Monday, March 5, 2012

First as Tragedy, Then as More Tragedy

I've begun reading Making the Future (City Lights Books), the new collection of Noam Chomsky's monthly columns for the New York Times Syndicate. They run from April 2007 to October 2011, and reading them is already an educational trip down Memory Lane.

The first one, for example, reminded me that in February 2007, five years after declaring North Korea a spoke in the Axis of Evil, the Bush regime engaged in multilateral talks that led to an agreement that Pyongyang "agreed to start dismantling its nuclear facilities and allow nuclear inspectors back in the country" (18).
The new agreement is similar to the one that Washington had scuttled in 2005. Immediately after the new agreement was reached, Washington conceded that its 2002 charges against North Korea were based on dubious evidence. The Bush administration, notorious for fitting the facts to the policy in Iraq, may also have skewed the intelligence on North Korea [20].
The agreement that was scuttled in 2005 is presumably the one that the Clinton regime negotiated in 1994, but which was a dead letter before the decade was out thanks to Washington's intransigence. As a result, North Korea concluded quite reasonably that it was no longer bound by it, which of course produced outraged American howls about the Commies' slippery refusal to live up to their obligations. I've often heard Kim Jong-il referred to as crazy, but really, compared to the solons of Washington, he seems to have been a paragon of sanity and sweet reasonableness.

The second column is about the impact of ethanol on food prices in Mexico and elsewhere.
Ethanol production is feasible thanks to substantial [American] state subsidies and very high tariffs to exclude much cheaper and more efficient Brazilian ethanol.

In March [2007], during President Bush's trip to Latin America, the one heralded achievement was a deal with Brazil on joint production of ethanol. But Bush, while spouting free-trade rhetoric for others in the conventional manner, emphasized forcefully that the high tariff to protect U.S. producers would remain, along with the many forms of government subsidy for the industry [22]. ...

Increasingly, biofuels are likely to "starve the poor" around the world ... as staples are converted to ethanol production for the privileged -- cassava in sub-Saharan Africa, to take one ominous example. Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia, tropical forests are cleared and burned for oil palms destined for biofuel, and there are threatening environmental effects from input-rich production of corn-rich ethanol in the United States as well [23-4].
The third column, from May 2007, deals with the U.S. campaign against Iran. Very little has changed in the past five years.
In April [2007, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice spoke about what she would say if she encountered her Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, at the international conference on Iraq at Sharm el Sheikh. "What do we need to do? It's quite obvious," Rice said. "Stop the flow of arms to foreign fighters; stop the flow of foreign fighters across the borders." She is referring, of course, to Iranian fighters and arms. U.S. fighters and arms are not "foreign" in Iraq. Or anywhere [26].
That's as far as I've read tonight. I expect similar experiences of deja-vu as I continue.

Last week I linked in passing to John Gray's deranged review of this book for the Guardian. No, "deranged" isn't the right word, though the piece exhibits only a tenuous acquaintance with reality. The Guardian has exhibited a strange (for an ostensibly progressive newspaper) tendency to attack Chomsky, using a familiar set of tropes. Gray wrote, for example,

To his credit, Chomsky opposed the [Iraq] war from the very beginning. His attitude to other critics of the war is more problematic. He has nothing but scorn for those in the American political mainstream who criticised the war on the grounds that it would likely be too risky or costly, or was simply unnecessary. Dismissing Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Chomsky writes: "The criticism of the Iraq war is on grounds of cost and failure; what are called 'pragmatic reasons', a stance that is considered hard-headed, serious, moderate – in the case of Western crimes". For Chomsky, it seems there can be no place for error or mixed motives in American policies. The war was not a mistake that might have been avoided if its opponents had been better organised and more effective. Invading Iraq was just one more example of American imperialism, an expression of a regime that is quintessentially criminal and evil.

That's easy enough to answer: would Gray demand a similarly nuanced account of "error or mixed motives" in discussing the German invasion of Poland in 1939, or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979? Chomsky has quoted American officials brushing aside such considerations about the latter case: the Soviet intervention was wrong, they declare, and there's an end on't.

Even odder is Gray's suggestion that the invasion of Iraq was "a mistake that might have been avoided if its opponents had been better organised and more effective", which has no evident relation to the tactical, "pragmatic" reservations of a Bill Clinton or a Barack Obama: they were quite willing to support an attack on Iraq (indeed, Clinton attacked Iraq repeatedly during his presidency, and as we now know, Obama tried to extend the US occupation beyond the agreed-on withdrawal date) as long as it was well-planned. That's not opposition.

Reading these articles, published between April 2007 and October 2011, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that, for Chomsky, America is virtually the sole obstacle to peace in the world. Crimes committed by other powers are mentioned occasionally, but only in passing. Nowhere does he acknowledge the fact that many regions have intractable conflicts of their own, which will persist whatever the US does.

As Chomsky wrote in a scathing reply to Gray, his complaint "is based entirely on the fact that the collection of op-eds that he reviews (Making the Future) focuses on US and British policies and commentary, a natural and entirely appropriate concern." I'd add, by analogy, that if I break into your house and murder you and your entire family, it is no defense that you and your wife were fighting regularly -- intractable conflicts of your own, which will persist no matter what I do.

The notable thing about Gray's criticism is how familiar it is: the claim that Chomsky blames everything bad in the world on the United States and Israel is a regular talking point in respectable mainstream discourse; it has taken on a life of its own even where Chomsky isn't the direct target, as in Katha Pollitt's post-9/11 disclaimer that she's "never been one to blame the United States for every bad thing that happens in the Third World." (This ploy never works, by the way: anyone who criticizes anything the US does will be accused of some version of that thoughtcrime.) Or Peter Beaumont's 2006 review for the Guardian of Chomsky's Failed States: "I reject Chomsky's view that American misdeeds are printed through history like the lettering in a stick of rock." (Does that sentence make any sense to you?) Beaumont, the Guardian's foreign affairs editor, concluded the review with these rhetorical questions, also familiar in the anti-Chomsky armory:
Which leads to a question: is that really what you see, Mr Chomsky, from the window of your library at MIT? Is it the stench of the gulag wafting over the Charles River? Do you walk in fear of persecution and murder for expressing your dissident views? Or do you make a damn good living out of it? The faults of the Bush administration will not be changed by books such as Failed States. They will be swept away by ordinary, decent Americans in the world's greatest - if flawed and selfish - democracy going to the polls.
Chomsky has always made it clear that he knows he faces no serious penalty for 'expressing his dissident views', which is why he argues that Americans have no excuse for not criticizing their government more: it takes much less courage to do so than it did in the Soviet Union, or does in Saddam's Iraq, or Ahmadinejad's Iran. The cheap shot of "make a damn good living at it" could just as easily be turned back on Beaumont; but it may be worth pointing out that Chomsky's damn good living, and his office at MIT, came not from his political writings but from his groundbreaking work in linguistics. (Likewise, a commenter on Gray's review accused Chomsky of making "a career out of whining at all forms of power, including groups of people just standing around, whilst flogging books full of said tripe and enjoying the freedom of expression safeguarded by the 'most powerful country on earth since 1945'". It's such a standard talking point that it can be used, as it is here, as a basis for fantasias.)

John Gray has a reputation as a philosopher and a political thinker. So far I've only read one of his books,
The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death (FSG, 2011), which had some interesting ideas and information but seemed off-kilter somehow. (Judging from the part I read of his earlier attack on Utopian thought, Black Mass, he likes to think of himself as a tough-minded realist, immune to the fantasies the rabble cling to for comfort in an uncaring, un-understanding world.) Still, it exhibited more intelligence than this review, which seems to have been written on autopilot. It's as if anti-Chomsky propaganda were a radioactive virus from outer space that causes erogenous sores, which the victims scratch obsessively until sexual delirium overtakes them.