Noam Chomsky’s half-truths and distortions are still loved by the British Left
The Guardian has given one of its great heroes a platform to spout forth on the decline of American power and the manifold sins of its past, but it’s all subterfuge
Two of the best read pieces on the Guardian’s Comment is free website this week were written by none other than the master propagandist himself: Noam Chomsky. That’s no surprise. Back in 2005, Britain’s Prospect Magazine ran a poll asking readers to vote on the world’s top public intellectuals. Chomsky won by a country mile. The British Left love him.
But what exactly is it that they love about him? To illustrate the point, let’s use Chomsky’s two most recent pieces: “'Losing' the world: American decline in perspective, part 1”;and “The imperial way: American decline in perspective, part 2”.
I make no claim to an exhaustive dissection of these articles: For one thing it would be too tedious; for another, as you will see, the techniques he employs to advance his arguments mean that the content is so shallow that there’s often nothing meaningful to dissect; or, at least, it’s so predictable you know what he’s going to say on a given subject in advance.
He begins with the usual bluster about the Vietnam War, describing it as “the most destructive and murderous act of aggression of the post-second world war period.” The key phrase in the sentence is “murderous act of aggression”: America, and by extension the wider West, are murderers and aggressors. A British and European Left drenched in guilt about their support for communist genocide needs to hear such things: don’t criticise the crimes of the Left; your record is just as bad, if not worse!
As far as the content is concerned, since no mention is made of the kind of totalitarian communist regimes America was trying to prevent from establishing themselves, it is difficult to see what sort of objection Chomsky would have to making the same kind of statement about Allied efforts to defeat Nazi Germany, which also involved mass bombing campaigns killing large numbers of German civilians.
But that is classic Chomsky: the context is eradicated leaving no sense of how the US could possibly have been involved in anything other than criminal aggression for naked self-interest. The context, of course, is that America had every right to believe that what would emerge in Indochina would mirror the horrors of communist genocide in China and the Soviet Union.
Communism was well on the way to mounting a huge global challenge to the democratic West. And, indeed, when America failed in its objectives in Indochina the result was the establishment of a communist government in Vietnam responsible for approximately one million deaths, and the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia which resulted in the deaths of up to twice that number.
But this would only be remotely convincing to you if your ultimate political values drew you decisively to the side of the liberal democratic West in the first place. And, to put it mildly, neither Chomsky nor his supporters feel remotely inclined in such a direction.
As Oliver Kamm wrote at the time of the infamous poll in Prospect, Chomsky frequently likens “America’s conduct to that of Nazi Germany.” Why take the side of Nazis on any grounds? And since the people that behave like the Nazis are our people, it is surely our duty to put our house in order before having the brazen cheek to point to the shortcomings of others, at which point the intellectual groundwork for an entire edifice of Western self-hatred has been firmly laid.
Once you’ve got that point, you have essentially got the top and bottom of what Chomsky is about, and why he has such a following.
The content of his arguments does not stand up to serious scrutiny and that, in any case, is not why his supporters find him so compelling. The gap he fills for them is not intellectual, it is emotional.
For example, consider the following paragraph as another piece of classic Chomsky subterfuge:
“The most important victory of the Indochina wars was in 1965,” he says, “when a US-backed military coup in Indonesia led by General Suharto carried out massive crimes that were compared by the CIA to those of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. The ‘staggering mass slaughter’, as the New York Times described it, was reported accurately across the mainstream, and with unrestrained euphoria.”
There are three items at work here which get to the heart of Chomsky’s technique. The first is the comparison between Suharto (our guy) and Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Since even Chomsky cannot argue that the contemporary United States in its domestic incarnation has committed crimes comparable to the Nazis or the communists it is essential to discredit America by association with regimes that it has “backed” or “installed”.
(Similar techniques were employed by anti-Western British Leftists in the 1980s. I well remember a television appearance by Bruce Kent, of the Campaign for Nuclear disarmament (CND), who once argued that although America did not have a Gulag in the United States it did, effectively, have one in Guatemala since that “American backed” repressive regime was to some extent supported by the United States as a bulwark against communism.)
Intellectually this is no more credible than saying that Churchill bore guilt for the crimes of Stalin since the two leaders were allies for much of World War II. Alliances of convenience necessitated by dangerous totalitarian enemies imply nothing whatever about political-ideological compatibility.
But again, this doesn’t matter because the void Chomsky is filling for the ideological Left is not analytical, it is moral and emotional.
The comparison itself is similarly devoid of substance: Suharto was certainly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people; but Hitler, Stalin and Mao took the lives of tens of millions. The quantitative difference is so enormous as also to be qualitative.
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