July 12, 2010
Noam Chomsky’s new book, Hopes and Prospects, leads me to a conclusion that will startle his admirers and critics alike: Chomsky is a conservative. It might surprise him as well. After all, he is a socialist and a libertarian. The fundamental precept of his philosophy, which stems from a view of humans as free and creative beings, is that people should be left alone. While the managers of society may coerce and manipulate people, they can and should resist domination. Most conservatives, at least in the American tradition, believe the state should stay out of the lives of its citizens. Too many self-described conservatives insist that the government they can resist at home should involve itself in the lives of people in other countries. Dictating to others how to live is deeply unconservative. If the American government should stay out of the affairs of those of us who have the right to vote for and against it, how much more should it leave alone those with no say in its direction? The American federal government has, as Chomsky states in this enlightening series of essays, no more right to break into the houses of people in foreign lands than into your house in Kentucky or Alaska. Chomsky’s conservatism is more consistent than that of many who claim for themselves, which Chomsky certainly does not, the name conservative. He believes not only in the freedom of Americans, but in freedom from Americans.
Chomsky’s conservatism, with its explicit distrust of politicians and corporate managers, may explain why his most strident critics are to be found among liberals. Two of Britain’s liberal newspapers, The Guardian and The Observer, attack him more regularly than the right-wing press does. Chomsky may have earned their ire by pointing out from time to time mistakes made in their news pages, particularly in war zones. Observer reviewer Rafael Behr summarized Hopes and Prospects and concluded that Chomsky should recognize “the irony that he owes his considerable success to the system he despises.” Let us suppose for a moment that Behr is right, that Chomsky’s considerable success is an achievement of the system rather than of Chomsky’s genius and insights into the nature of language that have transformed modern philosophy and psychology as much as they have linguistic studies. Would he have said that Andrei Sakharov “owes his considerable success to the system he despises”? Sakharov became a victim of the Soviet system after his discoveries in physics, but the importance of Sakharov as political critic (rather than as physicist) was that he criticized a system that he believed was harmful to world peace, human dignity and the society of which he was a beneficiary. The same can, and should, be said of Chomsky.
The liberal intelligentsia cannot bear Chomsky because, in this book as in many earlier publications and speeches, he calls their bluff. He compares contemporary liberal “humanitarian military intervention” with the rhetorical justification Adolf Hitler used when his duty to protect the German minority obliged him to invade Czechoslovakia. Conquerors invariably claim the moral high ground, like schoolyard bullies who beat the smaller kids “for their own good.” Columbus claimed the high moral purpose of bringing Christianity—that is, salvation—to the Caribs, Arawaks, and other peoples of the Caribbean who were soon exterminated. The French brought civilization to Algeria in 1830, coincidentally taking—as the British would soon do in other parts of Africa—the most fertile land for white colonists. The American Army burned villages in Vietnam to save them. Many in the public, thanks to effective propaganda, believe the justifications and avert their eyes from the harm done in their name.
That all conquerors have something in common (the means and will to conquer others) somehow goes against faith in America’s exceptional status in world history. Chomsky writes that “the doctrine appears to be close to a historical universal, including the worst monsters: Hitler, Stalin, the conquistadors—it is hard to find an exception. Aggression and terror are almost invariably portrayed as self-defense and dedication to inspiring visions.” When the US does what other powers have done, it usually does so in the same way and with the same excuses that ought to be examined more closely. After all, the US is a democracy in which the public can—through protests, boycotts and occasionally votes—influence its nation’s policies. Public demands rather than direction from Washington and Wall Street ended legal racial segregation, allowed homosexuals to live without fear of imprisonment, brought women into the workplace on a more equal footing and brought the troops home from Vietnam. That activism was soon called “an excess of democracy” by the liberals in Jimmy Carter’s administration and was slowly strangled in the years that followed—thanks, in no small part, to the destruction of free associations of working people in unions and their steady loss of income.
Chomsky—as well as pointing out that Ronald Reagan increased the power of the state in many areas and often intervened in the economy on behalf of certain interests—goes after the pantheon of liberalism. His deconstruction of Woodrow Wilson’s idealism will warm the hearts of old conservatives who would like a recount of the 1916 presidential election to give victory to Charles Evans Hughes, a decent statesman and jurist who was more likely to have kept the country out of the First World War. And his take on Barack Hussein Obama is more coherent and scathing than anything the Fox hounds have come up with to date. He compares Obama’s “grass roots army,” which he can call upon to sell his policies but not to influence them, unfavorably with real grass roots armies in Bolivia and Brazil who sent people into power to represent them and not the plutocracy that has run their countries since independence. In fact, it is in grass roots movements in Latin America that Chomsky finds the hopes and prospects of his title most evident. They bear a stronger resemblance to the revolutionaries who threw kingship out of North America and wrote the first Bill of Rights than does the resident in the White House.
Robert Rubin, as Bill Clinton’s economic czar, forced through the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Banking Act, “which had separated commercial banks from financial institutions that incur high risks.” When Rubin left the US Treasury, he sailed into the chairmanship of Citigroup and proceeded to gamble with publicly guaranteed deposits without being prosecuted under the Ethics in Government Act. Chomsky notes wryly, “Not surprisingly, Citigroup was a leading beneficiary of the Bush-Paulson bailout.” Not surprisingly, he and his partner in crime, Larry Summers, are advising Barack Obama on illnesses they helped to inflict on the body politic. Irony or business as usual? It is not hard to see why the worshippers of the Wilsonian idealism that led to the invasion of Haiti in 1915 and Obama’s mishandling of the economy and pursuance of wars he did not have to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan do not like Chomsky. He is the bane of the liberal aristocracy, and they punish him whenever they can.
Chomsky, though, can take it. I am not sure he can take this though: since the death of Senator Barry Goldwater, no one is more deserving than Noam Chomsky of the title Mr. Conservative. Death to empire, power to the people of the republic.