Institutional imperatives and neoliberal madness
Noam Chomsky interviewed by David Barsamian
There is an interesting interview with Graham Fuller. He’s a highly respected Middle East analyst with a long background in the CIA. He goes on to say that he’s not contributing to the conspiracy tales that are floating around the Middle East about how the United States actually set up ISIS. But what he says is that the invasion of Iraq, which hit this vulnerable society with a sledgehammer, excited ethnic conflicts that had not really been there before and they blew up and grew further, and other US interventions increased the violence and instability. Out of this grew ISIS, which is a kind of radical offshoot of the already radical Wahhabi-Salafi doctrines that are promulgated by Washington’s chief ally, Saudi Arabia, which provides the doctrinal basis, the missionary zeal, and the money that keeps the jihadi movement going. So out of this complex comes ISIS as a particular excrescence, a horrible outgrowth.
Iraq was already extremely vulnerable because of the wars, the sanctions that devastated the society. Along comes the invasion, which wrecked what was left. The US policies—Paul Bremer’s policies—insisted on sectarian divisions that had not been there before. The US, in its wisdom, decided that there should be sectarian divisions in everything—offices, whatever. That plus the violence and the brutality of the invasion elicited counter-reactions. Within a couple of years there was a major Shi’a-Sunni conflict raging, which had not been there before.
If you go back to Baghdad in 2000, it was an intermingled city: Shi’ites and Sunnis were living in the same neighborhoods, they intermarried. Some Iraqis, like Raed Jarrar, have pointed out that you often didn’t even know what sect your neighbor belonged to. His analogy is, in the United States you might not know what Protestant sect your neighbor belongs to. But it didn’t take long for this to blow up. Now we have ISIS on our hands.
What about the legacy of British, French, and Italian imperialism? No one talks about Italy and Libya, Italy and Eritrea.
The first real genocidal attack in the twentieth century was Italy’s in Libya. Italy initiated a bombing of what it called “rebellious tribes” in the late 1920s. It was virtually a genocidal assault on Libya. Of course, Benito Mussolini invaded Abyssinia and Eritrea. They were horribly treated. Italy left a legacy of violence and repression, and it’s all barely simmering. It all blows up as soon as you hit the society again. The final blow was when the three traditional imperial powers—the United States, Britain, and France—France was actually in the lead—decided to violate the Security Council resolution which had called for a no-fly zone, ceasefire, and negotiations. They decided instead to become the air force of the rebels and led the way to what is now the destruction of Libya.
In fact, the Economist calls Libya “the next failed state, spiraling into chaos.” The words “chaos” and “chaotic” come up a lot now attached to different countries in the Middle East. Yemen, again, is another example.
Just this morning, according to the press, one of the Libyan factions seized bank resources, which apparently have a ton of gold. The markets are concerned about what’s going to happen to that. When you smash up vulnerable societies, it’s likely to lead to chaos and destruction and violence. That’s a very good reason for pursuing peaceful diplomatic means instead of using your strength, which is violence.
What about the situation in Nigeria, where there hasn’t been overt US military intervention and there has been the growth of Boko Haram?
Boko Haram is partly an outgrowth of the violence in Libya, which has poured arms all over the region, from the Levant to Northern Africa. Nigeria is traditionally British and it’s in the midst of the Francophone area. And out of this complex are coming all kinds of tribal conflicts, violence, and repression. The governments are extremely corrupt. Nigeria is in the hands, pretty much, of Shell and other Western oil companies, which have been carrying out very destructive operations there also, inciting violence.
Africa is beginning slowly to pull together from centuries of imperial violence and repression, but it’s going to be a very hard path.
I’m interested that you haven’t mentioned neoliberal economic policies as being a factor in producing chaos and dislocation.
Oh, they have, repeatedly. In fact, structural adjustment programs, the neoliberal policy, had a terrible effect in the 1980s in Rwanda, in Yugoslavia, in Southern Africa, in Latin America. In Rwanda they were a major factor in intensifying crises and conflicts that already existed. When the society begins to break down, all kinds of conflicts erupt. That’s one of the factors that led to the horrible atrocities in the early 1990s. The same happened in Yugoslavia. Structural adjustment programs contributed to fracturing the society, laying the basis for the conflicts that developed later. The most loyal adherents to the neoliberal programs were Southern Africa and Latin America, and both had several decades of de-development and stagnation, which have had a very severe effect. Latin America has begun to pull out of it. Africa is barely beginning. But it also has, of course, a history of extreme violence and imperial aggression, which leaves an incredible legacy.
Amidst all the turmoil in the Middle East, the feudal monarchies remain in place: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar. How do they pull it off?
Mainly force. When the Arab Spring began in 2011, there were efforts in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to join in in a very mild way. So in Saudi Arabia there were some calls for reformist protests on Friday after the religious services. They were crushed by force immediately. People were afraid to go out in the streets of Riyadh. In Bahrain there were protests by the Shi’ite majority—it’s a Sunni monarchy—for some time, but as soon as it seemed to be getting out of control, the Saudi army moved in, leading a Gulf force which repressed it violently.
It’s important to remember that eastern Saudi Arabia, right across the causeway from Bahrain, has a very large Shi’ite population, and that’s also the area where most of the oil is. So it’s a very sensitive thing for the Saudi dictatorship.
What’s the significance in the dramatic fall in the price of oil? It’s said also that Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Saudis and persuaded them—I don’t know if they needed persuasion—to keep their production at a very high level and flood the market.
The fall in the price of oil is primarily due to the huge increase in US shale production, which has changed the oil market significantly. The Saudis, in the past, had cut back production to try to maintain higher prices. But this time they made the decision—I doubt that Kerry had anything to do with it—to keep prices high, for several reasons. One, to maintain their own market share, but also to drive American shale producers out of the market. Shale production is pretty expensive, and in fact oil wells are being closed down all over the United States because at this level of pricing they’re not economical. I think the Saudis want to make sure that there’s not a major competitor in the future.
What about the side effect that it is going to hurt designated US enemies such as Russia, Iran, and Venezuela?
It will. It will hurt all oil producers. It’s hurting US producers. In fact, that’s why they’re closing down some of their operations.
What about the environmental impact? There’s article after article saying this is great for the American consumers, gas is under two dollars a gallon, people will be driving more, they will have extra money in their pockets, and so on.
It’s a total catastrophe. In fact, it’s astonishing to read the articles, which say exactly what you described, without mentioning that this is going to destroy our grandchildren. Who cares about that? The price of oil is already way too low. Oil should be priced much higher on the American market—the way it is in Europe, for example—to try to discourage excessive use of fossil fuels, which are destroying the environment.
It’s pretty dangerous, and it’s getting worse every day. The latest concern—again, they’ve been in the background for a while—is that there might be an explosion of methane from the melting of the Arctic and the permafrost. If that happens, some of the predictions are very dire, even within a short time span, a couple of decades. It’s an incredible moment, when you look at it. The business pages and the press are lauding the prospect that we can devastate the world for our grandchildren. There ought to be a headline: “Let’s Destroy the Possibility for Our Grandchildren to Have a Decent Life.”
In mid-January there were a couple of new developments, headlines saying “Ocean Life Faces Mass Extinction,” “2014 Hottest Year Since Record-Keeping Began in 1880,” and “Ten Hottest Years Have Occurred Since 1997.” The evidence seems to be incontrovertible and should be totally noncontroversial. Yet the response from the political class and the owners of the economy seems lukewarm, tepid, and cosmetic.
There was just an interesting poll by the Pew polling agency. It was released at Davos, the meeting of all the big shots. It was a study of attitudes of CEOs of corporations. They polled them on what they considered to be the significant issues that they faced. Climate change was so low that they didn’t even include it in the final poll. What they cared about was profits tomorrow, prospects a week from now, what’s the growth situation like, are we going to have enough low-paid workers? And finally, at the very bottom, was climate change, a minor thing off on the edges.
It’s not that they’re bad people. It reveals an institutional pathology. There is an institutional structure that says that if you’re the CEO of a major corporation, which incidentally means that you have enormous influence in the political system, then you simply don’t care about what happens to the world in the next generation, including your own grandchildren. What you care about is profits tomorrow. It’s an institutional imperative.
There is some attention being paid to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. I’m wondering if perhaps climate change should be seen as a global medical emergency that, if untreated, if not addressed, will lead to massive dislocation, destruction, and death.
It certainly will. You mentioned the ocean life being devastated. But it’s all over. The level of species destruction now is estimated to be at about the level of 65 million years ago, the last major extinction, when a huge asteroid hit Earth. That ended the age of the dinosaurs and actually led to an opening for small mammals, ultimately us. But there was huge species extinction. That’s the level of extinction today.
It’s been assumed that the oceans would be resilient because of their scale and so on, but that turns out, unexpectedly, not to be true. They can absorb a certain amount of CO2, but there is a limit.
There is a Yanomami shaman leader named Davi Kopinawa. There are about 30,000 to 40,000 Yanomami in northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. He says, “The white people want to kill everything. They will soil the rivers and lakes and take what is left. Their thoughts are constantly attached to their merchandise. They relentlessly and always desire new goods. They do not think that they are spoiling the earth and the sky and that they will never be able to recreate new ones.” Indigenous people—I’m not saying across the board—certainly have a different connection or relation to the land, to nature.
That’s pretty much true around the world. So, in Canada, the First Nations, the Indigenous people, are leading the struggles, mobilizations, legal efforts to try to prevent the extremely dangerous expansion of the use of highly destructive fossil fuels in southwestern Canada.
Go down to Bolivia, Ecuador, the Amazon, it’s the Indigenous people who are in the forefront of trying to prevent overuse of fossil fuels and other resources and to restore some kind of balance with nature. In fact, the countries with the largest Indigenous populations—first Bolivia, which actually has a real majority, and Ecuador, a large population—have been in the lead in trying to establish what they call “rights of nature.” It’s even a constitutional provision in Bolivia. In Ecuador, the government did make an offer to leave their oil in the ground, which is where it ought to be, and asked in return that the European countries provide them with a small compensation for a fraction of the loss of revenue. They refused. So they’re now exploiting the oil. At least they made a move.
The same is true everywhere. It’s true in Australia. In India, the tribal people are trying to protect resources. These are communities which for very long periods have lived in some kind of balance with nature. I don’t want to turn it into Utopia, but at least they had some concern for a balance with nature. And it’s true that the capitalist, imperialist invasion did not have that concern. You could see it from the poll of CEOs, which is perfectly typical of the attitude of the imperial powers that just want to ravage the world and take it for themselves, for their immediate use.
You had some contact with, I believe, Indigenous groups in Colombia, in the rainforest there.
I have spent some time in southern Colombia, which is a highly embattled region. It’s under attack. Campesinos and Indigenous people and Afro-Colombians, all of them, are under constant attack by paramilitaries, by the military, and now also by the guerillas, which used to be connected to the local populations. But thanks to the militarization of the war, FARC [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] particularly has just been turned into another army preying on the peasants.
Also, what we call “fumigation,” which is chemical warfare, destroys virtually everything. Theoretically, it’s aimed at coca production, whatever one thinks of that, but in fact it destroys crops, livestock. You walk through the villages and you see children with all kinds of sores on their arms. People are dying.
Once when I went, the area was so violent that they wouldn’t let us go out of the local town, Popayán, so people came in from the countryside to talk to us, a couple of Colombian human-rights activists whom I joined. Another time I went with them to a remote village. A mixture of campesinos and Indigenous peoples—Afro-Colombians elsewhere—are trying to preserve their water supplies. There is a mountain that is a virgin forest and is their source of water, and also has symbolism of all kinds in their cultural life. It is threatened by mining, which would destroy it. They have quite sophisticated, thoughtful plans as to how to preserve the hydrological and other resources, but they’re fighting against powerful forces: the mining companies, the government, the multinationals in the background. It’s a battle. And also it’s very violent. The first time we tried to go there, they wouldn’t let us come because there was too much killing going on. The second time, we were able to get through.
You have a family connection as well. Can you talk about that?
Yes. I was there because they were dedicating a forest on the mountain to my late wife, Carol, and I went there for the ceremony of the dedication, climbing the mountain. There were shamans and so on. The villagers all participated. It was a moving and warm ceremony. The men climbed up the mountain while the women stayed and prepared a communal meal. It was a pretty dramatic occurrence.
In Power Systems, the last book we did together, you said that “Latin America has shown increasing independence in international affairs.” Is that trend continuing?
It is, definitely. I think it’s probably the major factor behind President Barack Obama’s move to what we call “normalized relations” with Cuba, meaning lifting partially the attack on Cuba that’s been going on for fifty years. That’s “normalized relations.” He has moved in that direction. I suspect part of the reason was that the United States was being increasingly excluded from the hemisphere on this issue. The US government insisted back in the early 1960s, when it kind of ran the show, that Cuba be excluded from the hemispheric organizations. As Latin America has become more independent, more free of US dominance, it has increasingly insisted that Cuba be allowed back into them.
At the last hemispheric meeting, which was in Colombia, this was a major issue. The United States and Canada were isolated. The other issue on which they were isolated was drugs. The Latin American countries are the victims of the drug war, which is centered in the United States. They want to temper these actions, which are devastating them and are based here—not just the demand but even the guns. You go to Mexico, a majority of the guns that are picked up from the cartels happen to come from the United States. This is having a ruinous effect in Latin America. They want to end it. They want to move toward decriminalization and other measures.
There is another meeting coming up in Panama. It’s likely that the US would simply have been excluded if it insisted on its unilateral rejection of Cuban membership.
When Obama announced the shift in policy vis-à-vis Cuba, I didn’t see any mention of the extensive terrorist campaign, the trade embargo and economic warfare the US government carried out against Cuba. And no mention, of course, of reparations or compensation.
There is one mention of the terrorist war, and that is witticisms about the silly CIA pranks, trying to burn Castro’s beard or something like that.
Poison pens. You’re allowed to make fun of that. But not of the fact that Kennedy launched a major terrorist war against Cuba, in fact a very serious one. It was his brother, Robert Kennedy, who was placed in charge of it. It was his highest priority. And the goal was to bring “the terrors of the earth” to Cuba. That’s the phrase that was used by Arthur Schlesinger, Kennedy’s Latin America adviser, in his biography of Robert Kennedy. It was very serious: blowing up petrochemical plants, sinking ships in the harbor, poisoning crops and livestock, shelling hotels—incidentally, with Russian visitors in them. It went on for years. It was one of the factors that led to the missile crisis, which immediately after almost led to a nuclear war. When the missile crisis ended, Kennedy instantly relaunched the terrorist war, which went on in various forms for years, into the 1990s. That’s not discussed.
Obama’s message, if you read it, which was then echoed in commentary, is that our efforts to bring democracy and freedom to Cuba have not succeeded. Although they were all benevolent in intent, they haven’t worked. It’s therefore time to try a new method to achieve our benevolent goals. That’s Obama’s description, echoed in the commentary, for a record of fifty years of massive terrorism, of economic strangulation which was so extreme that if, say, a European manufacturer of some medical equipment used a little piece of nickel taken from Cuba, it had to be banned from international commerce. The United States has plenty of power to do that. It’s really been savage. But that’s our benevolent effort to bring democracy and freedom to Cuba. Not to the dictatorships that we support. We don’t make benevolent efforts there, somehow.
The US war on Cambodia was called a sideshow, the main event being Vietnam. The sideshow to the sideshow was landlocked, mostly rural Laos. In March 1970, you were on your way to Hanoi and you were delayed for a week in Vientiane, Laos. You wrote about that in the New York Review of Books and in At War with Asia. I was struck with your descriptive journalistic writing about what you saw: clear, terse sentences. You had a very moving experience with Fred Branfman, who passed away in September 2014. He had been in Laos for many years and spoke Laotian. You went with him to a refugee camp outside of Vientiane and you wrote about that.
Fred had been trying for some time to get some Western exposure to the atrocities that were going on. He was one of the very few people—there were a few others, Walt Haney, a couple of others—who were working in Laos and had discovered the crimes that were being committed, which were really shocking. That book that you have there, Voices from the Plain of Jars, is the result of Fred’s research with victims of the horrific air war that was going on.
There had been bombing of Laos from the mid-1960s. But, in 1968, there was a cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam. There were negotiations beginning, and they cut back the bombing of North Vietnam. The United States officially announced that they had all these extra bombers around and nothing to do with them, so they decided to bomb northern Laos. This is a remote area of peasant villages, primitive. Most of them probably didn’t even know they were in Laos. They were subjected to years of extremely intensive bombing. People were living in caves, trying to survive. One should really read the testimonies in Fred’s book to get a picture of it. He was trying to expose this.
Anyway, we met as soon as I got there. I spent most of the week with him. I was there for a week, thanks to the boredom of an Indian bureaucrat. Bureaucrats have nothing to do except to make life difficult for people. This guy was in charge of the United Nations flights from Vientiane to Hanoi. There was one flight a week in a special protected corridor. You flew there and you saw jet planes flying all over the place on their way to bomb whoever. For some reason, he decided not to let us go the first week. It kind of amused him. So I stayed in Laos, which was a very good thing, because I learned a lot. I spent most of the week with Fred, not just in the refugee camp. I went to the village where he had lived. I met some of his many contacts.
I had an interview with a member of the government, a rich landowner who was secretly, in a sense, a supporter of the Pathet Lao, the guerillas. When I wrote about him I didn’t want to identify him, so in the book he’s called an “urban intellectual.” He was actually a government minister. He said that if the Pathet Lao took over, he would be finished. They would take his land, everything he owned, they might kill him. But he still wanted them to take over because the alternative would be the destruction of Laos. It would become a Thai protectorate. Everything would be bought up by somebody else.
I met underground Pathet Lao cadres. Had an interview with the Prime Minister, Souvanna Phouma. It was a very interesting week and a very moving one.
You don’t name Fred in your article. You said you were “in the company of a Lao-speaking American.”
That’s what he requested. He did not want to be identified at that time.
Historian Al McCoy, who has written himself about Indochina, in his foreword to the second edition of Voices from the Plain of Jars, writes that approximately 20,000 civilians have been killed or maimed by unexploded cluster bombs since the bombing ended—and those numbers continue to mount.
That’s correct. I’ve written about it, too. There has been a British demining team working there, but apparently the area is saturated with cluster bombs. These are tiny little bomblets, which a child could pick up thinking it is a toy and then it will blow up, or a farmer could hit one with a hoe and it explodes. They’re all over the place. It’s a massive effort to remove them. And very limited resources have been devoted to it by the United States, which was responsible for them being there, of course. Even today there are people being blown up by cluster bombs.
McCoy suggests that Laos was a test case for future US wars, with the extensive reliance on air power. We see that today with the use of drones.
Fred also talked about that. There’s something to it. It’s a test case. We have other test cases, which are pretty remarkable. Just recently a detailed study of the Guantánamo torture system came out by researchers at the Seton Hall Law School. It appeared in their law journal and I think there’s more coming out in a book. They point out something quite interesting. A lot of it has been exposed, but there was another part of the Guantánamo torture system, the Dick Cheney–Donald Rumsfeld torture system, which they called the “Battle Lab.” The purpose of the torture in the “Battle Lab,” which was supervised by medics, was to determine the most effective techniques of torture. It was a laboratory experiment, not designed to get information. Just let’s see how much torture can be applied—psychological, physical, drugs—before the person becomes unable to comment. So it was essentially a laboratory of torture.
In fact, if you take a look at the Senate report on the torture system, it raises one question: Did the torture work? It claims the torture didn’t work, so it was therefore bad. The commentary has been pretty much the same. The torture didn’t work, so we shouldn’t do it. When they say the torture didn’t work, it means it didn’t stop terrorist acts.
Was that the purpose? Probably not. The initial purpose of the Cheney-Rumsfeld torture seems to have been to try to extricate some information—true or false, it doesn’t matter—some kind of claim that would justify the war in Iraq. The planned war in Iraq began before the war. They were seeking to find some kind of evidence that there were connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. When they didn’t find it, they called for more torture. Finally, because people under torture will say anything, they claimed they got some evidence. Apparently, that was the first major goal. And that was achieved.
Another goal has been things like the “Battle Lab,” to see how far you can go in torture. So to say that it didn’t succeed may not be correct, if you look at its actual goals. Incidentally, it’s pretty remarkable that the only thing we discuss is: Did it succeed?
Fred Branfman wrote an article about your visit and his friendship with you. It came out in Salon in 2012. I don’t want to embarrass you, but he said that you broke down when you were talking to those villagers and when you heard their stories of what they had gone through under the US bombing.
Laos was the first time—there have been many since—in which I saw firsthand the effect on the victims of massive atrocities. I had been in the South in the United States during the civil rights movement, which was bad enough, but I hadn’t had exposure overseas before the Laotian experience. Since then I have, many times. And, yes, it’s a shattering experience.
We discussed this a little bit—I wrote about it, I think he did in his book later—that when we went to the refugee camp, the refugees were extremely reticent. From their point of view, I was just some American soldier who is coming to endanger them. In fact, Fred talked to some of them privately, and they said that. Why should they expose themselves? They don’t know what’s happening. They’re living in miserable conditions. They’re under the control of some foreign force that has driven them out of their homes and destroyed them and killed their children. Why should they say anything to this person? It took a while before they were even willing to begin to talk. I’ve seen that elsewhere, too. That’s understandable. When you’re dealing with refugees, you cannot take for granted what they say right away. They’re afraid of you, rightly, and see no reason why they should tell you anything. So, in fact, some of the first villagers, when I was asking questions about the bombing, said, “No problem. We kind of liked it. It was fireworks. It didn’t bother us.” Why should they tell an American visitor what it’s like to be bombed by American bombs? That’s pretty common in refugee testimony. Every investigator is quite aware of that.
Have you heard of Leonard Cohen? He’s a Canadian singer and a poet.
No, I’m afraid not.
He’s fairly well-known. One of his songs is called “Anthem.” He says, “Ring the bells that can still ring,/ Forget your perfect offering./ There’s a crack, a crack in everything./ That’s how the light gets in.” I was wondering where you see the cracks in the system where people can widen those cracks and create a sustained movement for social justice. We’ve seen demonstrations in Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere. Where do you see those openings that can be exploited effectively?
Probably the major one has to do with climate change. There simply has to be a mass popular movement to try to reverse the mad rush toward destruction. There are others. The threat of nuclear war is serious and increasing. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists just moved their famous Doomsday Clock a little closer to midnight. At least in that case, we know in principle how to end the threat—and it’s a serious one. It’s coming up also in connection with the Iran issue, which is very much on the agenda today. In all of these domains, large-scale popular movements could be effective.
There is an economic crisis. We have been through this neoliberal period for a generation. There has been economic growth, but it has not reached most of the population. For the majority of the population, it’s been a period of stagnation or decline. Economic activity goes increasingly into predatory financial institutions, which are basically harmful to the economy but are absorbing enormous amounts of capital, skill, the possibilities for economic progress. And then, of course, it’s led to enormous inequality. In the last roughly ten years, maybe 95 percent of the growth has gone to 1 percent of the population, which actually means a fraction of 1 percent, if you look at it. These are all very serious problems.
There are responses. So, for example, in Europe, which has been subjected to an extreme form of neoliberal madness, where these austerity programs have been very harmful, it has led to the growth of popular movements. Syriza in Greece is a new party which developed out of the protest against the vicious austerity programs that are destroying Greece. In Spain, Podemos is another new party that grew out of the indignados, the mostly young people who were protesting these policies. It’s now a mass political organization. According to polls, it might even win the next election.
This could spread. It could spread here. There are reactions. They’re kind of scattered, but they’re substantial. If they can come together, they could become a very powerful force. Even the Republican Party now, which is just in the pockets of the superrich, is feeling that it has to begin to talk about poverty and inequality.
Speaking of coming together, with the fiftieth anniversary of the march on Selma and a major film on it, Martin Luther King is getting some attention. In Memphis, on April 3, 1968, he said, “When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.”
And he was assassinated the next day. Using his normal biblical rhetoric, he described himself as like Moses, who could see the Promised Land but wouldn’t reach it, though you, the people he was speaking to, can reach it if the slaves get together. He was at that point inaugurating a movement of the poor, not just blacks, but of the poor.
There was a march on Washington after his death, led by his wife, Coretta. They set up a tent city, Resurrection City, and called on Congress to enact legislation to do something about the miserable fate of huge numbers of poor people. The police drove them out of town, broke up the tent city, and ended that. We don’t hear much about that on Martin Luther King Day.
The film Selma led to a pretty interesting article in the New York Times arts section. There was a review of new films. The review started off with kind of derisive comments about the coastal intelligentsia, who were looking at little art films which nobody cares about while the real Americans in the mainstream, the patriotic, red-blooded decent Americans, are flooding to another film, American Sniper, which has broken all attendance records. It’s a patriotic, pro-family film, it said. Actually, it was applauded in the New Yorker because of its cinematic virtues and denounced elsewhere because of its appalling content.
It’s about a man, Chris Kyle, who is the most murderous sniper in American history. He claims to have killed a couple hundred people. He has a memoir in which he describes what it was like to murder these savages, these inhuman creatures. You can only describe them as savage barbarians. We hated them; we wanted to kill them. He describes his first kill, which was easy, he said. It was a woman who was holding a grenade in her hand when the Marines were attacking her village. So he managed to kill her with a single shot. He was very proud of that. But what else can you do with savages? And it goes on with this kind of psychopathic raving. That’s the patriotic, pro-family film that people are flooding toward. At the end of this review, the last paragraph, it says there were some other films that came out, one of them Selma, which had only moderate attendance, nothing like the patriotic, pro-family film which is so exciting.
You mentioned the Seton Hall Law Review. I confess to not having read it ever. That speaks to your voracious reading habits, finding things, nuggets of information. Fred Branfman, in a Salon article he wrote about you, mentions that he gave you a 500-page book one night while you were in Laos and the next morning you were citing statistics from that book. What about your reading habits? How do you make your choices? How do you decide?
Well, the Seton Hall Law Review actually was sent to me by my sister-in-law, Judy, who is a lawyer. Just last night I read an article by Victoria Brittain, a friend in England, a wonderful journalist and investigator. It’s about investigations that are being undertaken by these same people about the Guantánamo torture system and about a new book that’s coming out by one of them. So if you keep your eyes open, you can find all sorts of things. I have no particular technique. I look at what looks important.
Could you talk about a popular trend in education, something called online tutorials? There is an MIT grad, Salman Khan, who runs something called the Khan Academy online. Apparently it has millions of users. It teaches math and science. Is that the future of teaching, as you see it?
I doubt it very much. These programs can have beneficial effects. There have been some studies of them. There are people who otherwise would not have any access to such resources. I think many of them are adults, older people, who picked up the math courses and so on. That’s a fine thing. Their actual educational value, say, as a substitute for college, seems to be extremely poor in outcomes. And you can see why.
An experience in a classroom is very different from watching a video. I recall maybe twenty to thirty years ago, there was a cartoon in the New Yorker of a seminar in a university. The professor wasn’t there. He had a tape recorder playing his lecture. And around the room, there weren’t students, there were recorders picking up the lecture. That’s one form of education. But human interaction is a different form—direct participation not only with the instructor but with your fellow students. And not just sitting in class, but when you’re out in the hall talking about it or back in your room working together. You yourself, I’m sure, if you think about your college experience—I think you went to college, didn’t you?
One year, okay. But what was worthwhile in it? Interaction with others. That’s never going to be possible with the electronic media. It’s not to say that they can’t serve a purpose. They can. And if they’re well done, it could be a useful supplement, probably as a form of adult education, to other educational efforts. But it can’t replace a real educational experience.
You came to some conclusions about God as a result of observing something your paternal grandfather did. What conclusion did you reach from that particular experience?
My father’s family was extremely Orthodox, ultra-religious, especially my grandfather, who had come from Eastern Europe and maintained the sort of semi medieval characteristics of the Eastern European rural Jewish community. I remember we would go there for the Jewish holidays to visit. I noticed on one of the holidays, Passover that my grandfather was smoking. I asked my father how he could be smoking, because I knew there was a Talmudic proscription that says there is no difference between the holidays and the Sabbath except with regard to eating. So you’re allowed to make a fire to cook on the holidays, not on the Sabbath. And my father told me that my grandfather had concluded that smoking was a form of eating. So I realized that he thinks that God is so stupid that he won’t be able to see through this.
And then when I thought about it—and it’s kind of obvious, and some people have written about it—practically all of organized religion is based on the assumption that God is so stupid that he can’t see that you’re violating his commandments. So you find all kinds of trickery and devices to get around the commandments, which almost nobody can live up to. And if that’s your conception of God, from a ten-year-old’s point of view it didn’t seem worth pursuing.
When did you become convinced that there was no God?
I never became convinced, because I don’t even know what the question is. There is no what? What is it that there isn’t? There is no coherent answer that I know of.
At a talk you gave in Princeton a couple of years ago, you recalled that as a teenager one of the things that got you interested in linguistics was that you realized the Bible was mistranslated.
I was informed of this. I was studying Arabic in college. I was a sixteen-year-old freshman and I was taking Arabic courses with a great scholar. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was a leading scholar, Giorgio Levi Della Vida, an Italian antifascist émigré. We became good friends later.
This was in Pennsylvania?
Yes. He just mentioned to me once that the first sentence of the Bible was misvocalized. In the Hebrew script, you have consonants but no vowels. Around the eighth to tenth centuries, there were scribes, Masoretes, who put in the vowels. And they made a mistake in the first two words of the Bible. He said they were always mistranslated. By now, some of them are translated correctly, but the standard translations keep to the Hebrew vocalization, which is a mistranslation because the phrase doesn’t mean anything. What it says is Bereshit bara, and it’s translated, “In the beginning God created.” But it should be translated as, “At the outset of the creation there was chaos” and so on, which is more or less the same sense but different. It had gone for a thousand years, with nobody noticing that the first two words of the Bible were mistranslated and misvocalized in the original, which struck me as kind of striking.
But you inferred something from that.
That there is a lot to learn.
Why do you say the Talmud is your ideal text?
If you look at a page of the Talmud, a big volume—open it up sometime—in the middle of the page there is a kind of a sentence taken from the Mishnah, a book of laws and so on. And then around it there are running commentaries. So in the upper right-hand corner there is a commentary from someone. Every page, the same person, his commentaries. And then in the upper left-hand corner, a commentary from someone else. Ninety percent of the page is commentary running constantly about this line that’s in the middle. If you could only write footnotes like that, it would be fantastic.
And what’s meshuge?
What the world is doing to itself.
(Courtesy to ISR View)