Noam Chomsky: speaking of truth and power

Published on Al-Ahram weekly online, David Tresilian’s interview with Noam Chomsky, 3 – 9 June 2010.

(a short excerpt) … Your latest book is called Hopes and Prospects – What are the hopes?

  • The first part of the book is about South America, and in South America there are many quite hopeful developments. For the first time in 500 years, since the Conquistadors, South America is beginning to move towards some degree of independence and integration and at least facing some of its severe internal problems. The colonial structure is extreme in South America, where there is a very narrow concentration of wealth in a mostly Europeanised, sometimes white elite, surrounded by an awful tragedy and some of the worst inequality in the world, in a region that has a lot of resources and a lot of potential. Some steps are being taken to deal with this.   
  • In the US itself there also are changes. Whether they are fast enough to overcome the major problems I don’t know, but just take Israel and Palestine. Not many years ago, if I wanted to give a talk on this I had to have police protection at a university, because the meetings would be broken up violently. I can remember when the police insisted on accompanying me and my wife back to our car after a talk at a university. That’s not completely changed, but it’s been changing over the years, and it changed radically after Gaza. Now there are enthusiastic audiences, very much engaged, very involved, very much wanting to do things.
  • It hasn’t affected the media, and it hasn’t affected the political class, or the intellectuals, but it’s changing around the country, and sooner or later those things do have effects. In a way it was diverted by the Obama phenomenon, because that did bring about a lot of expectations and it diverted a lot of activism. But now disillusionment has set in. If the changes continue to develop, they can eventually bring about significant change, as they did in the case of South Africa.

Much of your work has been about the control of the media and the shortcomings of the intellectual class in the United States, where it is difficult to stand outside a narrow spectrum of opinion. How do you see your own position today?

  • First of all, I should say I don’t think the US is very different from other societies in this respect. There may be different issues, but in England or France it’s not very different. In every society there is a fringe of dissenters. That’s been true throughout history. How do they do it? They are committed to certain values and ideals, and they decide not to conform. Usually they are not treated very well, and how they are treated depends on the nature of the society, but it is never very polite. In some societies you’ll get your head blown off, in another you’ll get the Gulag, in another you’ll get vilified. Power systems do not like criticism, and they use whatever techniques they have to undermine and condemn it.
  • Very typically, over history, the intellectual classes have subordinated themselves to power, with very few exceptions. Yet, still there are people who don’t go along and pursue an independent path. The US is not really very harsh in this regard, so a person of a limited amount of privilege, which is a great many people, and certainly me, are pretty much immune to harsh repression. I’ve faced a long prison sentence, and almost was sentenced, but that was because of open, overt resistance. I couldn’t object to it as I was doing things that were openly and consciously illegal in resistance to the war, so if I had gone to jail I couldn’t have called that repression. For speaking and writing and so on, the punishment is marginalisation and vilification, but I can live with that. There is plenty of support among the public.
  • Journalist Chris Hedges is doing research on the New York Times, and a few weeks ago he came across a memo from the managing editor of the New York Times to the writers and columnists, saying that they were not allowed to mention my name. National Public Radio has said in print that I’m the one person who will never be allowed on their primetime news and discussion programme. But it’s not great punishment, and when I go home they’ll be hundreds of email messages, and among them they’ll be a couple of dozen invitations to give talks all over the country, and at almost all of them they’ll be a substantial audience of interested and engaged people who are sympathetic and want to do something, and that’s more than enough encouragement to keep going.
  • I do have access to the media abroad under certain circumstances, such that if I’m criticising the United States, I have access to the media. But if I am criticising those countries to which I’m invited, it stops, systematically. I’ve noticed it even in Canada. If I go to Canada, they like to hear criticisms of the United States, but if I start criticising Canada it closes, and it’s the same elsewhere.

Finally, why have you criticised the formula ‘to speak truth to power,’ which was used by the late Edward Said to describe the role of intellectuals?

  • That’s actually a Quaker slogan, and I like the Quakers and I do a lot of things with them, but I don’t agree with the slogan. First of all, you don’t have to speak truth to power, because they know it already. And secondly, you don’t speak truth to anybody, that’s too arrogant. What you do is join with people and try to find the truth, so you listen to them and tell them what you think and so on, and you try to encourage people to think for themselves.
  • The ones you are concerned with are the victims, not the powerful, so the slogan ought to be to engage with the powerless and help them and help yourself to find the truth. It’s not an easy slogan to formulate in five words, but I think it’s the right one.

(full long interview text).

Comments are closed.