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A recent criticism of Noam Chomsky by Jeffrey Isaac in the American Prospect offers up an useful opportunity to reflect upon some often unspoken presuppositions underlying recent political debate. Isaac’s discussion initially centres around a quotation from Chomsky’s recent book, A New Generation Draws the Line: Kosovo, East Timor and the Standards of the West. […]

Framing Chomsky

by John Touchie

A recent criticism of Noam Chomsky by Jeffrey Isaac in the American Prospect offers up an useful opportunity to reflect upon some often unspoken presuppositions underlying recent political debate.

Isaac’s discussion initially centres around a quotation from Chomsky’s recent book, A New Generation Draws the Line: Kosovo, East Timor and the Standards of the West. The quotation states:

The huge slaughter. . . in East Timor is (at least) comparable to the terrible atrocities that can plausibly be attributed to Milosevic in the earlier wars in Yugoslavia, and responsibility is far easier to assign, with no complicating factors. If proponents of the “repetition of Bosnia” thesis intend it seriously, they should certainly have been calling for the bombing of Jakarta — indeed Washington and London — in early 1999 so as not to allow in East Timor a repetition of the crimes that Indonesia, the U.S., and the UK, had perpetrated there for a quarter-century. And when the new generation of leaders [an allusion to Clinton and Blair-J.I.] refused to pursue this honorable course, they should have been leading honest citizens to do so themselves, perhaps joining the Bin Laden network. These conclusions follow straightforwardly, if we assume that the thesis is intended as something more than apologetics for state violence.

The reasoning here is relatively straightforward:

1. Atrocities (such as those that took place in Bosnia) should be stopped by military force if necessary; 2. X directed such atrocities. 3. Such force would entail bombing X.

Chomsky asks: are we to take such arguments seriously? Or are they mere apologetics? To test this hypothesis, Chomsky applies the reasoning above to the factual premise that Jakarta, Washington and London have directed the committing of atrocities.

It should be clear that Chomsky’s analysis is of the reasoning of people that he disagrees with. It should be also be clear that Chomsky is not saying that he supports this line of reasoning, nor is he saying that he agrees with the conclusions that are drawn. Rather, Chomsky argues that because we do not see commentators drawing the conclusion above, we may conclude that they do not take their own argument seriously. As he notes, if they took their own argument seriously, then they would call for bombing of the centres that direct terrorism. This seems an obvious inference to draw.

Much weaker, in my view, is Chomsky’s suggestion that that if one were committed to the reasoning above as a serious proposal, but for some reason the leaders of their governments were unwilling to act, one might expect that such leaders might none the less encourage alternative forms of response, such as joining terrorist networks, as in Chomsky’s comment that “honest citizens” might be encouraged to take up arms to stop such atrocities (by “joining the Bin Laden network”, for example). Although it does make sense to claim that alternatives would be encouraged, and it also makes sense to say that the reasoning advocates a violent solution to the problem of atrocities, the idea that this would imply that the proper course of action would be to encourage private citizens to take matters into their own hands goes too far. The “joining the Bin Laden network” is, it would seem, an unjustified rhetorical flourish.

Isaac, however, takes this to be of much greater significance, and argues that such comments point to the question of Chomsky’s “intellectual responsibility”, not of the “the actual influence of his words on the atrocities that have taken place”, but “rather the view of intellectual responsibility that could even entertain words like those quoted above”.

There are a number of difficulties with Isaac’s position, however.

First, as one basis of his indictment of Chomsky, Isaacs claims that the conclusions of the reasoning discussed above are “no longer logical possibilities. The conclusions have been drawn, and acted upon”. Clearly, Isaac’s is claiming that the bombings of 11 September were based upon the reasoning Chomsky criticizes. There is no evidence offered to support this claim; it is simply assertion. I, for one, would be curious to know how Isaacs is able to access the reasoning of those involved, as his claim clearly seems to entail.

Second, Isaac persistently and mistakenly represents the reasoning that Chomsky is attacking as Chomsky’s own. Chomsky takes the reasoning of those he is criticizing and points out its implications. This is standard fare in argumentation and reasoning. As such, it should be clear that Chomsky does not adopt such reasoning. Chomsky does not argue for bombing to stop atrocities. Nor does he claim that “honest citizens” ought to be encouraged to be terrorists. Rather, Chomsky argues that these are the implications of the argument that he is criticizing. As I’ve noted above, while the final implication has little to support it, it should be obvious in all of this that none of this implies that Chomsky is supporting such reasoning. Rather, they are the arguments of those Chomsky views as apologists.

It is interesting, then, to see Isaac claiming that Chomsky draws “his quasi-conclusion that Washington and London deserve the terrorism of Bin Laden”. While the very next sentence notes that while “Chomsky does not endorse such terrorism”, Isaac nonetheless claims that from his “ever-so-acute vantage point, there is a certain justice to it”. It should be clear, however, that Chomsky is not arguing for the “justice” of such results. Rather, it is the reasoning of those Chomsky is criticizing that would support the “justice” of such a result. It is difficult to see how it can be said that Chomsky adopts such reasoning; indeed, he is openly critical of it. From this we should conclude that Isaac’s attempt to attribute such reasoning to Chomsky is without a sound logical basis.

Even more difficult to understand as rational argument is Isaac’s ruminations about whether “Chomsky ever considered the possibility” that someone reading his book might “carelessly draw the conclusion that the bombing of Washington is required”. There seems to be an innuendo here that Chomsky is in some way responsible for the consequences of his arguments, even if misunderstood. Yet the idea that Chomsky is responsible for such carelessness – particularly given that he is criticizing such reasoning ? is as bizarre as it is unwarranted. Isaac is clearly on shaky ground here.

Yet the quality of the argument goes from bad to worse.

Isaac’s asserts that Chomsky “sincerely desires” an “end to American “imperialism”"; however, since Chomsky is “[e]ver the moralist, [he] fails here, as elsewhere, to say anything about how this result might be brought about in a reasonable way”. The idea here is that Chomsky, by refusing to say how things might be made better, is acting irresponsibly.

The addition of “as elsewhere” would seem to imply that Chomsky has never discussed how achieve such a result. I would have thought that the obvious corrective here would be to refer to the numerous Chomsky works that discuss at some length how this might be achieved. Chomsky’s oft-repeated suggestion that the US Government conforming to international law might be a good place to start, for it is both “reasonable” and widely published. It would seem that Isaac’s argument has no basis in this instance, and that he is simply ignorant of Chomsky’s numerous discussions of such matters.

Similar comments would apply to Isaac’s claim that “Chomsky rarely if ever has said what, in his mind, the antithesis to this American imperialism is, leaving his critics to charge him with moral tone deafness and with sheer political emptiness”. Again, one would think that, as a starting point, Chomsky’s numerous calls for the US Government to accept the rule of law, rather than the rule of force, might merit some comment. Surely the rule of law presents an antithesis to the resort to arbitrary power. It seems odd that Isaac, as a teacher of political science, would be unaware of such considerations.

But perhaps Isaac’s point is a different one. Chomsky’s has repeatedly argued that governments must conform to the rule of law and should dedicate effort to the protection of human rights and moral decency. Yet Isaac asserts that Chomsky puts forward with no practical or reasonable suggestions for action. The implication from this could be that Isaac is assuming that the enforcement of legal and moral rights are impractical or unreasonable suggestions for action. That this might be a reasonable interpretation is tied to Isaac’s charges that “critics” charge Chomsky with “moral tone deafness” and “political emptiness”. I suspect that such charges often confront those who refuse to engage in compromise and in the trade-off the human rights of some for the benefit of others, in the interests of striking a “practical” political bargain. Not emphasized is the possibility that some things simply aren’t up for exchange, particularly when the bargain is expected to produce a loss for one party and a gain for the other. Or that human rights under a rule of law are not merely one interest among many, but rather the foundation of the interest that we all have in keeping society from degenerating into nothing more than the naked struggle for power.

It is ironic, then, to hear Isaac’s charge Chomsky with a “moral tone deafness” and “sheer political emptiness”. Isaac asserts that Chomsky does not “take sides in this struggle” of “us” versus “them, of “‘American imperialism’ and the terrorists and tyrants who hate it”. True enough, for Chomsky does not agree with a simplistic dichotomization of the world into “friend” and “foe”. Isaacs conceptualizes the world in this way, as a world in terms of power groups. But Chomsky argues for a third way, based on legal and moral right, and a world in which both friend and foe can be in the wrong.

This point continually eludes Isaac. Being unable to grasp it, Isaac continually frames Chomsky’s position in the only way he seems capable of understanding it: as a retreat from “practicality” and “realistic” policy, based on a power politic of “us” versus “them”.

Yet given Chomsky’s advocacy of the rule of law and human rights, it should be clear that Isaac is unable to escape the intellectual limitations of his own position and is, consequently, unable to properly understand Chomsky’s position.

For example, Isaacs bases part of his criticism on the fact that Chomsky doesn’t “take sides”. Given Chomsky doesn’t dichotomize the world into “our side” and “their side”, a classic move of power politics, but instead argues for the right rather than the expedient, for human rights and the rule of law rather than for power politics and the rule of force, it makes little sense to criticize Chomsky for refusing to adopt the a position he has consistently criticized.

In a similar vein, Isaac asserts that by refusing to conceptualize of the world in terms of power, and by refusing to take sides with “us” versus “them”, Chomsky is precluded from advocating “realistic policies that might actually bring peace to the Middle East” or a “decisive response” to terrorism. Yet this conclusion is simply the result of Isaac’s own framing of the issues, and his blindness to the possibility that there exists anything beyond power politics and a “friend” or “foe” mentality. Given such a framing, Isaac is simply unable to appreciate Chomsky’s emphasis on rights embodied in his calls for the rule of law rather than the rule of force. Given the uncompromisingly and overwhelmingly politicized nature of Isaac’s view, it is hardly surprising that critics view Chomsky’s position as embodying a “sheer political emptiness”. From their perspective, a position that focuses on human and moral rights that are not applicable solely on the basis of political considerations, but rather on a consideration of what is right, would indeed be apolitical. And such a depoliticized position is disturbing precisely because it constitutes an essential precondition for a social life based on something other than domination and the rule of force.

The final irony here is Isaac’s claim that Chomsky’s stance is simply “cynicism”. On the one hand, we have Isaac, who emphasizes power politics, who sees the world as a struggle for power, and who adopts an “us” versus “them”, “friend” or “foe” mentality. This is a position that emphasizes the enthronement of politics over everything and everybody. On the other hand we have Chomsky, who emphasizes the rule of law and human and moral rights, a position that emphasizes that conduct will be judged according to what is right rather than whether you are for us or against us. Isaac claims you are either for “us” or against “us”; hence, Chomsky is “against”. Chomsky, alternatively, reject the “us” versus “them” mentality and advocates human rights and the rule of law for the benefit of all. Now, which one of these would you call cynical? CP

John Touchie is a lecturer on the law faculty at the Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia.