David Barsamian

Noam Chomsky: 'Education and organization' are the 'only tools' to stop 'environmental destruction' and 'terminal war'

Chomsky and Barsamian: What Hope Is There?

As I was reading today’s interview between David Barsamian of Alternative Radio and the remarkable Noam Chomsky, now 93 years old and still so much in and of our world, I had a “memory” flash of sorts. I wondered what, in his twenties, Tom Engelhardt would have thought of this ever more extreme planet if, as in one of the sci-fi novels he then read so avidly, he had been transported more than half a century into the future to this very America. And you know exactly the country I mean.

Admittedly, that Tom didn’t consider 1960s America — above all, his country’s horrific war in Vietnam — anything to brag about. Still, how would he feel to find himself in a land where most of the members of one major party believe, based on nothing, that the last presidential election was quite literally “stolen”; a country increasingly filled with extremist militias; one that spent four years with a mad and maddening president with, it seems, every intention of facing off one more time against Joe Biden who, in 2024, will be 82 years old. We’re talking about a candidate who, were he to win — or even somehow claim a lost election as his — could turn the U.S. into a proto-fascist state? (Honestly, speaking of the past, why didn’t all those Big Macs and Wendy’s Burgers take him down?)

And that, of course, would just be an introduction to a planet on which — forget the war still going on in Ukraine amid increasing fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin might consider using nuclear weapons for the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki were taken out in 1945 — week by week, month by month, the news only gets worse. It matters little whether you’re speaking about record droughts, fires, floods, storms, melting ice, rising sea levels, you name it, since these days it seems as if no horror we might dream up couldn’t become reality.

In such a context, let me introduce the young Tom Engelhardt to the four horsemen of the apocalypse of the twenty-first century and leave it to Noam Chomsky, interviewed by the superb David Barsamian for their new book, Notes on Resistance, to tell us where, in such a world, hope might still lie. Tom

Optimism of the Will – And the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

[The following is excerpted in shortened form from Chapter 9 of Notes on Resistance by Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian, published by Haymarket Books.]

David Barsamian: What we are facing is often described as unprecedented — a pandemic, climate catastrophe and, always lurking off center stage, nuclear annihilation. Three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

Noam Chomsky: I can add a fourth: the impending destruction of what remains of American democracy and the shift of the United States toward a deeply authoritarian, also proto-fascist, state, when the Republicans come back into office, which looks likely. So, that’s four horses.

And remember that the Republicans are the denialist party, committed to racing to climate destruction with abandon in the hands of the chief wrecker they now worship like a demigod. It’s bad news for the United States and for the world, given the power of this country.

Barsamian: The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance just issued the Global State of Democracy Report 2021. It says that the United States is a country where democracy is “backsliding.”

Chomsky: Very severely. The Republican Party is openly dedicated — it’s not even concealed — to undermining what remains of American democracy. They’re working very hard on it. Since the days of Richard Nixon, the Republicans have long understood that they’re fundamentally a minority party and not going to get votes by advertising their increasingly open commitment to the welfare of the ultrarich and the corporate sector. So, they’ve been long diverting attention to so-called cultural issues.

It began with Nixon’s Southern strategy. He realized that Democratic Party support for civil rights legislation, however limited, would lose them the southern Democrats, who were openly and overtly extreme racists. The Nixon administration capitalized on that with their Southern strategy, hinting, not so subtly, that the Republicans would become the party of white supremacy.

In subsequent years, they picked up other issues. It’s now the virtual definition of the party: so, let’s run on attacking Critical Race Theory — whatever that means! It’s a cover term, as their leading spokesmen have explained, for everything they can rally the public on: white supremacy, racism, misogyny, Christianity, anti-abortion rights.

Meanwhile, the leadership, with the aid of the right-wing Federalist Society, has been developing legal means — if you want to call it that — for the Republicans to ensure that, even as a minority party, they will be able to control the voting apparatus and the outcome of elections. They are exploiting radically undemocratic features built into the constitutional system and the structural advantages Republicans have as a party representing more scattered rural populations and the traditionally Christian, white nationalist population. Using such advantages, even with a minority of the vote, they should be able to maintain something like near-permanent power.

Actually, that permanence might not last long if Donald Trump, or a Trump clone, takes the presidency in 2024. It’s not likely then that the United States, not to speak of the world, will be able to escape the impact of the climate and environmental destruction they’re committed to accelerating.

Barsamian: We all saw what happened in Washington on January 6th. Do you see the possibility of civil unrest spreading? There are multiple militias across the country. Representative Paul Gosar of the great state of Arizona and Representative Lauren Boebert, of the great state of Colorado, among others, have made threatening statements inciting violence and hatred. The Internet is rife with conspiracy theories. What must we do?

Chomsky: It is very serious. In fact, maybe a third or so of Republicans think it may be necessary to use force to “save our country,” as they put it. “Save our country” has a clear meaning. If anyone didn’t understand it, Trump issued a call to people to mobilize to prevent the Democrats from swamping this country with criminals being let out of jails in other lands, lest they “replace” white Americans and carry out the destruction of America. The “great replacement” theory — that’s what “take away our country” means and it’s being used effectively by proto-fascist elements, Trump being the most extreme and most successful.

What can we do about it? The only tools available, like it or not, are education and organization. There’s no other way. It means trying to revive an authentic labor movement of the kind that, in the past, was in the forefront of moves toward social justice. It also means organizing other popular movements, carrying out educational efforts to combat the murderous anti-vaccine campaigns now going on, making sure that there are serious efforts to deal with the climate crisis, mobilizing against the bipartisan commitment to increase dangerous military spending and provocative actions against China, which could lead to a conflict nobody wants and end up in a terminal war.

You just have to keep working on this. There is no other way.

Barsamian: In the background is extreme inequality, which is off the charts. Why is the United States so unequal?

Chomsky: A lot of this has happened in the last 40 years as part of the neoliberal assault on America in which the Democrats, too, have participated, though not to the extent of the Republicans.

There is a fairly careful estimate of what’s called the transfer of wealth from the lower 90% of the population to the top 1% (actually, a fraction of them) during the four decades of this assault. A RAND Corporation study estimated it as close to $50 trillion. That’s not pennies — and it’s ongoing.

During the pandemic, the measures that were taken to save the economy from collapse led to the further enrichment of the very few. They also sort of maintained life for so many others, but the Republicans are busy trying to dismantle that part of the deal, leaving only the part that enriches the very few. That’s what they’re dedicated to.

Take ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. This goes back years. It’s an organization funded by almost the entire corporate sector, dedicated to hitting at the weak point in the constitutional system, the states. It’s very easy. It doesn’t take much to buy or impel legislative representatives at the state level, so ALEC has worked there to impose legislation that will foster the long-term efforts of those seeking to destroy democracy, increase radical inequality, and destroy the environment.

And one of the most important of those efforts is to get the states to legislate that they can’t even investigate — and certainly not punish — wage theft, which steals billions of dollars from workers every year by refusing to pay overtime as well as through other devices. There have been efforts to investigate it, but the business sector wants to stop them.

An analog at the national level is the attempt to ensure that the IRS not go after wealthy corporate tax cheats. At every level you can think of, this class war on the part of the masters, the corporate sector, the super-rich is raging with intensity. And they’re going to use every means they can to ensure that it goes on until they’ve succeeded in destroying not only American democracy, but the very possibility of survival as an organized society.

Barsamian: Corporate power seems unstoppable. The uber class of gazillionaires — Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk — are now flying into outer space. But I’m reminded of something that the novelist Ursula K. Le Guin said some years ago: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable.” And then she added, “So did the divine right of kings.”

Chomsky: So did slavery. So did the principle that women are property, which lasted in the United States until the 1970s. So did laws against miscegenation so extreme that even the Nazis wouldn’t accept them, which lasted in the United States until the 1960s.

All kinds of horrors have existed. Over time, their power has been eroded but never completely eliminated. Slavery was abolished, but its remnants remain in new and vicious forms. It’s not slavery, but it’s horrifying enough. The idea that women are not persons has not only been formally overcome, but to a substantial extent in practice, too. Still, there’s plenty to do. The constitutional system was a step forward in the eighteenth century. Even the phrase “We the people” terrified the autocratic rulers of Europe, deeply concerned that the evils of democracy (what was then called republicanism) could spread and undermine civilized life. Well, it did spread — and civilized life continued, even improved.

So, yes, there are periods of regression and of progress, but the class war never ends, the masters never relent. They’re always looking for every opportunity and, if they’re the only participants in class struggle, we will indeed have regression. But they don’t have to be, any more than in the past.

Barsamian: In your Masters of Mankind book, you have an essay, “Can Civilization Survive Really Existing Capitalism?” You write, “Really existing capitalist democracy — RECD for short (pronounced ‘wrecked’)” is “radically incompatible” with democracy and add that “it seems to me unlikely that civilization can survive really existing capitalism and the sharply attenuated democracy that goes along with it. Could functioning democracy make a difference? Consideration of nonexistent systems can only be speculative, but I think there’s some reason to think so.” Tell me your reasons.

Chomsky: First of all, we live in this world, not in some world we would like to imagine. And in this world, if you simply think about the timescale for dealing with environmental destruction, it’s far shorter than the time that would be necessary to carry out the significant reshaping of our basic institutions. That doesn’t mean you have to abandon the attempt to do so. You should be doing that all the time — working on ways to raise consciousness, raise understanding, and build the rudiments of future institutions in the present society.

At the same time, the measures to save us from self-destruction will have to take place within the basic framework of existing institutions — some modification of them without fundamental change. And it can be done. We know how it can be done.

Meanwhile, work should continue on overcoming the problem of RECD, really existing capitalist democracy, which in its basic nature is a death sentence and also deeply inhuman in its fundamental properties. So, let’s work on that, and at the same time, ensure that we save the possibility of achieving it by overcoming the immediate and urgent crisis we face.

Barsamian: Talk about the importance of independent progressive media like Democracy Now! and Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. And may I say, Alternative Radio? Publishers like Verso, Haymarket, Monthly Review, City Lights, and The New Press. Magazines like Jacobin, The Nation, The Progressive, and In These Times. Online magazines like TomDispatch, The Intercept, and ScheerPost. Community radio stations like KGNU, WMNF, and KPFK. How important are they in countering the dominant corporate narrative?

Chomsky: What else is going to counter it? They are the ones holding up the hope that we’ll be able to find ways to counter these highly harmful, destructive developments we’re discussing.

The core method is, of course, education. People have to come to understand what’s happening in the world. That requires the means to disseminate information and analysis, opening up opportunities for discussion, which you’re not going to find, for the most part, in the mainstream. Maybe occasionally at the margins. A lot of what we’ve been talking about is not discussed at all, or only marginally within the major media. So, these conversations have to be brought to the public through such channels. There is no other way.

Actually, there is another way: organization. It is possible and, in fact, easy to conduct educational and cultural programs inside organizations. That was one of the major contributions of the labor movement when it was a vibrant, lively institution, and one of the main reasons why President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were so determined to destroy labor, as they both did. Their first moves were attacks on the labor movement.

There were educational and cultural programs that brought people together to think about the world, to understand it, and develop ideas. It takes organization to do that. Doing that alone, as an isolated person, is extremely difficult.

Despite the corporate effort to beat back the unions, there was a lively, independent labor press in the United States as late as the 1950s, reaching lots of people, condemning the “bought priesthood,” as they called it, of the mainstream press. It took a long time to destroy that.

There’s a history in the United States of a vibrant, progressive labor press that goes back to the nineteenth century, when it was a major phenomenon. That can and should be revived as part of the revival of a militant, functioning labor movement at the forefront of progress toward social justice. It happened before and it can happen again. And independent media are a critical element of this.

When I was a kid in the 1930s and early 1940s, I could read Izzy Stone in the Philadelphia Record. It wasn’t the major journal in Philadelphia, but it was there. In the late 1940s, I could read him in the New York newspaper PM, which was an independent journal. It made a huge difference.

Later, the only way to read Stone was to subscribe to his newsletter. That was the independent media in the 1950s. In the 1960s, it began to pick up a little bit with the magazine Ramparts, radio programs like Danny Schechter’s on WBCN in Boston, and others like it.

And today, this continues around the country. The ones you mentioned are forces for independence, for thinking.

Barsamian: There are multiple mentions of Antonio Gramsci in two of your most recent books, Consequences of Capitalism and Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal — specifically, of his comment, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Right now, though, the quote of his I’d like you to address is: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Talk about his relevance today and the meaning of that quote.

Chomsky: Gramsci was a leading left labor activist in Italy around the late teens, early 1920s. He was very active in organizing left worker collectives. In Italy, the fascist government took over in the early 1920s. One of its first acts was to send Gramsci to prison. During his trial, the prosecutor stated: we have to silence this voice. (This gets us back to the importance of independent media, of course.) So, he was sent to prison.

While there, he wrote his Prison Notebooks. He wasn’t silenced, though the public couldn’t read him. He continued the work he had begun and in that writing were the quotes you cited.

In the early 1930s, he wrote that the old world was collapsing, while the new world had not yet risen and that, in the interim, they were facing morbid symptoms. Mussolini was one, Hitler another. Nazi Germany almost conquered large parts of the world. We came very close to that. The Russians defeated Hitler. Otherwise, half the world would probably have been run by Nazi Germany. But it was very close. Morbid symptoms were visible everywhere.

The adage you quoted, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” which became famous, came from the period when he was still able to publish. In his spirit, we must look at the world reasonably, without illusions, understand it, decide how to act, and recognize that there are grim portents. There are very dangerous things happening. That’s pessimism of the intellect. At the same time, we need to recognize that there are ways out, real opportunities. So, we have optimism of the will, meaning, we dedicate ourselves to using all the opportunities available — and they do exist — while working to overcome the morbid symptoms and move toward a more just and decent world.

Barsamian: In these dark times, it’s difficult for many to feel that there’s a bright future ahead. You’re always asked, what gives you hope? And I have to ask you the same question.

Chomsky: One thing that gives me hope is that people are struggling hard under very severe circumstances, much more severe than we can imagine, all over the world to achieve rights and justice. They don’t give up hope, so we certainly can’t.

The other is that there’s simply no option. The alternative is to say, okay, I’ll help the worst to happen. That’s one choice. The other is to say, I’ll try to do the best I can, what the farmers in India are doing, what poor and miserable peasants in Honduras are doing, and many others like them around the world. I’ll do that as best I can. And maybe we can get to a decent world in which people can feel that they can live without shame. A better world.

That’s not much of a choice, so we should be able to easily make it.

Noam Chomsky: How George Orwell's 'doublethink' became the way of the world

Chomsky and Barsamian, In Ukraine, Diplomacy Has Been Ruled Out

Can you even remember when it began? Doesn’t it seem like forever? And the timing — if forever can even be said to have timing — has been little short of miraculous (if, by miraculous, you mean catastrophic beyond measure). No, I’m not talking about the January 6th attack on the Capitol and everything that led up to and followed it, including the ongoing televised hearings. I’m talking about the war in Ukraine. You know, the story that for weeks ate the news alive, that every major TV network sent their top people, even anchors, to cover, and that now just grinds along somewhere on the distant edge of our newsfeeds and consciousness.

And yet, a seemingly never-ending war near the heart of Europe is also proving a disaster beyond measure globally, as Rajan Menon was perhaps the first to note right here at TomDispatch, threatening starvation across much of what used to be known as “the third world.” Meanwhile, barely noticed but more disastrous, the latest news on the carbon an embattled humanity is pouring into the atmosphere is anything but cheery. Yes, CO2 emissions actually dropped modestly in the worst Covid year, but rebounded strikingly in 2021. In fact, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced recently, we now have more carbon in the atmosphere than at any time in the last four million years. It’s now also officially hit a level 50% higher than that of the pre-industrial world. And just to let you know, in case you’re not living in an American west or southwest experiencing a megadrought the likes of which hasn’t been seen in at least 1,200 years (with record-setting temperatures landing last weekend), or haven’t been living through unprecedented heat waves in India, Pakistan, Spain, and elsewhere, this is not exactly cheery news.

Consider all of this context for the remarkable 93-year-old Noam Chomsky, a TomDispatch regular, to put the Ukraine War in the largest and most devastating context possible. He did so recently in an interview entitled “Chronicles of Dissent” with Alternative Radio’s David Barsamian. Edited for length, it now appears at TomDispatch. Tom

Welcome to a Science-Fiction Planet: How George Orwell's Doublethink Became the Way of the World

David Barsamian: Let’s head into the most obvious nightmare of this moment, the war in Ukraine and its effects globally. But first a little background. Let’s start with President George H.W. Bush’s assurance to then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not move “one inch to the east” — and that pledge has been verified. My question to you is, why didn’t Gorbachev get that in writing?

Noam Chomsky: He accepted a gentleman’s agreement, which is not that uncommon in diplomacy. Shake-of-the-hand. Furthermore, having it on paper would have made no difference whatsoever. Treaties that are on paper are torn up all the time. What matters is good faith. And in fact, H.W. Bush, the first Bush, did honor the agreement explicitly. He even moved toward instituting a partnership in peace, which would accommodate the countries of Eurasia. NATO wouldn’t be disbanded but would be marginalized. Countries like Tajikistan, for example, could join without formally being part of NATO. And Gorbachev approved of that. It would have been a step toward creating what he called a common European home with no military alliances.

Clinton in his first couple of years also adhered to it. What the specialists say is that by about 1994, Clinton started to, as they put it, talk from both sides of his mouth. To the Russians he was saying: Yes, we’re going to adhere to the agreement. To the Polish community in the United States and other ethnic minorities, he was saying: Don’t worry, we’ll incorporate you within NATO. By about 1996-97, Clinton said this pretty explicitly to his friend Russian President Boris Yeltsin, whom he had helped win the 1996 election. He told Yeltsin: Don’t push too hard on this NATO business. We’re going to expand but I need it because of the ethnic vote in the United States.

In 1997, Clinton invited the so-called Visegrad countries — Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania — to join NATO. The Russians didn’t like it but didn’t make much of a fuss. Then the Baltic nations joined, again the same thing. In 2008, the second Bush, who was quite different from the first, invited Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. Every U.S. diplomat understood very well that Georgia and Ukraine were red lines for Russia. They’ll tolerate the expansion elsewhere, but these are in their geostrategic heartland and they’re not going to tolerate expansion there. To continue with the story, the Maidan uprising took place in 2014, expelling the pro-Russian president and Ukraine moved toward the West.

From 2014, the U.S. and NATO began to pour arms into Ukraine — advanced weapons, military training, joint military exercises, moves to integrate Ukraine into the NATO military command. There’s no secret about this. It was quite open. Recently, the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, bragged about it. He said: This is what we were doing since 2014. Well, of course, this is very consciously, highly provocative. They knew that they were encroaching on what every Russian leader regarded as an intolerable move. France and Germany vetoed it in 2008, but under U.S. pressure, it was kept on the agenda. And NATO, meaning the United States, moved to accelerate the de facto integration of Ukraine into the NATO military command.

In 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky was elected with an overwhelming majority — I think about 70% of the vote — on a peace platform, a plan to implement peace with Eastern Ukraine and Russia, to settle the problem. He began to move forward on it and, in fact, tried to go to the Donbas, the Russian-oriented eastern region, to implement what’s called the Minsk II agreement. It would have meant a kind of federalization of Ukraine with a degree of autonomy for the Donbas, which is what they wanted. Something like Switzerland or Belgium. He was blocked by right-wing militias which threatened to murder him if he persisted with his effort.

Well, he’s a courageous man. He could have gone forward if he had had any backing from the United States. The U.S. refused. No backing, nothing, which meant he was left to hang out to dry and had to back off. The U.S. was intent on this policy of integrating Ukraine step by step into the NATO military command. That accelerated further when President Biden was elected. In September 2021, you could read it on the White House website. It wasn’t reported but, of course, the Russians knew it. Biden announced a program, a joint statement to accelerate the process of military training, military exercises, more weapons as part of what his administration called an “enhanced program” of preparation for NATO membership.

It accelerated further in November. This was all before the invasion. Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed what was called a charter, which essentially formalized and extended this arrangement. A spokesman for the State Department conceded that before the invasion, the U.S. refused to discuss any Russian security concerns. All of this is part of the background.

On February 24th, Putin invaded, a criminal invasion. These serious provocations provide no justification for it. If Putin had been a statesman, what he would have done is something quite different. He would have gone back to French President Emmanuel Macron, grasped his tentative proposals, and moved to try to reach an accommodation with Europe, to take steps toward a European common home.

The U.S., of course, has always been opposed to that. This goes way back in Cold War history to French President De Gaulle’s initiatives to establish an independent Europe. In his phrase “from the Atlantic to the Urals,” integrating Russia with the West, which was a very natural accommodation for trade reasons and, obviously, security reasons as well. So, had there been any statesmen within Putin’s narrow circle, they would have grasped Macron’s initiatives and experimented to see whether, in fact, they could integrate with Europe and avert the crisis. Instead, what he chose was a policy which, from the Russian point of view, was total imbecility. Apart from the criminality of the invasion, he chose a policy that drove Europe deep into the pocket of the United States. In fact, it is even inducing Sweden and Finland to join NATO — the worst possible outcome from the Russian point of view, quite apart from the criminality of the invasion, and the very serious losses that Russia is suffering because of that.

So, criminality and stupidity on the Kremlin side, severe provocation on the U.S. side. That’s the background that has led to this. Can we try to bring this horror to an end? Or should we try to perpetuate it? Those are the choices.

There’s only one way to bring it to an end. That’s diplomacy. Now, diplomacy, by definition, means both sides accept it. They don’t like it, but they accept it as the least bad option. It would offer Putin some kind of escape hatch. That’s one possibility. The other is just to drag it out and see how much everybody will suffer, how many Ukrainians will die, how much Russia will suffer, how many millions of people will starve to death in Asia and Africa, how much we’ll proceed toward heating the environment to the point where there will be no possibility for a livable human existence. Those are the options. Well, with near 100% unanimity, the United States and most of Europe want to pick the no-diplomacy option. It’s explicit. We have to keep going to hurt Russia.

You can read columns in the New York Times, the London Financial Times, all over Europe. A common refrain is: we’ve got to make sure that Russia suffers. It doesn’t matter what happens to Ukraine or anyone else. Of course, this gamble assumes that if Putin is pushed to the limit, with no escape, forced to admit defeat, he’ll accept that and not use the weapons he has to devastate Ukraine.

There are a lot of things that Russia hasn’t done. Western analysts are rather surprised by it. Namely, they’ve not attacked the supply lines from Poland that are pouring weapons into Ukraine. They certainly could do it. That would very soon bring them into direct confrontation with NATO, meaning the U.S. Where it goes from there, you can guess. Anyone who’s ever looked at war games knows where it’ll go — up the escalatory ladder toward terminal nuclear war.

So, those are the games we’re playing with the lives of Ukrainians, Asians, and Africans, the future of civilization, in order to weaken Russia, to make sure that they suffer enough. Well, if you want to play that game, be honest about it. There’s no moral basis for it. In fact, it’s morally horrendous. And the people who are standing on a high horse about how we’re upholding principle are moral imbeciles when you think about what’s involved.

Barsamian: In the media, and among the political class in the United States, and probably in Europe, there’s much moral outrage about Russian barbarity, war crimes, and atrocities. No doubt they are occurring as they do in every war. Don’t you find that moral outrage a bit selective though?

Chomsky: The moral outrage is quite in place. There should be moral outrage. But you go to the Global South, they just can’t believe what they’re seeing. They condemn the war, of course. It’s a deplorable crime of aggression. Then they look at the West and say: What are you guys talking about? This is what you do to us all the time.

It’s kind of astonishing to see the difference in commentary. So, you read the New York Times and their big thinker, Thomas Friedman. He wrote a column a couple of weeks ago in which he just threw up his hands in despair. He said: What can we do? How can we live in a world that has a war criminal? We’ve never experienced this since Hitler. There’s a war criminal in Russia. We’re at a loss as to how to act. We’ve never imagined the idea that there could be a war criminal anywhere.

When people in the Global South hear this, they don’t know whether to crack up in laughter or ridicule. We have war criminals walking all over Washington. Actually, we know how to deal with our war criminals. In fact, it happened on the twentieth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan. Remember, this was an entirely unprovoked invasion, strongly opposed by world opinion. There was an interview with the perpetrator, George W. Bush, who then went on to invade Iraq, a major war criminal, in the style section of the Washington Post — an interview with, as they described it, this lovable goofy grandpa who was playing with his grandchildren, making jokes, showing off the portraits he painted of famous people he’d met. Just a beautiful, friendly environment.

So, we know how to deal with war criminals. Thomas Friedman is wrong. We deal with them very well.

Or take probably the major war criminal of the modern period, Henry Kissinger. We deal with him not only politely, but with great admiration. This is the man after all who transmitted the order to the Air Force, saying that there should be massive bombing of Cambodia — “anything that flies on anything that moves” was his phrase. I don’t know of a comparable example in the archival record of a call for mass genocide. And it was implemented with very intensive bombing of Cambodia. We don’t know much about it because we don’t investigate our own crimes. But Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, serious historians of Cambodia, have described it. Then there’s our role in overthrowing Salvador Allende’s government in Chile and instituting a vicious dictatorship there, and on and on. So, we do know how to deal with our war criminals.

Still, Thomas Friedman can’t imagine that there’s anything like Ukraine. Nor was there any commentary on what he wrote, which means it was regarded as quite reasonable. You can hardly use the word selectivity. It’s beyond astonishing. So, yes, the moral outrage is perfectly in place. It’s good that Americans are finally beginning to show some outrage about major war crimes committed by someone else.

Barsamian: I’ve got a little puzzle for you. It’s in two parts. Russia’s military is inept and incompetent. Its soldiers have very low morale and are poorly led. Its economy ranks with Italy’s and Spain’s. That’s one part. The other part is Russia is a military colossus that threatens to overwhelm us. So, we need more weapons. Let’s expand NATO. How do you reconcile those two contradictory thoughts?

Chomsky: Those two thoughts are standard in the entire West. I just had a long interview in Sweden about their plans to join NATO. I pointed out that Swedish leaders have two contradictory ideas, the two you mentioned. One, gloating over the fact that Russia has proven itself to be a paper tiger that can’t conquer cities a couple of miles from its border defended by a mostly citizens’ army. So, they’re completely militarily incompetent. The other thought is: they’re poised to conquer the West and destroy us.

George Orwell had a name for that. He called it doublethink, the capacity to have two contradictory ideas in your mind and believe both of them. Orwell mistakenly thought that was something you could only have in the ultra-totalitarian state he was satirizing in 1984. He was wrong. You can have it in free democratic societies. We’re seeing a dramatic example of it right now. Incidentally, this is not the first time.

Such doublethink is, for instance, characteristic of Cold War thinking. You go way back to the major Cold War document of those years, NSC-68 in 1950. Look at it carefully and it showed that Europe alone, quite apart from the United States, was militarily on a par with Russia. But of course, we still had to have a huge rearmament program to counter the Kremlin design for world conquest.

That’s one document and it was a conscious approach. Dean Acheson, one of the authors, later said that it’s necessary to be “clearer than truth,” his phrase, in order to bludgeon the mass mind of government. We want to drive through this huge military budget, so we have to be “clearer than truth” by concocting a slave state that’s about to conquer the world. Such thinking runs right through the Cold War. I could give you many other examples, but we’re seeing it again now quite dramatically. And the way you put it is exactly correct: these two ideas are consuming the West.

Barsamian: It’s also interesting that diplomat George Kennan foresaw the danger of NATO moving its borders east in a very prescient op-ed he wrote that appeared in The New York Times in 1997.

Chomsky: Kennan had also been opposed to NSC-68. In fact, he had been the director of the State Department Policy Planning Staff. He was kicked out and replaced by Paul Nitze. He was regarded as too soft for such a hard world. He was a hawk, radically anticommunist, pretty brutal himself with regard to U.S. positions, but he realized that military confrontation with Russia made no sense.

Russia, he thought, would ultimately collapse from internal contradictions, which turned out to be correct. But he was considered a dove all the way through. In 1952, he was in favor of the unification of Germany outside the NATO military alliance. That was actually Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin’s proposal as well. Kennan was ambassador to the Soviet Union and a Russia specialist.

Stalin’s initiative. Kennan’s proposal. Some Europeans supported it. It would have ended the Cold War. It would have meant a neutralized Germany, non-militarized and not part of any military bloc. It was almost totally ignored in Washington.

There was one foreign policy specialist, a respected one, James Warburg, who wrote a book about it. It’s worth reading. It’s called Germany: Key to Peace. In it, he urged that this idea be taken seriously. He was disregarded, ignored, ridiculed. I mentioned it a couple of times and was ridiculed as a lunatic, too. How could you believe Stalin? Well, the archives came out. Turns out he was apparently serious. You now read the leading Cold War historians, people like Melvin Leffler, and they recognize that there was a real opportunity for a peaceful settlement at the time, which was dismissed in favor of militarization, of a huge expansion of the military budget.

Now, let’s go to the Kennedy administration. When John Kennedy came into office, Nikita Khrushchev, leading Russia at the time, made a very important offer to carry out large-scale mutual reductions in offensive military weapons, which would have meant a sharp relaxation of tensions. The United States was far ahead militarily then. Khrushchev wanted to move toward economic development in Russia and understood that this was impossible in the context of a military confrontation with a far richer adversary. So, he first made that offer to President Dwight Eisenhower, who paid no attention. It was then offered to Kennedy and his administration responded with the largest peacetime buildup of military force in history — even though they knew that the United States was already far ahead.

The U.S. concocted a “missile gap.” Russia was about to overwhelm us with its advantage in missiles. Well, when the missile gap was exposed, it turned out to be in favor of the U.S. Russia had maybe four missiles exposed on an airbase somewhere.

You can go on and on like this. The security of the population is simply not a concern for policymakers. Security for the privileged, the rich, the corporate sector, arms manufacturers, yes, but not the rest of us. This doublethink is constant, sometimes conscious, sometimes not. It’s just what Orwell described, hyper-totalitarianism in a free society.

Barsamian: In an article in Truthout, you quote Eisenhower’s 1953 “Cross of Iron” speech. What did you find of interest there?

Chomsky: You should read it and you’ll see why it’s interesting. It’s the best speech he ever made. This was 1953 when he was just taking office. Basically, what he pointed out was that militarization was a tremendous attack on our own society. He — or whoever wrote the speech — put it pretty eloquently. One jet plane means this many fewer schools and hospitals. Every time we’re building up our military budget, we’re attacking ourselves.

He spelled it out in some detail, calling for a decline in the military budget. He had a pretty awful record himself, but in this respect he was right on target. And those words should be emblazoned in everyone’s memory. Recently, in fact, Biden proposed a huge military budget. Congress expanded it even beyond his wishes, which represents a major attack on our society, exactly as Eisenhower explained so many years ago.

The excuse: the claim that we have to defend ourselves from this paper tiger, so militarily incompetent it can’t move a couple of miles beyond its border without collapse. So, with a monstrous military budget, we have to severely harm ourselves and endanger the world, wasting enormous resources that will be necessary if we’re going to deal with the severe existential crises we face. Meanwhile, we pour taxpayer funds into the pockets of fossil-fuel producers so that they can continue to destroy the world as quickly as possible. That’s what we’re witnessing with the vast expansion of both fossil-fuel production and military expenditures. There are people who are happy about this. Go to the executive offices of Lockheed Martin, ExxonMobil, they’re ecstatic. It’s a bonanza for them. They’re even being given credit for it. Now, they’re being lauded for saving civilization by destroying the possibility for life on Earth. Forget the Global South. If you imagine some extraterrestrials, if they existed, they’d think we were all totally insane. And they’d be right.

Chomsky: Trump's #1 Goal as President

[This interview has been excerpted from Global Discontents: Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy, the new book by Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian to be published this December.] 

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The following is an excerpt from Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire by Noam Chomsky, interviews with David Barsamian (Published by Metropolitan Books (2013).

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Interviewing John Pilger

pilgerCorporate journalism in the United States preaches "objectivity" and scorns those who take the side of the dispossessed and disenfranchised. But the mainstream media in Britain makes a few allowances. John Pilger, the Australian-born, London-based journalist and filmmaker, is one.

"I grew up in Sydney in a very political household," Pilger told me, "where we were all for the underdog." His father was a Wobbly, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. Like Orwell, whom he admires, Pilger has a direct style. For example, he uses the term "imperialism" and does not hesitate to attach it to the adjective "American."

He was a featured speaker at the mass peace rally in London on September 28. He told the crowd, estimated at between 150,000 and 350,000, "Today a taboo has been broken. We are the moderates. Bush and Blair are the extremists. The danger for all of us is not in Baghdad but in Washington." And he applauded the protesters. "Democracy," he told them, "is not one obsessed man using the power of kings to attack another country in our name. Democracy is not siding with Ariel Sharon, a war criminal, in order to crush Palestinians. Democracy is this great event today representing the majority of the people of Great Britain.

"For his reporting, Pilger has twice won the highest award in British journalism. His latest book is "The New Rulers of the World" (Verso, 2002). His political films include "Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq," "Death of a Nation: East Timor," "The New Rulers of the World," and "Palestine Is Still the Issue." These documentaries are shown all over Britain, Canada, Australia, and much of the rest of the world but are rarely seen in the United States. PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service, which has seemingly unlimited space to air specials on animals, can't seem to find a spot for Pilger's work.

"The censorship is such on television in the U.S. that films like mine don't stand a chance," he told me, and he illustrated this point with the following anecdote. Some years ago, PBS expressed interest in one of his films on Cambodia, but it was concerned about the content. In something out of Orwell's Ministry of Truth, the network appointed what it called a "journalistic adjudicator" to decide whether the film was worthy of airing. The adjudicator adjudicated. The film did not air. PBS also rejected another film on Cambodia that he did. But WNET in New York picked it up -- the only station in the country to do so. On the basis of that one showing, Pilger was awarded an Emmy.

I called him at his home in London the day before he spoke at the huge peace rally.

Question: Is the war on terrorism a new version of the white man's burden?

John Pilger: Classic nineteenth century European imperialists believed they were literally on a mission. I don't believe that the imperialists these days have that same sense of public service. They are simply pirates. Yes, there are fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists, who appear to be in charge of the White House at the moment, but they are very different from the Christian gentlemen who ran the British Empire and believed they were doing good works around the world. These days it's about naked power.

Q: Why do you say that?

The attack on Iraq has been long planned. There just hasn't been an excuse for it. Since George H.W. Bush didn't unseat Saddam in 1991, there's been a longing among the extreme right in the United States to finish the job. The war on terrorism has given them that opportunity. Even though the logic is convoluted and fraudulent, it appears they are going to go ahead and finish the job.

Q: Why is Tony Blair such an enthusiastic supporter of U.S. policy?

We have an extreme rightwing government in this country, although it's called the Labour government. That's confused a lot of people, but it's confusing them less and less. The British Labour Party has always had a very strong "Atlanticist component," with an obsequiousness to American policies, and Blair represents this wing. He's clearly obsessed with Iraq. He has to be because the overwhelming majority of the people of Britain oppose a military action. I've never known a situation like it. To give you one example, The Daily Mirror polled its readers and 90 percent were opposed to an attack on Iraq. Overall, opinion polls in this country are running at about 70 percent against the war. Blair is at odds with the country.

Q: In your new book, you talk about the group around Bush that is essentially forming war policy, people like Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. You single out Richard Perle, who was Assistant Secretary of Defense in Reagan's Pentagon. You highlighted his comment "This is total war."

I interviewed Perle when he was buzzing around the Reagan Administration in the 1980s, and I was struck by how truly fanatical this man was. He was then voicing the views of total war. All of Bush's extremism comes from the Reagan years. That's why people like Perle, Wolfowitz, and other refugees from that period have found favor again. I singled out Perle in the book because I thought he rather eloquently described the policies of the Bush regime. September 11 has given these people, this clique, an opportunity from heaven. They never really believed they would have the legitimacy to do what they are doing. They don't, of course, have legitimacy because most of the world is opposed to what they are doing. But they believe it has given them if not a legitimacy then a constituency in the United States.

Q: They are also part of an Administration that came to power under shady circumstances.

I don't regard them as an elected group. It's quite clear that Gore won most of the votes. I think the accurate description for them is a military plutocracy. Having lived and worked in the United States, I must add that I don't want to make too much of the distinction between the Bush regime and its predecessors. I don't see a great deal of difference. Clinton kept funding Star Wars. He took the biggest military budget to Congress in history. He routinely bombed Iraq, and he kept the barbaric sanctions in place. He's really played his part. The Bush gang has taken it just a little further.

Q: At least on the level of rhetoric, it seems that the top officials of the Bush Administration are much more bellicose. They've taken their gloves off. They speak in extreme language: "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists."

We're grateful to them because they've made it very clear to other people just how dangerous they are. Before, Clinton persuaded some people that he was really a civilized character and his Administration had the best interests of humanity at heart. These days we don't have to put up with that nonsense. It's very clear that the Bush Administration is out of control. It contains some truly dangerous people.

Q: How do you assess U.S. policy toward Israel?

Israel is the American watchdog in the Middle East, and that's why the Palestinians remain victims of one of the longest military occupations. They don't have oil. If they were the Saudis, they wouldn't be in the position they are now. But they have the power of being able to upset the imperial order in the Middle East. Certainly, until there is justice for the Palestinians, there will never be any kind of stability in the Middle East. I'm absolutely convinced of that. Israel is the representative of the United States in that part of the world. Its policies are so integrated with American policies that they use the same language. If you read Sharon's statements and Bush's statements, they're virtually identical.

Q: You write for the Mirror, the British tabloid with a circulation of two million plus. How did you get that job?

I wrote for the Mirror for twenty years. I joined it back in the 1960s when I arrived from Australia. You don't really have anything like the Mirror -- as it was, and as it is trying to be again -- in the United States. The Mirror is a left-leaning tabloid. It's really a traditional supporter of the Labour Party in this country. I suppose its politics are center-left. During the time I was there, it was very adventurous politically. It reported many parts of the world from the point of view of victims of wars. I reported Vietnam for many years for the Mirror. In those days, it played a central role in the political life of this country. It then fell into a long, rather terrible period, trying to copy its Murdoch rival, the Sun, and just became a trashy tabloid.

Since September 11, the Mirror has reached back to its roots, and decided, it seems, to be something of its old self again. I received a call asking if I would write for it again, which I've done. It's a pleasure to be able to do that. It's become an important antidote to a media that is, most of it, supportive of the establishment, some of it quite rabidly rightwing. The Mirror is breaking ranks, and that's good news.

Q: In one of your articles, you called the United States "the world's leading rogue state." This incurred the wrath of The Washington Times, which is owned by the Moonies. They called your paper "a shrill tabloid read by soccer hooligans." Your fellow Australian Rupert Murdoch, owner of the New York Post, called the Mirror a "terrorist-loving London tabloid."

There's one correction I want to make there. Murdoch is not a fellow Australian. He's an American.

Q: But he was born in Australia.

No, he's an American. He gave up his Australian citizenship in order to buy television stations in the United States, which is symptomatic of the way Murdoch operates. Everything is for sale, including his birthright. The Mirror is not read by soccer hooligans. It's read by ordinary people of this country. That comment is simply patronizing. But to be criticized by the Moonies and Murdoch in one breath is really just a fine moment for me.

Q: In George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language," he describes the centrality of language in framing and informing debate. He was particularly critical of the use of euphemisms and the passive voice, so today we have "collateral damage," "free trade," and "level playing fields," and such constructions as "villages were bombed," and "Afghan civilians were killed." You compare the rhetoric surrounding the war on terrorism to the kind of language Orwell criticized.

Orwell is almost our litmus test. Some of his satirical writing looks like reality these days. When you have someone like Cheney who talks about "endless war" or war that might last fifty years, he could be Big Brother. You have Bush incessantly going on about the evil ones. Who are these evil ones? In 1984, the evil one was called Goldstein. Orwell was writing a grim parody. But these people running the United States mean what they say. If I were a teacher, I would recommend that all my students very hurriedly read most of Orwell's books, especially "1984" and "Animal Farm," because then they'd begin to understand the world we live in.

Q: And the use of passive voice?

Using the passive voice is always very helpful. Mind you, a lot of that propaganda English emanates from here. The British establishment has always used the passive voice. It's been a weapon of discourse so those who committed terrible acts in the old empire could not be identified. Or, today, the British establishment uses "the royal we," as in, "We think this." You hear a lot of that these days. It erroneously suggests that those who are making the decisions to bomb countries, to devastate economies, to take part in acts of international piracy involve all of us.

Q: What's wrong with journalism today?

Many journalists now are no more than channelers and echoers of what Orwell called the official truth. They simply cipher and transmit lies. It really grieves me that so many of my fellow journalists can be so manipulated that they become really what the French describe as functionaires, functionaries, not journalists.

Many journalists become very defensive when you suggest to them that they are anything but impartial and objective. The problem with those words "impartiality" and "objectivity" is that they have lost their dictionary meaning. They've been taken over. "Impartiality" and "objectivity" now mean the establishment point of view. Whenever a journalist says to me, "Oh, you don't understand, I'm impartial, I'm objective," I know what he's saying. I can decode it immediately. It means he channels the official truth. Almost always. That protestation means he speaks for a consensual view of the establishment. This is internalized. Journalists don't sit down and think, "I'm now going to speak for the establishment." Of course not. But they internalize a whole set of assumptions, and one of the most potent assumptions is that the world should be seen in terms of its usefulness to the West, not humanity. This leads journalists to make a distinction between people who matter and people who don't matter. The people who died in the Twin Towers in that terrible crime mattered. The people who were bombed to death in dusty villages in Afghanistan didn't matter, even though it now seems that their numbers were greater. The people who will die in Iraq don't matter. Iraq has been successfully demonized as if everybody who lives there is Saddam Hussein. In the build-up to this attack on Iraq, journalists have almost universally excluded the prospect of civilian deaths, the numbers of people who would die, because those people don't matter.

It's only when journalists understand the role they play in this propaganda, it's only when they realize they can't be both independent, honest journalists and agents of power, that things will begin to change.

David Barsamian, director of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado, is the author of "The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting" (South End Press).
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