World-renowned linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, essayist, and political activist Noam Chomsky joins The Chris Hedges Report for the first of a two-part interview. Chomsky has been a vocal critic of the $47 billion dollars in military aid the US has sent to Ukraine—an amount that equals the total budget of the State Department and exceeds the paltry amounts the country has committed to the fight against climate change. In a wide-ranging discussion, Chomsky and Hedges discuss the current war, the rising tide of global fascism, the climate catastrophe, and the role left to public intellectuals in an increasingly restrictive and censored media environment.
Chris Hedges: All intellectuals of our generation, at least if they’re genuine intellectuals, are, in some sense, children of Noam Chomsky. No single contemporary intellectual has broken more ground or elucidated more of our reality as a society, nation, and empire than Noam Chomsky. He is a world renowned linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, essayist, social critic, as well as a fearless political activist. He is the author of more than 150 books on topics that include linguistics, the press, the inner workings of empire, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the war industry.
He is a laureate professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona and an institute professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His books include Hegemony or Survival; For Reasons of State; American Power and the New Mandarins; Understanding Power; The Chomsky-Foucault Debate: On Human Nature; On Language; Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship; The Fateful Triangle; and many others. His latest book is Notes on Resistance: Interviews by David Barsamian. Joining me is Professor Noam Chomsky.
So Noam, I want to begin with a quote David mentions in the book, from Edward Said’s preface in the 25th anniversary edition of Said’s book Orientalism, about the role of intellectuals in perpetuating the crimes and avarice of empire.
These are Said’s words: “Every single empire in its official discourse has said that it is not like all the others, that its circumstances are special, that it has a mission to enlighten, civilize, and bring order and democracy, and that it uses force only as a last resort. And, sadder still, there always is a chorus of willing intellectuals to say calming words about benign or altruistic empires, as if one shouldn’t trust the evidence of one’s own eyes watching the destruction and the misery and death brought by the latest civilzatrice.”
Can you talk about this battle between these intellectual posers and genuine intellectuals, a battle that I think has defined much of your own life?
Noam Chomsky: Well, Edward’s comment is quite accurate, as far as I’m aware. I can’t think of an exception to it. And it’s one of the reasons why the talk about American exceptionalism is a ridiculous joke. Every other empire has been… Made exactly the same absurd claims that we have, and that includes the most distinguished intellectuals. That’s the part that’s quite striking, I think. So it takes their predecessor in imperial domination, Britain.
Just now, after a couple of hundred years, there’s the bare beginning of reflection, scholarship on the horrendous atrocities that the British Empire carried out for centuries. And actually, there were a few who did recognize it, like Adam Smith near the beginning, who condemned the savage injustice of the British in India at a time when everyone was either not paying attention or lauding it. But overwhelming… But that’s a rare exception. And as I say, it’s even some of the most distinguished figures.
So it’s hard to find a modern intellectual who’s more worthy of acclaim and respect than John Stuart Mill. Very few can shine his shoes. Take a look at his writings on the British Empire. So in 1859, an important year, he wrote an article on intervention. Even taught in law schools today. But, as usual, with his writing, careful, judicious, basically he says intervention is wrong, but he says there are some exceptions.
The exception, surprisingly, is England. England is such an angelic power that it just must intervene even though others can’t understand our nobility. He publicly [inaudible] cannot comprehend that our interventions are just for the benefit of the world. But we intervene in India, which is what he was recommending, further expansion of the British Empire in India. It’s just for the benefit of the barbarians. And even if others can’t understand it and accuse us of all sorts of things, we have to continue.
Well, what was particularly interesting about this was not only the content from a highly distinguished figure, but the timing was right after some of the worst atrocities that Britain carried out in India, the crushing of what they call the Indian mutiny. Barbaric, vicious attacks. And Mill, of course, knew all about them. They were discussed in Parliament. He himself was an officer of the East India Company, knew exactly what was going on.
And furthermore, he knew that the purpose of the intervention was to expand Britain’s narco trafficking empire. Britain, at that time, was running the biggest narco trafficking empire in history. They needed the opium from India to carry it forward. The purpose was to break into China by violence and deceit and compel the Chinese to accept British manufacturers, which they didn’t want, and British domination and control. Mill knew all of this in one part of his mind, but was writing what I just said in another part of his mind.
And unfortunately that’s not untypical. In fact, you mentioned genuine intellectuals. They’re a very rare species. And you take a look at the term “intellectual” came into regular usage in its modern sense at the time of the Dreyfus trial in France. There were some writers, artists. Émile Zola was the leading one who did strongly defend Dreyfus against outrageous [inaudible] charges that led him to be sent off to a prison island. But they were bitterly attacked by the mainstream of intellectuals.
The immortals of the Académie Française attacked these writers and artists who dare to criticize our marvelous institutions, the army, the state and so on. Actually, Émile Zola himself had to flee for his life. Flee France. And that’s the norm. There are what you’re calling genuine intellectuals around the fringe, but they’re not treated nicely. How badly they’re treated depends on the nature of the society. We can trace this back to Classical Greece when the guy who had to drink the hemlock and commit suicide was the one who was disturbing, corrupting the youth of Athens by asking too many questions. Well, that’s the pattern through history. There’s a fringe not treated nicely.
Chris Hedges: So it’s my perception, and you were there, that there was more space for independent intellectual thought in academia and the press, public intellectuals, C. Wright Mills, and that this space has closed over time. I mean, your own work is often not included in university syllabi because it’s considered too controversial. Would you agree that that space has narrowed? And if you do agree, why do you think it’s happened and what are the consequences?
Noam Chomsky: I’m not sure that it’s happened, actually. We tend to forget what things were like in the past. First of all, there was the whole McCarthyite period, which had cast a pall over all the academic fields. But if you look back, say to the 1960s, you could hardly find a Marxist economist, let’s say. And finding outstanding economists like Paul Sweezy couldn’t get a position.
Now you can find a scattering of lefty economists. The same in other areas, I think. The effect of the activism of the 1960s and its aftermath has had some effect in the opening of the media and the professions. There’s more critical scholarship in many areas than there was at the time, which is not a high bar to pass, I should say. But you can get a kind of a sense of this by looking at a journal like The New York Review of Books, probably the main journal of moderately liberal, moderately left intellectuals.
So starting in about 1967, ending in about 1972, a couple of years there, the journal was open to critical intellectuals. [inaudible] Sherman, Paul Lauder, [inaudible], Peter Padilla Scott, number of others. Then it closed off. Early ’70s, mid ’70s, closed off. More recent years, it began to open up in some areas. So for example, you just couldn’t touch anything having to do with Israel. Literally nothing, couldn’t say a word until about mid ’90s or so. Now, you can have some critical commentary, mainly by people living in Israel. That makes it easier.
And if you look at what this is reflecting, that’s reflecting the general mood among young intellectuals. The Review tried to keep a little bit to the critical side of the general mood. Late ’60s, early ’70s was a period of considerable activism and engagement, so it was reflected in The Review. Died off in the mid ’70s, they shifted with it. So it continues. But I think all in all over the years, I would say that there’s maybe somewhat more opening now than there was back in the ’50s when McCarthyism was very tight, and into the ’60s when you just barely began to get some openings.
I think you can easily understand the reasons. If you take a look at… The academia is mostly moderately liberal, but moderately liberal means almost completely subordinate to an official doctrine and ideology. Can’t go a millimeter beyond it. And so if there’s occasional exceptions, that’s a reflection of the pressures of activism and engagement, mostly students.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about the role of liberals. You’ve pointed out that they are tolerated by the ruling capitalist elite as long as they do not question the virtue of the rulers or the structural and social systems that sustain the elites. And of course they become the attack dogs on those who do, people such as yourself. Do liberals do more damage than good? And can you explain how they’re used to discredit critics?
Noam Chomsky: It’s very clear. Take somebody like Howard Zinn, who had an enormous impact on the consciousness of the modern generation. Just opened up doors for them that they’d never seen before. He was hated by the liberal intellectuals. Bitter attacks on him. [inaudible] is a very good, interesting book by David Detmer called Zinnophobia, who runs through, in detail, the bitter attacks on Zinn by liberal historians, mostly, and takes them apart and shows that they’re almost total lies and distortion.
But what’s interesting is about the savagery. They regarded him as a real danger and went after him. Your phrase is accurate, like attack dogs. Didn’t affect his audience of young people, which remained, but it was a severe attack. Others, some of the most outstanding scholars… Scholarship [inaudible] recognized their contributions are still not part of the curriculum. People like Gabriel [Kolko], for example, one of the most outstanding scholars of the Cold War period.
But you’d find it pretty hard to find his books. A lot of people cribbed from his books because he does amazing scholarship, but you’re unlikely to find it on a reading list. And that’s pretty common. The liberal intellectuals are basically saying, we’re the limit of criticism. You don’t go a millimeter beyond this. If you do, that’s dangerous. The one thing, it affects our standing as the courageous critics.
We don’t want to be exposed as what’s sometimes called stenographers of power. People who basically accept the reigning ideologies and repeat them. We want to be perceived as courageous defenders of the right and just against power systems. But you know better than I do because of your long experience, but I have the same impression about the media, too. Give you an example, and you may recall that after the Tet Offensive, Freedom House launched a huge attack against the media. [inaudible]. Peter Bracero condemning the media for being so anti-American that they lost the Vietnam War.
They were lying about it, crimes committed by the United States and so on. Well, I actually went through the two volumes. Probably the only person who read them. One volume was documentation, the other was commentary. The commentary was almost total fabrication, had almost nothing to do with the documentation. There’s a long section of my book with Ed Herman on manufacturing consent. The last part goes through this in detail.
What was interesting to me was the reaction of journalists. They didn’t like it. They didn’t like to be defended as honest, courageous journalists who did their job, but within the framework of the doctrinal system. So if there’s an atrocity and you slaughter a lot of civilians, it’s a mistake. It’s not. It’s a normal policy. They didn’t like to be told, you’re doing courageous and honorable work contrary to the lies that are being said about you, but you’re caught within a doctrinal framework.
My impression was they very much disliked it. Got a lot of… Very little comments on them. Well, I think that you can tell much better than I whether that’s an accurate perception, but I think it’s pretty much true of liberal academic work. And you can see it not just in the United States. Take, say, England. Take a look at the attack on Jeremy Corbyn. It’s very striking. I mean, Jeremy Corbyn was trying to create a Labour Party that would actually be a constituent party, with participation of its constituents, and a party that would answer to their needs.
The whole establishment came down on him like a ton of bricks led by its left liberal component like The Guardian. They hated this. Concocted all kind of fanciful tales about antisemitism. This was just recently exposed, not in England, by Al Jazeera in a detailed study of documents that came out of the Labour Party.
Barely discussed in England, a couple of words, and [inaudible] want to hear it. But he was virtually kicked out of the Labour Party on totally fraudulent charges, but mainly because of this effort to undermine establishment liberalism by creating a genuine popular left party with participation. They don’t want that. Well, that’s kind of similar to what we see here.
Chris Hedges: You’re referring to the Al Jazeera report, The Labour Files, which is really brilliant and, of course, I think shames the British media, because that should have been their job. I want to ask whether you… What is the motivation for these liberals, these figures in the media, in academia? Do you think it’s just craven careerism?
Noam Chomsky: It’s that, but I think it’s a lot easier to accept and conform than to attack power, for obvious reasons. So it’s just easy to fall into it. If you’re in… Starts when you’re a student. You get signals saying, don’t do this. I mean, you get it in the media, I’m sure you’ve seen it. A young reporter gets a little too critical. His editor says, why don’t you take a job as a police reporter for a while and calm down? Too critical. They don’t run your stuff. You conform, you can move ahead.
And it’s the same with a young academic. If you just hang on and don’t give up, you’re often kicked out. People like Norman Finkelstein, for example, just wouldn’t conform. Great scholar, wonderful teacher, can’t get a job. As a job, as an adjunct. Those are the kinds of pressures there are, and it’s just a lot easier to conform to them.
I mean, the people who are giving you this fatherly advice are nice people. You don’t want to offend them, so I’ll just go along with them. And then you internalize it. Becomes part of your own beliefs. That’s, I think… Looks like the mechanism that I see, and as I say, you’ve got a lot more experience in the media, but I suspect it’s kind of the same.
Chris Hedges: Well, you were unofficially blacklisted in The New York Times. I remember the executive editor Bill Keller, at one point, in a conversation with him, using your name as a kind of derogatory slur against people in the newsroom who might admire your work. I doubt he’s ever read a word you wrote. I want to talk about, and you’ve been very good –
Noam Chomsky: [inaudible] that… I’m maybe the only person with the honor of being informed by NPR, the liberal radio station, that I’m the one person they’ll never allow to be interviewed.
Chris Hedges: Right. I want to talk about – And you’ve been very good. I lived, of course, as you know, overseas for 20 years, and I’m acutely aware that the way most of the world perceives us is not how we perceive ourselves. And, of course, the danger is that so much of foreign policy and our relationship to the rest of the world is founded on these false perceptions. I wondered if you could talk about how this works and why it’s dangerous.
Noam Chomsky: That’s interesting. It’s quite true. We see it right now. For example… Just give you a couple of examples right this minute. Take a look at the current issue of Foreign Affairs main establishment journal. Pretty liberal, pretty open by media standards. Has a major article by two leading figures: Fiona Hill, Angela Stent on the Ukraine War, of course bitterly condemning Putin as the worst person since Hitler and so on.
But it also has a big attack on the Global South. Says that they don’t understand how noble we are, they refuse to go along with us, what’s wrong with them? And then comes an interesting line. Says they even sink so low that they dare to compare the Russian invasion of Ukraine with US intervention in Iraq and Vietnam.
I mean, anybody in the Global South would fall off their chairs when they hear that. Yeah, it’s true they don’t think it doesn’t compare because it’s absolutely nothing like that. Vietnam? I mean, this is the worst atrocity since the Second World War. They were violent murders, an intervention was no justification whatsoever. [inaudible] consequence all over [inaudible]. But how come they can’t see that these were just maybe mistakes?
But when Russia does it, it’s the most horrible crime since the Holocaust. Well, that’s why… Let me give you another example. There’s a lot of euphoria and commentary claiming that India has finally broken with Russia and that Prime Minister Modi condemned Putin at a meeting where they had in the summer, and the criticism… It’s based on half a dozen words. They did have a conversation in which Modi began by saying, war is not the way we should look for peace.
That’s the part that’s quoted. I took the trouble of looking up his talk on the Indian government website. It’s a love letter to Putin, saying, war is not the way we should work together for peace. Our relations are very warm, as they’ve always been. We honor and respect you, we want to work with you forever, and so on. All of that got cut out. This has been noticed by distinguished Indian commentators, but it’s the way news gets filtered through, so we can’t even see what other people think of us. Now, this happens all the time. There was a Gallup Poll a couple years ago, International Gallup Poll, which asked the question, “Which country is the greatest threat to world peace?” Nobody else was even close. The United States was way on top. Way below, four below, was Pakistan, probably inflated by the Indian vote. It ran China, the rest of them not even, barely even mentioned. Well, it wasn’t reported in the United States. You don’t report things like that.
So yeah, you don’t know what other people think of us. Why is this important? Well, we go our own way. We are exceptional. We are right. If somebody in the rest of the world doesn’t like it, there’s something wrong with them. But mostly we don’t even hear about it. It’s just, of course everybody supports us, because we’re so obviously right. That’s how you go on from atrocity to atrocity.
Chris Hedges: That was part one of my interview with Professor Noam Chomsky. His new book, his Notes on Resistance: Interviews by David Barsamian. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivera. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.