Commentary Magazine


Chomsky's Universe

On September 19, 2001, eight days after the terror attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon, and killed over 3,000 people, Noam Chomsky was asked to assess the historical impact of 9/11 by an Italian newspaper. In posing this question, the journalist was aware of Chomsky's reputation as an extreme critic of America's foreign policy, its free-market economics, and its political system. Even on the Left, where anti-Americanism stands as the reigning ideology, Chomsky is unique for the single-mindedness of his vision. Over four decades, he has forged a consistent record of blaming the United States for the entire panoply of the world's problems: war, famine, genocide, poverty, even infectious disease. He also popularized the notion, now widely accepted on the Left, that the United States is itself the world's number-one “terror state.”

Chomsky did not disappoint his interviewer. The fact that the United States had just come under deadly attack and faced the possibility of further and potentially deadlier aggression did not inspire reassessment or even moderation. He declared, in effect, that America had gotten what it deserved.

The heart of the matter, Chomsky explained, was not radical Islam's hatred of America, the West, or democracy, or the danger Islamic extremists posed to their own societies, but rather America's violent behavior toward the rest of the world:

During the past several hundred years the U.S. annihilated the indigenous population (millions of people), conquered half of Mexico (in fact, the territories of indigenous people, but that is another matter), intervened violently in the surrounding region, conquered Hawaii and the Philippines (killing hundreds of Filipinos), and, in the past half-century particularly, extended its resort to force throughout much of the world. The number of victims is colossal.

The only novelty this time, Chomsky concluded, was that “the guns have been directed the other way.”

As for the consequences of 9/11, Chomsky's main concern was not for the American people, American interests, or even the future victims of radical Islam in the Middle East and elsewhere, but for the Left. The event was “certainly a setback for the worldwide protests against corporate globalization,” he commented, referring to a campaign in which he has played a leading role as intellectual guru. He also deplored the impact on the Palestinian Arabs, who would suffer from American neglect as Washington turned its attention to the war on terror. And even though the Bush administration was still in the process of formulating a strategy to deter future terrorist aggression, Chomsky confidently predicted that the government's response would “accelerate the agenda of militarization, regimentation, reversal of social-democratic programs, transfer of wealth to narrow sectors, and undermining democracy in any meaningful form.”

Nor was that all. In addition to obliterating civil liberties and enriching the wealthy at the expense of the poor, the Bush administration, Chomsky asserted, was preparing to slaughter millions of defenseless Afghans in a war to dislodge al Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power. In the weeks leading up to the invasion of Afghanistan, Chomsky repeatedly spoke of an impending mass killing, insinuating that this was to be done as a deliberate act of policy. As he put it in a speech delivered in India on November 6:

Looks like what is happening is some sort of silent genocide. . . . What will happen, we don't know, but plans are being made and programs implemented on the assumption that they may lead to the death of several million people in the next few months, very casually, with no comment, no particular thought about it, that's just kind of normal here and in a good part of Europe.

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America as the world's greatest terror state; American leaders as the sworn enemies of freedom; the United States as the perpetrator of genocide, “very casually, with no comment”—here in a nutshell is Chomsky's message. It has been a remarkably consistent one, from the time in the mid-1960's when he first came upon the scene as an opponent of the Vietnam war until the present day. But now it is a message with a growing audience.

Even before 9/11, Chomsky was regarded as the most influential critic of American foreign policy on the radical Left. His recent writings, however, have attained best-seller status. 9/11, a pamphlet-sized book of responses to questions from foreign journalists, sold over 300,000 copies in 23 languages. According to one survey, Chomsky is the most cited living author, and the eighth most cited of all time (just behind Freud). His speeches draw packed houses. At the World Social Forum, an annual gathering of the anti-globalist movement, he is a featured personality. The current generation of young leftists treat Chomsky as a celebrity, and pay him the kind of homage normally reserved for rock stars or cult icons. He is the subject of several reverential documentary films, which depict him as an isolated voice of truth against a corrupt and warmongering establishment, and he has even inspired a one-man theater work, The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky's enhanced influence is reflected in the respect he now commands in the mainstream American press. Formerly ignored or treated as something of a fringe figure, he is sought out these days by major newspapers and is occasionally asked to write op-eds on the war on terror. His most recent book, Hegemony or Survival, was deferentially reviewed in the daily press and in journals of opinion, and he has been the subject of lengthy profiles in the Washington Post and the New Yorker.

There has thus emerged what can only be called a Chomsky mystique. To his admirers, he is more than a mere critic of American policy; by dint of a penetrating intellect and a dedication to honest scholarship, Chomsky, it is said, has been able to grasp truths about the United States that elude other radical analysts, not to mention those of more conventional mentality. The mystique is reinforced by Chomsky's reputation for ideological independence. As he frequently insists, he is not encumbered by the Marxist dogma that has long been the Left's millstone, describing himself instead as a libertarian-anarchist.

Chomsky is often called a dissident—“the most prominent intellectual dissident in the Western world,” in the words of one admiring account. That is an odd label for someone who writes political commentaries in an open society, where opinions of every conceivable stripe can win a hearing. But Chomsky himself has contributed to this grotesque misperception by depicting the United States as an enemy of intellectual freedom, one that has achieved the Soviet Union's goal of thought conformity without having to resort to the overt repression that gave Communism a bad name. Thus, he suggests, while American dissidents need not fear the concentration camp, they are likely to face marginalization, a more efficient and less messy way of smothering inconvenient ideas.

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It must be said that Chomsky also has his critics, a number of whom have contributed essays to a new and much-needed book, The Anti-Chomsky Reader.1 Its chapters track the themes of Chomsky's intellectual and political life: Southeast Asia, the cold war, the war on terror, the media, Israel, anti-Americanism. There are also two essays on Chomsky's work in linguistics, the field where he initially forged his academic reputation. The most comprehensive critique of Chomsky that has yet appeared, the Reader benefits from the political sophistication of its contributors, most of whom are familiar with the dynamics of radical politics and are not distracted by Chomsky's pretense to scholarly rigor and truth-seeking.

One of the most illuminating chapters concerns his role in the debate over Vietnam. As its author, Stephen J. Morris, stresses, Chomsky's position was at sharp variance with that of most liberal doves, who tended, at least at first, to regard American involvement in Vietnam as a tragic case of a wrong war fought for largely praiseworthy motives. By contrast, Chomsky treated Vietnam as the logical result of America's overarching drive for global hegemony. His scorn for the liberal interpretation of American motives established a pattern; in subsequent years, he would reserve some of his most venomous barbs for the policies of liberal Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. How, he would wonder sarcastically, could a country guilty of the most egregious abuses of human rights serve as a model for others?

Chomsky's writings on Vietnam seethed with moral outrage over the suffering of the Vietnamese people, which he blamed entirely on the United States. But what about the criminal acts of the Communist North? As Morris points out, on the few occasions when Chomsky acknowledged such acts, he would justify them by reaching back to Lenin to argue that drastic measures were sometimes necessary in order to build a strong revolutionary state. If this seemed to belie his carefully cultivated image as an investigator unyielding in his determination to see through official rationalizations and apologetics, it should also be noted that during his wartime visits to North Vietnam, Chomsky behaved much like every other willfully blind fellow traveler. According to Morris, he invariably found evidence of nascent democratic stirrings in the North, as expressed through grassroots participation in local village councils.

In fact, of course, after the American defeat and withdrawal there was to be no freedom in Vietnam, at the village level or anywhere else—only purges, repression, and labor camps in the Soviet manner. The victorious Communists established a regime of persecution that particularly targeted religious believers, ethnic Chinese, peasants opposed to collectivization, and those from the wrong class background. The result was the boat people: hundreds of thousands of ordinary Vietnamese who braved the seas rather than remain under totalitarian rule.

Some open-minded members of the American antiwar community were appalled at the ruthlessness of the new regime; a few were sufficiently disturbed to issue public declarations of protest. But not Chomsky. According to Morris, he declined to endorse statements objecting to the massive persecution of the conquered South Vietnamese, and then, as evidence of atrocities mounted, lurched from one rationalization to another to justify his continued support of the Communists. Finally he played his trump card, suggesting that progressives should hold their tongues lest they inadvertently bolster the interests of American imperialism.

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The same moral blindness, multiplied, was on display in Chomsky's indifference to the genocide perpetrated against the Cambodian people by the Khmer Rouge. His first instinct when confronted with reports of mass killings was to discredit the sources by pointing to the “extreme unreliability” of refugee accounts. When the evidence became too overwhelming to wave away, he and Edward Herman, a University of Pennsylvania professor who co-authored a number of Chomsky's books, argued that the Khmer Rouge had both good and bad points: “On the one hand, oppression, regimentation, and terror; on the other, constructive achievement for much of the people.” When this, too, no longer sufficed, he advanced the idea that the United States, “the torture and political-murder capital of the world,” had no standing to judge the acts of lesser criminals like Pol Pot—this, of a regime whose acts of inhumanity count among the worst excesses of 20th-century totalitarianism. For a man who portrayed himself as an independent thinker and able to avoid the errors of past Soviet apologists, Chomsky behaved no differently over Vietnam and Cambodia than the most loyal party hacks.

And not just over Vietnam and Cambodia. Although occasionally critical of the Soviet Union—he regarded it as excessively bureaucratic and a bad socialist model—Chomsky ignored or minimized its acts of aggression while concentrating single-mindedly on America's alleged misdeeds in the cold war. As Thomas M. Nichols writes here, he interpreted every postwar U.S. initiative, beginning with the Marshall Plan, as designed to advance a grand scheme for world economic dominance. “Under U.S. influence,” he wrote, “Europe was reconstructed in a particular mode, not quite that sought by the anti-fascist resistance, though the fascist and Nazi collaborators were generally satisfied.” So much for postwar European prosperity.

Chomsky reacted to the cold war's denouement with anger. He had never expressed any real sympathy for the plight of the luckless peoples under Soviet domination, seeming rather to regard Eastern Europe as a natural part of the Russian sphere of influence. In the Chomskyian universe, therefore, the collapse of Communism was not a step forward for world freedom but signaled another deplorable extension of the American economic empire. As he sardonically put it a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, “With the return of something like traditional relationships, the East can now provide other benefits, including a huge pool of easily exploited labor.”

The extent of Chomsky's frustration at America's cold-war triumph was revealed in his response to Vaclav Havel, the spiritual leader of Czechoslovakia's “velvet revolution.” In 1990, shortly after his election as his country's first post-Communist president, Havel addressed a joint session of Congress, during the course of which he praised America and spoke movingly of the United States as a beacon of freedom.

Nichols quotes an incensed letter written by Chomsky to his friend, the radical columnist Alexander Cockburn, pouring scorn on Havel's “embarrassingly silly and morally repugnant Sunday School sermon” and comparing the Czech president's words to the drivel written by Communist apparatchiks in countries like Vietnam. Chomsky then added: “It's . . . necessary to point out to the half-dozen or so sane people who remain, that in comparison to conditions imposed by U.S. tyranny and violence, East Europe under Russian rule was practically a paradise.”

As with his refusal to acknowledge the crimes of revolutionary regimes in Southeast Asia, so with his rage at the demise of Communism: what impelled Chomsky above all was simple anti-Americanism. Hence his fury at the recognition won by the United States for its role in winning the cold war. He understood well that the conclusion of that decades-long struggle would doom the various third-world “liberation” efforts, like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, that had won his support. Thus, with the emergence of the United States as the world's lone superpower, and the broad acceptance of free-market economic models, Chomsky's writings became more strident, more polemical, and ever more anti-American in tone.

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In building his most recent case against the United States, Chomsky has placed great emphasis on his theories about the press as an instrument of propaganda. In his book Manufacturing Consent and elsewhere, he has asserted that the function of the American press is not to inform but rather to persuade people to endorse the policies and goals of the economic and political elites. Exactly as with the captive and censored media of the Soviet Union, he argues, the basic purpose of the media in the United States is the transmission of propaganda. What makes the American “propaganda model” all the more insidious is the fact that people actually believe the press is free.

Chomsky has laid much stress on the soundness of his scholarly approach to this subject, buttressed as usual by ranks of intimidating-looking footnotes. His arguments about the nature of the American press in particular and of the American system in general are, he repeatedly insists, based on the same type of logical, scientific thinking that he put to use in the development of his theories about transformational grammar and other issues in linguistics. Yet even a cursory assessment reveals his “methodology” to be sheer illusion, quasi-scholarly hocus pocus.

In a chapter in the Reader on Chomsky and the media, Eli Lehrer analyzes Chomsky's claim to have “proved” the propagandistic nature of the press by comparing the number of media accounts of atrocities committed by American allies with the number of accounts of crimes committed by our adversaries. An example Chomsky frequently drags out concerns the relatively full attention paid to the murder of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, a Solidarity advocate killed by Communist agents, as opposed to the more meager coverage of the murder of a group of Jesuit priests by Salvadoran death squads. Entirely elided in this simple-minded exercise is that every event in Poland during the Solidarity period took on a magnified significance because of its implications for the survival of Communism.

Just as the American media are the pliant instruments of the ruling elites, so, in Chomsky's reckoning, is American society at large controlled by “unaccountable private tyrannies” and presided over by elected officials who are the “willing subordinates to the systems of actual power.” In Hegemony or Survival, his latest work, he describes the American people as existing in a condition of “marginalized passivity” made possible by a system of “thought control” imposed by the corporate-political-media Establishment. What “remains of democracy,” he expostulates, “is largely the right to choose among commodities.”

If all this sounds familiar, it should. There is nothing either new or unique in Chomsky's depiction of American society, which comes straight out of the pseudo-Marxist “analysis” proffered by the New Left some 40 years ago. Indeed, these ludicrously false clichés are part of what eventually made the New Left an object of ridicule and contempt. That Chomsky can still espouse such sophomoric views without challenge, and to such applause, suggests that neither he nor the Left has learned anything from the upheavals of the last decades.

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A final obsession of Chomsky and his fans is the conflict between Israel and its neighbors. Like some other Jewish leftists, Chomsky was initially opposed to the creation of Israel as a Jewish state in the late 1940's, advocating instead a binational socialist state of Arabs and Jews. But Chomsky characteristically added a twist to the formula: according to an essay in the Reader by Paul Bogdanor, he proposed a territorial division whereby Jews and Arabs would occupy separate cantons, but Arabs would enjoy the right to migrate into the Jewish cantons while Jews would be prevented or discouraged from moving into the Arab ones.

Chomsky eventually abandoned the idea of a binational state altogether. After the Six-Day war of 1967, he voiced increasing exasperation with the mainstream of American Jewry over what he regarded as its triumphalist response to Israel's military victory. Soon, the theme of Israel as the principal cause of the Middle East's misery took its place as a fixture of his writing alongside the theme of the United States as the principal cause of the world's misery.

As with the United States, Chomsky's views toward Israel have become more and more envenomed with the passage of years. He now depicts the Jewish state as the world's number-two terror power, right behind the U.S., while also claiming to see many parallels between today's Israel and South Africa under apartheid. He has described Israel not only as a Sparta-like warrior state but also as suffering from a “Samson complex” that will drive it to destroy all around if it cannot attain its expansionist objectives. Nor, in writing about Israel, has he shrunk from tossing in references to Nazism and fascism. Although he has refrained from direct comparisons, he frequently likens Israeli policies to certain features of Nazi rule, claiming, for example, that Israel's detention facilities are similar to concentration camps.

And so we return full-circle to the main arena. For if, in his use of the Nazi card, Chomsky is moderately restrained when it comes to Israel, he is utterly brazen about it in the case of America. No book of Chomsky's would be complete without its comparisons of American policies to the policies of the Third Reich, of American motives to Nazi rationalizations, and of American leaders to Hitler and his henchmen. In its prosecution of the cold war, he writes, America “picked up where the Nazis left off.” The Kennedy and Johnson administrations supported what he calls the Latin American equivalents of “Heinrich Himmler's extermination squads.” “Of course the United States claims it has reasons,” Chomsky exclaimed in the midst of a sweeping denunciation of American policy in the Washington Post. “And the Nazis claimed they had reasons for gassing the Jews.” To the suggestion that when the U.S. intervenes in the world, its purpose is to promote democracy and stability, he replies that Hitler and Mussolini cited peace, stability, and progress as justifications for their aggressions, too. To American corporate executives under the impression that economic success will advance the public good, he has a word of advice: “even the Himmlers and Mengeles convinced themselves that they were engaged in noble and courageous acts.”

This, then, is what Chomsky's exercise in independent thinking and scholarly rigor comes down to: a vulgar, lockstep Marxism according to which every American action is determined by a predatory economic appetite and the drive for global dominance; an affinity for third-world “revolutionary” regimes that control the press, repress inquiry, and brutalize those who express inconvenient ideas; a denial of America's historic achievement in winning the cold war and of the great gains for freedom this entailed; an invocation of the “Nazi” epithet to smear the democratic societies of Israel and the United States. And this coarse propagandist serves as a political guide and moral icon to hundreds of thousands around the world, and as the very model of a “dissident.”

Those who have bestowed this label on Chomsky surely understood that in doing so they have placed him on the same moral plane as the figures who offered intellectual resistance to Communist regimes during the cold war. But those dissidents knew the meaning of freedom, and grasped how and why Communism uniquely threatened the life of the free mind. Those dissidents also appreciated America's role in the struggle for freedom. Having experienced the daily lies of Communism, they were undeceived by the “democratic” declarations issuing from the mouths of third-world despots and would-be despots.

On each and every count, the dissidents of the Communist experience are on the opposite end of a yawning political divide from Noam Chomsky. That so much of the Left today seems to take its stand with him, and not with Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, Sharansky, or Havel, is one of the continuing intellectual and moral scandals of our era.

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Footnotes

1 Edited by Peter Collier and David Horowitz. Encounter Books, 260 pp., $17.95.

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About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.




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