love letters


Noam Chomsky is the Institute Professor Emeritus of linguistics at MIT, although he is more widely known for his political activism and criticism of power systems in general and American foreign policy in particular. Chomsky's linguistic theories revolutionized the field in the 1950s and 60s. Thought to be the most cited intellectual alive, The New York Times Book Review said about Chomsky: "Reading Chomsky today is sobering and instructive...He is a global phenomenon...perhaps the most widely read voice on foreign policy on the planet."

(For Full Introductory Essay Click Here)

An interview with Noam Chomsky

In making Uganda Rising last year with Jesse Miller, the amazing opportunity arose to interview Noam Chomsky, who in 2005 was voted—and he won by a mile—the world's most important public intellectual.

Except perhaps for disdainful Western intellectuals toeing a different party line, I can't imagine anybody cringing more than Chomsky about that one. Had the vote been for most diligent or available intellectual, Chomsky would have been a shoo-in for that, too. The man is unbelievably generous with his time and encyclopedic knowledge.

A rare and inspiring combinbation.

Those who revile Chomsky (and his views!) would do well to understand one thing: he's not writing for them. Chomsky (via his own truth) writes for the 80% of the world who are poor, have no audible voice in the world and are largely displaced by the ideology of power.

The interview took place in Chomsky's office at MIT, Oct 18, 2005.

What was wanted for our film was Chomsky's wider historical perspective on the mindset behind colonialism.

What was given was not only an analysis of power and propaganda, but a short history of the world from the end of slavery, through colonialism and independence, up to the present day.

I hope, at the least, you find Chomsky's worldview thought-provoking. If, however, you find yourself distressed by it (as we all sometimes do, either positively or negatively), what I try to do is remember there's a high probability that distress is almost negligible when compared to the distress in the lives of the people for whom Chomsky writes.


Pete McCormack: In researching for this film [Uganda Rising], what's become painfully obvious are the direct and indirect effects of colonialism on the present day problems in Africa. The situation has been so extensively grim, in fact, we haven't even had a chance to cover slavery. Could you give a little history on slavery, and its connection to colonialism, not just in African but India and China?

Noam Chomsky: Well, slavery, of course, goes back to the earliest recorded human history. But it has taken different forms at different times...The word itself, its origin is Eastern European, same as the word "slav."1

During the European Imperial expansion into North America and South America and elsewhere, slavery became a highly organized industry, a way of transporting huge masses of blacks—tens of millions—to the western hemisphere.

The western hemisphere was rich in resources—it did have a huge population but they were pretty quickly exterminated. So there was a shortage of 'labour,' if you like. The way to fill it was slavery.

Most of [the slaves], actually, went to Brazil and the West Indian Islands, which were a centre for world trade and commerce—some of the "richest" places and colonies in the world for years. Haiti for example was the source of much of France's wealth2 and was the richest colony in the world. But [slaves] also [went] to North America, primarily for production of cotton.

Cotton in the 19th century was approximately the counterpart of oil today. It's what fuelled the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution begins basically with textiles, and expands on from there.

So the American colonies produced a lot of cotton.

There was cotton produced elsewhere as well. The British, who were the leading industrial power, tried very hard to obtain a monopoly of it. Along with the French, they blocked industrial development in Egypt. Egypt was beginning to have an industrial revolution about the same time as the American colonies but that was barred by force—mostly British and also French force, and it became an impoverished agricultural country.

India and China were the leading industrial and commercial centres of the world. India was crushed by force and by free-market principles that Britain imposed—what we now call "neo-liberal principles"—which were devastating, as they usually are.

Britain itself maintained a very powerful state, high protectionism and so on—as has every rich, developed country, including the United States. Market principles are for others.

The United States of course won its independence and now Britain had to purchase its cotton from the United States.

One of the conflicts going on in the 19 th century—and this of course affected slavery—was whether the United States could gain something like a monopoly on cotton production. This was one of the main purposes of the annexation of Texas and then the conquest of half of Mexico. Presidents Tyler and Polk and others were very explicit about it. They said, if we can gain a monopoly of cotton, we can bring England to our feet. England was the great enemy, the deterrent, the powerful state. That was why the U.S. hadn't got to Canada and couldn't conquer Cuba—until Britain was weak enough to permit it in 1898 (in the guise of liberation).

In fact, the goals of the Jacksonian Democrats are pretty much like those attributed to Saddam Hussein in 1990—to gain a monopoly of the world's major resource so you could bring the world to your feet.

Of course, Saddam Hussein could never in his wildest imaginings have the ambition of the Jacksonian Democrats—and this ambition was imbued with extreme racism, including from leading figures. I mean, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman,3 were explaining why we had to conquer Mexico because of the backward, ignorant Mexicans could never do anything and we could liberate them and free them and so on.

And the same was true in England. Again, leading figures, people of real moral integrity like John Stuart Mill were describing England—at the period of its worst atrocities, which were well-known, it wasn't a secret—as an angelic power, so magnificent that nobody could understand how wonderful they are. They heap 'obloquy' upon us while we're just selflessly trying to liberate the world—including liberating India by crushing it, destroying it.

And as [John Stuart Mill] knew perfectly well—he was an official of the East India Company—part of the purpose of the conquest of India was to try to maintain a monopoly—not of cotton but of opium—because England desperately needed opium in order to force its way into Chinese markets. They couldn't sell anything to China because Chinese manufacturers were superior. They didn't want Lancashire products.

P: At the time you're talking about, the second half of the 19th century, legislated slavery was on its way out. But with opium, other forms of human exploitation for labour arose. Can you talk about that?

N: Well, they were called the two trades at that time: the poison trade and the pig trade. The poison trade was opium—Britain was running the biggest narco-traffic enterprise in the world.

The pig trade was people. After slavery was ended, they were no longer bringing slaves from Africa—the British Navy was stopping it and the [American] Civil War took place. A lot of [people for labour] were coming from China. That was the pig trade—the people who built the U.S. railroads were basically Chinese slaves brought over in the pig trade.

Meanwhile, the poison trade [opium] was breaking into China by force to open up this huge market. Then, of course, everyone got their fingers into it. And China, which had been along with India the commercial and industrial centre of the world—in fact more advanced in many respects than Northern Europe—declined, went through a century, more than a century, of devastation.

Now, if you look at a longer sweep of history, the revival of India and China—they have enormous problems and it's a long way off—is something like a move towards what did happen before the plague of western imperialism spread over the world. And one big part of this was importing slaves—that's what produced the basic resource for the industrial revolution—cotton—but not only that.

Also, the British needed some way of controlling their own working classes. One of the ways of doing it was drugs, soft drugs. They came from the West Indies. That's coffee, rum, that kind of thing. Tobacco. Basically soft drugs to keep the working class quiet.4

P: In the 1880s, with the so-called "Scramble for Africa"—the scramble for African resources—the European powers basically just walked into Africa and split up the entire continent however they pleased—with great devastation, misery and death. The exploitation of Africa took place not only as if it was an economic necessity, but a moral right and obligation. What is the mind-set that allows such an incredible assumption?

N: Well, the mind set is pretty much the same as John Stuart Mill on India: The barbarians are backward and inferior, and for their own benefit we have to uplift them and civilize them and educate them and so on. It is pretty explicit.

The psychology behind this is kind of transparent. When you've got your boot on someone's neck and you're crushing them, you can't say to yourself, "I'm a son of a bitch and I'm doing it for my own benefit." So what you have to do is figure out some way of saying, "I'm doing it for their benefit." It's like when you punish a child. "It is for your good, I have to do it. It is my responsibility."

And that's a very natural position to take when you are beating somebody with a club. I'm sure it's probably close to universal. And I think that's the kind of intellectual and moral content behind colonization.

The 'Scramble for Africa' was for good, material reasons. Africa had a lot of resources—nobody knew how much but probably a lot. It was part of the way of jockeying among the imperial powers as to who was going to end up on top and so on.

Actually the United States didn't have much of a role. The only foothold the U.S. had in Africa was Liberia. Liberia was in fact recognized by the U.S. in 1862—the same year that the U.S. recognized Haiti5 and for the same reason.

1862, remember, was emancipation and they were trying to figure out what to do with all these blacks. So one idea was to ship them off to where they belong: black countries like Haiti and Liberia. Again, pure racism. Then of course Liberia turned out to have rich rubber resources and Firestone Rubber came in and so on and so forth.6

But the main exploitation of Africa was by Europeans. The U.S. recognized that. Until the Second World War, the U.S. was really not a global power. It was a regional power; it controlled the northern part of the Western Hemisphere. It had expanded to the Philippines and Hawaii and part of the trade with China obsession and so on, but it wasn't really a global player.

After the Second World War, that changed totally. The U.S. knew right away it was going to run the world—and plans were made for it and parts of the world were sort of divvied up. They were assigned by what the state department under George Kennen called their 'functions.' They each had their function in the global system.

So what about Africa? At that time, the U.S. wasn't much interested in Africa. So Kennen's advice—he was head of the policy planning staff—was to hand Africa over to the Europeans to "exploit"—that was his word—to exploit for their own reconstruction after the Second World War.

I mean given history, you can imagine a different relationship between Europe and Africa—but that could never have occurred to anyone. It is just beyond conception given the profound, deep-seated racism in Western culture. You couldn't dream it.

So Africa was given to Europe to exploit for their reconstruction. In subsequent years, the U.S. changed its view on that when the need for African resources extended. So now Africa is a big oil exporter, and the U.S. has quite close relations with really quite vicious dictatorships in Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria and others that export plenty of oil. Africa has other resources, too, that the U.S. is by now interested in, minerals and so on.

Also there was a great concern that Africa might move towards some kind of authentic liberation—especially when the Portuguese empire collapsed. [Portugal] was the last imperial system to collapse, both in Asia and Africa. There was a Portuguese colony in Asia, a small one, East Timor, and major ones in Africa, in Mozambique and Angola. And the U.S at that time was very concerned to make sure that neither of them moved towards [true] independence.

The instrument for crushing East Timor was Indonesia—so the U.S. backed a murderous Indonesian assault on East Timor, which probably came as close to genocide as anything in the modern period, supported all the way by the United States, by Britain—who came in as soon as they could, the labour government incidentally. Others as much as they could. And pretty much the same in Africa.

In Africa the instrument would be [Apartheid] South Africa—South Africa was strongly supported by the United States and Britain, particularly, in its attacks on the neighbouring countries, Angola and Mozambique. In the 1980s under the Reagan administration—according to the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa—there were about a million and a half people killed in Angola and Mozambique from South African attacks.

In Angola itself, the effort to conquer that country in the mid-70s was blocked by Cubans. The Angolan government called in Cuban assistance and the Cubans were black and they defeated back the white forces in South Africa, which had a tremendous psychological effect all over Africa. I mean, this is the first time black soldiers had beaten back the white, European killers.

You read the South African press at that time—depending on whether you're looking at the white press or the black press, you get a different impression—but it's the same one, and it infuriated the United States.

So part of the reason for the continuing brutal hostility towards Cuba is that Cuba played a significant role in the liberation of Africa—very significant, from Algeria down to Angola and other countries. And that is kind of out of history—I mean you find it in scholarship, the scholarship is quite good. The most serious work is from Piero Gleijeses, a fine historian out of Johns Hopkins, but it doesn't penetrate consciousness. You can't sort of admit that Cuba helped liberate South Africa—just like we can't admit that Cuba is sending thousands of doctors all over the world, working in the poorest areas where no one will go. It doesn't fit.

P: It seems that in the 1960s, statistically, there was some hope in Africa. Indexes were way up. In the 70s, there was this slow demise—we see it in Uganda under Amin, for example—and then a sort of painful collapse in the 80s. One can read such differing opinions about this, but what are your thoughts on the role the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank played in Africa's demise?

N: The IMF is basically an instrument of the U.S. treasury department. The World Bank is a little more independent but the U.S. is overwhelmingly dominant. In effect, these international financial institutes, both of them, are instruments of great power policies—primarily U.S. power policies.

What happened in Africa was happening all over the world. So in Africa, as you said, there was a growth period and hope and expectation in the 50s and 60s. That declined in the 70s and turned into a disaster in the 80s.

Same with Latin America. In Latin America, the highest growth periods were under the import-substitution7 regimes of the 50s and 60s. It began to stagnate in the 70s, sharp decline in the 80s and 90s.

In fact, the same thing happened in the industrial [Western] world. So [economic] growth rates in the 50s and 60s were the highest in history. It is called sometimes the "Golden Age of Capitalism." Furthermore, it was egalitarian growth, so in the United States the lowest quintile did about as well as the upper quintile.

It was also a period of social democracy, of welfare state measures and so on. That is the 50s and 60s. The 70s began to stagnate, the 80s declined for the majority.

In the U.S. for example, we've been through an amazing period of economic history. The first time ever that, for over 25 years, real wages—what you are actually making in terms of what you can buy—have stagnated or declined for the majority of the population. And it has some side effects. Around 1980, the United States had—as you would expect in the richest country in the world—the highest wages and the lowest work hours. Now it is almost reversed.

P: In America, is this related to IMF policy?

N: Not so much. The U.S. is immune to IMF policies. If the U.S. was subject to IMF policies, we would be under severe structural adjustment programs. But the U.S. is big enough to tell the IMF to get lost.

It is only the weak who have to subject themselves to these policies. The rich ignore them, the U.S. in particular. Now those policies also apply in the industrial countries but not via the IMF, just internally. That is the way the power system works.

But the point is the IMF and the World Bank are simply the instruments that are used—particularly the IMF—for much of the world to impose policies which are coming from the peak of power.  

In fact, the U.S. executive director of the IMF once described [the IMF] as the "credit communities' enforcer"—meaning the World Bank gets countries to borrow up to their necks—usually Third World dictators—telling them how great it is to borrow huge amounts of money. And then when they can't pay [it back]...?

The main time that that happened was in the early 80s, when the Federal Reserve under Paul Volcker imposed a deep recession in the Unites States: shot up interest rates, stopped growth. And the interest rates are usually tied to third world loans so half the third world went broke because they couldn't pay the loans—after the IMF and the World Bank had just been telling them how marvellous it was to borrow more and more.

All of a sudden the floor collapsed and they are totally in debt. Then the IMF comes in and says, 'Okay, now you have to pay for it with structural adjustment programs.'

Now if you look at the mechanisms, why is it called the "credit communities enforcer"?

Well, if anybody believed in a capitalist or market economy—which of course nobody in power really does—what would happens is this: if I lend you money at high interest rates, because it is a risky loan, and then you can't pay...? Well, in a capitalist society that would be my problem.

But we don't live in a capitalist world. We live in a world run by state and corporate power which opposes capitalism and markets. So the way it works in our world, I call in the enforcer and since you can't pay, he makes your neighbours pay [the poor]. That is what structural adjustment is.

I mean the poor people who suffer from structural adjustment, they didn't borrow the money, they didn't get anything out of it. It was some murderous general or rich people who live in great luxury in the Third World who mostly sent their capital abroad to Zurich and to have villas in London and so on. They are the ones who borrowed the money but the ones who pay are the poor people.

So it is as if the enforcer comes to you and says, okay, since I am the rich guy who lent the money, I'm not allowed to lose anything. So if you can't pay, I'm not allowed to lose anything so my neighbours will pay me. The taxpayer will pay through the IMF. That's basically the mechanism through which the IMF works.

P: That's very interesting with respect to Uganda in the mid 1980s—after Idi Amin until now. Under Yoweri Museveni—who the West have called "one of the new breed of African leaders" and so on—some of the economic indexes for Uganda have been pretty good. His policies on HIV have been justifiably praised. This is what we hear.

Meanwhile for the same twenty years, the situation in the North of the country has been a humanitarian disaster of tragic proportions: ten years of Internal Displacement Camps, 1.5 million or more displaced people, horrendous terror and over 25,000 children abducted. A generation literally lost. But we barely hear about these things. What is the mechanism behind such a disparity of information?

N: This mechanism is called media, colleges and universities: ideological institutions. The same reason they don't tell you the effects of the neo-liberal programs of the last 25 years. Actually, when they talk about it, they muddle it consciously so as to obscure it.

So, in fact, I said, correctly, that during the neo-liberal period, the last 25 years, there has been a sharp decline in growth rates and other macro-economic indices. But there are exceptions. China grew rapidly, South Korea grew rapidly, Japan did very well despite what is claimed. India is picking up. So when you mix that all together, that doesn't look too bad.

The trouble is the countries that grew are the ones that violated the rules. They've got to obscure that fact.

Yes, the countries that didn't pay any attention to the rules, they did grow and develop. Just as the rich industrial companies grew and developed by violating the free market rules they were imposing on the weak. So that's normal economic history.

P: So how does Africa fit into that?

N: Same story. You just don't pay attention to what is happening. So what's described about Africa, you could say the same about India. Thomas Friedman writes about the marvellous labs in Bangalore and so on, which are terrific. I've been there and they are better than MIT. But he doesn't have chapter after chapter on the economic catastrophe in India. I mean, right next door to Bangalore and Hyderabad, there is a sharp rise in peasant suicide. There are beginnings of huge migrations—not just poor people migrating to the harvest, but a new phenomenon of mass migration from impoverishment.

P: And it's the same in Africa?

N: It's the same. India happens to be well studied so you can talk about it, but it's the same thing, same mechanisms, all over the world—huge migrations because people can't survive. That is new and it is from the same policies that are leading to the great labs in Hyderabad and Bangalore. Same policies.

As you put money into high-tech development, you take money away from agriculture—which is the source of survival for maybe 80 percent of the population. Take money away, you cut back on rural credit. You don't build irrigation, you don't give to the support systems. You try to drive poor farmers to export crops because that is the neo-liberal model, so they can produce cotton for export, not food for use—and that has a certain problem all over the world.

I mean, in one year, you might get high prices but commodity prices fluctuate very sharply. The next year, you can't do it.

Now if you're agribusiness, that's okay, you can average it out. But if you're a poor farmer, you can't tell your children, okay, don't bother eating this year, maybe next year we'll have some food. So it of course causes a massive crisis among the population.

P: It was a few months after 9/11 that the Ugandan President unleashed his all-out military assault—called, ironically, Operation Iron Fist —on the Lord's Resistance Army, the terrorist rebel group who are over 80% abducted children. It was the most intensive attempt, to date, to destroy the group. The collateral damage on the Uganda population was extensive. LRA deaths increased greatly—many of whom were children of course. Even worse, the LRA began terrorizing villages and camps and abducting children en masse . Abductions rose from 91 the year before to something like an astronomical 7,800 in the year after Operation Iron Fist began. And although heavily battered, the LRA was not destroyed.

You've talked about it before, but from a wider perspective, could you explain how this kind of tragedy could be related to the devastating side-effects of the already horrendous 9/11 attacks?

N: My first interview after the bombing of the twin towers was a couple hours later. After talking a little, the first thing I said, which isn't particularly full of insight, is that every power system in the world is going to use this as an opportunity to extend whatever repression and violence it's carrying out. That's what happens when a catastrophe takes place. And it's pretty much what happened.

So the Russians took it as an opportunity to expand their hideous terror in Chechnya; China did the same in western China against the Uighur Muslim population; Israel did it on the West Bank; Indonesia in Ache and West Papua and so on around the world.

Countries that didn't have violent repression going on—the more democratic, westernized countries—exploited it in a similar way: to impose constraints and obedience on their own populations—what were sometimes called "Prevention of Terrorism Acts" or something like that, which are basically disciplinary, control your own population.

In the United States, it was a startling attack on civil rights of the kind that had very little to do with security and has little precedent in the history of the country. Sometimes what happened would have been comical if it wasn't so serious.

For example, one of the first reactions of the Bush administration—this is Robert Zoellick, the US trade representative—was to demand that the President be given what was called "fast track" authority to negotiate international economic agreements. Basically, Kremlin style authority to settle the agreements with no congressional input, then hand it over and congress can say "yes" or, in theory, "no"—but yes.

And no public input—the public was strongly opposed to that, naturally. And they had not been able to ram [these policies] through but this was pushed through [now] because of the need to defend ourselves from terror.

We are seeing exactly the same thing after the Katrina catastrophe: the administration is exploiting the opportunity to ram through all sorts of pet projects that it can never get through congress.

The first thing they did was to rescind, affectively, the Davis Bacon Act, which requires the Federal Projects to pay prevailing wages. [This is] an attack on workers and an attack on unions, their enemies.

Also, there are a lot of children without schools. Instead of putting in Federal funds to rebuild schools, they are giving vouchers with extra money if you send your kid to private school. So it is another way to attack and undermine the public school system, which they hate—and so on, right down the line.

That is the way our systems react to opportunities—and a catastrophe is almost always an opportunity.

So you pick the country and you are very likely to find some reaction of this sort to the 9/11 attacks.

P: Speaking of what we hear and don't hear much about—with regard to humanitarian disasters, like Northern Uganda, and various genocides and so on—there seems to be some tragedies that just don't really break through to our television sets and history pages, let alone our consciousness. Does this also follow some discernible logic?  

N: It is a simple matter of agency. When you commit the crimes, they're not crimes. So for example, say in East Timor, killings were—relative to population—very similar to Cambodia. But Cambodia is called genocide. East Timor...? Well, sort of unfortunate.

The reason is we were pulling the trigger in East Timor. Basically.

I mean, take, say, Rwanda, the huge genocide [in 1994]. It wasn't new. Edward Herman and I wrote about it in 1979—it happened to be in Burundi at that time but it was exactly the same Hutu/Tutsi conflict. It wasn't quite the level of Rwanda but hideous atrocities—but nobody cared. I don't think anybody ever mentioned it except maybe human rights groups. We had a chapter about it in the book we wrote.

In the 1980s, Rwanda was subjected to [IMF] structural adjustment programs which had an effect on the society that they usually do. They exacerbate tensions and divisions and cause all sorts of conflicts and problems—sometimes it breaks up into ethnic conflict. Well, that extended the already existing conflicts—which themselves go back to colonialism, the Belgian and German colonialism. [Structural adjustments] made it much worse and finally it burst out in 1994.

But since somebody else was doing it, we're allowed to condemn it as genocide. We're even allowed to condemn ourselves for not doing enough to stop someone else's crimes. That we're allowed to do. We're permitted—in fact we love—criticising ourselves for not stopping someone else's crimes. On the other hand, what about stopping our own crimes? Well, that's off the agenda.

P: Over the years you've spoken a great deal about organizations in Latin America and elsewhere making courageous and relentless efforts to affect change that help the poor. The stories are enough to make a grown person weep. Can you talk about what you've seen happening of a similar nature in Africa?

N: There are popular organizations all over Africa—I mean South Africa, every other country—fighting really courageously for rights against privatization which drives, say, water prices out of sight, against construction programs which are harming the mass of poor and enriching the super rich. Everywhere you look, there are union activities that are lively and exciting.

That's going on in most of the world.

There's a reason why the World Social Forum is held primarily in the South and not in the North. It meets in Brazil and India and there will be one in South Africa—side ones in South East Asia. That's because that is where the major action is going on, the major constructive, progressive struggles.

The North kind of joins in so when people talk about what they call the anti-globalization movements—a ridiculous term for it—well, it's supposed to have started in Seattle. Well, that is because Seattle is the first Northern city where anything happened.

Meanwhile it has been going on for twenty years in India, Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere. So if hundreds of thousands of people stormed the parliament in India to prevent monopoly drug pricing, well, that's not interesting.

But if people are breaking windows in Seattle protesting World Bank policy, okay, that's exciting. So the global justice movement—as [activists] call it—is held, is started, in Seattle. Actually, it's late.

That's why the meetings are down South—and Africa is a large part of it.

The last World Social Forum I went to, in Puerto Alegre, had a big component of people from Africa, many of them peasants, activists. In fact, a large part of the meetings were about Africa-Brazil connections. That doesn't get reported up here.

The way it is reported up here is that it is just a carnival where people are dancing or something. In fact, it was very serious meetings on every topic you can think of and one of the leading themes—at that one and others—happened to be Brazil-African relations. And there are sort of South-South relations developing.

This has been going on for a long time. The South Commission, as it was called, represented most of the countries of the South. They published for years important detailed studies, critiques of neo-liberalism, alternative development models and so on. I have written about them but you just can't find a word about them anywhere. They don't exist. They are the lower breeds. It doesn't matter what they say.

The same is true with what is now called G77—by now it's G130 or something like that. Basically, the modern version of the former Non-Aligned Movement—not quite the same but pretty similar.

They had the highest, most important meeting in their history in 2000. It was the first time they'd met at the level of heads of state. And they published long, detailed documents, very intelligently done, critical of neo-liberal economic development, proposing alternatives, describing all the things we're talking about—also condemning what they called the `so-called "right" of humanitarian intervention,' which they interpret to be just old-fashioned imperialism in a new guise, not even particularly new—because it used to be called humanitarian intervention too.

That was a major declaration.

I found a few disparaging words in the press: these monkeys, what do they know...? The fact that I wrote about it however did cause a reaction. Books of mine don't often get reviewed in the United States but they do in England. In England, in the Times Higher Education Supplement, there was a very comical review by a Cambridge University historian who just went berserk over this. How can you quote these people, these animals, as if they were real people?

I mean it's 80 percent of the world's population but those people down there can't think. We have to tell them what to think.

That's good old-fashioned imperial tradition. Deeply embedded old centers of imperialism like Cambridge and Oxford and our counterparts and so on carried through the media. It is such a deeply entrenched perception that any accurate perception of what's happening is almost very hard for people unless they undertake a research project.

P: Back to Rwanda and the genocide there, there was something I wanted to ask you about. I've read that the Christian Church in Rwanda was often complicit in the genocide, with priests carrying arms and actually being involved in some butcherings and so forth. This shocked me, but then I started to think about history. How would you explain the connection between colonialism and the Church?

N: Well, it's a long story actually. I mean, look, the first couple of centuries of the Church, it was a church of the poor. It was a revolutionary church of the poor. That's what the gospels are about. When you read the gospels, that's what they say.

It was picked up by the emperor Constantine and he turned it into the church of the rich and the powerful. The cross—which was the symbol of suffering and oppression—became the symbol on the shield of the Roman soldiers. From then on, the church was the Church of the rich and powerful.

It's changed to some extent—in fact, very dramatically, in Latin America, primarily, in the 1960s and 70s. The church went back to the gospels. It was called the preferential option for the poor. Priests and nuns and layworkers were working with peasants and running base communities in which they studied the gospels as they really are.

You know, that caused a violent reaction. The U.S. went to war against the Church in Latin America. I've got a picture right back there [points to his wall]8 which describes it. The 1980s, particularly under Reagan, was largely a war against the Catholic Church. A massive war against liberation theology and it's not hidden.

The '80s opened in Central America with the murder of an archbishop [Romero], and ended with the murder of six leading Latin American Jesuit intellectuals, all by forces closely linked to the United States or trained and armed by the United States—who meanwhile killed tens of thousands of the usual victims.

The School of the Americas, the famous school that trains Latin American officers, states as one of its talking points, its advertising points: the U.S. Army helped defeat liberation theology. That is, we got the church back to the church of Constantine—not the church of Christ.

The Vatican helped out. They didn't carry out massacres but they got rid of the troublesome priests who were going out to work with the poor and so forth. This happened all over the world.

These things do not happen in one place. We tend to mislead ourselves by studying Africa and Vietnam and Haiti, which is fine, you should study them. But the main thing to study is ourselves. There is a centre of power, not one but several centres of power, and the things that are happening in Latin America and Africa and India and so on are often similar because they are all being pretty much organized from the same centres.

As long as we look at it as something out there, it is very convenient—it's much more sensible to look into the mirror.

It's the same reason why we study genocides carried out by others—but not our own atrocities. And why the farthest we will allow ourselves to go is to condemn ourselves for not doing enough to stop the atrocities of others but never to discuss the comparable atrocities we're carrying out at the very same time.

P: Despite the miseries that haunt the world, you've referred before to the idea that humans seem to have an innate, relentless impulse for freedom. Could you explain what you mean by that?

N: We don't know anything much about human nature except that it's rich and complex and common to the entire species and determines everything we do. Beyond that, it's mostly speculation.

But a look at history and perception of what we see, does, I think, lend some credibility to a traditional view coming out of the Enlightenment—it is at the core of liberalism, the ideals we are supposed to honour but disregard—which says that fundamental to human nature is a kind of instinct for freedom, which shows up in creative activities.

This is actually the core of Cartesian philosophy, the core of enlightenment political thought. And I think we see plenty of examples of it: people struggling all over the world for freedom.

They don't like to be oppressed.




Noam Chomsky is the Institute Professor Emeritus of linguistics at MIT, although he is more widely known for his political activism and criticism of power systems in general and American foreign policy in particular. Chomsky's linguistic theories revolutionized the field in the 1950s and 60s. Thought to be the most cited intellectual alive, The New York Times Book Review said about him: "Reading Chomsky today is sobering and instructive...He is a global phenomenon...perhaps the most widely read voice on foreign policy on the planet."

Pete McCormack is a university drop out and not particularly well known for his writing, filmmaking, music and novels, although he's done a lot of it. He recently wrote and co-directed with Jesse Miller the documentary film Uganda Rising.




(1) See BBC, the Origins of Slavery. The Muslims of Spain took Eastern Europeans as slaves in the 9 th century.

(2) In the Treaty of Paris (1763) France ceded desolate Canada to Britain so that they could keep the more profitable Guadeloupe, with all of its new world resources—sugar and slaves for example.

(3) In the Brooklyn Eagle, editor Walt Whitman wrote: "There is hardly a more admirable impulse than patriotism...Yes: Mexico must be thoroughly chastised!...Let our arms now be carried with a spirit that shall teach the world that, while we are not forward for a quarrel, America knows how to crush as well as to expand!"

Whitman also wrote: "Miserable, inefficient Mexico—with her superstition, her burlesque upon freedom, her actual tyranny by the few over the many—what has she to do with the great mission of peopling the New World with a noble race? Be it ours to achieve this mission!"

As for Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was against the Mexican War, and said it would be used, ".... as a means of achieving America's destiny," although accepting that "...most of the great results of history are brought about by discreditable means."

In a journal entry, Emerson writes (during the national debate over the annexation of Texas): "It is very certain that the strong British race [Americans] which have now overrun so much of this continent, must overrun that tract, & Mexico & Oregon also, and it will in the course of ages be of small import by what particular occasions & methods it was done. It is a secular question."

Henry David Thoreau went to prison for refusing to pay taxes that would help finance the Mexican War and slavery laws. When Emerson visited Thoreau in prison he asked: "What are you doing in here?" Thoreau replied: "What are you doing out there?"

(4) My grandmother, who was born in 1897 in East London (Shoreditch) into deep working-class/workhouse roots, always hated beer for the simple reason that she intuited it to be a means for the working class man to forget the creeping, painful drudgery of his waking life.

(5) Haiti in 1804 became the first colonized black nation to announce its independence.

(6) In researching Uganda Rising, it was (among many) the Belgian King Leopold's lust for rubber in the Belgian Congo (see King Leopold's Ghost) that epitomized the misery unleashed by colonization. Hands were cut off for lack of production; families were kidnapped as threat and terror; and somewhere between 5 and 10 million people were exterminated in the onslaught.

(7) Import-substitution is an economic policy generally used by developing countries to substitute foreign imports with domestic products to try and maximize national wealth—therefore generally despised by power structures both domestic and foreign.

(8) The painting on Chomsky's wall is of the angel of death standing over Archbishop Óscar Romero and the six murdered Jesuit intellectuals.

Romero had been protesting the brutal injustices against the poor in El Salvador by a US-backed military group. In February, 1980, Romero sent a letter to President Carter pleading with him to cease from sending military aid which he said would "undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the repression inflicted on the organized people, whose struggle has often been for their most basic human rights."

Romero's pleas were ignored (for fear El Salvador would become another Nicaragua). Military aid continued and, on March 24, 1980, Romero was assassinated by gunshot while celebrating mass.

The six Jesuit intellectuals (and their cook and her child) were murdered in November, 1989 by the US-trained and armed Atlacatl brigade, which had already compiled a record of brutal massacres.


copyright 2006 Pete McCormack