On Hitchens on Chomsky
In a Slate feature entitled “Fighting Words” (“A Wartime Lexicon”), Christopher Hitchens attacks Noam Chomsky for the latter’s pronouncements on the killing of Osama bin Laden. The changing relations between Hitchens and Chomsky, which can be traced through their various debates, are of no real interest: it’s obvious for which of the two men this contest has become personal. What remain of interest and import are the mechanisms by which a thinker of Chomsky’s rank has been marginalized, even vilified, in American political discourse.
There are two kinds of people responsible for this state of affairs: those who don’t know any better—i.e., the journalists too deeply embedded in corporate-controlled information systems to recognize the force of Chomsky’s critique, or the ignorant right-wing commentators who label him nonsensically as an apologist for terrorism or Soviet communism—and those who do, like Hitchens. With respect to the latter, we probably can’t do much better than speculate about the corrosive effects of intellectual vanity.
It can be difficult to appreciate Chomsky’s achievement in the realm of political commentary, not only because so much disinformation has been spread about his work (i.e., that he has supported Holocaust denial, or apologized for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge—canards both). First, Chomsky has been so prolific over such a long period that it’s hard to know where to start reading. The best one can hope for, at the outset, is that some writing of his will coincide with an area of special knowledge or interest, bringing into focus the depth of his learning, over an incredibly wide range. Second, late Chomsky—which I’ll define as post-9/11—is undeniably different from Chomsky in his prime. This should surprise no rational observer. It’s a bit like reading Philip Roth’s “Everyman” instead of “Portnoy’s Complaint”: the effects of the fight have begun to show. The conviction is still present, as are much of the power and force, but there has been diminution, and some bitterness has crept in. In Chomsky’s case, this is largely understandable: to have spent one’s life arguing, with supreme care and effort, that people stop killing each other—with an emphasis, as is appropriate, on the crimes in which one is involved—then to be painted so often as some kind of lunatic (or self-hating Jew or whatever) would be enormously taxing. The reserves of mental strength needed to withstand the defamation and slander are in themselves remarkable. But while the Chomsky of, say, “Hopes and Prospects” has much to impart, anyone who wants to evaluate accurately his contribution to political discourse should not begin with any recent remarks. A good place to start is the debate with William F. Buckley on the Vietnam War; the near-contemporary essays “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” and “On Resistance” should also be consulted. Such a sampling conveys the truly impressive depth and reticence of Chomsky’s moral seriousness, which is almost difficult to believe in an age of such frivolity and self-promotion.
Vietnam is in the past, and so Chomsky’s work on the matter can seem somewhat dated. But what is so distressing—and this will surprise no serious student of American history—is the continuity between the American experience in that country and ongoing U.S. policy. (The roots of this dynamic go back at least as far as our colonial war in the Philippines, which killed hundreds of thousands.) The point is not that Chomsky became wrong after 9/11—or, as Hitchens has suggested, that he lost perspective, a charge Hitchens was leveling even before the World Trade Center fell, back when Chomsky opposed the NATO attack on Yugoslavia. Then, not incidentally, Chomsky was vindicated: Strobe Talbott, a deputy security of state under Clinton, eventually explained that the real casus belli was not the plight of the Albanians but rather Milošević’s resistance to the imposition on the region of a neoliberal economic regime. The Vietnam model—seize upon some pretext to launch an intervention in an interesting part of the world, in order to demonstrate through force American seriousness and credibility—was still in use, as it would be after September 11. (As Chomsky pointed out, that other massacres were occurring contemporaneously with the atrocities in the Balkans, with tacit Western support—in Turkey, East Timor—proves that humanitarianism is not what makes the bombers fly.) For some reason, in the 1990s Hitchens—and there has been ample speculation as to why—began to embrace the pretexts, and to evangelize for them.
Hitchens is much praised as a rhetorician by his friends and admirers, but since the nineties, at least, the ornamentation and emotionalism that have attended his work—the tone of otiose indignation—has obscured a lack of logic. Take this recent attempted riposte to Chomsky. It begins with an abstract personal anecdote—“Anybody visiting the Middle East in the last decade has had the experience…”—about encountering 9/11 conspiracy theorists. This may or may not be true, but is in either case irrelevant: Chomsky is not a 9/11 “truther,” of any species. He is on the record denouncing that movement as a foolish distraction from important, pressing issues. Hitchens has fun putting words in Chomsky’s mouth: “So the main new element is the one of intriguing mystery. The Twin Towers came down, but it’s still anyone’s guess who did it.” In fact, Chomsky questions bin Laden’s guilt in a legal sense; Chomsky’s response to the attacks of September 11 was to call for an investigation, a presentation of evidence, and a request for extradition, none of which happened publically. (All of the subsequent material that Hitchens cites—the 9/11 commission report, journalism by Lawrence Wright and others—is hence beside the point.) If the Taliban had refused to hand over the apparent perpetrators, an international police action (for which there would have been widespread support) could have been mounted. Hitchens’s response, by contrast, was to call for war, then more war. It is painful but illuminating to imagine—ten years and so much death and destruction later—what the world might look like had Chomsky’s course been followed. That Chomksy accepts the general role of bin Laden in organizing or presiding over al Qaeda is proven by both previous statements of his and a line in the Guernica piece: “Uncontroversially, [Bush’s] crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s.” Note that, in order for a philosopher of language such as Chomsky to speak of bin Laden’s crimes, he has to accept that they happened. But Hitchens seems unable to parse language, Chomsky’s or his own, and so contents himself with the trivial objection that a Tomahawk was an Indian weapon, not an Indian person.