Interview Noam Chomsky (2008)

Noam Chomsky discusses Israel and Palestine, anarcho-syndicalism, China and India, the anti-war movement, and public intellectuals with Ceasefire editor Hicham Yezza. Chomsky, notes Yezza, has the unique "ability to bring out the mind of his listener out of its atrophied comfort."

Features, Interviews, Profiles - Posted on Tuesday, September 1, 2009 10:09 - 0 Comments

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Introduction

Hicham Yezza

Sixty books, hundreds of academic papers, thousands of lectures, interviews and talks over five continents and five decades: at 80, Noam Chomsky is an intellectual, cultural and personal phenomenon. Noam ChomskyYet the more interesting thing about the man is probably the fact that he seems completely unfazed, when not downright irritated, at his status as the “Elvis of Academia” (as U2’s Bono calls him).

Thousands of pages have already been written about the man’s personal and intellectual journey from teenage prodigy to acclaimed scholar and the world’s foremost public intellectual. However, September 2008 is a good month to be taking a look at the man’s achievements and positions on the economy. As far back as the late 1960s, Chomsky mounted a robust attack on the economic tenets of unregulated market capitalism. In particular, he denounced the corporate habit of whining about too much government control when the economic going is good only to protest at the need for the government to “intervene” to assist (i.e. bail out) those same corporate interests when the going isn’t so good.

Those who have been observing at close range the unfolding economic disaster on Wall Street and beyond this past year have noted the powerful parallels between the Chomskyan critique of corporate greed and the predictable cries for help emanating from Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and other stalwarts of Market Capitalism.

When Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy in Mid-September, straight-faced analysts and business leaders expressed shock at how the company was “allowed to fail” by the federal authorities. A peculiar formulation that you are unlikely to see used when talking about blue-collar workers “allowed” to be made redundant. The incredible assumption of course, was that the tax payer was supposedly a stakeholder (as management-speak has it) in a corporation’s survival when is in trouble but should be a mere bystander when multi-billion dollar profits are being raked in.

Chomsky’s “academic” work is now seminal and whether you agree with its tenets or not, it is undeniable that he has reshaped (indeed, fundamentally altered) the face of linguistics and cognitive theory. There is a common tendency to dismiss his non-linguistics forays into nedia criticism, political theory and foreign affairs as naïve, simple-minded and extremist. But it is precisely those efforts that have highlighted his continued relevance as a master expositor, analyst and educator. It is easy to underestimate the impact of his demystifying, no-nonsense approach as a writer and speaker on generations of activists, intellectuals and readers. But his attack on the academic disease of fetishising “language as obfuscation” has been very effective in exposing the growing tendency of academic circles to establish intellectual niches seemingly inaccessible to the layman/woman (and, as Chomsky has shown repeatedly, often deliberately so) by creating unsurmountable barriers of entry to those members of the public without the necessary qualifications or bona fides: obscure jargon, layers of intellectual meta-structures to mask simple (rather than simplistic) truisms and a taste for the convoluted and the oblique (notably his attack on certain exponents of postmodernism and literary theory).

Whether he is seen as a prophet or a charlatan, Chomsky certainly leaves very few indifferent. And it is this ability to bring out the mind of his listener out of its atrophied comfort that continues to excite and stimulate. In his interview with Ceasefire – the first of two parts – you can see the trademark rigour, intellectual honesty and genuine humility that have characterized his life and his work. His profile as the “world’s greatest intellectual” (a formulation he has incidentally denounced as meaningless) certainly shows no signs of diminishing. Whenever a major crisis erupts (9/11, The Iraq War, The Georgian War), or a major event takes place, Chomsky’s opinion on the matter is always quickly solicited (and dissected) by disciples and foes alike. This is as good a definition of “being relevant” as you’re likely to find.

Ultimately, whether as oracle or as nemesis, Chomsky’s relevance is set to continue for many decades to come. As far as we’re concerned: Amen to that!

The interview

August 18, 2008

Is a two-state solution to the Middle-East conflict still possible? Edward Said ended up supporting a binational-state position.

A two-state settlement in accord with the very broad and longstanding international consensus remains possible. An agreement along those lines was almost reached at Taba Egypt in January 2001, the one significant departure of the US and Israel from the rejectionist stand that has been primarily responsible for undermining this outcome. And though there have been changes for the worse since, they are not irreversible.

My own view, since I reached political consciousness in the 1940s, is that a binational state would be the most reasonable solution for all concerned. From 1967 to the mid-1970s, steps could have been taken towards federalism and in the longer term binationalism. I wrote and spoke about the matter quite extensively at the time. By the mid-1970s, that opportunity was lost, and the only way to approach federalism and closer integration is in stages, the first stage being a two-state settlement. It is intriguing that when the proposal was feasible, it elicited utter outrage, but now that it is not feasible (except as a late stage in a long-term project), it is welcomed within the mainstream (New York Times, New York Review, etc.). The reason, I suspect, is that the proposal is basically a gift to hard-line rejectionists, who can claim that “they want to destroy us” so we had better take all we can.

We should attend carefully to the crucial distinction between proposal and advocacy. We can propose that everyone should live in peace and harmony. It rises to the level of advocacy when we sketch a feasible path from here to there. The only advocacy of a binational state that I know of is the one I described: in stages, beginning with a two-state settlement.

Supporters of a one-state settlement often argue that if Israel takes over all of Palestine, it will face an internal struggle for civil rights resembling the anti-apartheid movement. That is an illusion, however. Israel and the US can simply persist in their current programs of incorporating whatever is of value to them within Israel, while taking no responsibility for Palestinians in the scattered fragments that remain, and leaving them to rot and turn on each other, as is happening in Gaza.

Do you think there is a real chance that anarcho-syndicalism will ever be implemented on a large scale?

Prediction in human affairs is a very uncertain enterprise. Too much depends on will and choice.

There is also little point in speculation. Those who regard these ideals as worth pursuing should do what they can to lay the basis for implementing them, whatever their (necessarily uninformed) guesses as to the likelihood of success.

Do you agree that the 21st century will be dominated by the rise of China and India? If so, would this be a positive or negative development?

Looking over a long historical stretch, China and India are now beginning to recover their leading role in the global economy up to the 18th century, before they were crushed by Western (later also Japanese) imperialism. It is highly questionable, I believe, whether they can return to anything like the status they once had. Both countries face enormous internal problems, social and environmental. As one illustration, in the latest Human Development Index China ranks 81st and India 128th (about where it was when the neoliberal reforms were initiated 15 years ago). That is only one indication of very severe problems, which it will not be easy to overcome. Any progress they make should be, on balance, a positive development, though the world is too complex for any simple judgment.

Do you think the global anti-war movement has failed to achieve a critical mass of support over the past five years?

The notion “critical mass” is not well enough defined to respond. It has registered achievements as well as failures. Take Iraq. It has failed to bring the war to an end, but it has succeeded in preventing US escalation to anything remotely like the level of Vietnam. The “why” question would require a lengthy disquisition, not a brief response.

Does the term “public intellectual” still carry any meaningful weight in the 21st century? do they have a role to play?

As much as ever.

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