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. The New York Times Book Review said about Chomsky: "He is a global phenomenon...perhaps the most widely read voice on foreign policy on the planet."


June 13, 2006
3:25 am

Introduction for an interview with Noam Chomsky

Yesterday morning I was involved in a political debate with two friends (married) when they received a phone call saying that the son of one of their best friends had been killed in an accident the night before.

My friends were obviously devastated—and left immediately to be with the mother, in her loss, in her grief. The woman could not have better friends in support. The debate, of course, ceased to have meaning, carved away by a sudden humbling reminder of what really matters—beyond agitatedly forcing my ideological belief system onto whomever.

That last line—"what really matters"—rings of that sort of grandma-like, sentimental cliché, perhaps lacking any relevant comprehension of the harsh realities of the world.

But naiveté notwithstanding, with regard to the debate, this tragedy did deliver me at least temporarily towards the essence of my belief system and what really matters—and something I hope to remember.

Outside of my empathy and care for these two distraught friends, all I could think of was how mothers (and fathers and families) in Iraq, in New Orleans, in New York City, in Oklahoma City, in Kabul, in Darfur, Uganda, Congo, Nigeria, Chechnya, West Papua, Côte d'Ivoire, Israel, Iran, Palestine, China, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Timor and everywhere else—virtually every one of them—feel a relatively identical version of what this Canadian mother must be feeling.

Deep love and devotion—and unbearable pain and despair in the loss of a child.1

As obvious and trite as I know that may sound, it would be anything but trite to always remember this fact. And also to try and speak out against the oppressive power structures that plague these societies—whatever they may be.


It is shocking how little I naturally feel for the pain of others not directly associated with my life. Do you share this experience? As practical or universal as this response may be (imagine crying for all suffering...? We'd all die of dehydration and depression in a week—as some do) it is nonetheless humbling and disconcerting.

Thus I try intellectually and actively to extend my compassion to all people; to develop and intensify the idea that we are all sisters and brothers—in hopes my heart will catch up.

Not only my humanity demands this, but my good fortune.


Straining to remember human interconnectedness through universally similar feelings of pain, love, joy and suffering, it is also important and discerning to simultaneously remember that some people actually like war.

It was in Doris Lessing's book Prisons We Choose To Live Inside that I first heard this concept in a way that really hit home. She was talking about human nature—not an evil alien or "them"—and she simply said it: 'Always remember, some people actually like war.'

Some of these people hold office in Beijing, some are suicide bombers in Baghdad, some work on Madison Avenue and some have meetings at the White House.

As obvious as this may sound, the trusim 'that some people like war' is actually intensely difficult for most humans to integrate with respect to people on their own side .

So what is the difference between peace-seekers and war-makers, anyway? Nature...? Nurture...? Environment...?

Sure, but is that all?

I really wonder if a lack of breast-feeding or an aloof father figure can fully explain the reasons behind those who ravenously rape the earth of her resources or slaughter thousands or millions of people.


Modern psychological descriptions seem to skirt the issue. The Hindu epic the Ramayana, however, has for thousands of years described beings known as rakshasas, who for me display many of the sociopathic characteristics of the problem faced on the planet today.

Rakshasas are people who like to eat other people for sustenance (be it literally or figuratively—through terror, greed or murder). Rakshasas destroy lives without remorse ; they are insatiable in their desire for the earth's resources; they insatiably seek war and power.

I'm not saying what I'm saying isn't crazy. I'm saying the descriptions seem apt.

The most infamous of rakshasas was the ten-headed Ravana, his heads representing the ten insatiable senses.

Get this twist: at the same time as being an insatiable rakshasa, Ravana was a remarkable leader of profound skill, charisma and courage—just one of the infinite possible contradictions of a rakshasa.

Rakshasas are also masters of disguise, as holy people, business people, and political leaders. They look like people we like, admire and love. In fact some are people we like, admire and love.

By their choice and nature, Rakshasas will commit what we now call crimes against humanity. This is what they are meant to do—Gucci suit, touching memoirs and lavish dinners of great frivolity notwithstanding.

The rakshasas around us, as you may have noticed, are insatiable. We have seen this with Mao in China, Stalin in Russia, Hitler in Germany, the Holocaust and the rest of Europe; McNamara admittedly2 in Japan in World War II with General Le May—and then Vietnam; and Kissinger's3 "diplomacy" in Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, right through to the killing fields of East Timor.

We see it with the Bush Regime and oil and the bankrupting of America; with China and oil in Darfur; with the colonialist frenzy in Africa and India; with Japan in Nanking; with the pillaging of the DRC for its minerals by shadow leaders and shadow companies; with Kony's heinous atrocities in Uganda and Sudan; and of course the horror of 9/11.

We saw the ten ugly heads in a ravenous orgy of hell in Rwanda; in the Red Guard in China; in the calculated incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. People are dispensable—literally eaten or disposed of, for the greed of the rakshasa.

Of course, it could just be a bad upbringing.4


Maybe then, hope isn't found in demanding and marching for world peace, but in the immediate possibility of shifting in whatever way we can towards greater compassion, joy and love: personally, locally, globally.

And of course sometimes you have to fight, too.

All great popular movements I can think of have risen from the inter-courage and compassion of individuals relentlessly organizing to oppose illegitimate power.

Unfortunately the same goes for all the heinous movements too, minus the compassion.

You can't win 'em all.

It would seem, perhaps, the world is in a continual and infinitely complex arm-wrestle between life and death, cruelty and compassion, freedom and oppression—but an arm-wrestle nonetheless. With every action, every word written, we leap onto one of those two bulging arms and try to pull the locked grip in the direction we believe in.

It is worthwhile therefore, to really try to understand what we believe, and which way we're pulling on it.

Try being kind, try standing in gratitude—it's more courageous then furiously debating ideology that serves nothing but our own unnecessary suffering.

Okay, enough from me.


I will close by admitting that although I am not a rakshasa, there is something manipulative about my using Noam Chomsky as the dangling carrot at the end of my worldview, just to get people to read what may well be mostly projected ego.


In making Uganda Rising last year with Jesse Miller, the amazing opportunity arose to interview Noam Chomsky and get a piece of his deeply cherished yet sometimes reviled worldview—a worldview that Alan Dershowitz, for one, calls with great disdain: Planet Chomsky.

It's a fascinating Planet, actually. I'm a better and far more informed person for having focused my telescope upon it over the last twenty years. And whatever perceived faults in logic or theory life on Planet Chomsky may produce, it still involves a being who spends his entire life trying to speak on behalf of the poor in the developing world—say a mere 80% of the human population—who have no audible voice on Planet Earth.

That may be the most important point about Chomsky. He isn't writing for American intellectuals who despise him—or even those who praise him. He's not writing for my pleasure, or to upset Internet bloggers. Noam Chomsky writes (as do so many others) for people who are perpetually hammered by power structures and without a voice in this world. That is, to repeat, 80% of the people on earth.

I have e-mailed Noam Chomsky ten or twelve times in my life. He does not know me from Adam Smith. I have heard back every time within one day. My mom takes a day and a half, by phone.

In our film interview, Chomsky was kind, humorous and soft-spoken as he unloaded his answers with relentless precision and detail. Passing our allotted forty-five minutes, he was called twice by his assistant Bev to finish up with us so he could race off to a satellite interview and then to who knows where else. He's 77, for the love of the church. Fault the guy all you want, but leave his integrity out of it.

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

What was given was a brilliant short history of the world from the end of slavery, through colonialism and independence, up to the present day.

What was given was an analysis of power and propaganda.

Chomsky hates illegitimate power structures, and for Chomsky, very few forms of power are legitimate—and the onus should be on power structures to prove their legitimacy. Of course, being power, they are not obliged to do so.

One counterargument is relevant and arguable by history: power is absolutely necessary to keep the barbarians at the gate. Fair enough. Of course, you better hope you're on the powerful side of that gate. And remember, every gate is temporary.

Still, if you do lose your voice, odds are high Chomsky will in some way be defending you—or defending someone else who will defend you. Chomsky naturally defends those without a voice—be they Americans (it's American foreign policy he can't stomach, not Americans) or anyone else in the world.

Who cares whether or not Chomsky perfectly describes the complexities of power and policy in the developed world? Who does?

Meanwhile, people are being displaced and discarded, killed and controlled all over the world by some of these policies—and experiencing the same raw, overwhelming pain I know this friend of my dear friends is feeling right now.


And I wish them freedom from that suffering.

That should be the point of all of these debates—not vitriol, or winning, or anger or the inevitable ego involvement.

How many of these debates have actually made one iota of difference to decreasing the suffering of anybody?

Why does anything else matter?

Given the remarkable conditions in which I live, joy within my mood should be mandatory. So should action, generosity and an understanding of the universality of the human dilemma, and the disparity of justice.

So even if Chomsky's conclusions still distress you, think for a moment about the truly distressed people all over the world Chomsky is writing for—and try letting go of the rest. Faults aside, if you can't let that go, there is a decent chance you're in a pretty comfortable economic position yourself.

I know I am. Here's to thinking we can all still be friends—brothers, sisters—because one thing is virtually certain: I'm sure we all love our own children.

Now if we can only learn to love everybody else's children.


Click here for interview with NOAM CHOMSKY


Footnotes For Essay:

(1) See an interesting and short article by Werner Daum (German Ambassador to Sudan, 1996-200) in the Harvard International Review.

In the context of the 1998 US bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan (a huge supplier of WHO advised drugs to an often desperate populace), Daum also discusses the cultural differences between the West and the rest of the world, in terms of death and dying, human rights, social security and so on.

For the record, all those involved in the decision to bomb Al-Shifa to this day stand by the US intelligence information procured.

(2) In Errol Morris' Fog of War, McNamara quotes General Le May: "Had we lost we would have been tried as war criminals." McNamara adds: "He [Le May], and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?"

(3) See for one source of many, the controversial Christopher Hitchens' The Trials of Henry Kissinger. The friend in the debate read Kissinger's own memoirs and thought he was a diplomatic genius.

(4) Alice Miller, who wrote For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, about Hitler's childhood, said in an unpublished interview, November, 1992: "...the notion of "inherent evil" has always seemed to me like the medieval belief in the devil and his children.

Experience teaches us just the opposite. Studies have already incontrovertibly proved that all serious criminals were once mistreated and neglected children—children who early in their lives had to learn to repress their feelings: that is, to feel absolutely no compassion for themselves and, as a result, have no emotional access to their own stories."




copyright 2006 Pete McCormack