An Interview with Noam Chomsky
Professor Noam Chomsky has been voted the world’s leading public intellectual and is probably the most famous critic of US foreign policy alive. His books have been recommended by everyone from revolutionary Latin American leaders to school teachers. And he argues his point of view with an eloquence and rationality that makes it difficult to reconcile the inhospitable reception he often receives in the mainstream corporate media.
Professor Chomsky visited Ireland last year to speak at the Amnesty International Annual Lecture, he also gave a number of lectures in University College Dublin on, among other things, ‘democracy promotion’. The mainstream media’s coverage of his visit was both critical and supportive. RTE’s coverage was ‘balanced’ in that while they introduced him as a leading intellectual, they also spent a substantial amount of the introduction to an interview with Professor Chomsky attempting to debunk one of his more contentious statements – that the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 “was not undertaken in response to the crimes, but rather precipitated the crimes, exactly as was anticipated.” And in response to the positive comments of Michael D Higgins and David Begg, RTE offered Mark Dooley of the Sunday Independent who summarised his work as a “forty year campaign in favour of Chairman Mao, Pol Pot, Slobodan Milosevic and Osama Bin Laden… an apologist for terror and tyranny without rival.”
Mark Little’s openly hostile interview that followed began poorly, with Little spending the first few of his 15 minute interview badgering Chomsky in the hope he would label Taoiseach Bertie Ahern a war criminal. It was unacceptable in Little’s eyes for Professor Chomsky to simply state his position as that concluded by the Nuremberg Trials – that the invasion of a foreign country is the supreme international crime, which encompasses within it all the evils that follow. It was up to the individual person to decide whether the Irish government’s support for the invasion of Iraq deemed the Taosieach a war criminal. The remainder of the interview was similarly inimical.
RTE’s failure to offer viewers a meaningful discussion, as opposed to the rehashing of old arguments and the pointless diversion of trying to put words in someone else’s mouth, was a real shame. A shame that RTE repeated during the Late Late Show’s failed ambush of George Galloway by Magill Editor Eamon Delaney.
We recently wrote to Professor Chomsky in the hope he could answer a few questions on the state of Irish journalism and the media in general. Generously he offered some of his time:
(NC – Noam Chomsky, MB – MediaBite, questions prepared by David Manning and Miriam Cotton)
MB: Can the corporate media produce the ‘check and balance’ they so often claim exists, or do we need to look outside the corporate sphere?
NC: On checks and balance, it’s not a matter of Yes or No, but of More or Less. Even in totalitarian societies, institutions are responsive to public pressure and the public mood. Far more so in more free societies. I’ve seen plenty of examples in my own personal experience of shifts in media performance and perspective resulting from all sorts of influences, including explicit pressures, and much else. Even an individual can do a lot; I know of significant cases from personal experiences. Organized groups far more. But there are institutional limits in the corporate media, and independent voices should be encouraged as a value in themselves, as well as because they too affect media performance.
MB: Ireland has strong historical ties to the US, and presently assumes a subtle, but supportive role in the US administration’s ‘War on abstraction’. By adopting this stance we have obviously made clear our allegiance, therefore criticism of the policies of our allies becomes not just warranted, but essential. Yet, this is often met with the perfect argument breaker, the accusation of ‘anti-Americanism’. You are often charged with this, could you explain what you think it actually is?
NC: The notion “anti-Americanism” is a revealing one. It is drawn from the lexicon of totalitarianism. Thus people who think that the US is the greatest country in the world are “anti-American” if they criticize the acts of the Holy State, or join the vast majority of the population in believing that the corporate sector has far too much influence over government policy, or regard private corporate institutions created by state power and granted extraordinary rights as “a return to feudalism” (to quote old-fashioned conservatives, a category that now scarcely exists). And so on.
In totalitarian societies, the usage is standard. In the former Soviet Union, for example, dissidents were condemned as “anti-Soviet” or “anti-Russian.” Where a democratic culture prevails, the usage would be regarded as comical. If people who criticize Irish government policies were condemned as “anti-Irish,” I suppose people would collapse in ridicule in the streets of Dublin. At least they should.
The notion has an interesting history. It traces back to King Ahab, the epitome of evil in the Bible, who denounced the Prophet Elijah as an “ocher Yisrael” (a proper translation, now used in Israel, is “hater of Israel”). His reason was that Elijah condemned the acts of the evil King, who, like totalitarians since, identified the state (himself) with the population, the culture, the society.
People are entitled to revere King Ahab and Soviet commissars, and to adopt the term “anti-American,” on their model. But we should have no illusions about how they are choosing to identify themselves.
MB: I think I remember you commenting in a lecture some years ago that there is a noticeable difference between news reporting on either side of the Irish Sea. As part of an ex-imperial acquisition, could the Irish press provide a unique view on world events, or could this historical perspective have been wasted by the corporatisation of Irish society?
NC: I should make it clear, if I didn’t at the time, that this is only an impression. I don’t follow the Irish media closely enough to have a confident judgment. But I suspect it is true, and I presume that the history of hundreds of years under the jackboot has a lot to do with it. Not only in international affairs, those who are beaten by a club have a different perspective on the world than those who are wielding it.
On the impact of recent socio-economic changes, I do not know enough to judge.
MB: The type of language used in reporting is hugely influential in moulding perception. During last year’s Israeli ‘incursions’ into Lebanon the Irish and British press put Israeli and Lebanese actions at an acute linguistic variance. For example, the Israelis ‘captured’ Hezbollah ‘fighters’, while Hezbollah ‘kidnapped’ Israeli ‘soldiers’. RTE, the Irish public service broadcaster, did in fact redress a similar disparity after a polite nudge. Can you explain this seemingly intuitive bias?
NC: In one US newspaper, to its credit, a well-known military historian pointed out that a uniformed soldier `can no more be “kidnapped” by the enemy than an innocent, unarmed child can “die in battle”’ (Caleb Carr, Los Angeles Times). But the usage you describe is nevertheless standard.
In contrast, civilians can be kidnapped, and are. Israel’s escalation of atrocities in Gaza in June was portrayed as a reaction to the “kidnapping” of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, on June 25, 2006. There was barely a mention in the media of the fact that one day before, Israeli forces had kidnapped two Gaza civilians, the Muammar brothers (on no credible charge, but that is not relevant here), and brought them to Israel in violation of the Geneva Conventions to join some 800 other civilians held without charge (hence kidnapped). Hezbollah’s capture of Israeli soldiers on July 12 aroused great Western outrage, and was taken to justify the Israeli invasion that destroyed much of Lebanon (perhaps a “disproportionate” reaction, according to mainstream critics). But there had been virtual silence for decades as Israel kidnapped and often killed Lebanese and Palestinians in Lebanon or on the high seas travelling between Cyprus and Lebanon, sometimes holding them as hostages for long periods, hundreds of them in secret prison camps/torture chambers like Facility 1391, exposed in detail in the Israeli press (and a few other places – never in the US). And if anyone had argued that it would be legitimate to invade and destroy much of Israel in retaliation for these kidnappings and killings over many decades, there would be cries of a resurgence of Nazism.
It need hardly be mentioned that kidnapping of civilians is a far more serious crime than capture of soldiers.
Why the disparity? It is one case of the dedicated rejection of one of the most elementary moral principles: that we apply to ourselves the same standards we apply to others, if not more stringent ones. What they do to us and our allies is an atrocity. What we and our allies do to them – which is often far worse — is denied, minimized, excused. Israeli actions are carried out with enormous support from the US – economic, military, diplomatic, ideological – and general support from Europe as well. The disparity follows, as in innumerable other cases, documented to the skies.
In June of last year we wrote to RTE Editor, Michael Good, to question RTE’s reporting of the Israel/Palestine conflict:
Dear Mr. Good,
“Israel has given Palestinian militants a two days deadline to release a soldier kidnapped during a pre-dawn raid at an Israeli Army post near the Gaza Strip.”
“Israel has denied that 64 Palestinian officials being detained in the West Bank are to be used as bargaining chips in the crisis over the capture of an Israeli soldier.”
Israeli detention assures prisoners no more rights than Palestinian captivity.
Why does Israel ‘detain’ and Palestine ‘kidnap’?
David Manning [Email, 29/06/06]
Mr. Good responded the next day:
Fair point. We have put a message in our general mail to this effect.
Michael Good [Email, 30/06/06]
The above example is just a token of evidence in support of Professor Chomsky’s comments on the ability of individuals to induce “shifts in media performance and perspective.” The relationship between the corporate media and its consumers is a passive one. The possibility that individuals can hold the media to account for the way it reports news is largely unexplored. We invite MediaBite readers to join the evolving international movement to change this situation and to write to Irish journalists about the corporate and establishment biases in what they read. If news reporters are serious about the media’s claims to uphold democracy, they will welcome this proactive form of engagement from their readership.