A herd of independent minds

I read Francis Wheen warily, not knowing from paragraph to paragraph whether I’m going to agree or start swearing. I read young Oliver very warily indeed: most of what he writes is drivel and some of it’s repulsive. And I don’t read Aaro at all if I can possibly help it.

Wheen, Kamm, Aaronovitch: it’s an unpromising troika. They’ve come together to launch an attack on the Guardian over Emma Brockes’ silly and slapdash interview with Noam Chomsky (which has been taken down from the Guardian Web site but can still be read at Chomsky’s own site, apparently). More specifically, the trio object to the Guardian‘s apology for the interview; they argue that the apology goes too far in correcting the misleading impression given by the interview, painting Chomsky – and, incidentally, Diana Johnstone – in an unwarrantedly favourable light. They have argued this case in a letter of around 4,500 words to the Guardian‘s Reader’s Editor, who has – understandably – concluded that it raises issues outside his competence.

I haven’t seen the letter, but I believe I’ve read enough about this somewhat quixotic endeavour – primarily on Kamm’s blog – to form a judgment on it. My judgment is that it’s a really positive initiative, which I support wholeheartedly. Chomsky is a tendentious and untrustworthy polemicist, whose partisans react with outrage (and in numbers) to criticism of his arguments – and whose rhetorical skills make it extraordinarily difficult to construct a cogent critique. (For illustration, wade through this page, recommended recently by a Chomsky partisan.) On both counts, it is very much to the credit of Kamm & co that they are making the effort; it’s a lot more than I’d care to do just now.

A little background from 1995:
Milan Rai, Chomsky’s politics (Verso, £10.95)

Review printed in New Statesman and Society, 18/8/1995

Since 1969 Noam Chomsky has been one of the foremost radical critics of US foreign policy. Chomsky assiduously documents both the promotion of US interests around the world and the biases and omissions in subsequent media coverage. The resultant portrait of power, corruption and lies is presented as a rational deduction from objective study: the implication is that the government’s apologists cannot plead either difference of opinion or ignorance, but stand self-convicted of lying in the service of power. This is a serious matter: the mendacity of the “intelligentsia” entrenches the limitations of US political culture, foreclosing the prospects for any kind of political reform. Chomsky himself, by contrast, shoulders the responsibility of intellectuals, which is “to speak the truth and to expose lies”.

Milan Rai’s presentation of Chomsky’s politics is detailed, comprehensive and uncritical. Rai has even emulated Chomsky’s habitual contemptuous dismissals of his opponents: Auberon Waugh is characterised, not very accurately, as a “brainwashed intellectual”. (A larger problem is Rai’s treatment of French classicist Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s writings on Chomsky, who had – for reasons which remain obscure – written a relatively friendly preface to a work by Holocaust revisionist Robert Faurisson; Rai dismisses Vidal-Naquet’s criticisms undiscussed as “falsehoods”). This book is thus a missed opportunity. Notwithstanding the enormous value of Chomsky’s work in setting the record of US foreign policy straight, his political assumptions deserve a more thorough and more critical examination.

US society, for Chomsky, is dominated by the “elites”: a term which refers variously to the state apparatus, big business, journalists and academics. The relationship of the elites to the US population is that of an occupying power to a subject territory: the choice is between resistance to elite power and collaboration. Similar considerations apply to the US elites’ relationship with the rest of the world. Indeed, Chomsky denies any significance to the internal politics of nations affected by US foreign policy: “It’s just the same things in Washington playing themselves out in different parts of the world”. Prior to 1989 arguments of this sort even led Chomsky to disparage criticism of the Soviet Union: “the moral value of this work is at best very slight”.

Elite rule is sustained by the “propaganda system”, whereby intellectuals abjure their truth-telling responsibility in favour of manufacturing consent to the status quo. A nuanced analysis shows the “propaganda model” to be multi-faceted: conformity is produced by the economic interests of media businesses, government requirements, cultural resistance to unorthodox analyses and reluctance to put in the necessary work, as well as – what is more commonly cited in practice – the moral turpitude of journalists. (A more accurate term than “propaganda” might have been “received ideas within the capitalist media”). Chomsky even acknowledges the existence of journalists who “use whatever leeway they have”, without thereby modifying his judgment on the class as a whole. Given this level of over-determination and defence against counter-examples, Chomsky’s finding that the model is “one of the best-confirmed theories in the social sciences” is to be expected.

Unsurprisingly, Chomsky’s arguments are at their weakest with respect to the question of what is to be done. On one hand, intellectual self-defence against elite lies is easy (it only requires “ordinary common sense”); on the other, “it does require a degree of fanaticism”, which explains why so few have followed Chomsky’s lead. Chomsky approves non-participation in US presidential elections (“people are intelligent enough to understand that … they are voting for Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Cola”); he also advocates voting: “you’ve got to multiply those little differences in policy by the power of the United States.” Tactical considerations are a moral necessity (“if you write, you have a moral responsibility to consider the consequences of what you write”); then again, “you should do what you think is right and not what’s going to be tactically useful”.

This analysis is conducted, despite Chomsky’s stress on objectivity and rationality, in highly polemical terms. Fascism, Stalinism, terrorism are constant reference points: the US intelligentsia inhabits an “intellectual culture dedicated to terrorist values and policies”; “Fascism is deeply rooted in everyone’s mind in the United States”. While assertions like these are invariably backed up by meticulously syllogistic arguments, the terminology seems designed to raise the rhetorical stakes: analysis turns into name-calling.

These paradoxes rest on the two convictions which underpin Chomsky’s politics. There is a quasi-anarchist stress on the primacy of power relations: capitalism, Communism and fascism all hinge on the control of society by a bureaucratic or managerial elite (“Bolshevism and American liberalism are basically manifestations of the same thing”). This is a powerful vision which illuminates many real continuities; however, it needs to be qualified in the light of history if it is not to turn into a theory of the uniform and interchangeable evil of the elites. This kind of qualification can seem to elude Chomsky, who has argued that the Nazis were among the true victors of the Second World War.

Equally significant is the view – stated by Rai as an ethical truism – that “we must take responsibility for what our society does”. This stress on duty explains the persistent tone of outrage in Chomsky’s work: as a responsible US citizen and intellectual, Chomsky weighs the actions of the US government and the intellectual class and finds them wanting. If, as the “elite” model dictates, the US government is quasi-fascist and the intellectual class composed of power-worshippers, this only rouses Chomsky to greater moral indignation. The classical radical analysis of the state – as an illegitimate imposition on society for which nobody is responsible but the bastards themselves – is foreign to him.

The final paradox of Chomsky’s work is that, however ill-founded his convictions may be, his Herculean labours “to speak the truth and to expose lies” are inconceivable without them. Chomsky is perhaps best seen as a figure like Orwell or Ruskin, his virtues inseparable from his faults. Like those predecessors, when Chomsky goes wrong, he goes seriously wrong; but when he’s right he’s unsurpassable.
[ends]

The conclusion is kinder than I’d be now, obviously.

PS No, I know he didn’t write it as a preface. He wrote a statement solicited by Serge Thion, a (left-wing) associate of Faurisson, and gave it to Thion with instructions to use it as he saw fit. When he heard that Thion planned to use it as a preface to Faurisson’s work he objected, but too late to prevent it appearing; however, he has subsequently repented the objection. In short, he wrote “a relatively friendly [statement which appears as] a preface to a work by Holocaust revisionist Robert Faurisson [with Chomsky’s consent, despite initial objections]”.

PPS On Chomsky, Johnstone and Srebrenica, see Lee Bryant’s comments here and this from Attila Hoare. (Personal to JM – I don’t know why Attila’s writing for them either. Because they asked him, probably.)

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