---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 02 Jun 2002 14:27:20 -0700
From: radtimes <email@example.com>
Subject: An Eminence With No Shades of Gray [Noam Chomsky]
An Eminence With No Shades of Gray
By Michael Powell
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--The talk is of terrorism and the terrible delusions of
the powerful, and of the real bottom line of Sept. 11.
Which the famous professor explains this way:
"The atrocities of Sept. 11 are quite new in world affairs, not in scale
and character, but in target. The United States exterminated its indigenous
population, conquered half of Mexico, and carried out depredations all
over. Now, for the first time since the British burned the White House in
[the War of] 1812, the guns have been directed the other way."
Our professor is being a touch provocative here, no?
He glances sideways at you, through silver-rimmed glasses, and smiles.
If you listen closely, he seems sure he can penetrate the fog.
"This is not complicated," he says in that softly insistent voice. "You
can be a pure hypocrite or you can look at events honestly."
Noam Chomsky believes in the redemptive power of logical thinking and
coming to Chomskyan conclusions about the world. He is a white-hot
contrarian, a distinguished linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology who "tends to be quite conservative" and is devoted to "simple
The United States, he says, is the world's leading purveyor of state
terrorism while Osama bin Laden is the foremost private practitioner. The
Saudi's fundamentalist politics are benighted, but he gives form to a deep
discontent with the nature of American power.
"Uncontroversially" -- the adverb is classic Chomsky; the suggestion is
that to disagree is to express an irremediable daftness -- "bin Laden draws
support from a reservoir of bitterness and anger over the U.S. polices in
the region, which extended those of earlier European masters," Chomsky
says. "His call for the overthrow of brutal regimes of gangsters and
torturers resonates, as does his indignation at the atrocities he
attributes to the United States, hardly without reason."
The 73-year-old Chomsky doesn't just tack into the prevailing wind. He
sails into Category 5 hurricanes. And his course is not so unpopular as one
might imagine right now.
Chomsky's new book -- a pamphletlike collection of interviews with the
professor -- is titled "9-11." The book, which argues that the war in
Afghanistan is morally and legally appalling, not to mention an act of
state terrorism, has sold 160,000 copies and three weeks ago ranked ninth
on the Washington Post bestseller list. It's been translated into a dozen
languages, from Korean to Japanese to two varieties of Portuguese.
Chomsky's lectures are standing-room-only affairs. Afterward his fans
dutifully transcribe and circulate his words.
And he is ubiquitous on foreign airwaves, from CBC to BBC to Radio B92
in downtown Belgrade. Chomsky travels to Turkey to lend comfort to
defenseless Kurds and to Brazil to rally those fighting the worst excesses
of global capitalism.
The London Independent newspaper declares him among our greatest living
philosophers. The Arts and Humanities Citation Index reports Chomsky is the
most quoted living intellectual. As for the dead ones, he's passed Cicero
and is gaining on Freud. Certainly he's the only silver-haired MIT
professor to appear on stage and on disc with bands Chumbawamba and Rage
Against the Machine.
Chomsky had non-singing roles.
It took two months to arrange a one-hour interview, which is timed to
the minute by Chomsky's assistant. "How do I relax?" Chomsky smiles,
faintly, at the suggestion of personal needs -- he sees lifelong friends
twice a year, at most. "That's my wife's worry when I get home each night."
And yet . . .
To pick up the most powerful newspapers and intellectual magazines in
the United States, to tune in the 463 television political babble-athons,
is to conclude that Chomsky is invisible. His book has garnered just a
single review in a major newspaper. It's as though the professor inhabits
Dimension Left, the alternative celebrity universe.
The publisher of the New Republic describes Chomsky's views,
particularly on Israel, where he champions an eventual confederation with
Palestine, as outside the pale of intellectual responsibility. Television
commentator Jeff Greenfield suggests that Chomsky's opinions "come from
"He's been consigned to a kind of oblivion by the higher circles of
America's intellectual class," says Steve Wasserman, editor of the Los
Angeles Times book review. "He's ignored by the mafia that controls
America's op-ed pages, and that's unfortunate."
Chomsky professes no mystification. He's tracked American intellectuals
since they fell into serried rows of support for the Vietnam War 40 years
ago. They are, he says, a lap dog class, scampering forth to bark on
command for their masters.
"It's a remarkably narrow culture. There are disagreements but they are
at the level of statistical error, literally," Chomsky says.
That said, Chomsky might be seen as complicit in his own
marginalization. His sentences are diamond-hard and brook no disagreement.
"No one with even a shred of honesty would disagree -- " is a
characteristic bit of Chomskyan throat-clearing.
And the master linguist's analysis can skirt the arid reaches of moral
certitude. His pursuit of the logical can lead to moral cul-de-sacs, as
when Chomsky and co-author Edward Herman, in "After the Cataclysm,"
detailed and ridiculed inconsistencies in journalistic exposÚs of Khmer
Rouge atrocities in the late 1970s -- even as Cambodia descended into a
horror of communist purges, executions and famine that left as many as 1
Chomsky's fury at American depredations in Cambodia was such that he
seemed incapable of seeing the Khmer Rouge for the malevolent force it
was. He dismissed refugee accounts as untrustworthy and lashed at "Western
moralists" who condemned the Khmer's "peasant" regime.
"The positive side of [the Khmer Rouge] picture has been virtually
edited out of the picture," Chomsky and Herman wrote in "After the
Cataclysm." "The negative side has been presented to a mass audience in a
barrage with few historical parallels, apart from wartime propaganda."
Today Chomsky is fond of analogies between American and Nazi attempts to
rationalize state violence in pursuit of international aims.
"Of course the U.S. claims it has reasons," Chomsky says. "And the Nazis
had reasons for gassing the Jews. Everyone has reasons. The question is
whether they're justified."
Brian Morton, an novelist and essayist of the left, sees an important
intellectual whose arguments have suffered a sclerotic hardening.
"Chomsky sees the world in a very stark way and gets at certain truths
in that way," Morton says. "But ultimately his view is so simplistic that
it's not useful. He's become a phase that people on the left should go
through when they are young."
Chomsky grew up in working-class Philadelphia in the dark interregnum
between the start of the Great Depression and the onset of World War II.
His father was a renowned Hebrew scholar. By the age of 10, Noam was
reading proofs of books on 13th-century medieval Hebrew and penning
passionate editorials for the school newspaper decrying the rise of fascism.
Noam wept when he heard that Barcelona had fallen to Franco's fascist
legions on Jan. 26, 1939.
On weekends, as a teenager, he took the train to New York to visit a
favorite uncle who owned a newsstand. The uncle was a Trotskyite, then an
anti-Trotskyite, and finally a Freudian. The last choice was a keeper, as
the uncle became a successful lay psychoanalyst with a penthouse apartment.
Chomsky enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania in 1945, where he
studied linguistics. (He married Carol Doris Schatz in 1949, and they had
three children.) The behavioralism of B.F. Skinner ruled the field, with
his view that human responses are learned through conditioning, and thus
can be predicted and controlled.
Chomsky recoiled from this.
How can it be, he asked, that language is but a learned habit if man and
his words are so creative, nuanced and morally complex? From this question
of philosophy no less than science, Chomsky developed his theory of
transformational grammar, eventually published in his book "Syntactic
Structures." He posited that the ability to speak and think complexly is
encoded in our species through evolution. All humans have an innate
capacity to understand grammar.
It was a breakthrough likened to unraveling the genetic code. Modern
linguists regard Chomsky as their Einstein, their Freud, their Picasso.
By the early 1960s, Chomsky had a new passion: Vietnam. American
soldiers had landed, American planes began dropping napalm, and the
professor turned his every faculty to opposing that war.
These were lonely years, filled with threats of arrest and possible loss
of his job at MIT. Chomsky recalls walking into church basements and
finding his fellow loyal oppositionists: a polite Presbyterian minister, a
blue-haired organist and a couple of guys who'd wandered in off the street,
"usually including a drunk who wanted to punch me out."
Every mainstream intellectual magazine and newspaper supported the war.
Chomsky wrote a book on Vietnam, "American Power and the New Mandarins,"
that was a cannonade across this intellectual landscape. His book attempted
no grand theoretical architecture. Its strength was a searing critique of
the technocrats and intellectuals who provided the infrastructure of
He judged them by the standards they applied to our Cold War enemies,
and found potential war criminals. It was an epochal moment for young
Americans opposed to the war. The professor, columnist Christopher Hitchens
has written, became their "great moral and political tutor in the years of
the Indochina War."
Chomsky extended his critique in ensuing years to United States policy
in East Timor (where successive American governments supported brutal
Indonesian repression of the island) and to Central America, where the
United States supported autocracies and consistently ignored World Court
He developed a view of the West as a uniquely vicious and savage
culture, where the nature of global domination remains half-hidden from
people by a corporate-dominated press and mendacious leaders. To focus on
the terror of others is beside the point.
"The terrorism of them against us?" He shakes his head. "It exists, but
it's the minor part."
To Chomsky's critics, such statements suggest a willful naivete about
the ways of power and of human nature. State violence and the will to
dominate are the province of no single culture.
Thus the Tartars and Mongols rode their horses across continents in
clouds of ecstatic violence, the Aztecs tore the hearts out of their
enemies, and the Puritans created a new world even as they savaged the Indians.
Now America rules imperfectly over an imperfect world.
"The United States has supported many democracies. It has also supported
authoritarian autocracies when it judges that the alternative is a
totalitarian movement," says Edward N. Luttwak, a fellow at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies, who debated U.S. policy on Israel
with Chomsky this past winter. "Sometimes we are wrong. That is not a heavy
To which Chomsky replies: Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of dead
Timorese and Kurds and Vietnamese. It is his fate to see the world from the
perspective of the ruled. Barcelona is forever falling.
And, he argues, he sees no particular virtue in nation-states of any
ethnic variety. "To talk of legitimacy is ridiculous," he says. "The word
'legitimacy' doesn't apply to any nation's history."
He recalls the applause accorded to former defense secretary Robert
McNamara when he apologized for leading America into Vietnam. "McNamara had
not a single word of apology, not a single word, for the Vietnamese whom he
Chomsky's eyes narrow. He leans as though into a storm in his chair.
"Among intellectuals, this apology is considered a vindication. But this
is like a Nazi general after Stalingrad apologizing for how many German
soldiers were lost.
"Any halfway serious critic should find this morally outrageous."
How the war fevers raged in those days after Sept. 11. The nation's
syndicated belligerati were beside themselves. Columnist Michael Kelly
flayed the unconscionable pacifists as pro-terrorist and evil. Charles
Krauthammer argued for bombing an enemy city, anywhere.
And Christopher Hitchens, the Nation columnist, turned on his old moral
tutor in a splenetic display, averring that Chomsky's opposition to a war
in Afghanistan did "not rise above the level of half truth" and that the
professor's "remorseless logic has degraded into flat-out irrationality."
Chomsky barely paused to take the rhetorical bait, dismissing Hitchens's
sustained critique of his views as a "fanciful diatribe." Chomsky passed
most of this time giving the near nonstop speeches and interviews that
Seven Stories Press collected in his book "9-11."
He raised a number of provocative points during this period. He noted
that the United States had armed and trained many of the fundamentalists,
and that theirs was less a blind desire to smash globalization than a
campaign to force the United States out of Saudi Arabia and establish an
Islamic state. And he predicted, correctly, that many nations, including
Israel, would use the rubric of Bush's war on terror to prosecute their own
If Bush was interested in leading a fight for civilization, Chomsky
said, he might start by laying out his evidence against al Qaeda and asking
Congress for a declaration of war, as outlined in the Constitution.
But Chomsky's crystal ball was as often cracked.
Last October, he stated as a matter of fact that American military
strategists "anticipated the slaughter and silent genocide" of 3 million to
4 million Afghans, as the bombing would disrupt food relief efforts. He
offered no evidence for his charge and his prediction of such a terrible
death toll has not come to pass.
He takes pride in noting that he's always described the attacks on the
World Trade Center as an atrocity, though he always adds that such attacks
pale next to the West's "deep-seated culture of terrorism."
"We should recognize that in much of the world the United States is
regarded as a leading terrorist state, with good reason," Chomsky says.
"These were horrific acts on September 11, but anyone who is honest will
recognize . . ."
This might be called the attenuated sympathetic style.
It is also Chomsky's style to express surprise that his analogies are
considered provocative. His favorite, of late, is to compare the terror
attacks to the American bombing of a Sudanese chemical factory in 1998.
President Clinton claimed, erroneously, that this factory produced chemical
A security guard died in that attack. The factory was Sudan's chief
source of pharmaceuticals and pesticides. And Chomsky argues -- with the
use of some elastic math -- that tens of thousands of Sudanese perished as
Still, you ask, isn't there a moral difference between an act of terror
that directly claims 3,000 lives and a mistake that directly claims one life?
The Sudan bombing, Chomsky replies, was worse.
"The Americans didn't even think about the outcome of the bombing," he
says, "because the Sudanese were so far below contempt as to be not worth
His mind leaps to ants. Suppose he walks down the sidewalk in Cambridge
and without, a second thought, steps on an ant.
"That would mean that I regard the ant as beneath contempt," he says.
"And that's morally worse than if I purposely killed that ant. So, if we're
not moral hypocrites, we'd agree that Sudan was the morally worse crime
than the World Trade -- "
A knock on the door. It's 4:45 p.m. on a Friday. The professor's aide
has been timing the hour allotted for the interview. A young documentarian
waits outside, video camera in hand, ready for the professor's next hour.
Chomsky smiles pleasantly and extends his hand. The hope is that the fog
has cleared just a touch.
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