There is a beautiful, tragicomic moment in Norman Mailer’s famous book on the march on the Pentagon, Armies of the Night, where he writes of being beaten and bundled into the back of a police wagon before being carted off to a cell. Thrown in with him is a uniformed member of the American Nazi party, and a dour, slight scholar with a burning fight in his eyes. Mailer says the man reminds him a bit of Woody Allen. It turns out to be Noam Chomsky.
The anecdote above has more to it than just its obvious gallows humour, as it shows Noam Chomsky as the ultimate example of what the activist academic should be. From the very start of the Vietnam War, through long forgotten American wars of aggression in Indochina, Latin America, Africa and South East Asia, to the more vividly remembered conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has been the leading light of intellectual opposition.
Illustration: Sage Goodwin
He is also the model scholarly academic, considered the most influential figure in the field of linguistics since the discipline was founded. Chomsky has a reputation for extreme generosity — offering his time to anyone and everyone who wishes to consult him for the purpose of political debate or scholarly research. He personally replies to each and every one of the hundreds of emails he receives. He is the utter antithesis of the detached professor in an ivory tower — despite being voted the most influential public intellectual in the world.
We talked initially about the lingering shadow of American power and the hope that was once vested in President Barack Obama to change the direction of the United States. Why, I ask, did he disappoint his supporters on the Left? And why did political anger against the US government manifest itself mainly as right wing populism, such as in the tea party movement?
“Its true he’s regarded as a disappointment on the Left, but there’s really no reason for that. He’s a master of illusion and many people fell for the illusion — even Europe, which is typically much more sceptical about American leaders. But there was never any basis for it. I don’t say that in retrospect, I was writing about that before his first election. Vote for him maybe, but without any illusions. He’s sort of a centrist liberal, and could easily be a moderate Republican.
“He has no particular principles that I can identify. In fact, the advertising industry enthusiastically gave the best marketing campaign of the year to Obama, the year he was first elected. The business press, like the Financial Times reported to executives that they were euphoric at his being elected: they knew he wouldn’t try and rock the system. So, we really have no reason to be surprised.”
He tells me that he did not vote himself. “If I was in a swing state I would have voted against Romney and Ryan, not because I was for Obama, but because they are very dangerous people, and I would vote to keep them out.
“The United States doesn’t have anything close to a functioning democratic system. Democracy is supposed to be a system where public opinion strongly influences public policy; that’s the general idea. In America, we have a very heavily polled society, so we know a lot about what people want. The eminent Princeton authority on elections in the United States concluded that the bottom seventy per cent of the population in terms of low income has no influence on policy whatsoever. The very rich get everything they want, and the remainder get a small bit of leeway on deciding social issues. That’s not a democratic system that I can recognize.”
Chomsky goes on to invoke Gore Vidal’s comment that American politics has one party: the property party, with two right wings. In an interesting example he says the last progressive liberal president was Richard Nixon.
“Nixon was actually the last real liberal president of the United Status, and far more so than the incumbent. The US establishment is now dedicated to dismantling his legacy: the Environmental Protection Agency, the protection for workers’ rights, the properly graded earned income tax, which essentially gives a subsidy to working people who could barely afford to pay their taxes. This was the peak of the 1960’s activism. They’ve been trying to repeal those ‘mistakes’ ever since.”
We move on to the role of the United States’ power over the rest of the world, particularly the precarious position it holds in the Middle East. Should the West ever intervene in the Arab spring to ensure the spread of democracy?
“The West is strongly opposed to the Arab Spring — based on the terminology of course. The US and their allies don’t want to see democracy develop in the Arab world. It’s very obvious why there’s not much public opinion undertaken by leading Western polling agencies in these countries. Take Egypt, in many ways the most important country. A huge majority of the Egyptian population regards Israel as its greatest threat, followed closely by the United States. And yet, the West is trying to press the idea that Iran is the greatest threat in the region. They [people in the Middle East] don’t particularly like the Iranian regime, but they don’t see it as much of a threat. Sometimes they even believe the region would like Iran to have nuclear weapons to counteract the threat of the US and Israel.
“These are not the opinions that the US and Great Britain want to see put into policy. Whenever you see corporate elites or US politicians citing Arab countries fear of Iran, you’re really seeing them cite the opinions of the dictators, like Mubarak or the Saudi royal family. But of course they’re going to be opposed to democracy; they’re going to try to stop and limit the spread as much as possible. The US is often considered opposed to radical Islam, which is why they say they stand up to Iran, but the most extreme radical Islamic state in this part of the world is Saudi Arabia, the United States greatest ally in the region.
“There is a long history of Britain and the US supporting radical Islam as a barrier to secular nationalism. Secular nationalism is a real concern for these powers, because it threatens to use the resources of the country to benefit its own populations, rather than Western investors and so on.
“They don’t like radical Islam, if it negatively affects the interests of the United States, but they also strongly oppose the Catholic Church when it negatively affects their interests. There was a war with the Catholic Church and its associated liberation theology in Latin America in the 1970’s and 1980’s — conveniently glossed over in most accounts of the period.”
We finished by discussing the case of the most controversial activist in the world, Julian Assange, currently languishing in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
“If there are charges against Julian Assange in Sweden he should face them. In fact he’s been entirely willing to when he’s in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, the Swedish prosecutors have been invited inside by the Ecuadorian government multiple times. But the sex issues are not what this prosecution is about. The issue is that he acted the way a responsible citizen should. He tried to bring to the public information about what their governments are doing.
He compares Assange’s experience to his involvement in distributing the Pentagon Papers, the controversial files about US policy in Vietnam released in 1971. “We were trying to do exactly the same thing. There are cases where there is genuinely a need for secrecy, but they have to be treated with the utmost scepticism. If you’ve ever studied declassified documents, you find almost nothing that needs to be concealed for reasons of national security. Mostly the classification system is only a defence of those in power against their own populations. He [Assange] was helping release to the population.”
He ends with the perfect note of irony when I ask him if he has any closing comments. “I have a lot of comments, but nothing ever closes.”