Planet Chomsky in the Times
The limits of column inches can constrain reasoned, subtle argumentation that refutes one’s favorite author from being housed in the op-ed columns and book review sections of a daily newspaper.
But this week’s New York Times demonstrate again that ideological constraints are the most powerful force thwarting honest disputation, at least in the newspaper of record.
A review by Samantha Power in the Sunday New York Times Book Review (Jan. 4, 2003) of Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival, America’s Quest for Global Dominance (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company) constitutes the most sympathetic, comparatively fair and balanced discussion of Chomsky’s political writing in years appearing in these pages, with only a hint of Chomsky bashing.
A reader might understand how this comes about now. After all, Bush and neocons have suffered the peace movement’s and alternative media’s devastating rebuttal to the administration’s stated reasons for war with Iraq–no weapons of mass destruction and no connections to al-Qaeda–to their embarrassment before the entire world.
Yet, reading Power you can almost feel the compulsion to abuse Chomsky somehow, someway, lest someone reads the review and gets the impression that Power is somehow sympathetic to Chomsky’s writing; Power seems on guard against this.
After noting Chomsky’s growing celebrity as a "global phenomenon" and best-selling author, Power reasonably sums up "Hegemony or Survival" as "…a raging and often meandering assault on United States foreign policy and the elites who shape it." Chomsky is an indignant writer, what a Brit might call "overheated;" although I do not agree that the book is meandering.
As Power implies the scholarly Chomsky insists upon using evidence to back his conclusions, "Drawing upon case after historical case of violent meddling (Iran, Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Kosovo, etc.)"
So far, so good as can be expected, although "violent meddling" is a ridiculous euphemism for the millions killed and the societies destroyed in the cases that Power cites.
But at this point, no more Ms. Nice Girl for Samantha Power:
"For Chomsky, the world is divided into oppressor and oppressed. America, the prime oppressor, can do no right, while the sins of those categorized as oppressed receive scant mention. Because he deems American foreign policy inherently violent and expansionist, he is unconcerned with the motives behind particular policies, or the ethics of particular individuals in government. And since he considers the United States the leading terrorist state, little distinguishes American air strikes in Serbia undertaken at night with high-precision weaponry from World Trade Center attacks timed to maximize the number of office workers who have just sat down with their morning coffee."
Chomsky is a good empiricist, and he does insist on an evidence base for his conclusions. The overwhelming evidence does suggest that American foreign policy has directly or indirectly done a lot of harm in the world, and that this policy can lead to utterly catastrophic consequences. That seems abundantly clear, and honestly I do not see why or how Power can object to this, or even why Chomsky is "Revered" for pointing this out. Seems obvious.
And, as American citizens, we and Power bear responsibility for what our government does; so citizens, intellectuals, artists and writers should concentrate of what they are responsible for and not so much on "the sins of those categorized as oppressed." Again, though this sentiment has been expressed by Chomsky time and again, one must question how Power can object to this principle, or why Chomsky is revered for pointing this out. Seems obvious.
As for Power’s assertion that Chomsky sees a black and white world of oppressor and oppressed, it is revealing that Power does not cite anything. And, "It is inconceivable, in Chomsky’s view, that American power could be harnessed for good," writes Power.
I have never read such text or suggestion from Chomsky in anything. Why does Power make it up? Chomsky’s view is simply that privileged sectors of states will likely influence foreign policy in their own interests, often irrespective of who gets hurt. Power almost admits the point in writing "And it is essential to demand, as Chomsky does, that a country with the might of the United States stop being so selective in applying its principles." Careful there, Ms. Power, you said something good.
Power concludes that "Chomsky is wrong to think that individuals within the American government are not thinking seriously about the costs of alliances with repressive regimes…"
The best thing about Chomsky as a scholar is that he a bottom-line, results-oriented guy–seemingly obsessed with such matters as evidence and measurable phenomena — like number of deaths, number of wounded, systematic cases of torture, number of starving, press freedoms prevented, civil liberties suffering generally; and how our country’s policies sustain and cause such phenomena — irrespective of our government’s "profession of noble intent (Hegemony of Survival),” or Power’s divining how scrupulously "individuals within the American government are…thinking seriously about the costs of alliances with repressive regimes." Chomsky’s seems like a level-headed approach that reaches reasonable conclusions, and Power has to goes out of her way to find fault.
The Times reverts to the not-so-fair-and-balanced commentary in today’s editorial page in David Brooks’ "The Era of Distortion" (Jan.6, 2003) who gets back to good old Times-Chomsky bashing.
You who point out that following:
That neocons Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Doug Feith, Bill Kristol and others have advocated invading Iraq for years
That many neocons are in policy-making or influential positions in the administration
That we did invade Iraq even though no weapons of mass destruction and no connections to al-Qaeda have been found (Brooks does not mention this) are, well read this description of you neocon critics who are "unhinged from reality":
"You get to feed off their villainy and luxuriate in your own contrasting virtue. You will find books, blowhards and candidates playing to your delusions, and you can emigrate to your own version of Planet Chomsky. You can live there unburdened by ambiguity."
Elsewhere, Brooks notes that:
. "(con is short for ‘conservative’ and neo is short for ‘Jewish’),"
. "…there are apparently millions of people who cling to the notion that the world is controlled by well-organized and malevolent forces. And for a subset of these people, Jews are a handy explanation for everything"
. and "…anti-Semitism is resurgent. Conspiracy theories are prevalent. Partisanship has left many people unhinged"
"Welcome to election year, 2004," concludes Brooks.
Neocon critics are unhinged or anti-Semitic, proliferating because of the 2004 election year. Welcome to Planet Brooks in the Times.
MICHAEL LEON is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. His writing has appeared nationally in The Progressive, In These Times, and CounterPunch. He can be reached at: email@example.com.