Thursday, April 01, 2010

#1 on my list of most important Americans - Noam Chomsky

The man has done it all. From helping drive behaviorism out of psychology in the 1950's, to standing up for populist and third-party politics, Chomsky is an intellectual and democratic hero.

Excerpts from his book, What We Say Goes: Conversations on US Power in a Changing World. (2007)


Imagery over Issues
pg. 53 - 54
When I was driving home the other day and listening to NPR—my masochist streak—they happened to have a long segment on Barack Obama. It was very favorable, really enthusiastic. Here is a new star rising in the political firmament. I was listening to see if the report would say anything about his position on issues—any issue. Nothing. It was just about his image. I think they maybe have had a couple words about him being in favor of doing something about climate. What are his positions? It just doesn't matter. You read the articles. It's the same. He gives hope. He looks right into your eyes when you talk to him. That's what's considered significant. Not “Should we control our own resources? Should we nationalize our resources? Should we have water for people? Should we have health care systems? Should we stop carrying out aggression?” No. That's not mentioned. Because our electoral system, our political system, has been driven to such a low level that issues are completely marginalized.


pg. 24 - From Washington's perspective, any democracy that emerges has to be one subordinated to U.S. interests. The United States wants Lebanon to become a commercial and financial center run for the wealthy. One of the reasons that Hezbollah became so powerful is that the Lebanese government did essentially nothing for poorer Shiites in south Beirut and south Lebanon. Hezbollah's prestige comes not just from leading the guerrilla forces that drove Israel out of Lebanon in 2000, but form providing social services--health, education, financial aid. For many Lebanese, Hezbollah is the government. As with other Islamic fundamentalist movements, that's the basis for its enormous popular support. You don't want to have nonstate actors, especially military ones, inside a state, but unless the fundamental problems are dealt with, that's going to happen. It's almost inevitable. In fact, the United States and Israel substantially helped create Islamic fundamentalist extremism by destroying secular nationalism. If you destroy secular nationalism, people aren't going to just say, "Okay, cut my throat." They're going to turn somewhere else. And that somewhere else has been extremist religious fanaticism.


Leaving not an option
pg. 28 – The United States has a real dilemma. All the talk about withdrawal strategies is essentially worthless unless we face a fundamental point: the United States cannot easily withdraw from Iraq. It cannot leave Iraq as a sovereign independent state. “Cannot” is too strong, but it would be an immense defeat, nothing like Vietnam. The analogies are worthless. In the case of Vietnam, they could destroy the country, walk out, and basically win the war. Those were their major objectives: killing a “virus” that might “infect” others by independent development, maybe undermining the U.S. Position in much of Asia if the “infection” spread. They didn't achieve the maximal objectives in Vietnam, but they achieved the main ones. You can't do that in Iraq. It's much too valuable. Not only in itself—Iraq has the second-largest oil reserves in the world, and very accessible ones—but because of its position right in the center of the world's main energy-producing regions. Iraq borders Iran and Saudi Arabia. It would be a night-mare for them to leave Iraq to its own population, which would, of course, have a Shiite majority and would tighten its relations with Iran, as it's already begun doing.

pg. 27 – You have to give Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz credit. They have created a Shiite-dominated state in Iraq that has close links to Iran and may turn out to be another religious fundamentalist state. They created it—it wasn't there before. Whatever they thought they were doing, that's what they achieved.


pg. 5 - Howard Zinn, in his speech "The Problem Is Civil Obedience," says civil disobedience is "not our problem. ... Our problem is civil obedience," people taking orders and not questioning. How do we confront that?
Howard is quite right. Obedience and subordination to power are the major problem, not just here but everywhere. It's much more important here because the state is so powerful, so it matters more here than in Luxembourg, for example. But it's the same problem.
We have models as to how to confront it. First of all, we have plenty of models from our own history. We also have examples from other parts of the hemisphere. For example, Bolivia and Haiti had democratic elections of a kind that we can't even conceive of in the United States. In Bolivia, were the candidates both rich guys who went to Yale and joined the Skull and Bones Society and ran on much the same program because they're supported by the same corporations? No. The people of Bolivia elected someone from their own ranks, Evo Morales. That's democracy. In Haiti, if Jean-Bertrand Aristide had not been expelled from the Caribbean by the United States in early 2004, it's very likely that he would have won reelection in Haiti. In Haiti and Bolivia, people act in ways that enable them to participate in the democratic system. Here, we don't. That's real obedience. The kind of disobedience that's needed is to re-created a functioning democracy. It's not a very radical idea.


pg. 2 - 4 - Eighteen Pakistani civilians were killed in a U.S. missile attack on Pakistan in January 2006. The New York Times, in an editorial, commented, "Those strikes were legitimately aimed at top fugitive leaders of Al Qaeda."
That's because the New York Times agrees, and always has, that the United States should be an outlaw state. That's not surprising. The United States has the right to use violence where it chooses, no matter what happens. If we hit the wrong people, we might say, "Sorry, we hit the wrong people." But there should be no limits on the right of the United States to use force.

The Times and other liberal media outlets are exercised about domestric surveillance and invasions of privacy. Why doesn't that concern for law extend to the international arena?
Actually, the media are very concerned, just like James Traub, with violations of international law: when some enemy does it. So the policy is completely consistent. It should never be called a double standard. It's a single standard of subordination to power. Surveillance is bothersome to people in power. They don't like it. Powerful people don't want to have their e-mails read by Big Brother, so, yes, they're kind of annoyed by surveillance. On the other hand, a gross violation of international law--they the Nurmeberg Tribunal called "the supreme international crime" that "contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole"--for example, the invasion of Iraq, that's just fine.
There is an interesting and important book, which naturally has hardly been reviewed, by two internaional law specialists, Howard Friel and Richard Falk, called The Record of the Paper. It happens to focus on the New York Times and its attitude toward international law, but onlu because of the paper's importance. The rest of the press is the same. Falk and Friel point out that the practice has been consistent: if an enemy can be accused of violating international law, it's a huge outrafe. But when the United States does something, it's as if it didn't happen. To take one example, they point out that in the seventy editorials on Iraq from September 11, 2001, to March 21, 2003, the invasion of Iraq, the words UN Charter and international law never appeared. That's typical of a newspaper that believes the United States should be an outlaw state.

Pg. 76 - Could you talk about the use of the passive voice in reporting on crimes of states?
That's a standard device, to write in the passive. So you have “People were killed,” not “We killed them.” Or “They died,” not “We murdered them, we tortured them.” In fact, there is more that you can say about the Chilean coup. The coup took place on September 11, 1973, which is often called the first 9/11 in South America. If you want to really think of what it was like, let's take a look at our 9/11 and imagine if it was on the same scale as the one in Chile in 1973, the one we were instrumental in perpetrating. To make a sensible analogy, you have to use per capita equivalent numbers because the United States is a much bigger country. So let's imagine that on September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda had bombed the White House, killed the president instituted a military coup, killed 50,000 to 100,000 people, tortured 700,000, established a terror center in Washington that instigated or supported comparable military coups elsewhere in the hemisphere, murdered and assassinated people they didn't like all over the world. Suppose they brought in a bunch of economists—let's call the Kandahar Boys—who wrecked the economy, were greatly revered, and then went home to collect their Nobel Prizes. Let's suppose that had happened. Would it have changed the world? Everyone says our September 11 changed the world. But this isn't hypothetical. That's what happened on September 11, 1973.


pg. 165 - It's usually called a "drug war" in the U.S. press. It has very little to do with reducing drug use in the United States and is known to have no effect on it. It's basically chemical warfare carried out against campesinos, Afro-Colombians, indigenous people, destroying their crops, driving them off the land and into the urban slums, leading to a lot of deaths. Colombia has one of the largest displaced-persons populations in the world.Alfredo Molano, Dispossessed: Chronlicles of the Desterrados of Colombia, trans. Daniel Bland (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), see foreword by Aviva Chomsky. The government effectively clears land for mining, hydroelectric plants, export-oriented agribusiness, ranching, mineral extraction. It's also destroying the biodiversity of one of the richest areas of the world.
You were there.
I took hours of testimonies from poor peasants whose lives had been destroyed, whose lands had been destroyed, whose children were dying, and who were being driven away. It's chemical warfare. It also happens to destroy coca, but the government's own studies show that if there were really any interest in cutting back drug use in the United States, by far the most cost-effective means is prevention and treatment. Police measures are far more expensive and less effective. Still more ineffective and costly is border interdiction. And by far the least effective and most costly is out-of-country operations, like eradicating crops, which means chemical warfare.


pg. 186-187 - In your book Perilous Power, which you wrote with Gilbert Achcar, you say, "Educating the American public is the main thing to be done." You write books, give lectures, and do interviews like this. That's your effort in terms of education. What about a broader initiative in terms of education the U.S. public? Do you have any suggestions?

Just the obvious one. Individuals can't do it. It doesn't make any sense. People have to do it locally. That's exactly the importance of labor unions. They did defend workers' rights, but beyond that they were very influential in workers' education. I remember this from childhood, when my family--seamstresses, shop boys, unemployed working-class Jewish immigrants--were members of labor unions. That's where there were workers' education centers, cultural centers, cultural events, newspapers. In the early part of the twentieth century, there were all sorts of labor newspapers that reached hundreds of thousands of people. That was a source of popular education. Unions have been under bitter business and government attack, partly for that reason. But it's possible to reconstruct popular education in all kinds of ways, in fact to influence even the schools. But it's going to have to be done by lots of people, just as in every other case.

Where did the civil rights movement come from? It didn't happen because Martin Luther King said, "Let's have a civil rights movement." He was riding the wave of popular activism. And the same with Lyndon Johnson's progressive measures, which were not insignificant. He played a role in them, but a wave of popular activism demanded them. It's the same with anything else. Did Betty Friedan say, "Let's have women's rights," and all of a sudden we had women's rights? No. It's a long struggle. That's what education is.


Free market globalization
pg. 82 – There have been major struggles over the issue of water privatization in Bolivia, particularly in Cochabamba, where there was a big uprising that forced out Bechtel and the consortium that was privatizing the water. That was a good example of real globalization. Part of the reason the people of Cochabamba could succeed was that they were able to quickly contact activists around the world to coordinate demonstrations at Bechtel offices. One protest in particular happened to coincide with a big demonstration in Washington against the World Bank and IMF policies. That gave the struggle in Bolivia international publicity. That's real globalization by people, so therefore it's called antiglobalization. But it worked.

Vietnam "war"
pg. 4 - 5Martin Luther King Jr., in his April 4, 1967, Riverside Church speech, said, "Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war." Is that true?

You see that anywhere you look. It's obviously true in the United State. But was the United State "at war" in 1967? King suggests it was. It's an odd sense of being at war. The United States was attacking another country--in fact, it was attacking all of Indochina--but had not been attacked by anybody. So what's the war? it was just plain, outright aggression.

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