Against Chomsky?

AGAINST CHOMSKY

Rancourt on Chomsky:

Among activist readers Chomsky mainly serves to deepen the pathological pacifism of neutralized mainstream movements. This is mainly because almost all First World activists are of the latter variety [4] but Chomsky does not challenge us to step out. Instead, Chomsky feeds the disconnected and ailing trapped intellectual, the lost soul who has been socialized to study as a “first step” rather than to first feel and stand based on primordial impulse.

Education as a “first step” constrains us to study and precludes action until an “understanding” is sufficiently complete, in a manner not unlike compulsory and self-imposed schooling as a holding pattern. When one cannot perceive or will not fight one’s own oppression [5] and when the problem is taken to be the intractable entire planet and the systems of exploitation that occupy it, the “first step” is a non-ending self-trapped cycle of intellectual isolation in which the brain is severed from the heart; the heart that is defined by solidarity in battle and in shared risk and shared consequences, and by inter-dependence.

In reality, one must first act. The world cannot be correctly perceived from involuntary observation and thought. Only knowledge from action allows one to realistically evaluate the proposals of others. Action, reaction, communication, reflection, action… There is a natural sequence that cannot be adulterated without separating us from ourselves.

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The intellectual as mentalizer is a service intellectual [2, 9], just as surely as cerebral wanderers are trapped intellectuals. Only through action have I come to understand Chomsky and his place in the world. Let’s move on.

Rancourt makes some interesting points about Chomsky. Few of us on the left contest the acuity of Chomsky’s analyses. We all have things to learn by listening to him. But, to put Rancourt’s argument at its most potent, how do we feel after reading a Chomsky book or after listening to him? Do we feel empowered, ready to act? Often, perhaps, we feel confused and uncomfortable.

It is like there is a vast global conspiracy at work and only Chomsky has the intellectual means to unravel it. We are sort of dependent on him. Sure, he documents everything fastidiously. But he doesn’t give us a narrative, doesn’t give us a means forward, nor are we sure what there even is to do. When he gets asked questions about what do, how to act, he always gives an uneasy, unuseful answer. “You have to organize,” he says. He doesn’t say how or where or with whom, nor does he paint any clear picture of what organizing would look like or at what level (institutional, microlocal) it might be usefully sought.

I certainly agree with Chomsky that organizing is the number one thing to do. But I sympathize a lot with Rancourt’s frustration at such an ambiguous, and in the end stonewalling kind of answer. It’s like saying, what you have to do is figure out what you have to do. I would expect to find this sort of answer in the Gospel of Thomas, but not in the mouth of a committed political activist who serves as a beacon for the “radical” left in America.

Again, I have learned a lot from Chomsky, not the least of which is how to bring a principled approach to life within political institutions (within the university, for example). We learn from Chomsky a lot about how government power works. We see in Chomsky one of the most brilliant minds put to work unraveling the myths and illusions of how state power operates, how global power is wielded, or what the actual stakes of a given global situation are.

Chomsky cuts through the mega-hypocritical lip-service of governments painting their policing, violent actions in a light of messianism: human rights, helping the world, being a moral policeman…so many bullshit excuses for self-interested state violence and naked, murderous aggression.

He painted the sham of the post-WWII Nuremburg trials, for example, which, rather explicitly if you look closely, defined crimes against humanity as any war-time activity involved in killing civilians and which the US had not also practiced. Hence, the carpet bombing of civilian populations could not be counted as a war-crime, because to do so would immediately make the US a war criminal, since the US was guilty of many episodes of indescriminately bombing the civilian populations in the largest cities of its enemies, the most famous cases being Dresden, Tokyo, and, of course, the A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Gazillians of civilians were killed for military-political purposes, the very definition of terrorism. But we could not count this as a war crime, because we have here a classic case of might makes right. The US is the strong one, the one (implicitly) making the laws, so it will of course only allow laws that incriminate the other guy. This is the very definition of hypocrisy: we’ll look at what the other guy does, but not at ourselves. So concentration camps will count (though the US actually did those too when it ripped all Japanese-Americans out of their homes and slammed them behind bars in “internment camps”), but carpet-bombing civilian cities will not count, since the US would also be incriminated. The whole claim to justice is thus exposed as a form of retaliation and domination, where the process is engineered to make the victorious one look like a hero and the vanquished one look like a monster.

We can see the same dynamics at work in the way the government paints alQaeda. When alQaeda targets civilians for extermination in the interests of its war cause, it is called terrorism. When the US does the same thing, again and again and again, it is called, alternatively: collateral damage, the necessities of war, “accidental” (as if the dropping of a bomb could ever be considered accidental).

So to come back to Chomsky, I consider him a very useful intellectual, who does his best to illuminate the evil things going on that we are either not attuned to, or not in an (intellectual) position to see. He does the work to read 20 newspapers and compare the coverage. He does the work to piece together the visible operations of the state to expose the less visible global strategies of domination and hegemony. This is all useful stuff, and I think it would always be useful for one to read Chomsky.

On the other hand, Rancourt is not wrong to see a form of institutional recuperation or deflection at work in the way Chomsky writes. Perhaps for ethical reasons, Chomsky is at pains not to boil his thoughts down to narratives that would help us plot our course through the world. He sees himself as one who critiques, not one who provides answers, like an incomplete messiah. But we need a better prophet, says Rancourt, lest we all end up disillusioned by Chomsky’s talks, after which we begin to feel that if we are not a super-genius, there’s hardly anything for us to do.

But there is plenty to do! affirms Rancourt. Starting with just standing up and taking concrete actions. If we all stand up at once, we are a force no government could reckon with, so it is criminal, in Rancourt’s eyes, that Chomsky so attenuates his exhortation to act.

Rancourt is very ad hominem and inexcusably reductive in his critique of Chomsky, but I don’t think he is wrong. After the Vietnam episodes, Chomsky was content to think, write, and talk, all activities that fall short of acts that truly challenge the institution; instead they are readily incorporated by an institution so massive and so massively violent that it can tolerate a high level of criticism of itself as a mechanism for diverting rebellion. Rebellion in words is submission in fact, until demonstrated otherwise. “You’re all talk,” as the playground contenders would level at each other. “You’re all talk, and when it comes down to it you won’t lift a finger – so we both know I win, since I’ll take you’re lunch and all you’ll do is move your tongue and speak a language that translates into silence.”

Or, see the higher quality, but shorter, youtube version:

And see here his famous debate with Foucault:

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