Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Fightin' Side of Me

We didn't actually do any Chomsky in discussion section this week in the class I TA because the students were more interested in trashing Ted Kennedy's 1996 DNC speech. Fine by me...but of course I had to read the Chomsky anyway, so here's my weekly rant.

Chomsky's perceived as a bit of an anti-American. He spends a good bit of time in Chapters 18 and 40 (of the book linked above) responding to this criticism. The basic meme is a tired and, I want to show, unconvincing one: Chomsky says he picks on America because he is an American, and as such he is more likely to influence American policy for the better than, say, Soviet policy (still in operation at the time of the interviews in question). And in fact, he also throws in a couple of bones about how "bourgeois liberties" are important, and that it's clear that the US and Western Europe have a better record on things like free speech than the Soviet Union does.

Reading all of this reminded me of something that Noah said a couple of days ago. Talking about possible future posts, he said he wanted to respond to a Walter Williams column in part complaining about the uneven treatment of Islamist and American attrocities. He has this line in mind:


Our adversaries in the Middle East have advantages that the axis powers didn't have -- the Western press and public opinion. We've seen widespread condemnation of alleged atrocities and prisoner mistreatment by the U.S., but how much media condemnation have you seen of beheadings and other gross atrocities by Islamists?


to which he wants to repond that "...we, rightly, hold ourselves to higher moral standards than we do the Islamists."

I don't have much respect for Chomsky, admittedly, but I have a lot of respect for Noah. And so I've spent some time thinking about this. Is it right to hold Islamists to a different standard? Is it right to focus criticism on one's own country and trust that people in other countries will criticize do the same for theirs?

I don't believe it is, and it's worth going through why because I think a lot of people share Noah's impression.

It's a compelling position. After all, attrocities seem par for the course for people who want to return to the days of the Crusades vs. the Caliphate. They were a hallmark of those times.

It reminds me of a cool scene in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Spike is moving out of Xander's basement, and as he's packing his stuff he picks up a radio. Xander, surprised, says "That's my radio!" And Spike's reply is "and you're what, shocked and disappointed? I'm evil."

It's funny because it's true. We're not shocked or disappointed when known troublemakers get arrested. The crimes that make the news are those done by "that nice man down the street," the local Scout Master who turns out to have a severed hand collection in the freezer.

I think the problem with this line of thinking, though, is in the idea that we hold anyone to a different standard because of it. Moral standards are either universal or they're meaningless. Either it's wrong to behead prisoners for show, or it isn't, for example. This is why there's no "Spike defense" in criminal trials. When accused of murder you can't just say "and you're what, shocked and disappointed? I'm evil." Or, rather, you can, but it won't make a difference in sentencing.

It's true that we quickly get used to the crimes of people like Islamofascists. It's the same way that Watergate brought Nixon down, but Reagan got out of Iran-Contra with barely a scratch. What was shocking in the early 70s was more or less expected by the late 80s.

Such is human nature. We're adaptive. Things that were once shocking become normal. Sometimes this is a good thing. Interracial dating, for example, which would have been unthinkable to my grandparents, is now common. But we have to be careful drawing moral conclusions on the basis of what we're "used to" because sometimes our instincts decieve us.

Noam Chomsky and people like him during the Cold War are a prime example. Chomsky says:


If a Soviet intellectual chooses to denounce American crimes, that is of little significance. What is important is what he says about the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, Eritrea, etc. The reasons are obvious. However valid his criticism may be, its contribution to human welfare is nil, and maybe even be negative, insofar as it reinforces a repressive, destructive and murderous system. If a Soviet intellectual chooses to concentrate solely on the crimes of his own state, I have only praise for him. (Language and Politics, p. 293)


This is undeniable - and yet it leaves out important facts. Foremost among these: Soviet intellectuals were not free to criticize their government, certainly not to the same extent that Chomsky is free to criticize his. Nor were Soviet intellectuals routinely presented with the facts about Afghanistan etc. Chomsky's hypothetical Soviet intellectual usually ended up in the gulag - and who wants to risk the gulag for criticisms that he knows (a) will be ineffective and (b) will probably not be heard by the outside world anyway?

If we don't criticize the Soviet Union, who will?

Chomsky continues:


A familiar anti-Stalinist joke 40 years ago was that if you criticized Soviet slave labor camps, you were asked "What about the lynchings in the South?" The dishonesty is obvious.


It is indeed. But does that somehow make it wrong to pose the question? That the Soviets will try to deflect criticism from themselves by pointing out American crimes instead - this is supposed to make us stop criticizing them?

What Chomsky is trying to say here, of course, is that one has to be careful not to mimic the Stalinists; one has to be careful that he is not using criticism of the Soviet Union to deflect attention away from American attrocities.

Fine, as far as that goes, Chomsky's right. But it seems to me that it is possible to criticize both, and each in proportion to the extent of their crimes. If the final goal is to liberate humanity from government oppression, as Chomsky clearly advocates, then isn't it right to fight government oppression whereever we find it? And isn't it right to reserve more criticism for the greater evils? What Chomsky is posing is a false dichotomy if I ever saw one.

Either a thing is a moral outrage deserving of condemnation or it isn't. Chomsky seems to think that American intervention in Nicaragua was a moral outrage. I completely disagree with him, but for the sake of argument let's play along and say that the US should not have been supplying arms to the Contras. Well, what immediately springs to mind is Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. Shouldn't we also condemn this? No, Chomsky would presumably say, because we have a greater chance of stopping the policy in Nicaragua. And anyway, criticizing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would give the US government an excuse for its actions in Nicaragua: they could claim they are countering Soviet power in the world. (Chomsky would add here that Nicaragua wasn't under Soviet influence, but he would be demonstrably wrong.) That Soviet power needs to be opposed is demonstrated by Afghanistan, etc. Well, fair enough. But it seems to me that the US government will give this argument whether or not Chomsky and his comrades concede that Afghanistan is proof of the intentions of Soviet foreign policy. The government doesn't need Chomsky's approval to make that case. The only thing, in fact, that can come out of Chomsky speaking out in a one-sided manner about Nicaragua but never mentioning Afghanistan is to give his own followers the impression that US involvement in Nicaragua is across-the-board bad and that there is no moral context in which it needs to be placed. But this is simply not true.

Now let's suppose that the US really is engaged in a policy of pushing back Soviet influence in the world (and, in fact, that is what I personally believe motivated backing for the Contras: Reagan's motives were sincere). Well, then the consequences come out differently. We know what the Soviets are like from their Afghanistan campaign, and we know what the US is like from its Nicaragua engagement, and we don't like either one of them, but one is clearly better than the other. And we further look at life in the Soviet Union and life in the United States, and we see that one is clearly better than the other. Shouldn't we support the one that is better than the other first, hope it wins, and then oppose it from there? Well, no, because that lets the one that is better off the hook, right? That gives it a free pass merely for being better, and from a moral standpoint that's no good. We have to fight arbitrary use of military power whereever we find it.

Right, and that is, again, exactly why it's important to criticize both. If you're concerned about letting "the one that's better" off the hook, then surely it's no good to let "the one that's worse" off?

This is where Chomsky goes wrong on the Soviets, and this is where so many others go wrong on Islamofascists. It's like saying that if you shoot a man in self-defense it's irrelevant that he had broken in to your house.

Poppycock.

Yes, right, we expect the Islamofascists to be butchers, just like we expected the Soviets to be repressive. It seems too easy to point out that there is no free speech in the Soviet Union. That's not an interesting thing to say. And so we don't say it. But if we keep on not saying it, then after a time we develop a skewed view of things. It seems to me that the answer to the joke about Stalinism above is that lynchings in the South are bad, but that slave labor camps are worse, and that we have time in the world to condemn both, and that both should, in fact, be condemned. We in the land of the First Amendment have a greater responsibility to condemn the lynchings becuase it is something we can influence. But who in the Soviet Union will stop the labor camps? Soviet citizens who try will end up in those camps. And so it's largely up to us. I see nothing morally ambiguous about the idea that we should take up that challenge: if criticizing lynchings is the right thing to do, then so is criticizing labor camps.

Well, if complaining about conditions at Gitmo is the right thing to do, then I think we have plenty of time left over to criticize beheadings. People get released from Gitmo after all. Beheading is permanent.

The problem with not criticizing the Islamists (or, at least, not to the same degree as we do ourselves) is the same as it was for the Soviet Union. Since no one in Taliban-occupied territory is likely to speak out against them (the penalty is even worse than it was in the Soviet Union), we have to. If we don't, they will think, much like the Soviets thought, that there are no PR consequences to their actions. Their strategy will continue to work. Radical actions on their part invite response from the US, some of these responses are not to the liking of world opinion, world opinion can be counted upon to condemn the US. Meanwhile, no one bothers to condemn them in return because that's too simple, or whatever. Relevant information then gets left out of the debate. The public sees that US treatment of prisoners at Gitmo needs to be reviewed, and this calls the War on Terror into question. But because we're busy being sophisticated and applying moral standards willy-nilly, no one remembers what the argument in favor of the War on Terror was in the first place. The US gets some black marks on its record (as it should), but no one remembers to add all the black marks on the terrorists' records. And the picture just stops reflecting reality after a while.

People will say I'm exaggerating, but they know in their hearts I'm not. We've endlessly heard leftists saying their normal cute things about how the US is the biggest sponsor of terrorism, or how the people in the Twin Towers were "little Eichmanns," or how Bush and Cheney are the biggest threat to freedom, or whatever else. They are able to say these things because they don't keep things in perspective. I see no reason to join them.

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