Monday, December 8, 2008

Chomsky interview 80th birthday

Question Period: Noam Chomsky on being censored, CHRC censorship, Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick and libertarianism

Noamchomsky_2 Yesterday was Noam Chomsky's 80th birthday.

While Chomsky is an internationally recognized intellectual, he is surprisingly accessible and generous with this time.

In fact, I've had several exchanges with Chomsky over the years. Mostly, they were questions about the philosophy of language, Chomsky's primary academic discipline. But Chomsky's career has gone from that of a quiet academic working out the origins of language in children, to one of the world's most recognized public intellectuals. And his status isn't a result of his linguistics -- instead, Chomsky is recognized for his views on U.S. foreign policy.

The Western Standard has published Chomsky's thoughts on the recent U.S. election here. We also ran with an excerpt from the following longer conversation on Canada's Human Rights Commission and section 13(1). Chomsky, like us, thinks the CHRC is a disastrous form of censorship.

The following email conversation started in late October, and has continued on since. I'm still curious to hear his more philosophical objections to libertarianism. The ones he offers below are more objections to the particular persons who endorsed the philosophy, rather than the philosophy itself. I suppose it might be important whether or not some political philosopher or economist is a decent person, but it really doesn't shed light on whether or not we should endorse or reject an argument of theirs. Even indecent and despicable people say things that are true, and make arguments that are sound or plausible.

At any rate, and for what it's worth, here is the conversation between myself and Chomsky (some of my questions have been edited for clarity, and to cut out irrelevant bits about prior conversations):

Peter Jaworski: Have you seen this?

Here's an excerpt:

South Korea's Defence Ministry, which maintains a force of about 670,000 troops to fend off an invasion from the communist North, also feels threatened by the likes of American linguist Noam Chomsky.

The ministry said Friday it may punish some officers for harming "the military's mental power" by trying to bring books it considers too leftist onto its bases.

The ministry earlier this year banned 23 books from the country's military facilities include two volumes by Chomsky and the best seller "Bad Samaritans" by a Korean professor at Cambridge University, Chang Ha-joon.

What do you think of the military banning your books like this?

How often do your books get banned?

Noam Chomsky: I was rather pleased to be in the company of Ha-Joon Chang, a fine economic historian.

I don't expect much of the military, anywhere. Though I was pleased when I gave a talk at West Point a couple of years ago, and cadets and officers came up afterwards to have books of mine signed, which they'd picked up at the post bookstore, including one that had just come out. Very good experience all around. More thoughtful and open-minded than most academic departments.

The most extreme banning of a book I've ever experienced -- or for that matter heard of -- was in the US. The first book that Edward Herman (economist at the U Penn business school, Wharton) and I wrote together was published in the early 70s by a small but flourishing textbook publisher. It was called Counterrevolutionary Violence. They printed 20,000 copies, and started publishing ads. One of the ads was seen by an executive at the conglomerate that owned the publisher, Warner publications, now part of Time-Warner-AOL. He didn't like it, asked to see the book, and when he saw it, went berserk. He ordered the publisher to withdraw it, and when they refused, he closed the publisher down, destroying all their stock.

I brought the matter to the attention of civil libertarians, but they didn't see any problem. Ideological fanaticism in the US considers only government interference with freedom of speech to be illegitimate. Private tyrannies can do what they want. Warner also tried to prevent us from publishing it elsewhere, claiming copyright, etc. It was a bit of a legal hassle, but their claim was so absurd that we finally just went ahead and published a much extended version (Political Economy of Human Rights).

In the West, books are rarely banned outright, but they are commonly under an informal ban by the intellectual establishment, which is highly effective. And in Europe, there are severe restrictions on what you can write. If a book or article is published in England, it has to be vetted by lawyers to make sure that no problem is posed by England's utterly disgraceful libel laws, which are a severe infringement of freedom of speech. France is much worse. French intellectuals hardly even have a concept of freedom of speech, and material is often banned. I know of a case in Sweden where a book was withdrawn by the one major left publisher because it challenged doctrines of fundamentalist religion among European intellectuals about their nobility in bombing Serbia. In the third world there are plenty of cases of books banned, or material expunged in translations. If I'm asked (I'm often not), I refuse to allow the translation in that case, though I understand and often sympathize with the publishers.

PJ: Speaking of censorship, what do make of the Canadian Human Rights Commission and section 13(1) in particular? Here's that section:

13. (1) It is a discriminatory practice for a person or a group of persons acting in concert to communicate telephonically or to cause to be so communicated, repeatedly, in whole or in part by means of the facilities of a telecommunication undertaking within the legislative authority of Parliament, any matter that is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt by reason of the fact that person or those persons are identifiable on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination.

I wonder if you have any thoughts on this particular section.

NC: I think it's outrageous, like the comparable European laws. It's also pure hypocrisy. If it were applied the media and journals would be shut down. They don't expose current enemies of the state to hatred or contempt?

PJ: About Canada's human rights act, you wrote: "I think it's outrageous, like the comparable European laws. It's also pure hypocrisy. If it were applied the media and journals would be shut down. They don't expose current enemies of the state to hatred or contempt?"

That last part may not be applicable in this case.

The law is specific about what groups cannot be exposed to hatred or contempt. Under the CHRA, you can't expose a person to hatred or contempt on the basis of their race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, physical or mental disability, pardoned criminal conviction (

Maybe you could offer a bit of clarification about what you mean by "They don't expose current enemies of the state to hatred or contempt?"

NC: The provision of law that you sent me referred to "persons," not just a person. Hence groups. I think that was the legal basis for barring Rushdie's Satanic Verses briefly, until it was overturned. There are also other mechanisms, like the devious argument used to ban Zundel on grounds of incitement of race hatred that made him a security threat.

The media and journals are constantly exposing Arabs to hatred and contempt. And that's been consistent practice for years with regard to enemies of the state.

I'll look up the NP story when I have a moment. I'm more familiar with Britain, where the primary technique for silencing unwanted opinion, even putting a small newspaper out of business, is the disgraceful libel laws. If a book or article appears in the US, and then is going to be republished in England, it's necessary to get a battery of lawyers to review it to see if anything might be actionable. Some of the things they demand be removed are remarkable. I recall being asked to cut out a sentence saying that Henry Kissinger is guilty of war crimes, which is about as controversial as saying that grass is green.

PJ: Pushing aside the Canadian Human Rights discussion for a moment, I was curious why you call yourself a "libertarian"?

I call myself that, too. Except when I use it, I mean to say that I believe in private property rights, in a free and open market, and in ridiculously small government (sometimes I like to think that getting rid of the state entirely would do all of us a lot of good).

But I don't ever get the sense that you have sympathy for Friedrich Hayek, Robert Nozick, Milton Friedman or Ayn Rand.

There's two parts to this question. For one, I'm curious just what you mean when you call yourself a libertarian and, for two, I'm curious why you continue to use the label, even though most people now associate it with the Nozick/Rand/Hayek type of political philosophy? (I don't call myself a "liberal," although I would prefer to, because it doesn't mean what it used to in Canada and the U.S.)

NC: Actually I don't think I've ever called myself a "libertarian," because the term is too ambiguous. I do often call myself a "libertarian socialist," however.

The term "libertarian" has an idiosyncratic usage in the US and Canada, reflecting, I suppose, the unusual power of business in these societies. In the European tradition, "libertarian socialism" ("socialisme libertaire") was the anti-state branch of the socialist movement: anarchism (in the European, not the US sense).

I use the term in the traditional sense, not the US sense.

I strongly dislike the figures you mention. Rand in my view is one of the most evil figures of modern intellectual history. Friedman was an important economist. I'll leave it at that.

Nozick, who I knew, was a clever philosopher. He did call himself a libertarian but it was fraud. He was a Stalinist-style supporter of Israeli power and violence. People who knew him used to joke that he believed in a two-state solution: Israel, and the US government because it had to support Israeli actions.

Hayek was the kind of "libertarian" who was quite tolerant of such free societies as Pinochet's Chile, one of the most grotesque of the National Security States instituted with US backing or direct initiative during the hideous plague of terror and violence that spread over the hemisphere from the 60s through the 80s. He even sank to the level of arranging a meeting of his Mont Pelerin society there during the most vicious days of the dictatorship.

Quite apart from practice, I don't suggest that they understood it, but in their "libertarian" writings these figures were in fact supporting some of the worst kinds of tyranny that can be imagined: namely private tyranny, in principle out of public control. Traditional European libertarian socialism addressed this issue. I often found myself agreeing with US-style libertarians -- not those you mention, but many in the Cato Institute, for example; in fact I could only publish in a journal of theirs for years. But we had fundamental differences, specifically, about the nature of freedom.

I'm not trying to convince you. Merely to respond to your question, and explain why I'm comfortable with the terms I use, "libertarian socialism" -- which to US (and I suppose many Canadian) ears sounds like an oxymoron.

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posted by u2r2h at 4:18 PM


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