Noam Chomsky on the Arab Spring

Famed professor and linguist Noam Chomsky gave a lecture on the Arab Spring and some of its consequences Thursday night in 26-100. This event was sponsored and carried out by both Amnesty International and i-House, and its main purpose was to bring awareness of issues from the Arab Spring and provide a perspective from a distinguished speaker.

The Arab Spring describes the revolutions and protests that have recently swept through the Middle East. It began with local demonstrations and quickly grew into a large series of national power reversals in the Middle East, starting in Tunisia, continuing with Egypt, and later, Tripoli, all the while igniting public action and governmental response from many of the countries in the region.

At 6 p.m., the event started with an opening speech by MIT Amnesty International president, Ngee Yong Teo. In his speech, he gave a quick retelling of the events of the Arab Spring, and then called for a moment of silence for all of those hurt by effects of the Arab Spring.

Teo then went on to introduce Chomsky, the father of modern linguistics. Chomsky has been at MIT since 1955 and is a political theorist and activist. His political activity began in the time of the Vietnam War and continues to today.

Chomsky’s focus centered around how U.S. foreign policy shaped the events of the Arab Spring. Throughout his talk, he highlighted the idea that the U.S. only acts in ways that will be favorable for its own interests, and that since the areas with power changes did not really affect U.S interests, the U.S. would do nothing to stop revolutions. In nations in which the U.S. held high stakes, however, governmental change would be struck down.

He began speaking by bringing up two points about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East that would become the basis for his lecture:

  1. The “U.S. wants to control energy resources in the region”
  2. What the U.S. “[doesn’t] want is very clearly Democracy”, since it blocks control on energy and its plans to organize the world

He then went on to bring out a few polls on the Arab world, some of which included:

73% see Israel and the U.S. as the biggest threat.

5% are afraid of Iran

80% believe the cause of Palestine should be the cause of every Arab

55% see Israel having nuclear weapons as dangerous

From here, he continued to weave the argument that the U.S. is not hated by groups in the Middle East because of the way we live or the freedoms we have, but because of the policies the U.S. has enacted and supported across that region. According to Chomsky, the perception in the Arab world is that the U.S. supports harsh and brutal regimes to control the energy supply.

Chomsky repeated the theme of the U.S. in search of its own interests, following the “state model” of behavior — one which compels the state to favor itself. The kind of democracy Chomsky said the U.S. would support is one that serves its own interests — a top down procedural democracy in which the U.S. could control as much a possible.

In effect, Chomsky summed it up by saying that the view the U.S. holds is that “democracy’s okay as long as you do what we say — otherwise, we will crush you”.

He then went on to talk about the uprisings themselves, going over why some worked and some didn’t. For example, Chomsky stated that there was no Arab spring in Saudi Arabi because it was so totally crushed — people were afraid to even walk out.

Saudi Arabia was kept from the possibility of a revolution since it was a powerhouse of oil, and in accomplishing a change of power, would hinder U.S. interests in the area. Bahrain was also suffocated of the ability to revolt by virtue of being too close to Saudi Arabia and hosting the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Because of that, both countries remained the way they were before the Arab Spring.

The theme of advancing U.S. interests was present once again as he talked about Tunisia and Egypt. Tunisia was mostly under French influence, so the U.S. didn’t really put attention there, but Mubarak, in charge of Egypt, was supported by the U.S. until the army turned on him, at which point the U.S. turned on him as well. Chomsky then said that the goal of the U.S. is to reinstate that top-down democracy once more, and that this was the pattern this nation took every time an uprising occurred in a nation of affiliation.

From here, much of the rest of his lecture was bringing up evidence for these claims and unpacking them before the audience so the people could understand how he reached his conclusion.

The end of his lecture came rather abruptly since he ran out of time.

After this, a short time was given to a Q&A session with the audience.

In the Q&A he was asked about a variety of topics dealing with how to remove the compulsion from the U.S. to become involved in this manner, why some nations are treated as nations while others are unrecognized as such, why Europe doesn’t like to go against the U.S. in policy area, and one of the kinds of psychologies for the U.S. being under Providencialism, the thought that a country’s actions are mandated by the will of “God” or a higher power.

At the end of the event, Chomsky was swarmed by many people eager to ask a question or have a chance to talk and meet him, and after a while of beating back audience members, the event organizers spirited him away safely.

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