I was lucky enough to snag a ticket to see Noam Chomsky speak yesterday at Columbia University's Miller Theatre. The tickets were sold out over a week ago, and it was only by persistently haggling the event's organizer that I was able to secure a spot. It was well worth the effort, as Chomsky was nothing short of brilliant. The event was dedicated to the late Edward Said, a tireless anti-imperialist and fighter for Palestinian justice, and a close friend of Chomsky's.
Chomsky's talk was titled "After the War", but he opened up by issuing some caution when thinking about the current period as a distinctly new stage. He introduced a key term that he would come back to repeatedly over the course of the presentation: the "Doctrine of the Change of Course". This is a doctrine accepted by the government, media, and intellectual elite that it is necessary to "shift course" every few years and embark on a new stage where the lies and corruption of the recent past are given no bearing, or just simply forgotten. Intellectuals operate as if past support for repressive policies and regimes never existed; the recent lies and manipulation of the government to justify its present actions vanish from the public discourse in short time. The doctrine is thus a very effective device for those with power, perpetually reformulating the parameters of public discussion in order to erase their outrageous actions from it. While all this is obvious to most Leftists, it must be remember that Chomsky was addressing a crowd of Columbia students, many whom will become the public intellectuals of the future who could be susceptible to the "Change of Course" doctrine.
The implementation of this doctrine is clearly seen today. The stated purpose for going to war with Iraq was (1) to rid Saddam Hussein of WMDs, and (2) to squash his relations with terrorism. Now that these justifications have been exposed as utterly hollow, the mainstream discourse has shifted to the new project of democratizing Iraq, the invasion being justified in order to bring the Iraqis their freedom. Whereas before the administration stressed the need to invade Iraq for reasons of "anticipatory self defense"-to defend the US from Iraq's WMDs-this justification has vanished. The US now declares its right to defend its sovereignty against any nation it senses has the ability and intent to develop WMDs that could be used against the US at some point in the future. Obviously this applies to each and everyone. Yet, the media has not been quick to criticize this slick change of course, nor expose the specious reasoning behind it, instead faithfully ride along with the current Change of Course.
The bulk of Chomsky's presentation dealt with exposing and dismantling the democratic rhetoric the United States uses to pump up its imperial moves. There have been some very revealing polls that have recently been taken by the occupying forces. Mostly reported in the New York Times, they tell us that:
They view Jacque Chirac, French Prime Minister and opponent of the war, as the most decent international political figure.
In presenting the latter poll result, the New York Times writer (whose article contained the information) sneered a "Go figure". As Chomsky humorously pointed out, the supporters of the establishment can't even comprehend the fact that Iraqis don't want a foreign power coming in to occupy their country. It seems the cloak of democracy that the elite wraps themselves in so tightly has crept up to their eyes and blindfolded them to some basic realities. The democratic aspirations of others are simply incomprehensible to them. It also seems that the Iraqis don't abide by the Change of Course Doctrine. Over a decade of bombings and sanctions are too fresh in their minds, and a half century of democracy-thwarting US intervention has etched a permanent scar on their collective memory.
But no need to fret, said Chomsky. The US can be confident in knowing that some Iraqis still believe the US invaded for purposes of establishing a democracy. With his typical caustic wit, he admitted: "one percent of Iraqis believe this". Another four percent believe the US invaded in order to help. With these numbers, who can argue with the guardians of democracy and freedom?
However, Chomsky quoted that about half of Iraqis believe the US will end up establishing a democracy-one which they have supreme influence and control over. A US approved democracy, in turn, means a democracy that operates within the strictest of parameters, religiously follows neoliberal prescriptions, and is led by domestic collaborators who never dare to step out of line. Just like the British, who during World War I fell upon the strategy of promoting "Arab facades" to rule their colonial sphere of influence, so does the US desire a "democratic fašade". There is nothing surprising in this. It is in the interest of the US, just as it is with every imperial power, to give the ruled the illusion that they run their society. Domination is much easier if it is hidden, if the sources of power elude us without close scrutiny, if forms of thought control and manipulation can decrease the need for naked force. Indeed, many of the so-called democracies of the world mirror this description, including the United States itself. The remarkable thing (though maybe not so unexpected) is that the US has failed so miserably in implementing this scenario in Iraq.
Always disparaging of the intellectuals who slavishly serve the ruling elite, cranking out ideological cover for their actions which couldn't be justified otherwise, Chomsky took a shot at Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff, a darling of the Liberal mainstream and a main supporter of the invasion of Iraq. Hilariously, Chomsky quoted Ignatieff describing the ultra-hawk Richard Perle: "His heart bleeds for the oppressed of Iraq". Amidst the uncontrollable fit of laughter that erupted from the crowd, Chomsky told how Ignatieff described the invasion of Iraq as the purest, most idealistic foreign mission taken in recent times.
If there's one thing about Chomsky, he bleeds integrity standing next to intellectuals like Ignatieff who spew the most vile of falsifications. Chomsky's uncompromising stand against US power and imperialism over the decades, resulting in mainstream marginalization for the most important intellectual of our times, is all too admirable.
Chomsky obliterated Ignatieff's idealization of Richard Perle in typical fashion. Surely Perle's heart was also bleeding for the Indonesian masses when he supported the vicious regime of Suharto, the US supported dictator who murdered hundreds of thousands and crushed opposition. Perle was an overtly staunch supporter of Suharto up until the latter was overthrown in 1997 (Perle's heart also bled for the Congloese, illustrated by his support for the brutal dictator Joseph Mobutu).
We really see the pure, democratic idealism of Perle when it comes to Turkey. Shortly after the Turkish government refused to give military aid to the invasion, Perle lashed out at the Turkish military for not intervening to reverse this democratic decision that happened to reflect the sentiment of 95% of the population. Turkey was not alone in receiving this admonishment. We were informed of the irrelevancy of "old Europe" (specifically France and Germany) who also refused to support the invasion. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of their populations were staunchly against the war-when it comes to democracy, you're either with us or against us. More laughable was the praise that the US had for countries like England, Spain, Italy, and Portugal, who all joined the "Coalition of the Willing". The fact that the people of these countries came out in the millions to oppose the war, symbolic of national sentiment, is as irrelevant as Old Europe.
The truly deplorable thing about all this, says Chomsky, is that the US postures as the world defender of democracy while simultaneously showing a disgusting contempt for the democratic sentiment of other countries, be it Italy or France, Turkey or Iraq. While this is nothing new for most of us, the hypocrisy around the invasion was particularly blatant and visible. What it really means is that "democracy" means US democracy, which means the agenda that the US ruling elite is pursuing. Anyone who opposes US democracy-in other words, the orders of the US-is in the camp of those who wish to destroy democracy. All aspirations and decisions of ordinary people throughout the world are simply not relevant.
(For more on this, check out Chomsky's article "The Iraq War and Contempt for Democracy" at: http://www.counterpunch.org/chomsky11142003.html)
After the presentation we were able to have a discussion period with Noam which, however brief, was a real joy. Questions mainly dealt with how we in the US should go about attempting to change a country where the mass media is so dominant and the populace so complacent. Chomsky replied by comparing the circumstances we face with those that other, more repressive countries do (he specifically used the examples of Brazil, Columbia, and Turkey). In these countries, with much stronger propaganda mechanisms and the very real threat of repression, people were able to form genuine movements based in the grassroots through decades of hard work. The circumstances that we operate in are incredibly free and easy compared to these examples.
While this way of understanding things may seem naive, it also has a certain irresistible quality to it. Progressives will come out to a large demonstration like we saw on February 15th, but demonstrations, for the most part, don't change things. The formation of a real mass movement with a social base that can effect fundamental change is not something that arises from a large protest or results from occupying a building. It is a product of years, perhaps decades, of determined, patient effort by ordinary people to build a genuine grassroots force, inch by inch. The media may be a nuisance, but that is to be expected, and thus a barrier we must try to get around. But if we in the US are not willing to do what is necessary to build this type of movement in a society as free as ours, in the last analysis who else do we have to blame but ourselves? The implications of this question should resonate with all young people who are serious about changing the world.
As the event came to a close, a youth in the audience-presumably a member of a sectarian organization-felt the need to scream out that Chomsky didn't talk about the working class. Noam replied, quite passionately for him, that when we have all this discussion about eliminating corporations and corporate rule and establishing a real democracy, we are necessarily talking about the working class.
With that, there was the last round of applause, and Chomsky began to exit the stage. A bearded guy in the corner started to yell something. Noam stopped to listen, and the crowd quieted down. He said that he wanted to start an alternative news cable show here in Manhattan, and asked for anyone interested. With that, Noam got a big smile on his face, swung his fist up in the air, and exclaimed "Yeah!"
Derek Seidman, 23, is a co-editor of Left Hook (www.lefthook.org) and currently lives in New York City. He can be reached at email@example.com.