NEWS

Chomsky on power and terror

Over 1,500 people jam-packed the Athens Planetarium last week as US linguist and left-wing guru Noam Chomsky gave his take on globalization, power and terrorism. Chomsky, often described as «the conscience of America,» did not let down his cult following, saving most of his wrath for his native country. Terror is the driving force of American foreign policy, said Chomsky, the 76-year-old professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and renegade chronicler of US foreign policy, noting that the war on terror is actually a continuation of a policy initiated by the Ronald Reagan administration. «War on terror was declared by pretty much the same people 20 years earlier in 1981 when the Reagan administration came into office,» Chomsky said as he went on to lambaste its catastrophic consequences. «The [Reagan administration’s] war on terror was in fact a murderous, violent terrorist war which left the countries devastated. Some may never recover while hundreds of thousands of people were killed and tortured,» Chomsky told a standing-room-only crowd (his talk was broadcast live on giant screens in two more overflow auditoriums) that appeared enthralled by his speech. Chomsky’s lecture on «Globalization, the USA and the New World Order» was organized by the Mediterranean College and took place at the new digital Planetarium of the Eugenidion Foundation. The street outside the venue was thronged with conference-goers early on while a small group of anti-capitalist activists handed out leaflets against America and the UN Cyprus reunification plan. (To their disappointment, Chomsky later hinted that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s blueprint should be endorsed despite any injustices and imperfections. The peace plan was eventually rejected in a Greek-Cypriot referendum on Saturday.) The American professor blasted Washington’s alleged hypocrisy and double standards, arguing that although its foreign interventions fall under the official US definition of terrorism, the political elite refuses to call them by their true name. «Every word has two meanings. One is its literal meaning and the other is the meaning that is actually used, which is determined by the powerful and imposed on the rest by propaganda,» he said. «Terror is defined as the terror that they carry out against us, not the terror that we carry out against them, which is much worse,» he added in a sarcastic tone. Similarly, although globalization literally denotes a neutral process of international integration, the term is used in the manner determined by concentrated power to signify «a very specific form of international economic integration determined by few powerful states, institutions and multinational corporations,» said Chomsky, whose ferocious critique of American foreign policy has drawn far more attention than his radical theories on syntax and language. The distorted usage of the term «globalization» is so widespread that even people who oppose corporate-led globalization have come to accept the propagandistic interpretation, calling themselves the anti-globalization movement, said Chomsky in a reference to the organized protests that surfaced with the shutdown of the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle in 1999 and peaked with the siege of Genoa during the Group of Eight summit two years later. «But in fact the Left was never against world integration,» he added. Democratic Iraq Turning to the motives behind the US-led war on Iraq, Chomsky dismissed pretexts that Washington’s campaign was driven by the noble vision of turning the desert soil of Iraq into a blooming garden of democracy, as the political leadership and pro-government media have claimed, particularly after the failure to trace any weapons of mass destruction – the original and hotly disputed casus belli of the Bush administration. «The only evidence for this [noble cause] is that our leaders declared that it is true,» he said, prompting laughter among the audience. Rather, the true goal of the invasion was to «take control of Iraqi resources and reorganize the Middle East in the US’s interest,» Chomsky maintained, stressing that the ongoing occupation marks a radical new twist in the idea of self-defense. While the foreign policy doctrine of the Clinton administration was to control space and be able to use it for defensive military action, Chomsky explained, the Bush administration has moved «from control of space to ownership of space» – a dogma that requires constant engagement in the world. For Chomsky, this policy of imperialist expansionism has only succeeded in pouring more oil onto the flames of extremism. «A lot of terror has its source in Islamic fundamentalism but much is stimulated by the role of the US. Dealing with it with violence leads to endless war,» he said. Chomsky suggested that the attack on Iraq fits into a broader pattern of US interventionism in the Middle East region which, rather than tempering the grievances that breed frustration and hatred among the Muslim world, feeds into the cycle of violence. Chomsky condemned America’s differential calculus in foreign policy and stressed that despite pledges to the contrary, the US has effectively been obstructing the path to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. «[A solution to the dispute] has been blocked by the US unilaterally over the last 30 years,» he said. The so-called road map, a peace deal drafted by the US, the EU and Russia, which has been stymied for months amid an escalation of violence on both sides, suffered a new blow last week when US President George Bush publicly backed Israel’s plan to unilaterally withdraw from Palestinian areas while keeping parts of the West Bank. In a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Bush wrote that a return to the 1949 borders was «unrealistic» because of the «existing major Israeli population centers» (settlements) beyond these lines – a controversial move that sparked reactions from Muslim nations. Subordinate EU Switching to transatlantic relations, Chomsky said that the US has always sought to keep the EU in a subordinate position. NATO, he maintained, was built to prevent Europe from becoming a «third force» while, this time, Washington has invested its hopes in the Union’s pending big-bang expansion hoping that it will loosen its structure and dilute tendencies toward further independence. «As the EU gets more diffused, the US hopes that former communist states will be more responsive to US interests,» he said. On May 1, EU membership will balloon to 25 countries as eight ex-communist states plus Cyprus and Malta join the bloc – its biggest expansion ever. In a sign of potential discord, most of the former Soviet satellites snubbed opposition from France and Germany and fell behind the US-led Iraq campaign, a move that spurred US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to praise their stand and dub them as the «new Europe.» Chomsky scoffed at Rumsfeld’s remarks, saying that «new-Europe» governments overruled the views of the people while the leaders of «old Europe» actually «took the side of the overwhelming section of the population.» Half-full In a discussion of civic freedoms at home, Chomsky said that although the US happens to be an unusually open and free society, «a great deal of information never reaches the general public.» The restraints of neoliberal society, the evils of the state propaganda apparatus and unaccountable private power, he suggested, all raise a daunting barrier before the individual. Not all is bleak for Chomsky, however. The key to breaking the crust of consensus formed by the elite is public awareness and popular organization on a massive scale, he said. Besides, the seeds are already planted in those «growing popular movements which want to implement different versions of globalization, oriented toward the concerns of populations, not private capital.» These strange days, Chomsky definitely sees the glass as half-full. «Dealing with propaganda is difficult but nothing like dealing with assassinations and mass executions.» On US fundamentalism Professor Chomsky was kind enough to respond to a question by Kathimerini English Edition sent to him via e-mail on religious conservatism in the USA today. Is American fundamentalism merely a passing vogue or a new state of affairs that we have to deal with? The concept «fundamentalism» originated in the US a century ago, among educated intellectuals in Princeton New Jersey, who were reacting to the rise of secular currents connected with modern science and technology and hoped to restore religious (Protestant) commitments that returned to the «fundamentals» of the faith. But their efforts drew on a rich background. The early colonists were what we would today call «religious fundamentalists,» if not «fanatics.» They were Bible-waving extremists who saw themselves as the «children of Israel» following the Lord’s command as they exterminated the Amalekites – the native inhabitants. Similar attitudes prevailed during the conquest of the national territory. And they remain today. In comparative studies, it is found that secularism tends to increase along with industrialization. But the US is a radical exception: popular commitment to extremist religious beliefs (for example, that the world was created 6,000 years ago) ranks with pre-industrial peasant societies. It is not a «passing vogue,» regrettably.