The Incalculable Loss: Conversations with Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky Interviewed by Adel Iskandar

February 11, 2005. Jadaliyya.

[These conversations were originally published in adel iskandar and Hakem Rustom’s 2010 edited volume Edward Said: A Legacy of Emancipation and Representation from University of California Press.]

Edward Said and Massachusetts Institute of technology linguist and perennial dissenter Noam Chomsky met in the 1960s at the height of the Palestinian emancipatory struggle and became immediately and intractably connected in their recognition of the dispossession of the Palestinian people. Their sense of common purpose accented much of their writing on the Middle East, fueled by an unrelentingly lopsided political situation at the epicenter of Middle Eastern politics as well as the intersection of U.S. foreign policy with events in the region. Their treatises on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict were decidedly forged with the intention of rendering the failures of social justice and the hopelessly emaciated representations of Palestinians. Their collaboration culminated in numerous solidarity initiatives that sought to highlight the role of American foreign policy and hawkish Israeli interests in the construction of a dehumanizing narrative of Palestinian identity.[1]

In addition to sharing a concern about Palestine, Said and Chomsky found congruence in their commitment to defining a path for an exuberant culture of public intellectualism. to Said, Chomsky’s evocation of this commitment was “profoundly unsettling” because it grew not out of a desire to protect territory, build his personal stature, consolidate power, or guard assets. Said too resigned himself to the inescapable reality that critical representations by intellectuals “will neither make them friends in high places nor win them official honors.”[2]

In their interventions on behalf of social justice in Palestine/Israel, both thinkers became referents for their desire to interrogate U.S. and Israeli imperial ambitions in the region. Said was acutely conscious and cautious of the possibilities of co-option as an intellectual. He situated his efforts and Chomsky’s as oppositional and contrapuntal to the Gramscian description of the traditional intellectual. Although the domains in which organic intellectuals could practice public criticism free of the debilitating power of institutionalization were dwindling, Said considered the American academy to be without precedent in its ability to house these efforts. He viewed this fact as an anomalous institutional contradiction that incongruously enabled his and Chomsky’s work to exist.

Said expressed an affinity for Chomsky’s indefatigably critical posture, describing him as “an example of independent radicalism and uncompromising severity unequaled by anyone else today.”[3] He pointed out the organic nature of Chomsky’s criticism: “[He] doesn’t reflect theoretically on what he does, he just does it.”[4] On the contrary, Said did both, thereby finding affinity in both Chomsky’s responsibility and the Foucauldian self-critical deconstructive project.

The likes of Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Fanon, and Bertrand Rus- sell put forth an intellectual endeavor with a moral center, one that Said contrasted to the devoid highfalutin’ modernist agenda of the likes of Jurgen Habermas.[5] Said and Chomsky alike saw no end to the struggle for “truth,” because “there’s no definitive military solution” in the battle of intellectual polemics.[6]

With the conviction of speaking truth to power, Said and Chomsky converged methodologically. However, they diverged politically on a subterranean level. Said broke from Chomsky’s political engagement by interrogating his assessment of terms such as terrorism in the post-9/11 environment. Whereas Chomsky offered hegemonic “state terrorism” as a logical counterargument to the state rhetoric of “terrorism,” Said remained skeptical of the deluding effect of the term. He instead pressed for a deconstruction of the language and usage of terrorism, beginning with its philological roots as a historicized semantic variable. Conversely, he opted not to give the term currency, denying its political value.[7]

Said also questioned Chomsky’s view that dominating apparatus such as the state and the media are all-consuming. Chomsky charged that the American media were inherently complicit with the instruments of the industrial-military-corporate system that manufacture both journalists’ and audiences’ consent. For Said, who saw opportunities for intervention aplenty within every repository of institutional control, this perspective was wholly insufficient, especially given Chomsky’s own role.[8] Following Said’s death, a previously unexamined area of contention between them emerged. In this interview, Chomsky lays bare the dissimilarities in their views about Zionism and their visions for a binational state in Palestine/Israel. When Said started to make more regular visits to Palestine, he became acutely aware of the in- tractability of the status quo, the impossibility of redrawing boundaries and states, and he expressed growing disdain for the dehumanization wrought by political and cultural divisiveness.[9] Although his commitment to the one-state solution seemed to be a response to the debacle at Oslo, one need not go far in his vast humanist oeuvre to explicate his entrenched tendencies for mutualism, reconciliation, and unsettling nationalisms. What Chomsky perceived to be a political and tactical shift in Said’s thinking, Said saw as the only advantageous and redemptive route toward a cultural symbiosis in Palestine/Israel.

The comments reproduced here are the most extensive ones Chomsky has offered about Said. He is at his most incisive when candidly exploring the two men’s relationship, which was characterized by intellectual compatriotism and dignified friendship, along with good-faith efforts to articulate their common goals and expose their differences.

adel iskandar (ai): In a November 2003 presentation honoring Edward Said at Columbia University, you stated that his “death is an incalculable loss.” To whom is this loss most substantial?

noam chomsky (nc): to begin with, it’s a loss for his family and innumerable close friends, of whom I was one. So it’s a personal loss. It is a tremendous loss for the Palestinians because he was far and away the most eloquent, knowledgeable, sensitive, and thoughtful spokesman for Palestinians and kept the cause alive for years and also kept it on the right course, a course that could be meaningful for Palestinian emancipation and ultimate freedom and some minimal amount of justice. And he is irreplaceable in that respect. And it’s a loss for international intellectual life, in which he was a major figure and major contributor and continued to be so until the end of his life. And it’s a loss for the suffering and the oppressed all over the world because he did not speak just for the Palestinians; he was committed to universal principles of justice and freedom. He was a voice of sanity and courage that supported protection for literally millions of people around the world. So the loss is really unusual.

ai: How will losing Said affect the Palestinian struggle?

nc: He had an impact in many dimensions. For one thing, no serious person looks at the relations between the West and the Third World the same way he or she did before the publication of his classic work Orientalism and other studies, which permanently shifted, I think, the way in which we think about and recognize the other. Now he wasn’t the only person who was doing this, but he played a highly significant role, over and above his dedication to Palestinian rights. He did keep the Palestinian issue on the agenda despite overwhelming opposition, and that’s an achievement that is lasting.

His loss now means that other people should do more. Fortunately, younger people are coming along in the Palestinian community who are doing things that weren’t being done thirty years ago. In many ways, this is due to Edward’s influence. So he is still here through his influence on others.

Critical Convergences

ai: In Covering Islam, Said reveals a side of his work that crosses over into your work in media criticism.

nc: It is a topic that I’d been talking about and discussing, but at the same time, I was very much influenced by the way he did his critical work. We had similar values, personal friendship, mutual respect, and we followed each other’s words. So obviously each of us was influenced by what the other person did.

ai: Said further suggested, in Culture and Resistance, that in his engagement with the method of intellectual action, he was influenced by two polarities.[10] On the one hand, he was greatly affected by Foucault, and in another dimension, he developed a strong affinity to your work. Where do you situate Said?

nc: I can’t really answer that, because I never understood Foucault, so I don’t understand what the two poles are. I thought Foucault had some interesting things to say about the history of ideas, but I did not understand the significance and importance of his work.

As for Said, I didn’t know him personally before the late 1960s. I mean, I can see a change in his work by the late 1960s. In the time I knew him, we didn’t talk that much about the past, so I can’t comment on that. And as I say, I cannot really say anything about his departure from what he takes to be Foucault’s stance, because I cannot understand Foucault’s position. On the matter of acting to resist illegitimate authority, that should just be second nature.

ai: Said may have seen these polarities collide in the televised debate between you and Foucault on Dutch television. Said commented that, in that encounter, Foucault “backed away and essentially admitted that he believed in no positive truths, ideas, or ideals.”[11] Perhaps to Said the appeal of the Foucauldian critique as a method was that its call for “relentless erudition”—one that he embraced in Orientalism and beyond—was muted by what he saw as Foucault’s betrayal of the cause of social action.[12]

nc: I am not sure that Foucault betrayed the cause because, as far as I am aware, it was never really part of him. Again, you cannot betray something that you’ve never been committed to except rhetorically. In 1968, of course, everybody was talking about it, but I don’t take that very seriously. As far as I am aware, he was never a serious part of any struggle to combat oppression, preserve rights—apart from those that particularly interested him. He had some causes that particularly interested him, but I never thought of him, or of almost any of the Paris intellectuals, as engaged in a far-reaching way. So I don’t know of any betrayal. In that debate, we actually got along fine. Foucault and

I spent the day just walking through the Dutch countryside, partly for fun and partly as an experiment to see how well we would make out in a discussion, with him talking French and me talking English, and we made out fine. The technical part was overcome very easily, but we talked about all sorts of topics and our outlook on the world and so on. The formal discussion was different. There, I thought he presented himself as one of the most amoral human beings I had ever come across. As far as I could tell, he indicated that he had no moral values. I may be completely misunderstanding him. What I understood him to be saying in the formal discussion was that our moral decisions are based on our commitment to one or another system of power. That’s it. There is nothing further to say. You exclude yourself from the world of moral agents. I’m sure I am misunderstanding. There has to be more to it than that, but that’s what it sounded like to me.

ai: Said describes Habermas as “appallingly solemn” and states that his actions have no moral center.[13] Was there a moral foundation to what you and Said did?

nc: You’re right. There certainly was. We were both very explicit about it.

Neither he nor I ever concealed in the least our moral commitments. In fact, we wore them on our sleeves and had no complicated stories about how they’re social constructions or whatever, and we didn’t hide them in poly-syllabic rhetoric. In that sense, we were very much in the same moral universe and quite openly so. With nothing concealed. Habermas is another writer I just don’t feel I understand. I read his work and it’s coherent, but I cannot see what he is saying that cannot be said quite simply and briefly. His point is fairly obvious. I may have a missing gene. Much of this work either seems to me pretty elementary or just obscurantism and pretentiousness, and that’s probably my fault. That’s just the way it looks to me.

ai: During a 1992 interview, in a discussion of Marxist and anti-Marxist philosophers and theoreticians, Said expressed his “sympathy with Chomsky’s position, a kind of anarcho-syndicalist position, which has great romantic appeal.”[14]

nc: I cannot recall that. But you have to remember that although we were very close friends, we didn’t have many discussions—because of the nature of our lives. I have friends from fifty-five years ago, and we don’t have time to talk. take Israel Shahak: he was a very close friend, but we met about five times. There just isn’t time. However, his comment doesn’t surprise me, because I think it is consistent with the sense of justice and fairness that permeated his general approach to human affairs. But I don’t recall anything specific in his writings that would point in that direction. And it’s not something we discussed. I don’t know if he elaborated on it anywhere. Not to my knowledge.

Of Public Intellectuals

 With the deteriorating current situation, and at a time when the narrative of the Palestinians is under attack, the political campaigns targeting public intellectuals, including you and Edward Said, have intensified. Some of these attacks have taken legislative forms. I am thinking specifically of the debate about Title VI funding.[15]

 It comes with the turf. I don’t pay that much attention to it. In any society, the commissars are going to become infuriated by those who take a critical and dissident position. In some places, like Central America, such critics may be assassinated, as in Russia in the old days. The United States is a free society, so Daniel Pipes has no power. So people like him resort to slander, vilification, and lies, but this is all normal. It used to bother Ed a lot more than it bothered me.

I don’t think these campaigns do very much beyond making vulnerable people suffer, which is bad enough. They can be a nuisance, but most of the time the attackers make fools of themselves. I know that some of my friends take this situation seriously. But I think you should expect it. As far as how it might affect Edward’s legacy, it won’t affect it in the least. These people simply end up discrediting themselves.

ai: Do you think that efforts to assail Said’s memory alongside the general admonishment of postcolonial studies show that his contribution has been effective?

nc: It’s a sign of success. One should be proud of this. I really don’t think it’s important. I’ve been living with this type of attack, even worse, for longer than forty years. But I expect it. It comes with the turf. Anyone who takes a critical position will be denounced. take someone like John Pilger in England. He is bitterly denounced. In fact, they even made up a word—Pilgerized—which means to tell the real truth about sacred truths. But it’s used as a term of condemnation. You should expect that sort of thing.

ai: Do you see any similarities between these attacks and those exacted against communist thinkers in the academy during the Cold War?

nc: They’re very different because the society is different. Society is simply more civilized and wouldn’t tolerate some of the things people could get away with in the early 1950s. In fact, the system of repression in the U.S. is very fragile, at least for relatively privileged people, who make up a very large part of the population in a rich society. We don’t have torture chambers, secret police, etcetera. The state has very little power to coerce, fortunately. So intimidation works only if you submit. The situation now is nothing like the atmosphere of the 1950s. Remember, this did not begin with Joe McCarthy; this began with Harry Truman. The Truman administration started this. It was a way to whip the country into hysteria to support a huge military budget and do what the government called “fighting the Cold War,” which primarily meant controlling the ex-colonial areas and making sure that Europe and Asia stayed in line. That was a big enterprise, organizing the world. In that context, universities backed down, Hollywood backed down. Everyone was afraid. But I don’t think that’s going to happen now, although it could. For example, I presume, sooner or later, there will be another major terrorist attack. If so, it could help set up the environment in which the state could get away with applying coercive measures.

But that would require a frightened and intimidated population. It’s much harder to gain that result now than it was in the past. You can see this with the Iraq war. take Fallujah, for instance. If Fallujah’s events had happened in the 1960s, they would have been handled very simply: B-52 bombings, mass-murder operations, etcetera. You couldn’t do such things this time primarily because the American population won’t tolerate them. You could do them easily in the 1960s, and nobody cared. But now you cannot. Compare protests of the Iraq war with Vietnam protests. People have been asking why we don’t have the kind of protests that existed during Vietnam. It’s because the current situation is exactly the opposite. The Vietnam War went on for about five years before any substantial protest developed. Kennedy’s military attack on South Vietnam was in 1962, and by 1966 and 1967, we started seeing some protests. By then, South Vietnam was virtually wiped out. There were probably six hundred thousand victims of chemical warfare in South Vietnam, and nobody knows because there were no protests. In Iraq, there were huge protests before the war started. This is the first time in the history of European and U.S. imperialism that mass protests took place before the war officially began. The differences reflect major changes in the population. In Iraq, the U.S. is being compelled to back down step by step. The government may not achieve its war aims. I’m sure the war aims are exactly what the people in Baghdad were thinking: get secure military bases and create a client state in the heart of the main oil-producing region of the world. It may not be able to achieve that. It’s being compelled to back down step-by-step. Part of the reason is the steadfast refusal of Iraqis to go along. But it requires a background within the imperial society. If the government had the kind of support in the U.S. that it had in the 1960s, it wouldn’t back down. If it had to wipe Iraq out like it did in South Vietnam, it wouldn’t back down. That’s why I don’t think that the kind of oppression that was possible in the past is possible now. That is why I think the Title VI people are mostly making fools of themselves.

ai: On the issue of protest, you and Edward Said are often mentioned in the same breath. What is the role of the public intellectual, and how did you and Said live that out?

nc: Here we have to divide the question into several parts. The actual role is, with some exceptions, to serve power. The proper role is any person’s role. What makes a person an intellectual? You came here in a taxi. Why isn’t the taxi driver an intellectual? Why am I an intellectual? Well, I’m privileged. I have resources that he doesn’t have. I have an education that he probably does not have. So it gives you opportunities to do certain things. Then comes choice.

Do you want to use your privileges and resources and so on to support power and improve your own standing within powerful institutions, or do you want to use it to help people who are suffering? That is what every person ought to do.

However, what privileged people tend to do is quite different. Those called public intellectuals are mostly servants of power, with a few exceptions. That is not just true of the U.S. In fact, it goes through recorded history. There were intellectuals in the Bible, the people who are called the prophets, what we would call dissident intellectuals. They gave geopolitical analyses that people in power did not like. They called on the king to be just and called on people to help the poor and the suffering, they pointed out the crimes of state, and so on. Were they treated nicely? Take a look. They were imprisoned, driven into the desert, and so on. In fact, there is a famous notion now: “hater of Israel.” Where does that come from? It comes from the Bible. King Ahab, who was the epitome of evil in the Bible, called prophet Elijah to him and asked, “Why do you hate Israel?” meaning, Why do you hate me? He identified the country, society, culture with the ruling authority. The Soviet Union was the same. Dissidents were considered anti-Soviet because they condemned the policies of the state. Hating Israel, for the loyal intellectuals, means criticizing its policies. That is a totalitarian notion that comes straight out of the Bible. So it’s very interesting when it is used by people who know the Bible. The concept of being anti-American is much the same, a deeply totalitarian notion. The history of intellectuals is in this vein. The mainstream intellectual tends to be strongly supportive of power and gains privilege and applause for doing that. Mild criticism is permitted, so long as he or she stays within a pretty narrow framework. There is a fringe of exceptions in most societies, and these dissident intellectuals are usually treated very badly. How badly depends on the society. In countries like the U.S. and England, where the state doesn’t have much power to coerce and oppress, they are vilified, because that is the technique that is available. to go back to your question, that is why Edward and I are often lumped together.

ai: You have pointed out that Said was in an ambivalent position in relation to the media and mainstream culture because his contribution to literary criticism was recognized and honored yet he was the constant target of vilification. Said once stated that such vilification “hasn’t stopped Noam and it hasn’t stopped me.” [16]

nc: It was a commonality, but it’s true for almost anyone who is a dissident in society. So, for example, take our friend Israel Shahak in Israel. He was a highly respected organic chemist, but for many years (not always) he was not only vilified but they tried to throw him out of his job. Newspapers called for putting bombs in his office, and the government intervened to try to destroy the tiny civil rights organization that he was part of. In the United States, he was bitterly condemned by passionate opponents of civil liberties like Alan Dershowitz at Harvard, a professional slanderer and liar who just fabricated tales about him, and was publicly exposed, but it doesn’t matter within the systems of power. I attended some of Shahak’s talks here, and he was subjected to screaming and shouting. In Israel, to the Israelis’ credit, in the last ten or fifteen years of his life, this treatment stopped and he was quite respected. People may not have liked what he said, but he was accepted and honored as a person. But that kind of turnaround is a bit unusual. At the same time that he was an organic chemist, he was regarded as a significant figure. You can say the same about Andrei Sakharov. In Soviet mainstream circles, he was certainly highly regarded as a physicist but bitterly condemned as a political commentator. So this is standard. But there is a difference in Edward’s case and mine. He wanted to be part of the respectable intellectual world, and the flood of slander and vilification was personally painful to him in ways in which it wouldn’t be to somebody who doesn’t care very much about those circles. It bothered him very much, but he just continued in what he thought was the right path.

 In a previous conversation, you used a metaphor placing Said in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets who risked exile and loss of prestige in the community because they spoke words against the will of the king. I find that metaphor rather telling, and one that applies to both you and Said in some respects. Said often talked about the “Chomsky condition” as a self-imposed marginalization, which you may or may not agree with, and also said that Chomsky is a solitary personality. This is something he appeared sympathetic to as an exile, not just as a Palestinian, but an intellectual in a perpetual state of in-betweenness. Would you reflect on this idea?

nc: Arundhati Roy wrote a piece with a similar title, “The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky,” at about the time that the two of us were jointly on a platform in Porto Alegre at the World Social Forum talking to an audience of maybe fifteen thousand people. Afterward, we took part in a six-mile march of maybe one hundred thousand people. So it is not an obvious notion of loneliness. And, in fact, I have given talks to thousands of people; I can’t accept a fraction of the invitations I receive. And I don’t just give talks to people; I also participate in activities and organizations. So this is hardly loneliness. The isolation and loneliness that Edward talked about is a different type, two types actually. One is isolation from the respect of the intellectual community. So many academics choose to publish lies and slanders. So that is a kind of loneliness, but it is not of any concern to those who don’t want to be part of these circles anyway. The other is just personal. I happen to be a private person. I am perfectly happy with a couple of good friends and family, but that is a personal characteristic; it’s not loneliness. I don’t think I’m a solitary voice if I have to spend an hour every night turning down invitations to present and speak to thousands of people, with regret. It is solitary only from the perspective of a certain elite cultural hegemony.

ai: Which is why Said believed this loneliness is necessary. “It is better than a gregarious tolerance for the way things are,” he writes in the introduction to your book Fateful triangle.[17] In The World, the Text, and the Critic, Said identifies the intellectual tasks you once argued were necessary to wage the sociopolitical battle—“to imagine a future society that conforms to the exigencies of human nature as best we understand them; the other to analyze the nature of power and oppression in our present societies.”[18]

nc: Yes, that’s a pretty good description of what he did most of his life. It’s not the standard role intellectuals play, and it’s honorable.

ai: Said believed that while your position is the most admirable, it is also the least emulatable.

nc: No, I don’t think he’s the person to talk about emulating. I can’t think of anything I’ve done that he didn’t do independently, often much better, so what is there to emulate?

Justice in Iraq

 Edward Said was concerned about the politics of representation. His explication of the ways in which interests intersect with portrayal is a terrain you have charted significantly over the years. In light of this concern, how would you situate Said vis-à-vis the current conflict in Iraq?

nc: There are a few people, and Ed was one, who had a principled objection to the invasion. It came under sharp elite criticism, but on very narrow grounds rather than principled grounds. The charge was that it would be harmful for the U.S., that it wouldn’t work, that there was no immediate threat, that sort of thing. But Edward wouldn’t have had any of that. For example, there is an odd charade going on right now among intellectuals in England as well as here about whether the Bush administration had downgraded the threat of terror in the interest of achieving its aims in Iraq, about the revelations of Richard Clarke, and so on. The only thing that is surprising about any of these discussions is that anybody takes them seriously. Of course, members of the administration downgraded the threat of terror in favor of their interests in Iraq; that’s proven by the fact that they invaded Iraq. They invaded Iraq for reasons that are not allowed to be said here. They knew perfectly well that the invasion would likely increase the threat of terror; it just didn’t matter. Edward was one of the few people who said this, and if he were sitting here today, would be saying this. But it’s not discussable in polite circles. For example, take the Syria Accountability Act. There is a fine scholar who has written about it, Stephen Zunes, but hardly anyone else has paid attention. Syria has been highly cooperative with the United States. The Syrians don’t like Islamic fundamentalists. The Syria Accountability Act, which was passed almost unanimously, is virtually a declaration of war. It cuts off the U.S. from a major source of information and support in the struggle against Al Qaeda–style terror. But it’s more important to ensure that the Middle East is disciplined. In fact, if you look at the act, you will get much insight. If you look at the core criticism of Syria in it, you will find that it is based on Resolution 520, which calls for respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Lebanon. People say that Syria is violating that, which is true. But nobody bothers to say that the Syrians were virtually invited in by the U.S. and Israel in 1976 to massacre Palestinians, which was considered a good thing. So they happily brought the Syrians in. But more importantly, Resolution 520 wasn’t directed against Syria; it was directed against Israel. It was passed in 1982 to call on Israel to respect the territorial integrity of Lebanon, and of course, Israel violated it for twenty-two years, from 1978 until 2000. Nobody mentioned sanctions against Israel. Nobody mentions that the core of the resolution against Syria is actually a resolution against Israel. This is the kind of thing that Edward would have talked about, but very few others do. And this situation goes on, case after case, after all the pretexts for war collapsed—weapons of mass destruction, ties to terror, and so on. So there is a new story: what the press calls Bush’s messianic vision to bring democracy to Iraq and the Middle East. Western commentary completely fell into line with this idea, even the critics. Critics in the New York Review of Books or American Prospect say, yes, it’s a liberal and generous vision, but its overreaching and too costly, we can’t do it, and so on. What’s the evidence that democracy was the original goal? Do they have any evidence for it? No, no evidence. The leader said so; therefore, all news reporting pre-supposed it. Actually, the only major exception that I have found so far in the American press is a story in the Washington Post that reported a poll in Baghdad. People were asked why they thought the U.S. invaded, and almost everybody gave the obvious answer: to take control of Iraq’s resources and to reorganize the Middle East to suit U.S. interests. You can’t mention that idea here in the U.S. So that’s the majority’s view in Baghdad. How about the idea of establishing democracy? In Baghdad, one percent of respondents. to help Iraqis? Five percent. This is the kind of position Edward was invested in and for which he was at times a lone spokesman. For the most part, intellectuals simply and blindly followed what amounted to government orders. Although these orders are not enforced, people tend to fall into line. I tried to find a comment in the U.S. press noting what most people in Baghdad think, and it just isn’t there, except at the margins. This silence goes on in case after case. For instance, the coverage of the Israeli-Arab conflict has been ridiculous. You simply cannot report the most elementary facts. take the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the worst of the five invasions. All over the Israeli press, there were stories explaining what the invasion was about. High political and military echelons made it clear; the press commented. It was about the West Bank.

Israel wanted to stop the PLO’s [Palestine Liberation Organization’s] negotiat- ing offers, which were an embarrassment. The Israelis couldn’t fend off the PLO negotiators anymore, so they had to stop them from carrying out this embarrassing diplomatic offensive to try and settle the problem. You couldn’t report this in the U.S., not a word. The story in the U.S., which was a complete fabrication, was that Israel invaded Lebanon because Katyusha rockets were falling on northern Galilee, which was complete nonsense. In fact, the first reference I’ve seen to what was perfectly well-known in 1982 was about a year ago [2004], when the Israel correspondent for the New York Times, James Bennett, embedded a line in his story saying that Israel invaded in order to stop negotiation offers. It took twenty years for a line to appear, but Edward had been talking about it, and he could reach an audience. He spoke the truth in case after case. And that is why they hate him.

ai: When Orientalism came out in 1978, it was soon heralded by many as an influential text focused on the perception of the other. It transformed much of the academic discourse on representation of the other, yet “othering” images persist. We still see pervasive images from Abu Ghraib prison along with the numerous atrocities committed by the empire, if you will, to subdue the other. How would Edward Said view these manifestations almost three decades after Orientalism’s publication?

nc: When you talk about academic discourse, you’re talking about cultural studies, literary studies, not political science, not international relations, not the public intellectuals who appear in the media; they don’t change in the ways you describe. His work certainly revolutionized cultural studies and the social sciences, everything from anthropology to literary criticism. It has its effects within society, but it’s not going to change central properties unless it enters general consciousness and understanding. It is important for its general civilizing effect on society, but it’s not going to change the propaganda function of the media and the mainstream intellectuals. This role is deeply embedded in institutionalized structures of power. In fact, if you look closely, the Abu Ghraib scandals are being handled very much like the My Lai massacre in Vietnam was. The atrocities are being blamed on “the other,” not on us. It’s not us nice fellows in the faculty clubs and editorial offices; it’s some southern redneck who is very different from us and is uneducated and comes from a part of the world that has nothing to do with us. Just like My Lai, Abu Ghraib is not being attributed to the people who are responsible. My Lai, for example, was blamed on the uneducated, half-crazed GIs in the field who didn’t know who was going to shoot them next and went wild. That’s the merest fragment of the truth. The truth is that My Lai was a footnote to a big mass-murder operation that was organized by nice people just like us in air-conditioned offices. Criticism stops at the level of the soldiers on the ground.

If you look into it, which few are doing, you’ll find there were orders, a framework in which the soldiers were operating, that came straight from the top.

Furthermore, what were they doing? What was in the minds of these people? They were taking revenge on the “ragheads” who bombed the World Trade Center. Where did they get this idea? From the nice people who run Fox News. That’s the story, but that part is being cut out. It’s the other who is being blamed, and the other happens to be in U.S. uniform in this case and in My Lai, but it doesn’t matter. He is still an “other,” so we can attack him. The reason we can’t tell the truth is that we are the ones who are responsible, not the other.

Meeting Said and the PLO

 Do you recall your first meeting with Edward Said?

nc: It must have been about thirty-five years ago—in the late 1960s—but I don’t remember the specific occasion. Very likely, our first meeting was in connection with the Israeli-Palestinian situation, which was very personal for both of us. In later years, we sometimes saw each other in meetings with the PLO.

ai: Not much has been published about these meetings with Palestinian officials in New York. What was the extent of your involvement with Said during that formative period?

nc: I have never written or even spoken much about it. Regrettably, all the other people who were involved in the meetings have died since. Now, we just have my memory to rely on. None of us talked about it much. Edward, from the 1970s, tried very hard, as did others, to influence the Palestinian leadership to undertake and pursue policies that were more constructive and conducive to achieving the rights of Palestinians. They were simply not doing that. They were following policies that couldn’t have been more gratifying to hawkish Israelis and Americans. They often acted like they were paid agents of the most extremist and jingoistic elements in Israel and the United States. Another person who made these efforts was Eqbal Ahmed, who also had personal relationships with PLO leaders and was pursuing these essentially parallel arguments in his own way. The meeting in New York and other interactions were about such matters. These meetings were completely unsuccessful, I should say. The leadership simply could not comprehend the need to develop sympathy, solidarity, and support among the American population. I have had a lot to do with Third World movements over many decades, and the Palestinian leader influenced American opinion by sending the collected works of Kim Il-Sung and that sort of thing. It wasn’t a very helpful way of doing it, but at least they understood that unless you have some degree of popular support in the U.S., you’ll be smashed. That’s just the way the world works. The only thing that can inhibit U.S. power and violence is domestic opinion. And the Palestinian leadership never comprehended that. If the leaders had come to the U.S. and told the truth about themselves, they would have gained enormous popular support. The truth was that they were conservative nationalists who wanted to elect their own mayors and run their societies and so on, which is a perfectly acceptable message in mainstream America. But they insisted on presenting themselves as Marxist revolutionaries carrying Kalashnikovs and leading a world revolution, which was comical. And their actions were the same. In those years (1970s), the Palestinian leaders were directing murderous, terrorist attacks against people who could have been their natural allies in Israel. Internal planning in Israel was to send the poor Arab Jews to the borders with Lebanon, and Palestinians were attacking and killing people there. Quite apart from any moral evaluation, this approach was politically imbecilic. Here was a group within Israeli society that they could have had significant interactions with, but they preferred to kill them.

Their conception of politics was that you get together with other rich people in the backroom and work out a deal. So if they could get invited to the kitchen in the White House and talk with Kissinger, that would be politics, rather than doing something that could help contribute to popular solidarity. I’ll give you one concrete example to illustrate this. In the 1982 war, the murderous invasion of Lebanon wouldn’t have taken place without U.S. support, including veto of Security Council resolutions calling for an end to the aggression and crimes. The events were horrifying enough, especially the bombing of Beirut, for considerable information to get into the U.S. Even Thomas Friedman reported that it’s no fun being bombed by Israelis. There was an important story of an Israeli military officer, Dov Yirmiah, who was an old heroic figure in Israel, one of the founders of the Haganah, the original self-defense organization. He was greatly admired for his integrity and his courage. He was too old to be in the army, but he went with the military forces as one of the civilian authorities appointed to deal with the captured population and other matters. He was utterly appalled. His ideals were destroyed, and he couldn’t stand the horrors and the atrocities. He wrote a war diary in Hebrew about his experiences—a very graphic, evocative, and compelling one. I read it in Hebrew, and I thought it would be a great idea to have it translated, and I convinced a small publisher here to translate it. It did and published it as a war diary. I asked Edward if he could persuade the PLO, which had money coming out of its ears—one of the richest Third World movements to ever exist—to help with the distribution by buying copies and distributing them to libraries, for example, so the book would be available somewhere. I was certain it was never going to be reviewed here. And the publisher didn’t have any funds to advertise. He did make that request, but the PLO would do it only if the book were stamped “Published with the support of the PLO.” That is typical of the PLO’s failure to understand how a democratic society works. That failure was consistent and long-standing, recurring in case after case after case. Edward made major efforts to change that, and I was involved in some of them. He and I and Alex Erlich, professor of Russian history at Columbia University, met with PLO leaders, but our efforts were useless.

 Retrospectively, it seems Said had significant foresight about the far-reaching negative impact of the Oslo Accords on Palestinian livelihood. Were your views compatible with Said’s on the conditions of this agreement? What would Said say about the current situation?

nc: I’ll have to extrapolate. We had about the same reaction to Oslo and were both worried about it right away and spoke in almost the same terms without even talking to each other. That much is in print.

As for the present, I suspect he would react in the same way that both he and I reacted to Oslo. Objectively, the cease-fire was a total victory for the United States and Israel. In fact, it was a victory in Europe as well.

Israel and the United States had succeeded in reshaping the issue. The only thing that counts to them is Palestinian violence. Israel and the U.S. would be perfectly happy if Palestinians never raised a finger. Then they could continue their programs of integration and takeover of the West Bank, taking over the valuable land and resources, developing massive infrastructure projects that cantonize the population. And that was the goal they agreed on. There was not a single word about occupation. In their world, settlements never emerged, the Israeli development programs never emerged, the wall was not to be discussed. Just keep quiet. So that is a total victory for the United States and Israeli position, and rather strikingly, the victory is accepted in Europe and in fact in most of the world. This view says that the only issue is the security of Israelis, including the Israeli settlements now. Nobody wants killing anymore; everyone will be happier to see an end to the violence, yes.

Contested Zionisms and Binationalism

 In the 1990s, Said embraced and began to speak publicly of his support for the one-state solution. Were the two of you in agreement on this point? How did your visions for the peace process contrast? Did you both favor a binational solution?

nc: That was a late view. Edward, as far as I know, never expressed that until the late 1990s.

As for me, I had been committed to that solution since childhood. During the period from 1967 and 1973, I think there was a realistic prospect. I did write and speak about it a lot. But I don’t recall anyone else doing so at the time.

In fact, I was vilified on both sides: Palestinians, Israelis, and, of course, American commentators went crazy. But, in that period, it was relistic. From the memoirs of top Israeli military officials, we find that proposals were coming from Israeli military intelligence that could have led in that direction. These were immediately dismissed by the higher political echelons. But from the mid-1970s, it was not feasible except as a later stage of a long-term process. At that point, the idea of a two-state settlement became the international consensus, and that is what Edward was committed to, as far as I know. I was too, though hoping that it might be a step toward closer integration. When Oslo came along, I think Edward and I saw it as essentially a sellout by the PLO from outside the territories, a case of outsider Palestinians undermining the prospects for a meaningful two-state settlement that would take into account the legitimate rights of the insiders, the Palestinians on the inside.

ai: Do you believe that is when Edward Said embraced the idea of a one-state solution?

nc: Take a look at his writing. As far as I am aware, the idea started appearing in his writings a couple of years after the collapse of Oslo had become pretty apparent.

ai: Then he became very fervent, up until his death.

nc: That’s one thing that we actually disagreed on. I was committed to it in principle from way back, in fact in the early 1940s. I thought that bringing it up in the late 1990s was a tactical and intellectual mistake. In fact, it is striking that in the late 1990s, it became a tolerable position in the mainstream. So Edward could write about it in the New York Times, as could Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books, and others elsewhere. From 1967 to the mid-1970s, when it was feasible to propose it, it literally was taboo. So what’s the difference? The difference is that it was understood by the late 1990s that it was just not feasible. Suddenly it was permissible to talk about it. I am not suggesting any bad faith on anyone’s part, but I think there’s a misunderstanding- ing of the situation. You can still hope for a binational settlement, but it’s going to have to go through stages. In the 1967 to mid-1970s period, it could have been implemented. A federal system could have been implemented within a general peace. That’s not a feasible proposal now, but it could be approached again in stages. The first stage would be a two-state solution along the lines of the Geneva Accords, at least as a basis for serious negotiations, and then you could move from there to further cooperation and integration, and so on. But talking about a single state at this point is just offering a gift to the Israeli right wing and to the United States.

I think that is why it has become a topic of legitimate discussion within the mainstream, so I did disagree with Said on that tactical matter.

 In Power, Politics and Culture, Said states that there are differences between you but that they are not very interesting or important.[19]

nc: The areas of agreement were not only large but so important that we tended to keep to those, but I’m sure there were differences. I mean, for example, we never discussed it, but I’m sure I have more sympathy with the original so-called Zionist project than he did. I can understand that. I do see the conflict as a conflict of rights, and I don’t think he did, at least at the level that I did.

ai: How did your views on Zionism differ?

nc: It grew out of a European context, but most of it was coming from Eastern Europe. That’s where the immigration came from. There was political Zionism represented by Theodore Herzl and the other leading figures, but the actual settlement of the land came from an Eastern European Jewish culture that was a mixed story. This culture included elements of Russian and other Eastern European intellectual life. It was very much rooted in the Jewish ghettoes; it is a complicated mixed story. I mostly perceive things from within that framework. I was just as much opposed to political Zionism as Edward was, but there were other strands to which I was more sympathetic.

ai: Would you elaborate on this point?

nc: Well, I was committed since childhood to socialist binationalist tendencies in Zionism, which were opposed to a Jewish state but were in favor of building a Jewish community and cultural center and an array of socialist institutions like the cooperatives and kibbutzim, hoping that they would draw in and integrate with Palestinian society on a class basis.

Take a concrete and contentious issue. One of the elements of the Eastern European Jewish immigration into Palestine, including socialist binationalist tendencies, was the development of so-called Jewish labor. That concept essentially called for a pretty closed economy, a Jewish-based economy, with Jewish labor, Jewish production. Of course, that is discriminatory in that it discriminates against the native population. That idea is at least contentious, maybe worse. However, if you want to discuss the idea seriously, you have to ask what its sources were. And the sources were complex. to put it simply, if there was to be any immigration at all—and that goes back to another question, was there any right for there to be any immigration at all?—but if you assume for the sake of argument that there was some justification for the settlement, the establishment of a cultural center, a place where Jews have their own lives and so on, then the question of Jewish labor can be difficult. It’s difficult because settlers who came perceived two choices. One was to be South African-style landowners exploiting Palestinian workers, and the other was to reverse the inverted pyramid of Jewish life as it was perceived by the leftist Jewish Zionists. In this view, normal functioning societies have a base of productive people—farmers and workers—and they form the base of the pyramid. Their productive work enables commerce, intellectuals, universities, professionals, and so on. But this latter group is the peak of the pyramid. Jewish life, many thinkers said, was inverted, there was no base. They wanted to form what they considered a normal society, which meant that there would have to be a base of a Jewish working class and a Jewish farmer’s class. But that type of society is possible only if it is exclusive and exclusionary. You and I could not go to Central Africa and become part of the society and survive. We’re not equipped for that. The same was true for people coming from even poorer communities in Eastern Europe. If they had tried to live the life of a Palestinian peasant, they couldn’t have survived. So the choices were to create a normal society with a working-class base and to allow professionals and intellectuals to come off the surplus of the working base. to accomplish that, you almost have to have exclusionary Jewish labor, which was certainly a dilemma. But understanding the dilemma is important. It makes sense to reject the position, but only if you understand its roots and origins, which are complex.


ai: Looking back after having known him for so long, who is Edward Said to you?

nc: First, he made quite a brilliant contribution to modern culture and understanding in his academic work. But he was also a courageous, honest person who insisted on telling people the truth regardless of whether they wanted to hear it. Palestinians too. He tried for years to talk some sense into the PLO leadership—a pretty hopeless enterprise—and brought me into it sometimes. So I got to see his approach firsthand. take, for instance, the Oslo agreements: he was one of the very few people who said right away, accurately, that they would be a catastrophe for the Palestinians and he pointed out why. Palestinians didn’t want to hear that. He was not preaching to the choir, but he was telling the truth to the people who had to hear it. He also received the kind of appreciation and acclaim that I think he wanted from the people whom he cared about. Even though he may not have reached certain segments of the population, people couldn’t fail to recognize the importance of his contributions, regardless of how much they hated what he was doing. Some Stalinist clones condemned him with frivolous labels like “professor of terror” or whatever. But if Edward cared about that, he shouldn’t have. He should have appreciated that kind of condemnation.

ai: Did Said accomplish what he set out to do?

nc: As far as putting and keeping the Palestinian issue on the international agenda, yes, more than anyone else. Did he achieve any measure of justice for the Palestinians? Just take a look at what is happening. The situation is as bad as it’s ever been, or worse. But these are not easy things to achieve. In objective terms, Israel offers a tremendous amount to the U.S. It is a powerful state, rich, advanced; it’s like an offshore military and high-technology base for the U.S. right in the most important region of the world. What do the Palestinians offer? Nothing. They don’t have wealth, power, or resources, and therefore they have no value by the elementary principles of statecraft. It’s a hard thing to combat. Edward tried valiantly, and he certainly succeeded in compelling people to think about it and in bringing understanding to a lot of people. The fact is that a large majority of the American public agrees with Edward. If you look at the polls in the U.S., they are astonishing. By about two to one, people in the U.S. think that the U.S. ought to cut off aid to either of the two parties, Israel and Palestine, that is not negotiating seriously for a two-state diplomatic solution. By about the same majority, the U.S. public thinks that if both parties are negotiating seriously, the U.S. should equalize aid. This idea is so remote from anything anybody can discuss that it’s hard to find words for it. So public opinion, in fact, is pretty much on Edward’s side on this. But in our society, public opinion is often quite divorced from policymaking, not just on this issue but on many others too.

At the end of the day, Ed is sorely missed. Just personally, he was a close friend and someone I admire very much as well.


This interview took place in two sessions in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 4 June 2004 and 11 February 2005.

[1] These activities include several public appearances, conferences, media interviews, and collaborations or endorsements of published works, such as Said’s introductions to Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians (2000) and Acts of Aggression: Policing “Rogue” States (2003).

[2] Noam Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1983), viii.

[3] Edward W. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 213.

[4] Edward W. Said, “Permission to Narrate,” in The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969–1994 (New York: Vintage, 1995), 247–68.

[5] “Culture and Imperialism,” in Power, Politics and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said, ed. Gauri Viswanathan (New York: Vintage, 2002), 201.

[6] Power, Politics and Culture, 205.

[7] Ibid., 203.

[8] Ibid., 331.

[9] Ibid., 138.

[10] Edward W. Said, Culture and Resistance: Conversations with Edward W. Said, Interviews by David Barsamian (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2003), 5.

[11] Power, Politics, and Culture, 77.

[12] Ibid., p. 40.

[13] Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), xviii.

[14] Ibid., 205.

[15] Power, Politics, and Culture, 161.

[16] Following Said’s death, several groups with close ties to the Israeli lobby within academia made a concerted effort to tarnish his legacy and his contribution to Middle Eastern studies. Various congressional hearings in 2003 were dedicated to restricting any seemingly anti-imperial discourse in the regional scholarly and curricular canon, with a particular emphasis on Said’s seminal critique. These actions include a proposed bill H.R. 3077 to amend Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965. This legislation was developed to reprimand and punish various programs and departments by withholding funding if they were deemed to espouse an antagonistic view toward U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East or if they were critical of Israeli actions.

[17] Chomsky, Fateful Triangle, viii.

[18] Said, World, the Text, and the Critic, 246.

[19] Power, Politics, and Culture, 77