Noam Chomsky on the Climate of the Times

Magdalena has been a Voice contributor since 2004, and her articles always offer honest and compelling insights into the subjects she tackles. In this article, Magdalena shares the experience of attending a lecture by Noam Chomsky. This article originally appeared May 25, 2007, in issue 1519.

I often feel that I should be more active in following world politics; that being fed the information passively leaves me vulnerable and uninformed. So, I resolved to read the political pieces in the national newspapers, but found them rife with bipartisan personal opinion or spin. Not my idea of being informed. Turning to the national newscast, I found that much of it centred on U.S. issues which seemed to be filtered right from the American media. I got that odd feeling of vulnerability again because it seems that spin is what the American media is all about. This feeling becomes stronger as more flashy graphics and celebrity journalists appear on CNN. I, like many others, retreat and hope that someone more objective will come along to clarify and present us with the big picture.

That man finally came along. The opportunity to hear Noam Chomsky speak is to stand outside the box and peer inside. Chomsky began by invoking the words of the chief U.S. prosecutor at the start of the Nuremberg trials. In order for those trials to have any merit, they had to be held under the principle of universality; that all countries will be held liable and punished for future acts of international aggression or genocide. However, as Chomsky noted, the only upheld principle of universality is that nothing is universal. That the accepted climate of morality, upheld by the media, allows those in power never to ?drink from the poison chalice.? He began to outline the framework that allows for such a thing.

Chomsky clarified that an international aggressor is anyone that enters uninvited and takes power from a country, regardless of whether or not there is an official declaration of war. This encompasses U.S. actions against Iraq and many other countries. However, the U.S. government has used the media to present its actions as a noble effort to bring stability to these regions. Chomsky divulged how the U.S. has managed to commit, but never stand trial for, its own crimes. He also asserted that the U.S. is not a functional democracy because its media is not free and transparent.

He explained that stories often leaked from the government appear in a lone suburban newspaper, often a subsidiary of a larger company like the New York Times who will not print it. The story is invariably a true and unflattering view of U.S. foreign policy, which will only be hinted at a few days later in the national newspapers. Furthermore, Chomsky recounted how the U.S. has used the media in a powerful tactic. When the government makes a huge mistake, they never deny it because denial opens up a forum for discussion and dissent. Instead, they simply use the media to reposition the event as noble and heroic, like an effort to maintain stability. The media is their tool that toes the party line. The trick is that the party line is never uttered, and if it is never uttered, it can’t be disputed, debated, laughed at, or rejected. What is that line? It is that the U.S. owns the world, and so it can never be an interloper or an international aggressor. Therefore, it can commit no crime and can never be held accountable. This is very fortunate due to its long history.

U.S. foreign policy has long been concerned with bringing stability to regions. They did this in Chile, where the official media reported that destabilization of the country was necessary in order for the Americans to re-stabilize it. This occurred again in Nicaragua; Reagan avowed that the instability of this poor country?which could march on Texas in a mere two days?posed a great threat to U.S. security. The subsequent massacre led Nicaragua to charge the U.S. with international terrorism at the World Court, an impossibility as the U.S. cannot be tried for any international crimes. The World Court labelled U.S. actions as international terrorism. The U.S. simply vetoed the ruling to hold the U.S. responsible, a provision it stipulates in many of its international agreements.

In fact, the U.S. brings more instability to the regions they purport to be saving. The presence of U.S. soldiers increases violence. They are the target in 75% of attacks in Iraq, according to official polls and the surrounding region. U.S. interference also kills any hope of success for more moderate uprisings in fundamentalist Arab countries like Iran and Afghanistan. U.S. threats are an excuse to crush moderate movements and increase control over the population. Also, in the name of stability the U.S. has actually provided support for the fundamentalist Afghan regime rather than the countries more favoured moderates.

The most interesting case that Chomsky cited is that of the Iraq ? U.S. relationship. The U.S. itself removed Saddam Hussein from an international list of terrorists in order to facilitate a trade relationship in weaponry. As the relationship thrived, Iraqi officials were even invited to attend an international symposium on the effects of shockwaves in weapon detonation. The U.S. then used their power to prohibit an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. When Iraq did invade Kuwait, the U.S. pronounced Hussein an international aggressor.

At almost the same time, the U.S. invaded Panama, killing many more people than had the Iraq invasion. The media kept silent about Panama, with no investigation of the victors being permitted. Instead, Iraq was sanctioned. The humanitarian Oil for Food program was devised to bring aid to the Iraqi population. Again, the media ignored the resignation of two leading international diplomats from this committee, both citing that the U.S. was acting in violation of the Genocide Convention. In the end, only Saddam was sentenced to pay for the 150 lives he took sometime in the 1980s.

Chomsky then recounted the U.S.’s own interestingly constant polling results over the last four decades. They show that 75% of the public viewed the Vietnam War as morally and fundamentally wrong. That phenomenon continues today, with 75% of the U.S. public asserting that the war in Iraq is not just a mistake, but immoral. The media continues to not reflect the view of the people, nor does their government.

Chomsky summed up his talk by quoting a recent speech made by Condoleezza Rice in which she claimed that the U.S. deems all transfers of foreign weapons and foreign fighters into the U.S. as acts of international terrorism. Yet the U.S. engages in this behaviour frequently. Again, he pointed out that the U.S. is never considered responsible because they are never a foreign aggressor; after all, they own the world. This imperialist attitude even appears within their constitution, wherein there is a reference concerning the need to diminish the threat of those foreign savages.

?Foreign savages . . . oh, you mean the natives?? Chomsky chuckled.

Noam Chomsky is Professor Emeritus at MIT in the department of Linguistics and Philosophy. He is a linguist, theorist, and political activist. He has written well over 100 books and articles and is one of the world’s most cited scholars.

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