October 20, 2020 by stephenshubert
Make Whatever Alliances you Can
Noam Chomsky on necessary responses to existential threats.
Noam Chomsky, by any measure, has led a most extraordinary life. In one index, he was ranked the eighth most cited person in history, on a top-ten list that also included Aristotle, Shakespeare, Marx, Plato, and Freud. The legendary scholar is a major contributor to twenty-first-century linguistics, and has been a leading voice for peace and social justice for decades.
Chomsky (left) with Barsamian
Chomsky is an institute professor (emeritus) in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT and laureate professor of linguistics and Haury chair in the environment and social justice program at the University of Arizona. As he prepares to turn ninety-one in early December, he still gives lectures all over the world. He has written scores of books, including Propaganda and the Public Mind, Power Systems, and Global Discontents with David Barsamian of Alternative Radio. His articles have appeared in The Progressive since the early 1980s.
What follows is an edited excerpt of a two-hour-long on-stage interview with Chomsky by Barsamian, at an event sponsored by The Progressive in Tucson, Arizona, on November 4.
Q: Let’s say I totally agree with you on the impending environmental catastrophe being generated by predatory corporate capitalism. But then you find out that I’m against gay marriage, I’m against reproductive rights, I’m a misogynist, I’m a racist. Are you going to work with me toward a goal? How do you negotiate that?
Noam Chomsky: There is just no choice. This matter is so urgent, as is nuclear war, that you have to make whatever alliances you can. There was an interesting op-ed article in The New York Times a couple days ago by an evangelical Christian professor who was describing the kinds of tactics that she uses and she thinks ought to be used to try to bring the evangelical community to recognizing the importance of doing something urgent about global warming.
She said, OK, we all believe that the Second Coming is not very far off, maybe in our lifetimes. When Jesus returns to Earth, we want to demonstrate to him that we have taken care of God’s creation. We haven’t destroyed it, we’ve cared for it, it’s in good shape.
Let’s approach evangelical Christians that way. Overcoming the environmental crisis is going to have to be done within some form of existing institutions. It doesn’t mean that, on the side, you shouldn’t be trying to change them. But this [climate crisis,] along with nuclear war, overwhelms everything.
Q: Some people were startled by your position advocating for a small U.S. troop presence in northern Syria along the Turkish border in the so-called Rojava area—that is, the autonomous Kurdish state established in that area. What was your thinking behind that?
Chomsky: You have to understand that human life isn’t an axiom system: We don’t have absolute principles that apply in every situation. Human life is much more complicated than that. There are conflicting values, and you have to ask in particular situations: What are the human consequences of the choices you’re making?
So let’s take this one. There was a small U.S. contingent, actually, a couple hundred soldiers, in the Kurdish areas, which was a deterrent against a Turkish invasion. If you look at the background, inside Turkey the Turkish government is carrying out extremely harsh repression and massacres of its Kurdish population. This goes way back, incidentally. Turkey invaded Syria already, took over part of Syria, extended the repression there—ethnic cleansing, massacres, and so on. Turkey wants to move on to other Kurdish-dominated areas.
What’s going to happen if they do? Exactly what was predicted: further ethnic cleansing, further massacres. That was being deterred by a small U.S. contingent, which had basically no other function except backing up the Kurdish war against ISIS.
“Overcoming the environmental crisis is going to have to be done within some form of existing institutions. It doesn’t mean that, on the side, you shouldn’t be trying to change them.”
Trump likes to say that he defeated ISIS. Actually, it’s the Kurds who defeated ISIS, with some American support in the back. There were 11,000 Kurds, men and women, killed in the fight, [and] six Americans. The U.S. Special Forces were backing up the fight and U.S. airpower was, of course, used, but the fighting on the ground was the Kurds. They’re the ones who, with a tweet in the morning, Trump decided to just hand over to their bitter enemies, to Turkey and to the Assad government.
Fortunately for them, Russia moved in. You’re not supposed to say anything nice about Russia here, but in that region they happen to be the moderating force that’s leading to some kind of diplomatic settlement. Maybe we don’t like it, but it’s a lot better than continuing this horrendous war, which is destroying Syria. And the Russians apparently have moved in to restrict the Turkish invasion. So maybe it won’t be as bad as forecast, but it’s already pretty bad.
I don’t see any problem with having a deterrent U.S. force there at the time. I think we should be careful not to turn our principles into kind of like a catechism that applies no matter what the circumstances.
Q: This isn’t the first time the U.S. has betrayed the Kurds.
Chomsky: Oh, God, no. It’s practically a qualification for a President. Take Reagan, for example. When Saddam Hussein, whom the U.S. was supporting at the time, carried out major massacres of Kurds in northern Iraq, chemical warfare attacks killing hundreds, thousands of people, Reagan tried to deflect the blame to Iran. When Congress was trying to react in some way, Reagan actually vetoed their effort to react.
Then later, when the U.S. decided to invade Iraq, they used this massacre of the Kurds as part of the basis for the invasion [saying,] “How can we let somebody like that survive, who has carried out the Halabja massacre with chemical weapons?” The cynicism is unbelievable.
Take Clinton, in the 1990s. The Turkish repression of the Kurds inside Turkey has a very ugly history. The peak of the repression was in the 1990s. How did the Clinton Administration react? By sharply increasing the flow of military aid to the Turkish government that was carrying out the atrocities. In 1997, the peak of the atrocities, Clinton sent more aid in that one year than all of U.S. military aid to Turkey from the beginning of the Cold War up to the onset of the counterinsurgency.
Q: The population here in the U.S., we’re told repeatedly, is polarized. What do you think about someone who has a media diet of Fox and Breitbart News and Infowars and Red State and Newsmax and all those other very narrow points of view? How do you reach those people?
Chomsky: First of all, when people talk about the country or the political system being polarized, it’s a little misleading. The Democrats are pretty much centrist, not very different from what moderate Republicans used to be. If you read The New York Times, you get a fair range of opinion, from moderate center left to far right. It’s all there. But when you turn to Fox News or Breitbart or something, that’s different. Then you’re in an invented world way off to the right.
How do you reach [these] people? You don’t reach them by ridicule, hatred, or anger, but by recognizing that somewhere down there, there is a common humanity. You’ve got to find that and work from there.
Q: Today socialism is being denounced by the occupant in the Oval Office—“It’s never going to happen in the United States”—but because of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, the word has been injected into the political discourse once again. What do you think about the possibilities of a socialist outcome?
Chomsky: There is a very rich radical background in the country, far beyond what Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren or anybody is talking about. In fact, what’s called socialism today is sort of New Deal liberalism, maybe extended.
The programs and policies that Sanders is advocating wouldn’t really have surprised President Eisenhower very much. When you read Eisenhower’s statements about labor rights or the New Deal, he said any political figure who doesn’t accept the New Deal and support the right of working men to unionize doesn’t belong in our political system. The country has shifted so far to the right that what looks like a radical, revolutionary position used to be normal.
Among the many forms of American exceptionalism is that the word “socialism,” which usually means moderate social democracy, has become a curse word. That’s not true anywhere else. If somebody somewhere else says, “He’s a socialist,” or, for that matter, “a communist,” it just means you’re kind of on the critical edge of the political system. Here, it’s been turned into a four-letter word.
“The worst crimes of the Trump Administration, far and away beyond any others, are the climate policy and the nuclear weapons policy. Those just swamp everything else in significance.”
Actually, Gabriel Kolko, a great historian who died a couple years ago, has a very interesting book on American history called Main Currents in Modern American History. It’s very much worth reading. One of the things he argues is that after the populist movement in the United States was pretty much crushed by force, many of the radical farmers just left for Canada and formed the basis of the Canadian social democratic movement. That’s one of the reasons for the relatively more progressive character of Canadian politics: [the influx of] people who were represented by Bob La Follette, the founder of the progressive movement [and founder of The Progressive magazine], and others.
There has been enormous corporate propaganda to demonize the idea of national health care. But if you look at polls going far back, when people are asked, “Is health a right that the government should defend?” you get very high support. Then the corporate propaganda starts—“You won’t be able to see your doctor,” “You will lose your health care,” “The government’s going to take everything from you”—and you see the numbers supporting it drop.
Q: People are asking, can Trump be beaten in the 2020 election, and who could do it?
Chomsky: Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t have a crystal ball on that. I think it’s touch and go. It depends on popular mobilization, dedication, commitment, breaking through the flood of lies and distortions.
I should mention something that we all know but don’t talk about. The crucial issues that really matter for our lives and for our children’s lives and future generations are not even being discussed in the election campaign. Not discussed. The worst crimes of the Trump Administration, far and away beyond any others, are the climate policy and the nuclear weapons policy. Those just swamp everything else in significance. Is anybody talking about them on the campaign trail? In the impeachment proceedings, are they an issue? The really critical things are off the agenda.
If you ask whether Trump can be defeated, one of the ways is putting those things right in the center of political concern. Everybody except somebody who is really a pathological maniac wants their grandchildren to have a decent life. Nobody wants their grandchildren to hate them as the worst criminals in history, which is what’s going to happen as things are going.
Who wants that, just to put a few more dollars in your pocket? Not many people, I don’t think. I think people can be reached on that.