Lunch with Noam Chomsky


John McDermott talks to Noam Chomsky in the FT:

I am about to ask the professor about Hugo Chávez, who died the night before our lunch, but a waitress arrives and asks for our order. Chomsky chooses the clam chowder, and a salad with pecans, blue cheese, apples and a lot of adjectives. I go for tomato soup and a salmon salad. The professor asks for a cup of coffee and since we are about to discuss the late Venezuelan leader, I ask for a cup, too.

In 2006, Chávez recommended Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance to the UN General Assembly. “It’s a mixed story,” Chomsky says of Chávez’s legacy. He points to reduced poverty and increased literacy. “On the other hand there are plenty of problems,” such as violence and police corruption; he also mentions western hostility – in particular an attempted coup in 2002 supported by the US. America’s behaviour towards Caracas is obviously important in any assessment of Chávez but its appearance is an early signifier of a pattern in a Chomsky conversation: talk for long enough about politics with the professor and the probability of US foreign policy or National Socialism being mentioned approaches one.

I say that he hasn’t referred to Chávez’s human rights record. Some of Chomsky’s critics have accused him of going easy on the faults of autocrats so long as they are enemies of the US. Chomsky denies this vehemently: he spoke out against the consolidation of power by the state broadcaster; he protested the case of María Lourdes Afiuni, a judge who spent more than a year in prison awaiting trial for releasing a government critic. “And I do a million cases like that one.”

Still, Chomsky thinks about how hard to hit his targets. He admits as much as our soups arrive. “Suppose I criticise Iran. What impact does that have? The only impact it has is in fortifying those who want to carry out policies I don’t agree with, like bombing.” He argues that any criticisms about, say, Chávez, will invariably get into the mainstream media, whereas those he makes about the US will go unreported. This unfair treatment is the dissident’s lot, according to Chomsky. Intellectuals like to think of themselves as iconoclasts, he says. “But you take a look through history and it’s the exact opposite. The respected intellectuals are those who conform and serve power interests.”