“I’m a Fighting Atheist”, Interview with Doug Henwood

Question: A lot of readers of American underground publications read Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, and the stuff coming out of small anarchist presses. What would they get from reading your work that they might be missing?

Zizek: Martin Heidegger said that philosophy doesn’t make things easier, it makes them harder and more complicated. What they can learn is the ambiguity of so many situations, in the sense that whenever we are presented by the big media with a simple opposition, like multicultural tolerance vs. ethnic fundamentalism, the opposition is never so clear-cut. The idea is that things are always more complex. For example, multiculturalist tolerance, or at least a certain type of it, generates or involves a much deeper racism. As a rule, this type of tolerance relies on the distinction between us multiculturalists, and intolerant ethnic others, with the paradoxical result that anti-racism itself is used to dismiss IN A RACIST WAY the other as a racist. Not to mention the fact that this kind of “tolerance” is as a rule patronizing. Its respect for the other cannot but remind us of the respect for naive children’s beliefs: we leave them in their blessed ignorance so as not to hurt them…

Or take Chomsky. There are two problematic features in his work — though it goes without saying that I admire him very much. One is his anti-theorism. A friend who had lunch with him recently told me that Chomsky announced that he’d concluded that social theory and economic theory are of no use — that things are simply evident, like American state terror, and that all we need to know are the facts. I disagree with this. And the second point is that with all his criticism of the U.S., Chomsky retains a certain commitment to what is the most elemental ingredient of American ideology, individualism, a fundamental belief that America is the land of free individuals, and so on. So in that way he is deeply and problematically American.

You can see some of these problems in the famous Faurisson scandal in France. As many readers may know, Chomsky wrote the preface for a book by Robert Faurisson, which was threatened with being banned because it denied the reality of the Holocaust. Chomsky claimed that though he opposes the book’s content, the book should still be published for free speech reasons. I can see the argument, but I can’t support him here. The argument is that freedom of the press is freedom for all, even for those whom we find disgusting and totally unacceptable; otherwise, today it is them, tomorrow it is us. It sounds logical, but I think that it avoids the true paradox of freedom: that some limitations have to guarantee it.

So to understand what goes on today — to understand how we experience ourselves, to understand the structures of social authority, to understand whether we really live in a “permissive” society, and how prohibitions function today — for these we need social theory. That’s the difference between me and the names you mentioned.

Question: Chomsky and people like him seem to think that if we just got the facts out there, things would almost take care of themselves. Why is this wrong? Why aren’t “the facts” enough?

Zizek: Let me give you a very naive answer. I think that basically the facts are already known. Let’s take Chomsky’s analyses of how the CIA intervened in Nicaragua. OK, (he provides) a lot of details, yes, but did I learn anything fundamentally new? It’s exactly what I’d expected: the CIA was playing a very dirty game. Of course it’s more convincing if you learn the dirty details. But I don’t think that we really learned anything dramatically new there. I don’t think that merely “knowing the facts” can really change people’s perceptions.

To put it another way: Chomsky’s own position on Kosovo, on the Yugoslav war, shows some of his limitations, because of a lack of a proper historical context. With all his facts, he got the picture wrong. As far as I can judge, Chomsky bought a certain narrative — that we shouldn’t put all the blame on Milosevic, that all parties were more or less to blame, and the West supported or incited this explosion because of its own geopolitical goals. All are not the same. I’m not saying that the Serbs are guilty. I just repeat my old point that Yugoslavia was not over with the secession of Slovenia. It was over the moment Milosevic took over Serbia. This triggered a totally different dynamic. It is also not true that the disintegration of Yugoslavia was supported by the West. On the contrary, the West exerted enormous pressure, at least until 1991, for ethnic groups to remain in Yugoslavia. I saw [former Secretary of State] James Baker on Yugoslav TV supporting the Yugoslav army’s attempts to prevent Slovenia’s secession.

The ultimate paradox for me is that because he lacks a theoretical framework, Chomsky even gets the facts wrong sometimes.

[Extract. Appeared in Bad Subjects, February 2002. For full interview follow link, the ‘fighting atheist’ part is towards the end.]

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