Noam Chomsky, by any measure, has led an extraordinary life. In one index he is ranked as the eighth most cited person in history, right up there with Aristotle, Shakespeare, Marx, Plato, and Freud. The MIT professor’s contributions to modern linguistics are legendary.
In addition to his pioneering work in that field he has been a leading voice for peace and social justice for many decades. As journalist Chris Hedges says, he is “America’s greatest intellectual” who “makes the powerful, as well as their liberal apologists, deeply uncomfortable.”
Chomsky, a longtime friend of Jacobin, has been a frequent interview subject for our mutual collaborator David Barsamian. The following interview, also broadcast in audio form on Alternative Radio, was conducted on November 30 in Arizona. In it, Chomsky discusses the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the November 2020 presidential election, the US Constitution, the ongoing threats to peace and justice in the world, and why we need class struggle now more than ever.
DB: Good to see you again.
DB: The pandemic. Excuse this crude expression, but Americans are dropping like flies, a death a minute, 150,000 new cases every day. NPR is reporting “a dire picture around the country,” and “hospital resources are stretched thin.”
New York Times headline: “As Surge Spreads, No Corner of Nation Is Spared. What started as a Midwestern surge, has grown into a coast-to-coast disaster.” With people ignoring the [Center for Disease Control] advice about traveling and gathering in large numbers, we’re heading into the peak holiday season. There’ll be more, as the media say, grim milestones in the offing, 300,000 dead, 400,000 dead, etc. If this is not a national emergency, I don’t know what is. What must be done?
NC: What has to be done is to follow the advice of the scientists and of the countries that have successfully managed it. It is not inevitable. We can see this from the fact that other countries, rich and poor, have handled it pretty well.
China, for example, is just back to work, there are very few cases. Vietnam, right on the border of China, almost no cases. New Zealand basically under control, Australia pretty much under control. South Korea, Taiwan, Senegal, Kenya, the Nordic countries are not too bad.
There are places that have more or less managed, and they’re countries of a very diverse kind, which tells us that it is possible, but not without leadership, that most of the time even denies that it’s happening. That filters down to the population.
We’ve seen reports of people in the Dakotas dying in hospital beds of COVID-19 and telling the nurses that it’s all a hoax, it’s not happening. You drive around, I mostly stay home, but I drive sometimes. Then you see people congregating in supermarket malls, no masks, normal behavior, that’s going to happen.
DB: What about this notion which you hear in some circles of individual freedom versus collective responsibility?
NC: Individual freedom is a curious idea. I mean, do you have the freedom to drive on the left side of the road if you feel like it? Do you have the freedom to run around malls shooting an assault rifle? That’s what it means to go to a public event or a public area without wearing a mask. That’s threatening people’s lives, seriously. That’s not individual freedom. That’s unacceptable license. Nobody accepts the kinds of things I described. If you want a choice not to wear a mask, that’s okay, stay home, don’t endanger others.
DB: At some point, soon hopefully, there will be vaccines. But how do we want to come out of this pandemic and attendant economic crisis? The status quo ante?
NC: There presumably will be vaccines. There are some already that are in pretty advanced stages of testing. The most advanced, as far as I know, is almost unmentionable in the United States: the Chinese vaccine. They’re already using it on large numbers of people though that may or may not be good practice, that I’m not in a position to judge. But it’s apparently pretty advanced, and it’s taken seriously by American scientists. We don’t hear about it; it won’t be available to Americans if it works.
There are vaccines being developed here, for example what’s called the “Pfizer vaccine,” which actually was developed by two Turkish immigrants in Germany and marketed by Pfizer. And the Moderna vaccine, these may come along. There’s also an Oxford vaccine. Then comes the questions, will people take them, and can they be distributed to the people who need them? And those are open questions.
There are policy choices that relate to this. So for example, there is an international consortium, COVAX — a hundred sixty or seventy countries — which have been working on trying to develop cooperation in vaccine development, which is obviously the best way. Data should be shared freely, not sequestered by particular private corporations and governments that support them.
Should be shared freely, should be general involvement — there should be no monopolization of vaccines. There should be distribution arranged to the people around the world who need it, not only those rich enough to buy it. All of these things, at least in principle, are the working agenda of COVAX. How well it’s being honored we could ask, but at least that’s the agenda.
But the US just refuses to participate, it has pulled out, so of course undermines it. The United States is not alone, some of the European countries have done this or are trying to monopolize any vaccine that comes along.
Then comes the question of using it and distributing it within the country. In the United States, there are a large number of people who say, “We’re just not going to accept this. We don’t want the government to intrude on our personal lives. I don’t believe it.” There’s a big anti-vaccine movement in the United States altogether, which has a lethal effect in a rich country like this.
It’s a significant effect in poor countries. If it spreads there, it’s just lethal. But there is such a movement. It’s rooted in understandable contempt or at least distrust in government, understandable, but it shouldn’t reach to this domain. And that’s going to be a serious problem, even if the vaccine is developed and is available. The United States is unusual, almost unique in not having a general health system. So it’s not clear that if a vaccine is available it’ll even be affordable, or if there’ll be places where people can go to get it. That takes national coordination.
The Trump administration has, of course, refused to do this. And it remains to be seen whether a Biden administration will carry out a plan. Trump has refused, until just a few days ago, to even share data with the incoming Biden administration. That, of course, makes any reaction slower and more ineffective.
There should be major pressures to accelerate the development of, first of all, the imposition of procedures, which will restrict and mitigate the spread of the virus, and, secondly, efforts to make sure that when vaccines are available, they’ll be essentially free and there will be distribution ensured to those who need them, who will be encouraged to take them and not being told that the vaccine is a hoax or that the disease is a hoax.
We’re living in a country where a large part of the population is in extreme denialism. If you can believe the polls, over three-quarters of Republicans think the election was stolen; huge percentages think global warming is not a serious problem. That is an extraordinary problem, and the denial of the pandemic is also significant.
In such an atmosphere, it’s going to be very hard to deal with extremely serious problems. And that’s just the beginning. If we manage to overcome this crisis, there are other ones coming. We should remember what happened in 2003, because we’re going to relive it.
The SARS epidemic was contained. Scientists inform the world that other coronavirus epidemics, maybe pandemics, were very likely. The means to become prepared were available, they were described, they weren’t pursued. The drug companies weren’t interested because there’s no profit in it. The government was held back by the neoliberal claims that the government can’t do anything.
Some things were done. The Obama administration, which was science oriented when it came into office, did convene the president’s Science Advisory Council. They requested a pandemic response system, which they prepared, and it was put into operation.
It was terminated in January 2017 when Trump came into office. One of his first actions was to dismantle it, to proceed to end the programs where American scientists were working with Chinese colleagues to try to identify potential viruses. The Center for Disease Control was defunded. The United States was singularly unprepared when the virus finally hit, and then came the chaotic reactions which have led to the destructive impact that you described.
It’s going to happen again when this one is contained. We either learn the lessons or we face even worse pandemics. We should bear in mind that so far we’ve been lucky with coronaviruses. There have been some, like the present one, which are highly contagious, but not very lethal. There have been some, like Ebola, which was very lethal, and not too contagious. Nothing guarantees that the next one down the road won’t be the worst of all worlds, contagious and lethal.
DB: Doesn’t the severity of the current crisis demand a kind of national emergency? Would you favor something like that to coordinate response?
NC: There was no coordinated response. In fact, Trump very explicitly, I think, back around May or so, said it’s the responsibility of the states, “Well, I can’t do anything about it.” From his point of view, you could understand that. That meant if anything went wrong, as it was very likely to, he could blame it on the states, especially the states with Democratic governors.
Of course, if significant measures are taken, it will have a harmful economic effect, so he could blame the harsh economic consequences on the methods that were taken to control the crisis. Some of the things that were done were really surreal. For example, when Rick Bright, a chief scientist in charge of vaccine development, criticized some of Trump’s quack medicines, he was fired. This happened all the way up and down the line.
Since the election, it’s gotten worse, from simply refusing to do anything, as I said, even to hand over data. It’s as if, and it may be true, they just want to make it worse, so that the country will be more ungovernable when Biden comes in, and failures can be blamed on the Democratic administration.
[Mitch] McConnell, remember, who’s sort of the evil genius behind many of these plans has a long record of working to render government ungovernable if it’s in the wrong hands. He did that with Obama for years. It’s not an attractive picture. The one positive thing is that Biden does seem to be attentive to the views of the scientific community, at least so it looks. I hope that’s true, but he’s sure not going to get any cooperation from the Republican Party.
DB: Let’s talk about the November 3 election, the record turnout of a hundred fifty million people, the success of voting by mail, and early voting. A bit of euphoria, if I could use that term, as the autocrat is replaced.
Now we can go back to things as they were, a kind of restoration. A sigh of relief was audible in establishment circles and from media pundits like David Brooks, Thomas Friedman, and Mark Shields.
You wrote to me a few days after the election. You said of the results, “Relief, but no celebration. Depressing to see Democrats blow it again.” What did you mean by that? The Democrats had plenty of money. What happened to the Blue Wave?
NC: The Democrats lost to an incredible degree. They lost at every level, except for the presidency. And the presidency was a vote against Trump, even by many of the wealthy and the corporate sector who were tired of his antics. But at every other level — Congress, state legislatures, and local elections — they lost and lost badly.
And, if you think of the circumstances, it’s astonishing that Trump was even able to run. Here’s somebody who had just killed tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Americans through malevolent practice, let alone all of his other crimes. And he’s running for president, considered a viable candidate. And not only that, but the whole ticket that supported him, won at every level.
It’s an amazing defeat for the Democrats. And when you take a look, not that the Democrats are all that great, but just in terms of party politics, it was a shocking failure. I think you can see why.
The Democrats devoted their campaign efforts to try to swing some affluent suburbs toward the Democrats. Well, maybe they succeeded in that. But that’s not enough to develop any sort of electoral strategy. In fact, this has been going on since Obama. Since Obama, the Democratic Party has pretty much abandoned its activities at the local and state levels, just doesn’t bother. It’s a party of Wall Street, rich professionals, and so on. The others will take care of themselves. And you could see this in particular cases.
So there’s been a lot of discussion about the quite remarkable, the Democratic Party losses in South Texas on the border, largely Mexican-American community. These are areas that hadn’t voted for a Republican for a century, literally, since Harding, and Trump did quite well, even won in some areas — a dramatic reversal.
A number of analyses have been put forth, but one that I think is very telling is that this area is an oil economy. And if you read liberal commentators, they say that Biden lost it because of the terrible gaffe in the last debate. You’ll recall at the end of the last debate, Biden said something which had liberal commentators just shocked at his terrible gaffe, this horrible thing to say.
And he was then trying to overcome the mistake, others were trying to do it too. What was the mistake? He said, “We have to do something to prevent the human species from being destroyed.” That’s basically what he said. Those weren’t his words, his words were, “We have to face the fact that there’s going to have to be a transition to a non-fossil fuel economy,” which is equivalent to saying, “We have to do something to try to make sure, to make it likely at least that human society can survive.”
That was a horrible gaffe, and it affected the oil producing economies because people felt, you hear it from interviews and so on, “The Democrats are going to take my life away, are going to take away my job, my community, my businesses, and so on, just because some pointy headed liberals claim that there’s a climate crisis.”
Now, of course, the gaffe was not saying it loudly and clearly. Yes, we have to say that loud and clear, we have to get off a fossil fuel economy and fast, within a couple of decades, which means not delaying, starting now, cutting it back each year so that, say, by mid-century, we’re finished with fossil fuels. That has to be said strongly and persuasively.
So what do you do about the oil producing sectors? What do you do about South Texas or areas where there’s fracking in Pennsylvania? You don’t just say, “Sorry, folks, you’ve got to lose your jobs and your business and everything else because we say there’s a climate crisis.” What you do is go down there and organize, and explain to people what it means. It means, first of all, that this is inevitable, we have to do it, “Your children and grandchildren will be consigned to hell if we don’t.”
Secondly, there’s an effective way to do it and a way to do it, which will improve your lives, give you better jobs, more jobs, more livable environment, better community, better health — here are the ways, and spell them out. It happens to be true, and it can be done. But it’s not done if the Democratic National Committee is devoting its efforts to try to convince a couple of affluent suburban women to shift their vote.
You have to be down there working on it. And in the places where there was mostly Latino organizing it was effective. Where I live, Maricopa County, Arizona, there has been extensive organizing Latino leadership for several years.
And it continued, and they voted against Trump, but it has to be done. And the same is true of many other issues. Take the Democrats who are claiming that the election was lost because the crazy leftists were saying, “defund the police.” When I think about that for a minute, if you just say, “defund the police,” you’re going to lose. You’re telling people, “I want you to have no protection if somebody breaks into your home.” Nobody wants to hear that.
On the other hand, if you give the actual substantive meaning of “defund the police,” as Bernie Sanders, and a couple of others tried to do, it’s a sensible, attractive program, which people will support. It says, “Take away from the police responsibilities that they should never have in the first place” — in fact the large majority of their responsibilities.
Police shouldn’t be involved in domestic disputes, mental health problems, lost dogs, overdose of drugs, and so on. That’s not police business. These things all should be handled by community services under community control, which can do them better. So, defund the police by taking away those responsibilities.
The next step, as Sanders himself tried to emphasize, is to increase salaries for the police, make it a better occupation, make better conditions for it, so the police can do the things that, in fact, any community is going to need, but not other things and not running around with heavy weapons terrorizing people. That’s “defunding the police.”
But if you just scream the slogan, nobody hears that. What they hear is, “You don’t care if people break into my home.” People, by implication, black, that’s the message. If you want to be serious about achieving goals, you have to pay attention to your tactics, that’s crucial.
Tactics aren’t just something insignificant, at the fringe; any activist and organizer should know, it should be their second nature, that that’s what matters. How do you approach people? How do you get them to understand what you’re trying to say, what you think is for their benefit and for the benefit of others? Not by shouting a slogan. It takes work, it takes direct organizing and activism.
DB: It’s interesting, the alacrity of establishment Democrats to blame their poor showing on, as you mentioned, not by name, but [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and some other young, many of them women, representatives.
NC: We need real engagement from the local level on up. And without that, you can have all the nice slogans you want, it’s not going to achieve anything.
Some of the results of the election are pretty remarkable, now that the data are beginning to come in. [Anthony] DiMaggio has done some of the best work on these topics for years. He had a recent study of the latest available data on voting patterns, and it confirmed what’s been reported elsewhere.
Trump won remarkably high in almost every demographic — not out of range for what it’s been in the past, but remarkably high. In one study, as he’s shown before, the main support for Trump is relatively affluent, not superrich, but relatively affluent, way above the median, $100,000 to $200,000 income range. That’s not working people, contrary to illusions. The median income’s around $70,000. That’s median. Lower than that, Trump does poorly.
And when you go to higher incomes, it’s sort of split. Now the rich professionals are split. The very wealthy in this election are somewhat split because of concern about the way Trump’s harming their interests in the economy. But that range, $100,000 to $200,000 normally, again, was the base for Trump’s support, but seems to be increased substantially since 2016. I should say that’s kind of a mystery. I don’t understand whether it should be true, but it happened, and we should think about it. There’s a lot of problems to deal with for the Left, if it hopes to make any progress.
One, of course, is the incoming Biden administration, which is very much a mixed story. Among the economic advisors and appointees, it’s not too bad. People like Heather Boushey, Jared Bernstein, and Janet Yellen are appointments that can be very positive, others much less so. And across the board, there’s lots to object to.
Just getting rid of Trump is a major victory, but it’s not going to mean very much if you can’t implement policies that are substantive and effective in dealing with the massive crisis that exists.
DB: Talk about the Supreme Court and the power of Mitch McConnell, which was demonstrated when he rammed through the Amy Coney Barrett nomination, giving the court a decisive right-wing majority, perhaps for decades.
What do you think about proposals for term limits for Supreme Court justices and/or expanding the number of justices? And statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington, DC that would increase the number of senators by four. Or do you think these are just time-consuming dead ends, given the structure of politics?
NC: Those are important. But remember, they’re only part of the judiciary problem. McConnell, for ten years now, has been working hard to ensure that the entire judiciary, top to bottom, will be staffed by young, ultra-right Federalist Society approved lawyers, who will be able to maintain the ultra-reactionary McConnell, Trump-style programs for a generation by simply blocking everything else at every level.
Now that’s been the main function of the Senate, first blocking Obama’s nominees, second, by ramming through the huge number of ultra-right young nominees during the Trump years. And it’s been very effective. You look at the numbers and it’s astonishing. McConnell has essentially eliminated the Senate as a deliberative body — theoretically once famously described as the world’s greatest deliberative body. Okay, you can argue about that, but at least the term meant something.
Now, it’s not that. The House sends measures to the Senate, they don’t even look at them. What they do is two things: pass legislation to benefit the corporate sector and the very rich, from deregulation to the incredible tax scam, and the other is to staff the judiciary with the far right. So it’s not just the Supreme Court.
I think admitting Puerto Rico and Washington, DC should be done. But it’s going to be very hard to achieve that over a Republican Senate or to achieve anything with McConnell. The idea that you can somehow make friends with them and cooperate, that’s a joke. They’re out for blood.
They don’t want to cooperate. They want to make the country ungovernable, so that they can come back into power at every level below the president. I think that’s what we’re going to be seeing for the next couple of years, basically an extension of what’s going on.
DB: Howard Zinn said, “It would be naive to depend on the Supreme Court to defend the rights of poor people, women, people of color, dissenters of all kinds. Those rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel, and violate the law, in order to uphold justice.”
NC: That’s pretty much what the historical record shows. You can go back to the Constitution. By the standards of the eighteenth century, the Constitution was moderately progressive, but it was not what the population wanted.
It is well described in the major scholarly study of the formation of the Constitution, Michael Klarman’s book, The Framers’ Coup, on the coup of the framers against democracy. That’s the scholarly gold standard — an excellent book, incidentally, very good reading. In it, you can see step by step how Madison, Hamilton, and other major figures in framing the Constitution were primarily concerned with the popular democratic thrust among the general population. A lot of it played out on issues that most people don’t pay much attention to.
There was a huge struggle, for example, about paper money during fighting, the American Revolution. The government had huge debts, and the question was how were they going to be paid off? Well, one proposal was to put it on the shoulders of the population and make them pay for it, not the rich speculators, we want to preserve their rights.
That’s the way the Constitution was framed. The population wanted paper money, so the currency would be inflated, kind of pay off the debts, the speculators would suffer from it, but the population would gain. That was one major part of the formation of the Constitution.
Another part was Madison’s realization that the Senate should represent the wealth of the nation, the most responsible group of men, those who have sympathy with property owners and their rights. So the Senate was given the major power among the various components of the government.
It was not elected, it was picked by electors from the legislature who could be trusted to make sure that the wealthy would be in charge. And many other measures were proposed with the main purpose of preventing democracy, even large legislative districts, where people wouldn’t be able to get together. Remember, this is the days of the horse and carriage and it was hard to get around.
Lots of detailed measures were taken to reduce the threat of democracy and to carry out the framers’ coup against democracy. But there was a problem: the population didn’t accept it. You had lots of ferment, the kinds of things that Howard Zinn was talking about, uprisings, efforts to win more democratic rights took all sorts and forms. And this struggle is going on throughout American history.
The Supreme Court, which you mentioned, is a good example. The Supreme Court has overwhelmingly been on the side of wealth and power, not totally, there were breaks, but that’s been the strong tendency, as a conservative institution. Actually, the Constitution does not say anything about the Supreme Court having the right of judicial review, having the authority to cancel legislation. That was just introduced by the Court itself under Chief Justice [John] Marshall years later and it’s become the convention since. But these are all constant struggles.
And it’s not just the courts and the government. It’s also private power, which is enormous, has an immense influence on the government. Very recently, another high-level paper came out, a serious analysis, as far as I saw, was reported only in the London Financial Times. It gave much more sophisticated and detailed evidence to support what has been shown pretty effectively for a long time, that most of the population has no influence whatsoever on governmental decisions.
Maybe the top 10 percent, and of them, a very small fraction, in fact. Well, that’s quite apart from the formal constitutional structure. And, of course, during the neoliberal period — the last forty years — all of this has been strongly enhanced.
One of the major effects of the neoliberal period has been, as is well known, to have sharply concentrated wealth, while much of the population stagnates. That has an immediate effect on undermining of democratic decision making, for perfectly obvious reasons.
There was a pretty remarkable study, which should be better known, on the transfer of wealth from the working class and the middle class to the extreme wealthy during the years since [Ronald] Reagan. The ultra-respectable RAND Corporation came out with an estimate of what they call the “transfer of wealth” — we should call it “The robbery of the population by the very rich.” Their estimate is, in the last forty years, $47 trillion. That’s not small change. And it’s an underestimate because it doesn’t include lots of other things.
Reagan opened the spigot on all sorts of other ways to rob the public, like tax havens, shell companies, and other devices. [Bill] Clinton added to it, not only by his radical deregulation of the financial institutions, which just sent them into the stratosphere, but also by his so-called trade agreements, which had nothing much to do with trade, certainly very little to do with free trade, but were highly advantageous to great corporate wealth and very destructive to the working class, as they predicted in advance. And, in fact, this happened.
So there’s been this massive robbery of the population for forty years and that has its effects on the way the government works. That’s why you end up with, say, 90 percent of the population being basically unrepresented. And these struggles go on constantly. They’re going to go on in the post-pandemic world.
It’s a radical class struggle, but one element in the struggle is always fighting: the business world. They’re dedicated, they never stop. They didn’t stop during the New Deal, continued, continued afterward, always going on. Unless working people, the general population, take part in the class struggle, they’re going to get it in the neck.
DB: Let’s talk about historical memory. The seventy-fifth anniversary of the Nuremberg Tribunal for high-ranking Nazis was just marked. Robert Jackson, the chief US prosecutor and Supreme Court Justice, said, “We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poison chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”
There’s an excellent new book out called The United States, Southeast Asia, and Historical Memory. You have a chapter in there called “From Mad Jack to Mad Henry,” the latter being [Henry] Kissinger. But who is Mad Jack?
NC: Mad Jack, John Percival, commander of a navy ship invaded Vietnam in, I think it was 1845. That was the first major American attack on Vietnam. Mad Henry, we know the record, in between plenty and after Mad Henry plenty more. Justice Jackson was mistaken when he said, “History will judge us.” It hasn’t. History hasn’t judged us. History has ignored us.
The custodians of history, mainly liberal intellectuals, don’t talk about this. Try giving a talk at a law school as I’ve sometimes done and ask them what they think about the fact that every US president radically violates the US Constitution. You can explain it to a ten year old. Take a look at Article Six of the Constitution, “Treaties” entered into by the US government are “the supreme Law of the Land.”
What’s the main treaty entered into by the US government since the Nuremberg Tribunal? The UN Charter. What does the UN Charter say? Take a look at article 2.4. It says, “The threat or use of force” in international affairs is outlawed, it’s criminal. Can you think of any American president who hasn’t used either the threat or use of force in international affairs?
What does it mean when every president and numerous high officials, including the Nobel Prize peace laureate Barack Obama, what does it mean when they say that in the case of Iran all options are on the table? Is that a threat of force? Is that a violation of the US Constitution?
I even put aside the use of force. How about Obama’s massive global assassination campaign, to kill people who the government claims are threatening us? Now suppose that any other government was doing that. Suppose that Iran was killing people around the world who they claim are a potential threat to them. We’d notice it. When we do it, doesn’t matter.
There was an actually interesting article that came out a couple days ago by a major British legal authority who’s been defending some of the Guantanamo prisoners. He pointed out that of the prisoners in Guantanamo, an overwhelming majority — there are plenty who still remain without any charges — have been released after US intelligence agencies carefully inspected their records and discovered that they were no threat. Now these are supposed to be the worst of the terrorists.
Those are the ones the drone campaigns are aimed at. You kill plenty of other people, but theoretically they’re aimed at the people who are supposedly threats. The people that were sent to Guantanamo are the peak of those who were supposed to be threats. And after years of torture and illegal imprisonment and other atrocities, they were released because it was recognized they never were a threat. What does that tell you about the drone campaign? You don’t have to be a genius to figure it out, which is murdering people, not only the people we aim at, we often miss, but the families, children, wives, community, terrorizing areas, because we’re trying to kill people who aren’t a threat, but who somebody mistakenly said were a threat.
But even if they were a threat, I mean, is Mike Pompeo a threat to Iran? So why don’t they kill him? Would that be okay? Would we cheer, doing what we’re supposed to be doing? Going back to Robert Jackson, I’m afraid he’s wrong. We have proven him to be wrong. The intellectual community, good liberals, legal authorities have simply said, “We’re not subject to the law. Even our own Constitution doesn’t apply to us.” What applies to us is what we feel like doing.
DB: Hermann Göring was the highest-ranking Nazi at Nuremberg. He said, “The victor will always be the judge and the vanquished the accused.”
NC: Unfortunately, it’s true. Take even the Nuremberg Tribunal itself. It was probably the least defective of all of the international tribunals. The people who were charged were undoubtedly terrible criminals. But the Nuremberg Tribunal itself was severely flawed. That was pointed out by Telford Taylor, the American counsel for the prosecution. He wrote about it later, and he agreed that there was a deep flaw in the Tribunal.
Essentially, the Tribunal defined a war crime as something you did and we didn’t do. So, bombing of urban concentrations to try to kill as many civilians as possible was not considered a crime. The reason was the British and the Americans did it far more than the Germans, so therefore it’s not a crime. Destroying cities with the explicit goal of killing civilians — that was after all the explicit goal, we have to harm their morale by killing civilians — was not secret. That wasn’t a crime.
Dresden, other German cities, Tokyo, much worse than Hiroshima: not crimes. In fact, if you take a look at the Tribunal, the German war criminals were able to plead successfully that what they did was also done by the West, so therefore they were innocent. The submarine commander Admiral [Karl] Doenitz was charged with attacking civilian ships. His lawyers brought in his defense an American Admiral who said, “We did the same thing.” Okay, therefore it’s not a crime.
That’s the Nuremberg Tribunal, the best of all the tribunals. So I’m glad the Tribunal took place, it’s better than if it hadn’t, but we shouldn’t have any illusions about it. It was deeply flawed. That was victor’s justice. The Tokyo Tribunal was just ridiculous. Japanese commanders were executed because of crimes committed by troops they had no contact with, things like that.
DB: In the book, ReTargeting Iran, you discuss in the chapter “U.S. War with Iran: Covert and Overt” the proposal for a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. Few people have ever even heard of this. And then you mention the 1976 Symington Amendment. He was a senator from Missouri. You say, “U.S. aid to Israel for the past almost 40 years is illegal under U.S. law.” Talk about that.
NC: There’s a profession called lawyers, whose task is to show that words don’t mean what they say. So I understand that. But if we look at the actual words, it’s arguable, but it is certainly at least arguable that US aid to Israel is illegal under US law.
There are updates to the Symington Amendment which carry it further. And there’s a very interesting issue there, which is one of those things is undiscussable in the United States, but very critical to contemporary affairs. There’s much highly justified concern now about a possible war with Iran. Is Trump going to go out in a blaze of glory by bombing around or something like that? But take the whole issue with Iran, not just Trump, Obama, everyone else. Iran is supposed to be a terrible threat to peace, maybe the greatest threat to peace. And worst of all is their program for developing nuclear weapons.
Let’s think about that for a moment. Let’s say Benjamin Netanyahu is right, they are secretly developing nuclear weapons. Is there a way to stop that? Yes, a very simple way. Impose a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East with intensive inspections. We know that inspections can work. US intelligence confirms that, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirms it. They were very effective during the period of the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement, the Iran Deal. So reinstitute them and impose a nuclear-weapons-free zone.
Is anybody opposed to that? Actually, only two countries, the US and Israel. Arab countries are strongly in favor, Iran is strongly in favor, non-aligned countries, most of the world, former non-aligned, so called G77, a hundred thirty or so countries strongly support it, and Europe supports it. Every time it comes up, the US vetoes it.
Obama, in 2015, came up to the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review conference. Everyone in favor, Obama blocked it. In meetings since, same thing. Why does the United States block it? Everybody knows, nobody can say, because it would mean that Israel’s nuclear weapons would be subject to inspection. The United States does not officially recognize that Israel has nuclear weapons. It’s a joke. Everybody knows they have nuclear weapons, but the US government won’t recognize it.
That goes back to the Symington Amendment. As soon as you recognize it, it opens that door. Nobody in the government, Democrat or Republican, wants to open that door. The liberal intellectual community doesn’t want to open that door. So you don’t have any discussion of a very simple way of ending whatever threat you think Iran poses.
So, there’s no justification for murderous sanctions, no justification anyway, but the official justification gets totally knocked down. No justification for the efforts to torture Iranians, especially now during the pandemic — none. All goes, simple solution, can’t talk about it. I mean, you can talk about it in arms control circles, and it’s a free country, I can give talks about it, as I’ve done a thousand times.
Pointing this out, of course, audiences understand immediately. In fact, I should say that if there were a really functioning Palestinian solidarity organization here, this would be one of its top priorities. Let’s impose a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. Let’s pursue the fact that US aid to Israel is arguably even in violation of US law.
This is not incidentally the only case. There’s the so-called Leahy Law, Senator Patrick Leahy, which bans US military aid to any military unit anywhere that’s engaged in systematic human rights violations. The Israeli army is up to its neck in systematic human rights violations all the time. You can read about it in the Israeli press, Israeli human rights groups, B’Tselem, international human rights groups — it’s not a secret.
So yes, there are points where activist pressures could make a big difference. They’re not being carried out, unfortunately. But these are things that are kept under a veil, you don’t want to talk about them. It’s kind of like the Chinese vaccine, even worse, we don’t talk. That’s at least sometimes mentioned — this, you can search, it’s almost a total ban.
And I should add there’s more to it. The United States and Britain are uniquely committed to a nuclear-weapons-free zone, and there’s a reason. After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the United States and Britain rammed through a Security Council resolution, which called on Saddam Hussein to eliminate his nuclear weapons programs, which he in fact did.
The resolution had a series of other provisions. One of them, Article 14, commits the signers, the United States and Britain to work to establish a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region. That’s a US-British sponsored Security Council resolution calling on these two states to move to institute a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region.
They have a unique responsibility to do it, meaning to open up Israeli nuclear weapons to inspection and to raise the question about the legality of US economic and military aid to Israel. That’s a direct duty, cannot be discussed. Of course, it can, like we’re talking about and we’ve talked about it before. But it can’t enter the mainstream.
DB: This year began with the US assassination of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, and it almost is ending with the assassination of the Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, probably by Israel. David Sanger, writing in the New York Times, reported, “The assassination threatens to cripple President-elect Biden’s efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal before he can even begin his diplomacy with Tehran.” And he continues, “And that may well have been a main goal of the operation.”
About Benjamin Netanyahu, Sanger writes that he has a second agenda, and that is, quoting Netanyahu, “There must be no return to the previous nuclear agreement.” Nowhere in the article does Sanger even mention that Israel has nuclear weapons, or that this assassination is yet another example of its violations of international law. What’s going on with US-Iran relations in this interim period and the dangers of a possible wider war?
NC: That’s an important question, but we should remember there’s a background. Why is the United States torturing Iran in the first place? What is the justification for the US sanctions regime? This is not the first murder of a nuclear weapons scientist. There have been a string of others, sabotage of Iranian facilities — just one very recently.
What’s the justification for any of them? Actually none, as I just mentioned, but let’s talk about this specific one. I think that analysis is pretty plausible. It looks as if, for some time now, the Trump/[Mike] Pompeo administration has been trying hard to provoke Iran to carry out some kind of act, which can be used as a pretext for a sharp escalation of the war against Iran.
Notice we are at war against Iran. We have a blockade. US sanctions are a serious business, US sanctions are third party sanctions, which means everyone in the world must observe them or else. Europe doesn’t like them, but they have to observe them, or else we’ll toss them out of the international financial system. We just saw this shown dramatically at the UN a couple of weeks ago.
The United States went to the Security Council and requested, meaning demanded, that the Security Council renew the lapsed sanctions against Iran. They refused, almost total refusal. Every US ally refused. The US reacted, Pompeo returned to the Security Council and said, “You are reinstituting the sanctions.” They obeyed. You can’t step on the toes of the godfather. Now, this also passed without comment.
So, this is just one of the many examples where the Trump administration is trying almost desperately to get Iran to carry out some action, which they can use as a pretext probably for missile attacks against the nuclear facilities or something like that, to which Iran might respond.
For example, they do have the missile capacity to attack the Saudi energy facilities in northeast Saudi Arabia, near the Iran border. They can attack this. That’s the main center of global fossil fuel production. Also, Saudi Arabia’s desalination facilities and others, although it’d set off a huge war.
We don’t know what it would lead to. But they are eager to do this to try to ensure exactly, as Netanyahu said, that we do not go back to the earlier situation. Now actually, I agree with Netanyahu. We should not go back to the earlier agreement. What we should do is impose a new nuclear-weapons-free zone, which is really nuclear weapons will be subject to international controls and inspection, and in which US aid to Israel will be questioned.
That’s what we should do, not just go back to the JCPOA. So in some ways, I agree with him. But we shouldn’t be trapped in this narrow conception that’s provided by the media and general intellectual framework. We don’t want to be trapped in that, that’s wrong. But that’s probably what they’re trying to do.
I think the analysis is correct. In fact, the Biden administration is playing along. One of their top appointees, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, recently said that the Biden administration will be willing to consider going back to the joint agreement, but the ball is in Iran’s court. They have to start by cutting back, by reversing their increased enrichment of uranium. And they’ve got to have a positive attitude toward negotiations. If they do that, we’ll consider it.
Absolutely backward. We are the ones who should be pleading with them to go back to the negotiations, which we have consistently undermined, actually destroyed under Trump, but undermined under Obama.
Even under Obama, we were not living up to the agreements. The agreements, one part of them, say that no party shall try to injure the Iranian economy during the period of the negotiations. I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something to that effect. The Obama administration was doing it constantly. We weren’t living up to the agreements. But now the Biden administration spokesman is saying, “We might be willing to consider going back to the negotiations, if they take the first steps,” as if they’re the guilty party, not us. We should never accept any of this.
DB: Robert Fisk, we both knew him and shared platforms with him, passed away in late October. In 2010, he said this about objectivity: “It is the duty of a foreign correspondent to be neutral and unbiased on the side of those who suffer, whoever they may be.”
Fisk was a critic of US foreign policy in the Middle East and the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. He wrote of the Kurdish question, the Armenian genocide, and other taboo topics. Talk about him briefly, and then this notion, this almost sacred notion of objectivity.
NC: Fisk was a marvelous correspondent, brave, honest, knowledgeable, and a great writer. Much of the profession just hated him. And now he’s under very ugly attacks from many journalists. A number of good journalists have written about this, like Jonathan Cook. Now that he’s dead, he can’t sue anybody, and so all kind of ugly attacks are coming from journalists. It’s sick. He was one of the top ones.
So what about objectivity? It’s a funny notion. First of all, we shouldn’t pretend that we’re just neutral observers. Every human being has a point of view. If you don’t have a point of view on things, you’re not a human being, you don’t have a functioning brain. If you’re a serious journalist or scholar, what you do is make your point of view very clear, so that your readers can understand it and compensate for it, and then try to be as accurate as you can about what’s happening, always framed in the background about what’s important to you.
If what’s important to you is the rights of the powerful, okay, make that clear and write from that perspective. If your point of view or your perspective is centered on the rights of the suffering and the oppressed, make that clear, and then describe that as accurately as you can, without cutting corners.
But pure objectivity is just a meaningless notion in the sciences as well. No nuclear physicist approaches the next article he reads with pure objectivity, as if he didn’t have some beliefs about the subject. I mean, it’s just ludicrous. You read the scientific literature.
A paper just came out a couple of weeks ago in one of the top quantum theory journals, with a debate among a bunch of scientists, top scientists, about what a particle is, the most critical concept in physics. What’s a particle, a lot of different views, people arguing about it. Any way they look at an experiment is going to be shaped by their point of view. That’s fundamental physics.
Suppose you’re looking at the Syrian war. Of course, you’re going to have a point of view. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a fine objective journalist, as Robert Fisk was, as Patrick Cockburn, Charles Glass, Jonathan Steele, and quite a few others were. They all have a point of view. Fisk was also a great human being. I knew him personally for many years.
DB: November 29 is the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, a UN-organized observance. It marks UN resolution 181 of November 29, 1947, which proposed the partition of Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish.
The national poet of Palestine is Mahmoud Darwish (1941–2008). One of his greatest poems is “Under Siege.” This is the opening verse:
Here on the slopes of hills, facing the dusk and the cannon of time,
close to the gardens of broken shadows,
We do what prisoners do,
And what the jobless do:
We cultivate hope.
What hope is there for the Palestinians, a people that you have been in solidarity with for decades, at this what seems to be the bleakest moment in their history? Where more and more land and water is being annexed by Israel and the possibility of a viable, independent Palestinian state recedes?
NC: It is a grim moment in the history of the Palestinians. And anyone concerned with their rights and prospects has to be super careful about two things. One, being clear about what the actual situation is. Two, being clear about the kinds of choices, of action that can be taken to try to improve, overcome, at least mitigate the crisis in which they live.
Those two things require serious, clear thought, and I don’t think it’s being done. So, on the issue of what the circumstances are, almost all discussion these days that you see is between two options. One is a two-state settlement of some sort. There has been a general international consensus on that since the 1970s, so something like that. The other option that’s considered is one state, Israel, takes over the West Bank, and then an anti-apartheid struggle ensues. That’s the second option.
But that’s missing the third and crucial option, the one that is in fact being implemented before our eyes, which has been the major guideline for Israeli policies for fifty years: A greater Israel in which Israel takes over whatever is of value to it in the West Bank — formerly Gaza, but now on the West Bank — but evades the Palestinian population concentrations.
Israel does not want Nablus, doesn’t want Tulkarm, doesn’t want Palestinians. So, nothing like the anti-apartheid struggle, where the white population needed the black population, and in fact tried to subsidize the Bantustans, tried to make them look decent to the international community. This is quite different. Israel just wants the Palestinians out. It does use them for cheap labor, but they can get cheap exploited labor from Thailand or other places, and do in fact.
They just want the Palestinians out. What they’ve been doing for fifty years and what you see before your eyes, which you can see if you drive around the West Bank, is a greater Israel. Israel takes over all the valuable areas, the Jordan Valley, about a third of the territory, the fertile land, and kicks out the population on one or another pretexts.
Take greater Jerusalem, a huge area about five times the size of what Jerusalem ever was, or take the city of Ma’ale Adumim east of Jerusalem, built up mostly in the Clinton years, corridor to it, pretty much bisects the West Bank. Same to the north with the town of Ariel, the town of Kedumim. Leave out the Palestinian population concentrations, and don’t take Nablus, that’s for them, until Israel finally manages to get rid of them.
The rest of the Palestinians who live in the areas that Israel’s taking over, put them in isolated enclaves, separated from their olive groves, agricultural areas, herds, with checkpoints, which occasionally are open at the will of Israeli soldiers. Keep them in isolation, subjected to constant attacks by what are called hilltop youth and other terrorist crazies and just make life impossible for them.
Meanwhile, the Jewish-held areas are basically suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. So you can live in Ma’ale Adumim in a nice villa, subsidized by the government, and take the Jewish-only superhighway. It takes you to your job in Tel Aviv, come back to your nice, subsidized home in the suburbs in the evening. You don’t even see an Arab. That’s greater Israel. That’s what’s being implemented.
Like any other new colony, anywhere, the Israeli authorities understand that you have to do something for the Palestinian elites. So, have a place where they can gather, go to the theater, have nice restaurants, shopping malls, pretend they’re in Europe. That’s Ramallah, basically, you’ve got to do that. It’s the same thing you find all through Africa and other similar neocolonial areas. That’s the reality.
Israel is not going to accept taking over the Palestinian population. Israel is not going to accept becoming a minority state with a minority of Jews. We can be quite certain of that. So that’s just not an option. A lot of talk about it, but I don’t think it’s an option. Discuss that, but it seems to me that’s what has to be faced.
As far as actions are concerned that could overcome this crisis, there’s one point that’s critical, and that’s the United States. If the United States continues, as it has pretty consistently, with some breaks, to support the Israeli greater Israel project, they’ll just continue with it. No reason for them to stop, as long as the global godfather says, “You can go ahead.”
Will it continue? I think that’s an open question. If you look at support for Israel within the United States, it’s shifted radically over the last couple of decades. Go back twenty years and beyond, Israel was the darling of the liberal population, loved Israel, it’s the most wonderful place in the world. I think this was true pretty much worldwide, saying, “Swedish teenagers could live in a kibbutz because it was that wonderful.”
That’s all changed. Israel is now a pariah state among liberal opinion. In fact, most people who identify as liberal Democrats are more supportive of Palestinian rights. Support for Israel has shifted to the far right, as Israel itself has shifted to the far right. So, the support for Israel in the United States is now in the Republican Party. It’s evangelicals, ultra-nationalists, those connected to military industry, which has very tight links to Israel. That’s the support for Israel.
And there are open possibilities. This is also true of the younger Jewish population, I should say. A lot of possibilities for trying to move to shift US policy, and they’re very concrete things. We’ve already mentioned a few, the legitimacy of US military and economic aid to Israel. Sore point, that’s why nobody wants to talk about it. But it’s a point for activism, and there are other things like that. Israel’s constant violations of international law or it’s huge human rights violations, that’s the vicious repression in the occupied territories.
All of this should be front and center. And I think with that, there could be a change in US policy, and it doesn’t have to be a huge change. Even bringing up the possibility of terminating or limiting the huge economic and military aid to Israel would have a big effect, moving forward on even more.
So, I think there are things that can be done. I don’t think the situation’s hopeless. But you have to be clear about it. Ask yourself what can be done effectively, not what makes you feel righteous. It’s kind of like talking about “defund the police.” You have to do it in a way which is going to work, not in a way which is going to be self-destructive.
DB: During the summer, you used to find time to read fiction. Can you recall any particular novels that stuck in your mind? And you told me that in this pandemic year, you’ve been so busy you’ve been unable to read any fiction. This goes to the question of what can art do in a society?
NC: That’s a long story. This is in fact the first summer where I haven’t had the luxury of enjoying a series of novels and other forms of relaxation, too busy. The last summer I was on a [José] Saramago kick, running through his novels. But it’s much too broad a topic to discuss.
DB: Last question. Years ago, you told me you had “bad genes” and that you did not expect to live a long life. Well, you turn ninety-two on December 7. You have a Bicycle Theory of Longevity. Explain what that is.
NC: It’s pretty simple. If you keep riding fast, you don’t fall off. Unfortunately, my wife Valeria won’t let me get near a bicycle.
DB: I think I can say for a lot of people, “Happy Birthday, Noam.”
NC: Thanks. Keep riding.