Sunday, December 21, 2008

Carol Chomsky, 1930-2008

Carol Chomsky has died after a long struggle with cancer at the age of 78. She was a distinguished linguist and educator, and from the occasional interview and video clip I saw, no less interesting a human being than her more notorious helpmeet, a fellow named Noam. This feels a bit absurd coming from a nobody blogger, but I extend my condolences to her family and friends. (Photo from the Boston Globe obituary.)

Probably coincidentally, in a discussion of Rick Perlstein's disapproval of the shoes thrown at Bush at A Tiny Revolution, John Caruso posted a link to this remarkable article by Noam Chomsky from 1971. Written in the wake of the massive protests against the Vietnam War of the past few years, Chomsky discussed the question of nonviolent civil disobedience with his usual clarity and insight.
Henry Allen was impressed, while in jail, by "the tough, almost amused cynicism of people who are no longer surprised that other Americans will sweep them off the streets on charges so ridiculous that no one even bothered to laugh at them." But only the naïve are surprised, these days, at the far more serious matter of brutality and excessive force. Contrary to many reports in the press, those subjected to illegal force, illegal arrest, or illegal detention did not appear to be "indignant when [the system failed] to protect their rights."

Much more ominous, their reaction was the amused cynicism noted by Henry Allen. This suggests growing contempt for the institutions of American society, contempt inspired by the hypocrisy, the lies, the resort to brute force on the part of the Administration, which seems intent on demonstrating—in a trivial way in Washington and on a vast scale in Indochina—that it regards the law as an instrument for its purposes, not as a principle to be upheld. By so doing, it is preparing the ground either for further tumults and insurrections, or else for a still more dangerous submission to what Thomas Jefferson called "elective despotism."

This contempt for law also appears in press commentary. The New Republic editorial comment considers it "paradoxical" that demonstrators should be "indignant" when their rights are denied, and the Christian Science Monitor comments editorially on the "ironies in the situation" as "demonstrators who sought to suspend the process of law and impose anarchy on Washington are now demanding the protection of law."

This remarkable view seems to be widely held. Is it also "ironic" or "paradoxical" for the murderer of dozens of Vietnamese civilians to expect the full protection of the law? If President Nixon were to be charged with war crimes, should he first be beaten bloody by arresting officers? In fact, if an embezzler, a burglar, or a murderer caught in the act were subjected to the abuse and violence directed as a matter of course against a person violating traffic ordinances to protest the war, the press and public would be appalled by this savagery. But there is slight attention when those committing this crime are brave and decent young people, with no thought of personal gain, who are simply demonstrating their commitment to end a miserable, criminal war. Those who are attracted by ironies and paradoxes would do better to look here.

Substitute "Iraqis" for "Vietnamese" and "Bush" for "Nixon" in those paragraphs, and you can see that little has changed in mainstream discourse in the succeeding thirty-seven years. Chomsky has sometimes been accused of harping on the same topics over and over, but that's only because the U.S. government and its journalistic defenders keep doing and saying the same outrageous things.