My interview with Noam Chomsky, world renowned linguist and political dissident, was predicated on his participation in the opening night of PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, which begins today in New York City. Chomsky will take the stage alongside other luminaries, including Salman Rushdie, Gado, Adonis, Judith Butler, and Colm Tóibín to give readings on the theme of “On the Edge.” Chomsky and I spoke last week about self censorship, political crises, and on which of the world’s most pressing problems activists should act—now.
RANDOL: What will you speak about on opening night?
CHOMSKY: The title of the event is “On the Edge.” When I hear those words what immediately comes to mind is the fact that, for the first time in history, the human species is now on the edge rushing toward a precipice like the proverbial lemmings. I think of two crises. One, the threat of nuclear war which we’ve miraculously avoided so far, but there’s no reason to expect the miracle to continue.
The other one, which has been there for a long time but is only recently and clearly apparent to any literate person, is the crisis of environmental catastrophe. We have this curiously historic situation that the most advanced, richest, educated societies—the United States and Canada—are leading the race to disaster with eyes open. Around the world what we consider backward societies, the pre-industrial indigenous, aboriginal, first nations in Canada, all over the world, they’re the ones trying as hard as they can to resist the race to disaster. If there are future historians, they would certainly describe this with amazement.
PEN American Center advocates for freedom of expression. Where do you see free expression pushed to the edge?
We can return to Orwell who had good commentary on it. I’m sure you’ve read his Animal Farm, but I’ll wager you never read the introduction.
I would have to look back on that—
It wasn’t published. It was found years later in his unpublished papers, but now you can find it. The introduction is interesting. He points out, of course, that the book is a satire condemning the totalitarian enemy where freedom of expression is suppressed by force. There are counterparts today.
But he also points out that the people of England should not feel too self-righteous. He said in England—free England—popular ideas can be suppressed without the use of force. He gives basically two explanations of how it happens: one, he says, is that the press is owned by wealthy men who have every interest in not wanting certain ideas to be expressed. The other, he says, is self-censorship that comes from a good education. If you’re going to the best schools—Oxford, Cambridge, and so on—you simply have instilled into you the understanding that there are certain things that just wouldn’t do to say. That’s true of England, his target, and dramatically [today] of the United States. It’s another form of attack on free expression not by state force, but by tacit acceptance by the intellectual classes. This goes way back in history.
Do you think there are acceptable limits to free speech?
I think a reasonable position was finally taken by the Supreme Court, it must have been 1969, when they reached a decision in a case involving the Ku Klux Klan saying basically that speech should be permitted up to involvement in imminent criminal acts. For example, if you and I go into a store intending to rob it and you have a gun and I say “shoot!” that’s not protected. That generalizes, of course.
By this standard, one might argue—I personally wouldn’t—but one might argue that President Obama is crossing the limits almost daily when he radically violates the UN Charter by saying that all options are open with regard to Iran; that’s the threat of force. And that’s banned by the UN Charter explicitly.
Of course, nobody here cares, but that’s part of the self-censorship. You might check—see if you can find a word in the mainstream press even commenting on the fact that Obama (and of course everyone else) daily violates the basic principles of international law by saying we’re free any time we like to attack Iran.1
Being that the PEN World Voices Festival will be primarily addressing a literary crowd, where would you advise that this group be most useful in resisting?
I think it should join with the overwhelming universal condemnation of forceful restrictions on free expression in other countries. But it’s most significant contribution by far would be to follow Orwell’s advice and ask why in our free societies—without the use of force—unpopular ideas are suppressed. That means looking the mirror, of course, so it’s harder.
Are there any significant risks you didn’t take that in hindsight you wish you would have?
There are things I should have done that I didn’t do. I don’t know how much risk they would entail; it was never much of a consideration. There are things that I should have done earlier. For example, the most extreme: I did not become active in protest, activism, and resistance against the Vietnam War until the early 1960s. The time to do it was ten years earlier.
Where do you see that parallel today?
There are several quite serious problems in the world. One of them is Ukraine. Should we be accepting the view that we have red lines at the borders of Russia where Russia has red lines? That’s accepted almost universally. So if you read The New York Times, they praise President Obama for carrying out sanctions, as they put it, “to limit [Russia’s] expansionist ambitions in [its] own neighborhood.” He should not have expansionist ambitions in his own neighborhood; only we should in his neighborhood. That’s why we talk about expanding NATO.
Iran is another case. There are ways of dealing with this so-called Iranian crisis that we’re not taking; in fact we’re blocking them. They’re not discussed here. For example, the obvious way to proceed is to move toward establishing a nuclear weapons-free zone in the region. That has overwhelming international support, so much so that the U.S. is compelled to accept it formally as a plausible idea; however it blocks it at every turn. For example, in December 2012 there was to be an international conference in Helsinki to try to move forward with this plan. Israel, of course, said it wasn’t going to attend. As soon as Iran said that it would attend with no conditions, Obama basically canceled the meeting. With the usual display of self-censorship none of this was reported.
With the various conflagrations popping up across the globe, where do you see signs of hope?
There are signs of hope. For example, South America in the past decade has instituted a change of historical significance. For 500 years South America had been in the hands of imperial powers and for more than a century, that of the United States. They’ve pretty much broken free. Rather strikingly, the United States and Canada are virtually isolated in the hemisphere on major issues. That’s an astonishing change in world affairs, and I think a hopeful one.
To what do you attribute that change?
Partly to the extreme failure of the neoliberal programs that were imposed on Latin America—and in fact much of the world—by what’s called the U.S. Treasury, World Bank, IMF triumvirate. The U.S. is suffering from them too, but they had a very harsh effect in Latin America.
Secondly, Latin America—especially in South America—succeeded step-by-step in overthrowing the brutal and vicious dictatorships that were either installed or backed by the United States, which led to some kind of breath of freedom.
The U.S.’s ability to intervene militarily in the world has in fact declined, so take, say, Brazil, where it’s now the 50th anniversary of the military coup in Brazil, which the U.S. strongly backed and in part initiated, and which instituted the first of the neo-Nazi style national security states in Latin America. The coup was undertaken to overthrow a reformist government with policies that are not very different from those of the Lula government that came into office less than fifteen years ago, but in this case not only could the U.S. not institute a military coup, it sort of supported it because in other countries even sharper departures from U.S. demands were being undertaken. That’s a big change.
Given that mainstream media may not be so welcoming to publish certain opinions—you’re keenly aware of this—do you think public intellectuals have an obligation to engage the public via social media and blogging, since the digital space is the public forum right now?
Yes, that’s available, but there are plenty of other means. Every day I turn down, regretfully, a dozen invitations to give talks around the country. There are eager audiences, enormous demand, but very little supply.
I could mention some public intellectuals successfully engaging in this space, but frankly I don’t like to list names because I’ll necessarily be omitting others who should be included. There’s a fair number who are doing really fine work. Like I said, the demand vastly exceeds the supply.
How does one maintain a sense of self when they are so often marginalized, especially by authorities?
I’ve never really found it a serious problem, but sometimes I recall to myself one of my favorite lines from The Analects of Confucius; it defines the exemplary person, meaning—presumably the master himself—the person who keeps on trying even though he knows there is no hope. I don’t think it’s as dire as that, but you do keep on trying whatever hope there is. That’s all that matters.
- 1. In a brief review, I could find only one instance in which a mainstream media organization discussed how the threat of force against another country violates the UN Charter: an opinion piece submitted in 2013 to the Christian Science Monitor by Reza Nasri, a lawyer. In my short time reviewing media outlets, I found a similar argument made in two non-mainstream outlets. The first is DemocracyNow! in which Chomsky mentions it in passing and the other made in January by John Glaser, the editor of Antiwar.com.