Chomsky in India

Published : Jan 23, 2015 12:30 IST

Noam Chomsky.

Noam Chomsky.

IT is rare for an intellectual to be at the centre of public excitement. Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), on a tour of India for the second time in five years, has evoked public enthusiasm on a scale that few intellectuals can dream of. For Indians troubled by the happenings in Afghanistan and craving for an alternative view of what is really happening there, Chomsky’s three-week-long tour has been a deliverance. The polymath—pioneer in the field of linguistics, social theorist, political and media critic and above all, the most consistent and powerful voice against the American establishment—addressed audiences in Delhi, Chennai and Thiruvananthapuram.

The turnout at his lectures simply overwhelmed the organisers wherever he went.

In Chennai, every shade of public and political opinion was present at the jam-packed Music Academy where he delivered a lecture, “September 11 and its Aftermath: Where is the World Heading?”, sponsored by Frontline and the Media Development Foundation, on November 10. No one could recall any intellectual having got such a response in the city. Not even a strike by transport workers held people back. Those who work by their intellect often say the hallmark of a great lecture is the effect it has at the end of it—listeners just do not go away at the end of a good lecture. In Chennai, well after Chomsky finished his lecture, people gathered in knots discussing passionately what they had just gathered from the greatest mind of our times.

Three issues dominated Chomsky’s public engagements in India: a discussion of what constitutes terrorism; the militarisation of space by the United States; and a searing critique of what he hesitantly calls “globalisation”. These have been woven into a tapestry that only a Chomsky can provide. Chomsky makes a distinction between two notions of terrorism. One, of a literal kind, and the other a propagandist one. The literal notion of terrorism, and one which is contained in official U.S. documents, instructed that “terrorism [is] the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious or ideological in nature [carried out] through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear”. Chomsky argued that American imperialist policy has jettisoned this literal definition in favour of the propagandist one, which is nothing but a truism. This preferred version categorises anyone who is against the U.S., its friends and allies, as a terrorist.

While speaking in Delhi, Chomsky pointed to the close identity of this definition of terrorism to the Nazi definition of its own terror directed at the partisans. He said the U.S. goal was to achieve full spectrum dominance which meant a monopoly in the use of outer space for military purposes. Throughout his tour Chomsky hammered at the hypocrisy of the official definition of terrorism which, by convoluted reasoning, always condoned U.S.-led terrorism across the world.

The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan has barely engaged the attention of the media. Chomsky pointed to the unfolding “catastrophe” there, and said that even prior to September 11, the country was dependent on international food-aid for survival. The population at risk, he said, had risen dramatically—from five million to 7.5 million—since then. Before the bombing, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) had warned that seven million people faced starvation in the event of military intervention in Afghanistan. After the bombing commenced, the FAO warned that the destruction of 80 per cent of the grain supplies meant that long-term food security risks were greatly enhanced. Chomsky remarked: “What the effect will be, we may never know. Starvation does not kill people instantly but bleeds people.” He said there was nothing new in the attitudes of Western governments to the unfolding tragedy in Afghanistan. “Only those who are entirely ignorant of modern history will be surprised by the course of events, or by the justifications that are provided by the educated classes.”

Chomsky dismisses notions of the “new” war on terror. He referred to the U.S. intervention in Nicaragua in the early 1980s; the U.S. ignored condemnation by the International Court of Justice for its “unlawful use of force” and vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that simply called on all states to observe international law. This was 20 years ago, during the Reagan administration, which had proclaimed that the struggle against international terrorism would be at the core of U.S. foreign policy. The World Court’s order calling for the termination of international terrorism and the payment of substantial reparations to Nicaragua, was dismissed with contempt by the U.S. Instead it escalated the war, with official orders to the mercenary army fighting the Sandinista government to avoid combat and to attack undefended civilian targets. Chomsky said that U.S.-sponsored state terrorists in Central America left hundreds of thousands of tortured and mutilated corpses, millions maimed and orphaned and four countries in ruin. Around the same time, South African depredations, backed by Western governments, killed 1.5 million people. All this, said Chomsky, was barred from the official annals of what is called terrorism.

He referred to Charles Tilly, the historian, to make the point that over the last millennium, European states have been relentlessly at war because of what he calls “a central tragic fact—that coercion works”. “Those who apply substantial force to their fellows get compliance, and from that compliance draw multiple advantages of money, goods, deference, and access to pleasures denied to less powerful people.” Chomsky observed that although most of the world understands this, it refuses to “penetrate the heights of intellectual enlightenment”.

Terror, he said, provides the context of fear in which it is possible for the powerful to “ram through harsh and regressive measures that would otherwise arouse resistance”. The weapons of mass destruction play a part in this reign of terror imposed by the powerful states on the weaker ones. “For the powerful,” remarked Chomsky, “nuclear weapons are the weapon of choice.” He quoted from official U.S. military sources to make the point that U.S. policy deliberately appears irrational and vindictive to give credence to its ability to impose its threat of terror on the weak—an idea that he has expounded in great detail in his book, Rogue States. The Ballistic Missile Defence system is only a small part of the overall U.S. move to militarise space. The more important objective, he stated, was the American effort “to achieve sole spectrum dominance, that is, a monopoly of the use of space for offensive military purposes”.

The U.S. attempt at absolute dominance is linked to what Chomsky hesitatingly calls “globalisation”. He takes pains to emphasise that globalisation, in a neutral sense, simply means “international integration, welcome or not depending on the human consequences”. He argues that the term has been hijacked to imply a “specific form of international integration”, particularly in the last quarter of a century. This, he says, has happened because it is then easy to label the anti-globalisation movement—which is really against corporate domination of the planet—as “primitivists who want to return to the stone age”.

There is nothing novel about “neoliberalism”, says Chomsky. “It is not new and it is not liberal.” This has  repeatedly figured in his lectures in India. He argues that liberalism is a double-edged instrument of power and domination. He points out that the British domination of India was achieved by pursuing liberal policies in India while at the same time using state power to protect the interests of the powerful in Britain. In other words, market discipline for the weak and the protection of the “powerful nanny state” for the powerful. This, he argues, was at the heart of British domination of India over two centuries.

Quite apart from the incisive precision of his sheer reasoning, what moved one was the 73-year-old Chomsky telling a budding journalist at the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) about the need to be optimistic. Asked if he was not being “too optimistic” about the possibilities for change, given the “World Order”, Chomsky remarked: “There is no measure of how optimistic you ought to be. In fact, as far as optimism is concerned, you basically have two choices. You can say, ‘nothing is going to work, and so I am not going to do anything’. You can therefore guarantee that the worst possible outcomes will come about. Or, you can take the other position and say, ‘Maybe something will work and I will engage myself in trying to make it work. Maybe there is a chance that things can get better’. That is your choice. Nobody can tell how right it is to be optimistic. Nothing can be predicted in human affairs... nothing.”

With inputs from T.K. Rajalakshmi in New Delhi and

R. Krishnakumar in Thiruvananthapuram.

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