Noam Chomsky honoured by University College Dublin

John O'Neill johnfergaloneill at
Wed Dec 4 11:15:54 MST 2002

Civilised voice of US dissent

  Writer and academic Noam Chomsky has been a thorn in the side of US
government foreign policy for over 40 years. Recently honoured by UCD, he
discusses some of his controversial ideas with Johnny Ryan.

Noam Chomsky joined the ranks of Séamus Heaney, John Hume and Mick McCarthy
last week when he was awarded Honorary Fellowship by the Literary and
Historical Society at UCD. This newest Honorary Fellow is doubly famous: as
America's most outspoken political dissenter, and as the professor of
linguistics at Boston's MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) who
redefined his discipline at the age of 29 with "generative grammar".

His acceptance speech, delivered in a dull monotone voice, was transmitted
via satellite to UCD direct from MIT. Chomsky said that the current war on
terror is merely a resumption of a 20-year-old political ploy. The "recycled
Reaganites" who compose Bush's cabinet had promoted similar national
hysteria in the Reagan and Bush Senior administrations.

Chomsky cited the recent congressional elections in which Bush raised the
spectre of Iraq in October to convince voters (who had preferred Democratic
economic and social policy in polls) to vote for the security conscious
Republicans. He recalled with dry wit that the Reagan administration had
whipped up national hysteria two decades previously by warning that
"Nicaragua is only two days marching time from Texas."

Chomsky's recent book, 9-11, is a collection of his interviews with
publications around the world immediately following September 11th, 2001. It
reflects his earlier works on US policy, examining the grievances of
America's attackers. Central to Chomsky's outlook is the need to trace the
causes of terrorism that originate from within America.

Henry Kissinger, recently appointed by President Bush to head an 18-month
inquiry into 9-11, once said that only undergraduates took the moralist Noam
Chomsky seriously. In interview, I asked Chomsky how he responded to Kissing
er, his antithesis. "Not at all, of course. Random insults tell us something
about the person who issues them, but do not otherwise merit attention." He
recalled that his own students could "hardly keep a straight face" when
reading Kissinger's academic essays.

According to Chomsky, a long-term cause of 9-11 was America's dependence
upon massive military expenditure and global strength. At the end of the
second World War, the US was in a position to "organise most of the world in
the interests of domestic power and privilege". After the war, American
leaders "expected a return to the depression unless the government continued
to intervene massively in the economy. Social spending would have the right
economic impact, but with a downside: it has a redistributive effect and
stimulates democratic participation. Military spending has none of these
defects, and can be kept high as long as the population is frightened by one
hobgoblin or another. These matters were discussed quite frankly in the
business press in the 1940's."

The role of military expenditure and global prowess in American prosperity
continues up to the present: "The famous 'new economy', for example, has
relied critically on the dynamic state sector of the economy, mostly under
military pretexts. And of course, what is euphemistically called 'stability'
in the world also requires a very visible iron fist."

This "iron fist" has not been without its objectors - Mary Robinson among
them. On December 17th next, the former UN High Commissioner for Human
Rights will be the next recipient of the L&H Honorary Fellowship. Her
decision not to stand for re-election has been attributed to US ire
following her consistent condemnation of US policies. This, Chomsky
suggests, was to be expected. "It is rare for the powerful to tolerate
criticism. One is supposed to worship at the shrine, not raise embarrassing
questions. Boutros-Ghali was treated the same way, for the same reasons.
Same with the World Court, or anyone else who fails to see the light: the
International Criminal Court, to take a recent example, in which
Washington's demands are approaching the level of farce. Same with domestic
critics, if they cannot simply be ignored".

Though an atheist, Chomsky has lauded the Catholic Church's defence of human
rights in Latin America in the 1980's.

While the Church in the US may be suffering publicly now following
revelations of sexual abuse, Chomsky maintains that that counts for little
against the less known toll of the war that the Church fought in Latin
America against the US government in the 1980s. Church-sanctioned
paedophilia may lead to some prison sentences, but the Church's defence of
human rights in opposition to US policies abroad incurred "torture, death
squads, mass murder and destruction. Whatever the effect of the recent
scandals may be, it will be slight in comparison to what has come before."

One of Chomsky's chief concerns is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. While
highly critical of hard line Israeli policy (for which he is often dubbed a
"self-hating Jew" by critics) he cites US unilateralism and disregard for
international organisations as a principal impasse to peace. He recalls that
as early as 1976, the UN Security Council mulled a resolution to resolve the
conflict that was "supported by Europe, the Soviet bloc, the non-aligned
countries, the Arab states and the PLO; virtually the entire world. The US
vetoed the resolution. The reason is that it called for a peaceful
settlement on the internationally recognised border, with a Palestinian
state alongside Israel. When the US vetoes a resolution, it is doubly
vetoed: it is vetoed from history as well." Israel too was to blame: "Israel
refused an invitation to attend the session; its UN Ambassador, Chaim
Herzog, denounced the resolution as an extremist initiative of the PLO
(which is nonsense, but reflects the attitudes of the doves)."

Chomsky highlights the hypocrisy of US support for Israel. "Pre-Clinton, the
US officially sustained its formal position calling for Israeli withdrawal
to the internationally recognised border, but that was mostly hypocrisy,
since Washington continued to provide the crucial military, economic and
diplomatic support for the military occupation - which has been harsh and
brutal - and for integration of the valuable land and most of the resources
of the territories within Israel."

Meanwhile, Palestinians were to "live like dogs" as Israeli general and
politician Moshe Dayan put it 30 years ago, with no opportunity for
independent development or political rights. The hypocrisy ended with
Clinton, who abandoned even the formal commitment to Israeli withdrawal.

"That continues to the present, with some changes. Camp David did represent
a softening of the US-Israel position. At the time, Palestinians in the West
Bank were divided into over 200 cantons, most of them tiny, and the
Clinton-Barak proposals reduced the number to three, virtually separated
from one another and from the centre of Palestinian cultural and commercial
life in East Jerusalem; and of course Gaza."

CHOMSKY believes that Washington bears the most responsibility for the
continued conflict between the Arabs and Israelis. "It's not surprising that
Israel continues to pursue these policies, as long as the US provides the
means and the support. The core of the problem has been in Washington, and
remains there. At any point in the past 25 years, the US could have joined
the international consensus it has been blocking and paved the way towards a
meaningful political settlement. The longer the conflict goes on, the more
that fear and bitterness escalate, the harder it becomes to move towards
sensible resolution. Ireland has had some experience in such matters."

I asked Chomsky about his legacy: "As for my own role for the past 40 years,
I have no illusions about it. Virtually all of it is in connection with
popular organisations and activists who are doing the really important work,
and whose names will not be known to history. As long as their engagement
continues - forever, I expect - there will be plenty of people to join in
the manner I have tried to do."

Much like Woody Allen - to whom he does not look dissimilar - Noam Chomsky
is far better appreciated in Europe than in America. The L&H's decision to
honour Chomsky, and the recent Michael Moore-mania that struck following the
release of Bowling for Columbine, evoke some thoughts about the future of
the American left. While Michael Moore shares many of Chomsky's views, he is
an American prophet accepted by his own people. Moore is Chomsky without the
footnote, but with the couch potato manner.

Moore, the angry slob, is the ideal inheritor of Chomsky's banner.

Johnny Ryan is a postgraduate research student on the history of
international relations, specialising in terrorism. He is Oxygen Student
Media 2002 features writer of the year.

© The Irish Times

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