Twenty years ago, after huge bipartisan votes in Congress to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa, Noam Chomsky gave an interview in which the following exchange took place:
Question: You would still uphold your admiration of the apartheid system as you did before?
[Noam Chomsky] As far as I am concerned, I do not pass judgement on what South Africans decide to do. I am in favour of South Africa's successful defiance of the United States. I am in favour of them taking matters into their own hands. Exactly how they carry it out… I have my own opinions. A lot of things I think are fine, a lot not, but it's a matter for the South Africans to decide. My concern is that the hemispheric superpower not resort to violence, pressure, force, threat, and embargo in order to prevent South Africans from deciding how to determine their own fate.
OK, this isn't strictly accurate in every last detail. Instead of 'apartheid system', the interviewer said 'Cuban system'; instead of 'South Africans', Chomsky said 'Cubans'. But apart from that detail, and the fact that it took place not 20 years ago but last Friday, the interview is exactly as I've stated it. It's now been published here (link via Ryan in Manchester, a blogger of whom I have spoken before and about whom I shall have more to say in a separate post).
I can see no moral distinction between the version I recounted and the one Chomsky gave, except that the political leadership of South Africa belatedly perceived the evil of apartheid whereas the leadership of Cuba remains resolute to this day in enforcing its own variant of tyranny. In April Cuba sentenced 76 dissidents to long gaol terms. Alluding to this persecution, the organisation Reporters Without Borders described the country as 'the world's biggest prison for journalists'. The European Union, not normally a body that slavishly follows US precedent, announced diplomatic sanctions.
Yet Noam Chomsky, who is sometimes mistaken by the impressionable as an advocate of liberty, tells us that he 'do[es] not pass judgement on what Cubans decide to do'. I don't know which is more dismaying: his silence about the crushing of dissent or his premise that the people of this totalitarian nightmare-state have the ability to 'determine their own fate'.
If Chomsky's normative judgements are perverse, his empirical ones are – I search for the most neutral word I can find in the circumstances – ahistorical. He asserts, for example:
Kennedy invaded Cuba and then launched Operation Mongoose leading right to the missile crisis which practically destroyed the world.
It is quite true that Kennedy proceeded with Eisenhower's plan for an invasion, and the resulting fiasco at the Bay of Pigs was a humiliation for the US. He also at least acquiesced in botched assassination attempts against Castro. Yet what we have come to know about Castro proves how right Kennedy was to see danger there. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 arose not through supposed US imperialism, but because Castro genuinely believed the Communist bloc should launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the United States. The blundering Khrushchev believed that in siting missiles in Cuba he was striking a blow for Communist solidarity. He hadn't reckoned that Castro, foolishly taking at face value the boasts of Soviet nuclear superiority, was unfazed by the prospect of American invasion:
That would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear and legitimate defence, however harsh and terrible the solution would be, for there is no other. [cable to Khrushchev, 26 October 1962, quoted in John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know, 1997]
That appears to have been the moment when Khrushchev realised how close he was to precipitating catastrophe, and how urgent it was that he start extricating himself. Fortunately American leadership – so far from being 'terrorist', as Chomsky claims – was farsighted and intelligent, and thereby allowed him a way to do so. Unfortunately for the people of Cuba, that entailed an abandonment of the aim of removing Castro from power.
This type of thing is typical of Chomsky's work. To those who are unfamiliar with history, Chomsky's political writings might seem a rational and informed case. Yet when you strip away the invective you're left with little but heroic assumption, tendentious assertion, egregious omission and even outright fabrication. Unfortunately, historical literacy is an increasingly scarce condition, and Chomsky has managed to build a large constituency on the strength of it among those of college age. The Berkeley economist Brad DeLong has written about this curious phenomenon in his blog:
The Chomsky defenders - and there seem to be a surprisingly large number of them - seem to form a kind of cult. Arguing with them seems to be a lot like trying to teach Plato's Republic to a pig: it wastes your time, and it annoys the pig.
What I object to is that Chomsky is an intellectual totalitarian. What I object to is that Chomsky tears up all the trail markers that might lead to conclusions different from his, and makes it next to impossible for people unversed in the issues to even understand what the live and much-debated points of contention are. What I object to is that Chomsky writes not to teach, but to brainwash: to create badly-informed believers in his point of view who won't know enough about the history or the background to think the issues through for themselves.
I believe I've read all of Chomsky’s political books, and I concur with DeLong's remarks. It's unfortunate – most of all for the believers – that those books have received little sustained criticism by competent authorities, largely because the competent authorities have better things to do with their time. I know of only one long informed critique of Chomsky in a weighty or academic journal, and that was more than 20 years ago (by Stephen Morris in Harvard International Review – not online to my knowledge). As a result of being observed mainly or only by the true believers, Chomsky has managed also to put in circulation a carefully-sanitised account of some of the issues DeLong raises (especially on the affair of the Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson).
I plan at some point to post on this site a long review of Chomsky's entire political output, but I'm finding it's quite an undertaking given the scale of the task of disinterring the historical errors and sly omissions. As an illustration of the problem in dealing with Chomsky, my favourite – if that's the appropriate word – citation comes from a collection of 'interviews' (more accurately, gentle lobs) entitled Class Warfare:
My impression is that the Nagasaki bomb was basically an experiment.... Somebody ought to check this out, I'm not certain.
So there we have it. Chomsky asserts that the United States dropped the bomb because of a Mengele-like determination to conduct an experiment in human life and death on a mass scale. He has no evidence for this grotesque calumny and doesn't attempt to adduce any. Well might he add hurriedly that he's 'not certain'. But a historian or serious political analyst – indeed anyone of the slightest pretension to objectivity, fairness and critical inquiry – doesn't act that way.
Perhaps the message is finally getting through, however. The interview on Cuba to which I have linked is prefaced by the observation that the interview covers a range of subjects in addition to that nominally covered. And it was done:
always with the rigorous political analysis that we are used to from Professor Chomsky.
Couldn't have put it better myself.