strong, rich American culture, which was crushed by violence. The United States has a very violent labor history, much more so than Europe. It was wiped out over a long period, with extreme violence. By the time it picked up again in the 1930s, that’s when I personally came into the tail end of it. After the Second World War it was crushed. By now, it’s forgotten. But it’s very real. I don’t really think it’s forgotten, I think it’s just below the surface in people’s consciousness.

This is a continuing problem, and something that emerges in your scientific work, also, namely, the extent to which histories and traditions are forgotten. To define a new position often means going back and finding those older traditions.

Things like this, they’re forgotten in the intellectual culture, but my feeling is they’re probably alive in the popular culture, in people’s sentiments and attitudes and understanding and so on. I know when I talk to, say, working-class audiences today, and I talk about these ideas, they seem very natural to them. I mean, it’s true, nobody talks about them, but when you bring it up, the idea that you have to rent yourself to somebody and follow their orders, and that they own and you work there, and you built it but you don’t own it, that’s a highly unnatural notion. You don’t have to study any complicated theories to see that this is an attack on human dignity.

So coming out of this tradition, being influenced by and continue to believe in it, what is your notion of legitimate power? Under what circumstances is power legitimate?

The core of the anarchist tradition, as I understand it, is that power is always illegitimate, unless it proves itself to be legitimate. So the burden of proof is always on those who claim that some authoritarian hierarchic relation is legitimate. If they can’t prove it, then it should be dismantled.

Can you ever prove it? Well, it’s a heavy burden of proof to bear, but I think sometimes you can bear it. So to take a homely example, if I’m walking down the street with my four-year-old granddaughter, and she starts to run into the street, and I grab her arm and pull her back, that’s an exercise of power and authority, but I can give a justification for it, and it’s obvious what the justification would be. And maybe there are other cases where you can justify it. But the question that always should be asked uppermost in our mind is, “Why should I accept it?” It’s the responsibility of those who exercise power to show that somehow it’s legitimate. It’s not the responsibility of anyone else to show that it’s illegitimate. It’s illegitimate by assumption, if it’s a relation of authority among human beings which places some above others. That’s illegitimate by assumption. Unless you can give a strong argument to show that it’s right, you’ve lost.

It’s kind of like the use of violence, say, in international affairs. There’s a very heavy burden of proof to be borne by anyone who calls for violence. Maybe it can be sometimes justified. Personally, I’m not a committed pacifist, so I think that, yes, it can sometimes be justified. So I thought, in fact, in that article I wrote in fourth grade, I thought the West should be using force to try to stop fascism, and I still think so. But now I know a lot more about it. I know that the West was actually supporting fascism, supporting Franco, supporting Mussolini, and so on, and even Hitler. I didn’t know that at the time. But I thought then and I think now that the use of force to stop that plague would have been legitimate, and finally was legitimate. But an argument has to be given for it.

Is there less of a burden of proof when you’re looking at weaker power entities, looking at the powerless, basically? Is the burden of proof less for them?

No, it’s the same. When you take, say, people living under military occupation or under racist regimes and so on, they have a right to resist. Actually, everyone in the world except the United States and Israel believes they have a right to exist, if you look at the UN resolutions.

You’re talking about Palestine now.

Palestine, or South Africa. If you take a look, there are major UN resolutions on terrorism, in 1987 denouncing the plague of international terrorism, and calling on everyone to do something to stop it. It passed with two negative votes, the United States and Israel. The reason was exactly this, they explained it: it said “nothing in this resolution will prejudice the right of people to struggle for independence against racist and colonialist regimes and foreign military occupation.” That meant South Africa and Israel, so, therefore, the United States objected because it is opposed, it does not grant the right of people to struggle against racist and colonialist regimes and foreign occupation. U.S. and Israel are alone on that. When the U.S. votes against a resolution, it’s out of history, so you don’t read about it, but it’s there. The war against terrorism isn’t new, it’s old. The U.S. is alone in opposing it.

Now, I believe that the world is right on this and that the U.S. is wrong. There is a right to resist racist and colonialist regimes and foreign military occupation. But then comes your question: Is there a right to use violence to do that? Well, no, I think the burden of proof is on those who say there is a right to use violence. And that’s a hard burden to meet, both morally and even tactically. And, frankly, I think it can very rarely be met.

Thinking about Power

I’ve read interviews where you have tried to separate your approach in science to your approach of politics. How does your approach to the world as a scientist affect and influence the way you approach politics?

I think studying science is a good way to get into fields like history. The reason is, you learn what an argument means, you learn what evidence is, you learn what makes sense to postulate and when, what’s going to be convincing. You internalize the modes of rational inquiry, which happen to be much more advanced in the sciences than anywhere else. On the other hand, applying relativity theory to history isn’t going to get you anywhere. So it’s a mode of thinking. I try, at least — with what success; others have to judge — to [apply] the mode of thinking that you would use in the sciences to human affairs.

As to other connections, there may be some, but they’re pretty remote. If you think about the core notions of what I was calling anarchism, which, as I say, is deeply rooted in popular traditions everywhere (for good reasons), if you try to take it apart, it’s based on a conception of what Bakunin once called “an instinct for freedom,” that people have an instinctive drive for freedom from domination and control. I can’t prove it, but I think that’s probably true.

The core of the work that I’ve been interested in, in language, is also interested in a kind of human freedom: the cognitive capacity to create indefinitely, and its roots in our nature. Historically, people have drawn a connection between these. If you look at, say, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the Romantic periods, this connection was explicitly drawn. If you read Rousseau or Wilhelm von Humboldt and others, the connection between human freedom in the social and political realm and human freedom in the creative use of cognitive capacity, in particular language, they did try to establish a connection.

Now, if you ask, can this be connected at the level of science, the answer is no. It’s a parallel intuition, which doesn’t link up empirically, but maybe could someday if we knew enough.

You said somewhere, I think in this new book on power, “You can lie or distort the story of the French Revolution as long as you like and nothing will happen. Propose a false theory in chemistry and it will be refuted tomorrow.”

Yes, that’s the kind of thing I mean. Nature is tough. You can’t fiddle with Mother Nature, she’s a hard taskmistress. So you’re forced to be honest in the natural sciences. In the soft fields, you’re not forced to be honest. There are standards, of course; on the other hand, they’re very weak. If what you propose is ideologically acceptable, that is, supportive of power systems, you can get away with a huge amount. In fact, the difference between the conditions that are imposed on dissident opinion and on mainstream opinion are radically different. I’ll give you a concrete example, if you like.

Yes, do that.

Okay. For example, I’ve written about terrorism, and I think you can show without much difficulty that terrorism pretty much corresponds to power. I don’t think that’s very surprising. The more powerful states are involved in more terrorism, by and large. The United States is the most powerful, so it’s involved in massive terrorism, by its own definition of terrorism. Well, if I want to establish that, I’m required to give a huge amount of evidence. I think that’s a good thing. I don’t object to that. I think anyone who makes that claim should be held to very high standards. So extensive documentation, and from the internal secret records and historical record and so on. And if you ever find a comma misplaced, somebody ought to criticize you for it. So I think those standards are fine.

All right, now, let’s suppose that you play the mainstream game. For example, the Yale University Press just came out with a volume called The Age of Terror. The contributors are leading historians, many of them at Yale, the top people in the field. You read the book The Age of Terror, the first thing you notice is there isn’t a single footnote, there isn’t a single reference. There are just off-the-top-of-your-head statements. Some of the statements are tenable, some are untenable, but there are no intellectual criteria imposed. The reviews of the book are very favorable, laudatory, and maybe it’s right, maybe it’s wrong. I happen to think a lot of it is wrong and demonstrably wrong. But doesn’t really matter, you can say anything you want because you support power, and nobody expects you to justify anything. For example, on the unimaginable circumstance that I was on, say, Nightline, and I was asked, say, “Do you think Kadhafi is a terrorist?” I could say, “Yeah, Kadhafi is a terrorist.” I don’t need any evidence. Suppose I said, “George Bush is a terrorist.” Well, then I would be expected to provide evidence, “Why would you say that?”

So that you aren’t cut off right there.

In fact, the structure of the news production system is, you can’t produce evidence. There’s even a name for it — I learned it from the producer of Nightline, Jeff Greenfield. It’s called “concision.” He was asked in an interview somewhere why they didn’t have me on Nightline, and his answer was — two answers. First of all, he says, “Well, he talks Turkish, and nobody understands it.” But the other answer was, “He lacks concision.” Which is correct, I agree with him. The kinds of things that I would say on Nightline, you can’t say in one sentence because they depart from standard religion. If you want to repeat the religion, you can get away with it between two commercials. If you want to say something that questions the religion, you’re expected to give evidence, and that you can’t do between two commercials. So therefore you lack concision, so therefore you can’t talk.

I think that’s a terrific technique of propaganda. To impose concision is a way of virtually guaranteeing that the party line gets repeated over and over again, and that nothing else is heard.

This is why so much of your work in the area of politics has been focused on what you call “manufacturing consent,” meaning the framing of issues, the way topics are put off the table for discussion. So in the end, what your work suggests is that in coming to understand that, then there’s hope for understanding the problems we confront.

Oh, yes. Actually, I should say, the term “manufacturing consent” is not mine, I took it from Walter Lippmann, the leading public intellectual and leading media figure of the twentieth century, who thought it was a great idea. He said we should manufacture consent, that’s the way democracies should work. There should be a small group of powerful people, and the rest of the population should be spectators, and you should force them to consent by controlling, regimenting their minds. That’s the leading idea of democratic theorists, and the public relations industry and so on, so I’m not making it up. In fact, I’m just borrowing their conception, and telling other people what they think. But, yes, that’s very important, and, yes, there is hope, I think. Ordinary common sense suffices, no special training, like my uncle, to unravel this and see what’s really happening. I don’t think it’s hard to discover that the U.S. is a leading terrorist state; in fact, it’s obvious.

The U.S. Role in the World

When one reads your arguments, what you’re laying out is fairly simple, namely, if I can paraphrase, that if you’re suddenly calling a Iraq a rogue state in the nineties, well, what were you calling it in the eighties, and were they doing the same thing, and at that time, were you helping them do it? And this is your critique of U.S. foreign policy.

If George Bush tells us, like he did last week, and Tony Blair tells us, in this case, that “We can’t let Saddam Hussein survive because he’s the most evil man in history, he even used chemical weapons against his own people,” I agree that far. But it gives hypocrisy a bad name to stop there. You have to add, “Yes, he used chemical weapons against his own people, with the support of Daddy Bush, who continued to support him right past that, knowing what he was doing; who helped him develop weapons of mass destruction. Welcomed him as a friend and ally, gave him lavish aid, after all these crimes.” Unless you add that, it’s just, like I say, giving hypocrisy a bad name. Well, nobody says that. You can read the commentary and the learned opinion and leading figures, and they just stop, “He used chemical weapons against his own people.”

Now, this is not difficult to understand, I think you can explain this to children in school. It takes major efforts for the educated classes to prevent people from knowing these things. That takes dedication. It would be a lot easier to tell the truth. This is one example. It’s a characteristic example.

In the late 1990s there was a huge chorus of self-adulation in the West about how we’re entering a new age of history, in which the enlightened states are bringing humanitarian ideals to the world, for the first time in history, following principles and values. And the proof of it is we’re bombing Serbia. Okay? Well, at the very same moment, the same people were actively supporting terrorist atrocities which went way beyond anything charged to Milosevic in Kosovo. In fact, I just happened to come back from the site of one of them, southeastern Turkey, where massive atrocities were going on.

Where the Turkish government is committing atrocities against the Kurdish people.

Yes, that’s true, but the way I would put it is the U.S. government is committing atrocities …

By providing aid …

By providing virtually 80 percent of the arms, in an increasing flow as atrocities increased; providing support, blocking criticism. The press is helping by not reporting it. And, in fact, even more amazingly, Turkey is praised here as a model for opposing terrorism, namely by carrying out some of the worst terrorist atrocities of the late 1990s with our assistance. Well, you know, that’s an impressive contribution of the educated culture. It takes effort to do this sort of thing. And it’s not hard to explain; in fact, I could explain it in two minutes, and even give you the documentation if you want.

If we were the Council of Foreign Relations, which we’re not, the argument would be made, “Well, Turkey has to fit into a larger strategic view of the world, in which they are a modernizing secular state with an Islamic population.” What would your answer be to that?

So, therefore, we should help them drive two to three million out of their homes, destroy thousands of villages, and kill 50,000 people … ?

No, I won’t go there. Yeah …

Well, that’s the question. In fact, I think we’re harming Turkey by doing this. We’re supporting the most reactionary strains in Turkey. Like I say, I was just there, talking about these things. Popular support for opposing the military-run regime is overwhelming. We’re supporting the military-run regime. We’re preventing its modernization and development. In fact, that’s happening throughout much of the world. But even if it were true that we were helping modernization, that in no sense justifies participation in some of the worst acts of terror or worse. I don’t know if it is worse; parallel — praising them as a model for countering terror by carrying out massive terror.

You can generalize this. It only takes, say, to go somewhere else: Indonesia. When Indonesia was following an independent path in the 1950s and the early sixties, the U.S. strongly opposed, actually tried to break up Indonesia in 1958. Finally, a military coup took place with the assistance of the United States in 1965. The coup massacred a couple hundred thousand … maybe a million people, nobody knows — mostly landless peasants. It was greeted here with complete unconstrained euphoria. It was described accurately. So The New York Times: “a staggering blood bath.” Time magazine: “boiling blood bath.” And praise. It was praised because what they called the Indonesian moderates, namely, the ones who carried out the massacre, were turning the country into a U.S. client state. Well, up and from then, ’65 till ’98, the Indonesian leader, Suharto, one of the worst — kind of like Saddam Hussein, one of the worst criminals of the modern age — was lavishly praised and supported as a wonderful person. The Clinton administration called him, “Our kind of guy,” because he was serving U.S. interests, while carrying out huge massacres and compiling one of the worst records of atrocities in the world.

What happened to that in history? Well, you know, it’s history, but it’s not what you teach people in high school, as you should in a free country. That’s the task of the intellectuals: be careful to be sure that nobody understands what’s going on. That’s a major task.

You believe that there are two kinds of intellectuals — one, the kinds who serve power and are rewarded, and the others are those who stand outside, who basically call a spade a spade.

Yes, we all agree with that when we’re talking about enemies. So when we’re talking about the Soviet Union, we all agree that there was a difference between the commissars and the dissidents. The commissars were the guys inside who were propagating state propaganda, and the dissidents were a very small group on the fringe, who were trying to call a spade a spade. And we honor the dissidents and we condemn the commissars.

Because they were doing it among our adversaries.

Yes. When we turn around at home, it’s the opposite: we honor the commissars and we condemn the dissidents. And furthermore, this goes right through history. Go back to classical Greece and the Bible. Who drank the hemlock in classical Greece? Was it a commissar or a dissident? When we you go to, say, the Bible, you read the biblical record, there are people called prophets. Prophet just means intellectual. They were people giving geopolitical analysis, moral lessons, that sort of thing. We call them intellectuals today. There were the people we honor as prophets, there were the people we condemn as false prophets. But if you look at the biblical record, at the time, it was the other way around. The flatterers of the Court of King Ahab were the ones who were honored. The ones we call prophets were driven into the desert and imprisoned. Yeah, that’s the way it’s been throughout history. And, understandably. Power does not like to be undermined.

An important point here that I want to bring out is you’re comparing our acting against Serbia at a time when we were not doing anything about East Timor, Indonesia, or a number of other places …

Well, it’s not that we’re not doing anything …

Well, we’re doing the wrong thing.

We’re doing something about it: we’re intensifying the atrocities.

But the really interesting thing is that part of the self-deception which is created by the media. We forget what we’re doing in one place, where it would be very easy to do something about it, namely stopping the military aid; whereas, in other areas, for example, Serbia, well, if you start bombing, what are the consequences for innocent people?

That’s another question. This is independent of what we should have done in Kosovo. You can ask that, but what it does show is that whatever we did, it’s not humanitarian. You just take a look at everything else that’s going on, and you see that. So what should we have done in Kosovo? Well, here you have to look at the record, and the record is interesting, and it’s suppressed by the intellectuals. There’s a massive literature about it, and if you look through that literature, you’ll notice that something is systematically omitted, namely, the actual record of what was happening. We have a voluminous record from the State Department and from the British Defense System, from NATO, from the UN. As far as I’m aware, there’s only one book in print that reviews that record: mine. Of course, the book is condemned because it reviews the record. What the record shows is unequivocal: right up to shortly before the bombing, the British, who were the most hawkish element in the coalition, internally (now it’s released, then it was internal) regarded the guerrillas as the main source of atrocities. This is after the Racak [Kosovo] massacre.

This would be the Albanian guerrillas …

Yes, [the British] said they were the main source of the atrocities. What they were trying to do was to elicit a disproportionate Serbian response, which they did, which would then bring in the West. Now, I don’t personally believe that, but that’s the British.

We know that right up until the bombing, nothing much changed. It was an ugly place — I mean, these are not nice guys. The Serbian occupiers were doing vicious things — not on the level of what we were doing in other places, but bad enough. But nothing changed up till the bombing. When the bombing was undertaken, it was on the expectation that it would elicit atrocities. Not surprising — we start bombing people, they react. And it did. When you look at the Milosevic’s trial, it’s for crimes committed after the bombing, and one exception, but …

The bombing, being by NATO.

By NATO. After the bombing, with an invasion threat, exactly as anticipated, the atrocities mounted and they started expelling the population. Those are crimes, undoubtedly. This guy [Milosevic] is a major criminal. But the crimes happened to be provoked by the NATO bombing. Now what you read is, “Well, we had to bomb to return the Albanians to their homes.” Yeah, except that they were driven out of their homes after the bombing. I mean, there were some displaced before, but the huge expulsion and everything was after the bombing. Before that, the West saw it as guerrillas trying to elicit atrocities — responses and responses. That’s the description. You may still decide it was the right thing or the wrong thing, but unless you at least look at the facts, you’re not even in the real world.

For example, a fact which we should look at, we can ask, “Was there an alternative to violence? Were there diplomatic alternatives?” Well, you can look back and you see — in fact, I wrote at the time that it looked like there were diplomatic alternatives. Serbia had a position and NATO had a position. If you actually look at the result after seventy-eight days of bombing, it’s a compromise between those two positions. NATO gave up its most extreme demands, the Serbs gave up their most extreme demands, and there was a kind of a compromise. Could that have been reached without the bombing and the atrocities? Well, a good case could be made that it could have been. But, remember, the burden of proof is on those who say you have to bomb. They try to put the burden of proof on others. They can’t. It’s the ones who use violence who have the burden of proof.


Not everyone is Noam Chomsky and can produce the extraordinary opus of works on these issues. What is your advice for people who have the same concerns, who identify with the tradition that you come out of, and who want to be active in opposing these policies? What is it they need to be doing that would be productive?

The same as the factory girls in the Lowell textile plant 150 years ago: they joined with others. To do these things alone is extremely hard, especially when you’re working fifty hours a week to put the food on the table. Join with others, and you can do a lot of things. It’s got a big multiplier effect. That’s why unions have always been in the lead of development of social and economic progress. They bring together poor people, working people, enable them to learn from one another, to have their own sources of information, and to act collectively. That’s how everything is changed — the Civil Rights movement, the feminist movement, the solidarity movements, the workers movements. The reason we don’t live in a dungeon is because people have joined together to change things. And there’s nothing different now from before. In fact, just in the last forty years, we’ve seen remarkable changes in this respect.

In that sense, in addition to ending the war in Vietnam, the protest movement of the sixties really did change our consciousness.

Totally changed the country.

It changed the behavior of governments, what they had to do to get what they wanted.

Yes. This is a good time to talk about it. This month, March 2002, happens to be the fortieth anniversary of the public announcement by the Kennedy administration that they were sending U.S. pilots to bomb South Vietnam, that’s U.S. bombing of South Vietnam. It was the initiation of chemical warfare to destroy food crops, driving huge numbers of people into concentration camps. Nobody was there except the U.S. and the South Vietnamese. And it was a U.S. war against South Vietnam, publicly announced. Not a peep of protest. You know, the war went on for years before a protest developed. But by the time it did, not just the antiwar movement, the Civil Rights movement, and other rising movements changed the popular consciousness. The country just became a lot more civilized. No American president could possibly dream of doing that today.

The same is true in many other areas. Go back to ’62, there was no feminist movement, there was a very limited human rights movement, extremely limited. There was no environmental movement, meaning rights of our grandchildren. There were no Third World solidarity movements. There was no anti-apartheid movement. There was no anti-sweat shop movement. I mean, all of the things that we take for granted just weren’t there. How did they get there? Was it a gift from an angel? No, they got there by struggle, common struggle by people who dedicated themselves with others, because you can’t do it alone, and made it a much more civilized country. It was a long way to go, and that’s not the first time it happened. And it will continue.

I gather it’s your belief that when we focus on heroes in the movement, that’s a mistake, because it’s really the unsung heroes, the unsung seamstresses or whatever in this movement, who actually make a difference.

They’re the ones, yes. Take, say, the Civil Rights movement. When you think of the Civil Rights movement, the first thing you think of is Martin Luther King. King was an important figure. But he would have been the first to tell you, I’m sure, that he was riding the wave of activism, that people who were doing the work, who were in the lead in the Civil Rights movement, were young SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] workers, freedom riders, people out there in the streets every day getting beaten and sometimes killed, working constantly. They created the circumstances in which a Martin Luther King could come in and be a leader. His role was extremely important, I’m not denigrating it, it was very important to have done that. But the people who were really important are the ones whose names are forgotten. And that’s true of every movement that ever existed.

If students were to watch or read this interview, how would you advise them to prepare for the future if they identify with the goals that you are putting on the table?

Be honest, critical, accept elementary moral principles. For example, the principle that if something is wrong for others, it’s wrong for us. Things like that. Understand the importance of the fundamental anarchist principle, namely, prior illegitimacy of power and violence, unless you can justify it, which is not easy. It’s their burden of proof, not yours. And that’s true whether it’s personal relations in a family, and whether it’s international affairs. Beyond that, try to join with others who share your interests to learn more and to act responsively to improve the many very serious problems of the world, which can be done.

There’s an important element of courage in this kind of work, is there not? And what is involved in that courage?

In a country like the United States, the level of courage that’s involved is extremely low. If you’re a poor black organizer in the slums, yes, it takes courage, because you can get killed. If you’re a relatively well-off, educated white person, the level of courage is minuscule. I mean, just see what other people face elsewhere. Like I said, I just came back from Turkey. The people in the southeast living in a dungeon, millions of them, show real courage when they wear Kurdish colors, or speak open Kurdish as a language. They can end up in a Turkish prison or worse, and that’s not fun. But let’s even go to Istanbul, more Western. I actually went there for a political trial. The government was putting on trial a publisher who had published a couple of sentences of mine on repression of the Kurds. Well, in Istanbul, the leading writers — journalists, artists, intellectuals, and others — are constantly carrying out civil disobedience. When I was there, they purposely co-published a book of banned writings, writings of people in jail which are banned. Co-published it. They went to the prosecutor — I went with them — demanding to be prosecuted. That’s no joke. Some of them have been in jail; some will go back to jail. They face repression, but they’re not making a big fuss about it, they just do it in their normal behavior, and not waving flags and saying, “Look how courageous I am.” That’s just life. That takes courage.

As compared with what they face every day, what we face is so pathetically small that we shouldn’t even be talking about it. Yes, unpleasant things can happen, but not in comparison with what goes on in the world.

Coming out of science and the level of complexity in your field of linguistics, I’m curious as to whether this accounts for what I think I detect is a moderate or almost conservative view on your part of how much things can change in the short term. I don’t know if that’s a fair comment on you. But is it the case that, in some sense, by seeing so much you understand that very little sometimes can be accomplished, but that may be very important?

Very important. What’s more, I don’t think we should give up long-term visions. I agree with the factory girls in Lowell in 1850. I think wage slavery is an attack on fundamental human rights. I think those who work in the plants should own them. I think we should struggle against what was then the “new spirit of the age”: gain wealth, forgetting everybody but yourself. Yes, that’s all degrading and destructive, and in the long term — I don’t know how long — it should be dismantled. But right now there are serious problems to deal with, like 30 million Americans who don’t have enough to eat, or people elsewhere in the world who are far worse off, and who are, in fact, under our boot, we’re grinding them into the dust. Those are short-term things that can be dealt with. There’s nothing wrong with making small gains, like the gains that I was talking about before, from the sixties until today. They’re extremely important for human lives. It doesn’t mean that there are not a lot mountain peaks to climb, there are. But you do what’s within range.

The same in the sciences. You might like to solve the problems of, say, what causes human action, but the problems you work on are the ones that are right at the edge of your understanding. There’s a famous joke about a drunk under a lamppost looking at the ground, and somebody comes up and asks him “What are you looking for?” He says, “I’m looking for a pencil that I dropped.” They said, “Well, where did you drop it?” He says, “Oh, I dropped it across the street.” “Well, why are looking here?” “This is where the light is.” That’s the way the sciences work. Maybe the problem you would like to solve is across the street, but you have to work where the light is. If you try to move it a little further, maybe ultimately you’ll get across the street. The same is true in human affairs. I think the same is true in personal relations. You have problems with your kids, that’s the way you have to deal with it.

One final question, and I understand your unwillingness to focus on heroes or to be made into a hero, but if an activist is watching or reading this interview, what lesson might they draw from your life about what they can do in their life, with regard to the issues that are of concern to them?

Last night I gave a talk in Berkeley to a big mob of people about U.S. and the Middle East, and Israel and Palestine, and Turkey, and these things. Who is responsible for that talk? Not me. I flew in from Boston, came over and gave a talk. The people responsible for that are the people working on it, the people working day after day to create the organizational structures, the support systems, to go up and back to work with oppressed people over there. Maybe their names won’t enter some record, but they’re the ones who are leading everything. I come in and it’s a privilege for me to be able to join them for an hour, but that’s easy. You know, get up and give a talk, it’s no big deal. Working on it day after day, all the time, that’s hard, and that’s important, and that’s what changes the world, not somebody coming in and giving a talk.

Noam, thank you very much for joining us today. It was a fascinating discussion of at least some aspects of your life and your work. Thank you.

Thank you.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.