By Brian Covert
MIT professor emeritus, author and political dissident Noam Chomsky spent 13 hours last Thursday being interviewed by journalists around the world on the second anniversary of the September 11 attacks of 2001. He may well have saved the best for last, however, during a live radio interview and discussion with residents of California’s North Coast region.
Chomsky was the special guest last Thursday on the weekly radio talk show “Thursday Night Talk” on KHSU-FM in the city of Arcata. The radio station is located on the campus of Humboldt State University, and its programs are heard by an estimated 25,000 people in Humboldt and neighboring counties. The phone lines to KHSU-FM were jammed before Chomsky even went on the air, calling in from his home in Massachusetts, and the lines stayed jammed to the very end of the show. Nine listeners called in during the course of the hour, asking Chomsky about everything from 9/11 to social responsibility to U.S. foreign policy to fighting corporate power.
Here is some of what Noam Chomsky had to say on “Thursday Night Talk” on September 11, 2003, along with comments by the program’s host and (summarized) questions by the callers:
TODD IN ARCATA: Did Bush know about 9/11 in advance?
CHOMSKY: Personally, I’m quite skeptical about it. I haven’t read everything, obviously, but what I’ve read about this material suggests to me a general fact that’s worth keeping in mind: Namely, if you take any historical event, something that happened yesterday, and you look at it closely, you’re going to find all kinds of unexplained phenomena, strange coincidences, oddities, and so on. In fact, that’s even true in controlled scientific experiments…. In the case of historical events, in retrospect a lot of things fall into place because you know what happened. It’s kind of like reading the last page of a detective story and then being able to pick up the hints along the way. But at the time, there’s just a flood of information; you don’t know what’s important and what isn’t. Even the most competent, unimaginably perfect intelligence agencies would have a very hard time sorting out what matters and what doesn’t matter in the flood of low-quality information that’s coming through them. And the coincidences may mean something or they may not. But I think you have to have pretty strong evidence to build a case like that, and I haven’t seen it. I’m not thoroughly convinced about it…. Anyhow, I’m skeptical, but draw your own conclusions.
TIM IN ARCATA: Do you think the people can take back America from the corporate giants that are running it now?
CHOMSKY: In many ways, the opportunities [for positive change] look to me greater than they have often in the past. For example, let’s take 40 years ago, when John F. Kennedy launched the outright attack against South Vietnam. At that point it was virtually impossible to talk to people about it. It was years before any organized protest or even interest in the issue developed. By that time, South Vietnam had been practically destroyed. There have been enormous changes in consciousness over the years. To give one illustration, the invasion of Iraq is the first time in U.S. history — or as far as I can recall, European history — in which massive protest took place against a war before it was officially launched. In the case of Vietnam, it was years later. That’s just one of many signs of great changes in consciousness.
HOST: The [Vietnam war] protests did not stop the war.
CHOMSKY: It didn’t. But there’s a big difference between massive protests that precede [a war] and protests years after the war, when the country that is attacked has already been almost destroyed. It’s not utopia, but it’s a change. Massive change.
HOST: Have you picked out anybody you like for president [in 2004]?
CHOMSKY: Anyone likely to come near [having] a chance…. To tell you the honest truth, I would vote for almost anyone at this point that I could imagine running against Bush…. Of the people who have announced for candidate, the one whose program seems to me the best is Dennis Kucinich. On the other hand, there’s not a possible chance that he could win. An election in the United States, the way things now stand, is something that’s essentially bought. You have to have massive financial support, which means, as the world exists, corporate support. Business support. Or else an enormous popular movement, massive popular movement, which can make up for the lack of business support — like in Brazil, for example [with president Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva], which is in many respects a much more advanced democracy than ours. Huge and very effective popular movements were able to compensate for their lack of elite business support and actually elect a quite remarkable president. But we’re nowhere near that.
SUSANNA IN ARCATA: In the 1960s, during Vietnam, horrifying images of war and protest were carried in the media. And because of that, people protested and it made a difference very quickly. But nowadays, it’s almost rare for the news media to show the actual violence of war or listen to the protests. Do you think that the news media has a more freedom now than it did in the 1960s?
CHOMSKY: They [protests] got no play in the ’60s. In the ’60s it was virtually impossible for years to get anything at all into the media. You have to remember the time scale of this: The bombing of South Vietnam began in 1962. By that time, the U.S. client regime had probably already killed about 70,000 or 80,000 people. Nobody knew anything about it. Nobody cared about it. You couldn’t get two people in a room to talk about it. It wasn’t a question of [the media] not reporting it — there was nothing to report. It was years later, after the country had been virtually ground to the dust, that protests took on a significant scale and the media couldn’t entirely avoid it….
HOST: How much of a factor was mass protest in the ending of the war?
CHOMSKY: In the case of Vietnam, it was very significant. In fact, we know about that from internal records, take the Pentagon Papers…. After the Tet Offensive [by North Vietnam], the business world began to turn against the war because it was clearly becoming costly to the United States and the major ends had already been won. It was just pointless [to continue supporting it]. At that point you began to start getting timid media critique of the war…. Shortly after, when Nixon came in, he intended, we now know, around late 1969, to carry out major military offensives [in Vietnam], but they backed off because of fear of public opposition.... There’s been tremendous progress [in social movements] in the last 40 years. And in fact, in just the last few years. The international solidarity movements today are quite significant — direct participation in standing alongside the victims. That began in the 1980s…. There’s nothing like that in the history of European or American imperialism. Those are big changes. They’re nowhere near enough, but we shouldn’t forget what’s been achieved by really dedicated activism. Things don’t happen overnight.... There’s a fair degree more critical commentary and discussion in the media now than there was 40 years ago. I mean, it looks pretty awful now — and I agree it is; I rarely compliment the media — but if you look back to what it was, I think you find lots of things now that you didn’t find then.
SYLVIA IN WESTHAVEN: In terms of corporate power and the WTO, etc., what’s your feeling about how to fight it?
CHOMSKY: ….People simply don’t have the time to carry out what amounts to a research project on every area of domestic or international policy that concerns them. And it’s the task of people with special interests and concerns and commitments to try to help that along…by collecting the information or putting it on a website, or whatever it may be. That’s what a good journalist does…. The power of concentrated capital — what we call “corporate power” — to determine the course of events and policies is enormous. The World Trade Organization is just one small reflection of it…. That “de facto world government” is tremendously powerful, and always has been. There’s nothing new about this. And to expose, undermine and combat those powerful forces is a very serious task….
MATT IN ARCATA: According to the “Project for the New American Century” website, they talk about creating a “U.S.-friendly China” and I’m concerned about whether some kind of conflict with China will be started and what the repercussions of that would be. And how does that relate to the North Korea situation?
CHOMSKY: The major decision-making element for U.S. foreign policy is the business world, corporate world, not surprisingly. And they have mixed feelings about it. For them, China is in many respects a bonanza. A lot of the productive growth in China is from overseas-owned corporations — some American, some others — for whom it’s a cheap export platform with heavily exploited labor, very low wages, minimal environmental conditions: the possibilities of gaining enormous profit quite apart from their being a big market. On the other hand, China also does pursue an independent course, and that’s unacceptable from the point of view of U.S. government planners and corporate planners as well. So it’s kind of a contradiction; it’s going both ways.
….Northeast Asia, that region, is the most dynamic economic region in the world. It’s the fastest-growing region. It includes two major industrial powers, Japan and South Korea — China is becoming an industrial power — it has very rich resources available in eastern Siberia and China, including energy resources. Its gross domestic product is close to a third of the world total — much higher than the United States. It has about half the financial exchange in the world; enormous financial reserves much greater than here. It’s got a lot of internal trade developing. It could proceed on an independent course as well: That’s the kind of concern that is reflected in the PNAC report that you described.
….To get back to North Korea: In itself it’s of no great geopolitical importance, but it happens to be right in the middle of this region. There’s development of pipelines now throughout the region to bring the resources of, say, eastern Siberia into the industrial countries, one of which is South Korea. And some of those pipelines would naturally go through North Korea. If the trans-Siberian railroad is extended, as is planned, to South Korea, it’ll go through North Korea. So North Korea, though not of great international significance in itself — a kind of basket case economically and politically — nevertheless happens to be in the center of this region. The regional powers want to move towards integrating North Korea into the region, hoping to overcome the extremely brutal dictatorship and to help it deal with its really horrifying economic problems. The United States has been dragging its feet on this. It’s been sort of the odd-man-out in these interchanges and has been pursuing a more aggressive course, especially in this administration. The Clinton administration did take steps which were partially successful towards a more constructive, conciliatory approach. And all of this ties together. These are some of the real problems of global management. When you’re sitting in the driver’s seat, it’s not an easy world to run.
….North Korea does have a military deterrent, which is why the U.S. won’t attack it right now. But it’s not The Bomb. North Korea’s military deterrent is amassed artillery, massive artillery, right at the demilitarized zone, aimed at South Korea. The capital city, Seoul, is close to the demilitarized zone, within artillery range, and so are tens of thousands of American troops, although they have recently been withdrawn to the south — which is sending a lot of shivers up and down the peninsula as to what this means. Yes, they do have a deterrent. And a country that has a deterrent is, of course, unlikely to be attacked. You only attack people who are unable to defend themselves. That’s sort of Axiom 1 of military affairs. That’s why Iraq was such a tempting target: [it was] completely defenseless.
MICHELLE IN ARCATA: What determines a person’s responsibility to be politically and socially conscious? Who is responsible for being active in the political world and being socially conscious?
CHOMSKY: Every decent human being. We’re all responsible for the likely consequences of our action and our inaction. That’s just the most elementary of moral principles. Responsibility varies: I mean, a person who has opportunities and privileges and resources and so on has a great deal more responsibility than someone who’s working 15 or 16 hours a day to try to keep food on the table, or poor peasants starving somewhere in Central America or sub-Saharan Africa. Opportunities and privilege confer responsibility; there’s more that you can do. After that, it’s just up to whether people want to be decent or not.
….I don’t think you’re going to learn much [laughs] about this from philosophers, to tell you the truth. I mean, what’s understood about these matters is thin. And it’s mostly common sense. Part of the vocation of intellectuals is to make simple things look complicated — for self-serving reasons, often. In areas like these, there’s just nothing understood that isn’t on the surface and anyone can figure it out who puts their attention to it.
MAUREEN IN ARCATA: What would you say to young people who are looking at the option of military service?
CHOMSKY: ….What we ought to be concerned with, I think, are the conditions that would lead a young person to make that choice…the fact that the society is structured so that the people lacking privilege don’t have many opportunities. And also, the ideological side is the failure to recognize just what you’re doing when you’re a Marine. I’d like to see a world where anyone volunteering for the Marines has to read [Major General] Smedley Butler’s account of his life as a Marine — “a robber for Wall Street,” as he put it. And he had plenty of experience. ….They [young people] are deprived in several senses. One is lack of opportunity and a social structure organized so that it kind of leads you in those directions if you want to gain some opportunity. And the other is just a lack of realization of what this has meant over the years: What exactly have the Marines done? When you look back, it’s not a pretty picture.
JOHN IN ARCATA: As a respected intellectual you are given the luxury of commenting on social situations. What would you have done, had you been the president during the disaster of September 11th?
CHOMSKY: What would I have done on September 11th? ....Well, it was a horrible atrocity, of course. And what you ought to do in the case of criminal actions is first of all, try to insure that those responsible for the atrocity do not have impunity. That is, they suffer the consequences of their actions. And the second thing to do, and the more important in the long term, is to ask why it happened. Take any crime you like — crime in the streets, you know, a mass murder, whatever it may be — there’s all kinds of reasons for it. And if you looked into those reasons, you’d typically discover that some of them involved grievances that have perhaps considerable legitimacy. Now, those grievances ought to be attended to independently of criminal action. But if you’re concerned to reduce the likelihood of further criminal atrocities, you will certainly — if you’re at all serious — look into the reasons for it. Any sane intelligence analyst will tell you this.
Take, say, Northern Ireland, to take a recent case. As long as the British reaction was just violence, it ended up helping to instigate a cycle of terror and violence, which was getting pretty horrendous. When there was, at last, an effort to pay some attention to the quite significant grievances that lay behind the violence and terror, there’s been considerable improvement. Northern Ireland is not a paradise but it’s a lot better than it was 10 years ago. Or take South Africa — the same. Or take Israel-Palestine: Very few people have more experiences with these things than the successive heads of Israeli military intelligence and the secret police, who have a very ugly record. Very ugly.
….There’s another point which is extremely hard for people to face, but it’s worth paying attention to and on September 11th, we ought to be thinking about it: What happened on September 11th was a horrible crime, and around the world it aroused enormous sympathy for the victims and support for them and a desire to capture those responsible. On the other hand, for much of the world, the response was sympathy combined with: “Welcome to the club. This is what you and others like you have been doing to us for hundreds of years. Now you’re suffering it. Now pay some attention to what you’ve been doing — and are doing.”
JOHN: Do you see a change in the future, as far as the way that America treats the world, that will correct this problem?
CHOMSKY: It hasn’t happened yet so far. One of the very ugly things of the past few years has been that the tendency has been in the opposite direction. In fact, the actions of the Bush administration — if Osama Bin Laden was planning them, he couldn’t be happier — are well-designed to increase the threat of 9/11-style terror. That’s not my opinion; you can hear that from virtually every western intelligence agency, quite mainstream political and strategic analysts, and so on.
HOST: So is the American administration not listening to those intelligence experts? What’s their motive?
CHOMSKY: Oh, they know perfectly well; it’s just low priority. It’s low priority for them. I mean, the security of the population — in fact, even the survival of the population — is not a particularly high priority as compared with other values, such as increasing power and domination and wealth. There’s nothing novel about that, incidentally. Take a look through history and you’ll find that, quite commonly, political leaders have been willing to take steps that put their own populations at significant risk in order to increase their own power and wealth and privilege. Those are major themes of history. And it’s happening right in front of our eyes.
MIKE IN ARCATA: On what Howard Zinn calls the “bipartisan consensus,” the Democrats and Republicans being two political sides of the same coin: Do you believe this to be true? And if so, what could a young person possibly do to really make an impact on our government and really bring about a change that could stop the military-industrial complex and everything else that this “bipartisan consensus” has brought upon us?
CHOMSKY: Again, that’s not new either. Take any side you like: The chances are pretty high that when you identify the concentrations of domestic power and wealth — domestic decision-making power, which in our case in the last century happens to be primarily corporate power — that’s going to set the framework within which politics functions. It’s not a particularly radical view, I should say. John Dewey, the most influential American social philosopher in the 20th century, once described politics as “the shadow cast on society by Big Business”…. There’s a strong element of truth to it. And that’s going to yield a kind of bipartisan consensus on major issues. It doesn’t mean the two parties are identical, and it also doesn’t mean that individuals in the two parties are identical.
To tell you the truth, I rarely vote for high office; I often vote for lower offices. And I’ve voted for Republicans who were better than the Democrats who were opposing them. It doesn’t break down that simply. On the other hand, there’s a pretty narrow section within which they function. And when someone tries to go out of it — and some do — it’s difficult. Because they are breaking beyond the limits imposed by private power, which has enormous wealth behind it and also largely controls the information system, the media.
MIKE: In that case, Dr. Chomsky, then, do you feel that there’s any way—
CHOMSKY: Sure, there’s plenty of ways. Change the spectrum. First of all, there are times in our own country and there are other countries, where this has been overcome. I mentioned the case of Brazil before. That’s a striking case, dramatic case, right in front of our eyes — right now — in which mass popular movements which have very limited resources, except for the large-scale participation of individuals, have succeeded in sweeping their own party into power and taking the presidency. They’re restricted in what they can do because of international constraints; on the other hand, domestically it’s a remarkable achievement. And there have been other cases.
MIKE: What about the removal of power from the corporations?
CHOMSKY: ….There’s no justification, I agree with you on this, that “private tyrannies” — which is what corporations are — should have rights. Certainly not the rights of persons, which they’ve been granted — in fact, rights beyond persons — [or] any rights at all. They’re legal fictions that shouldn’t have any decision-making power. That power should be in the hands of the participants in the institutions, the working people in the communities, and so on. How do you get that result? How do you achieve that? It’s like asking: How do you overthrow tyranny?
MIKE: Do you see local governments as the best way that the average citizen can get involved and take the power back?
CHOMSKY: Sure. I mean, other forms of tyranny have been overcome. Just take a look at the 20th century. There were basically three forms of totalitarianism: One was the various kinds of fascism, the other was Bolshevism and a third was corporate capitalism. Two are gone.
Brian Ohkubo Covert is an independent journalist based in Hyogo, Japan. In 2003 he was serving as co-producer of the “Thursday Night Talk” live radio program on KHSU-FM, and arranged for Professor Chomsky to appear as the show’s guest on the second anniversary of 9/11.