On the State of the Nation, Iraq and the Election

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Amy Goodman

Democracy Now, October 21, 2004

AMY GOODMAN: Last week I went to Cambridge to speak with Professor Noam Chomsky. I went to his offices at the Massachusetts institute of technology.

NOAM CHOMSKY: There are serious problems here. One problem is almost a total disillusion, disappearance of the basis for a democratic society. I mean, if we compare, say, this election with elections in, say, the second biggest country in the hemisphere, Brazil. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves. They have actual elections where there are issues and where they can elect some mass popular organizations. They can elect, as presidents, one from their own ranks, a man whose background is a peasant, steelworker, union organizer, no higher education, very impressive figure. Against far higher barriers than exist here. I mean, here, we have a thing called an election, which is a choice between two men, both born to great wealth and political influence, and went to the same fancy private schools, same elite university, joined the same secret society where you train people to be members of the ruling class. They can run because they’re funded by pretty much the same concentrations for private power. Both understand that the election is supposed to keep away from issues. That’s — they are run by the PR industry, and in a way designed to keep the public out of it. They focus on what they call qualities. He is he a leader, a nice guy? Does he sigh, that kind of a thing. That’s what the campaign is. Very few people know where they stand. In fact, there was a Gallup poll about a week ago where voters were asked why they’re voting for Bush or Kerry. I thought it was quite striking. I mean, one of the choices of the many choices was their stand on the issues. You know, their agenda, policies. It was around 10%. If you had asked the people, they wouldn’t have known. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. This is a symbol of something extremely serious. In fact, on issue after issue — this is a very well polled country. We know a lot of about people’s attitudes and opinions. They’re mostly off the agenda. They are not discussed; they are radically different from the elite consensus. They just don’t enter into the political system. That’s a major problem. The attitude is not bad. There’s lots of — also alongside of this, there’s a very high level of activism, maybe higher than ever. It’s disorganized. It’s the way this country is, everything is broken up, disorganized, nobody knows what’s happening on the other side of town. But there’s plenty going on, way more than in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: Yet you say these two candidates represent very little that is different from each other.

NOAM CHOMSKY: The population has been very carefully excluded from the political arena, and the general culture, the general dominant culture. That’s not by accident. An enormous amount of work went into this. Elites were terrified by the sixties, this outbust of popular participation in democracy and so on. And there’s a huge counter campaign to drive it back. It shows up in all kinds of ways. From what’s called neo-liberalism — opening up the financial system to freeing financial flows which is well understood as a weapon against allowing governments to make choices, a weapon against democracy. From that, to the huge explosion of the lobbyists in Washington, to the right wing think tanks. Everything you can think of, across the board, has been an effort to drive that danger of democracy back into the hole where it belongs.

AMY GOODMAN: Yet the person who points that out, Ralph Nader, you and Howard Zinn, and others, to many people’s surprise signed a letter and said “Don’t vote for him.”

NOAM CHOMSKY: We didn’t say that. Actually I’m a little surprised by the surprise. I took exactly the position I took in 2000, namely, the election is a marginal affair, it should not distract us from the serious work of changing the society, and the culture and the institutions, creating a democratic culture. That’s what you work on. You can’t ignore the election. It’s there. But it’s designed as a method of essentially marginalizing the population. There’s a huge propaganda campaign to get people to focus on these personalized extravaganzas, and make them think ‘That’s politics.” Well, it isn’t. That’s a marginal part of politics, and here, a very marginal part. So the main thing is keep on with your work. You can’t ignore it. You should spend five minutes, maybe, thinking about what you should do. In that five minute, you should recognize there is some difference between the two groups contending for power, and one of them happens to be really extremist, and very dangerous, and it’s already caused plenty of trouble and could cause plenty more. The other is bad, but less extremist and less dangerous. So in that five minutes that you devote to the topic, you should come to the rational conclusion, if it’s a swing state, keep the worst guys out. If it’s another state, do what you feel like. It’s the same thing I said in 2000 during the five minutes of time I spent on it.

AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader said at least a demand should have been attached to this.

NOAM CHOMSKY: To what? To who? A demand to who? I mean, I don’t address George Bush. I don’t make demands of him. Donald Rumsfeld is not my audience. I don’t talk to Sandy Berger.

AMY GOODMAN: To John Kerry, if you were throwing your support –

NOAM CHOMSKY: I don’t talk to John Kerry. I mean, he is not my audience, or your audience, or our audience. We can’t make demands on them. Some people can, like Pat Robertson recently said that unless they take an even more extreme position supporting the Israeli expansion, he will set up a third party — that’s a real threat. He could draw tens of millions of evangelical Christians out of the Republican Party. Okay. He could make a demand. So, they’ll say thank you, throw him a little red meat, and then go on doing what they were doing. But we don’t have that constituency. We can’t make demands. I mean, the demands — this is meaningless. It’s a misunderstanding of the way politics works. We should create a situation in which popular organizations will be able to make demands. Not me, not you. But popular organizations. They’ll be able to make demands and press them. That’s what we should be working on. Not pretending we’re talking to John Kerry. We’re not.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the extremism that you think George Bush represents?

NOAM CHOMSKY: They happen to be a both domestically and internationally a very extremist group of radical reactionary nationalists. I mean, domestically, they are very publicly committed to dismantling and destroying whatever there is of progressive legislation and social welfare, and so on, the achievements have been won, and they’re not zero, by popular struggles over the past century. They want to get rid of them, and they virtually say so. It’s not a secret. Internationally, they are calling for dominating the world by military force. Some of the things that are less talked about are more dangerous. They’re carrying out what’s called transformation of the military forces, vast escalation of offensive military power. The militarization of space is a major part of it. These are designed explicitly the give the US — them, that means — the power to attack and destroy any part of the world without warning, unannounced. Now, maybe they don’t talk about it here, but they do elsewhere. That has led predictably to a vast increase, maybe a tripling of Russian offensive military capacity, with new missile systems aimed at the United States, put on automated control which is like asking for disaster to happen. China, which has so far been reluctant to respond, is now responding by working to develop its own high-tech offensive military capacity. They haven’t had one. They’ve just tripled the number of missiles, and they’re going to go on. It increases the threat of terror. These are all extreme, these are dangers to survival. These are not jokes. Now, they didn’t invent the policies. Like Clinton was also preventing the UN Disarmament Commission from functioning by insisting that the US would move towards militarizing space. This is a sharp escalation. Those differences matter. They matter all over the place. You can say that the positions are similar and based on the same principles, and then I have written about it, I spent a long time writing about it, it’s true. Basic principles and institutions go way back, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t differences. The differences can have a huge effect.

AMY GOODMAN: Most important ones?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Domestically it may institutionalize the destruction of the progressive achievements of struggles of the past century, which is not a small thing. Once its institutionalized, it’s hard to reconstruct. Internationally, they may blow up the world. Maybe they won’t, but they will get other people to do it in reaction.

AMY GOODMAN: The resolution to Iraq right now?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, you know, the resolution to Iraq is to quickly do — in fact it’s to do what the majority of the American population wants. For about a year, the majority of the population has felt that the UN ought to take the lead, not the United States, in security issue, and in economic reconstruction, and transition to whatever political system will happen. And that the UN should join as part of whatever is decided by the international community, and the Iraqis. Now that make sense. That would mean publicly and explicitly abandoning every single war aim, including permanent military bases in Iraq, economic programs which turn Iraq into a paradise for US investors, formal democratic system which is going to be a fiction. Abandoning all of that going much further into other global policies and doing what an occupying army ought to do, figure out how to get out as soon as the people tell you to get out.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that the Israel-Palestine conflict is fueling a lot of this?

NOAM CHOMSKY: It’s undoubtedly fueling, as it has for years, the anger and the fear of the United States throughout the world, and in particular, in the Muslim countries, and it’s creating a reservoir for bin Laden. Actually, you can read it even in the tepid words of the 9/11 Commission. They say that bin Laden gains an audience from US actions in Iraq, Israel-Palestine, and support of repressive regimes. We’ve known that, anybody who’s had their eyes open knew that for decades. It’s nice that they said it, but that’s the core of the problem of what we call terrorism, the terrorism, the bad guys. As long as they have an audience and we help bin laden and others mobilize it, it’s going to increase the threat of terror, just as the war in Iraq did, predictably.

AMY GOODMAN: So what do you think needs to happen with Israel and Palestine?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Israel and Palestine? The US should join the overwhelming international consensus, which it’s been blocking for 30 years, and tell Israel it’s got to get out of the territories. There has to be a settlement on the international border, some adjustment this and that way. And then, I would hope, go on from there, if the cycle of violence gets reduced, to closer to closer integration, but that’s in the longer term. That’s a first step, it’s feasible, and the majority of the American population is in favor of it and has been for a long time. There’s almost no opposition to it in the world outside of the US and Israel. And yeah, it could be done. It’s not perfect, it’s not wonderful. There are plans on the table which come close, and could be fixed. What’s blocking them is our refusal to do it, not the population again. The voice of the population is out of this discussion. You know what percentage of the American population thinks we should lean towards support of Israel, instead of taking a neutral position? The latest polls about a week ago, 17%. Now, a majority of the population thinks that we ought to equalize aid to Israel and Palestine, and we should deny aid to either one that refuses negotiations, which would entail denying it to Israel. That’s the majority of the population. Those results are so unacceptable, the press won’t report them.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you say to those who call you anti-Semitic?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Depend who they are. If they’re people like the — with a nice Jewish education like I had, I tell them to read the Bible, where the concept is invented. It was used by King Ahab, the epitome of evil in the Bible that calls the prophet Elijah — Elijah was what we would nowadays call a dissident intellectual, like most of the prophets were, giving geo-political analysis, calling for moral behavior. He calls for Elijah, he said why you are a hater of Israel? What does that mean? You are criticizing me. I’m the king. I’m Israel. And therefore you’re a hater of Israel. And that’s what the concept means. If you identify the country, the people, the culture with the rulers, accept the totalitarian doctrine, then yeah, it’s anti-Semitic to criticize the Israeli policy, and anti-American to criticize the American policy, and it was anti-Soviet when the dissidents criticized Russian policy. You have to accept deeply totalitarian assumptions not to laugh at this. If an Italian criticized Berlusconi and he was called anti-Italian, the people would crack up with laughter, because there’s some kind of democratic culture. The fact we don’t crack up with ridicule, that notion is anti-American or anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, it tells us something about ourselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what gives you hope right now, in the world as it is today?

NOAM CHOMSKY: First of all, it doesn’t matter whether I have hope or not, because you do the same things anyway. But it’s in fact better than it was. I mean, I mentioned the Vietnam War. There was no protest for years, and the place was practically destroyed before there was any protest. The Iraq War was the first time in the history of the West, Europe and the United States, that there was massive protest against a war before it was officially launched. That’s a huge change. There are many other changes. If we had time, we could talk about them, but we all know the fact that you are doing this program, for example. It wouldn’t have happened 40 years ago or 20 years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Noam Chomsky, thank you very much.