This article was last modified on December 18, 2007.

Conversations with Chomsky

While this is still growing towards a substantive list or inquiry, here are a few questions I had for philosopher, linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky. I will add more later if I have more questions to ask…

Hopefully this modest offering clears up a point or two for someone who may have had some confusion.

Politics and History

GS: In “Middle East Illusions”, on one occasion you refer to Ariel Sharon’s police escorts as “soldiers” (p. 207). A few pages later, you refer to the men as “police”. (p. 218) Semantically, there is a big difference between “police” and “soldiers”… could you explain the discrepancy?

NC: The reports varied, understandably. There isn’t much of a difference. E.g., Border Police are basically army.

GS: In “Chronicles of Dissent”, you say: “There wasn’t a particle of evidence that the Russians had anything to do with the North Korean attack, nor is there today.” (p. 125) How exactly do you mean this? The history books seem to put a lot of emphasis on meetings between North Korea and Russia prior to the official outbreak of the conflict. Do you just mean there was no direct involvement?

NC: At that time there wasn’t any evidence. Since then Russian archives have been released that indicate that Stalin at least gave a green light.

GS: Also in “Chronicles”, on pages 293 and 305, you present the idea that more attention should have been paid to the viewpoint of Ahmed Chalabi. Today, many war critics would say that less attention should have been paid to Chalabi (albeit during different conflicts). What are your overall thoughts on the man?

NC: I’d met Chalabi in the 80s, and had a good impression of him. At the time of “Chronicles,” [May 1991] no sound reasons had been produced to discredit him. Since then a lot has happened. It’s not so much war critics, but the CIA and the Administration, who say that the Pentagon civilians paid too much attention to him, and in fact have charged him with being virtually an Iranian agent — and even more serious charges. My current opinion is that he seems to be a power-hungry conniver, not my impression from earlier years.

On Oil

GS: On page 54 of “Deterring Democracy”, you discuss how in the 1970s the increased price of oil was beneficial to American corporations and the government was not “averse” to the increase. You discuss oil profits also in “Chronicles of Dissent” on page 306, where you say the increase of the price of Middle East oil helps America and England make a profit because our oil (from Alaska and the North Sea) is naturally higher cost. Further, the Middle East profits return to America through the purchase of weapons and other investments. With countries such as Venezuela (a chief oil supplier) and China (a chief oil consumer) becoming more powerful and global players, are American corporations still the primary beneficiaries, or has the flow of profits become more complex?

NC: It’s more complex now than in the 70s, because the oil producers are diversifying their economic arrangements. About 40% of Middle East oil now goes to the East, not the West. Saudi Arabia and Venezuela are entering into closer commercial and other relations with China. Iran is no long in Washington’s pocket, and also may be turning to the China-based Asian system that is taking shape. Even Kuwait, in the past a virtual colony, is moving towards a basket of currencies. If the documentary record is ever released, we’re likely to discover that these are the prime reasons for the invasion of Iraq, and for the insistence on a long-term military presence there — basically a bipartisan stand.

GS: With regards to the oil situation, I have no doubt that oil is the key factor (or at least one of the key factors) behind the current American presence there. I know it’s not typical for politicians to think morally, logically or altruistically, but the simple question for me is this: if all the money spent in Iraq were to go into developing alternative fuel sources, reducing or eliminating our energy dependence, wouldn’t we save money, save lives and reduce violence against the United States, as well as give us a long-term advantage over emerging countries such as China and Russia? It seems like we’re going backwards, aiming for 20th century goals in the 21st century.

NC: In my opinion, if the United States were running on solar energy, we’d still have the same policies with regard to Middle East oil — just as we had the same policies in the 1950s, when the US wasn’t using it. The primary issue has always been control, not access — very different matters. I have written about it frequently. Control over energy has always been recognized to be a device for control of the world, in particular of allies.

GS: Tying in to the control of oil reserves, you mention on p. 172 of “Turning the Tide” that the most likely location for an outbreak of global war is the Middle East, which I think is an assumption most would agree on. How do you foresee such a thing coming about — United States versus Russia for oil, Israel versus any number of surrounding countries, a combination of both or something else?

NC: The region is so volatile and so important that it could happen in many ways. To mention one, a few weeks ago one of England’s most highly regarded military historians, Corelli Barnett, wrote that if the United States attacks Iran, it will be World War III. Not might, but will (see note 1). And it’s easy to conjure up other possibilities. To mention another, by now about 40% of Middle East oil goes to the East. Iran is an observer of the China based Shanghai Cooperation Council which is also an energy grid in the making, including also Russia and the Central Asian states. India is an observer too, and will probably join. The US was denied observer status. If Iraq gains even nominal independence it’s likely that the Shiite region, where most of the oil is, will move in that direction, probably bringing along neighboring Shiite regions of Saudi Arabia, where most of Saudi oil is. That has the makings of weakening or ending US control over the world’s main oil resources, with China and the Asian bloc taking greater control. Forget lunatics like Cheney and Bush. The Clinton doctrine was that the United States may use military force to protect access to markets and resources, and they were not thinking of this contingency, largely an effect of Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz fanaticism. This could easily lead to a major war.

On the Bank of the South, IMF, World Bank

GS: What are your projections concerning the “Banco del Sur”, the system South American governments are setting up to counter the IMF?

NC: Chances seem reasonably good [that the IMF can be countered], with the weakening of the IMF-World Bank-US Treasury coalition.

GS: Assuming the bank improves Latin and South American economies, will this result in the previously oppressed countries (Nicaragua, Guatemala, etc.) having a more forceful voice on the world stage?

NC: That’s a hopeful view, not unrealistic.

On Cambodia and Pol Pot

GS: On many occasions in “Turning the Tide”, you compare Central American genocides to Pol Pot and Cambodia. I know you’ve received heavy criticism from people on the issue of the Khmer Rouge (most of which I think is unfounded). On p. 17, you write that “the Khmer Rouge had killed perhaps tens of thousands … the press was satisfied with no less than 2 million”. Just so I’m clear on your actual position (rather than the position others have attributed to you), I ask directly: what do you believe to be the actual death toll of the Cambodian genocide and what role did Pol Pot play in it?

NC: I was surprised to read that [quotation from my book], so looked it up. That’s not what it says. It says “In early 1977,….” That’s quite a crucial difference. In mid-1977 State Department intelligence, by far the most knowledgeable source, informed Congress, with the support of undersecretary Richard Holbrooke, that tens or hundreds of thousands had died — died, not been killed — mostly from rapid change, not from mass genocide, as the press was claiming, insisting on 2 million dead, a figure that was fabricated in the New York Review by Jean Lacouture, as he conceded, but then became dogma. It’s this kind of misreading that leads to the criticism to which you refer. Telling the truth is considered a horrifying crime, when state propaganda requires loyal service.

By 1979, when refugees were available, careful scholarship has reviewed the record and concluded that State Department intelligence was probably accurate about the early stages, but by 1978 atrocities were picking up sharply and by December, when the Vietnamese finally expelled the Khmer Rouge, they might have amounted to 1.7 million who died from all causes, and by 1978, with plenty of terror. The CIA later published a demographic analysis claiming that 50-100,000 had been killed, that the atrocities lessened after the early years, and that most Cambodians did not suffer much. The one serious Cambodia scholar who reviewed this demographic study, Michael Vickery, suggested that the CIA falsifications may have to do with the fact that by 1978 the United States was beginning its “tilt towards China” and that intelligence was therefore downplaying KR atrocities just when they were peaking. And of course in 1979 the United States turned to direct support for the Pol Pot regime. Pol Pot was directly implicated in all the atrocities.

Government documents that surfaced a few years ago add further light on all of this. They reveal that the US bombing of Cambodia, already known to be horrendous, was in fact 5 times as high as reported, making rural Cambodia the most heavily bombed area in history, more than the total allied bombing in World War II. That was on orders from Nixon, transmitted loyally by Kissinger, who sent the immortal words “anything that flies against anything that moves,” probably the clearest call for genocide in the archival record of any state. The effect, according to the leading Cambodia scholars Ben Kiernan and Owen Taylor, was to turn the Khmer Rouge from a marginal force of a few thousand, to a huge army of “enraged peasants” who then took their review on the city dwellers who they regarded as the source of the enormous terror to which they had been subjected.

Since these facts are not useful for constructing an appropriate self-image, they are scrupulously ignored. That’s how things work in a profoundly loyal and deeply indoctrinated intellectual culture.

GS: My apologies on the misreading; it was not intentional. As you allude to the atrocities of 1977 but not the overall picture, I was under the mistaken impression this was referring to the genocide as a whole. (Particularly since the fabricated 2 million number is so close to what is now seen as the total amount.)

NC: It’s worth recalling that the 2 million figure was fabricated when the actual credible reports were in the thousands and tens of thousands. And the later figure refers to atrocities well after that period — and when the United States was tilting towards China and its Khmer Rouge ally. It’s also interesting to see how the 2 million figure was fabricated in the NY Review of Books. It was a review of a book by Francois Ponchaud, who claimed that 800,000 were killed by the American bombing and that the American Embassy had estimated 1.2 million killed by the Khmer Rouge (which the embassy emphatically denied). Adding them up, we get 2 million, and the author, Jean Lacouture, added that the Khmer Rouge “boasted” of killing 2 million. The 800,000 figure was also a great exaggeration, as I wrote at the time — but correcting a charge against the United States is considered appropriate, so no one every complained about that, or even mentioned it. It’s correcting outlandish lies about official enemies that is regarded as the ultimate crime.

On the United Nations

GS: Your primary point in Acts of Aggression seems to be that the United States has routinely ignored the United Nations Charter, unilaterally unleashing threats and force as it sees fit. The United States has veto power and the United Nations has practically no way to enforce resolutions. With this in mind, is there something that can be done to make the UN something more than an impotent organization? Should it be scrapped entirely?

NC: Popular opinion in the United States strongly supports the United Nations and thinks the UN, not the US, should take the lead in international crises. A majority even favor giving up the veto and following majority opinion, even if we don’t like it. Elites very strongly disagree, pretty much across the spectrum. So what can be done? Same as with regard to a lot of other issues. Work to turn the US into a functioning democracy, in which the will of the public matters. Not the answer to everything, but it would make it a much better world, in most respects.

GS: I am in agreement with the majority: I fully support the UN over the US and I also fully support the removal of veto power for the United States (as well as the other veto-wielding powers). The value of justice and equality far outweighs American interests. But what is the concrete solution: if American elites will never follow this route and American leaders are continuously elected from the pool of elites, what actual steps can anyone outside this pool do to “turn the US into a functioning democracy”?

NC: I don’t think it makes sense for us to claim, with all of our privilege and opportunities, that we can’t achieve what Bolivian peasants have, under vastly harsher conditions — and what Americans often have in the past. It’s more lack of will than lack of opportunity.

GS: Well stated. I was hoping you had a more specific example of where to start, though. It would seem to change America’s role at the UN, one would need to be the president. Currently, to be president you need the support of the media and the corporations, which you likely aren’t going to receive unless you’re in the elite class. Corporations can be regulated, but only by the Congress (largely made up of elites). The media can be improved, though the FCC is also made up of elites. Where does one begin to make changes?

NC: I think the way to make changes is at the grass roots level, so that the government will have to respond to the popular will. If the state-corporate-media system of alliance against the population remains unchallenged, then changes will be slight. But that can certainly be done, as it is elsewhere, as it has been done in the past right here.

There aren’t any magic keys. It takes hard work, by a lot of people, cooperating. Every little component helps. That’s the way every major gain has been achieved.

On the Catholic Church

GS: In “Pirates and Emperors”, you make a passing mention of the Catholic Church being a target of the “war on terror” in South America (with slain Jesuits and an Archbishop). Which had me wondering: why doesn’t the Catholic Church, a worldwide body with millions if not billions of members, have a stronger union speaking out against war and torture? Is there a parallel to the bishops (and to some extent the Pope) in Nazi Germany?

NC: The Church of Pope John XXIII and the Latin American Bishops did not only speak out against war and torture, but worked hard to live up to the radical pacifist lessons of the Gospels. That’s why they were subjected to extreme violence and terror, particularly during the Reagan years. But those were, unfortunately, pretty rare exceptions. Though not entirely. Thus the Vatican strongly opposed the invasion of Iraq.

GS: The words of the Vatican aside, where is the condemnation in the pulpits, church bulletins, and so forth? Where is the opposition from the voices the lay people actually hear?

NC: It varies. Sometimes the statements of the National Council of Bishops in the United States are considered so radical that the press won’t even report them. Even individual cases vary. Take Boston College, the main Catholic university in Boston. It gave an honorary degree to Cesar Jerez, the rector of the Jesuit university in Managua, who had fled there for safety after the assassination of Archbishop Romero, to whom he was very close. He was not a Sandinista, but was sympathetic to much of what they were doing. Boston Cardinal Law, super-reactionary and close to the Reagan administration, stayed away, the first time a Cardinal had refused to attend the commencement. And there are many such cases. The Church is a complicated affair, like most human institutions.

On Attacks Against America

GS: In “The Culture of Terrorism” (p. 120) and other places, you say that America’s “national territory had not been threatened since the War of 1812”. However, the mainland of America was attacked during World War II according to various sources. On February 23, 1942, a Japanese submarine attacked oil production facilities at Goleta, California. A Japanese submarine surfaced near the Columbia River, Oregon on the night of June 21 and June 22, 1942, and fired shells toward Fort Stevens. September 9, 1942: an attempt to start a forest fire was made by a Japanese seaplane dropping incendiary bombs over Mount Emily, Oregon. On June 12, 1942, a U-Boat landed with explosives and plans at East Hampton, New York. Other examples exist, but the point is that both Japanese and German military did attack America (poorly). Do you dispute this? Or by “threatened” do you mean there was actually a chance of losing our sovereignty?

NC: I don’t dispute it, but these are such trivialities that they do not amount to an attack on the national territory.

GS: So we’re clear: when you say “threaten” you mean threaten to the extent of actually disrupting a nation’s ability to function? And when you say “attack” you don’t consider minor raids or skirmishes; an “attack” would have to be something along the lines of a full-scale invasion?

NC: No, 9/11 didn’t disrupt the country’s ability to function and wasn’t remotely like a full-scale invasion, but it was an attack on the national territory, the first since 1814. Of course there were marginal incidents, like Pancho Villa, or those you mentioned, but they were scarcely pinpricks.

GS: Harsher critics than myself would take you to task on the loose way you define what constitutes an “attack” and/or being “threatened” but I understand your point.

NC: I don’t think the term “harsher critics” is appropriate. The term “apologists for state terror” might be more accurate — unless, of course, those critics think that US presidents should be brought to war crimes trials for their attacks against Cuba, Nicaragua, and a host of others, not to speak of the attacks they carried out or sponsored against Russia up to the early 1950s and again in the 1980s, all much worse than the pinpricks you mention. I don’t recall such critics.

GS: That’s a fair point and I wouldn’t object to it. Certainly if one leader or nation can be brought to trial for heinous acts, the United States shouldn’t be omitted from those under scrutiny. This goes back at least to the uneven prosecutions at Nuremberg in modern times, where Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki should all have fallen under the category of “war crimes”. I would still maintain that regardless of how awful the United States may act, the “pinpricks” America felt during World War II would still count as “attacks” or “threats” to the “national territory” (albeit on a small scale). But again, I understand your distinction.

On Resistance and Dissent

GS: In the addendum to your essay “On Resistance” you dissect assertions made by a person you rename “Mr. Y”; as I have little chance of finding the original article, what was Mr. Y’s real name?

NC: I’d have to check too, and right now don’t have time. But if I didn’t identify him, it was for a reason, and I wouldn’t identify him now for the same reason.

GS: I suspect the purpose was simply to contrast him with Mr. X. Mr. Y’s actual name was printed in the February 1, 1968 edition of the New York Review of Books, so I don’t think you had any motive to protect him, as he already made his identity and position public. I suppose that will be my mission for the day, trying to track down a microfilm copy of this publication…

NC: It’s not necessary to look for a microfilm. It’s in print, probably available in libraries, too.

GS: Amazingly, as it turns out, the archives back to the 1960s are all available online so I hardly had to do anything. The professor’s name was Chad Walsh, from Beloit College (Wisconsin) who specialized in poetry and the works of C. S. Lewis. My first thought was how strange that a poet would take up the debate on resistance and dissent, but then I realized it’s no more strange than a linguist (yourself) or someone trained in cognitive science (myself). I suppose you never had any further exchanges with Walsh?

NC: That’s good. The name sounds familiar, but have no clear recollection. What would really be strange, I think, would be if a political scientist or international relations specialist would take up the debate on resistance and dissent. That’s very rare, and would be no more appropriate than poets, linguists, or cognitive scientists, since their professional disciplines have nothing particular to say about the matter.

GS: I think the real dichotomy is between those who discuss it in the realm of academia (say, sociologists or historians, practicing what one might call “intellectual masturbation”) and those who have a debate with the intention of changing how the world and power is seen. Once we move from theory to actualization, any opinion grounded in reason and reality should be considered valid regardless of its source.

On Libya and Qaddafi

GS: You have a chapter in “Pirates” on Libya and Qaddafi’s role in American “demonology” (your term) during the Reagan Administration. He was widely regarded as the chief supporter of (retail) terrorism. Qaddafi is still the leader of Libya today as he was in the 1980s. Why has his name virtually disappeared down the memory hole over the past decade?

NC: He was very useful as a punching bag for the Reagan administration, as discussed in that chapter. He is no longer.

GS: But how does such a looming figure simply disappear from public discourse? Without his death or a war, he has faded away. Even comprehensive “war on terror” articles that provide background histories seem to have Libya mysteriously absent.

NC: Because he is no longer useful as a punching bag. Reviewing the actual facts, as was done in Pirates and Emperors, would put the United States in an ugly light, so therefore it is all excised from history. Qaddafi is an embarrassment. Right at this moment in fact. For their own political purposes, a few years ago the US and Britain tried hard to implicate Libya in the terrorist destruction of a commercial airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, though it was very likely that it was revenge, not involving Libya, for the US destruction of an Iranian commercial airliner killing 290 people while the US was supporting Saddam Hussein in his aggression against Iran. Several Libyans were convicted by a Scottish court, though the charges were dubious and the evidence scanty. Now it turns out that the evidence was apparently faked, perhaps with participation of the CIA and FBI. One of the accused has been released, and the rest may be too. Under such circumstances, it is not helpful to have Qaddafi in the headlines.

That aside, he’s now pretty well accepted the US orders that he was defying before.

On Marx, Lenin and Trotsky

GS: I have a colleague who is a ranking member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). While his goals and mine are largely the same (although I am more reform-oriented and he revolution-oriented), we differ in one clear way: he finds it valuable to use Marx and Lenin as guides to change, whereas I find them inspirational but largely temporal writings. What do you think the value of Marx, Lenin and other early writings is?

NC: Marx is a complex figure, with rich contributions from which one can selectively draw. His tactical suggestions were time-bound, and he had little to say about how to carry out social change. Lenin’s programs were subjected to harsh critique by the Marxist left early on, and rightly, I think.

GS: We are in general agreement on this point. Would you say Trotsky’s views were preferable to Lenin’s, or are they essentially simply different adumbrations of the same ideas?

NC: Trotsky had been a very harsh critic of Lenin, but joined with him, of course, in 1917, and shares responsibility for the Bolshevik programs. When he was kicked out, he returned to something more like his earlier views, then as an anti-Stalinist.

Alexander Cockburn, Global Warming and the Media

GS: Your friend and colleague Alexander Cockburn has written (among other statements) that there is “zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic production of CO2 is making any measurable contribution to the world’s present warming trend.” You have been a supporter of the anthropogenic theory for decades. How are you and Cockburn looking at this differently?

NC: How? I don’t understand the question. We’re looking at the evidence available and drawing very different conclusions.

GS: That’s precisely what I’m driving at. How do two intelligent, scientifically-trained people look at the same data and get conclusions that are polar opposites? Either CO2 correlates to the changing temperatures or it doesn’t, one would think.

NC: Neither of us has the scientific background to reach an independent conclusion. The correlation between CO2 and changing temperature is an overwhelming scientific consensus. There are debates, but they are at the margins, and also debates, at the margins, about the human contribution to rising CO2 levels and its likely effect. The question is how seriously we should take risks that could be limited or could be catastrophic.

GS: When Christopher Hitchens came out in favor of the Iraq invasion, he lost a lot of authority with the liberal audience, even on issues he was very knowledgeable about. Do you think Cockburn’s global warming stance has cost him credibility on other issues he writes about?

NC: I’m afraid so. Not too much, I hope. As for Hitchens, he’d lost any credibility a long time before, in my opinion. I stopped reading him pretty much by the early 90s. Too much ranting and dishonesty.

GS: This is sort of the reverse: given that Cockburn is a particularly popular and influential writer, do you think his stance is causing a schism in what would otherwise be an issue of liberal solidarity?

NC: Probably not much, because it doesn’t seem that his position has much influence on this topic. The term “liberal” might not be the right one. Cockburn is anathema to the liberal mainstream.

GS: Cockburn says that since “we have the web… We’re infinitely better off than we were thirty years ago” and suggests we need not worry about media monopolies. John Nichols says this line of thinking opens the gates for the corporations to buy up even more independent outlets. Where do you weigh in on this debate?

NC: I didn’t see Cockburn’s comment. The web had advantages and disadvantages. It’s no substitute, in my opinion, for decent media. Monopolization is harmful, even though the variety was limited anyway. I suspect Nichols is referring to an ongoing struggle about control of the internet. He is involved in the grass roots efforts to prevent major corporations from effectively controlling access. You can find out details in books of his and Robert McChesney’s, together and separately.

GS: In fact, I am referencing Nichols/McChesney’s book Tragedy and Farce, so you’re right on the mark. I had the opportunity to meet and speak with Nichols in September and will be attending the 2008 National Conference on Media Reform. I think that education of the American public via the media is the key issue for ensuring a strong democracy (which we sadly lack). Anyway, would it be fair to summarize your comments as “stopping monopolization is important but would not be the primary factor to providing alternative points of view”?

NC: Fair enough.


GS: You have written about “racial bias in enforcement and sentencing that is devastating black communities” regarding the war on drugs. Due to increased support of medical marijuana, partial decriminalization of marijuana in some locales and the recent (2007) bill to equate crack and powder cocaine, do you see this bias decreasing? Are we heading down a better path with drug-related law enforcement?

NC: If there are any moves, they are very slight, nothing like what’s needed. That’s true even of medical marijuana, which ought to be an open-and-shut matter in a civilized society.

GS: Let’s reverse this a moment. As you (and many others) have pointed out, the drug war pushes for more and larger prisons to house nonviolent offenders, leading to a growing prison and surveillance society. If drug arrests decrease (which I believe is coming about slowly but is ultimately inevitable) will the prison industry shrink — or, like the DOD, will there be some way to justify massive amounts of penal spending?

NC: There has to be some point at which the prison-industrial complex levels off. But that’s not the way to deal with the issues, we agree.

On Thomas Friedman and Iraq

GS: Thomas Friedman sums up the options in Iraq as either the “iron fist” or “instability” on page 90 (of “Year 501”). Perhaps this is a big question, but is it possible for Iraq to be governed without an iron fist or strong military rule (such as under Britain)? Can the various religious factions co-exist as one non-partitioned country?

NC: Friedman was not referring to what would work for Iraqis. He meant a US-backed iron fist, and “stability” is just a code word referring to obedience to the United States. It’s even possible for highly regarded liberal commentators to speak of the need to “destabilize” Allende’s Chile in order to bring “stability.”

Iraq has a significant democratic tradition — there’s some discussion of this in “Failed States”, with sources. It’s the imperial iron fist that has created most of the tensions. Now, too. Just two or three years ago Iraqis were declaring that there could never be sectarian violence because the communities were too closely integrated. The US “iron fist” shattered that. Just as the US invasion vastly increased terrorism, so also it created the conditions for sectarian violence.

On American Slavery

GS: The English offered to emancipate the slaves in America if they fought for the British in the Revolutionary War (p. 141 of “Year 501”). How realistic is this offer, given the slave trade wasn’t made illegal in England until 1802?

NC: The English offer had some effect. Recall that long after England formally banned the slave trade, it maintained slavery. In its Caribbean colonies, for example.

GS: Are you saying the English offer had some effect as far as the slaves in America becoming more free? What I was getting at is this: if the English had won the Revolutionary War, would the slaves have actually been granted freedom or would the English renege on the emancipation offer? (Obviously the answer requires speculation, but I find it very doubtful that England would allow free former slaves in America but non-free slaves in England.)

NC: The English offer had some effect in bringing slaves to join the loyalists. Among the huge number of Americans who fled in terror after the victory of the rebels — probably about as many, per capita, as fled Vietnam after the United States left, and they were fleeing the richest country in the world — a fair number were former slaves. Numbers are not known precisely, for obvious reasons.

As for what you had in mind — which I didn’t understand from your letter — there’s no way of knowing. It was quite a live issue in England, and retaining the colonies would have changed the course of history in many ways. For one thing, the US would almost certainly have not become an industrial society. England would very likely have followed the precepts of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and insisted that the colonies keep to their comparative advantage in exporting fish, fur, and agricultural products. How that would have influenced slavery is almost impossible to guess.

On Sudan

GS: On a few occasions in “Rogue States” (p. 10, 46 and 108) you allude to the destruction of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan. I personally believe this attack was one of the primary catalysts for the 9/11 attacks. Do you see a direct link between these two events, or is the Sudan attack simply one of many isolated anti-Muslim mistakes that lead to the retaliation on 9/11?

NC: It’s hard to know. In the West, the destruction of half the pharmaceutical supplies of a poor African country, with probably tens of thousands killed, is considered a minor caper — and in the context of Western crimes, that’s not unrealistic. But we do not really know the reactions of the “unpeople”, to adopt historical Mark Curtis’s apt phrase, because few care to find out.

You can find more detail and sources about the bombing in the small collection of interviews “9/11”, if you’re interested — one of the reasons that collection so infuriated liberal intellectuals.

GS: As soon as I asked, it occurred to me I ought to have checked “9/11”, and sure enough Al-Shifa appears on pages 45-53. You use it not so much as a precursor for 9/11 (as I suggested), but more to illustrate the point the US commits terrorist acts on an equal or larger scale to 9/11 on a regular basis.

If the attack was a response to bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, but no Sudanese involvement was known, how can such an attack in Sudan’s territory be justified? (Even if the missiles hit a terror camp and NOT a medicine plant, doesn’t basic sovereignty apply?)

As recently as 2004, when testifying to the 9/11 Commission, the Al-Shifa plant was still seen as an appropriate target by many high-ranking Clinton officials (Al Gore, Sandy Berger, George Tenet, and Richard Clarke). William Cohen even told them Al-Shifa was a “WMD-related facility”, with a “chemical weapons role”. All this, despite the fact other government officials have debunked every known justification (such as the bin Laden connection and the presence of a VX nerve gas component). What measures, if any, can be taken to get public officials to get their facts straight and to come clean?

NC: The actual story is this. In early interviews after 9/11 I pointed out that it was a uniquely horrendous act in many ways, but not because of the numbers killed. In fact one of the minor footnotes to the crimes of the leader of the Free World probably killed about as many (which was in fact a serious underestimate). That phrase elicited total hysteria, denials, deceit, etc. Even claims (New Yorker) that one person had died. In reaction, I spelled out the details and background — eliciting more hysteria. I didn’t compare 911 to al-Shifa. They differ in too many respects. Also, it’s not properly called terror; rather, an instance of the far more serious crime of aggression, just as everyone would assume if, say, Iran blew up the producer of half the pharmaceutical supplies in Israel, or any other country inhabited by human beings.

Sudan was a target for the same reason that Israel (with US help) bombed Tunis, that the US bombed Tripoli, etc. It was a cheap and defenseless target, and there would be little objection to the atrocity on the part of Western humanists. In fact virtually none.

In a military dictatorship, it’s hard to hold leaders accountable. You end up tortured and killed. In societies like ours failure to do it reflects lack of will.

GS: Yes, I am aware of your position on why 9/11 was unique — you have said in multiple interviews and lectures that this was the first time the guns were turned on the United States.

I suppose you’re right about the distinction between terror and aggression. The Al-Shifa attacks didn’t so much terrify people as simply leave them to die…

NC: (no comment)

On Movies, Spanish Civil War

GS: Have you seen the film “Pan’s Labyrinth”, and if so what did you think of it?

NC: Don’t know it.

GS: If you enjoy films, I would recommend “Pan’s Labyrinth”. It won, I believe, the 2006 Oscar for best cinematography, and is a fictionalized account of the Spanish Civil War.

NC: My wife and I used to be film addicts, but in recent years it’s been hard. Never heard of this one.

GS: On page 62 of “Failed States”, you talk about Franco’s Spain. Franco, obviously, was not a benevolent leader and your views on the rebellion are laid out pretty clearly in the collection “Chomsky on Anarchism”. My question is speculative: as awful as Franco was, do you think that his rule saved the Spanish from a much larger, bloodier German invasion?

NC: It’s possible, though not obvious. The same could be said about Italian Fascism.

GS: I would agree with the assertion about being able to
make similar claims about Mussolini and Franco. I guess I think of the circumstances differently because the Spaniards fought a bloody war (500,000 casualties) and then when fascism won, they were spared the onslaught of Germany. If the communists and anarchists had won, the 500,000 casualties would likely have been followed by many more. Italy, as far as I recall, did not have a civil war at this time.

NC: The civil war is not a decisive difference. If instead of Mussolini’s brand of fascism taking over the powerful left would have done so, Hitler might have invaded. The analogy holds reasonably well. Similarly, in Spain Hitler might well have preferred a neutral Spain no matter who was in charge. Speculation does not mean much, and I don’t see exactly what the issue is.

On Health Care

GS: You have written that in order for the American people to get what they want with health care, there needs to be a popular movement or the business community needs to decide they want it. Health care seems to have been the biggest domestic concern over the past year and we may finally see (small) changes. How much is this a popular movement and how much is it a push by companies such as GM?

NC: There’s no significant evidence I can see of shift in popular attitudes or organization from 2004 to 2008. There is a huge shift in the articulated concerns of manufacturing industry.

GS: A health care overhaul seems unavoidable given all the media coverage of SCHIP and Measure 50, as well as health care being the primary selling point of the Democratic presidential platform. From your remarks, should I assume the changes will be a boon to big business (General Motors, et al.) but not necessarily the average citizen?

NC: Whatever happens is likely to be a boon to manufacturing industry. In fact, it already is, with their abandonment of commitments to the work force. The effects for the population depend on what the outcome is. I don’t frankly expect much.

GS: Understood, and I would agree. The only candidates who seem to have any citizen-oriented health care plan (such as Dennis Kucinich) have no chance in hell of winning the nomination (as usual).

On Boxing

GS: One biographical tidbit I found amusing was that you were boxing in college. The thought of you, a rather slender man, getting punched in the face was comical to me. Do you have any recollections of this part of your life?

NC: Sure. We were paired up with friends, about the same size and strength. I was appalled to learn how easily one can get into the state of trying to hurt someone who is a close friend. Scary.

GS: I was hoping to get some “dirt” out of you… none of your sparring partners went on to be anyone notable?

NC: No dirt I’m afraid. My main sparring partner, a close friend, went on to become a law professor, very prominent in defense of freedom of speech.

GS: Well, I had to try. Thanks for leaving me with a hint, at least…

On Saddam Hussein and George H. W. Bush

GS: Has evidence ever been found linking Saddam Hussein to an attempted assassination of George H. W. Bush in April 1993? Bush II raised this concern again prior to our 2003 invasion, but I don’t recall ever hearing that this claim could be substantiated.

NC: I’ve never heard it substantiated either. Seymour Hersh had a good article about the Bush assassination attempt some years ago.

GS: Right. As I understand it, Hersh spoke with anonymous sources who pretty much summed up the evidence as circumstantial. The FBI and CIA (including outspoken critic Larry Johnson) still say the evidence adds up, and I have seen the reports comparing the device to other Middle Eastern / Iraqi devices. Yet, outside of one 36-year old man’s admission of being a colonel in the Iraqi intelligence hierarchy (given under torture), there seems to be nothing documenting this incident as Saddam-ordered (on top of the sheer suicidal will it would take to order such a hit).

NC: (no response)

On Legitimate Violence

GS: On page 55 of “Failed States”, you agree with Michael Walzer that “violence is sometimes legitimate”. This recalls for me your claim that derailing a train supplying arms for an unjust war is morally permissible. I disagree with you on this point, particularly if the derailment results in the death of any railroad employees. What qualifies violence as “legitimate”?

NC: There’s no general answer to questions like that. One has to weigh many factors. I think it would have been quite legitimate to derail trains supplying arms to the Nazis, unquestionably so if no one was harmed. On that we apparently disagree.

GS: Whether I agree or disagree that derailing a Nazi supply train is morally right I cannot say for sure without knowing the circumstances. You have said “How one should react to illegitimate authority depends on circumstances and conditions: there are no formulas.” I agree with this completely. However…

During your debate with Michel Foucault, you said “For example, in the United States the state defines it as civil disobedience to, let’s say, derail an ammunition train that’s going to Vietnam; and the state is wrong in defining that as civil disobedience, because it’s legal and proper and should be done.” This is where I disagree, because it seems to me you’re ignoring or omitting the “circumstances and conditions”. A civilian train conductor could be killed. The railways, which may have other public uses may be destroyed. Stopping this supply of weapons may not stop or slow the war or killing at all, given that another supply could easily fill its place. The administration could use this derailment as an excuse to ask for even more war funding. Basically, I cannot see any way of guaranteeing that this action has more benefits than detriments. So, in this specific case, why is it “legitimate” and why is it that this action “should be done”?

NC: It’s possible that a civilian conductor could be killed, and it’s far more possible that actions like these could help bring the war to an end and save innumerable Vietnamese lives. Your proposal amounts to saying that we should disregard the likely saving of innumerable victims of American aggression, because possibly some American might be hurt. You could have said the same, and maybe would, about civil disobedience during the civil rights movement. Sure, circumstances should always be considered, but not by a call for passivity in the face of state violence, which is, in effect, what you are calling for.

You are correct in saying there is never a guarantee that an action will be beneficial, although the passivity you are calling for is highly likely to be harmful, whether it’s derailing a train or sitting in at a lunch counter. I don’t think you are proposing a valid principle. There are always uncertainties, and one has to evaluate them. But state violence could wish for no greater gift than your proposal that we should do nothing to impede it unless we can be certain that it will help. Meaning never, so we are contributing to the efficacy of state violence, by following your precept.

GS: My ethical system is largely utilitarian, hence I base most decisions off of a likelihood for positive results. Would it be fair to summarize your position as follows: it is better for a moral agent to act in such a manner that may reduce illegal and illegitimate violence than to do nothing and ensure that such violence would continue. (i.e., You would support an action, such as train derailment, that potentially does more harm than good if the intention is such that the moral agent was acting to achieve more good than harm.) Also, would you say your ethical system is based more on the intentions of the moral agent than on other factors?

NC: I don’t agree with utilitarianism, for the kinds of reasons that Rawls and others have discussed, but that’s not relevant here, and we can take it as a fair first approximation.

Every ethical system is based on intention and assessment of the moral agent. I don’t see how it could be otherwise. In the case of the train derailment, we ask (to first approximation) about the potential harm of doing nothing, thereby contributing to some of the worst crimes of the late 20th century, or doing something, with the possibility that someone might be harmed. Seems like a pretty clear choice to me in this case, so I respect the people who undertook it.

Nevertheless, I did not participate in train derailments, though I was very much involved in other kinds of civil disobedience, where the possibility of harm was minuscule and the possible gain I felt might be greater. Some carried serious risk. I very narrowly escaped a long prison sentence.

On “Liberal” and “Conservative”

GS: Despite presiding over the Vietnam War, you called Lyndon Johnson “possibly the most liberal president”. What factors go into gauging who is more or less liberal than someone else?

NC: Not sure I follow. There’s fair agreement on what count as liberal (social democratic) programs. In LBJ’s case, voting rights, health programs, etc.

GS: I think some degree of opinion goes into assessing how “liberal” a political figure is. Many might argue, for example, Jimmy Carter was more liberal than Johnson regardless of what programs were actually implemented. So you would say your assessment was less opinion and more a straight reporting of the figures?

NC: I was not referring to their personal attitudes, which I don’t know much about (or care much about) — nor, I think, do others. Rather, to what they did. Carter initiated the programs that Reagan extended and expanded.

GS: The reason I was curious about the use of the phrase “most liberal president” to describe Johnson is that in the same series of lectures you refer to the ACLU as a “conservative” organization, which I think most people would disagree with. So I wanted to contrast the two words. What categorizes the ACLU as being conservative?

NC: The ACLU is conservative in the traditional sense: close to classical liberal. Hence its insistence on the Bill of Rights and constitutionalism generally. The terms “liberal” and “conservative” as used today refer, basically, to what in traditional (or European) terms would be called social democratic versus statist reactionary. But the terminology is so mangled as to have become almost useless.

On Suspension of Elections

GS: Matthew Rothschild and others say that Bush can suspend elections by “authority” of National Security and Homeland Security Presidential Directive 51. There is a big difference between “can” and “will” — is Rothschild bordering on being a conspiracy theorist or is there some reason to suspect malicious intent by Bush?

NC: I think the possibility is too negligible to merit attention — unless, of course, there is a major terrorist attack in the United States, in which case all bets are off.

GS: Would you say the Bush plan for government continuity is qualitatively different from prior plans? i.e., is there more reason to worry about Bush than there was for Clinton?

NC: Much more. The Bush gang are at the radical nationalist extreme of the (pretty narrow) political spectrum. However, I doubt that Democrats would react very differently to another terrorist attack.

GS: I’m not clear on what you’re saying about the Democrats. Are you saying that in case of a “catastrophic event” (whatever that be be, outlined in Directive 51) the Democrats would roll over and play dead (as they have with Iraq and FISA), basically giving Bush quasi-dictator powers? Or am I reading into that too much?

NC: I referred to a terrorist attack. In that case, the Democrats would probably go along with almost anything. They might even roll over and play dead if Bush-Cheney decide to attack Iran.

GS: I really want to believe that even after the passing of the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment (a huge mistake by all accounts) the Democrats aren’t foolish enough to approve military action on Iran. But I would agree that should Bush choose to go against Iran without the proper and legal approval, the Democrats would by and large do nothing more than whine about it after the fact.

On Burma

GS: I have seen some analysts claim that the United States supports the freedom of the Burmese people for no other reason than that we have no vested interest in Burma. Is this true — would Burmese freedom help America, or was this a minor PR stunt like the much larger one we had in Somalia many years ago?

NC: If by “United States” you mean the US government, then it’s hard to imagine that the support, such as it is, goes beyond cynicism. Note incidentally that the support doesn’t extend to pressuring Chevron, Rice’s former company, from continuing to do business in Burma. A side issue, not discussed, is that the US played a significant role in the destruction of Burmese democracy. Discussed by the founder of Southeast Asian scholarship in the US, George Kahin, in a co-authored book with Audrey Kahin, called, I think, Subversion as Foreign Policy, or something like that.

GS: I have added this book to my holiday wishlist. I was able to quickly find many sources regarding the Rice-Chevron-Burma connection, but not so much on Eisenhower or Dulles (the focus of the Kahin book). Do you happen to know their primary role offhand? I write a monthly current events piece for the local newspaper and I think this story warrants further attention.

NC: It’s not a major topic of Kahin & Kahin, but they do bring up the fact that Eisenhower’s extreme interventionist policies were a factor, maybe a prime factor, in the military coup that overthrew the parliamentary system, by stirring up tribal rebellions as part of the efforts to harass China. But look it up. This is from ten-year old memories, and I’d check before writing anything.

GS: You’ve given me enough information that I can probably dig up sources. I’m still surprised the “alternative media” (such as The Nation or The Progressive) seemed to avoid discussion of Burma altogether. This would have been a prime opportunity to speak in favor of democracy and to denounce Secretary Rice. Oh well…

On Academic Freedom

GS: I am quite sorry I had to miss your speaking engagement in Chicago (October 12, 2007) for Finkelstein and Larudee. I wish both of these great academics the very best and will continue to fight for them.

NC: Unfortunately, Larudee’s tenure was just turned down. Finkelstein’s practically blackballed, because colleges are intimidated, and don’t want to face the campaigns of lies, slanders, vilification launched by Dershowitz and other low-life.

GS: I suppose some sort of petition or another rally would be effectively moot?

NC: At DePaul, it’s now a lost cause for them, I’m afraid. It’ll be necessary to work to beat back this whole wave of Stalinist-style attack on academic freedom.

On CIA Denials; and Gavin Explains His Motivations

GS: In “Deterring Democracy”, you make a passing reference to assassination attempts on Patrice Lumumba, a topic which is discussed in the just-released “Family Jewels” collection from the CIA. Do you think these documents will change the way people look at American history and foreign policy, or is this just information many of us already assumed to be true? (I personally found nothing shocking in it, although I found the section concerning the CIA director’s willingness to testify under oath that the CIA does not assassinate people very strange.)

NC: I didn’t read the full set of documents, but from newspaper reports they seem to have confirmed what was already known. Why is it strange for the CIA director to lie under oath?

GS: I don’t find it unusual in the slightest that a CIA director (or any government official) would lie under oath. I simply found the circumstances rather excessive. Parade magazine wrote in early 1972 that the CIA “uses political assassination as a weapon”, which I hardly find controversial. William E. Colby, without prompting, wrote to editor Lloyd Shearer on February 29 that he “can say, under oath if need be, that CIA has never carried out a political assassination, nor has it induced, employed or suggested one which occurred.” [2] In follow-up letters he repeats this assertion. For the CIA to actively try to deny anything (rather than the standard “cannot confirm or deny”) without prompting seemed very out of the ordinary. Since when do they care about their image?

NC: (no response to these remarks)

GS: I came across the following on page 131 of “Year 501”: “William Colby compared the operation to his Phoenix program in Vietnam, in exculpation of his own campaign of political assassination (which Phoenix clearly was, though he denies it).”

I mentioned Colby in the Family Jewels files denying Phoenix included “political assassination” when Parade magazine wrote about it. You don’t cite your source here (congressional hearing? another print source?), but I presume it wasn’t Parade, which gives me the impression Colby was shopping around town to really get the word out on this… yet again stressing for me the oddness that CIA would go to such lengths to deny something when it would be easier to simply not comment.

NC: There’s some confusion here. I was referring to facts. True, I gave no source, but there is a rich literature on Phoenix. E.g., Douglas Valentine’s study. I didn’t cite a source because it was a side issue, and easily investigated. Parade surely would not be relevant. It’s not a source at all. I don’t really follow your point. Colby compared the operation to Phoenix because he assumed that his audience would not know enough about Phoenix to perceive the absurdity of what he was saying. That’s normal.

GS: I think you may have misunderstood me. I agree that Phoenix doesn’t need to be cited. As you said, it is easily verifiable to find instances of political assassination in the operation.

What I was curious about was the source where Colby went on record to deny that political assassination was part of the operation. I have referenced the correspondence he had with Parade going out of his way to dispel the story. I was curious where you knew of him denying it — was he testifying before Congress, or interviewed for the NYT? I just find it strange he went out of his way on numerous occasions to deny something that would be easier to “just let die”. The denial, not the operation itself, is my focus.

NC: By coincidence, just today [July 26, 2007] I came across an excellent summary article on the role of Colby and associates in systematic campaigns of torture and assassination, particularly Operation Phoenix but not only that: Alfred McCoy, in Lloyd Gardner and Marilyn Young, eds., Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam. McCoy is the leading academic specialist on the topic, among other things author of a major book on torture.

I’m still confused. The source is the one I gave: Kathy Kadane [from the San Francisco Examiner on May 20, 1990, available online at]. If you check the article I cited on the internet you’ll find the following:

Former CIA Director William Colby, in an interview, compared the embassy’s campaign to identify the PKI leadership to the CIA’s Phoenix Program in Vietnam. In 1965, Colby was the director of the CIA’s Far East division and was responsible for directing U.S. covert strategy in Asia.

“That’s what I set up in the Phoenix Program in Vietnam — that I’ve been kicked around for a lot,” he said. “That’s exactly what it was. It was an attempt to identify the structure” of the Communist Party.

He doesn’t say here that Phoenix was an assassination campaign. What I wrote in the passage you cite doesn’t say that he even referred to political assassination. Rather, I’m the one who calls his campaign one of political assassination (which it was). He didn’t deny that it was a campaign of political assassination, and I didn’t write that he did. I’m missing your point.

GS: The quotation again from page 131 of “Year 501” reads: “William Colby compared the operation to his Phoenix program in Vietnam, in exculpation of his own campaign of political assassination (which Phoenix clearly was, though he denies it).”

In your last e-mail, you wrote: “He didn’t deny that it was a campaign of political assassination, and I didn’t write that he did.”

I read the passage from the book as you writing that he denies the political assassination aspects of Operation Phoenix. Am I misinterpreting you? (I’m not trying to call you out on anything, I’m just trying to figure out where/when Colby denied the political assassination attempts, if indeed he does deny them.)

NC: (no comments)

GS: I have to ask once more regarding William Colby’s denial of political assassination during Operation Phoenix. Perhaps when you said he denied it (again, on p. 131) you simply meant he WOULD deny it. The topic has become very interesting for me, because there is now a new piece of the puzzle for me. I knew of the denial to Parade magazine wherein he claims “CIA has never carried out a political assassination, nor has it induced, employed or suggested one which occurred.” But now I have read the official CIA historian’s response to this claim: “Based on what is known about the agency’s assassination planning and Phoenix, that carefully crafted answer was not only accurate, but an exemplar of the lawyerly intellect that Colby would put to good use during the Congressional investigations of 1975-76, when his policy of controlled disclosure may have saved the C.I.A. from dissolution.” (Again, see note 2 for source.) I find calling these words “accurate” a very interesting interpretation. So this is why it interests me: if you have another instance of him denying political assassination, I’d be very interested in his exact wording of it.

NC: Sorry I didn’t answer. I’m afraid I don’t understand this question, however. You brought up the fact that Colby denied that the CIA carried out political assassination. I cited for you sources that show that the CIA did exactly that. Operation Phoenix is only one of many examples. Exactly as I wrote. What’s the puzzle?

GS: We keep arriving at this from different angles, possibly because I poorly worded my original question. I’m not concerned with sources confirming Phoenix included political assassination. As you say, many sources exist (including the ones you offered). I was calling attention to the line you wrote on page 131 of “Year 501” where you say that Phoenix was political assassination, but “he denies it” (with “he” being Colby). I am curious what the occasion was where/when Colby denied it because I want to know what his exact wording was when he denied it.

So what I am looking for is how you know he denied it, or if you meant it in a more general sense such as “he would deny it if asked”. Since the CIA historian considers his denial to Parade accurate (I don’t), I’m curious how he worded/phrased it elsewhere, to see if he was as careful in his diction. The events of Operation Phoenix are interesting, but not my concern here: I am simply looking for a Colby quotation wherein he denies CIA involvement with political assassination.

NC: Colby had repeatedly denied that the CIA was involved in political assassination, quite publicly. I didn’t bother to give citations because it was so well-known and it was peripheral to the topics discussed. I also don’t see why you find this interesting, since you know that he’s denied it.

You cited references to me in your last letter. If you check media at around the time of the Church Committee revelations you should not have any trouble locating the many sources. In fact, the very sentence from Year 501 is a denial that Phoenix was an assassination program (which it clearly was). That’s why he compared the CIA program in Indonesia to Phoenix, exculpating the CIA in both cases.

GS: Thank you. I believe this has cleared up my questions.
I will be sure to look into Colby’s statements more. Originally, the Colby denials interested me because,as I’ve said, I find it very unusual for him to actively go around making denials at all. The piece that appeared in Parade could easily have been ignored, and by responding to it I think he actually had the opposite result he wanted. When a CIA officer denies something, in my mind that’s more or less a confirmation. That he has made numerous denials makes it all the more suspicious. (Of course we know now that the denials were false, but I think this could have been inferred at the time by his insistence.)

The matter became more interesting when I found that the CIA historian just weeks ago declared his denial “accurate”, making me more curious about the precision of his wording in other denials. Since we know Operation Phoenix to include political assassination, and there’s really no reason to deny it anymore, the CIA still continuing to describe the denial as “accurate” seems absurd and downright ludicrous. Unless there’s some loophole in his word choice I’m missing, but I don’t think so.

(This might not seem interesting to you, or perhaps no longer relevant, but it’s the details that really get my interest piqued.)

Thank you for also saying that Colby’s comparing Indonesia to Phoenix was a denial. I guess I didn’t see it that way. By comparing two things, in my mind this doesn’t rule out that one or both things have extraneous characteristics. I’m reading his words too literally, which I think is exactly what he expected people NOT to do.

NC: On the Indonesia analogy, the context was CIA denial that they were involved in assassinations — they only handed over lists of people to the generals who were engaged in mass slaughter of any possible enemy, but it never occurred to them that they’d be killed. Rather like the pretenses about rendition and torture. Colby’s comparison to Phoenix was support for the CIA plea that they were not involved in assassination — just like Phoenix. So it was a denial of assassination.

I don’t think it’s worthwhile to parse too carefully statements by
intelligence agencies. They’re in the business of deceit, not clarity. Rather like lawyers, often. Take the flap right now [July/August 2007] about whether [District Attorney Alberto] Gonzales perjured himself.

GS: You present a fine analogy with the rendition “plausible deniability” and Phoenix/Indonesia.

Believe me, I’m well aware of the pointlessness of combing through the words of CIA (or Alberto Gonzales, for that matter). I guess my interest in the parsing is related to my writing. I write political and philosophical essays for a general audience. Your writing covers what I would call much broader ideas (you cover entire spans of history, for example) and I think your audience more often than not is open to the ideas and concepts you express and elucidate.

I write to a different audience — one that is more skeptical — about much more specific topics. You can dismiss Gonzales or Colby in one sentence, and your audience (myself included) have no issue with that because it’s plain as day they’re not worth trusting or listening to. But I can’t dismiss them out of hand — the people who read my material require paragraphs or pages of items laid out for them. They need to be hit with a sledgehammer to have their eyes opened on basic observations. (This is not to imply the readers are unintelligent; they’re simply not involved enough to digest such concepts as “hegemony” or “American exceptionalism” without the concepts fully explained. I wasn’t much different not long ago, when things like “Wilsonian idealism” meant less than nothing to me.)

I guess, in a way, I lay down the groundwork for people so they can take your work in much easier. You have often said doing what you do requires no special training or background, and I agree. But it does require a strong grasp of the vocabulary or jargon.

NC: Thanks for the explanation. I hope you are having success.


GS: In “Reflections on Language” (p. 40), you say that the idea of apes having language skills but not using them is analogous to an animal with functional wings not thinking about flying. Do you deny that apes (or dolphins or any other creature) have language skills altogether, or do you consider it just more a matter of difference in degree? Also, are you suggesting that if an animal had advantageous skills and chose not to use them it would be simply unusual, or do you feel that such an instance could never occur?

NC: The notion “difference of degree” is too unclear to have a response. By some criteria, the difference between bacteria and humans is a matter of degree. What does seem well-established is that the most fundamental properties of human language have no counterparts in other primates. That’s even true of cases that are far more similar than apes, like songbirds and bees.

There are many known cases where animals don’t use skills that they have the capacity to acquire, and that would be advantageous. It would be advantageous to me to be a skilled mechanic, and I suppose I could acquire the skills. But I don’t.

GS: What I meant by a “difference in degree” of language skills might better be phrased as follows: assuming the premise that humans have superior cognitive skills, capacity and abilities than apes, would it follow that apes likewise possess language skills, but simply to a lesser degree than the complexity of humans’ language skills? Based on your answer, you would presumably deny this claim.

Could it be said your disagreement with those who think apes do have language (such as, perhaps, Dian Fossey) stems from your definition of “language skills” being more limited and specific? (In other words, behaviors Fossey or others would observe as language would not fit your criteria.)

Conversely, would it be fair to say your definition of “language functions” is generally broader than that given by other linguists or philosophers of language? You have written, contra Searle and Grice, that “communication is only one function of language, and by no means an essential one.” (“Reflections on Language”, p. 69) I think many philosophers would posit that language without communication would have very little value.

NC: It would make sense if language were simply a matter of greater cognitive skills. But the evidence is overwhelming that it isn’t. The basic properties of language are fundamentally different from anything found in other primates. As I mentioned, songbirds and bees are closer, though still hopelessly remote, and of course there is no homology.

We can, of course, define “language” so broadly that bees and songbirds have limited language skills, and apes vastly less. But that’s just sentimentality. From a biological point of view, it’s meaningless. We can even say that bacteria have language skills. They communicate, after all.

There is a virtually religious dogma among many philosophers that the “function” of language is communication, that language evolved as a communication system, and that language would be of no value apart from communication. We know that none of that is true. Probably 99% of your use of language is internal. Is that of no value? As for evolution, there’s quite good reason to believe that communication was an ancillary function of language, matters understood quite well by leading evolutionary biologists, for which we now have substantial empirical evidence.

GS: Your claim is that 99% of language use is internal, which begs the question: what is “internal language”? As someone from a philosophy background (cognitive science), “internal language” to me would simply denote something to the effect of thinking in words to ourselves. But, this still involves communication — either communicating with ourself, or having acquired the words from external communication (there is no one-person language), or both. So if internal language is 99% of our language use and is NOT communication, I don’t grasp what internal language would be or what would be included as its functions.

NC: 99% is meant metaphorically. It’s plainly overwhelming, as a little introspection shows. However, this has nothing at all to do with internal language (I-language) in the technical sense, so no questions are begged. Our use of language in internal dialogue and our externalization of it both rely on I-language. The technical term refers to the systems of the mind-brain that determine the sound, structure, and meaning of the expression of the language that has been acquired (with standard idealizations).

The notion “communication with oneself” is one of the moves philosophers have made to deprive the term “communication” of all meaning, so that the dogma that “the function of language is communication” is a tautology (if it means anything). The recent obsession of philosophers with communication is perhaps of some interest for the history of ideas, but the traditional notion that language serves for expression of thought seems much more reasonable. Even interchange among people is often not communication (unless, again, we decide to deprive the word of meaning, and extend it to any interaction, so that the dogma again becomes a tautology).

A standard philosophical error is the belief that language consists of what we pick up from the environment, maybe using some primitive learning devices. hat would make human language entirely isolated in the biological world, and there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Like other biological systems, language is “tuned” by the environment, but the evidence is strong that the language we acquire grows in the mind/brain much the way other subsystems of the body do, along lines set by genetic endowment and physical law. We do pick up idiosyncrasies from the environment — e.g., how meanings are associated with particular sounds. But even in this case the role of internal structure is overwhelming. Words of a language have a rich and complex meaning, invariably, for which there is no evidence in the environment so it must (short of miracles) derive from our internal nature. That’s part of the reason why there is no “word-object” relation, no relation of reference in the technical sense, in natural language — contrary to another widespread philosophical dogma.


1. Barnett’s exact phrasing was “an attack on Iran would effectively launch world war three”. Chomsky cites this in his essay, “A Predator Becomes More Dangerous When Wounded” on March 10, 2007, where he says much the same as he says in this dialog, discussing the issue of control versus access, and the threat of global war. A Google search turns up on many pages concerning Chomsky’ citation of the quotation, but I have no idea exactly when the original words were written.

2. The CIA’s chief historian, David Robarge, commented on Colby’s letter to Parade on June 27, 2007 for the New York Times blog: “Based on what is known about the agency’s assassination planning and Phoenix, that carefully crafted answer was not only accurate, but an exemplar of the lawyerly intellect that Colby would put to good use during the Congressional investigations of 1975-76, when his policy of controlled disclosure may have saved the C.I.A. from dissolution.”

Also try another article under Historical / Biographical, Philosophical, Political
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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