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Noam Chomsky speaks

Noam Chomsky.

Photo by Striatic under a CC licence.

In a world of flux, it is good to see that some things stay the same. At the age of 82, Professor Noam Chomsky, in Britain as part of a brief European tour, looks and sounds much as he has for decades. But it is not just his style and presentation that are familiar: Chomsky’s central tenets have also remained largely unchanged. This is not a result of any intellectual stagnation – indeed Chomsky’s mind seems as sharp as ever – but rather because the contours of global power have remained much the same.

‘There is basically no significant change in the fundamental traditional conception that if we can control Middle East energy resources, then we can control the world,’ says Chomsky. Indeed, President Eisenhower’s belief that Middle East oil resources ‘are one of the greatest material prizes in world history’ and ‘a stupendous source of strategic power’ hold as true today as ever. Rather than being underpinned by ethical considerations, Chomsky argues, American foreign policy is instead driven by a ruthless desire to control this oil, protect its strategic interests and ensure the free flow of capital.

Whilst his themes may be familiar, Chomsky’s analysis remains fresh and, in the light of the uprisings currently sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East, more relevant than ever. Speaking to very different audiences on successive days in Parliament and at University College London, Professor Chomsky begins with an analysis of the Arab uprisings which he views as ‘hugely significant’ and ‘positive’. He praises the ‘courage, dedication and commitment’ of the protesters and welcomes the ‘new freedoms they have won.’ However, he warns that the ultimate outcome of the uprisings is far from clear. ‘Whilst names have changed, regimes remain,’ he says. ‘There have been no major socio-economic changes so far.’

He believes that the uprisings have ‘no obvious parallel’, arguing that they are very different from the democracy movements in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. ‘In 1989, the movements were supported by the West and tolerated by the dominant regional power, Russia.’ This is not the case for the Arab revolts.

'I would ask whether the US, UK and their allies are ready for democracy in the Arab world'

Asked by an audience member whether the Arab word is ready for democracy, Professor Chomsky turns the question around. ‘I would ask whether the US, UK and their allies are ready for democracy in the Arab world.’ He points out that Western powers have ‘continually opposed the establishment of functioning democracies in the Middle East’, most dramatically in Iran, where Mossadeq’s democratically elected government was ousted by a CIA-orchestrated coup. ‘Look what happened in Palestine in 2006,’ he says, referring to the decisive victory won by Hamas in the legislative elections. ‘The reaction of the West was to punish the Palestinians for not voting the right way in a free election.’

Western powers are deeply fearful of the ‘virus of Arab nationalism’ and at the prospect of democracy taking root in the Middle East. According to Chomsky, opinion on the Arab street is overwhelmingly opposed to Western interference and a recent poll by the Brookings Institute found that 90 per cent of Egyptians see the US as the major enemy in the region. ‘If public opinion was allowed to influence policy in Middle Eastern countries, the US would not only lose control of the region but would be expelled altogether.’

The reason the West is so unpopular in the Arab world is not some great mystery. Chomsky describes a 1958 report by the US National Security Council which explored the reasons for the ‘campaign of hatred’ against the United States in the Middle East. ‘They found there was a perception among a majority of Arabs that US was seeking to protect its oil interests by supporting the status quo and opposing political or economic progress,’ he says. ‘The report went on to say that not only was this perception accurate, but it describes the way things ought to be.’

For Chomsky, talk of democracy promotion ‘is the province of idealists and propagandists’ rather than politicians. Democracy is supported only when and if it conforms to US strategic interests. When one of their ‘favoured dictators’ starts losing control, as is happening across the Middle East, America follows a standard routine: namely supporting them as long as possible, then switching sides whilst doing all they can to restore the old system under a new name.

Chomsky's abiding belief in the possibility of change and the potential of people to affect that change means his world view is not depressing

After six decades, Chomsky has lost little of the intellectual vigour or the fire in his belly that has made him one of most notable political analysts of our time. He speaks fluently, with hardly a reference to his notes. His style is intricately factual, peppered with examples, quotations and fascinating digressions. Although his analysis is somewhat bleak, Chomsky’s abiding belief in the possibility of change and the potential of people to affect that change means that his world view is not depressing. Just as he believes humans share an innate set of linguistic principles, he also believes we share a universal moral grammar: a fixed set of principles that allow us to understand and respond to situations in a common way. It is this, above all else, that will save the human race from destroying itself.

According to Professor Chomsky, if we continue on the same trajectory, species destruction is not just a possibility, but ‘an institutional imperative’. ‘What would a sane Martian observer make of our dedicated march towards destruction?’ he asks, rhetorically reflecting on the twin threats of environmental disaster and nuclear war, hanging over our planet. In some ways Chomsky himself is like that sane Martian observer, possessed of a superior intellect and insight, traveling among us explaining things with an other-worldly patience and sagacity.


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