Why some people think Noam Chomsky is wrong
February 9, 2012 9:09 AM   Subscribe

It's not news that Noam Chomsky's views on foreign policy are controversial. Paul Bogdanor's The Chomsky Hoax collects links to articles critiquing those views, including the Top 200 Chomsky Lies (pdf) and economist J. Bradford Delong's My Very, Very Allergic Reaction to Noam Chomsky. Other prominent critiques include Noam Chomsky: A Critical Review (by MeFi's own Russil Wvong), George Shadriou's Dissecting Chomsky and Anti-Americanism, and David Horowitz's series of articles on Chomsky in Frontpage Magazine (Part I, Part II, response to rebuttals).
posted by shivohum (284 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
David Horowitz? Really?

"It is true, on the other hand, that the adulators of Chomsky share a group psychosis with millions of others who formerly worshipped pre-Chomskyites, like Lenin, Stalin, and other Marxist worthies, as geniuses of the progressive faith.

Now to the facts."


Heh.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 9:12 AM on February 9, 2012 [12 favorites]


extreme left-wing propagandist and genocide denier Noam Chomsky.

I feel you could have picked better sources because it doesn't come as a surprise that neocrons/conservatives/extreme right-wing people (see what I did there?) don't like the man.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 9:21 AM on February 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


I'm only familiar with Chomsky because of Manufacturing Consent, which is actually pretty great. Paul Bogdanor, on the other hand, I'd never heard of before and now having seen his website I can't distinguish him from any other number of obsessed internet wackjobs.
posted by Hoopo at 9:22 AM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


The Lie: “In fact the United States is having a lot more trouble in Iraq than Germany ever had
in occupied Europe, or than Russia had in Eastern Europe, which is kind of remarkable.”

The Truth: Germany lost over 4 million dead in Europe during the Second World War. The
Red Army lost nearly 6.9 million killed in action during the same period; its post-war losses
included 20,000 dead from counterinsurgency in Lithuania alone.


Yeah, the American occupation of Iraq was totally as smooth as the decades-long Communist presence in, say, Lithuania.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:23 AM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Outstanding post. Thanks!
posted by BobbyVan at 9:24 AM on February 9, 2012


I hold that it is bad as far as we are concerned if a person, a political party, an army or a school is not attacked by the enemy, for in that case it would definitely mean that we have sunk to the level of the enemy. It is good if we are attacked by the enemy, since it proves that we have drawn a clear line of demarcation between the enemy and ourselves. It is still better if the enemy attacks us wildly and paints us as utterly black and without a single virtue; it demonstrates that we have not only drawn a clear line of demarcation between the enemy and ourselves but achieved a great deal in our work.
Mao Zedong, 'To be attacked by the enemy is not a bad thing but a good thing.'
posted by Abiezer at 9:24 AM on February 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


I feel you could have picked better sources

Shivohum picked sources that served a particular purpose.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 9:25 AM on February 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Foci for Analysis: “I feel you could have picked better sources because it doesn't come as a surprise that neocrons/conservatives/extreme right-wing people (see what I did there?) don't like the man.”

I think it's kind of silly that nobody here seems to be paying attention to russilwvong's very thorough and thoughtful piece on Chomsky which is linked above; Russil is by no means a "neocron" or a conservative, and he gives Chomsky a good reading, I think, before giving a fine account of the many things wrong with Chomsky's perspective.

The other links, I don't know if I have a use for. But this post is worth it just for Russil's piece.
posted by koeselitz at 9:29 AM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


Chomsky does a good job of poiting out U.S. government hypocrisy with respect to supporting dictators. He does a terrible job of living in the real world, where the United States does not have the luxury of choosing not to engage with people who do bad things. And he does an even worse job of understanding the fundamental difference between trying to kill civilians and accidentally killing civilians in pursuit of those who are trying to kill civilians. And he's at his most morally blinkered when he ends up on the side of dictators and genocidal racists (like Milosevic) simply because the United States is fighting them.
posted by Dasein at 9:29 AM on February 9, 2012 [21 favorites]


Horowitz kinda makes me wonder about the legitimacy of the others linked.

To misconstrue Chomsky's argument that someone has THE RIGHT to write a book denying the holocaust (which he did) doesn't mean HE, personally, denies that the holocaust happened (which he doesn't).

I think Noam can be over ideological and get into zealot-land sometimes, but never to the extent of Horowitz.
posted by whatgorilla at 9:33 AM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


I expect a 20-Sheckel-Brigade post like this to get torn apart by Metafilter, as it rightly deserves.
posted by dunkadunc at 9:34 AM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


he does an even worse job of understanding the fundamental difference between trying to kill civilians and accidentally killing civilians in pursuit of those who are trying to kill civilians

You may be missing the point that a lot of people, including Chomsky, don't much care about the whether it was an accident or not because sometimes it might not really be worth killing a bunch of innocent people. There is no bomb smart enough that it can be dropped on a neighborhood and only kill bad guys.
posted by Hoopo at 9:35 AM on February 9, 2012 [22 favorites]


Yeah, the addition of Horowitz is a good way to poison the well, but there are some otherwise good links here.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:35 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm sorry, no. Chomsky is a philospher and bona fide scientist (with MIT credentials). He is more likely to be misconstrued than to be "wrong". I have not read his works in detail but people criticizing him tend to misunderstand the nuances of what he is saying. If you don't do the work of learning the cognitive abstractions that he employs in his very specific and particular language, of course you will think he's the one who is wrong.
posted by polymodus at 9:45 AM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


I feel you could have picked better sources because it doesn't come as a surprise that neocrons/conservatives/extreme right-wing people (see what I did there?) don't like the man.

Uh, Brad DeLong? None of the above.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:46 AM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


He does a terrible job of living in the real world, where the United States does not have the luxury of choosing not to engage with people who do bad things.

The United States absolutely has that luxury. The international community was pretty clear about that out re: Iraq.

And he does an even worse job of understanding the fundamental difference between trying to kill civilians and accidentally killing civilians in pursuit of those who are trying to kill civilians.

There is no difference. Dead civilians are dead civilians. If you're killing civilians to prevent the killing of civilians, you are really, really, really terrible at your job.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:47 AM on February 9, 2012 [40 favorites]


i'm a big fan of chomsky because what he writes is logical and heavily referenced. i've read some criticism, but have not been impressed. but i'd like to think i have an open mind. as someone who is naturally critical, it's very interesting to see what, if anything, there is to criticize about him. like ... wouldn't it be awesome if he was wrong about everything?

the "genocide" denier thing, as i understand it, was about cambodia, and they basically misconstrued some statements he made early on when there wasn't much information. if you asked him today, do you seriously think he'd say the khemer rouge didn't commit genocide?

he's definitely not 100% correct about everything though. i distinctly remember seeing a talk from summer 2002 where he thought the US would not invade iraq. of coures, that's a prediction he got wrong at the time, not an analysis of past events. pobody's nerfect.

he does an even worse job of understanding the fundamental difference between trying to kill civilians and accidentally killing civilians in pursuit of those who are trying to kill civilians

this reminds me of a simpsons episode where bart and lisa are fighting, and bart, swinging his arms and walking towards lisa says "i'm going to be doing this, and if you get in the way, it's your own fault". so, yea, there really isn't much of a difference because the US is saying "i'm going to bomb houses with robot planes. if civilians get in the way, it's their own fault".
posted by cupcake1337 at 9:48 AM on February 9, 2012 [8 favorites]


(And, let's face it, "prevent" is hardly the right word. "Avenge" is far more accurate, and far less noble.)
posted by Sys Rq at 9:48 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


DeLong crushes him:
And uncovering the cynical crimes of mad governments? Take a look at Chomsky's 1979 After the Cataclysm:

If a serious study…is someday undertaken, it may well be discovered…that the Khmer Rouge programs elicited a positive response…because they dealt with fundamental problems rooted in the feudal past and exacerbated by the imperial system.… Such a study, however, has yet to be undertaken.

Reflect that it was published three full years after the Cambodian Holocaust of the Year Zero. Ask yourself whether this is an uncovering or a covering of the crimes of an abominable regime. But it gets worse. Go back to your Nation of 1977, and consider the paragraph:

...there are many other sources on recent events in Cambodia that have not been brought to the attention of the American reading public. Space limitations preclude a comprehensive review, but such journals as the Far Eastern Economic Review, the London Economist, the Melbourne Journal of Politics, and others elsewhere, have provided analyses by highly qualified specialists who have studied the full range of evidence available, and who concluded that executions have numbered at most in the thousands; that these were localized in areas of limited Khmer Rouge influence and unusual peasant discontent, where brutal revenge killings were aggravated by the threat of starvation resulting from the American destruction and killing.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:48 AM on February 9, 2012 [8 favorites]


"It is true, on the other hand, that the adulators of Chomsky share a group psychosis with millions of others who formerly worshipped pre-Chomskyites, like Lenin, Stalin, and other Marxist worthies, as geniuses of the progressive faith.

Haven't read any of the links yet, but saw this quote and instantly recognized it as something that I (a comparatively early Chomsky adopter -- mid-80s) might have been heard to say more than once. That is, the line of the man's thinking and interpretation is incise and "refreshing" in an everything-you-know-is-wrong sort of way (and mostly dead-on accurate, I should add) ... but, of course, it's not Mr. Chomsky I worry about. It's some of those adulators I've met along the way -- their tendency (I'm talking about some here, not all) to effectively believe in him the way some believe in religious figures. It's creepy, and the sci-fi author in my brain can see it leading to all manner of future catastrophe.

Nobody has even most of the answers. That's why there's 7 billion of us.
posted by philip-random at 9:51 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Chomsky is right to attack the blinkered narcissism of US foreign policy and the pure benevolence with which its citizenry views it, but he also recreates this narcissism by casting the US as the primary villain of the world's affairs, with himself as the spectator who sees through the benevolence, only to find pure malevolence.

He is also all too willing to cast non-US/non-Western atrocities in the kindest light possible, as an antidote to Western propaganda. This spills over into becoming an equivalent sort of problem.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:52 AM on February 9, 2012 [14 favorites]


If you're killing civilians to prevent the killing of civilians,you are really,really,really terrible at your job.

This made my day.
posted by vitabellosi at 9:56 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm sorry, no. Chomsky is a philospher and bona fide scientist (with MIT credentials). He is more likely to be misconstrued than to be "wrong". I have not read his works in detail but people criticizing him tend to misunderstand the nuances of what he is saying. If you don't do the work of learning the cognitive abstractions that he employs in his very specific and particular language, of course you will think he's the one who is wrong.

I thought "adulation" was too strong a word for Chomsky lovers, but jeez.
posted by downing street memo at 9:56 AM on February 9, 2012 [10 favorites]


Uh, Brad DeLong? None of the above.

I just read some of his essay and gave up because he seems like a tremendous asshole.

He takes issue with people (supposedly) saying this:

Yes, he's made some mistakes. And he refuses to back down or make concessions when he is wrong. But it's more than counterbalanced by the stunning quality of his insights!

And then goes off citing stuff he's been wrong about. First, I highly doubt anyone is making an argument that Chomsky's wrongs are "counterbalanced" by things he gets right. Again, I'm not familiar with a lot of the Chomsky stuff they're talking about in terms of Milosovic and Cambodia. But no, I won't really concede that the man has had no great insights because of this.
posted by Hoopo at 9:56 AM on February 9, 2012


Also, congrats to Russil Wvong for being the only person linked to in this FPP who comes out looking good.
posted by Hoopo at 9:58 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I thought "adulation" was too strong a word for Chomsky lovers, but jeez.

I'm not a Chomsky lover. You're just projecting. See the kinds of logical failures I'm talking about? This is the kind of sloppy thinking that he is up against.
posted by polymodus at 10:00 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just want to say that I don't consider russilwvong to be a neocon/conservative/etc.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 10:01 AM on February 9, 2012


Chomsky seems like a guy with incredibly good and accurate vision, but only in one eye.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:01 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm only familiar with Chomsky because of Manufacturing Consent, which is actually pretty great.

FWIW: Manufacturing Consent was also my introduction to Chomsky, and I liked it a lot. After going into academia in the field of communication and media studies, I talked to a prof in the field about the book, and he said that his understanding was that Edward Herman, the co-author of that book, was the one behind most of the real research contained in it. My hunch is that Chomsky's name mainly helped sell the book.

If you read some of Chomsky's other work, or watch some of his speeches, you may find (like I do) that he has some really interesting points that he raises, but that a lot of his statements are just ridiculous. I saw him speak at the International Communication Association annual meeting last summer, and found myself agreeing with some of what he said but irritated at his rhetorical style of making rambling, off-handed connections between things that *seem* connected at first but upon further reflection are far more complex and nuanced. I think I gave up and left around the time he made it seem like Iran was a warm and fuzzy nation that wanted only to protect itself from outside dangers, and that the US and Israel were unfairly painting it as an aggressor to maintain their stranglehold on the Middle East. (Uh, OK, I'm worried about US warmongering w.r.t. Iran and other countries, but that's a *really* naive and wrongheaded analysis of geopolitics.)
posted by jsr1138 at 10:02 AM on February 9, 2012


I really wanted this to be about linguistics.
posted by Jeanne at 10:02 AM on February 9, 2012 [17 favorites]


I'm sorry, no. Chomsky is a philospher and bona fide scientist (with MIT credentials). He is more likely to be misconstrued than to be "wrong". I have not read his works in detail but people criticizing him tend to misunderstand the nuances of what he is saying.

He is certainly very smart, and there's no doubt he's a world-class linguist. He knows very well how to build a rigorous argument. So when he makes leaps of logic and obfuscatory statements, which he would never tolerate in in the work of his academic peers, it's not nuance, it's dishonesty.

I hold that it is bad as far as we are concerned if a person, a political party, an army or a school is not attacked by the enemy, for in that case it would definitely mean that we have sunk to the level of the enemy.


Notice the implicit but wholly unsupported implication of moral superiority here. Mao was a master propagandist and Chomsky employs this kind of trick continually in his political writings. The fact that there are opponents or political opposites of Chomsky who do the same thing (and far worse) is beside the point. Chomsky is a partisan, not an objective analyst. Being a partisan is fine, that's his right, but you can't read more than a couple of pages of Chomsky and seriously think he aims at objectivity.
posted by anigbrowl at 10:04 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm not a Chomsky lover. You're just projecting. See the kinds of logical failures I'm talking about? This is the kind of sloppy thinking that he is up against.

Logical failures like, say, appeals to authority?
posted by downing street memo at 10:04 AM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


He is more likely to be misconstrued than to be "wrong". I have not read his works in detail but people criticizing him tend to misunderstand the nuances of what he is saying. If you don't do the work of learning the cognitive abstractions that he employs in his very specific and particular language, of course you will think he's the one who is wrong.

I...take exception to this. I take exception to this...a lot. And I even like Chomsky.

Chomsky is quite wrong on a number of things, and it's especially easy to see when he's wrong about something when he asserts some discrete fact or another, and that assertion is either untrue or misleadingly presented.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:05 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


polymodus: “I'm sorry, no. Chomsky is a philospher and bona fide scientist (with MIT credentials). He is more likely to be misconstrued than to be "wrong". I have not read his works in detail but people criticizing him tend to misunderstand the nuances of what he is saying. If you don't do the work of learning the cognitive abstractions that he employs in his very specific and particular language, of course you will think he's the one who is wrong.”

cupcake1337: “i'm a big fan of chomsky because what he writes is logical and heavily referenced. i've read some criticism, but have not been impressed. but i'd like to think i have an open mind. as someone who is naturally critical, it's very interesting to see what, if anything, there is to criticize about him. like ... wouldn't it be awesome if he was wrong about everything?”

Again, I can point you both to Russil's essay above, which does a good job from a non-conservative perspective of saying some things that a person might find wrong with Chomsky.

For instance: Russil points out that "I haven't given up on liberal democracy and the welfare state." Chomsky has. Chomsky believes that capitalist democracy is inherently unjust, and that this injustice is inherent in its structure. Russil quotes George Orwell as a thinker who could be said to be sympathetic to Chomsky's position, but who clearly disagrees with Chomsky on this.

To amplify Russil's position a bit myself, I think it's pretty ludicrous for Chomsky to insist as he does that revolution is the only way of actually improving society, in the apparent believe that no revolution could bring about a worse state of affairs than we have now. This is position that contains very little perspective, I think, on the possibilities of regimes. As Russil says, there are much worse things than liberal democracy, though Chomsky doesn't seem to think so.
posted by koeselitz at 10:06 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


downing street memo: "and bona fide scientist (with MIT credentials)"

Yes in fact every time I screw up a regular expression, I blame Chomsky.
posted by vanar sena at 10:08 AM on February 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm not a Chomsky lover but the shallowness of the critics in these posts make me think he must be on to something.

100 lies of Chomsky. How about actually evaluating the claims? Maybe you'll come to your same conclusion that Chomsky is full of it. For example, Chomsky says the US is an equal or lesser villain than the USSR in the Cold War. Just mentioning the USSR's atrocities does not prove your point. Take into account the bombing of Laos or North Vietnam, etc. and then go after your point. Anything else and you are a rank propagandist.

(And BTW, maybe it's just me as an American but I do believe the USSR was worse. As I've said before, Stalin was Hitler with a better mustache.)
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 10:09 AM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm not a Chomsky lover. You're just projecting.

When you lead off by prising him as a philosopher and an MIT professor, you're making an argument from authority instead of from substance. That's like a lawyer saying 'my client couldn't possibly have committed this atrocious murder, he's a pillar of the community' or 'of course Reagan's policies were good, he was a great communicator.' You're expressing your admiration for Chomsky's abilities without addressing the fact that when talking about politics he makes specious arguments on an almost continual basis.

You don't get a pass on building a logical argument just because you're awesome in some other field, any more than a lawyer could ask to have his client excused because the lawyer had won her last 3 cases and therefore the jury should just take her word as equivalent to proof.
posted by anigbrowl at 10:10 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Praising him. Prising is something I do to boy scouts trapped in horses' hooves.
posted by anigbrowl at 10:11 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


To amplify Russil's position a bit myself, I think it's pretty ludicrous for Chomsky to insist as he does that revolution is the only way of actually improving society, in the apparent believe that no revolution could bring about a worse state of affairs than we have now.

I looked at section 3.1 of Russil's essay. His analysis is incomplete. He doesn't understand that what Chomsky sees is the *structural* violence already present in the socioeconomic system. And so Russil's conclusion comes across as a *tame* (he chooses to "settle" with liberal democracy/welfare state) alternative as opposed to the rational one (Chomsky rejecting the system as a whole).

(Note also that Russil's example of British modernization, in light of today's issues with the middle class in America, doesn't work anymore. But this is separate from the overall point above).
posted by polymodus at 10:12 AM on February 9, 2012


Uh, OK, I'm worried about US warmongering w.r.t. Iran and other countries, but that's a *really* naive and wrongheaded analysis of geopolitics.

Absolutely. I have to wonder sometimes, in light of the arguments in Manufacturing Consent, if he's actively trying to spin things the other way. Because he's pretty far from the truth a lot of the time when he speaks about politics.

Anything else and you are a rank propagandist.

Dude, did you miss the pictures? Chomsky's eyes looking all creepy? A photo of him in negative? He's obviously bad, case closed.
posted by Hoopo at 10:13 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it's pretty ludicrous for Chomsky to insist as he does that revolution is the only way of actually improving society

{{citation needed}}
posted by RogerB at 10:14 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Chomsky was valuable for me in that he offers a view of history, government, and economy, that even if it isn't particularly correct or coherent is, I think, at least as correct and coherent as the conventional wisdom.

I remember hearing this story from a girl who was raised in the Soviet Union about Lenin in the children. About these hagiographic stories that were told to children about their leaders and I found it very creepy and strange. But of course growing up I learned about how Washington could not tell a lie when he chopped down a cherry tree and passed from believing it to be true to learning that it was apocryphal without ever thinking that there was anything off about being told this myth in the first place.

The conventional wisdom includes things like "America is an important force for achieving positive humanitarian outcomes in the world. The only acceptable tool for achieving these goals is spending a lot of money to kill a lot of people. Humanitarian goals that do not involve spending a lot of money on killing people are an indulgence that we cannot afford."
posted by I Foody at 10:14 AM on February 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


And I'd like to point out that Chomsky's work on linguistic theory makes him as qualified to be a commentator on world affairs as Einstein's work on relativity made him a ballerina.

Take Chomsky's words on their own merit (for better or worse). Don't raise him up as an expert on everything by default, please. There are plenty of scientists out there with bad ideas on fields outside their expertise.
posted by vanar sena at 10:17 AM on February 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


Reflect that it was published three full years after the Cambodian Holocaust of the Year Zero.

Reflect that it was published in 1979, mere months after the fall of Pol Pot. Reflect that the extent of the genocide was not clear until the mass graves were found and the skulls counted. Reflect that that took awhile. Reflect that many of those skulls may have belonged to people who died of famine or were killed by the 2,000,000+ tons of US bombs dropped on Cambodia between 1965 and 1973. Reflect that the rise of the Khmer Rouge in the first place was a direct result of US foreign policy.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:19 AM on February 9, 2012 [10 favorites]


He doesn't understand that what Chomsky sees asserts is the *structural* violence already present in the socioeconomic system.

Seeing implies objective existence, and Chomsky certainly talks about 'structural violence' as if his beliefs on this were established fact...like most Marxists. But the reality is that many people simply do not accept this postulate and Chomsky seems to devote little effort to building a case for it. Of course, maybe he does so in one of the many Chomsky books I have not read - he's nothing if not prolific. But his views would carry a great deal more weight if he made a few solid arguments instead of a great many flimsy ones.

The conventional wisdom includes things like "America is an important force for achieving positive humanitarian outcomes in the world. The only acceptable tool for achieving these goals is spending a lot of money to kill a lot of people. Humanitarian goals that do not involve spending a lot of money on killing people are an indulgence that we cannot afford."

what
posted by anigbrowl at 10:20 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it's pretty ludicrous for Chomsky to insist as he does that revolution is the only way of actually improving society

{{citation needed}}


the necessity of revolution seems to be something that Chomsky infers more than he ever outright says. He paints a picture of a system so complexly labyrinthian in its corruptions that the only solution is Gordian.

Needless to say, this appealed to me big time as a young man. Less so now.
posted by philip-random at 10:21 AM on February 9, 2012


And I'd like to point out that Chomsky's work on linguistic theory makes him as qualified to be a commentator on world affairs as Einstein's work on relativity made him a ballerina.

I, for one, will never forget Einstein's classic performance as the virgin in Le sacre du printemps.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 10:22 AM on February 9, 2012 [15 favorites]


You're expressing your admiration for Chomsky's abilities without addressing the fact that when talking about politics he makes specious arguments on an almost continual basis.

You don't get a pass on building a logical argument just because you're awesome in some other field


I get what you're saying and I disagree. I didn't in fact commit an ad homimen. This is quite complicated to explain but note that it is fairly common for people to misinterpret, say, scientists, and apply that context to what I've said previously. Nowhere do I say people should accept his statements because he's from MIT, nor do I wish to imply that.

I am saying that people reject him for the wrong reasons, typically because they aren't being analytical enough or haven't verified that their own opinions aren't misconceptions.

To the person who wished this was about linguistics, this is in fact very much about linguistics. You have to look at it that way to make sense of how the same arguments and disagreements keep arising.
posted by polymodus at 10:23 AM on February 9, 2012


Reflect that it was published in 1979, mere months after the fall of Pol Pot.

'Hmm....wait for accurate data or cash in on currency of subject matter? I wonder which course of action is likely to result in a lasting contribution to the field I am writing in? Fuck it, let's go to press!'
posted by anigbrowl at 10:24 AM on February 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


The Lie: “in comparison to the conditions imposed by US tyranny and violence, East Europe under Russian rule was practically a paradise.”
1 The Truth: The communists murdered 4 million people in the Ukraine; 753,000 in Poland;360,000 in Romania; 300,000 in Belarus; 200,000 in Hungary; 100,000 in East Germany;100,000 in Lithuania; 70,000-100,000 in Yugoslavia; 30,000-40,000 in Bulgaria; 20,000 in Czechoslovakia; and 5,000 in Albania. Other atrocities included the murder of over 500,000 POWs in Soviet captivity and the mass rape of at least 2 million women by the Red Army.


Hmm, so, if you're refuting a general statement with specific details, where are the numbers for Mexico, Central America, South America, Africa, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, The Philippines...? Hyperbole, maybe, but calling his statement an outright lie without comparison seems intellectually dishonest to me.
posted by Chuffy at 10:25 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Of course, maybe he does so in one of the many Chomsky books I have not read - he's nothing if not prolific. But his views would carry a great deal more weight if he made a few solid arguments instead of a great many flimsy ones.


Yeah, well I see it as him addressing a specific audience. That is how minority politics works, it has to be that way for pragmatic reasons.
posted by polymodus at 10:25 AM on February 9, 2012


the necessity of revolution seems to be something that Chomsky infers more than he ever outright says. He paints a picture of a system so complexly labyrinthian in its corruptions that the only solution is Gordian.

I'd like to point out that just because someone says that revolution is necessary in our society does not mean that they believe that it is the only way, ever, to change a society. It also does not mean that any revolution will change things for the better; that's something that I just can't see Chomsky saying. So if you have nothing to back this up: "I think it's pretty ludicrous for Chomsky to insist as he does that revolution is the only way of actually improving society, in the apparent believe that no revolution could bring about a worse state of affairs than we have now," you should probably back away from it.

It makes sense that you would find that ludicrous, because it is - it isn't something anyone believes.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 10:30 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I get what you're saying and I disagree. I didn't in fact commit an ad homimen.

Yes you did, and you've repeated it above even if you don't realize it. I got irritated with Chomsky many years ago not because I had different preconceptions about the subject matter or because I couldn't follow his argument, but because he was insulting my intelligence. He is prone to making arguments with gaping logical flaws.

Look, why don't you pick something political of his that you admire (so that you're not worrying about whether I cherry-picked my example) and post it as an example of what you consider a nuanced Chomsky argument. It doesn't have to be any grand unified theory of politics; a narrow argument about something specific should be easily presented in a page or less. I will highlight it and annotate it for you to show you how my thought process works.
posted by anigbrowl at 10:32 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


'Hmm....wait for accurate data or cash in on currency of subject matter?

I mean, this is par for the course for any field of study involving current events, political science being particularly emblematic. I was in university when George W Bush won his first election and we had a textbook about it within months, with articles by high profile university professors. How long do you think it took for people to write books about 9/11? Academics gotta sell paper, man.
posted by Hoopo at 10:32 AM on February 9, 2012


And so Russil's conclusion comes across as a *tame* (he chooses to "settle" with liberal democracy/welfare state) alternative as opposed to the rational one (Chomsky rejecting the system as a whole).

*The* rational argument is that we must reject the system as a whole? The last time I saw a jump like that, I had a tanuki tail and I went "boop boop boop."

And what is wrong with this "tame" alternative, let alone with settling amongst various options for the best result to most realistically reach positive short term and long term outcomes? This treats your own assumptions as incontrovertible steps of an ironclad argument.

I am saying that people reject him for the wrong reasons, typically because they aren't being analytical enough or haven't verified that their own opinions aren't misconceptions.

Many may reject Chomsky for the wrong reasons, just as others might support him for the wrong reasons. One finds many weak arguments on both sides. I am sometimes surprised at how little effort it takes to find such weak arguments.

Regardless, almost all of the criticism in this thread rests more on the refutation of discrete assertions than on broader theoretical issues.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:34 AM on February 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


He does a terrible job of living in the real world, where the United States does not have the luxury of choosing not to engage with people who do bad things.

Chomsky is not a politician and doesn't serve in a position of power. It is literally not his responsibility to come up with pragmatic solutions. It's absurd to insist that critics somehow have to confine themselves to the boundaries of realpolitik as defined by those who they critisize.
posted by patrick54 at 10:34 AM on February 9, 2012 [11 favorites]


Unfortunately, seven tenths of my library is in storage a few hundred kilometres away, meaning all my Chomsky books are not currently accessible. I would need them because some of the sources above has gone out of their way to demonstrate to me that every single claim they make needs to be referenced. For instance, the claim repeated above that Chomsky was on the side of Milosevic. I recall Chomsky very clearly describing Milosevic as "a monster." So there's one straw man out of the way.

But anti-Americanism? Really? Hating jazz, you mean? No? Then hating Disney movies? No? Oh, you mean being in any way critical of the foreign policy of the Government of the United States of America. Gotcha.
posted by Dodecadermaldenticles at 10:35 AM on February 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


me: “I think it's pretty ludicrous for Chomsky to insist as he does that revolution is the only way of actually improving society, in the apparent believe that no revolution could bring about a worse state of affairs than we have now.”

Philosopher Dirtbike: “I'd like to point out that just because someone says that revolution is necessary in our society does not mean that they believe that it is the only way, ever, to change a society. It also does not mean that any revolution will change things for the better; that's something that I just can't see Chomsky saying. So if you have nothing to back this up: ‘I think it's pretty ludicrous for Chomsky to insist as he does that revolution is the only way of actually improving society, in the apparent believe that no revolution could bring about a worse state of affairs than we have now,’ you should probably back away from it. It makes sense that you would find that ludicrous, because it is - it isn't something anyone believes.”

My point was not in any sense that Noam Chomsky believes that all revolutions are good. My point was that Noam Chomsky believes that US Society, as it exists today, is so egregiously bad that there is no way a revolution could lead to something worse.

Saying it was "ludicrous" was a bit much. I understand why some people feel keenly that the current American system is really horrific in its crimes, so horrific that at all costs it must be stopped. I felt that way too at one point, when I was younger. But at this point the "at all costs" bit doesn't make sense to me any more. There have been worse things than the system as it is; and wanting to improve that system from within, rather than tear down the whole thing and start again, is not as ridiculous as Chomsky often implies it is.

patrick54: “Chomsky is not a politician and doesn't serve in a position of power. It is literally not his responsibility to come up with pragmatic solutions. It's absurd to insist that critics somehow have to confine themselves to the boundaries of realpolitik as defined by those who they critisize.”

I don't think Chomsky would agree with that argument, however. Or are you really saying that he would say his ideas are unpragmatic or too abstract to be applied? I guess I could try to find a place where he openly states "I don't think my positions are silly," but isn't that implied when someone writes books about politics?
posted by koeselitz at 10:38 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


America does not torture, like those other evil countries. America doesn't invade countries without good reason. America doesn't research or build nuclear and biological weapons like those other evil countries. American soldiers have never raped a prisoner, or a member of their own branch. No civilians are ever killed by America without an apology, and good reason. Chomsky is totally on the fringe when he shines a light on America that reveals these statements to be anything other than truth.

Also, too. Hitler!
posted by Chuffy at 10:40 AM on February 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


And he does an even worse job of understanding the fundamental difference between trying to kill civilians and accidentally killing civilians in pursuit of those who are trying to kill civilians.
On December 30 of last year, ABC News reported on a 16-year-old Pakistani boy, Tariq Khan, who was killed with his 12-year-old cousin when a car in which he was riding was hit with a missile fired by a U.S. drone. As I noted at the time, the report contained this extraordinary passage buried in the middle:

Asked for documentation of Tariq and Waheed’s deaths, Akbar did not provide pictures of the missile strike scene. Virtually none exist, since drones often target people who show up at the scene of an attack.

What made that sentence so amazing was that it basically amounts to a report that the U.S. first kills people with drones, then fires on the rescuers and others who arrive at the scene where the new corpses and injured victims lie.
- Glenn Greenwald
posted by odinsdream at 10:43 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Chuffy: “America does not torture, like those other evil countries. America doesn't invade countries without good reason. America doesn't research or build nuclear and biological weapons like those other evil countries. American soldiers have never raped a prisoner, or a member of their own branch. No civilians are ever killed by America without an apology, and good reason. Chomsky is totally on the fringe when he shines a light on America that reveals these statements to be anything other than truth. Also, too. Hitler!”

I think you should read some of Chomsky's books, as you're clearly uninformed. America has indeed tortured people; other countries aren't necessarily evil; America does indeed research and build nuclear and biological weapons; American soldiers have been guilty of rape and all kinds of other crimes; and many civilians have been killed by America without an apology. I'm sort of stunned that anybody could be so uninformed, Chuffy.
posted by koeselitz at 10:44 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


(But his views would carry a great deal more weight if he made a few solid arguments instead of a great many flimsy ones.)
Yeah, well I see it as him addressing a specific audience.


He's addressing a specific audience when he writes technical papers on linguistics, so why are those so much more rigorous and closely argued?

That is how minority politics works, it has to be that way for pragmatic reasons.

It's also how cults and propaganda work on their audience. What are these pragmatic reasons, and what prevents Chomsky - a tenured professor at a famous university and a leader in his field - from presenting a rigorous and well-supported argument for general consideration? Lots of other people through history seem to have been comfortable with making bold arguments to the public, accepting of the fact that the public may take some time to get on board. It's not as if Chomsky is going to starve if he doesn't rush out another bulletin to his target audience.
posted by anigbrowl at 10:45 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry, but if members of first world society are dying from depression and suicide (not just us, look at Japan) , then yes the rational and ethical choice is to reject what we have built here. The tame choice is unethical and being content to settle is disrespectful of the social costs. This is the cognitive dissonance of our times. It is left to thinkers like Chomsky to clarify the implications of our social choices and the stakes at hand.

How we go about effecting change is not clear. Personally I would not advocate revolution/anarchy, but at least I recognize that I say so from a place of relative social privilege.
posted by polymodus at 10:46 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think Chuffy was being sarcastic...
posted by odinsdream at 10:46 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think I gave up and left around the time he made it seem like Iran was a warm and fuzzy nation that wanted only to protect itself from outside dangers, and that the US and Israel were unfairly painting it as an aggressor to maintain their stranglehold on the Middle East. (Uh, OK, I'm worried about US warmongering w.r.t. Iran and other countries, but that's a *really* naive and wrongheaded analysis of geopolitics.)

Iran has many problems, what with how they deal with political dissent and etc., but they are not aggressors in Middle East politics. At most, they support Palestine's right to exist. The US and Israel are unfairly painting it as an aggressor, that is fact. I don't know where you are coming from politically, either naive or right wing ideologue I guess.. Read this, and tell us what you think: Obama and Iran. That might reveal your true biases :)
posted by Chuckles at 10:47 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think Chuffy was mocking reflexive pro-Americanism...
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 10:47 AM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


I KNOW Chuffy was being sarcastic.
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:47 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


the necessity of revolution seems to be something that Chomsky infers more than he ever outright says. He paints a picture of a system so complexly labyrinthian in its corruptions that the only solution is Gordian.

Needless to say, this appealed to me big time as a young man. Less so now.


I always thought Chomsky's solution to "the way things are" was to decentralize power - government, or whatever, should be community-based, and completely accountable. Get rid of the nation state.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:48 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


koeselitz, reread chuffy. There is an obvious implied sarcasm. I really didn't think the [/s] tag was needed, particularly after "Hitler!"
posted by Dodecadermaldenticles at 10:50 AM on February 9, 2012


This post should be retitled "Why 4 out of 5 people who think Noam Chomsky is wrong are even more wrong than he is"
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:51 AM on February 9, 2012 [10 favorites]


But his views would carry a great deal more weight if he made a few solid arguments instead of a great many flimsy ones.

in fateful triangle he devotes an entire chapter, about 70 pages, to demonstrating how the IDF was complicit in the Sabra and Shatila massacre.
posted by cupcake1337 at 10:51 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


After over 60 posts, looking over the thread, you see something quite different from how the right paints the left's relationship with Chomsky. Metafilter is on the left of the political spectrum, generally, and yet we see here reasonable criticism of Chomsky. No one (save one?) has been reflexively pro-Chomsky. This is as it should be, of course. Agreeing with previous posters, I think Chomsky's a mixed bag, but the attacks on Chomsky the distortion of the left's "adulation" of Chomsky by the right bears no relationship to reality.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 10:53 AM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Or perhaps metafilter really isn't that far left?
posted by smidgen at 10:54 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


My own introduction to Chomsky was as a first-year student in 1989, where Chomsky was required reading for "Philosophy 211: The Ethics of Violence and War"; we had to read On Power and Ideology: Managua Lectures. Chomsky was pretty interesting, but I was taking the class with a buddy who collected assault rifles and Rhodesian military uniforms, so we just sat in the back and challenged everything the instructor said (the instructor was also boffing another friend's sister, also an undergrad).
posted by KokuRyu at 10:55 AM on February 9, 2012


I'm sorry, but if members of first world society are dying from depression and suicide (not just us, look at Japan) , then yes the rational and ethical choice is to reject what we have built here. The tame choice is unethical and being content to settle is disrespectful of the social costs. This is the cognitive dissonance of our times. It is left to thinkers like Chomsky to clarify the implications of our social choices and the stakes at hand.

Depression and suicide exist across cultures. Is your argument *really* that the presence of depression and suicide in a society means that the entire way of life for that culture must not even be reformed or altered, but must be scrapped immediately? Does this sound like a strong argument to you, or did you mean to write something else? Regardless, Chomsky's arguments have nothing to do with the mere presence of depression and suicide in the first world.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:56 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm sorry, but if members of first world society are dying from depression and suicide (not just us, look at Japan) , then yes the rational and ethical choice is to reject what we have built here

Actually, we can blame it all on cats and unwashed vegetables.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:59 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


but must be scrapped immediately?

No, and I made that quite clear.

Chomsky's arguments have nothing to do with the mere presence of depression and suicide in the first world.

It does and actual authors have already made this connection.
posted by polymodus at 10:59 AM on February 9, 2012


I'm sorry, but if members of first world society are dying from depression and suicide (not just us, look at Japan) , then yes the rational and ethical choice is to reject what we have built here.

Rubbish. That argument is predicated on the assumption that depression and suicide would be entirely eliminated under some different social order, a proposition for which there is no evidence whatsoever. Having extensive first-hand experience of such problems, I find the implicit assertion that they stem primarily from the sociopolitical order just risible. But to play along for a moment, can you supply us with any examples of psychological utopias where private mental suffering has disappeared or vastly diminished?

koeselitz, reread chuffy.

Protip: koeselitz was also being sarcastic. Chuffy seems to have overlooked the fact that nobody was denying the US is flawed, and neither is anyone criticizing Chomsky for pointing that out. He's being criticized for glossing over the sometimes egregious flaws of people he admires or invests with legitimacy (such as the Khmer Rouge) or for making far-reaching arguments unsupported by logic.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:01 AM on February 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


Can someone explain how it's realistic to dismiss Chomsky as being partisan?

The accusation smacks of the kind of "objectivity" that has completely crippled mainstream journalism in the U.S: if you don't treat both sides of an issue with equal deference, you're somehow being intellectually dishonest.

Chomsky is critical of U.S. foreign policy because the U.S. has consistently and repeatedly done terrible shit for terrible reasons from one end of the globe to the other. One of the overriding aims of U.S. foreign policy for decades has been to protect capitalism at all costs -- not humanitarianism, not democracy, but business interests. Maybe it's not out of malice, but the end result has been a long history of mind-numbing bloodshed. That seems incontrovertible There's hardly anything that can be said to the United States' credit in that regard.

I'm willing to forgive Chomsky quite a bit because, in spite of whatever missteps he might make, he's still one of the only people willing to be vocally critical of the U.S. government's horrific conduct. It seems like it's difficult to criticize Chomsky without necessarily defending the U.S, and there are already legions of apologists hard at work on the United States' behalf.

I guess I'll take my place with the other hagiographers.

Of course, I did just graduate from college a couple years ago, so maybe it'll all become clear when I'm older.
posted by Misunderestimated at 11:03 AM on February 9, 2012 [11 favorites]


It does and actual authors have already made this connection.

(background behind Sticherbeast turns into a Kricfalusi-esque watercolor, "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" begins to play, Sticherbeast cautiously steps away from the keyboard)
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:03 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you're killing civilians to prevent the killing of civilians, you are really, really, really terrible at your job.

This is glib nonsense. By this logic, there is no way to justify, say, military action to prevent genocide.
posted by yoink at 11:05 AM on February 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


Or perhaps metafilter really isn't that far left?

Metafilter is very much a liberal site, for good and (especially) for ill.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:05 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Or perhaps metafilter really isn't that far left?

There's enough variance in Metafilter opinions that even if the average isn't "that far left", a discussion like this will have plenty of "far left" people in it (myself included). On second thought, compared to David Horowitz, pretty much everyone on Metafilter is "far left", so....
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 11:05 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Metafilter theme song
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:08 AM on February 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Of course, I did just graduate from college a couple years ago, so maybe it'll all become clear when I'm older.

Ideological concerns often fade with age. This is likely to be mistaken for "wisdom" by those to whom it happens.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 11:12 AM on February 9, 2012 [9 favorites]


Ideological concerns often fade with age. This is likely to be mistaken for "wisdom" by those to whom it happens.

That's what I've always thought. But I figured that'd be chalked up to youthful ignorance as well.
posted by Misunderestimated at 11:17 AM on February 9, 2012


Iran has many problems, what with how they deal with political dissent and etc., but they are not aggressors in Middle East politics. At most, they support Palestine's right to exist. The US and Israel are unfairly painting it as an aggressor, that is fact. I don't know where you are coming from politically, either naive or right wing ideologue I guess.. Read this, and tell us what you think: Obama and Iran. That might reveal your true biases :)

I'm fairly liberal in my politics, and pretty anti-war in my views on foreign policy. As I said, I'm concerned that we seem to be building up Iran as the next big enemy. But I think Iran is not simply concerned with self-defense or preservation, or that they simply the support of Palestine's right to exist. Supporting Hamas and Hezbollah is very problematic in my view; one can support Palestinian statehood and a more just policy in Palestine without sending weapons and other support to people who kill civilians. (I'd add that there's evidence that Iran is making moves to have a strong influence in Iraq, given the power vacuum there.)

As to the article you linked to...
(Emphasis mine)
***
Iran certainly does supply weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which are defined by the US State Department as “terrorist organisations.”
But then the US State Department also defined Nelson Mandela as a terrorist for his support of armed confrontation with apartheid — yet it mysteriously failed to call Ronald Reagan a terrorist when he armed the “contras” against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
Hamas and Hezbollah are deeply unattractive organisations, but then so are most other nationalist movements fighting foreign occupation. In the former British empire alone, Irgun in Israel, Mau Mau in Kenya, EOKA in Cyprus and the IRA in Northern Ireland all employed brutal terrorism in their struggles — but their leaders all ended up having tea with the Queen. And Yasser Arafat of the PLO ended up on the White House lawn shaking hands with Yitzhak Rabin.
***

See what the writer did there? Make equivalencies between Hezbollah and Hamas and other organizations that we see as less problematic now? That is exactly what I find frustrating about Chomsky's style of speaking. Yes indeed, the IRA did some terrible things in its campaign against British occupiers. And over time, they engaged with the British government with cease-fires and negotiations -- and now things are quite a bit better there. But that does not mean we should excuse Iran's connections with groups that may still be engaging in extreme violence against civilians, any more than admitting that the US engages in violence against civilians (e.g. drone attacks in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq) means that we cannot decry Iran's connections to terrorist organizations.
posted by jsr1138 at 11:19 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


buermann at Flagrancy to Reason, has written two very thorough rebuttals to most criticisms of Chomsky circulating, which should be read as a counterpoint to most the criticisms posted.

Having followed Chomsky's writings for quite a while now, I can honestly say that although there might indeed be valid grounds to criticise Chomsky's opinions, the fact that most (all except one, in fact) of the critiques I have read need to create a straw-chomsky, put words in his mouth or ascribe to him intentions without any evidence, in order to deal with him (along with the utter cluelessness of the critics to his background, i.e that Chomsky as an anarchist is certainly no friend of leninism).
posted by talos at 11:19 AM on February 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


Just to catch everyone up, shivohum spent a ton of time defending America's overseas adventures during the cold war in this thread, and accused the people he was disagreeing with of being Noam Chompsky fans, or something. So this FPP is really an attempt to rebut those people who by pointing out that someone he believes the people he disagrees with like is wrong will disprove the people who disagree with him.

Here are some examples:
Are you an absolute pacifist? If not, then by your logic, you must be Stalin too.
...
Yes, I understand your highly original academic point about there being shades of gray. Unfortunately, decisions have to be made in binary: kill or don't kill, bomb or don't bomb. And ultimately the answer to that decision comes very much down to black and white moral decisions. Are they worse than us? Yes, they are worse than us. Would the world be better off without them? Yes, it would. That kind of thing.
[he was talking about communism here]
...
Actually, yes, it is. Not to say that every single individual action that we took was necessary or moral or well-judged. But the overall strategy -- contain the USSR at any cost -- was sound, ensured the security of the world, and has led to a solidly better world today.
...
And capitalism is fundamentally a more moral system than communism, one which over time empowers the middle class and thus tends towards greater democracy and human rights. We destroyed the idea of communism as a viable system by bringing down its standard bearer.
...
Blah blah blah. Can you get your history somewhere other than a frothing Noam Chomsky? We made our Cold War decisions because we wanted to destroy the USSR and communism. We did that. It was one of the greatest human rights coups in history.

Basically he was defending the idea that bombing people, killing people and propping up totalitarian regimes was OK because we were fighting the communists who were killing people and propping up regimes. Because capitalism, with or without democracy is fundamentally is "more moral" then communism, with or without democracy.

Yet, he's also trying to make the argument that China is horrible, despite the fact that they are a totalitarian capitalist state. So he's not really all that consistent.

Someone else in that thread actually tried to defend Pol Pot, because I had pointed out that after we left Vietnam, the north Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and kicked out the Khmer Rouge, which according to the theory that it's a good thing to intervene and kick out murderous dictators, then the Vietnamese were good guys. That's how logically twisted up people were getting. On the other hand, someone argued that Russia and china were "left leaning" countries, which is clearly insane in the case of China, and pretty problematic in terms of Putin.

In any event, I've never even read any of Chomsky's work. I learned about his work on recursive language structures when I was studying computer science theory. Beyond that, and seeing videos of him when people link them (his debate with William F Buckley, for example) I don't know that much about it, other then second hand from people arguing about it, which they seem to enjoy doing.

---
When you lead off by prising him as a philosopher and an MIT professor, you're making an argument from authority instead of from substance. That's like a lawyer saying 'my client couldn't possibly have committed this atrocious murder, he's a pillar of the community'
Yeah, well, lawyers make those kinds of arguments all the time, and they work. And here's the thing. "Argument from authority" is a logical fallacy in the strictest sense -- Someone being an authority does not guarantee that their argument is absolutely true, of course. But in the real world you have to look at someone's credentials when determining who to listen too. I mean, that would be like saying you have to give the Time Cube guy and Neil DeGrasse Tyson the same level of credence when talking about cosmology. That's absurd.

But, on the other hand if you, personally, wanted to review two people's arguments about physics, you would need to spend years studying complex mathematics before you could even get to the point where you could study cosmology and then you'd have to spend even more years studying that before you could actually make a determination on your own.

It's logically true to say that "The King says X, so X is true". However, it is rational to say "Stephen Hawking says X, and he's a renown physicist, so that's evidence that what he's saying is more likely to be true"

The flip side is Ad Hominem, which people always complain about when you point out they're stupid. But that's not even actually an Ad Hominem. You can still be correct and stupid. It's only a Logical fallacy if you incist that their argument is wrong because they are whatever you call them. I.e. "You say X is true, You are stupid, therefore X is false". It's completely reasonable to say You say X is true, you are stupid, therefore the fact you say X is true provides little evidence that X is true. Or say that because they are stupid it's not worth investigating. Just like the time-cube guy. It's not worth spending a lot of time trying to figure out if what he says is true.

---
Finally, this is just ridiculous.
And I'd like to point out that Chomsky's work on linguistic theory makes him as qualified to be a commentator on world affairs as Einstein's work on relativity made him a ballerina.
Or, I assume you think Einstein was not qualified as a commentator on world affairs? Except, he plenty of time doing that. And his insights hold up well historically, even though his views on socialism were in opposition to the McCarthy era. He was pro civil-rights, etc. His position as a scientific leader gave him prominence and that's a good thing.

Both politics and physics, or linguistics and mathematics (Chompsky's theories on language structure are important for the basis of computer science, both in theory and practice). On the other hand, being a ballerina requires physical abilities. Stephen Hawking would not make a good dancer, no mater how smart he is. But someone who is athletic in other endeavors would probably be much better at ballet then some shlub off the street. A gymnast would probably acclimate even better.

It's a lot like the argument during the run up to the Iraq war when conservatives were bitching about Hollywood liberals saying it was a bad thing, because actors should apparently not even have opinions about world politics -- that it should be left up to the "experts" in world politics, who were invariably politicians and political pundits, a class of people who are actually quite stupid, or pretend to be stupid.

I would much rather listen to the thoughts of scientists on politics then the thoughts of politicians or political commentators on politics. In particular, science requires rigorous thinking, while success in politics requires sucking up to the right people and being able to make arguments that resonate emotionally, rather then ones that are correct.

Maybe Chomsky is full of shit on politics. I don't know and I don't really care. Like I said, I only know about his politics based on peoples arguments about them. The problem is that in the realm of politics, almost all commentators are completely full of shit anyway.

---
My point was not in any sense that Noam Chomsky believes that all revolutions are good. My point was that Noam Chomsky believes that US Society, as it exists today, is so egregiously bad that there is no way a revolution could lead to something worse.
Well, if there were a revolution in the U.S. the people leading the revolution would still be Americans. So the result couldn't be all that different from what we have now. But if we got to the point that a new American (violent) revolution happened, things would have to be so different then they are now that it's impossible to imagine what might precipitate it. There could be a non-violent revolution where things are ultimately decided by votes, which is what happened with the civil rights movement.
America does not torture
Not only does the U.S torture, the right-wing political party now embraces defense of torture as part of it's political platform.
posted by delmoi at 11:20 AM on February 9, 2012 [13 favorites]


So this FPP is really an attempt to rebut those people who by pointing out that someone he believes the people he disagrees with like is wrong will disprove the people who disagree with him.

You must be a Chomsky fan, because it takes a computational linguist to parse that :)
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 11:23 AM on February 9, 2012 [14 favorites]


Maybe it's not out of malice, but the end result has been a long history of mind-numbing bloodshed.

Compared to...what? I have no problem acknowledging the flaws in US foreign policy, which are sometimes egregious. But the existence of flaws and mistakes is widely accepted by historians and policymakers. Not universally - no set of ideas is - but in the large. A majority of Americans would cheerfully agree that the Vietnam war was a Bad Idea, for example, or the Iraq war for that matter.

On the other hand, these mistakes have to be viewed in context. It is simply not the case that prior to the inception of the US the world was some sort of pacific idyll, free of conflict. The problem I have with Chomsky and his fanbase is that they seem to think all war, suffering, etc. is either caused by the US or by capitalists, and that if one or the other were abolished then it would just be paradise on earth. This is complete bullshit. Tribalism, communism and just about every other -ism are equally capable of yielding drastic policy mistakes and suffering on an epic scale. Mind-numbing bloodshed is a staple of human history, and the ethical record of any society has to be viewed in that context.

Certainly, the US/western society in general falls far short of the ideals they aspire to and profess to exemplify. All societies do. One has to compare societies with each other and the historical record, not with some imaginary utopia where nothing bad ever happens, nobody ever commits suicide, and everyone is 100% happy about everything all the time. If that's your point of comparison, then you are a member of a religious cult.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:24 AM on February 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Ideological concerns often fade with age. This is likely to be mistaken for "wisdom" by those to whom it happens.

To be governed by ideology is as dangerous as to be governed by some god, arguably far worse. To be informed by ideology is a different matter. But then again, the same goes for those gods.

As I've grown older, I find I've become more informed, less governed. Can I call that wisdom?
posted by philip-random at 11:26 AM on February 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Anybody who takes David "McCarthy didn't go far enough" Horowitz seriously as a source loses the argument immediately. Paul Bogdanor isn't much better. Both are rightwing loons who distort and lie about everything Chomsky says. They can be dismissed out of hand and proof for this assertion I'll leave to your googling skills.

DeLong on the other hand, despite his liberal reputation gained largely during the Bush years, is a right leaning centrist who I'm afraid to say does have a bee in his bonnet about Chomsky. I've argued with him on the merits of Chomsky and come to the conclusion he too can't be trusted on the subject. The same is true of other liberal critics, to be honest.

What his rightwing and supposedly leftwing, but largely liberal critics have in common is that their criticism resembles tribal hatred much more than reasoned debate. It's always about showing that Chomsky is a Bad Man, a supposed supporter of dictatorship, a crypto commie or crypto fascist, an apoligist for genocide, a hypocrite profiting from the same system he criticises, or who closes his eyes for the crimes of other nations but exagerrates American crimes.

It's never about destroying his arguments, it's always about destroying the man.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:29 AM on February 9, 2012 [8 favorites]


So this FPP is really an attempt to rebut those people who by pointing out that someone he believes the people he disagrees with like is wrong will disprove the people who disagree with him.

Aw, crap. Trolled. Flagged the post, that is some bullshit right there. I should have known better than to take a post with links to Horowitz and that bizarre Bogdanor nutjob site at face value.
posted by Hoopo at 11:30 AM on February 9, 2012


angigrowl: Chomsky's position is that when in the US you criticise the US, when in Russia, Russia etc. in fact all institutions of authority. His basic position is not that the US is an especially egregious example of superpower - he is against all superpowers (and has a very fierce critique of all colonialisms say), because he mistrusts all authorities and powers, more so the stronger they are. He writes "against" the US government and elites (although he has stated - questionably if you ask me - that the US is the most democratic country in the world), because, as he has pointed out, to immerse himself on other countries abuses would be like soviet intellectuals condemning US atrocities: a way to whitewash their own government's crimes and be subservient to them. Which is unethical according to him.
posted by talos at 11:32 AM on February 9, 2012 [8 favorites]


Chomsky is a philospher and bona fide scientist (with MIT credentials)

He has a PhD in linguistics. This doesn't give him international relations or political theory "credentials." It doesn't mean he lacks the right to call himself a philosopher, nor does it mean he cannot speak of public or international affairs. He just lacks "MIT credentials" in these fields. (His academic credentials, strictly speaking, are from the University of Pennsylvania anyway.)
posted by raysmj at 11:32 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


To quote the man himself:
Clearly, the appearance of parasitic gaps in domains relatively inaccessible to ordinary extraction is not quite equivalent to problems of phonemic and morphological analysis. For any transformation which is sufficiently diversified in application to be of any interest, relational information is unspecified with respect to the system of base rules exclusive of the lexicon. By combining adjunctions and certain deformations, the descriptive power of the base component delimits an abstract underlying order. In the discussion of resumptive pronouns following (81), an important property of these three types of EC is not to be considered in determining the strong generative capacity of the theory. Summarizing, then, we assume that the speaker-hearer's linguistic intuition raises serious doubts about irrelevant intervening contexts in selectional rules.
posted by charred husk at 11:32 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's never about destroying his arguments, it's always about destroying the man.

Did you not bother to read Russil Wvong's linked piece?
posted by Snyder at 11:33 AM on February 9, 2012


On my way to a meeting, sorry if I am duplicating any points made above. Chomsky threads tend to be long on Metafilter. I struggled through his work as a linguist in the 70's, then became aware of his political views, which I think are generally useful and accurate.

I think Chomsky (as, more or less, an anarchist - or anarcho-syndicalist) is saying that all states behave badly - that is, in their own self-interest, which may involve stepping on others' toes, overthrowing foreign leaders, killing people, etc.

Chomsky, though, has two reasons for attacking the U.S. in particular. One, Americans have more power (esp. military) than any other country; and two, he is an American, and thus has a duty (or predeliction) to call attention to what is wrong with American policy in particular. The guy likes the USA for its freedom of speech, etc.
posted by kozad at 11:34 AM on February 9, 2012 [8 favorites]


Iran has many problems, what with how they deal with political dissent and etc., but they are not aggressors in Middle East politics. At most, they support Palestine's right to exist.
posted by Chuckles
In addition to jsr1138's excellent comment I should point out that Saad Hariri would disagree.
posted by rosswald at 11:37 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Chomsky - a troublesome yank. A not quite liberal, conservative scarecrow. A revolutionary libertarian who could never appreciate monster trucks. Morality was the stick he used to beat dogs. He was an apologist for underdogs not because he believed in their moral superiority but because he thought his dog should eat at the table and use a knife and fork.

He was a dreamer and he thought Americans should be special. Did he dream that American's could be better than the lesser peoples of the world by wielding power morally; well that's kind of racist really. Chomsky was a racist. He thought Jews could be nicer than Palestinians too, if they tried and that is racist.

I'm not going to defend the man because history will record him as an enemy of the homeland and a lover of paintings of dogs playing poker, but if you want to remember him, let it be this way; the man was insane and his thinking was dangerous.
posted by vicx at 11:38 AM on February 9, 2012 [10 favorites]


To complete my first comment:
...the fact that most (all except one, in fact) of the critiques I have read need to create a straw-chomsky, put words in his mouth or ascribe to him intentions without any evidence, in order to deal with him (along with the utter cluelessness of the critics to his background, i.e that Chomsky as an anarchist is certainly no friend of leninism)...
...is a sign that his arguments as such are not that easy to counter...
posted by talos at 11:38 AM on February 9, 2012


Compared to...what? I have no problem acknowledging the flaws in US foreign policy, which are sometimes egregious. But the existence of flaws and mistakes is widely accepted by historians and policymakers. Not universally - no set of ideas is - but in the large. A majority of Americans would cheerfully agree that the Vietnam war was a Bad Idea, for example, or the Iraq war for that matter.

See? That's one of the criticisms Chomsky has written again and again that drives both conservatives and liberals wild, because he doesn't agree these are mistakes but calls them what they are, deliberate policy decisions made in full awareness of the likely outcomes and not caring much about them.

Nobody blundered into Iraq, it was a deliberate choice to first boycott and blockade the country fully aware of the horrible side effects it had on its population (google Madeline Albright's ideas about that frex if you think it was all Bush) and knowing it didn't work, then, when Bush and his neocon/Team B cronies came to power, it was again a deliberate choice to invade it, pursued from the start of Bush's administration and enabled by 9/11 (and remember, it didn't take Rumsfeld long to realise that or to push for it).

All this wasn't done in pursuit of some noble goal or because America just had no choice, or because America was just unable to see what a dumb sumbitch blogger like me could see from the start, that the War on Iraq would be hell on the Iraqis and not achieve what its supposed aim was.

Therefore you cannot just say, "oops, those hundreds of thousands/millions of Iraqi deaths are just a mistake, but we meant well". America didn't mean well and isn't sorry for these deaths.

On the other hand, these mistakes have to be viewed in context. It is simply not the case that prior to the inception of the US the world was some sort of pacific idyll, free of conflict. The problem I have with Chomsky and his fanbase is that they seem to think all war, suffering, etc. is either caused by the US or by capitalists, and that if one or the other were abolished then it would just be paradise on earth.

That's the other fallacy of American power, that it was forced into committing atrocities because everybody was doing so. Nu-uh. Nobody waqs forcing the US to massacre Guatamalan fruit pickers.

Nor does Chomsky actually think America is/was the root of all evil. If you'd read his books, you know that he is fully aware other countries can be evil too, but that it's his obligation as an American to point out the crimes of his country and not distract from them with false equvalences. Furthermore, as he has time and again argued, there are/were plenty of people already pointing out Soviet crimes, or Iraqi crimes, or Serbian crimes, often serving as (unconscious) propagandists for American power.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:42 AM on February 9, 2012 [17 favorites]


Chomsky is totally on the fringe when he shines a light on America that reveals these statements to be anything other than truth.

Well, he's not a journalist. He's a commentator. It's thought, not revelation in that regard.

Oh, you mean being in any way critical of the foreign policy of the Government of the United States of America. Gotcha.

I think there is a difference between criticism and rote gainsaying of anything 'x', in this case the U.S., does.
Chomsky can be criticized for the latter.

Two cultures locked in conflict over power, with one culture clearly suffering a great deal. I think sharing power and resources would have been the wisest approach, but Rohan and Gondor have shown no interest in doing so.
(McSweeney's captures the feel of it)

But I think the value of his legitimate criticism outstrips that.

Part of the problem is that he is an academic. For example, his comments on the attempt to capture bin Laden: "There appears to have been no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim, as presumably could have been done by 80 commandos facing virtually no opposition..." well, that's a lot to presume if you're not familiar with how those kinds of operations are executed.
I presume linguistics are cognitive in nature. Oh, there's some dispute? There are practical considerations and research? Guess I don't know WTF I'm talking about then. But I'm an expert in my own field, so I can just go on about someone else's because I'm so smart.

His positions have a decidedly moralistic perspective that are based on fantasy (e.g. "We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic.").

So it's hard to argue reasonably against them because the practical considerations are left behind in considering the moral question.
e.g.: If you're killing civilians to prevent the killing of civilians,you are really,really,really terrible at your job.

It's a nice phrase. And underscores the ludicrous nature and hypocrisy of war. And it is, in that regard, incontestable.
But how then does one prosecute a war? In WWII, plenty of civilians were killed.

By logical extension what the international community, and the U.S, did regarding Rwanda was correct in allowing genocide (so as not to kill innocent civilians, no?).
It's next to impossible to prosecute any modern military action without an air campaign. It's next to impossible not to use bombs against hardened targets (strategically and morally at the very least. It would be WWI-style incompetence to ask for mass troop assaults against fortified positions so as not to use bombs) So for all practical purposes, it's either go in knowing you will have collateral damage or don't go in at all.

The Chomsky Hoax does reference some of Chomsky on Bosnia. Which is one of my major bones of contention with him.
But again, that seems to stem from his shortcomings and limitations of perspective.
He's a western gadfly and that's his focus, so he does contribute a lot of valuable things that need to be pointed out that aren't being discussed.
A prick, perhaps, but a necessary prick.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:44 AM on February 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Well, if there were a revolution in the U.S. the people leading the revolution would still be Americans. So the result couldn't be all that different from what we have now.

That statement appears to have been made by someone who has not bothered to read up on the history of any revolution ever.

Revolutions always roll the dice and always do so with pretty lousy odds. You can guarantee a lot of killing (a lot of those dead civilians everyone is so concerned about) but only very rarely do you see an unambiguous improvement in overall political justice or liberty and only in a very tiny number of cases can you be sure that those improvements could not have been secured otherwise.

The appalling, industrialized slaughter of the French Revolution, to take one example, seems in retrospect an incredibly high price to pay for the spectacle of Napoleon being crowned emperor by the Pope. There seems little reason to think that France would not have slowly transformed into its present democratic form along with all the other European nations even in the absence of all that hideous slaughter.
posted by yoink at 11:45 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Russil Wvong article is a well written critique. It articulates many reasonable criticisms of Chomsky without launching personal attacks. It is a shame that less thoughtful and more partisian critics were included.
If we are compiling a corpus of critiques of Chomsky one ought to include Hitchens' column last year.
posted by humanfont at 11:45 AM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


But the existence of flaws and mistakes is widely accepted by historians and policymakers.

I think referring to the dark chapters in American foreign policy as "mistakes" is exactly the problem. It's the most pernicious exercise in misdirection I've seen in the discussion of U.S. history.

Propping up murderous autocrats is not a "mistake." Overthrowing democratically elected governments is not a "mistake." Dropping bombs on civilian targets is not a "mistake." Rigging elections is not a "mistake." Engaging in terrorism to prevent people from making a political decision that goes against your interests is not a "mistake." These are all intentional choices that the U.S. government has made and continues to make. They are not isolated incidents of poor judgment: they are a consistent thread of policy-making that runs through the history of the United States government up to the present.

The conventional truism is that foreign policy is messy and complicated and sometimes people get hurt and we shouldn't start pointing fingers every time somebody dies. Accidents happen, mistakes are made. The truth, which Chomsky's work supports, is that the United States government has consistently used its influence -- financially and militarily -- to support its own narrowly-defined economic interests, in defiance of the will of its own electorate and to the detriment of global society.

(On preview, what martinwisse said.)
posted by Misunderestimated at 11:45 AM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


Did you not bother to read Russil Wvong's linked piece?

No I haven;t,w hich is why he wasn't mentioned in my comment. But a) nice example of exactly the kind of argumentation Chomky's detractors use and b) it being linked to by somebody who thinks it's worthwhile to include Horowitz too does not fill me with much hope here.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:45 AM on February 9, 2012


I'm not going to defend the man because history will record him as an enemy of the homeland and a lover of paintings of dogs playing poker, but if you want to remember him, let it be this way; the man was insane and his thinking was dangerous.

Favorited for the laugh it gave me, not because I agree. And yet I wouldn't be surprised if he was, in the end, mad. Of course, I've long felt the same about Marx.
posted by philip-random at 11:46 AM on February 9, 2012


Chomsky summed up

any and everything doe by the US is rotten, bad, and self seeking ..America is simply no good and is the cause of all that is wrong in the world.
now show me where he has ever had a decent word to say for the US, the country he lives in, supports, and which saved much of the world in WWI and WWII.
posted by Postroad at 11:47 AM on February 9, 2012


The Russil Wvong article is a well written critique.
Yeah, 2nded. Excellent read.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:48 AM on February 9, 2012


the US, the country he lives in, supports, and which saved much of the world in WWI and WWII.

ITYM "showed up late for, than took the credit for the work of a) the French and English and b) the English and Russians.

It's a derail I know, but that sort of criticsm is exactly what drives a lot of Chomsky's more strident critics, the idea that he dares attack the US and not dress it up in mom, apple pie and the flag.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:51 AM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Propping up murderous autocrats is not a "mistake." Overthrowing democratically elected governments is not a "mistake." Dropping bombs on civilian targets is not a "mistake." Rigging elections is not a "mistake." Engaging in terrorism to prevent people from making a political decision that goes against your interests is not a "mistake." These are all intentional choices that the U.S. government has made and continues to make. They are not isolated incidents of poor judgment: they are a consistent thread of policy-making that runs through the history of the United States government up to the present.

It's the evil inherent in Manifest Destiny, a pernicious belief if there ever was one. The big mistake is deciding that your side (your cause, your god, your nation, your god) is the right one, and then ceasing all doubt in that regard. It all goes horribly wrong from there.
posted by philip-random at 11:51 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


now show me where he has ever had a decent word to say for the US, the country he lives in, supports, and which saved much of the world in WWI and WWII.

That's stupid. Why would he need to do that? Does any criticism levelled at the USA have to come package with a nod to WWII?
posted by Hoopo at 11:53 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


See? That's one of the criticisms Chomsky has written again and again that drives both conservatives and liberals wild, because he doesn't agree these are mistakes but calls them what they are, deliberate policy decisions made in full awareness of the likely outcomes and not caring much about them.

You're assuming that I take the justifications for things like Vietnam or Iraq at face value. I don't. I call them mistakes because they didn't effectively achieve even the cynical or venal aims of the people who undertook them, and it worked out badly for the country at large. Your complaint is predicated on the electorate being wholly passive and powerless. You're equating flawed leaders (of whom there is an endless supply) with flawed institutions.

That's the other fallacy of American power, that it was forced into committing atrocities because everybody was doing so. Nu-uh. Nobody waqs forcing the US to massacre Guatamalan fruit pickers.

Not what I said, at all.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:55 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


now show me where he has ever had a decent word to say for the US, the country he lives in, supports, and which saved much of the world in WWI and WWII.

Maybe he figures there's enough folks already singing that rather tired song (which doesn't mean there isn't some truth to it).

I recommend reading up on some Korean/Vietnam war history, where you see the same great nation that "saved much of the world in WWI and WWII" make a colossal mess of things precisely because it believed its own hype. That is, "we did the right thing in those wars, so it follows that we're doing the right thing here -- no need to actually analyze the deep complexity of the factors at play."
posted by philip-random at 11:55 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]



any and everything many things doe by the US is rotten, bad, and self seeking ..America is simply no good could be much better and is the cause ofall that much of what is wrong in the world.


FTFY

now show me where he has ever had a decent word to say for the US, the country he lives in, supports, and which saved much of the world in WWI and WWII.


He doesn't. Nor does he have to in order to for his criticisms to be valid.
posted by Misunderestimated at 11:55 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


show me where he has ever had a decent word to say for the US

Does this count?:
The United States is the most open — politically speaking, forget any social issues — and freest society in the world, and it also has the most brutal record of violence and aggression in the world

posted by talos at 11:59 AM on February 9, 2012


Jesus Facepalmed.
posted by vicx at 12:01 PM on February 9, 2012


Chomsky has, in the past at the very least, said that America is the freest country on the planet. And his feeling that he should primarily address the sins of the Unites States since that is where he resides and is a citizen of is credible, but it does give a key indication that his motives are activist and propagandistic (and I mean that in the most neutral sense).

This is fine as far as it goes, but while he uses some of the techniques and trappings of academic research, that is not his goal. He does seem to, (and many Chomsky acolytes certainly try to,) use his academic credentials to bolster his political credibility, as seen in this thread.

Again, all fine and good and me makes compelling arguments sometimes, but so many people seem to mistake Chomsky's researched, persuasive works with actual serious academic works (that sometimes edge into polemics,) that they can get a tunnel-visioned and into a bit of cul of personality.

MartinWisse, my response that there is a piece is that does not follow your description that all Chomsky critiques are personal attacks, to your unfair at best, broad generalization, is met with both guilt by association and "Well, that's how I would expect someone like you to argue," is perplexing and not exactly evidence of your good faith. Seriously, no one can critique Chomsky without having dishonest means and motives?
posted by Snyder at 12:02 PM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Chomsky has said repeatedly that he focuses on the U.S. because he lives there, and so he has more of a responsibility to critique it's government. You don't need to try very hard to find his critiques of other states.

He has repeatedly praised the United States as one of the most free countries in the world, particular when it comes to speech, after the 1960s.
posted by phrontist at 12:03 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think that Chomsky's idealism is valid as social criticism but I don't think we'd survive very long following his advice.
posted by humanfont at 12:04 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


See what the writer did there? Make equivalencies between Hezbollah and Hamas and other organizations that we see as less problematic now? That is exactly what I find frustrating about Chomsky's style of speaking. Yes indeed, the IRA did some terrible things in its campaign against British occupiers. And over time, they engaged with the British government with cease-fires and negotiations -- and now things are quite a bit better there. But that does not mean we should excuse Iran's connections with groups that may still be engaging in extreme violence against civilians, any more than admitting that the US engages in violence against civilians (e.g. drone attacks in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq) means that we cannot decry Iran's connections to terrorist organizations.

Sure, it is overly simplistic. Correct as well, in my opinion, but simplistic.

Thing is Chomsky and Dyer (not normally ideologically aligned) are making a clear point, Iran isn't part of some Axis of Evil, we shouldn't be thinking of bombing them. What are you trying to say by claiming that Chomsky and Dyer are wrong (or infantile, or whatever..)?
posted by Chuckles at 12:08 PM on February 9, 2012


He was an apologist for underdogs not because he believed in their moral superiority but because he thought his dog should eat at the table and use a knife and fork.

vicx, I get that you're using a kind of poetic/surreal style in this comment but... you bring up underdogs, which I think pretty clearly references human beings, specifically historically oppressed and marginalized ones. Then you use an image of a dog sitting at a table and eating like a human being, which for me brings up a lot of pretty disturbing racist rhetoric about some people being subhuman or vermin or in some way not as human as real (aka white) people (aka Real Americans).

Maybe I'm misreading it though. Can you explain more about what you mean by saying Chomsky "thought his dog should eat at the table and use a knife and fork"?
posted by overglow at 12:18 PM on February 9, 2012


I don't want vicx to explain that comment. My fave of the thread so far (agit-prop dadaism in full effect)
posted by philip-random at 12:21 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Russil Wvong article is excellent. Those are all valid criticisms.
posted by phrontist at 12:29 PM on February 9, 2012


Snyder: “Did you not bother to read Russil Wvong's linked piece?”

MartinWisse: “No I haven;t,w hich is why he wasn't mentioned in my comment. But a) nice example of exactly the kind of argumentation Chomky's detractors use and b) it being linked to by somebody who thinks it's worthwhile to include Horowitz too does not fill me with much hope here.”

That's a shame, because I have a feeling you agree with Russil on a lot of things even though you (and I) think Horowitz et al are raving nutters.
posted by koeselitz at 12:30 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Propping up murderous autocrats is not a "mistake." Overthrowing democratically elected governments is not a "mistake." Dropping bombs on civilian targets is not a "mistake." Rigging elections is not a "mistake." Engaging in terrorism to prevent people from making a political decision that goes against your interests is not a "mistake." These are all intentional choices that the U.S. government has made and continues to make. They are not isolated incidents of poor judgment: they are a consistent thread of policy-making that runs through the history of the United States government up to the present.

The mistake is that of the electorate selecting leaders who initiate or promote such policies, much as Germany's elevation of Hitler to power was a catastrophic mistake, rather than some inherent moral failing of the German people or of parliamentary democracies. Chomsky conflates individual bad behavior with institutional corruption and says they're the same thing. You're falling into the same intellectual trap: assuming unity and continuity of purpose for an overarchingly wicked end, when the reality is that naivete, stupidity, egotism and other basic huiman flaws are at least as much to blame.

As expounded here in this thread, Chomsky's thesis depends on the US being run by supervillains. My points are that a) US policy is sometimes the product of villainy, but it is just as often the product of ineptitude, and b) compared with contemporary and historical analogues, it has worked out to be substantially less bad than Chomsky is willing to admit. Chomsky can talk about an obligation to critique his come country all he likes, but the reality is that lots of people do that anyway and he is far from being a lone voice in the wilderness. But when he uses this argument as a reason for dispensing with context, then he's also dispensing with any pretence at objectivity and going off into propagandistic nonsense.

I did not acquire my dislike of Chomsky from reading people's critiques of him. I acquired my dislike of Chomsky because of his repeated insults to my intelligence. Not to my preconceptions, which I'm quite willing to have challenged or overturned, but to my capacity for logical reasoning, which I'm not willing to suspend when I pick up a book. I had never heard of Noam Chomsky and had not been in the US very long (a few weeks?) when I came across one of his books and was attracted to its iconoclastic and provocative blurb. By the time I had got 50 pages into it, my bullshit detector was screaming in pain.

Now, maybe growing up in a deliberately nonpartisan family in a European country (Ireland) with a constitutional policy of military neutrality and a statutory policy of welfare socialism wasn't enough, and my brain was hopelessly programmed to believe American Government Lies (TM) by seeing a few hours of American TV per week while growing up, but I don't ever recall being heavily invested in 'mom, apple pie, and the flag.' If anything, I was predisposed to agree with Chomsky's view of US politics because I grew up disliking Reagan, having visited the soviet Union as a student, and considering Americans brash and unsophisticated in many respects. It's not like someone or something else soured me on the guy, he did that all by himself.
posted by anigbrowl at 12:35 PM on February 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


There are plenty of scientists out there with bad ideas on fields outside their expertise.

Obstetricians too.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:35 PM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't think we'd survive very long following his advice.

Why not?
posted by phrontist at 12:35 PM on February 9, 2012


Sure, it is overly simplistic. Correct as well, in my opinion, but simplistic.

Thing is Chomsky and Dyer (not normally ideologically aligned) are making a clear point, Iran isn't part of some Axis of Evil, we shouldn't be thinking of bombing them. What are you trying to say by claiming that Chomsky and Dyer are wrong (or infantile, or whatever..)?


See, I don't think they're making a clear point. What is the logical connection there, in those false equivalencies I was mentioning? I'll grant them that Iran is not part of some Axis of Evil™, but make it seem like their connections to terrorist groups is not problematic?

As for my points:
* I think Chomsky (and, I guess, Dyer) are making Iran out to be an aggrieved innocent with no nefarious goals of its own, and that this is a simplistic and naive view that ignores some bad things that Iran has done and is still doing.
* I also think that we shouldn't be making noises that we're going to bomb and/or invade them. Or actually do those things. I'm glad we're trying to engage with them more diplomatically in the past couple of years, but I am concerned that the Obama administration seems more hawkish toward them recently.
posted by jsr1138 at 12:38 PM on February 9, 2012


Rubbish. That argument is predicated on the assumption that depression and suicide would be entirely eliminated under some different social order, a proposition for which there is no evidence whatsoever.

My ideas are not that ridiculous. My "implicit assertion" has lineage as far back as 1897. This is not new. See for instance the studies by Émile Durkheim, amongst a well-established body of both prior and contemporary literature on this.

If A is a trigger for B then if B is undesirable then you must change A. In this particular case of B, I think society, at large, at least has to fucking try. If it requires a new paradigm then so be it; I do not claim to know the final answer and I don't think anyone else does.

All I've said is that the status quo is unacceptable, citing Japan (see the Wikipedia entry) as an important example explaining the sufficient condition part of my argument. I do not say that mental illness has a sole cause. I do not say that perfect societies exist. And I do not say or know how and to what degree society should gravitate away from the status quo. My only objective is to hold fewer illusions about what is going on in our society, because that is the only rational starting point.

It doesn't take much googling to find out that Chomsky's critiques more generally employ this lens of institutional analysis. Which leads to my second question:

I think that Chomsky's idealism is valid as social criticism but I don't think we'd survive very long following his advice.

Then here's a noob question of mine... Based on his writings do you think his actual intent is to be more of a critic or as a policy advisor? I think the two are separate things. Are there obvious examples of what he has explicitly suggested that people or governments do, that would be so risky or impractical?
posted by polymodus at 12:39 PM on February 9, 2012


As expounded here in this thread, Chomsky's thesis depends on the US being run by supervillains.

What? Where does he say this? I've always understood him to mean that U.S. institutions do not function democratically, and the resulting concentrations of power lead inevitably to these sorts of outcomes.
posted by phrontist at 12:39 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Chomsky's original sin was gathering damning quotes spoken or written by actual people during an era and within an area for which deference had previously been readily granted.

Before Chomsky, you'd speak fairly freely in your on-the-record talks and write fairly-freely in your on-the-record policy analysis documents, confident that anyone who'd actually read the things would be of similar social class, have a similar understanding of "fair play", and would apply a generous amount of charity when interpreting your words. Post-Chomsky you had to assume your on-the-record words could potentially fall into the hands of an ideological enemy who'd take what you said on the record very literally.

Those going into politically-sensitive fields in the modern era are used to this reality and instinctively understand that those meeting minutes may fall into the hands of opponents, but many long-term veterans had a rude awakening that they'd left behind several decades' worth of potentially-embarassing words on the record, which might be unearthed at any moment, after which point you'd always be at risk of having some annoying undergrad read some of your words back to you and ask what you meant (for the umpteenth time, no less).

The Assange of his time, I suppose, and rather old-hat by today's standards, but like Assange more notable for the change of approach he ushered in than for any specific political claim he's made (and, as his own record shows, his own works aren't necessarily of unimpeachable accuracy, to put it mildly). But, like Assange, the vehemence is more about ruffled feathers in certain rarified circles -- lingering memories of the unpleasant discovery that some of their assumptions no longer held, etc. -- and less about any particular thing he's said or done.

Or, at least, that's the story for the first generation. After that, the vehemence well past any rational assessment of Chomsky's impact upon either the fate of the nation or upon the course of their own lives seems like one of those social norms picked up somewhere during education or training.
posted by hoople at 12:46 PM on February 9, 2012 [11 favorites]


You must be a Chomsky fan, because it takes a computational linguist to parse that :)
No, I'm a computer scientist. Actually now that I read that again I think I messed it up, I should have removed the word 'who'. It should say "attempt to rebut those people who by pointing out that someone he believes the people he disagrees with like is wrong will disprove the people who disagree with him." I think I may have went back and edited it, maybe leaving that in.
Compared to...what? I have no problem acknowledging the flaws in US foreign policy, which are sometimes egregious. But the existence of flaws and mistakes is widely accepted by historians and policymakers. Not universally - no set of ideas is - but in the large. A majority of Americans would cheerfully agree that the Vietnam war was a Bad Idea, for example, or the Iraq war for that matter.
Compared to... Postwar Japan? Or postwar Germany for that matter? The whole European union? Of course, they were 'aligned' with the U.S. But what about India? Certainly they've been having a cold war with Pakistan, there are problems in Kashmir, but by and large they have not had a history of propping up dictatorial client states and they're fine (They prop up Bangladesh, but that's not a dictatorship by any stretch).

Or what about Brazil? Certainly not perfect, but getting a lot better over the past decades and growing quickly economically, reducing income inequality while ours increases.

It does seem possible that countries can not only survive but be prosperous without engaging in foreign adventurism and propping up dictatorships.
Chomsky was a racist. He thought Jews could be nicer than Palestinians too, if they tried and that is racist.
From Wikipedia:
Chomsky was born ... to Jewish parents in the affluent East Oak Lane neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of noted professor of Hebrew at Gratz College and IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) member William Chomsky (1896–1977), a native of Ukraine. ... Chomsky was influenced also by being a part of a Hebrew-based, Zionist organization, as well as by hanging around anarchist bookstores.[21] ...
He describes his family as living in a sort of "Jewish ghetto", split into a "Yiddish side" and "Hebrew side", with his family aligning with the latter and bringing him up "immersed in Hebrew culture and literature"


He also said in the past that in the past, if could live anywhere else besides the U.S, it would be Israel (but I also that the culture of Israel had changed in the past few years). I don't know if Chomsky is religious but he is certainly an ethnic jewish person himself.
That statement appears to have been made by someone who has not bothered to read up on the history of any revolution ever.
The U.S has had two revolutions, one successful and one not (the civil war). I would argue that the civil rights movements represents a successful non-violent revolution. In all cases, America retained the same culture, and improved upon it.

Rather then being unaware of what revolutions are like in other countries, I'm actually proposing a sort of American exceptionalism based on the idea that Americans have a long history of understanding how to run governments, so an "American revolution" wouldn't result in something horrible.

The problem, though is that the conditions that would cause a true revolution to happen here are so far from reality that in order to imagine what such a thing. If any social movement ever gains enough power to actually cause a revolution, they would long before that have enough power to change things via the democratic process.

That would also prevent the radicalization process that happens when movements have to become violent to succeed.
The appalling, industrialized slaughter of the French Revolution, to take one example, seems in retrospect an incredibly high price to pay for the spectacle of Napoleon being crowned emperor by the Pope.
The French did not have a history of democratic governance, so their revolution was a lot like you see in more modern countries that don't know what they're doing. In comparison, remember the British had a bunch of revolutions before us, and none of them really changed that much in terms of the British national character. Neither did the initial American revolution change much, and it worked out well.
posted by delmoi at 1:04 PM on February 9, 2012


If A is a trigger for B then if B is undesirable then you must change A. In this particular case of B, I think society, at large, at least has to fucking try.

You have yet to establish that A (the status quo of western society) is a trigger for B (the existence of depression and suicide). Durkheim's work on suicide claimed that Catholics were happier because they were more controlled, and thus better integrated and less likely to commit suicide. If this is your idea of conclusive proof then you are cuckoo, and I say that as someone who considers sociology a worthy and interesting academic discipline.

All I've said is that the status quo is unacceptable, citing Japan

Japan has a high suicide rate, yes. It doesn't follow that this is a byproduct of its socioeconomic structure. I'm not sure what sort of point you're trying to make here; suicide is certainly undesirable, but on the other hand so are a lot of other things. For all we know, Japan's relatively high suicide rate might be inextricably linked with its relatively low murder rate, and both these data points might be the result of Japan's relative ethnic homogeneity. It's entirely possible that lowering the suicide rate would come at an even worse cost, and that the status quo is in fact Pareto optimal already. I don't know that it is, or even close; but I'm skeptical of the idea that it's purely socioeconomic because Japan has a long and complex cultural history involving suicide that long predates its close relationship with the west, although the exact degree and causes of this are unknown to me.
posted by anigbrowl at 1:05 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


So in other words, the only way a revolution could ever happen in the U.S. is if the electoral system broke down completely. If that happened, it would be impossible to predict because how that happened would have to have changed our national character - and thus predicting a contingent about what would if that happened is impossible.
posted by delmoi at 1:06 PM on February 9, 2012


In comparison, remember the British had a bunch of revolutions before us, and none of them really changed that much in terms of the British national character.

Delmoi, that's patently untrue. Magna Cart is pretty old, but Britain's history of governance is pretty darn turbulent. That link is merely one extreme example.
posted by anigbrowl at 1:11 PM on February 9, 2012


Ooops, should have previewed. I meant to add that you could consider Constitutional Conventions and the like as non-violent but revolutionary changes, and American history in this respect is more complex and diverse than just the Federal Constitution whose scope and history we are most familiar with. The history of the individual state constitutions is a good place to start, also the 19th-century codification movement and the tension between common and civil law.
posted by anigbrowl at 1:15 PM on February 9, 2012


I think if you know that Chomsky has a particular [anarchist left] point of view then you can read him as a source with a point of view. I know there are some who think he walks on water, which is the wrong approach. I have read Chomsky for years and to me he is a voice that you don't hear very often. The information he provides can be valuable and is certainly different than what you hear on CNN. So, as long as you accept the fact that some of his opinions are off the charts you can still get something out of what he has to say.

Unless, of course, you are a right wing conservative and then you best stick with Horowitz. Who in my view is further off the charts righward than Chomsky is leftward.
posted by Rashomon at 1:19 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


What is the logical connection there, in those false equivalencies I was mentioning

You don't see any connection at all?

but make it seem like their connections to terrorist groups is not problematic?

Problematic for who, is the obvious question. Not problematic for me personally, surely. At least a little problematic for Israel, I guess, though not problematic at all for Israeli hawks :)

As for my points:
* I think Chomsky (and, I guess, Dyer) are making Iran out to be an aggrieved innocent with no nefarious goals of its own,


Innocent vs. Nefarious? And you accuse Chomsky of being overly simplistic..

Chomsky is a valuable and well reasoned counter balance to the overwhelming propaganda being fed to us by the corporate media. No thinking person would follow any individual as some kind of saviour, but I will learn what I can from what he has to say.
posted by Chuckles at 1:23 PM on February 9, 2012


The mistake is that of the electorate selecting leaders who initiate or promote such policies

I think that's being awfully idealistic about the state of American democracy.

Your contention, if I understand correctly, is that the moral bankruptcy of U.S. foreign policy is the result of poor electoral choices and not structural failures. This seems to presume that there are better electoral choices that could have been made in order to avoid harmful foreign-policy decisions, which I think -- and, presumably, Chomksy thinks -- is totally and demonstrably false. The decision-making that results in these kinds of catastrophes is entrenched outside the policy choices of any individual office-holder: it's foundational to the system itself, which is why it displays such a strong line of continuity over decades, throughout many different administrations.

In one of his recent books -- I forget which -- Chomsky pointed out that much of U.S. foreign policy is in direct opposition to the policies which the majority of the electorate actually support, as reflected in poll numbers. Not only does policy-making not reflect the will of the people, it often opposes it. That in itself seems like pretty clear evidence that the electorate has practically no control over the foreign policy of the U.S. government.
posted by Misunderestimated at 1:26 PM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'm not a huge Chomsky fan but anybody David Horowitz loathes is OK by me!
posted by edheil at 1:28 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you don't like the Japan example then look at the literature on the causes of mental illness within the US.

Japan has a high suicide rate, yes. It doesn't follow that this is a byproduct of its socioeconomic structure.

Researchers have looked at it in terms of societal pressures, and you dismiss their work. Look at the academic literature.

I'm not sure what sort of point you're trying to make here; suicide is certainly undesirable, but on the other hand so are a lot of other things.

The point is that suicide is a signifier. I'm talking about more than just the individual act, but everything that leads up to it, including the socioeconomic causes. If you can't take my word on the socioeconomic causes of suicide, then go read the books on it. I'm done explaining this part.

For all we know, Japan's relatively high suicide rate might be inextricably linked with its relatively low murder rate, and both these data points might be the result of Japan's relative ethnic homogeneity.

Same difference. In an alternate world we could be talking about murders and how social systems drive people to commit them. Oh wait, I think we have some examples of that in the U.S., too.

It's entirely possible that lowering the suicide rate would come at an even worse cost, and that the status quo is in fact Pareto optimal already.

Are you seriously linking to Pareto optimality as if it is a desirable thing? Cause, the whole point of PO that it is a formalization that it is neither a sound nor complete relation for intended/ethical outcomes.

I don't know that it is, or even close; but I'm skeptical of the idea that it's purely socioeconomic

"Purely"? I thought I dealt with this already.

Japan has a long and complex cultural history involving suicide that long predates its close relationship with the west, although the exact degree and causes of this are unknown to me.

Oh so now Japanese kill themselves because of... culture? And this isn't inconsistent, how?

Moreover, this reluctance to examine is just a form of exoticism. I'm Asian so I'm allowed to tell you it's okay and our peoples aren't that different/mutually incomprehensible.

If this is your idea of conclusive proof then you are cuckoo

First, you're starting to get a little rude. Second, Durkheim is a starting point. He was a pioneer. If you think I would make final conclusions based on that alone, then I'm not the one being intellectually sloppy.

But thanks for the interesting arguments. My own take home is that the truth lies somewhere between individualism and structuralism. To deny either is dogma.
posted by polymodus at 1:39 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Japan's suicide rate is about the same as that in Canada, Korea, or Finland.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:48 PM on February 9, 2012


Yeah, and:

Suicide in Japan has become a significant problem nationally.[1][2] Factors in suicide include unemployment (due to the economic recession in the 1990s), depression, and social pressures.[3] In 2007, the National Police Agency revised the categorization of motives for suicide into a division of 50 reasons with up to three reasons listed for each suicide.[4] Suicides traced to losing jobs surged 65.3 percent while those attributed to hardships in life increased 34.3 percent. Depression remained at the top of the list for the third year in a row, rising 7.1 percent from the previous year.[4]

Japan has one of the world's highest suicide rates, and the Japanese government reported the rate for 2006 as being the ninth highest in the world.[5] 71% of suicides in Japan were male,[2] and it's the leading cause of death in men aged 20-44.[3][6]


It's not the relative rates between countries that matter. It's the causation and for that it only makes sense to use a systems perspective. Clearly the way things are run fails to protect the weak. That's not civilized; it's barbaric.
posted by polymodus at 1:57 PM on February 9, 2012


One would think that a combined Palin/Godwin reference would frame my post appropriately...but now I'm all in on the sarcasm (or is it irony?):

If you disagree with any of my statements, you must be an unpatriotic American, or one of those cheese-eating socialist wackos that we see holding free Mumia signs at the OWS bathing-free zone. Doesn't anyone have any common sense anymore? I mean, Fox "news" has been around for long enough now for you to get it...Chomsky is an America-hating commie who never tells the truth. It's a fact.
posted by Chuffy at 2:01 PM on February 9, 2012


Why in the fuck are we arguing about suicide in Japan?
posted by Hoopo at 2:09 PM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


Why in the fuck are we arguing about suicide in Japan?

Because I already referenced Hitler way up the thread...
posted by Chuffy at 2:10 PM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


Chuffy: “One would think that a combined Palin/Godwin reference would frame my post appropriately...but now I'm all in on the sarcasm (or is it irony?): If you disagree with any of my statements, you must be an unpatriotic American, or one of those cheese-eating socialist wackos that we see holding free Mumia signs at the OWS bathing-free zone. Doesn't anyone have any common sense anymore? I mean, Fox "news" has been around for long enough now for you to get it...Chomsky is an America-hating commie who never tells the truth. It's a fact.”

I was being sarcastic, too.

Do you really believe that anyone who disagrees with Noam Chomsky is a Bible-beating, woman-hating, police-violence-supporting nationalistic asshole who masturbates to the American flag? Really? You think that's who we are?

It's just kind of annoying to be snidely lumped in with all those people. Have you read the discussion here? Hardly any of us are to the right of Emma Goldman, for heaven's sake.
posted by koeselitz at 2:15 PM on February 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'm actually convinced that Ron Paul and Noam Chomsky play chess in an elaborate New England bunker, much like Magneto and Professor X.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:26 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


If a serious study…is someday undertaken, it may well be discovered…that the Khmer Rouge programs elicited a positive response…because they dealt with fundamental problems rooted in the feudal past and exacerbated by the imperial system.… Such a study, however, has yet to be undertaken.

I'd like to see some context here. This (elided) passage could be read as a defense of the Khmer Rouge -- or it could be read as an explanation of how the KR was able to come to power.
posted by steambadger at 2:39 PM on February 9, 2012


@koeslitz: I know. No. No. No. Yes.

My comment wasn't intended to snidely lump anyone who disagrees with Chomsky into that group, I just can't help myself sometimes.
posted by Chuffy at 2:46 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've always understood him to mean that U.S. institutions do not function democratically, and the resulting concentrations of power lead inevitably to these sorts of outcomes.

I really, really hate this formulation--it weakens the left so much. The idea that people aren't getting exactly what they are voting for is crazy. A huge number are voting for emotional satisfaction. That's their right. People manipulate that, most certainly. However, that does not make it not "democratic."
posted by Ironmouth at 2:58 PM on February 9, 2012


As the joke goes on the MIT campus:

Q. How do you get Noam Chomsky to shut the fuck up?

A. Ask him about linguistics.
posted by ocschwar at 3:00 PM on February 9, 2012 [13 favorites]


steambadger: here you go.

Phrases like "violence behind the Khmer smile" don't scream "apologist" to me.
posted by phrontist at 3:03 PM on February 9, 2012


koeselitz: Russil is by no means a "neocron" or a conservative, and he gives Chomsky a good reading, I think, before giving a fine account of the many things wrong with Chomsky's perspective.

Thanks, koeselitz.

From what I can tell, Chomsky's view of politics was shaped during the Vietnam War. He regarded the US as morally equivalent to Nazi Germany in its foreign policy, especially in the Third World, and made powerful arguments for the responsibility of intellectuals to oppose the war.

The problem is that there's a conflict between political responsibility and strict adherence to the truth. If the truth is complicated, and if by simplifying it so as to maximize moral outrage you can convince more people, bring the war to an end faster, and save people's lives, should you not do so?

But once you start down this path, you get a widening gap between your view of the world and reality. To weaken the argument for war against some official enemy, you tear apart the official propaganda which attempts to blacken the image of that enemy; but in the process, you may end up believing in the enemy's propaganda instead. Instead of a simplistic good-guys-vs.-bad-guys view with the US in the role of the good guys (the neoconservative view), you get the same simplistic good-guys-vs.-bad-guys view with the enemy in the role of the good guys. Chomsky appears to have had a remarkably positive view of the Communist regimes in Asia (see his articles on Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam published in 1970 in the New York Review of Books). He also appears to have fallen for Bosnian Serb propaganda in just this way (see comments by Adrian Hastings, David Campbell).

My biggest problem with Chomsky isn't his scathing denunciation of US foreign policy. It's that you can't trust what he says. (For anyone reading Chomsky, my advice is: always look up the references.)

steambadger: for details on Chomsky's writings on Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge, see Bruce Sharp.
posted by russilwvong at 3:06 PM on February 9, 2012 [13 favorites]


So if the neoconservatives and Chomsky are both wrong, what should the objectives of US foreign policy be? Realism vs. neoconservatism.
posted by russilwvong at 3:11 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


(I actually didn't find the neocons' approach to be too different than the Realist approach in practice. The difference is that the neocons seemed to acknowledge that non-state actors can play a huge role in international relations, but in practice their initial approach to GWOT was entirely geared at the state level, not unlike the realist response would have been.)
posted by Hoopo at 3:17 PM on February 9, 2012


Your contention, if I understand correctly, is that the moral bankruptcy of U.S. foreign policy is the result of poor electoral choices and not structural failures. This seems to presume that there are better electoral choices that could have been made in order to avoid harmful foreign-policy decisions, which I think -- and, presumably, Chomksy thinks -- is totally and demonstrably false.

So you're saying that if Reagan or George W. Bush had not been elected, everything would have turned out exactly the same. I don't agree with this line of thought, and frankly I think it verges on conspiracy theory.

~
The point is that suicide is a signifier. I'm talking about more than just the individual act, but everything that leads up to it, including the socioeconomic causes. If you can't take my word on the socioeconomic causes of suicide, then go read the books on it. I'm done explaining this part.

You haven't started explaining it; you've just said that the existence of depression and suicide proves the status quo to be broken, mentioned Japan in a hand-waving way, and advised me to read Durkheim, with whom I am already familiar. You have yet to make an argument, and seem to think that invoking a few stereotypes is the same thing.

Are you seriously linking to Pareto optimality as if it is a desirable thing? Cause, the whole point of PO that it is a formalization that it is neither a sound nor complete relation for intended/ethical outcomes.

No, I'm linking to Pareto optimality because there is good reason to think that it is the best possible outcome achievable under real-world constraints. The point is not that we live in the best of all possible worlds, but that the best of all possible worlds may not be perfect, because perfection is not achievable.

Oh so now Japanese kill themselves because of... culture? And this isn't inconsistent, how?

Are you misquoting me deliberately, or are you just not understanding what I'm writing? Japan has a centuries-old, perhaps millenia-old, and heavily ritualized tradition revolving around suicide, which long predates its current socioeconomic system. This is a fact, for which there is extensive historical evidence. So it would be foolish to discount this as a factor influencing the current suicide rate. And you have offered exactly zero evidence for changes in the status quo reducing that.

Clearly the way things are run fails to protect the weak. That's not civilized; it's barbaric.

No, that's not clear at all. 'The weak' and 'people who commit suicide' are not isomorphic, and furthermore you are equating inputs with causes. Economics is certainly a factor in suicide; but many countries have worse economies than Japan, and lower rates of suicide. So there can't be a simple causal relationship between unemployment and suicide, or suicide rates would be much higher elsewhere. I have no idea where you're trying to go with this, and I don't think you do either. You brought Japan into the conversation to support your defense of Noam Chomsky and his critiques of western capitalism in particular. Perhaps you should have tried developing and articulating your argument clearly at the outset, because from here it appears you are claiming capitalism is the cause of Japan's high suicide rate.
posted by anigbrowl at 3:25 PM on February 9, 2012


My biggest problem with Chomsky isn't his scathing denunciation of US foreign policy. It's that you can't trust what he says. (For anyone reading Chomsky, my advice is: always look up the references.)

This, basically.
posted by anigbrowl at 3:33 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


russilvwong: I praised your criticism of Chomsky because it points out some of his dishonest rhetorical habits. That said, you don't engage the left libertarian tradition at all, then say Chomsky's version of it is simply "wrong".

I'm not convinced that revolutionary change is likely to lead to a more just society than welfare-state liberal democracy. From what I know of twentieth-century history, revolution has more often led to autocracy and terror than to utopia. The Spanish anarchist movement is probably the most important counter-example, but it only lasted for a short time.

You acknowledge that it was exceptional, having been the product of decades of agitation, but then go on to dismiss it for having been short lived. Why? It lasted for a short time because it was destroyed by a coalition of world powers, including the the government's of the USSR and Germany, and the business elite of many liberal democracies including the U.S.. If anything it demonstrates that a free society can do surprisingly well defending itself.
posted by phrontist at 3:35 PM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Well any FPP that includes links to Horowitz as a credible authority can automatically be written off as worthless garbage.

However there are a few people claiming that RusselWvong's piece is still okay, despite the fact that the other links are largely just slime-throwing.

I read Wvong's piece and I thought it was a very weak effort and seems to have been written by someone with a quite limited experience of Chomsky's writings.

On the "criticism" section:

3.1. Capitalist democracy and revolution
Wvong correctly quotes Chomsky’s views on libertarian socialist revolution but criticizes them for being a “process which may take decades to occur”. He then quotes 1940s Orwell on the softening of class conflict (which may have had some relevance had Chomsky’s views on revolution been those of a vulgar Marxist), and then goes on to describe how authoritarian revolutions (the very opposite of the libertarian form of revolution advocated by Chomsky) have turned out badly. He then points out that “there are fates worse than capitalist democracy”. Of course there are, who’s saying otherwise? None of these points represent a real criticism of the idea of a “libertarian socialist revolution” at all. You don’t need to “give up” on liberal democracy and the welfare state in order to recognize that these don’t have to be the final stages of human social evolution.

3.2. The US, the USSR, and revolutionary violence
Chomsky has stated that the Cold War was primarily a war between the superpowers and populations within their respective spheres of influence, which Wvong disputes by arguing that the nuclear arms race provides concrete evidence that it was primarily a war between the two superpowers. Of course if by “war” we mean actual realizations of violence than clearly Chomsky’s conception is correct. Furthermore I am not aware of any attempt by Chomsky to claim that the US was “no less evil” than the USSR (to my knowledge he avoids using the term “evil” let alone attempts to quantify it). Then Wvong throws a few disconnected quotes out there; one of Chomsky approvingly referencing Kant, one explicitly referencing the Sino-Indian Treaty in reference to Tibet, and one referring to the academic work on Chinese famines by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. What is Wvong trying to imply with these disconnected quotes? Actually he doesn’t directly infer anything, he just asks some rather weak leading questions (FoxNews style).

3.3. Complexity of international politics
Here the argument is that Chomsky has a simplistic view of international relations (IR), because he does not believe that understanding it is beyond the reach of ordinary non-experts. On the other hand professor Hans Morgenthau believe that a proper understanding of IR requires academic credentials (not much of a surprise that a professional social-scientist would be talking up the complexity and importance of their field of expertise). Having studied IR myself I can confirm that it is a joke discipline, with nothing resembling a “consensus” on anything at all. Morgenthau ascribes to a particular school of thought (Realism) that treats State interests as axiomatically indivisible, whereas Chomsky (and a huge number of IR theorists in the Constructivist tradition) focus on the non-state interests that guide state behaviour.

3.4. Brainwashing
“Chomsky argues that in the bourgeois democracy of the US, the American elite only maintains its legitimacy through a kind of self-brainwashing which differs from Soviet totalitarianism only by being more subtle and more effective.”

Chomsky has a critique of the capitalist media and the role that it plays in the support of State power, and if Wvong wants to criticize it, he should criticize the substance of what has actually been written rather than his own inaccurate summary of it. Manufacturing Consent is, I guess, the place to start.

3.5. Misrepresentation
Complains that Chomsky likes to “misrepresent” the words of others. There are only two examples given, neither of which is particularly damning (and this must be from literally thousands of cases of Chomsky quoting others in various books).
posted by moorooka at 3:41 PM on February 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


moorooka: “I read Wvong's piece and I thought it was a very weak effort and seems to have been written by someone with a quite limited experience of Chomsky's writings.”

“Chomsky has a critique of the capitalist media and the role that it plays in the support of State power, and if Wvong wants to criticize it, he should criticize the substance of what has actually been written rather than his own inaccurate summary of it. Manufacturing Consent is, I guess, the place to start.”

That bit by Russil that you quoted was the best summary of Manufacturing Consent I've read in a while. Maybe you'd like to say what it was in there that you thought was so objectionable. I don't think Chomsky would disagree with it.
posted by koeselitz at 3:57 PM on February 9, 2012


Neocons tend to view American supremacy as a result of some American virtue or exceptionalism. They also presume that the natural order of the world is unipolar. The more mainstream view is that the world natural state is multipolar. From the second viewpoint America's position was only attained by a quirk or fortune and we should not expect it to continue for very long. How this impacts day to say decision making can be enourmous; but not always. Sometimes it just changes the justification for the act.

Chomsky and his followers are outside these realist schools which dominate American policy making. He is a bit like Ron Paul and monetary policy. To follow Chomsky one first must reject the mainstream divisions within foreign policy doctrine, just as Paul rejects mainstream monetary theory.
posted by humanfont at 3:57 PM on February 9, 2012


there is a comparison of the US media to Soviet propaganda and the observation that it is more subtle and more effective. but the manner in which elites use the media to support their own power (discussed deeply in the book) is very different in the US and the USSR
posted by moorooka at 4:02 PM on February 9, 2012


phrontist: That said, you don't engage the left libertarian tradition at all, then say Chomsky's version of it is simply "wrong".

Let me put it this way: it's an area where I disagree with Chomsky's views. My intent in this section is more to describe Chomsky's views than to criticize them. I also try to explain why I disagree. Some readers will agree with Chomsky, others will disagree.

Regarding the Spanish anarchist movement:

It lasted for a short time because it was destroyed by a coalition of world powers--

Right. This is a general structural problem. See the Parable of the Tribes.
posted by russilwvong at 4:03 PM on February 9, 2012


moorooka: “there is a comparison of the US media to Soviet propaganda and the observation that it is more subtle and more effective. but the manner in which elites use the media to support their own power (discussed deeply in the book) is very different in the US and the USSR”

In what sense is this difference significant? I've read Manufacturing Consent more than once, and my recollection is that it doesn't dwell on these differences. The point is that the USSR and the US have both caused a lot of death and suffering in the world; and that the injustices which emanate from those regimes are rooted in the similar approach of institutional media, whether by way of state propaganda or by way of commercial media outlets.

Either way, this is an example of how you kind of do have to "give up" on capitalist liberal democracy to follow Noam Chomsky's view of things. In his model, capitalist liberal democracy is structurally flawed because it necessitates injustice, and does so more effectively and more efficiently that almost any other regime in history.
posted by koeselitz at 4:10 PM on February 9, 2012


Well the key thing that I took from Manufacturing Consent was the "propaganda model" which describes how the direction of propaganda is determined in a liberal capitalist system. In a totalitarian one-party state it is quite obvious how the media is to be controlled. But in a "free" country with a free press, free market and free elections, how is this control exercised? It is much less obvious. Manufacturing Consent develops a credible theory around this question.
posted by moorooka at 4:19 PM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


I got no beef with Noam.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:20 PM on February 9, 2012


moorooka: authoritarian revolutions (the very opposite of the libertarian form of revolution advocated by Chomsky) have turned out badly.

I'm puzzled. What would you describe as the difference between authoritarian and libertarian revolutions? Chomsky was sympathetic to the Chinese and Vietnamese communist movements (this was the point of the quotes regarding Communist China in section 3.2); but both were very much Leninist revolutions, weren't they?

Here the argument is that Chomsky has a simplistic view of international relations (IR)--

Right. He believes that international conflict is driven by the economic interests of the elite. Hans Morgenthau gives numerous examples to the contrary.
posted by russilwvong at 4:22 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


russilwvong: In the link you reference it is stated that Chomsky projected onto the Chinese and Vietnamese revolution an anti-authoritarian bend. He wasn't the only one, at the time and much of what he states (especially for the Vietcong who were a National Liberation Movement primarily) is accurate - though incomplete. And, I'm not sure how you would define a leninist revolution, but neither China, nor Vietnam were your typical communist revolutions. More like radical peasant revolts.

"He believes that international conflict is driven by the economic interests of the elite". Stated that way, I don't think he would agree with this proposition.

On Cambodia, I linked this upthread but with no description, so again: Where's the Beef: The Great Khmer-Chomsky debate, responds to most criticisms of Chomsky's position regarding Cambodia
posted by talos at 4:59 PM on February 9, 2012


Do you really believe that anyone who disagrees with Noam Chomsky is a Bible-beating, woman-hating, police-violence-supporting nationalistic asshole who masturbates to the American flag? Really? You think that's who we are?

Apparently just Android users.

As expounded here in this thread, Chomsky's thesis depends on the US being run by supervillains.


Well to be fair: Dick Cheney.

No, really. You have the voice of the electorate (all the pro-Pat Buchanan Florida jews aside) and the subversion of that voice all in one, considering what Cheney did in office and the sort of convention violation that went on there (not to mention the Cheney - Ultron Alliance of Doom, not covered in the mainstream media).

Elections are not a cold deck of cards. It's a fair deck with some trick cards sometimes slipped in, but of course, that still gets the hand you want as long as no one kicks too much.

F'rinstance - Al Gore's running mate in 2000? Anyone? Bueller? Yeah, Joe Lieberman.

Now take a look at Joe Biden (in contrast I mean, the current luggage with the Obama admin aside). Sure he looks like a casino manager, but he gets basically an A- from the ACLU.

So, Chomsky in 2008 after Obama was elected he calls Biden an "old-time political insider and an Iraq hawk." Well, I have a different memory of that.

Now, Chomsky does mention (in the same piece), rightly, he expects the policies to continue in a Democratic-centrist manner.
Myself I thought there would be more fractiousness (which would serve greater openness to the electorate). And I'll keep my money on the table looking at the GOP now and the way the Dems are going.
But I'll cede Chomsky was right there, with the caveat that, look, seriously look at Biden and tell me that guy isn't genuinely plugged in. He's by no means a hawk in the sense of the generally used term. He's in no way gaming politics the way that "old-time" insider implies.

So I don't buy into Chomsky's broad perspectives, but he's very good at getting into the corners and details. Like the Romero thing in Salvador. There's the broad statement "X" is morally wrong, then this detail like "Archbishop Romero was assassinated by the U.S. government."

But it doesn't work the other way. That certain economic/political factions interests are served by (willing or not) elements within the U.S. government does not mean the entire thing is systemically off, but rather points to the co-option of what should be.

And to be fair he does champion that - it comes off like shit however astute. But y'know, what would be completely irredeemable, at least as far as I'm concerned, is if he were cynical. But I don't see that at all.
Gore Vidal I can't stand for that reason (et.al, although he was good in the (nearly prophetic) Bob Roberts) but Chomsky's criticism - irrespective of it's validity on whatever points - seems to stem from a frustration that things are not as they should be and that the American system can be better.
And that does itself cause a sort of blindness to certain realities (voluntary or otherwise). So let's accept as a given he's not objective, but a critical commentator focused almost exclusively on U.S. policies and it's a lot easier to read him with a grain of salt.

S'funny, people forget in intellectual discussions that we're not divorced from our gonads. The assertion of a given perspective can be just as aggressive, verbally, as physical violence. Indeed, Chomsky delves into that (what with how policies/propaganda provokes terrorism, etc) but he, as so many of us, can forget the conflict of ideas is still conflict.

Which is why the loss of objectivity is such a problem (broadly/socially speaking) even as it's an unfair thing to expect from Chomsky. Who, again, not a journalist or doing hard science in his politically critical work, doesn't seem to make any bones about being utterly biased in his views (divorced from their respective validity).
posted by Smedleyman at 5:01 PM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm puzzled. What would you describe as the difference between authoritarian and libertarian revolutions?

Maybe you should read Chomsky on the difference between the Spanish anarchists and the Bolshevik Revolution.

Chomsky was sympathetic to the Chinese and Vietnamese communist movements (this was the point of the quotes regarding Communist China in section 3.2); but both were very much Leninist revolutions, weren't they?

Yes they were. And I'm sure that Chomsky would be much more critical of their politics than he would be of the Spanish anarchists'. However in the context of centuries of brutal, misogynistic Asian feudalism and foreign aggression it is impossible to deny that these revolutions did result in some positive changes for the people of these countries.

Right. He believes that international conflict is driven by the economic interests of the elite. Hans Morgenthau gives numerous examples to the contrary.

He certainly believes that economic elites influence foreign policy making and I think that is just about impossible to dispute.
posted by moorooka at 5:22 PM on February 9, 2012


Chomsky was sympathetic to the Chinese and Vietnamese communist movements (this was the point of the quotes regarding Communist China in section 3.2); but both were very much Leninist revolutions, weren't they?

My read of the Vietnamese "Communists" was that they were more of a nationalistic movement (seeking to remove foreign control from their land) than some highly ideological entity, and that much of the "communist" verbiage they used was aimed squarely at the Soviets who were keeping them supplied with guns and ammo. In fact, it was precisely this "communist" mis-read that allowed America to embroil themselves in a war they couldn't possibly win -- not without going nuclear (or something equally extreme).

The Fog of War is worth a view in this regard as Robert McNamara clarifies that grim point (in 1967, I believe) when he calculated that there was no way America could win what was amounting to a war of attrition, because for every Vietnamese "communist" they killed, three more were being born.
posted by philip-random at 5:31 PM on February 9, 2012


moorooka: And I'm sure that Chomsky would be much more critical of their politics than he would be of the Spanish anarchists'.

From what I can tell, he was not.

He certainly believes that economic elites influence foreign policy making--

His claim is stronger than that: he believes that the economic interests of the elite are not merely an influence, but the primary factor in foreign policymaking.

philip-random: My read of the Vietnamese "Communists" was that they were more of a nationalistic movement (seeking to remove foreign control from their land) than some highly ideological entity--

I'm not referring to ideology, but to the authoritarian/Leninist nature of the Chinese and Vietnamese Communist leadership.

Seconding the recommendation for "The Fog of War."
posted by russilwvong at 5:34 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, and this.
posted by Chuffy at 5:52 PM on February 9, 2012


Delmoi, that's patently untrue. Magna Cart is pretty old, but Britain's history of governance is pretty darn turbulent. That link is merely one extreme example.
I didn't say it wasn't turbulent, but rather you don't have many real changes to the national culture due to any of those revolutions. (now, obviously the switch from catholic to protestant was major, but that was done by a king, not by a revolution)
So, Chomsky in 2008 after Obama was elected he calls Biden an "old-time political insider and an Iraq hawk." Well, I have a different memory of that.
So Biden complained about the war once it became unpopular. What does that prove? He certainly voted for the war initially, which is when it mattered.
posted by delmoi at 5:57 PM on February 9, 2012


So you're saying that if Reagan or George W. Bush had not been elected, everything would have turned out exactly the same. I don't agree with this line of thought, and frankly I think it verges on conspiracy theory.

No, I'm not saying it would have turned out exactly the same. That's absurd.

Are you saying that if Bush or Reagan had not been elected, the United States would never have gotten involved in Cuba or Chile or Guatemala or -- more recently -- Libya? Or any of the other myriad foreign adventures that more often than not seem to end up with American business interests coming up flush after a period of violence and instability in one country or another?
posted by Misunderestimated at 5:57 PM on February 9, 2012


From what I can tell, he was not.

well he holds the Spanish anarchists up as just about the only thing approaching a positive example in political history. he never did the same for these Communist regimes although he did recognize their revolutionary achievements. you're offended that he doesnt "let you hear both sides" every time. still, he's often pointed out, as an American, his primary responsibility is to point out American crimes, not the crimes of official enemies.

he believes that the economic interests of the elite are not merely an influence, but the primary factor in foreign policymaking.


well let's have a citation then we can talk about something
posted by moorooka at 6:19 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


... the political leadership has undermined possibilities for political settlement and fostered conflict in regions where such conflict could lead to a devastating nuclear war, and has sometimes come all too close--notably the Middle East. These consistent patterns make no sense on the assumption that security policy is guided by security concerns. Case by case, they fall into place on the assumption that policy is driven by the twin goals of reinforcing the private interests that control the state, and maintaining an international environment in which they can prosper.

Here Chomsky is talking about US intervention in the Middle East as an example of how "security" - as used by Realist IR theorists - is meaningless as an explanation for anything. What does "security" mean in the context of US policies in this region over the last fifty years? is it wrong to say that these actions were "driven" by private interests that control the state? If you cant see that this is valid after the Bush-Cheney experience, then you never will.
posted by moorooka at 6:32 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


This will undoubtedly be the dumbest comment I ever make, but I've always liked how Noam Chomsky's name sounds like Cookie Monster eating... Om nom nom noam chomsky
posted by braksandwich at 6:42 PM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


That might have been the dumbest comment you've ever made, braksandwich, but it's still the most awesome thing to enter this thread thus far.
posted by AdamCSnider at 6:54 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I didn't say it wasn't turbulent, but rather you don't have many real changes to the national culture due to any of those revolutions.

I appreciate that, but that was why I linked to Cromwell. The transition from monarchy to parliamentary system and back to a more constitutional monarchy was huge. I can't think of a good book to recommend offhand, but I'm sure you can find something worthwhile on Oxford/Cambridge UP worth reading. Simon Schama had a well-regarded BBC series if like DVDs.

Are you saying that if Bush or Reagan had not been elected, the United States would never have gotten involved in Cuba or Chile or Guatemala or -- more recently -- Libya?

Of course we would have got involved in some other country's business. Can you conceive of any countries that don't get mixed up in each others' affairs, particularly ones that are in close geographical proximity? There are good ways and bad ways to do it. In Libya we facilitated a struggle that was going on internally already, much as we are conducting a low-intensity covert war in Iran. I am fine with this, since it's a distinct improvement on the alternative of carpet-bombing or direct regime change that tends to be preferred by the Republicans. I gather that Chomsky would prefer to have a policy of pure non-interference. , which is unrealistic. A realist viewpoint is to pursue cordial relations where possible, and to minimize conflict where it is not. You don't really have the choice to opt out of international relations altogether because other countries are not going to just go away and leave you alone. That was a fine idea back in ancient times but nowadays you try that and you end up with North Korea - a country which has admittedly not invaded anyone lately, but is utterly boxed in by its own contradictions.

If you cant see that this is valid after the Bush-Cheney experience, then you never will.

always with the 'if you can't see,' assuming an incapability on the part of the other person. You're extrapolating a general theory from a single episode, ignoring the fact of decade after decade of strategic entanglements that were most certainly predicated on state interests dating back to the 19th century. This is not to say that US involvement in the Middle East is free of corruption; sad to say it is awash with it, and often to our detriment as well as to that of people in the region. But a) that doesn't amount to a general theory of itnernational relations and b) the contention is not that all Noam Chomsky's ideas are necessarily incorrect, because they're not, but that he is an unreliable narrator whose narrative cannot be relied upon because he eschews objectivity. If I have to double-check the veracity of everything he says, and am frequently disappointed to find it lacking or misleadingly incomplete, then I might as well just read other writers on the subject. I personally like Joseph Nye.
posted by anigbrowl at 7:16 PM on February 9, 2012


What does "security" mean in the context of US policies in this region[the middle east] over the last fifty years?

The Middle East is a very imprecise geographic designation. Are we talking about specific countries? How much of Africa and Central Asia shall we include. Is Cypress part of the middle east? What about Turkey, Morroco, Pakistan, Somalia, Kazakastan, etc?

There isn't enough information in Dr Chomsky's assertion to draw any meaningful conclusion about its validity. The reader must make assumptions about specific countries and specific policies. It is an invitation for confirmaiton bias.
posted by humanfont at 7:32 PM on February 9, 2012


decade after decade of strategic entanglements that were most certainly predicated on state interests dating back to the 19th century.

But what is a "state interest"? Can you ever reduce an explanation to that alone? according to Morgenthau

during the entire period of mature capitalism, no war, with the exception of the Boer War, was waged by major powers exclusively or even predominately for economic objectives. The Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-German War of 1870, for instance, had no economic objectives of any importance. They were political wars, indeed imperialistic wars, fought for the purpose of establishing a new distribution of power, first in favor of Prussia within Germany and then in favor of Germany within the European state system. The Crimean War of 1854-56, the Spanish-American War of 1898, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, the Turko-Italian War of 1911-12, and the several Balkan Wars show economic objectives only in a subordinate role, if they show them at all.

the foreign policies of all of these states were made by ruling elites in these countries; their costs in terms of taxes and casualties may have been paid by the population at large but their expected benefits would accrue disproportionately to the upper classes. he says that they were fought for the purpose of establishing a "new distribution of power"; but what "distribution of power" does not include economic power? furthermore, conflicts between European neighbours is only one category of international violence, another would be the five centuries of horrifically violent encounters of the Western powers with the inhabitants of Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas. These have clearly been driven by economic and commercial considerations since before Cortes.
posted by moorooka at 8:12 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


FWIW Marx is not much taught any more in Vietnam, but take a Philosophy course at a VN university and there's only one subject: Le-Nin.

The supremacy of the state is and has always been the centre piece of Vietnamese Communism.
posted by grubby at 8:26 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ironmouth said: The idea that people aren't getting exactly what they are voting for is crazy. A huge number are voting for emotional satisfaction.

What the hell does that even mean? As oppose to their intellectual satisfaction? People vote on "wedge issues" because none of the real issues are ever seriously discussed.
posted by phrontist at 8:54 PM on February 9, 2012


So Biden complained about the war once it became unpopular. What does that prove? He certainly voted for the war initially, which is when it mattered.

So did nearly the entire senate and house. Immediately after the vote, since 2003 he said that he believes it was a mistake to support the Iraq War. So it proves Biden is not so much a hawk.
But perhaps I don't understand Chomsky because I'm not smart enough and use commonly used expressions of speech to denote their signifier rather than semioticaly shifted meanings that had insights so deep they're unfathomable.
I could call Biden an Owl. But he's not a hawk. Nor is he a hack politician. He was genuinely, passionately critical in the piece I linked. Again, A- from the ACLU, pretty good in terms of street cred. So his it proves Chomsky's characterization leaves a lot to be desired in terms of thruthful representation.

DOes it hurt Chomsky's point that U.S. foreign policy gets out of hand and may contiue in the future while recognizing Bidens' nuance?
It shouldn't have to. So why mention it either way. WHy not just say "Joe Biden" and move on. He's classed with this secret hegemony thing and it's just not there. They guy is what he is. For good or ill and there's ill to be had, so why fabricate or exaggerate him other than to bolster the tone of your case?
It's dirty pool.
We don't see it much because we're on a weblog and there are very low stakes. But Chomsky should know better. And yet he chooses to go on with that type of thing.
WHich makes him a dick.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:32 PM on February 9, 2012


Beautiful Dreamer
posted by hortense at 9:51 PM on February 9, 2012


This is a great thread that has already managed to get me late for a 10am meeting. I will be back with some actual thoughts.
posted by infini at 10:04 PM on February 9, 2012


moorooka: is it wrong to say that these actions were "driven" by private interests that control the state?

Yes, it's wrong. Consider one of the most significant factors in the politics of the Middle East, US support for Israel. See languagehat's comment in particular, quoting Clark Clifford on Truman's decision to recognize Israel (against the strong recommendation of Marshall and the State Department). Where is the US self-interest (economic or otherwise) in supporting Israel against the hostility of three hundred million Arabs?

So why does the US support Israel, then? I'd suggest that it's the good-guys-vs.-bad-guys view of the world again. Howard Gardner describes this as the five-year-old's view of war:
Most five-year-olds have developed a Star Wars script. Life consists of a struggle between Good and Bad forces, with the Good generally triumphant. Many movies and television programs, and a few events in real life, can adequately be described in terms of such a script. Most historical events or works of literature, however, prove far more complex; to understand the causes of World War I or the U.S. Civil War, or to grasp the thrust of a novel by Hawthorne or Austen, one must weigh and integrate multiple factors and nuances. Students learn in class to give more complex explanations for such historical or literary events. Yet, when they are confronted with new and unfamiliar materials--say, a story from another culture, or a war in an unfamiliar part of the world--even capable students lapse to an elemental way of thinking. The Star Wars "good guy-bad guy" script is often invoked in such situations, even when it is manifestly inappropriate.
Smedleyman (regarding supervillains): Well to be fair: Dick Cheney.

Yeah, I'd have to say that the neoconservatives are in a position to do far greater harm than Chomsky. They still dominate Republican thinking on foreign policy. Michael Tomasky quotes Jacob Heilbrunn:
... it will take an insurgency inside the GOP itself to dislodge the neoconservatives. But whether the old guard in the GOP has the mettle for that battle is dubious. There has been no real attempt to create new generations of realists to replace the Scowcrofts and Bakers and Schlesingers. The contrast between the Nixon Center event honoring Brent Scowcroft in 2006 and the [American Enterprise Institute] dinner for Bernard Lewis was striking. At the former, elderly veterans of the Nixon, Ford, and Bush administrations reminisced about their glory days…. Meanwhile, at the AEI dinner, none of the neoconservatives displayed much doubt about their own influence.
posted by russilwvong at 11:35 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


So you're saying that if Reagan or George W. Bush had not been elected, everything would have turned out exactly the same.

To the bitter end Carter supported the Samoza[1] regime in Nicaragua that the Sandinistas were fighting against; he also was the president who saw in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan an opportunity for them to experience their own Vietnam and first armed the muhajedin.

Under Clinton, the US trained and armed the Croat forces that in 1995 fought Operation Storm, which reconquered those parts of Croatia that had been taken over by Serbian separatists, but which also ethnically cleansed these regions in the process. You could say those Serbs started it, but it's still morally questionable to have provided support for this.

Under Clinton there was also the continued support of the trade boycott with Iraq which did nothing to undermine Saddam Hussein's position, but which caused a lot of suffering for the civilian population of Iraq.

So yeah, it matters who is president, as I doubt a Mondale would've gotten himself involved in the Iran/Contra scandal -- that sort of treason is uniquely Republican, but liberal presidents will still pursue illiberal foreign policies and more than just the person needs to change.

[1] probably spelled incorrectly.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:53 PM on February 9, 2012


Yes, it's wrong. Consider one of the most significant factors in the politics of the Middle East, US support for Israel. See languagehat's comment in particular, quoting Clark Clifford on Truman's decision to recognize Israel (against the strong recommendation of Marshall and the State Department). Where is the US self-interest (economic or otherwise) in supporting Israel against the hostility of three hundred million Arabs?

The reasons for US support of Israel are the same as for US involvement elsewhere in the Middle East. It is a strategically critical region due to its geography and concentration of energy resources. Having Israel there represents gives the US, in effect, an enormously powerful, permanent military base in this region, as well as a valuable weapons market and testing laboratory, and an intermediary for intervention in other parts of the Third World. America took interest in Israel as a partner after the 1967 war when it humiliated Nasser and proved that it could be relied on as a counter to Arab nationalism. When the Shah was deposed in Iran Israel became even more important as a regional "pillar". There are obviously domestic factors at work as well but the US would reign Israel in if it ever had to pay a true economic cost for the relationship.
posted by moorooka at 12:07 AM on February 10, 2012


actually on this very subject Chomsky wrote an interesting critique of Mearshimer and Walt's assertion that the "Israel lobby" had undue influence on American foreign policy
posted by moorooka at 12:13 AM on February 10, 2012


I honestly haven't thought much about Chomsky in quite a while. When I "discovered" the Internet, back in 1998 or so, I happened upon a Chomsky site of some kind that had a few of his works published in their entirety, and I'd never read anything like it. I was hooked for a while, but slowly, Chomsky faded into the background.

I remembered Chomsky about a month ago after a Kunstlercast episode where Jim Kunstler described being on a radio show with Richard Heinberg, Nicole Foss of The Automatic Earth, and Noam Chomsky in which Chomsky defended oil industry shill Daniel Yergin's credentials during a brief discussion on climate change. Maybe it's just because I liked Kunstler's description of Yergin as "the oil industry's chief public relations prostitute", but I found it sad that the co-author of "Manufacturing Consent" and the author of so many works questioning the received wisdom of the American media-political-academic complex seemed to fall for Yergin's transparent bullshit. Worst of all was Chomsky's virtual shutdown of his overactive bullshit detector when it came to Yergin - the best reason he could give was that Yergin was respected, as was the Financial Times. This is the kind of response that Chomsky once delighted in demolishing. From a mind that filleted at book length the most sacred cows of American self-image over decades, it was pretty depressing. I didn't expect him to be an expert in energy issues, but still...

Here's a link to the transcript - Chomsky and Kunstler get into it around 51:18.

John Gray also wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian about Chomsky, claiming that he has become a reflection of the American exceptionalists in the GOP and elsewhere. While to them America is infallible (when lead by a Republican, at least), to Chomsky, America is the source of all evil. Both Chomsky and his opposites, though, are still trapped in an America-centric mode of thinking. I think there's a lot of validity to that criticism.
posted by jhandey at 3:02 AM on February 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


Ironmouth: The idea that people aren't getting exactly what they are voting for is crazy.

The American electoral system is just about the worst there is, from a voting theory perspective. It has the least chance of reflecting the preferences of voters, compared to other systems. This is not crazy. It is a fact.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 3:54 AM on February 10, 2012


Of course we would have got involved in some other country's business. Can you conceive of any countries that don't get mixed up in each others' affairs, particularly ones that are in close geographical proximity?

This is simply lazy. As I pointed out before, this is not just a question of inevitable missteps in foreign policy, the natural byproducts of statecraft. The United States is unique because it's the richest and best-armed country in the world. No other country has the kind of influence the United States is capable of. And more often than not, the U.S. government uses that influence, as I've already pointed out, to advance the interests of a small minority at the expense of the rest of the world. The United States' behavior goes way beyond squabbling with its neighbors and periodically approaches trying to rule the world.
posted by Misunderestimated at 6:01 AM on February 10, 2012


The United States' behavior goes way beyond squabbling with its neighbors and periodically approaches trying to rule the world.

Someone is going to run the world, it was the US, the USSR, the Japanese or the Nazis after the Brits couldn't hold it together. Eventually Brazil, China or India will step up; though mostly thu seem content to let us handle the real problems.
posted by humanfont at 6:41 AM on February 10, 2012


Someone is going to run the world

How silly of almost every political ideology to the left of Mussolini to assume otherwise.
posted by phrontist at 6:57 AM on February 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


John Gray also wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian about Chomsky, claiming that he has become a reflection of the American exceptionalists in the GOP and elsewhere. While to them America is infallible (when lead by a Republican, at least), to Chomsky, America is the source of all evil. Both Chomsky and his opposites, though, are still trapped in an America-centric mode of thinking. I think there's a lot of validity to that criticism.

John Gray's Black Mass has a strong critique of the neocons, one which would run against much of the Chomskian theories behind the Iraq War. Rather than seeing the Iraq War as only a venal grab for money and power, Gray sees the Iraq War as neoconservatism put into (failed) practice: as an attempt by Westerners to convert Iraq, at the point of a sword, to free market democracy.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:01 AM on February 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


(Clarification: Gray acknowledges the venal motives, which were assuredly there, but he also puts the neoconservative motives at the forefront.)
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:13 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sticherbeast: “John Gray's Black Mass has a strong critique of the neocons, one which would run against much of the Chomskian theories behind the Iraq War. Rather than seeing the Iraq War as only a venal grab for money and power, Gray sees the Iraq War as neoconservatism put into (failed) practice: as an attempt by Westerners to convert Iraq, at the point of a sword, to free market democracy. (Clarification: Gray acknowledges the venal motives, which were assuredly there, but he also puts the neoconservative motives at the forefront.)”


The thing is, that seems to me to be absolutely true. I was at Boston College at the time of the invasion, a hotbed of 'neoconservatism,' and it was clear in talking to everyone I knew that the neoconservative frame was aimed at created by any means necessary free market democracies around the world. If that meant 'they' (for any value of 'they') ended up despising us, no matter; the only thing that was important was to make the world safer and freer by spreading democracy. I have to admit that even now this cast of mind has some nobility to it, I think, in the sense that it is noble to want to do what you think is right no matter what people think of you for it. I have changed my opinion largely because I feel like I've had to admit to myself that humans are more fallible than that, and attempting such things on such a grand scale is so likely to go wrong that it's almost always a tremendous mistake, as lofty as one's aims may be.

Chomsky quite often makes the Marxist mistake when talking about things like the Iraq war. He'll point to the economic motives of the elite, with the sense that it's inevitable that those at the top were simply feeding the economic sectors to which they had connections – that is, again making the assumption that everything is always about economic class conflict. His developed version of this (which, as someone said above, is not really 'vulgar' Marxism) is similar in some ways to the realist notions about rational actors – the assumption that actors in society always know what's good for them economically, and always pursue those ends.

However, I think it's clear that the neoconservatives were distinctly not acting for what they thought were their own economic benefits. Oddly enough, I think it's worth paying attention to what they said and what they thought, and concentrating on that, in order to determine what their motives were. And reading Commentary magazine for a decade running up to the Iraq war, looking at the Weekly Standard regularly and paying attention to what was thought in those circles, the motivation was clear: an invasion of some oppressed nation in the Middle East was to our benefit, not because we could take taxpayer money to reap the benefits of their resources or whatever, but because what was wanted was stable democracy in the Arab world. If we freed them from a tyrannical dictator – thought the neoconservatives – they would thank us for it, and we could help them set up a democracy that could be a friend to us in the region, so we would not have to worry about governments aligning against us to support terrorists. And in general, the world would be a safer place. So the neoconservatives thought at the time; this is why Dick Cheney convinced George Bush to go to war in Iraq.
posted by koeselitz at 7:57 AM on February 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


If that meant 'they' (for any value of 'they') ended up despising us, no matter; the only thing that was important was to make the world safer and freer by spreading democracy. I have to admit that even now this cast of mind has some nobility to it, I think, in the sense that it is noble to want to do what you think is right no matter what people think of you for it. I have changed my opinion largely because I feel like I've had to admit to myself that humans are more fallible than that, and attempting such things on such a grand scale is so likely to go wrong that it's almost always a tremendous mistake, as lofty as one's aims may be.

I see what you mean about "nobility," but at the same time, it's no more noble than converting people to Christianity or Islam or whatever. The neocons had faith that they could create in Iraq the conditions necessary for the rise of free market democracy, in a form of inverted Trotskyism, and they felt that this would lead Iraq to political salvation.

Moving to your second point, I couldn't agree more. We must see those in charge as human beings with quirks, values, foibles, and failures. Our reasoning goes astray otherwise.

Too many of the theories about the Bush administration treat them as a group of hyperintelligent sociopaths. This is all too comforting to us - the idea that a hand is still at the wheel, that there was a perfectly logical reason for everything. As Gray and others have accurately pointed out, this is just the mirror image of US-centric narcissism, to say nothing of a weirdly strong faith in the governing abilities of the Bush administration. It's uncomfortable for us to deal with the fact that they were actually quite idealistic and clueless.

I remember the weird conspiracy theories after Osama bin Laden's death. People had believed that he had already been dead for years, but that the CIA had kept mum about it for super serious propaganda reasons. What confidence people must have in the government, if they think such a plan could be carried out! Too bad the reality was closer to the idea that the OBL had been well-hidden, that he had been probably unofficially protected by members of the ISI, that well-hidden people are generally hard to find, and that the US had been looking in all the wrong places before it just plain called off the mission to find him.

Only a fringe believed in that conspiracy, but that line of thinking isn't so common. The US is either all-powerful and benevolent, or it is all-powerful and malicious. No middle ground, or just lip service paid to the middle ground.

If we freed them from a tyrannical dictator – thought the neoconservatives – they would thank us for it, and we could help them set up a democracy that could be a friend to us in the region, so we would not have to worry about governments aligning against us to support terrorists.

Yup. This idea, and many others like it, were all over the place during the build-up to the Iraq War. They also thought that it would also be seen as a stick-and-carrot approach to your average disenfranchised person from "the Arab street" - play nice with us, and we'll replace your government with someone better; play mean with us, and we'll destroy you. The US as an Old Testament God, instead of as a bully.

Meanwhile, many of the protests at the time centered around the strangely misguided "No Blood for Oil" slogan, or slogans like it. Not only was the situation not even really about killing for oil in the first place, but the slogan wasn't even responsive to the hawks' interests. The hawks saw themselves as idealistic liberators. The hawks saw the doves as people who had called for intervention in places without vast stores of natural resources, such as in the former Yugoslavia, but who then changed their tune when Republicans were the ones leading the charge.

And so it went, back and forth, between those who saw the US as only acting in economic interests, and those who were acting with more emotion, idealism, and ignorance than anyone would like to admit. Not that there wasn't also plundering at work in the Iraq War, but it's a mistake to see it as the only motive, let alone even as the prime motive.

Understanding the neocons' motives is still important. It's not just an academic problem when you view events with blinkers. If you don't read the situation correctly, then you'll never connect with an outside audience.

Getting back to the "No Blood For Oil"-style line of protest, it was generally a failure because people did not really understand the opposition's wants and needs. It was as if you had a friend who was about to do something wrong, such as pursuing his friend's wife because he thinks he's falling in love with her and he thinks he'll treat her better than his friend ever did and blabbity-blah, and you tried to dissuade him by saying, "no, you just want to fuck her and dump her, don't do it." So he hears you completely misstate how he feels, insult him even, and it only emboldens him further, it makes him feel that what he's doing is all the more just. So then he does it anyway and it's a shitshow. Instead, you should have really looked at what was going on, at what his wants and needs are and what would really go wrong, so instead you'd say that it would be a crappy thing to do to a friend, and it would ruin all of their lives, and you never stay with the one you leave with, and you should just date someone else and not reinforce the crush, and so on.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:46 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


periodically approaches trying to rule the world.

Someone is going to run the world,


In defense of Ironmouth, there's a big difference between ruling the world and running it. The former suggests crushing fascistic power, the latter a more pragmatic assumption of responsibility. "Yes, as a matter of fact, we do need the trains to run more or less on time, because we need to get the rice from the fields to the food stores or else small children will starve." And so on.

Or as I put it in my half serious joke after spending a month in Germany where the trains, the buses, pretty much everything ran on time, was "You guys should be running the world, not ruling it."
posted by philip-random at 9:22 AM on February 10, 2012


koeselitz: The thing is, that seems to me to be absolutely true. I was at Boston College at the time of the invasion, a hotbed of 'neoconservatism,' and it was clear in talking to everyone I knew that the neoconservative frame was aimed at created by any means necessary free market democracies around the world. If that meant 'they' (for any value of 'they') ended up despising us, no matter; the only thing that was important was to make the world safer and freer by spreading democracy. I have to admit that even now this cast of mind has some nobility to it, I think, in the sense that it is noble to want to do what you think is right no matter what people think of you for it. I have changed my opinion largely because I feel like I've had to admit to myself that humans are more fallible than that, and attempting such things on such a grand scale is so likely to go wrong that it's almost always a tremendous mistake, as lofty as one's aims may be.

Right. Another bit of evidence in support of this view: Bill Keller's profile of Paul Wolfowitz.

Stanley Hoffmann, writing in 1967, describes this as a typical American failing, one which leads to political and moral disaster.
We do disagree on the subject of American objectives in Vietnam. Professor Chomsky believes that they were wicked; I do not. I believe that they were, in a way, far worse; for often the greatest threat to moderation and peace, and certainly the most insidious, comes from objectives that are couched in terms of fine principles in which the policy-maker fervently believes, yet that turn out to have no relation to political realities and can therefore be applied only by tortuous or brutal methods which broaden ad infinitum the gap between motives and effects. ...

What Vietnam proves, in my opinion, is not the wickedness of our intentions or objectives but the wickedness that results from irrelevant objectives and disembodied intentions, applied by hideous and massive means. It has its roots, intellectual and emotional, in elements of the American style that I have been at pains to analyze in detail. The Americans’ very conviction that their goals are good blinds them to the consequences of their acts.
Like I said, I have no problem with scathing denunciations of US foreign policy.

Motives are less important than actions and results.

Hoopo: I actually didn't find the neocons' approach to be too different than the Realist approach in practice.

To me, the difference is exemplified by the first Gulf War in 1991 and the recent Iraq War. The first one was a limited war (it left the Iraqi government in place), with diplomacy a major part of the effort (UN Security Council approval, a very large coalition of allies including the major Arab states). The second one was a self-righteous crusade based on fantasy and lies.

Realists argue that the US should back off and focus on solving its own problems at home. (The US role in Libya, where other countries took the lead, is consistent with this approach.) Neoconservatives think the US ought to establish permanent dominance in all regions of the world.

moorooka: Having Israel there represents gives the US, in effect, an enormously powerful, permanent military base in this region--

This doesn't make any sense. The US can't station troops in Israel--it would be far too inflammatory. Actual US bases in the region are in places like Bahrain, Turkey, and Kuwait. (The US does have a radar installation in Israel, but that's it.) Israeli troops didn't participate in the Gulf War--the Arab states would never have joined the coalition if Israel was in it. Israel isn't a political and military asset to the United States.
posted by russilwvong at 9:34 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


philip-random: What is the difference? What you're describing sounds like colonial paternalism.
posted by phrontist at 9:36 AM on February 10, 2012


Christ amighty. Are intelligent people really still dragging out that old platitude about well-intentioned plans for democracy promotion gone awry? I'd hoped that one had been put down sometime around '06.

Look, let's be clear on what kind of democracy the U.S. wants to see in the world. The U.S. is not supporting people's right to self-determination: the U.S. is supporting people's right to elect a leader who the U.S. has approved. "Democracy" might as well be substituted with "client state" in every political talking point for at least a century. The neocons might be sincere when they say they support the spread of democracy -- but their notion of "democracy" is not actual democracy. Never has been. Going back to the Greenwald piece, the U.S. has a terrible track record when it comes to restoring failed states -- because the U.S. doesn't actually give a shit about restoring failed states. You know what the U.S. is really successful at? Finding a way to turn a profit.
Because that's what the U.S. really cares about.

And again -- we're not talking about the U.S. running the world to keep the trains on time. We're talking about the U.S. going out of its way to advance its own economic interests on a global scale by thwarting actual democracy and killing people.
posted by Misunderestimated at 10:10 AM on February 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


John Gray's Black Mass has a strong critique of the neocons, one which would run against much of the Chomskian theories behind the Iraq War. Rather than seeing the Iraq War as only a venal grab for money and power, Gray sees the Iraq War as neoconservatism put into (failed) practice: as an attempt by Westerners to convert Iraq, at the point of a sword, to free market democracy.

Wouldn't Chomsky say that these are effectively the same? That sword-imposed "free market democracy" is the the means by which the U.S. does it's venal power-grabbing?
posted by phrontist at 10:11 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't Chomsky say that these are effectively the same? That sword-imposed "free market democracy" is the the means by which the U.S. does it's venal power-grabbing?

I can't speak for Chomsky himself, but not really, no. You even see the pushback in this thread against the idea that the Bush administration thought spreading free-market democracy was a good idea. It would seem that the "no blood for oil" viewpoint could never find that the neocons' repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly stated motives were sincere; instead, that viewpoint would find that they were only a pretext for plunder, in an era where you weren't allowed to simply march into other countries and take resources without an awfully good excuse.

Gray's argument acknowledges that there was corruption and venality at play in the Iraq War, but he places more emphasis on the idea that the neocons really did think that spreading free market democracy at the end of a sword was a good idea - the "natives" might not like the immediate results, you might need to corruptly pick the Western-friendly leaders you want so that it doesn't fail, but, fundamentally, they thought it was a good idea.

That these motives and actions sometimes contradict one another is not a weakness of the argument; it is a reflection of how people behave. Look at how the Soviet Union behaved, especially with regard to its satellite states. Corruption ran rampant within the USSR in order to keep the dream of Communism alive; this is deeply ironic, of course, and yet nonetheless it happened! While our system is not equivalent to the USSR, you could also say that crony capitalism, the corporate dominance of the government, etc. are all also contradictions of free market democracy, and yet here we are, alive while it's happening.

...

Misunderestimated, the fact that you're referring to the spread of democracy at the end of a sword as "good intentions...gone awry" shows that you are, in part, buying the neocons' framing of the issue. Not everyone wants a Western-style free market democracy, and it's not necessarily right at all to spread it at the end of a sword. Replace "free market democracy" with "Christianity" or "Islam" and see how that sounds.

The neocons didn't want a free market, democratic Iraq out of the unbridled goodness of their gold-pure hearts. For one, they saw the introduction of democracy as a key to stability. They agreed with a number of prominent thinkers, political scientists, and pundits, such as Fukuyama (who opposed the war), who had proclaimed that liberal democracy was the final and most stable phase of the nation-state. To take one example, they saw parades of dictators as a series of violent revolutions waiting to happen, whereas in a democratic state, the people feel more in control of their lives, and so they generally do not revolt quite so often or quite so vividly.

Another reason why the neocons did what they did was because they wanted the US to appear powerful, like an Old Testament God. The US had looked weak after 9/11. Meanwhile, this Osama bin Laden knucklehead had seemed like an inspirational figure to some, mostly disenfranchised and embittered young men. They felt that the US had to reassert its dominance, while also neutralizing the sway of OBL.

While many had wanted to go into Iraq anyhow, after 9/11, many felt that the moment was perfect to recapture some of America's greatness. Iraq was, according to their own harebrained theories, the perfect target for the spread of democracy, as Hussein was a much-hated secular despot with almost no regional support. The neocons figured that they could go into Iraq, get rid of the despot that everyone hated, replace him with a Western-friendly stooge, get some elections running, and through this, basically tell the world that you could either fight on the side of Osama bin Laden, where you get no money and daisy cutters keep falling on your head, or you could take arms on the side of the US, where we would fund your revolutions, get rid of your dictators, and basically be that cool uncle you always wanted.

In the fantasy world where the neocons would have gotten everything they had wanted, there would have been (very relatively) little to complain about. Iraq would be a democracy, maybe not a terrific one, probably a corrupt one, but at least it would be a stable one, better than life under Saddam at least. The US would get the sweetheart deals for oil, the Iraqis would get a cut of the profits as well, badabing, badaboom. The US gets what it wants, and the Iraqis are at least cowed enough to not throw off their shackles for a good long while.

Then reality intervened.

The neocons were very wrong, of course, but chief among their sins was ignorance, including ignorance of how other people behave. We were not, contrary to Cheney's expectations, greeted with flowers, as liberators. While the actual invasion of Iraq was relatively easy, the occupation was a million miles away from being a "cakewalk," as the people there did not want an invasion in the first place, people in general don't like being forced to do anything in particular, the war attracted more violence than it had drove away, the state came pre-fractured on a number of cultural and ethnic lines, the US was not effectively making people's lives better, the US couldn't install an effective new state, and so on.

So, yeah. Neocons. Just because they wanted to spread democracy, it doesn't mean that even their motives made them the good guys.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:13 AM on February 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


philip-random: What is the difference? What you're describing sounds like colonial paternalism.
posted by phrontist


Can you honestly see no difference between brute fascistic violence and, as you call it, "colonial paternalism"?

Paint me as colonial as you wish (I don't think of myself as such), but I do see value in effective first world engineering and infrastructure. Which, in my experience, modern day Germans are darned good at. Forcing it on some other culture -- not a good idea. Offering it -- I'd rather be generous than "correct" any day.
posted by philip-random at 11:46 AM on February 10, 2012


We're talking about the U.S. going out of its way to advance its own economic interests on a global scale by thwarting actual democracy and killing people.

Sure, the US--like every large and powerful state that has ever existed and ever will exist--has done it's fair share of that. Complaining about this as if it were some peculiar failing of the US political system is just absurd--which doesn't mean, of course, that one shouldn't complain about it or that one shouldn't do whatever one can to put political pressure on the government not to do this. But pretending that any imaginable rearrangement of the US political order would change this (or, worse, that such a change would be the utopian "end" that justifies the brutal slaughter of a revolutionary "means") is just willful naivete.

And nor is it true that this cold, hard realpolitik account accurately explains every single example of US foreign intervention. By no possible rational analysis, for example, was the US's incursion into Iraq a cunning move to "advance its own economic interests." It has not advanced those interests, it will not advance those interests in the future, and while some of the players involved in making the decision gave economic rationales for the action in order to rally political support for it, it really wasn't a prime part of the motivation for the people who crafted the policy. The Iraq war was, in fact, a highly "idealistic" war, with very little to hope in the way of "realpolitik" advantages and all kinds of lofty dreams about spreading democracy. That doesn't mean it wasn't a hideously stupid and criminal act, of course, but pretending that it was all about "a grab for oil"--when you have to tie yourself into a pretzel in order to rationalize how this war was supposed to make the US's access to the global oil market more secure--is just an exercise in confirmation bias.

The Vietnam War, similarly--a far greater and more appalling horror than the Iraq War--was fought for all kinds of abstract ideological reasons that had nothing at all to do with the evident economic interests of the US. What vital trade did we carry on with Vietnam? What market were we going to lose access to if we let it "fall to the communists"? Vietnam was a token in traditional great power influence-block politics. There certainly were "realpolitik" calculations involved in the US's involvement there, but few of them were particularly "economic" in nature.

And, conversely, the US has occasionally involved itself in foreign wars for entirely (well, largely) laudable reasons. Without the US both the Bosnian war and the Kosovo wars would have been even more ghastly and genocidal than they were--and the US had practically no economic interest at stake in those conflicts (far less than the Europeans who failed spectacularly to take action). The recent US involvement in Libya seems to me to have been entirely on the side of the people of Libya against a rather brutal dictator--a dictator of precisely the kind that people like Chomsky will always point to and say "see, see--look at the ugly thugs that the US is happy to deal with as long as they keep the oil flowing!"
posted by yoink at 11:51 AM on February 10, 2012


philip-random: In defense of Ironmouth, there's a big difference between ruling the world and running it. The former suggests crushing fascistic power, the latter a more pragmatic assumption of responsibility.

It sounds like you're suggesting governments like Germany should assume responsibility in a pragmatic way to run the world for the good of other nations. Did I misunderstand?
posted by phrontist at 12:33 PM on February 10, 2012


Well, first off, it was mostly a half-formulated half-assed joke. Second, I was more imagining a situation where, in repayment for its 20th Century atrocities, the German nation was assigned the task of applying its "talents" toward making systems run efficiently, toward helping the world run more efficiently. But not giving them any power in terms of deciding where their talents should be applied or to what end, because they'd kind of proven they weren't very good at that.

So, lots of responsibility, no power. That's all. Sorry for the sidetrack.
posted by philip-random at 12:40 PM on February 10, 2012


russilwvong

This doesn't make any sense. The US can't station troops in Israel--it would be far too inflammatory. Actual US bases in the region are in places like Bahrain, Turkey, and Kuwait. (The US does have a radar installation in Israel, but that's it.) Israeli troops didn't participate in the Gulf War--the Arab states would never have joined the coalition if Israel was in it. Israel isn't a political and military asset to the United States.

The US doesn't need to station troops in Israel. In Israel they have an extremely powerful military that can be relied upon to follow US orders and to never make common cause with anyone else against the US. Iran proved that other regional allies (like Egypt or Saudi Arabia) could be fickle - a revolution could turn them into more enemies, but Israel will always be Israel. It is a huge political asset to have what is effectively the 51st state sitting on the Middle East, just like it was a huge political asset to have Hawaii sitting in the middle of the Pacific. And it certainly is a military asset - middle-East peace and disarmament would be terrible for the American arms industry.

yoink

By no possible rational analysis, for example, was the US's incursion into Iraq a cunning move to "advance its own economic interests."

Oh please. It's not the only rational analysis but it's a hell of a lot more believable than that Bush and Cheney just loved democracy too much. And it sure as hell did advance the interests of oil and arms companies, at the expense of the US population as a whole.

The Iraq war was, in fact, a highly "idealistic" war, with very little to hope in the way of "realpolitik" advantages and all kinds of lofty dreams about spreading democracy.

Bullshit. Maybe you've forgotten, but the reason that Bush invaded Iraq was Weapons of Mass Destruction. Yes, they were transparent lies, and the government knew this. Are you also naive enough to think that they sincerely believed that America was threatened by Iraqi WMD? If not, why think that they sincerely believed that "democracy" crap (which they didn't really emphasize until after the WMD failed to show up).

What vital trade did we carry on with Vietnam? What market were we going to lose access to if we let it "fall to the communists"?

When Mao took over China in 1949, and the US "lost" the world's biggest country, they realised that they could lose the whole Asian region that they had won from Japan if communism was not arrested. The Vietnam War was based on the domino theory, if Vietnam succeeded in creating an independent socialist economy, then the same could happen in the Philippines and Indonesia or even India and Japan. The hostility to Cuba or the Allende regime in Chile was based on the same principle.

Without the US both the Bosnian war and the Kosovo wars would have been even more ghastly and genocidal than they were--and the US had practically no economic interest at stake in those conflicts (far less than the Europeans who failed spectacularly to take action).

That's very debatable. The US had the same economic interests in converting Yugoslavia (a major economy) from an independent socialist system into an open market as it did in the rest of Eastern Europe, and it's not surprising that NATO would get involved there. As for the intervention in Kosovo, when you have time, you might want to read up on the sequence of events of that particular humanitarian crusade.

The recent US involvement in Libya seems to me to have been entirely on the side of the people of Libya against a rather brutal dictator--a dictator of precisely the kind that people like Chomsky will always point to and say "see, see--look at the ugly thugs that the US is happy to deal with as long as they keep the oil flowing!"

Well, god forbid that Chomsky should say such a thing, even after the Libyan Revolution turns up evidence that CIA worked with Libya to torture terror suspects
posted by moorooka at 3:30 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


moorooka: It is a huge political asset to have what is effectively the 51st state sitting on the Middle East, just like it was a huge political asset to have Hawaii sitting in the middle of the Pacific. And it certainly is a military asset - middle-East peace and disarmament would be terrible for the American arms industry.

Your argument is both vague and unconvincing. (Israel as the 51st state?! Have you ever been there? And Israel, far from being a US puppet, is maddeningly difficult for the US to deal with; the US hasn't even been able to force Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank.) Quoting from the Mearsheimer/Walt paper that you referenced:
Since the October War in 1973, Washington has provided Israel with a level of support dwarfing that given to any other state. It has been the largest annual recipient of direct economic and military assistance since 1976, and is the largest recipient in total since World War Two, to the tune of well over $140 billion (in 2004 dollars).
Wasn't Chomsky saying earlier that US foreign policy in the Middle East is driven by the economic interests of the elite? Is it not true that the wealthy pay a large fraction of taxes in the US, and thus have a strong interest in driving taxes down (as we've seen for the last thirty years)?

Continuing:
One might argue that Israel was an asset during the Cold War. By serving as America’s proxy after 1967, it helped contain Soviet expansion in the region and inflicted humiliating defeats on Soviet clients like Egypt and Syria. It occasionally helped protect other US allies (like King Hussein of Jordan) and its military prowess forced Moscow to spend more on backing its own client states. It also provided useful intelligence about Soviet capabilities.

Backing Israel was not cheap, however, and it complicated America’s relations with the Arab world. For example, the decision to give $2.2 billion in emergency military aid during the October War triggered an Opec oil embargo that inflicted considerable damage on Western economies. For all that, Israel’s armed forces were not in a position to protect US interests in the region. The US could not, for example, rely on Israel when the Iranian Revolution in 1979 raised concerns about the security of oil supplies, and had to create its own Rapid Deployment Force instead.

The first Gulf War revealed the extent to which Israel was becoming a strategic burden. The US could not use Israeli bases without rupturing the anti-Iraq coalition, and had to divert resources (e.g. Patriot missile batteries) to prevent Tel Aviv doing anything that might harm the alliance against Saddam Hussein. History repeated itself in 2003: although Israel was eager for the US to attack Iraq, Bush could not ask it to help without triggering Arab opposition. So Israel stayed on the sidelines once again.
Mearsheimer and Walt don't mention the 1956 Suez Crisis, but in this case, Israel was acting on behalf of the UK and France--it was the US which forced Israel, the UK, and France out.

When Mao took over China in 1949, and the US "lost" the world's biggest country, they realised that they could lose the whole Asian region that they had won from Japan if communism was not arrested. The Vietnam War was based on the domino theory, if Vietnam succeeded in creating an independent socialist economy, then the same could happen in the Philippines and Indonesia or even India and Japan.

This seems like an arbitrarily flexible line of argument. What would you accept as evidence that the US feared Chinese domination of Asia, as opposed to economic losses for the elite?
posted by russilwvong at 4:01 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Bullshit. Maybe you've forgotten, but the reason that Bush invaded Iraq was Weapons of Mass Destruction. Yes, they were transparent lies, and the government knew this. Are you also naive enough to think that they sincerely believed that America was threatened by Iraqi WMD? If not, why think that they sincerely believed that "democracy" crap (which they didn't really emphasize until after the WMD failed to show up).

You're confusing "how they sold the war to the US people" with "why they prosecuted the war." Those are not the same thing. Yes, the lies about WMD were transparent lies. But the reason they wanted the war was not "to make US oil companies rich." The war did not do that, has not done that, will not do that. When Iraq auctioned off 11 oil fields a few years ago (not, of course, that it's selling them in their entirety, but selling the right to develop them) exactly one of those fields went to a US company. US subcontractors have certainly been making money (drilling, support services etc.) but are you really suggesting that this war was fought so that a bunch of down-chain support companies could get rich? Do you think that the US is in an economically better position, over all, because of the Iraq War?

The Vietnam War was based on the domino theory

Yes, exactly. Classic Big Power "sphere of influence" stuff--but not about any kind of direct "economic" interests. The "domino theory" was ALL about "fighting communism." It was entirely ideological. It was also deeply deluded, of course--but that's another issue.

Yugoslavia (a major economy)

When you try to call Yugoslavia a "major economy" to find some (desperate) way to keep your hypothesis alive, then it's time to abandon the hypothesis. And even if the Yugoslavian economy had been a "major" concern for the US, where was the "purely economic" rationale for attempting to prevent the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims? Why not simply throw up one's hands, let Milosevic ethnically cleanse Bosnia and happily keep on doing boffo business with a new Greater Serbia? And the notion that the Bosnian war was somehow about converting a "socialist" economy to an "open market" one is so hilariously uninformed I don't know where to begin in responding to it.

Well, god forbid that Chomsky should say such a thing, even after the Libyan Revolution turns up evidence that CIA worked with Libya to torture terror suspects

Um, try to keep up: my point was that he would be right to say such a thing. Understand? Therefore you ought to be happy that the US participated in the overthrow of Gaddafi. No? Although, I'm sure you're not. I'm sure you firmly believe that when the US colludes with Gaddafi, then they're doing it because it's the obvious thing that they would do in order to advance their purely economic interests. And similarly, when they help overthrow Gaddafi, then they're doing that because it's the obvious thing that they would do in order to advance their purely economic interests. Because you have a conclusion, dammit, and it doesn't much matter what the facts are, they're going to be forced to fit that conclusion.
posted by yoink at 4:10 PM on February 10, 2012


Russilvwong: "What would you accept as evidence that the US feared Chinese domination of Asia, as opposed to economic losses for the elite?"
Why are these mutually contradictory?

Why do the economic interests of the elite have to be a first order concern? Say, preserving geopolitical dominance is a goal, one could argue, exactly because it is a very effective mechanism for preserving elite profits. Similarly ideology and ideological motives develop around the basic concerns of the ruling classes, not in a straightforward and premeditated way (well not always) but a validatory way nonetheless, because of the ethical and material incentives and disincentives that usefulness to powerful interests provides. And yes, that can't be the whole picture, but to make the kind of points Chomsky is making it doesn't have to be...

Having said that I'm pretty sure that
posted by talos at 5:21 PM on February 10, 2012


... Chomsky would be very reluctant to agree with the statement that the only motive is the immediate profit motive for the elites. Preserving relations of power for example, could be the other...
posted by talos at 5:25 PM on February 10, 2012


moorooka: "If not, why think that they sincerely believed that "democracy" crap (which they didn't really emphasize until after the WMD failed to show up)."

I have twenty years of back issues of Commentary magazine that will prove you wrong on this. The neoconservatives were most certainly talking about "this 'democracy' crap" for a long, long time before Iraq. Spreading democracy, and the fact that Viet Nam was a failure to spread democracy that we should set right, was pretty much the central theme of the neoconservative movement from its inception in the 1960's.
posted by koeselitz at 7:22 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


It sounds like you're suggesting governments like Germany should assume responsibility in a pragmatic way to run the world for the good of other nations. Did I misunderstand?

Well, that's not so far from the truth. Basically the EU is trying to dump its economic problems in Germany's lap, on a theory similar to 'you ran your country prudently and are now the richest and most successful nation in europe, so we would like you to a) finance and b) administer the economic recovery project for the rest of the EU (since you refuse to endorse the idea of an overarching federal European government that would issue Eurobonds, to which you would be the largest net contributor for the foreseeable future).' Germany's government would like everyone else in Europe to run their economies more like Germany does, but for obvious reasons they're reluctant to assert this too baldly.

The US had the same economic interests in converting Yugoslavia (a major economy) from an independent socialist system into an open market as it did in the rest of Eastern Europe, and it's not surprising that NATO would get involved there.

Not a major economy by any means, and NATO didn't get involved until people in Europe were practically screaming about the ongoing humanitarian disaster while European leaders fervently wished it would sort of de-escalate itself like it did after the 10-day war. NATO didn't get involved until the Serbs had been chewing up the Croats and then the Bosnian Muslims for 2-3 years.
posted by anigbrowl at 7:27 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Your argument is both vague and unconvincing. (Israel as the 51st state?! Have you ever been there? And Israel, far from being a US puppet, is maddeningly difficult for the US to deal with; the US hasn't even been able to force Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank.)

By 51st state I mean that it is almost completely dependent on the US. And the US could very easily force Israel to stop building settlements (as happened in the Sinai) if the US wanted to make this a condition of Israel's aid. The US does not actually care about the settlements.

Is it not true that the wealthy pay a large fraction of taxes in the US, and thus have a strong interest in driving taxes down (as we've seen for the last thirty years)?

Yes but firstly, since Reagan the US has had a policy of not actually paying for its global empire - it's all on credit, so the rich dont need to worry about actually paying for it. Plus all of this spending constitutes a major subsidy to critical industries, and as long as the fraction of benefit that the elites receive exceeds the fraction that they pay, then they're going to be okay with it.

I notice that you're quoting the Mearshimer article at length. I think Chomsky's critique of this article was very interesting and hope you read it as well. The special Israel-US relationship dates from the 1967 war, the Suez crisis belongs to an earlier period. Israel's actions in the 1991 Gulf War just prove the extent to which it had become a US client - the US could simply order Israel to absorb Iraqi scuds without retaliating.

This seems like an arbitrarily flexible line of argument. What would you accept as evidence that the US feared Chinese domination of Asia, as opposed to economic losses for the elite?

They feared "Communism", not "Chinese domination" as such. The Pentagon Papers reference numerous government reports, e.g. NSC 124/2


2. Communist domination, by whatever means, of all Southeast Asia would seriously endanger in the short term, and critically endanger in the longer term, United States security interests.

a. The loss of any of the countries of Southeast Asia to communist control as a consequence of overt or covert Chinese Communist aggression would have critical psychological, political and economic consequences. In the absence of effective and timely counteraction, the loss of any single country would probably lead to relatively swift submission to or an alignment with communism by the remaining countries of this group. Furthermore, an alignment with communism of the rest of Southeast Asia and India, and in the longer term, of the Middle East (with the probable exceptions of at least Pakistan and Turkey) would in all probability progressively follow. Such widespread alignment would endanger the stability and security of Europe.

b. Communist control of all of Southeast Asia would render the U.S. position in the Pacific offshore island chain precarious and would seriously jeopardize fundamental U.S. security interests in the Far East.

c. Southeast Asia, especially Malaya and Indonesia, is the principal world source of natural rubber and tin, and a producer of petroleum and other strategically important commodities. The rice exports of Burma and Thailand are critically important to Malaya, Ceylon and Hong Kong and are of considerable significance to Japan and India, all important areas of free Asia.

d. The loss of Southeast Asia, especially of Malaya and Indonesia, could result in such economic and political pressures in Japan as to make it extremely difficult to prevent Japan's eventual accommodation to communism.


posted by moorooka at 9:54 PM on February 10, 2012


Anyone who is insisting that there was no economic beneficiaries in the recent US interventions needs to review war profiteering. The us invasion of Iraq was clearly economic, with necon rationalizations. Haliburton, KBR, Blackwater, etc. that list goes on. The "democracy" part is the propaganda. Chomsky rightly points out that these conflicts are all driven by economic interest first, with "democracy", "domino theory", etc. being the propaganda that the neocons, with the support of the US media report out to the population.
posted by herda05 at 10:08 PM on February 10, 2012


yoink

When Iraq auctioned off 11 oil fields a few years ago (not, of course, that it's selling them in their entirety, but selling the right to develop them) exactly one of those fields went to a US company. US subcontractors have certainly been making money (drilling, support services etc.) but are you really suggesting that this war was fought so that a bunch of down-chain support companies could get rich? Do you think that the US is in an economically better position, over all, because of the Iraq War?

The Iraq War didn't turn out how the neocons planned, but it is interesting to look into Bremmer's program for mass-privatization which was US occupation policy. I don't believe that the war was fought just for the hundreds of billions of unaudited no-bid contracts but I also find it impossible to believe that the opportunity to funnel enormous sums of money into the military-industrial complex wasn't a major point in the war's favor, especially considering the corrupt nature of the Bush-Cheney administration. Although the Iraq War was cripplingly expensive and may have weakened the US overall, it was certainly beneficial for a small class with strong political connections.

When you try to call Yugoslavia a "major economy" to find some (desperate) way to keep your hypothesis alive, then it's time to abandon the hypothesis. And even if the Yugoslavian economy had been a "major" concern for the US, where was the "purely economic" rationale for attempting to prevent the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims? Why not simply throw up one's hands, let Milosevic ethnically cleanse Bosnia and happily keep on doing boffo business with a new Greater Serbia? And the notion that the Bosnian war was somehow about converting a "socialist" economy to an "open market" one is so hilariously uninformed I don't know where to begin in responding to it.

I dont mean that the Bosnian War was all about converting a socialist economy to a capitalist economy - but this was its context. By major economy I mean it is a major economy in a way that say, Rwanda is not. Yugoslavia was a relatively successful socialist economy that developed independently of the rest of the Eastern Bloc. It split apart with its wealthier regions, Slovenia and Croatia, first seceding from the federation, and moving toward Europe, at the same time as the countries of Eastern Bloc were doing the same. Shifting half a continent from communism to capitalism does have economic implications, and NATO, which had been an anti-Soviet defensive organization for more than 40 years, was now set to expand eastwards. Milosevic's Yugoslavia represented something of a rump, one of the only remaining parts of Europe resistant to political or economic reform.

Um, try to keep up: my point was that he would be right to say such a thing. Understand? Therefore you ought to be happy that the US participated in the overthrow of Gaddafi.

Just because somebody opposes US collusion with a dictator to torture suspects does not mean that that same person needs to support the US bombing a country in a war against the same dictator. Anyway if you want to read Chomsky on Libya instead of just using your imagination, you can
posted by moorooka at 10:49 PM on February 10, 2012


herda05: "Anyone who is insisting that there was no economic beneficiaries in the recent US interventions needs to review war profiteering. The us invasion of Iraq was clearly economic, with necon rationalizations. Haliburton, KBR, Blackwater, etc. that list goes on. The "democracy" part is the propaganda. Chomsky rightly points out that these conflicts are all driven by economic interest first, with "democracy", "domino theory", etc. being the propaganda that the neocons, with the support of the US media report out to the population."

Nobody has insisted that there was no war profiteering during the Iraq war; but it clearly wasn't the point from the eyes of neoconservatives. Or are you really going to claim that they are some kind of illuminati-level group capable of planning in secret what all ten thousand or so of their adherents will say and do whilst also coordinating propaganda efforts?

Sometimes a stupid bunch of people is just a stupid bunch if people. Marx and Chomsky are wrong; every single event is not necessarily an economic conspiracy of the monied elites. Sometimes an event is jut a massive mistake perpetrated by idiots.

Also, do you really think that no one has ever earnestly believed in 'domino theory' - that it was always and only a propaganda tool? That seems like another example if a very real mistake that a lot of people made.
posted by koeselitz at 10:55 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


every single event is not necessarily an economic conspiracy of the monied elites.

The argument is that elite interests guide foreign policy-making

not that "every single event is an economic conspiracy of the monied elite".
posted by moorooka at 11:04 PM on February 10, 2012


Milosevic's Yugoslavia represented something of a rump, one of the only remaining parts of Europe resistant to political or economic reform.

FFS Moorooka, he was slaughetring people, dumping them in mass graves, and shelling their parliamentary buildings. Nobody gave a flying fuck about the fact that Yugoslavia used to be communist; Western heads of government liked Marshall Tito and they all went to his funeral because he was the exact opposite of Slobodan Milosevic.

NATO didn't remove Milosevic because he represented a threat to the elite power structure, they removed him because he was a genocidal asshole, and they had to be shamed into taking action, at that. He was making war on his neighbors for 3 years before NATO was able to agree that the time for stiffly-worded letters had passed - and even then their action was motivated by the increasingly obvious refugee problem he was imposing on countries outside the former Yugoslavia.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:05 PM on February 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


NATO didn't remove Milosevic because he represented a threat to the elite power structure, they removed him because he was a genocidal asshole, and they had to be shamed into taking action, at that. He was making war on his neighbors for 3 years before NATO was able to agree that the time for stiffly-worded letters had passed - and even then their action was motivated by the increasingly obvious refugee problem he was imposing on countries outside the former Yugoslavia.

They shelled the Bosnian Serbs and cut a deal with Milosevic at Dayton, where they neglected to address the matter of Kosovo. They then supported the KLA in its armed independence campaign within Yugoslavia, and after bombing Yugoslavia for not accepting the bizarre Ramboulliet ultimatum (even though he never accepted it in the end anyway), NATO stood by while the KLA ethnically cleansed Kosovo of its Serbian population. If Milosevic's actions prior to NATO's 1999 bombing were "genocidal" then so were Turkey's contemporaneous actions against the Kurdish insurrection which were happening inside NATO's borders.
posted by moorooka at 11:23 PM on February 10, 2012


Oh, well that makes it all OK then.

You know, Turkey's treatment of the Kurds is total bullshit, as is the west's general lack of responsiveness to their concerns, at least until the US carved them out some territory in Northern Iraq to make up for it. But 'well xxxx does it too' is the logic of elementary schoolers. Unfortunately for the Kurds, turkey is a) a fuck of a lot larger and better armed than any of the factions in Yugoslavia were and b) a geographically convenient buffer between europe and the Middle East. So the failure to do something about the plight of the Kurds at the same time does not invalidate the fact that Milosevic was a genocidal asshole. Your attempts to rehabilitate Milosevic by shoehorning him into the role of some kind of victim of power-hungry western elites is just completely asinine.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:35 PM on February 10, 2012


So the failure to do something about the plight of the Kurds at the same time does not invalidate the fact that Milosevic was a genocidal asshole.

All I said was that if Milosevic's actions in Kosovo amounted to "genocide" then so did the actions of Turkey in Kurdistan. There wasn't a "failure" to do something about Turkey, there was complicity. Turkey was a member of NATO, the same alliance that undertook "humanitarian" intervention in Yugoslavia. I am not attempting to rehabilitate Milosevic but it suggests that had Yugoslavia also been a member of NATO then he might have been able to get away with it.
posted by moorooka at 12:11 AM on February 11, 2012


If this is true:

The US had the same economic interests in converting Yugoslavia (a major economy) from an independent socialist system into an open market as it did in the rest of Eastern Europe, and it's not surprising that NATO would get involved there.

...then why wait several years while Milosevic drove tanks over Croatia and Bosnia? As for getting away with things, there's a reason that Turkey isn't able to join the EU, and won't be for many years to come. This, despite the fact that having Turkey in the EU would probably be a big economic boost for all involved.
posted by anigbrowl at 12:23 AM on February 11, 2012


They targeted the Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia, not Milosevic. They didn't target him directly until 1999, when he refused a demand by NATO to allow their military forces access over the whole country. By that stage it was clear that his country was an old-style Eastern European hold out, not going down the same path of reform as Slovenia and Croatia. It was also clear that Albright and company had decided that there would be a war, why else demand something that they knew could only be refused?
posted by moorooka at 1:07 AM on February 11, 2012


My god it's full of strawmen....

Noam my mind is going....
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 1:10 AM on February 11, 2012


I'll just put this here.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 1:11 AM on February 11, 2012


There's also this if you don't feel like reading the book.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 1:32 AM on February 11, 2012


Moorooka, that is so much BS. I can't believe I've been trying to have a serious conversation with someone painting Slobodan Milosevic as the victim of wicked imperialists, so I'm going to unplug from this now. At this rate you're going to be leaping to Bashar Assad's defense next.
posted by anigbrowl at 3:02 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


AElfwine, every single person participating in this thread has read that book.

Serously, the most annoying thing about criticizing Chomksy is having fanboys tell you 'oh, but you should read Manufacturing Consent!' - as if nobody who's read Chomsky carefully could possibly have a critical word to say about him.

You should read Russil Wvong's article on Chomsky, and then we can talk about it.
posted by koeselitz at 8:37 AM on February 11, 2012


Not a fanboy of Chomsky, koeslitz, I just was just linking to some of Chomsky's material that I have read/watched in the past. I linked to the first one, entitled Philosophers and Public Philosophy, because in it one gets a pretty early look at what was going on in Chomsky's head. The second one I thought was interesting not because I didn't think people hadn't read the book(they obviously had as that's been a main part of the discussion in this thread) but because it is a documentary exploring the ideas proposed in the book. I thought some people might enjoy watching it. My bad.

As far as Chomsky himself is concerned, while he certainly had a big influence on the development of my thinking when I was in college, I haven't read or paid attention to him in years. People are correct in pointing out he's not an objective observer, but as someone else responded upthread that really doesn't do much to discredit his actual ideas.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 9:43 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sorry. Knee-jerk antagonism. Please to forgive.
posted by koeselitz at 9:48 AM on February 11, 2012


Put another way, almost no one is arguing against Manufacturing Consent itself, let alone as some irreducible whole which we must either accept 100% or reject 100%. The main arguments I'm seeing against Chomsky are that 1) he is not as reliable as advertised when it comes to the deployment of facts, 2) his focus on the US is the mirror image of, and not the antidote to, American narcissism, and 3) the flaws in his work come to a head in his flawed analysis of the Iraq War.

I'm not particularly bothered by 1); it just means that you can't take Chomsky as gospel. He is oversympathetic to some regimes which do not deserve our sympathy, but this can be corrected for the reader by further research.

The problem with 2) has only become obvious in recent years. Chomsky's argument that it was his duty as an American to point out American atrocities made sense, but in an increasingly multipolar world, his analysis is growing weaker.

I think 3) is the real kicker. Chomsky has always been a valuable but flawed thinker, and as the world grows past his referents, the flaws are becoming more evident.

...

Getting back to the Iraq War proper, koeselitz's point about Commentary is spot on. The idea that the people behind the Iraq War were not sincere in their beliefs beggars belief. It's like saying the USSR didn't really care about spreading Communism, since after all it had also tried to extract value from its satellite states. The idea that the neocons didn't actually believe what they repeatedly said they believed demands us to believe that, for decades, they had entire journals, schools of thought, think tanks, and so forth dedicated to a shell game meant only for public consumption. It's about as believable as thinking the state of Hawaii had been, for decades, carrying out a conspiracy to trick the world into thinking that Obama was an American citizen. The fact that there was also corruption and profiteering does not mean that they didn't also think they were doing the wise, if not outright righteous, thing. You would be astonished at what people are capable of justifying to themselves.

...

People are correct in pointing out he's not an objective observer, but as someone else responded upthread that really doesn't do much to discredit his actual ideas.

By and large, the criticism isn't that he's partisan, the criticism is that he's been wrong about some things. It happens to the best of us, including Noam Chomsky. It doesn't mean that he hasn't also written other things which were correct.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:54 AM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


No problem koeselitz I'm partially responsible for not being more clear in my comment.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 10:11 AM on February 11, 2012


The other big problem with Chomsky is that his thinking isn't coupled with experience.

Take someone like John Stockwell as his opposite number in terms of criticism.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:26 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Moorooka, that is so much BS. I can't believe I've been trying to have a serious conversation with someone painting Slobodan Milosevic as the victim of wicked imperialists, so I'm going to unplug from this now. At this rate you're going to be leaping to Bashar Assad's defense next.

I'm not doing this, just pointing out a few facts (e.g. the terms presented at Rambouillet) and you're free to dispute them if I'm wrong. Pretending that I'm a milosevic sympathizer is a false and dishonest rejoinder.
posted by moorooka at 2:37 PM on February 11, 2012


I do think there's a lot of straw man stuff going on here too. People are criticizing what they assume to be Chomsky's simplistic analysis of the Iraq war without actually bothering to read what the man wrote, let alone cite what they want to criticize. Chomsky is an enormously prolific author and trying to get an idea by just reading a couple of lazy second-hand Internet critiques won't cut it
posted by moorooka at 2:42 PM on February 11, 2012


moorooka: “People are criticizing what they assume to be Chomsky's simplistic analysis of the Iraq war without actually bothering to read what the man wrote, let alone cite what they want to criticize.”

It's unfair to claim that we haven't read Chomsky; I think it's pretty clear that we have, else we wouldn't have fully-formed ideas about what he has to say.

But it is fair to say we should be citing him more. I will say, however, that we aren't the only ones who aren't citing him. Neither are you.
posted by koeselitz at 3:03 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Like everyone else here, I've read plenty of Chomsky. If you think the arguments against him would be well countered by using Chomsky's own words, then go for it.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:30 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Koeslitz, you're characterization being that "every single event is a conspiracy of the monied elite" is not one you could take from a proper honest reading. Chomsky's writings on the Iraq war are easy to google and you'll probably find them more nuanced than you're giving them credit for. However it's true that he gives (with good reason) pretty short shrift to neocon proclamations for their love of "democracy" (which some here seem to think is the actual reason for the Iraq war - the neocons just loved "democracy" so much they had to cook up a fake WMD pretext and invade)
posted by moorooka at 4:56 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


moorooka: By 51st state I mean that it is almost completely dependent on the US. And the US could very easily force Israel to stop building settlements (as happened in the Sinai) if the US wanted to make this a condition of Israel's aid. The US does not actually care about the settlements.

What would it take to convince you that in fact US policymakers have been trying extremely hard to get Israel to stop building settlements, but have failed?

There's been a number of public confrontations between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government over the last couple years. Yedioth Ahronoth, reporting on a March 2010 visit by Joe Biden:
While standing in front of the cameras, the U.S. vice president made an effort to smile at Binyamin Netanyahu even after having learned on Tuesday that the Interior Ministry had approved plans to build 1,600 housing units in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo. But in closed conversations, Joe Biden took an entirely different tone. ...

People who heard what Biden said were stunned. “This is starting to get dangerous for us,” Biden castigated his interlocutors. “What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.”

The vice president told his Israeli hosts that since many people in the Muslim world perceived a connection between Israel’s actions and US policy, any decision about construction that undermines Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem could have an impact on the personal safety of American troops fighting against Islamic terrorism.

... Last night, after Biden publicly attacked Israel during his visit to Ramallah and spoke out furiously against it behind closed doors, Netanyahu’s aides began to focus their attention on another formidable challenge: to persuade the vice president of the United States to soften his tone in the speech he delivers today at Tel Aviv University.

The problem is that U.S. administration officials didn’t buy the explanation that Netanyahu did not know in advance. Officials in both the White House and the State Department accused Israel of having set Biden up.
Aluf Benn of Haaretz:
Netanyahu apologized for the "bad timing" of the housing announcement, but he vowed to keep building in East Jerusalem. Knowing that concessions in the disputed city could bring down the Israeli coalition, Obama was asking Netanyahu to choose between American support or his right-wing political partners.

And Netanyahu turned right. He rallied American Jewish groups against the administration's "dressing down," anticipating a warm welcome at the AIPAC annual conference next week in Washington. His ambassador in Washington called the crisis "the worst in American-Israeli relations since 1975," when then–secretary of state Henry Kissinger announced a "reassessment" of the relationship. And even Netanyahu's key coalition member from the center-left, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, backed the prime minister, securing the prime minister's political position at home.

So now it's down to a high-stakes test of wills: will Netanyahu, following his show of partisanship, concede on settlement building—or will Obama back down under the pro-Israel-lobby pressure? Isolating Israel could push it to attack Iran's nuclear plants. But caving to Israel could strengthen anti-American feelings throughout the Middle East. It's not clear who will blink first, but it's obvious that, where once there was an understanding, today there is only a contest.
International politics is often a battle of wills. It may seem strange, but even when the US is providing huge amounts of aid to a particular regime, it may not be able to impose its will on that regime. In Adventures in Chaos, Douglas Macdonald describes how the US was unable to pressure China under Chiang Kai-Shek and South Vietnam under Diem to institute much-needed reforms. "Do what we say, or we'll cut you off" turns out to be surprisingly ineffective as a way of getting another country to do what you want--especially when they have a lobby group (the China Lobby in Chiang's case, the Israel Lobby in Netanyahu's case) which can exert counter-pressure on your political system.

Frankly, describing Israel as a reliable and biddable ally of the US seems wholly disconnected from reality.
posted by russilwvong at 11:05 PM on February 11, 2012


talos: Why do the economic interests of the elite have to be a first order concern? Say, preserving geopolitical dominance is a goal, one could argue, exactly because it is a very effective mechanism for preserving elite profits. Similarly ideology and ideological motives develop around the basic concerns of the ruling classes--

Good question. My view is that in foreign policy, motives are difficult to discern, and from a moral point of view, less important than actions and consequences. A supposedly unselfish aim which unleashes tremendous death and destruction is much worse than a more selfish and limited objective carried out in a prudent and proportionate way. Consider the Marshall Plan: it was both in the interests of the US, and of great benefit to Western Europe.

That said, one of Chomsky's fundamental contentions is that the Cold War was a phony war, that the real conflict was not between the US and the Soviet Union, but between the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe on the one hand, and between the US and the Third World on the other hand. And this is completely wrong. Carolyn Eisenberg pointed out that we can read the secret documents ourselves: we can see that US policymakers did indeed fear the Soviet Union, and based their policies on the need to contain the expansion of Soviet power. Chomsky's a brilliant man, so of course he can come up with a plausible theory to explain away all the evidence (something about self-brainwashing)--but by the time he's done, you end up with a very odd view of history. It's not a conspiracy theory, exactly, but it resembles a conspiracy theory, in that it dismisses a tremendous amount of evidence that plainly contradicts the theory.

I think there's more to say about how US foreign policy really works. Usually it reacts to events, rather than pursuing some long-term plan; it's hampered by the low (even primitive) level of understanding of foreign policy, both among the general public and even within the bureaucracy; there's usually strong differences of opinion about what to do, argued out in planning papers; and there's often a disconnect from the realities of a particular situation. I'm not really sure how to convey this in a concise way. George Kennan described it as a huge dinosaur with very little intelligence, capable of causing tremendous destruction (not just in Vietnam and Iraq, but in the first and second World Wars):
I sometimes wonder whether in this respect a democracy is not uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin: he lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath — in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat. You wonder whether it would not have been wiser for him to have taken a little more interest in what was going on at an earlier date and to have seen whether he could have prevented some of these situations from arising instead of proceeding from an undiscriminating indifference to a holy wrath equally undiscriminating.
posted by russilwvong at 11:40 PM on February 11, 2012


Can you explain more about what you mean by saying Chomsky "thought his dog should eat at the table and use a knife and fork"?

What I meant to suggest in that comment is that in Chomsky's worldview if you aren't practicing Moral Universalism then you are acting like a bad dog. A critic of Chomsky might suggest that expecting state actors to apply Moral Universalism is like expecting a dog to eat at the table.

Now imagine Chomsky hitting US policy makers on the nose with a rolled up paper and rubbing their nose in blowback. It is quite mean of him and why is he always defending cats. Cats kill birds.
posted by vicx at 2:02 AM on February 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Quite simply russilwvong, the US has never made ending the settlements a condition of US aid to Israel. That's why I say they don't really care; they're happy to criticize the settlements in words but not to actually take actions to force Israel to stop.

Regarding the cold war, I think you're missing the point. US actions in southeast Asia and central America were not directed at Russia, they were directed at indigenous forces in these countries, and vice versa for the USSR in Hungary and Afghanistan.

Really the proposition that America is a well meaning but clumsy dinosaur going around "accidentally" committing war crimes out of the goodness of its goofball heart is more far fetched than that it is an imperial power that deliberately murders hundreds of thousands all over the world for its own interests, like every other superpower that has ever existed.
posted by moorooka at 1:24 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Vicx, Chomsky doesn't "expect" state actors to behave morally, quite the opposite. It's his critics who can't bring themselves to imagine their pet state behaving immorally; evil acts are just badly executed attempts at doing good.
posted by moorooka at 1:37 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Well-meaning but clumsy"? A better characterization would be powerfully destructive, but brainless. Blindness and fanaticism are other common criticisms. Don't imagine that Chomsky has a monopoly on recognizing the brutality of American crimes. Hans Morgenthau, writing in 1966:
I have spoken of the prestige of the nation and of the prestige of those who govern it, that is, of the mental image which others have of us. Yet there is another kind of prestige: the image we have of ourselves. That image will suffer grievous blemishes as we get ever more deeply involved in the war in Vietnam. This war is a guerrilla war, and such a war, supported or at least not opposed by the indigenous population, can only be won by the indiscriminate killing of everybody in sight, that is, by genocide. The Germans proved that during the Second World War in occupied Europe, and they were prevented from accomplishing their task only because they were defeated in the field. The logic of the issue we are facing in Vietnam has already driven us onto the same path. We have tortured and killed prisoners; we have embarked upon a scorched-earth policy by destroying villages and forests; we have killed combatants and non-combatants without discrimination because discrimination is impossible. And this is only the beginning. For the logic of guerrilla war leaves us no choice. We must go on torturing, killing, and burning, and the more deeply we get involved in this war, the more there will be of it.
posted by russilwvong at 2:00 PM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Powerfully destructive, yes. But "brainless"? As in, "just too stupid to know that carpet bombing villagers is immoral"?

(Don't know why you think I'd credit Chomsky with a "monopoly" on recognizing US brutality)
posted by moorooka at 6:57 PM on February 13, 2012


This war is a guerrilla war, and such a war, supported or at least not opposed by the indigenous population, can only be won by the indiscriminate killing of everybody in sight, that is, by genocide. The Germans proved that during the Second World War in occupied Europe...

Sounds like Chomsky had been reading him some Morgenthau when he wrote:

ThreeTwo times in a generation ten years American technology has laid waste a helpless Asian Arab country. This fact should be seared into the consciousness of every American. A person not obsessed with this realization is living in a world of fantasy...What have we done? There is little doubt that were this resistance to collapse(Vietnamese)(Afghani), the domestic furor over the war would disappear along with it. (This) raises the question whether what is needed in the United States today is dissent or denazification.

Don't imagine that Chomsky has a monopoly on recognizing the brutality of American crimes. Hans Morgenthau, writing in 1966:

No one has claimed or even hinted that they think that. Hence my comment about this thread being full of strawmen. No one has yet to actually point out how Chomsky fudges the facts which seems to be the main objection to his non-linguistic writing. Lots of hot air but nothing substantial. I finally got around to reading your critique of Chomsky. It seems pretty good at first glance, but upon serious examination it actually turns out to be more of the same, ie out of context quotes which obscure the actual point Chomsky was trying to make. If you want me to go through them point by point I can, but here are a couple of examples:

Your quote:

Kant's remarks [defending the French Revolution] have contemporary relevance. No rational person will approve of violence and terror. In particular, the terror of the postrevolutionary state, fallen into the hands of a grim autocracy, has more than once reached indescribable levels of savagery. Yet no person of understanding and humanity will too quickly condemn the violence that often occurs when long-subdued masses rise against their oppressors, or take their first steps toward liberty and social reconstruction.
["Language and Freedom" (1970), reprinted in The Chomsky Reader]


In context:

Similar thoughts were expressed by Kant. He cannot, he says,accept the proposition that certain people “are not ripe for freedom,” for example, the serfs of some landlord: "If one accepts this assumption, freedom will never be achieved; for one can not arrive at the maturity for freedom without having already acquired it; one must be free to learn how to make use of one’s powers freely and usefully. The first attempts will surely be brutal and will lead to a state of affairs more painful and dangerous than the former condition under the dominance but also the protection of an external authority. However, one can achieve reason only through one’s own experiences and one must be free to be able to undertake them. . . . To accept the principle that freedom is worthless for those under one’s control and that one has the right to refuse it to them forever, is an infringement on the rights of God himself, who has created man to be free."

The remark is particularly interesting because of its context. Kant was defending the French Revolution, during the Terror, against those who claimed that it showed the masses to be unready for the privilege of freedom. Kant’s remarks have contemporary relevance. No rational person will approve of violence and terror. In particular, the terror of the postrevolutionary state, fallen into the hands of a grim autocracy, has more than once reached indescribable levels of savagery. Yet no person of understanding or humanity will too quickly condemn the violence that often occurs when long-subdued masses rise against their oppressors, or take their first steps toward liberty and social reconstruction.


If one actually reads the whole essay one will quickly realize that at this point in the discussion Chomsky is analyzing power structures reactions to revolutionary movements and their sophistic reasoning for why they are not legitimate. He is not claiming that we should celebrate violence or even that it shouldn't be criticized, but rather that it should be understood in the context that it occurs. Most importantly, in context, that violence perpetrated by revolutionaries should not be used by existing power structures to claim as evidence that the unwashed masses are not ready for or do not deserve freedom. Here is Chomsky's actual position on state violence stated numerous times over the years in various media, that:

The foreign policy of other states is also in general horrifying -- roughly speaking, states are violent to the extent that they have the power to act in the interests of those with domestic power -- but there is not very much that I can do about it. It is, for example, easy enough for an American intellectual to write critical analyses of the behavior of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and Eastern Europe (or in supporting the Argentine generals), but such efforts have little if any effect in modifying or reversing the actions of the U.S.S.R. Rather, such efforts, which are naturally much welcomed by those who dominate the ideological institutions here, may serve to contribute to the violence of the American state, by reinforcing the images of Soviet brutality (often accurate) that are used to frighten Americans into conformity and obedience. I do not suggest that this is a reason to avoid critical analysis of the U.S.S.R.; in fact, I have often written on the foreign policy of the Soviet state. Nor would I criticize someone who devotes much, even all his work to this task. But we should understand that the moral value of this work is at best very slight, where the moral value of an action is judged in terms of its human consequences. In fact, rather delicate judgments sometimes arise, for people who are committed to decent moral values. Suppose, for example, that some German intellectual chose in 1943 to write articles on terrible things done by Britain, or the U.S., or the Jews. What he wrote might be correct, but we would not be very much impressed.

"The Reasons for my Concern", 1983

As I said, his position is well documented in many different mediums so to take a few quotes out of context where it could be inferred that he doesn't think Chinese or Russian violence is just as reprehensible as our state violence is just plain dishonest.

Again, your quote:

There are various harsh things that one might say about Chinese behavior in what the Sino-Indian Treaty of 1954 refers to as "the Tibet region of China" ....
["The Responsibility of Intellectuals" (1967)]

First of all this isn't even in the body of the article, it's a footnote pertaining to U.S. propaganda justifying the Vietnam War in terms of Chinese expansion. Here is the quote in context:

This consensus among the responsible scholar-experts is the domestic analogue to that proposed, internationally, by those who justify the application of American power in Asia, whatever the human cost, on the grounds that it is necessary to contain the "expansion of China" (an "expansion" which is, to be sure, hypothetical for the time being)[21] —that is, to translate from State Department Newspeak, on the grounds that it is essential to reverse the Asian nationalist revolutions or, at least, to prevent them from spreading.

[21] In view of the unremitting propaganda barrage on "Chinese expansion,"
perhaps a word of comment is in order....There are various harsh things that one might say about Chinese behavior in what the Sino-Indian Treaty of 1954 refers to as "the Tibet region of China," but it is no more proof of a tendency towards expansionism than is the behavior of the Indian Government with regard to the Naga and Mizo tribesmen.


It is clear from the context that this discussion is not even about China, but about the U.S. policy in Vietnam being justified by fears of Chinese expansion. Given his well documented position on state violence which I cited above the use of this quote also comes off a bit dishonest.

Ok that's enough for now, but I just pulled two random quotes and they both turned out to be comments subsidiary to the topic he was discussing at the time. It would be more convincing if you could actually find some quotes and/or selections of him actually talking about China and Tibet as the main topic and then see if he downplays the violence. As it stands the rest of your critique consists of much of the same along with a lot of generalizing and oversimplification of actual substantive positions.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 8:39 PM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


moorooka: Powerfully destructive, yes. But "brainless"? As in, "just too stupid to know that carpet bombing villagers is immoral"?

Yeah. I quoted Walter Lippmann arguing against Mendel Rivers:
In early 1967, Walter Lippmann challenged the desire of such Congressional hawks as Mendel Rivers "... to flatten Hanoi if necessary and let world opinion go fly a kite." If the United States adopted genocide as a national policy, Lippmann wrote, it would find itself dangerously isolated. It would not only earn the suspicion and hatred of neutrals but even of allies: "... We would come to be regarded as the most dangerous nation in the world, and the great powers of the world would align themselves accordingly to contain us."
A substantial number of people think that once you're at war, the objective is to physically annihilate the enemy. For a cinematic illustration of this mindset, see the movie Aliens. Or pretty much any war movie or action movie; the end of the movie is always when the hero kills the bad guy.
posted by russilwvong at 9:31 PM on February 13, 2012


AElfwine Evenstar: Given his well documented position on state violence which I cited above the use of this quote also comes off a bit dishonest.

My assessment--which you may disagree with, of course--is that Chomsky saw himself as being on the side of the Asian communist movements (China, Vietnam, Cambodia) being attacked by the United States. To me, his writings show what Orwell described as nationalism, a mindset dominated by the idea of loyalty to a cause. To use Orwell's terms, Chomsky's nationalism is primarily negative, directed against the United States; he regards it as morally equivalent to Nazi Germany. But he did also downplay atrocities committed by the Asian communist movements. Setting aside Cambodia, in a 1967 panel discussion, Chomsky discussed several benefits of revolutionary violence (the mass slaughter of landlords in China, for example), before finally concluding that he would reject it--but on instrumental grounds, not moral grounds. Contrast with his moral outrage when describing US violence. This isn't moral universalism, it's nationalism.

Orwell:
All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage--torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians--which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by 'our' side. The Liberal NEWS CHRONICLE published, as an example of shocking barbarity, photographs of Russians hanged by the Germans, and then a year or two later published with warm approval almost exactly similar photographs of Germans hanged by the Russians.
By the way, Chomsky's argument about the importance of talking about US crimes rather than the crimes of the official enemy sounds superficially plausible, but to me, it doesn't stand up. What prevents him from making a stark and honest assessment of both? Besides Orwell, Mark Danner comes to mind as an example of a writer and journalist who's written at length about US torture as well as the destruction of Bosnia.
posted by russilwvong at 10:38 PM on February 13, 2012


Your argument for the US being merely "brainless" can be applied equally well to imperial Japan or Nazi Germany. They were at war, after all.

Really, your whole essay is full of irrelevant Orwell quotes and adding another one won't help. Youre right that Chomsky is not a strict pacifist, he has argued that the Allied effort in WW2 was justified, implying a distinction between Allied violence and Axis violence, and the same distinction can be made between Vietnamese and US violence during the war in southeast Asia. The reason for the distinction should be obvious without having to appeal to Orwell's nationalism essay (I honestly have little doubt that Orwell's assessment of the Vietnam war would have been much different from chomsky's had the guy lived to see it).

Finally, this insistence that Chomsky needs to condemn official enemies is really a rather pathetic form of political correctness. For one thing, he does; his writings (including his linguistic works) were under a complete ban in the soviet union for that reason. However he doesn't devote equal time to the crimes of official enemies because, frankly, that side of things is already well taken care of my the mainstream media, and secondly, as a voter and taxpayer in a democratic country, the actions of the US government are his personal responsibility in a way that the actions of other governments are not. Honestly, it is no different than an insistence that a soviet dissident can't legitimately criticize the Russian invasion of Afghanistan without giving equal time to the crimes of the mujahideen
posted by moorooka at 11:15 PM on February 13, 2012


Err... That is, Orwell's assessment of the Vietnam war would NOT have been much different from Chomsky's
posted by moorooka at 12:48 AM on February 14, 2012


By the way, Chomsky's argument about the importance of talking about US crimes rather than the crimes of the official enemy sounds superficially plausible, but to me, it doesn't stand up. What prevents him from making a stark and honest assessment of both?

Because Chomsky is not approaching the topic as a thinker or academic, but as an activist and propagandist. He has no interest in being fair or objective because that is not his goal in his political writings and lectures.

I think a mistake a lot of people make with Chomsky, both pro and anti, is that because he is an academic by profession, that all his output is academic. His goal is suasion, and he's not as interested in objectivity.
posted by Snyder at 12:59 AM on February 14, 2012


moorooka: Your argument for the US being merely "brainless" can be applied equally well to imperial Japan or Nazi Germany.

Fair point. Another word for disconnection from reality would be insanity. (Anthony Cordesman in 2002, discussing the neo-conservative fantasy of unleashing a wave of democratization in the Middle East: "As American policy, however, it crosses the line between neo-conservative and neo-crazy.")

--this insistence that Chomsky needs to condemn official enemies is really a rather pathetic form of political correctness.

He should at least have an accurate understanding of them. Reading the 1967 panel discussion, his view of Maoist China comes across as remarkably romantic. (Compare with Hannah Arendt's comments from the same panel discussion.)

Snyder: I think a mistake a lot of people make with Chomsky, both pro and anti, is that because he is an academic by profession, that all his output is academic. His goal is suasion, and he's not as interested in objectivity.

Exactly. Judged as a political activist, seeking to end the Vietnam War, his sense of moral responsibility and his tireless opposition to the war are admirable. My main objection to Chomsky's writings isn't his political allegiance--it's that he gives his readers a misleading understanding of history and foreign policy (another version of the good-guys-vs.-bad-guys mindset, with the US in the role of the bad guys). Lots of footnotes are no guarantee of objectivity and honesty! Again, if you read Chomsky, always look up his references.
posted by russilwvong at 10:27 PM on February 14, 2012


Again, if you read Chomsky, always look up his references.

Maybe you could provide us an example of Chomsky abusing his sources? I mean I checked your sources and it seems at this point like a pot calling the kettle black. Given Chomsky's massive volume of work I would think it would be an easy task. Of course this also works against him as one can probably find, as you did, many selections taken out of context to make it sound like he's saying something he's not.

Basically put up or shut up. 261 comments and I have yet to see one example of him abusing his sources. Not to say he doesn't but if you're going to make the accusation the least you could do is back it up with some evidence.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 6:09 PM on February 15, 2012


I don't mean the shut up part literally. I was using it as idiomatically, you are of course free to continue making claims without evidence until this thread is archived if you want. Yeah, sorry one of those times when I should read my comment one more time before I hit post.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 6:17 PM on February 15, 2012


AElfwine Evenstar: 261 comments and I have yet to see one example of him abusing his sources.

Sure, I'll give you one example at a time.

Noam Chomsky, "After Pinkville." Published in the New York Review of Books, January 1, 1970. Describes a recent article by Samuel Huntington (yes, the "Clash of Civilizations" guy) as advocating the destruction of the rural Vietnamese population.
It is important to understand that the massacre of the rural population of Vietnam and their forced evacuation is not an accidental by-product of the war. Rather it is of the very essence of American strategy. The theory behind it has been explained with great clarity and explicitness; for example by Professor Samuel Huntington, Chairman of the Government Department at Harvard and at the time (1968) Chairman of the Council on Vietnamese Studies of the Southeast Asia Development Advisory Group, in effect the State Department task force on Vietnam. Writing in Foreign Affairs, he explains that the Viet Cong is “a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist.” The conclusion is obvious, and he does not shrink from it. We can ensure that the constituency ceases to exist by “direct application of mechanical and conventional power…on such a massive scale as to produce a massive migration from countryside to city,” where the Viet Cong constituency—the rural population—can, it is hoped, be controlled in refugee camps and suburban slums around Saigon.

Technically, the process is known as “urbanization” or “modernization.” It is described, with the proper contempt, by Daniel Ellsberg, a Department of Defense consultant on pacification in South Vietnam, who concludes, from his extensive on-the-spot observations, that “we have, of course, demolished the society of Vietnam,” that “the bombing of the South has gone on long enough to disrupt the society of South Vietnam enormously and probably permanently”; he speaks of the “people who have been driven to Saigon by what Huntington regards as our ‘modernizing instruments’ in Vietnam, bombs and artillery.”4 Reporters have long been aware of the nature of these tactics, aware that “by now the sheer weight of years of firepower, massive sweeps, and grand forced population shifts have reduced the population base of the NLF…”5 so that conceivably, by brute force, we may still hope to “win.”

One thing is clear: so long as an organized social life can be maintained in South Vietnam, the NLF will be a powerful, probably dominant, force. This is the dilemma which has always plagued American policy, and which has made it impossible for us to permit even the most rudimentary democratic institutions in South Vietnam. For these reasons we have been forced to the solution outlined by Professor Huntington: to crush the people’s war, we must eliminate the people. [My italics.]
The Huntington article which Chomsky is referring to is "The Bases of Accommodation", published in Foreign Affairs, July 1968. It's available online: Part 1. Part 2. In it, Huntington advocates a political settlement between the South Vietnamese government and the NLF, based at the local and provincial level first.
Time in South Viet Nam is increasingly on the side of the Government. But in the short run, with half the population still in the countryside, the Viet Cong will remain a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency to exist. Peace in the immediate future must hence be based on accommodation. [My italics]

During the past three years the pattern of the military conflict has been largely determined in Hanoi and Washington, which are also playing the dominant role in negotiations. The stability of the political settlement which eventually results in South Viet Nam, however, will depend primarily upon the extent to which it reflects the social and political forces within that country rather than on external influences, either military or diplomatic. Hence, there is good reason to encourage the early inauguration of a political process within South Viet Nam in which all significant political groups can participate and to allow that process rather than a diplomatic conference to have the lion's share in determining the future of the country.

It is often argued that this process should begin with the creation of a coalition government. There are, however, many disadvantages to such an approach. Neither the NLF nor Saigon wants a coalition with the other, and it is difficult to envision how the existing leaderships could work together. ...

The urban-rural division of the country and the mixed pattern of political control in rural areas suggests that the process of political accommodation should start at the bottom and work up rather than the reverse. Some forms of local accommodation have, of course, existed for some time in parts of the country, particularly in the Delta. Most frequently they have involved "live-and-let-live" arrangements among local military commanders. To some extent they have also involved mutual tolerance of each other's revenue-raising activities. On the Government side, the weakness of its forces and the natural desire to remain in the towns and avoid the efforts and dangers of combat have provided incentives to accept these arrangements, while for 'he Viet Cong it has been a general war-weariness among local cadres, especially in the Delta. To expand these local accommodations substantively and geographically will entail many difficulties. None the less, this is the way to start a political process which will reflect the actual balance of forces within the society.

... Initially the practical needs for and benefits from accommodation are likely to be greater at the local than at the national level. Differing patterns of control will be possible in different area, and concessions in one area can be traded for comparable concessions in other areas. If the cease-fire arrangements divide the country into military zones of control, political control in a village will in most cases be determined by the zone in which it is located. A large number of districts and the majority of provinces, however, will undoubtedly be divided between zones. At these levels, consequently, the functioning of government will require some cooperation between, and eventual integration of local NLF and Saigon governmental structures. One means of accomplishing the would be to elect province chiefs and or enlarged and strengthened provincial councils. Elections at the provincial level are likely to encourage political candidates and groups to appeal to both rural and urban voters and to promote cooperation among non-communist groups. They would give the VC NLF the legitimate opportunity to enter the political process and to demonstrate their ability to win power at the grass-roots level. Provincial elections could also be suitably staggered so as to permit more effective supervision by outside observers and international bodies.

If accommodation worked in a majority of provinces, the way would be opened for its extension to the national Government. The next step would be the election of a new constituent assembly, perhaps in part by universal suffrage and in part by the provincial councils, to devise new basic laws and choose a new Central Government. If as a result of this process the VC-NLF secured control of the Central Government, the United States would obviously regret the outcome but could also accept it and fall under little compulsion to reintervene.
Huntington's own response to Chomsky's article:
Mr. Chomsky writes as follows:

Writing in Foreign Affairs, he [Huntington] explains that the Viet Cong is “a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist.” The conclusion is obvious, and he does not shrink from it. We can ensure that the constituency ceases to exist by “direct application of mechanical and conventional power…on such a massive scale as to produce a massive migration from countryside to city….”

It would be difficult to conceive of a more blatantly dishonest instance of picking words out of context so as to give them a meaning directly opposite to that which the author stated. For the benefit of your readers, here is the “obvious conclusion” which I drew from my statement about the Viet Cong:

... the Viet Cong will remain a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist. Peace in the immediate future must hence be based on accommodation.

By omitting my next sentence—”Peace in the immediate future must hence be based on accommodation”—and linking my statement about the Viet Cong to two other phrases which appear earlier in the article, Mr. Chomsky completely reversed my argument.
Chomsky's response includes the following remarkable statement:
... I did not say that he “favored” this answer but only that he “outlined” it, “explained” it, and “does not shrink from it,” all of which is literally true.
As I said: as a reader, I usually assume that if a writer provides a selective quote from someone else, it should provide a reasonably accurate summary of what the other person said. Chomsky doesn't appear to adhere to this rule.
posted by russilwvong at 11:13 PM on February 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's very strange to misunderstand the view held by John Gray et al. as being that the US was any sort of well-meaning but clumsy dinosaur. As I've said before, to do so implicitly accepts the neoconservative framing of the issues; this unwittingly suggests that one thinks that the neoconservatives were correct in theory, and that they would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for those meddling insurgents.

Foisting Western-friendly, Western-style liberal democracy onto Iraq at the end of a sword had always been a fanatical, self-serving, ignorant, and bad idea. It was, among other things, a laughably ethnocentric idea, disrespectful besides, ignorant of the way that people actually operate. It was not a case good intentions gone awry, not in any meaningful sense. If the Bush administration had been trying to turn Iraq into an America-friendly Christian theocracy, would you regard that as a case of good intentions? If China invaded the US tomorrow to install a pro-China pseudo-socialist state, would you regard that as a case of good intentions? When the US stole Native American children from their families to raise them as proper Westernized Christians, forbidding them to speak their native tongues or to practice their native cultures, was that a case of good intentions?

Once you shake off the neoconservative framing of "spreading democracy at sword point = good", it's easier to see the whole and true dimensions of the Iraq War's insanity.

This is why the strictly Chomskian view must be critiqued. Taken too strictly, it's a blinkered view, sometimes veering into "who are you going to trust, me or your own lying eyes?" territory. The Chomskian view is that economic considerations have total primacy, and that other motives are put-ons, smokescreens, and bits of propaganda. While it is of course important to recognize nations' economic motives and to see through propaganda, it is also important to realize that people, like nations, also have other motives, many of them altogether quite passionate and cockamamie. The neocons left behind a massive paper trail of their thoughts and motivations, much of that trail being obviously not meant, or even usable, for any propaganda purpose.

To take just one example, when you read about the Project for the New American Century and their work from the 90s onwards, it is obvious - it is literally, explicitly, repeatedly stated - that they saw perfect unity between America's interests and forcing Saddam Hussein's Iraq to become a Western-style free market democracy.

The strict Chomskian view would have us believe that PNAC could not possibly have meant what they said they meant in their communications, even amongst themselves. The strict Chomskian view would have us believe that PNAC existed as just a gigantic ruse. That would be nuts. You might as well say that the Pope is not, in fact, Catholic, and that bears only shit in the woods for propaganda purposes.

Applying a more flexible variation of Chomsky's critique, on the other hand, is much more helpful. It is good to see the self-serving aspects of the neoconservative agenda, just as it is also good to recognize American war crimes, as well as America's potential for future war crimes.

You have to take it as a whole. When you miss out the ideological, fanatical aspect of the neoconservative movement, then your analysis will always be incomplete. While you must recognize the self-serving nature of both the US and the profiteering corporations, you must also be aware of the neocons' idea of the Pax Americana, the idea of democracy as the universally welcome, terminal stage of the nation-state, the idea that a populace will accept Western-style free market democracy as long as the right opponents are out of the way and that the rest of the people are properly cowed and convinced. Unless you understand what the other side had actually wanted, you will never approach a debate with the right tools, as you will not understand what your opponent actually values and why. There is no use telling a neoconservative acolyte that his superiors are small-minded, venal, murderous thieves, when the more-frightening truth may be that his superiors are, as a matter of fact, high-minded, ideological thieves who earnestly believe that they are killing in a just war.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:50 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm satisfied with Chomsky's explanation of his use of huntington's words. He was trying to explain the logic behind actually existing US policy, not the personal opinions of one of the death machine's bureaucrats.

The 1967 Panel discussion is quite long and from a brief overview I'm not sure what you're taking issue with, maybe you could be more specific?
posted by moorooka at 1:03 PM on February 16, 2012


I think Chomsky was aware that the neocons were simply recycled Reaganites who's idea of "democracy" in Iraq was no more genuine than their idea of "democracy" in Nicaragua. In other words, "free-market democracy" simply means "free-market client state". And obviously if PNAC's objectives had not coincided so strongly with the interests of the MIC it is doubtful they would have ever had an opportunity to implement their crazy fantasies
posted by moorooka at 1:09 PM on February 16, 2012


And again Russilwvong, what does it mean to call US policy "insane" that does not apply equally well to Nazi Germany? I can't tell if you're trying to make a distinction here; like, maybe the Nazis were evil because they were sane? But the US is too insane to be considered evil? Uh...
posted by moorooka at 1:27 PM on February 16, 2012


moorooka: “I think Chomsky was aware that the neocons were simply recycled Reaganites who's idea of ‘democracy’ in Iraq was no more genuine than their idea of ‘democracy’ in Nicaragua. In other words, ‘free-market democracy’ simply means ‘free-market client state’. And obviously if PNAC's objectives had not coincided so strongly with the interests of the MIC it is doubtful they would have ever had an opportunity to implement their crazy fantasies”

But that doesn't even make sense. Neoconservatism has been around since the 1960s, and Noam Chomsky was debating neoconservatives even then. They are not by any stretch of the imagination "recycled Reaganites;" in fact, they have markedly different approaches from Reagan. Reagan pointedly did not openly invade Nicaragua, and insofar as he intentionally did anything at all (rather than blundering through his foreign policy blindly) he covered it up as much as possible. Regardless, he certainly didn't want to take on the liability of 'regime change' there; he just wanted to kick the commies in the nuts and hopefully (yes) encourage someone to set up a state 'friendly to the US.' The neoconservative adventure in Iraq is a wholly different event with different motivations. Equating these two events, and the conservatism behind them, misses all kinds of important nuances. Nor do I think Chomsky would even make such an equation.
posted by koeselitz at 3:05 PM on February 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Or, actually, who knows; he might. I do not know what Chomsky would say. I only know that it makes no sense to act as though there are significant parallels between the anti-Sandinista activities in Nicaragua and the invasion of Iraq.
posted by koeselitz at 3:06 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


The point I'm making is that by "democracy", the neocons do not mean an Iraq free to elect an anti-Israel, anti-US government anymore than they favored a Nicaragua free to elect a Sandinista government. "democracy" has a particular meaning in neocon parlance. Regarding Reagan, it is important to remember that he was president only a few short years after America's humiliation in Vietnam, a time when such direct intervention would have been impossible to sell politically. Times had changed by 2003 (al qaeda had given PNAC the "new pearl harbor" they had been pining for)
posted by moorooka at 4:26 PM on February 16, 2012


You might find it interesting to read up on Reagan and the Kirkpatrick Doctrine. Jeane Kirkpatrick is sometimes thought of as one of the first neoconservatives with real power, but her ideas came from a different era - both pragmatically, as you observe, but also philosophically. She did not at all believe in the active installation of democratic regimes, as later neocons would. PNAC existed in reaction to her legacy, as well as in reaction to George H. W. Bush's realpolitik approach, which the neocons thought was cruel, cold, weak, blah blah blah.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:32 PM on February 16, 2012


I'm now going to do something that nobody has done on this strawmaniac thread yet, which is to post an excerpt of an answer by Chomsky to the actual question of Why did the U.S. invade Iraq?
...one reason for the invasion, surely, is to gain control over the world's second largest oil reserves, which will place the US in an even more powerful position of global domination, maintaining "a stranglehold on the global economy," as Michael Klare describes the long-term objective, which he regards as the primary motive for war. However, this cannot explain the timing. Why now?

The drumbeat for war began in September 2002, and the government-media propaganda campaign achieved a spectacular success. Very quickly, the majority of the population came to believe that Iraq posed an imminent threat to US security, even that Iraq was involved in 9-11 (up from 3% after 9-11) and was planning new attacks. Not surprisingly, these beliefs correlated closely with support for the planned war. The beliefs are unique to the US. Even in Kuwait and Iran, which were invaded by Saddam Hussein, he was not feared, though he was despised. They know perfectly well that Iraq was the weakest state in the region, and for years they had joined others in trying to reintegrate Iraq into the regional system, over strong US objections. But a highly effective propaganda assault drove the American population far off the spectrum of world opinion, a remarkable achievement.

The September propaganda assault coincided with two important events. One was the opening of the mid-term election campaign. Karl Rove, the administration's campaign manager, had already pointed out that Republicans have to "go to the country" on the issue of national security, because voters "trust the Republican Party to do a better job of...protecting America." One didn't have to be a political genius to realize that if social and economic issues dominated the election, the Bush administration did not have a chance. Accordingly, it was necessary to concoct a huge threat to our survival, which the powerful leader will manage to overcome, miraculously. For the elections, the strategy barely worked. Polls reveal that voters maintained their preferences, but suppressed concerns over jobs, pensions, benefits, etc., in favor of security. Something similar will be needed for the presidential campaign. All of this is second nature for the current incumbents. They are mostly recycled from the more reactionary sectors of the Reagan-Bush administrations, and know that they were able to run the country for 12 years, carrying out domestic programs that the public largely opposed, by pushing the panic button regularly: Libyan attempting to "expel us from the world" (Reagan), an air base in Grenada from which the Russians would bomb us, Nicaragua only "two-days driving time from Harlingen Texas," waving their copies of Mein Kampf as they planned to take over the hemisphere, black criminals about to rape your sister (Willie Horton, the 1988 presidential campaign), Hispanic narcotraffickers about to destroy us, and on and on.

To maintain political power is an extremely important matter if the narrow sectors of power represented by the Bush administration hope to carry out their reactionary domestic program over strong popular opposition, if possible even to institutionalize them, so it will be hard to reconstruct what is being dismantled.

Something else happened in September 2002: the administration released its National Security Strategy, sending many shudders around the world, including the US foreign policy elite. The Strategy has many precedents, but does break new ground: for the first time in the post-war world, a powerful state announced, loud and clear, that it intends to rule the world by force, forever, crushing any potential challenge it might perceive. This is often called in the press a doctrine of "pre-emptive war." That is crucially wrong; it goes vastly beyond pre-emption. Sometimes it is called more accurately a doctrine of "preventive war." That too understates the doctrine. No military threat, however remote, need be "prevented"; challenges can be concocted at will, and may not involve any threat other than "defiance"; those who pay attention to history know that "successful defiance" has often been taken to be justification for resort to force in the past.

When a doctrine is announced, some action must be taken to demonstrate that it is seriously intended, so that it can become a new "norm in international relations," as commentators will soberly explain. What is needed is a war with an "exemplary quality," Harvard Middle East historian Roger Owen pointed out, discussing the reasons for the attack on Iraq. The exemplary action teaches a lesson that others must heed, or else.

Why Iraq? The experimental subject must have several important qualities. It must be defenseless, and it must be important; there's no point illustrating the doctrine by invading Burundi. Iraq qualified perfectly in both respects. The importance is obvious, and so is the required weakness. Iraq was not much of a military force to begin with, and had been largely disarmed through the 1990s while much of the society was driven to the edge of survival. Its military expenditures and economy were about one-third those of Kuwait, with 10% of its population, far below others in the region, and of course the regional superpower, Israel, by now virtually an offshore military base of the US. The invading force not only had utterly overwhelming military power, but also extensive information to guide its actions from satellite observation and overflights for many years, and more recently U-2 flights on the pretext of disarmament, surely sending data directly back to Washington.

Iraq was therefore a perfect choice for an "exemplary action" to establish the new doctrine of global rule by force as a "norm of international relations." A high official involved in drafting the National Security Strategy informed the press that its publication "was the signal that Iraq would be the first test, but not the last." "Iraq became the petri dish in which this experiment in pre-emptive policy grew," the New York Times reported -- misstating the policy in the usual way, but otherwise accurate.

All of these factors gave good reasons for war. And they also help explain why the planned war was so overwhelmingly opposed by the public worldwide (including the US, particularly when we extract the factor of fear, unique to the US). And also strongly opposed by a substantial part of economic and foreign policy elites, a very unusual development. They rightly fear that the adventurist posture may prove very costly to their own interests, even to survival...

posted by moorooka at 8:22 PM on February 16, 2012


one reason for the invasion, surely, is to gain control over the world's second largest oil reserves

Well, this is clearly incorrect. No attempt was made to install a puppet dictator in Iraq who would automatically grant US control over the oilfields. US companies do not now dominate the rights to exploit Iraqi oil and the US's ability to dictate future Iraqi political decisions is slim to nonexistent.

The rest of the analysis has more plausibility. It's true, no doubt, that the Republicans thought they were onto a winner with the national security issues and wanted a drum to keep banging; it's also true to a certain extent that they liked their idea of the "Bush doctrine." The claim that if you announce a "doctrine" you immediately have to carry it out is nonsense, of course (did anyone ever carry out Mutually Assured Destruction?). The implication that the doctrine was dreamed up independently of the idea of the Iraq war and that the war was then invented in order to give teeth to the doctrine is also bizarrely naive. The dream of an Iraq war predated not just 9/11 but Bush's election. The Neocon crowd were talking about invading Iraq long before 9/11, 9/11 just gave them an excuse. The Bush doctrine was dreamed up to give cover to the invasion, not the other way around. And, of course, the doctrine is now reduced to shreds.
posted by yoink at 11:21 AM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


I posted that long excerpt just to show that the accusation that Chomsky's view of the Iraq War was not as simplistic as people were assuming. I dont necessarily agree with the whole thing and I also think there were additional reasons that he doesn't mention.

There is something to this: No attempt was made to install a puppet dictator in Iraq who would automatically grant US control over the oilfields.

What was installed was the Coalition Provisional Authority headed by Paul Bremer, which in very short order issued CPA Order 39, privatizing the entirety of Iraq's economy, allowing unlimited foreign investment and unlimited repatriation of profits, but strangely enough excluding the oil industry from this.

Why would oil be excluded? I guess one theory could be that doing so, so quickly after the invasion, would be extraordinarily bad P.R. after "No Blood For Oil" had become such a big anti-war slogan, but there are other explanations. One of the main prizes of taking over Iraq was control of Iraq's seat on OPEC. To completely privatize Iraqi oil would, in effect, take Iraq out of OPEC, allowing Iraq to flood the market and break the cartel. However while this approach may have been ideologically favored by certain free-marketeer neocons, it would have been strongly opposed by US oil companies (not to mention Saudi Arabia, a major investor in the US), which do quite nicely out of the artificial scarcity that OPEC is able to arrange.

So retaining a degree of state control of the Iraqi oil industry became part of the plan, but obviously the fields still needed to be opened up to foreign (and especially American) investment. In 2004 Bush Administration hired the US consulting firm BearingPoint (a major Republican donor) to draft the Iraq Hydrocarbon Law which was ultimately submitted to Iraq's parliament in 2007, limiting the Iraqi National Oil Company to 17 of Iraq's 80 known fields and opening the rest up to foreign control through production sharing agreements of much more favorable terms than existed elsewhere in the Middle East. However by that stage Iraq had degenerated into sectarian carnage, with the various regions unable to agree to any sort of oil carve up, and security issues making investment very unattractive to foreign corporations. The Oil Law was so unpopular domestically that it could not get through parliament. Now obviously the Bush Administration did not intend things to turn out had they did. The Iraq War was in large part a failure. If events had gone according to plan, it would have been much smoother proceedings for the oil companies.

(Of course when it comes to war-profiteering, oil investment is only one small part of the spoils of war. The no-bid reconstruction contracts were corrupt from top to bottom and the military industrial complex made out like bandits. No "failure" for them. These were reasons, in addition to the "Wag the Dog" factor and the general Republican strategy of pushing through regressive domestic policy while distracting the population with foreign bogeymen)

But now onto Yoink's theory, that the US invaded Iraq because Bush, Cheney and Co. just loved democracy so much that they couldn't help invading Iraq... on the false pretext of WMD! (and, oh, the fact that the one non-democratic country they chose to do this with happened to have the world's-second-biggest-oil-reserves was just pure coincidence).

Actually, while plans for the privatization of Iraq's economy were executed almost immediately by the Provisional Authority (well prior to the existence any sovereign government), there were no such immediate plans for democratic elections. Instead there were plans for long-term postponement of any such elections. The CPA's plans were, instead, for an unelected puppet "Governing Council" of long-term foreign exiles and unrepresentative stooges, who would organize a unelected transitional administration to which sovereignty would be passed to, and draft a Constitution (without any popular input) that would set the parameters for any eventual democratic process.

Of course, the Iraqis didn't stand for it, and the failure of the CPA to introduce democracy was in fact, one of the main reasons for the rise of the Iraqi resistance (along with Bremer's wholesale dissolution of the entire Iraqi state apparatus). Following a popular uprising led by Ayatollah Al-Sistani the CPA was forced to abandon its anti-democratic plans and allow elections (in january 2005) to a national assembly that would draft the new Constitution. But this was just another example of the war not going according to plan.
posted by moorooka at 3:40 PM on February 17, 2012


But now onto Yoink's theory, that the US invaded Iraq because Bush, Cheney and Co. just loved democracy so much that they couldn't help invading Iraq... on the false pretext of WMD! (and, oh, the fact that the one non-democratic country they chose to do this with happened to have the world's-second-biggest-oil-reserves was just pure coincidence).

Gosh, I wonder how you'll demolish THIS straw man!
posted by yoink at 3:50 PM on February 17, 2012


This is what you said, Yoink:
By no possible rational analysis, for example, was the US's incursion into Iraq a cunning move to "advance its own economic interests."

The Iraq war was, in fact, a highly "idealistic" war, with very little to hope in the way of "realpolitik" advantages and all kinds of lofty dreams about spreading democracy.

So what does that mean? Where's the straw man? As far as I can make out, you're pretty much saying that America invaded Iraq without any thought of advantaging itself, but did it because Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and all these other war criminals just really, really, wanted to spread democracy! They were just too "idealistic" for their own good! They faked intelligence and lied to the world about WMD because it was the only way they could bring democracy to the poor Iraqis!

For heaven's sake.

Now about the Bush Doctrine, there's no point having a doctrine that isn't acted on (and I think you're missing the point of M.A.D. - to "carry out" M.A.D. means to avoid nuclear attacks, because you know you'll also die).

The neocon agenda was largely a reaction to the "Vietnam Syndrome", wherein dirty fucking hippies and foreign communists (what a combo!) had denied America of its god-given right to go wherever it wanted, and kill whoever it wanted, anywhere in the world. If you go to the PNAC website, going back to their stuff from the late 90s, you can see the outlines of an agenda that is much larger than simply Iraq. It is an agenda of belligerence in every region of the world, of aggressive, unilateralist foreign policy, and massively ramped up military spending. Iraq may have been target number one, but it was just one part of the "Project".
posted by moorooka at 4:01 PM on February 17, 2012


Where's the straw man?

Here: "Bush, Cheney and Co. just loved democracy so much that they couldn't help invading Iraq"

And here: "the fact that the one non-democratic country they chose to do this with happened to have the world's-second-biggest-oil-reserves was just pure coincidence"

Oh, look at that, it's all straw man.

I said that they didn't invade because they wanted to control the oil. They didn't. The history you outline above shows that they didn't. Had the intent of the invasion been control of the oil, there would have been no reason, at all, to even bother with pretending to set up a democratic government in Iraq.

That does not mean, of course, that they had no hopes of gaining more US access to the oil fields. Nor does it mean that their interest in Iraq was unrelated to their interest in the middle eastern oil in general. Obviously they hoped that a new democratic Iraq would be a friendlier nation and that the changes that would follow on from the democratizing project in Iraq would, in general, make the Middle East a safer, more reliable and less expensive source for oil. The US, obviously, cares a great deal more about the countries in the Middle East because of the oil than they would if there were no oil.

What I object to and see as simplistic is the analysis that says that they went into Iraq just to "grab the oil." It doesn't comport with the facts at all. Nor is it true to say that the jaw-jaw about democracy was just a "cover" for this naked grab for control of the oil fields. Once again, that analysis just fails to account for what actually happened in Iraq (the way to do that would have been to replace Saddam with "our" dictator--no such thing was ever attempted).

To claim that the Neocons actually believed a great deal of their own rhetoric about spreading democracy is not, however, to claim that they were utterly uninfluenced by any calculations of US interest of any kind. The neocon argument was that spreading democracy was identical with US interests: the reason for spreading it in Iraq before other places, though, certainly has to do with a calculation of US interests in Middle East oil in general.
posted by yoink at 4:16 PM on February 17, 2012


I said that they didn't invade because they wanted to control the oil. They didn't. The history you outline above shows that they didn't.

I think that the history I outlined showed that oil was a central consideration.

Had the intent of the invasion been control of the oil, there would have been no reason, at all, to even bother with pretending to set up a democratic government in Iraq.

That's like saying:

"had the intent of the invasion been control of oil, there would have been no reason, at all, to even bother with pretending that WMD existed".

There is an American population, and Iraqi population, and an international community that all need to be factored in, and this is 2003 we're talking about, not 1937. They barely got away with illegally invading Iraq and getting rid of Saddam. They would never have gotten away with illegally invading Iraq and installing another Saddam. Of course they had to pretend to set up a democratic government, just like they had to pretend that they really believed in the WMD.

That does not mean, of course, that they had no hopes of gaining more US access to the oil fields.

Just, like, a bit of an afterthought? Or a critical factor? Look at it this way, would Iraq have been invaded if its main export was lettuce?

What I object to and see as simplistic is the analysis that says that they went into Iraq just to "grab the oil."

Well nobody's saying that. Chomsky's not saying that. It's one of several reasons. But to pretend that oil was just an afterthought and that the invasion would have happened even if Iraq had no oil - and that the real reason was that the neocons were just too idealistic about spreading democracy... that's pretty much as naive as believing that the real reason was Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Nor is it true to say that the jaw-jaw about democracy was just a "cover" for this naked grab for control of the oil fields.

What about Japan's jaw-jaw about Co-Prosperity in East Asia? Aggressors always explain their actions with lofty rhetoric. What do you expect them to say? "We're just plain evil"?

Once again, that analysis just fails to account for what actually happened in Iraq (the way to do that would have been to replace Saddam with "our" dictator--no such thing was ever attempted).

That would have been politically impossible, and in any case, there were no suitable candidates. What was instead attempted was replacing Saddam with a National Council of unelected local stooges. And the attempt failed due to a popular uprising.

To claim that the Neocons actually believed a great deal of their own rhetoric about spreading democracy is not, however, to claim that they were utterly uninfluenced by any calculations of US interest of any kind.

Yeah yeah, and maybe they really believed that Saddam was hiding super-secret WMD. Who can prove otherwise? But it's really not important how they justify their own crimes to themselves. Without (as you say) "calculation of US interests in Middle East oil", the invasion of Iraq would not have taken place.
posted by moorooka at 5:17 PM on February 17, 2012


I am sorry to be engaging in "fisking", I wouldn't normally. I think that maybe this thread is getting pretty old and hardly anyone's still reading it, so maybe I'll tune out now.

But I'd like to explain why I've spent so much time on this thread.

I first read Chomsky about ten years ago. I was 18 years old, and just starting my first year of uni. It was early 2002, a few months after 9/11 and the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, and there was a lot going on politically. Passing by a bookshop I saw a copy a new book, Understanding Power: The Indispensible Chomsky. I didn't know exactly who Chomsky was but the name sounded familiar and after flicking through I decided to buy it.

The book, 400 pages, was basically a collection of transcripts from group discussions with Chomsky over about ten years, in which he takes hundreds of questions on every sort of topic. It is without a doubt the most solid introduction to the breadth of Chomsky's political ideas that you will find, and everybody on this thread needs to read it at the earliest opportunity. As in, if you can only read one book by Chomsky, make it this one.

Now I had considered myself a vaguely left-wing sort of liberal kid, but reading this book was like an electric shock, a true "scales falling from the eyes" moment. I was astonished by the range of subjects covered by this guy, who seemed to have a superhuman ability to summon facts off-the-cuff, slicing through the cobwebs of conventional wisdom with a logic that was both remarkably original and surprisingly simple. So much about the world that had seemed senseless suddenly clicked into place.

One of the best things about the book though was the 491-page collection of footnotes (online). Even though he was speaking off-the-cuff, everything he said was extensively and impeccably referenced. It was probably one of the most educational resources I've ever come across, and from that time on I've always felt the need to come to Chomsky's defense when I see his ideas attacked by two-bit punks whose idea of a respectable commentator is Thomas Friedman or some other "fair and balanced" whore.

Seriously, by age 40 the guy was already established as the founder of modern linguistics and could have had a very comfortable and pleasant time working on that for the rest of his life. He didn't have to devote his life, and his considerable genius, to political activism, to the countless thousands of hours of research and organizing against the crimes of his own government. He didn't have to expose himself to the relentless slander of the sort linked to by this disgusting OP, from people like Horowitz who couldn't lay a finger on him in any sort of honest debate. Or the pissweak pearl-clutching of the "let me hear both sides" namby-pamby liberal brigade, who like to pluck a few sentences out of literally millions, and then condemn him for not being "objective" enough.

Chomsky's efforts have done more than those of probably any other contemporary individual to bring people over to radical politics and activism, and to arm them with a means of self-defense against the intellectual resources of the elite. Now I'm not saying he's perfect, or the last word on everything, or whatever. But he is a legend and he deserves a better FPP than this piece of shit that shivohum served up.
posted by moorooka at 7:52 PM on February 17, 2012


moorooka: Now I'm not saying he's perfect, or the last word on everything, or whatever. But he is a legend and he deserves a better FPP than this--

There was a new FPP posted today. Actually, there's been quite a few articles posted to MetaFilter over the years: chomsky, noamchomsky.

I appreciate your taking the time to explain your own experience of Chomsky's writings. (I had a similar reaction to reading Orwell while I was in high school, although Orwell provides a more open-ended worldview, IMHO.) I know Internet arguments like this rarely convince anyone, but my main caution would be that you shouldn't rely on Chomsky himself as your main source of historical information. My suggestion would be to take a look at two books: Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers for historical context (Kennedy discusses economic shifts and coalition wars in the context of European politics between 1500 and 2000), and Hans Morgenthau's Politics Among Nations for an alternate analysis of power politics. Even if you don't agree with them, you may find them useful in thinking about Chomsky's analysis, and identifying possible blind spots. Reading his analysis of the Iraq War, what strikes me is his complete neglect of nationalism, the tendency in modern times for individuals to identify on an emotional and personal level with a nation (or a state, as in the US), as an emotional escape from their own vulnerability and mortality.

I'm satisfied with Chomsky's explanation of his use of Huntington's words. He was trying to explain the logic behind actually existing US policy, not the personal opinions of one of the death machine's bureaucrats.

Nevertheless, it illustrates Chomsky's creative use of quotations: what Stanley Hoffmann described in 1969 as a "tendency to draw from an author's statements inferences that correspond neither to the author's intentions nor to the statements' meaning." Hence the importance of checking his references.

The 1967 Panel discussion is quite long and from a brief overview I'm not sure what you're taking issue with, maybe you could be more specific?

I found two things remarkable about this discussion.

(1) Chomsky's willingness to weigh the positive and negative effects of revolutionary "terror". He generally pours scorn on people who opposed war in Vietnam or Iraq because of its costs rather than on principle.
For my part, of course, there's no question about justifying the American and Saigon government terror. But what about the harder question, that of the terror practiced by the National Liberation Front? Was this a legitimate political act? The easiest reaction is to say that all violence is abhorrent, that both sides are guilty, and to stand apart retaining one's moral purity and condemn them both. This is the easiest response and in this case I think it's also justified. But, for reasons that are pretty complex, there are real arguments also in favor of the Viet Cong terror, arguments that can't be lightly dismissed, although I don't think they're correct. One argument is that this selective terror -- killing certain officials and frightening others -- tended to save the population from a much more extreme government terror, the continuing terror that exists when a corrupt official can do things that are within his power in the province that he controls.

Then there's also the second type of argument ... which I think can't be abandoned very lightly. It's a factual question of whether such an act of violence frees the native from his inferiority complex and permits him to enter into political life. I myself would like to believe that it's not so. Or at the least, I'd like to believe that nonviolent reaction could achieve the same result. But it's not very easy to present evidence for this; one can only argue for accepting this view on grounds of faith. And the necessity of releasing the peasant from this role of passivity is hardly in question. We know perfectly well that, in countries such as North Korea and South Vietnam and many others, it was necessary to rouse the peasants to recognize that they were capable of taking over the land. It was necessary to break the bonds of passivity that made them totally incapable of political action. And if violence does move the peasantry to the point where it can overcome the sort of permanent bondage of the sort that exists, say, in the Philippines, then I think there's a pretty strong case for it. ...

There's also a third argument in favor of violence which on the surface sounds pretty abhorrent, but I'm afraid it has a point, from the point of view of the revolutionary guerrilla groups. That is the idea that violence, say by the Viet Cong, will lead to reprisal, often overreprisal, and reprisal will win adherents to the Viet Cong. Of course, that's what happens, in fact. The first year of the massive American bombardment of South Vietnam, the number of recruits for the Viet Cong increased enormously, tripled at least.
To be fair, he does conclude that the costs are too high:
With all these arguments in favor of this type of violence, I still think there are good grounds to reject it. It seems to me, from the little we know about such matters, that a new society rises out of the actions that are taken to form it, and the institutions and the ideology it develops are not independent of those actions; in fact, they're heavily colored by them, they're shaped by them in many ways. And one can expect that actions that are cynical and vicious, whatever their intent, will inevitably condition and deface the quality of the ends that are achieved.
Contrast with Hannah Arendt's comments:
As to the Viet Cong terror, we cannot possibly agree with it, just as we couldn't agree with the terror of the National Liberation Army in Algeria. People who did agree with this terror and were only against the French counter-terror, of course, were applying a double standard.
(2) Chomsky's romantic illusions regarding Maoist China. Maurice Meisner estimates in Mao's China and After (a generally sympathetic account) that 2 million people were executed during the first three years of the People's Republic of China. Chomsky's description:
I think the course of collectivization in China and the Soviet Union can also be instructive. It's clear, I believe, that the emphasis on the use of terror and violence in China was considerably less than in the Soviet Union and that the success was considerably greater in achieving a just society. ...

Dr. Arendt takes rather an absolutist view, that I don't share, about certain historical phenomena such as the character of the new societies that have emerged. I don't feel that they deserve a blanket condemnation at all. There are many things to object to in any society. But take China, modern China; one also finds many things that are really quite admirable. Many things, in fact, do meet the sort of Luxembourgian conditions that apparently Dr. Arendt and I agree about. There are even better examples than China. But I do think that China is an important example of a new society in which very interesting positive things happened at the local level, in which a good deal of the collectivization and communization was really based on mass participation and took place after a level of understanding had been reached in the peasantry that led to this next step.

Indeed, a recent article in the China Quarterly -- which is hardly a pro-Red Chinese journal -- compares Chinese and Russian communization to the very great credit of the Chinese communization, precisely for these reasons, pointing out that its greater success in achieving a relatively livable and to some extent just society was correlated with the fact that these methods involved much less terror.
Again, contrast with Arendt's comments:
I very much agree with Mr. Chomsky's assertion that the nature of new societies is affected by the nature of the actions that bring them into being. And our experiences with such new societies are, of course, by no means encouraging. It would be really fooling ourselves if we looked upon them with enthusiastic eyes, with which I sympathize but which, I am afraid, simply do not see the truth.
I suppose a third observation is that Chomsky today is a marginal figure (kind of like Ron Paul), so it was quite interesting to see how he was much more mainstream (as noted earlier, he was one of the leaders in the opposition to the Vietnam War).
posted by russilwvong at 12:05 AM on February 20, 2012


Dude please do not assume that I have only read one book in my life! I majored in International Relations. I've read Kennedy's book (and liked it, but wouldn't regard him as any more "objective" than Chomsky). I haven't read the whole of Morgenthau's book but did cover his work at university, and like most academic "Realism" it struck me as mostly (although not completely) pap. I love Orwell religiously and have read everything he's ever written. Anyway, with respect, the essay that you wrote indicates to me that you're the one that needs to do the extra reading. Please go make Understanding Power the next book you read, and your opinion will change.

Frankly to me it seems that you've decided that Chomsky must be wrong and now you're spinning around trying to find a reason - resorting now to pop-pyschology. So Chomsky's analysis of Iraq sucks because he neglects the fact that the neocons were trying to escape their own emotional vulnerability and mortality? Please.

You contrast Chomsky's comments on terror with Arendt's, but to me it seems pretty obvious that to the (limited) extent that they disagree, Chomsky is the one that is making sense. It's the same principle that distinguishes Allied violence from Axis violence in WW2. Do you think that's a double standard too? What's the big deal about weighing the positives and negatives, unless you're an absolute pacifist? And on China, yeah, he's comparing it favourably to Russia, which is valid. And yes, the Chinese Revolution is responsible for some tremendous achievements - in life expectancy, in literacy, in the status of women, that's not "romantic", that's just a fact.

And Chomsky is not more marginal than he used to be. he's one of the ten most frequently quoted sources in the humanities, and a best-selling political author that draws enormous crowds wherever he goes.
posted by moorooka at 5:19 PM on February 20, 2012


Dude please do not assume that I have only read one book in my life!

Sorry, I jumped to the conclusion that you hadn't had enough exposure to alternate viewpoints. I was wrong, obviously!

Frankly to me it seems that you've decided that Chomsky must be wrong and now you're spinning around trying to find a reason -

If you find my arguments unconvincing, so be it. Again, my biggest problem with Chomsky is his misuse of quotes. If you don't find this problematic, that's fine--but my advice is to always check his quotes against the original.

Regarding Chomsky's marginalization (as a political writer, not as a linguist) since the end of the Vietnam War: Chomsky wasn't merely prominent during the Vietnam War, he was widely regarded as a leader of the opposition to the war. Raziel Abelson, chair of the philosophy department at NYU, in a letter to the New York Review of Books, April 20, 1967:
I would like to congratulate The New York Review on its publication [Feb. 23] of the extraordinary article by Noam Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” Chomsky’s morally impassioned and powerfully argued denunciation of American aggression in Vietnam and throughout the world is the most moving political document I have read since the death of Leon Trotsky. It is inspiring to see a brilliant scientist risk his prestige, his access to lucrative government grants, and his reputation for Olympian objectivity by taking a clearcut, no-holds-barred, adversary position on the burning moral-political issue of the day, and by castigating the complacent mythology of “specialized expertise” under which many academic intellectuals shrug off the crimes committed by their government, only provided they are not naked enough (e.g., the Dominican intervention) to defy the most accomplished casuistry.

It will be said that Chomsky’s account of American foreign policy is drawn in black and white, and that politics is in reality a spectrum of shades of gray. And this objection would be sound, if Chomsky were writing as a detached observer on Mars. Sure, Viet Cong terrorists have murdered, mutilated, and intimidated their opposition. Certainly, Red China has been far more hysterically aggressive than Chomsky admits (so much as to have frightened their Communist allies, as well as half their own population). But I salute Chomsky for not caring to appear fair to the facts on both sides. For the facts are known well enough by now. It is the moral evaluation of our foreign policy and the decision as to what we are going to do about it that is now in order. At precisely this moment we have the best, perhaps the only, chance to stop the senseless slaughter in Vietnam and achieve a détente with the Communist nations. Why doesn’t President Johnson stop the bombing of North Vietnam, as he promised to do, if only he would receive some sign—when everyone knows he has received all sorts of frantic signs? I hope Chomsky’s indignation will prove infectious, and that he will have convinced many of his fellow scientists that judgments of right and wrong need not and should not be left to technical experts on geopolitics or the theory of thermonuclear games.
And afterward? See this Boston Globe profile from 1995.
The New York Review of Books was one soapbox for Chomsky -- but only until 1972 or so. Chomsky says that's because the magazine's editorial policy abruptly shifted to the right around then. But he couldn't seem to find a home with other publications, either. He went from huddling with newspaper editors and bouncing ideas off them to being virtually banned. The New Republic wouldn't have him, in part because of his unrelenting criticism of Israel. The Nation? Occasionally. But for the most part, mainstream outlets shunned him. Today, his articles on social and political developments are confined to lesser-known journals such as the magazine Z.
More succinctly, Paul Berman writes in Terror and Liberalism (2003): "In the United States, the principal newspapers and magazines have tended to ignore Chomsky's political writings for many years now, because of his reputation as a crank."
posted by russilwvong at 10:57 PM on February 21, 2012


I forgot to say: I'll take a look at Understanding Power (checking the references, of course). Given that I've already read The Chomsky Reader and Deterring Democracy, I doubt that Understanding Power will change my mind--I think I understand Chomsky's arguments, I just disagree with them.
posted by russilwvong at 10:01 PM on February 22, 2012


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