Is Chomsky ‘anti-American’?

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Jacklyn Martin

The Herald, December 9, 2002.

Not only is Noam Chomsky recognized for being an accomplished professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he is also famous for being one of the most radical scholars in the United States, both praised and condemned for criticizing American foreign and domestic policies. He is known throughout the world as author of dozens of books, such as What Uncle Sam Really Wants, Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, and 9-11. Chomsky has made numerous appearances in popular media outlets such as CNN, Good Morning America and Rolling Stone Magazine. The New York Times has called Chomsky “the most important intellectual alive.” Chomsky was recently interviewed for the Herald via e-mail.

QUESTION: What were you doing when you when you first heard of the terrorist attacks on the United States? What was your first reaction to the news?

CHOMSKY: I was working, as usual. Heard about it several hours later. [My] reaction was the same as everyone’s: shock and horror. But not, I’m afraid, disbelief. It had been known for some years that something like this was likely, and that was known even to people who don’t read technical papers about it (as I had, and had written about [it] myself) ever since 1993, when related groups came ominously close to blowing up the World Trade Center, with tens of thousands killed had the plan been more careful, according to the WTC engineers.

QUESTION: Why do you think foreign policy right now is different between the United States and Iraq, as opposed with that of the United States and North Korea?

CHOMSKY: The difference is that North Korea isn’t sitting on the second largest oil reserves in the world, and a war against North Korea would be a disaster, leading possibly to the destruction of the South in retaliation. In contrast, a war against Iraq is expected to be a pushover. Most predictions are that many Iraqis will die, but probably very few US casualties, given the awesome disproportion of means of violence. Of course, once the dogs of war are unleashed, no one really knows: not the CIA, not Donald Rumsfeld, not me.

QUESTION: After releasing your book 9-11, many reporters have said that you are anti-American. Others even suggest that you should pack up and move to another country since you believe America to be a leading terrorist state. How do you respond to such remarks?

CHOMSKY: The concept “anti-American” is an interesting one. The counterpart is used only in totalitarian states or military dictatorships, something I wrote about many years ago (see my book Letters from Lexington). Thus, in the old Soviet Union, dissidents were condemned as “anti-Soviet.” That’s a natural usage among people with deeply rooted totalitarian instincts, which identify state policy with the society, the people, the culture. In contrast, people with even the slightest concept of democracy treat such notions with ridicule and contempt. Suppose someone in Italy who criticizes Italian state policy were condemned as “anti-Italian.” It would be regarded as too ridiculous even to merit laughter. Maybe under Mussolini, but surely not otherwise.

Actually the concept has earlier origins. It was used in the Bible by King Ahab, the epitome of evil, to condemn those who sought justice as “anti-Israel” (“ocher Yisrael,” in the original Hebrew, roughly “hater of Israel,” or “disturber of Israel”). His specific target was Elijah.

It’s interesting to see the tradition in which the people you refer to choose to place themselves. The idea of leaving America because one opposes state policy is another reflection of deep totalitarian commitments. Solzhenitsyn, for example, was forced to leave Russia, against his will, by people with beliefs very much like those you are quoting.

QUESTION: Do you think the United States government has justified war against Iraq?

CHOMSKY: No. Not even close. And they know it.

QUESTION: As you know, many people often look to you as a resource or guide when seeking information and ideas. Is there anyone in particular serving a similar role for you?

CHOMSKY: There are plenty of resources, but one should be cautious about “guides.” People have to learn to think for themselves. Otherwise we’re back to totalitarianism again.

QUESTION: How do you think Thomas Jefferson would react to contemporary American government?

CHOMSKY: With utter disgust, and profound sorrow that the democratic experiment had reached such depths. We don’t have to speculate. 200 years ago his friend James Madison warned of something similar, and Jefferson too was much concerned about people like those now in Crawford and Washington.

QUESTION: If there is just one message you could deliver to college students at Arkansas State University, what would that be?

CHOMSKY: Think for yourselves, and observe elementary moral principles, such as taking responsibility for your actions, or inaction.