TCS Daily

Discourse and Double Standards

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - March 19, 2004 12:00 AM

Noam Chomsky is often accused of being eager to criticize the United States for its perceived and alleged misdeeds, while being unwilling to criticize the very real misdeeds of others. Chomsky's answer to this critique is typified by his statement in this online chat, where he responds to a questioner asking why Chomsky doesn't direct his "hatred" of George W. Bush towards "someone more worthy of such venom, such as Osama bin Laden":

"... I take for granted, like everyone else, that Osama bin Laden is a murderous thug, who the current incumbents in Washington should never have supported through the 1980s, and who should be apprehended and tried for his crimes right now -- as I've written -- and don't see any point reiterating what 100% of us believe about him. But I am a citizen of the US, and therefore share responsibility for US government policies, and assume that one of the duties of citizenship is to live up to that responsibility -- by criticizing policies one thinks are wrong, for example."

A similar argument is made in this (highly adulatory) profile of Chomsky:

One can -- and many people do -- disagree with [Chomsky's] flagellating approach, but his own moral code is one of almost unbearably high standards. To him, there is little moral value in criticizing the actions of one's official enemies, even if the criticism is factually correct.

"The moral significance of some human action is determined by its anticipated human consequences," he says. "That holds true for condemnation as well as any other action. Thus, Soviet commissars and Nazi propagandists bitterly condemned U.S. crimes, quite often accurately. What was the moral value of that condemnation? In fact, it was negative: these were acts of depravity, from a moral point of view."

Leaving aside for a moment whether "Soviet commissars and Nazi propagandists" were "quite often accurate" in their condemnations of "U.S. crimes," we should address Chomsky's justifications for his actions.

One of the allegedly praiseworthy aspects of Chomsky's approach to analyzing world affairs is that he is supposed to be ruthlessly consistent in applying the same standards and norms of international behavior across the board. This "consistency" makes up much of the appeal of Chomsky's critique of the United States -- he argues that the U.S. has strayed from the very behavior that it demands from other countries. But Chomsky undermines his own moral standing and his own cherished standard of "consistency." Supposedly, it is perfectly all right for Chomsky to call upon the U.S. to live up to the standards that it sets for others, but it isn't all right for him to call on other countries -- including enemies of the U.S. -- to live up to those standards. Is the hypocrisy -- and the inconsistency -- in that stance not obvious?

If there really is "little moral value" in Chomsky's critique of a country other than his own, there should also be "little moral value" in having a non-Americans criticize the U.S. Of course, the reader has likely guessed that "consistency" goes by the wayside here. Consider the case of Arundhati Roy. Although Roy is an Indian fiction writer, she has still written articles (like this one, for example) criticizing the United States and its foreign policy. Think that there will be a groundswell of Chomskyites reminding Roy that because she, as an Indian citizen, is not restricting her critiques to India's actions, her statements will have "little moral value"?

Well, neither do I.

Chomsky is actually more than happy to criticize countries other than the U.S. -- as long as those countries are American allies. In 2002, Chomsky supported a joint Harvard-MIT petition urging both universities to cease their support of Israel until Israel "withdraws all forces and vacates all existing settlements in the occupied territories, ends legal torture, and either allows refugees to return to their homeland or compensate them for their losses." Just last month, Chomsky wrote this editorial attacking Israel for wanting to build a security wall to protect itself from Palestinian terrorism, and calling on the International Court of Justice in the Hague to declare the building of the wall illegal, and on the United States to essentially force the Israelis to agree immediately on a two-state solution. Apparently, it is perfectly all right for Chomsky to criticize Israel, despite the "little moral value" of such an action, and despite the fact that Chomsky has never been an Israeli citizen.

And lest we forget, Chomsky has been equally willing in the past to construct tortured apologies for some of the most horrific acts in human history. In this article, I pointed out the ludicrous and appalling excuses made by Chomsky for the murderous Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s (a critique that writer Keith Windschuttle brilliantly lays out here). Chomsky's apologia for the Khmer Rouge -- and for its psychopathic leader, Pol Pot -- is worth noting again because it helps us fully understand Chomsky's brand of advocacy. According to Chomsky, (1) criticism of the United States is justified based on one's duty as an American citizen; (2) criticism of the United States by those who are not American citizens is also justified, despite the fact that as non-citizens, they would have no commensurate duty to criticize the U.S. and would be logically subject to the very critiques Chomsky says would apply if he criticized opponents of America; (3) criticism of American allies like Israel is justified despite any lack of Israeli citizenship and/or commensurate duty, and despite any concerns about the "little moral value" of such criticism; and (4) praise and excuse-mongering is justified for truly barbaric regimes abroad -- or at the very least, one should refrain from criticizing such regimes based on the "little moral value" of doing so, and the "anticipated human consequences" of such criticism, which Chomsky claims to be minimal.

All of which leaves us back where we started -- Chomsky hypocritically attacks America and its various allies for their alleged misdeeds, while at the same time pulling his punches on opponents of America when they commit genuinely reprehensible crimes. Chomsky's excuse for this kind of behavior falls apart on close scrutiny. In this review of Chomsky's latest book, writer Nick Cohen notes the words of one Jose Ramos-Horta, a leader in the fight for independence in East Timor, who said of those protesting the American military operation in Iraq:

"Why did I not see one single banner or hear one speech calling for the end of human rights abuses in Iraq, the removal of the dictator and freedom for the Iraqis and the Kurdish people?"

Cohen then calls on Chomsky "to carry on his campaign against hypocrisy by answering [Ramos-Horta]." But no one should hold his breath waiting for a satisfactory answer. Noam Chomsky is too busy making excuses for hypocrisy to eradicate it from his own moral and philosophical code.

Pejman Yousefzadeh recently wrote for TCS about "Bumper Sticker Moralities."


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