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“Gangster in the White House”: Noam Chomsky on COVID-19, WHO, China, Gaza and Global Capitalism

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We continue our conversation with world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author Noam Chomsky. He responds to President Trump’s cuts to U.S. support for the World Health Organization and the surge in deaths in the United States to another record high, and discusses conditions in Gaza, the rise of authoritarianism around the world, and the progressive response. “This is typical behavior of autocrats and dictators. When you make colossal errors which are killing thousands of people, find somebody else to blame,” say Chomsky. “In the United States, it’s unfortunately the case, for well over a century, century and a half, that it’s always easy to blame the 'yellow peril.'”

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StoryMay 25, 2020Noam Chomsky on Trump’s Disastrous Coronavirus Response, WHO, China, Gaza and Global Capitalism
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. The death rate from the coronavirus pandemic continues to accelerate, with worldwide confirmed deaths topping 145,000. In the United States, deaths surged to another record high Thursday, nearly doubling to surpass the previous record set just a day before, at 4,591, U.S. residents died over a single 24-hour period.

Well, today we continue my conversation with Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author of more than a hundred books. He’s a laureate professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught for more than half a century. Professor Chomsky joined us last week from his home in Tucson, Arizona, where he is sheltering in place his wife Valeria. We spoke just after President Donald Trump foreshadowed this week’s announcement that he would cut off U.S. support for the World Health Organization. This is Trump addressing reporters last week.

REPORTER 1: Is the time to freeze funding to the WHO during a pandemic of this magnitude?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No, maybe not. I mean, I’m not saying I’m going to do it, but we’re going to look at it.

REPORTER 2: You did say that you’re going to do it.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We give a tremendous — no, I didn’t. I said we’re going to look at it. We’re going to investigate it. We’re going to look at it.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what he’s threatening to do right now? First they reject the WHO tests, that would have been critical, and now saying they’re going to defund the World Health Organization.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, this is typical behavior of autocrats and dictators. When you make colossal errors which are killing thousands of people, find somebody else to blame. And in the United States, it’s unfortunately the case, for well over a century, century and a half, that it’s always easy to blame the “yellow peril.” The yellow — “They’re coming after us.” We’ve seen this all through my life, in fact way before. So, blame the World Health Organization, blame China, claim that the World Health Organization has insidious relations with China, is practically working for them. And that sells to a population that’s been deeply indoctrinated for a long time, way back to the Chinese Exclusion Acts in the 19th century, to say, “Yeah, those yellow barbarians are coming over to destroy us.” That’s almost instinctive.

And it’s backed up by the echo chamber, so, you know, say, Rush Limbaugh. Science is one of the four corners of deceit, along with the media, academia — I forget one of the others, but they’re the four corners of deceit. They live on deceit. You keep driving that into people’s heads. They say, “Why should we believe anything? Why should we believe the news? It’s just fake news. They’re all trying to destroy our savior, our president, the greatest president ever.”

I’m old enough to remember as a child listening to Hitler’s speeches over the radio, Nuremberg rallies. I couldn’t understand the words, but the tone and the reaction of the crowd, the adoring crowd, was very clear and very frightening. We know what it led to. It’s hard to — it comes to mind at once when you listen to Trump’s ravings and the crowd. I don’t suggest that he’s anything like Hitler. Hitler had an ideology, horrible ideology, not only massacring all the Jews and 30 million Slavs and the Roma, and conquering much of the world, but also an internal ideology: The state, under control of the Nazi Party, should control every aspect of life, should even control the business community. That’s not the world we’re in. In fact, it’s almost the opposite, business controlling the government. And as far as Trump is concerned, the only detectable ideology is pure narcissism. Me, that’s the ideology. As long as I am smart enough to keep serving the real masters, pour money into the pockets of the very wealthy and the corporate sector, and they’ll let you get away with your antics.

It’s pretty striking to see what happened at the Davos conference this January. That’s the meeting of the people who are called the “masters of the universe” — CEOs of the major corporations, you know, big media stars and so on. They get together in Davos once a year, congratulate each other on how wonderful they are, put on a pose of dedicated humanists who couldn’t do — you know, just totally devoted to the welfare of the people of the world. “You’re safe leaving your fate in our hands because we’re such good guys.”

Trump came along and gave the keynote address. They don’t like Trump. His vulgarity is incompatible with the image that they’re trying to project of cultivated humanism. But they wildly applauded him, lustily applauded every word, because they know that he does recognize which pockets you have to fill with dollars and how to do it. And as long as he does that, as long as he serves his major constituency, they’ll let him get away with the antics — in fact, like it, because he mobilizes a crowd that will back policies like his legislative achievements. Main one is a tax scam that pours money into the hands of the corporate coffers and harms everyone else. The deregulation is great for business. They love it. They can destroy the environment and harm people as much as they want. Very harmful to the population.

You cut back on pollution constraints, on auto emission regulations, what happens? People die of pollution, of mercury poisoning. The waters are poisoned. And the world, it goes, is facing disaster. You’re accelerating the disaster. As I said, even in the February 10th budget, while cutting back on protection against diseases in the midst of a raging pandemic, increases funding for fossil fuel production, which is going to destroy us all. Of course, a lot more money for the Pentagon and for his famous wall. But that’s the world we’re living in — here, not everywhere. As I said, the Asian countries have been acting sensibly. New Zealand actually seems to have killed it also. Taiwan is doing very well. In Europe, Germany has maybe the lowest death rate in the world, Norway, as well. There are ways to react.

And there are ways to try to destroy everything — what President Trump is leading, with the support of the Murdoch echo chamber, Fox News and others. And amazingly, this conjuring act is working. So, with one hand, you raise your hand to heaven: “I’m the chosen one. I’m your savior. I’m going to rebuild America, make it great again for you, because I’m the servant. I’m the loyal servant of the working class,” and so on. Meanwhile, with the other hand, you’re stabbing them all in the back. And to carry this off is an act of political genius. You have to recognize that serious talent is involved, whether intuitive or conscious planning. It’s devastating. We’ve seen it before. We see it now in dictators, autocrats, sociopaths who happen to get into leadership positions. And it’s now happening in the richest, most important country in world history.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have this situation in the United States where the economy has been brought to a standstill because of the absolute catastrophe of this pandemic, that people have to isolate — although isolation is a luxury. For so many essential workers, they have to come out into this pandemic and face enormous threat to their own lives. If you can talk about whether you see this pandemic perhaps threatening global capitalism overall or shoring it up, and how the trillions of dollars that are being put into these stimulus packages are going to simply intensify inequality or actually going to help people at the bottom?

NOAM CHOMSKY: That’s a choice, not an inevitability. I mean, the corporate sector is working hard to plan for a future of the kind that you’re describing. The question is whether popular organizations will be able to impose enough pressure to make sure that this doesn’t happen.

And there are ways. Take the corporate — what you just described. The corporations right now are hiding their copies of Ayn Rand and rushing to the nanny state and asking for benefits from the public to overcome the results of their criminal behavior. What have they been doing for the last years? Profits have been going sky high. They’ve been indulging in an orgy of stock buybacks, which are devices to increase the wealth for the rich shareholders and for management while undermining the productive capacity of the enterprise at a huge scale, setting their offices somewhere in a little room in Ireland so they don’t have to pay taxes, using tax havens. This is not small change. This is tens of trillions of dollars, robbing the taxpayer. Does that have to be the case?

Take the current giveaway to corporations. It should be accompanied by conditionalities — term we’re familiar with from the IMF. They should be required to ensure that there will be no more use of tax havens, there will be no more stock buybacks, period. If they don’t do that, with a firm guarantee, no money from the public.

Is that utopian? Not at all. That was the law, and the law was enforced, up until Ronald Reagan, who turned on the spigot to rob as much as you like, with Milton Friedman and other luminaries in the background telling him, “That’s liberty.” “Liberty” means rob the public massively by things like tax havens and stock buybacks. So there’s nothing utopian about these conditions. It says, “Let’s go back to a period of pretty much regimented capitalism,” which developed since Roosevelt, was carried through ’til the ’70s, when it began to erode, and, with Reagan, just ended.

There should be further conditionalities, should be working people should be placed — part of management should be representatives of workers. Is that impossible? No, it’s done in other countries, Germany, for example. There should be a requirement that they guarantee a living wage — not just minimum wage, a living wage. That’s a conditionality that can be imposed.

Now, we can move further and recognize — notice that all of this is pre-Trump. Trump is taking a failing, lethal system and turning it into a monstrosity, but the roots were before him. Just think back to the reason why the pandemic occurred in the first place. Drug companies are following capitalist logic. They don’t want to do anything. The neoliberal hammer says the government can’t do anything the way it did in the past. You’re caught in a vise. Then comes along Trump and makes it incomparably worse. But the roots of the crisis are pre-Trump.

The same with the healthcare system. Like we know that — everyone knows — they should know the basic facts. It’s an international scandal: twice the costs of comparable countries, some of the worst outcomes. The costs were recently estimated by a study in The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals. They estimated that the costs, the annual — annual costs to Americans are close to half a trillion dollars and 68,000 lives lost. That’s not so small.

AMY GOODMAN: World-renowned political dissident, linguist and author Noam Chomsky. When we come back, he’ll discuss conditions in Gaza during the pandemic, and the rise of authoritarianism around the world, and the progressive response. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: The Puerto Rican rapper Residente, performing the “Quarantine Edition” of his new song “René.” This version includes his mom and about 30 other musicians who joined him from their homes.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return to Part 2 of our conversation with Noam Chomsky, world-renowned linguist, political dissident and author. I asked him about Gaza, one of the most densely populated places on Earth, where at least 13 cases of COVID-19 have been reported. The World Health Organization reports there are just 87 ventilators for Gaza’s 2 million residents. Nearly 300 cases and two deaths have been confirmed in the West Bank. This is Professor Chomsky.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk for a moment, globally, about what’s happening on an issue that has been close to your heart for decades, and that is the Occupied Territories, Gaza and the West Bank, what it means for a place like Gaza, called by the U.N. and people around the world a kind of “open-air prison” of almost 2 million people, what the pandemic could mean there?

NOAM CHOMSKY: It’s almost impossible to think about. Gaza is 2 million people who are in the — living in a prison, open-air prison, under constant attack. Israel, which is the occupying power, recognized by everyone in the world except Israel — Israel is imposing — has been imposing very harsh sanctions ever since the Palestinians made the mistake of carrying out the first free election in the Arab world and electing the wrong people. The United States and Israel came down on them like a ton of bricks.

Israel’s policy, as was explained by Dov Weissglas, the person in charge of the withdrawal of Israeli troops, the withdrawal of the settlers and imposition of the new regime — he explained frankly, “We are putting the people of Gaza on a diet, just enough to keep them alive,” meaning wouldn’t look good if they all die, but not anything more than that. So, not a piece of chocolate or a toy for a child. That’s out. Just enough to stay alive. And if you have a serious health problem, maybe you can apply to go to the hospital in East Jerusalem. Maybe after a couple of weeks, you’ll be allowed to go. Maybe a child is allowed to go, but his mother is not allowed to come.

If the pandemic — there are now a couple of cases in Gaza. If that extends, it’s a total disaster. International institutions have pointed out that by 2020 — that’s now — Gaza will probably become barely livable. About 95% of the water is totally polluted. The place is a disaster. And Trump has made sure that it will get worse. He withdrew funding from the support systems for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank — UNRWA, killed the funding; Palestinian hospitals, killed the funding. And he had a reason. They weren’t praising him enough. They weren’t respectful of the god, so, therefore, we’ll strangle them, even when they’re barely surviving under a harsh and brutal regime.

Incidentally, this extends to Palestinians in Israel, as well. Human rights activists in Israel pointed out recently — there’s articles about it in Haaretz — that Israel finally began to set up a few drive-by testing areas only in Jewish areas, not in the areas with Palestinian population. And to make sure that the intended results would follow, they announced it only in Hebrew, not in Arabic, so Palestinians wouldn’t even know. Well, that’s within Israel. In the Occupied Territories, far worse.

And the Trump hammer came in saying, “We’re not even going to give you a penny, because you’re not respectful enough of me.” I don’t know how to describe this kind of thing. I can’t find words for it.

AMY GOODMAN: Noam Chomsky, what do you think is required in an international response to stop the rise of authoritarianism in response to this pandemic? For example, in the Philippines, where the authoritarian leader, Trump ally, Duterte, talks about killing people; the massive crackdown, without support of the people of India, 1.3 billion people, with Narendra Modi. President Trump was in India as the pandemic was taking off, never saying a word about it, packing a stadium of 100,000 people. You have Orbán in Hungary, who is now ruling by decree. What would it take to turn that around to be a progressive response?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, actually, what’s happening, to the extent that you can find some coherent policy in the madness in the White House, one thing does emerge with considerable clarity — namely, an effort to construct an international of the most reactionary states and oppressive states, led by the gangster in the White House. Now, this is taking shape.

I can run through it, but since you mentioned India, Modi, who is a Hindu nationalist extremist, is systematically moving to destroy Indian secular democracy and to crush the Muslim population. What’s happening in Kashmir is horrifying. It was bad enough before, now getting much worse. Same with the Muslim population, a huge population in India. The current lockdown is almost — you can almost describe it as genocidal. Modi gave, I think, a four-hour warning saying total lockdown. That’s over a billion people. Some of them have nowhere to go. People in the informal economy, which is a huge number of people, are just cast out. “Go walk back to your village,” which may be a thousand miles away. “Die on the roadside.” This is a huge catastrophe in the making, right on top of the strong efforts to impose the ultra-right Hindutva doctrines that are at the core of Modi’s thinking and background.

What’s happening in — quite apart from this, India — in fact, South Asia generally — is going to become unlivable pretty soon, if current climate policies persist. Last summer, the temperature in Rajasthan went up to 50 degrees centigrade. And it’s increasing. There’s hundreds of millions of people in India that don’t have access to water. It’s going to get much worse, could lead to a nuclear war between the two powers that basically rely on the same water resources, which are declining under global warming: Pakistan and India. I mean, the horror story that’s developing is, again, indescribable. You can’t find words for it. And some people are cheering about it, like Donald Trump and his friend Bolsonaro in Brazil, a couple of other sociopaths.

But how do you counter a reactionary international? By developing a Progressive International. And there are steps to that. They don’t get much publicity, but this — I think it’s this coming December, there will be a formal announcement of what has been in process for some time. Yanis Varoufakis, the founder and leading figure in DiEM25, the progressive movement in Europe, very important — Varoufakis and Bernie Sanders came out with a declaration calling for a Progressive International to combat and, we hope, overcome the reactionary international based in the White House.

Now, if you look at the level of states, this looks like an extremely unequal competition. But states are not the only things that exist. If you look at the level of people, it’s not impossible. It’s possible to construct a Progressive International based on people, ranging from the organized political groups that have been proliferating, that have gotten a huge shot in the arm from the Sanders campaign, ranging from them to self-help mutual aid, self-help organizations that are rising in communities all over the world, in the most impoverished areas of Brazil, for example, and even this astonishing fact that I mentioned, that the murderous crime gangs are taking responsibility for bringing some form of decent protection against the pandemic in the favelas, the miserable slums, in Rio. All of this is happening on the popular level. If it expands and develops, if people don’t just give up in despair but work to change the world, as they’ve done in the past under much worse conditions, if they do that, there’s a chance for a Progressive International.

And notice, bear in mind, that there are also striking cases of internationalism, progressive internationalism, at the state level. So, take a look at the European Union. The rich countries in Europe, like Germany, have recently given us a lesson in just what the union means. Right? Germany is managing pretty well. They probably have the lowest death rate in the world, in organized society. Right next door, northern Italy is suffering miserably. Is Germany giving them any aid? No. In fact, Germany even blocked the effort to develop euro bonds, general bonds in Europe which could be used to alleviate the suffering in the countries under the worst conditions. But fortunately for Italy, it can look across the Atlantic for aid from the superpower on the Western Hemisphere, Cuba. Cuba is, once again, as before, exhibiting extraordinary internationalism, sending doctors to Italy. Germany won’t do it, but Cuba can. China is providing material aid. So, these are steps towards progressive internationalism at the state level.

AMY GOODMAN: World-renowned political dissident, linguist and author Noam Chomsky, laureate professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Arizona, Tucson, professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught for more than half a century. Noam Chomsky joined us last week from his home in Tucson, Arizona, where he’s sheltering in place with his wife Valeria. Go to our website at Democracy Now! to see Part 1 of our conversation.

When we come back, a new policy at New York’s public hospitals requires medical workers who call in sick to produce a doctor’s note. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers. The legendary singer-songwriter Bill Withers died last month at the age of 81 from heart complications. We were showing, during that music break, nurses dancing around the world to give strength to each other, themselves and their patients.

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