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Photo credit: Adam Patterson

A Q&A with Noam Chomsky

United States
North Korea

What do you see as the consequences of Trump’s climate change denial for future generations?

It’s not just Trump. It’s the entire Republican leadership. In the 2016 primaries, every Republican candidate either denied that which is happening or said ‘maybe it is but we shouldn’t do anything about it’. It is an astonishing fact that the most powerful state in human history, the ‘leader of the Free World’, is standing alone in the world in not just refusing to deal with this truly existential crisis but is in fact dedicated with considerable passion to escalating the race to disaster. And it’s no less shocking that all this passes with little comment. The Republican organization is also labouring to turn the US itself into a disaster area by removing controls on toxic chemicals and pursuing other destructive policies – all part of the unleashing of its most savage component to serve their constituency of extreme wealth and corporate power, whatever the impact on others. A truly shocking spectacle. How much damage they can do to the environment is not clear because other factors, even market forces, are countering their dedication to destruction. But it will not be slight. Effective actions require mobilization and serious commitment at every level, from international co-operation to individual choices.

What are your thoughts on Trump’s rhetoric towards North Korea [NK]? What would be a wise foreign policy to adopt towards NK?

The goal should be to encourage people to think for themselves

Trump’s rhetoric is scandalous and is shocking the world. It’s astonishing that a political leader can stand up at the UN and declare that he might decide to kill 25 million people. A sane way to approach the issue is well-known. Accept the principle of the ‘double freeze’ strongly advocated by China, with Russian support and indications of North Korean acquiescence: NK freezes its weapons programmes and the US calls off the threatening military operations at the NK border, including flights by nuclear-capable bombers; appalling actions in themselves given the history and, if anyone cares, a violation of the UN Charter’s basic principle barring the ‘threat’ of force in international affairs. This could open the way to negotiations on further matters and the actual history, not the propaganda version, suggests that they might achieve considerable success. It’s recognized that the NK leadership is seeking economic development, though it will not give up its deterrent as long as the threat of US attack remains.

Many polls have revealed that the rest of the world views the American government as the world’s gravest threat. What effect do you think it would have on the US public if this was widely reported in the media?

Interesting question. The latest poll I’ve seen, by the best-known American polling agency (Gallup), found that the US was regarded as the gravest threat to world peace by an overwhelming margin in international opinion, far ahead of second-place Pakistan (presumably inflated by the Indian vote). Few are aware of this. A database search found no references in the US press. Such searches don’t pick up everything. I was told (and can’t verify) that the poll was reported in a Murdoch tabloid, the New York Post, to illustrate how crazy the world is. I wouldn’t be surprised if that would be the reaction among a substantial part of the public.

Actually, there’s no reason to expect much. Fifteen years ago the prominent intellectuals Samuel Huntington and Robert Jervis (then president of the American Political Science Association) pointed out that much of the world sees the US as a ‘rogue superpower’ and ‘the single greatest external threat to their societies’. I’ve cited this a few times. Haven’t noticed any other references, or concern – in the mainstream media, that is.

This reminds me of a wonderful article by the New York Times cultural critic Richard Bernstein 30 years ago, pondering the curious fact that the US is isolated at the UN. The title of the article is ‘The UN versus the US’, not ‘the US versus the UN’. The question, throughout, is why the world is out of step.

British intellectuals, like John Stuart Mill, also wrote on how the world somehow doesn’t seem to comprehend the august nature of British power and subjects the British to ‘obloquy’ when they sacrifice in the interests of all.

You said that if you had oratory skills, you would not use them… What are the risks posed by the fact that people seem to be drawn to charismatic figures?

As a child, I listened on the radio to Hitler’s speeches. I didn’t understand the words, but had a sense of the contents, and the hysteria and impact on the cheering crowds is an ineradicable memory. I’ve seen all too much of the same since, not at the hideous level of Nazi Germany, and sometimes I generally agreed with the speaker, but was appalled by the irrationality of the appeal and the way it affected the audience. The goal, after all, should be to encourage people to think for themselves.

The Left should continue to support the victims of oppression, no matter who is the agent

In the US it has been very dangerous, and could be much worse. I’ve always felt that we, and the world, have been lucky that the demagogues who have arisen turned out to be thugs, gangsters, clowns who destroyed themselves. The rise of a dedicated honest charismatic demagogue here – a Hitler-type – could be a major threat.

How does the way economics is taught in US colleges negatively affect people around the world, including people in the US?

Much of the teaching of economics supports what Joseph Stiglitz once condemned as ‘the religion that markets know best’ before he was appointed chief economist of the World Bank. It also tends to ignore the lessons of economic history, including contemporary history, about how development really takes place. The US, for example, is commonly presented as a model of free market capitalist development (with some unfortunate deviations); whereas, in fact, the most crucial component of the development of the US (and British) economies was cotton production in hideous slave labour camps that would have impressed the Nazis, and the expulsion or extermination of the indigenous population by state violence – facts not considered within the domain of economics. This is quite apart from the fact that the US was one of the most avid protectionists and relied very heavily, as it still does, on the dynamic state sector of the economy. Lessons to the Third World that overlook the history of development (and de-development by force) can be extremely harmful; even more so when combined with support, based on abstract doctrine, for the so-called ‘free trade agreements’ that are primarily investor rights agreements that are highly protectionist, and in large measure not about trade at all. There are many economists who understand all of this and are not subject to these critical comments, which, nevertheless, do unfortunately hold for much of the profession and economics education.

What is the difference between actual free trade agreements and what are called free trade agreements today?

Take NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is considered the model for others. The only accurate words in the title are ‘North American’. It’s not an agreement, at least if people are part of their country. It is a mixture of liberalization and protectionism designed for the interests of the designers (not surprisingly), including exorbitant patent protection for pharmaceutical and media corporations. Much of it is not about trade at all but about protecting investors. In fact much of the so-called ‘trade’ across the border is an ideological construct, which should not be regarded as trade at all. It consists of interactions within command economies, as when an automotive company produces parts in Indiana, sends them to Mexico for assembly and sells the product in Los Angeles. The current huge ‘trade treaties’ are largely secret – from the public, but not from the hordes of corporate lawyers and lobbyists writing the details. The few leaks indicate that they will be much like NAFTA. It’s rather interesting that the administration also calls for ‘Fast Track’ – that is, Stalinist-style confirmation by Congress with little consultation, or input or even knowledge.

Do you think a form of patriotism can be established in the US that doesn’t confine empathy to our own borders?

I don’t know what you mean by ‘patriotism’, but it is certain that the Left should continue to support the victims of oppression, no matter who is the agent.

Andy Heintz is a freelance writer from Iowa, US. He has been published in several publications and is writing a book called Dissidents of the International Left, which features more than 50 interviews with leftists from around the world.

New Internationalist issue 510 magazine cover This article is from the February 2018 issue of New Internationalist.
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