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February 2014

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Noam Chomsky Interview: "Obama is Carrying Out the Most Extreme Global Campaign of Terror That I Can Remember"

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Noam Chomsky

American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, logician, political commentator and activist Noam Chomsky is sometimes known as the “father of modern linguistics” and “one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.” Born in Philadelphia on December 7, 1928, Chomsky was an intellectual prodigy who went on to earn a PhD in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Since 1955, he has been a professor at MIT and has produced groundbreaking, controversial theories on human linguistic capacity. Chomsky is widely published, both on topics in his field and on issues of dissent and U.S. foreign policy.

“Obama is carrying out the most extreme global campaign of terror that I can remember. The drone campaign is simply a terrorist campaign. It’s an assassination campaign. The former head of the CIA, Michael Hayden, recently conceded that there isn’t a single country in the world that accepts U.S. legal justification for the campaign except for Israel and Afghanistan, and he’s probably wrong about Afghanistan. It’s recognized at the highest level that the assassination campaign is simply radicalizing the population and creating more people who want revenge, more people who we call terrorists.”

In 1949, Chomsky married Carol Schatz, a woman he had known since they were both kids. The relationship lasted for 59 years until her death from cancer in 2008. They had three children together, Aviva, Diane and Harry. Schatz worked as an educational specialist in the field of language acquisition for children.

Books authored or co-authored by Chomsky include Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy, Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel’s War Against the Palestinians, How the World Works, Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order and On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare (September 5, 2013).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Dr. Chomsky, it is an honor and a pleasure to speak with you today. On Western Terrorism was an interesting read done in a conversational style where you and Andre Vltchek (filmmaker and investigative journalist) discuss western power and propaganda. Vltchek says that the two of you met face to face in New York City. What was your relationship with him before that time?

Noam Chomsky: We’d been in contact over the years, quite a few years in fact. We’d run into each other occasionally, but we’re both awfully busy, so it was mostly email contact, exchanging articles and things like that.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You mention the term “unpeople” throughout the book. Who are the unpeople in America and abroad, and how has the media been complicit in promoting the domination of the unpeople?

Noam Chomsky: Actually, the term “unpeople” is one of George Orwell’s in that he’s referring to the mass of the population, people who just don’t count, people who are insignificant from the point of view of those in power which, in fact, is most of the population. So they’re not real people. They’re considered unpeople in terms of the media.

For example, one of the top issues in public discourse recently has been Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons. The standard line in the United States quoted by the media and so on is that Iran is the greatest threat to peace. The media reported that of course, and they also report that the Arabs support us. The Arabs agree that Iran is the greatest threat to peace, and that’s good. We have to do something about it. Well, there are people in the Arab world, believe it or not, that are reporting the views of the Arab dictators. Yes, Arab dictators support us.

There are extensive western run polls of Arab public opinion. In fact, recent polls show that Arabs generally dislike Iran. Those are hostilities that go back centuries, but they don’t regard Iran as a threat. They do recognize threats, namely the United States and Israel. Overwhelmingly, the Arab populations regard the United States and Israel as the most severe threats they face.

In fact, it’s so extreme that right on the eve of the Tahrir Square rebellion in Egypt June 2011, one major U.S. poll found that a majority of the Egyptian population even thought that the region would be better off if Iran had nuclear weapons to balance U.S. power, which is the real threat. Going back to the media, what are they reporting? They are reporting the views of the dictators and ignoring the views of the unpeople that is the population. And that’s typical.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you think that the United States should intervene in Syria with military action with the death toll and number of refugees rising?

Noam Chomsky: Why not ask whether Russia should intervene? What’s the difference? The U.S. has a record of intervention. It’s a horrible record. That’s the worst record in the world in the past century since the Second World War. If the U.S. were to intervene, what can we expect? We’d expect another disaster. Actually, I don’t think anyone should forcefully intervene because whoever it is, whether it’s the US, Russia, China, France or anyone else, it is always going to be very harmful to the population. If anyone can think of a constructive way for some great power to intervene, let him explain it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Back in September 2013, House Speaker John Boehner endorsed President Obama’s call for limited strikes against the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria and was hoping he could deliver a large number of Republican votes as well as bring the Democrats on board.

Noam Chomsky: Well, he might like bombing people, but I don’t see the significance of that. Yes, of course, the right wing likes to bomb people.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Dr. Chomsky, do you still receive death threats because of your criticisms of U.S. foreign policy?

Noam Chomsky: Occasionally they come. I don’t take them pretty seriously, frankly. Years ago when we had young children, we did take the bomb threats and so on seriously. But when it’s personal, I don’t care.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): A couple of years ago, President Obama declared that America had defeated Al-Qaeda, and then in his State of the Union address on January 28, 2014, he said that America was still threatened by Al-Qaeda. Your thoughts?

Noam Chomsky: Well, Obama is certainly doing what he can to increase the threat. What’s called Al-Qaeda now is just kind of a brand name not an organization and has expanded very rapidly over much of the world in Africa, Middle East, South Asia, all over. There are groups that call themselves Al-Qaeda, many of them actually generated by Obama’s terror campaign.

Obama is carrying out the most extreme global campaign of terror that I can remember. The drone campaign is simply a terrorist campaign. It’s an assassination campaign. The former head of the CIA, Michael Hayden, recently conceded that there isn’t a single country in the world that accepts U.S. legal justification for the campaign except for Israel and Afghanistan, and he’s probably wrong about Afghanistan. It’s recognized at the highest level that the assassination campaign is simply radicalizing the population and creating more people who want revenge, more people who we call terrorists.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There have been trillions of dollars poured into the U.S. war efforts over the years. Is that one of the main reasons the economy cannot recover in this country?

Noam Chomsky: It’s a complicated business. The reason why the economy can’t recover is not really traceable to the military. That’s a factor, but not the main factor. The main problem is that when you talk about the economy recovering, that assumes it was working before. Well, actually, if you take a look roughly over the past generation in the late 70s accelerating under Reagan, the economy has radically shifted in character. It’s been increasingly taken over by financial institutions, which are mostly harmful to the economy, and they don’t contribute to it. They’re huge.

They were responsible for the last crash, and right on the eve of the crash in 2007, they had about 40% of corporate profits, which is fabulous. By now, they’re even richer because they benefit on being subsidized by a government insurance policy. In fact, in a recent study of the International Monetary Fund, it was just estimated that probably close to the entire profits of the big banks could be traced back to this governmental insurance policy. It’s not just the bailouts we read about although they’re big enough, but inflated credit and all sorts of other things that greatly benefit them. So they became richer than ever after the last crash.

If you take a look at the economy that is being created, it’s one in which real wages for male workers are back to the level of 1968. Over the last decade, about 95% of the growth has gone to 1% of the population. This is not a functioning economy. Just take a look around the country. The infrastructure’s collapsing. There’s a huge amount of work that has to be done. There are eager hands, tens of millions of people trying to get work, there are plenty of resources, corporate profits are going through the roof, the banks and financial institutions are rich. They don’t invest it, but they’ve got it.

We have huge resources applying to work that has to be done, eager hands wanting to do the work, but they can’t put them together. There couldn’t be a clearer sign of a dysfunctional economy, and it has been dysfunctional for a long time. Economists will tell you it was working, but that’s because they’re not paying attention to the unpeople either. If you look at the unpeople (the majority of the population), their economic positions, wages and income have pretty much stagnated or else declined for a generation. Is that an economy that’s working?

In fact, we know again from the highest sources what the alleged successes of the economy were. Back in the days when Alan Greenspan was still honored as the greatest economist since Adam Smith, he testified before Congress to explain what he called the “health of the economy” that he was administering. He said straight out that it relies heavily on what he called greater worker insecurity. So the more insecure working people are, the better off the economy. Well, yeah, the better off for some as in the top tiny fraction who are getting the gains from it, not the unpeople who are the general population.

It has been a dysfunctional economy for a long time, and it’s now dramatically so. The military spending contributes to this, but I don’t think it’s the main factor. The military spending is, in fact, remarkable. The U.S. spends almost as the rest of the world combined, and it doesn’t make the U.S. popular. Going back to the media, there’s something else that they refuse to report, and that’s a very important poll that was taken by several leading polling organizations. This was taken recently, and one of the questions asked was, “What country that is international is the greatest threat to world peace?” The U.S. was far in the lead, and nobody was even close. In second place was Pakistan with less than a third of the vote of the U.S., and that was inflated by the Indian vote.

That’s world opinion, and a large part of it is a result of the military interventions that Boehner and others call for and their terrorism campaign. People in the world don’t like it when they’re under attack, oddly enough. We can put our heads in the sand and pretend we don’t see it, and the media can refuse to report it and claim that we’re the leaders in the fight for freedom and so on, but that’s not particularly wise, and of course, it effects the economy and the society.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were recently quoted as saying, “The nutty antics of right wingers distract us from the agenda of the 1%.” Are you talking about the Tea Party in the United States?

Noam Chomsky: That’s part of it, but there’s a lot more. A major study just came out revealing the funders for climate change denial. That’s a pretty serious matter. We don’t call those crazy antics, but those people are intent on destroying the prospects for decent survival for our own children and grandchildren. Any rational and informed person cannot fail to be aware that there’s a serious environmental problem growing constantly and threatening catastrophe.

Scientists are virtually unanimous on this, and there is massive funding going on to try and get people not to believe it. Well, that turns out that it’s coming from the major right-wing foundations. That’s not the Tea Party. The Tea Party we see in Congress is bad enough. Even John Boehner has simply declared them absurd. One of the most respected conservative political commentators, Norman Ornstein, scholar at the American Enterprise Institute right-wing think tank, recently described today’s Republican Party as what he called the “radical insurgency” of contemptuous parliamentary politics not willing to enter into debate and discussion and not a political party in any traditional sense. It has become an international scandal.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The singing of “America the Beautiful” in different languages in a Coca-Cola ad during the recent Super Bowl set off a firestorm of debates about multiculturalism, and some people were angry that it wasn’t sung completely in English.

Noam Chomsky: I didn’t follow the ad, but it’s not a big issue. If a large part of the population speaks Spanish, that’s fine. It just enriches the society and the culture. Who cares? I think efforts should be made to accommodate them. In some states, there are state requirements that there be language instruction in the school to minorities.

I remember being called a while ago by someone in New York asking me if I knew someone who could teach Albanian because there was a small group of recent immigrants from Albania, and they wanted instruction for the children in accordance with state law. I think that’s fine. We should do everything we can to improve the lives of the population and enrich our own society and culture.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How have your early theories of language acquisition expanded over the years, Dr. Chomsky?

Noam Chomsky: There’s an enormous amount of work on the topic. My own views, I should make clear, are not the majority views, but I think they’ve been pretty well confirmed. In fact, more and more confirmed by serious ongoing research.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you think anyone will ever be able to program language acquisition into robots?

Noam Chomsky: That’s a little bit like asking if you can program physics. Programming just means you can program something if you understand it completely enough so that you can answer every question. You can’t leave anything open. A computer just rigidly follows orders. It’s the program that’s doing the work, not the computer. The computer is just implementing the orders from the program.

To translate the question would really mean, “Will we ever get a theory of language acquisition precise and detailed enough so that every question that arises about it has an answer?” That’s not a serious goal for science. The world’s just too complicated. No aspect of science has that capacity. It’s like asking, “Can we program a computer to predict the fact that it happens to be snowing outside my window right now?” Well, actually not. It’s much too complicated.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): We’ve had some snow “events” in Alabama recently, and the meteorologists missed the predicted course on one of them (laughs).

Noam Chomsky: It’s just not that easy (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I understand that your political interests began at a newsstand in New York City. Is that correct?

Noam Chomsky: I wouldn’t say they actually began there. They were fostered there. They began just as a child really. But I had an uncle in New York, a rather interesting guy, who was very influential in my personal life. He ran a newsstand, and I used to work at the newsstand, which was fun when I was a kid. He was an interesting and kind of exciting person. He drew to the stand people who were having interesting discussions and conversations, many of them immigrants from Europe. This was the 1930s and early 1940s. That was kind of fun for a kid just to listen to the stories.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you a child who just voraciously learned and read everything you could get your hands on?

Norm Chomsky: I was a fairly voracious reader, but I had a normal childhood. I played sports with my friends and stuff.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You believe in anarchism. Please explain.

Noam Chomsky: I’m perfectly happy with the term “anarchism,” but we have to understand that the terms of political discourse are used in such distorted ways that most of them barely mean anything, like liberal or communist. Who knows what those terms are supposed to mean? Anarchism suffers even more. It’s used in all kinds of ways. People that throw bombs are people that the Tea Party describes as anarchists.

I think its part of the mainstream tradition that goes back to classical liberalism. It’s a tendency in human affairs that seeks to try to detect structures of hierarchy and domination and authority where somebody gives orders, and somebody takes them and challenges them to demonstrate their legitimacy. That holds whether it’s a patriarchal family or a business, a governmental institution or intervening international affairs. Whatever level it is just challenging them to prove their legitimacy. If they can’t prove the legitimacy, they should be dismantled and replaced by more free and democratic institutions. I think that holds at every level of human life. Yeah, I think that’s a good policy.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What drove you to become an activist?

Noam Chomsky: I was an activist from pretty early on. Of course, I had a very special existence as a child. My parents were Jewish and very much involved in the Jewish community. That was a factor their entire lives. I went to Hebrew school and went to Hebrew speaking camps. I was involved in Jewish organizations. A lot of my activism was right there, but it was called Zionism. Today it would be called anti-Zionism.

It was activism in opposition to a Jewish state, but remember, that was part of the Zionist movement at the time. A lot of it was elsewhere. I couldn’t call it activism because not much was going on. But from about ten years old, I was writing about the Spanish Civil War and a couple of years later about the British invasion of Greece. But you can’t say activism because nothing much was happening. You just thought about it and wrote about it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What a great love story to have met your future wife at five years old. Did you two immediately become friends?

Noam Chomsky: We were part of the same tight Jewish community, but we went quite different ways then, and we got together again as teenagers.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe the two of you were jailed at the same time for protesting the Vietnam War?

Noam Chomsky: I was arrested quite a lot. I was involved in a lot of civil disobedience. There was one occasion when my wife Carol and I were both arrested at a demonstration. You know, you get one phone call, so she called our daughter who was then twelve years old, told her we’d be jailed overnight and asked her if she’d mind taking care of the little kids. One child was nine and the other two. She said, “Sure. Fine.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Looking back over your life, do you regret not being able to change something in the world that was of great importance to you?

Noam Chomsky: Yeah. Just about everything (laughs). But there are just too many very serious problems that really require significant attention, and I’ve tried to work on them. Other people have tried to work on them. There have been successes. The world is a better place in many ways than say fifty years ago or even twenty years ago. But many of the problems we face have gotten more serious and worse. Maybe we just didn’t do nearly enough.

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