Activism and the Unpredictability of History
An Interview with Noam Chomsky
by Noam Chomsky
July 19, 2003
On May 3, 2002, MIT linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky was interviewed by CommonSense: The Intercollegiate Journal of Humanism and Freethought
CS: You have made an analogy between the conflict in Palestine and apartheid South Africa - do you think universities should respond to Israel in the same way they did to South Africa? Specifically, do you think universities should divest from companies doing business in Israel?
Chomsky: The circumstances aren't identical. With South Africa, the crucial thing was not so much university divestment, which was a slow and enduring process, as pressure to ensure that our own government did not participate in criminal activities. There were arms and oil embargoes against South Africa, for example. University divestment was a marginal factor in the scheme of things. In the case of Palestine, the critical demand in the petitions ought to at least be a call for a suspension of arms sales transfers as long as certain minimal conditions are not met. That call has been in the petitions that I signed.
CS: But if students want to be local activists, do you think that calling for university divestment is an effective method? Or should students be concentrating their efforts on national issues?
Chomsky: I think it's a reasonable activity but we shouldn't have any illusions - it's a highly indirect mode of affecting the behavior of states. There is one fundamental difference between South Africa and Israel. While, the US was supporting the apartheid regime, it wasn't the decisive factor in maintaining apartheid. In the case of Israel, however, the United States is the decisive factor in maintaining the occupation. That should affect our choices. They should be directed specifically against the US government. Apartheid was a crime, but you couldn't blame apartheid on decisions made in Washington. On the other hand, you can blame the occupation on decisions made in Washington - that's crucial difference, and it ought to color the way we choose to direct our activities. The occupation looks like it's something happening over there, but it's really something that's happening here.
CS: Working with the comparison to South Africa, it would seem like the analogous solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be a one-state solution with Israelis and Palestinians living together. But you've favored a two-state solution. Why is that?
Chomsky: The situation is totally different in many respects. In South Africa, the white minority was a small minority. If the black majority in South Africa, say the African National Congress, had preferred a two-state solution, one in which they would have received 80% of the land and given the white population 20%, I would not have objected. It is simply not up to me to decide, and that holds true in the Israel-Palestine case. My own view is that the one-state solution is not a good one and I've held that position for sixty years. There was a time several decades ago when there were better alternatives, but there aren't enough options now and neither side wants it.
CS: Do you think the conflict in the Middle East is fundamentally about religion?
Chomsky: It is not about religion; religion cuts many ways. Secular and religious Jews may have different goals on lots of things, but they both want a separate state in which they are the majority and they control things. The same is true of secular and religious Palestinians. Many of the people on both sides are secular
CS: Some people claim that the September 11 attacks show the dangers of religion, or more broadly, the danger of religion mixing with politics and governments. Do you think that's a correct analysis of the situation?
Chomsky: September 11 is a false starting point in this case. We should really be looking at the 1980s for evidence to support this notion.
Twenty years ago, the CIA began supporting and training the best killers it could find. Not to help the Afghans - which would have been a reasonable, legitimate endeavor - but to harm the Russians. The results for Afghanistan were devastating. The best killers the CIA could find for their purposes were extremist, radical Islamists from North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and other places. They gathered, trained and armed them, knowing perfectly well what they were up to. And yes, that was exploiting religion.
In fact, fundamentalist Islam has been, to a significant extent, supported and initiated by outside forces. It was often a weapon against secular forces. I mean, when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, the goal, quite explicitly, was to undermine the secular, nationalist PLO, which was pressing hard for negotiations over the Occupied Territories, and Israel didn't want that. So, Israel succeeded in undermining the secular PLO for a while, but ended up with Hezbollah on their hands. Something of the same sort happened in the Occupied Territories. The religious elements, which ended up being Hamas, were actually supported by Israel in opposition to the secular nationalists.
CS: So do you think there are lessons that we can learn from those examples for the US?
Chomsky: Fundamentalist Christianity in the US is a serious danger, but there are broader implications.
The lessons we should learn from the events of the 1980s that I just described is that we should not - neither we nor others - use force to try to attain our ends, whether that force involves recruiting radical Islamists or people who want to take over the world.
When the Contra armies that the United States organized in the 1980s carried out massive terrorists attacks in Nicaragua, they weren't religious fundamentalists, but the consequences were just as bad.
CS: Is Zionism today morally equivalent to racism?
Chomsky: No, it's not morally equivalent to racism. Zionism covers lots of different things. The positions I hold now were at one time called Zionist. Were they racist? Well, there was an element of racism in them. There's an element of racism in my living where I do - someone else lived there before they were driven out. That's true for all of us. But we don't want to use racism that loosely. There are a lot of things wrong in the world that may involve ethnic and cultural and other conflicts, but we don't call them racism.
CS: How do you distinguish between good and bad terrorism or, perhaps, necessary and unnecessary terrorism? Or do you think terrorism is just a bad term to be throwing around?
Chomsky: I don't think there's any good terrorism. There are just and illegitimate confrontations and conflicts in which illegitimate measures such as terrorism are used, but that doesn't make terrorism legitimate. For example, the American Revolution was a basically just cause, but there was plenty of terrorism involved, and that wasn't just. If there has been a national liberation movement of any kind that didn't involve terrorism, I'd like to hear about it.
CS: Some elements of the anti-globalization movement have used property destruction as a tactic, especially in big demonstrations like in Seattle. Do you think that's appropriate or useful?
Chomsky: For one thing, I wouldn't call it an anti-globalization movement; that's a term invented by those who want to pursue the dominant form of globalization. The people opposed to what I would call "investor rights globalization" are not opposed to globalization. I don't know of anybody who's opposed to globalization. Certainly not the Left and the labor movement - they were founded on the concept of internationalism, and that's a kind of globalization.
Should those who are opposed to the contemporary form of investor rights and international integration use property damage as a tactic? I don't think so. It's a dubious tactic at best. Any form of violence against property or people has to be justified, and I don't see the justification.
CS: How generally should we put our ideals into action in everyday life? For example, would you buy coffee at Starbucks?
Chomsky: I don't know much about Starbucks, so it's a hard question to answer. But should we put our principles into operation? Yes, we should, although there are obvious limits. You can't live a life as a saint every moment, making sure that you do nothing that will harm any human being. That's a physical impossibility. You have to make choices, and you have to set priorities as to how much energy you're going to put into trying to improve the world - it can't be 100% of your time.
CS: With so many different ways to improve the world and problems like animal rights and world hunger, how should activists determine their priorities?
Chomsky: You should go with your personal concerns, with what you think is important. You can make a case that the most important thing in the world now is preventing the militarization of space because that might destroy the world very quickly. You could also make a case that the most important thing is preventing destruction of the environment because that may end the conditions for a viable human existence in a couple of generations. Or you can make a case that the most important thing is that, even in the United States, there are millions of hungry people, and around the world, close to a billion of them. People have to decide what is important to them, considering who they are and what they are able to accomplish. You can't do everything, and there's no way to rank these problems.
CS: Universities say that their responsibility is to educate students, with the result that they can't be bothered by "social" concerns, such as living wages and harmful investments. Do you think that's correct and what has your experience at MIT been?
Chomsky: What's a university? A university is an abstract entity. It's a collection of people who come together for certain ends, and among those people are students, faculty and staff, and they have to decide what they're into. As a member of a university, I believe that one of our ends ought to be that people have decent wages. Notice that paying a living wage is not something that the university does, it's something that the faculty and students do. A university is not an infinite source of money, it has certain resources that can be used for particular purposes. If they're used for one purpose, they're not used for another purpose. So if students support a living wage, as I think they definitely should, they should understand that this money is not coming from an infinite source. It's coming from an existing institution with finite resources - if these resources go to paying living wages, they will not go to other things.
CS: University administrations say that it's their fiduciary responsibility to the alumni and others to see that university resources are used in a specific way: for the education of students.
Chomsky: They might say that, but that's accepting a picture of the university that I don't think we ought to accept. It's saying that the university is a totalitarian institution that is owned by outsiders who decide what it will do. If they decide that the university ought to be used for training terrorists, then that's what the university ought to do. I don't agree with that, and I don't think anybody does.
The university is the people who participate in it. It's true that is set up as a business operation, but that's what we ought to be upset about.
If it's a public university, would we say that the legislature has a right to decide what the university does while the participants don't? A decently run university leaves decision-making in the hands of participants. Take my university, which is technically private: nobody would dream of allowing the trustees to come in start dictating courses. If it's the fiduciary responsibility of the administration to respond to the trustees why won't they allow that?
CS: Your debate with Michel Foucault seems to symbolize an intellectual challenge posed by postmodernism - to both the Left and Right. Do you think postmodernism is a "threat" in the context of the academy or is it activism?
Chomsky: This was 30 years ago, and I don't think Foucault would have called himself a postmodernist. I don't think those are the issues that came up in the debate. I don't even know what postmodernism is. There are people who call themselves postmodernists. I read them. Sometimes I find something interesting and useful, sometimes I find things that are unintelligible and irrelevant. I think their contributions have to be evaluated on their own, independent of what label you give them. If you ask me what postmodernism is, I couldn't tell you.
There is a tendency in the intellectual world to inflate what one is doing. Most of the time it's pretty straightforward and simple. There are areas of quantum physics where you have take special training to really understand what's going on, but most of what's done is accessible with relative ease to people who are interested enough to pursue it and find out about it.
CS: Some feminists argue that by participating in marriage one is perpetuating a system of oppression against women. Do you agree?
Chomsky: No, I wouldn't, having been married some 53 years. It can be, but that's a choice. There's nothing inherently oppressive about marriage, and in fact non-marital relations can also be oppressive. If you really pursue that argument, then sex ought to be outlawed, language ought to be outlawed. Language has been used as a technique of oppression forever. We should stop talking.
CS: Richard Posner recently published a book that included a ranking of the top 100 public intellectuals. Do you think it is healthy to have "public intellectuals" speak to Americans about moral questions.
Chomsky: First of all, I think the book is an exercise in such silliness that I can't even talk about it. Putting aside the silliness of that particular effort, to be an intellectual is a vocation for anybody: it means using your mind and applying it to issues of human significance. Some people are privileged, powerful and usually conformist enough that they can make their way into the public arena. That doesn't make them any more intellectual than a taxi driver who happens to be thinking about the same things and may be much smarter and much more understanding of them. It's a question of power. What's a "public intellectual?" A public intellectual is someone who can make it into the mainstream. How do you make it into the mainstream? Not by talent. For the most part, by conformism. That's not a high value.
CS: I've seen your name in lists of celebrity atheists - would you characterize yourself as an "atheist" and do you think atheists are marginalized in today's society?
Chomsky: I never felt marginalized because of my lack of religious beliefs. On the other hand, if you ask me whether or not I'm an atheist, I wouldn't even answer. I would first want an explanation of what it is that I'm supposed to not believe in, and I've never seen an explanation.
CS: Do you think we have a problem when the rhetoric in elections, for example during the Gore-Lieberman campaign in the last presidential election, seems to be so much dwelling on God and religion?
Chomsky: Those people are about as religious as I am. But if you want to run for public office where, say, 40% of the population believes that the world was created 6000 years ago, then you have to put on an act of being religious. But if you bother to look, I suspect that Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton are approximately as religious as I am.
CS: Is that problematic, though, that you have to put on this act of being religious?
Chomsky: It's very problematic. But the problem isn't only that they are pretending to be religious. What's problematic is that we have a political system in which candidates are crafted by the public relations industry to take positions which nobody trusts nobody believes and to avoid issues that are of great significance to the public. To avoid them, because quite systematically, public opinion and the opinion of powerful sectors - the elite opinion - have been different. But this is a problem about American democracy. And what's more, the general population is well aware of it.
Politicians are not talking about the issues that the population is concerned with. For example, polls show very clearly, that what are called globalization issues - the trade deficit, trade agreements, opening up public functions to private control, privatization - are major issues for the public and they didn't come up in the election.
There was no discussion about the Free Trade Area of the Americas that was coming up for a decision at the Summit of the Americas. A lot of people knew about it because they live and function outside the domain of mass media. But there's a huge effort to keep this information away from people, and it does not arise on elections. What arises in the electoral system is, "Is this the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with in a bar?" And people know that this is a joke and that's why there's so much cynicism.
CS: Have you seen a change in the students who pass through MIT over the decades, especially with respect to their political interests and leanings?
Chomsky: An enormous difference. If you walked through the halls here forty years ago, you would have found a white, male, straight-laced, very professionally-oriented institution. If you walk through the halls today, it's about half women, maybe 30% minorities, anything but straight-laced, interested in all sorts of things. It's been a tremendous change over the last 40 years. There was a big change in the 1960s, but then it extended and expanded.
CS: Activists look back nostalgically now, though, saying that one could have a thousand students out at a protest against the Vietnam War, whereas now…
Chomsky: … there are thousands and thousands and there isn't even anything like the Vietnam War. Activism is far beyond what it was in the 60s. Protest against the Vietnam War was so limited that we don't even remember the war took place. March 2002 happened to be the fortieth anniversary of the public announcement, by the Kennedy administration that the US Air Force was starting to bomb South Vietnam. That was the month that they began the use of chemical warfare to destroy crops, which had horrible effects, when they authorized Napalm, when they began to drive millions of people into concentration camps. A major war against South Vietnam that was publicly launched 40 years ago - did anybody mention it in March of this year? No. Of course nobody at the time even cared. You know, attack another country, good, attack another country. There was protest later, years later, but very little until a major war was going on with hundreds of thousands of American troops rampaging around South Vietnam. At that point you finally got protests, but by now the protests are much greater in incidents that are bad enough but have much less severity than that.
CS: In 20-30 years, when the people who are now in college will be running the world, so to speak, where do you see the US going?
Chomsky: Human affairs is a very low-confidence activity and the record of prediction is horrible, partly because we don't understand very much about complicated things like that, but largely because these are matters of choice. There was no way of predicting in 1960s if you looked at MIT or the rest of a country that in a few years, developments would take place, that would enormously change the country and make it far more civilized than it was. There was no way of predicting that, and nobody did. Those were the days, the 1960s, in which public intellectuals were talking about what they called the "end of ideology," which meant no more controversy, no more discussion, end of history. A common line of thinking was that henceforth it was just a matter of technical manipulation of small problems, which were done by experts. These experts explained that there would be no more economic problems because they knew how to run an economy with 3% growth just by tinkering. So, all the problems were basically over and there was nothing much to talk about. A couple of years later the country was blowing up. There's no way of predicting.
Noam Chomsky is an internationally renowned Professor of Linguistics at MIT, and is America's leading dissident intellectual. He is the author of many books, including most recently Power and Terror (Seven Stories Press, 2003), 9-11 (Seven Stories Press, 2001), A New Generation Draws the Line (Verso, 2000), The New Military Humanism (Common Courage, 1999), and The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel & the Palestinians (South End Press, new edition 1999). This interview first appeared in Common Sense: The Intercollegiate Journal of Humanism and Freethought (http://www.cs-journal.org/index.html)