Noam Chomsky on COVID-19 workers’ strikes; Trump’s attacks on China and the WHO; “lesser evil” voting; bipartisan war-mongering/sanctions; & what resistance movements can teach us about resiliency.
Noam Chomsky joins Aaron Maté to discuss the May Day workers’ strikes; how Donald Trump’s ineptitude and neoliberal capitalism fueled the COVID-19 crisis; US attacks on China and the WHO; Trump’s overlooked escalation of the nuclear arms race with Russia; the question of “lesser evil voting” in the Biden-Trump race; and what the targets of US empire can teach us about resiliency and resistance.
Guest: Noam Chomsky, renowned linguist, author and political dissident.
AARON MATÉ: Welcome to Pushback. I’m Aaron Maté. I’m joined today by Noam Chomsky. Noam, always an honor to speak to you.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Glad to be with you.
AARON MATÉ: On Friday, International Workers Day, May Day, there are going to be some strikes at major corporations by frontline workers, including Amazon and Whole Foods, Target, Instacart. Having lived through the Great Depression, having witnessed how people coped and struggled and resisted, what can labor actions like this mean for a movement, a mass movement that could be formed to respond to the coronavirus crisis and to address all of the failings of the health and economic system that it’s shown us?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, throughout modern history, labor action has been at the forefront of general activism and protest. During the 1930s, my childhood, I recall very well seeing the workers picketing factories. That’s…the labor movement had been virtually crushed in the 1920s, revived in the 30s, became quite militant, moved on even as far as sit-down strikes, which are a major threat to private capital, because a sit-down strike is just one step before saying, “We can run this plant ourselves; we don’t need the bosses, so let’s get rid of them and take it over.”
Now, that led to reaction. There was a sympathetic administration, and labor historian Erik Loomis’ very important work has reviewed a long series of cases and shown that labor militancy and other activism have succeeded when there was a more or less sympathetic—or at least tolerant—administration, not when there was one that was rock-solid opposed to it. And we’ve seen the crushing of the labor movement, again, during the neoliberal period, since Reagan, with Reagan and Thatcher, who initiated this period, began their terms by sharp attacks on the labor movement. They knew exactly what they were doing. So did their corporate bosses and associates. And it’s reduced the labor movement to a small level.
But recently there has been an upsurge in labor actions and strikes; these coming ones on Friday are another indication of it. Amazon strikes have already had a significant effect. A couple of months ago, major Amazon actions led Jeff Bezos to put, I think, $10 million or something like that, not much for him, into work on dealing with the climate crisis; he’s pledged to move Amazon to zero emissions status—it would never have happened without labor action. It’s just the [indecipherable 03:45] where a visible shift of the Democratic Party to the left in the last period is the result of the actions of militant activism in the Sanders campaign and other actions, and that can make a big difference.
As for the coronavirus, it’s actually very relevant to that. It’s not a matter of finding a cure; that’s a different matter. But if we look at the coronavirus and ask what it comes from, it comes from a massive market failure, colossal market failure, which is right at the heart of capitalist logic generally, intensified by the neoliberal hammer-blow which has hit the economy and the society for the last 40 years.
So, you go back to 2003. There was a major coronavirus epidemic, SARS epidemic. It was handled and contained, but scientists at the time knew perfectly well that there was very likely to be a recurrence of one or another variant of the coronavirus, and they’ve been warning about it ever since. So, it was common knowledge, but knowledge does not suffice. Somebody has to do something with it. The obvious candidate is the big drug companies, they have huge profits, they have massive resources. They’re not interested. They follow capitalist logic. There’s no profit to be made in preparing for a likely catastrophe a couple of years down the road. And for that matter an anti-pandemic virus is not profitable. People take it for a short time, the thing disappears, and who cares? You don’t make any money out of it. I think you make money on things you can keep selling to people every year, so the drug companies are out. That’s capitalist logic.
But then comes the neoliberal hammer-blow. What about government? Why don’t they move in and do it as they’ve done many times? In fact, basic serious research on almost every domain is done in the public domain by the government-funded institutions and so on, university research centers and others, so why don’t they come in? Well, here you get neoliberalism. Everyone remembers it, Reagan’s little speech with his sunny smile about how government is not the solution, government is the problem. So we can’t have government; we have to hand decision-making away from government, which is under some degree of public influence and is therefore bad, and hand it over to private corporations, totally unaccountable over the pro-public “tyrannies,” basically following the guru of the time, Milton Friedman. They have to be committed solely to greed, so we have to…for themselves, management, rich shareholders and so on. So, that’s neoliberalism, so that…and we’ve suffered, not just we, but much of the world has been suffering from it for 40 years.
Well, okay, back to 2003. Government can’t step in, so you have a major crisis. Year-after-year after that there were repeated warnings, plenty of indications that it’s likely. Then comes a third issue: particular governments and how do they deal with this? They do vary. So, we happen to be in a super neoliberal, ultra-right administration, total fealty to the corporate sector and private wealth, no interest in anyone else despite some superficial rhetoric.
So, what happened in the Trump administration? Every year defunding of the Center for Disease Control, defunding of other health-related aspects of the government. It’s not profitable for the rich and powerful. Elimination of major programs which would have…if somebody [from the US] working in China with Chinese scientists that would have left the country was [could have] given the country some advance notice of what’s happening. Result is the United States is singularly unprepared [and] got worse after the news came [that], contrary to the massive Yellow Peril propaganda that’s going on, China was very quick in identifying the problem and very forthcoming with information.
The first indications that something was going on in Wuhan were in December. There were pneumonia-like symptoms, unknown etiology, China at once reported it to the World Health Organization, hence to the world—very quickly, much faster than under SARS. Chinese scientists identified it as a coronavirus, sequenced the genome and presented all the relevant material to the world. It was all out by January 10th. Then comes the question: how countries react. There were some who reacted right away. Taiwan, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore. They have it pretty much under control, as does China, where the severe crisis was. Others—Europe kind of dithered; they didn’t pay much attention to these invasions. But they finally got their act together and are more…reacting in one way or another, some of them pretty effectively, some worse, the United States at the bottom of the barrel.
The news could not get to the White House. Intelligence agencies were banging at the doors, warning about it, and we just learned a couple days ago that there were regular high-level daily briefings to Trump, condensed to his tiny attention span. But none of this could get through. “It’s just the flu, it’s going to go away, would be a miracle, I’m in charge,” okay. Meanwhile tens of thousands of Americans are dying. When it finally got through to him—probably because he could see that the stock market was collapsing, that he can see—but anyway, for whatever reason it got through to him in March, two months late. Situation’s out of hand, and what’s more, he makes…he’s insistent on making it worse. It’s astonishing to watch.
So, just a couple of days ago he fired the scientist who’s in the head…who’s in charge of supervision of vaccine development—perfect guy to fire. Why’d he fire him? Because he said something about the quack medicines that Trump was trying to peddle to the population, so we get rid of him. Actually, the most striking part is the federal budget. In mid-February, February 10th, a pandemic is raging, Trump releases his budget for the coming year, further defunding of the Center for Disease Control, additional funding in subsidies for fossil fuel industries which are creating a far greater crisis than coronavirus. We don’t have to go into the details, but they are creating a terminal crisis, so we have to subsidize them more. And of course, more funding for the bloated military and for his famous wall, to save us from all those rapists and murderers and so on, appealing to his popular base.
And it goes on. In April, Trump or his tacticians got the “brilliant” idea of telling the governors, “We can’t help you.” That we happen to have all the resources and all the wealth, but it’s your problem. You can’t make a treaty with another country to have an arrangement to bring in needed ventilators. We can, but it’s your business. That’s a “brilliant” tactic. Now that means if something goes wrong, which it’s almost certain to do, you can blame the governors. Well, if you’re [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell, you can blame the Blue state governors, and if by accident something happens to work, you can say, “Look what a brilliant genius I am, that made the greatest decision in history!”, and Sean Hannity will collapse over its brilliance tomorrow. It’s a “perfect” strategy, kills a lot of people, but who cares?
Actually, much worse than this, and getting nowhere near the attention it ought to, is the decision to defund the World Health Organization. This is part of the effort, an increasingly desperate effort, on the part of the administration to find somebody to blame for their own crimes. So, an international institution people don’t like, you can blame them. What’s the effect of defunding the World Health Organization? It’s not just defunding. We’ve since learned that the attempt is to destroy it, get rid of it. What’s the effect? Well, there’s huge numbers of people in places like Africa who are dependent on World Health Organization services for survival, not just from the coronavirus that’s yet to hit, that’ll be monstrous, but the many other diseases. So, let’s pull out the rug from under them and kill unknown numbers of people, because maybe I can improve my ratings with the right-wing public.
That stuff is going on almost daily in front of our eyes. I mean, it’s really malevolence to a degree that’s pretty hard to comprehend, and it’s quite characteristic of this sociopathic administration, which is in the lead and in fact unique in the world—aside from some sidekicks like Bolsonaro in Brazil. They’re unique in the world, in not just trying to do something to deal with the climate crisis, which is extraordinary, but seeking to accelerate it, doing everything possible to maximize the use of fossil fuels and to eliminate regulations which would constrain them and protect the population. That’s the…of course, on the side; the main legislation is how to stuff the pockets of the wealthy with more dollars, like his tax scam. There’s another thing going on which is of enormous significance, and that is stuffing the judiciary from top to bottom with ultra-right lawyers who will ensure that whatever the public wants, or whatever political changes take place, that no progressive legislation can be implemented for a generation, maybe longer. And, of course, there are other things happening, too…
AARON MATÉ: Noam, let me ask you about one more grave danger under Trump, because we could talk about this issue forever and there are many other topics I want to ask you about. But also, what is happening under Trump—and this is something you’ve spoken about but gets very little attention—is the dismantling of global agreements to limit the nuclear weapons stockpiles of the US and Russia. Trump has killed the INF treaty, now the Trump administration is talking about killing the Open Skies treaty, and we also have, quite likely if the current situation proceeds on pace, the dismantling of the last remaining limitations on the nuclear stockpile of the New START treaty. Why do you think this gets so little attention?
NOAM CHOMSKY: It’s astonishing. No matter how much you bring it up, how often you stress it, ears are just closed. And you’re absolutely right. This is on a par easily with the coming environmental catastrophe. You can’t see it in front of you every day the way you can see a flood or a drought or something like that, but it’s there. And Trump is dedicated to destroying the entire arms control regime.
The INF treaty was a Reagan treaty, Reagan-Gorbachev. That had to be destroyed. Not only did he insist on destroying it, but to do it in a particularly provocative way. It was last August. Immediately after dismantling it, kicking the treaty, bent on destroying it, instantly the administration launched missiles which violated the treaty. That’s telling the Russians, “You better violate it fast and develop weapons to destroy us, and then we’ll work developing the countermeasures.” Which won’t work, of course. Although, all of this pours money into the pockets of the military industry, which is just exalting over this. And maybe the political system and candidates and others aren’t talking about it, but military industries love it. And the Open Skies treaty, that goes back to that famous “radical” Dwight Eisenhower, so we got to kill that one. That’s also been quite effective in reducing threats. And a New START, the one that’s coming up, well, Putin and the Russians have been virtually pleading for it to be extended, but the Trump administration says, no, we can’t do it, there’s this and that [indecipherable 19:36], most of which you know is complete nonsense. But when that one goes, exactly as you say, we’re done. No more regulation. Everybody is encouraged to build up as much as they want.
Actually, there’s something else that can’t be heard but is critically important that we ought to think about. There’s supposed to be…one of Trump’s major contributions was to dismantle the joint agreement with European countries and Iran on the Iranian nuclear programs [JCPOA]. It was very effective. US intelligence agreed that Iran was living up to it entirely, they sharply cut back their nuclear programs. Trump had to kill it, in this case probably because Obama initiated it, so therefore he has to kill it. That’s the kind of rule of the administration. Now we’re told that Iranian nuclear weapons are a great threat; we’ve got to do something about it. Okay, beside the reality of the claims, but they’re there, we hear them all the time. Now that’s leading to very likely, not only increasing tensions in the Gulf region, but they could blow up, could lead to a major war.
But is there a way to deal with his problem? Well, think about it. It’s obvious. Institute a nuclear-weapons-free-zone in the Middle East. Is that a problem? Could have very intensive inspections just like the JCP[OA], the joint agreement and inspections. They can work, so what’s stopping it? The Arab States are strongly in favor; in fact, they’re the ones who initiated the proposal 25 years ago, that we keep pressing for it. Iran is strongly in favor of it. The non-aligned countries, that’s most of the world, the former nonaligned—G-77 they’re called now—about 130 countries strongly in favor of it. There’s no opposition that I know of from Europe. Why doesn’t it get instituted? Because there’s a country called the United States, and this one’s bipartisan. Every time it comes up in the relevant international meetings, the non-proliferation treaty begins, the US kills it. Most recent was Obama, 2015. It’s coming up again in early next year, probably will be killed again. But nobody talks about it except in the arms control community. But why is it being killed? Very simple. If you institute it, you have to open up Israel’s massive nuclear weapons program to public inspection. We’ve got to prevent that.
In fact, the US has a special reason for preventing it: US aid to Israel is probably arguably illegal because of Israel’s nuclear weapons program—Symington Amendment back in 1974, I think. Well, if you could go down that track, not only are Israel’s programs inspected—which is unacceptable—but you even might have to cancel US aid to Israel. It’s a big thing. So, therefore, it’s one of the reasons why the US does not officially concede that Israel has a nuclear weapons program. Of course, it’s common knowledge, but you can’t concede it because it opens these doors.
So, if you think about it, we’re facing major war, devastating consequences—in order to ensure that no one looks at Israel’s nuclear weapons program. That’s something to think about; this is never discussed. But the point you made is exactly correct: the dismantling of the arms control regime, which is an enormous threat to survival, is just off the record. You can’t get anybody to pay attention to it. Actually, former defense secretary William Perry, who’s spent all his life on nuclear issues, pretty much all, says he’s not just terrified about the growing nuclear threat, he’s doubly terrified because he can’t get anyone to pay attention to it. It’s very hard to break through on that.
AARON MATÉ: If I could share my theory on why I think it doesn’t get talked about that much, at least on the Democratic side, and I’m wondering if you agree, is because after Trump won, Democrats decided—made a very conscious decision [by] Democratic leaders—to resist him from the right when it comes to the issue of Russia, to constantly accuse him of being soft on Russia and even a Russian agent or a Russian conspirator. And so acknowledging any of the number of extremely hawkish policies that Trump, in reality, actually has towards Russia, such as increasing the threat of a nuclear holocaust by tearing up these vital arms control treaties with Russia, would undermine the conspiracy theories and the hawkish Cold War agenda the Democrats have embraced as their strategy since 2016.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Could be. And Trump’s policies go way beyond, as you of course know, beyond dismantling the arms control thing. He’s carrying out very provocative military maneuvers and exercises right on the Russian border, all the way up to the Arctic for the first time. These are highly provocative. They are sharply increasing the dangers of war, but you might be right. That’s a Democratic Party talking point.
AARON MATÉ: Let me ask you about the 2020 election. And my question touches on some of what you’ve already raised, which is that so many, especially foreign policy agendas, are bipartisan. Blind support for Israel. And I think in trying to, you know, talk to people about the message that you’ve been promoting for many years now, not just in this election, that the task on a single day, which is all it takes to vote, is to defeat the worst possible outcome, so in this case voting for Biden and against Trump. But one obstacle to, I think, convincing many progressives or at least the ones that I know of that argument is that they see so much convergence when it comes to foreign policy. So, for example Obama and Biden gave us the war on Libya, the proxy war in Syria. It’s true that they gave us the nuclear deal with Iran, but before that they gave us the murderous sanctions on Iran that Trump has since reimposed. So, from the point of view of so many of these policies being bipartisan, how could a Biden administration be an improvement?
NOAM CHOMSKY: We’re faced with a situation in which we have a Democratic Party candidate who has a very ugly history, you’ve just given some of the major examples, but is moving significantly to the left, and not because it’s his choice but because of the constant activism and pressure, partly from the Sanders campaign, partly from other activist campaigns. It is an administration which is…you look at the party program, to the left of any preceding Democratic Party program, susceptible to pressure, and that pressure can continue. It can move it further. We’re back to the point about…that Erik Loomis made that I described earlier.
We have the alternative, it is the Trump administration, which is rock-solid opposed to and will totally block any possible popular pressure to the left, okay. Furthermore, and overwhelmingly significant, the Trump administration is dedicated to the destruction of human society on earth within a short time. That is the precise meaning of his environmental policies, okay. I don’t want to mince words; that’s exactly what they mean. That’s absolutely not true of anything on the Democratic side, not great by any means but nowhere near that effect, much more in tune with the more…the better parts of the world on this.
Well, that’s an enormous difference. Another enormous difference is things like the dedication of the perfect willingness of the Trump administration to carry out almost any crime you can think of to advance electoral prospects. You want to kill a lot of people in Africa by killing the World Health Organization? Fine, do that. You want to toss children in concentration camps on the border? Do that, whatever you think. Furthermore, stuffing the judiciary is an overwhelmingly significant fact that means everything’s killed for a generation, at least, okay. That’s the McConnell strategy, goes back before Trump. And this is combined with efforts of the Republican governors to try to block voting. This is enormous. Georgia and Florida, efforts in Wisconsin is to kick out African Americans and disenfranchise them so you can maintain minority popular rule. Well, that’s got to intensify with the blessing of the Supreme Court, the most reactionary court in living memory. Dismantling the Voting Rights Act was a gift to those who want to destroy the democratic process, whatever, such as it is. These are huge differences. Yes, there are commonalities on some points. But we have two parties, one of which can be influenced, the other which [can]not.
And I should say, the Trump administration is unlike earlier Republican administrations in this respect. So, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were demonstrably influenced by mass popular protests. That’s not going to happen with Trump. This is psychopathic megalomania of a different kind. Furthermore, he surrounded himself with sycophants and cowards who are just going to shine his shoes and repeat it. This is something unique in political history; it’s not just the ordinary right-wing reactionary administration.
So, we really have, I think, a very sharp choice at this point. May not like either of them, but that’s the world we live in. We can’t pretend we live in another world. We can go on changing it. You don’t stop just because elections are coming. I mean, we should be clear: there is a traditional left doctrine on this which we should adhere to. Seems we’ve been sidetracked. But let’s remember what matters in politics is constant activism. Every couple of years an event comes up called an election, which you have to take 15 minutes off and decide, is it worth pushing the lever? And sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. If it’s worth it, you push the lever and then you go back to work. That’s the left doctrine. There’s also an official doctrine that tells you the only thing you should think about is elections. Concentrate on that, devote your attention to that, that once you’ve pushed your lever, go home, and four years from now we’ll ask you to come and push the lever again. That’s the official doctrine. We should keep to the traditional doctrine.
I should mention that there’s a new doctrine that showed up in the last couple of years. I’d never heard of it before. It’s now so popular it’s even used by its initials: LEV, lesser evil voting. I don’t know what that is; it’s never been on the agenda before, certainly not on the left. You don’t vote if it’s not worth it. You vote for a Republican when they used to be a party, just not an issue. But that’s displaced the left doctrine. There is an enormous amount of focus and discussion and debate on the left about the lesser evil doctrine, which in fact was invented by the people who are attacking it. And there’s never been such a doctrine before. There is a doctrine that says every once in a while, it’s worth taking a couple of minutes in deciding if there’s a significant distinction between the candidates and vote against the worst one, then go back to work. Now that’s the left doctrine and we should keep to that. And in this case, for those 15 minutes, it’s a very simple choice. Don’t like either of them, but there’s great, enormous differences, in fact one is so great that the fate of human survival depends on.
AARON MATÉ: I remember when Obama was running the first time and there was a lot of enthusiasm for him. I remember you saying that we should elect Obama, but without illusions. And the “without illusions” part spoke to the need, you argued, for sustained activism to pressure Obama. And that didn’t happen. Pretty much, Obama won, and he told his movement to go home, and it wasn’t really revived until, I don’t know, you could argue, with the Occupy movement. And I guess what I wanted…hearing you speak about the possibilities to influence a potential Biden administration in a positive direction, I suppose one really positive thing on that front is that Biden is not Obama. He’s not nearly as smooth, not nearly as convincing an actor, and not nearly as demobilizing to people, because Obama was very good at making people think that he was doing something with lofty rhetoric while really carrying on with the same policy. So, I’m wondering if you see the fact that Biden is just so much less convincing and has a lot of flaws. He’s obviously slowed down a bit with age. Whether you see that as a positive for the ability to send his administration in a positive direction with sustained activism.
NOAM CHOMSKY: It’s not only a prediction, it’s happened. Take a look at the party program. It’s very heavily influenced by the Sanders movement and the general activism of the last couple of years. Compare the program with any preceding one. Well, you’re…I think you’re right. Obama was a very smooth operator. In fact, as you probably recall after…right after the 2008 election, shortly after there was a meeting of the annual meeting of the professional association of advertisers. They give out an award every year to the greatest marketing campaign of the year. Obama won it overwhelmingly, way ahead of “amateurs” like Apple and Google and those. They could see what’s happening. So, it was a great marketing campaign, Hope and Change and all that stuff. The illusions lasted for maybe two years until…the bailout, I think that crushing blow which led all the way to Trump was the bailout after the housing collapse and financial crisis. Congress passed legislation with saying, okay, bail out the perpetrators, because you could argue if that was right or wrong, but they decided on that. So, bail out those who caused the crisis, but give aid and support to the victims, to the people who lost their homes on foreclosures and so on. Obama fulfilled the first part completely; totally forgot about the second part.
In fact, in 2010 there was an election in Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy died. Massachusetts is a very liberal state. The Democratic candidate, the liberal candidate, lost. And one of the reasons was that even union voters didn’t want to vote for the Democrats, and they felt they’d been screwed, you know. And a Republican won. And we see now that the pressure, popular pressure following the left doctrine, constant popular pressure has shifted the party to the left. And if it continues, assuming that Biden wins, that continues, they can keep his feet to the fire. It can. We’ve seen it happen, even to a few Republicans certainly here. But it’s got to continue. We have to go back to the traditional left doctrine. Politics is activism. Occasionally there’s a break, a brief break to decide whether to take off a couple of minutes and vote, then you go back to work. That’s the right doctrine.
AARON MATÉ: Well, could that even begin right now with Biden? In terms of…I know that Bernie has endorsed Biden as he said he would do with whoever won the primary. But could Bernie’s movement, I mean, given that it’s relatively early, it’s May, could Bernie’s movement be organized in a way that withholds the endorsement of many people unless Biden actually commits explicitly to progressive policies such as Medicare for All?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, that’s a tactic that’s proposed, but it’s kind of meaningless. Now, first of all, if Biden’s advisors are bothering to think, they know it’s empty. At least if the people who are advocating this are serious and care about the country, they’re going to vote for Biden anyway. Because there’s a very simple point that a lot of people don’t seem to see, but very simple. If you take a vote away from Biden, it amounts to the same thing as adding a vote to Trump. So if you decide, I’m not going to vote for Biden, that’s the same as if, you know, John Doe comes out of the woodwork and says, okay, I’m going to vote for Trump, changes it [indecipherable 40:30]. In fact, to think it through, it’s actually two votes for Trump if you don’t do it, but let’s not go into the details. It’s essentially voting for Trump. So, if the promise, if the threat is at all meaningful, if people mean it, they’re going to vote for Trump anyway…for Biden anyway, so why pay attention. If they don’t mean it, then it’s not worth talking to them. There are people who are willing to see the country destroyed because they didn’t get what they wanted. So, it’s just…it’s just not a useful tactic, and it’s not going to affect the party program.
What will affect the party program is what has been affecting it all along, namely the constant activism. So, keep demanding, we want this on the program, we want this. Empty threats don’t help that; they just diminish it. The idea that is sometimes proposed is that, well, this will make the Democratic Party pay attention to us, so four years from now maybe they’ll be different. First of all, that’s not going to happen. Secondly, the timescale is all wrong. Four more years of Trump and we’re in deep trouble. So, we got to get rid of this malignancy now. We know how to do it. Take off a couple minutes in November, push the lever, and meanwhile keep the pressure on. And keep the pressure on afterwards. That’s the tactic that works. We’ve seen it work. It’s working right now.
AARON MATÉ: If Biden were elected, I could easily see him returning to the Iran deal that his administration signed. When it comes to another place that is being subjected to murderous US sanctions right now, Venezuela, Biden has pretty much endorsed Trump’s policy of regime change and sanctions, although he may be open to some limited relief during the coronavirus crisis. Do you think that a country like Venezuela could hang on if these sanctions continue?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Thanks, Aaron. You know, we don’t know. They might be able to survive somehow the thing that’s happening to them, and that’s the collapse of the oil price. Whether they can hold out, I don’t know. But on this issue instead of conjecturing about what might happen, we should ask what we can do. I think all the sanctions are…almost all of them are totally illegitimate, and we should be working on getting them eliminated. That’s the thing to be doing. We should be protesting loudly, making the point, educating, organizing, to get what won’t happen with Trump. But to get…if Biden gets elected, to get him to eliminate all the sanctions. That goes way back to the sanctions on Cuba. Right now, I mean, the United States has had cruel, brutal sanctions on Cuba almost from when it became independent, shortly after. It was also combined with a massive terrorist campaign. The whole world is opposed to those sanctions. They come up every year in the United Nations General Assembly. The United States is alone in opposing them; I mean, Israel joins the United States, but they have to. So, it’s basically the United States against the world, as it is on issue after issue. And what activists should be doing is working to educate, organize, carry out actions to get rid of the whole sanctions regime. That’s what you do, and it can be done. Actually, it was a slight success with Obama; not much, but some. It could be more with Biden for the reasons you mentioned.
AARON MATÉ: Even under Reagan, as you touched on before, popular protest made a difference in scaling back the Contra war on Nicaragua.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Not just that, it’s that in particular. In fact, what Reagan had to do was…Reagan was carrying out a terrorist state, a direct terrorist war against just about every country in Central America. Congress blocked some of it. He couldn’t give aid directly to Guatemala, one of the worst killers. So, what Reagan had to do was organize an international terror network of states. Other countries use individual terrorists, like Carlos the Jackal. We’re a big guy, we used terrorist states. So, when Congress blocked funding of the Guatemalan mass murderers, Reagan brought in the Argentine neo-Nazis, the worst of all the Nazi regimes in Latin America. Taiwanese mercenaries. Israel, which was right at the center of it. Guatemalan armies almost completely armed with Israeli arms and instructors. He had to bring in the states to do it. Well, that’s much less efficient than just funding them the way he wanted to do. So, yes, that was popular pressure. The same with the Contra war. He couldn’t…he had to find devious ways of doing it, less efficient ways which, pretty awful. El Salvador, Guatemala even worse. But pretty awful. But could have been a lot worse.
There’s another thing about the pressure on Reagan. You’ll recall that there were huge, enormous protests in the early 80s against the nuclear weapons build-up. I think there’s a pretty good reason to believe that that was part of the background for his agreeing with Gorbachev to establish the INF treaty. In the case of Nixon, there’s by now quite powerful evidence that the mass popular protests aborted his plans to carry out attacks, maybe up to the level of nuclear war, against North Vietnam. So, yes, pressures do work. And against…and with a more accommodating administration, maybe an empty-shell administration like Biden, that could work even more. But they have to be applied. You can’t go home after the election, as in the Obama case you mentioned, and say it’s all in good hands. You can’t do that.
AARON MATÉ: Noam, finally, a lot of people are feeling demoralized right now. People have lost their income, their healthcare, stuck at home in challenging circumstances. You’ve witnessed struggles all around the world, from Gaza to Central America. You’ve interacted very closely with people, organizing under impossible circumstances, to resist repressive forces backed by the US hegemon. I’m wondering if, just as we close, you can share some words on what you’ve learned about human resiliency and the capacity to resist from some of these places that you’ve visited and worked with in supporting freedom struggles.
NOAM CHOMSKY: It’s incredible. I’ve been in many such places, some of them pretty intimately. Gaza, southern Colombia, Kurdish areas of Turkey, Laos, lots of parts of the world. It is amazing to see people resist. One of the most amazing, the real miracle, is East Timor. Rather significant. That’s the scene of the worst genocide per capita since the Second World War. It looked like a hopeless struggle, and here we have a tiny half island, 600,000 people trying to defend themselves against a huge military power that just invaded, which is supported by the United States and supported by Europe. I mean, you can’t get a word into the media about it, nobody can hear the refugees. How could they possibly survive? They did, with the help of a small group of activists here, most of whom…whose names are unknown, like most of the important people in history. Just to mention one, Arnold Kohen, started off as a grad student, did amazing organizing work, kept this issue alive internationally and in the United States, is joined by others. Somehow, they survived. It’s now a country that’s surviving and functioning.
So, again, it’s because people do have this astonishing capacity to resist. And it’s not only abroad. Take my childhood, the Depression, and my extended family was first-generation immigrant, working-class, most of them employed. The conditions were much worse than they are now, much worse, but they never gave up hope. They were… in fact, the period is, I remember, was a much more hopeful one than today, even though the conditions are far better; they’re bad today but far better than they were then. These are internal issues; you can resist if you develop the internal resources that allow you to. And we see this right in front of us, doctors and nurses on the frontline, for example, are carrying out acts of amazing courage and sensitivity and ability to fight against overwhelming odds. You look around the country and around the world, in fact, you see places where people are organizing in communities, poor communities, of people just getting together to figure out ways to bring in food, help people who are sick and elderly, disabled persons to help them survive and things like that. Things are just developing spontaneously. The labor movement is reviving. You mentioned an example with the workers strikes. All of this can continue. It’ll make a big difference.
AARON MATÉ: Noam Chomsky, always a pleasure. Thank you so much.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Good to talk.
Aaron Maté is a journalist and producer. He hosts Pushback with Aaron Maté on The Grayzone. He is also is contributor to The Nation magazine and former host/producer for The Real News and Democracy Now!. Aaron has also presented and produced for Vice, AJ+, and Al Jazeera.