Sunday, March 22, 2009
Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali-part 1
Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali at the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe, January 26, 2005
(From the Lennan website) Tariq Ali was born in Lahore, now in Pakistan, then part of British-ruled India, in 1944. While at Punjab University, Ali organized public demonstrations against Pakistan's military dictatorship, and was consequently banned from participating in student politics. At the urging of his uncle, a member of the Pakistani Military Intelligence, Ali was sent abroad to continue his studies as his radicalism put him at risk of imprisonment. In Britain he studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Exeter College, Oxford. During the height of the Vietnam War, Ali earned a national reputation through debates with figures like Henry Kissinger.
Introduction by Tariq Ali: I’m really honored to be introducing Noam Chomsky, who is someone I have respected and admired for a long long time. And it’s interesting that whenever people who were once on the left are about to move to the right, which happens, the first test to know what they’re about to do is when they try to reassure the people they work for or their colleagues by saying “I’m not part of the Chomsky left.”
Whenever anyone says that, beware! Because they could end up anywhere. And some of them have, (pause) ended up supporting George W. Bush, many people who initially started off by saying “I’m not part of the Chomsky left.” So, that’s always a good test.
Now, it’s difficult to talk about Noam because his work is so well known all over the world. And he wears so many hats and speaks in so many different places that it’s not easy to put him in a box and say this is what he is and that’s all, but let me try.
When I was thinking whom Noam reminded me of the most as a public intellectual, the name that came to mind was someone very different from Noam in many ways, but quite similar in others. That was the late British philosopher Bertrand Russell.
Bertrand Russell, at an early stage in his life, became a conscientious objector and refused to fight in the First World War. Unlike Noam, he came from a very prominent aristocratic family in Britain. You know, one of the oldest aristocratic families in Britain: the dukes of Bedford. And when Bertrand Russell became very radical and said that we have to have a War Crimes Tribunal to judge the United States for war crimes in Vietnam, we couldn’t find a single hotel in London which was prepared to give us a room. We said to Russell, “What are we going to do?” And he said “Oh, this is the first time I regretted having given up all my inheritance.” So we said “But we’ve got to do (the tribunal)” and he said “I will make a few phone calls.” And the first meeting of the International War Crimes Tribunal of Vietnam was held in the Hotel Russell in Bedford Square, property that had been owned by Russell’s family and which he had given away; he said he didn’t want any part of it.
Now, the important thing about Russell, like Noam, was that he was not fearful of speaking his mind and speaking the truths to heads of state, to heads of governments. I remember once I met him just after some particular atrocity in Vietnam, and Russell had been in some ceremony where the British Prime Minister had come forward to greet him and said “Hello, Lord Russell.” And Russell said “I could not bear the thought of shaking this man’s hand,” because he backed the war in Vietnam. So, he turned his back on him and walked away. There are people like that around. And Noam Chomsky is one of the few.
And this is the voice of America which we have to defend and promote all over the world because if there weren’t people, weren’t dissidents like Chomsky, it would be very difficult to defend the United States and explain to people that there is an opposition, that not everyone in the United States follows the government and that often there is a large opposition which is not reflected in the press. And this is what being a public intellectual is all about.
And recently, there has been a spate of essays, some books, bad books, bad essays published in bad newspapers which have talked about public intellectuals. And when you read them, they come up with figures like Thomas Friedman and Michael Ignatieff, and Christopher Hitchens, various other jokers.
Now, the point is for me that there are two types of intellectuals. These people I’ve mentioned and othersーwe could name quite a few―these, in my opinion, are state intellectuals. They’re not public intellectuals. They don’t speak in the public interest. They’re state intellectuals. They defend the state. They speak on its behalf, they carry on writing in defense of its lies and its atrocities and its crimes as if it was simple. People who all supported the war in Iraq do not care a damn that a hundred thousand Iraqis have been killed. One hundred thousand Iraqis. And all these state intellectuals who defend the war in Iraq never speak about this figure because that doesn’t support them, while Chomsky does.
And he is meticulous in the way he searches the facts, analyzes them and presents them. And it is to his enormous credit that he does this in a country whose political culture has totally isolated him. Things are not that good in Europe either, I don’t want to exaggerate. But if Chomsky was living in France or Britain, he would have a column fairly regularly in any major newspaper in Germany, France, Britain or Italy. There’s no question about it because things have not gotten that bad there as here. They may…but in the United States this is impossible. It’s impossible.
And this, despite this, his voice is heard all over the world. Despite the fact that he is treated as pariah in his own country by the mainstream establishment as well as by the liberal establishment to a large extent, but despite the fact, this is the one American voice which is respected in Iraq, which is respected by ordinary people in Pakistan, which is respected in virtually the whole continent of Latin America. Why? Because everyone knows that in order to win, you need the support of the American people, you need the support of American citizens, ordinary people. And Noam Chomsky is the one person who gives a voice to many of these people who can never be heard either in the American media or outside. And that makes him extremely important. And that makes him a very precious asset for dissidents and for resistance movements all over the world. And now, he’s been doing this for a long, long time, nearly 45 years.
And this voice has become stronger and stronger and stronger. And the fact that the enemies, his enemies and our enemies in many cases, cannot deal with this forces them to resort to slanders, to lies, because they can’t deal with his arguments even though he is not on television.
He is not published regularly anywhere in the mainstream press. His books circulate all over the world. And his voice cannot be drowned. And even this single voice, dominant powerful, truthful, they don’t like. They don’t like it. They attack him, people who have endless reams of space in the New York Times and the Washington Post. They can say what they want. They feel obliged to attack him.
It’s interesting, this, because they could ignore him if they wished. But they can’t. And the reason they can’t is because Chomsky’s voice has become the conscience of his country and is heard all over the world. That is the reason why he can’t be ignored.
I first read texts by Noam 45 years ago at the time of the Vietnam War. He influenced me and he influenced many generations. It’s the third generation now which he’s influencing. And it’s wonderful to see him in different parts of the world especially when he’s speaking to young people, a new generation.
You feel when he speaks, in his own characteristic fashion, as you will hear soon, when he speaks, the young listen avidly to him. You feel that he’s passing on the baton of dissent to a new generation. And that is an extremely important task today because we live in a turbulent, unpleasant world. We live in a world where this country has become too powerful and too militarily dominant for its own good. And we need more and more dissenting voices.
So, my slogan. So, I think our slogan has to be “Create two, three, many Chomskies.” I’m very proud to welcome Noam Chomsky on behalf of the Lannan Foundation here today.
(Noam’s talk is here)
(continues to the after-talk conversation)