The Professor Becomes What He Always Was
Most of Chomsky’s shortcomings have been present from the beginning. He has long had the tendency to issue searing condemnations of American imperialism while damning its most demonized victims in even more totalizing terms. So despite conceding that Soviet “imperialism” was more benign than the American version, for instance, he nevertheless concurs with Ronald Reagan that “the ‘Evil Empire’ was in fact evil, was an empire and was brutal.” Despite acknowledging that America imperialism’s impact on the world has been more malignant, he nevertheless does not damn America as “evil.”
In another interview, he enumerated over the course of thousands of words some of America’s worst crimes from the past and present, yet concluded that it was actually North Korea which was probably “the most dangerous, craziest government in the world, and the worst government.” In a 2006 interview Chomsky began a discourse on Bush’s “axis of evil” speech with “North Korea is one of the most horrible countries in the world, nothing good to say about it.”
Chomsky has called America “one of the most dangerous” countries, one of the world leaders in “committing crimes,” and “the world’s biggest terrorist,” but he does not say it is “one of the most horrible,” which, along with “evil” and “the worst,” implies a degree of immanence that “the most dangerous” doesn’t carry. He does not start discussions about America by saying that “America is one of the most horrible countries in the world.” The worst thing he says in that 2006 interview is “The US is for the moment dominating the world by force. I mean, in the dimension of violence the United States is unparalleled.” He usually says it is “one of the freest” countries in the world, too—in that same interview, he said that a century ago “Britain and the US…were the most free countries of the world.” He is talking about the US under Jim Crow, by the way.
This is not semantic pedantry; these points are central to framing America as legitimate despite all its violence and terror. While Chomsky may issue blistering condemnations of American policy, he nevertheless presents the country in its totality as better than any competitors, especially any socialist ones. It may be “the most violent” and “most dangerous” country at the moment, but at least America is “non-totalitarian, non-authoritarian.” Presenting America as fundamentally legitimate, benign, and fixable despite all its flaws is a sine qua non of perpetuating the status quo, as explained in a recent US Army field manual on counterinsurgency:
The legitimacy of the host-nation government is achieved because the population accepts its authority and how it governs can be justified in terms of the population’s beliefs. It is not enough for the host-nation government to be simply seen as effective and credible. The governmental structure must be justifiable to the population and that justification must be based on the population’s norms and values… The key is that legitimacy is ultimately decided in the minds of the population. Counterinsurgents must understand how the population will perceive a government. A host nation that is less efficient but perceived as legitimate by the population will be more effective than an efficient host-nation government that cannot be justified by the values and norms of the population. [emphasis mine]
This narrative amounts to “America has many serious and systemic problems, which I have described clearly and unflinchingly… but at least it’s not truly evil, like our enemies are.” It is a foundational power-serving perspective that Chomsky did not share with the revolutionaries of yesteryear, but one he shares with the compatible Left. John Oliver has helpfully provided as clear an example of this attitude as can likely be found:
Since the President won’t stick up for this country, I will. America and Russia are not the fucking same! And don’t get me wrong: America has had, and continues to have, endemic problems that need fixing. That might as well be the title of this show. But hold on, because our elections have some flaws, but they are not rigged. Our human rights record is far from perfect, but it doesn’t compare to Putin’s Russia. And our press is at least currently free enough that I can routinely [mock Donald Trump]. [original emphasis]
Now here’s a description of a typical radical from 50 years ago:
I remember sitting on the floor of this big room…and there were 150 organizers for the migrant program, many of them products of SDS, Students for a Democratic Society. And there was a large black gentleman who was the trainer that day… And so help me God I will always remember this. He said, “altogether now, ‘Fuck America!’ Stand up and say, ‘Fuck America!’” I mean this was the revolution and there was just so much of that.
Chomsky is of a kind with John Oliver and the “compatible Left,” not the radicals he replaced (it’s utterly ridiculous to put John Oliver in the same sentence as “the Left,” but that’s America for you). Oliver’s flag-waving super-patriotism is on one end of the spectrum, but Chomsky is on the left-most end of the same spectrum. That Chomsky ultimately presents America as essentially good is just much harder to see because his critiques of imperialism are so thorough and damning.
However, in the last decade, the professor’s flaws have become glaring. His descriptions of our freedom seem more irrational than ever, his advocacy of compliance increasingly strident. His lectures are so predictable and tedious that they sometimes seem generated via algorithm. Chomsky is as famous as he is because he’s always demonstrated power-serving biases—as early as 2009, Seaumas Milne observed that “He describes himself as an anarchist or libertarian socialist, but often sounds more like a radical liberal.”* But Chomsky, too, has evinced a major rightward slide under Obama.
For instance, Chomsky used to explain how American imperialism could destroy a country and this would still produce benefits for the wealthy classes who dominate US policy. He theorized this as minimal vs. maximal goals: a totally subservient neo-colony may be the maximal goal, but the minimal goal of a failed state still squelches what Parenti calls “the threat of a good example” and warns other countries not to displease the wealthy whose interests Washington represents. In an interview from 1982, for example, he says “I think the chances of the US meeting its minimal goals, namely just preventing any constructive nationalist revolutionary movement from taking power and being able to do anything, that minimal goal I think the US can and probably will achieve. The maximal goal of installing the kind of government we succeeded in installing in Guatemala in 1954 may not succeed.”1 He explained the US destruction of Vietnam in similar terms. This may be a vulgarized version of a Marxist critique of imperialism, but it’s illuminating commentary because it still has at least one foot in the world of radical, class-based analysis.
In contrast, under the previous president, Chomsky moved away from this good radical analysis and has pushed a class-free image of the US as a blundering giant, an “empire of chaos” as he calls it, destroying countries on accident mostly due to lack of knowledge. “The chaos and destabilization are real, but I don’t think that’s the aim,” he said in 2015. “Rather, it is a consequence of hitting fragile systems that one does not understand with the sledgehammer that is the main tool, as in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere.” As is increasingly the case as he gets worse, Chomsky does not explain why his previous framework of “minimal vs. maximal goals” does not apply. Readers are meant to believe that post-2009 wars are the first instances of American imperialism which did not benefit the ruling class. Iraq, prosecuted by the Bush junta, “is a different story: ‘Iraq is a country (the United States) wanted to invade,’ because of its resources and strategic location in the middle of the world’s biggest oil-producing region.” Iraq is a confusing case, though, since back in 2005, Chomsky said that the “minimal vs. maximal goals” framework did not apply to Iraq, so we can’t be sure what exactly the professor wants us to think about that country’s destruction.
This is actually a good example of how Chomsky’s fans have, in their arsenal of defenses, the fact that the brilliant professor has brilliantly professed contradictory things over the course of his long career. For instance, in the ‘60s he said “we live under conditions of almost unparalleled freedom.” He said “We enjoy incomparable privilege and freedom” in 2006 and more recently. But in order to make the case that that the professor doesn’t consistently whitewash American repression, a Chomsky fan could point to things like a 1997 discussion at MIT where he said that COINTELPRO “did ruin a lot of things and caused serious harm to others.” It’s true enough that Chomsky will mention things like COINTELPRO before concluding that Americans are mostly very, very free, much like some Democrats will concede that drone strikes are quite bad before saying that Barack Obama is the greatest man alive. Since there is such a disparity, the most productive course is to examine what conditions are shaping his contradictory messaging.
The history of domestic repression in the ‘60s and ‘70s has already been laid out; Chomsky’s comments post-9/11 happened at a time when America’s ruling class openly embraced the country’s imperial status and decided to begin purging the last bourgeois democratic right its citizens enjoyed. In 2006, for example, when Chomsky boasted about our “incomparable privilege and freedom,” Guantánamo Bay had been open 5 years and the recent Military Commissions Act “cast aside the Constitution and the principle of habeas corpus,” in the words of the ACLU. As Bohmer said, since 9/11 “we are going backwards towards more police powers, infiltration and framing of activists.” Al McCoy defined post-9/11 governance as a time of “endless incarceration, extrajudicial killing, pervasive surveillance, drone strikes in defiance of national boundaries, torture on demand, and immunity for all of the above on the grounds of state secrecy.” This period saw an explosion in membership in the InfraGard program, a public-private partnership administered by the FBI and Homeland Security. InfraGard has deputized over 22,000 of what the ACLU called “corporate bigwigs” who will enjoy special privileges, including licenses to kill with impunity, in the event of national emergency. One business owner told the Progressive that when the FBI briefed him, they said martial law was a matter of “when—not if.”
If some hypothetical person enjoyed a position as a compromised gatekeeper of the Left, times when the system looks the worst, and is thus most liable to be threatened, would be ideal times to defend it most irrationally. In contrast, his 1997 MIT appearance was a conversation with former SNCC and Black Panther Party activist Kathleen Cleaver. As a major figure in the radical movements of the era, Cleaver would probably have laughed out loud if Chomsky told her that she and the Panthers “lived under conditions of almost unparalleled freedom.” For the sake of comparison, when Chomsky is speaking to someone who musters barely a hint of skepticism, like Robert Barsky, the professor seems most willing to misrepresent history, as he did when he falsely claimed that radical students wanted MIT’s war work to continue with minor reforms. The discussion with Cleaver also took place at a time when radical movements in America were relatively anemic and the mainstream consensus held that it was an “end of history” vindication of capitalism. It was, in other words, a very safe time to discuss the real nature of American repression—particularly when his co-panelist would not have bought Chomsky’s usual bill of goods.
He does this quite a lot. So in a piece written in 2008 on the legacy of 1968, Chomsky says quite a lot of starry-eyed and incorrect things about contemporary democracy in America. For instance: “it was unimaginable in 1968 that there would be an international Solidarity group in 1980.” To use just one example, in November 1968, the Hemispheric Conference to End the War in Vietnam was held in Montréal, Canada which brought together hundreds of anti-war activists from North America and Western Europe, as well as 1600 delegates from 25 different countries, including Salvador Allende of Chile and North Vietnam’s culture minister Hoang Minh Giam. A memorandum from Tom Huston to Richard Nixon pointed out that Western radical groups, foreign governments, and national liberation movements held major meetings in Montréal; Havana, Cuba; Sofia, Bulgaria; Budapest, Hungary; Kyoto, Japan; Grenoble, France; and Bratislava, Czechoslovakia in 1968 alone. International solidarity was at its most robust, the opposite of “unimaginable.”
But at least he finally mentions one of the major factors in ending the Vietnam War: “The Pentagon Papers tell us that, because of the fear of growing unrest in the cities, the government had to end the war—it wasn’t sure that it was going to have enough troops to send to Vietnam and enough troops on the domestic front to quell the riots.” In another interview from around the same time, he even says “the GIs coming home were turning against the war, and because soldiers in the field were—well, they were throwing grenades under the officers’ tents, you know, the fragging phenomenon.” He does not explain why he was so quick to dismiss the liberatory effect of black resistance at the time when it mattered, nor does he reconcile these facts with his commentary 50 years ago that imprisonment was the only acceptable option, but at least he has finally incorporated these crucial factors into his analysis of the war. However, Chomsky says this in order to adduce that resistance to the Iraq War was even stronger than was resistance to Vietnam. “The Iraq War was the first conflict in western history in which an imperialist war was massively protested against before it had even been launched,” he said, neglecting to mention that despite the protests, the war was then launched, killing over a million Iraqis.
In this regard, Iraq does not compare favorably to the Vietnam War, it’s more like the Korean War. In 1950, there were protests against the Korean War: figures including W.E.B. DuBois founded the Peace Information Center (PIC) in order to agitate against the conflict, and DuBois authored an anti-racist and anti-war declaration titled “A Protest and a Plea” which was signed by over 100 African-American leaders. The PIC circulated a document called the Stockholm Peace Appeal, which was signed by many prominent artists and thinkers as well as 2.5 million Americans—all at a time when even the faintest whiff of political heterodoxy would get someone fired, blacklisted, or worse. But all this initial protest did not stop the Korean War, much like the initial 2002-3 protests did not stop the Iraq War. However, if one was to keep an anti-war movement from developing, it would be a good idea to tell would-be activists that they had already done enough by showing up for a week of protesting and then disappearing once the war started.
If we read more Chomsky, we will end up even more confused, because a few years later he said that “I talked to them [“the Vietnamese”]. What they liked was quiet, non-violent demonstrations which, you know, a group of women standing quietly somewhere.” Fortunately, “the Vietnamese” did not express their feelings towards proper anti-war resistance in private conversations with the professor, they made their feelings public, so we can go straight to the source rather than placing blind trust in Chomsky. In August 1967, for instance, the same month those secret US cables revealed that the Vietnamese had great hopes for the Civil Rights Movement becoming the vanguard of a revolution, Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam Pham Van Dong issued a statement “expressing staunch support of the Vietnamese people for the righteous struggle of the Afro-American people.” After the October 1969 National Moratorium protests brought out 100,000 people who were mostly non-violent but certainly not quiet, Pham wished “your ‘fall offensive’ a brilliant success.”
Contradictory messages from the professor are common: see how he sometimes says that he is marginalized because that is the function of the propaganda system, but also says that it’s easier to access the media than ever, or that the propaganda model actually has nothing at all to do with marginalizing dissent. Or how he can discuss the history of the first Red Scare by correctly observing that there was a wave of “brutal internal repression, which [was] the worst in American history” and yet the country was also the “most free.” Or how he produced large amounts of commentary encouraging radicals to get sent to prison (through tax evasion and draft resistance), but when a black revolutionary said “the cost of trying to catch us will be theirs. We have work to do, or simply lives to live, and don’t intend to make their job easier or our lives more miserable,” the professor retreated to “No one can evaluate the effectiveness of various tactics with any precision.” I can’t verify this independently, but Hugo Turner informed me that “there are many anecdotes of people spending hours with him discussing JFK or 9/11 etc. with him showing interest, canceling meetings to learn more, and then pretending ignorance on these issues,” which is consistent with his changing stances depending on to whom he’s speaking.
Chomsky also grasps the fact that people have to act in accordance with the constraints imposed by reality—but only as long as it pertains to linguistics. On the subject of language acquisition, he has explained that things evolved the way they did because “we are after all animals, not angels.” When it comes to actually changing the world, Chomsky still holds to standards that only angels could hope to meet.
Even if a someone wants to handwave this all away and say that he’s just very complex and nuanced, it really shouldn’t be this difficult to get one consistent answer about questions as fundamental as whether revolutionaries in the West face state repression, how to end a war, or whether or not dissent is marginalized. Chomsky’s contradictory answers on such important questions look like they’re based on factors which have nothing to do with conveying the facts; factors including the strength of radical mass-movements, how overtly America is repressing its citizens, and the credulity of his interlocutor. This is not behavior that’s consistent with producing the best radical scholarship, it’s triangulation which is consistent with sheepdogging.
Some might balk at the word “triangulation,” since it might imply a degree of intentionality. Ultimately, as with anyone, it doesn’t matter what Chomsky “really” thinks, it only matters what he does and what his effect is. But “triangulation” and “sheepdogging” are the best framework for explaining Chomsky’s contradictory commentary. This much is clear for the reasons already enumerated, and it’s clearer still when you see how Chomsky shifted his commentary as opposition to the Vietnam War progressed and intensified. Someone performing a sheepdogging function will steer people towards compliance when they can, but have to make convincing concessions to radical sentiment in order to maintain their credibility. Then they will steer people back towards accommodating the status quo when conditions were more favorable to do so. This is what we see when reading Chomsky’s contemporary commentary on the increasingly radical direction of the anti-war movement.
According to Chomsky in 1967, when the anti-war movement was beginning to gain major traction through highly visible demonstrations like the March on the Pentagon (or the Watts uprising), practicing “non-violence” meant foreswearing any use of force at all, and the only legitimate forms of resistance were the self-sacrificing actions of tax evasion and refusing induction. Chomsky even disagreed with William X that resisters should place the onus of catching them on the government, with the MIT professor essentially advocating that activists volunteer for prison. The professor held on to an extremely circumscribed definition of “coercion,” warning that even too much pressure to induce the unconvinced, “perhaps in violation of their basic conviction,” was intolerably authoritarian. He said that the evidence for his position seemed “overwhelming.” He articulated this position through his many platforms, so no one can reasonably claim that Chomsky left any doubt on this issue.
This was an extraordinarily restrictive position even in 1967. Few, if any, radicals at the time were as hesitant as Chomsky to “construct situations in which young people will find themselves induced to commit civil disobedience.” During a December 2nd 1964 protest at UC Berkeley, leaders of the Free Speech Movement organized a non-violent sit-in. “The speakers made it clear that in their view anyone who did not enter Sproul Hall was deserting his fellow students,” writes sociologist Max Heirich, and when the student body president asked students not to sit-in, “Mario Savio called him a traitor and a fink.”2
The Civil Rights Movement has been constructed as the most morally defensible struggle in US history. Ta-Nehisi Coates, official spokesman for what liberals are supposed to think about racism, writes that “The fact and wisdom of nonviolence is beyond dispute—the civil rights movement profoundly transformed the country.”3 But not even this movement has the flawless and saintly dimensions with which it has been imbued. In 1962, Louis Lomax, a progressive black journalist, wrote “The slogan of the Negro revolt might be rendered as: Direct Action to Augment Legalism… the Negro masses [have] forced the issue by demanding militant, immediate action.”4 Contrary to Chomsky’s extremely limited definition, “direct action” actually refers to a panoply of non-violent methods which “can assume a variety of forms, including sit-ins and lie-ins,” to quote political scientist John Leggett. “Direct action may or may not involve the breaking of the law… picketing landlords or engaging in a sit-down strike would be so considered.”5
If black activists had taken Chomsky’s advice and waited until most people agreed with them before implementing direct action tactics, there would have been no civil rights movement. Most Americans did not support the movement until after the Civil Rights Acts were passed in 1964 and ‘65, which was the result of over a decade of movement activism. A Saturday Evening Post editorial from that time announced that all of America was under siege by civil rights activism when it declared “We are all, let us face it, Mississippians.”6 According to Gallup polls conducted in 1964-65, even when a majority of Americans began to support the Civil Rights Act, only about a quarter of respondents felt that civil rights were a national problem. Almost 70 percent felt that the government was moving too fast to implement civil rights legislation.
And while many might have hated the inner-city uprisings of 1967 and ’68, these got results, too. Consider the case of Dr. Fred Schwarz. Schwarz, founder of the far-right Christian Anti-Communism Crusade, differed from fascists like the John Birch Society and Liberty Lobby in that he did not initially blame the civil rights movement on a communist conspiracy. It was not until the late-1960s, when the black liberation struggle intensified into open rebellion, that Schwarz turned against the movement. After Stokely Carmichael went to Cuba in summer 1967, Schwarz thundered that “The guerrilla forces are made up of the criminals, the fanatical black nationalists, the Black Muslims, and the Communists,” with the reds serving as masterminds of America’s racial strife. However, despite the fact that black rebellion may have antagonized people like Schwartz, direct action got the goods. Like many, Schwarz augmented his hardline “law and order” turn with appeals to the White House and Congress to implement social programs to raise living standards in black America.7 As one sociologist put it, “During the late 1960s the upper-class desires to minimize recurrent revolt…moved large sections of the upper class to be conciliatory. The hope for compromise with the rebelling wretched proved to be both primary and ascendant for a considerable length of time.”8
This is probably why, in his Arendt/Sontag debate on “non-violence,” Chomsky simply claimed agnosticism on the connection between black resistance and the Vietnam War. The black freedom struggle has been the arena in which the contours of American capitalism, and the revolutionary struggle against it, have been most apparent. As such, it’s the area in which the shortcomings of Chomsky’s extreme self-sacrificing pacifism are most apparent.
If activists had listened to Chomsky, the anti-war movement would’ve been sitting on their hands alongside the black revolutionaries, waiting for everyone to agree with them before they actually did anything. But fortunately for the people of Vietnam, putative revolutionaries didn’t obey Chomsky. In 1968, Julius Lester observed that the Bertrand Russell Vietnam “Tribunal was reminiscent of the early days of the civil rights movement when its thrust and motion were toward the moral conscience of America. Nonviolence was the weapon and, it was felt, America could not help but respond positively to the just cause of the movement. Well, it didn’t take long to find out that America has no moral conscience. Every tree that grows in this country was watered by the blood of Indians and Negroes. Recognizing this, the movement has undergone a transformation.”9
This “transformation” meant an increasing emphasis on direct action to physically stop the war machine. Furthermore, this job got underway even though a majority of Americans didn’t support it. According to the Gallup polling agency, in April 1967, half of Americans supported the war on Vietnam while only a minority thought the war was a mistake. Despite Chomsky’s warning that direct action should only be undertaken when most people already agree with you, anti-war activism had a demonstrable effect. James Kunen, for one, said that during one strike at Columbia, a passerby told him that “I’ve been incredibly enlightened over the past three months. If that’s the only way you can do it, politicize, we gotta have a strike every year.”10
By 1970, there were many groups who had been incarcerated and charged with felonies related to non-violent direct action. These were groups like the Baltimore Four, the Milwaukee Fourteen, and the Catonsville Nine—the latter of whom were nine protestors who broke into a Maryland selective service office and destroyed hundreds of draft cards with homemade napalm. Two of the Catonsville Nine were Phillip and Daniel Berrigan, Catholic priests who became prominent in the anti-war movement. In 1970, writing about the Berrigans in an essay titled “On the Limits of Civil Disobedience,” Chomsky begins by stating “The Berrigans have a disturbing habit of posing hard questions…by what they do. A reasonable person will admit that there exist, in principle, circumstances under which civil disobedience, even sabotage, is legitimate. The Berrigans have argued…that such circumstances now exist.”11
A couple years earlier, the professor argued that no direct action was acceptable unless a majority of the population already agreed with the intended aim, and in his Berrigan essay he acknowledges that “it is, I presume, the dominant opinion in the US, the assumption that American intervention is legitimate.” Chomsky affects a tone of academic detachment and spends a couple thousand words recapping the history of the war, before getting around to his current feelings on anti-war resistance:
My own impression…is that mass demonstrations have been a major factor in bringing the war to public attention, and that resistance, particularly draft resistance, has had an appreciable effects in bringing many people to examine their own complicity to draw them to the kinds of actions that have influenced policymakers.
Chomsky praises “an AWOL soldier in the fall of 1968” whose presence at MIT drew “great numbers of apathetic or hostile students into a serious consideration” of that university’s role in the war machine. Of course, only a few years earlier, Chomsky had argued that even going AWOL was less effective than volunteering for prison. When William X disagreed with him (saying “we don’t intend to make their job easier”), Chomsky reiterated his point, so the professor left no ambiguity about his stance on the issue. As he continues discussing the current state of anti-war resistance in his Berrigan piece, Chomsky seems to have experienced a sea change in his attitude towards direct action.
Townsend Hoopes’ interesting memoirs indicate that the operative domestic factor in post-Tet planning was protest and resistance, the fear that American society would become ungovernable. Hoopes reports that his own opposition to escalation, even continuation of the war, was based in large part on his belief that it would lead to renewed demonstrations… Others who have been close to the formation of policy have spoken in similar terms.
No one would argue that every antiwar action has been effective either in combating the general passivity that permits the war-makers to act freely or in increasing the level of opposition to the war. However, it seems fairly clear that, had it not been for the mass actions of protest and the determined resistance of a few, the scale and intensity of the American war in Southeast Asia would have been even more ferocious.
“No one would argue that every antiwar action has been effective,” Chomsky said in 1970. But of course, only a couple years earlier he argued that almost every antiwar action was not only ineffective but counterproductive and dangerous. It’s odd that it seemed “fairly clear” to Chomsky in 1970 that direct action reduced “the scale and intensity of the American war,” since it was so clear to him in 1968 that almost any direct action was a bad idea and should be avoided. He even praises “student activism” for rousing “the academic community” from its quiescence—only a couple years after he had opposed nearly every form of student activism.
Chomsky goes on to dispute at length the contentions of authors like The New Republic’s Andrew Greeley, whom Chomsky accuses of failing to grasp that direct action has “made it difficult for the government to wage the war,” which is a desirable outcome regardless of any other factors. Chomsky erases the fact that until relatively recently, he was one of these commentators who opposed direct action on the part of the great unwashed. He said so repeatedly, too.
Chomsky does not account for the inconvenient fact that he too opposed direct action quite vocally for many years. Rather than explain his change, he engages in a bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand, saying that the problem is direct action that helps “create an atmosphere in which some people have been led to terrorist attacks.” Terrorist adventurism is indeed a dangerous, ill-founded, and counterproductive approach, which is why America’s secret police have deployed agents provocateur for a century and a half. But this is a position that Chomsky only adopted once the radical milieu had advanced well beyond his stringent self-sacrificing pacifism.
Chomsky simply ignores this and essentially re-writes his own history. For example, he claims that “It is often maintained that [willing submission to state authority] is a necessary component of legitimate civil disobedience. I simply do not see the logic of this argument. It seems to me there is no moral compulsion for one who seeks to prevent criminal actions of the state to submit voluntarily to punishment for his actions.” But this “willing submission to state authority,” where one “submits voluntarily to punishment” was the position espoused by Noam Chomsky himself. It’s a position for which he advocated across numerous platforms, and he stuck to those guns even when revolutionaries objected to his brand of martyrdom. He does not explain why he now fails to see the logic in his previous position, a position which he seemed to have abandoned only very recently. He does not explain any of the shifts evinced by his essay on the Berrigans, even though he had changed quite a lot. In 1967, he said that no amount of “coercion” was acceptable, but by 1970 he said “There is no doubt that there is a coercive element [to destroying draft files]… It seems to me that the crucial issue is the impact of such actions on ending the atrocity of the American war. If the contribution is significant, then this more than compensates for the element of coercion which is rarely absent in some form in nonviolent civil disobedience.”
Again, his fans might say that Chomsky’s critics just fail to grasp his admirably complex position. But this is not nuance, this is whipping between contradictory positions on a foundational issue depending on outside circumstances. Chomsky is many things but he’s not dumb, so it’s hard to take unexplained switches on such important things at face value. This looks a lot more like rear-guard action to maintain his credibility with his target audience, which had already overrun the extremely limited bounds of acceptable resistance for which he advocated.
This is what’s meant by the idea that Chomsky’s role is mirroring and shifting the progressive culture as the ruling class’s approved avatar of “the Left”—reflecting the more substantively radical aspects of the progressive milieu in order to garner influence and credibility, and then steering it into safer channels. So even today, as he warns that climate change and the nuclear Sword of Damocles threaten to end life on Earth, here he is again warning that a movement must enjoy a vast majority of popular support before it does anything too drastic: “But unless the great mass of the population comes to believe that needed change cannot be implemented within the existing system, resort to ‘drastic measures’ is likely to be a recipe for disaster.” But this is a bar that no real movement could ever hope to clear, and Chomsky is asking his fans to gamble with nothing less than the future of life on Earth at stake.
With the Vietnam War long-since over and safely in the past, in 2008 Chomsky was able to speak freely about how urban uprisings and fraggings contributed to ending the war. Then he presented this as proof that the need for direct action was a thing of the past, as it had imbued public opinion with inherent—we might say metaphysical—powers. Once again, Silber’s conception of “embalmed dissent” sounds most correct, as Chomsky holds up the radicalism of the past like an insect in amber to say “See? Our work here is done. No direct action needed.” It’s the same approach that he brings to his commentary on American repression. He is comfortable discussing history with great lucidity, but he usually describes events accurately when they’re ensconced safely in the past. At moments of tension and crisis, he seems to keep saying “Now things are mostly fine.” When he does so, his finger-wagging is more plausible because all the rest is so credible to his target audience.
With things as bad as they are, Chomsky proffers highly idealistic, liberal, not-remotely radical ideas about American imperialism. While droning on about the living hell that Libya was turned into by NATO in a war he supported through wrung hands, Chomsky nevertheless concludes that “the bombing of Libya could be considered ‘humanitarian intervention’ per the concept of ‘responsibility to protect.’”
“In the case of Afghanistan, I suspect it was just revenge. It’s probably just as Abdul Haqq said: they wanted to ‘show their muscle’. You know, ‘somebody attacked us, we’re gonna show the world that we can attack somebody even more harshly.'”
This mentality is echoed in Trump’s nuclear comment to North Korea about having “a bigger button than you do.” As Chomsky points out, there was “no strategic or other purpose behind it.”
For those keeping track, according to Chomsky in 2018: Libya was a genuine humanitarian intervention, Afghanistan owes to a psychological need for revenge, and North Korea is just more of Trump’s dick-waving braggadocio. This is not only terrible commentary by Chomsky’s standards, it’d be bad for USA Today. A report prepared by the Office of Naval Intelligence in 1938 claimed that “Realistically, all wars have been fought for economic reasons. To make them politically and socially palatable, ideological issues have always been invoked. Any future war will, undoubtedly, conform to historical precedent.”12 This fact has long been a basic element of a radical anti-war critique, but Chomsky is now forcing us to re-litigate such foundational ideas as why wars are fought.
Just as significantly, Chomsky’s ideas about American “humanitarian” imperialism changed considerably during the Obama years, with little explanation from the eminent scholar. In the same 1982 interview mentioned above, Chomsky said that “The rhetorical goal” of American imperialism “is democracy, but to see how meaningful that rhetorical goal is, all you have to do it to look at our actual successes in the countries under our domination, for example in Latin America and the Philippines.” So America’s real goal isn’t democracy and humanitarianism, but neither does America achieve this even on accident: “If you look around at the world, if you look at our actual impact on the world, it’s astonishing that sane people can even discuss this question. Our support of fascist regimes has been systematic, very systematic” (original emphasis).13
Today, though, Chomsky no longer believes that American imperialism can’t have a great liberatory power. While reciting boilerplate that “The United States, like other great powers, does not pursue humanitarian objectives,” America’s greatest dissident nonetheless concludes that “it makes sense for the United States to maintain a presence” in Syria to achieve humanitarian objectives. While Chomsky is able to parse the finer points of UN Security Council legitimacy and “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine in the case of Libya, he neglects to mention that a US occupation of Syria violates every tenet of international law.
He has also stepped comfortably into the role of Lefty-gatekeeper which he has de facto served for decades, saying that those who question the mainstream narrative on Syria can only be “ludicrously called ‘the left.’” Now, to even apply the sort of media skepticism for which Chomsky is famous makes one’s claim to being a Leftist “ludicrous.” He once said that if his political books ever got reviewed in the New York Times, he’d know he’s doing something very wrong. It’s technically true that he wasn’t getting his political books reviewed, although as early as 1979 a Times writer called the professor “arguably the most important intellectual alive” while pointing to him as an important radical thinker. Regardless, he’s now so safe that in the past few years, he’s not only been interviewed on at least 3 occasions by the Times, he’s been quoted by Tucker Carlson on Fox News. Chomsky shows no signs of introspection in regards to whether this indicates he’s “doing something very wrong.”
This new step of supporting the US occupation of a regime change target must owe a great deal to the unique power of Barack Obama. It’s hard to imagine Chomsky’s accommodation to America’s “humanitarian” wars taking place under a president who wasn’t such a successful marketer for the Pentagon and CIA. Chomsky’s idea that the Defense Department is going to inadvertently create a red Catalonia in Northern Syria, rather than another Israel or Kosovo—or that it has a right to do so— seems inconceivable without Obama’s unique power and the banner of the “Arab Spring.” Chomsky was instrumental in transmuting anguished support for Obama’s MENA wars into something that could pass for a radical stance. Paul Street identified Chomsky as one of the “leading left intellectuals on U.S. policy in the Middle East” who had “significantly influenced” his own support for the war on Libya. In his piece advocating for the NATO war, Street sums up the new default stance of the permissible Left:
Some U.S. Web “radicals” (their self-designation often reflects confusion between [a] stridency and cynicism of rhetoric and [b] depth of analysis/ knowledge) are uncomfortable with the notion that any U.S. and Western military intervention in what we used to call the Third World might happen to have a positive humanitarian impact in one instance. They are afraid that their core identity as bad-ass, hard-core enemies of Empire (and of Obama) will be compromised. Let me (an early radical-Left critic of Obama) assure these comrades that acknowledging this is in no way to go soft on Washington or the current administration and its commitment to the petro-imperial project. The analysis presented in this essay is as cynical, radical, and power-centered as any hard core leftist could want.
A few of the ingredients that jump out are: psychologically based sneering towards anti-imperialism, substitution of realpolitik wonkery for radical analysis, and credulity towards the White House and State Department. The Rojava op must be considered quite a success, and not only for how it finally implanted a slew of US military bases on Syrian soil. It had excellent progressive marketing; consider this defense of the US occupation from the DSA: “The 2,000 US troops in Syria are not there to conduct ‘regime change.’ They are there to defend the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in North East Syria and to oppose ISIS. Trump has made that clear.” As any democratic socialist knows, the most reliable source for determining the Pentagon’s true intentions and long-term plans is Donald Trump, and surely Obama had to play a role in giving the Oval Office such sterling credibility among the permissible Left. Whatever astute skepticism Chomsky may have leveled in 2008 against the man who murdered thousands of Muslim children and teenagers, Dr. Noam learned to stop worrying and love the bombs (some might say he doesn’t love bombs, but a difference that makes no difference is no difference). Back in 1982, as the professor himself pointed out, “it’s astonishing” to think of any “sane” person saying then what Chomsky is saying today.
Today’s Chomsky transported back to 1982 would’ve sounded like this:
“There’s no justifying the Sandinistas. On the other hand, the fact of the matter is that they are essentially pretty much in control of Nicaragua now, thanks largely to Soviet and Cuban support. In my opinion it makes sense for the United States to maintain a presence which would deter an attack on the Miskito areas. They have the one part of Nicaragua which has succeeded in sustaining a functioning society with many decent elements.”
Unfortunately, though, we don’t need to speculate on what Chomsky’s hypothetical support for regime change in Nicaragua would look like—he’s come out for that, too. In a July 2018 interview with Democracy Now, the professor discussed the current state of Nicaragua and issued what sound like typically mainstream denunciations of the social democratic government in Managua:
But there’s been a lot of corruption, a lot of repression. It’s autocratic, undoubtedly. The opposition is nothing to write home about, either, for the most part. So, it’s by no means a pretty situation. One would hope that negotiations could reduce the tensions. And my own view is that I think it would be a good thing for Nicaragua if Ortega were to call early elections and allow them to be run without corruption and brutality. But that doesn’t look as if it’s—it’s hard to hard to see a simple way out at this point. It’s a very unfortunate situation.
This all might sound unobjectionable enough to someone with no knowledge of how the US overthrows governments, but the equivocation and these buzzwords—corruption, repression, autocratic, brutality—are the same ones that are invoked every single time the White House seeks regime change. The reason “corruption” is so often cited as a casus subverteri is because it exists in every country. As Jackie Chan said, “does corruption exist in the US? Of course! The US is the most corrupt in the world! Who makes the world collapse? The US!” We need only go back about 10 years to find the example of Wall Street funding all 3 major presidential candidates and then all 3 voting to hand the banksters $7 trillion. Same for “repression”—any country with a police force (which is to say, all of them) can be accused of repression. All who incur Washington’s disfavor will be accused of repression.
Chomsky accuses the government of Daniel Ortega of being “in essence, neoliberal,” which is another common complaint directed at Washington’s targets. Since intransigent governments are economically isolated, they are usually forced to make concessions to foreign investors. Then, these governments are condemned by the Western punditocracy as “neoliberal” for these measures, which demobilizes much left-wing opposition to regime change. If people who might protest a war come to believe that both sides are equally bad, it reduces the motivation to actually do anything—as the CIA pointed out when discussing anti-Communism’s effect on disabling opposition to Reagan’s dirty wars. Despite the fact that the Sandinistas of today are not exactly the same as the Sandinistas of 1979, Roger Harris enumerates many of the Ortega government’s very impressive post-2006 achievements and concludes that “Nicaragua has provoked the ire of the US for the good things its done, not the bad.”
Other than a rambling digression on the refugee crisis, Chomsky’s comments on Nicaragua are now essentially identical to those of the most servile imperial media outlets he used to critique. Take this recent bit of regime-change agit-prop from a gusana writing in Time Magazine:
Nicaragua is in full cardiac arrest. Since protests began on April 18, the government of President Daniel Ortega has been accused of using “lethal force” and at least 146 people have died. Hundreds more are wounded or missing and the body of a U.S. citizen was found shot dead on June 2. Without international intervention, the collapse of my country could create a new cycle of war and destruction in this precarious region.
I am a mother and a businesswoman, managing several American franchise restaurants across Nicaragua with over 650 employees. The first tremors came in April, when demonstrations against the Ortega regime, largely led by students, started in Managua and quickly spread to cities across the country. The government’s reaction was swift, and in the first few days dozens were killed by police and paramilitary forces using live rounds of ammunition.
Chomsky’s claims are as vacuous as anything else from the Time/Warner media empire, or USAID, which recently denounced the Nicaraguan government as “Ortega’s brutal regime.” Chomsky does not articulate how the Nicaraguan government is corrupt. He does not explain how it’s more repressive than any other government, or why we should believe stories about Ortega’s brutality any more than we should believe in Iraq’s WMDs. He does not explain in what way the Nicaraguan president is “autocratic,” much less “undoubtedly” so. He does not provide any evidence that the Ortega Administration is ruining elections with “corruption and brutality,” nor does he give us any reason to think that a right-wing opposition representing the interests of a pro-US bourgeoisie would run elections, much less a government, with less “corruption and brutality.”
Chomsky does not substantiate his claim that “it would be a good thing for Nicaragua if Ortega were to call early elections,” much less why the Sandinistas should agree to this. As President Ortega said, he was elected by a majority of the Nicaraguan people, according to the legitimate democratic procedures set out by and within the term limits of Nicaraguan law. Chomsky doesn’t tell us why a right-wing opposition seeking to bend the Nicaraguan government to the designs of “American franchises” should have its wishes represented over the will of the majority of Nicaraguan voters who elected Ortega.
We can be confident that if Chomsky had strong evidence for these claims he would present them, since it’s his trademark to issue encyclopedic recitations of data when proving a point. But he’s able to throw off these one-line accusations because he is swimming with the tide of imperial orthodoxy, echoing the mainstream media, Donald Trump, pro-US business owners, USAID, the Heritage Foundation, Mike Pence, and Ken Roth. Here, again, it’s useful to quote pre-Obama Chomsky back at today’s Chomsky:
the beauty of concision is that you can only repeat conventional thoughts. Suppose I get up on Nightline, and I say Qaddafi is a terrorist, Khomeini is a murderer…all this sort of stuff, I don’t need any evidence, everybody just nods. On the other hand, suppose you say something that just isn’t regurgitating conventional pieties. Suppose you say something that’s the least bit unexpected, or controversial…you’d better have some evidence, you’d better have a lot of evidence. You can’t give evidence if you’re stuck with concision, that’s the genius of this structural constraint.
Gotta love those classic Chomsky speeches. Someone should really forward that guy’s stuff to Noam Chomsky, especially since the professor is helping Donald Trump overthrow the government of Nicaragua.
What’s happening in Nicaragua bears all the hallmarks of a typical regime change operation originating in Washington. As one Bulgarian journalist said about CIA trickery in 2000, “the specialists from beyond the ocean don’t rack their brains uselessly or rely on imagination. They strictly follow tried and true methods—it’s all modular, plug-and-play. If it worked before, use it again.” The Bulgarian Socialist Party was overthrown by American regime change efforts in 1990 and 1997, and both waves followed the typical patterns. “The protest movement in Bulgaria was beginning to feel and smell like the general strike in British Guyana to topple Cheddi Jagan in 1962, and the campaign to undermine Salvador Allende in the early ‘70s—both operations of the CIA—where as soon as one demand was met, newer ones were raised, putting the government virtually under siege, hoping it would over-react, and making normal governing impossible” writes William Blum in Killing Hope. Consider this June 2018 Time Magazine article: “The crisis started on April 18 when pro-government gangs violently crushed a small student-led demonstration against planned reforms to the pension system. The government responded with force, and the protests escalated; dozens were killed over the next few days. Ortega, 72, has since dropped his original plan for pensions, but opponents are now calling for his resignation.” Time also points out that Ortega’s ouster is most desired by “the Catholic Church and business leaders.”
The pattern is so predictable that what’s going on in Nicaragua would be obvious even if someone had only started paying attention in the last 5 years. Consider as well the claim that Ortega’s government unleashed Nicaraguan police to go on a berserk violence-spree against protestors. With a cursory knowledge of recent regime change ops, one could surmise that this is a lie. In Ukraine 2014, for instance, President Viktor Yanukovych was forced to flee after snipers opened fire on anti-government protestors and police—the attacks were blamed on the government, but look much more likely to be a successful anti-government false-flag provocation. In Venezuela last year, the Bolivarian government was blamed for a spate of violence which was largely perpetrated by the right-wing pro-US opposition—fascist violence which included burning people alive and lynching blacks. One need only dig a little bit to find that Nicaragua’s death counts are highly dubious and largely the result of the pro-US opposition (once again, we see the fascist technique of burning people alive). “The Guardian, The Washington Post, the BBC and NPR have assigned an American anthropologist with no previous journalistic experience to cover the crisis in Nicaragua. The novice reporter, named Carl David Goette-Luciak, has published pieces littered with falsehoods that reinforce the opposition’s narrative promoting regime change while relying almost entirely on anti-Sandinista sources.”
Again, one could have deduced all this about Nicaragua even if they had only paid attention for the past few years. But Chomsky has not been writing about American imperialism for only 5 years, he’s been doing it for over 50 years. Does St. Noam the indispensable genius dissident really not know what the very consistent pattern of regime change looks like? Does that question really need to be asked?
The fact that Chomsky has signed up for Latin American regime change is significant because he simply has none of the justifications that one could claim exist in the case of Syria. There have not been 7 years of horror stories portraying Daniel Ortega as a monster worse than Adolf Hitler, nor is there anything comparable to the Rojava op in Nicaragua. There has been no push to associate anti-imperialists with fascists, as was done to the “Hands off Syria” crowd. There is no widespread consensus among the permissible Left that Ortega must go—at least not yet. His defenders are quick to adduce reasons why Chomsky’s support for the US occupation of Syria is consistent with anarchist humanitarianism, despite the fact that he’s helping Donald Trump. None of those excuses can be plausibly invoked with Nicaragua. The professor has always subtly steered and reflected the existing flaws of the academic/alt-media milieu of which he is very much a part, but he is leading the pack here. Consider, too the fact that he said identical things about Libya as he has said about Syria, and yet the return of slavery to Libya has given him not a moment’s pause. Given all this, it’s clear that Chomsky the State Department and Pentagon flack is here to stay.
As always, his defenders will continue to maintain that it’s counterproductive and/or insane to criticize the professor, especially with things as bad as they are, but this is a canard. There will never be a good time to criticize liberal gatekeepers: as long as there is class society, there will be a political “right” which openly pushes for more rigid hierarchies and enforces them with violence and terror. There will also always be a “compatible left” which criticizes these hierarchies while steering people into accommodating them. As the gatekeeper of the Western Left, Chomsky has played an outsized role in injecting flaws into the radical milieu, to the point that many among the “Western Left” see no tension arising from supporting US military occupations. The free pass afforded to Chomsky and the avatars of the compatible Left is not a remedy to the situation, it has been a contributing factor. As Chomsky himself once said, his defenses of America’s war machine were once a “pretty extreme position” and would have been “hard to defend had anyone ever criticized it.” But he got away with it then, enabling his squishy tolerance of the Pentagon to become the mainstream stance of the permissible Left.
A “socialism” at home funded by colonialism abroad, as a defining feature of the “Western Left,” dates back to the era of classical imperialism. Eduard Bernstein once beamed that so many of Europe and North America’s social blessings were the result of “the colonial enterprise.”
Without the colonial expansion of our economy, the poverty that still exists in Europe today, which we are trying to eradicate, would be much worse and we would have much less hope of eliminating it. Even when counter-balanced by the crimes of colonialism, the benefits derived from colonies always weigh much more heavily in the scales.15
In the era of national liberation revolutions, the West’s ruling classes faced a nightmare scenario in which Western Leftists understood their enemies to be the wealthy of the First World, not the poor of the Third. As long as there is class society in the West, there will be money for a compatible Left which sees its fate intertwined with the former, rather than the latter.
As the left-most boundary of permissible thought, Chomsky had to adopt radical positions when movements were substantively radical, otherwise he would have had no credibility among his target audience. So when America’s mass movements were linked to things like Communism and national liberation, the professor sounded Marxish. But once Obama mostly de-linked the “Left” from the bulk of its progressive principles, Chomsky lost his obligation to mirror this genuine radicalism. So despite the fact that he’s always had elite-approved flaws, he’s gotten this bad in the last few years because the Obama spectacle was wildly successful at doing what it was meant to do. The campaign was a marketing blitz to turn “the Left” upside down, from a loose tendency defined by progressive ideas and radical issues into something defined by nice-sounding “values” and pleasant, banal “storytelling.” Stephen Gowans describes the same phenomenon coming from one of Chomsky’s fellow Intercepters Mehdi Hasan, who “has transfigured Leftism into the concept of avoiding all choices that have potentially awful consequences,” retreating “from the political struggles of the real world into impotent moral posturing, where no choices are ever made, because the consequences of all choices are awful to one degree or another.” It’s all part and parcel of a very successful propaganda coup that transpired over the last decade, a campaign to denature “the Left” of any of the actual substantive qualities that were its essence for over a century.
That Chomsky, the defining voice of the Western left, has added support for regime change to the list of acceptable “Leftist” values is a testament to how successful this campaign has been. It’s impossible to imagine it happening under any figurehead other than the last president, whose marketing snow-job hobbled genuine radical sentiment in ways that we can only begin to understand. Regardless, we’re here now, and the professor has made it quite apparent which side he’s on. Which is good, because if he succeeds in removing anti-imperialism from “the Left,” whatever remains will not be a movement that’s capable of saving humanity.
Special thanks to @RancidSassy and others for editing suggestions
* Chomsky was an outlier even during the radical heyday, and today he sounds little like any of those radicals and most like liberal Senator J. William Fulbright. Consider this snippet from Fulbright’s essay “Vietnam Revisited”: “The invasion of Cambodia was a dreadful act. As best they could, the Cambodians had maintained their neutrality; and our attack was inexcusable. But we did it, and the events that followed ruined Cambodia—and the consequences are still being felt in that part of the world. We’ve contributed to an awful lot of tragedy in the world. I’d like the Vietnamese to get out of Cambodia. Perhaps the Russians will play an effective mediating role. But I should think no one wants the Khmer Rouge back. It’s a very difficult problem.” [J. William Fulbright with Seth P. Tillman, The Price of Empire, “Vietnam Revisited,” Pantheon Books, 1989, p. 127]
- Noam Chomsky, Language and Politics, AK Press, 2004, p. 310
- Max Heirich, “The Conflict Deepens: Round Two,” Taking State Power: the Sources and Consequences of Political Challenge, ed. John C. Leggett, Harper & Row Publishers, 1973, p. 291
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: an American Tragedy, One World, 2017, p. 100
- Louis Lomax, The Negro Revolt, Perennial Library, 1971, p. 168
- Leggett, Taking Power, p. 439
- Charles E. Cobb, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, Duke University Press, 2015, p. 228
- Hubert Villeneuve, “Teaching Anticommunism: Fred C. Schwarz, the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade and American Postwar Conservatism,” August 2011
- Leggett, Taking Power, p. 323
- Julius Lester, Revolutionary Notes, Grove Press, Inc., 1969, p. 19
- James Kunen, The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary, Random House, 1969, p. 128
- Noam Chomsky, “On the Limits of Civil Disobedience,” The Berrigans, ed. William VanEtten Casey & Philip Nobile, Avon Publishers, 1971
- Carl Oglesby, “Vietnamese Crucible,” Containment and Change, MacMillan, 1967, p. 165
- Chomsky, Language and Politics, pp. 310-1
- William Blum, Killing Hope: U. S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, Common Courage Press, 1995, p. 317
- Domenico Losurdo, Class Struggle: A Philosophical and Political History, Palgrave MacMillan, 2016 p. 139