Capotean Interview

by Toni Montesinos (originally published in Spanish here >>)

 

In 1972, Truman Capote published an original text that became the autobiography that has never been written. He titled it “Self-portrait” (in The Dogs Bark, 1973), and in it he gave himself with cunning and brilliance. Those questions that serve to proclaim his frustrations, desires, and customs, now, extracted, for the most part, form the following “Capotean interview”, with which they devote themselves to the other side, that of life, of Jorge Majfud. 

 

If you had to live in one place, never being able to leave it, which one would you choose?

In reality, that place exists: it is childhood. Now, if it were to be a physical, particular place, I think it would be that huge tree on my grandparents’ farm where I could see my loved ones who are no longer there and, somehow, those who were not there yet.

Do you prefer animals over people?

Sometimes. It does not depend on what animals but on what people.

Are you cruel?

So so, like everyone else. Frequently, truth is a form of cruelty and one must decide if it is worth it. Other times, one is cruel only through ignorance or petty passions, such as annoyance or frustration.

Do you have lots of friends?

I have a few friends sure and many friends maybe.

What characteristics do you look for in your friends?

I do not look for anything in particular. Each one is different and friendship, like love, is something that happens without any logic.

Do your friends usually disappoint you?

Yes, like any other kind of human being. But I worry much more about disappointing them.

Are you a sincere person?

I do not think anyone can answer that question sincerely. More than sincere, I try to be honest. 

How do you prefer to spend your free time?

Reading a book that does not kill my time. Talking to someone who does not kill me over time. 

What are you afraid of the most?

The suffering of my loved ones.

What scandalizes you, if there is anything that scandalizes you?

At my age almost nothing scandalizes me. I am disgusted with hypocrisy, the scandal of a kiss and the tolerance of violence, the death of a single child under smart bombs, the oppression of entire peoples, the Lies of Mass Destruction. 

If you had not decided to be a writer, to lead a creative life, what would you have done?

If I were not a writer walking or washing dishes would be a lot less interesting. I don’t know, I have done many different things in my life. Maybe I would have been a physicist. I was always attracted to Theory of Relativity.

Do you practice any type of physical exercise?

If walking on the beach is an exercise …

Can you cook?

No, but I try almost every day.

If Reader’s Digest commissioned you to write one of those articles on “an unforgettable character,” who would you choose?

I would not know who to write about. We are all forgettable.

What is the most hopeful word in any language?

“Sorry”.

And the most dangerous?

“Patriotism.”

Have you ever wanted to kill someone?

Never, even as a child, despite having seen so many people die and kill themselves.

What are your political leanings?

I always resisted all temptations, which were not few, to associate with a political party. The parties split, divide in very arbitrary ways. They are a necessary evil, like the monolineal simplification of left and right. Now, among all the simplifications I prefer the less used up and down and take sides for those below. 

If you could be something else, what would you like to be?

Someone who could abolish pain and death.

What are your main addictions?

Read, drink two beers, travel to the past, imagine what will come, people’s timeless smile … I do not know, so many things. In short, life.

And your virtues?

I hope that I have some, although who knows if this has any importance.

Imagine that you are drowning. What images, within the classical scheme, would pass through your head?

The water, I suppose.

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Rescuing Memory: the Humanist Interview with Noam Chomsky

by Jorge Majfud

August 8, 2016.

[Pictures Sarah Silbiger]

Originally published in The Humanist, July/August 2016

 

July / August 2016

 

 

Just before twelve thirty on a recent spring afternoon, I found myself on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the building that houses the linguistics and philosophy departments. A group of Japanese students, full of youthful excitement, were waiting outside Noam Chomsky’s eighth-floor office. They approached the door and read the name card on it. They took pictures—lots of pictures—with happy and surprised expressions, but then quickly turned serious. They paused to take a brief moment of silence, which almost felt mystical, and then headed out.

 

At the age of eighty-seven, the renowned linguist, philosopher, historian, cognitive scientist, and critic Noam Chomsky maintains the same clarity found in any of his books, lectures, or television appearances dating back to the 1970s. While in a face-to-face he might adopt an informal and humorous tone towards relevant topics, he is very much that same serious and detailed thinker who we all recognize from the conferences and different interviews—one of those individuals history will remember for centuries.

 

Years after having met Chomsky at Princeton University and collaborating with him on the Spanish translation of a book (Ilusionistas, 2012), I was now interested in finding out the roots of his social and political thinking during our meeting. I started by remembering the many letters we had exchanged for the better part of a decade. In one of the letters I had commented about how my son was adjusting to a society that was his but only by birth, noting that he spoke English with a slight Spanish accent. When Chomsky had a chance, he wrote me this:

 

When I was a boy, we were the only Jewish family in a terribly anti-Semitic neighborhood. Those streets weren’t any fun for us but our parents never found that out. In a way, you avoid telling your parents what happened to you during those days.

 

I reminded him of this in order to start a dialogue about that world and its universal implications. What follows is a conversation that went beyond what was initially planned.

 

Jorge Majfud: Before WWII, anti-Semitism and Nazism were much more common in the United States than Americans are willing to accept today. Henry Ford (awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle by the Nazi Government), General Motors, Alcoa, and Texaco are just a few examples of supportive U.S. business interests. And after the war, Jews faced serious (and absurd) obstacles in migrating as refugees while many Nazis were granted visas (through Mexico) to help develop NASA programs. What memories do you have of those times when you were a Jewish teenager?

 

Noam Chomsky: When I was growing up in the 1930s and ’40s anti-Semitism was rampant. It wasn’t like Nazi Germany but it was pretty serious—it was part of life. So, for example, when my father was able to buy a secondhand car in the late 1930s, and he took us to the countryside for a weekend, if we looked for a motel to stay in we had to see if it said “restricted” on it. “Restricted” meant no Jews. You didn’t have to say “no Blacks,” which was something people took for granted. There was also a national policy, which as a child I didn’t know anything about. In 1924 the first major immigration law was passed. Before that, there was an Oriental Exclusion Act, but other than that, European immigrants like my parents were generally admitted in the early years of the twentieth century. But that ended in 1924 with an immigration law that was pretty much directed against Jews and Italians.

 

JM: Was it connected to the Red Scare?

 

Chomsky: Well, sort of—in the background. It was right after Woodrow Wilson’s first serious post-World War I repression, which deported thousands of people, effectively destroyed unions and independent press, and so on. Right after that, the anti-immigration law was passed that remained in place until 1960s. And that was the reason why very few people fleeing the rise of fascism in Europe, especially in Germany, could get to the United States. And there were famous incidents like with the MS Saint Louis, which brought a lot of immigrants, mostly Jewish, from Europe. It reached Cuba, with people expecting to be admitted to the United States from there. But the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt wouldn’t allow them in and they had to go back to Europe where many of them died in concentration camps.

 

JM: There were cases involving different countries as well.

 

Chomsky: It’s a lesser-known story, but the Japanese government (after the Russian-Nazi pact, which split Poland) did allow Polish Jews to come to Japan, with the expectation that they would then be sent to the United States. But they weren’t accepted, so they stayed in Japan. There’s an interesting book called The Fugu Plan, written by Marvin Tokayer and Mary Swartz, which describes the circumstances when European Jews came to Japan, a semi-feudal society.

 

After WWII there were many Jews who remained in refugee camps … President Harr F. Truman called for a commission, it was called the Harrison Commission, to investigate the situation in the camps and it was a pretty gloomy report. There were very few Jews admitted into the United States.

 

JM: These policies had many other lasting consequences.

 

Chomsky: Of course. The Zionist movement based in Palestine pretty much took over the camps and instituted the policy that every man and woman between the ages of seventeen and thirty-five should be directed to Palestine—they weren’t allowed to go to the West. A 1998 study was done in Hebrew by an Israeli scholar, Yosef Grodzinsky, and the English translation of the title is Good Human Material. That is what they wanted sent to Palestine for colonization and for the eventual conflict that took place some years later. These policies were somewhat complementary to the U.S. policy of pressuring England to allow Jews to go to Palestine, but not allowing them here. The British politician Ernest Bevin was pretty bitter about it, asking, “if you want to save the Jews, why send them to Palestine when you don’t admit them?” I suspect most likely that more Nazis came to America. I was a student at Harvard during the early 1950s. There was practically no Jewish faculty there.

 

JM: According to some articles, Franklin Roosevelt, when he was a member of the board at Harvard, considered that there were too many Jews in the college.

 

Chomsky: There’s an interesting book about that called The Third Reich and the Ivory Tower, written by Stephen H. NorwoodIt has a long discussion about Harvard, and indeed the school’s president, James Conant, did block Jewish faculty. He was the one who prevented European Jews from being admitted to the chemistry department—his field—and also had pretty good relations with the Nazis. When Nazi emissaries came to the United States, they were welcomed at Harvard.

 

JM: It’s something that was very common at the time, however today nobody seems willing to accept it.

 

Chomsky: In general, the attitude towards Nazi Germany was not that hostile, especially if you look at the U.S. State Department reports. In 1937 the State Department was describing Adolf Hitler as a “moderate” who was holding off the forces of the right and the left. In the Munich agreement in late 1938, Roosevelt sent his chief adviser Sumner Welles, who came back with a very supportive statement saying that Hitler was someone we could really do business with and so on. That was late 1938. George Kennan is another extreme case. He was the American consul in Berlin until the war between Germany and United States broke out in December 1941. And until then he was writing pretty supportive statements back stressing that we shouldn’t be so hard on the Nazis if they were doing something we didn’t agree with—basically saying they were people we could do business with. The British had an even stronger business interest in Nazi Germany. And Benito Mussolini was greatly admired.

 

 

On racism of every color

 

JM: In addition to anti-Semitism and racism toward African Americans, there were other groups that suffered. For example, during the 1930s, around half a million Mexican Americans were blamed for the Great Depression and deported in various different ways. And most of them were U.S. citizens.

 

Chomsky: Well, there was a strong nativist tradition—saying, “we have to protect ourselves”—that comes from the founding of the country. If you read Benjamin Franklin, who was one of the leading figures of the Enlightenment in the United States and the most distinguished representative of the movement here, he actually advised that the newly founded republic should block Germans and Swedes, because they were too swarthy—dark.

 

JM: Why is that pattern of fear historically repeated?

 

Chomsky: There’s a strange myth of Anglo-Saxonism. When the University of Virginia was founded by Thomas Jefferson, for example, its law school offered the study of “Anglo-Saxon Law.” And that myth of Anglo-Saxonism carries right over into the early twentieth century. Every wave of immigrants who came were treated pretty badly, but when they all finally became integrated, all of us became Anglo-Saxons.

 

JM: Like the Irish. They were brutally persecuted, suffered violence because of their orange colored hair and their Catholicism, and then became “assimilated,” instead of being “integrated.”

 

Chomsky: The Irish were treated horribly, even here in Boston. For example, in the late nineteenth century they were treated pretty much like African Americans. You could find signs here in Boston in the restaurants saying “No dogs and Irish.” Finally they were accepted into society and became integrated, became part of the political system, and there were Kennedys, and so on. But the same is true about other waves of immigrants, like the Jews in the 1950s. If you take a look at places like Harvard, it’s striking. In the early 1950s, I think, there were a handful of Jewish professors, three or four. But by the 1960s, there were Jewish deans and administrators. In fact, one of the reasons why MIT became a great university was because they admitted Jews whereas Harvard did not.

 

JM: We can see changes in certain cases, but we can also see things that repeat themselves, such as now in the case of Mexicans and Muslims.

 

Chomsky: Yes, and Syrians. There is a horrible crisis there and the United States has admitted virtually none of the refugees. The most dramatic case is the Central Americans. Why are people fleeing from Central America? It’s because of the atrocities the U.S. committed there. Take Boston, where there’s a fairly large Mayan population. These people are fleeing from the highlands of Guatemala, where there was virtual genocide in the early 1980s backed by Ronald Reagan. The region was devastated, and people are still fleeing to this day, yet they send them back. Just a couple of weeks ago, the administration of Barack Obama, which has broken all sorts of records in regards to deportation, picked up a Guatemalan man living here. I think he had been living here for twenty-five years, had a family, a business, and so on. He had fled from the Mayan region and they picked him up and deported him. To me, that’s really sick.

 

JM: In the case of Guatemala, the story began in 1954 with the CIA military coup organized against the democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz.

 

Chomsky: Yes, it basically began in 1954, and there were other awful atrocities in the late ’60s, but the worst happened in the ’80s. There was a really monstrous and almost literal genocide in the Mayan area, specifically under Ríos Montt. By now it has been somewhat recognized by Guatemalan society. In fact, Montt was under trial for some crimes. But the U.S. prohibits people from fleeing here. The Obama administration has pressured Mexico to keep them away from the Mexican border, so that they don’t succeed in reaching U.S. borders. Pretty much the same thing Europeans have done to Turks and Syrians.

 

JM: Actually, under international law children should not, in principle, be detained when crossing a non-neighboring country’s border. The American Homeland Security Act of 2002 recognizes the same rights. However, this basic law has been broken many times.

 

Chomsky: A lot of countries break (or go against) the international law… There had been a free and open election in Haiti in the early 1990s and president Jean-Bertrand Aristide won, a populist priest. A few months later came the expected military coup—a very vicious military junta took over, of which the United States was passively supportive. Not openly, of course, but Haitians started to flee from the terror, and they sent them back and on towards Guantanamo Bay. Of course, that is against International Law. But the United States pretended that they were “economic refugees.”

 

The Spanish War in the basis of Chomsky’s thinking

 

JM: Let’s go back very quickly to your contact with the Spanish anarchists. How important was the Spanish Civil War for your social thinking and activism?

 

Chomsky: Quite important. Actually, my first article…

 

JM: You wrote that article when you were eleven years old.

 

Chomsky: Ten, actually. It wasn’t about the anarchists; it was about the fall of Barcelona and the spread of fascism over Europe, which was frightening. But a couple of years later I became interested in the anarchist movement.

 

I had relatives in New York City who I stayed with. And in those days, the area from Union Square down Fourth Avenue had small bookstores, many of which were run by Spanish immigrants who’d fled after Franco’s victory. I spent time in them, and also in the offices of Freie Arbeiter Stimme (Free Worker’s Voice) with anarchists. I picked up a lot of material and talked to people, and it became a major influence. When I wrote about the Spanish Civil War many years later, I used documents that I picked up when I was a child, as a lot hadn’t been published (a lot more resources are available now). I also learned from reading the left-wing press about the Roosevelt administration’s indirect support for Francisco Franco, which was not well known, and still isn’t.

 

JM: Apparently Roosevelt regretted that decision but it was too late and the fact is that many other big companies like ALCOA, GM, and Texaco were crucial for the defeat of the Second Republic—the only democratic experiment in Spain after centuries if we don’t consider the almost nonexistent First Republic during the nineteenth century. Many big companies collaborated with the Nazis and Franco.

 

Chomsky:  It was reported in the left-wing press in the late 1930s that the Texas Company (Texaco), headed by the Nazi sympathizer Torkild Rieber, diverted its oil shipments from the Republic, with which it had contracts, to Franco. The State Department denied they knew about it but years later admitted it to be true. You can read it in history books now, but they often suppress the fact that the U.S. government tolerated it. It’s really remarkable because they claim that Roosevelt was impeded by the Neutrality Act. On the other hand, he bitterly condemned a Mexican businessman for sending several guns to the Republic. If you look back, oil was the one commodity that Franco could not receive from the Germans and the Italians, so that was quite significant.

 

JM: All of that sounds familiar.

 

Chomsky:  During the terrorist regime in Haiti in the 1990s, the CIA, under the administration of Bill Clinton, was reporting to Congress that oil shipments had been blocked from entering Haiti. That was just a lie. I was there. You could see the oil terminals being built and the ships coming in. And it turned out that Clinton had authorized Texaco, the same company, to illegally ship oil to the military junta during a time that we supposedly were opposing the military junta and supporting democracy instead.

 

Same company, same story, but the press wouldn’t report it. They must have known it. If you look at the Associated Press wires, there’s a constant flow of information coming in. At that time I happened to have direct access to AP wires. The day the marines landed in Haiti and restored Aristide there was a lot of excitement about the dedication to democracy and so on. But the day before the marines landed, when every journalist was looking at Haiti because it was assumed that something big was happening, the AP wires reported that the Clinton administration had authorized Texaco to ship oil illegally to the military junta. I wrote an article about the marine landing right away, but barely mentioned that, because my article would come out two months later and I assumed by then, “of course, everybody knows.” Nobody knew. There was a news report in the Wall Street Journal, in the petroleum journals, and in some small newspapers, but not in the mainstream press. And it was kind of a repeat of what happened in the late ’30s but this was under Clinton, mind you. These are some pretty ugly stories—not ancient history.

 

JM: Do you think the Spanish anarchists’ experience, had they not been destroyed by Franco, could be used as an example of a third position (to Stalinism, fascism, and Western capitalism)?

 

Chomsky: Well, the communists were mainly responsible for the destruction of the Spanish anarchists. Not just in Catalonia—the communist armies mainly destroyed the collectives elsewhere. The communists basically acted as the police force of the security system of the Republic and were very much opposed to the anarchists, partially because Stalin still hoped at that time to have some kind of pact with Western countries against Hitler. That, of course, failed and Stalin withdrew the support to the Republic. They even withdrew the Spanish gold reserves.

 

JM: The fourth largest in the world.

 

Chomsky: But before that, the anarchist movement was one of their main enemies… There’s an interesting question, whether the anarchists had alternatives. If they did tend to support the government that had been destroyed, what were the alternatives? There was actually a proposal by Camillo Berneri, an Italian anarchist who was in Spain at the time, which is not a crazy notion in my opinion. He opposed participation in government and was against the formation of an army, meaning a major army to fight Franco. He said they should resort to guerrilla war. Which has a history in Spain.

 

JM: Particularly at the beginning of the nineteenth century under the French occupation.

 

Chomsky: Under Napoleon Bonaparte’s occupation, yes. The same method could have been implemented during the Spanish Civil War, a guerrilla war against Franco’s invaders. But Berneri also advocated a political war. Franco’s army was mainly Moorish. They were recruiting people from Morocco to come to Spain. There was an uprising in Morocco at the time led by Abd el-Krim (whose tactics influenced Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara) that sought independence for Morocco and Northern Africa. Berneri proposed that the anarchists should link up with the effort of Northern Africa to overthrow the Spanish government, carry out land reform, attract the base of the Moorish army, and see if they could undermine Franco’s army through political warfare in Northern Africa combined with guerrilla warfare in Spain. Historians laughed at that, but I don’t think they should have. This was the kind of war that might have succeeded in stopping Spanish fascism.

 

JM: There were few other successful cases of guerrilla resistance in the world.

 

Chomsky: There are cases, for example the American Revolution. George Washington’s army lost just about every battle with the British, who had a much better army. The war was basically won by guerrilla forces that managed to undermine the British occupation. The American Revolution was a small part of a major world war going on between France and England, so the French intervened and that was a big factor, but the domestic contribution was basically guerrilla warfare. George Washington hated the guerrillas. He wanted to imitate the British red coat armies, fighting as gentlemen are supposed to fight. There are very interesting books about these events, for instance one by a very well-known American historian named William R. Polk called Violent Politics. It’s a record of what are basically guerrilla wars from the American Revolution right up through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He discusses the Spanish guerrilla war against Napoleon and other cases where the conflict turns into a political war, and the invader, who usually has overwhelming power, loses because they can’t fight the political war. Against this kind of background, I don’t think that the Berneri proposal was that absurd.

 

***

Our conversation continued informally on other topics: the most important human intellectual capability, the language, which made possible communication, art, and liberation, at the same time made it possible deceiving and consciousness oppression; the current most serious threats to human existence according to him: atomic weapons and the ecologic catastrophe.

In a copy of the original edition of Syntactic Structures of 1957 (book that is considered the most influential in cognitive sciences of the 20th century and one of the most important one hundred books ever published) he wrote for me the legendary sentence “Colorless green ideas dream furiously”, the equivalent to E=mc2 for Linguistics and, below, he added with humor: “Revolutionary new ideas appear infrequently”.

I gave him Memory of Fire by my dear friend Eduardo Galeano, who died almost one year before, and Chomsky remembered him with affection. Right or wrong, both men taught generations to never accept Stockholm syndrome, to never be accomplice to the crimes of arbitrary powers. Both men taught us that memory and history not always are the same thing. And because of that, both –like Galileo, like Einstein– were equally hatred and labeled as “idiots” –in vain.

 

 

 

A child of Uruguayan military dictatorship (1973-1985), Jorge Majfud is a Uruguayan-American writer who obtained his PhD from the University of Georgia. He is the author of numerous books and essay collections, including The Eternal Return of Quetzalcoatl and the novels The Queen of AmericaThe City of the Moon, and Crisis. He currently teaches Latin American Literature and International Studies at Jacksonville University in Florida. His upcoming novel is called Tequila

 

 

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Eco Latino int

http://www.ecolatino.com/en/news/local-stories/2014-11-05/story/jorge-majfud 

Jorge MaJfud

  1. Jorge MaJfud
  2. by Mario Bahamón Dussán

    Who is Who?, seeks to highlight and make known the work of the hispanic residents in north Florida outstanding in activities useful to our society

    In this edition, Eco Latino wants to highlight the Uruguayan writer and educator Jorge Majfud resident of Jacksonville. Author of the novels: La reina de América (2001), La ciudad de la Luna (2009) y Crisis (2012).

    Doctor Majfud was honored with the Excellence in Research Award in Humanities and Letters. Was a finalist in the contest Casa de America and Juan Rulfo. He is one of the most important Latin American Writers from the new generation.

    Ecolatino: How did you get to the United States?

    Jorge Majfud: A professor of the University of Georgia, that had read my books, invited me to apply for a scholarship at his university. After the GRE and TOEFL, I started a graduate degree where I worked as a teaching assistant. It was an opportunity to devote completely to my first vocation.

    EL: What do you miss most about Uruguay?

    JM: My parents, my people, the value given to time as a human experience and not as financial resource, all of that doesn’t exist anymore and I can only visit it from time to time in my memory.

    How did you get involved with Jacksonville University?

    JM: After UGA, I taught for two years at Lincoln University, but my family and I aren’t made for cold weather, snow and shadows. I looked for a city in frontof the ocean and coincidentally there was a request for a Spanish and literature professor at JU. After the process of interviews, I got the offer to come here. JU has one of the most beautiful campus in the country, a team of very professional teachers and students with merits and respectful, in a city with a river, an ocean and a nature that allows outdoor life the whole year.

    What message would you give to the Hispanics that want to succeed in the United States?

    JM: I always tell my students not to believe me, I tell them to investigate by themselves. But if you ask me, I’d tell them to first reconsider what succeeding means. If it’s about a project that helps the passion for life, it’s welcome. If it’s about being rich and famous, it’s very probable that they’ll turn into poor and unknown. And if any of them gets rich and famous, perhaps he or she will end up like many of the rich and famous we know, which is very discouraging. Isn’t? In the United States there are many possibilities, a lot of good people, almost as much as the other ones. If we consider the terrible initial conditions of many immigrants, the fact that they can support their families, it’s already a bigger success than the one of any new rich. There are very few groups as hardworking and sacrificed as immigrants. Many illegal immigrants don’t even speak English, they don’t have documents, they don’t know the law and they don’t get many of the state benefits and despite all this, they find a job while others who prefer to stay home and benefit from the help of the same state complain that immigrants are taking their jobs. They are shameless. Then, the invisible immigrants expelled from their countries arrive here and are blamed for all the bad things. But the world has always been unfair, so until something is done to improve it, there is a lot that can be done to live the life that we have with as much joy as possible. That’s succeeding, according to me. In any case, the formula is very simple: acquire the sense of responsibility, sacrifice and joy of children. Without that, the rest of the skills are not as useful or are useless on the long run.

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