Guest Writings
19/1/05 Noam Chomsky’s rogue’s gallery by Stephen Gowans

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

I used to devour everything Noam Chomsky wrote — the Barsamian interviews when I wanted to stay awake, and books like The New Military Humanism when I needed to go to sleep.

But over time, as I hunted down Chomsky interviews, pored over copies of Z Magazine and struggled through deep yawns to get through Pope Michael’s (i.e., Michael Albert’s) encyclicals on Noam Chomskyism, I began to notice a recurrent element in Chomsky’s work that led me to see that all that was needed to do a perfectly serviceable impression of the master was to liberally use the words “rogue’s gallery,” “brutal monster,” and “thug,” all the while making sure to implicate various U.S. administrations in the activities of the brutal monsters.

Want to understand Iraq? Easy. A brutal monster backed by the US government failed to do Washington’s bidding. So Washington retaliated. Panama? Same thing.

Want to understand Indonesia and the Philippines? That’s easy too. Brutal monsters backed by the U.S. government did Washington’s bidding.

Wherever shit happens, you’ll find brutal monsters at work, sometimes backed by the US government, sometimes not. Want to stop the shit? Get rid of the monsters and pressure the elites in the US.

“It’s certainly true,” remarked Chomsky, in a November 10th interview with Bill Maher, “that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein.” Now, this might be comforting to Americans who have doubts about the legitimacy of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq (hey, everyone’s better off without Saddam, so what’s all the fuss about?) and it may be considered the kind of thing you say to settle the question “Is he or isn’t he soft on brutal monsters? ” but as a statement, it’s meaningless.

Obviously, the guy who was next in line on Hussein’s execution list is better off, while the guy next in line on his promotions list isn’t (since he’s probably now languishing in a US military prison in Baghdad, being forced to masturbate for the amusement of prison guards.) As for the rest of the world, it’s meaningless to talk of whether the end of Saddam Hussein is for the good or bad without talking about what comes after. Iraqis would hardly be better off had Hussein been succeeded by a resurrected Vlad the Impaler bearing a murderous grudge against Muslims. If that’s the kind of thinking Chomsky’s going to engage in, I could probably sell him a truckload of firewood to heat his house by pointing out the world would be a better place if no one burned fossil fuels.

The world would also be a better place if men over the age of 40 didn’t have to submit to a doctor’s gloved finger squeezing past their anal sphincters to probe their prostate glands for evidence of cancer, but the alternative is worse. The only meaningful question to ask, then, is whether the world (and that includes Iraq) is better off with the US occupation, and years of US domination to follow, than it was under Saddam Hussein.

Chomsky either implies that it is, or means nothing more by saying “it’s certainly true that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein,” than the deposed Iraqi leader wasn’t a particularly nice fellow, and you would never want to fall on the wrong side of him. Since the reality that Hussein was no Simon the Likeable is readily apparent to most everyone, including Cindy, the young woman who cuts my hair, I’ve decided to use my time more effectively by steering clear of Chomsky and getting my political insight with my monthly visit to the barbershop.

What’s more, the view that bad things happen because there are bad people in power doesn’t take you very far. If bad people are in power, how is it that they come to power? Are bad people predisposed to rise through hierarchies? Are they selected by a bad system (for surely it must be a bad system that reserves its favors for the worst of us)? If so, is it bad people who are the problem, or is the system that’s bad? And if the system’s bad, is eliminating a particular bad person going to make much of a difference, or the world a better place in which to live?

Moreover, is it always the case, or even disproportionately the case, that bad people come to power, or does a bad system make people (who may be either good or bad intrinsically) do bad things? Do CEO’s lay off thousands of employees, or drive wages down, or open sweatshops, because they’re bad or greedy? Or do they do it, because they’re compelled to, and if they don’t, someone else will? It’s like baseball. If you’re not committed to getting more runs than the other team, you’ll soon find yourself riding the pine, or sent down to the minors.

And another thing: What makes a thing bad? CEO’s cutting thousands of employees loose, driving wages down, and opening sweatshops, is bad if you’re a wage earner, but it’s good if you’re a CEO or shareholder. The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq is bad if you’re an Iraqi, and doesn’t look too good for the French, Russian and Chinese oil firms that are likely to be evicted from Iraq. On the other hand, it’s good for US engineering firms, like Bechtel, that have scored lucrative reconstruction contracts, US defense contractors, like Lockheed Martin, that will rake in cash hand over fist to re-supply the Pentagon, and the US oil majors, who will profit from Iraq’s abundant supply of oil.

Furthermore, is it meaningful to talk of people being bad? Attribute bad behavior to bad personalities and you go round and round. How do you know he’s bad? Because he’s done wicked things. Why did he do wicked things? Because he’s bad. A group of American Left intellectuals, Chomsky among them, wrote a letter appealing to Lefties to dump Bush in the last election by voting for the Democrat candidate in swing states. In their letter, they attributed the invasion of Iraq to Bush’s drive to war. They knew Bush had a drive to war because he had waged war and they knew he had waged war because he had a drive to war. Asked to define a curmudgeon they would have probably said, “A curmudgeon is a person who’s curmudgeonly.” You can’t argue with that, but it gets you nowhere, which is about where Lefties in the US are right now.

So whenever I hear Chomsky declaiming about brutal monsters and propounding his rogue’s gallery view of politics, I cringe. It’s as if the gangster theory of WWII – that the war owed itself to two men alone, Hitler and Mussolini, who appeared out of nowhere and acted in a socio-economic vacuum – has been updated and brought forward to explain contemporary events.

Since war could be attributed to the actions of a few bad apples, the implication was that future wars could be deterred by dragging the bad apples (Chomsky’s brutal monsters) before an international tribunal, where harsh penalties would be meted out to discourage other bad apples from following in their footsteps. In this way, attention was diverted from the bad barrel, and everyone went merrily along their way, secure in the knowledge that the brutal monsters had got their comeuppance, and that a future world of peace was at least a possibility. However, not too many years later, the Americans themselves were doing what they punished the Nazi gangsters at Nuremberg for. No surprise. It wasn’t a few bad apples in a good barrel that was at fault. It was the barrel itself – what the gangster theory drew attention away from — that stunk. And the barrel was as much American as German.

Of course, getting around to examining the barrel, and then ripping out the rotten staves and replacing them with something better, is not the kind of thing people who are busily denouncing brutal monsters and their hypocritical US backers are going to do.

Instead, they’re going to suggest that social pressure is somehow capable of converting imperialism from lion to lamb, or of making the US live up to the ideals of its founding fathers. It hasn’t yet, and won’t, because imperialism is a system that transcends individuals. Writing letters to the president and your legislative representative, or marching though the streets of Washington, won’t pacify the lion. And that’s because imperialism isn’t the personal preference of Washington’s movers-and-shakers, which is not to say they’re averse to it; only that you don’t wake up in the morning and say, “I think we should take the country in an imperialist direction today, and if nothing comes of it by Wednesday, we ’ll try a non-imperialist path.”

What’s more, the rogue’s gallery theory of politics allows people to come to terms with the unprovoked wars Washington wages for commercial gain. If the war succeeds in removing a brutal monster (and it is standard practice to portray the leader of the enemy as a brutal gangster beyond redemption), and the world is said to be better off for his removal, questions about whether the war was legal or prosecuted for the right reasons become nothing more than academic quibbling. “Yeah, yeah, maybe we didn’t go into Iraq for the reasons Bush said, but, look, the rape rooms are gone, and Saddam isn’t gassing Kurds any more, and he’s no longer a threat to us. That guy was one bad dude, and, I, for one, thank my stars he’s out of there and in prison where he can do nobody no harm. ”

You could say that the rogue’s gallery view of politics ultimately has the effect of legitimizing US imperialism. Producing the effect, in Chomsky’s case, is doubtlessly unintentional, but equally, the effect is doubtlessly present. Make the rounds of what passes for Leftist groups in the US and it becomes clear that any commitment to anti-imperialism, in the sense that other countries ought to be left alone to develop unhindered in accordance with their own requirements, outside the hegemony of the advanced countries, is tenuous at best. Instead, there’s a pervasive view that left to themselves, countries whose economic development has been historically stifled would be terrorized by brutal monsters, corrupt politicians and religious zealots, that civil wars and ethnic cleansing would erupt, and that the West therefore has a moral obligation to intervene, and at the very least to guide the political and economic development of these countries by funneling money and assistance to “pro-democracy” groups committed to “economic reform.” That the continued intervention of the advanced countries in the affairs of poor countries will receive the backing of most Westerners who consider themselves Lefties is all but guaranteed by the pervasive acceptance of the rogue’s gallery view of international politics. Surely, we can’t leave the longsuffering peoples of the Third World in the hands of such notorious brutes as Robert Mugabe, Alexander Lukashenko, Kim Jong Il or …fill in the name of whichever person happens to be the leader of a country whose turf, resources, markets or cheap labor some Western country wants to lay its hands on.

Tenuous too is any understanding of imperialism as a socio-economic imperative, and not a bad life-style choice of people in power. Accordingly, socialism isn’t embraced as a solution; sensitivity training for cabinet members, or appealing to the liberal conscience of the nation, is. But then, what else would you do, if you understand shit to happen because shitty people are in power?

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posted by Stephen Gowans at 3:12 PM

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