Keeping the Rabble in Line Copyright © 1994 by Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian
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June 16, 1993
DB: It's about 7:00 a.m. here in Boulder, 9:00 where you are in Lexington. What is your morning routine like? Do you start off with reading the Boston Globe and the New York Times?
Yes, and The Wall Street Journal. The Financial Times. Whatever.
DB: Is the morning a good time for you to work or are you interrupted with a lot of phone calls like this one?
Usually, quite a lot.
DB: The Boston Globe, your daily newspaper, has just been acquired by the New York Times. The Globe is one of the last major papers in the country not owned by a chain. What are your thoughts on that?
It's a natural continuation of a tendency that's been going on for a long time. Ben Bagdikian, for example, has been documenting it year after year. It's a natural phenomenon. Capital tends to concentrate. I frankly doubt that it would make much difference in the nature of the newspaper, at least for a few years. However, over time it probably will.
DB: There is a well-documented trend in the concentration of media ownership. Do you see any countertrends?
What you are doing right now is a countertrend. It's just like everything that's going on in the world. There's a trend toward centralization of power in higher and higher levels, but there's also a countertrend towards regionalization, including what's called "devolution" in Europe, creation of grassroots movements, construction of alternatives. The new electronic technology, in fact, has given opportunities for lots of spreading of alternatives. Cable television offers alternatives. So things are going in both directions. Institutionally, the major tendency is centralization. The other tendency in the opposite direction, which is the only hopeful one, in my opinion, is much more diffuse and has nothing much in the way of organized institutional forms. But it's certainly going on at every level.
DB: There are also computer networks.
They offer lots of possibilities. There are tens of thousands of people hooked up, maybe hundreds of thousands hooked into various networks on all kinds of topics and lots of discussion goes on and lots of information comes through. It's of varying quality, but a lot of it is alternative to the mainstream. That's still pretty much of an elite privilege at this point.
DB: I recently got a letter from a listener in Lafayette, Colorado, a few miles from Boulder. He heard your talk "Manufacturing Consent," which you gave at the Harvard Trade Union Program in January. I thought the listener's comments were telling. He said after hearing the program that it left him feeling "as politically isolated as the PR industry would have us." He asked, "How do we get organized? Is everybody too tied down by monthly bills to care?" So there are multiple questions and concerns there.
How do we get organized? There's a simple answer: you go ahead and do it. People have gotten organized under much more onerous conditions than these. Suppose, for example, you're a peasant in El Salvador in a Christian base community which tries to become a peasant cooperative. The conditions under which those things took place are so far beyond anything we can imagine that to talk about the problems we face seems superfluous. Sure, there are problems. People are weighed down with bills, they have personal problems. But most of us live under conditions of extraordinary privilege by comparative standards. The problem of getting organized is a problem of will.
DB: Isn't one of the functions of the media to marginalize people like this listener who wrote and to convince them that affairs must be left to the experts and you stay out of it.
Of course. But notice that it's done differently in El Salvador. There they send in the death squads. Here what they do is try to hook you on sitcoms. It's true that both are techniques of control, but they are rather different techniques.
DB: You're a scientist. Talk about the notions of objectivity and balance in the media and in scholarship. Who determines those kinds of things?
There's a big difference between the sciences and humanistic or social science scholarship or the media. In the natural sciences you're faced with the fact of nature as a very hard taskmaster. It doesn't let you get away with a lot of nonsense. At least in the more well developed areas of the sciences, it's difficult for error to perpetuate. Theoretical error, of course, can perpetuate because it's hard to detect. But if a person does an experiment and misstates the results, that's likely to be exposed very quickly, since it will be replicated. There's a fairly stern internal discipline, which by no means guarantees that you're going to find the truth. But it imposes standards that are very hard to break away from. There are external conditions that determine how science proceeds: funding, etc. But it's qualitatively different from other areas, where the constraints imposed by the outside world are much weaker. Much less is understood. The empirical refutation is much harder to come by. It's much easier to simply ignore things that you don't want to hear.
So let's go back to your opening comment about the Times taking over the Globe. The east-coast press has been flowing with praise for this and saying that because of the Times' high journalistic standards there's no concern that this will have any danger. There are thousands of pages of documentation in print which demonstrate that the Times' journalistic standards are anything but high. In fact, they're grotesque. But it doesn't matter, because the critical analysis can simply be ignored. It has the wrong message. Therefore you ignore it. That's the kind of thing that's very easy in journalism or any of the other ideological disciplines. You just ignore what you don't like, and if you are on the side of the powerful, it's easy to get away with it.
The other day I read a summary article in the Washington Post by a good reporter who knows a lot about Central America, the lost decade in Central America. His article expresses all sorts of puzzlement about why Central America is worse off than it was in 1980 despite the enormous amount of American aid that went into the region. It asks whether this American aid was well-spent, whether it was well-designed, whether it went in the right areas. He asks what went wrong with our enormous effort to bring democracy and social development to Central America.
The author (Douglas Farah) of that article, at least when he's not writing for the Post, knows the answer perfectly well. The U.S. led a devastating terrorist war throughout the region to try to prevent democracy and social development. These billions of dollars of aid that he talks about were billions of dollars spent to destroy these countries. That's why they are worse off than before. But the Post can't say that. No matter how overwhelming the evidence is, it's perfectly possible simply to disregard it and to go on with fantasies that are much more pleasing to powerful interests and to oneself. In journalism, or in a good deal of what's called "soft scholarship," meaning outside the hard sciences, that's quite easy to do. The controls are very weak, and it's very easy simply to ignore or to deflect critical analysis. In the hard sciences it just won't work. You do that and you're left behind. Somebody else discovers things and you're out of business. Years ago C. P. Snow talked about what he called the two cultures of the humanities and the hard sciences. He was much criticized for that. But there's something to it. They are rather different in character. There are further blurring comments that have to be made, but roughly speaking the difference is real.
So to answer the question, within the more developed natural sciences, although nobody has any illusions about objectivity, there is a kind of peer-pressure control that reflects the constraints imposed by nature. In the other areas, work is commonly considered objective if it reflects the views of those in power.
DB: The concept of objectivity in journalism definitely seems to be something that's situational and mutable.
If you look at serious monographic work in diplomatic history, the situation is somewhat different. Although there, choices and focus and concentration and framing are themselves often quite ideological and can hardly fail to be. More honest people will recognize that and make it clear. The less honest will make it appear that they're simply being objective.
DB: But of course one of the central myths of the media is that they are objective and balanced.
Sure. That's part of their propaganda function.
It's obvious on the face of it that those words don't mean anything. What do you mean by balanced? What's the proper measure of balance? There's no answer to that question. If the media were honest, they would say, Look, here are the interests we represent and this is the framework within which we look at things. This is our set of beliefs and commitments. That's what they would say, very much as their critics say. For example, I don't try to hide my commitments, and the Washington Post and New York Times shouldn't do it either. However, they must do it, because this mask of balance and objectivity is a crucial part of the propaganda function.
In fact, they actually go beyond that. They try to present themselves as adversarial to power, as subversive, digging away at powerful institutions and undermining them. The academic profession plays along with this game. Have a look at academic conferences on the media. One I went through in detail was held at Georgetown University. It was run by a dovish, rather liberal-leaning Quaker. It was about media coverage of Central America and the Middle East. The way the conference is framed is this: First came a series of statements opening the discussion by people who said the media and journalists are overwhelmingly biased against the government. They lie. They try to undermine the U.S. government. They're practically communist agents. After these bitter attacks on the media for their adversarial stance, another set of papers were presented which said, Look, it's pretty bad, we agree. But it's not quite as bad as you say. That's our job, to be subversive, and that's what you have to face up to in a democratic society. Then these two positions were debated.
There is obviously a third position: the media are supportive of power interests. They distort and often lie in order to maintain those interests. But that position can't be expressed. In fact, in the conference I'm talking about, one hundred percent of the coverage on Central America was within the bounds I've described. On the Middle East, where the media are just grotesque, it was only ninety-six percent within those ludicrous bounds. The reason was that they allowed one statement by Eric Hoagland, a Middle East scholar who made an accurate statement, and that's the four percent, which nobody ever referred to again. That's the way the media like to present themselves, naturally, and that's the way the academic profession likes to see them presented. If you can present the media as being critical, antagonistic to power, maybe even subversive, that makes an enormous contribution to the propaganda function. Then they say, Look how critical of power we are. How could anyone go beyond us?
DB: In an article about the acquisition of the Boston Globe in the Times a few days ago, it was pointed out that the Globe was one of the first papers in the United States to lead the crusade against U.S. intervention in Vietnam. You were reading this paper throughout that period. Is that accurate?
Yes, it's very accurate. They published the first editorial calling for withdrawal from Vietnam. The editor at that time was a personal friend and I followed this quite closely. They did a big study to determine if it would be possible to publish this editorial and still get away with it. They finally agreed to do it. My recollection is that that was in late 1969, that is, about a year-and-a-half after Wall Street had turned against the war. I think it's probably true that that was the first mainstream call for withdrawal of U.S. forces. Of course, it was not framed in terms of a call to withdraw the U.S. forces that had attacked Vietnam, but rather, We should get out, it doesn't make sense, etc. That tells you something about the U.S. media. What it tells you is a year-and-a-half after the business community determined that the government should liquidate the effort because it was harmful to U.S. economic interests, about that time the courageous press timidly began to say, well, maybe we ought to do what the business community announced a year-and-a-half ago, without even conceding the simple truth: that it was a war of U.S. aggression, first against South Vietnam, then all of Indochina. Some elementary truths are too outrageous to be allowed on the printed page.
DB: Do you see knowledge as a commodity? Is it something that's traded and purchased and sold? Obviously it's sold: one sells oneself in the marketplace.
I'd be a little cautious about the knowledge part. What passes for knowledge is sold. Take, say, Henry Kissinger as an example. He certainly sells himself in the marketplace. But one should be very skeptical about whether that's knowledge or not. The reason is that what's sold in the marketplace tends to be pretty shoddy. It works. It's knowledge or understanding shaped or distorted to serve the interests of power. Or, to go back to the hard sciences, their knowledge is certainly sold. Take American high-tech industry, or the pharmaceutical industry. One of the ways in which the public subsidizes the corporate sector is through university research labs, which do straight research. But the benefits of it, if something commercially viable comes out of it, are handed over to private corporations. I don't know of any university departments which contract out directly to industry, but there are things not too far from that.
DB: Would you say information is a commodity?
People make such statements. I'm a little leery about them. When you say that information is a commodity, it can certainly be sold, traded, in elementary ways, like a newspaper joins Associated Press and purchases [articles] or you go to a bookstore and buy a book. Information is sold. That's not a deep point, I don't think.
DB: What about ways of acquiring knowledge outside of the conventional structures, the colleges and universities?
First of all, even within the conventional structures, colleges, universities, the New York Times, etc., if you read carefully, you can learn a lot. All of these institutions have an important internal contradiction: On the one hand, they wouldn't survive if they didn't support the fundamental interests of people who have wealth and power. If you don't serve those interests, you don't survive very long. So there is a distorting and propaganda effect and tendency. On the other hand, they also have within them something that drives them towards integrity and honesty and accurate depiction of the world, as far as one can do it. Partly that just comes out of personal integrity of people inside them, whether they're journalists or historians. But partly it's because they won't even do their job for the powerful unless they give a tolerably accurate picture of reality. So the business press, for example, often does quite good and accurate reporting, and the rest of the press too, in many cases. The reason is that people in power need to know the facts if they're going to make decisions in their own interests. These two conflicting tendencies mean that if you weave your way between them you can learn quite a lot.
To get back to your question: Outside these institutions there are all sorts of things people can do. Let's go back to the article I mentioned in the Washington Post about Central America. Central American activists in Boulder or plenty of other places, when they look at that article just collapse in laughter. They know the facts. They didn't find out the facts from reading the Washington Post, for the most part. They found them out through other sources. The Central American solidarity movements had access to extensive information and still do, through direct contacts, through alternative media, through people travelling back and forth, that is completely outside the framework of the mainstream media. For example, one thing that this article states is that the United States compelled the Marxist Sandinistas to run their first free election in 1990. Everyone in the Central American solidarity movements, and plenty of other people, knows that that's complete baloney and that there was a free election held in 1984, except it came out the wrong way, so therefore it was wiped out of history by the U.S. In fact, the author of this article certainly knows it as well. But for him to say it in the Washington Post would be like standing up in the Vatican and saying Jesus Christ didn't exist. You just can't say certain things within a deeply totalitarian intellectual culture like ours. Therefore, he has to say what he says, and maybe even believes it, although it's hard for me to imagine. Everybody has to say that. But people in the popular movements know perfectly well that it's not true and know why it's not true, because they've found other ways to gain understanding of the world.
In case you heard a big bang in the background, that was one of the piles of books in my study collapsing on the floor, as happens regularly.
DB: I can see you surrounded by mountains and stacks of papers and books.
Occasionally they decide that the laws of physics won't handle it and they fall on the floor, which is what just happened.
DB: You commented to a friend that the amount of material that you lose is "awesome," but it seems to me that the amount of material that you retain is awesome as well.
It doesn't feel that way to me. I feel mostly the loss. As I see it disappearing it's agonizing. I know if I don't write about something within a couple of years it will be gone, lost in these piles. The trouble is, all of us feel like this. You're so far out of the mainstream that the few people who follow these issues closely and who write about them know that if they don't deal with something it's out of history. For example, the Nicaraguan election is in history, at least for people who care, primarily because Edward Herman did some very good research on it. It doesn't matter to the Washington Post. For them it's out of history, period, because those are the orders from those who are on high. But for people who want to know, you can look at Herman's work.
DB: Something you've been saying over the years strikes me as somewhat contradictory. When you talk about the connection between U.S. aid and human rights abuses, you say that connection is "obvious," and at the same time you say that there's no way to know about these things and you have to be a fanatic, as you describe yourself, to find these things out. Doesn't that leave people intimidated and disempowered?
If I put it that way I'm being a little misleading. As an individual, you have to be a fanatic to find it out. On the other hand, if you're part of a semi-organized movement, like the Central America solidarity movements, you don't have to be a fanatic, because you have access to alternative sources of information.
Again, take Edward Herman, my friend and colleague, who did an extensive study of the relation between U.S. aid and torture. He found them very highly correlated. We published information about it in jointly written books of ours and elsewhere. He's also published his own books that describe this in detail.
The leading Latin American academic specialist on human rights, Lars Schoultz at North Carolina, published an article in about 1980 on U.S. aid and human-rights violations, primarily torture, in Latin America. He found exactly the same thing. As he put it in his article, U.S. aid tends to flow to the most egregious human rights violators in the hemisphere. They are consistently the highest aid recipients. He also showed that this correlation has nothing to do with need, that it includes military aid, and that it runs through the Carter period. In the Reagan period it shot through the roof. You can find those things out. I've reported them. Herman's reported them.
If an isolated individual like that person you mentioned earlier wanted to figure this stuff out, he'd have to be kind of a fanatic. It would take immense research to even find that anybody ever talked about these topics. You're not going to find them in the New York Times index. What you'll find is article after article about our profound commitment to human rights. On the other hand, if you are part of the popular movements you have easy access to such material and you don't have to be a fanatic at all. You just have to have your eyes open.
DB: In the tremendous amount of mail that you receive, are these views of isolation reflected? What is the temper of the mail?
Overwhelmingly. There is a film (Manufacturing Consent) by Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick that's been playing around the world, often on national television and around this country, too, though a little less prominently. I get a lot of letters, hundreds, maybe thousands. Very commonly the tone is very much like what the person you mentioned said. This also happens if I occasionally appear on TV in the United States, on Bill Moyers or Pozner/Donahue. I get a lot of letters saying, I was very interested to hear what you had to say. I thought I was the only person in the world who had thoughts like this. Where can I learn more about it? Sometimes I cringe when the letters say, How can I join your movement? Meaning I haven't at all gotten across what I was trying to.
DB: You steadfastly refuse to see the film Manufacturing Consent. Why?
Partly because there's that feeling that however much they might have tried, there's something inherent in the medium which personalizes and gives the false and indeed ridiculous impression that leads to questions like, "How can I join your movement?"
DB: How much time do you spend responding to mail per week?
I hate to think about it. Probably twenty-five hours or so.
DB: It's actually increased since the last time I spoke to you.
It goes up and up. I was away for a couple of weeks in Europe and the Middle East giving lectures. When I came back, I think it took me over two weeks of doing nothing else, just to clear away the mail.
DB: These are individual responses. I know people are absolutely amazed when they do hear from you. They are stunned at the graciousness of your replies.
These letters are often extremely serious and very thoughtful. I should say that on one topic, finally, I had to write a form letter, saying, Sorry, I can't respond.
DB: What was that?
Take a guess.
DB: JFK. Conspiracy theories.
That's it. It just got to the point where I couldn't respond any more. Within the bounds of a twenty-four-hour day I couldn't answer the letters. So much to my regret I had to say, sorry, I can't do it.
DB: Does that interest in conspiracy theories tell you something about the political culture?
It tells you something about what's undermining the left. For people who feel a need to believe in conspiracies, here's one sitting there waiting for them. Just imagine the CIA deciding, How can we undermine and destroy all of these popular movements? Let's send them off on some crazy wild goose chase which is going to involve them in extremely detailed microanalysis and discussion of things that don't matter. That'll shut them up. That's happening. In case anybody misunderstands, I don't believe this for one moment, but it's the kind of thing that goes around.
DB: It's curious that there are elements of what is called the "left" in this country that have embraced this so fervidly.
In my opinion, that's a phenomenon similar to this feeling of impotence and isolation that you mentioned. If you really feel, Look, it's too hard to deal with real problems, there are a lot of ways to avoid doing so. One of them is to go off on wild goose chases that don't matter. Another is to get involved in academic cults that are very divorced from any reality and that provide a defense against dealing with the world as it actually is. There's plenty of that going on, including in the left. I just saw some very depressing examples of it in my trip to Egypt a couple of weeks ago. I was there to talk on international affairs. There's a very lively, civilized intellectual community, very courageous people who spent years in Nasser's jails being practically tortured to death and came out struggling. Now throughout the Third World there's a sense of great despair and hopelessness. The way it showed up there, in very educated circles with European connections, was to become immersed in the latest lunacies of Paris culture and to focus totally on those. For example, when I would give talks about current realities, even in research institutes dealing with strategic issues, participants wanted it to be translated into post-modern gibberish. For example, rather than have me talk about the details of what's going on in U.S policy or the Middle East, where they live, which is too grubby and uninteresting, they would like to know how does modern linguistics provide a new paradigm for discourse about international affairs that will supplant the post-structuralist text. That would really fascinate them. But not what do Israeli cabinet records show about internal planning. That's really depressing.
DB: This was your first visit to Egypt?
Yes. Incidentally, when that happens in Egypt it's very sad. When it happens all over the West as it does, it's maybe comical or unpleasant but not devastating.
DB: I just got back from Amsterdam, where I did some interviews and gave some talks. Precisely those kinds of convoluted, very pretentious questions were asked.
I've seen the same in Holland. These are ways in which intellectuals can separate themselves from actual, ongoing struggle and still appear to be lefter than thou. Nobody's radical enough for them. That way you advance your career, you separate yourself from things that are going on. You don't have to get involved in popular activities. You don't have to learn about the world, let alone do anything about it. I'm overstating. I don't want to say this is true of everybody, by any means, but there are elements of it. These are other ways of reacting to the fact that dealing with the problems of the world is hard and unpleasant. Especially if you begin to do it effectively, there are personal costs.
DB: It also creates a tremendous gap between them and so-called "people."
Sure. Nobody can understand this stuff. That has the effect of intimidating people, especially young people coming into the colleges who look at this and say, My God, to be a radical I'm going to have to understand all these ten syllable words. It's hopeless. I'd better do something else.
DB: What did you learn about the Islamic movement in Egypt?
I don't want to overstate. I wasn't there long enough to learn a lot. But I should say that I did meet a pretty wide range of people, people I knew and those who were recommended to me, and most of those I came across who were seriously thinking through problems of Egypt and the region were the intellectuals who were associated with the Islamic movement. The ones I met were kind of on the secular wing of those movements. I didn't meet clerics. But these are people who regard themselves, and are regarded as, oppositionists and part of the Islamic movement. They plainly do have grassroots connections. They themselves describe the movement as split between the more progressive sectors and the "rigid" sector, meaning the real deep fundamentalists, who say, We go back to Koranic law, sharia, and that's the end of it. But they themselves are thinking about domestic and regional development and local problems in ways which are not at all unrealistic. Furthermore, these movements actually do things. They provide health care, run welfare programs, and try to deal with people's problems. They're almost unique in that respect. Everyone agrees to that, even the people who hate them.
DB: What's the motor that's pushing this movement in Egypt?
You just walk around Cairo and you can see the motor. There was a period of secular nationalism, of which Nasser was the leading figure. It failed, or was destroyed, partly by itself and partly from outside. Sadat, around 1980, undertook a policy which translates as "opening up," in effect, structural adjustment, neo-liberal policies. There were the usual effects, seen all over the world, completely predictable by now. They increased very sharply the split in the society between great wealth and privilege and enormous misery and suffering, with the proportions being by no means balanced. People are suffering. And they see right next to them enormous wealth and privilege. The government is totally corrupt and doesn't do anything. It's a police state, not a harsh police state, but you can't forget it for long. What happens under those conditions? People turn to something else. It's happening all throughout the region.
DB: Is it not really happening throughout the world as there's global impoverishment?
These tendencies are going on throughout the world. The rich western countries are imposing these neo-liberal policies, as they're called, on the Third World. They have plenty of power. The debt crisis, for example, is being used as a very effective weapon to try to force most of the Third World into these programs, which are lethal. The rich countries themselves don't accept those policies. They don't accept free market policies for themselves. They're too destructive. However, as the economy becomes more global, more internationalized, there is an automatic effect of bringing back Third World tendencies into the rich countries themselves. It's not very mysterious. American capitalists can be very rich, but American workers are going to have to compete with people in what are, in effect, Third World countries.
DB: There was a photo in the paper here a couple of weeks ago of the University of Colorado graduating class. One senior held up a sign: "Will work for food."
You see that right outside of rich shopping centers near where I live. The wealthy countries will never, and never have, accepted the neo-liberal principles, the free market principles they impose on the poor. The consequences of imposing them on the poor are slowly to have this Third World model seep back into the rich countries themselves. It's very striking in the U.S. You can see it in Europe, particularly in England, and on the continent you're beginning to see it as well. There's nothing secret about it. The business press -- Business Week, The Financial Times, etc. -- are very open in saying, American and especially European workers are going to have to give up their "luxurious" social programs. They're going to have to stop being "pampered" and accept labor mobility, meaning lose their security, because corporations can go over to Eastern Europe. In Poland they can get trained workers at ten percent of the wage of the "pampered" west European workers. No benefits, and a highly repressive government that breaks up strikes. Therefore you guys better recognize what's in store for you. There was an article in the Financial Times recently with a wonderful headline: "Green Shoots in Communism's Ruins," meaning Communism is a wreck, but there are some green shoots, a few good things. The good thing was that as capitalist reforms are imposed in Eastern Europe, pauperization and unemployment follow, which lowers wages and makes it possible for western corporations to move in and make huge profits. Those are the "green shoots."
DB: There is of course a huge increase in unemployment in western European countries. That has an attendant social component in the many attacks against immigrant communities.
Unemployment and loss of hope lead to social breakdown. We're much more advanced in that respect. There's a kind of breakdown of social structure in American urban communities which is amazing to most of the world. Take, say, Cairo. Cairo is a very poor city, extremely impoverished. There's nothing like it here. Nevertheless there is a sense of community that exists that doesn't exist here. You feel safer walking through the streets there than here. You don't stumble over homeless people. People are taken care of somehow. It's the same in Nicaragua or many other Third World countries that haven't totally broken down. We are beginning to get Third World characteristics, but under conditions of social breakdown. That's very dangerous. That's why you can have people cheering when someone wins a court trial (in Baton Rouge, Louisiana) after having blasted away somebody (Yoshihiro Hattori) that dared to step on his lawn. That appalled most of the world. They just couldn't understand it.
DB: Your latest book as of this morning -- Howard Zinn likes to add that caveat -- is Letters from Lexington. Do you have any more books planned?
I promised to write up lectures on international affairs and the Middle East that I gave in Cairo. That will be published by American University Press (Cairo).
DB: Is the summer a good time for you to work, when you're away from the interviews, the phone calls, the classes?
As you know, I turn off the phone. That's about the only time I can try to get anything done.
DB: Later this year you're going to turn sixty-five.
You don't believe that propaganda, do you?
DB: Have you thought about slowing down, cutting back on your schedule at all?
There are an awful lot of things I'd like to do that I'm just not getting to. There isn't all that much time.
DB: You know that anecdote that Mike Albert tells when he went to Poland some years ago, he found people who thought that there were two Noam Chomskys, one who did the linguistics work and the other who did the political work?
Partly because the name doesn't sound as strange to them there.
DB: There was a serious reactor explosion in a town named Tomsk in central Russia. Is the name of that town at all connected to Chomsky?
It could be. Nobody really knows the etymology. Roman Jakobson, a great Slavic linguist and scholar, always told me that he was convinced that that was the origin, a corruption of Tomsk, Thomas basically.
DB: Is Avram your actual given name?
It is, but my parents never used it, so I use my middle name. It's almost become my legal first name by now. Just to show you the good old days of real sexism, I once had to get a copy of my birth certificate and I discovered that a clerk who hadn't believed my name had crossed it out and written in pencil above it "Avrane Naomi." Well, why Avrane? Because girls are allowed to have crazy names, not boys.
DB: Just to back up a little bit. You also went recently to Northern Ireland. What did you find there in terms of economic conditions and the political situation?
I spent my time either in West Belfast, which is mainly Catholic and a very repressed area, or southern parts of Northern Ireland, within what is called "bandit country," places where the British troops can only go in in fairly substantial force and where there have been plenty of atrocities. I talked to human rights activists. I was at the Center for Human Rights talking to Gerry Adams, the head of Sinn Fein, and others, and to a lot of people. The country is under military occupation. There's no secret about that. There are armored personnel carriers going through the streets, armed blockades right in the middle of Belfast center, etc. There is plenty of killing by paramilitaries on both sides. There is open debate about the extent to which or if the British forces are connected to the loyalists, the mainly Protestant paramilitary, and there is probably some connection, but nobody knows how much. In the Catholic community, listening to the stories was very much like walking around the West Bank a couple of years ago, the same kinds of humiliation and beating and torture. There aren't a lot of ways to have your boot on someone's neck. It always turns out about the same.
DB: It echoes the religious conflicts of the Middle Ages in Europe.
The British, back in the mid-seventeenth century, carried out real ethnic cleansing. The indigenous population in what's now Ulster was mostly driven out, often into central Ireland.
DB: Was there settler colonialism?
Yes. They brought in Scottish and other British settlers to replace them. They took most of the fertile land. Traveling through South Armagh, near the border, I spent some time with a local civil rights group that was set up after several young men were murdered by British troops, who are now coming up for trial, years later. A farmer whose son had been killed took me around and showed me what things were like. They raise cattle, but they can only raise young cattle, because the earth is too infertile to grow grass good enough to raise adult cattle. So they raise calves and send them off somewhere. Every acre is completely reclaimed. You've first got to pull out all the rocks and move them somewhere else and try to level the ground. These are the areas to which the Irish were driven, off into the rocky hills, by the British who cleansed the fertile areas and brought in their own settlers. It was a couple of centuries ago, but the residue is still there.
DB: Do you see any solution to the problem of Northern Ireland?
There are contrary tendencies going on in Europe. There's a tendency toward centralization in the European Community executive, which is almost totally insulated from public pressure, and there's a countertendency toward regionalization. So local regions, whether Catalonia, the Basque country, Wales, or whatever, are beginning to become more involved in developing their own cultural authenticity and forms of independence and ways of self-government. In the context of this regionalization and devolution, it's not impossible that the former British Isles could break down into a kind of federal arrangement, maybe as part of a broader European federalism. It would involve a degree of independence in a number of areas: Scotland, Wales, England, Northern Ireland, the Republic, and in that context I think you might imagine a solution. I don't see much else. Within a couple of years the population of Northern Ireland is going to be about fifty-fifty Catholic and Protestant, according to demographic projections.
DB: I have to tell you, going back to the level of mail that you get, some years ago I wrote you a letter, and that was my first contact with you. You responded. That led to a correspondence. Then we starting doing interviews. It really helped to get Alternative Radio going. I can bear witness and give testimony to the enormous efficacy of your efforts. I think I speak for a lot of people who appreciate what you're doing. It does make a difference.
It's reciprocal. I very much appreciate what thousands of people are doing everywhere, which is making a difference -- a big difference. These activities of many, many people around the country and the world have made a tremendous difference over the last thirty years.
DB: It's incremental. People want to see dramatic changes, but the culture and politics change rather slowly.
They do, but it's very different from what it was. Under conditions like those in the 1960s, you would have had to wait until the fall of 1969 for the first newspaper to timidly suggest that maybe we ought to stop the aggression in Vietnam.
DB: Thank you, and have a restful summer. How's your foot?
It's OK. It's just a fractured bone.
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