|Chomsky's political writings offer the comforting
simplicity of a world where there is good and evil.
The second chapter of Michael Bérubé’s book, The Left at War, is basically a long critique of Noam Chomsky’s political writings and activism. The content of Chomsky’s work in this area is literally unassailable. Not because it is absolutely right, because it isn’t, for reasons I’ll get to in a little bit. The reason you can’t criticize Chomsky based on the content of his political writings is that his framework of reasoning incorporates any criticism or doubt as to the truth of what he says as justification of the truth of what he says.
If you say that there are factors in contemporary global politics more complicated than the mass manufacture of mainstream consent to American neo-imperialism by the corporate oligarchy that controls the military, political, and media apparatus of the United States, then Chomsky’s framework automatically labels you as having been co-opted by that apparatus. Any opposition is already rendered illegitimate, because your opposition to Chomsky is a sign of your evil or false consciousness. Bérubé takes the tactic of arguing against his style, and letting the style indict the problems of the substance. He identifies Chomsky not as attempting any genuine persuasion of people, but simply indicting the mainstream culture of the United States as inherently co-opted into a mechanism of imperial evil. He describes Chomsky as having created a counter-culture around his view of the inevitable imperialism and universal reach of the United States and its military power.
I think at some point in the past, I could have become a Chomskyite, but the moment passed me by. I’ve always admired him for his devotion to pointing out the unsavoury aspects of American history and international policy, but there is an unwavering simplicity to his political philosophy. I know Chomsky wouldn’t like me saying this, or maybe he would, just writing me off as one more voice that reiterates the imperialist order. When it comes to his political philosophy, you’re either with us or against us.
I don’t really know how effective Bérubé’s argument would be against supporters of Chomsky themselves. Of course, he’s probably not writing to Chomsky’s own partisans, as they would understand his opposition to their obvious truths as one more attempt by the imperial American state to manufacture their consent. But he’s likely speaking to those who could be convinced by Chomsky, but aren’t yet.
At some point, I just realized that the world was too complicated for his relatively simple explanation — that all evils in the world ultimately are direct or indirect reactions to the evils of Western, and particularly American, imperialism. Bérubé discusses the accounts he gave, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, why America remained the truly greatest force of evil in the world. The example I’d like to focus on is his comments about American involvement in Afghanistan, an immensely hypocritical affair. It became common knowledge, as Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda rose to the top of public consciousness, that the United States, particularly the CIA, funded mujahideen groups to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan as part of their Cold War gamesmanship. And Chomsky, according to Bérubé’s account, stressed the importance of America’s centrality to the worsening human rights conditions of the Taliban regime and military activity in Pakistan.
But if the United States really was as omnipotently powerful as Chomsky’s analyses indicate — that America is the imperialist power that pulls all the strings of all the terrible actions of the world — then they would not have become embroiled in such a hideous mess in that country. In many ways, the United States after their own invasion of Afghanistan, became a patsy for Pakistan’s meddling in the region. Quite often, Pakistani support for the Taliban was actively opposed to American interests. Here was an ally of the imperialist power, supposedly on the American page, actively undermining American interests in the region. Their intelligence service, the ISI, was obviously tolerant of bin Laden’s living in their central military city, Abbottabad. Why?
The reason was India, the geopolitical conflict that merits the occasional mention in most Western reporting on the region, but which rarely received in-depth coverage. Pakistan and India have been bitter political and military enemies ever since the departure of the British Empire and independence/partition. Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal regions were the ISI's training ground for the radical Islamist groups who would be sent to Kashmir to drain India’s time, money, and military resources. An Islamist regime in Afghanistan would always be hostile to India as a matter of foundational ideology, so Pakistan always worked within Afghanistan to keep it violently opposed to India. And the United States had nothing to do with this conflict. While the United States’ leaders saw themselves as major entrants into a global political game in Afghanistan, Pakistan saw them as an annoying complicating factor in their continuing conflict with India.
The India-Pakistan conflict is a complication that brings chaos to Chomsky’s well-ordered world of the corruption of corporate America, its worldwide victims, and the elite core of Chomskyites who alone understand the true nature of the world. This is a conflict where America not only has little power to interfere, but about which their leaders remain largely ignorant. It is a sign that the world is more complex than Chomsky’s simple vision can ever understand.
The old linguist is more like W than he’d ever believe.