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(en) US, MEDIA: New Bestseller by Noam Chomsky" "An Eminence with no Shades of Gray"

From Clore Daniel C <clore@columbia-center.org>
Date Mon, 6 May 2002 04:29:59 -0400 (EDT)

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

An Eminence With No Shades of Gray

In a New Bestseller, Noam Chomsky Argues Against the War in

By Michael Powell

Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, May 5, 2002; Page F01 


The talk is of terrorism and the terrible delusions of the
powerful, and of the real bottom line of Sept. 11.

Which the famous professor explains this way:

"The atrocities of Sept. 11 are quite new in world affairs,
not in scale and character, but in target. The United States
exterminated its indigenous population, conquered half of
Mexico, and carried out depredations all over. Now, for the
first time since the British burned the White House in [the
War of] 1812, the guns have been directed the other way."

Our professor is being a touch provocative here, no? 

He glances sideways at you, through silver-rimmed glasses,
and smiles. If you listen closely, he seems sure he can
penetrate the fog.

"This is not complicated," he says in that softly insistent
voice. "You can be a pure hypocrite or you can look at
events honestly."

Noam Chomsky believes in the redemptive power of logical
thinking and coming to Chomskyan conclusions about the
world. He is a white-hot contrarian, a distinguished
linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who
"tends to be quite conservative" and is devoted to "simple
moral truisms."

The United States, he says, is the world's leading purveyor
of state terrorism while Osama bin Laden is the foremost
private practitioner. The Saudi's fundamentalist politics
are benighted, but he gives form to a deep discontent with
the nature of American power.

"Uncontroversially" -- the adverb is classic Chomsky; the
suggestion is that to disagree is to express an irremediable
daftness -- "bin Laden draws support from a reservoir of
bitterness and anger over the U.S. polices in the region,
which extended those of earlier European masters," Chomsky
says. "His call for the overthrow of brutal regimes of
gangsters and torturers resonates, as does his indignation
at the atrocities he attributes to the United States, hardly
without reason."

The 73-year-old Chomsky doesn't just tack into the
prevailing wind. He sails into Category 5 hurricanes. And
his course is not so unpopular as one might imagine right

Chomsky's new book -- a pamphletlike collection of
interviews with the professor -- is titled "9-11." The book,
which argues that the war in Afghanistan is morally and
legally appalling, not to mention an act of state terrorism,
has sold 160,000 copies and three weeks ago ranked ninth on
the Washington Post bestseller list. It's been translated
into a dozen languages, from Korean to Japanese to two
varieties of Portuguese.

Chomsky's lectures are standing-room-only affairs. Afterward
his fans dutifully transcribe and circulate his words. 

And he is ubiquitous on foreign airwaves, from CBC to BBC to
Radio B92 in downtown Belgrade. Chomsky travels to Turkey to
lend comfort to defenseless Kurds and to Brazil to rally
those fighting the worst excesses of global capitalism.

The London Independent newspaper declares him among our
greatest living philosophers. The Arts and Humanities
Citation Index reports Chomsky is the most quoted living
intellectual. As for the dead ones, he's passed Cicero and
is gaining on Freud. Certainly he's the only silver-haired
MIT professor to appear on stage and on disc with bands
Chumbawamba and Rage Against the Machine. 

Chomsky had non-singing roles.

It took two months to arrange a one-hour interview, which is
timed to the minute by Chomsky's assistant. "How do I
relax?" Chomsky smiles, faintly, at the suggestion of
personal needs -- he sees lifelong friends twice a year, at
most. "That's my wife's worry when I get home each night."

And yet . . . 

To pick up the most powerful newspapers and intellectual
magazines in the United States, to tune in the 463
television political babble-athons, is to conclude that
Chomsky is invisible. His book has garnered just a single
review in a major newspaper. It's as though the professor
inhabits Dimension Left, the alternative celebrity universe.

The publisher of the New Republic describes Chomsky's views,
particularly on Israel, where he champions an eventual
confederation with Palestine, as outside the pale of
intellectual responsibility. Television commentator Jeff
Greenfield suggests that Chomsky's opinions "come from

"He's been consigned to a kind of oblivion by the higher
circles of America's intellectual class," says Steve
Wasserman, editor of the Los Angeles Times book review.
"He's ignored by the mafia that controls America's op-ed
pages, and that's unfortunate."

Chomsky professes no mystification. He's tracked American
intellectuals since they fell into serried rows of support
for the Vietnam War 40 years ago. They are, he says, a lap
dog class, scampering forth to bark on command for their

"It's a remarkably narrow culture. There are disagreements
but they are at the level of statistical error, literally,"
Chomsky says. 

That said, Chomsky might be seen as complicit in his own
marginalization. His sentences are diamond-hard and brook no
disagreement. "No one with even a shred of honesty would
disagree -- " is a characteristic bit of Chomskyan

And the master linguist's analysis can skirt the arid
reaches of moral certitude. His pursuit of the logical can
lead to moral cul-de-sacs, as when Chomsky and co-author
Edward Herman, in "After the Cataclysm," detailed and
ridiculed inconsistencies in journalistic exposés of Khmer
Rouge atrocities in the late 1970s -- even as Cambodia
descended into a horror of communist purges, executions and
famine that left as many as 1 million dead.

Chomsky's fury at American depredations in Cambodia was such
that he seemed incapable of seeing the Khmer Rouge for the
malevolent force it was. He dismissed refugee accounts as
untrustworthy and lashed at "Western moralists" who
condemned the Khmer's "peasant" regime.

"The positive side of [the Khmer Rouge] picture has been
virtually edited out of the picture," Chomsky and Herman
wrote in "After the Cataclysm." "The negative side has been
presented to a mass audience in a barrage with few
historical parallels, apart from wartime propaganda."

[As usual Herman and Chomsky's work is misrepresented.--DC]

Today Chomsky is fond of analogies between American and Nazi
attempts to rationalize state violence in pursuit of
international aims.

"Of course the U.S. claims it has reasons," Chomsky says.
"And the Nazis had reasons for gassing the Jews. Everyone
has reasons. The question is whether they're justified."

Brian Morton, an novelist and essayist of the left, sees an
important intellectual whose arguments have suffered a
sclerotic hardening.

"Chomsky sees the world in a very stark way and gets at
certain truths in that way," Morton says. "But ultimately
his view is so simplistic that it's not useful. He's become
a phase that people on the left should go through when they
are young."

Linguistic Einstein

Chomsky grew up in working-class Philadelphia in the dark
interregnum between the start of the Great Depression and
the onset of World War II. His father was a renowned Hebrew
scholar. By the age of 10, Noam was reading proofs of books
on 13th-century medieval Hebrew and penning passionate
editorials for the school newspaper decrying the rise of

Noam wept when he heard that Barcelona had fallen to
Franco's fascist legions on Jan. 26, 1939.

On weekends, as a teenager, he took the train to New York to
visit a favorite uncle who owned a newsstand. The uncle was
a Trotskyite, then an anti-Trotskyite, and finally a
Freudian. The last choice was a keeper, as the uncle became
a successful lay psychoanalyst with a penthouse apartment.

Chomsky enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania in 1945,
where he studied linguistics. (He married Carol Doris Schatz
in 1949, and they had three children.) The behavioralism of
B.F. Skinner ruled the field, with his view that human
responses are learned through conditioning, and thus can be
predicted and controlled.

Chomsky recoiled from this. 

How can it be, he asked, that language is but a learned
habit if man and his words are so creative, nuanced and
morally complex? From this question of philosophy no less
than science, Chomsky developed his theory of
transformational grammar, eventually published in his book
"Syntactic Structures." He posited that the ability to speak
and think complexly is encoded in our species through
evolution. All humans have an innate capacity to understand

It was a breakthrough likened to unraveling the genetic
code. Modern linguists regard Chomsky as their Einstein,
their Freud, their Picasso.

By the early 1960s, Chomsky had a new passion: Vietnam.
American soldiers had landed, American planes began dropping
napalm, and the professor turned his every faculty to
opposing that war.

These were lonely years, filled with threats of arrest and
possible loss of his job at MIT. Chomsky recalls walking
into church basements and finding his fellow loyal
oppositionists: a polite Presbyterian minister, a
blue-haired organist and a couple of guys who'd wandered in
off the street, "usually including a drunk who wanted to
punch me out."

Every mainstream intellectual magazine and newspaper
supported the war. Chomsky wrote a book on Vietnam,
"American Power and the New Mandarins," that was a cannonade
across this intellectual landscape. His book attempted no
grand theoretical architecture. Its strength was a searing
critique of the technocrats and intellectuals who provided
the infrastructure of imperialism. 

He judged them by the standards they applied to our Cold War
enemies, and found potential war criminals. It was an
epochal moment for young Americans opposed to the war. The
professor, columnist Christopher Hitchens has written,
became their "great moral and political tutor in the years
of the Indochina War."

Chomsky extended his critique in ensuing years to United
States policy in East Timor (where successive American
governments supported brutal Indonesian repression of the
island) and to Central America, where the United States
supported autocracies and consistently ignored World Court

He developed a view of the West as a uniquely vicious and
savage culture, where the nature of global domination
remains half-hidden from people by a corporate-dominated
press and mendacious leaders. To focus on the terror of
others is beside the point.

"The terrorism of them against us?" He shakes his head. "It
exists, but it's the minor part."

To Chomsky's critics, such statements suggest a willful
naivete about the ways of power and of human nature. State
violence and the will to dominate are the province of no
single culture.

Thus the Tartars and Mongols rode their horses across
continents in clouds of ecstatic violence, the Aztecs tore
the hearts out of their enemies, and the Puritans created a
new world even as they savaged the Indians.

Now America rules imperfectly over an imperfect world. 

"The United States has supported many democracies. It has
also supported authoritarian autocracies when it judges that
the alternative is a totalitarian movement," says Edward N.
Luttwak, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, who debated U.S. policy on Israel
with Chomsky this past winter. "Sometimes we are wrong. That
is not a heavy indictment."

To which Chomsky replies: Tell that to the hundreds of
thousands of dead Timorese and Kurds and Vietnamese. It is
his fate to see the world from the perspective of the ruled.
Barcelona is forever falling.

And, he argues, he sees no particular virtue in
nation-states of any ethnic variety. "To talk of legitimacy
is ridiculous," he says. "The word 'legitimacy' doesn't
apply to any nation's history."

He recalls the applause accorded to former defense secretary
Robert McNamara when he apologized for leading America into
Vietnam. "McNamara had not a single word of apology, not a
single word, for the Vietnamese whom he practically

Chomsky's eyes narrow. He leans as though into a storm in
his chair.

"Among intellectuals, this apology is considered a
vindication. But this is like a Nazi general after
Stalingrad apologizing for how many German soldiers were

"Any halfway serious critic should find this morally

The Belligerati

How the war fevers raged in those days after Sept. 11. The
nation's syndicated belligerati were beside themselves.
Columnist Michael Kelly flayed the unconscionable pacifists
as pro-terrorist and evil. Charles Krauthammer argued for
bombing an enemy city, anywhere.

And Christopher Hitchens, the Nation columnist, turned on
his old moral tutor in a splenetic display, averring that
Chomsky's opposition to a war in Afghanistan did "not rise
above the level of half truth" and that the professor's
"remorseless logic has degraded into flat-out

Chomsky barely paused to take the rhetorical bait,
dismissing Hitchens's sustained critique of his views as a
"fanciful diatribe." Chomsky passed most of this time giving
the near nonstop speeches and interviews that Seven Stories
Press collected in his book "9-11." 

He raised a number of provocative points during this period.
He noted that the United States had armed and trained many
of the fundamentalists, and that theirs was less a blind
desire to smash globalization than a campaign to force the
United States out of Saudi Arabia and establish an Islamic
state. And he predicted, correctly, that many nations,
including Israel, would use the rubric of Bush's war on
terror to prosecute their own battles.

If Bush was interested in leading a fight for civilization,
Chomsky said, he might start by laying out his evidence
against al Qaeda and asking Congress for a declaration of
war, as outlined in the Constitution.

But Chomsky's crystal ball was as often cracked. 

Last October, he stated as a matter of fact that American
military strategists "anticipated the slaughter and silent
genocide" of 3 million to 4 million Afghans, as the bombing
would disrupt food relief efforts. He offered no evidence
for his charge and his prediction of such a terrible death
toll has not come to pass.

He takes pride in noting that he's always described the
attacks on the World Trade Center as an atrocity, though he
always adds that such attacks pale next to the West's
"deep-seated culture of terrorism."

"We should recognize that in much of the world the United
States is regarded as a leading terrorist state, with good
reason," Chomsky says. "These were horrific acts on
September 11, but anyone who is honest will recognize . . ."

This might be called the attenuated sympathetic style.

It is also Chomsky's style to express surprise that his
analogies are considered provocative. His favorite, of late,
is to compare the terror attacks to the American bombing of
a Sudanese chemical factory in 1998. President Clinton
claimed, erroneously, that this factory produced chemical

A security guard died in that attack. The factory was
Sudan's chief source of pharmaceuticals and pesticides. And
Chomsky argues -- with the use of some elastic math -- that
tens of thousands of Sudanese perished as a result.

Still, you ask, isn't there a moral difference between an
act of terror that directly claims 3,000 lives and a mistake
that directly claims one life?

The Sudan bombing, Chomsky replies, was worse.

"The Americans didn't even think about the outcome of the
bombing," he says, "because the Sudanese were so far below
contempt as to be not worth thinking about."

His mind leaps to ants. Suppose he walks down the sidewalk
in Cambridge and without, a second thought, steps on an ant. 

"That would mean that I regard the ant as beneath contempt,"
he says. "And that's morally worse than if I purposely
killed that ant. So, if we're not moral hypocrites, we'd
agree that Sudan was the morally worse crime than the World
Trade -- "

A knock on the door. It's 4:45 p.m. on a Friday. The
professor's aide has been timing the hour allotted for the
interview. A young documentarian waits outside, video camera
in hand, ready for the professor's next hour.

Chomsky smiles pleasantly and extends his hand. The hope is
that the fog has cleared just a touch.

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