Noam Chomsky is interviewed by Jeremy Paxman of BBC Newsnight, Tuesday 8 March 2011. (Transcribed from ; part transcribed by JNV

There are some things here that are more topical than others, but I'm posting it here because of it touching on internet issues.  Chomsky's comments on the internet and net neutrality perfectly sensible and much more grounded than a lot of mainstream media.

(However, perhaps someone should illuminate him about the history of the internet between 1986 and 1995.  According to Peter Willetts, this was a period between its domination by state and academia and its domination by commercial interests, when civil society and the APC contributed significantly to its development!)  Apologies for any errors, copyright presumably BBC.

Skip to: Libya - Obama - internet - Species survival

JEREMY PAXMAN: Professor Chomsky, when you see all those thousands of people demonstrating on the streets of Egypt or Libya, what do you think?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, what's been happening in the Arab world, is quite a spectacular uprising.  I really can't think of anything quite comparable.  Incidentally, it's not the only one in the world.  So for example, there were 70,000 people in the streets of Madison, Wisconsin a few days ago, and they're still there.  A lot of things are happening in the world.

PAXMAN: But specifically in North Africa, the Arab world, what do you feel about what they're campaigning for?

CHOMSKY: Well, it's pretty clear about what they're campaigning for.  Libya is something of special case, but, Tunisia, Egypt particularly, Yemen and so on.  They're calling for substantial regime change, an end to the Western-backed dictatorships –

PAXMAN: How does that make you feel?

CHOMSKY: I think it's wonderful.  I mean, they have a lot of problems, internal and external.  Notice that it's been a remarkable achievement so far, but the regimes is intact.  I mean there have been name changes, but no significant socio-economic, political changes, although they may come.  

PAXMAN:  You talk about them demonstrating against regimes which enjoyed the backing of the West.  (Chomsky nods).  Isn't it characteristic of these demonstrations that the West has, by and large, backed the demonstrators against the dictators?

CHOMSKY: Certainly not.  In fact, what's happened is, following a standard game plan, which has been used over and over: Marcos in the Philippines, Duvalier in Haiti, Chun in South Korea, Suharto in Indonesia.  I mean, there comes a point when you cannot support your favourite dictator any longer, and the same thing happens every time.  It's happening here too.  Support them as long as possible; when the judgement is it can't be done any more, maybe the army's turned against them or whatever, come out with ringing declarations about your love of democracy and how you're on the side of the people, and then try to preserve the regime.  

PAXMAN: Well, it's certainly not true in the case of Libya, that, is it?  I mean Libya has been the enemy of the West for years and years and years.  

CHOMSKY:  That's one of the reasons I said Libya is a special case.  It's not quite like the others.  What's going on in Libya is really a civil war.

PAXMAN: You don't feel that the Western endorsement of the demonstrators, for example in Cairo, you don't think that proceeded from anything other than realpolitik? It wasn't –

CHOMSKY: First of all, it didn't happen. I mean the support was at the very end.  Tony Blair, for example, right in the middle of the emonstrations – of course he's not the Government – he came out with a great endorsement of Mubarak as a courageous man and a good man and so on.  Obama, by the time the demonstrations were really overwhelming, he finally sent a mediator, Frank Wisner to talk to Mubarak.  The man he picked is a lobbyist for Mubarak, who left Cairo saying he ought to stay.  That was at the peak of the demonstrations.  Now when it became impossible to maintain that position any longer, Obama sort of made some mild moves, statements supporting the demonstrators: nothing much.

PAXMAN: What do you think Western governments should have done?

CHOMSKY: What should they have done?  They should have pulled away their support from the dictators a long time ago.  They should have done what the demonstrators have wanted them to do.  I mean there's a reason why in Egypt, according to Western/US polls, about 90% of the population regard the United States as their main enemy.  There's a reason for that.

PAXMAN: So you think that the immediate response should have been to withdraw support for the administration in Egypt, for example?

CHOMSKY: Well, not quite.  I think that response should have taken place a long time ago.  Remember these demonstrations are bursting out now, but things have been going on for a long time.  So, for example in Egypt, there have been very significant, extensive labour struggles for years.  The January 25th movement, you know, the uprisings, were led by a group called the April 6 group.  April 6, those were the tech-savvy young people.  April 6 is a significant day.  That was the date of a major strike and support action planned at the Mahalla textile industries, that was broken up by force.  That was a couple of years ago.  

PAXMAN [5:00]: Do you find it striking that what many of these demonstrators appear to want is the sort of freedoms, Western freedoms, that you have often said are rather illusory?

CHOMSKY: Well, they're as illusory if we let them be illusory.  In fact what's happening in Madison, Wisconsin is very relevant in this respect.  Right in the middle of one of the most dramatic moments of the protest, was when  Kamal Abbas, a well-knoen labour leader in Egypt, sent a message to Madison, Wisconsin saying the people, the workers of Egypt, support the workers of Madison in their struggle.  In Madison they're trying to preserve elements of democracy that are under serious attack.  In Egypt they're trying to gain the freedoms that have been denied them?  The trajectories are crossing, but they're going in opposite directions.

PAXMAN: Do you think the West should go as far as arming the dissidents in Libya?

CHOMSKY: Libya is a special case. Libya is a civil war. Should the West intervene militarily? That's very doubtful. I don't think so.

There's a long way before that question even arises. First of all, the people don't want it. Remember that the West is hated, for good reasons. Take, say, Libya. Eastern Libya, which was just pretty much liberated. That's the site of the first post-World War One major genocide - Italy in that case - that we may not remember; they do. And there's a long history since, England, France....

This current series of uprisings actually began in Western Sahara last November. Western Sahara was supposed to undergo decolonisation, it was a former Spanish colony, it was supposed to be decolonised. Morocco invaded 30 years ago. Last November, there was a nonviolent protest, a tent city, in Western Sahara. It was broken up by Moroccan forces pretty violently. That was serious enough that it went to the United Nations, which is technically responsible. An investigation was blocked by France, which is the main protector of Morocco. And in Tunisia, France was the "bad guy" if you will. The West has an extremely ugly history there.

We may not pay attention, but the people don't forget. For the powerful, "history is bunk", but the victims don't have that luxury. They remember it.

For example, they remember what we don't like to remember, that back in the 1950s - 1958, in fact - President Eisenhower raised with his staff the question why there is a campaign of hatred against us in the Arab world? Not from the governments, which are more or less supportive, but from the people. The National Security Council, the highest planning body, came out with a memorandum in 1958, saying there's a perception in the Arab world that the United States supports harsh and brutal dictators and blocks democracy and development, and we do it because we want to maintain control of their energy supplies. And it went on to say that the perception is more or less accurate, and, furthermore, that's what we should be doing.

And it continues right to the present. So, we're the last ones who ought to be intervening.

There are things happening that are much more constructive than any possible military intervention. For example, there's a meeting right now with Brazil, India and South Africa. They're trying to see if they can implement some mediation. There's a Reuters report I've seen, unconfirmed, that Gaddafi has offered to leave the country, if proper circumstances can be established.

PAXMAN: That's sourced to al-Jazeera.

CHOMSKY: Al-Jazeera, which is one of the best news agencies in the world.

PAXMAN: They're sourcing some source in the opposition. I mean....

CHOMSKY: I'm sorry but that's been confirmed by people among the rebels. You don't make fun of al-Jazeera. I mentioned that it's an unconfirmed report, but it's worth pursuing.

There are many things that are worth pursuing. For example, the Arab press, if you read it, including from London, is proposing that countries which have some respect in the region become involved, namely Egypt and Turkey. That would make a lot more sense than countries that are hated... for good reasons.

PAXMAN: So what do we do, just do nothing?

CHOMSKY: First of all, we're not asked to do anything. Mostly, we've been asked to stay away. Just read what is being said - mostly: 'Stay away, you've got enough blood on your hands already.'

The question of what to do is not up to us. We're not the only ones in the world. So, say, Brazil, for example, is a respected country, so is Turkey. If you look at the Arab world, ask yourself which leader is most respected. There's an answer: Erdogan [the Turkish Prime Minister]. Okay, that makes sense.

PAXMAN: But we have a responsibility, do we not, to behave responsibly? You're saying that the responsible thing is to simply not get involved.

CHOMSKY: There may come a time when it would make sense for the West to become involved, despite its horrendous record of atrocities and crimes in that region, going way back.

The question is: has that time come?

There are others who have a much better status, and may be able to do things that would lead to some sort of reconciliation or at least mediation. I mean, it's very possible that Libya is going to break up into two states.

[11:48] PAXMAN: We know, because we've seen what you have to say on the subject, how you regard Bush and Blair's record in the Middle East.  Do you think Obama's no better?

CHOMSKY: In many ways he's worse.  (PAXMAN: Why?)  I started writing about it before the election.

PAXMAN: Why is he worse?

CHOMSKY: Well, we'll go through the details. (PAXMAN: Please.)  In the case of Afghanistan,
he's sharply escalated the war.  This is threatening a breakup of Pakistan, which could be a catastrophe for the West.  In fact, there's quite an important article that just came out by Anatol Lieven who knows Pakistan very well.  His conclusion is that British and American soldiers are dying in Afghanistan to make life more dangerous for Britain and the United States, namely because of impact of potential breakup of Pakistan which has both a huge number of nuclear weapons, and an Islamic movement supported by the West.  And Obama is continuing to carry out actions which are threatening this.  Let's go to – I've already talked about his attitude to Egypt, the usual one, follow the usual game plan which I mentioned.  

Let's take Israel/Palestine.  I mean, his position is shocking..  He's refused to do....  There was just a UN Security Council resolution a few weeks ago, calling on an ending of settlement expansion, and declaring the settlements illegal, which is not even controversial.  Well, Obama vetoed it, alone.  A General Assembly resolution a few weeks before was similar: the United States, Israel and a couple of Pacific islands opposed it, you know, and this is the record all the way through.

PAXMAN:  You famously said that every American president since the Second World War would fail in the judgement as applied at Nuremberg, and therefore effectively should be hanged.  Do the same applies...

CHOMSKY: I didn't say hanged, not everybody was hanged at Nuremberg.  I said if we believed in the Nuremberg principles, every American president would be subject to them.  What the decision would be, we'd have to check.  Note this is the Nuremberg principles, not the trials.

PAXMAN: But Obama would fare no better were those principles applied to him?

CHOMSKY: No, he's carrying out a major war in Afghanistan.  He's directly involved in aggressive and criminal actions carried out by Israel for example.  He's only been in office for two years, so he hasn't had a chance to invade anyone yet, but his record is quite consistent with what's happened before.

[14:55] PAXMAN:  What about the methodology that's talked about in these popular movements in the Arab world, where it is said that Western technology, Facebook, Twitter, famously on the internet, and all the rest of it, that has enabled people to express dissent and thereby in the case of Egypt, to unseat one leader, you say, to be replaced by another who may be equally congenial to the West...

CHOMSKY: No, I said, no I'm perfectly in favour of the technology that was developed, actually a lot of it at my own institution under Pentagon funding.  Yeah, nothing wrong with the technology.  I use a computer.  I use the internet.  [silence 3s]

PAXMAN: Do you not find that there is something in the way that people behave, the behaviour that is enabled by this technology that is itself rather affirming of the principles you believe in?

CHOMSKY: (shrugs) Technology is quite neutral.  I mean, a hammer doesn't care whether it's used to build a house or bash in the head of a prisoner, and the same is true of technology.

PAXMAN: But the enablement of the dissemination of information, the dissemination of shared belief – that's a good thing, isn't it?

CHOMSKY: Of course.  That's why I said I think the internet's a fine thing.  I think the Pentagon did a great job in funding the development of the internet for decades.

PAXMAN: Doesn't that reflect rather well on Western democracies?

CHOMSKY:  Well, if you think the Pentagon is a great exponent of Western democracy, yes.  In fact the original intent of the internet was in fact to facilitate communication.  

The internet's an interesting case.  It's basically mostly funded by the Pentagon.  In fact it was the ARPANET, the army net was the first one, actually developed where I work. The Pentagon then handed over to the National Science Foundation.  During that period, about 30 years, the internet was quite free.   It was commercialised, under methods not yet really understood, in the mid-90s.  Now since then, there have been many significant efforts to try to constrain and control it.    And right now the question of internet freedom is a very live issue in the United States and elsewhere.  Will it be kept free and open as it was when it was in the state system?

PAXMAN: But it has enabled these people to mobilise, and that's been a good thing, hasn't it?

CHOMSKY:  Sure.  Yes, it's enabled them in Wisconsin too.  In fact, the– I'm involved in all kinds of activism all the time – it always takes place with the internet.  The internet also gives access to lots of information that was otherwise unavailable.  I mean, the internet has a downside too.  It could be used for surveillance, it could be used for control, it could be used for propaganda.  There is a serious question about whether the providers, there's not many of them, are now in a position to use the internet to direct people to what they want, not what the people want.  That's a serious issue.  It's getting even more serious with new mergers, like Comcast and NBC.  So the internet in itself is in principle a fine development.  Nothing wrong with it.  So, with trains let's say, I suppose the telephone, I suppose the printing press.  All of these are very fine developments, in principle.  They can be used for liberatory ends, they can be used to control and coerce and destroy.  They're used for all of those ends.

PAXMAN: Can I finish with a personal question?  You're how old now –


PAXMAN.  Why haven't you mellowed?

CHOMSKY: Because I look at the world.  And there's too much, there's things happening in the world which should lead anyone to become indignant, outraged, active and simply engaged.  I mean, look, we're in a position right now where there are, among the many threats we face which go on all the time, there are two which literally threaten species survival.  That's serious, and they're both being escalated.  One is the threat of nuclear war, which is quite serious and escalating, and the second is the threat of environmental disaster which is moving in extremely ominous directions.  

Take a look at the new Congress, for example.  Just about every new Congressional representative who came in last November is a climate denier.  In fact, Congress has already moved to ban funding for the most mild environmental efforts, and furthermore unfortunately many of these people are true believers.  So the head of one of the Congressional subcommittees, a new Republican, explained that global warming can't be a problem because God promised Noah that there wouldn't be another flood.  Other are just supported by –

PAXMAN: But why do you care about stupid people?

CHOMSKY: Stupid people?  These people have power, and they are carrying out actions.  They're carrying out the actions that are de-funding possible efforts to do something about these crimes.  Furthermore, they're backed by major concentrations of power.  The major business lobbies, for example, have announced that they are funding big propaganda campaigns to convince people that this doesn't matter.  

These are serious issues.  And incidentally if you want to look at stupid people, you find them all over the place.  For example, we happen to be in the middle of a huge financial crisis – people have noticed.  If you trace that back, a lot of it comes from a fanatic religious belief in what's called the “efficient market hypothesis”.  Pure fanaticism dominated the economics profession, dominated the Federal Reserve.  The one consequence was that when an $8 trillion housing bubble developed, totally unrelated to any fundamentals, completely off the 100-year history of housing prices, the profession and the Fed, the central bank, said it's not necessary to pay attention, because there are efficient markets.  I mean, is that very different from “God promised Noah”?

PAXMAN: That's great.  Thank you very much.

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