Politics of Noam Chomsky

By Metta Spencer | 1995-01-01 12:00:00

November was a good month for Toronto's scientists, peaceniks, anarchists, nonconformist journalists, and Palestinians. Noam Chomsky came calling and made himself very accessible for two full days, supporting all these disparate causes. The first audience packed the George Ignatieff Theatre, where he discussed the new world order in the annual Science for Peace lecture in memory of the late John and Lois Dove. The next day, after meeting with student activists, Chomsky shared his ideas about the Middle East with a sold-out audience at the University of Toronto's Convocation Hall. Also, media critic Barrie Zwicker interviewed him about the role of the media, and about the crisis in Haiti, for later broadcasts on Vision TV.

The Top Linguist

Chomsky occupies a secure place in intellectual history for his contributions to linguistic analysis. Indeed, just as there is a pre-and a post-Einsteinian physics, there is also a pre-and post-Chomskyan linguistics. Anyone who took an introductory linguistics course in 1952, as I did, could only be mystified by most books on the subject 15 years later, when Chomsky's approach had won his profession over.

The MIT scholar is also famous for his debate against behaviorist psychologists about how infants learn language. He maintains that the human brain comes equipped with a special talent for learning grammars. Accordingly, he says, there are certain similarities underneath the apparent grammatical diversities of all languages.

During the Vietnam War, Chomsky's political protests consumed as much of his attention as his research into linguistics. With mounting anger, he traveled to southeast Asia and reported on the atrocities and lies of the U.S. government and a complicit press. His passionate defence of the victims led him to issue sweeping accusations against his country's foreign policies all around the world. He argued that the two superpowers each needed the other as a means of disguising their real reasons for the arms race. The Soviets suppressed internal dissent by keeping people fearful of the United States, while the U.S. used fear of the Soviets to justify building up the wherewithal to repress and exploit Third World societies. Although he criticized both sides, he leveled his most scathing attacks against his own country.

In the 1970s and '80s, Chomsky focused on U.S. misdeeds in Central America andespecially in the Middle East. His analysis of the Gulf War was probably the clearest among the many critical observers of American policies. He has consistently defended the Palestinians against the human rights violations imposed by the Israeli government-abuses that Chomsky says would have stopped long ago if the U.S. had not condoned them.

Graying and handsome in his sixties, Chomsky speaks with the pleasant, civil style of a winning politician, his mild manner buffering the provocative radicalism of his message. The accusations pour out in a torrent, one after another, stated unpretentiously as matters-of-fact with these disclaimers: This information is all a matter of public record. You can get it the same way I did. This is no secret.

Not everyone admires Chomsky, though so far as one could tell, almost everyone in his Toronto audiences did. Presumably they knew what to expect before they came. His detractors consider his analyses too conspiratorial and, to be sure, he does seem to think American policies are master-minded by a unified group of evildoers who know exactly what they want-and usually get it. But if you press him for specifics, he can present amazing details that fortify his arguments. As someone who does not follow his writing on a regular basis, I kept wishing there were a pause button to push so I could stop and think about a point, but he kept rushing on ahead. I will try to give an overview of some of his lectures here.

The Middle East

His big Convocation Hall lecture was one of the cultural events of the season. It dealt with the Middle East, meaning principally the Arab-Israeli "peace process," which Chomsky says "is just an Orwellism that refers to whatever the U.S. happens to be doing-that's always called the peace process."

Reaching back several decades, he traced the history of American policies, by suggesting that the U.S. had long hoped to extend the Monroe Doctrine to the Middle East, which it recognized as the "most strategically important area in the world-a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest imperial prizes in world history."

The British had controlled the region through a three-tier system, and the Americans adopted their system. They left the oil under the management of dependent local family dictatorships, who did what they were told. They ensured that the profits flowed primarily to the U.S. and Britain, who determined the appropriate price range. The British had arranged an "Arab facade" at about the time of World War I, when they had begun to realize that they would have to grant the states nominal independence. They set up this fictional arrangement, behind which they would continue to rule.

The Arab facade is weak. In fact, they have to be weak," said Chomsky. "That means that they have to be protected from a regional enemy, namely the regional population, which is 'backward' and 'uncivilized' and doesn't comprehend why the richest economic prize in the world must benefit, not them, but Western investors. Accordingly, it's necessary to establish a second level of control-what the Nixon administration called 'local cops on the beat.'" That was Iran under the Shah, Turkey, Pakistan, and Israel.

And the third level of control was the U.S. and British muscle in the background, if needed. American dominance in the region was guarded, then, by two local "cops on the beat"-Israel on the Mediterranean, Iran on the Persian Gulf-plus one part of the "Arab facade," Saudi Arabia. Chomsky said that after the fall of the Shah, Israel and Saudi Arabia cooperated to "sell U.S. military equipment to elements of the Iranian army. The reason, as they publicly explained (there is no big secret about it) was to stimulate a military coup to restore the old order. That's the classic technique for overthrowing civilian governments."

In 1982, Saudi Arabia and Israel began doing this deal with U.S. arms. It would become known later as the "arms for hostage" fable, though in 1981-82 there were as yet no hostages. The leading Israelis in the scheme have been frank about it, said Chomsky. However, there was one glitch: the Palestinian issue. If the Palestinian problem could be eliminated, it seemed possible to bring to the surface the tacit relations among the parties (Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and so on) and "extend them to incorporate other Middle East states in a U.S.-dominated system. Egypt is already there. Syria. Jordan has always been part of it."

For these reasons, the United States had to block all serious diplomatic initiatives to resolve the conflict, for they all called for a recognition of Palestinian rights. Washington has rejected any rights for the Palestinians, and any role for other nations, apart from the British.

The Cold War was a secondary consideration. Although the U.S. arms budget was justified by the supposed threat of the Soviets, in fact its forces really were directed against the Third World and toward protecting the Middle East. The U.S. bases extended all around the Indian Ocean, from the Pacific to the Azores. The bases in the Philippines, in Guam, and so on, had to be maintained; the central command was the intervention forces aimed at the Middle East.

The local targets of U.S. attack sometimes did turn to the Russians for support, and the Russians sometimes were willing to give it. However, argued Chomsky, they never challenged American control of the oil producing regions. "Sometimes Soviet power had a deterrent effect but, that aside, the...threats to our interests could not be laid at the Kremlin's door. For the past few years, it has no longer been necessary to undermine all diplomatic initiatives, as the United States had been doing for the past 25 years. The Soviet Union is gone.... The Third World is in utter disarray, devastated by the real catastrophe of capitalism in the 1980s. Europe has basically advocated its granting the United States nearly total control over the Middle East. The Gulf War just sealed the bargain. It set off a genuine peace process-meaning one firmly under unilateral U.S. control."

Chomsky reviewed the diplomatic history of the region, starting in 1967, when the war there almost led to a nuclear war between the superpowers. A U.S. fleet turned around a Russian vessel in the Mediterranean, and there were ominous hotline communications. The conflict was going too far and had to be quieted down.

After a diplomatic flurry, a basic agreement was reached at the U.N. Security Council with Resolution 242. It calls for full peace between Israel and the Arab states in return for full withdrawal from the occupied territories. "That was indeed official U.S. policy, reiterated under the Nixon administration in 1969. Full peace in return for full withdrawal. Well, at the time Israel refused withdrawal and the Arabs refused full peace, so there was an impasse.

That impasse," continued Chomsky, "was broken in February 1971. At that time, President Sadat of Egypt agreed to the official American policy. He offered his full peace treaty in terms of U.N. 242, in return for full withdrawal-and only withdrawal from the Sinai. The United States had to make a decision. Was it going to go along with its own official policy and support Egypt against Israel, or was it going to shift policy? There was an internal debate over it.

Henry Kissinger won the internal debate and took control over Middle East policy. He insisted on the policy that he called 'stalemate'-meaning, no negotiations.... So Sadat's offer was rejected. At that point the United States abandoned the full withdrawal part and opposed U.N. 242 in the sense that it, and everyone else, had interpreted it. Since then, the United States has indeed led the extremist fringe of the rejection front.... I use rejectionism to mean the rejection of the rights of one or the other of the two groups contending for rights in the former Palestine."

In the mid-1970s, Chomsky continued, the international consensus shifted to a non-rejectionist position: a two state settlement that would recognize the national rights of both groups. In 1976, a resolution came to the Security Council calling for a full political settlement in terms of U.N. 242, and for a Palestinian state to be created in the West Bank and the Gaza strip, from which Israel was to withdraw. The U.S. vetoed that resolution then and again in 1980. In every session of the General Assembly, there are votes on a similar resolution, and the numbers run something like 150 to 2.

Then the Gulf War came and allowed the U.S. to impose its rejectionism. The Oslo agreements last September, the Declaration of Principles, and particularly the Cairo agreements that followed, incorporate the extremist version of U.S./Israeli rejectionism. The final settlement is to be based solely on U.N. 242, with no recognition of Palestinian national rights. Moreover, Israel and the U.S. will determine any partial withdrawal that takes place.

In effect, said Chomsky, Israel will retain control over the territories and their resources, including water. The rapidly expanding region called "greater Jerusalem" splits the West Bank into two sectors. There's supposed to be an access corridor to Jordan. "Confiscation of lands and construction have been going on," Chomsky said, "without any break and not in violation of the agreement because the agreement doesn't say anything about it. They can take over the whole thing if they want, in accordance with the agreement....

You have to remember that what we call the West Bank is half of the originally designated Palestinian state. The original U.N. resolution called for an Israeli state and a Palestinian state. The Palestinian state was partitioned between Jordan and Israel, in fact, essentially by collusion. It was cut just about in half. The half that Israel took was simply annexed. That's the recognized boundaries. Jordan didn't annex the other half. That's what we call the West Bank."

But now Israel is arranging a deal to return a small region of Jordan that it conquered in 1948, plus about 10% of the water that had been offered to Jordan under the Eisenhower proposal of 1953. "The greatest importance of this agreement is that it cuts out the Palestinians and therefore reinforces the extreme rejectionism of U.S. and Israeli policy.... What Israel gains is that it's now free from the need to administer the heavily populated Palestinian areas."

According to Chomsky, the Palestinians who work in Israel are already far worse off than guest workers in Europe, and are likely to remain so. In fact, Human Rights Watch points out that Israel engages in ill treatment and torture. Torture, said Chomsky, is legally permitted in Israel.

The U.S. is officially forbidden to provide aid to any government that engages in systematic torture, but this law has not been applied to Israel, or in fact to several other countries, such as Colombia.

During the question period, a man from the audience asked what we can do to bring an end to the occupation and torture. Chomsky replied, "Very simple. The U.S. should stop paying for it. Israel is a virtually wholly owned subsidiary in the United States. It gets well over a third of the U.S. aid budget."

Self-Censorship And Totalitarianism

In 1992, Peter Wintonick and Mark Achbar made a famous documentary film about Chomsky called Manufacturing Consent-a title borrowed directly from one of the activist-intellectual's well-known books about the self-censorship of the press in free societies. In his first interview for Vision TV, Barrie Zwicker asked Chomsky to explain his assertion that the news media are "profoundly reactionary." What followed was a free-ranging discussion of the press in free and totalitarian society, especially with respect to the holocaust.

Chomsky did not especially blame the press for the limited discourse in Western society, but suggested that it happens in every society. Ever since biblical times, it has been obvious that anyone who refuses to be subordinated to power will be marginalized. Of course, there are huge differences between the mechanisms and severity of social control in different societies. However, what is striking is that the results are much the same in a free society and a totalitarian one. George Orwell wrote an introduction to Animal Farm called "On Literary Censorship in England." It remained unpublished for about 30 years. Chomsky said that it pointed out that England too has censorship, though of quite a different kind than that practiced in Russia. The press is owned by a few wealthy men.

Moreover, there is a system of indoctrination at such places as Eton and Oxford, where one internalizes the values of society and learns what kinds of things are not said. The combination of indoctrination and the concentration of ownership produces a literary censorship that is not so different from that under totalitarianism.

Zwicker commented that censorship can work only if it is not recognized. "How," he asked Chomsky, "do journalists delude themselves that they are not practicing self-censorship?"

Chomsky responded by acknowledging the improvements that have taken place over the past 20 years as a result of activism. There is openness in the media. Moreover, some investigative reporters try to play the system, putting out straight stories which are sometimes published, sometimes not.

Other journalists assert indignantly that they do not engage in self-censorship but that they write whatever they want. That, said Chomsky, is perfectly true. A journalist who has internalized the values of society may indeed be free to write whatever he or she wishes.

Zwicker brought up the most serious example of self-censorship of all: the failure of the press during World War II to report on the holocaust.

Chomsky agreed that the example was horrible, but claimed that at first it had been understandable. With a war going on, everyone was focused on that. Besides, it was not a case of the abuse of private power. Governments themselves did not pay attention to what was happening. Even the Hebrew press in Israel did not cover the story at first.

What Chomsky found harder to explain or excuse was what was still happening in 1945. The war was over, he said, and Jews were still dying in Displaced Person camps. Their plight was still ignored. They were not admitted to the United States because most of the American Jewish community did not want them in. The Zionist movement wanted them to go to Israel. For Cold War reasons, higher priority for immigration was given to many pro-Nazi people from nations that had been taken over by the Soviets.


Barrie Zwicker asked Chomsky to discuss another issue-Haiti-for a subsequent Vision TV program. He began by noting that Noam had long followed the history of Haiti. This seemed to be the case, for Chomsky took this lead as a prompt to review that history. It is not a story that is widely known.

Columbus had landed on Haiti, Chomsky noted, and was delighted with the island paradise. It was the richest of all colonies, with a population so docile that they seemed likely to make fine slaves. Within a couple of decades, these native people had been wiped out.

Other slaves were brought in to work under brutal conditions, but in time they rebelled, successfully freeing themselves but evoking horror among the Europeans and Americans. For 60 years the United States refused to recognize the country and kept in under harsh conditions, but by the early twentieth century they were dominating it.

Woodrow Wilson's marines invaded in 1915, shocking the Haitians with the intensity of their racism. They stayed until 1934 and left the country a total wreck-a plantation for American corporations. The Americans virtually restored slavery and carried out a counter-insurgency war in which they killed up to 15,000 people. They destroyed the parliamentary system because of its refusal to ratify a constitution that the U.S. had written. The crucial issue was the alienation of land. The Haitian constitution did not allow foreigners to buy land, a position that the Americans considered illiberal. The country was forced to become a U.S. plantation.

When the Americans departed, they left in place a new national guard that had been created specifically to control the population. It remained in place and supported the Duvalier dictatorship.

From about the 1970s on, U.S. aid flowed into the country to turn it into an export platform using cheap, highly exploited labor. A new elite was formed, with roots in Haitian society but whose dominance was established by relations with the West.

This island, formerly so rich, is now a desolate place. Yet the U.S. manufacturers and the Haitian elite were making plenty of money from such productsas baseballs. "You had women working in factories for 10 cents an hour making baseballs, putting their hands into toxic substances," said Chomsky. "This was reported as an economic miracle."

Then, in 1990, a free election took place. No one had been paying attention to what was going on in the slums, where a grass roots movement had been taking place, creating a vibrant and lively civil society-the basis for true democracy. A populist liberation theologian won the election.

Immediately the U.S. moved to undermine him. Aid stopped, except to support the business community against Aristide. The National Endowment for Democracy went in, attempting to create a top-down democracy run by elites. They set up organizations to counter Aristide; those are exactly the organizations that survived the coup. His government survived for seven months-a period that already has been wiped out of history.

The official story is that Aristide was a mad, impractical ruler. In fact, according to Chomsky, he was extremely successful. He cut down narco-trafficking, cut the deficit, created jobs, and impressed the international lending community so much that the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank (not radicals) were offering him support. Chomsky does not know whether the United States was involved in the coup that overthrew him, but they certainly supported it.

Theoretically, the response to the coup was an embargo. However, no embargo could succeed unless the Americans took it seriously, and they did not. George Bush soon announced that U.S. manufacturing firms were allowed to violate the embargo. The U.S. trade figures of the following year were not much below normal. "It would take about three minutes for a journal to find that out-the same way I did. You call the Commerce Department," said Chomsky. During Clinton's first year, the U.S. trade increased by 50%-including a huge increase in food exports from the starving island. Chomsky claims that the military bosses were told, in effect, that they had a couple of years to kill the leaders of the popular movements, and then they would be sent off with plenty of money.

That is what happened. On the day before the intervention, President Carter was in Haiti. The biggest story broke that day, and was on the Associated Press wires, but it has not yet been reported by the mainstream press in theUnited States. This was a leak from the Justice Department concerning the way oil had been sent to Haiti. All observers knew that oil, the chief item of the embargo, had been getting into Haiti, but the question was: how? According to this report, it was done with the approval of the U.S. government at the highest level-the cabinet level. Texaco, in particular, was given an order to cease and desist delivering oil because of President Bush's directive, but they were also informed that there would be no prosecution for violating the rule. They proposed some way of avoiding the rule and were told by the Justice Department that it was illegal, but would not be prosecuted. The same thing was said to have gone on under Clinton.

The biggest story of the day should have been that there was no embargo," said Chomsky. "There never were any sanctions." He went on, "Then Aristide was put back in, but under very strict conditions." He has supposedly become more 'mature' while in Washington-more pragmatic. He has learned to follow orders. He proposed an economic program to the Paris donors that is a standard structural adjustment program. The rhetoric is nice, but a crucial line in it says that the renovated government of Haiti will focus on civil society-the private sector, domestic and foreign. That means that resources will go to foreign investors. Chomsky claims, further, that this economic plan has not yet been reported in the mainstream American press.

Noam Chomsky is a convincing man, but this part about Haiti left me skeptical. What could be more absurd than this argument? The U.S. didn't want Aristide to hold power, did everything to block him, then used its military might to restore him to his office, while in fact opposing democracy? Come on!

But some evidence points in that direction. In early December on CBC's "As it Happens" a journalist was reporting from Port au Prince about the economy. No aid money has arrived there yet, he says. And President Aristide is not the man he used to be. His proposals now are limited and cautious. His economic program cannot accomplish much.

Chomsky cannot be right. Can he?

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1995

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1995, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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