America’s Greatest Dissident
All of this is crucial context because Chomsky’s defenders compare him favorably to Fox News cretins and State Department snakes. But this is not a useful analytical comparison because Chomsky was not intended to supplant Bill O’Reilly and Madeleine Albright, which is why he never replaced those people in the propaganda system of which he is a part. Those whom MIT hired him to replace were all those movement leaders, thinkers, and revolutionaries who were more substantively radical than him, which is why he did replace those people.
Chomsky has enjoyed a sinecure at one of America’s wealthiest and most Pentagon-connected universities because he steers people away from all the more radical ideas mentioned above, ideas which once defined the intellectual substance of “the Left.” In 1972, if someone had wandered into a GI café, SNCC meeting, or Panther safehouse and claimed that conspiracies are a distraction, people must vote Democrat, information is itself powerful, or the law has an inherent power to constrain the state, they would’ve been looked at as though they claimed to be from Mars. The mass movements of the twentieth century meant that it was no longer possible for these radical critiques of the status quo to remain invisible. The ruling class couldn’t make these critiques not exist overnight—their choice was between radical critiques in the service of revolutionary change, and radical critiques which were flawed enough to be tolerable, shift people away from direct action, and foster the illusion of intellectual freedom. If the ruling class was to steer idealistic progressives away from excessively radical ideas they would have to slowly shift things over the course of decades. There was no other choice.
A long-term approach is the only one that could work, since so many ideas that Chomsky has popularized would’ve destroyed anyone’s credibility among radical audiences circa 1970. It’s entertaining to watch him shred William F. Buckley on Firing Line, but the reason it was him doing it and not someone more radical is because he has reliably pulled punches in power-serving ways when it matters. Many of the things for which he is credited—serving as most Westerners’ intro to the Left, being hated by Republicans, getting written by Pat Tillman during the Ranger’s disillusionment, getting quoted by Hugo Chávez at the UN General Assembly, etc.—are things which would have happened to anyone occupying his position. His best work, namely the voluble criticisms on American foreign policy and his critique of the media, was also done—without the anarcho-liberalism—by Michael Parenti. If Chomsky didn’t have so many more flaws than the rest of the radical milieu circa 1967, when The New York Review of Books put him on the map, he would’ve met the same fate as the dozens of professors purged from academia during that era.1 When Carl Oglesby died in 2011, his obituaries in the New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post, Guardian, and Politico all neglected to mention The Yankee and Cowboy War or Oglesby’s radical scholarship—which is the fate that befalls any work that crosses those lines that Chomsky so assiduously observes.
This doesn’t mean that Chomsky’s work has never been censored, nor that he’s never incurred official disfavor or been ignored. He has certainly produced work radical enough to merit censorship, otherwise he would’ve never been believable as the face of the Western Left. Chomsky’s books have been banned in prisons and by the government of the Republic of Korea under the country’s draconian national security law. When Chomsky and Edward Herman’s book Counter-Revolutionary Violence was released by Warner Modular Publications, an executive at Warner Communications tried to pulp the entire run of the already published book, and then shuttered Warner Modular. This is a form of censorship known as “privishing,” and though most authors never do anything sufficiently rebellious to provoke the censorious impulses of their editors, it is common enough practice, and victims include Gerald Colby, Richard Barnet, and Mark Dowie. Colby, for instance, authored a 1974 book about the Du Pont family which publisher Prentice-Hall found excessively critical, and then “privished” into non-existence. When Colby sued the publisher for breach of contract, a three-judge appeals panel ruled against him, calling his book “a Marxist view of history.”2
But along with his scholarship, Chomsky was making what are, especially in hindsight, clear concessions to the elite institutions whose favor he enjoyed. Even beyond the many areas enumerated elsewhere in which Chomsky was more conservative than his peer group, we might consider what was said and done at MIT during the headiest days of the anti-war movement.
During this period, MIT’s various departments were researching helicopters, smart bombs and counterinsurgency techniques for the war in Vietnam and, as Chomsky says, “a good deal of [nuclear] missile guidance technology was developed right on the MIT campus.” As Chomsky elaborates, “[MIT was] about 90% Pentagon funded at that time. And I personally was right in the middle of it. I was in a military lab… the Research Laboratory for Electronics.” By 1969, student activists were actively campaigning “to stop the war research” at MIT.
MIT had six of its anti-war student activists sentenced to prison terms. Chomsky says MIT’s students suffered things that “should not have happened.” However, Chomsky has also claimed that MIT has “quite a good record on civil liberties.”
One of Chomsky’s biographers writes that in 1969, the Pentagon and NASA funded two MIT laboratories: Draper was working on inertial guidance systems while Lincoln was, according to Chomsky, “engaged in some things that involved ongoing counterinsurgency.” In his debate with Arendt and Sontag et al, the professor advocates non-violence because “The Institute of Defense Analysis which is run by a consortium of ten major Eastern universities—Columbia, Princeton, MIT, and so on—has been working on crowd control, which means control of blacks, students, peace demonstrators. And the technology for doing this is extremely efficacious and will only improve.” Since language is an indispensable part of the “human terrain system,” we can surmise that the great dissident probably played some role in improving this crowd-control technology. He once told Amy Goodman that during the war “I happened to be working in a laboratory [at MIT] which was 100 percent supported by the three armed services.”
Universities have been such an essential part of the military industry that one LA Times columnist wrote “The only two atomic weapons ever dropped on an enemy—the bombs that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki—could easily have borne the legend: ‘Designed by the University of California as a service to the people of the United States.’”3 During the Vietnam War, historian Michael Klare dubbed universities “America’s fourth Armed Services,” and pointed out that there was an “extraordinary concentration of scientists and engineering talent at MIT” working for the Pentagon. In 1966, MIT spokesman Edward B. Hanify said:
MIT is in the front rank of the forces of science dedicated to the essential research which the Government of the United States considers indispensible to the National Defense. It is a scientific arsenal of democracy.
“MIT has, in fact, become fixed in the popular imagination as the very paradigm of university-military collaboration,” in Klare’s words.4 Tensions were growing between MIT’s leadership, which naturally sought to continue its lucrative relationship with the Pentagon, and anti-war students, who understood that MIT was a major node in the military industry that was destroying millions of lives in Vietnam and around the world. There was a large strike at MIT on May 4th 1969 to protest MIT’s involvement in the military industry, which led to “press accounts of young scientists who have quit defense research to work on environmental problems—or who quit science altogether to become full-time political activists,” according to Klare. Dr. John S. Foster, Jr., the Pentagon’s Director of Defense Research and Engineering, observed that the unrest would force military research into the hands of more cooperative but “less competent” institutions, which was precisely the point.5
Chomsky proposed a middle ground: “Chomsky maintains that it was impossible at that time for MIT and its researchers to sever ties with the military-industrial complex and continue to function. What he proposed then he stands by even today: universities with departments that work on bacterial warfare should do so openly, by developing departments of death. His intention was to inform the general population of what was going on so that individuals could make informed and unencumbered decisions about their actions.” In the midst of an anti-war movement engaged in shutting down the war machine at home and “turning the guns around” in Vietnam, Chomsky argued that it was impossible to stop MIT’s part in the imperial slaughter, and thus it would be ideal to emphasize “systems of a purely defensive and deterrent character” (as though such a thing were possible) and add an element of informed consent. While giving weapons designers better information to opt in or out of helping exterminate people might be nice for their consciences, the professor elides the fact that this offers nothing to the victims of imperialism. The only way for MIT students to stop the slaughter of the Vietnamese was to shut down MIT, which Chomsky opposed. James Kunen describes participating in a protest at Columbia and writing in chalk “I am sorry about defacing the walls, but babies are being burned and men are dying, and this University is at fault quite directly.”6 Chomsky’s ideas about informed consent sound very nice, and he even addresses himself to bourgeois clerks in some of his books in hopes that they’ll walk away from the war machine. But as far as the efficacy of this approach, we might consider that all of Chomsky’s great anti-war commentary hasn’t even been able to stop Noam Chomsky from working for the Pentagon. He also defended his involvement with MIT because the university is not “totalitarian,” whatever that means.
In short, wrote Robert Barsky,
Chomsky’s position on this issue is that no formal constraints should be put on research. So at this important time the professor took what he calls a ‘pretty extreme position,’ and indeed ‘one that might be hard to defend had anyone ever criticized it,’ which he describes as follows: ‘Nothing should be done to impede people from teaching and doing their research even if at that very moment it was being used to massacre and destroy.’7
Chomsky said as much in “On Resistance,” when he warned that direct action to shut down the war machine should be avoided because “the long-range threat would be to American humanistic and scientific culture.” He neglected to explain why ending imperial wars would hurt “American humanistic culture,” rather than making American culture more humane. Here, Chomsky not only differed from the radical consensus of the era, but was diametrically opposed to it. Julius Lester wrote that the only way to “humanize America” was to “make revolution.” Stokely Carmichael said the same thing. During one anti-war protest, Paul Potter of the SDS said “the war goes on; the freedom to conduct that war depends on the dehumanization not only of Vietnamese people but of Americans as well.”8 In 1969, the Chicago Daily Defender, a black-oriented progressive journal, heralded Black Panther protests at Yale as a measure that “may provide the dynamism for the reformation of American society…Yale has now become the focus for justice for the Black Panthers. With the singular exception of a few isolated incidents, the New Haven institution is going peacefully and serenely about the business of transforming a sick society into a healthy consortium.”9 Radicals of the era mostly believed that protesting America’s worst institutions would make the country more humane. Chomsky claimed the opposite, allegedly out of a vague commitment to principles of free speech and unfettered intellectual inquiry.
This emphasis on the liberatory power of information is a theme which has suffused both Chomsky’s work in particular and increasingly defined the wider Western Left since the radical heyday. It is an idea which does not come from what could be considered the radical tradition, which saw collective action—not appeals to reason—as the wellspring of freedom, power, and progress. For example, in his “Ballots or Bullets” speech, Malcolm X said “Black people are fed up with the dillydallying, pussyfooting, compromising approach that we’ve been using toward getting our freedom. We want freedom now, but we’re not going to get it saying ‘We Shall Overcome.’ We’ve got to fight until we overcome.” One SDS leader said that their belief was that “freedom lies in collective, class struggle.”10 In a September 1969 letter collected in his book Soledad Brother, George Jackson wrote “There are those among us, we must admit, who cannot take any sizable amount of freedom. They are in the majority! You cannot relate to them with ideals. They have fallen beyond caring about ideals. The only thing that will make them move is a push, no explanation, just a shove.”
In contrast, Chomsky’s emphasis on “A truly independent press” as “a foundation for a truly free and democratic society” is liberal, not radical. It inverts a radical understanding of how the press works and whom it serves—a “truly free and democratic society” comes first, and only then could one hope to enjoy a “truly independent” press. Of course, the question of how to create a truly free and democratic society is the most important one, and it was the question with which the revolutionaries of the era were grappling while Chomsky was counseling them to get arrested and go easy on MIT. “The only relationship the press can have to any radical or revolutionary organization is negative, to be used as tools for the government,” wrote Julius Lester, so “it must be realized that the press and television can in no way be used by the left to communicate with people. It is not the function of the press to report; its function is to shape opinion.”11 Lester here is demonstrating a grasp of what Marx said about those owning the means of production likewise owning the means of mental production. Lester also spoke to the utility of appealing to the oppressor’s conscience by quoting “what a New York businessman told an Abolitionist, the Rev. Samuel May, in the spring of 1845, when the good cleric had come to the businessman with moral arguments against slavery.”
“Mr. May,” the businessman told him, “we are not such fools as not to know that slavery is a great evil and a great wrong… We cannot afford, sir, to let you and your associates succeed in your endeavor to overthrow slavery. It is not a matter of principle with us. It is a matter of business necessity. We cannot afford to let you succeed… We do not mean to allow you to succeed. We mean, sir, to put you Abolitionists down—by fair means, if we can, by foul means, if we must.”12
In this important area, Chomsky sounds most like the progressive liberals of the era, not the radicals. Gerald W. Johnson, for instance, was an author, essayist, and journalist whom one biographer called “one of the most eloquent spokespersons for America’s adversary culture.” He was friends with H. L. Mencken and was a prominent liberal opponent of McCarthyism and the Red Scare at a time when it mattered. In Peril and Promise: An Inquiry into Freedom of the Press, Johnson extols the virtues of his profession, saying that the journalist is both “socially dangerous” and “socially necessary,” because “the highest attainable freedom is contingent upon the fullest and most accurate information; so those agencies whose function is the dissemination of information are crucial… journalism alone is concerned almost equally with public affairs, spiritual affairs and educational, which is to say, cultural affairs.” Thus the journalist “has wider opportunities, whether for good or evil, than either the politician or the educator.”13
For his part, Johnson enjoyed a long and illustrious career as a man of letters. Despite his repudiations of McCarthy, he was reliably anti-Communist and produced work extolling the virtues of the free enterprise system and “Americanism.” He worked for many years for Adlai Stevenson, who as America’s ambassador to the UN called criticisms of Washington “irrational, irresponsible, insulting and repugnant,” among other things. Johnson won a Peabody Award, a Sydney Hillman Foundation Award, and a DuPont Commentators’ Award. Alfred du Pont’s widow created the latter award as “as a tribute to the journalistic integrity and public-mindedness of her late husband,” and the Columbia School of Journalism calls it the “the most prestigious award in television and radio news, the broadcast equivalent of the Pulitzer Prizes.” She founded the award in 1942, the year America entered World War II, and almost certainly did so to rescue her late husband’s reputation since his company was one of the biggest Western supporters of Mussolini and Hitler. Johnson was not responsible for the actions of Ambassador Stevenson or the DuPont Corporation, but his relationship to these elite functionaries and corporate foundations demonstrates how the ruling class selects “eloquent spokespeople of America’s adversary culture” based on their having one foot firmly in the elite world. How could it be any other way? The “truth shall set you free” vision of freedom advocated by Chomsky and Johnson, so popular with the liberal intelligentsia, is quite alien to the radical tradition. Power, said Malcolm X, “real power, comes from conviction which produces action, uncompromising action. It also produces insurrection against oppression.”
It’s true that the radical movements of fifty years ago were strong enough that they forced their ideas into the public eye. But even at the time, radical ideas were not suddenly free from the predictable constraints. James Kunen, then a teenaged rebel at Columbia University, describes being booked on a local talk show to be interviewed by a host named Alan Burke. Burke’s booking secretary assured Kunen that Burke would be receptive because he is “kind and liberal.”
For the first few seconds of the show I am too nervous to speak, but then I become involved and settle down. I can handle my opponent, I can handle the almost unanimously negative questions from the audience, I can try to handle the invective of Mr. Burke, who contrary to assurances soon becomes my antagonist. But I have some problem with the station breaks, which always follow Burke’s most cutting remarks, and with an overly enthusiastic member of the audience who jumps up to lead applause after each remark against me, effectively preventing me from answering them. It turns out that this clapper is the prompter who cues the audience when to applaud, according to the instructions given them before the show.
I am dubbed a “deranged anarchist” and Mr. Burke concludes the show with the suggestion that I stick to panty raids, which he says are “more constructive.”14
Compare this sort of treatment to Noam Chomsky’s long exchange with William F. Buckley on Firing Line. Chomsky was never given his own hour-long show, but he also was able to expound on his ideas at length in various fora without the sort of interruptions and invective directed at Kunen. Maybe it was just because Chomsky had an encyclopedic recall of so many facts and figures; i.e. because he was simply the best and smartest radical voice. The subsequent rise of a media ecosystem which sustains people like Chomsky, Amy Goodman, and Glenn Greenwald would seemingly confirm that there’s a market for this. But Kunen came from a radical movement, while Chomsky enjoyed a high position at one of America’s wealthiest universities. As a college student, Kunen’s stances on any number of matters were probably unpredictable, while Chomsky had by that point established his more conservative, pacifist, and anti-Communist bona fides. As a radical activist, Kunen engaged in direct action. Chomsky not only heralded the power of information, he deplored most forms of direct action, and he said so. According to one writer:
During the time Chomsky was involved with protests against the war in Vietnam, he was always hostile—like Theodor Adorno—to on-campus protests that got in the way of pursuing the Truth. It was one thing to march against the war; it was another thing entirely to occupy a building that was dedicated to counter-insurgency research. According to Barsky, Chomsky admired “the challenge to the universities” but thought their rebellions were “largely misguided,” and he “criticized [them] as they were in progress at Berkeley (1966) and Columbia (1968) particularly. This is corroborated by Norman Mailer, who spent time with Chomsky in a jail cell after being arrested at the Pentagon protest in 1969: “He had, in fact, great reservations about the form that the 1968 student uprisings ultimately took.”
One activist/academic points out that despite Chomsky’s “extraordinary” memory, the professor recounts this period with some odd changes:
MIT was a major military contractor, and much of what happened there was funded by the Pentagon. Even Chomsky’s work was supported by the military. In the late 1960s, as the student movement reached its peak, war research on campus came under increasing attack, particularly projects being done at two MIT labs. [Chomsky recalls] the political line-up: right-wing faculty wanted to keep the labs, liberal faculty wanted to break relations with the labs formally (so that the same work would be done but invisibly), while “the radical students and I wanted to keep the labs on campus, on the principle that what is going to be going on anyway ought to be open and above board….” But this obscures the fact that most radical students, as well as many liberal students, wanted first and foremost to stop the war research and thus to convert the labs to non-military pursuits. We didn’t want the war research to go on in divested labs, nor did we want it to go on in affiliated labs. We wanted the war research stopped, period.
Chris Knight discusses many more examples of how Chomsky defended and made excuses for MIT, both during this crucial time in the anti-war movement and in subsequent decades:
Back in 1969, MIT’s student radicals were keen to take direct action against the university’s war research by, among other things, occupying the office of its president, Howard Johnson. Again, Chomsky took a different position and at one point, according to one of his academic colleagues, he joined with other professors in standing in Johnson’s office to prevent the students from occupying it. As he said later about the 1960s student tactic of occupation, “I wasn’t in favor of it myself, and didn’t like those tactics.”
Adopting a quite different tone, however, Chomsky told Time magazine that Johnson was an “honest, honorable man” and, in 1970, it seems he even attended a faculty party held to celebrate Johnson’s success at coping with a year of student protests.
Still more puzzling was Chomsky’s attitude when Walt Rostow visited MIT in 1969. Rostow was one of those prominent intellectuals whom Chomsky had so eloquently denounced in his ‘Responsibility of Intellectuals’ article. As an adviser to both President John Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson, Rostow had been one of the main architects of the war in Vietnam. In particular he was the strategist responsible for the carpet bombing of North Vietnam.
Against this background, it was hardly surprising that when Rostow arrived at MIT, his lecture was disrupted by students furious at his presence on their campus. Far from associating himself with such student rage, however, when Chomsky heard that Rostow was hoping to return to his former job at MIT, he actually welcomed the prospect. Then, when he heard that the university was poised to reject Rostow’s job application for fear of more student disruption, Chomsky went to Howard Johnson and threatened to lead MIT’s anti-war students to “protest publicly” —not against—but in favor of Rostow being allowed back to the university.
Rostow wasn’t the only powerful militarist at MIT to receive support from Chomsky. Twenty years later, Chomsky was, as he says, ‘one of the very few people on the faculty’ who supported John Deutch’s bid to become university President… Fearing that the university was about to become even “more militaristic,” MIT’s radicals—with the notable exception of Chomsky—joined others on the faculty to successfully block Deutch’s appointment. Then, later, when President Clinton made Deutch No.2 at the Pentagon and, in 1995, Director of the CIA, student activists demanded that MIT cut all ties with him. Chomsky once again disagreed… Of course, the most remarkable thing about all this is that, throughout this entire period, Chomsky was churning out dozens of brilliantly argued articles and books denouncing the CIA and the US military as criminals, their hands dripping in blood.
“Rostow not only strongly influenced White House intelligence planning but served as a liaison to the intelligence community, including the CIA,” writes Frank Donner. At MIT, Rostow “became a leading and ‘witting’ figure in a CIA front (it was subsidized by the CIA and headed by a former CIA official), the Center for International Studies.”15 MIT students worried that Professor Rostow might do things like turn their school into a home for covert CIA think tanks had fears that were actually quite well founded.
Chomsky is whitewashing his role at MIT considerably, seeing as he did quite a lot more than just teach there. But he asks prospective critics to consider the following: “Did you ever hear anyone suggest that Marx shouldn’t have worked in the British Museum, the very symbol of British imperialism?”16 That is indeed not a common contention, mostly due to the fact that the British Museum was the symbol of British imperialism, while MIT’s role in American imperialism was quite a lot more than merely symbolic.
MIT was a major center for military research and development—missile guidance systems, crowd suppression, and counterinsurgency warfare are three areas of research that Chomsky himself has highlighted. He participated in at least one of those. At the time Marx was in the library stacks, Britain was waging a war of ghastly brutality in India. If, at this important time, the British Museum was developing new and innovative ways to exterminate the people of India in their quest to throw off the shackles of colonial slavery; and Marx’s research was involved in developing these fearsome new weapons (to the extent that his research was “100 percent” funded by the military); and if Marx defended the museum from students who would shut it down; and he also went well out of his way to help various British generals, viceroys, and proconsuls get jobs at the museum over the objections of the radical student body, then and only then would Chomsky be making a good analogy. And, to answer the professor’s question, yes, it is quite likely that not only would many people object to Marx’s role, those looking objectively at his actions and not his radical reputation would suggest that he was helping the Crown perpetrate a slaughter.
It is ultimately more useful to consider Chomsky’s role at MIT than what he was saying or doing anywhere else. Even leaving aside the fact that Chomsky seems quite comfortable with misrepresenting his role in the history of this period—falsely portraying himself as aligned with student radicals rather than opposed to them—it is standard operating procedure for liberals to denounce something bad in the abstract while defending specific instances of that bad thing, or blanching at actual solutions to the problem. Biographer Hazel Rowley describes Richard Wright encountering this very dynamic over and over during a lecture tour in the mid-‘40s: “he was shocked by the vast ignorance about race in America. He met people of good will who abstractly wanted to do something to help, but they seemed frightened when he made concrete suggestions.”17 “There is a class of whites who call themselves liberals,” wrote Julius Lester, “who will agree with everything a revolutionary may say up to the point of agreeing to what must be done to solve the problem.”18
At that point in time, Chomsky was just one commentator among many; at a time when what would today be called the movements’ “thought leaders” were activists and revolutionaries, not writers and thinkers.19 As a man best known as a radical MIT professor, it is in this capacity that he should be primarily judged. To adapt the Chomsky rule slightly, his own concern was primarily the terror and violence carried out by his own university. For the important reason that; namely, he could have done something about it. So even if MIT was responsible for two percent of the violence in the world, it would be that two percent he would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.
In various forums, draft resistance was the only concrete political action that Chomsky ratified for American activists. One of Chomsky’s significant contributions during the anti-war heyday was founding the activist non-profit RESIST, which was first oriented towards draft resistance. Like the wider radical movements, there was ideological heterogeneity in the ranks of draft resisters. Some did so out of religious pacifism, some due to black nationalism, etc. One draft resister, Stephen Fortunato, explained that he refused to serve based on his Christian faith, a nonviolence tract by Leo Tolstoy, and the work of such Chomsky-like anti-war intellectuals as A. J. Muste and Bertrand Russell.20 But Fortunato was a rare exception. Just like the wider radical movements, most draft resisters followed a path that involved an initial connection with the fight against American racism, and then they drew inspiration from the national liberation struggles of the global south. Go through contemporary accounts of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who were incarcerated for defying the Vietnam draft and there is a remarkable adherence to this pattern.
- PFC James Johnson of the Fort Hood Three: “Now there is a direct relationship between the peace movement and the civil rights movement. The South Vietnamese are fighting for representation, just like ourselves.”21
- David Mitchell, 1966: “I became continually more aware of the aggressive and dangerous nature of America’s policies. My examination of such policies was first sparked by Cuba and the attempts to turn back the Cuban Revolution and regain an economic and political stranglehold over the Cuban nation.”22
- Tom Bell, 1967: “So often, radicalization comes from travel—to the third world, to Europe, or the American South—where a view of the true nature of American society is more obvious.”23
- John Otis Sumrall, 1967: “For me personally, I would feel just like the KKK over there. Denying those people freedom of choice, just like black people are denied freedom of choice in the US. So that’s why I want to stay here and fight for freedom in the United States.”24
- “John”: “I was never a hippy, but was early a political activist: civil rights demonstrations, protesting the Cuban invasion, all that.”25
- “Hank”: “Involved in what was then known as the civil rights movement. Started working with CORE my junior year in high school. I was also going out at the time with a girl from Cuba—she told me a lot about Fidel. It was funny, because in school we were discussing Cuba at the time and what she was telling me was in direct conflict with what I was being taught.”26
It’s great that Chomsky approved of and enabled draft resistance, but these people were not looking to him for guidance. As a radical professor at MIT, the area where Chomsky demonstrated the most influence to oppose or enable American imperialism was with radical students at MIT. Draft resisters mostly looked to anti-racist activists and third world revolutionaries—the people most likely to heed Chomsky’s advice were radicals on his campus. He may have issued blistering condemnations of American imperialism in any number of journals, but in the one realm where he had a tremendous impact at the time when it mattered, he defended America’s war machine. His record as far as protecting his parent institution from the radical activists trying to shut it down is extensively well documented, and it is radically at-odds with his radical reputation.
Chomsky himself points out that his positions were “pretty extreme” and “would have been hard to defend” relative to the rest of the American radical movement—although he has also made the contradictory claim that “the radical students and I wanted to keep the labs on campus,” which is, to put it mildly, not true. More representative of prevailing radical sentiment was Peter Bohmer of San Diego State University (SDSU), a professor and activist who both disagreed with MIT’s war work and acted to stop it. Bohmer was ultimately fired by the fiat of SDSU President Donald Walker, acting on “secret information,” over the objections of students and the department. A contemporary report from the Harvard Crimson recounted that the “secret information” which got him sacked “apparently concerns Bohmer’s arrest and conviction for participation in a political demonstration on January 16, 1970 at MIT.” Bohmer recounts:
After three lengthy hearings that all ruled in my favor, and in spite of very large demonstrations supporting me, the State University system still fired me although I was voted best teacher by students at San Diego State University. Even the conservative American Economics Association ruled it was a case of political discrimination but after a lengthy court case, California Supreme Court ruled that San Diego State U did not have to restore my faculty position.
Bohmer continued his activist work despite his firing in 1972, being charged later that year with attempting to block a train delivering military material. That same year, despite the official end of COINTELPRO a year earlier, the FBI ordered a fascist vigilante group to assassinate Bohmer. Bohmer has remained an activist into the current decade. Unlike Chomsky, who usually concludes interviews today by saying something like making revolution is “not very hard,” the activist Bohmer warned in 2010 that “Although Cointelpro officially ended in 1971, it has continued although in a somewhat less extreme form without the name up to September 11th 2001. Since then we are going backwards towards more police powers, infiltration and framing of activists.”
Chomsky incurred plenty of disfavor in the halls of power during this period of radical ferment. But if he hadn’t been so accommodating of MIT’s military industry work, he would likely have been out of a job, as was Bohmer. If he had participated in shutting down the war machine he criticized, instead of making excuses for it, he may have even been marked for death, as was Bohmer.
Chomsky’s explanations for his own prominence leave a lot to be desired. In 1995, he told Barsky that at the end of the 1960s, “We confidently expected that I’d be in jail in a few years. In fact, that is just what would have happened except for two unexpected events: 1) the utter (and rather typical) incompetence of the intelligence services, which could not find the real organizers of resistance, though it was transparent, and kept seeking hidden connections to North Korea, Cuba, or wherever…as well as mistaking people who agreed to appear at public events as ‘leaders’ and ‘organizers’; and 2) the Tet offensive, which convinced American business that the game wasn’t worth the candle.”27 There are some things here that are true enough: by 1969, a significant part of the ruling class, including Wall Street, began to consider that the Vietnam War was not worth the costs. Chomsky also makes the accurate assessment that people like him who spoke at rallies were not the leaders and organizers of these radical movements.
But his description of incompetence and bumbling on the part of America’s secret police bears little resemblance to reality. The FBI, CIA, military intelligence, and local PDs were actually quite adept at identifying and “neutralizing” the “real organizers of resistance,” as the professor acknowledges when discussing the history of COINTELPRO. America’s secret police successfully identified Bohmer as a subversive, for example, and carried out plots against him. The FBI and CIA claimed that they were looking for the “real” foreign instigators of the era’s radical movements, but this was a pretext to expand their budgets and policing powers (programs like Operation CHAOS). If Chomsky really believes this, then he is taking establishment lies at face value contrary to a wealth of available evidence. After the 1968 Chicago DNC, for example, the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI field office told Hoover that “Effectively tabbing as communist or communist-backed the more hysterical opponents of the President on the Vietnam question in the midst of the presidential campaign would be a real boon to Mr. Johnson.”28 Internal documents attesting to the fact that this was merely a pretext, including memoranda between CIA director Richard Helms and the Johnson and Nixon White Houses, were released in the mid-‘70s during the Church Committee hearings, so when the professor told Barsky this, his bad information was two decades out-of-date. Chomsky’s contention that the state’s repressive apparatus was too distracted by apocryphal Kremlin plots to discipline him is not plausible.
The professor himself sometimes claims that he managed to circumvent the Herman/Chomsky propaganda model by doing good linguistics scholarship, but he’s not highlighted as the pre-eminent voice of the Western left because of his insights on phonemes and morphemes. When the professor is asked why he is so famous if his propaganda model is correct, he has said “it has nothing to do with me, it has to do with marginalizing the public,” which is confusing and still does nothing to explain why he is famous. Marginalizing the public from what? The purpose of a propaganda machine is to brainwash the public, not marginalize them.
It’s also not true: the concept of “marginality” as he and Ed Herman use it in Manufacturing Consent refers to dissident figures and media outlets, not the public. There are two references to the poor as marginal members of the public, but contrary to what Chomsky said in that Q&A, the propaganda model as it’s discussed in the book is clearly about the marginalization of media figures:
- “We have long argued that the ‘naturalness’ of these processes, with inconvenient facts allowed sparingly and within the proper framework of assumptions, and fundamental dissent virtually excluded from the mass media (but permitted in a marginalized press), makes for a propaganda system that is far more credible and effective in putting over a patriotic agenda than one with official censorship.”
- “A propaganda model…traces the routes by which money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent…”
- “The elite domination of the media and marginalization of dissidents that results from the operation of these filters…”
- “an advertising-based media system will gradually increase advertising time and marginalize or eliminate altogether programming that has significant public-affairs content.”
- “The steady flow of ex-radicals from marginality to media attention shows that we are witnessing a durable method of providing experts who will say what the establishment wants said.”
- “Even if ad-based media cater to an affluent (‘upscale’) audience, they easily pick up a large part of the ‘downscale’ audience, and their rivals lose market share and are eventually driven out or marginalized.”
Chomsky does not respond to the question of why he’s famous by debunking, he responds by dissembling. Either Herman wrote all of Manufacturing Consent and Chomsky hasn’t actually read it, or Chomsky is lying because it’s impossible for the West’s most famous academic to be considered “marginal.” To figure out which it is, we might consider Chomsky’s 1996 exchange with the BBC’s Andrew Marr. Marr challenges Chomsky about the propaganda model and asks whether the professor believes Marr is being disingenuous, to which Chomsky replies “what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.” Chomsky says nothing about “marginalizing the public.” Here, as in Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky explains that the propaganda model is about keeping dissident thought and radical thinkers out of the public eye. It is only when he himself is the subject that the propaganda model starts to mean new things.
In another interview he is asked again about his marginalization, and he replies with the bizarre and even more confusing statement that “the matter of being forced to the margins is a matter of fact, and the fact is the opposite of what this claim [sic], the fact is it is much easier to gain access to the major media than it was 20 years ago.” You probably need a doctorate in linguistics to parse the koan-like phrase “it is a fact, and the fact is the opposite,” but sure: his marginalization is a fact, and the fact is the opposite, which is that it’s easier to access the major media than ever. At least this sounds like a long-overdue admission from the most famous intellectual in the Anglophone world that he is not marginalized in any meaningful sense of the world.
But when Charlie Rose asked him about what is ridiculously called his “marginalization,” Chomsky replied that it was natural, “otherwise they [the media] wouldn’t be performing their societal function.” He does not reconcile this with his contradictory statement that the propaganda model did not refer to marginalizing dissidents at all, but the public. He doesn’t explain how the media can simultaneously marginalize him because that is “their societal function” and yet “the fact is it is much easier to gain access to the major media than it was 20 years ago.” Neither does he offer evidence for the mystifying claim that it’s easier to access the major media than ever before. But ultimately he’s totally correct: it is the media’s job to marginalize dissenting voices, and he really does have easier access to the mass media than ever. He leaves it to the power of celebrity and the pull of conformity to ensure that his fans don’t question why this is.
In one of the numerous hagiographies of America’s greatest dissenter, Wolfgang Sperlich summarizes the shift from revolution to writing which Chomsky embodied:
Forms of internal repression in the US were mainly of subtle but effective variety, such as COINTELPRO… Given such repression at home, the US activists retreated into what they knew best: dissent by speaking out and writing. One of the champions of this activist genre was going from strength to strength: Noam Chomsky.29
This account of what happened to the liberation struggles of yesteryear is typical: it posits an America mostly free of “totalitarian” things like overt state repression; it holds that dissenters shifted seamlessly from activism to commentary; and it claims that Chomsky’s star rose based mostly on his own merits, rather than the rewards-and-sanctions system that defines the propaganda machine. At least this admits that the United States has what would be called “political repression” at all. Far more representative of what passes for “common knowledge” is the following: “the FBI fought their battles against modern and progressive tendencies in American society but this hardly ever resulted in effective censorship, let alone in the imprisonment or execution of people because of their political, artistic, or intellectual convictions.”30
Internal repression did and does exist in the United States, but it was not mostly subtle, it was mostly overt. The presence of police—with guns, clubs, dogs, tear gas, and firehoses—is not subtle. Burning crosses are downright ostentatious. Deployment of the National Guard to put down urban uprisings was common practice—there were over 1,000 urban uprisings between 1960 and the mid-‘70s, which means hundreds of instances of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and columns of soldiers invading American cities. According to the most conservative estimates, between 1965 and ’67, around 130 black men were killed and 28,000 arrested in various instances of urban unrest (when you consider that 43 people were killed in Detroit in July 1967 alone, those numbers seems way too low).31 The McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950 established a concentration camp system (6 were completed) where accused subversives would be interned in the case of national emergency; Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and Martin Luther King all warned that this law could be used against their movements.32 In 1950, the FBI actually drew up a list of 12,000 accused subversives who were to be rounded up and held in Guantánamo Bay-style indefinite detention–the only reason they weren’t is that Truman declined Hoover’s demands to incarcerate them. After the riots that followed MLK’s assassination, the Army drew up apocalyptic plans under the rubric of Operation Garden Plot to deploy brigades to 25 cities to wage an open counterinsurgency war. If resistance to the status quo had intensified in the 1970s, rather than waned, the Pentagon was ready to turn American cities into “scenes of destruction approaching those of Stalingrad during World War II,” in the words of one Army general.
During the Chicago DNC protests, George McGovern said that the police violence was a “blood bath” which “made me sick to my stomach,” and he’d “seen nothing like it since the films of Nazi Germany.”33 C. Kilmer Myers, a California bishop, said that Governor Ronald Reagan’s 1968 crackdown on UC student protests was redolent of the “strong-armed and brutal methods which I as a student observed in Germany in 1939.”34 “[S]evere repressive measures, including the alleged framing of militant student leaders on campus on murder and rioting charges and police and National Guard invasions of black campuses, were reportedly employed at a host of schools,” wrote one professor.35 The brutality towards campus unrest escalated to the famous massacre at Kent state, where 4 activists were shot (a fifth victim was clubbed to death elsewhere on campus), and another spate of killings at Jackson State. “The spectacle of American soldiers killing American citizens had a chilling effect on many people, many of whom suddenly realized that dissent was as dangerous in the United States as it was in South Vietnam,” writes Doug Valentine. “Nixon himself articulated those murderous impulses when he told his staff, “Don’t worry about decisiveness. Having drawn the sword, stick it in hard. Hit ’em in the gut. No defensiveness.”36 More common were massacres like the one in Orangeburg, South Carolina in 1968, where police killed 3 activists and injured dozens for the crime of trying to desegregate a bowling alley. Julius Lester elaborates:
The Orangeburg Massacre comes after eight years of beatings, jailings, and murders of blacks and whites in the course of the black liberation movement. There were thirteen blacks killed during the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964, the four young girls killed in the church bombing in Birmingham, Jimmy Lee Jackson and the hundreds killed in Watts, Newark, Detroit, and Harlem. But nothing seems more truly red, white, and blue Star-Spangled Banner My Country ‘Tis of Thee American than three dead and fifty wounded for trying to desegregate a bowling alley. One gets the feeling that if the students had been trying to desegregate two bowling alleys, South Carolina would have dropped the Bomb.37
Maybe one could make the argument that finding your mail tampered with, or hearing the telltale click of a phone tap, counted as unobtrusive repression. But even the “subtle” repressive actions like COINTELPRO weren’t particularly low-key. One component of the program was a form of intimidation known in FBI memoranda as “harassment arrests,” whose name is self-explanatory. Then there were the dozens (and possibly hundreds, or more) of assassinations, the non-subtlety of which was intended to send a clear message. For instance, the last leader of the American Indian Movement, John Trudell, accumulated one of the longest FBI files and was warned to stop his activism or he would be punished. In 1979, Trudell lead a protest in Washington, DC and burned an American flag in front of FBI headquarters. Hours later, a fire began at his Nevada home, killing his wife, mother-in-law, and his three children. There’s something to consider, lest someone believe Chomsky’s claim that we enjoy unparalleled freedom. It’s true enough that when the status quo is secure, you probably won’t get in trouble for burning the flag (although cops can and might arrest you for it, if they feel like it). But if that act of non-violent, non-coercive, Constitutionally protected free speech is part of something that’s a genuine threat, they may go ahead and murder your entire family. They did it to John Trudell.
Perhaps if COINTELPRO had been as subtle as Sperlich claims it was, Trudell might have continued his activism. Instead, he took up poetry and music.
All this not-at-all-subtle repression had the intended effect of destroying much of the activist community. As the people most threatening to the capitalist system were murdered or imprisoned, there was a parallel project to erase the substance of what these radical movements did and stood for. For future liberal historians to say that “activists retreated into speaking out and writing,” they would need to convert the revolutionaries into people who had just been describing things all along.
After leaving the Nation of Islam and moving towards socialism, for instance, Malcolm X founded the Organization for Afro-American Unity and began devising concrete plans for changing the world. Charging the United States with committing genocide against African-Americans had been a major nightmare for the ruling classes when black communists including Paul Robeson and William L. Patterson tried to do so in the 1950s. Biographers Karl Evanzz and George Breitman both point out that Malcolm X’s similar plan to pass a UN resolution condemning the US as a colonial power, with the help of newly post-colonial African governments, terrified the American power elite. By December 1964—a period Malcolm X told Alex Haley was the high point in his life—his efforts looked sure to succeed. On December 16th, he told an audience at Harvard that African “statesmen are beginning to connect the criminal, racist acts practiced in the Congo with similar acts in Mississippi and Alabama.”38 Two months later, before X could attend the Bandung Conference of the non-aligned countries as the representative of black America, he was murdered. Karl Evanzz points out that some of X’s African contacts who had been working with him were assassinated at the same time, supporting the theory that his murder had Federal fingerprints.39 “[R]ejection of Martin Luther King’s peculiar version of Gandhism is not in itself a program,” observed Robert Vernon, which is why X “addressed himself to the difficult task of getting an organization off the ground, of developing a program for the immediate struggle and a long-range program for the long haul, of soliciting and sifting through new ideas and fresh thinking, making contacts with allies abroad.”40
In order to turn these radical movements into a “compatible left,” step one was to erase the fact that the revolutionaries had been doing anything other than talking—since talking would be the primary remit of the “compatible left.” So the liberal Bayard Rustin, for one, wrote 3 articles shortly after the murder of the man eventually known as El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, characterizing the martyred leader as “not a hero of the movement, but a victim of the ghetto” and “a conservative force” who “never had many actual followers” and was “moving toward the mainstream of the civil rights movement.” Despite X’s work organizing black Americans into a conscious revolutionary force (“we need a Mau Mau” to win freedom, he’d said), and coordinating international solidarity to turn back the tide of American global power, Rustin described X as “having described the evil [with] no program for attacking it.”41 Several more prominent Lefty critics said some variation of this; cofounder of the future Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Irving Howe wrote that “Malcolm, intransigent in words and nihilistic in reality, never invoked the possibility or temptations of immediate struggle; he never posed the problems, confusions and risks of maneuver, compromise, retreat. Brilliant Malcolm spoke for a rejection so complete it transformed him into an apolitical spectator.”42 Subsequent generations of people paid to tell us what to think have solidified the notion that Malcolm X was ultimately a misguided malcontent. This is the subtext of Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, a book intended to supplant X’s autobiography as the definitive word on the late revolutionary. In his paean to the Obama presidency We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes X as “more an expression of black America’s heart than of its brain,” whose “political vision was never complete like that of Martin Luther King, who hewed faithfully to…nonviolence.”43 Marable and Coates equate non-violence with political coherence much like Chomsky equated non-violence with popular support.
Thus, the past was re-written to make the “Left” something that is primarily concerned with describing the world, rather than changing it. Some former revolutionaries got tenured positions and continued to produce revolutionary scholarship while staying in something close to total obscurity. There was also a body of writers and commentators, safely ensconced in academia and foundations, producing radical writing without the radical action that had so threatened the system. As Herman and Chomsky put it in Manufacturing Consent, “The steady flow of ex-radicals from marginality to media attention shows that we are witnessing a durable method of providing experts who will say what the establishment wants said.” Dissidents who were a genuine threat to the system were murdered, imprisoned, or scared off. Those who were given platforms were often safe ones who could be relied upon to provide an ersatz, safe facsimile of robust radical resistance. The more searing their condemnations, the more effective they are for pushing acceptance of the status quo when the time comes. Arthur Silber, in a post that needs to be read, calls this “embalmed dissent.” Silber describes “embalmed dissent” as that commentary which provides a lucid liberatory critique, and “holds out the promise of change—but then tells you it’s too difficult, it carries too much risk, it might be possible, but it’s not something we’d actually want to do.” It’s not hard to see Chomsky’s 1967 essay “On Resistance” as the ur-text of this genre, particularly given passages like this one:
One must then consider in what ways it is possible to pose a serious threat. Many possibilities come to mind: a general strike, university strikes, attempts to hamper war production and supply, and so on.
Personally, I feel that disruptive acts of this sort would be justified were they likely to be effective in averting an imminent tragedy. I am skeptical, however, about their possible effectiveness. At the moment, I cannot imagine a broad base for such action, in the white community at least, outside the universities. Forcible repression would not, therefore, prove very difficult.
A more apt title might’ve been “On Submission.” The one accurate part of Sperlich’s account is that Chomsky became the champion of this genre, but it was not the product of immaculate conception, it was no accident, and it was not due to the quality of his commentary.
1. Albert Szymanski, Human Rights in the Soviet Union, Zed Books, 1984, p. 192; Chapter 4 of Frederic Lee, A History of Heterodox Economics: Challenging the mainstream in the twentieth century, Routledge, 2011
2. Michael Parenti, History as Mystery, City Lights Publishers, 2001 p. 188 and Chapter 5 generally
3. Kenneth Lamott, Anti-California: Report from our First Parafascist State, Little Brown, 1971, p. 154
4. Michael Klare, “The Military Research Network—America’s Fourth Armed Service,” Taking Power: the Sources and Consequences of Political Challenge, ed. John C. Leggett, Harper & Row Publishers, 1973, p. 387
5. Ibid., p. 197
6. James Kunen, The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary, Random House, 1969, p. 22
7. Robert F. Barsky, Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent, The MIT Press, 1998, p. 140
8. Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS: The rise and development of the Students for a Democratic Society, Vintage Books, 1973, p. 123 https://archive.org/details/sds_kirkpatrick_sale
9. Joshua Bloom & Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, University of California Press, 2016, p. 263
10. Sale, SDS, p. 317
11. Julius Lester, Revolutionary Notes, Grove Press, Inc., 1969, p. 53
12. Ibid., pp. 13-14
13. Gerald W. Johnson, Peril and Promise: An Inquiry into Freedom of the Press, Harper & Brothers, 1958, p. 28
14. Kunen, The Strawberry Statement, p. 53-54
15. Frank Donner, Age of Surveillance, Vintage Press, 1981, pp. 260-1
16. Barsky, Noam Chomsky, p. 141
17. Hazel Rowley, Richard Wright: the Life and Times, The University of Chicago Press, 2001, pp. 322
18. Lester, Revolutionary Notes, pp. 74-75
19. In The Troubles, historian Joseph Conlin sneers at and mocks essentially every action and person involved in the radical movements of the 1960s and ‘70s: Huey Newton was, among other things, “Bright but pampered and lazy” and had a “magnetism unlikely to attract adults” [pp. 150-51]; the Panthers provided only a “veneer” of ideological substance [p. 156]; Julius Lester was “a Negro New Leftist who was an early exploiter of bourgeois white guilt as well as a victim of its delusions” [p. 178]; Malcolm X, too, was in Conlin’s summary guilty of peddling self-flagellation to liberals racked with white guilt. But Chomsky gets no mentions in Conlin’s book, possibly just because he was not a particularly consequential figure in radical circles, but maybe because Conlin approved of Chomsky’s extremely conservative attitudes towards resistance. Joseph Conlin, The Troubles: a jaundiced glance back at the movement of the 60’s, Watts, 1982.
20. Stephen Fortunato, Jr., and Others, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” We Won’t Go: Personal Accounts of War Objectors, ed. Alice Lynd, Beacon Press, 1968, p. 81
21. James Johnson, “The Fort Hood Three,” We Won’t Go: Personal Accounts of War Objectors, ed. Alice Lynd, Beacon Press, 1968, p. 187
22. David Mitchell, “What is a Criminal?,” We Won’t Go, pp. 92-3
23. Tom Bell, “Organizing Draft Resistance,” We Won’t Go, p. 219
24. John Otis Sumrall, “Freedom at Home,” We Won’t Go, p. 91
25. Willard Gaylin M.D., In the Service of Their Country: War Resisters in Prison, The Viking Press, 1968, p. 223
26. Ibid., p. 88
27. Barsky, Noam Chomsky, p. 126
28. Donner, Age of Surveillance, p. 218
29. Wolfgang B. Sperlich, Noam Chomsky, Reaktion Books, 2006. p. 85
30. Joes Segal, Art and Politics: Between Purity and Propaganda, Amsterdam Universal Press B.V., 2016. p. 77
31. Robert Ivanov, Blacks in United States History, Progress Publishers, 1985, p. 245
32. “Internal Security Act,” Encyclopedia of Japanese Internment, ed. Gary Y. Okihiro, Greenwood, 2013. p. 71
33. Norman Mailer, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Signet Books, 1968, p. 171
34. Lamott, Anti-California, p. 165
35. Robert L. Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America: an Analytic History, Doubleday Anchor, 1970, p. 259
36. Doug Valentine, The Phoenix Program.
37. Lester, Revolutionary Notes, p. 66
38. Karl Evanzz, The Judas Factor: the Plot to Kill Malcolm X, Basic Books, 1993, pp. 270-72
39. Ibid., pp. 311-13
40. Malcolm X Speaks, ed. George Breitman, Grove Press, 1965, p. 132
41. Ibid., pp. 82-93
42. Ibid., p. 93
43. Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: an American Tragedy, One World, 2017, p. 100