Chomsky in Context: A Response to Gareth Morley
Murphy, Rae, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion
THE TRIGGER FOR GARETH MORLEY'S ARTICLE 15, IT APPEARS, THE reception given to 9-11, a slight pamphlet made up of interviews Noam Chomsky gave to various media outlets on the terrorist attacks on September 11 and the response of the American government. However, Morley goes after Chomsky on the basis not so much of this war as of the last one and the one before that. The purpose appears to be twofold: to warn the unwary of the pernicious influence Chomsky holds over the Left in general and to blame Chomsky for the problems of the nascent anti-globalization movement, which seems to Morley interchangeable with the Left. Chomsky's political writing is far from being above criticism, but Morley's elaborate Bill of Particulars leaves out important elements of historical context that cast his work in a very different light.
Morley's main issue is with Chomsky's loyalty to "anti-imperialist orthodoxy":
Since his appearance as a political activist during the Vietnam war, Chomsky has argued that the "liberal" media and the "liberal intelligentsia" are really just apologists for American corporate/state power They "manufacture consent" by limiting the domain of acceptable criticism to instrumental issues of how best to accomplish the objectives of the American ruling class.
Chomsky would probably mildly quibble and qualify that characterization by saying some liberals and some members of the liberal intelligentsia, some of the time. But instead of trying to refute what Chomsky actually says and writes, Morley instead decides to refute the man himself. The method is to cherry-pick through his work and some writings of contemporaries and critics and to delve into the epistemological, social and class roots of Chomsky's philosophical underpinnings. Morley makes this remarkable statement and reveals a Marxist/reductivist sensibility of his own: "Chomsky grew up in Philadelphia and was heavily influenced by the Jewish working class culture of New York in the depression. For a bright secular Jewish kid in Chomsky's circumstances, the question was not whether to be a socialist, but which kind." I bet a few of those kids in those circumstances grew up to be Democrats, even Republicans.
Vietnam, Cambodia and genocide
In the course of building his case, Morley gallops through the history of the Left, situating Chomsky in the middle of everything, somewhat like the Woody Allen character Zelig. It begins in earnest with Vietnam when, as Christopher Hitchens suggests in parting company with Chomsky over 9-11, he was at his best:
I have begun to think that Noam Chomsky has lost or is losing the qualities that made him a great moral and political tutor in the years of the Indochina war, and that enabled him to write such monumental essays as his critique of the Kahan Commission on Sabra and Shatila or his analysis of the situation in East Timor. I don't say this out of any "more in sorrow than anger" affectation: I have written several defenses of him and he knows it. But the last time we corresponded, some months ago, I was appalled by the robotic element both of his prose and of his opinions.
In a sense, Hitchens is too kind to Chomsky. There has always been a robotic--I would say dogmatic--element in his writings, and never more so than when he is answering critics. Like many members of the professoriat Chomsky does not take criticism well, and he takes being contradicted not at all. His polemical style sometimes gets him into trouble, and never more so than in the debate on Pol Pot and "genocide" more than 20 years ago. Calling him an apologist for genocide, however, is an oversimplification. His extended exchange with Jean Lacouture focused on numbers and sources and who said what when. The articles are all on the public record--as Casey Stengel would say, "You could look it up"--and I believe Chomsky wins on points. …