Saturday, November 02, 2013

Q&A on Egypt with Noam Chomsky - Oct 2013

With Courtesy to MIT Egyptian Student Association(ESA)

October 4th, 2013 in Kresge Auditorium, MIT, Cambridge MA USA

7:00 Chomsky: The fact that I’m standing here in front of a large audience in a big auditorium may be misleading. So let me quickly allay any misimpressions. I’m here basically to open a discussion. I don’t pretend to have any deep understanding of the remarkable events that have been taking place in Egypt in recent years. I’ve followed them as closely as I can but haven’t researched them deeply. And many of the sources, the most important ones, ones that are in Arabic, I haven’t had access to.

Another reason for my own hesitation is that I find myself in kind of surprising disagreement with some of my old friends, good friends in Egypt, the people whose judgment I’ve always respected and whose actions I’ve regarded with much admiration. I’ll try to explain why as I proceed.

I’ll first give a quick review of some of the most important events which I’m sure you’re familiar with. So, beginning in January, 2011, the uprising or some called it revolution took place at the Tahrir Square. It was occupied, set in motion in a chain of spectacular events that led very quickly to the fall of the dictator, US-backed dictator. And many other achievements are [that] lively political atmosphere opened up, much opportunity and… which was made good use of for freedom of the association, interchange and speech. Some of the most important achievements were scarcely reported here except in the specialist literature.

That had to do with labor rights. Egypt had had quite a militant and active labor movement for many years outside the official framework. There was an official state union which, as usual, was more committed to controlling the workforce than working for their interests. But outside of the institutional structure, there was a militant labor activism taking place. It accelerated roughly ten years ago as the neoliberal programs were instituted more severely. As just about everywhere in the world, including here, as these programs were instituted, they had pretty standard consequences. One was that they were highly praised by the international financial institutions: World Bank, the IMF, US Treasury, many economists. And they had numbers that looked good. But underneath the numbers, they had usual consequences; we’re familiar with them here. Sharply rising inequality, very high concentration of wealth, elimination of social support systems, atomization of the population, extensive repression, unbounded corruption, usual effects around the world which have led to uprisings almost everywhere.

In Latin America, they’ve led to actually remarkable liberation of South America from 500 years of Western dominance. And what began in the Arab Spring, in Tunisia and Egypt, was in part an uprising against the imposition of the harsh neoliberal regime combined with opposition to a brutal dictatorship that of course, the US was strongly supporting. And there were major achievements in labor rights very quickly. Labor movement was not initially directly involved in the uprising in the Tahrir Square occupation but began to join very soon and provided substantial mass basis for it. The general strike was one of the main factors that impelled the military command, SCAF to decide to shelve the dictator, Mubarak. An independent union was formed for the first time outside of the framework of the legal structure. That’s broken the monopoly of the state labor union. The involvement of labor movement in uprising added social and economic demands to the narrower political goals. And they also made constructive and substantive achievements: a raise of the minimum wage, new unions, much else.

The scholar who does most of the work on this, Joel Beinin at Stanford, reviews it extensively and points out that one of the main achievements was perhaps more subtle. It was just simply providing human dignity and a voice to people who had been so suppressed and marginalized that they had none.

All of that was of great concern to the United States and its allies. They don’t like such developments. And that was particularly kind of accelerated by the studies of public opinion in Egypt at that time—in Egypt and much of the Arab world. And these were conducted by major US polling agencies and certainly well known to planners and elite elements. They were not reported and barely mentioned in the United States in the media, barely mentioned. But they’re interesting and revealing for us and helpful for understanding the US attitude toward the developments that were taking place. US official attitudes.

In what Egypt at the time of the Tahrir Square occupation, a major poll taken by one of the main US polling agencies found that a very high percentage of the population, roughly 80%, regarded the greatest threat that they face as being the United States and Israel. They dislike Iran. All through the Arab world, there’s a sharp dislike of Iran, but as elsewhere they didn’t regard Iran as much of threat. Maybe 10% regarded Iran as a threat. In fact, opposition to US policies were so strong among the population that a majority in Egypt actually thought that the region might be more secure if Iran developed nuclear weapons to offset US and Israeli power.

Well, if you have a really functioning democracy, the popular opinion is going to influence policy. And it’s pretty obvious that the United States doesn’t want these policies implemented. And, as usual, the fear of democracy guided much of US policy; both suppression of information for the public here but also the policy actions. That’s actually quite normal.

There were elections. The elections were won by Islamists mostly the Muslim Brotherhood. They had been the best organized group for many years. They were illegal most of the time under the dictatorship but they functioned. And the organization enabled them. That was one of the factors that enabled them to win the elections. 
The other was that there were many splits in the secular, left liberal quasi-coalition, which actually got a majority of the votes. More than half of the Egyptians voted for what was called “the revolutionary candidate,” candidates from those sectors in the last summer’s presidential elections. But there were six accredited candidates from those groups and that was split so the Brotherhood easily won, Salafists took a big roll.

They imposed a regime which was pretty harsh. The SCAF, the military command, maintained its very powerful role in dominating the society. The government made only limited efforts to share governance, became quite unpopular. By this year, there was a major uprising June 30th, a huge outpouring of the people into the streets; petitions calling for the government to resign. A couple of days later came the military takeover on July 3rd. Well, that’s part of the background.

My own personal aspirations and sympathies… and in fact friends, are mostly with the mass popular June 30th uprising movement. But I think they’re making a serious error in their support for the military coup--or for many of them, even the outright denial that the coup took place--and in their faith in the commitment of the military to defend what they called “the people” against the Brotherhood. That’s a term that should be avoided. The people are badly split. Maybe you may not like them, the Brotherhood, you may not like their actions but they’re there. They’re substantial part of the population. And they can’t be written off. So, the reference to the people already tells you something is misleading and the commentary severely so.

Also mistaken, in my view, is their faith that the military is going to move to establish a democratic secular regime. And that’s highly unlikely. Much more likely is that the military will act the way the military acts everywhere. And historically in Egypt as well, it’ll impose, as they’ve already imposed, a harsh brutal regime. Its aim will be to reinforce their own power of the political system and also to sustain their control over quite substantial economic empire. It’ll crash dissidents and undermine civil and human rights. That’s already happening. My unpleasant expectation is that my friends, the secular liberal left opposition that has welcomed the military, are likely to be its victims pretty soon as it has happened in the past and as it’s beginning to happen now. 

One of the best informed international correspondents in the region, Patrick Cockburn, wrote recently after returning from Egypt that “Egypt is on the brink of a new dark age as the generals close in for the kill.” “With 10 retired generals and two police commanders from the Mubarak era being appointed provincial governors, Egypt is effectively under military rule.” And there’s of course huge support from Saudi Arabia and other elements of the most reactionary parts of the Islamic world. The West prefers them to the Brotherhood. The United States, like Britain before, it tended overwhelmingly to support the most extreme radical Islamists in opposition to secular nationalism for understandable reasons. They don’t like to have the Brotherhood particularly but that’s a different matter. Saudi Arabia and Salafis are way to their extreme side.

It’s possible Cockburn predicts that this may lead to a bloody civil war. Joel Beinin, a specialist on Egyptian labor, writes that the security forces, after the military takeover, quickly crashed “a militant strike at the Suez Steel Company, located in the Canal Zone city that, not coincidentally, was in the vanguard of the revolutionary forces that compelled Mubarak to step down.No matter how popular the army may be at the moment, workers now face an emboldened authoritarian state that is openly hostile to their rights and aspirations.”

I suspect he’s correct. As I said, there have been real gains maybe lasting ones but they are in danger and I think the danger is quite serious. Right now there are two major power centers. One is Islamists and the other is the military. And the latter is very much in the ascendant and with substantial left liberal support, as I said I think is a mistake.

Two weeks ago, a new initiative was launched. It’s called, it calls itself “Revolution Path Front.” The main state newspaper al-Ahram describes it as a “new, anti-Brotherhood, anti-military front launched to achieve revolution goals.”

It contains well-known political figures, activists, labor leaders and others. The spokesperson at the press conference where they announced themselves was Wael Gamal. He is a quite impressive young left economist, I met him a couple of months ago in Egypt. He said at the press conference that "It has been two-and-a-half years since the revolution began and Egyptians have not yet achieved their dream of building a new republic that will provide them with democracy, justice and equality," "Millions have taken to the streets twice; once in January 2011 to topple Mubarak's regime, which was based on corruption and oppression… and a second time in June 2013, forcing Mohamed Morsi to step down after losing legitimacy as a result of the Brotherhood's attempts to monopolize political life and rebuild an oppressive system."

According to Al-Ahram, the aim is “to work for the redistribution of wealth, achieve social justice, combat the formation of an oppressive regime, achieve equality between citizens, set the path for transitional justice and adopt foreign policies that guarantee national independence.” Now if it does, that also guarantees US opposition to it. Is this possible? I don’t know. I hope it is. I think it’s…it looks like the best hope right now to save Egypt from what might become one of the darkest periods of its history under military rule. Thank you. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Noam Chomsky On Syria

Speaking from MIT, Boston, on the 12th July 2012.

Q:President Bashir al-Assad claims the USA are helping to destabilize Syria. Are they?

Chomsky: Take a look at what the US is doing. This goes for a year up to a kind of standing off. They claim that they can’t intervene because of the Russian veto. That has no credibility. If they wanted to intervene, they wouldn’t care what the Security Council says. I mean, evidence about that is just overwhelming. But I think they are using...they’re probably internally quite happy about the Russian veto because it is a pretext for not doing anything. So what they’re doing is giving some support to the rebel forces. They’re obviously giving some arms and other support to them but not enough to make much of a difference.

And I think the reason is--they don’t particularly like Assad, but they are even more worried about what might follow. I mean the fact that he’s a brutal dictator, that doesn’t get in anyone’s way. They’ve supported much more brutal dictators quite happily in the past. So you put rhetoric aside and take a look at the historical record and the circumstances in Syria and you can see that there’s that kind of dilemma.

Assad is not our favorite person but he’s been pretty much playing the western game, not perfectly but pretty well. But what follows him might be worse. Actually, that was the same with Gaddafi. The US and Britain were supporting Gaddafi pretty strongly, almost up to the day, the Arab Spring. Sometimes it was comical. You recall the LSE scandal. That was one example. There was another one right here down the street at Harvard. The Business School has a group called, I think, the Monitor Group, which offers advice and aid to other countries. One of their main clients was Gaddafi. They were organizing--they’re apparently the ones who wrote the thesis for Gaddafi’s son who got a degree at the LSE. You know, apparently they took care of that. But they were also bringing leading American intellectuals to Libya to meet with a great thinker in his tent and to discuss the Green book and so on.

There is a report by a London Times reporter, which I haven’ t seen anyone investigate. But I think it’s at least credible. Shortly before the bombing of Libya, the international tribunal dealing with Charles Taylor in Liberia, the prosecution rested its case. But according to this report--they had interviews with prosecutors, one of them is American law professor and one of them is British Barrister--they said they were quite unhappy to rest the case because what they wanted to do is to indict Gaddafi since he was responsible for arming and training the forces that carried out the atrocities. But they said they couldn’t do it because Britain and the United States threatened to defund the Tribunal if they did. When the American law professor was asked why, he said “Welcome to the world of oil.” That’s the answer. That was right before the bombing.

But he wasn't, again, not the favorite person for the US and Britain. He was more or less cooperative for these kind of mercurial, doing all kind of things they didn’t like. For example, he’d been the main funder of the African National Congress at the time when the US was supporting the apartheid regime and in fact condemning Mandela’s African National Congress and it was one of the more notorious terrorist groups in the world. So they didn’t want Gaddafi funding him. There are other things they didn’t like. So when an opportunity came, maybe to get something better, the imperial triumphant took up the opportunity.

You can debate whether it was a right thing to do or not but it was certainly, it was pretty isolated in the world. There were alternatives that could have at least been explored. But it’s the same---there’s nothing new about it. I mean that’s the history of imperialism as far back as you want to go.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Global Warming and The Common Good

Sometimes the attacks on education and the common good are very closely linked. There’s a current illustration which is pretty striking. Several--one of them is what’s called the Environmental Literacy Improvement Act, which is now being proposed to state legislatures by ALEC. That’s the American Legislative Exchange Council. It’s a corporate-funded lobby with tremendous wealth, that designs legislation to serve the needs of the corporate sector and the extreme wealth. It has been quite influential. Well, this particular act, which is just now being proposed, the Environmental Literacy Improvement Act, mandates what they call “balanced teaching,” of climate science in K-12 classrooms. “Balanced teaching,” as you probably know, is a code word that refers to teaching climate change denial. That’s to “balance” authentic climate science--that stuff you read in science journals and other serious publications. And legislation based on these ALEC models have [sic] already been introduced in several states will probably be instituted {inaudible} soon.

This ALEC legislation is based on a project of the Heartland Institute. That's a corporate-funded institute which is dedicated to rejection of the scientific consensus on what’s happening to the climate. The Institute has a project which calls for, in their words, “a global warming curriculum for K-12 classrooms.” And its aim (I’m quoting from it)  is “to teach that there is a major controversy over whether or not humans are changing the weather.” Of course all of this is dressed up in rhetoric about teaching critical thinking and all sorts of nice things. It’s very similar and parallel, in fact, to the current assault on teaching children about evolution and about science quite generally. All of that has to be balanced with raging controversies.

And there is indeed a controversy. On one side is the overwhelming majority of scientists, all of the worlds’ greatest national academies of sciences, the professional societies of science, the professional science journals, the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the general groupings of scientists that deals with this. They all agree that global warming is taking place, that there's a substantial human component, that the situation is serious and quite possibly dire, and that very soon, maybe within decades, the world might reach a kind of a tipping point when the process will escalate sharply and will be irreversible. The end of life as we know it, very severe affects on the possibility of decent human survival. Actually it’s very rare to find such overwhelming scientific consensus on complex scientific issues like this.

Now it’s true that it’s not unanimous. There is a controversy. And the media commonly reports, presents, a controversy between the overwhelming scientific consensus, the national institutes of science, the science journals and so on the one side, and on the other side, the skeptics. Actually, among the skeptics, there are a few quite respected scientists who caution that there’s a lot that is unknown--which is correct. The fact that there’s a lot that’s unknown means that things might not be as bad as the consensus claims or they might be a lot worse. That’s what it means to say that much is not known, but only the first alternative is ever brought up. And there’s something omitted from this contrived debate. There’s actually a much larger group of skeptics among scientists, highly regarded climate scientists who regard the regular reports of the IPCC as much too conservative. That includes, for example, the climate change study group at my own university, at MIT. They’ve repeatedly been proven correct over the years. The consensus apparently is too conservative. Things are much worse. But they’re scarcely part of the public debate at all, although they’re very prominent in the scientific literatures you can find if you read the science journals.

Well, the Heartland Institute and ALEC are part of a huge campaign by corporate lobbies. To sew doubt about the near unanimous consensus of scientists that human activities are having a major impact on global warming, with perhaps ominous consequences and not that far off. The campaign is not a secret. It’s openly announced, publicly announced, including the lobbying organizations of the fossil fuel industry, American Chamber of Commerce, the major business lobby and others. It’s had a certain effect on public opinion. So, public opinion in the United States is not quite as concerned about the dangers of what we are doing to the climate as in other comparable countries. But actually a careful study showed that public opinion remains much closer to the scientific consensus than policy is, which is an interesting fact. And that’s undoubtedly why major sectors of the corporate world are launching their attack on the educational system to try to counter the tendency of the public to pay attention to the conclusions of serious scientific research.

You probably heard that at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting, a few weeks ago, Governor Bobby Jindal warned the Republican leadership, as he put it, that, "We must stop being the stupid party... We must stop insulting the intelligence of voters." Actually, ALEC and its corporate backers have a different view. They want the country to be the stupid nation. And maybe, if it is, they’ll even join the stupid party that Jindal warned about.

The major scientific journals give a very clear sense of how surreal all of this is, how, what would it look like to observers, say, watching what’s going on on earth, in fact what it does look like in other countries. So, take Science magazine, the major science weekly, a journal of the American Association for the Advancement Science. A couple of weeks ago, it had three news items side by side. One of them reported that the year 2012 was the hottest year on record in the United States with all kind of harmful consequences all over the country—the drought, the hurricanes, all sorts of things. And, as it pointed out, this is continuing a long trend. The second news item reported a new study by the United States Global Climate Change Research Program, which provided some new evidence for rapid climate change as a result of human activities and also discussed likely severe impacts. The third news item reported the new appointments to chair the committees on science policy chosen by the House of Representatives where a minority of voters elected a large majority of Republicans, thanks to the shredding of the democratic system in recent years. In Pennsylvania, as you probably know, a considerable majority voted for Democrats for the House, but they won barely over a third of the House seats.

So, now we have the three science committees. All of the three chairs deny that humans contribute to climate change. Two of the three chairs deny that climate change is even taking place. And one of them, who denies everything, is also a long time advocate lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry. The same issue of the journal has a detailed technical article which provides new evidence that the irreversible tipping point may be ominously close. That’s a picture of what’s going on, in the context in which the ALEC effort is being introduced to ensure that we become a stupid nation.

For those who Adam Smith called “the masters of mankind,” it’s very important that we become a stupid nation in the interest of their short term profits. Damn the consequences. That’s the conception of the Common Good that they want to institute. These are essential properties of the reigning contemporary doctrines, sometimes called the market fundamentalist doctrines, inherent in these doctrines that you have to have these things going on.

ALEC and its corporate sponsors understand the importance of ensuring that public education train children to belong to the stupid nation and not to be misled by science and rationality. Well, what I mentioned is not the only case by far of pretty sharp diversions between public opinion and public policy. That’s important. It tells us a lot about the state of current American democracy and what it means for us and in fact for the world.

The corporate assault on education and independent thought, of which this incidentally is only one striking illustration, tells us a good deal more.

Let’s turn to policy. In climate policy, the US, which is the richest country in the world with enormous advantages, lags behind other countries. I’ll quote a current scientific review. “109 countries have enacted some form of policy regarding renewable power and 118 countries have set targets for renewable energy. In contrast, the United States has not adopted any consistent and stable set of policies at the national level to foster the use of renewable energy.”  It’s a current article. Or for that matter, has the US adopted other means that are pursued by countries that have national policies--that means virtually everyone.

Some things are being done, but sporadically and with no organized national commitment--which make some fairly ineffective. Now that’s not a slight problem for us, for your children, grandchildren, maybe not too far off, and for the world, in the light of the great predominance of American power. Indeed, it is declining. It has been for a long time as power is becoming more diversified internationally. But it’s still completely without challenge. It’s also worth mentioning that there are sectors of the world population that are really in the lead in trying to do something about these very dire consequences. It's throughout the world. It's the remnants of the indigenous populations. That’s true just about everywhere, whether they're tribal societies, first nations, aboriginals, whatever they are called.

They’re the leaders worldwide in trying to force some attention to these extremely grave matters. Actually, it’s the first time in human history that humans have been on the verge of destroying themselves, and not too far off. In the countries that have substantial indigenous populations, either majority or near majority, the countries themselves have taken very strong measures. Bolivia, which has an indigenous majority, and Ecuador, near majority, have legislation to preserve the rights of nature, as it's called. In Ecuador, which has substantial oil deposits, there are efforts by the government, under pressure from the indigenous population, to leave the oil in the ground. In fact, now their government is attempting to get some support from European Union, I don’t think they’re approaching the United States to subsidize them in leaving the oil underground so that it won’t destroy all of us. We’re doing the opposite, in fact, right here in Pennsylvania--get it to be used as quickly as possible so it can be as harmful as possible to future generations and to the world. The same is true with indigenous populations elsewhere. India is practically at war over it. Columbia, Australia, wherever you go, Canada--the indigenous populations is trying hard to save the human species while the educated, civilized sectors of the world are trying to destroy the human species.(…)

Question on Fracking

 Chomsky: …a very interesting topic, I think I mentioned that in Ecuador, where there’s a large indigenous population, they’ve … [the issue is] not to not be fracking ...  they have plenty of oil reserves. There are efforts by government not to use the oil and keep it underground because the understanding of the indigenous population is we’re better off if we don’t use it because every bit of it that we use, it harms us. It harms our children. It harms the world--and maybe severe harm. So one possibility is to take the stand of, say, the indigenous tribes in Ecuador and the same much around the world. The other is to take the stand on which, say, Obama and Romney completely agree: "Let's  get all of the oil, the hydrocarbons that are underground, huge quantities. Let's use them all as efficiently as possible. It'll give us a hundred years of energy independence. What’s the world going to look like in a hundred years? That's somebody else’s problem. What’s important is how much money I can make tomorrow." Incidentally, the oil independence issue is almost totally meaningless. I mean, if all of our oil came from, say, Saudi Arabia, we'd have no more dependence than we have today. You can easily see that. The US policies towards the Middle East, say, were exactly the same in the 1950s under Eisenhower, when we didn’t get any oil from the Middle East. In fact, we were the biggest oil exporter. And the US at that time, in the 1950s initiated a program to exhaust domestic oil in the interest of profits for Texas oil producers, so, to use domestic oil, Texas oil, instead of cheaper Saudi oil. Because Texas oil producers would make more profit and then we’d have big holes in the ground which we could fill in, later calling them “the strategic energy reserve.”

But the policies towards controlling the Middle East and controlling Middle East oil were the same. So, forget the energy independent issue. The real issue is “Do we want the consequences of extracting, as hydrocarbons, natural gas and oil to the maximum extent as possible. Well, you can figure out what the consequences are. So, take, say, fracking. I mean it has a lot of local affects. You know, I’m sure you all know about this. It harms water supplies--you know, toxic effects. It's very energy intensive. Natural gas is more efficient than oil, you know, less CO2, but it also releases methane, which is worse than CO2, and it's energy intensive to extract it. But there are other effects like the ... You know, the economic arguments are that fracking and shift to natural gas will give us a transition period in which we’ll have cheap energy which will enable us to transition to renewable energies. OK, so, therefore it's ....

A couple of problems with that. Namely it has the opposite effect. The main one: it has the opposite effect. If you have cheap hydrocarbons in a capitalist society, there’s going to be no incentive to develop renewables. So the more cheap hydrocarbons you have, the longer you put off the time until we begin to do what we got to do if we want to survive turn to renewables. And what is being done in other countries? I mentioned that out of 110 countries, the US is the only one that doesn’t have a national energy policy. If you look elsewhere, countries are doing various things, like in Ecuador. I told you what they were doing to try to keep the oil underground. In China, which is a huge polluter, but it's also by now in the lead internationally in solar energy. It’s producing most of the solar panels and advanced solar panels, the most high-tech, advanced, sophisticated solar panels. So so they’re ahead in the technology and they’re ahead in the scale. We’ve been falling behind. Germany and Denmark are pretty much switching to renewables. They're rich countries. So there are plenty of things that can be done. One of them is to try to maximize the damage, and to put off as long as possible the step towards trying to repair it, which may mean putting it off until it’s all over. That’s what the fracking is. And that’s the national consensus. From Obama to Romney, and everyone  in between. I think that’s pathological, frankly.

(Filmed at the East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, February 6, 2013) by Leigha Cohen Production