Noam Chomsky’s 2010 book, Hopes and Prospects, is possibly his best work to date. He covers some of his past material to get us up to speed on his thinking, and then pushing it forward to 2010, analyzing recent court cases and the Obama Administration. No one is safe from his scathing attack. I strongly urge you to CLICK HERE to order the book — it is very informative, a great introduction to Chomsky’s thought, and published by Haymarket Books, a nonprofit book publisher based in Chicago that has offered a vast library of books on a variety of topics.
The questions and answers here are from my correspondence with Professor Chomsky in January 2011, to help expand on ideas and themes presented in the book. I urge you to read the book, and then come back here to see more on topics the book covers. (Or, if you really want, you could read this by itself, and it should still make sense.)
Chapter One: Year 514
GS: With regard to the myriad of problems that affect Haiti’s poor, what qualifies as being “rich” in Haiti? Are they wealthy enough to be immune from the quakes and trade agreements?
NC: There is an extremely affluent sector, as in most third world countries, but it’s extreme in Haiti. That doesn’t make them entirely immune to natural disasters, but they suffer far less for the usual reasons. The “free trade agreement” was designed to wipe out poor Haitian farmers. It doesn’t affect the rich. In fact they probably benefit from it, just as they benefited when Bush I and Clinton authorized Texaco Oil Co. to send oil to the junta during the terror, in violation of presidential directives. In fact, their wealth traces substantially to collaboration with the imperial overlords.
GS: You say that Japan was the only Southern country of its era to enter the industrialization phase. Which Southern countries are “caught up” with the North today?
NC: South Korea and Taiwan primarily, the two former Japanese colonies, which followed the Japanese development model. The two city-states – Hong Kong and Singapore – have different histories. The one glaring exception to the Asian development success is the Philippines, the US colony.
GS: The quotations attributed to Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson suggest they were racists and/or imperialists. Was this simply due to the thinking of the day, or do they stand out?
NC: It was not uncommon. Some, like Theodore Roosevelt, were much worse. However, it is striking in their case, considering their general more or less liberal positions on many topics – and their reputations.
GS: Some characterize England as America’s “lap dog”, and you suggest America may someday control Canada by non-military means (if we do not already). What do you see as Canada’s current role in American policy?
NC: After WWII, the British foreign office recognized, ruefully, that they would become Washington’s “junior partner” if they tried to capitalize on the “special relationship,” instead of joining Europe.
GS: You quote John Lewis Gaddis as tying in the Bush Doctrine to the words of John Quincy Adams. To what extent do you believe Bush was aware of any historical precedent, and/or how much was simply an inherent belief that the American power structure takes for granted?
NC: I suspect Gaddis is right in saying that the Adams doctrine, including the doctrine of executive war in violation of the Constitution, was just second-nature to the American presidents who followed. The Clinton doctrine was not very different, as I’ve pointed out a number of times. What was unusual about Bush II was mostly the extremely arrogant and offensive style. Others do not simply inform Europe that you do what we say or you’re “irrelevant.” I have no idea whether Bush II knew anything about American history.
GS: Although not mentioned by name, you cite the Citizens United case as an example of democracy’s erosion. What was the impact on the 2010 elections?
NC: Details require considerable research, which I think is underway. But there was plenty of press commentary on how the decision provided the incentive for enormous corporate spending increase.
GS: You mention that Republicans idolize Ronald Reagan, and later point out that they have shifted to the right of him. How do Republicans rationalize the contradictory idea of idolizing a man whose policies they would today call too liberal?
NC: That’s the least of it. What they idolize is a propaganda image, constructed in a manner that would have impressed Kim il-Sung. The real Reagan was the most protectionist president in postwar history and a strong believer in massive state intervention in the economy. He quickly converted the country from the world’s leading creditor to the leading debtor, and left office with a huge deficit (and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, the second in his term). He presided over growth of government. And on, and on. That’s quite apart from his achievements as a mass murderer and in carrying forward the economic policies that have led to stagnation for the majority and historically unprecedented concentration of wealth in very few hands – which those who run the Republican party probably think is great.
Chapter Two: Latin America and US Foreign Policy
GS: You say that President Carter as a human rights advocate is “partially true”. Partially in what way? He talked the talk of peace, but did he make any tangible, long-term progress?
NC: He made some progress. The talk of rights did have some influence in the dictatorships we support, though not much. And his passionate support for Somoza and the Shah were, unintentionally of course, factors stimulating their overthrow by popular uprisings.
GS: Turkey did not offer troops for the Iraq invasion. However, it is well known that their airfields were/are America’s primary base of operations. Shouldn’t this assistance make them just as, if not more so, responsible for allowing the invasion and occupation to happen?
NC: I don’t think their air fields were made available for the invasion, at least not to anything like what the US wanted. That’s why they were bitterly condemned, particularly by Paul Wolfowitz, who demanded that the Turkish military apologize to the US for not compelling the government to overrule 95% of the population – acts that did not tarnish his glowing reputation as the “idealist in chief” of the administration in the mainstream press.
GS: What is the strategic importance of Cuba? Why did America want it? Why did Britain? Why did Spain? Is there something about salsa dancing and sugar that is crucial to an empire?
NC: The Caribbean colonies were the richest in the world in the 18th century. Probably 20% of France’s wealth came from its Haitian colony. Same for Britain and in fact the American colonies. Cuba was the most valuable prize, quite apart from its strategic importance, which is enormous, as the main island in the region, a gateway to the rest. It’s also greatly enriched US investors, and in later years, a prize for tourism, gambling, and much else.
GS: “Hopes and Prospects” does a great job of showing the many ways that Obama is a centrist and not the liberal some want him to be. Socialist Paul D’Amato has made a claim that Dennis Kucinich ran in 2008 not to push the Democrats to the left, but rather to lure the left into voting for centrist Democrats… personally, I think that is absurd. Your thoughts?
NC: I agree.
GS: Osama bin Laden sees the American people as responsible for their government, just as America sees the Palestinians and Cubans as responsible for theirs; are they both right, both wrong, or neither?
NC: People are responsible for what their government does to the extent that they have an opportunity to participate in decision-making. For Americans, quite a lot. For Palestinians, very little: when they had a democratic election in Jan. 2006, the first one in the Arab world, the US and Israel stepped in at once to crush it. Cubans have lived under severe duress since they gained independence, as a result of US terror and economic warfare largely. Hence their choices are limited.
GS: The world shifted to an oil-based economy after 1918, what was the economy based on before that point?
NC: For energy, coal.
GS: Honduras provided the Palmerola military base for Reagan to attack Nicaragua. What was in this deal for Honduras (besides not being the next target)?
NC: It’s not “Honduras.” It’s the tiny elite that rules Honduras and the military, closely allied to them. The US keeps them in power.
GS: The IMF offered loans to the coup regimes of Honduras (2009) and Venezuela (2002). I understand why these governments were favored, but I wonder this: how was it a wise decision to loan money to a government with no history of stability? Sounds like throwing money away.
NC: I don’t recall a loan offer to Venezuela in 2002, unless you mean after the coup overturned the democratic government. If so, then it would have been much like Honduras: supporting a coup regime that overthrew a democracy, backed by the US, the main voice in the IMF. Stability has nothing to do with it.
Chapter 3: Democracy and Development
GS: With neoliberalism being the primary economic theory today, real wages are in the decline and the adage “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer” has never been more true. Is there any hope of breaking away from neoliberalism, or are destined to suffer for the foreseeable future?
NC: Intellectually, neoliberalism is a shambles. It’s been explicitly rejected by many of the victims, primarily in Latin America. The doctrines were applied in a highly skewed way in the US, crucially based on substantial state intervention for the benefit of the ultra-rich. A good illustration is the patron saint, Ronald Reagan. Take a look at his record: as I said, the most protectionist president in postwar history and the most fiscally irresponsible, but successful in carrying forward the project of undermining working people and the middle class. There’s no reason why the population must endure this bitter class war directed against the majority of the population.
GS: You talk of AT&T “taxing” the public when it held a monopoly on phone service. I understand your point and I agree, but would you not agree that using the word “tax” when not referring to the government
NC: I don’t. If I’d thought that I wouldn’t have used the term. The point was that monopoly-pricing rights granted by the state amount to a tax.
GS: You say that infant mortality has risen in America to the levels of Malaysia. 2009 estimates put America at 6.26-6.3 out of every thousand and Malaysia anywhere from 8.9 to 15.87. Setting aside that my statistics do not match yours, how does infant mortality go up if the technology used for pregnancies and childbirth has obviously not decreased?
NC: Check the sources. Technology is only one factor, and not a major one, in reducing infant mortality. General preventive care, including prenatal care, is far more important. If you want to learn more about it, check the literature.
GS: You talk up high-speed rail, and I have a number of friends who do the same (we here in Wisconsin recently lost our potential Madison-Milwaukee rail). Fast, yes. Energy-efficient, sure. But given that most of America is not nearly as dense as Europe, is it really practical?
NC: Not only practical, but amazingly so. Take Boston-New York, one of the most heavily traveled corridors. Driving is about 4 hours (and there’s nowhere to park). Flying is not much less if you count all the hassle and the driving to and from airports. In any other industrial country, and many others, RR would take maybe two hours, center-city to center-city. It takes almost 4 hours, slightly less than 60 years ago. The time lost and expense are enormous. Same elsewhere. The long distances make it even more essential.
GS: The resurrection of the Glass-Stegall Act would be a key part of any financial policy. What else do you think would be important AND could actually get passed by this Congress?
NC: The main thing would be undermining the “too big to fail insurance policy.” Another would be to rescind the ludicrous rules on corporate governance, which for example allow CEOs to pick the boards that set their salaries. A third would be to insist on transparency about stock options. Another would be to reintroduce stringent regulatory constraints dismantled in the past 30 years. In general, as the more serious economists are now beginning to realize, it’s not at all clear that the huge expansion in financial institutions serves any societal function, so perhaps they should be returned to what they were previously. And a lot more. Some of this is addressed in Dodd-Frank, but in very limited ways, and mostly symbolically, as you can read every day in the business press. It can’t be passed by Congress with the Republicans so deep in the pockets of corporate power that you need a telescope to find them, the Democrats not far behind, and a chief executive who lacks any principle and was put into office primarily by financial institutions. But in a democracy, the opinion of the population is supposed to matter.
GS: I was a big fan of Hugo Chavez. Then I started reading reports of his corruption, the oil scandals, and a book called “The Silence and the Scorpion” that is written by a former sympathizer and tries to be objective. You say that Chavez being “a tyrant dedicated to destruction of democracy” is a Western myth. Yes, it is an exaggeration, but I think it would be fair to say it has some kernels of truth to it.
NC: It’s a total lie, even though there is substantial corruption, and much worse.
GS: I know you don’t watch many films anymore, but have you seen Oliver Stone’s documentary on Venezuela (“South of the Border”), and if yes, what are your thoughts? I was impressed.
NC: I didn’t see it. There’s an interesting discussion of it. NY Times journalist Larry Rohter blasted it, charging it with all kinds of falsehoods in distortion. There is a meticulous refutation by Mark Weisbrot at CEPR.net. (Rohter’s review is here and the response from Oliver Stone and Mark Weisbrot is here. Available as of February 1, 2011 — please tell me if the link dies.)
Chapter 4: Latin American and Caribbean Unity
GS: You refer to the ALBA as “an independent development”, not an alternative to FTAA. Indeed, the FTAA seems to be accepted in such important countries as Brazil (with slight modification). Are the two wholly compatible?
NC: Depends on how they are worked out. There are a lot of open ends.
Chapter 5: “Good News”, Iraq and Beyond
GS: One concern about Iran’s influence on Iraq is their Shia sect of Islam. But would Shiite politicians have any substantial difference from Sunni?
NC: Quite different. That’s been made very clear in the past few years, if it wasn’t before.
GS: You suggest that the US “should end threats against Iran and turn to serious diplomacy.” Stephen Kinzer recently suggested that the first step should be something like what Nixon did in China: ask Iran what they want from us, rather than simply demand things without any benefit. Is this along the lines of what you would recommend?
NC: We don’t even have to ask, because we know. They want recognition of their right to enrich uranium, as members of the NPT. They’ve even been willing to abandon that right if the US gives security guarantees that it won’t attack. The US refuses. That’s what led to the breakdown of the EU-Iran negotiations.
GS: The US and UK support UN resolution 687 when applied to Iraq, but not when applied to Israel. Is there any way to actually enforce a resolution if the countries involved — particularly America — don’t wish to enforce it? (The Middle East problem would be so much better if Israel followed half of the things the UN asked of it.)
NC: It’s much worse than that. The US rejects 687, which calls for establishing a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. Global support is so strong that the US pretends to accept, but adds conditions that make it unworkable.
GS: North Korea slowed the dismantling of its nuclear reactor because America didn’t keep up its end of the bargain. However, is there any reason to believe that North Korea would comply?
NC: Only one way to find out.
GS: In 1993, President Clinton ordered Israel not to accept North Korea’s legitimacy in exchange for North Korea staying out of weapons-related involvement in the Middle East (which may have later led to North Korea allying with Syria). How could Clinton or Israel possibly reject this agreement, which seemed to offer so much for so little?
NC: Clinton did not want any recognition of North Korea. Israel must obey the master.
Chapter 6: Free Elections, Good and Bad
GS: A country, such as Israel, can only resort to self-defense after peaceful means have been exhausted, according to the UN charter. Are there standards of determining when peaceful means are “exhausted”? What a pacifist considers all peaceful means and what another person thinks could vary drastically.
NC: There are standards. It’s not mathematics, so they are not true algorithms, but they work well enough in real world cases. Take the US-Israeli attack on Gaza in Dec. 2008. Both knew that during the 2008 cease-fire, though Israel only partially observed it, Hamas didn’t file a single rocket (according to official Israeli sources). Both knew that in late December Hamas offered to renew the cease-fire, and that Israel dismissed the offer. It follows that peaceful means had not been exhausted –- in fact not even tried. That’s only part of the story, but sufficient.
GS: Israel has maintained or expanded its racist policies. Given that the population is shifting away from Orthodox Judaism (even with its tight grip on laws, such as divorce) and are embracing a more liberal culture, should we expect the next generation of Israelis to be more accepting of Arabs? Or is the rift too intrinsic, too deep?
NC: That’s actually not true. The Orthodox population is expanding. They have huge families; secular Jews are like Europeans, barely reproduce. And they are extremely racist. The Chief Sephardic Rabbi, for example, recently called for all Palestinians to be killed –- not the only case.
(In August 2010, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef said, “May our enemies and those who hate us all die, Abu Mazen and all these evil people, they should be gone from this world. May the Holy One Blessed be He strike them down with plague, them and those Palestinians, evil ones and enemies of Israel.”)
Chapter 7: Century Challenges
GS: Is there any rational defense for having a nuclear stockpile? Clearly, a warhead is not a defensive weapon. And whether a country has 5, 50, or 500 warheads, the outcome of use would be the same.
NC: Nuclear strategists give what they call rational reasons. I don’t find it convincing, but you can check and see.
Chapter 8: Turning Point?
GS: The American media seems to play up the success of things like Bush’s Road Map and Obama’s Cairo speech. Even Fidel Castro was allegedly impressed by Obama. Is it strictly an American thing to report positively on these events, or does the Western media as a whole make Middle East peace seem like it’s making more progress than it is?
NC: Bush’s Road Map was dead in the water. Israel accepted it – but with 14 reservations, which destroyed it. The press was kind enough not to report it. Obama’s Cairo speech was accompanied by a press conference in which he said that Mubarak, one of the worst dictators in the region, is a good person, and a great ally. It took a little while before the illusions vanished. In the Arab world, radically so. Again, the press is kind enough not to report public opinion. It’s pretty normal for the press in any country to try to make the leadership look good – maybe they make mistakes, no one is perfect, but nothing more.
GS: Does Israel have expansionist aims beyond Palestine? In other words, if they someday acquire the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights (which seems entirely possible at the rate they are going) would their settlements cease?
NC: They don’t want Gaza, which has been virtually destroyed, and only want about half the West Bank. They have had expansionist aims beyond in the past, but that’s very unlikely now.
GS: Obama previously called Hosni Mubarak “a stalwart ally” and “a force for stability and good”. Now, he (at least publicly) supports his resignation. Which is the real Obama: the supporter of the people or the supporter of Mubarak, or is this “diplomacy” where he accepts whichever direction the wind blows?
NC: Obama is a normal opportunist, following the usual game plan: support your favorite dictator as long as possible, and when he’s outlived his usefulness, proclaim your love for democracy and try to reestablish the same system with new names.
GS: The American media seems to be scared of the Muslim Brotherhood, both when they were winning favor in Palestine and now in Egypt. My impression is that the MB is a relatively small faction and the media brings them up because their name evokes an emotional response in white, Christian Americans. Are they really powerful? Really a threat? Or just another bogeyman?
NC: They’re a “threat” because democracy is a threat, and they might not follow US orders. The US has nothing against radical Islam. Its main ally in the region is the most extreme radical Islamist state, also the main center of Islamic terror, Saudi Arabia. And like Britain, the US has quite often supported radical Islamists against the real threat, independent secular nationalism.
Chapter 9: Election 2008, Hope Confronts the Real World
GS: Although Obama’s generic message was hope and change, he did outline several specific proposals. Can we expect a politician — any of them — to follow through? In other words, is there even a point to listening to campaign speeches?
NC: McCain’s message was also hope and change. That only shows that party managers can read polls. I never bother with campaign speeches, any more than with ads for toothpaste.
GS: Obama was supported by the finance sector. So was Rahm. His advisers include Rubin and Summers, both insiders who helped create the ongoing financial crisis. Wikileaks is about to release documents from Bank of America and other institutions. Clearly those inside have no incentive for reform, but do you think these documents could prompt a new flurry of bills and/or regulations?
NC: I doubt it very much.
GS: I supported the Employee Free Choice Act. But today’s unions are often corrupt and obsequious towards the corporate management. Where are the employees to turn?
NC: To unions, which are overwhelmingly honest and effective. And if they are not, to the very significant reform movements within them.
GS: You write that Republicans have a strong consolidation in voting, whereas Democrats tend to splinter (with so-called moderates voting with Republicans). I absolutely agree, and think this is a problem with the liberal/progressive movement in general — too much in-fighting. However, we just saw the Tea Party Republicans break rank and vote down some Patriot Act extensions. Could this be a new chapter in Republican solidarity?
NC: Republican solidarity has been a campaign strategy to make sure that government initiatives fail. It’s solidarity in “No.” When they have to make proposals, they’ll splinter.
GS: The people of Afghanistan (rightly) consider Hamid Karzai to be an American puppet. Is there anything an elected leader in Afghanistan could do to NOT be an American puppet?
NC: Karzai isn’t just a willing puppet. The Obama administration hardly welcomed his first message: stop the bombing. If you check, you’ll find that the favorable media image began to fade as he took a more independent stance. How far an elected leader could go is hard to say.
Chapter 10: Obama on Israel-Palestine
GS: How has and/or how will the uprising in Egypt affect the flow of arms between Egypt and Gaza?
NC: I suspect it won’t.
GS: When negotiating Middle East peace, only approved factions are talked to and the others are considered terrorist organizations. You met with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in 2006… first, do you feel Obama could have a reasonable conversation with him? And two, how do visits like that not lead to you being on a terror watch list?
NC: Everyone I know of who’s met Nasrallah has been impressed, including people like Edward Peck, counter-terror specialist in the Reagan administration. It’s US policy that prevents a reasonable conversation. Am I on the terror watch list? You’ll have to ask the FBI. Technically, anyone who speaks to him, I suppose, could be charged under the Supreme Court ruling that Obama put through recently, Holder v Humanitarian Law Project, the worst attack on civil liberties since the Smith act. (For more, read here.)
Chapter 11: The Torture Memos
GS: There has been talk recently that President Bush II canceled a trip to Europe for fear that he might get arrested in connection with torture. Do you think this is really why the trip was canceled, and would any European nation actually arrest him? I have a hard time believing they would have to the guts to face the hellfire American politicians and media would rain down on them.
NC: That apparently is the reason for the cancellation. I can’t imagine that he’d actually be arrested, though.
Chapter 12: 1989 and Beyond
GS: You suggest that Pope Benedict (when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger) aided in the “expulsion” and “suppression” of liberation theology… but no footnotes are supplied. What are you actually claiming and what are the sources?
NC: What I wrote was more careful: that there was expulsion and suppression, as there certainly was, and that it was under the guidance of Ratzinger, the most prominent and influential harsh critic of liberation theology. You can easily find his critique with a Google search. One leading liberation theologian who he targeted, and was suppressed, was Leonardo Boff. (For more on Boff, see here.)