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.


The Ticking Bollocks Scenario

Torture’s a pain in the arse isn’t it? Literally for some unfortunate sods. But some people can’t get enough of it. These people are either raving “libertarian” wankers such as Alan Dershowitz, or estranged emo kids “going through a phase”. In order to realise their dreams of seeing more brown people in orange jump suits waterboarded, these neo-cons have come up with an age old argument justifying torture: the ticking bomb scenario. Unfortunately for them it is just that, a scenario, not based in reality. Obviously in 24 it saves America every 2 seconds but that is just about it. As far as the evidence shows, there are no real attacks that have been prevented by torture, nor any that could have been prevented by torture. Torture advocates always come back to this example, but it is a loaded one.

So lets look at the example of the scenario provided by the BBC:

  • A terrorist group states that it has concealed a nuclear bomb in London
  • The authorities have captured the leader of the group
  • He says that he knows where the bomb is
  • He refuses to reveal the location
  • Torture is guaranteed to produce the information needed to ensure the authorities find and make the bomb safe

Therefore it is a choice: torture one guilty man to save thousands of innocents, or do nothing and let them all die.

The underlying moral problem is this: what is worse? Torturing one man or letting thousands die? It is a stark choice to pick the lesser of two evils, the answer obviously being torture. If you are anti-torture, therefore you are pro-mass murder. That is the subliminal message to this, and that is how they win the argument.

Using the same moral logic, you can justify just about anything. For example if someone has captured you family and will kill them unless you kill one of the scum of society. Obviously some/a lot of people would agree to kill the man and save the family. However, does this justify murder? Of course not. Yet the same as the ticking bomb scenario it presents the same moral issue. Commit a crime for the greater good?

The probability of this situation, however, is so unlikely it doesn’t warrant debate. As said, there is no cast iron evidence of an example where torture has stopped a terrorism attack. What does stop an attack is sensible foreign policy to prevent extremism occurring in the first place, support in the communities and intelligence agencies who work together and not in competition. Take 9/11. This would not have been prevented by torture, it could have been prevented however by better inter-agency co-operation. 7/7 wouldn’t have been prevented by torture, nor the Madrid bombings and so on and so forth.

So lets take the scenario step by step:

  • A terrorist group states that it has concealed a nuclear bomb in London”

Possible. If you substitute nuclear bomb with a conventional weapon it certainly seems likely. However, there are still problems. If the “terrorist group” is ready to “state (sic.) they have a nuclear weapon, they would surely be prepared to withstand an attack on the group. Any competent terrorist cell will work in a way that many of the members are unaware of the entire plot. As terrorists know a captured team-mate may be tortured, they prepare for that scenario, and so in a way that no one captured comrade can betray the whole plot. Even if the group is so incompetent (but still manages to stay invisible to the security services…)how many groups reveal their target before they attack? Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for 9/11 after the event. Terrorists do not do such things. Finally if, even after all the flaws in the logic, this still happened, the terrorists would announce this shortly before the attack, not 1 year in advance V for Vendetta stylee. To get the information and act on it, the leader has to crack in an incredibly short amount of time. Considering how difficult it is to break a true believer in the long term, short term is will be neigh on impossible.

  • The authorities have captured the leader of the group

This is another problem already in the scenario. This group has managed to stay hidden and free from infiltration for enough time to bring a nuclear weapon into the country, and then suddenly their leader is captured. The odds on this happening are astronomical, even ignoring the fact that the authorities won’t know who the leader is. Again, there is no factual guarantee that they have captured the true leader, or even someone who knows about the plot. There are no lawyers here, no innocent until proven guilty, just assertion of guilt. Obviously there is serious room for misjudgement. The scenario asserts that the terrorist group is unknown, so even more than usual the odds of false identity are increased. Only 13% of suspected terrorists detained under the “detention without charge” laws have been found guilty in a court of law for example. I’m liking these odds on having the right guy.

Look at the mistaken identity in the crisis of Jean Charles de Menezes. We like to think our security forces are incapable of mistakes, but sadly, they are not. Torturing an innocent in the belief they know where the bomb is ethically disgraceful, a political bomb, and a sure-fire way of not finding the nuke.

  • He says that he knows where the bomb is

What a fanny. He leads a terrorist group hoping to launch a nuclear attack, and then says “Here I am, now electrocute my bollocks”. Real likely.

  • He refuses to reveal the location

But he is willing to boast about knowing where it is? Oooooooooooo-k.

The key part now, the rest of the scenario is total bollocks, but this is the crux of the debate.

  • Torture is guaranteed to produce the information needed to ensure the authorities find and make the bomb safe”

This needs to be examined carefully to fully understand the fallacy.


Torture is guaranteed”

Common sense dictates that this is a major flaw in the argument. Firstly, will the guy crack? Torture does different things to different people. The weak give in and say anything to make the torture stop, mainly giving their interrogators what they think they want to hear. The strong resist.

The abuse just confirms to them that their enemy is wrong, and so their will is strengthened. Torture is not guaranteed. That is fact. Or again, look at Major Matthew Alexander, a genuine expert in interrogation, who says that torture makes the suspect “clam up” and therefore unlikely to give up the information.

to produce the information”

Some may break, and blurt so much out that the interrogator has no idea what is true. “Its in Picadilly circus, it’s in the houses of Parliament, it’s in a Fritzl style cellar”. The terrorist will blurt out half of London as the target before revealing the real one. How does the interrogator know which time he is telling the truth? Even if the terrorist does eventually crack, before then, when their resistance is still present, they may pretend to break, and give a false location. Is it that time? Is it the next time? The next time? Are the authorities going to deploy HAZMAT units every single time?

Some won’t break. If you torture someone and they don’t break, you have no options left with them. Even if they do say something, they may say where the bomb is, but won’t mention it is booby trapped, if tampered with it goes off straight away. They’ll say the minimum amount of information, which could prove even more fatal.

make the bomb safe”

Perhaps a minor point, but there is no guarantee that the bomb will be made safe. As had been mentioned time is a problem here, and if by a miracle the authorities reach the bomb before it goes off, it may not even be diffusible. If a terrorist organisation can build/ship in the bomb, odds are they’ll find a way to make it indiffusable.

Finally, there is one further point, not fallacy per se, but in testing the logic of the defender of the scenario. This takes the form of a counter example, where the logic is the same, but the situation is different.

It goes like this:

  • The British army has declared it will bomb certain schools in Bagdad they believe to be weapons factories. They are wrong and the attack will kill hundreds of innocent children.
  • Al Qaeda have captured the CO
  • He says he knows how to stop the air strikes
  • He refuses to say how
  • Torture is guaranteed to produce the information needed to ensure Al Qaeda find and make the children safe”

The scenario is neigh on impossible but the logic is the same, torture of one person (albeit “innocent” this time, the only difference [even if some would disagree, depending on which side they’re on]) to save hundreds. Surely if we are to torture the terrorist to save hundreds, we will then agree with torturing the soldier to save hundreds? Either the defender must agree with to torture in this scenario also, or say no, either due to pure belief that “one of us” shouldn’t be tortured (i.e. racism), or more likely, innocents shouldn’t be tortured. Under the latter admission the argument falls apart, as torture as a tactic inevitably leads to torture of innocents, and so to support torture they have to agree innocents have to be tortured for “the greater good.”

Or as Noam Chomsky puts it:

There is still much debate about whether torture has been effective in eliciting information — the assumption being, apparently, that if it is effective, then it may be justified. By the same argument, when Nicaragua captured U.S. pilot Eugene Hasenfuss in 1986, after shooting down his plane delivering aid to U.S.-supported Contra forces, they should not have tried him, found him guilty, and then sent him back to the U.S., as they did. Instead, they should have applied the CIA torture paradigm to try to extract information about other terrorist atrocities being planned and implemented in Washington, no small matter for a tiny, impoverished country under terrorist attack by the global superpower.

By the same standards, if the Nicaraguans had been able to capture the chief terrorism coordinator, John Negroponte, then U.S. ambassador in Honduras (later appointed as the first Director of National Intelligence, essentially counterterrorism czar, without eliciting a murmur), they should have done the same. Cuba would have been justified in acting similarly, had the Castro government been able to lay hands on the Kennedy brothers. There is no need to bring up what their victims should have done to Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan, and other leading terrorist commanders, whose exploits leave al-Qaeda in the dust, and who doubtless had ample information that could have prevented further “ticking bomb” attacks”

So sadly for sadistic fuck-wits such as Alan Dershowitz their little argument doesn’t add up. Leaving aside the moral aspects of torture, the knock on consequences accepting it or producing “warrants” for it, the propaganda is creates for terrorists et cetera, the argument that underpins the whole argument in support of torture is deeply flawed. Nice start eh?