A Conversation with Noam Chomsky

On January 8, Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, Spare Change News’ editor-in-chief, sat down with one of the world’s leading public intellectuals, Prof. Noam Chomsky, in his office at MIT. They had a wide-ranging and free-flowing conversation about the most pressing issues facing our democracy. They covered topics ranging from liberation theology in Latin America, to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., to the Middle East conflict. This is an excerpt from their rich dialogue.

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Noam Chomsky: … And you know what, MLK day, that’s supposed to be venerating MLK, and virtually everything ends with his iconic “I have a dream” speech in 1963. But he didn’t stop there. He went on to try to combat racism in the North, class oppression, housing, and he just gets smashed. In fact, that’s when his reputation among white liberals started going down. Nobody talks about what was happening when he was assassinated. After all, he was supporting the sanitation workers’ strike. More significantly, he was on his way to Washington to organize a poor people’s campaign. They went, set up the tents, and there he was, smashed up by the cops and driven out of Washington—under the most liberal Congress in American history. But that’s out of history, including his last “I Have a Dream” speech. The evening he was assassinated he gave a very eloquent speech. And remember the sort of Moses imagery and “you can see the promised land,” and “when we get there.” But that whole period is out of history, as is the Northern racism. Take, say, Boston. Take things like busing. I mean, busing was designed by a liberal judge named Robert, a Harvard trustee—nice guy—but he designed it so as to virtually create race riots in Boston and exclude the suburbs. The suburbs are white, Boston is black. But the black kids were sent into the Irish neighborhoods and vice versa. And what are you going to do? It’s going to cause race riots. I don’t know if they couldn’t figure it out, or if they were cynical, or what, but that happened all over the country.

Rev. Osagyefo Sekou: The kind of historic consensus around King has been that he shifts around ’68 to a more radical politic.

NC: It was earlier than that.

OS: That’s right, but as early as 1949, he writes: “My thinking is more socialistic than capitalistic.” That is predicated on being a child in the Depression. And he says there, seeing those lines made me this way. And throughout his writing there is an exchange between him and Coretta in 1952. She sends him Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. And so they’re discussing in these love letters this strange, interesting intertwining between his theology—which is an old Christology and a highly anti-fundamentalist theology as it relates to the physical resurrection of Jesus—and between his democratic socialist politics and his theology. Because I think King is tapping into a kind of prophetic tradition. Historically, America has always had a democratic socialist strain, like Michael Harrington.

NC: That’s even true with John Paul. I mean, his New Year’s Day speech—he was a pretty conservative guy—but his New Year’s Day addresses could not be reported in the United States because they were too radical. He was criticizing Communism, that’s OK, but he was criticizing capitalism and materialism, that’s not OK. So just take a look at the record. So yeah, there’s a strain there all the way through. But as far as King is concerned, it became visible in 1965. His public actions grew in Chicago—openly speaking against the urban programs in Chicago. That’s when he lost favor with the Northern liberals. It became about class issues and also about racism in the North.

OS: What is your prognosis on the second term of Obama?

NC: It will be the same as the first. I never had any trust in him, I didn’t see any reason to. Actually I had read about him before the 2008 primaries, just using his webpage. And I thought it was purely opportunistic. I had to write about the Middle East part, that was the context, and I wanted to see what he was going to say. I thought it was pretty shocking. He has a lot about the Middle East on his webpage—he was advertising himself for the election. And of course, it’s all full of love for Israel and so on, and maybe a sentence or two on the Palestinians, saying something like, “Palestinians, maybe they’re human beings” or something like that. It was right after the war in Lebanon. A horror story. And he advertises very proudly that when he was a Senator, he co-sponsored a resolution during the war, calling on the executive not to do anything to impede Israel’s attack and to punish anyone like Syria or Iran who’s helping resist the Israeli attack. It’s right in the middle of a major atrocity.

OS: I lectured in Lebanon in 2009 in a coffee house, which served as an aid station during the war with Israel in 2006.

NC: So you were in Beirut?

OS: Yes, in Beirut. And it’s quite powerful to kind of get a sense of—what’s been interesting to me, also as I’ve kind of moved around the world, is the way that “third world people” who’ve been in liberation struggles deploy the language and the rhetoric of the African American freedom struggle.

NC: Why is that?

OS: Everywhere I’ve been—I was in Mexico City, with some Latin Americans. I covered the London riots, and I was in Paris during the 2005 riots. And among Palestinians, they say we are “sand niggers.” We want you to understand who we are in the world. And so it’s been really interesting how in our particular delegation, we did lots of freedom songs, and many of these activists who didn’t speak English or couldn’t fully comprehend what was going on—they would weep. It’s been really interesting to me what happens both visually if not linguistically to people in terms of how they read this freedom struggle and the struggle these people call African in America.

NC: But they read it sympathetically.

OS: Yeah, no question. And it was the same thing when I was in Palestine. The African Americans on the delegation—particularly, there’s a woman, Carolyn McKinstry, who was friends with the four little girls who were killed in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963—she and others, when we walk, we walk. Oh we knew this. Like there was something visceral about the experience. Like we know about the police and the bodies and the disciplining of knowledge. We know this life. We would go into West Jerusalem, then we go into East Jerusalem. Like we go into Harlem, and then you come down into the West Side. And we go, “Oh we know this.” I’m a Southerner, I’m from Arkansas, so we talk about wheelhouse. The wheelhouse has to do with naming arbitrary violence, legislative oppression, hypersexualized stereotypes. Hegemony seems like it’s limited in its imagination. That’s why it goes after the artists and the intellectuals first. Across the board, whether it be left-wing hegemony, vis-à-vis the worst of those in the Communist movement, or right-wing hegemony—Fascism or George Herbert Walker going after Robert Mapplethorpe. I’d like to hear more from you about this: what are the tools of hegemony that cut across space and time? Like, because it seems like they’re limited. I mean, they got guns, and lots of them.

NC: There’s force, but then there’s also demeaning the other. I’ve also been struck—I was in Gaza recently, but almost anywhere, the thing that people talk about is dignity—taking away our dignity. Not just destroying this or that, but I want to live a dignified life. And you hear that all over the world. I mean, that’s exactly what happened in the Arab Spring. To go back to the first—the guy who committed suicide—what he said is, you’re going to take away my work, you’re taking away my dignity as a human being. And that concept of human dignity is very important to the oppressed, and the oppressors understand it. What’s called torture is often just humiliation. The thing is designed to be humiliated. Or when, say, Israeli troops go into a village, they just want to insult the people, humiliate them. Make them feel worthless—make sure they don’t raise their heads, to use the phrase. I remember Thomas Friedman was on Charlie Rose’s show a few years ago and he said, “Well, in Baghdad and Basra, they ought to be knocking down doors and going in and telling the people you need to understand we don’t want to be bothered.” That was to humiliate them. Aside from the idiocy, it’s about what these guys do with non-Lebanese people. It’s just the same old brackets. You just want to humiliate them. That’s what we ought to do, that’s our job. Then maybe you’ll understand that you gotta leave us alone. I happened to be in Israel in 1988 during the first intifada, when Friedman was the New York Times reporter, and he got a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Israel. I was reading about it in the Hebrew press, and they couldn’t stand it and they were mocking him. One question he was asked was, “How do you think we ought to treat people in the West Bank?” And he speaks as this great expert—he knows everything about the Middle East—well you want to do it the same way you’re controlling Southern Lebanon. Southern Lebanon was run by a terrorist army, carrying out vicious attacks against the local population, with Israeli troops making sure that everything worked fine. Treat them like that. But then he said, but you ought to give Ahmed a seat on the bus because then he will lessen his demands. Now that’s like some Southern racist saying: “Look, don’t beat him up too much, give Sambo a seat on the bus, then maybe he’ll shut up.” That’s from Friedman. The racism is so profound and the recognition—the kind of deep recognition that you have to humiliate. It’s not about to killing or torture. It’s to humiliate. So they feel degraded. And both the oppressed understand and the oppressors understand. It’s constant.

OS: So they can’t say, “I am a man.”

— transcribed by Jennifer Lee & Samuel Needham