- Noam Chomsky
professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of dozens of books on linguistics and U.S. foreign policy. His latest book is Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy.
- Howard Zinn
professor emeritus at Boston University. His classic work A People’s History of the United States has sold over 1.5 million copies. His latest book is A Power Governments Cannot Suppress.
We play Part II of our conversation with two of the country’s leading dissidents, Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. In the interview, we ask Chomsky about Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who is lobbying DePaul faculty members to oppose Norman Finkelstein’s bid to receive tenure. Chomsky says, “[Dershowitz] launched a jihad against Norman Finkelstein simply to try and vilify and defame in the hope that maybe what he is writing will disappear.” [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the second part of our conversation with Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, two of the leading dissidents in this country today. I spoke to them yesterday here in Boston in a rare joint interview. Howard Zinn is one of America’s most widely read historians. His classic work, A People’s History of the United States, has sold over a million and a half copies, and it’s altered how many people teach the nation’s history. His latest book is A Power Governments Cannot Suppress. Noam Chomsky began teaching linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge over half a century ago. He is the author of dozens of books on linguistics and U.S. foreign policy. His most recent book is called Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy.
In a wide-ranging interview, we talked about U.S. wars from Iraq to Vietnam, about resistance and about academia. I asked Noam Chomsky about political science professor Norman Finkelstein, one of the country’s foremost critics of Israel policy, and his battle to receive tenure at DePaul University, where he has taught for six years. Professor Finkelstein’s tenure has been approved at the departmental and college level, but the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at DePaul has opposed it. A final decision is expected to be made in May. Finkelstein has accused Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz of being responsible for leading the effort to deny him tenure. In an interview with The Harvard Crimson, Dershowitz admitted he had sent a letter to DePaul faculty members lobbying against Finkelstein’s tenure. I asked Noam Chomsky about the dispute.
NOAM CHOMSKY: The whole thing is outrageous. I mean, he’s an outstanding scholar. He has produced book after book. He’s got recommendations from some of the leading scholars in the many areas in which he has worked. The faculty—the departmental committee unanimously recommended him for tenure. It’s amazing that he hasn’t had full professorship a long time ago.
And, as you were saying, there was a huge campaign led by a Harvard law professor, Alan Dershowitz, to try in a desperate effort to defame him and vilify him, so as to prevent him from getting tenure. The details of it are utterly shocking, and, as you said, it got to the point where the DePaul administration called on Harvard to put an end to this.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s very significant, for one university to call on the leadership of another university to stop one of its professors.
NOAM CHOMSKY: To stop this maniac, yeah. What’s behind it? It’s very simple and straightforward. Norman Finkelstein wrote a book, which is in fact the best compendium that now exists of human rights violations in Israel and the blocking of diplomacy by Israel and the United States, which I mentioned—very careful scholarly book, as all of his work is, impeccable—also about the uses of anti-Semitism to try to silence a critical discussion.
And the framework of his book was a critique of a book of apologetics for atrocities and violence by Alan Dershowitz. That was the framework. So he went through Dershowitz’s chart claims, showed in great detail that they are completely false and outrageous, that he’s lying about the facts, that he’s an apologist for violence, that he’s a passionate opponent of civil liberties—which he is—and he documented it in detail.
Dershowitz is intelligent enough to know that he can’t respond, so he does what any 10th-rate lawyer does when you have a rotten case: You try to change the subject, maybe by vilifying opposing counsel. That changes the subject. Now we talk about whether, you know, opposing counsel did or did not commit this iniquity. And the tactic is a very good one, because you win, even if you lose. Suppose your charges against are all refuted. You’ve still won. You’ve changed the subject. The subject is no longer the real topic: the crucial facts about Israel, Dershowitz’s vulgar apologetics for them, which sort of are reminiscent of the worst days of Stalinism. We’ve forgotten all of that. We’re now talking about whether Finkelstein did this, that and the other thing. And even if the charges are false, the topic’s been changed. That’s the basis of it.
Dershowitz has been desperate to prevent this book from being—first of all, he tried to stop it from being published, in an outlandish effort, which I’ve never seen anything like it, hiring a major law firm to threaten libel suits, writing to the governor of California—it was published by the University of California Press. When he couldn’t stop the publication, he launched a jihad against Norman Finkelstein, simply to try to vilify and defame him, in the hope that maybe what he’s writing will disappear. That’s the background.
It’s not, incidentally, the first time. I mean, actually, I happen to be very high on Dershowitz’s hit list, hate list. And he has also produced outlandish lies about me for years: you know, I told him I was an agnostic about the Holocaust and I wouldn’t tell him the time of day, you know, and so on and so forth.
AMY GOODMAN: You mean that he made that charge against you?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Of course, and on and on. I won’t even talk about it. What’s the reason? It’s in print. In fact, you can look at it in the Internet. In 1973, I guess it was, the leading Israeli human rights activist, Israel Shahak, who incidentally is a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and Bergen-Belsen and headed a small human rights group in Israel, which was the only real one at the time, came to Boston, had an interview with The Boston Globe, in which he identified himself correctly as the chair of the Israeli League of Human Rights. Dershowitz wrote a vitriolic letter to the Globe, condemning him, claiming he’s lying about Israel, he’s even lying about being the chair, he was voted out by the membership.
I knew the facts. In fact, he’s an old friend, Shahak. So I wrote a letter to the Globe, explaining it wasn’t true. In fact, the government did try to get rid of him. They called on their membership to flood the meeting of this small human rights group and vote him out. But they brought it to the courts, and the courts said, yeah, we’d like to get rid of this human rights group, but find a way to do it that’s not so blatantly illegal. So I sort of wrote that.
But Dershowitz thought he could brazen it out—you know, Harvard law professor—so he wrote another letter saying Shahak’s lying, I’m lying, and he challenged me to quote from the Israeli court decision. It never occurred to him for a minute that I’d actually have the transcript. But I did. So I wrote another letter in which I quoted from the court decision, demonstrating that—I was polite, but that Dershowitz is a liar, he’s even falsifying Israeli court decisions, he’s a supporter of atrocities, and he even is a passionate opponent of civil rights. I mean, this is like the Russian government destroying an Amnesty International chapter by flooding it with Communist Party members to vote out the membership.
Well, he went berserk, and ever since then I have been one of his targets. In fact, anyone who exposes him as what he is is going to be subjected to this technique, because he knows he can’t respond, so must return to vilification.
And in the case of Norman Finkelstein, he sort of went off into outer space. But it’s an outrageous case. And the fact that it’s even being debated is outrageous. Just read his letters of recommendation from literally the leading figures in the many fields in which he works, most respected people.
AMY GOODMAN: Most interesting, the letters of support from the leading Holocaust scholars like Raul Hilberg.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Raul Hilberg is the founder of Holocaust studies, you know, the most distinguished figure in the field. In fact, he says Norman didn’t go far enough. And it’s the same—Avi Shlaim is one of the—maybe the leading Israeli historian, has strongly supported him, and the same with others. I can’t refer to the private correspondence, but it’s very strong letters from leading figures in these fields. And it’s not surprising that the faculty committee unanimously supported him. I mean, there was, in fact—they did—the faculty committee did, in fact, run through in detail the deluge of vilification from Dershowitz and went through it point by point and essentially dismissed it as frivolous.
AMY GOODMAN: They rejected a 12,000-word attack, point by point.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Aside from saying that the very idea of sending it is outrageous. You don’t do that in tenure cases.
AMY GOODMAN: So, how do you think it will turn out?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, usual story: This depends on public reaction.
AMY GOODMAN: Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. We’ll come back to them in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to my interview with Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, who joined me in the studio here yesterday. We continued to look at the issues of academia in a time of war, so I asked Howard Zinn about his experience at Spelman College, the historically black college for women in Atlanta. Professor Zinn taught at Spelman for seven years before eventually being fired for insubordination. I asked him why he was pushed out.
HOWARD ZINN: I had supported the students, and this was the civil rights movement, right? My students are black women who get involved in the civil rights movement. I support them. The administration is nervous about that, but they can’t really say anything publicly, or do anything, because this is the first black president of Spelman College. They have all been white missionaries before that. And so, he doesn’t want to do anything then. But when the students come back from—you might say, “come back from jail” onto the campus and rebel against—
AMY GOODMAN: What year was this?
HOWARD ZINN: This was 1963. And the students rebel against the conditions that they’re living in, very paternalistic, very controlling, and I support them in that, then that’s too much for the president, and so, although I have tenure and I’m a full professor and I’m chair of the department, I get a letter saying goodbye.
And so, that was my—you know, what Noam was talking about when you ask him what’s going to happen, universities, colleges are not democratic institutions. Really, they’re like corporations. The people who have the most power are the people who have the least to do with education. That is, they’re not the faculty, they’re not the students, they’re not even the people who keep the university going—the buildings and grounds people and the technical people and the secretaries—no. They’re the trustees, the businesspeople, the people with connections, and they’re the ones who have the most power, they’re the ones who make the decisions. And so, that’s why I was fired from there, and that’s why I was almost fired by John Silber at Boston University, but there was a—
AMY GOODMAN: Over what?
HOWARD ZINN: Over a strike. We had a faculty strike. We had a secretary strike. We had a buildings and grounds workers strike. We had almost a general strike, almost an IWW strike at Boston University in 1977. And when the faculty had actually won, got a contract and went back to work, some of us on the faculty said we shouldn’t go back to work while the secretaries are still on strike. We wouldn’t cross their picket lines. We held our classes out on the streets rather than do that. And so, five of us were threatened with firing.
But there was a great clamor among students and faculty and actually across the country. They even got telegrams from France, protesting against this. And so, one of the rare occasions in which the administration, with all its power, backed down. And so, I barely held onto my job.
AMY GOODMAN: You begin your book with two quotes. One of Eugene V. Debs: “While there is a lower class, I am in it; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” And Henry David Thoreau: “When the subject has refused allegiance and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished.” You also write more about Henry David Thoreau. You write about him going to jail.
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah, well, Thoreau is worth reading today and remembering today, because Thoreau committed just a small act of civil disobedience against the Mexican War. I mean, the Mexican War had some of the same characteristics as the war in Iraq today, and that is that the American people were lied to about the reasons for going into Mexico, and they weren’t told that the real reason for going into Mexico was that we wanted Mexican land, which we took at the end of the Mexican War, just as today we’re not being told that the real reason for being in Iraq has to do with oil and profits and money. And so, the situation in the Mexican War, against which Thoreau objected, was in many ways, you know, similar.
And Thoreau saw that, and he saw that American boys were dying on the road to Mexico City and we were killing a lot of innocent Mexican people, and so he decided not to pay his taxes and spent just a very short time in jail, but then came out, delivered a lecture on civil disobedience and wrote an essay on the right to disobey the government when the government violates what it’s supposed to do, violates the rights of Americans, violates the rights of other people.
And so, that stands as a classic statement for Americans, that it’s honorable and right to not to pay your taxes or to refuse military service or to disobey your government when you believe that your government is wrong. And so, the hope is that today more soldiers who are asked to go to Iraq, more young people who are asked to enlist in the war against Iraq, will read Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience, will take its advice to heart, realize that the government is not holy, that what’s holy is human life and human freedom and the right of people to resist authority. And so, Thoreau has great lessons for us today.
AMY GOODMAN: Noam Chomsky, as we wrap up, that whole issue of hope and where you see things going in the current Bush administration, what it stands for, and the level of protest in this country. Do you think that level of protest will succeed?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Depends what you mean by “succeed.” I mean, I have a slightly more hopeful sense than Howard, at least expressed. I suspect he agrees. It’s true that the country, that in terms of the institutional structure—government for the wealthy and so on—there hasn’t been much change in 200 years.
But there’s been enormous progress, I mean, even in the last 40 years, since the '60s. Many rights have been won: rights for minorities, rights for women, rights of future generations, which is what the environmental movement is about. Opposition to aggression has increased. The first solidarity movements in history began in the 1980s, after centuries of European imperialism, and no one ever thought of going to live in an Algerian village to protect the people from French violence, or in a Vietnamese village. Thousands of Americans were doing that in the 1980s in Reagan's terrorist wars. It’s now extended over the whole world. There’s an international solidarity movement.
The global justice movements, which meet annually in the World Social Forum, are a completely new phenomenon. It’s true globalization among people, maybe the seeds of the first true international—people from all over the world, all walks of life, many ideas which are right on people’s minds and agenda, in fact, being implemented about a participatory society, the kind of work that Mike Albert’s been doing. These are all new things. I mean, nothing is ever totally new. There are bits and pieces of them in the past, but the changes are enormous.
And the same with opposition to aggression. I mean, after all, the Iraq War is the first war in hundreds of years of Western history, at least the first one I can think of, which was massively protested before it was officially launched. And it actually was underway, we have since learned, but it wasn’t officially underway. But it was huge, millions of people protesting it all over the world, so much so that The New York Times lamented that there’s a second superpower: the population. Well, you know, that’s significant and, I think, gives good reason for hope.
There are periods of regression. We’re now in a period of regression, but if you look at the cycle over time, it’s upwards. And there’s no limits that it can’t reach.
AMY GOODMAN: Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, two of this country’s leading dissidents. We spoke yesterday on Patriot’s Day, which is observed here in Massachusetts—also, I believe, in Maine.