There’s a line in Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary
that comes back to me whenever I get trapped in a conversation with a political nutbar. Writing about some Soviet apparatchik that he’d butted heads with, Serge says, “I followed his argument with the blank uneasiness which one might feel in the presence of a logical lunatic.”
Noam Chomsky fills me with blank uneasiness. Now, the man’s no lunatic—let’s get that straight. He’s a gifted scientist and, in some ways, an admirable citizen. But his worldview is so simple-minded, so rigidly consistent, that it becomes, by its very excess of logic, insane.
At some point in the last decade, Chomsky ossified into the Jimmy Buffet of the far left: a productive yet predictable figure, still packing them in without ever bothering to change his set list. The numbing array of facts and figures, the quotes from obscure journals and technical literature, the scathing denunciations of American perfidy: such is Chomsky’s endless Margaritaville. But as Buffet could tell you, sameness is soothing. Sameness sells.
Before I try to explain why Chomsky is such a dangerous simpleton (ideologically-speaking) let me admit that I didn’t dislike Failed States
as much as I expected. No matter what your political orientation is, if you don’t learn something from Chomsky, you’re just not paying attention. Published in the middle of the Bush II years, Failed States
is a depressing catalogue of cabalistic plots, legal end-runs and foreign-policy debacles. Even with all my defences up, this book nearly sent me into an atavistic fit of anti-American paranoia (for which, as a Canadian, I’m genetically predisposed anyway).
Luckily for my sluggish liberal conscience, though, I see no reason to take Chomsky seriously. The guy is just massively dishonest—not on the factual level (where he’s merely sneaky) but on the rhetorical level. Take the premise of Failed States
. Chomsky’s mendacious little conceit here is that the United States exhibits many of the characteristics of a failed state. That’s right: America is the new Somalia. I doubt even Chomsky believes this nonsense, but he presents it with a straight face (as he does everything else: humour is not his strong point, unless you enjoy crude sarcasm.) He comes up with his own flagrantly self-serving definition of a failed state but somehow overlooks the most salient feature: i.e. a failed state is one that has simply ceased to function. His diagnosis is just an infantile bit of magical thinking: it’s a failed state because I say it is.
But that’s nothing. Let’s look at a more glaring piece of chicanery. Like any good lefty, Chomsky is dismissive of the Bush administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling WMDs. Fair enough. No WMDs. That’s a truism by now. But then, in an astonishing admission, Chomsky tells us that “this is not quite accurate. There were stores of equipment for developing WMDs in Iraq after the invasion: those produced in the 1980s, thanks to aid provided by the United States and Britain, among others.”
Wait. What? You’re saying Colin Powell was right all along? Is that what you’re saying, Noam? Was that cheesy PowerPoint presentation at the UN legit, then? Well, yes, he sort of is saying that, but as usual he has a forensic rabbit up his sleeve. See, it turns out that Iraq’s WMD facilities were systematically looted following the invasion: Most of the looting was from production sites for solid- and liquid-propellant missiles, where about 85% of the equipment had been removed, along with biotoxins and other materials usable for chemical and biological weapons, and high-precision equipment capable of making parts for nuclear and chemical weapons and missiles. A Jordanian journalist was informed by officials in charge of the Jordanian-Iraqi border after US and UK forces took over that radioactive materials were detected in one of every eight trucks crossing into Jordan, destination unknown.
Nice work, Noam! What a scoop! Biotoxins, chemical weapons, nuclear missiles! Freaking truckloads of radioactive material! Call Rumsfeld. Tell him all is forgiven. He can have his old office back, as soon as Gates clears his shit out.
Okay, my irony is getting almost as heavy as Chomsky’s. But you saw what he did there, right? First he tells us there were no WMDs. Then, without stopping to notice the contradiction, he informs us that the whole place was lousy with the things. But conveniently for his argument, the US is still guilty, since they provided the weapons, or the “aid” to buy them, back in the 80s—and doubly guilty because they failed to secure all this military surplus after the invasion.
So, as always with Chomsky, the US can’t win for losing. You have to ask yourself: does he even care what the truth is? Does it matter to him whether or not Hussein possessed WMDs? Or that nuclear-grade materials might have fallen into the hands of some really nasty characters? No. He couldn’t care less. He’s just clutching blindly at the nearest polemical blunt instrument: a crowbar here, a two-by-four there--anything’ll do, as long as he can use it to bludgeon the imperialists and their lackeys in the media.
The sad thing is that a lot of people—people who no doubt pride themselves on their critical-thinking skills—take this guy very seriously indeed. Strangely, it never occurs to them to apply the same scepticism to his work that they would to the equally dubious pronouncements of Rush Limbaugh or whomever. Read him, by all means; learn from him. But for God’s sake, be sure to check under the hood, kick the tires and give the old CD changer a spin. Even the smartest and most intellectually honest pundits are bound to be wrong around, oh, 70% of the time. Chomsky is plenty smart but, as far as I can see, intellectual honesty is not among his virtues.