Chomsky Talk


NOAM CHOMSKY:  Unfortunately, I can’t see anybody out there but I assume there are people there.  I’m going to be talking–I’ll be talking primarily about West Asia, which overlaps pretty closely with what we call, here, the Middle East or the Near East.  Some of these remarks are going to be highly critical of the practices of states in the region, including the currently most powerful states, Israel and Turkey.  Supporters of their criminal practices often charge that these criticisms are unfair, they overlook the conflicts and the threats that the states face, the states and the societies face. And I think those charges are, in part, correct.  The criticism has an element of unfairness, but for a different reason.  The conflicts and the threats are certainly real and serious, but they in no way justify the continuing barbarous practices and actions that have gone on over many years and are in large measure responsible for the threats that now exist.

But these vicious practices are only to be expected.  In a situation of conflict and threat, the state authorities will resort to any means that they can get away with; that includes serious war crimes, crimes against humanity, and they will do so, as long as their crimes are tolerated and supported and sometimes encouraged by the overlord.  If the master says that’s enough, they stop.  Therefore, it follows that our criticisms should be directed primarily to ourselves.  Indignation about the crimes of others is easy and cheap and not particularly attractive, sometimes even shameful.  Looking in the mirror is far more important, much more difficult.  And in these, and many other cases, our participation in crimes is quite real, and it proceeds at several different levels.

In the first place, it’s a matter of government policy, decisive military, economic, diplomatic support for crimes, all with full awareness, over many decades.  At the second level, it goes on at the level of doctrinal institutions–media, schools, universities, intellectual journals, often scholarship.  That includes evasion or suppression of crucial facts, plenty of outright falsification, sometimes even unconstrained enthusiasm for atrocities.

And at the third, and most important, level, it’s a matter of our own choices.  None of this is graven in stone.  There are many examples rather similar to this, where things have been changed by public action.  We may remember that this month, March, 2002, happens to be the 40th anniversary of the first public announcement of the U.S. attack against South Vietnam.  In March, 1962, the Kennedy administration announced that the U.S. Air Force would be flying missions against the South Vietnamese.  Use of chemical warfare was instituted to destroy food crops.  Hundreds of thousands, ultimately millions of people were driven into concentration camps, urban slums.  Napalm was authorized. 

All of this proceeded with no protest.  That’s why there’s no commemoration, today, of the 40th anniversary.  Nobody even remembers.  There was no protest, virtually none, here in Berkeley or in anyplace, for a long time.  It took years before substantial public opposition developed.  It did finally develop, as somebody, Barbara, somebody pointed out, and it made a big differences. 

One of the differences it made is that it contributed, along with the civil rights movement and other activism of the time, to making this a much more civilized country, in many ways.  I’m not talking about the leadership, I’m not talking about the intellectual classes, but the general population has changed.  No American president could dream of anything remotely like that today.  And the same is true in many other areas.  And it didn’t happen by magic or “gifts from angels” or anything like that.  It came from committed, dedicated public activism on the part of millions and millions of people. 

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