Iconoclast and Radical Who Takes the Long View

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Denis Staunton

The Irish Times, January 21, 2006

Noam Chomsky’s eighth-floor office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is sparse, cheaply furnished and gloomy, lightened only a little by a few giant plants and some pictures tacked to the walls.

The most prominent picture is a large black and white photograph of Bertrand Russell that stands on top of a filing cabinet just inside the door. Below it is a quotation from the British philosopher’s autobiography: “Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”

Tall piles of books occupy the entire surface of his desk and we sit at a small, round table in the centre of the room, Chomsky wearing a baggy grey jumper and his familiar, Woody Allen-style glasses.

His manner is exceptionally polite and gentle, an effect enhanced by the softness of his voice, which often falls to a whisper during our hour-long conversation. He has worked at MIT for 50 years, teaching linguistics and the philosophy of language and developing his influential theories of universal grammar.

At 77, Chomsky is not only the world’s most famous public intellectual but one of the most energetic, writing more books and articles, giving more interviews and making more public appearances than ever.

Best known as a critic of American foreign policy, he has also condemned communist tyranny and in 1993, the last time he visited Ireland, he spoke out in West Belfast against the IRA’s armed campaign.

As an advocate for social justice who admires free market icon Adam Smith and a progressive educator who rejects post-modernism and defends Enlightenment values, Chomsky can be as awkward a thinker for some on the Left as for the Right.

As he prepared to visit Dublin for this week’s Amnesty International lecture on the War on Terror, we started by discussing Ireland’s alleged role in it.

First of all, I wanted to clear something up. I understand that some remarks you made about Bertie Ahern and “shoe shining” may have been reported inaccurately.

The Press Association story on December 26th said that on his way to Ireland, Noam Chomsky says that Bertie Ahern “shines the shoes” of the Americans. Well I knew there was no interview around that time and I checked back and I finally found there was one last May.

In May I had an interview with a journalist and in it – I had no plans to go to Ireland – in it, I was talking about the Old Europe and New Europe business. And I did use the phrase, it had to do with taking part in the [IRAQ] war. Old Europe was the countries that just wouldn’t take part in the war, New Europe was the countries that did take part in the war.

Then I pointed out that the distinguishing characteristic was that in Old Europe, so called, that the governments took the position of a large majority of the population, which is what we usually call democracy. And In New Europe, they overruled an even larger majority of the population and were just shining the shoes of the Americans.

And then he asked “Well, would you say that Bertie Ahern is shining the shoes of the Americans?” To tell you the truth, I’d never heard of Bertie Ahern, but I didn’t want to say that, to be impolite. So the context was taking part in the war. So I asked, “I don’t know what the polls are in Ireland. Is he following the polls?” And he said no. And I said, “Well, there’s your answer “.

The Irish Government obviously has a problem in that its received more explicit assurances than most other countries – because it asked for the assurances before the Americans stopped giving specific assurances about places – that no prisoners have gone through Irish airports.

You see there are several separate points here. I did an interview with someone else from The Irish Times and he asked me a very straightforward question – what do you think about the use of Shannon for military flights? And he said there was a suspicion that it’s being used for rendition flights.

So I said military flights are a complicated matter and by now it’s not military flights for the war, it’s military flights for the occupation, which is different. So I didn’t say anything about military flights.

But I said if they use it for rendition, it’s completely shameful to take part in criminal acts like that. And I understand there are spotters at Shannon and at Heathrow who are picking up these Gulfstream flights which both governments deny. If either government or any government is giving any support whatsoever for what is just pure torture, there’s nothing else to say about it.

But what the Irish say is that the only information they have about these flights is that the Americans have told them that there are no prisoners on these flights going through Ireland. The question is what should the Irish do?

Refuse. It’s an Irish airfield. If the United States wants to torture people, let them do it some other way.

There’s also the business that by asking, say, to search these planes, it would be an unfriendly gesture to a friendly power which is not only an important economic partner but has also played an important role in Northern Ireland and continues to do so.

So you have to make choices. It’s true, a government has to make ugly choices. But there’s a question of what decision you make in a complex situation. Sometimes you do things which in other circumstances require you to offend your moral principles. Yes, that happens in life.

But we should be clear on the principles. I mean, conscious participation in anything as grotesque as rendition, which is just a euphemism for torture, is outrageous.

Suppose they wanted to torture people in Ireland. Suppose they sent people to Ireland for torture. It’s basically the same thing. You can say it’s a friendly gesture but…

Much of Ireland’s foreign policy is now expressed through the European Union, and the United States has been ambivalent about the whole business of European integration, particularly the idea of a defence identity. What’s your view of the course of European integration?

It’s ambiguous. Actually, the United States has been ambivalent about it since the 1940s. On the one hand, the US has always pressed for some form of European unification for obvious reasons. I mean, if IBM is investing in Europe, they’d rather have one location with one currency and one language and so on than installations in 20 different places.

A lot of this integration developed as a result of American multinational corporations. In fact, the Marshall Plan was the framework in which multinational corporations developed. It’s one reason why it was pressed. It’s openly discussed by the Commerce Department, for example.

So yes, that’s a pressure for integration. It’s much better to have a big market with uniformity of practices and so on.

On the other hand, the US has always been concerned that Europe might go off in its own direction. It used to be called a “potential third force” during the Cold War. And by 1970 when the world had become economically tripolar – three major economic centres: Japan – based, German – based Europe, and North America, roughly on a par – these concerns became much more serious, and by now they’re much more serious.

So the questions of European integration, there are several dimensions to them. They are the centre of the industrial, financial, commercial power of Europe. It’s Germany and France, it’s not a big secret.

You bring in the old Russian satellites, they’re likely to be more subordinated to the United States.

Similarly, Spain and Italy are expected to be more subordinated even if they are not always so. So that’s a way of diluting. It’s the same with Turkey. The US has been pressing very hard for the inclusion of Turkey for years, not because they’re in love with Turkey but because they want to ensure that the European Union is more controllable.

Same with the extension of NATO. NATO is basically under US control so if NATO extends, it extends the US control system.

So from an international point of view, it’s [European enlargement] dubious. But from the domestic point of view, I think it’s a good thing for Europeans to be able to cross borders without paying any attention to have the common currency, and so on. That’s all to the good.

On the other hand, there are some things the European Union has done which I think are very negative.

For example, the power of the European Central Bank, which is so outrageous that even conservatives in the United States can’t believe it. It’s way more than the Federal Reserve. And it’s harmed European growth. They’re ultra – inflation conscious. They’ve kept interest rates too high, they’ve slowed growth, they’re completely unaccountable. That’s negative.

The one, I think, beneficial unplanned consequence of the European Union is that it’s stimulating a kind of regionalism – “Europe of the regions”, so – called – which is a good thing. So in regions of Spain and in England and other places there’s a revival of local cultures, local languages, some degree of autonomy in Catalonia and the Basque country. Scotland has limited autonomy. You hear Welsh spoken in Cardiff, which you didn’t used to do.

Those things are all positive. So like any complicated system it has positive and negative features to it.

The Europeans have a different view of security from America. If you compare, for example the Security Strategy the Bush administration came out with and the document that Solana and Co [European Union diplomacy] came out with, the whole concept of intervention is different. Do you think it’s useful for the world to have an alternative vision of security like the European one?

I don’t think the US has a vision of security. It has a vision of dominance. So it acts quite consciously in ways that increase insecurity.

Take, say, the invasion of Iraq. They understood that it was likely to increase the threat of terrorism and proliferation. That’s transparent and by now they agree that that happened. Their own intelligence services agree that the invasion substantially increased the threat of terrorism, which is going to be a long – term threat.

And it also, of course, increased proliferation. Take Iran. Nobody wants to see Iran get nuclear weapons, no – one sane. On the other hand, it’s very understandable. One of Israel’s leading military historians, Martin van Creveld, had an article in which he said “obviously we don’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons and I don’t know if they’re developing them, but if they’re not developing them, they’re crazy “. The invasion of Iraq just instructed them to develop nuclear weapons.

How are you going to deter a powerful state that claims it can do anything it wants? It’s got nothing to do with security. This goes way back. What Arthur Schlesinger called correctly “the most dangerous moment in human history” was in 1962, the [Cuban] missile crisis.

The missile crisis had a lot of complicated features, but one element of it was Washington’s terrorist war against Cuba which was a factor that led to an effort at deterrence. It was a lunatic effort that could have set off a nuclear war, but, lunacy aside, the logic is understandable.

Was the terrorist war an effort to increase US security? No, we know what it was for because we have a rich documentary record. It was because of what the State Department called Cuba’s successful defiance of US policies going back to the Munroe Doctrine. It had nothing to do with security.

In fact, to talk about security is very misleading. States don’t seek security, they seek power. And the effort to extend power can increase insecurity.

Let’s talk about it a different way and speak about the use of force or military intervention. Are there benign examples of the use of military force that you can think of?

It depends on how you define them. There’s very extensive legal literature on so – called humanitarian intervention. There are extensive studies. If you work through them, it’s extremely hard to find a genuine example.

I mean, there are examples of the use of military force which had benign consequences, definitely. In fact, in the last 50 years the two most dramatic cases are India’s intervention in East Pakistan which did stop atrocities, and Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia which terminated Pol Pot’s atrocities in fact just at the point that they were peaking. Those are the two most striking examples in the last half century of military intervention with benign consequences. And how did the West react? The US was infuriated in both cases. It imposed sanctions against India and sent a nuclear-armed aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal, threatening.

Kissinger was totally furious. The reason was that it spoilt some photo – ops he was hoping to get on a secret trip to China through Pakistan.

But the reaction was very harsh and punitive. In the case of Vietnam it was worse. In the case of Pol Pot, the US and Britain immediately turned to supporting the Khmer Rouge. They supported a Chinese invasion to punish Vietnam for the crime of having terminated Pol Pot’s atrocities.

The press was denouncing them as the Prussians of Asia. The US imposed very harsh sanctions.

So here are two cases. Now I wouldn’t call those humanitarian interventions. They didn’t intervene because they were trying to help people. They had their own reasons of state. In fact, in Vietnam’s case, it was really defensive. Pol Pot was carrying out atrocities inside Vietnam and along the border so it was kind of a defensive reaction.

But the consequences were very benign. And the West reacted with extreme harshness. I can’t think of any other examples.

I was thinking of something more recent and on a much smaller scale, like the European intervention in the Congo, most recently, which was a kind of fire – fighting operation.

That was under UN auspices. An intervention under UN auspices is something quite different. The framework of international law is not perfect but it’s better than nothing. It’s the best we have.

Peacekeeping forces in the UN framework, even Chapter Seven which is occasionally used and which allows the use of military force, that can be legitimate.

I don’t say it’s necessarily legitimate. If you take a look at Haiti for example, it had very ugly consequences. But, in principle, it’s legitimate. The real issue comes from military intervention that has no UN sanction, that’s in violation of international law. You can imagine it being benign, but try to find a case.

In fact, the West claims what’s called a “responsibility to protect “. I think in Canada it’s even an official doctrine. The world doesn’t accept it. The UN summit last September flatly rejected it.

And there was a high – level UN panel about a year before which had people like Gareth Evans and Brent Scowcroft, by no means a radical group. But they went through the Charter and they said they saw no reason whatsoever to change Article 51 which is the relevant one, and that no use of force is legitimate. I’m sure they had the bombing of Serbia in mind.

The South Summit (pretty much the former non-aligned movement), which represents about 80 per cent of the population of the world – not democratically, but at least it’s their governments – right after the bombing of Serbia they had their highest level meeting ever and produced a long document.

One part of it was that they flatly reject the so – called “right of humanitarian intervention”. They’ve had enough experience with it over the last couple of centuries.

And if you try to find cases, it’s very, very hard. I mean, just to illustrate, perhaps the main scholarly work on so-called humanitarian intervention in the legal literature which covers the period of roughly the 20th century, found three cases of humanitarian intervention prior to the UN Charter.

You know what they were? Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, Hitler’s takeover of the Sudetenland, and Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in North China. It’s not that the author regarded them as humanitarian, it’s that they were carried out with a very impressive humanitarian rhetoric and in fact a fair amount of support in the West, not open support, but tacit support.

That’s humanitarian intervention. Trace back the history and you find almost nothing. In the legal literature, the one case that’s brought up over two centuries is an intervention in Lebanon and Syria in 1860, if I remember, by the French. It was to save the Christians from a massacre. But if you start taking a look at it, it was to establish their own interests and strengthen their own position. Maybe it saved the Christians too.

One of the issues that has become more acute since 9/11 is the whole question of how to engage with Islam. What do you think are the principles that should govern our engagement with Islam ? And is it possible to have an alliance of civilisations as opposed to a clash?

As far as I know there are only two forces in the world that are pressing for a clash of civilisations. One is Osama bin Laden and the other is George Bush. Nobody else wants it.

It’s basically two powerful forces and what does it mean? Does the US have any problems with Islam? One of the oldest US allies is the most extreme, brutal, fundamentalist Islamic state in the world, Saudi Arabia. Do they [the US] care? As long as Saudi Arabia manages the oil properly, they can do what they want.

The largest Muslim state in the world is Indonesia. The US did have, and Britain had, a confrontation with Indonesia when it was independent. As soon as the Suharto coup came along and killed a couple of hundred thousand people, destroyed the political system, introduced a regime of torture and massacre, and invaded East Timor, and so on, it was just fine. Suharto was our kind of guy as the Clinton administration called him.

A Muslim state? “Don’t care”.

And in the 1980s, the US was pretty much at war with the Catholic church in central America. Where’s the clash of civilisations?

US interactions – or British or French, or whatever – interactions with the Islamic world are based on other principles. I mean, you could try to create a clash of civilisations – Osama and Bush are helping out in that endeavour – but there’s actually no reason for it. It’s a matter of other considerations that dominate.

And I don’t think 9/11 had anything to do with it. It’s claimed it changed the world. I don’t think it changed the world very much.

One of the issues that comes up is the idea that there are universal human rights and that we have a responsibility to put pressure on Muslim states to respect them.

It used to be called “Asian relativism” and “communist relativism” and now it’s “Muslim relativism”. The fact of the matter is that if we were honest we would recognise that there is relativism with regard to universal human rights, and one of the leaders of the relativist camp is the United States.

And the United States and Ireland and Britain and most of the West flatly reject – the US mostly but the others more or less – a central component of the Universal Declaration.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has three components – civil and political rights, social and economic rights, and cultural rights, basically. Well, the United States publicly, flatly, officially rejects the socio – economic rights, explicitly. Jeane Kirkpatrick [former US ambassador to the UN] called them “a letter to Santa Claus”.

And Morris Abram, the US ambassador to the UN Commission on Human Rights vetoed the “right to development” because it paraphrased Article 25 of the Universal Declaration. And Paula Dobriansky, who’s the current Under-Secretary for Global Affairs, she’s very publicly explained that we have to eliminate the myth that there are social and economic rights which is poisoning the human rights discourse.

You take a look at the articles and you see why the US is opposed. They call for a right to healthcare, a right to food, a right to a decent job and so on. It’s as much a part of the Universal Declaration as anything else.

In fact if you look at the part [of the declaration] that the West claims to uphold, it doesn’t. Take the civil and political rights, the part we’re supposed to uphold and that we say the Asian relativists don’t uphold. Do we uphold them? Does the United States support democratic governments? Is that why it overthrows them all over the world?

Take, say, the right of asylum, political asylum. Who accepts that? That’s, I think, Article 9. Take a look at what happens. Take, say, Jack Straw. In the year 2000, as Home Secretary and in that capacity he had to approve asylum requests. Well one of them – this was actually published in the British press and I didn’t think the government would be able to survive, but it passed very quietly – in 2000 there was a request from an Iraqi who had somehow escaped an Iraqi torture chamber and made it to England. He was applying for political asylum.

Straw turned him down with a letter saying “we have faith in the integrity of the Iraqi judicial process and that you should have no concerns if you haven’t done anything wrong “. In 2000!

Or take what’s happening in Europe now with refugees.

Or take, say, the United States. Under Carter, Haiti was under vicious dictatorship backed by the US and people were fleeing. The Carter administration informally, but the Reagan administration by agreement, essentially blockaded the island, totally illegally, to block Haitians from escaping from a brutal, vicious dictatorship.

In fact the only break in that policy was when Aristide won a democratic election and the US, opposed to the Aristide government, and tried to destroy it. And one of the things they did was reverse the policy. They said now people who are fleeing from a democratic government were political refugees. Before that they were just economic refugees. They were fleeing from Duvalier’s torturers.

What happened to Article 9?

And you can run through the list. The support [for human rights] is utter hypocrisy. If you look at it, who are the relativists?

If you look at America and around the world, what would be the most hopeful signs that you see?

The populations. Take, say, the United States. One of the most hopeful signs in the United States – I think very hopeful – is that there is an enormous gap between public policy and public attitudes.

In fact the gap is so strong that the press literally does not report the studies of public attitudes, literally.

I’ll give you an example. The federal budget comes out around February every year for the next year. After the last federal budget last February, one of the major polling institutions in the world, the Program on International Policy Attitudes based in the University of Maryland, which does in – depth studies, did a study of people’s attitudes to wards the budget. They were the reverse of the budget. Where the budget was going up, the population wanted it to go down. Where it was going down, they wanted it to go up.

The public was strongly opposed to increased military spending, supplementals for Iraq and Afghanistan. It was very strongly in favour of increases in social spending, health, education, renewable energy, support for United Nations peacekeeping operations… across the board. And it was almost the inverse of the budget.

Well I had a friend do a database search on that. Not a single newspaper in the country reported it.

In a democratic society people should know what others believe. And it [the suppression of polls] is quite common. Right before the November 2004 elections, the same people, the Program on International Policy Attitudes in Maryland and the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, which does the main monitoring of attitudes on international affairs, published a couple of big joint studies.

They came out right before the election. They were barely mentioned in the press but they were very striking. Again they showed that both main political parties are far to the right of the population on a whole range of important issues, ranging from the Kyoto protocol to the “right of intervention”, which the public opposes. I t [the government] takes a pretty conservative view of the UN Charter. Yet s upport for the United Nations was very strong.

In fact, to my amazement, a small majority of the population thinks the US ought to give up the veto and follow general world opinion even if it doesn’t like it.

[Public opinion] Strongly support s more social spending. Take, say, health care. It’s the leading domestic issue in the United States, by far. People are really worried about it and it’s a huge fiscal crisis when you have to deal with the most inefficient system in the industrialised world.

A strong, large majority of the population wants some kind of national health care. Neither political party will touch it. In fact, when the press ever mentions it, it’s called “politically impossible” or “lacking political support” or something. It tells you something about their attitude to democracy. But this gulf has implications. It means if the democratic deficit can be overcome, if the public can somehow, if public attitudes have some influence on public policy a lot of things could change. That’s very hopeful. The general population is a lot more civilised than it was back in the 1960s or 1950s.

The faults that you have identified a number of times in the mainstream media here in America, do you think they are shared elsewhere in the world? Do you think the European media are as bad?

I don’t study them as intensively so I’m less competent but from what I’ve seen, they’re as bad or worse.

I spent a week in Germany last March and for a week I was reading the German press. It was appalling, kind of like Fox News with big words and references to philosophers and so on. But I think you couldn’t even publish it here. I think the French media are horrible. The British, which I read a little more, is a sort of mixed story.

The Irish I don’t know about. From what I’ve seen, I think it’s different, a little more diverse. There’s a kind of diversity, at least in England. It’s impressionistic but my impression is there’s not a fundamental difference.

The media in the US, the New York Times obviously, and perhaps the Washington Post, had a bad war shall we say, and we all know about that. But both of those papers in recent weeks have been essential in revealing both about the renditions and about the NSA spying [National Security Agency involvement in domestic phone-tapping]. Would you say you’re being entirely fair on them in the sense that they obviously are useful?

Oh, sure they’re useful. I mean if I had one newspaper in the world to read it would be the New York Times. Maybe the business press as well. Sure, they’re very useful, yes. There’s enormous coverage and if you read carefully, you can learn a lot. The Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Financial Times and others. But the framework in which they present things, if it was in some enemy state, we would ridicule it.

It’s true, they don’t like governments spying, they don’t like torture. But the business world doesn’t either. Take a poll of CEOs in major corporations and – they don’t want a state powerful enough to intrude into their affairs. They have no particular interest in torture. The general attitudes of CEOs – they’re called liberal in the United States – is in favour of gay rights and they don’t see anything wrong with abortion and so on and so forth.

So sure, on those issues, the press will reflect the interests of its major constituency, which is concentrated private economic power.

On the other hand, take something like coverage of the Iraq war.

I don’t read everything but I follow it pretty carefully and I listen to NPR [the US National Public Radio] which is supposed to be liberal and so on. But it’s at the level of a high school newspaper cheering the local football team. And the only question that can come up, the only question is how well are we doing? Did the coach make a mistake? Should he have substituted somebody else?

The question whether we should invade – it’s after all the supreme crime at Nuremberg, leaders are supposed to be hanged for that – you can’t even raise that question. Did we have a right? The only, the framework is “how do we gain victory?” Is that the only question that arises when, say, Russia invades Afghanistan?

In fact, if I had the resources – I don’t – but somebody ought to compare the US media on Iraq and the Russian media on the invasion of Afghanistan. I bet you it would be pretty similar. You know, agonising stories about the suffering of soldiers and how they’re trying to do great things for the Afghans, fighting these hideous terrorists, which was all true, the deeply humanitarian aims and how could Russia gain victory, for the benefit of the Afghans of course. I think it’s pretty predictable that that’s what the coverage would have been. That’s what the coverage is here.

Since I moved here [to the US] last August, everybody has told me that the problem that Europeans have is that we don’t understand, we can’t grasp just how deeply 9/11 affected Americans

It affected the Europeans too. It’s understandable. For one thing it was a major atrocity. But for another thing, it runs counter to centuries of deeply – rooted imperial assumptions. This is the kind of thing that we do to them. They don’t do it to us. And that is outrageous.

In fact, take 9/11. Go south of the border. There they call it often “the second 9/11”. September 11th 1973 [the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile], take a look at that. Translate it in per capita terms to the United States, OK, one change only.

Imagine that Al Qaeda had bombed the White House, killed the president, carried out a military coup, destroyed the oldest democracy in the hemisphere, killed 50,000 – 100,000 people – that’s the per capita equivalent – and tortured 700,000, established a major international terrorist centre which overthrew governments, installed neo – Nazi regimes, carried out assassinations all over the world, sent in a bunch of economists called the Kandahar Boys who took over the US economy, drove it into the worst disaster in US economic history within a few years.

Suppose all that had happened. Would that have been worse than 9/11? Incomparably worse. Well it did happen. The only change I made is change to the per capita equivalent. Yeah, that happened. But we did it to them, so therefore it doesn’t matter. The US may not have instigated the coup but it was certainly up to its neck in it and both the United States and Britain strongly supported it. Pinochet was the darling of Thatcher and Reagan.

Yeah, we did it, so therefore it doesn’t really matter. But that’s another 9/11. It’s true that this 9/11 was a horror story, maybe the worst single terrorist atrocity in history. But you put it in the general framework, it’s the kind of thing we do to the Third World all the time.

But what I’m getting at is just the psychological impact that the event had on Americans….

The psychological impact was multiple. On the one hand it really frightened people – and correctly. I felt there was going to be further terrorist attacks. I was surprised there was only one. So, sure, people had a right to be frightened.

For another, the United States has never been attacked and the last attack on US soil was in 1814, which is not part of US history.

We’re safe, we’re not going to be attacked. We can’t be attacked.

We’re ultra – secure. So, yes, it was a shock. And it led to kind of what is called patriotism, a lot of flags and that sort of thing. But there was another side to it. The United States is a very insular society. People don’t know much about the outside world, nor do they care much about it. A lot of people couldn’t tell you where France is. Maybe they know where Canada is, but not much more. This kind of opened a lot of people’s minds.

They said, we’d better start paying attention to what’s going on in the outside world. The small presses, left presses, all of a sudden had to start reprinting their books from the 1980s which nobody had bought and were selling them all over the place.

I can tell it just personally – invitations for talks just escalated and audiences were huge. And it was everywhere around the country.

It’s not just Harvard Square, it’s central Iowa. Anywhere. They said “we’ve just got to learn something, we don’t know anything”.

The country became a lot more open – minded. That was a very positive development. So it’s complex.

The other big event recently of course was Hurricane Katrina. What do you think is the long – term effect of that event

Hurricane Katrina brought out very dramatically some facts about the United States – and it’s the same in Ireland – that are usually pushed under the rug. There’s a very sharp class difference which shows up all over the place.

In the United States, class and race are fairly closely correlated so there’s also a race difference. But the poverty in the United States is very high, the highest in the industrial world and it’s a scandal. But in New Orleans it was close to 30 per cent and the poor, black areas were of course devastated.

And it was so dramatic that even the business press was covering it, it was such a horror. And then the government reaction. And then you start looking at the background and you find they didn’t bother to deal with the levees. They knew there was going to be a catastrophe but they’d got other things in mind and so on, which was scandalous.

But even more scandalous was the reaction, and the immediate reaction of the administration in Washington was to try to ram through their favourite programmes to benefit the rich. So the first thing they did was rescind the Davis-Bacon Act which goes back to the ‘ 30s and calls for decent wages for construction. Then come the contracts for all the usual gangsters. Ten years from now there’ll be a big corruption scandal about Halliburton and the rest of them for ripping off money.

Instead of putting money into schools they put it into vouchers with extra funding if you send your child to private school. So it’s trying to destroy the public school system.

They even tried to – they didn’t get away with this – but they tried to use it as an opportunity to rescind the estate tax. Just what the poor blacks in New Orleans need ! Only the cynicism was so extreme that plenty of people found it appalling.

But watch the media coverage decline. It sort of fades into the background and by now I think it’s a memory. Something that was bad. I t’s still a horror story but not much about it.

People don’t like too much bad news here? They don’t like to be depressed?

Life’s hard enough, to face more bad news is not good. In fact, the media have become far more sensational. I think this is true of Europe too, but crime, for example, is featured in gory, grisly detail in a way which it wasn’t when I was growing up. And that has a big effect on society.

I mean, I happen to live in a suburban neighbourhood. We moved there because we couldn’t afford the rents in the city and our kids were growing up and so on, and it was a nice place for kids. They’d play on the streets and parks.

Take a walk around the neighbourhood now, you won’t see any children. Parents are afraid. There’s nothing to be afraid of. But children have to be inside or under supervision, organised activities. You don’t see children just going out and playing in the park, it has to be organised.

I know it’s the same in England. I happened to be there when some study came out, some government study, which showed that increasingly parents just keep their kids under control. They’re not learning how to live on the streets because of fear.

And the fear is engendered by amplification of real stories. Like lightning bolts. If a child gets abducted somewhere, we’re kind of asked to hide the children in the cellar. You know what “trick or treat” is? Well, for years – we were caught up in it too – we didn’t want our children to go around without supervision because there were rumours circulating about poisoned apples and razor blades. It turned out there was absolutely nothing to it.

It was just a, mostly media – sponsored scare story. This goes on all the time, partly through the sensationalisation of coverage, the commercialisation of the media. But it’s a big social thing.

One last question on a different subject. How would you describe the relationship between your academic work and your political activity? Is there one? [Chomsky’s ground-breaking work in linguistics suggests that human beings have an innate grammar, an ability for language that is not just socially acquired

Almost nonexistent. At some very abstract level there’s a connection which I’ve written about occasionally.

If you go back, say, to the Enlightenment, the origins of classical liberalism and so on, there actually was a connection at the time. So if you look at people like Wilhelm von Humboldt, one of the founders of classical liberalism and also the founder of the modern university system, or Rousseau for that matter in his more libertarian essays, others, they drew a connection which traces to Cartesian thought… between the essential – they’re struck by an essential property of language.

This goes back to the Cartesians, in fact. There’s something free and creative about it. What you and I are now doing is just free creation, expression of thoughts that maybe nobody ever had before, but if you say them I can understand them, and so on. And this is boundless, it’s not controlled by internal states, it’s not determined by external stimuli. As far as anyone knows, it’s unique to humans.

There’s some kind of intrinsic, free, creative element to human nature which shows up most dramatically in language. Actually for the Cartesians, that was the prime criterion for mind as distinct from body. So it’s very extensively thought about, investigated.

And this, connected with political attitudes, with the idea that there’s some sort of instinct for freedom and the core of human nature is to inquire and create and any external constraint that limits this is illegitimate and has to be overcome, out of this comes a lot of classical liberal thought and left – libertarian thought and so on.

There is a kind of a loose, abstract connection in the background. But if you look for practical connections, they’re non – existent. I’d do the same political things if I was an algebraic topologist and somebody could have the same linguistic views as I do and be a fascist or a Stalinist. There’d be no contradiction.