The Observer V Noam Chomsky – Round 3

With the Observer losing money faster than a gambling addict in a casino, you would think they’d either try and up their game, or cut down on writers. It makes little sense to have 4 different people trying to write on the environment for a Sunday supplement. But with regards to Noam Chomsky the Observer are lining up legions of people who want to slag him off.

First up was Nick Cohen, giving his best broadside to Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival. Then Peter Beaumont did his best to Failed States. Two more dishonest and generally awful reviews you won’t find. The Beaumont review was particularly savaged on reception. Still, third time lucky eh? This time the article was written by Rafael Behr. Would he move on from the scarcely disguised ad hominems and disregard for Chomsky’s analysis the previous articles kept to? Would he fuck.

Behr starts off with;

Only the most zealous American patriots believe that their country’s foreign policy always lives up to its stated aims of promoting freedom and democracy around the world. The more interesting question is whether it sometimes comes close or even really tries. It is possible to attack US interventions overseas as horribly misguided and murderously bungled while recognising that they contain some kernel of authentic moral aspiration. Many US policymakers in the early part of this decade genuinely felt that liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein was a noble thing to do.

The more sceptical view is that the US perception of itself as a force for good in the world is a dangerous, irrational delusion. Further down the sceptical spectrum is the view that US political evangelism is a grotesque hypocrisy, cunningly deployed to mask imperialistic ambitions. Further still, off the scale entirely, is Noam Chomsky.

Straight away Behr accuses his opponent of being off the scale, and, we assume, deranged. It’s hardly surprising.

Yet one of the comments tells us a rather salient quote from Chomsky;

The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

Behr is doing exactly as Chomsky says. The reviewer seems to think that even if Chomsky is off the scale, this means that somehow he is wrong. But assuming there is a general scale for how radical political opinions can be, why does this change? Do the facts Chomsky cites become false all of a sudden? Does his logically analysis suddenly become illogical? Calling Chomsky as off the scale  is a cheap shot, one designed to make people who already dislike him feel smug inside whereas anyone with a critical mind thinks Behr is an idiot.

Still, maybe it’ll get better?

Hopes and Prospects is the latest barrage in a lifetime’s assault on US political vanity by the 81-year-old linguistics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chomsky took up a sideline in political writing in opposition to the Vietnam war and has kept anti-Washington cudgels at hand ever since. He has dedicated followers who see him as guru and gadfly, speaking unwanted truth to power. He is the closest thing the intellectual far left has to a rock star.

Yet more dismissals of Chomsky as a person. This plays on one of the many Chomsky clichés; that he’s some cult leader, with legions of impressionable young leftists at his comment. Yet two paragraphs in and Behr hasn’t even mentioned what’s in this new book.

In that sense, Hopes and Prospects is like one of those live albums that veteran bands release when they’ve stopped producing new singles; slightly different versions of familiar hits bashed out for an easily pleased audience. The book is a compilation of lectures and articles produced over the past few years, reworked and updated. There is no single thesis, rather a constant interweaving of favourite Chomskyan themes: the capture of the US state and subordination of democracy to a narrow commercial and financial elite; the media’s complicity; the uniquely high penalty paid by Latin America for the misfortune of being in Washington’s backyard; the function of Israel as America’s military client in the Middle East; the threat of nuclear apocalypse. Throughout, Chomsky sustains caustic disdain for the myths that western societies tell themselves to justify their savage colonisation of planet Earth.

Apparently all books must have a single thesis, one based in no way on lectures and articles. Of course should Chomsky have come up with a single thesis Behr would criticize Chomsky for coming up with a “simplistic view of the world”.

Yes Hopes and Prospects is a collection of articles and lectures. So what?

And despite Behr saying Chomsky is off the scale, he fails to tell us why Chomsky is wrong in saying what he says. Or quite how any of those views are particularly radical.

He dismisses vast tracts of history in a few splenetic paragraphs, as if no alternative interpretation is worth considering.

A classic line from Behr this is; the irony supreme. Behr accuses Chomsky of dismissing vast tracts of history, but gives no examples of this happening. So actually Behr in his review is dismissing the whole fucking book he’s supposed to be reviewing. Yet he is completely unaware of this.

Behr then gives his view on what Chomsky states;

The worst catastrophe to befall our species, Chomsky implies, was Columbus’s collision with an uncharted continent in 1492. From there, it is a short step to the genocide of indigenous American people and the formation of a mercantile dictatorship run by white Europeans, consolidated by war and terror. The US imperial model that emerged in the 20th century, Chomsky reminds us, borrowed heavily from the earlier British one. In particular, the younger cousin mimicked the older with its technique of prising foreign markets open at gunpoint, suppressing local competition until a comfortable monopoly had been secured and then proclaiming support for “free trade” on “a level playing field”.

Chomsky shares with many radical left thinkers a studied reluctance to adopt the mainstream vocabulary of “globalisation”. The word implies everyone’s inclusion in a unified economic enterprise. But for Chomsky, the only “global” element in the whole business is the one-size-fits-all policy template, dictated by the west to developing nations with a view to expropriating their resources and assets. Free markets are an illusion. Washington protects and expands its corporate interests by the relentless application of government power. Refusal to submit is punishable with diplomatic isolation, vilification and, if the strategic and economic stakes are high enough, military takeover.

His reaction to this is that it is a “cripplingly bleak philosophy.” Sorry Behr? Should all philosophies be sunshine and flowers? If something is “cripplingly bleak” does that mean it’s wrong. If you don’t like things that are “cripplingly bleak” Behr, why don’t you fuck off and watch Twilight?

No one defends western capitalism on the grounds that it is the perfect system, only that it is the best available. Likewise, the US comes out badly in comparison with an abstract ideal of beneficent global stewardship, but it comes out better in comparison with most available alternatives. Globalisation under the Chinese Communist party, anyone? Anti-American exile in Tehran? At least a dissident in the US can sustain an academic career while constantly denouncing his leaders.

Ooooh. We know capitalism is a bit bad. But something else could be worse. Ooooh. What a crock of shit this paragraph is. It also shows just out little of Chomsky’s writings he has actually read. That western capitalism has hideous elements that can be avoided doesn’t enter into Behr’s empty head. Why not have a lawful society but allow people to rape journalists who write shit reviews. Then Behr would presumably go “No one defends this society on the grounds it is the perfect system, but other societies are even worse, so my maddenly sore arsehole is a price worth paying.” Behr pussy-foots about here so pathetically that he’s coming across as pitiful. Paragraphs like this show it isn’t a case of Chomsky being off the scale, but Behr being too afraid to believe something he believes is radical. Behr probably read the part of Hopes and Prospects that he did with his eyes closed whispering “lies, all lies” when a single tear falls on the page as he knows he cannot disprove Chomsky’s arguments. Instead he blocks it out and falls on vacuous rhetoric.

Perhaps Chomsky’s analysis of all that is wrong with the west would resonate more if he modulated it with some occasional flicker of admiration for the achievements of western civilisation. His critique would also be strengthened by some recognition of the irony that he owes his considerable success to the system he despises. Does it bother him, perhaps, that he has lived the American dream?

That Chomsky has repeatedly stated he considers the US to be the greatest country on the planet doesn’t seem to affect Behr here. That Chomsky has repeatedly commented on his success doesn’t seem to affect Behr either. Instead he brings out the tired old arguments, ones which has been rebutted time after time, and hopes they’ll suffice.

Not once in the review does Behr interact with Chomsky’s work. Not once does he criticise his reasoning, his evidence, his, well, anything. Instead he brings up the tired old clichés, knowing the Observer will pay him good money for his work. It’s no fucking surprising they’re going down, and what a fucking loss.


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