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Chomsky lives in a Newtonian universe of leftism where political mass and gravitational effects are predictable, and where good and bad actors spin in a foreordained social dance. All political developments are subject to interpretation within this now-ossified model, enunciated beginning with his opposition to the Vietnam War in the 1960s.

Noam Chomsky

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Monday, March 11 2002, 4:49 PM

To give the man due credit, it's hard to think of another radical who so robustly represents the failure of progressive thought in the United States as Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky lives in a Newtonian universe of leftism where political mass and gravitational effects are predictable, and where good and bad actors spin in a foreordained social dance. All political developments are subject to interpretation within this now-ossified model, enunciated beginning with his opposition to the Vietnam War in the 1960s. This is a peculiarly American model that, while identified within the US left's core literature, resists global manifestations of class difference and capitalism-as-system as explanatory contributions towards the problems it addresses. The American-ness of this model lies in its insistence on the rule of pragmatic facts, or as William James phrased it, in a turn towards alleged "concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power."

Although Chomsky has been criticized many times for this anti-economistic and anti-theoretical blindness, he has not made any substantive changes in his analytic style. And it is style in which he engages, since labor, capital and markets are notably absent from his writing. Government actions happen largely by themselves in Chomsky's model, but the social propulsion behind those actions lies beyond germane discussion.

In the land of uninterpreted facts, blandness rules. Style is quintessential within politics, whatever horrified and righteous protests from promoters of substance to the exclusion of style. It is precisely the earnestness of style that appeals to such sober-minded believers who take up the latest Chomsky pronunciamento as a substitute for a quiet evening of self-flagellation.

For all of Chomsky's insistence on common-sense analysis and historical rigor, he indulges in constant subject changes and historical ellipsis. As this small volume of seven post-attack Chomsky interviews exemplifies, he slides off the subject of September 11 like it was a well-polished playground slide just waiting for a head-dive. In Chomsky's politics such events are epiphenomena to incorporate within his decades-long lecture and established intellectual model. September 11 only provides the excuse and book title; this is an interpretive chapbook for guidance to the political faithful.

The excursion begins with a simple postulate from which flows all manner of derivatives: the United States is the leading terrorist state. Mr. Smith isn't going to Washington; Mr. Smith is going to Terrorism Central. Why ever do Chomsky-quoters wonder why their hero isn't invited to address a special joint session of Congress?

Chomsky prefers to indict the history of European colonization reaching back quite literally to Columbus, as if this provided any assistance towards formulating a policy response to events not yet six months past. Rather, this retrospective invocation accepts a view of world history as simplistically bifurcated as any Samuel Huntington has produced. In this historical meta-perspective, the collapse of the WTC twin towers was no more than natives returning fire at European civilization. By locating his initial analysis of 9/11 events within an overarching accusation against the US as the illegitimate product of a half-millenium's worth of imperialistic sin, Chomsky only recapitulates the basic theme of 1993's Year 501. Despite his own arguments, in the sixth of these interviews Chomsky precisely rejects two-civilization theories. Acceptability seems to depend on who uses such reductions.

No nation-state exists without an inheritance of pre-foundational violence and a history of violent self-maintenance, so adopting the pose of History's prosecutor-general provides no analytic light with which to examine the contemporary American Empire. Al-Qaeda operatives did not hijack and crash airliners as a belated protest over the empire-building 1848 war against Mexico. They did so for their own reasons, apparently religio-cultural xenophobia, and certainly not out of compassion for the struggles of other peoples for self-determination.

At street level, historical awareness of colonialism and imperialism does not equate with the realities of political decision-making after morning coffee. Chomsky's reductionism operates at the level of opposed global cultures and nation-states, which is not too different from the classical political science formulations of Henry Kissinger or Samuel Huntington from otherwise inimical points of view. All three built analytic philosophies within the academic trap of compassionless determinism, where model-meisters rule.

The entire book does not contain more than one word of sympathy or solidarity towards September 11 victims. Chomsky's stern philosophical style does not embrace empathy, which for better or worse represents the contested heartland of American politics. This is a remarkable absence, unconscionable for its dismissal of human lives as sub-history. As a political traumatologist speaking to the international press (a majority of interviews published here are with European media), Chomsky adopts the manner of a Puritan minister on the fate of sinners in the United States. In his unrelenting moral sobriety, Chomsky remains incapable of articulating rhetoric of sympathetic and passionate identification with a US voting public that can alter national policies. September 11 becomes only another excuse to exercise moral castigation.

In the one moment that Chomsky does utter sympathy for the day's victims, he manages to simultaneously mischaracterize global reaction as "virtually unanimous" in its outrage. Yet it was precisely the approval voiced over Al-Jazeera and in other regional media that worked to define the global fault lines that have developed in the attack's wake. It was not only an act that caused massive human suffering, but it is difficult to imagine another act that could work to such mutual advantage for Western racists and Islamic cultural isolationists.

Faced with a need to find international justice and social peace between the United States, Europe and the Middle East, where is Chomsky? Actually, still discussing Nicaragua. Lengthy and repeated passages address the Reagan administration's policies towards the Sandinista government as an example of terrorism and illegitimate state violence, once condemned by the World Court. Ollie North clones may well populate the Pentagon and need regular applications of pesticide from Congress, but this is not the topic at hand. Chomsky has mastered digression in pursuit of high ideals.

Chomsky's digressions are a means of avoiding unpalatable conclusions. He uses this same technique in the present book as much as on previous excursions into print. For example, nearly all of The New Military Humanism's discussions of the Racak massacre concerns events in East Timor, where he points out unassailably that many more were murdered in Dilli than in Racak. Yet what relevance does this observation bear to the question of whether NATO should act in defense of European Moslem minorities being massacred and expelled from their homes? None at all, other than as an argumentative diversion.

Listening this past week to Milosevic at bar in the Hague inveigh against NATO hegemony and appropriate the language of anti-globalism, nausea rises to the gorge upon realizing that this unrepentant defense of genocide relies on the same arguments that Chomsky made and continues to deploy in 9-11. It is telling that Chomsky-style arguments gain use as a defense of violence on the grounds that it represents opposition to political hegemonism, as if this were sufficient justification of itself. So, while deploring Bin Laden, Chomsky can describe him as but another noxious product of the American Empire.

That is much, much too simple, for Bin Laden and al-Qaeda are violent theo-fascists who represent a public safety menace and need more effective address than armchair citations of international law chapter and verse. The means of peaceful redress against the Bush administration and its business cronies are well-known in this relatively democratic society. Dealing with a right-wing administration is a political contest within a civil society; dealing with a violent religious underground is a very different species of contest. To frame the questions precisely, what are the legitimate and effective means of social defense against an international theo-fascist movement, and how can its originating causes be ameliorated? It is such questions that Chomsky entirely begs off.

In the end, there is an unmistakable stench of the Old Guard arising from this book. The usual suspects (Ruggiero, Barsamian, Albert) conduct mostly e-mail interviews with the Man, he repeats previous musings interlaced with fresh news, and an editor adds some overseas material in order to rush a hot manuscript to the printer barely a month after the September 11 attacks. This is the inside talking with the inside, then publishing a lazy version of a quickie book. Sadly, this can pass for progressive politics in the United States.

9/11 is available from Seven Stories Press  

Copyright © 2002 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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