The NS Interview: Noam Chomsky

“President Obama is involved in war crimes right now”

Do you consider yourself to be primarily a scientist or a political activist?
If the world would go away, I would be happy to keep to the science, which is much more interesting and challenging. But the world has an unfortunate habit of not going away and the problems are quite urgent.

What are your thoughts on President Obama?
He's involved in war crimes right now. For example, targeted assassinations are war crimes. That's escalated quite sharply under Obama. If you look at WikiLeaks, there are a lot of examples of attacks on civilians.

What did you think when he was given the Nobel Peace Prize?
Considering the history of the Nobel Peace Prize, it's not the worst example. It was given to him before he had the time to commit many war crimes.

Is there any point in us being in Afghanistan?
We wouldn't have asked in 1985: "Is there any point in the Russians being in Afghanistan?" The fact is that the invasion was a crime. Then comes the question: "Is there any point in continuing?" But that presupposes legitimacy. Putting aside questions of morality and legality and simply asking about the goals of the US government is a very narrow consideration.

What would you like to see happen next in Afghanistan?
There has to be an internal political settlement. Like it or not, the warlords and the Taliban are Afghans, so there has to be a settlement among them. The regional powers also have to be involved, including Pakistan, India and the US - because it's there, not because it belongs there.

Do you worry about Obama's lack of experience in foreign policy?
I don't think that experience is a very useful or convincing attribute for a sensible foreign policy. Henry Kissinger had a lot of experience. [And he still became involved in] the major mass murders in Cambodia.

Is the focus of US foreign policy right?
Let's take the main focus: the Iranian threat. The brutal, clerical regime is a threat to its own population, but it's hardly unique in that respect. The threat to the US came in the presentations to Congress by Pentagon officials in April - they pointed out that the threat is not military; it's to the "stability" of the region.

Do you agree with that assessment?
It's imperial doctrine. Stability is when the UK and US invade a country and impose the regime of their choice. But if Iran tries to interfere, that's destabilising.

What do you make of David Cameron?
It's too early to say much. I haven't been greatly impressed by his policies or his statements.

He recently identified the UK as the junior partner in the "special relationship".
That's too bad for England. It's been a very injurious relationship for England for a long time.

Do countries such as Bolivia have lessons to teach the rest of the world?
Yes. The poorest country in South America, Bolivia had been devastated by neoliberal economic policies. In recent years, the majority of the population won significant battles against privatisation of water. They then entered the political arena and elected someone from their own ranks, and people really engaged with the issues. Their economic growth is now, I think, the best in Latin America.

Are you optimistic about the future of the left?
I don't think it makes much sense to be optimistic, but there's not much point in speculating, either. Either way, the tasks are the same.

Do you vote?
I often do, without much enthusiasm. In the US, there is basically one party - the business party. It has two factions, called Democrats and Republicans, which are somewhat different but carry out variations on the same policies. By and large, I am opposed to those policies. As is most of the population.

What would you like to forget?
There are a lot of things I regret - for example, the Indochina war. I was deeply involved with it, facing a long jail sentence. But I deeply regret that I didn't get involved until the mid-1960s, which was much too late.

Was there a plan?
Well, I had some general guidelines. They're so banal I hate to say them. But what's not banal is applying them in particular situations.

Are we all doomed?
If there was an observer on Mars, they would probably be amazed that we have survived this long. There are two problems for our species' survival - nuclear war and environmental catastrophe - and we're hurtling towards them. Knowingly. This hypothetical Martian would probably conclude that human beings were an evolutionary error.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right

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Alfie’s Other Army: the parents and doctors defending Alder Hey Children’s Hospital

To hundreds of thousands, Alfie Evans is the baby condemned to die by cruel doctors – but others condemn the myths and methods used by protesters fighting for his life.

“Over the time we were there, they saved her life three times over,” says John*. “From our point-of-view, we will always be grateful. If it wasn’t for Alder Hey, she wouldn’t be standing here today.”

Six months ago, the 42-year-old father of four nearly lost his five-year-old daughter to a brain tumour. Suffering severe headaches in October last year, she was rushed in an ambulance to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, near where the family lives in Warrington, and a brain tumour was found at the back of her skull.

What followed was every parent’s nightmare. With their three other children waiting for news at home, they waited – living in the hospital – as their daughter underwent emergency surgery to drain fluid from her brain, a 12-hour operation to attempt to remove the tumour, and nearly suffered from sepsis after she developed an infection.

The surgery was successful, and John’s daughter still has regular appointments with the oncology specialist now.

But the scene outside the hospital has transformed since they arrived in that ambulance last autumn.

A mass of protesters have gathered in solidarity with the parents of Alfie Evans, a 23-month-old boy with a rare neurological condition whose life support has been withdrawn.

Over the past few weeks, there’s been a public surge of sympathy for his parents, Tom Evans and Kate James, which has grown into what’s known as “Alfie’s Army” – a wave of online support as well as a near-permanent rally outside the hospital, where he’s been since December 2016 and remains in a “semi-vegetative” state.

“I feel terrible for Alfie’s parents. I have no idea how they feel; I’ve only been part way down the path that they’re on,” says John. “I can only imagine that they’re at their wit’s end. I applaud them for fighting for their son as much as they are doing.

“What I’ve got an issue with is pockets of the protesters who have caused massive issues and could be stopping other children being cared for, abusing medical staff, and just generally disrupting the hospital on a daily basis,” he adds. “And it’s the kind of place that can’t afford to be disrupted.”

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The protesters support Alfie’s parents, who have lost a string of legal battles to keep their son’s ventilation on; he’s been in a coma for well over a year and has been deemed incurable.

They have attracted a range of people, from other parents to people who don’t live locally – including a mother from Manchester whose son went deaf after developing sepsis during birth – to Christian pro-life campaigners (Alfie’s parents are represented by the Christian Legal Centre, which is part of a religious campaign group called Christian Concern) to a 400,000-member strong Facebook group.

Although Merseyside Police emphasise that “many people have gathered to protest in a peaceful way”, a minority of the protesters have converted their sympathy for Alfie’s parents into hostility towards the hospital, with dozens trying to storm it on Monday, and “instances of verbal abuse and acts of intimidation from those outside the hospital”, according to police.

Protesters have also disrupted traffic, hooted car horns, played music and inflated a bouncy castle. Merseyside Police Assistant Chief Constable Serena Kennedy commented last week that some of their actions caused inconvenience to “people trying to access the hospital”.

A few days later, Chief Inspector Chris Gibson had to “remind the public that this is a hospital for sick children” and asked protesters to “respect families and staff”.

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Online, parents of patients currently in the hospital report feeling upset by the protesters. One says the hospital staff are “still smiling despite the obvious strain of insults being thrown their way”, and claims a couple of them have had “people banging on their car windows on the way into work”. Another whose own child is on life support feels “trapped”, so reluctant is she to face the protesters outside.

This has given rise to a new online movement expressing support for the hospital. The #ImWithAlderHey hashtag is used on Twitter by locals defending the work of their hospital, NHS staff from other hospitals, and people dismissing the protesters as deluded.

There are also Facebook groups in support of the hospital, but they reach nowhere near the numbers of Alfie’s Army. Even its official page is smaller, with just over 60,000 followers.

Supporters of the hospital say this is because both traditional and social media have fuelled a viral movement against Alder Hey. The UK tabloids have been sensationalising the story – “Conspiracy to murder” was the Metro’s splash today – and social media is spreading myths about Alfie’s condition and the doctors’ and judges’ motives.

Some claim the hospital is trying to save money by reducing Alfie’s treatment to palliative care; a few accuse the doctors of a “conspiracy” to end Alfie’s life; others suggest he’s in better health than doctors suggest, because he continued breathing after his ventilation was switched off (doctors say they expected this).

“Everyone jumps on Google and suddenly thinks they are qualified doctors,” says Clare, a 21-year-old mother whose friend’s two-year-old child is being treated at Alder Hey. “Social media especially [has influenced people].

“They [the staff] have done nothing but wonderful things for my friend’s child even during the madness of the protests. It’s so lovely to see their child smile because of the staff,” she says. “I’m disgusted that grown adults think it’s acceptable to stand outside of a children’s hospital… threatening staff and other visitors.”

“I think the people have joined because it’s within the media, it’s talked about, people know about the case,” says Poppy*, a nurse at a different hospital, who knows people at Alder Hey and has a 19-month-old baby.

“I most definitely think they have been influenced by the media, social media. The page ‘Alfie’s Army’ is a huge source of information… [but] they also use the page to slander Alder Hey and their staff,” she says. “There’s no moral respect for anyone. And it’s not just NHS staff they target. It’s everyone who doesn’t agree with ‘saving’ Alfie.”

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There is a cultish feel to a handful of online posts about Alder Hey. While trawling, I even find a picture of the famous Auschwitz gate mocked up to read the hospital’s name.

This kind of tone shows the unintended consequences of a campaign going viral, and puts Alfie’s parents into an even more distressing situation. Last week, his father even had to apologise “to the parents and staff” affected by the protesters. While they are understandably fighting as hard as they can for their child, not everyone joining them in battle is helping.

The upshot is that this case has morphed from a debate about life support ethics into an issue of protecting hospital staff and patient visitors.

Parliament is now being petitioned to “Protect hospitals with exclusion zones preventing protest outside”, and although its low number of signatures is nothing on the petition for the Queen to intervene in Alfie Evans’ case, it does echo the context of a landmark ruling to ban pro-life protesters from outside an abortion clinic earlier this month.

While the swell of sympathy for Alfie’s parents is understood by all I speak to, the myths and methods swirling around it could be doing more harm than good.

“I think people have joined the family’s cause because they care,” a visitor to the hospital tells me. “It’s human nature to protect our young and nobody wants to see a child die... [But] it’s awful to see such hard-working professionals being criticised in such a way when they’ve gone above and beyond for every patient in their care.”

*All names have been changed on request of anonymity.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right