Tuesday, May 27, 2008

United States of Insecurity - Interview with Noam Chomsky

... Sometimes it's argued that the universities should just be neutral, that they shouldn't take positions on anything. Well, there's merit in that, I would like to see that in some abstract universe, but in this universe what that position entails is conformity to the distribution of external power. So let me take a concrete case, aspects of which are still very much alive on my own campus. Let's take some distance so we can see things more clearly. Back in the 1960s, in my university, MIT, the political science department was carrying out studies with students and faculty on counterinsurgency in Vietnam. Okay, that reflected the distribution of power in the outside society. The US is involved in counterinsurgency in Vietnam: it's our patriotic duty to help. A free and independent university would have been carrying out studies on how poor peasants can resist the attack of a predatory superpower. Can you imagine how much support that would have gotten on campus? Well, okay, that's what neutrality turns into when it's carried out—when the ideal, which is a good ideal, is pursued unthinkingly. It ends up being conformity to power. ... Let's take a current case. Right now there's a lot of concern about nuclear weapons in Iran. Well, again, take my own campus, MIT. In the 1970s Iran was under the rule of a brutal tyrant who the United States and Britain had imposed by force in a military coup overthrowing the democratic government. So Iran was therefore an ally. Well, in the government, people like Henry Kissenger, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and others, were calling for Iran to develop nuclear capacities and nuclear power and so on, which means a step short of nuclear weapons. And my own university, MIT, made an arrangement with the Shah of Iran, the dictator, to train Iranian nuclear engineers. It was the 1970s. There was enormous student protest about that. But very little faculty protest, in fact, the faculty approved it. And it was instituted. In fact, some of the people now running the Iranian nuclear programs are graduates of MIT. Well, is the university neutral in those respects? No, not really; it's conforming to power interests. In this case, to go back to an earlier part of our conversation, they did conform to short-term commitments to power and profit but with long-term consequences that were quite harmful to the very same people who instituted them. Henry Kissinger, who at least has the virtue of honesty, was asked by the Washington Post why he is now objecting to same Iranian programs that he was instrumental in instituting when he was in office back in the 70s. And he said, frankly, Well, they were an ally then. They needed nuclear power. And now they are an enemy so they don't need nuclear power. Okay, he's a complete cynic, but he's an honest one, fortunately. But should universities take that position? ...

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