“So far I have been told about atrocities from Central America to the Philippines. So what have you got for me?” asks the man dubbed by U2’s Bono as the “Elvis of Academia”. We have been waiting for half an hour outside Noam Chomsky’s 8th fl oor offi ce at the spectacular Stata building at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Today the professor is running late, which according to his assistant Bev Stohl “is pretty usual around here”. Because rather than slowing down, Noam Chomsky at the age of 77 meets more people, gives more interviews, replies to more emails and writes and publishes more essays and books than ever before. As we finally enter his office it becomes clear that he also has had to sacrifice his lunch break for this interview. “I hope you don’t mind that I eat while we’re talking”, he says, bringing out a rather dry-looking bagel.
Most cited scholar
To prepare for an interview with Noam Chomsky can be frustrating, not because it is difficult to get access to his work, but because he has produced so much of it that it’s hard to figure out where to begin. Most people know Chomsky for his life-long commitment to human rights and his critiques of US foreign policy, but Chomsky is also widely recognised as the world’s most influential figure in theoretical linguistics. After more than 50 years at MIT his bibliography lists dozens of books. His official website contains hundreds of articles, debates and interviews. The New York Times has labelled Chomsky “arguably the most important intellectual alive”; according to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, between 1980 and 1992 Chomsky was cited as a source more often than any other living scholar. Events after September 11 have brought Chomsky further into the spotlight. In 2005 he topped Prospect Magazine and Foreign Policy’s list of the world’s top 100 public intellectuals. While he has many friends, his opponents use equally colourful language to denounce him. One right-wing commentator has dubbed him the ‘Ayatollah of anti-Americanism’.
Chomsky himself insists that he doesn’t care about labels, but listening to his arguments and gloomy predictions for the future, it’s easy to understand why he attracts attention. He speaks with a calm voice, but his message is clear. “It’s something people don’t talk much about, but they should. There is an increasing danger of nuclear war, a serious nuclear war,” he says blaming the Bush administrations policy of “aggressive militarism and threat” .The situation in Iraq is another of Chomsky’s concerns: “The US has created a military catastrophe in Iraq which I think is without historic parallel,” he says, arguing that the US has no intention whatsoever to create a democratic Iraq. “Any degree of sovereignty, any degree in Iraq is going to, in fact already is, going to instigate moves towards autonomy across the border in Saudi Arabia, where there is a Shia majority, and that happens to be where Saudi Arabian oil mostly is. So the nightmare in Washington is an independent, loose Shia alliance controlling most of the world’s oil,” he argues and continues: “But you can’t talk about this in the West, for we are not allowed to admit that oil had anything to do with the invasion of Iraq. We are supposed to believe that the US and Britain would have liberated Iraq even if its main export was pickles.”
Just ordinary racism
On the question of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, which sparked riots and massive demonstrations earlier this year, Chomsky is equally vocal. While defending the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten’s legal right to publish the cartoons (“The New York Times should have the right to publish anti-Semitic Nazi caricatures on the front page.”) he argues that the Jyllandsposten’s decision to publish had nothing to do with press freedom whatsoever. “This is just ordinary racism under cover of freedom of expression,” he says, before attacking the European press in general. “In Europe freedom of speech and freedom of the press are barely protected, in fact barely understood.” Chomsky refers to the Blair government’s attempt to push a law making it a crime to glorify terrorism. “When a Muslim cleric was imprisoned recently on charges of having glorified terrorism, the London Guardian had a lead editorial praising the judicial decision because people shouldn’t be permitted to spew hatred and to glorify violent acts, they should be stopped. Under that law virtually all the British press and publishers should be closed down. Do they incite hatred and violence? Yes. Do they support invading Iraq? Yes. That is supporting hatred and violence,” he says before concluding: “Nobody cares about freedom of speech. What they care about is using state power to shut down the kind of speech they don’t like. Even Stalin would have agreed with that.”
Time goes fast in the presence of Noam Chomsky. The professor is in the middle of answering a question on the role of universities in world politics when his assistant breaks in and says time is up. We push in one last question on how his political thought and linguistics work together. Noam Chomsky simply replies, “It doesn’t. That’s why life is so complicated.”
An interview with Noam Chomsky
These are dangerous times. Where do you think the world is heading?
Well for one thing, it’s something people don’t talk much about, but they should. There is an increasing danger of nuclear war, a serious nuclear war. It’s not talked about much by the public, but strategic analysts, weapons and security analysts and so on are very aware that there is a significant and increasing threat of nuclear war, and the reasons are understood. The Bush administration has engaged in a policy of aggressive militarism and threat. There has been a vast increase in our offensive military capacity, even moving on towards the militarisation of space. All this generates countermeasures. The Russians have sharply increased military spending on offensive military capacity, China is doing the same and Iran may be developing nuclear weapons as a deterrent. Every one of these steps increases the threat of even accidental nuclear war. Offensive nuclear armed missiles are on computer-controlled alert. We know that our own control systems are inaccurate, the Russians are much worse. As the threat increases, as the preparation for war increases, the threat of accidental war increases. That’s why people like Robert McNamara are talking about “Apocalypse Now”. Why leading analysts say that these Bush policies carry “an appreciable risk of ultimate doom”. And its increasing, it’s increasing right now in Iran.
How do you see the situation in Iran?
No sane person wants Iran to have nuclear weapons, even though developing them they might be. If they are, it’s for reasons that are understood: one of Israel’s leading military historians Martin van Creveld recently wrote that if Iran isn’t developing nuclear weapons they are crazy. I mean, look at the US. We are going to attack everyone we want as long as we can get away with it, you can’t fight us in straight military terms, we are far more technologically advanced than anybody else, and we are a predatory power and an outlaw state, so you are going to have to have a deterrent, that’s what they are telling people. There are two forms of deterrent, one is terror and one is nuclear weapons. So they are escalating the threat of terror and they are escalating proliferation. And it gets more specific.
The European Union and Iran did strike a bargain two years ago. The bargain was that Iran would temporarily stop enriching uranium, as it is entitled to do under the non-proliferation treaty, but they would stop, and in return the European Union would “provide firm commitments on security issues”, and security issues is a term that refers to US-Israeli threats to attack Iran. Everybody knows that. The European Union promised to provide firm guaranties on that, but the European Union backed down on the promises, and didn’t implement them under US pressure. Then Iran backed down on its side regarding their enrichment of uranium. Two years before Iran had offered to discuss security issues with the United States, a whole range of security issues. The United States refused, so you refuse to discuss security issues, you threaten a country with attack, then you know it’s a very credible threat. And US forces surround Iran, and it’s surrounded by other nuclear-armed states. So, yes, it is a real threat, and you refuse to discuss it, you increase the threats, you impose harsh economic strangulation, you intimidate the Europeans, which is pretty easy, so that they pull out. That’s just asking them to develop nuclear weapons.
How can the world deal with it?
Well there are ways. Mohamed ElBaradei made a perfectly sensible proposal a couple of years ago. It’s a general proposal. Every nuclear arms specialist understands this. What is necessary is some form of international control over production of fissile materials. Put all production of fissile materials under international controls under an international agency. And countries can apply for enriched uranium for peaceful uses. That would be the first step for fulfilling the 1993 UN resolution to have a fissile material cut-off treaty, a treaty which would cut off production of fissile materials, and leave it in the hands of an international agency, which countries could then appeal to for nuclear energy. That is going to go a long way towards solving the problem of nuclear war. There is only one problem, the US won’t accept it. The treaty did come to a vote, at the UN, it was November 2004, the vote was 147 to one, with two abstentions: Israel, which flexibly goes along with the US, and Britain, which was more interesting. The British Ambassador explained, he said Britain is in favour of the treaty, but can’t vote for this version, because it divides the international community – namely 147 to one. In other words for Britain it’s more important to shine the shoes of their master than to save the human species from destruction, which is basically what it comes down to. If there are no controls over fissile material production the chances of human survival are negligible. That’s were it stands. Actually there is one country in the world, one that has said it accepts ElBaradei’s proposal. That’s Iran. I’m sure it wasn’t
published in Norway, it certainly wasn’t published here. But in February the Iranian government said they would accept ElBaradei’s proposal for international supervision of production of fissile material which would conform to the formally expressed will of the entire world – with one exception. And, yes, that is probably the most serious threat to human survival, and it is very serious. There are other threats. Environmental catastrophe, which is more long term, you can argue about the details, but there is no disagreement among scientist that it’s serious. Well, again, who is blocking?
I spent some time with the US marines outside Falluja, and met a soldier who was totally against the war
Do you know any army in history where the soldiers didn’t say that? If you had interviewed German soldiers in Norway during the Second World War, what do you think they would have said? It’s not the fault of the soldier, that’s why they didn’t try soldiers at Nuremberg. They tried Von Ribbentrop and they hanged him, for one reason, because he supported the pre-emptive war against Norway. What does that imply?
What are your opinions on the current situation in Iraq?
The US has created a military catastrophe in Iraq which I think is without historic parallel, I can’t think of any. I mean, Germany had less problems running occupied Europe than the US has running Iraq, which is mind-boggling. Germany was at war, resistance in Iraq has no support from outside to speak of, it’s marginal. The partisans in Europe would have been wiped out in no time if they didn’t have
British and American support. But the US has created a catastrophe, a catastrophe for the people of Iraq. And we know what the people of Iraq want, basically, if you believe the polls that are run by the United States and Britain. Most recently 87 per cent asked for a concrete proposal and timetable for withdrawal. And the US and Britain said they are not going to do it. It’s partly just the normal contempt for democracy that you would expect on the part of any great power, particularly those who are preaching their love of democracy all the time, so that’s part of it, but part of it is that, it is barely discussed
in the West. For the US to pull out of Iraq would be a catastrophe for Washington, they cannot leave a sovereign and independent Iraq because of the policies they are going to undertake.
What do you mean?
Just think, suppose that Iraq had real sovereignty, not the sovereignty Condoleezza Rice talks about, but authentic sovereignty, and suppose it’s moderately democratic. So that means the Shia majority
will have substantial infl uence. What policies will they undertake? First one would be to establish closer relations to Iran. They already have fairly close relations. A large number of the clerics come from
Iran, Ayatollah Sistani has close relations with it, the Badr Brigades which is mostly running the south is Iranian-trained, and fought for Iran in the 1980s war. They have been improving relations, they may not love Iran but they’d rather have friendly relations with their neighbour than hostile relations. Any degree of sovereignty, any degree in Iraq, is going to, in fact already is, going to instigate moves towards autonomy across the border in Saudi Arabia, where there is a Shia majority, and that happens to be where Saudi Arabian oil mostly is. So the nightmare in Washington, is an independent, loose Shia alliance controlling most of the world’s oil. That’s almost the worst nightmare they can think of. There is a worse one. This loose alliance might decide to turn towards to the East. To turn towards the Asian energy system which is developing basically around China, it’s the core of it. China, Russia and maybe India will go along, it’s not clear, in working on an energy security grid, if they can draw Iran into it, which is possible. By geographic accident most Middle East oil happens to be in Shia areas, and if that moves along, it is for the US an utter disaster. But you can’t talk about this in the West, for we are not allowed to admit that oil had anything to do with the invasion of Iraq. We are supposed to believe that the US and Britain would have liberated Iraq even if its main export was pickles. And that most of the oil was in the South Pacific. That’s a kind of doctrine that has to be adhered to by Western intellectuals kind of North Korean style, the Dear Leader said so, so it’s true. If anybody had one brain cell
functioning, they’d know that establishing a major base in the centre of the world’s energy system was the prime reason for the invasion. And then it would have to somehow impose a client state. It’s called independent but the Soviet satellites were also called independent. So you call it independent, and take the Soviet satellites, Poland and Czechoslovakia, they were run by domestic security forces, the Russians trained the Polish army, the Czech army, but then they ran it. They staffed the government. Independent sovereign government, did we think so? No, it’s a joke of course. But that’s what the US has to try to establish in Iraq, much as it does in Central America. Technically the governments are independent but if they try to move towards independence, then you know what happens? With the hundred years of history that tells us what happens. Can they do that in Iraq? Well, it’s not very quick. It’s kind of interesting that the debate in the United States and indeed in the West is restricted almost entirely to the question of whether the United States can succeed in imposing a client state in Iraq which they will call independent, nothing escapes that framework, and nobody is suggesting that people who call for pre-emptive war should be treated like Von Ribbentrop, for example, who was hanged for it at Nuremberg.
Take the trials that are now going on of Saddam Hussein. The first trial was for crimes he committed in 1982, ok. It takes real discipline in the West not to point out that 1982 was the year in which Ronald Reagan removed Iraq of the list of states supporting terrorism so he could begin sending aid to Iraq and to his friend Saddam Hussein, including military aid, including the means to develop chemical weapons, or weapons which were used to slaughter the Iranians and Kurds, and the means to develop nuclear weapons, bio toxins. In 1983 Donald Rumsfeld was sent to Iraq to firm up the deal. Are they on trial along with Saddam Hussein? Just a few days ago it was announced that Saddam Hussein will be tried for the major crimes, the slaughter of the Kurds. What were the US and Britain doing when Saddam was slaughtering the Kurds? They were supporting him. They continued to provide them with arms, with agricultural aid which they badly needed. In fact this continued after the end of the war with Iran, and the reasons were explained, because they needed to support US exporters, and because Saddam offered more hopes for the stability of the region than anyone else, so they keep on supporting Iraq through the massacres, and that included the massacre of Shias in 1991, which the US eff ectively authorised. Total military control, they allowed Saddam to use military threat to crush the rebellion, slaughter the Shias, that’s the next thing he will be tried for. Will George Bush be tried, or any of the people who are now in the administration? And they supported it and they explained why, yes, that’s a better contribution to the stability of the region. Can anybody imagine this? It’s not a secret. You can read about it in the New York Times. But we are not allowed to talk about it because we have to be disciplined. We have to obey the leader. If the leader says my mission is to bring democracy to the world, we have to applaud and worship him for his magnificence. Even if the total evidence for that is that he says so, and the evidence against it is just massive. But as good North Koreans we obey the Dear Leader, and it goes on and on.
I’m sure you are aware of the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. What is your opinion on this debate?
I just take it from the Danish press. One of the main newspapers, Information, I think, published on 15 February a background of what had happened. They reported that the Minister of Culture in Denmark
gave a speech at a conservative conference, where they quoted some abusive, vicious, racist speech attacking the Muslim minority for not being truly Danes, and not conforming to Danish culture, and virtually called for an attack on the Muslim minority, which I think is seven per cent. And a couple of days later Jyllandsposten printed the cartoons. They regarded it as a consequence; they said, yes, it was a consequence of the Minister of Culture’s decision to wage an ideological war on the Muslim minority. It was no issue of freedom of press; it was no issue of freedom of expression. This is just ordinary racism under cover of freedom of expression. And, yes, they should have the right to. The New York Times should have the right to publish anti-Semitic Nazi caricatures on the front page. That should be a legal right. Are they going to exercise their right? No. So if you do it is another reason. In fact Jyllandsposten, as you probably know, a couple of years earlier had turned down cartoons caricaturing Jesus, on the grounds that it would create a public uproar. I mean, this is just pure hypocrisy, quite apart from that fact that in Europe freedom of speech and freedom of the press is barely
protected, in fact barely understood, including even in England which has terrible laws and practices regarding freedom of the press. In fact this is one respect where the United States really stands out. It is the only country I know of which there is real judicial protection for freedom of speech. I don’t know Norway that well, but the main countries in Europe don’t have it. And even the concept is not understood, literally, it’s not understood. One example, which is far from the worst: the British passed a law, it hasn’t been implemented yet, there is some debate about how to formulate it. But the Blair government is going to push a law making it a crime to glorify terrorism. When a Muslim cleric was imprisoned recently on charges of having glorified terrorism, the London Guardian had a lead editorial praising the judicial decision because people shouldn’t be permitted to spew hatred and to glorify violent acts, they should be stopped. Under that law virtually all the British press and publishers should be closed down. Do they incite hatred and violence? Yes. Do they support invading Iraq? Yes. That is supporting hatred and violence. I mean everyone agrees that even how awful terrorism is, aggression is far more severe than terrorism. So therefore if glorifying terrorism is a crime and inciting popular support for terrorism is a crime, then glorifying aggression, and helping incite popular support for aggression is a far more severe crime. Why don’t we put them all in jail? Do you hear anybody talking about that? No, and the reason is that nobody cares about freedom of speech. What they care about is using state power to shut down the kind of speech they don’t like. Even Stalin would have agreed with that.
When the demonstrations were on, support for the far right in Norwegian politics went sky-high. Are we seeing a clash of civilisations?
In a narrow sense I agree. But people, the victims, ought to agree on freedom of speech, yes, people who are living under the jackboot should protect civil rights, I agree. But it’s always useful to look into in the mirror. Yes it is easy to blame the people who were beaten by the clubs and have been for centuries, they should act better, ok, but so should we.
How do you see the role of the universities in world politics?
The academic intellectual world provides and supports the doctrinal framework in which action takes place. We understand it perfectly well in the case of enemies. Do we have a debate about the role of Russian universities, Nazi universities, and Iranian universities? Yes, of course, and we understand it perfectly well. But when we do the similar thing it’s much worse, because we are doing it under the condition of freedom, not coercion. When Russian academics supported the state, when Pravda supported the invasion of Afghanistan, if they didn’t they got jailed or sent to the gulag. If Westerners
support state violence they have no excuse whatsoever.
You are widely known as a political intellectual, but you are just as celebrated as a linguist. How does it work together?
It doesn’t, that’s why life is so complicated.