Chomsky vs. Parenti, part 5: Lesser Evilism

This is meant as a look at some of the areas where Noam Chomsky and Michael Parenti differ most visibly in their analysis and biases. Given their similarities, comparing the two provides a rare opportunity at substitution analysis: to quote Chomsky himself, “you can’t do experiments in history, but here history was kind enough to set one up for us.” In short, the differences in Chomsky versus Parenti’s positions makes for a useful case study in what ideas genuinely make one a candidate for marginalization, versus what ideas are actually quite acceptable despite their transgressive veneers. Click here for an all-in-one post.

Chomsky is never more visible than during the presidential elections season, and there’s one reason why: “As the electoral spectacle kicks into full gear and forces itself into every sector of American political discourse, Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s most celebrated dissident intellectuals, continues his longstanding tradition of reminding us that the looming apocalypse must be delayed by any means necessary,” writes Kevin Dooley, “which really means voting for the certain Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.”

Just as he is never more visible than during this quadrennial spectacle, he is never more prescriptive. Here is a sample of what Chomsky says and how he says it:

  • January 2016: In an interview with Al Jazeera’s UpFront, Chomsky says “he would ‘absolutely’ vote for Hillary Clinton over any Republican candidate” and “there are ‘enormous differences’ between the policies of the Democrats and the Republicans.”
  • March 2016: Chomsky says Hillary Clinton is “kind of hawkish” and “much more militant than the centrist democrats,” but “If Republicans are elected, there could be major changes that will be awful. I have never seen such lunatics in the political system. For instance, Ted Cruz’s response to terrorism is to carpet-bomb everyone.”
  • May 2016: Chomsky calls Donald Trump’s ideas “almost a death knell for the species,” telling his readers “If I were in a swing state, a state that matters, and the choice were Clinton or Trump, I would vote against Trump. And by arithmetic that means hold your nose and vote for Clinton.”

This is similar rhetoric to the previous election, at which time Chomsky said “the worst didn’t happen, and it might have…I mean, there are some differences; it’s not zero impact, you know.” This year, “almost a death knell for the species” is extraordinarily strong language coming from the professor, and many of Chomsky’s readers likely take his counsel to heart come voting day. Chomsky is indeed correct that global warming will likely kill the majority of aerobic life on Earth within several human generations, making it an effective cudgel. He proffers that global warming is an urgent reason to show up next November and vote for Hillary Clinton, but it’s anyone’s guess how a Clinton presidency will lead to a more stable climate. Chomsky says that Donald Trump is too close to climate change deniers, but the same is true for Clinton, a fracking enthusiast who Chomsky concedes is “more militant” than Obama and who is Wall Street’s preferred candidate. The US military rivals animal agriculture for the world’s most egregious polluter, and a servant of big business would never meaningfully threaten the continued operation of capitalism. So voters are left with tonal differences: Trump adjoins people who say climate change isn’t real, while Clinton will admit it’s real and perpetuate it. There is no practical difference between these two positions whatsoever—any capitalist may as well be a climate change denier. Like the many urgent reasons Chomsky offers, this is a small superficial change the brilliant professor is inflating into a life-or-death matter with verbal smoke-and-mirrors.

Much of the media hyperventilating over Trump and the Republicans is to distract from the Democrats actually in power doing much the same. Trump horrifies liberals and thrills many supporters by calling for the deportation of 11 million Latinos; meanwhile, Barack Obama has deported more Latin Americans than all the presidents in the 20th century combined. Trump calls for murdering the family members of accused terrorists, Obama actually does it. Chomsky performs much the same service for Hillary Clinton now. He diminishingly describes Hillary Clinton as “kind of hawkish” and “more militant than centrist Democrats”—an extremely minimizing way to describe one of the most bellicose people in American politics, and by extension, the world. Calling Clinton “kind of” a hawk is a rather brazen whitewash of a politician whose record is fundamentally neoconservative, and thus the preferred candidate of neoconservatives. Clinton is not only “more militant than centrist Democrats,” she’s more militant than many right-wing Republicans. If one wants to make a case that a particular candidate heralds the “death knell” for humanity, Clinton is a more compelling candidate based on her militarism alone. As Eric Draitser explains, Trump’s alleged isolationism is mostly marketing, and one need only go back to 2000 to hear a Republican candidate decry military adventurism and advocate a humble foreign policy. However, given Hillary Clinton’s extant record and current campaign rhetoric, a solid case could be made that Clinton is the candidate most likely to start a nuclear war. So when Chomsky says to vote for Hillary because Ted Cruz’s “carpet-bomb everyone” foreign policy is crazy, it must be understood as something other than a factual argument.

The constant imputation of good intentions to Democrats, regardless of evidence, is something Chomsky does quite often—for instance, he speculates that Senator Elizabeth Warren supports Israel because “She probably knows nothing about the Middle East.” However, Chomsky extends these good graces to the internal affairs of the United States itself. Chomsky is well-known as a trenchant critic of US foreign policy, going so far as to observe that if the Nuremberg Standard were applied evenly, then every post-war American would have been hanged. Chomsky will expound upon legions of horrors, but his conclusions in the past several years generally go something like this—by way of telling Americans that the “2016 election puts us at risk of utter disaster,” Chomsky says:

With all its flaws, America is still a very free and open society, by comparative standards. Elections surely matter. It would, in my opinion, be an utter disaster for the country, the world and future generations if any of the viable Republican candidates were to reach the White House, and if they continue to control Congress. Consideration of the overwhelmingly important questions we discussed earlier suffices to reach that conclusion, and it’s not all. For such reasons as those I alluded to earlier, American democracy, always limited, has been drifting substantially toward plutocracy. But these tendencies are not graven in stone. We enjoy an unusual legacy of freedom and rights left to us by predecessors who did not give up, often under far harsher conditions than we face now. And it provides ample opportunities for work that is badly needed, in many ways, in direct activism and pressures in support of significant policy choices, in building viable and effective community organizations, revitalizing the labor movement, and also in the political arena, from school boards to state legislatures and much more.

This is quite typical. Tarzie refers to this as “Chomsky’s persistent whitewashing of domestic repression,” and there’s no more accurate way to describe it. The professor calls US repression “undetectable” in comparison with the rest of the world, thus “temporarily disappear[ing], for rhetorical effect, two million people languishing in US prisons, based on a percentage contest with Palestinians.” Elsewhere, Chomsky claims that “the number of dissenters that are pushed aside is almost universal, either they’re in jail… if it’s Latin America they get their heads blown off. In the United States they’re marginalized in various ways. The United States is a free country…there is more protection for freedom of speech [than in Britain]…But essentially they can’t get jobs, they’re marginalized, they’re vilified. All sort of things, not much punishment, frankly, but, it’s real.” Tarzie writes that:

First of all, being vilified and made unable to support oneself is actually quite a lot of punishment, if your baseline is ‘not persecuted’ as opposed to ‘not murdered.’ But the repression of US dissenters doesn’t end with extreme marginalization. It’s beyond scope here to list all the US political dissidents whose persecution exceeds trifles like ostracism and financial ruin, especially if we don’t limit our timeframe, but the following should suffice to make the point:

  • Ali al-Timimi, a Muslim cleric in Virginia, sentenced to life in prison for exhorting his followers to fight for the Taliban following 9/11
  • Anwar al-Awlaki, executed without due process for extolling violent resistance to the United States. His 16-year-old son was murdered a few weeks later with no official justification.
  • Samir Khan, executed without due process for editing a magazine allegedly connected to al-Qaeda.
  • Tarek Mehanna, sentenced to 17 years in prison for translating publicly available pro-jihadist documents and posting them online.
  • Chelsea Manning, at the time of the interview, in prison for almost three years without trial and subjected to brutal conditions. She recently received a 35-year sentence for leaking military and State Department documents.
  • John Kiriakou, former CIA officer, sentenced to 2 1/2 years for disclosing classified information to journalists while blowing the whistle on waterboarding.

Any consideration of how  “free” US society is must also factor in the harassment, raids and stings used against Muslims, anarchists, hacktivists, militant environmentalists and animal rights activists; the brutality and arrests routinely unleashed by militarized police on peaceful protesters; and the mass incarceration of African-Americans and other marginalized communities which is, among other things, a pre-emptive measure against political mobilization.  Chomsky is aware of these particulars, which is why his overall sanguine assessment is, at first glance, extremely odd.

In a later post, Tarzie highlights yet another Chomsky video vindicating the idea that “among his many services to power is the rosy view he offers of state repression in the US. In the video, Chomsky answers the perennial question, ‘What Can We Do?’ not with concrete suggestions for political engagement, but with a starry-eyed assessment of how hard it’s become for the state to persecute dissenters. ‘I think there’s a lot of excessive concern in activist groups about state repression,’ he announces at one point in this sunny tribute to American political freedom.” Chomsky ignores the myriad examples of domestic repression highlighted above, “cheerfully announcing that the ‘opportunities’ for political engagement are ‘almost boundless’ and admonishing gloomy comrades for their ‘paranoia about concentration camps.’ ‘The state may try to repress you,’ he says, ‘but they can’t do a lot.’”

Fantasy author Robin Hobb said that if an author wants to make the reader believe what dragons can and can not do in their narrative world, the author needs to accurately depict what horses can and can not do. In order to make a fantasy convincing, the author needs to be faithful to the real elements—the more convincingly these real elements are depicted, the more it authenticates the fantasy. This is how Chomsky works in his foreign versus domestic critiques. His readers are accustomed to Chomsky as the most clear-eyed and incisive critic of American foreign policy and media in the public eye. This lucidity lends him the credibility he needs to render a stunningly ahistorical and utterly baseless picture of domestic repression, convincingly pass off his whitewashes of Democratic politicians, and to quadrennially spin democratic gold from the plutocratic election straw.

The reality is that Democratic politicians and high-status liberal figures are in no way “lesser” evils. Chomsky and others selling the election scam are right that there are differences between the two parties. There are crucial differences, both in tone and in the way they deliver distinct constituencies to the ruling class’s agenda. Many Democratic party voters might even be repulsed by the realities of capitalism and settler-colonialism, so they require fundamentally different rhetoric than an open xenophobe. However, throughout history, centrist parties have been able to advance agendas that the far-right can not. According to Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr.’s Black Against Empire, a history of the Black Panther Party, the authors explain that “The hard-core right wing was not the main threat to the Party. Rather concessions to blacks and opponents of the war reestablished the credibility of liberalism to key constituencies…when the Democratic Party began fighting to end the war, the Nixon administration rolled back the draft and created affirmative action programs, the United States normalized relations with revolutionary governments abroad, and black electoral representation ballooned, the Party had to work harder to maintain allied support” (pp. 393-4). Progressive-branded NGOs supplemented the Democrats in this task. “Such organizations vacuumed up the flotsam and jetsam of the resistance movements of the 60s and 70s, gave them paid staff positions, and neutered them,” explains Michael Novick of the Anti-Racist Action Network. “This was true long before the emergence of the current round of the ‘anti-war movement.’ It happened to the women’s movement and the Black and Chicano liberation struggles as far back as the 70s. In the late 80s, most of the anti-racist projects that sprung up to deal with the first wave of Neo-Nazism went the board and staff, grant-writing model, with the result that they lost both their militancy and their anti-establishment spark, making them politically irrelevant. Most went out of business as other vogues took precedence with funders.”

In the United States, the Democratic party and its offshoots have historically proven not only more effective at co-opting social movements, but in many instances advancing capital’s agenda at the expense of humanity. This has lead Glen Ford—another socialist whose analysis bests Chomsky and thus relegates him to obscurity—to reject the idea that Barack Obama and the Democrats are a lesser evil and instead call them a more effective evil. Unlike Chomsky’s rosy view of Democratic politicians, Ford backs up his contention with hard facts:

[Obama] has been more effective in Evil-Doing than Bush in terms of protecting the citadels of corporate power, and advancing the imperial agenda. He has put both Wall Street and U.S. imperial power on new and more aggressive tracks – just as he hired himself out to do.

That was always Wall Street’s expectation of Obama, and his promise to them. That’s why they gave him far more money in 2008 than they gave John McCain. They were buying Obama futures on the electoral political market – and they made out like bandits. He was the bankers’ guy in the Democratic presidential primary race. Among the last three standing in 2008, it was Obama who opposed any moratorium on home foreclosures. Let it run its course, said candidate Obama. And, true to his word, he has let the foreclosures run their catastrophic course.

Only a few months later, when the crunch came and Finance Capital was in meltdown, who rescued Wall Street? Not George Bush. Bush tried, but he was spent, discredited, ineffective. Not John McCain. He was in a coma, coming unglued, totally ineffective.

Bush’s bailout failed on a Monday. By Friday, Obama had convinced enough Democrats in opposition to roll over – and the bailout passed, setting the stage for a new dispensation between the American State and Wall Street, in which a permanent pipeline of tens of trillions of dollars would flow directly into Wall Street accounts, via the Federal Reserve.

And Obama had not even been elected yet.

Obama put Social Security and Medicaid and all Entitlements on the table, in mid-January. The Republicans had suffered resounding defeat. Nobody was pressuring Obama from the Right. When the Right was on its ass, Obama stood up and spoke in their stead. There was no Evil Devil forcing him to put Entitlements on the chopping block. It was HIM. He was the Evil One – and it was not a Lesser Evil. It was a very Effective Evil, because the current Age of Austerity began on that day, in January, 2009.

And Obama had not even been sworn in as president, yet.

Stephen Gowans makes a similar argument in “Obama Better Than Bush? Yes, But For Who?”:

Obama’s just a handmaiden of the establishment, but even if he’s only a little better than a Republican president, he’s still a little better.” And a little better can, as Noam Chomsky once said, make a big difference. I guess that’s true, depending on what your goal is. If your goal is to keep public pensions intact for another three years instead of one, little differences do count.

But there’s a point at which goals can go from difficult to reach but achievable to so modest that setting them amounts to capitulation. What’s more, it’s doubtful that the Democrats are even a little better. The view on the left that they are comes from the belief that the Democrats and Republicans differ only in the degree to which they’re willing to make concessions to labor to buy social peace. Democrats will go further, we’re told.

But there’s another view, which liberals, progressives and timid radicals impatiently dismiss as “ultra-left.” It says that because they’re widely but erroneously supposed to be the party of the common man, the Democrats can go further in advancing the agenda of the ultra-wealthy—and do. The reason why is that once in office the common man goes to sleep. Ultra-left or not, this view seems to more closely fit the facts than the competing view that the Democrats are friendlier to the average person (if only to serve ruling class purposes) compared to the Republicans.

Commenting on the difference between Labour and Conservative governments in Britain, the radical sociologist Albert Szymanski once remarked that Labour “followed the same sort of conservative economic policies vis-a-vis balancing the budget, reducing the trade deficit and resisting workers’ demands for wage increases as the Conservative and Liberal governments that came before and after.” But the “main difference between the two types of governments was that a Labour prime minister was better able to get the working class to accept” sacrifices that benefited banks, investors and corporations. In other words, if you want to pacify labor and the left while ramming through measures that advance the interests of capital at the expense of everyone else, bring in a Labour or Democrat or (in Canada) NDP government. Sure, they’re more apt to guarantee social peace, but only because voters think they’re in their corner.

This is the reality behind the so-called “lesser evils.” Americans in particular are subjected to a never-ending torrent of lies, so they are never exposed to the fact that liberal parties are able to more effectively immiserate humanity by virtue of their progressive reputations. Noam Chomsky joins the rest of the mainstream media establishment in shamelessly, brazenly selling these lies to the public. However, those who follow Michael Parenti received a welcome respite. In a Facebook post titled “Bernie and Me,” Parenti discussed his relationship with the Independent Senator from Vermont:

People have asked me what I think of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Bernie and I used to be close political friends up in Vermont in the early 1970s. We ran together on a third party ticket (the Liberty Union Party). I ran for the U.S. House of Representatives and Bernie ran for the U.S. Senate… I remained good friends with Bernie. I gave him moral and monetary support in his successful campaigns for Mayor of Burlington, then U.S. House of Representatives.

But I eventually broke with him because of his position on the Yugoslavia war, the “humanitarian war” as Bill Clinton and his national security state people called it. As did many liberals and some Trotskyites and anarchists, Bernie stood shoulder to shoulder with NATO and the CIA and the Clinton White House in the destruction of Yugoslavia, the 78 days of bombing, drenching Serbia in depleted uranium, leaving Serbia with the highest cancer rate in Europe and breaking up Yugoslavia, one of the best social democracies in Europe, though not without its serious blemishes.

Today, I wish Bernie the best. He is a Democrat although he calls himself a socialist and an independent. But he takes very good stands on Social Security, human services, and curbing the banksters. However, he has voiced not a word about what his foreign policy might be. I suspect it has not improved. I will most likely not be voting for him. Probably I will support some third-party candidate who will run a hard hopeless campaign—of the kind we used to do in Vermont years ago.   —-MICHAEL PARENTI

Similar sentiments are invariably sneered at by many vaguely self-identified progressives, dismissed as preening ideological purity, a circular firing squad, or the elitism of the coffee shop/humanities department/drum circle (pick your cliché). “The existence of principles that you then chose to follow through on with actions is often confusing to liberals who imagine themselves socialists,” writes Kevin Dooley. For some of those who object to things like the mass-murder of civilians in order to benefit foreign investors, it is unacceptable, even unconscionable and grotesque, to vote for politicians who have supported and indicate a continued willingness to do that very thing. Many of the liberals-who-believe-they’re-radicals simply don’t have any strong objection to such a thing, and sneer at those who do because it would be gauche to admit their feelings. Through their stance towards the Democrats’ “lesser” evil, Parenti proves to be the former, while Chomsky reveals himself as the latter. As Dooley writes:

In the face of all this reactionary pressure, the importance of maintaining actual socialist principles can’t be overstated. The reason why things like lesser-evil advocacy need to be resisted so strongly is because of its pernicious effect on many people’s ability to reject the spectacle and see how their class interests are being sabotaged by people who present themselves as allies of progress. Ceding ourselves to a Democrat that signals towards our politics or public intellectuals who constantly use their platforms to counsel the tactical wisdom of compromise instead of the urgent necessity of revolution will continue to lead us exactly where we are. The sooner we remove these influences and start building something based on our own principles the better

2 thoughts on “Chomsky vs. Parenti, part 5: Lesser Evilism

  1. Pingback: The Mainstream and the Margins: Noam Chomsky vs. Michael Parenti | Popaganda

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