May 17, 2010
NOAM CHOMSKY: RHETORICAL FIREWORKS FROM THE GREAT DISSENTER
With the publication of “Hopes and Prospects” by Noam Chomsky (Haymarket Books: $16, 328 pps.), America’s most challenging public intellectual offers a fresh warning against what he has long seen as “a growing deterioration in the functioning of our democratic institutions” and the threat that it poses both at home and abroad.
One measure of his impact on American political culture is the likelihood that many of his readers have forgotten (and some never knew) that he first made his reputation as a pioneering theorist in the field of linguistics. He remains a professor emeritus at MIT, but today Chomsky is best known as a harsh, demanding and unrelenting critic of American policy, foreign and domestic.
So it’s fascinating (and a bit ironic) when Chomsky criticizes President Obama for uttering the following words: “To be a genuine party to peace, the Quartet [United States, EU, Russia, UN] has made it clear that Hamas must meet clear conditions: recognize Israel’s right to exist; renounce violence; and abide by past agreements.”
When Chomsky parses these words, he argues that Obama is a hypocrite: “[T]he United States and Israel,” he insists, “reject all three conditions for themselves.” But he also writes: “It follows, by Obama’s reasoning, that neither the United States nor Israel is a ‘genuine party to peace.’ But that cannot be. It is not even a phrase in the English language.”
His quibble with the President’s command of the English language, of course, is merely word-play. After all, the meaning of Obama’s words is plain enough. But the fact remains that Chomsky himself is a controversialist, and he often uses language to inflame rather than to enlighten.
Thus, for example, Chomsky charges that Ariel Sharon’s notion of Palestinian statehood was nothing more than “bantustans for Palestinians.” We might profitably debate the moral and strategic assumptions of Sharon’s position, and we might even agree with Chomsky on some points of his critique. But when he uses such provocative language, Chomsky is not seeking to persuade the open-minded reader; rather, he is preaching to the reader who already shares his convictions.
The same resort to inflammatory language can be found throughout “Hopes and Prospects.” Chomsky refuses to dignify the right-wing justices of the Supreme Court as “conservatives” and insists on calling them “reactionaries.” He characterizes “the Mafia doctrine” – that is, the proposition that “the Godfather does not easily tolerate disobedience” – as “an underappreciated principle of international order.” He disdains the bureaucratic euphemism “Multi-National Force” and uses a blunter term to describe the troops on the ground in Iraq: “the U.S. occupying army.” And he argues that the invasion of Iraq would be regarded as a war crime if we applied the principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal to ourselves.
“Needless to say, U.S. elite opinion, shared with Western counterparts generally, rejects with virtual unanimity the lofty American values professed at Nuremberg and adopted by Iraqis, indeed regards them as bordering on obscene,” he writes. “All of this provides an instructive illustration of some of the reality that lies behind the famous ‘clash of civilizations.’”
“Hopes and Prospects” is a jeremiad, of course, and the rhetorical fireworks go with the genre. Then, too, Chomsky has read and thought deeply about these issues, and anyone who disagrees with him must be prepared to answer the questions he poses about our history and our destiny as a nation. In that sense, Chomsky stands in the vital American tradition that produced I. F. Stone, Victor Navasky, and Robert Scheer, among other notables. And I do not mean to suggest the Chomsky needs to blunt the edge of the arguments he makes. We need our journalistic Jeremiahs, now more than ever. But I wonder if the reader who would benefit the most from hearing what Chomsky has to say is the same reader whose circuit-breakers will go off when he or she comes across one of Chomsky’s verbal hot wires.
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, is the author of, most recently, “The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.