Five Minutes With: Noam Chomsky
Niral Shah, Dartmouth College
Thursday February 1, 2007
Noam Chomsky is as prolific and controversial as ever. Beginning his career with pioneering and immense contributions to the field of linguistics and early cognitive science, Professor Chomsky of M.I.T. turned his attention to politics during the Vietnam War. He has published condemnations and critiques of corporate media control, American foreign policy and imperialism, global capitalism, and economic inequality in an unrelenting torrent since then. Chomsky’s contrarian and sweeping dissents, and unreconstructed (some would say anarchistic) politics have earned him adulation in some quarters and derision in others. He has been described by the New York Review of Books as “the most widely-read voice on foreign policy on the planet” and an “anti-American fascist“ by David Horowitz. In his forthcoming book, Interventions, Chomsky continues this wide ranging and impassioned contribution to the policy debate with a collection of 30 essays covering issues from Hurricane Katrina to Iraq, and from Intelligent Design to Hamas. Campus Progress called Chomsky this week to talk about the current state of the globalization, the United States, activism, and why there is still hope for the future.
What do you see as most fundamental obstacle to a functioning and socially-just democracy in America?
Well the most pressing obstacle was one of the themes of the leading American social political philosopher of the 20 th century, John Dewey. He pointed out that, as long as we live under what he called industrial feudalism, rather than industrial democracy (by industrial feudalism he meant the corporate, capitalist structure) then politics will be nothing more than the shadow cast by business over society. Industrial democracy would mean placing economic decisions and workplaces under democratic control. And yes, that’s true. As long as there’s a very high concentration of private power, essentially unaccountable to the public and overwhelming influence in state policy, then yes, politics will be the shadow cast by business over society. That’s a major obstacle. You can’t have a democratic society, a functioning one, where the major decisions are out of public control.
How does current antiwar activism compare to that of the Vietnam era, and what effect has it had?
Activism is much higher than it was in the ‘60s. You hear the opposite. People say, “Well how come we don’t have a 1960s style anti-war movement,” [but] people have completely forgotten that antiwar protest was so limited in the ‘60s. Most people don’t even know that John F. Kennedy attacked South Vietnam outright in 1962. That was war, but there was no protest. You could barely get three people in a room to talk about it. It was years before a protest developed. In October 1965, when there were already hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops in South Vietnam and the country had been destroyed, we had the first national day of protest in Boston. It was broken up by counter protests, and to the applause of liberal press.
At any comparable stage, the protest is far higher right now than it was in the ‘60s. It did develop in the late ‘60s into a significant enough force to truly influence policy, as has already happened with Iraq. That’s part of the reason there are constraints on the extent to which the U.S. can use violence in Iraq. There should be a lot more in my opinion, just as there should’ve been far more in Vietnam, but what’s happened is significant.
Why have college students organized a very large and effective movement against the genocide in Darfur, but not against the war in Iraq?
You can say the same about columnists in the press, or commentators and editorial writers. They’re very upset about the atrocities in Darfur, but not the atrocities that we carry out. There’s a very simple reason. It’s extremely easy to condemn the crimes of others, especially when you’re not making a proposal to do anything about it. The condemnations of the crimes in Darfur are not accompanied by any proposal about what we should do. Nobody’s saying “let’s send an expeditionary force to end it.” The proposals are all in the form of, “Why don’t you do something about it, and we’ll applaud.”
Furthermore, in the case of Darfur, the crimes happened to be carried out by an official enemy, Arabs. There’s nothing easier than condemning the crimes of an official enemy. On the other hand, looking at your own crimes, that takes moral integrity. And that’s difficult. You don’t get praised and lauded: You get denounced and vilified. It’s not just true of the United States. If you were in the old Soviet Union, it would’ve been very easy to protest American crimes, with great drama and breast-beating, but how about Soviet crimes? That would’ve been different.
That’s not saying there shouldn’t be protests about Darfur—there should be. And there should be constructive proposals about it. But if you want to explain the difference, it’s elementary, and it runs right through history.
Read the rest here.