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)
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