For New Bloom, Jenny Li interviewed Noam Chomsky on the responsibility of leftist intellectuals in time characterized by conflict between the US and China, as well as possible ways out of this dilemma for small nations such as Taiwan caught between great power competition. The original interview was conducted on June 25th, 2021 and the video of the interview was released on August 25th.
Jenny Li: Hello everyone, my name is Jenny Li, and it is my honor today to speak with Professor Noam Chomsky concerning his essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” and book, “Who Rules the World?” in the context of Taiwan and Asian affairs. Good afternoon, Professor Chomsky! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.
Noam Chomsky: Very pleased to be with you.
JL: I wanted to start off with a question that relates to both “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” and “Who Rules the World?” So, this is my first question. The United States has always had more power and influence over world affairs than, say, Taiwan and smaller countries in Asia. By extension, one can imagine that the American intellectual, when successful in influencing their government, will have more influence over international affairs than intellectuals from this part of the world. Do you think American intellectuals have more responsibility than say, for example, Taiwanese intellectuals?
NC: Well, responsibility is basically a function of opportunity. The more opportunity you have, the greater your responsibility. So, somebody like me has more responsibility than, say, a homeless person begging on the street. They don’t have the opportunities that I have and, by extension, if you’re in the richest and most powerful country in world history, and it’s a moderately democratic country so what you do matters, then you have greater responsibility.
JL: You’ve also said that the prime concern for intellectuals are the crimes for which they share responsibility and that they can do something about. You wrote “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” in the context of the U.S. war in Vietnam in the 1960s. Do you think there are any lessons for intellectuals today in what you’ve learned since?
NC: Very definitely. We have far greater challenges today, far greater than we had even in opposition to the Vietnam War. In fact, we have greater responsibilities than has ever arisen in human history. We cannot overlook the fact that your generation is facing a decision that has never arisen before: will human life on Earth persist in any organized form?
We are now busily destroying the planet. If we don’t change course significantly, nothing else is going to matter. I’m referring to the destruction of the environment, global warming, habitat destruction, destruction of the ocean — all proceeding very rapidly. As perhaps you saw yesterday, there was a report that came out, originally from the AFP, the French news agency, and circulated worldwide. It was a draft. They had somehow gotten ahold of the draft report of the IPCC — international monitors of the environment. Scientists who… the main scientific organization that produces the scientific consensus on the state of the environment, and it’s much more dire than the past ones. The past ones have been serious enough. This one is much more serious. We have to move quickly to end the use of fossil fuels, to move to sustainable energy, to end habitat destruction, or else human life in any meaningful form will cease to exist.
Well, what’s our responsibility? To ensure that this happens. As an American intellectual in the United States right now. Well, the United States per capita emissions is way at the top among developed societies. China actually has greater total emissions but far lower per capita. And, of course, in the past emissions have been overwhelmingly the rich countries and, to be more precise, the rich people within the rich countries. They’re the ones responsible for this and responsible for doing something about it. Well, there are things to do.
There are, in the United States Congress… There is pending legislation on a very effective form of a “Green New Deal,” pretty much what is recommended by the International Energy Association. Programs which would, in fact put a limit on the threat, mitigate the crisis, lead us to creating a much better world with a sustainable environment and a much better life for all of us. It’s within reach. It can be done within a few percentage of the Gross Domestic Product, far less than was used, say, during the World War. Actually, even less than was expended than the Treasury Department to bail out the financial institutions during the Covid epidemic. It’s all within reach, but it has to be done, and it’s not going to be done unless major efforts are made by people with the opportunity to convince others to engage in these commitments. So, there’s a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous responsibility.
JL: Thank you so much for your response to that question, Professor Chomsky. And, again, related to your essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”… In the beginning of that essay, you referenced Dwight MacDonald who questioned the extent to which the German or Japanese people were responsible for the atrocities committed by their governments. Today, the U.S.-Taiwan-China relationship is strained, and dialogue between any two governments is difficult, but one can imagine that dialogues between people are bound by fewer constraints. To what extent, do you think, are regular people, those we don’t normally think of as intellectuals, responsible for preventing conflict between their countries?
NC: I should first comment on, briefly, on the responsibility of the Japanese and the Germans for their atrocities. They were defeated in the war, and defeated countries are forced, by force, to acknowledge some of their atrocities. In the case of the Japanese, it was very striking. The trials of the Japanese were run by the United States, and they made a very careful distinction among Japanese atrocities. They began with Pearl Harbor. They did not discuss the atrocities of the Japanese against Asians, which were enormous and extraordinary, by far the worst ones. They were cut out at the tribunal. That’s the reason incidentally why Asian countries, almost all of them, refused to attend the San Francisco Peace Treaty. Because of the narrow way in which the United States construed Japanese crimes. One of the reasons they simply refused to attend. So, there was partial acknowledgement of responsibilities. In the case of Germany, more extensive.
The United States and Britain didn’t acknowledge their atrocities during the Second World War, which were very significant. The bombing of Japan, for example, was a major atrocity. The bombing of urban environments in Germany, a major atrocity. These were unacknowledged. In fact, the trials were set up… the Nuremberg Trials, the most serious one, was set up in such a way as to absolve the Allies of any responsibility. A German war criminal could plead in defense that the Allies had done the same thing, and that was recognized to be a defense because the crimes of the Allies, the victors, could not be considered. That was even more dramatically true in the Tokyo trials, which were victors’ justice. So, partial acknowledgement.
Well, coming to your question, we have an enormous responsibility today to prevent the kinds of conflicts that are coming, that are brewing, that are developing. And if permitted, the current course is pursued, will very likely lead to extremely dangerous situations, possibly even nuclear war. And a nuclear war between major powers is simply unthinkable. It would essentially destroy everything. It would leave the kind of world nobody would want to live in.
How is it happening? Just take a look at what’s happening right off the coast of China. Chinese warplanes have penetrated the air defense system of Taiwan. The United States has sent a huge naval armada, two major aircraft carrier groups into the South China Sea, an area of enormous strategic importance for China. Any of these things could blow up at any moment off the coast of China. Notice, it’s not in the Caribbean Sea. It’s not the Eastern Pacific, the Eastern Pacific off the coast of California. It’s off the coast of China. China is ringed with nuclear bases, a circle of containment, nuclear missiles aimed at China from U.S. bases all through the Pacific. What’s called “The Quad,” the four major Asian U.S. allies, Japan… U.S., Japan, Australia, India, all in the hands of extremely right-wing, hawkish governments. They are now being organized by the United States to take a more active hostile view towards China. The United States itself is devoting enormous efforts to try to prevent China’s development. It’s pretty shocking to look at it. We should be cooperating. It is necessary for China and the United States, two major economies, to be cooperating on all sorts of issues, crucial issues like global warming, pandemics, nuclear weapons.
Instead of cooperating on these, there’s conflict, most of it initiated by the United States. Just to give an example of the extent to which it reaches: the United States Congress just passed a limited stimulus bill to reconstruct collapsing infrastructure, which badly needs repair in the United States. U.S. infrastructure is a scandal. You can take a high-speed train from Beijing to Kazakhstan, but you can’t take it from Boston to Washington, New York to Washington, the most heavily traveled corridor, because the United States is so backward in infrastructure. Well, a limited bill was finally passed. It couldn’t be an adequate bill because the Republican party blocked anything adequate, but it did pass, and the only way to pass it was to put it into a “Hate China” framework. “We have to rebuild our infrastructure to make sure that China doesn’t get ahead of us.” It’s outrageous. We have to rebuild our infrastructure because we need to rebuild it. If China happens to make contributions in solar power, in electrification, in health areas, whatever, we should be congratulating them and joining with them, not trying to impede it.
Actually, this goes far back in American history, back to the 18th and 19th century. During the 19th century, when the imperial powers led by Britain were attacking China, forcing China… It was the largest narco-trafficking operation in world history to try to undermine China. The United States was participating in it during that period. Chinese workers were being kidnapped to work in the United States on work that Americans didn’t want to do, like blasting through the mountain for the Transcontinental Railroad. “Chinese coolies,” they were called, bitterly repressed. In 1882, the United States passed its first law against immigrants aimed at the Chinese. No Chinese could immigrate, and the Chinese who were in the United States were forcefully and rather brutally evicted. That remained… That law remained till quite recently. During the 1950s, there was another anti-China hysteria that developed. In fact, some of this was so extreme that Jack London, one of the most progressive writers about a century ago, wrote a story about how we have to kill everyone in China by bacteriological warfare to prevent them from conquering and destroying us.
Well, comes up to today when there’s another “Hate China” campaign developing. China does a lot of wrong things. They should be criticized and condemned just as they should be condemning our wrong things done by the United States, but this is no reason to build up a monstrous “Hate China” campaign, which will undermine… which is not only harming China, as it is intended to, but it’s harming everyone cause it’s building up the kinds of tensions that could seriously explode, and it’s preventing the kind of cooperation — international cooperation — that is necessary if we’re going to deal with our current crises.
JL: Thank you so much. My next question is related to this so-called competition between the United States and China. In an interview last August with the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong, you described China’s actions in Asia as an attempt to reassert its traditional role as a regional power and how the United States will not allow it. You also described Hong Kong as the “trampled grass when elephants fight.” So, my question is this: how should people in Taiwan and smaller countries in Asia navigate this Great Power conflict between the United States and China? And do you see any room for agency or self-determination for “the grass?”
NC: It’s a very tough situation for them. Hong Kong has been subjected to highly repressive Chinese actions the last couple of years, which should be resisted to the extent possible. They should be partially condemned. In the case of Taiwan… Taiwan has developed a very impressive functioning democracy with a very impressive economy. In fact, it has the leading semiconductor plant in the whole world! Just one example. There is a delicate situation with China. It has been maintained so far by formally accepting the “One-China Policy” but, in fact, implementing separate and independent political and economic development.
Well, for the Taiwanese, the increasing hostilities between the U.S. and China are a very severe threat, and they should be doing whatever they can to pressure the major powers towards diplomacy and negotiations and cutback of hostile actions. They can help in this regard. Same in Hong Kong. Hong Kong, of course, had a fair degree of independence, but we should bear in mind that that’s recent. Hong Kong was stolen from China by British savagery as part of their effort to destroy China in their huge narco-trafficking operations. The West may like to forget that, but I’m sure the Chinese don’t. That’s part of the background to remember. It doesn’t justify what Chinese authorities are doing now, but it can help explain it. So, yes, the countries in the periphery of China have a degree of agency. A very difficult situation, hard to maneuver, but their efforts should be dedicated to the extent possible to pressing the great powers, the United States and China, U.S. allies in Asia, towards negotiation and diplomacy, which is certainly possible. There’s plenty of room for it. The problems that exist are real. They can be mitigated, settled by proper peaceful means, and that’s the only hope for decent survival, for the countries of Asia. Or, for that matter, the world.
JL: This is my last question for you, Professor Chomsky. You’ve spent lots of time in this part of the world in Asia. Do youth movements in Asia today give you hope? And, is there anything you would like to say to future generations?
NC: Well, Asia’s in a remarkable situation. If you look back at world history, going back millenia up until the 18th century — that’s almost all of recorded history, Asia was the center of global civilization. Europe was a fringe of barbarians, the outside of Asia. You remember very well, I’m sure, that when the British emissaries came to China in the 18th century and were admitted by the emperor, allowed to visit him and try to arrange for trade agreements. He, the emperor, informed them, “We don’t need anything from you. We have everything we need. We’re far more advanced than you are. If you want, we’ll let you set up a small trading post somewhere where you can follow our rules, but you have nothing to offer us.” That was pretty much the case. Same is true for India. India was a rich developed society, far more so than England.
The Europeans had one advantage: savagery. That’s it. The Europeans were more advanced in the means of warfare. Military historians point out that Europe had turned war into a science None of the rest of the world had and, using their advantages in savagery, the Europeans were able to break into Asia, devastate India, deindustrialize India. England stole its higher technology, deindustrialized it, wrecked it, break into China through mainly violence. They had greater means of violence… the narco-trafficking operations… and Asia suffered a period in human history, a brief period of subjection to outside forces. It was very harmful.
Well, it’s beginning its recovery. It’s recovering the status that it once had. It’s becoming again a major center of civilization, of production, of culture and so on. Where’s it going to go from here? That’s in your hands. There’s a lot of possibilities, but Asia could recover the kind of position it once had — not that it was a beautiful society, it wasn’t in many ways. But in comparison with global conditions at the time, it was the most advanced, and it can move in that direction again. But that depends on how people in Asia, people like you, young people, will be able to take advantage of the opportunities that are available to you and overcome the very severe obstacles that lie in the way of doing so. It’s a historic challenge.
JL: Thank you so much for your time, Professor Chomsky, and for everything that you’ve done. It was my pleasure speaking with you today.
NC: Thank you very much.
JL: Thank you.