Given the impossibly high praise lavished upon him – “One of the finest minds of the twentieth century” (The New Yorker); “Arguably the most important intellectual alive” (The New York Times) – it is hard to know what to expect when Noam Chomsky enters the room, a beam of pure white light perhaps, or at least the regal swish of academic royalty. Or the whiff of sulphur. He has also been called a man with a “deep contempt for the truth” (The Anti-Chomsky Reader) and an appeaser of Islamic fascism (Christopher Hitchens), among some of the milder criticism.
So it is a surprise when a smiling, slightly stooped man with a diffident air strolls into his office in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, pours himself a coffee and apologises for keeping me waiting.
As has often been remarked, Professor Chomsky is modesty personified, quietly spoken and generous with his time, diligently answering the thousands of e-mails sent to him every week, a laborious task that eats up seven hours a day; usually signing off simply with “Noam”. “He recognises no hierarchies,” says Chomsky’s long-time assistant, Bev Stohl. “He is what people who love him say he is, a man who cares deeply for others.”
Of all that has been said about him, Bono’s quip “rebel without a pause” fits as well as anything. At 76, and despite a recent struggle with cancer, Chomsky seems to have increased his prodigious output. Bookshelves across the world groan with his political writings, his voice can be heard in radio interviews every week and apart from e-mailing and extensive blogging he gives hundreds of speeches in dozens of cities every year.
“This is how it has been since 9/11,” he says. “That had a complex effect on the US which I don’t think is appreciated abroad. The picture is that it turned everyone into flag-waving maniacs, and that is just nonsense. It opened people’s minds and made a lot of people think, ‘I’d better figure out what our role is and why these things are happening’.”
Chomsky’s views on America’s role in the world are well-known, thanks to four decades of relentless political activity marked by his forensically detailed demolition of the US official line. From the Vietnam War, which he argued was fought to halt the spread of independent nationalism, not communism, to the twin tower attacks, which he said were rooted in the “fury and despair” caused by US policies, and his famous charge that every post-war American president would have been hanged under the Nuremberg Laws, Chomsky has been the acid in the belly of the US beast, using what Arundhati Roy calls his “anarchist’s instinctive mistrust of power” to eat at its swaggering self-assurance.
Still, he says, he is amazed at how the invasion of Iraq has turned out in what he believes “should have been one of the easier military occupations in history”. He says: “I thought the war itself would be over in two days and that the occupation would immediately succeed. It was known to be the weakest country in the region. The US never would have invaded otherwise. The sanctions had killed hundreds of thousands and compelled the people to rely on Saddam for survival, otherwise they probably would have overthrown him.
“The country is obviously going to fall apart as soon as you push it. And any resistance is going to have no outside support, a trickle but nothing significant. But, in fact, it is proving harder than the German occupation of Europe in the Second World War. The Nazis didn’t have this much trouble in Europe. But somehow the US has managed to turn it into an unbelievable catastrophe. And it is partly because of the way they are treating people. They have been treating people in such a way that engenders resistance and hatred and fear.”
The long-awaited Iraqi elections are to be held next Sunday but Chomsky calls talk about a sovereign, independent, democratic Iraq a “poor joke”. He says: “I don’t see any possibility of Britain and the US allowing a sovereign independent Iraq; that’s almost inconceivable. It will have a Shia majority. Probably as a first step it will try to reconstitute relations with Iran. Its not that they are pro- Khamenei [Iran’s Supreme Leader], they’ll want to be independent. But it’s a natural relationship and even under Saddam they were beginning to restore relations with Iran.
“It might instigate some degree of autonomy in the largely Shia regions of Saudi Arabia which happens to be where most of the oil is. You can project not too far in the future a possible Shia-dominated region including Iran, Iraq, oil-producing regions of Saudi Arabia which really would monopolise the main sources of the world’s oil. Is the US going to permit that? It is out of the question. Furthermore, an independent Iraq would try to restore its position as a great, perhaps leading power in the Arab world. Which means it will try to rearm and confront the regional enemy, which is Israel. It may well develop WMD to counter Israel’s. It is inconceivable that the US and the UK will permit this.”
Chomsky believes comparisons of Iraq and Vietnam are mistaken, primarily because Vietnam was not ultimately a defeat for American strategic aims. “Vietnamese resources were not of that much significance. Iraq is different. It is the last corner of the world in which there are massive petroleum resources, maybe the largest in the world or close to it. The profits from that must flow primarily to the right pockets, that is, US and secondarily UK energy corporations. And controlling that resource puts the US in a very powerful position to exert influence over the world.”
One of the more surprising post-9/11 developments has been Chomsky’s falling out with erstwhile left colleagues, notably the writer Christopher Hitchens, who accuses Chomsky of “making excuses for theocratic fascism” and exercising “moral equivalency” in his discussions of 9/11 and US imperialism. “In some awful way, Chomsky’s regard for the underdog has mutated into support for mad dogs,” Hitchens said.
Chomsky says: “I don’t care what sort of ranting and tantrums people have. What does that mean, to equate 9/11 with US crimes? You can’t even equate 9/11 with what they call the other 9/11 south of the border. In 9/11 1973, in Chile, the president was killed, the oldest democracy in Latin America was destroyed, the official number killed was 3,000 people. The actual number is probably double that. In per capita relating to the US that’s 100,000 people. It set up a brutal, vicious dictatorship, a virus that spread through much of the rest of Latin America and helped induce a tremendous wave of terror.
“How does that compare with 11 September, 2001? If you want to count numbers and social consequences it is much worse. But it doesn’t make sense to compare them. They are atrocities on their own. And the ones we are concerned with primarily are the ones we can stop.
“When Britain and the US invaded Iraq, it was with the reasonable expectation that it was going to increase the threat of terror, as it has. This means they are again contributing to terror of the 9/11 variety which is likely to hit the US, which could be awesome. Sooner of later, jihadist-style terror and WMD are going to come together and the consequences could be horrendous. So if we care about jihadist-style terror we don’t want to be contributing to it.”
Dealing with terror, Chomsky believes, requires a “dual programme” along the lines of “what the British did in Northern Ireland”. He says: “The terrorist acts are criminal acts so you apprehend the guilty, use force if necessary and bring them to a fair trial. They want to appeal to the reservoir of understanding for what they’re doing, even from people who hate and fear them. If they can mobilise that reservoir they win. We can help them mobilise that reservoir by violence or we can reduce it by dealing with legitimate grievances.
“Every resort to violence has been a gift to the jihadists. Respond with violence which hits civilians and you’re giving a gift to Osama bin Laden; you’re giving him the propaganda weapon he wants so he can say, ‘We have to defend Islam against the Western infidels trying to destroy it. We’re fighting a war of defence’.
“If you want to mobilise that constituency that is the way to intervene. But there is another way and that is to pay attention to the legitimate grievance. That’s intervention too.”
Born: 7 December, 1928 in Philadelphia, son of William Chomsky, a Hebrew scholar
1949: Marries linguist Carol Schatz. Three children
1955: Doctorate in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania.
1957: His book Syntactic Structures revolutionises the field of linguistics. Begins teaching at MIT
1964: Active against the Vietnam War, including organising tax strikes
1969: Publishes the classic American Power and the New Mandarins
1980-92: Cited as a source more than any other living scholar, Arts and Humanities Citation Index shows
2001: Likens the 9/11 attacks to US bombing of al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. Says in book after the attack: “Wanton killing of innocent civilians is terrorism, not a war against terrorism”