Noam Chomsky and His Critics

By Proyect, Louis | Canadian Dimension, November-December 2002 | Go to article overview

Noam Chomsky and His Critics


Proyect, Louis, Canadian Dimension


In the aftermath of September 11 certain sectors of the U.S. Left buckled under ruling-class pressure and turned against Noam Chomsky. His uncompromising anti-imperialism might have been acceptable during the 1980s, when the Sandinistas were under Washington's gun, but in today's repressive atmosphere no quarter is given to this dissident intellectual. Of course, no quarter is asked by Chomsky, who remains as fearless and principled as ever.

To the chagrin of ruling-class pundits and weak-kneed leftists, a collection of interviews with Chomsky, which has been published in book form under the title 9/11, has become a best-seller. According to a May 5 Washington Post article, the book had already sold 160,000 copies and had been translated into a dozen languages, from Korean to Japanese to two varieties of Portuguese.

Targeting Chomsky

In an attempt to warn people away from the book, the Post cites Brian Morton, supposedly "a novelist and essayist of the left," who regards Chomsky as an important intellectual whose arguments have suffered a sclerotic hardening. "Chomsky," Morton says, "has become a phase that people on the left should go through when they are young."

It should come as no surprise that the Washington Post failed to identify the segment of the Left Morton with which is associated. As it turns out, he is an editor of Dissent magazine, a publication that might be described as social democracy in a state of advanced rigor mortis. Irving Howe, the magazine's founder, was a staunch supporter of the Vietnam War. The current editor, Michael Walzer, stumped for Bush's war against terrorism in the Fall, 2001 issue, stating: "We have to defend our lives; we are also defending our way of life. Everyone says this, but it is true. The terrorists oppose and hate our way of life--and would still oppose and hate it even if we lived our lives far better than we do."

Eric Alterman and Christopher Hitchens, contributors to The Nation, a left-liberal weekly that has published continuously since the Civil War, have jumped on the anti-Chomsky bandwagon with a vengeance. Although the magazine has had a reputation for principled anti-imperialism in the past, it has shifted noticeably to the right in recent years. Most would explain this as a function of tail-ending the Clinton Administration.

Christopher Hitchens has been the author of the most visible and controversial attacks against Chomsky. In a flag-waving attack on the peace movement in the September 24, 2001 issue of The Nation entitled, "Of Sin, the Left & Islamic Fascism," Hitchens describes Chomsky as "soft on crime and soft on fascism."

Chomsky has also become to some on the postmodernist Left. Michael Berube, a commentator on society and the arts, feels that "the Chomskian left has consigned itself to the dustbin of history." In accounting for the split between the "Chomskian left" and the "Hitchens left," Berube surmises that "the simple fact that bombs were dropping" might have something to do with it. He writes:

"For U.S. leftists schooled in the lessons of Cambodia, Libya, and the School of the Americas, all U.S. bombing actions are suspect: they are announced by cadaverous white guys with bad hair, they are covered by seven cable channels competing with one another for the catchiest 'New War' slogan and Emmy Awards for creative flag display, and they invariably kill civilians, the poor, the wretched, the disabled. Surely, there is much to hate about any bombing campaign.

"Yet who would deny that a nation, once attacked, has the right to respond with military force, and who seriously believes that anyone could undertake any 'nation-building' enterprise in Afghanistan without driving the Taliban from power first?"

The Faurissan and Khmer Rouge Controversies

During the struggle over support for the "war on terror," some controversies attached to Chomsky's political career have been used in a demagogic fashion against him.

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