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PDX Protests - Q&A with Noam Chomsky

During the height of the Anti-War Protests in PDX, I wrote a letter to Noam Chomsky asking for his opinion on the dilemmas we had been facing locally. The following article is comprised of these letters, beginning with my own so that his appears in context.
Dear Mr. Chomsky,

Since the beginning of the war in Iraq, many citizens have voiced their opposition to the war. Much of this has taken the form of protests in the streets, in the parks, in the square, etc. Groups have formed, wherein lunch hour is the designated time to meet up downtown and pass out anti-war fliers. However, very little is coming of this past negative response and publicity. Headlines read that 'Bush Will Not Be Deterred by Anti-War Protests'. News coverage of the protests make the protestors out to be a mob of crazed rebels doing more damage than good, and the air surrounding is heavy with 'Just give up. No one will listen. The protests will not influence the outcome, & furthermore- your position is unpatriotic'.

Taking the patriotism stance a step further, a bill (#742) has been introduced to Oregon State Legislature, which means to expand the definition of 'terrorism' to anyone who "knowingly plans, participates in, or carries out an act intended to disrupt the free and orderly assembly" of Oregonians. The minimum sentence being twenty-five years in prison without the possibility of parole.

When my friends and I come by posts online asking why people feel that protesting is necessary, we have found that the most understood answer is to explain that if no one protested, it would be easy to think that the propaganda in the media was true- that the citizens of the US are okay with what's going on- but that people such as ourselves won't tolerate that.
However, when such negative feedback is received, such as articles in newspapers from the prints' audience asking the protestors in general "what they think they are accomplishing," and "can't you figure out a better idea?" I am not sure what to say.

I was born in the early eighties. I missed (by default & childhood ignorance) the "end" of apartheid, Operation Desert Storm, the pharmaceutical bombing of Nicaragua, etc. and looking to the past for guidance I hear sorted tales of protests throughout history. I am an idealist, and would like to stick to the mentality that one voice can make a difference, let alone a community of people banding together for the sake of their cause. However, in light of these reactions (both local and in the presidential headlines), I am unsure as to where to turn. There are alternatives, both creative (sending bags of rice to the president to be given to "our enemies") and to the point (with "Write Your Congressman" sites accessible to the public)- but is there a better route?

Thank you very much for lending me your time in reading this. I sincerely hope that you are doing well, and that you are enjoying yourself in all of your endeavors.

Thanks again,
Amanda Fournier

His reply:


100s of e-mails to answer, so have to be brief. What you describe is not only happening all over the country, but has been happening for 100s of years. There isn't the slightest doubt that protest is effective, but anything worth struggling for won't be won in a day. Abolitionism?
Women's rights? Overthrowing Apartheid? Pick and choose. In this case, the protests certainly had an effect, if not in stopping this aggression, in changing estimates about the next one. These protests will prove to be extremely significant, if they are the basis for building for the future, and they can be. There are, in fact, quite ambitious efforts underway to put together a really massive international movement, and it's not out of the question. Check Znet (zmag.org) for Mike Albert's proposals.

Of course, when anything is effective, there are efforts by power and privilege to stop it. All kinds of ways, including those you mention. But we're very lucky in comparison with most of the world. Repression here exists, but it is marginal by comparative standards. And people who face vastly more serious consequences than we do don't give up.

As for the best way to proceed, there's no answer, and never has been. If a magic key existed, someone would have told us about it long ago. It always comes back to the same thing: education, including self-education; organization; activism, which can take a great many forms, depending on who you are, what you choose, what are your opportunities, and all sorts of factors that only the person involved really knows about.


Take back our minds Take back our language! 28.Sep.2004 16:58


Chumpski has many good notions & ideas. But amorphous dissent and protest is not one of them. If we truly think that time is on our side, that we can make mistakes and miss good opportunities, wait indefinitely for people to think that fascism may not be a good thing, then we commit a vast historic blunder by thinking in this way.
What can we do? One answer is to build strong,effective popular organizations, capable of influencing public opinion & mobilizing people's opposition at critical times and places..
Frankly, many people will have other ideas--great! And have they stopped any cruise-missile attacks or saved any children from getting hit with cluster bombs? Moral: Nothing we have yet done has been completely effective. For my own part I work for a Peace candidate in the upcoming Oregon election. If we do nothing else put importatant issue & ideas before people's eyes, then that's a wholesome gain.

What is Chomsky 's opinion worth now? 28.Sep.2004 18:52

9-11 truth seeker

Chomsky's swallowed the official line on 9-11 just as he swallowed the Warren Commission's conclusion on the Kennedy assassination. What does that say about the man? What is his advice worth now? As a past critique of Israel's actions against the Palestinians, why is he afraid to look at or say anything about the role of Israel in the 9-11 attack. Mike Ruppert new book "Crossing the Rubicon" perhaps sheds new light on who did 9-11 and at the same time raises new questions about Chomsky's political line.

Chomsky is a light in the darkness of despair 28.Sep.2004 19:30


Chomsky once again tells us what we know but too often forget: If protest weren't effective, there wouldn't be so many reactionaries upset by it wasting so much energy denouncing it. Imagine what a nightmare we'd face if there WERE no protest, if the rulers thought they could get away with anything without facing growing public resistance. Since the 1970s, we have learned that Nixon was within moments of deciding to launch a "limited" nuclear strike on Vietnam, but was deterred by the immensity of the antiwar protests from following through.

I think it's admirable that this man who is so famous and admired and undoubtedly swamped with correspondence still takes the time to write out thoughtful, heartfelt responses to ordinary folks. He reminds us that those of us with consciousness and a conscience have no excuse for not doing our level best. As he says, many others elsewhere have it much worse, and they don't give in. Why should we?

What is Chomsky proposing? 29.Sep.2004 02:33

Too General

With his position, Chomsky should be at the forefront of the revolution proposing radical but practical tactics. That he fails to do this is a shame. Organize, educate and be an activist -- a little vague, don't you think? Hopefully he's not suggesting that Albert (of zmag) with his promotion of the Green party is worthwhile. How weak is that?! Who wants to vote for a cosmetically progressive party that suffers the indignity of not being in the debates and probably isn't even on all the ballots. Besides, didn't Chomsky promote Kerry as anybody but Bush? That's weaker still! It's nice that he thinks we're lucky here in America but how true is that considering that we are the most oil-dependent nation, mass-extinction will catch up with everyone, and a huge portion of the world's nukes are pointed at us. And what about all the nuke plants and the prevalence of GE crops here? And what about the fact that the U.S. has the largest per-capita prison population in the world? Glossing over these things just shows how Chomsky epitomizes the scholar in the ivory tower. The world (life & freedom) is in serious trouble and we need big radical solutions not Chomsky's shoulder-shrugging drivel. Was Amanda looking for the "magic key" that Chomsky mentioned or was she looking for in-the-trenches action? Unlike what Chomsky seems to suggest, radical progressives need to start getting there hands dirty breaking a few eggs. Now it's not that Noam is all wrong, the war protests did perhaps help a little bit, but there is much more that needs to be done on all levels. People need to be devoted to serious change and need to protest more vigorously at all levels. Doesn't the course of events demand even panic and acts of desperation for all future generations (to say nothing of those now living who will see the first decline in the human population since the Black Death swept through europe). There is ironically a negative connotation to it, but survivalism might be a practical base to build upon while protesting as effectively as often as you can. If you're looking for a multinational problem that people all over the world can unite against, I'd suggest taking a look at Exxon/Mobil. A boycott is only the obvious basic beginning and people are already working hard on it. Also, while revolution can be fun, reform probably can't. Not only should we do what we can, but we might even try to do what we can't -- at this point in the course of civilization it's necessary if the world (life & freedom) is to survive.


Chomsky ignores covert US geoengineering and US biowarfare 29.Sep.2004 12:56


The US army wants to control the climate by 2025 - this they state openly. But what they do covertly is what should make this ivory tower armchair wishy washy "libertarian anarchist" speak out against the US military at each and every public conference that he holds. Why he doesn't speak against the US military covert operations on the climate says much about the man. Since the mainstream media is now part of the military-industrial-complex Chomsky should be using his position to inform the public of the consequences of US control of the climate and US biowarfare. Perhaps he hasn't read Dr.Rosalie Bertell's book "Planet Earth:The Latest Weapon of War"(2000) on the weather manipulation and the destruction of the Earth's atmosphere by the US military. Surely this is THE PRIORITY!

Bertell (a nun) has some real important concrete suggestions for progressive activists. Now that's genuine disinterested leadership!

You are not alone. . . 29.Sep.2004 13:02

Hal E. Burton

If you're looking for practical ideas. . .


The "real" world 29.Sep.2004 13:36

akwonderboy rschowen@pdx.edu

To all of the critiques of Chomsky, I offer one thought: as no person or intellect is perfect, neither can we hold the intellectual or the academy to perfect standard. Beyond that, I find Chomsky's reply well-reasoned in light of the current socio-political economy within which we must operate. Indeed, no change happens overnight, especially in regard to great political struggle and dissent. While we may be socialized in a system of immediate gratification, it must be recognized that the cultural politic at hand is not responsive to immediacy and, specifically, immediacy that represents dissent. I believe we hold intellectuals and academics to unreal standards in asking: what do we do? The best response is that we do what is in our hearts, ground ourselves immediately in peace, and in hope for the future, and maintain our position in the face of opposition. We might not transform the body politic in one fell swoop, but at least we can sleep at night knowing in our hearts that we have done all we can do.

Portlanders think!!!! 30.Sep.2004 13:36

josie b.

Ever since Chomsky gave his version of 911 - much safer to most minds than realizing it was an inside job - I started doubting him. But here in Eugene, to doubt or dislike Chomsky will get you lots of harassment from the 'liberals'. Then when he refused to endorse Dennis Kucinch and stated that he feared for what would happen if Dennis were nominated, I knew we were not on the same team anymore. I appreciate his worak and have been reading him since college - more than 20 years ago - but he's become too 'establishment'. Thank goddess for the Michael Rupperts, Ralph Naders and West Coast activists willing to tell the truth and take a stand.

stating the obvious 30.Sep.2004 16:52

here it is

No matter what Chomsky suggests, most of the people on this page will say it's wrong & imply he should be promoting their pet project instead.

When they don't get that explicit about it, they end up saying pretty much exactly what he said, right after they said he doesn't go far enough!

Chomsky 30.Sep.2004 17:34

Douglas Lain

Chomsky is not a revolutionary. He is not perfect. He is valuable.

How and why is he valuable? Mostly he is valuable because of his ability to do a tremendous amount of research on the crimes of the American State. He has written literally volumes about US foriegn policy, and it is all valuable. He is also valuable because he does not hedge his bets when it comes to stating the facts. He is essentially honest.

His honesty can be frustrating, however, especially for people who are looking to him for answers about how we proceed. Chomsky has a vision of a better society, but doesn't have any plans or strategy about how to get to that better society. He's honest about this. He offers only the vaguest suggestions about how to proceed.

Perhaps it is time we started coming up with our own plans, started inventing our own solutions. Chomsky is never going to come up with these solutions for us. That's not what he does well, it's not what he's about.

A Brief History of Dissent 05.Oct.2004 08:19


History is a chronicle of victory after victory by forces of progressive dissent against entrenched conservative positions. Pick it. Whether the struggle was against feudalism, against the entrenched power of the church, against slavery, the right to vote, women's rights, the environment, etc. history is a chronicle of conservative positions coming down in flames against the power of dissenting liberal thought and activism. History is a chronicle of man's inexorable leftward movement towards an ever more progressive way of thinking and acting. History speaks a clear message to conservative forces that resist progressive ideals. Your efforts are doomed to failure.

learn to read. 07.Sep.2005 20:41

Just somebody

nothing like a good ole' leftist backstabbing party. chomsky TOO establishment?, to impure for thou huh? you better get straight who the enemy is here. also, some of you need to learn to read. If you think chomsky's comments are too vague, you should re-read the e-mail. I recall him complaining that he has to be brief because he is answering like a hundred of them.