Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 10, 2007

Praising Noam Chomsky

Osama bin Laden’s latest videotaped message, his first in three years, contains several pearls of wisdom. But the following is most apt:

This war was entirely unnecessary, as testified to by your own reports. And among the most capable of those from your own side who speak to you on this topic and on the manufacturing of public opinion is Noam Chomsky, who spoke sober words of advice prior to the war, but the leader of Texas doesn’t like those who give advice.

Two years ago, Chomsky was voted the world’s top public intellectual in a poll conducted jointly by the magazines Foreign Policy and Prospect, the latter a British publication (Vaclav Havel came in fourth). Chomsky is enormously popular on American college campuses, and loved especially by Europe’s chattering classes. And he is not just the favorite public intellectual of Osama bin Laden, but of Hugo Chavez, the caudillo of Caracas, as well.

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Osama bin Laden’s latest videotaped message, his first in three years, contains several pearls of wisdom. But the following is most apt:

This war was entirely unnecessary, as testified to by your own reports. And among the most capable of those from your own side who speak to you on this topic and on the manufacturing of public opinion is Noam Chomsky, who spoke sober words of advice prior to the war, but the leader of Texas doesn’t like those who give advice.

Two years ago, Chomsky was voted the world’s top public intellectual in a poll conducted jointly by the magazines Foreign Policy and Prospect, the latter a British publication (Vaclav Havel came in fourth). Chomsky is enormously popular on American college campuses, and loved especially by Europe’s chattering classes. And he is not just the favorite public intellectual of Osama bin Laden, but of Hugo Chavez, the caudillo of Caracas, as well.

Last September, in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly, Chavez waved around a copy of Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, while denouncing President Bush as “the devil.” “The people of the United States should read this. . .instead of. . .watching Superman movies,” Chavez told the assembled dignitaries.

Given his views of America and the West in general, it comes as no surprise that the MIT professor’s greatest fans are the Venezuelan military despot and the man responsible for the death of 3,000 on September 11, 2001. And with fans like that . . .

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Bookshelf

Now that I’m deeply immersed in writing the life of Louis Armstrong, I find myself reflecting at frequent intervals on the biographer’s art. Musical biography is a peculiarly tricky undertaking, because it demands that its practitioners find words to describe an art form that is, as I have said on more than one exasperating occasion, radically ambiguous. The composer Ned Rorem put it neatly: “Critics of words use words. Critics of music use words.” Fortunately, biographers are usually called on to spend more of their time writing about life than art, and many musical lives, Armstrong’s most definitely included, are sufficiently eventful to offer an industrious chronicler plenty of raw material.

In my quarter-century as a book reviewer, I’ve run across a fair number of first-rate musical biographies, and in recent weeks I’ve been rereading some of them in search of inspiration:

• Nolan Porterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler is that rarity of rarities, an academic biography written with a journalist’s flair. That it should have been written about a country singer is all the more remarkable. Nowadays a similar study would have been crammed full of tendentious, theory-based interpretation and trendy critical jargon, but Porterfield steered clear of such superfluities, and gave us a book that is as definitive as any biography can hope to be.

• David Cairns’s two-volume biography of Hector Berlioz, The Making of an Artist and Servitude and Greatness is, hands down, the best biography of a great composer ever published. To be sure, it would be hard to write a dull biography of Berlioz, whose life was so full of spectacularly unlikely occurrences that a mere summary is intriguing; but Cairns brought off the near-impossible feat of producing a biography comparable in quality to the composer’s own sensationally readable Memoirs. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is as good—and well written—as any of the best literary biographies, which is saying something.

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Now that I’m deeply immersed in writing the life of Louis Armstrong, I find myself reflecting at frequent intervals on the biographer’s art. Musical biography is a peculiarly tricky undertaking, because it demands that its practitioners find words to describe an art form that is, as I have said on more than one exasperating occasion, radically ambiguous. The composer Ned Rorem put it neatly: “Critics of words use words. Critics of music use words.” Fortunately, biographers are usually called on to spend more of their time writing about life than art, and many musical lives, Armstrong’s most definitely included, are sufficiently eventful to offer an industrious chronicler plenty of raw material.

In my quarter-century as a book reviewer, I’ve run across a fair number of first-rate musical biographies, and in recent weeks I’ve been rereading some of them in search of inspiration:

• Nolan Porterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler is that rarity of rarities, an academic biography written with a journalist’s flair. That it should have been written about a country singer is all the more remarkable. Nowadays a similar study would have been crammed full of tendentious, theory-based interpretation and trendy critical jargon, but Porterfield steered clear of such superfluities, and gave us a book that is as definitive as any biography can hope to be.

• David Cairns’s two-volume biography of Hector Berlioz, The Making of an Artist and Servitude and Greatness is, hands down, the best biography of a great composer ever published. To be sure, it would be hard to write a dull biography of Berlioz, whose life was so full of spectacularly unlikely occurrences that a mere summary is intriguing; but Cairns brought off the near-impossible feat of producing a biography comparable in quality to the composer’s own sensationally readable Memoirs. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is as good—and well written—as any of the best literary biographies, which is saying something.

• Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994) is the first (and, so far, only) biography of a rock musician that aspires to the same level of seriousness as a classical-music biography. The second volume, published in 1999, was inevitably less interesting, since Presley’s life after 1960 was an unedifying chronicle of public decline and private squalor. In Last Train to Memphis, by contrast, we see the young Elvis up close, and even those who take no interest in his music will find his story irresistibly compelling.

• I know of no finer biography of an American composer than Anthony Tommasini’s Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle (1997). Among countless other good things, Tommasini brings off the difficult task of writing about a man he knew personally without lapsing into sentiment—or spite. I wish he would now turn his hand to writing an equally penetrating life of Aaron Copland!

• At 851 closely packed pages, Richard Osborne’s Herbert von Karajan: A Life In Music (1998) ought by all rights to be tedious. Instead it’s a page-turner, partly because Karajan’s complex personality was so fascinating, but mostly because Osborne is a lucid stylist with a comprehensive understanding of his subject and a highly developed sense of the relevant—three traits rarely to be found in the same biographer.

• Lewis Lockwood’s Beethoven: The Music and the Life (2003) is the kind of book that can only be written by a great scholar who has spent a lifetime reflecting on a major artist. Though the subtitle accurately reflects Lockwood’s priorities—he devotes more space to Beethoven’s music than his life—he succeeds in integrating life and work into a single, fully unified treatment. The result, as I wrote in COMMENTARY four years ago, is “a profoundly humane work of scholarship that will—or at least should—appeal to specialists and generalists in equal measure.”

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Balancing Act

On Saturday, the leaders of the United States, Australia, and Japan met in Sydney to discuss security policy. President Bush, Prime Minster John Howard, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were careful in their first trilateral meeting not to rile Beijing. “As far as China is concerned, the three leaders shared the same recognition that it’s important to have a positive engagement with China,” said Mitsuo Sakaba, a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman. Added Charles Morrison of the East-West Center in Honolulu, “They have bent over backwards to try to make sure that starting up their own dialogue does not upset China.”

Why should these nations be so apologetic? The Chinese, after all, do not hesitate to stand up for themselves. Beijing, in the last few months, sent diplomatic protests to the United States, Japan, Australia, and India, asking each of them for an explanation of their growing cooperation. The four participants in the new “quadrilateral dialogue” met in May to discuss strengthening their relationship. Last week, the navies of these four nations (plus Singapore) conducted five days of exercises in the Bay of Bengal—the first such joint exercise in the history of the five nations. The Chinese look south and east and see their neighbors trying to contain them.

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On Saturday, the leaders of the United States, Australia, and Japan met in Sydney to discuss security policy. President Bush, Prime Minster John Howard, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were careful in their first trilateral meeting not to rile Beijing. “As far as China is concerned, the three leaders shared the same recognition that it’s important to have a positive engagement with China,” said Mitsuo Sakaba, a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman. Added Charles Morrison of the East-West Center in Honolulu, “They have bent over backwards to try to make sure that starting up their own dialogue does not upset China.”

Why should these nations be so apologetic? The Chinese, after all, do not hesitate to stand up for themselves. Beijing, in the last few months, sent diplomatic protests to the United States, Japan, Australia, and India, asking each of them for an explanation of their growing cooperation. The four participants in the new “quadrilateral dialogue” met in May to discuss strengthening their relationship. Last week, the navies of these four nations (plus Singapore) conducted five days of exercises in the Bay of Bengal—the first such joint exercise in the history of the five nations. The Chinese look south and east and see their neighbors trying to contain them.

Yet Beijing is in no position to complain that the democracies of Asia are drawing together in an arc that sweeps from India to Japan. This loose arrangement—it’s much too early to call it an alliance—was formed largely in reaction to China itself. Beijing is building up its armed forces rapidly and non-transparently. It’s been conducting joint military exercises with Russia since 2005 (including the large one last month), and slowly turning the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—a grouping of China, Russia, and four Central Asian “stans”—into a true alliance with an overtly anti-American cast.

The big trend in Asia is that nations on the periphery of China are banding together to match the continental alliance of the SCO and the growing relationship of Beijing and Moscow. The democracies of the Pacific need to acknowledge in public what they are thinking in private. They need to start defending themselves—and to stop being so solicitous of Beijing’s feelings.

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Rising Star

The leftwing blogosphere has found its next star. He is an articulate champion of a modern leftist sensibility:

• He says that the war in Iraq has failed to produce democracy and has only created “civil war” that is “getting out of [Bush’s] control.”

• He calls the war in Iraq “unjust” and says it was launched based “on deception and blatant lies.”

• He says that the war has made a mockery of our “slogans of justice, liberty, equality, and humanitarianism”—instead replacing them with “fear, destruction, killing, hunger, and illness.” He goes on to say that “more than 650,000 of the people of Iraq” have died “as a result of the war and its repercussions.”

• He says that the “vast majority” of the American public wants the war to stop and “elected the Democratic Party for this purpose, but the Democrats haven’t made a move worth mentioning,” leading to the “vast majority” of the American electorate “being afflicted with disappointment.”

• Why haven’t the Democrats done what they were supposed to? He has an explanation: “they are the same reasons that led to the failure of former President Kennedy to stop the Vietnam War. Those with real power and influence are those with the most capital. And since the democratic system permits major corporations to back candidates, be they presidential or congressional, there shouldn’t be any cause for astonishment—and there isn’t any—in the Democrats’ failure to stop the war.”

• He bemoans that the White House is focused on Iraq rather than on the real dangers facing all mankind, such as “global warming resulting to a large degree from the emissions of the factories of the major corporations,” “the burden of interest-related debts, insane taxes, and real estate mortgages,” and of course “the abject poverty and tragic hunger in Africa.”

• He is particularly peeved that President Bush “insists on not observing the Kyoto accord.”

• He decries the entire process of “globalization,” which he sees as nothing more than the attempts of “the capitalist system . . . to turn the entire world into a fiefdom of the major corporations.”

• He cites the growing consensus of thinkers who “have declared the approach of the collapse of the American Empire.”

• And he recommends that anyone who wants to know what’s really going on in the world read the works of MIT professor Noam Chomsky and former CIA official Michael Scheuer.

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The leftwing blogosphere has found its next star. He is an articulate champion of a modern leftist sensibility:

• He says that the war in Iraq has failed to produce democracy and has only created “civil war” that is “getting out of [Bush’s] control.”

• He calls the war in Iraq “unjust” and says it was launched based “on deception and blatant lies.”

• He says that the war has made a mockery of our “slogans of justice, liberty, equality, and humanitarianism”—instead replacing them with “fear, destruction, killing, hunger, and illness.” He goes on to say that “more than 650,000 of the people of Iraq” have died “as a result of the war and its repercussions.”

• He says that the “vast majority” of the American public wants the war to stop and “elected the Democratic Party for this purpose, but the Democrats haven’t made a move worth mentioning,” leading to the “vast majority” of the American electorate “being afflicted with disappointment.”

• Why haven’t the Democrats done what they were supposed to? He has an explanation: “they are the same reasons that led to the failure of former President Kennedy to stop the Vietnam War. Those with real power and influence are those with the most capital. And since the democratic system permits major corporations to back candidates, be they presidential or congressional, there shouldn’t be any cause for astonishment—and there isn’t any—in the Democrats’ failure to stop the war.”

• He bemoans that the White House is focused on Iraq rather than on the real dangers facing all mankind, such as “global warming resulting to a large degree from the emissions of the factories of the major corporations,” “the burden of interest-related debts, insane taxes, and real estate mortgages,” and of course “the abject poverty and tragic hunger in Africa.”

• He is particularly peeved that President Bush “insists on not observing the Kyoto accord.”

• He decries the entire process of “globalization,” which he sees as nothing more than the attempts of “the capitalist system . . . to turn the entire world into a fiefdom of the major corporations.”

• He cites the growing consensus of thinkers who “have declared the approach of the collapse of the American Empire.”

• And he recommends that anyone who wants to know what’s really going on in the world read the works of MIT professor Noam Chomsky and former CIA official Michael Scheuer.

The only area in which this bold thinker seems to differ from modern Western leftist orthodoxy is in his prescription for all these ills: “To conclude, I invite you to embrace Islam, for the greatest mistake one can make in this world and one which is uncorrectable is to die while not surrendering to Allah, the Most High, in all aspects of one’s life—i.e., to die outside of Islam.”

So perhaps Osama bin Laden won’t be blogging for DailyKos anytime soon. After all, hardcore leftists don’t look kindly on fundamentalist religion (though they tend to be more suspicious of Baptist preachers than of Muslim terrorist leaders). But the overlap between bin Laden’s world view (at least as it’s expressed in his most recent videotape) and that of many Western leftists is uncanny. This does not mean, I should stress, that leftists support al Qaeda. It does seem to mean, however, that bin Laden is trying to rally the “antiwar” crowd to his side in language they understand.

The Occam’s Razor explanation is that, like the North Vietnamese Communists during the 1960’s, he is attempting to manipulate public opinion among his enemies, and that he is good at doing so because his ideology is not that of traditional Islam, but rather a weird amalgam of Islamic teaching and modern totalitarian ideologies. That is, he probably believes the rants he spews out.

Of course, conspiracy theorists will posit that this all just a big ruse, and that precisely because bin Laden is posing as a man of the Left, this is a transparent attempt to discredit the Left and thereby to keep in power Bush, Cheney, et al., who are supposedly doing so much good for bin Laden’s cause. No doubt the works of bin Laden’s favorite American commentators will provide chapter and verse for this argument.

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Walt and Mearsheimer’s “Realism”

In the voluminous debate surrounding the Walt-Mearsheimer Israel Lobby book, there has been little engagement with the authors’ arguments purely from the perspective of foreign policy strategy. The authors believe that America would be wise to abandon the security architecture that has defined its policy in the Middle East for roughly the past forty years—that is, a dissolution of the alliance with Israel in exchange for policies tilted more favorably to the Arab states. They write, for example, that “Pro-Israel forces surely believe that they are promoting policies that serve the American as well as the Israel national interest. We disagree. Most of the policies they advocate are not in America’s or Israel’s interests and both countries would be better off if the United States adopted a different approach.”

This idea is presented as a novel one, but actually, it resembles the contours of American policy in the pre-1967 and -1973 war era. This was an era in which American indifference to Israel’s security, instead of producing harmony and goodwill in the region, encouraged war—not the kind of small skirmishes we see today between Israel and terrorist groups, but full-scale state vs. state conflicts. In the absence of a powerful foreign patron who guaranteed Israeli security, the Arab states were convinced that they could destroy the Jewish state, or at least that there wouldn’t be serious drawbacks in attempting to do so. Thus there were major wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, and the latter sparked one of the most problematic Middle East-related crises America has ever confronted, in the form of the Arab oil embargo.

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In the voluminous debate surrounding the Walt-Mearsheimer Israel Lobby book, there has been little engagement with the authors’ arguments purely from the perspective of foreign policy strategy. The authors believe that America would be wise to abandon the security architecture that has defined its policy in the Middle East for roughly the past forty years—that is, a dissolution of the alliance with Israel in exchange for policies tilted more favorably to the Arab states. They write, for example, that “Pro-Israel forces surely believe that they are promoting policies that serve the American as well as the Israel national interest. We disagree. Most of the policies they advocate are not in America’s or Israel’s interests and both countries would be better off if the United States adopted a different approach.”

This idea is presented as a novel one, but actually, it resembles the contours of American policy in the pre-1967 and -1973 war era. This was an era in which American indifference to Israel’s security, instead of producing harmony and goodwill in the region, encouraged war—not the kind of small skirmishes we see today between Israel and terrorist groups, but full-scale state vs. state conflicts. In the absence of a powerful foreign patron who guaranteed Israeli security, the Arab states were convinced that they could destroy the Jewish state, or at least that there wouldn’t be serious drawbacks in attempting to do so. Thus there were major wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, and the latter sparked one of the most problematic Middle East-related crises America has ever confronted, in the form of the Arab oil embargo.

Since the solidification of America’s alliance with Israel in the 1970′s, there has not been a single war between Israel and an Arab state—only “sub-conventional” conflicts with terror groups, such as the one we saw last summer in Lebanon, which have been far less destabilizing to the region. American military and diplomatic support have sent an unmistakable message to the Arab states: Stop launching wars to destroy Israel—they won’t work.

Fine, a skeptic might say—the U.S.-Israel alliance has promoted a certain kind of stability. But wouldn’t the U.S. derive other important benefits from a pro-Arab stance? Walt and Mearsheimer clearly believe this, but I don’t think there’s any evidence for the idea. Many western countries, France being the most prominent among them, have adopted, as central pillars of their foreign policies, favoritism toward the Arabs at the expense of Israel. These relationships, however, have been marked above all not just by their utter fruitlessness for the western states, but by the Arab betrayal of those states.

In pursuit of advantageous relationships with the Arab-Muslim world, France befriended (among others) three of the Middle East’s most consequential figures: Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Yasir Arafat. Along with arms sales and the provision of nuclear reactors, Jacques Chirac and other French leaders made a point of maintaining an extravagant friendship with the Iraqi dictator; Khomeini, after his expulsion from Iran in 1977, was provided a compound in suburban Paris from which to foment the Iranian revolution (and was flown to Tehran to assume power in 1979 in an Air France jet); and in ways large and small France promoted Arafat and the PLO (and even Black September) against Israel for decades.

It is no exaggeration to say that France’s Middle East politics are exemplary of the kind of foreign policy Walt and Mearsheimer claim will best serve American interests. But what, after all, did France gain for all its legendary favoritism toward the Arab world? Absolutely nothing—except, I suppose, revenue from arms sales during the Iran-Iraq war (overtly to Saddam Hussein and covertly to Khomeini). France, as with so many Western countries, has found it difficult to convince Middle East thugs to return its affections.

The same goes for the United States: after helping the mujahideen drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, the U.S. gained the strange benefit of becoming its erstwhile allies’ next target. And the American-Saudi alliance, while providing the benefit of a certain level of oil security, carries with it immense costs in the form of Saudi Arabia’s project to export Islamic radicalism.

At its core, The Israel Lobby relies on a bizarre rendering of realist foreign policy, one that promotes an ahistoric theory of how stability is achieved in the Levant, and an equally ahistoric prediction of American benefits derived from alignment with the Middle East’s catalogue of gangsters, dictators, and Islamists. Walt and Mearsheimer advertise themselves above all as foreign policy scholars—but that, too, remains in serious doubt.

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