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Tag: Noam Chomsky

Entry: Noam Chomsky

Interesting to find an entry for Noam Chomsky in The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia. The brief mention  includes,  “He rose to even greater prominence for his lifelong pursuit of radical leftist ideas, some mainstream (he opposed the war in Vietnam and is a critic of Israeli policies)…”

Mainstream views on the Vietnam War were marked by the debate between the hawks and the doves. The position that opposed the war on principled grounds (U.S. aggression is wrong, Chomsky’s position) was not part of the debate among “respectable intellectuals.” Hence, not mainstream.

Further, Chomsky being a critic of Israel’s policies (a “radical leftist idea”?) and in the mainstream (?) makes me wonder exactly how many New York Times op-eds on Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians he got published from the 1970s to the 2000s.

I’d guess three, at most.

Hadji Murat and Noam Chomsky


“… when we came to the camp, Hamzat led the khan into the tent. And I stayed with the horses. I was at the foot of the hill when shooting began in Hamzat’s tent. I ran to the tent. Umma Khan lay face down in a pool of blood, and Abununtsal was fighting with the murids. Half his face had been cut off and hung down. He held it with one hand and held a dagger in the other, with which he cut down everyone who came near him. In front of me he cut down Hamzat’s brother and turned against another man, but here the murids starting shooting at him and he fell.”

Hadji Murat stopped, his tanned face turned reddish brown, and his eyes became bloodshot.

“Fear came over me, and I ran away.”

“Really?” said Loris-Melikov. “I thought you were never afraid of anything.”
“Never afterwards. Since then I always remembered that shame, and when I remembered it, I was no longer afraid of anything.”

–Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murat, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky


I remember when I was about six, first grade. There was the standard fat kid everybody made fun of. I remember in this schoolyard he was standing outside the school classroom and a bunch of kids outside were taunting him. One of them brought over his older brother from third grade, a big kid, and we thought he was going to beat him up. I remember going up to stand next to him feeling somebody ought to help him, and I did for a while, then I got scared and ran away. I was very much ashamed of it. I felt, I’ll never do that again. That’s a feeling that’s stuck with me: You should stick with the underdog. The shame remained. I should have stayed with him.

–Noam Chomsky, interview with David Barsamian, Chronicles of Dissent

Morality 101

See, I focus my efforts against the terror and violence of my own state for really two main reasons. First of all, in my case the actions of my state happen to make up the main component of international violence in the world. But much more importantly than that, it’s because American actions are the things that I can do something about. So even if the United States were causing only a tiny fraction of the repression and violence in the world–which obviously is very far from the truth–that tiny fraction would still be what I’m responsible for, and what I should focus my efforts against. And that’s based on a very simple ethical principle –namely, that the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated consequences for human beings: I think that’s kind of like a fundamental moral truism.

So, for example, it was a very easy thing in the 1980s for people in the United States to denounce the atrocities of the Soviet Union in its occupation of Afghanistan–but those denunciations had no effects which could have helped people. In terms of their ethical value, they were about the same as denouncing Napoleon’s atrocities, or things that happened in the Middle Ages. Useful and significant actions are ones which have consequences for human beings, and usually those will concern things that you can influence and control–which means for people in the United States, American actions primarily, not those of some other state.

Actually, the principle that I think we ought to follow is the principle we rightly expected Soviet dissidents to follow. So what principle did we expect Sakharov [a Soviet scientist punished for his criticism of the U.S.S.R.] to follow? Why did people here decide that Sakharov was a moral person? I think he was. Sakharov did not treat every atrocity as identical–he had nothing to say about American atrocities. When he was asked about them, he said, “I don’t know anything about them, I don’t care about them, what I talk about are Soviet atrocities.” And that was right-because those were the ones that he was responsible for, and that he might have been able to influence. Again, it’s a very simple ethical point: you are responsible for the predictable consequences of your actions, you’re not responsible for the predictable consequences of somebody else’s actions. Read the rest of this entry »

Marxism Is Dead; Long Live Marx

Marxism is a curious notion like Freudianism. These are, in my opinion, forms of organized religion, which treat individuals as gods, or maybe idols. In disciplines that have passed beyond the most primitive stage, there is (or should be) nothing comparable. There is no “Einsteinism” in physics for good reasons…Sane people will learn from [Marx] what they can, discarding what is wrong or irrelevant. The fact that Marxism, as a form of idolatry, has lost its appeal is all to the good…. In my opinion, “Marxism” (though not Marx’s work) should disappear everywhere, but not to be replaced by new dogma and secular religion; rather, by independent thought. Read the rest of this entry »

The Way It Looked Fifty Years Ago

“The war is simply an obscenity, a depraved act by weak and miserable men, including all of us, who have allowed it to go on and on with endless fury and destruction — all of us who would have remained silent had stability and order been secured.”

–Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins: Historical & Political Essays


Thinking for Oneself (and Then There’s the “More Sophisticated”)

The audience I try to reach, and to some limited extent do reach, is a different one: partly, activists of a less doctrinaire sort than the mainstream liberal intelligentsia and sectarian Marxists, partly the kind of general interested audience that one finds everywhere: around universities (primarily students), church groups, and so on.

I’m not trying to convert, but to inform. I don’t want people to believe me, any more than they should believe the party line I’m criticizing—academic authority, the media, the overt state propagandists, or whatever. In talks and in print, I try to stress what I think is true: that with a little willingness to explore and use one’s mind, it is possible to discover a good deal about the social and political world that is generally hidden. I feel that I’ve achieved something if people are encouraged to take up this challenge and learn for themselves.

There are a vast number of people who are uninformed and heavily propagandized, but fundamentally decent. The propaganda that inundates them is effective when unchallenged, but much of it goes only skin deep. If they can be brought to raise questions and apply their decent instincts and basic intelligence, many people quickly escape the confines of the doctrinal system and are willing to do something to help others who are really suffering and oppressed.

This is naturally less true of better-educated and “more sophisticated” (that is, more effectively indoctrinated) groups who are both the agents and often the most deluded victims of the propaganda system.

—Noam Chomsky,”The Manufacture of Consent,” 1983, Language and Politics, 389

Ale Vázquez

It Can Be So Appealing

Or let me tell you another story I heard about twenty years ago from a black civil rights activist who came up to study at Harvard Law School-it kind of illustrates some of the other pressures that are around. This guy gave a talk in which he described how the kids starting off at Harvard Law School come in with long hair and backpacks and social ideals, they’re all going to go into public service law to change the world and so on–that’s the first year. Around springtime, the recruiters come for the cushy summer jobs in the Wall Street law firms, and these students figure, “What the heck, I can put on a tie and a jacket and shave for one day, just because I need that money and why shouldn’t I have it?” So they put on the tie and the jacket for that one day, and they get the job, and then they go off for the summer and when they come back in the fall, it’s ties, and jackets, and obedience, a shift of ideology. Sometimes it takes two years.

Well, obviously he was over-drawing the point-but those sorts of factors also are very influential. I mean, I’ve felt it all my life: it’s extremely easy to be sucked into the dominant culture, it can be very appealing. There are alot of rewards. And what’s more, the people you meet don’t look like bad people–you don’t want to sit there and insult them. Maybe they’re perfectly nice people. So you try to be friends, maybe you even are friends. Well, you begin to conform, you begin to adapt, you begin to smooth off the harsher edges–and pretty soon it’s just happened, it kind of seeps in. And education at a place like Harvard is largely geared to that, to a remarkable extent in fact.

And there are many other subtle mechanisms which contribute to ideological control as well, of course-including just the fact that the universities support and encourage people to occupy themselves with irrelevant and innocuous work.

–Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power, p. 239

Hong Kong, Harvard Square; photo by Mev

The Essential Edward Said–Summer Class 2019

Edward Said was a voice of sanity and courage for literally millions of people around the world and made a brilliant contribution to modern culture and understanding. He was the most eloquent, knowledgeable, and thoughtful spokesperson for Palestinian emancipation. His death was a loss for international intellectual life, for the suffering and oppressed all over the world, and for universal principles of justice and freedom.
—Noam Chomsky

I began reading Edward Said’s political works in the early 1990s after traveling to the West Bank and Gaza during the first intifada. His writing was an invaluable resource for people questioning U.S. foreign policy with Iraq as well as Israel. Even in the early 1980s he was a lucid critic of U.S. political and cultural propaganda on Islam. His probing work on intellectuals and Palestine informed my first book, Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership, published in 2001. My 2015 novel Dear Layla Welcome to Palestine was an attempt to meet a challenge posed years earlier by Said: “The major task—I say this actually without any qualification whatever—the major task of the American or the Palestinian or the Israeli intellectual of the Left is to reveal the disparity between the so-called two sides, which appear rhetorically and ideologically to be in perfect balance but are not in fact. To reveal that there is an oppressed and an oppressor, a victim and a victimizer, and unless we recognize that, we’re nowhere.”

In this summer class we will make good use of the recently published book, The Selected Works of Edward Said, 1966-2006. We will read one or two essays for each session, discuss with each other the enduring relevance of Said’s perspectives, and reflect on their implications in our journals during class and throughout the week. Primary emphasis will be given to Said’s investigations of Middle East political and cultural issues. But we will also reflect on such topics as activism, the canon, contrapuntal reading, identity, music, remembrance, and solidarity.

Our class will meet weekly on Wednesdays beginning June 12 and finish on July 31. We begin at 6:30 p.m. and go until 8:00. Andrew Wimmer will host us at his home at 4400 Arco Avenue (park around 1077 Newstead) 63110.

Tuition is $175.00 payable to me by check or Paypal.

Email me if you are interested: markjchmiel@gmail.com.

What Rachel Corrie’s work in Gaza recognized, however, was precisely the gravity and the density of the living history of the Palestinian people as a national community, not merely as a collection of deprived refugees. That is what she was in solidarity with. And we need to remember that that kind of solidarity is no longer confined to a small number of intrepid souls here and there but is recognized the world over. In the past six months I have lectured on four continents to many thousands of people. What brings them together is Palestine and the struggle of the Palestinian people, which is now a byword for emancipation and enlightenment, regardless of all the vilification heaped on them by their enemies.
—Edward Said, 2003

“Speaking Truth to Power Makes No Sense”

Noam Chomsky, The Common Good  [1998]


I first read this collection of interviews between Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian twenty years ago. The interviews were from the second half of the nineties, the Clinton years when the UN/US sanctions on Iraq were decimating thousands of Iraqi children each month and people like Madeline Albright justified it.  The following are some passages  worth understanding…


Truth to Power:  “Speaking truth to power makes no sense.  There’s no point in speaking the truth to Henry Kissinger — he knows it already.  Instead, speak truth to the powerless — or, better, with the powerless.  Then they’ll act to dismantle illegitimate power.” 158 

Prophets:  “True prophets like Amos — ‘dissident intellectuals,’ in modern terminology — offered both elevated moral lessons, which the people in power weren’t fond of, and geopolitical analyses that usually turned out to be pretty accurate, which the people in power were even less fond of.  Naturally, the true prophets were despised, imprisoned, driven into the desert.  The public also hated the true prophets — they didn’t want to hear the truth either.  Not because they were bad people, but for all the usual reasons — short-term interest, manipulation, dependence on power.”  148

Looking for the Magic Answer:  “When I speak to elite audiences, I constantly get asked, What’s the solution.  If I say obvious things like Pick your cause and go volunteer for a group that’s working on it, that’s never the answer they want.   They  want some kind of magic key that will solve everything quickly, overwhelmingly and effectively.  There are no such solutions.  There are only the kind that people  are working on in Massachusetts towns, in self-governing villages in India, at the Jesuit Center in Colombia.” 152

Illusion of class harmony:  Like in the faculty departments, “we’re all in this together.”

Business Week Survey:  “95% of the people — there’s a number you almost never see in a poll — said corporations have a responsibility to reduce profit for the benefit of their workers and the communities they do business in.  70% thought businesses have too much power, and roughly the same number thought business has gained more by deregulation and similar measures than the general population has.”  61 Read the rest of this entry »

The Way It Looked in 1987

A huge amount of work obviously remains to be done, and as the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza enters its third decade one realizes that the magnitude of liberation required can only be accomplished by great and concerted effort. The thing to be remembered, however, is that nothing–and certainly not a colonial ‘fact’– is irreversible. There are greatly encouraging signs of a notable change of attitude in numerous Israelis, and some of their Jewish and non-Jewish Western supporters. The Palestinians have since 1974 premised their political work and organizing on the notion of joint community for Arabs and Jews in Palestine; as more Zionists see the wisdom of that option, as opposed to continued militarization and inconclusive war, there will have to be more joint political and scholarly work by like-minded people. This collection of essays is presented in advancement of that goal.

–Edward W. Said, New York, July 1987
Introduction to Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question, with essays by Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Christopher Hitchens, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, and others.