Published on Sunday, December 1, 2002 by the Long Island, NY Newsday
The Dissident We Deserve
by Russell Jacoby
In the ocean of opinion that emerged after Sept. 11, some questions are rarely asked. "Does the world have cause to doubt the United States' commitment to freedom and justice?" "Why are even moderate Arab Muslims angry with the United States?" If these subjects are broached at all, they are hurriedly shunted to obscure magazines or marginal books. They virtually never show up on television. Hence the paradox: We live in an open society where any opinion can be aired, but the range we actually read or hear is severely limited.
Where is the debate about the U.S. role in Saudi Arabia or Israel? Or about whether or not to wage war in Iraq? At best we hear brief comments or feeble doubts. What high school or college debating class would take up the topic, "Should the United States attack Iraq?" in which both sides had to argue "pro?" What happened to full-blooded dissent?
The absence of vigorous dissidents at a time of heightened national security and increased surveillance creates a hunger for truly oppositional voices. This may explain the success of "9-11" by Noam Chomsky. The views of a marginalized critic published by a small press have become a surprise bestseller.
For Chomsky, the United States is no innocent victim. On the contrary, it is the chief terrorist state. His evidence? From its backing of a violent coup in Indonesia in 1965 to its support of the contras in Nicaragua in 1980s and of Israel's brutal policies today, the United States regularly provokes bloodshed to further its ends.
Chomsky is no newcomer to the role of gadfly or critic. For some 40 years, this Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor has been monitoring and damning American foreign policy. In the 1960s, his essays denouncing the war in Vietnam were splashed across leading periodicals. Chomsky, a linguist by training and an anarchist by inclination, emerged as the chief scourge of U.S. foreign policy.
Over the next decades, however, the Zeitgeist zigged and Chomsky did not zig with it. While other critics moved on, Chomsky kept tracking American misdeeds, but he lost favor on a series of issues. He believed that the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Kosovo, nominally protecting its residents from Serbian genocide, simply signaled bloodletting by the West. He both doubted the human toll of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and attributed it to the United States; and he wrote a preface defending freedom of speech for a book by Robert Faurisson, a French Holocaust-denier. Even sympathizers saw Chomsky as too inflexible or too anti-American. The mainstream press withdrew the welcome mat.
But Chomsky hardly disappeared. He continued to plug away on the margins. His speeches and lectures appeared in pamphlets, CDs and documentary films. Rock bands like Pearl Jam and Hollywood stars like Matt Damon lionized him. Chomsky gained almost a cult following, mainly on college campuses, where he frequently spoke to packed auditoriums. If he never appeared on network talk shows, Chomsky secured a clear niche on the margins as a relentless critic of U.S. foreign policies.
Yet the September attacks changed the political landscape, and what appeared to some a stale voice from the past felt to others like a fresh breeze. Chomsky's pamphlet "9-11," strategically positioned at cash registers in bookstores, was quickly snapped up. The calls for interviews intensified. The New Yorker ran a review. Chomsky's moment seemed to have come again. "Power and Terror," a new documentary about him by John Junkerman, has just opened at the Film Forum in New York.
Chomsky offers something few others do. He gives the long view, insisting that we evaluate the extensive record of American brutality all over the globe. He has no truck with patriotic pieties or rallying the troops. The September "perpetrators" drew "support from a reservoir of bitterness and anger over U.S. policies." Muslims are generally upset over Washington's backing of authoritarian regimes in the Mideast and the Israeli military occupation.
Referring to Sept. 11, Chomsky points out, rightly, that crimes, "whether a robbery in the streets or colossal atrocities" have roots, and that if we are earnest about reducing future threats we must address their causes. We don't normally bomb the neighborhood of criminals to deter future crimes, as we did in Afghanistan. When the federal building was destroyed in Oklahoma City by a man with links to right-wing militias in Montana and Idaho, no one urged that we bomb those states.
Chomsky's sentiments are so sensible, it is a wonder they are so rare. What does it say about the state of political discussion today that few could or cared to ponder the causes of the September attacks? Instead a tame mass media offers us the spectacle of a presidential gunslinger promising to pack off the bad guys by shooting first. If this is mainstream politics, we need outsiders like Chomsky.
But, alas, Chomsky often sounds like George W. Bush in reverse. For Bush, the United States can do no wrong. For Chomsky, it can do no right. Chomsky is a charter member of the "told-you-so" school of leftism. The United States had the September attacks coming. The violence is "new" only in that the guns are directed at and from the United States, which throughout its history has used them against other nations and peoples.
Chomsky responds to Sept. 11 by telling us that in the 16th- and 17th centuries the Americans "annihilated the indigenous population" of North America as if this were pertinent or even accurate. He believes it "instructive" to compare the massive reaction to the toll from Sept. 11 to the non-reaction to the toll from President Bill Clinton's bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory in August 1998.
For those with a hazy memory, after two American embassies in Africa were bombed and hundreds killed, Clinton sent missiles to destroy the factory he believed was producing nerve gas for the Sudanese, who were also harboring members of al-Qaida. In fact U.S. intelligence was miserable or nonexistent. The factory was a legitimate facility producing essential medicines for a desperate population. According to Chomsky, many thousands of people who lacked life-saving medicines have died as a consequence of this act by a "leading terrorist state, the United States."
Yet no one died in the immediate destruction and however criminal or botched, there was no intention to kill. Is this comparable to blowing up the workplace of 50,000 with no explicit motive but to maximize death? It remains extraordinary that the hijackers who managed to commandeer four jetliners proved incapable, or unwilling, to write a single sentence telling us why. For Chomsky, however, the comparison with the Sudan attack is absolutely valid. To deny it means you are either an apologist for U.S. violence or a racist, as he called columnist Christopher Hitchens, who recently tangled with him on this subject in a series of articles in The Nation.
Hitchens, himself long a critic of U.S. foreign policy, broke ranks with Chomsky and his politics. Rather than recognizing "fascism with an Islamic face," Hitchens charges, Chomsky slips Sept. 11 into his "preexisting worldview."
Hitchens may be right, and yet with tough-minded dissenters to American foreign policy in such short supply, we need Chomsky more than ever. He is our intransigent political conscience. Yes, his voice has calcified, but we cannot be too choosey. If countries get leaders they deserve, perhaps they also get critics. A hundred years ago we had Mark Twain, a vice president of the anti-imperialist league, protesting the U.S. attack on the Philippines. A hundred and fifty years ago we had Henry David Thoreau protesting the U.S. war with Mexico. Today we have Noam Chomsky. We pay for the conformism of the mainstream with the cliches from the margins.
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