7 November 2005 (updated 17 November)

Chomsky under attack

By Tapani Lausti

Noam Chomsky, Imperial Ambitions: Conversations on the Post-9/11 World. Interviews with David Barsamian. Metropolitan Books 2005.

For two decades Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian have collaborated as interviewee and interviewer. Undoubtedly this latest collection of interviews can be expected to sell well as more and more people find Chomsky's criticism of American foreign policy credible. This is especially true in the poorer parts of the world. In the metropolitan countries, however, in addition to the right-wing commentators, there is quite a number of liberal intellectuals who react to Chomsky's work with incomprehension and hostility.  

Examples of the latter are numerous. Just as I was finishing reading this book, The Guardian published a scandalously distorted interview of Chomsky by Emma Brockes. ("The greatest intellectual?", The Guardian, 31 October 2005; The Guardian later apologised to Chomsky and withdrew Brockes' interview from their website. See links below.) The reason for the interview was that Chomsky had been voted the world's top public intellectual by Prospect magazine's readers.

It seems to give a kick to many journalists to sneer at Chomsky and his work. Brockes sees Chomsky as a humourless and slightly ridiculous hyprocrite. She insinuates that perhaps we can't really trust what Chomsky is saying: "Given that until recently he worked full-time at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there remain suspicions over how he has managed to become an expert, seemingly, on every conflict since the second world war; it is assumed by his critics that he plugs the gaps in his knowledge with ideology."

There is more in the same vein: "... of all intellectuals on the Prospect list, it is Chomsky who is most often accused of miring a debate in intellectual spam, what the writer Paul Berman calls his 'customary blizzard of obscure sources'."

All this is cheap and not worthy of a quality newspaper. Understandably many journalists are peeved by Chomsky's criticism of their work. Brockes says that according to Chomsky, "most journalists are unwitting upholders of western imperialism". In this, as many other cases, in which Chomsky is accused of an intemperate attitude, his views are in fact much more nuanced.

In this latest book of interviews, Chomsky puts his criticism of journalism like this: "... journalists generally have professional integrity. Typically they are honest, serious professionals who want to do their job properly. None of that changes the fact that most of them reflexively perceive the world through a particular prism that happens to be supportive of concentrated power." (p. 150)

Strangely, Chomsky's passion for freedom of speech is often greeted with incomprehension by journalists. Thus, Brockes is clearly perplexed by Chomsky's defence of Living Marxism magazine's right to publish an article which was critical of the way the British television channel ITN reported on a Serbian "death camp". ITN sued Living Marxism over the article and the libel case led to the death of the magazine. In the interview Chomsky says: "...for a big corporation to put a small newspaper out of business because they think something they reported was false, is outrageous."

In this new book Chomsky also expresses amazement at the Hutton inquiry which was set up after the BBC had claimed that the evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction had been "sexed up". Chomsky's conclusion probably surprises many British journalists: "What right does the government have to carry out an inquiry into whether the media are reporting the facts the way it wants them to be reported? The very fact that the inquiry took place is a function of the very low commitment to freedom of speech in England." (p. 151)

People who claim that Chomsky sees nothing positive in the U.S. might be surprised at his other comment on the matter: "The United States is, to my knowlegde, unique in its guarantees of freedom of the press. The government in the United States has fewer options and less ability to control the press than in any other country I know." (p. 150)

In a semi-mocking tone Emma Brockes lists some of Chomsky's "controversial" claims, distorting or fabricating most of them. One of them, however, is more or less accurate, namely "that practically every US president since the second world war has been guilty of war crimes".

In this new book Chomsky returns to the subject of war crimes in several contexts. About Falluja he writes: "One of the first acts in the conquest of Falluja was to take over the general hospital, which was a major war crime. And they gave a reason. The reason is the hospital was a 'center of propaganda against allied forces' because it was producing 'inflated civilian casualty figures.' First of all, how do we know they were inflated? Because our dear leader said so. Secondly, the idea that you take over a hospital because it's publishing casualty figures is obscene." (p. 122)

Describing what had happened in the hospital, Chomsky concludes that this all was a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions: "In fact the entire political leadership should face the death penalty under U.S. law for these actions." (p. 123)

In his typical way of demanding same measures for similar crimes independent of who has committed them, Chomsky makes this comparison: "The Russian assault on Grozny was considered a major war crime, rightly. But when we do the same thing to Falluja, it's liberation." (p. 123)

Chomsky also notes how, earlier in Vietnam and now in Iraq, the focus is on ordinary soldiers who commit atrocities: "If they commit a crime, that's horrible. If nice, educated folk like us, sitting in comfort and protection, commit massive crimes — in particular, ordering these crimes — that doesn't matter. By contrast, Nuremberg worked the opposite way. The prosecution didn't go after the soldiers in the field; it went after the civilian commanders." (p. 129)

His condemnation of George W. Bush is unequivocal: "So the Bush administration, with the cooperation of the media and the courts, is going back to the period before there was any serious international framework dealing with crimes against humanity or crimes of war. Washington has claimed the right not only to carry out specific acts of aggression but to classify the people it bombs and captures as 'unlawful combatants' who have no legal protections." (p. 36-37)

Winston Churchill's name is constantly brought into the current debate about appeasement and war. Bush has the British politician's bust, donated by the pathetic Tony Blair, in the Oval Office in the White House. No admirer of Churchill, Chomsky has this to say: "Even Winston Churchill, in the middle of the Second World War, condemned the use of executive power to imprison people without charge as the most odious of crimes, found only in Nazi and Communist societies." (p. 37)

All these matters seem pretty clear for the majority of the world's population. It seems strange that so many Western intellectuals have such difficulty with Chomsky's account of the world reality. If he describes this reality in stark terms, there must be something wrong with him, they seem to think. For them, it is as if the world reality is too awful to be true. It cannot be true. Better shoot the messenger. Or at least ridicule him.

See Corrections and clarifications: The Guardian and Noam Chomsky, The Guardian, 17 November 2005. The Guardian's deceit by Noam Chomsky, 14 November 2005; Smearing Chomsky, MediaLens, 4 November 2005; Storm Over Brockes' Fakery by Alexander Cockburn, CounterPunch, 5/6 November 2005; The Origins of the Guardian's Attack on Chomsky by Diana Johnstone, CounterPunch, 14 November 2005); Both the interview and Chomsky's letter to The Guardian can be found on Chomsky's website. The Guardian soon published more incredible rubbish: Yes, this appeaser was once my hero by Norman Johnson, The Guardian, 5 November 2005.)

See also other reviews of Chomsky's books and a collection of his articles

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