Eight Ways to Smear Chomsky

I just read a recent article in The Nation, ‘The Left and 9/11’ (September 23, 2002) by Adam Shatz, which purports to be a measured analysis of the differences between the so-called ‘Left’ in the United States over the war in Afghanistan and in Iraq. In reality the article is a clever misrepresentation of Chomsky, and of others who share his view of U.S. foreign policy.

Just as there is more than one way to skin a cat, there is more than one way to smear Chomsky. I counted eight in Shatz’s article.

1. Accuse him of being ‘anti-American’:

“The MIT linguist and prolific essayist Noam Chomsky has emerged as a favorite target of those keen on exposing the left’s anti-Americanism.”

“While Falk [unlike Chomsky] did not evaluate the war through the distorting prism of anti-Americanism…”

I’ll point out the obvious: Noam Chomsky is American, so how can he be against himself? For that matter I am American and I’ve never read anything Chomsky wrote that was anti-me. If Shatz means that Chomsky consistently opposes the foreign policy of the United States Government, then why doesn’t he say it? The phrase ‘the distorting prism of anti-Americanism’ has no political meaning. It is the responsibility of any citizen of a democracy to oppose the policy of their government if they think it is illegal, immoral, or both.

2. Accuse Chomsky of being unsympathetic to the victims of the September 11th atrocities:

“Although Chomsky denounced the attacks, emphasizing that “nothing can justify such crimes,” he seemed irritable in the interviews he gave just after September 11, as if he couldn’t quite connect to the emotional reality of American suffering. He wasted little time on the attacks themselves before launching into a wooden recitation of atrocities carried out by the American government and its allies.”

“The problem was not so much Chomsky’s opposition to US retaliation as the weirdly dispassionate tone of his reaction to the carnage at Ground Zero, but, as Todd Gitlin points out, “in an interview undertaken just after September 11, the tone was the position.”

This reminds me of King Lear’s rage when Cordelia doesn’t express her love in the proper way, while his other daughters Regan and Goneril do so with hypocritical effusions of false affection. As Kent says in response ‘Nor are those empty hearted whose low sounds reverb no hollowness’.

Since when, in any serious assessment of a person’s political position, do you judge a person according to how you perceive their tone rather than by the words they speak? I wonder what would have satisfied Shatz and Gitlin? For Chomsky to break down crying when talking about September 11th? By what almighty right do they judge any person’s emotional response to a human catastrophe?

3. Accuse, by implication, Chomsky and others of actually being happy (the code word here is ‘glee’) that 3,000 people were killed in a terrorist attack on September 11th. Shatz is more careful here. He repeats an assertion of Michael Walzer, editor of Dissent, about certain unnamed people who felt ‘glee’ over the attacks, then he uses the word as if people had actually felt ‘glee’, then he tells us that Micahel Walzer’s focus of attack is Chomsky.

“In “Can There Be a Decent Left?”, an essay in the spring Dissent, Michael Walzer–who lent his signature to “What We’re Fighting For,” a prowar manifesto sponsored by the center-right Institute for American Values–accused the antiwar left of expressing “barely concealed glee that the imperial state had finally gotten what it deserved.” (When I asked him to say whom he had in mind, he said: “I’m not going to do that. Virtually everyone who read it knew exactly what I was talking about.”)

“Unlike most Americans, leftists didn’t have to ask the question “Why do they hate us?”–and not because of any glee that the chickens had come home to roost.

“At Dissent’s first editorial board meeting after the attacks, the liveliest topic of conversation was reportedly Chomsky, whom Walzer appears to regard as an even greater menace to society than Osama himself.”

This is the classic sneaky attack by innuendo. If Shatz wants to repeat such slanderous accusations about Noam Chomsky then he should have the courage to do so openly.

4. Accuse Chomsky of trivializing the victims of September 11th :

“In a clumsy analogy, Chomsky likened the attacks to Clinton’s bombing of the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan (wrongly suspected of manufacturing biological weapons), which resulted in one direct casualty. According to Chomsky, because the destruction of the plant placed tens of thousands of Sudanese at risk of malaria and other lethal diseases, it was “morally worse” than 9/11.”

Exactly what makes this a ‘clumsy’ analogy? Is it true that Clinton bombed a pharmaceutical plant? Yes. Shatz says it was ‘wrongly suspected of manufacturing biological weapons’. Wrongly suspected by whom? The U.S. Government knew without a doubt that it was a pharmaceutical plant. So here Shatz repeats the propaganda of the Clinton administration, by singing the constant refrain of the apologists for state power: ‘oh, it was just a mistake’. How many people died because the pharmaceutical plant was destroyed? Thousands, according to the sources Chomsky cited. Do their lives have equal value to the lives of the people killed on September 11th? If so, then what is the problem with the analogy? Perhaps you agree, perhaps you disagree, but the implicit assumption is that Chomsky should not equate the suffering of poor people in Africa with that of the victims of September 11th.

5. Misrepresent Chomsky’s proposal for treating the September 11th as a crime against humanity rather than an act of war:

“And yet there are some settings in which police methods can hardly be expected to work, like Afghanistan. “Which was the court where these guys could be summoned?” asks Todd Gitlin. “Were subpoenas to be dropped at the mouths of the caves of Tora Bora?” What’s more, the call for “police work” rather than war sounded somewhat disingenuous, coming as it did from some of the same people who used to call for the abolition of the CIA, an organization to which much of the policing would presumably be entrusted.”

What Schatz doesn’t point out here is the glaringly obvious fact that Chomsky and others called for September 11th to be treated as a crime against humanity and dealt with by the United Nations, according to international law. So, why would the C.I.A. be entrusted with policing overseen by the United Nations? The International Criminal Court, which the Bush Administration has refused to join, and has also tried to destroy in its cradle, is precisely the type of court that could have dealt with an international crime of this magnitude.

6. Misrepresent Chomsky’s view of the motivations for American foreign policy, pretending as if he thinks that ‘we’ are somehow ‘evil’:

“One can differ with Chomsky on Afghanistan and still see much of value in his critique of the war on terrorism. “I don’t believe that we’re ideologically committed to do evil,” says playwright Tony Kushner. “On the other hand, what Chomsky says about the globalization of the war is absolutely true. It’s the beginning of an unapologetic imperium, and that’s quite frightening.”

In fact, Chomsky always analyzes U.S. foreign policy in terms of domestic concentrations of political power.

7. Repeat the smear that Chomsky was ‘wrong’ about Cambodia:

“Chomsky’s framework for understanding US foreign policy is appealing because it appears to see through the fog, while allowing those who accept it to feel like they’re on the side of history’s angels. His world is an orderly, logical one in which everything is foretold. The shape events assume may be unexpected, but the events themselves are the predictable outcome of this or that American policy. Applied to Vietnam, East Timor and Palestine, Chomsky’s analysis of American imperialism has demonstrated uncommon prophetic powers. Applied to Cambodia and the Balkans, it has prevented him from comprehending evil that has not been plotted from Washington.”

Shatz doesn’t even attempt to offer any proof for the assertions of this paragraph. He can state it as if it is true because similar false accusations have been launched for years, to the point where people think ‘oh, it must be true’. This is the same smear that far-right ideologue Richard Bennett used in his CNN debate with Chomsky a few months ago.

8. Create a false representation of two wings of the so-called Left, with Chomsky and Christopher Hitchens at opposite extremes offering two ‘paradigms’ of U.S. foreign policy:

“Despite their strengths, since September 11 both these paradigms have proved to be unreliable compasses. Chomsky’s jaundiced perspective on American power makes it virtually impossible to contemplate the possibility of just American military interventions, either for self-defense or to prevent genocide. Hitchens’s intoxicated embrace of American power has left him less and less capable of drawing the line between humanitarian intervention and rogue-state adventurism. What the left needs to cultivate is an intelligent synthesis, one that recognizes that the United States has a role to play in the world while also warning of the dangers of an imperial foreign policy.”

Exactly why is Chomsky considered to have a ‘jaundiced’ perspective? This is simply another accusation without evidence. It’s easy to find Chomsky’s view on the issue of humanitarian intervention. If the concentrations of power, (the people who own and control huge corporations, and who thus have the dominant influence over U.S. foreign policy) have not changed, then it is ridiculous to think the U.S. Government is going to militarily intervene in other countries in a humanitarian way. You can paint a tiger pacific blue but its teeth and appetite won’t disappear with its stripes.

The last paragraph of Schatz’s article shows just how blind he is to the reasons ordinary Americans and people all over the world oppose U.S. foreign policy:

“Why does the left oppose war on Iraq? Do we oppose it because the US government’s reasons for going to war are always deceitful, or because the United States has no right to unseat foreign governments that haven’t attacked us first, or because this war is ill-timed and is likely to backfire? Do we oppose it because it’s unilateral and illegal under international law, or because the American government has failed to put forward a coherent vision of Iraq after Saddam? As with Afghanistan, there are more than two ways to be for or against an intervention in Iraq. Like the war on terror, the debate on the left over the uses of American force has no end in sight.”

Nowhere does Shatz mention the obvious, the huge glaring fact that apologists for mass murder like Christopher Hitchens have refused to acknowledge: many Americans are opposed to U.S. foreign policy because they recognize the suffering it causes to thousands of other human beings. This is the same reason that many Americans rely on Noam Chomsky, and other courageous intellectuals, for an understanding of that policy.

More civilians were killed in Afghanistan by U.S. bombing than were killed on September 11th 2001 in New York City. In addition many more died in the refugee camps they fled to because of the bombings. As The Nation itself has pointed out, Afghanistan did not become a better place for its people because of U.S. bombing. As the New York Times has pointed out, Al Queda is more dangerous now than it was before the bombing.

Chomsky’s crime, for the left and the right, has always been the same: he takes seriously the bedrock moral assumption that all human beings in the whole wide world have lives of equal value. There is no such thing as ‘our victims’ and ‘their victims’.

Schatz’s article, by misrepresenting Chomsky and other opponents of the bombing of Afghanistan, serves to prepare the way for many on the Left to support the war in Iraq by ignoring the victims there also. No doubt opponents of the war in Iraq will be accused of not developing what Shatz calls “an informed critique that transcends pacifist platitudes.”

In fact, Chomsky has been developing that informed critique for decades.

And as for myself, I would far rather speak out with ‘pacifist platitudes’ than repeat mindlessly the militarist platitudes of ‘humanitarian intervention’, otherwise known as war; which is in fact mass murder.

LAWRENCE MCGUIRE is the author of The Great American Wagon Road. He lives in France. He can be reached at: blmcguire@hotmail.com