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UR On...
Noam Chomsky
An Interview for EDucate!

Mashhood Rizvi

When I wrote a tribute to Professor Noam Chomsky, for the first issue of EDucate!, I did not expect to meet the “indefatigable rebel” in person. But I was soon honored when he recently visited Pakistan on a whirlwind trip. It would be unfair not to admit that the anticipation of being in the same space with him did not unnerve me. But, upon greeting him, my apprehension gave way to a desire for taking as much of my share of knowledge from him as possible. This interview comprises of a series of discussions we had in Pakistan and ensuing ones after he left.

During your visit to Pakistan many who approached you were hoping to hear ready–made solutions to all the problems Pakistan is faced with. However, you seemed to be pressing them to think hard and think critically about the problems as well as the possible solutions. You held yourself responsible for taking certain measures and actions regarding the role of your country (US) and expected others to do the same. Is it true?

Chomsky: It is definitely true. It is perhaps the most elementary of moral truisms, that we are responsible for the anticipated consequences of our own action, or inaction. It may be fine to study the crimes of Genghis Khan, but there is no moral value to condemning them; we can’t do anything about them. There is not much I can do – in fact, virtually nothing – about the very serious problems internal to Pakistan. I’d like to learn about them, and to understand them as best as I can. And I don’t refrain from saying what I think.

(a) Why is a moral value not attached to condemning the crimes of Genghis Khan? Don’t you think that along with studying his crimes, it is equally important to continue to condemn them so that anybody who commits similar atrocities does not get away with it.

(b) Also, as far as the existing imperial powers of the world are concerned, I think I am more than justified to condemn them, as their crimes are directly causing my people/country so much pain and suffering. The rise and rule of corporations in the West in so many ways is linked to Pakistan’s economy vis–à–vis the poverty of our nation; therefore, I think that it must be condemned by Pakistanis.

Chomsky: I am basing my remarks on what seems to me a moral truism: the moral evaluation of what we do depends on the anticipated consequences – in the cases we are discussing, human consequences. If I publish a paper here reviewing and condemning the crimes of Genghis Khan, the human consequences are approximately zero; I’m joining in universal condemnation, and adding another pea to the mountain certainly doesn’t help his victims, or anyone else for that matter.

Suppose in some part of the world, say Mongolia, his crimes were being suppressed or praised or even used as a model for current actions. Then it would be of great moral value to condemning his crimes there, because of the human consequences. Take your other example: condemnation in Pakistan of the impact of US corporate and state power in Pakistan. There is great moral value to condemn that in ways that affect the exercise of that power, which means mostly here, in the US. For Pakistanis, if the condemnations have no effect on the exercise of that power, then in that respect the moral value is slight; if they have an effect in raising the level of understanding of Pakistanis, to enable them to act more constructively, then the moral value could be great. In all cases, we are back to anticipated human consequences.

Let’s take a concrete case. For intellectuals in Russia in the Communist days, condemnation of US crimes had little if any moral value; in fact, it might have had negative value, in serving to buttress the oppressive and brutal Soviet system. In contrast, when Eastern European dissidents condemned the crimes of their own states and society, it had great moral value. That much everyone takes for granted: everyone, that is, outside the Soviet commissar class. Much the same holds in the West, point by point, except with much more force, because the costs of honest dissidence are so immeasurably less. And exactly as we would expect, these utterly trivial points are almost incomprehensible to Western intellectuals, when applied to them, though readily understood when applied to official enemies.

That’s why, for example, I was critical of Pakistan’s policies concerning Kashmir when speaking in Pakistan, and of India’s policies there when speaking in India. But I cannot – and no one else should – have a great deal of confidence in what I say as a concerned outsider. And there isn’t much that I can do about the very severe problems. In contrast, there is a great deal I can do about problems within the US, and about policy decisions of systems of power there. And for just that reason, that’s my primary responsibility.

Of course, it is not quite that simple. Outsiders can sometimes have useful advice and influence, and should try to use such opportunities. Nonetheless, the moral truism remains just that: a truism.
Quite apart from moral truisms, it is generally a mistake to expect outsiders to have valuable advice as to how to deal with one’s problems. That requires intimate knowledge and understanding. It’s sheer arrogance for those who lack that knowledge and understanding to offer solutions. And it makes little sense to wait for rescue from outside. That’s often just a way to evade responsibility.

Again, one shouldn’t exaggerate. Sympathy and support from friends is of enormous importance in personal life, and solidarity and mutual aid are of comparable importance over a broader sphere, including international affairs. Nonetheless, we ultimately have to take our fate into our own hands, not wait for salvation from somewhere else. It won’t come.

Are these the reasons that your lectures in Pakistan (and to a great extent in India) were in reference with the historical role of US in the world rather than focusing on the issues and concerns of Pakistan vis–à–vis the war on Afghanistan, or for that matter role of Islam in a Pakistani society?

Chomsky: These are exactly the reasons. Similarly, I would not expect a Pakistani visitor to the US to lecture us on US policy in Afghanistan, or on how to deal with quite severe problems internal to the US. If the visitor has something to say, well and good, but the strictures I already mentioned would hold nonetheless.

Very briefly, can you elucidate on the differences (audience’s intellectual level, academia, media’s role etc.) you experienced between Pakistan and India?

Chomsky: I’m reluctant to comment on this. I spent 3 weeks in India, traveling widely around the country. I have visited India several times in the past, and have read quite a lot about India, including detailed studies of particular regions and much else. In contrast, I spent 3 days in Pakistan, and was able to see and experience very little. This was my first trip, and I have not read about Pakistan anywhere near as extensively. I have impressions, but am reluctant even to express them, and do not think that you should take them seriously if I did.

How difficult do you believe it has now become to educate people about critical issues as anything and everything which challenges the interest of the powerful is tagged as ‘terror’?

Chomsky: It has always been difficult. Just speaking personally, I have been writing and speaking extensively about “terrorism” for 20 years, ever since the Reagan administration proclaimed that the “war against terror” would be the core of its foreign policy; and of course about similar matters even before the “war” was declared. Over time, slowly, there has been increasing willingness on the part of much of the public to think seriously about the critical issues that you probably have in mind. I think that has improved further since Sept. 11. I am speaking about the general public, not elite intellectuals, who typically serve as doctrinal managers, and have their own agendas. Nothing novel about that.

Do you think that at times governments and nations strategically allow the existence of dissent (may be to trivialize truth), just to ensure some liberty of thought, for the masses to feel good, and not agitated. Or do you think that such space is a result of struggle?

Chomsky: The space that exists was, mostly, won with difficult struggle. Nonetheless, it is true that when such space is opened, there will be efforts on the part of concentrated power to adapt it to their own purposes, and to try to constrain debate and discussion within narrow limits. If dictators were smarter, they would adopt the systems of indoctrination that are employed, often quite consciously, in more democratic societies: let debate rage, but within limits set by fixed presuppositions, which express the basic interests of power. For example, during the US wars in Indochina, the media and journals of opinion were happy to sponsor debates between “hawks,” who argued that the US should resort to greater violence and destruction, and “doves,” who argued that our effort to defend the Vietnamese from terror and foreign attack was becoming too costly, and that we should seek other means to attain our noble objectives. The more that debate rages, the less likely people are to ask the obvious questions: for example, are we defending Vietnam by attacking it? Fortunately, great numbers of people broke out of the hawk–dove spectrum, though very few intellectuals. Much the same holds on many other issues.

Do you think that simply informing the oppressed of the main sources of oppression can result in liberation? Or, it may, on the contrary result in mere decreasing or alleviating their feelings of being oppressed. All this, while the magnitude of oppression and the oppressor becomes greater and greater?

Chomsky: The oppressed typically understand their oppression far better than we do, and we should try to learn from them, not instruct them. Insofar as we have some understanding of the sources of their oppression, we should do our best to convey it to those who can use it to liberate themselves – with our assistance, to whatever extent we can provide it, honestly and without seeking dominance and control. It is perfectly true that understanding may not result in liberation, but absence of understanding is certain to prevent liberation. Those are the actual choices.

(a) I partially agree with you. But, we are in so many ways distinctively privileged as compared to the oppressed we claim to be fighting for. How important do you think it is for us to be in the exact social, economical and political state to join the struggle for social justice and a better world? What I mean is that, when you came to Pakistan, the oppressed had little or no access to you. You spoke English, which the oppressed do not understand. I go for fieldtrips in an air–conditioned car carrying mineral water bottles and have trouble convincing myself in front of the mirror, that I am fighting for social justice. Am I not required to let go of the material and social privileges to become a real part of the struggle?

(b) I have met with so many extremely poor people who seem to think that it is their fate to be poor and oppressed. They have no clue whatsoever about the sources of their poverty. I work with illiterate people. Almost all of them suffer from serious self–deprivation to an extent that they consider themselves worse than animals at times. Then I come in the picture. I tell them that their poverty is not God’s act on them, it is human creation. I tell them that being illiterate does not equate you with animals. I do not even instruct. I simply initiate a discourse. But I feel that so many of them, who seem to be feeling good, empowered and motivated by knowing that they have been regarded as real and dignified humans for the first time in their lives, immediately want solutions, answers, and explanations about what they can do and what I can do for them. I tell them that all I can do is to sit in that air conditioned car and go back home and they have to liberate themselves as my responsibility was to make them aware of the sources of their oppression. But Noam, honestly these people will be faced with such grave consequences if they were to liberate themselves from the social oppression they are faced with. Is this all I can do for them?

Chomsky: I don’t see any grounds for disagreement. You are, correctly, not pretending that you can offer oppressed people magic answers to their problems. Their own immediate situation they comprehend much better than you can, and they have to struggle to overcome and remedy it, as people have done through the ages. You do come to them to try to participate in their struggle by contributing what you can, as you describe. That’s exactly right. The choices are (1) not giving answers that we don’t have, (2) doing nothing. You describe some of the ways in which privileged people can “come into the picture” and join constructively in popular struggles for social justice and liberation. There are many such possibilities.

It’s also true that when I was in Pakistan I spoke only to a narrow elite. That’s a shame, and I regret it, very much. In India that was partially true, though less so; and in Kerala, much less so. Similar problems and choices arise right where I live. We can work where we are, not where we are not. There’s no general single answer as to where and how it is right and proper to focus our energies and efforts, no single answer that applies to everyone. We have to find our own ways.

Any message, reflection or thoughts for our readers?

Chomsky: A philosopher friend once wrote a criticism of my work in which he said, with some annoyance, that the only “ism” I seem to believe in is truism. That’s rather accurate. I don’t feel that I have important messages to convey, beyond the obvious: in this case, think for yourselves and do not uncritically accept what you are told, and do what you can to make the world a better place, particularly for those who suffer and are oppressed.


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