Noam Chomsky: Truth to power

Political theorist Noam Chomsky is one of the world's most controversial thinkers. Ahead of his trip to Tokyo next month, we catch up with the U.S. activist to get his views on recent geopolitical moves in the region

by David Mcneill

Special To The Japan Times

Often dubbed one of the world’s most important intellectuals and its leading public dissident, Noam Chomsky was for years among the top 10 most quoted academics on the planet, edged out only by William Shakespeare, Karl Marx, Aristotle.

An unrelenting critic of U.S. foreign policy since the 1960s, much of his intellectual life has been spent stripping away what he calls America’s “flattering self-image” and the layers of self-justification and propaganda he says it uses to mask its naked pursuit of power and profit around the world.

Now aged 85, Chomsky is still in demand across the world as a public speaker. He maintains a punishing work schedule that requires him to write, lecture and personally answer thousands of emails that flood into his account every week. He is professor emeritus of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, where he has been based for nearly 60 years.

Chomsky will make a rare trip to Tokyo in March, where he is scheduled to give two lectures at Sophia University. Among the themes he will discuss are conceptions of the common good, one deriving from classical liberalism, the other from neoliberal globalization that he predicts will lead to disaster very soon if not radically modified.

“That gives the answer to the question posed in the title of the talk: ‘Capitalist Democracy and the Prospects for Survival,’ ” he says. “The quick answer is ‘dim.’ ”

Tell us about your connections to Japan.

I’ve been interested in Japan since the 1930s, when I read about Japan’s vicious crimes in Manchuria and China. In the early 1940s, as a young teenager, I was utterly appalled by the racist and jingoist hysteria of the anti-Japanese propaganda. The Germans were evil, but treated with some respect: They were, after all, blond Aryan types, just like our imaginary self-image. Japanese were mere vermin, to be crushed like ants. Enough was reported about the firebombing of cities in Japan to recognize that major war crimes were underway, worse in many ways than the atom bombs.

I heard a story once that you were so appalled by the bombing of Hiroshima and the reaction of Americans that you had to go off and mourn alone . . .

Yes. On Aug. 6, 1945, I was at a summer camp for children when the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was announced over the public address system. Everyone listened, and then at once went on to their next activity: baseball, swimming, et cetera. Not a comment. I was practically speechless with shock, both at the horrifying events and at the null reaction. So what? More Japs incinerated. And since we have the bomb and no one else does, great; we can rule the world and everyone will be happy.

I followed the postwar settlement with considerable disgust as well. I didn’t know then what I do now, of course, but enough information was available to undermine the patriotic fairy tale.

My first trip to Japan was with my wife and children 50 years ago. It was linguistics, purely, though on my own I met with people from Beheiren (Citizen’s League for Peace in Vietnam). I’ve returned a number of times since, always to study linguistics. I was quite struck by the fact that Japan is the only country I visited — and there were many — where talks and interviews focused solely on linguistics and related matters, even while the world was burning.

You arrive in Japan at a possibly defining moment: the government is preparing to launch a major challenge to the nation’s six-decade pacifist stance, arguing that it must be “more flexible” in responding to external threats; relations with China and Korea have turned toxic; and there is even talk of war. Should we be concerned?

We should most definitely be concerned. Instead of abandoning its pacifist stance, Japan should take pride in it as an inspiring model for the world, and should take the lead in upholding the goals of the United Nations “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” The challenges in the region are real, but what is needed is steps toward political accommodation and establishing peaceful relations, not a return to policies that proved disastrous not so long ago.

How in concrete terms, though, can political accommodation be achieved? The historical precedents for the kind of situation we face in Asia — competing nationalisms; a rising undemocratic power with opaque military spending and something to prove in tandem with a declining power, increasingly fearful about what this means — are not good.

There is a real issue, but I think the question should be formulated a bit differently. Chinese military spending is carefully monitored by the United States. It is indeed growing, but it is a small fraction of U.S. expenditures, which are amplified by U.S. allies (China has none). China is indeed seeking to break out of the arc of containment in the Pacific that limits its control over the waters essential to its commerce and open access to the Pacific. That does set up possible conflicts, partly with regional powers that have their own interests, but mainly with the U.S., which of course would never even consider anything remotely comparable for itself and, furthermore, insists upon global control.

Although the U.S. is a “declining power,” and has been since the late 1940s, it still has no remote competitor as a hegemonic power. Its military spending virtually matches the rest of the world combined, and it is far more technologically advanced. No other country could dream of having a network of hundreds of military bases all over the world, nor of carrying out the world’s most expansive campaign of terror — and that is exactly what (President Barack) Obama’s drone assassination campaign is. And the U.S., of course, has a brutal record of aggression and subversion.

These are the essential conditions within which political accommodation should be sought. In concrete terms, China’s interests should be recognized along with those of others in the region. But there is no justification for accepting the domination of a global hegemon.

One of the perceived problems with Japan’s “pacifist” Constitution is that it is so at odds with the facts. Japan operates under the U.S. nuclear umbrella and is host to dozens of bases and thousands of American soldiers. Is that an embodiment of the pacifist ideals of Article 9?

Insofar as Japan’s behavior is inconsistent with the legitimate constitutional ideals, the behavior should be changed — not the ideals.

Are you following the political return of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe? His critics call him an ultranationalist. Supporters say he is merely trying to update Japan’s three outdated charters — education, the 1947 pacifist Constitution and the security treaty with Washington — all products of the U.S. postwar occupation. What’s your view?

It makes sense for Japan to pursue a more independent role in the world, following Latin America and others in freeing itself from U.S. domination. But it should do so in a manner that is virtually the opposite of Abe’s ultranationalism, a term that seems to me accurate. The pacifist Constitution, in particular, is one legacy of the occupation that should be vigorously defended.

What do you make of comparisons between the rise of Nazi Germany and China? We hear such comparisons frequently from nationalists in Japan, and also recently from Benigno Aquino, the Philippine president. China’s rise is often cited as a reason for Japan to stop pulling in its horns.

China is a rising power, casting off its “century of humiliation” in a bid to become a force in regional and world affairs. As always, there are negative and sometimes threatening aspects to such a development. But a comparison to Nazi Germany is absurd. We might note that in an international poll released at the end of 2013 on the question which country is “the greatest threat to world peace,” the U.S. was ranked far higher than any other, receiving four times the votes of China. There are quite solid reasons for this judgment, some mentioned earlier. Nevertheless, to compare the U.S. to Nazi Germany would be completely absurd, and a fortiori that holds for China’s far lesser resort to violence, subversion and other forms of intervention.

The comparison between China and Nazi Germany really is hysteria. I wonder whether Japanese readers have even the slightest idea of what the U.S. is doing throughout the world, and has been since it took over Britain’s role of global dominance — and greatly expanded it — after World War II.

Some see the possible emergence of an Asian regionalism building on the dynamic of intertwined trade centered on China, Japan and South Korea but extending throughout Asia. Under what conditions could such an approach trump both U.S. hegemony and nationalism?

It is not just possible, it already exists. China’s recent growth spurt is based very heavily on advanced parts, components, design and other high-tech contributions from the surrounding industrial powers. And the rest of Asia is becoming linked to this system, too. The U.S. is a crucial part of the system — Western Europe, too. The U.S. exports production, including high technology, to China, and imports finished goods, all on an enormous scale. The value added in China remains small, although it will increase as China moves up the technology ladder. These developments, if handled properly, can contribute to the general political accommodation that is imperative if serious conflict is to be avoided.

The recent tension over the Senkaku Islands has raised the threat of military conflict between China and Japan. Most commenters still think war is unlikely, given the enormous consequences and the deep finance and trade links that bind the two economies together. What’s your view?

The confrontations taking place are extremely hazardous. The same is true of China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone in a contested region, and Washington’s immediate violation of it. History has certainly taught us that playing with fire is not a wise course, particularly for states with an awesome capacity to destroy. Small incidents can rapidly escalate, overwhelming economic links.

What’s the U.S. role in all this? It seems clear that Washington does not want to be pulled into a conflict with Beijing. We also understand that the Obama administration is upset at Abe’s views on history, and his visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the linchpin of historical revisionism in Japan. However we can hardly call the U.S. an honest broker . . .

Hardly. The U.S. is surrounding China with military bases, not conversely. U.S. strategic analysts describe a “classic security dilemma” in the region, as the U.S. and China each perceive the other’s stance as a threat to their basic interests. The issue is control of the seas off China’s coasts, not the Caribbean or the waters off California. For the U.S., global control is a “vital interest.”

We might also recall the fate of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama when he followed the will of the large majority of Okinawans, defying Washington. As The New York Times reported, “Apologizing for failing to fulfill a prominent campaign promise, Hatoyama told outraged residents of Okinawa on Sunday that he has decided to relocate an American air base to the north side of the island as originally agreed upon with the United States.” His “capitulation,” as it was correctly described, resulted from strong U.S. pressure.

China is now embroiled in territorial conflicts with Japan and the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea as well as the air defense identification zone on its contested borders. In all of these cases, the U.S. is directly or indirectly involved. Should these be understood as cases of Chinese expansionism?

China is seeking to expand its regional influence, which conflicts with the traditional U.S. demand to be recognized as the global hegemon, and conflicts as well with local interests of regional powers. The phrase “Chinese expansionism” is accurate, but rather misleading, in the light of overwhelming U.S. global dominance.

It is useful to think back to the early post-World War II period. U.S. global planning took for granted that Asia would be under U.S. control. China’s independence was a serious blow to these intentions. In U.S. discourse, it is called “the loss of China,” and the issue of who was responsible for “the loss of China” became a major domestic issue, including the rise of McCarthyism. The terminology itself is revealing. I can lose my wallet, but I cannot lose yours. The tacit assumption of U.S. discourse is that China was ours by right. One should be cautious about using the phrase “expansionism” without due attention to this hegemonic conception and its ugly history.

On Okinawa, the scene seems set for a major confrontation between the mainland and prefectural governments, which support the construction of a new U.S. military base in Henoko, and the local population, which last month overwhelmingly re-elected an anti-base mayor. Do you have any thoughts on how this will play out?

One can only admire the courage of the people of Nago city and Mayor Inamine Susumu in rejecting the deplorable efforts of the Abe government to coerce them into accepting a military base to which the population was overwhelmingly opposed. And it was no less disgraceful that the central government instantly overrode their democratic decision. What the outcome will be, I cannot predict. It will, however, have considerable import for the fate of democracy and the prospects for peace.

The Abe government is trying to rekindle nuclear power and restart Japan’s idling reactors. Supporters say the cost of keeping those reactors offline is a massive increase in energy costs and use of fossil fuels. Opponents say it is too dangerous . . .

The general question of nuclear power is not a simple one. It is hardly necessary to stress how dangerous it is after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which has far from ended. Continued use of fossil fuels threatens global disaster, and not in the distant future. The sensible course would be to move as quickly as possible to sustainable energy sources, as Germany is now doing. The alternatives are too disastrous to contemplate.

You’ll have followed the work of committed environmentalists such as James Lovelock and George Monbiot, who say nuclear power is the only way to save the planet from cooking. In the short term, that analysis seems to have some merit: One of the immediate consequences of Japan’s nuclear disaster has been a massive expansion in imports of coal, gas and oil. They say there is no way for us to produce enough renewables in time to stop runaway climate change.

As I said, there is some merit in these views. More accurately, there would be if limited and short-term reliance on nuclear energy, with all of its extreme hazards and unsolved problems — like waste disposal — was taken as an opportunity for rapid and extensive development of sustainable energy. That should be the highest priority, and very quickly, because severe threats of environmental catastrophe are not remote.

Chomsky at Sophia University (Tokyo)

  •  “The Architecture of Language Reconsidered,” 3:30 p.m., Weds., March 5
  •  “Capitalist Democracy and the Prospects for Survival,” 3:30 p.m., Thurs., March 6 (fully booked)

  • A political conservative with really very little intellectual insight. He will leave behind a legacy of damaged journalists and political commentators. What is radical about him? That he hates the US and drones? Your reasonable questions went unanswered. That’s because he has no answers. He was popular because he was an academic who was ‘anti-American’. Scarcely did his ideas have influence beyond that.

    • ChinaMarine


      “He was popular because he was an academic who was ‘anti-American’. Scarcely did his ideas have influence beyond that.”

      His ideas remind me of the time I met Jake as a company I worked at in Tokyo… A 29 year old at that time, his first time out of the house, away from home, he didn’t know much, but he knew that he loved “Noam Chomsk,” and Hated America…

      Funny thing is, he had never left his home town until 28 years old, but he could quote Norm Chomski, like he knew the back of his hand.

      I guess I shouldn’t be surprised but I am, old Norm has his head so far up this Japan Times reporter’s ars, I surprised he can even breath.

    • Clyde Gaw

      Chomsky’s refutation of radical behaviorism as accepted educational dogma for the development of language in 1957 places him in rare intellectual company. Who else has offered such an accurate critique of the American corporate mass media propaganda machine?

  • PK Krupinski

    The answer is in the article in the last sentence and the most accurate. I believe that Japan is a country with a powerful innovative industrial facilities that may face the challenge of going the way of innovation. It can solve the problem with the energy (and not only) because it won’t need to look for fossil fuels, return to them might kill us all.

    Always the eyes of the world look at the countries that excel and are placed as a role model.

    I was lucky to live once in Japan and I believe that this country and people will be the model for the world to generate energy in an environmentally friendly way.

    We should leave the history to learn the humility lesson only.

  • Jason Wardle

    Oh and he’s far from conservative, he’s a social liberatarian.

    • ‘Social libertarian’ is a contradiction in terms. He supports constitutionalism…makes him a conservative.

      • Linuxgentleman

        He supports constitutionalism…makes him a conservative.

        You have fallen into the trap of thinking that one belief = a reliable predictor of ‘everything else a person therefore believes’.

        He also supports ownership of the means of production by those who do the work. That makes him a Marxist.
        He supports a socialist model of society. Oh, so he’s a socialist then.

        Thus far we have three beliefs, all contradictory by your labeling system.
        Your labeling system is flawed.

      • Yes, conservative by default. Constitutionalism is a pretty fundamentalism conception. Its akin to a belief in god, its hardly an incidental belief, and its held for a reason. Your suggesting that Marxists can’t be conservative? Yes, he’s also a statist. Incidentally, conservatives are destined to be statists. That’s why I say he’s not a libertarian. But by default many libertarians are conservatives, and destined to be statists, or wake up to themselves. Think again.

      • Jason Wardle

        Wake up to themselves lol. Conservatism is the most radically ideological statist thinking there is. It is akin to blind faith, that is why the religious right are so powerful in the u.s. And mock all reason. Chomsky himself says democracy libertarianism etc are whatever they want them to mean. Actually no he’s not constitutionalist, he’s pointed out several times the constitution is ignored and reinterpreted regularly, and was written by and for the bourgeoisie. He is anti statist, and is his major criticism of hitchens and the right. Social libertarians and Marxist are anti state, the same as anarchists. Just because he criticizes the u.s does not mean he supports the ussr model. Both were statist capitalist, one public an done private, neither were freetrade or socialist. Marxists and anarchist,y believe in workers owning the produce and democratic decision making, not the representative republics we have. So wake ep to yourself,the right are in a delusion. But hey some slaves fought for their masters too.

      • Social libertarians leads to statism; irrespective of whether he knows it. You might have had too much coffee. Criticising Chomsky doesn’t make me a conservative. lol

  • iwishitweretrue

    Great article with great insight. People forget that the US is a world hegemon just as the NSA secretly hoovers up the internet, and people need to question the US’s automatic right to anything. Rights have to be earned – and the US has to earn them just like anyone elese. Japan’s strength is in its pacisfism – and Japan does need to look to how the Latin American states freed themselves from US influence.

    • Latin America is not free; just the states are exercising their sovereignty. That’s not apparently ‘freedom’ you welcome for America. ..presumably because it’s too powerful. Why is that?

  • You don’t get points for answering questions. You have to get them correct.

  • Case in point. Like most Americans he is a defender of the US constitution. Therein lies his ‘political’ conservatism. The constitution is dogma that protects no one. It does however cause a great many people to renounce their minds…which I will show when you attempt to defend it.

    • Chirarori

      I cant say that I’ve ever read or heard him being a strong advocate for the US constitution. He’s a defender of many things but, ideologically, the constitution is not one of them. I am also curious as to how someone can be anti-american as well as be a strong defender of the american constitution.

    • Mark

      Andrew Sheldon, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Here’s a direct Chomsky quote: “if a 3rd world country today were to put forth the US Constitution, we’d call is a reversion to nazism.”

      • Mark, I’ve read his crap a while ago. I am responding to what people say about him above, and the contents of the article above. I can agree with your/his point. US constitutionalism, as much as it might be heralded as a defence of freedom, is actually a contradictory piece of dogmatism. Sorry can’t be more coherent. I’m not going to read his books to refute an article. The limits of time constraints.

    • Mark

      Andrew, you do not know what you’re talking about. Chomsky has repeatedly stated that if a modern developing country were to promulgate the US Constitution, we would call it a reversion to Nazism. See e.g. Understanding Power pg. 267

  • johnny cassidy

    Interesting interview but I think Chomsky might take issue with the headline. He has said, “you don’t
    have to speak truth to power, because they know it already. And secondly, you
    don’t speak truth to anybody, that’s too arrogant. What you do is join with
    people and try to find the truth, so you listen to them and tell them what you
    think and so on…”
    Those in power know the truth and hide it under a big heavy rock of oppression. Joining hands to find out that truth is the key to becoming free.

    • Akio Minami

      It reminds me of my youth in Montana when I read Chomsky’s “Listen to your inner voice, and act according to it”. Don’t remember which speech or article it was, but strongly remember I thought he was very true. I went into his studies from linguistics 1st, but he says in politics too, basically the same. He believes what we human beings hold inside. Me too.

  • Chris Clancy

    Mr. Sheldon perhaps is unfamiliar with the old axiom in regard to opinions & sphincters. Everyone has them & they all stink. Sheldon doesn’t realize the more he shares his, the more foul smelling he is. Answering questions is a great way to express opinions without without coming across as a foul smelling sphincter.

  • lasolitaria

    I never understood why Chomsky is so touted up as a political thinker. His contribution to linguistics is great but in politics his message is basically “America bad – every development that goes against American interests good”. Want some truth? Here’s some: the shadow of the US is still
    preventing entire regions from blowing up, and several countries depend on the US to fend off hostile neighbors. That’s why laymen can afford
    the luxury of raging and burning US flags but top officials, who -face it- are often in a better position to realize this fact, seem to look the other way.

    And what’s with his endless chant that “the world is burning”? Nothing new or insightful about that. In fact, I’ve heard the same tune from nutcases and morons all over the ideological spectrum, yet not a single of them is interviewed by a newspaper. Sometimes when I hear the way the media hypes up over Chomsky’s opinions it sounds like they’re trying to make some sort of academic rockstar out of him.

  • He’s not so significant that I’d invest the time. Its actually not about whether I can refute his ideas; the burden of the responsibility is upon you to. I only have to prove it to myself. If you want to accept his incoherent philosophy, by all means. I’ll focus upon educating people who have a greater proclivity for objective analysis.

  • The problem is what you consider ‘selfless’. Renouncing war only encourages war in the intellectual vacuum that festers under academics like Chomsky. The US takes it upon itself to be the “global policeman”, so why should it surprise us that ‘police take a bullet’ or shoot a few. Where is your condemnation for Arab suicide bombers? Yes, the US, like most people & countries is full of contradictions. Yes, the US wants to install ‘free loving’ govts around the world. Surprised? The issue is philosophical scepticism that permeates politics; and is allowed to under the contemporary system. Chomsky is not an answer to much.