Saturday, May 12, 2007

An interview with Dr. Noam Chomsky, from "Interpol Magazine," February 1995 (Part 1 of 2)

This was an interview conducted through the mail with Dr. Chomsky while I was finishing my degree in American History at Ball State University. Just two-months after I received his answers in the mail, we all witnessed the Oklahoma City bombing, and the stirrings of the war on terror (really a domestic one against all of us). It's been a long road from the Spring of 1995. At that time, the internet was just starting to become accessible, and its impact on the political and cultural discourse is only now being realized.

1995 was a year when the "zine revolution" was occurring, and it was quickly-supplanted by the high-price of paper and the internet. This interview was done for one of those little zines--my own--called "Interpol." I actually got copies of it in zine-central, the legendary Quimby's Queer Store in Chicago. It was pretty surreal going-up to the Windy City and seeing those copies in the store (I never got paid, incidentally), it felt pretty good.

All that said, I would never trade the blog format, it's superior in every respect to that old digest format, and it's getting better all the time. Dr. Chomsky is a very friendly and encouraging person, and when he passes from this world, we will have lost a wonderful human being. Appreciate the flowers in life, they are fleeting. Try to be that person you admire, and strive to make a better world for all. That's the meaning of life.

Matt Janovic: Dr. Chomsky, in the past you've made comments on the importance of the FBI's COINTEPROs (Counterintelligence Programs) against the Black Panthers and the multi-faceted "New Left" as having a preponderant effect on the demise of these groups in the 1960s and early 1970s--do you feel that the effect of this element of American History is overlooked by most historians?

Noam Chomsky: There is no doubt that this material has been marginalized--by historians, the media, and the intellectual community general. Merely to give one personal example, I have a long article on "domestic terrorism" that is still unpublished after 15 years, apart from excerpts way at the margins. Recently, a leading criminologist asked for it for an anthology, but was finally unable to work it in (not his judgement; he wanted it).But the story is far more dramatic. Simply consider the relative attention given to Watergate and to COINTELPRO. It's a very revealing comparison. They were disclosed at the very same time. COINTELPRO was vastly more significant: it was a program by the national political police, acting on the highest authority through three administrations, to undermine and destroy independent thought and political action; its methods reached as far as Gestapo-style political assassination, under Nixon. These facts are not contested. In contrast, Watergate was a tea party.

For unknown reasons some tenth-rate burglars ransacked a Democratic Party headquarters; one minor part of COINTELPRO was massive disruption of a legal political party, which has the same status as the Democrats in our constitutional system, except that it has no private wealth behind it (the Socialist Workers Party)--that single episode is far more significant than all of Watergate. There was great outrage over Nixon's "enemy list"; nothing happened to anyone on it, as I know personally, since I was on it. But also on it were the head of IBM, McGeorge Bundy, etc., and to call powerful people bad names in private is a scandal that undermines the foundations of the republic. In contrast, to assassinate a Black Panther organizer in an FBI-organized early morning police raid, killing him in bed (probably drugged), is quite OK. And on, and on.

Now, simply check the reaction to these simultaneous disclosures. Ask yourself how Watergate and COINTELPRO figure into the political culture and history crafted by the privileged and educated, and what the impact has been on the repeated disclosure of these very startling and revealing facts. There is only one conclusion: it's a crime to annoy the powerful, but it's fine to terrorize and disrupt the lives of the weak. It could hardly be more clear that that is the dominant value of the political-intellectual culture.

MJ: In past interviews, you've refrained from any call for specific action, yet your analysis of the present domestic and world situation regarding the rights of individuals seems bleak. In the face of such widespread oppression and exploitation by various transnational corporations (usually implemented by the apparatus of domestic governments), why do you generally refrain from doing so?

NC: I don't refrain from calls to specific action. I've undertaken plenty myself, and recommend them to others. What I don't do is stand up on a podium and say: Do This or That. I don't feel I have any right to do so. What I try to do--whether successfully or not others can judge--is to lay out the situation as I see it, encourage others to inquire with independent minds, and when they draw their own conclusions, to act to change what I am convinced they will see as dangerous and often horrifying developments. If asked about specific actions, I always try to answer. And as I mentioned, I've undertaken plenty myself, including organizing direct resistance.

MJ: How did the discussions on the Donahue/Pozner show [Ed-the short-lived political talk show from the early-1990s] on CNBC come about? Did the main host, Mr. Donahue, have any serious problems taking you on a network that is mostly owned by General Electric, a major defense contractor to the Pentagon?

NC: My impression is that Phil Donohue would be very pleased to have people like me on his show regularly, and to get enough corporate sponsorship (it's not easy to get any other, in our system of private tyranny) to allow such discussions to be widely heard. My impression also is that it's not easy even for a person of his stature in the mainstream media to break the rigid rules of Political Correctness imposed by private power, largely. As to whether these impressions are accurate in this particular case, you'd have to inquire elsewhere, of course.

MJ: This is probably pretty pedestrian to you by now, but: do you feel as an older man that youth culture can have a serious and positive impact towards humanistic thought and action, or is it just another social dynamic that we can only exert a minimal amount of control over? Specifically, I'm talking about non-conformist rock culture.

NC: I'm too ignorant to comment, frankly. My impression--and again it's only that--is that the rock culture has had an effect on getting young people to think and act independently. But like the youth culture generally, it's been readily absorbed into the vast system of private power, which wants to distort it to serve its own ends of commercialization, separation of people from one another, and so on. How these tendencies play out, others who know better than I would have to say.

MJ: Why do you think that Europe has maintained a greater tradition of Leftism than the United States.
NC: Europe has been rather different from the US in many respects. As England has fallen more into the US orbit, there are by now quite striking differences between an even broader Anglo-American model and a continental European-Japanese model. It shows up quite clearly in many features of the societies. Take family values: they have been under severe attack for the past 15 years in the Anglo-American model, while support systems have been encouraged and sustained these values in the contrasting model. This has been studied in some depth right in the mainstream, and the results are pretty striking, but you'd have to find all that out. I have some references and comment in the January and February issues of Z Magazine.But this is only one facet. It's even recognized by the Courts. Thus, the Sixth Court of Appeals in a 1994 decision denying legal protection to older workers thrown out of their jobs takes explicit not that "Unlike law and social policy in many European countries, the laws of the United States do not prohibit" actions by owners undertaken for private profit, whatever the effect on workers and communities. In brief, the prevailing values here are that what counts is private power, not human beings. The Court's decision is accompanied by a good deal of utter nonsense about "legal and economic theory," but the distinction the Court draws is quite real, and has been for a long time. US labor history, for example, is unusually violent. Even the right-wing press in England was appalled, for many decades, at the brutal treatment of American workers by the government security forces mobilized by the owners.
What are the reasons? It's a complicated story, but in part it reflects the fact that American society began as a kind of "blank slate," once the native population was exterminated or driven away. It therefore reflected the quite sharply the values of those who had domestic power, business interests overwhelmingly. Of course, they never believed in a free market, and still don't: the US is also unusual in its record of extreme protectionism and public subsidy to private power through the state system ("welfare for the rich," we would call it, if honesty were permitted).

That's the primary reason for the very rapid economic growth of the US. But though the business world has always demanded ample state protection from market discipline, and still does, they've naturally demanded such discipline be imposed rigorously on the poor and defenseless at home and abroad, and have relied extensively on state power to insure that result as well. In societies where industrial capitalism grew out of existing social networks, support systems, traditional societies that recognized a "right to life," etc., the edges of the system were softer, a labor movement was able to survive and grow, and a social contract was achieved that is scarcely known here.
In an era of transnational capital, those systems are eroding everywhere; that's a large part of the perceived value of globalization of production and the huge expansion of speculative financial capital. The whole industrial world is leveling downward under consciously undertaken social policy, for reasons that are well understood. That's not inevitable; contrary to their illusions, these are human decisions taken within human institutions with their own historically contingent power relations, not laws of physics (let alone economics). But it is entirely natural as private tyranny increases its sway worldwide.
On the other hand, there are respects in which the US is much more free than other societies. Take freedom of speech, for example. Since the 1960s, at least, the US leads the world in defending this fundamental right--and it didn't just "happen"; the great 1964 victory at the Supreme Court was part of the civil rights movement, to mention one example. There's also a streak of independence and a lack of deference and class subordination in American social life that's very refreshing, and different from most of the industrial world. More generally, it's a complicated story, and one should be wary of easy formulas.
End of Part 1 (and statement of intellectual ownership): This interview is the intellectual property of Dr. Noam Chomsky and Matt Janovic. Permission to reprint, quote, or reproduce can be obtained through written permission from the authors. All rights reserved as of 2007, Noam Chomsky and Matt Janovic.