[sixties-l] An Eminence With No Shades of Gray [Noam Chomsky] (fwd)

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Date: Thu Jun 06 2002 - 19:35:42 EDT

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    Date: Sun, 02 Jun 2002 14:27:20 -0700
    From: radtimes <resist@best.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
    moral truisms."

       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
    million dead.

       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."

      Linguistic Einstein

       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
    practically destroyed."

       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."
      The Belligerati
       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
    a result.

       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
    thinking about."

       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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