Baby’s First Leftist Intellectual: Noam Chomsky

I, like many leftists, cut my teeth on Noam Chomsky. To be fair, back in those days I was still very right-wing, but that was mainly because I was a total Russophile. Since my conservatism was no longer tied to jingoistic patriotism, Chomsky’s indictments of America’s crimes were attractive to my Rage Against the Machine-loving self at that time. I was reading Chomsky right around the time of NATO’s campaign against Serbia in Kosovo, the event that seemed to have spawned dozens of Western Russophiles.

ABOVE: Anthem of my senior year.

The thing about Chomsky is that he’s fine when you’re 16-21. I was about 16 or 17 when I used to read his work. If you’re 25 or older and still paying respect to Chomsky, I pity you.  By a certain age you start to realize that every Chomsky piece is going to feature the same standard tropes.

-Whenever it’s about a conflict involving the US, Chomsky will point out how the American media always focuses on the atrocities of the other side, and rarely on its own. Chomsky was the first guy in history to notice this.

-Between elections, voting doesn’t change anything because both parties are the same. But every time there’s a major election, voting Democrat will make enough of a difference to justify voting.

-Various historical leaders are “monsters,” but some “monsters” were okay because they were on our side. In any case, monsters of all types were monsters because they wanted power.

-St. Chomsky gets to criticize every existing socialist society while asserting the innocence of his vaguely-defined libertarian anarcho-syndicalist system. Nobody knows just how the working classes will establish this anarcho-syndicalist system, but rest assured that it will be entirely without bloodshed or coercion of any kind. If you can criticize it, it’s not what he had in mind.

Now you might be wondering why I seem so pissed off at Chomsky today. Well you see, Chomsky is a guy who loves attacking Lenin and Marxists, disingenuously implying that Marxists only want “power,” and that Marxist theory appeals to them because it allows them to achieve that power by claiming they are some super elite “vanguard.” This is a clear misunderstanding of Lenin’s idea of a vanguard party. Yet while Chomsky will attack Marxists at the drop of a hat, he apparently has no problem not only defending Putin’s authoritarian state, but also preaching its talking points, as he did in an interview with Democracy Now

It’s obvious that Chomsky hasn’t done much homework on Ukraine judging by his numerous digressions into Cold War history while he ignores more relevant, recent developments.  First, Chomsky starts by repeating the Russian talking point about the alleged agreement not to expand NATO after the collapse of the USSR.

“But the crucial issue was this. Gorbachev agreed to allow Germany, a unified Germany, to join NATO, a hostile military alliance. It’s a pretty remarkable concession, if you think about the history of the preceding century, half-century. Germany alone had practically destroyed Russia several times, and now he was agreeing to have Germany join a hostile military alliance led by the only superpower. But there was a quid pro quo, that Germany—that NATO would not move one inch to the east. That was the phrase that was used in the interchanges, meaning to East Germany. And on that condition, they went forward. NATO immediately moved to East Germany. When Gorbachev vigorously protested, naturally, he was informed by the United States that it was only a verbal commitment, it wasn’t on paper. The unstated implication is, if you are naïve enough to think you can make a gentlemen’s agreement with us, it’s your problem. They didn’t say that; I’m saying that. But NATO moved to East Germany; under Clinton, moved right up to Russia’s borders.”

First of all, verbal agreements don’t cut it in the modern world. There are these things called treaties. You know, like the agreement Russia signed in Budapest to guarantee the borders of Ukraine. Also note that like every pro-Kremlin “geopolitical” expert, Chomsky makes it seem like NATO expansion was some kind of eastward rolling conquest, forgetting that countries joined NATO of their own accord. Notice how he totally ignores the security concerns of those smaller countries, as well. Russia’s concerns as a major regional military power are justified, but small Baltic nations with significant Russian populations such as Latvia and Estonia apparently lack the right to appeal to a military alliance out of their own concerns. Here Chomsky is playing a strange game of great power politics for a man who is supposedly so “anti-authoritarian.”  Also, before moving on, if you needed any more evidence that Chomsky has no idea what he’s talking about, pay attention to the line where he says Clinton expanded NATO to Russia’s borders. Excepting the separate Kaliningrad region, NATO did not have significant contact with Russia’s borders until 2004. You know, in Clinton’s third term.

Getting back to Chomsky’s RT talking points, note how he only defends the security concerns of Russia. Those are natural and just. Ukraine had no right to be concerned about having a Russian military base on its territory. Moldova has no right to be concerned that Russia propped up an unrecognized country within its borders as an excuse to station troops there. Ditto with Georgia. Now I’m not making a moral judgement on any of those conflicts, particularly in the latter where there were two different non-Georgian ethnic groups who actually wanted independence. The point I’m trying to make is that Smaller nations on the borders of Russia have their own legitimate security concerns that people like Chomsky just ignore. Oh wait, I’m sorry, they don’t always ignore the security concerns of small nations. When those small nations are concerned about the machinations of the US or its allies in their region, the geopolitical hacks and Chomsky are happy to start screaming about imperialism and bullying.

Before moving on, I want to address the point Chomsky makes at the beginning of that passage, because it deserves special attention. Chomsky points out that German alone had supposedly almost destroyed Russia several times. Well, not quite. In WWI, Russia mobilized its forces before Germany. It also launched an offensive into East Prussia before the Germans hit back. Much of the fighting on the Eastern Front of the First World War took place in territory that was essentially colonial property of the Russian Empire. As for the Second World War, we are talking about a much larger Germany, led by a dictator with an openly aggressive worldview that glorified conquest, specifically in the east. It’s also worth noting that Germany launched its invasion of the USSR in concert with a number of smaller countries which had territorial designs on the Soviet Union. There simply is no legitimate claim to say that a unified Germany in 1991 represented the same threat that Nazi Germany posed. Again, if historical aggression justifies concerns, why not consider those of Poland, for example?

Moving on, Chomsky doubles down on stupid with this quote.

“Just a couple of weeks ago, U.S. military equipment was taking part in a military parade in Estonia a couple hundred yards from the Russian border. Russia is surrounded by U.S. offensive weapons—sometimes they’re called “defense,” but they’re all offensive weapons. And the idea that the new government in Ukraine, that took over after the former government was overthrown, last December, late December, it passed a resolution, overwhelmingly—I think something like 300 to eight or something—announcing its intention to take steps to join NATO.”

I don’t know anyone who makes it a serious point to label the US military equipment in question “offensive” or “defensive.” That distinction doesn’t exist for a lot of military hardware. One thing is for sure- nobody is or was contemplating an invasion of Russia. Also the vote he’s referring to was in December, and it was only to remove Ukraine’s non-aligned status. Note that this was several months into a war with Russia, which annexed a part of their territory and had been propping up an insurgency to grab another part of it. Chomsky apparently thinks that Ukraine should just lie back and let it happen.

“No Russian leader, no matter who it is, could tolerate Ukraine, right at the geostrategic center of Russian concerns, joining a hostile military alliance. I mean, we can imagine, for example, how the U.S. would have reacted, say, during the Cold War if the Warsaw Pact had extended to Latin America, and Mexico and Canada were now planning to join the Warsaw Pact. Of course, that’s academic, because the first step would have led to violent U.S. response, and it wouldn’t have gone any further.”

This prompted a question about the Cuban Missile Crisis, which must have relieved Chomsky a bit because it gave him a chance to talk about something he actually knew something about. It’s irrelevant, but at least he’s not totally ignorant. The problem with the comparison is this. Chomsky, like many of his generation, did not approve of the United States’ positions toward Latin America. Justifiably so, of course, but the problem is that you can’t have it both ways, saying that Russia has the right to a sphere of influence on its borders while condemning the US for its Monroe Doctrine-derived policies in Latin America. Furthermore, in such a hypothetical scenario, we should ask why these Latin American countries would be joining up with a hostile military alliance in the first place. If the US started to make moves suggesting it was going to pull another Texas-scenario somewhere in Mexico, they would be justified in joining some foreign military alliance. Same goes for countries like Moldova or Latvia. The invasion of Ukraine proved them right. Ukraine was not joining NATO. It wasn’t even joining the EU. Ukraine is hoping, quite naively, for NATO membership now, only because somebody annexed part of its territory and is prosecuting an illegal war within its borders.

You might be hoping that I have more Chomsky quotes to rip apart, but you’ll be sadly disappointed. Most of that transcript consists of him babbling about the Cold War and Ronald Reagan, all of which have absolutely dick to do with the situation at hand right now. Think I’m exaggerating? Look at how the interview begins:

AMY GOODMAN: Also in Russia, the murder this weekend on Friday night of the opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov. A former deputy prime minister turned dissident politician, Nemtsov was shot dead Friday night near Red Square. He was going to lead a major rally that was critical of Vladimir Putin on Sunday. It grew much larger after his death, with tens of thousands, perhaps 50,000 people, marching past the Kremlin carrying signs reading, “I am not afraid.”

Noam Chomsky, if you can comment on what’s happening in Russia and Ukraine?

NOAM CHOMSKY: What’s happening is quite ugly. And I think the criticisms are mostly accurate, but they’re kind of beside the point. There’s a background that we have to think about. It’s fashionable now in the United States and Britain to condemn Putin as some sort of a distorted mind. There’s an article in Psychology Today analyzing his brain, asking why he’s so arrogant. He’s been accused of having Asperger’s; an irritable, rat-faced man, as he’s described by Timothy Garton Ash and so on. This is all very reminiscent of the early 1950s, when I was a graduate student then. At that time, the U.S. had overwhelming power, and it was able to use the United Nations as a battering ram against its enemy, the Soviet Union, so Russia was, of course, vetoing lots of resolutions, condemning it. And leading anthropologists in the United States and England developed a—began to analyze why the Russians are so negative, what makes them say no at the United Nations all the time. And their proposal was that the Russians are negative because they raise their children in swaddling clothes, and that makes them negative. The three or four of us at Harvard who thought this ridiculous used to call it diaperology. That’s being re-enacted—a takeoff on Kremlinology. This is being re-enacted right now.

Virtually nothing in that paragraph really answers her question. I don’t recall Chomsky saying anything about Nemtsov, even in a critical manner. If she wanted a straight answer to that question, she probably should have interviewed Mark Ames. Chomsky also uses this absurd weasel word tactic whereby he absolves himself of supporting Putin by saying:

“But the fact is, whatever you think about Putin—OK, irritable, rat-faced man with Asperger’s, whatever you like—the Russians have a case.”

Ummm…no, Putin, not “the Russians” because Putin doesn’t rule in their interests, does not “have a case.” Keep in mind we’re talking about a man who didn’t think Lenin had a case for war communism during the Russian civil war, supposedly on the basis anarchist principles, and yet here we are in 2014 and this “anarchist” is more than happy to defend a right-wing, authoritarian regime on the basis of the same great power imperialist logic he’d never tolerate coming from an American leader. There’s a word for this- hypocrite. Actually I can think of a couple more- moral coward.

It’s time for the left to grow out of its adolescence and stop listening to these relics of the past and their outdated politics.

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24 thoughts on “Baby’s First Leftist Intellectual: Noam Chomsky

  1. Estragon

    Chomsky, citing someone: “Russians are negative because they raise their children in swaddling clothes” – now this is an odd statement. Does he have any source for it? Does anyone?

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Just one of the many Cold War digressions he made during the interview. I’m surprised he didn’t say anything about Yanukovych opposing the IMF.

      Reply
  2. michael baker from nova scotia canada

    enjoyed reading this jim. thanks. forgetting his faults, to me chomsky can be idealistic or realistic – i don’t think you see that – you’re confusing the two things and you’re looking for consistency trying to prove he’s a hypocrite which is totally irrelevant. just sayin’… also, f*ck mark ames – he’s not like he used to be, although he still once in a blue moon writes something i find interesting like this http://exiledonline.com/why-the-american-right-never-liked-v-s-naipaul/

    Reply
  3. Bandersnatch

    This was awesome. I use to be so into Chomsky. And then one day we were talking and you pointed out how he never offers solutions and he just repeats himself and I was like, THRESHOLD OF REVELATION! He’s just one of those guys that knows its cool to be anti-America all the time, regardless of the context and to cautiously support whoever America is currently fighting with.

    I’m also glad you pointed out he (and many others) seem only concerned with the security aims of big nations and never small ones. People talk about Ukraine like Russia was entitled to her or like she deserved it for looking West. Regarding NATO, everyone chose to be a part of that and Russia has NO CLAIM to conflicts of security if nations are CHOOSING to be a part of it while she is forcibly expanding. Also agreed, spoken word does not equal contract and also, when it was ‘violated’ the USSR no longer existed (right?). So either way, nullified.

    And yeah…Putin does not speak for the Russian people. Putin speaks for Putin.

    Reply
  4. John

    I also don’t understand how ‘the ugly stuff’ is ‘beside the point’. How is an opposition leader being gunned down by Red Square ‘beside the point’? How does that not speak to what is wrong with the country as a whole? I’ll tell you, it isn’t happening in the USA and so Chomsky doesn’t want to focus on what is clearly an untenable fault in Russia, instead he’d rather dismiss it and defend Putin’s imperialist authoritarian policies.

    Reply
  5. Asehpe

    I think you’re totally right concerning Chomsky. I do admire the man in many ways, not the least of which because I happen to be in the same field — linguistics. But he’s one stubborn son of a bitch, as self-righteous as they come, and his deal in politics has always been criticize, criticize, criticize. I started out quite interested in his political writings, then I felt more and more uneasy about them, and after a while I ended up thinking, either he really believes in “metaphysical evil” and thinks it plays a part in American foreign policy (and only there), or then he’s simply seeing reality through thickly colored glasses. The difference you point out between the way he crtiicizes America but defends Russia for pursuing basically the same policy (and the Russian love for “geopolitics” seems to even acknowledge this fact out loud — we all just want the same thing…) reflects my personal feelings about Chomsky quite well.

    Reply
  6. Pingback: Leftist intellectuals: “We’ve been phoning it in for a while now, actually.” | Russia Without BS

  7. phylotics

    You remind me of those laughable characters from Life of Brian, congratulating themselves on their leftism while simultaneously wrecking the movement by nitpicking over every detail with every potential ally until there’s a clique with five members who’ve attained enlightenment (and can’t even remember what they stand for).

    If you’d ever read anything by Chomsky (hard to believe), you’d know your “analysis” is preposterously simplistic. Chomsky has never claimed to be the first to discover bias in the news media, and in particular has consistently credited Edward Herman with doing most of the work on Manufacturing Consent and minimized his own role. His advice on voting is completely practical: vote Democratic if you’re in a swing state, but have realistic expectations from the Democrats. His critiques of attempts at socialism (during the Spanish civil war, the Israeli kibbutzim, etc) are reasoned and sensible, in my opinion. He leaves any kind of ultimate “theory” vague for a reason: we don’t know exactly how a just society will be organized, and there’s no reason to believe there’s only one of doing it anyhow.

    You’re obviously butt-hurt over Chomsky not going around praising Marxism or whatever your ideology is, so you feel the need to trash someone who’s spent the majority of his life tirelessly defending powerless people around the world, writing book after book condemning violence and atrocities, exposing lie after lie, and speaking honestly no matter the topic and no matter the probable reception. He has never remotely defended Russian authoritarianism and you’re a coward for making such a patently false claim. Boo hoo, he didn’t respond to Amy Goodman’s question with every detail in the current newspapers, but instead provided more general context from his long experience. The guy is almost 90 years old, do you expect him to know every detail of every situation in the world? And the idea that Chomsky is concerned only with the security of big nations and never small ones…are you freaking high? Your post is complete garbage, man. I’m sorry I came across it.

    Estragon, for a source on the swaddling clothes comment, see “Margaret Mead, “What Makes The Soviet Character?,” Natural History, September 1951, pp. 296f”.

    Paul Cunning, the stale line about Chomsky denying genocide was debunked (by reading his work) probably before you were even born.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Oh look, the little cultist is mad because I criticized his demigod.

      Let’s break down your delusions, shall we?

      “You’re obviously butt-hurt over Chomsky not going around praising Marxism or whatever your ideology is, so you feel the need to trash someone who’s spent the majority of his life tirelessly defending powerless people around the world, writing book after book condemning violence and atrocities, exposing lie after lie, and speaking honestly no matter the topic and no matter the probable reception.”

      Wow, all that work and no concrete accomplishments to speak of towards those ends. Great. At least Marxists made an impact.

      “He has never remotely defended Russian authoritarianism and you’re a coward for making such a patently false claim.”

      He clearly does, tacitly, because he excuses Russia’s great power politics. If it were the US doing this, he would never give it the same benefit of the doubt and say something like “Well the US does have a case here.”

      “Boo hoo, he didn’t respond to Amy Goodman’s question with every detail in the current newspapers, but instead provided more general context from his long experience. ”

      He was asked about a specific current issue and he went off on a rant about the Cuban Missile Crisis and other shit that has fuck all to do with the situation in Ukraine, which is the question he was asked. He then argued that Russia has a “case” here, when in fact they don’t.

      I guaran-fucking-tee you that if the US started occupying the Yucatan in response to increased unrest in Mexico, he wouldn’t be saying “the US has a case.”

      “He leaves any kind of ultimate “theory” vague for a reason: we don’t know exactly how a just society will be organized, and there’s no reason to believe there’s only one of doing it anyhow.”

      This might have been logical for people like Marx or Engels, but there’s no excuse for it today. Nowadays if you want to convince people, you need to have at least some concrete answers. The liberals of the status quo sure do.

      “And the idea that Chomsky is concerned only with the security of big nations and never small ones…are you freaking high?”

      I never wrote anything of the sort, so perhaps you’re the one who is high.

      Reply
      1. phylotics

        Ha, if I’m part of a cult it must be a cult of people who can read. Again, if you’d actually read Chomsky’s work seriously and/or listened to the hundreds of available videos of interviews and talks, etc., you’d already know the responses to the silly objections you raise.

        First, Chomsky has had no impact? Gauging one man’s impact is probably impossible, but his and many others’ efforts to raise consciousness about a wide range of issues have arguably had a very significant impact on the world. The changes in society over the last half-century or so are probably mostly attributable to people like Chomsky (obviously not Chomsky by himself): the anti-war movement, the environmental movement, women’s rights, minority rights, etc. All have expanded and it wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for activists speaking out.

        On the topic of Chomsky “defending” Russia, I would say that talking about what the world looks like from the other guy’s perspective is not defending them. By that line of reasoning, trying to understand why we were attacked on 9/11 is the same as defending the terrorists. Arguably, the people whose lives the US has destroyed in the Middle East “have a case” against us, but it doesn’t remotely justify terrorist acts. You’re just making a silly argument. He might acknowledge Russia’s position, but that’s not the same as defending their actions.

        And yes, you did write something of the sort. You said “note how he only defends the security concerns of Russia…The point I’m trying to make is that Smaller nations on the borders of Russia have their own legitimate security concerns that people like Chomsky just ignore.” And then another one of your commenters interpreted your statements the same way.

        You a boy.

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        “First, Chomsky has had no impact? Gauging one man’s impact is probably impossible, but his and many others’ efforts to raise consciousness about a wide range of issues have arguably had a very significant impact on the world. The changes in society over the last half-century or so are probably mostly attributable to people like Chomsky (obviously not Chomsky by himself): the anti-war movement, the environmental movement, women’s rights, minority rights, etc. All have expanded and it wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for activists speaking out.”

        LOL. You’ve proven my point about cult-like behavior. The idea that Chomsky was responsible for any of that is simply laughable.

        “On the topic of Chomsky “defending” Russia, I would say that talking about what the world looks like from the other guy’s perspective is not defending them.”

        Bullshit. She asked about the situation in Ukraine, which is a clear cut case of Russian aggression. Chomsky’s response was to claim Russia “has a case”(it doesn’t) and then he goes off on a completely unrelated topic where “SURPRISE!” the US was just as bad! Never mind that it had fuck all to do with what is happening in Ukraine or Russia’s actions.

        You know damn well that Chomsky would not have said the same if it were the US defending its alleged statements.

        “And yes, you did write something of the sort. You said “note how he only defends the security concerns of Russia…The point I’m trying to make is that Smaller nations on the borders of Russia have their own legitimate security concerns that people like Chomsky just ignore.””

        Yes, he ignores, for example, the fact that countries like the Baltic states WILLINGLY joined NATO because they have, at least from their perspective, legitimate concerns against Russia. And yet people like Chomsky always portray this as “aggressive NATO expansion,” as if NATO came in their and occupied them.

      3. phylotics

        Man, you’ve got nothing. Like I said, you’re clearly butt-hurt over Chomsky not being a devout Marxist (or whatever you are, because that’s obviously the right thing to be!), so you blew a bunch of smoke like a child and distorted his work, and the only *real* complaint you can come up with is that he didn’t respond to a question about Ukraine and Russia by talking about current events and condemning Russia, but instead focused on the background and Western actions. Cry me a river dawg.

      4. Jim Kovpak Post author

        “Like I said, you’re clearly butt-hurt over Chomsky not being a devout Marxist (or whatever you are, because that’s obviously the right thing to be!), ”

        Yup, that must be it. The Dear Leader is infallible! Any criticism of his holy scripture must be a DISTORTION!

        “the only *real* complaint you can come up with is that he didn’t respond to a question about Ukraine and Russia by talking about current events and condemning Russia, but instead focused on the background and Western actions.”

        Background and Western actions? The Cuban missile crisis is “background?” WHAT “Western actions?”

        Again, Chomsky would NEVER use arguments like this if the US were doing something like what Russia was doing in Ukraine.

        He’s a hypocrite and a moral coward. I’m sorry for slaughtering your sacred cow. Nah just kidding, I’m not sorry.

      5. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Chomsky should have given that as an answer to Goodman’s question. It’s basically the gist of his answer but more on topic.

      6. Jim Kovpak Post author

        I have to say the funniest thing about your intellectual flopping around is the insinuation that this is “butthurt” because of Chomsky not being a Marxist, while you’re going to ridiculous lengths(crediting Chomsky for the anti-war movement, for example) to defend your Glorious Leader because someone took him to task for his own words.

        And by the way, I have read Chomsky’s criticism of Marxism(or at least Leninism), and it’s about as childish as your shit “arguments.” Chomsky lives in la-la land and has a very selective understanding of history.

  8. kvdsngj

    While I usually enjoy your posts and find this blog to be one of the most objective commentaries on Russia out there right now, I do think that this article is based on a deep misunderstanding of Chomsky.

    Some good points were already made by phylotics, so no point in repeating them, and while I personally tend to side more with Chomsky on the whole Marxism/Anarchism dispute, reasonable people can disagree so I won’t comment on that either.

    The main issue I have with your criticism of Chomsky is that it would be entirely justified, if for example Chomsky was a Russian citizen speaking to Россия-24. Then yes, the words he would be saying could indeed be branded as words of a “moral coward”, who would be “not only defending Putin’s authoritarian state, but also preaching its talking points”, but that’s not who he is now is it? He is an American, speaking to an American channel in – yes you guessed it – America.

    For someone purportedly familiar with Chomsky’s work, it is quite surprising in this context to not mention his definition of responsibility of intellectuals, namely: Speak the truth, about matters of human significance, and to the right audience that can actually do something about them. Now what good would it do if Chomsky joined in on the chorus of Putin bashing coming out of mainstream media outlets? Would that really solve anything? What Chomsky seems to be saying is: “Let’s look in the mirror guys, we haven’t been exactly blameless in this so far, so let’s acknowledge our mistakes and try to work this out so that we don’t end up seeing a mushroom cloud anytime soon”, which is entirely in line with his long history of reiterating that you are responsible primarily for your own actions and their predictable consequences.

    You may disagree with that view (although I fail to see how), but that is simply what he’s been doing his entire life. Criticising Chomsky for talking primarily about the US is a bit like criticising Evil Knievel for jumping on motorcycles or Kanye West for being a pretentious asshole, that’s just what they do and what they’re good at. You may find yourself in a different moral position, where you feel you do more good by pointing out the obvious incosistencies of both narratives (and I think you’re doing a great job, although I often disagree), but smacking someone down for focusing on criticising his own government just makes no sense to me.

    I also take issue with a lot of your individual points and accusations which I have no energy to go through right now, but will try to in the unlikely case that you respond to this.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Again, the point is that Chomsky is asked what’s going on in Ukraine, and not only does he go off on a tangent about the Cuban missile crisis, but he claims that Russia “has a case.” No, Russia doesn’t have a case to annex part of Ukraine. Chomsky is also at least implicitly perpetuating the lie that Russia is somehow endangered or threatened by “NATO encirclement.”

      Just ask yourself if Chomsky would EVER say the same thing if it were the US pulling this kind of shit.

      There’s a point where it’s fine to point out hypocrisy, but it’s very easy to go from there to whataboutism.

      Reply
      1. kvdsngj

        Reminding us of the last time a superpower tried to increase its military presence basically on the border of another superpower in its “sphere of influence” and how that almost brought the world to an end is I think a rather pertinent remark. Cuba was a sovereign country, who had every right to place those missiles within its territory if it woke up feeling like it, but while I would defend Castros and Khrushchevs right do so, I would also vehemently criticize them for foolishly endangering the whole world. Now the same logic can be applied to the NATO expansion in my opinion (yes, it is not a perfect analogy since noone’s bringig nuclear missiles to Ukraine right now, but I nevertheless believe that it does help illustrate the wider point). Ukraine has every right to become a member of NATO (and right now, I absolutely understand why), but I will still criticize that decision as foolish because, in my humble opinion again, it makes the world more dangerous rather than safer. We may not like that there are things called “spheres of influence”, but we live in the real world, not some nuclear-free utopia where Russia is the embodiment of love and reason, and we need to play the hand we’ve been dealt.

        That also kind of answers your claim that Chomsky is “perpetuating the lie that Russia is somehow endangered or threatened by NATO encirclement.” The US was probably not threatened by nuclear missiles in Cuba either, that is unless it tried to attack the Soviet Union, since Khrushchev did not want to use those missiles to destroy the US just for the fun for it but saw them as a deterrent. That didn’t matter in the end of course, as the perception in the US (and not Khrushchev’s actual intentions) turned out to be the only relevant piece of the equation. Again, you may not like Putin and the Russian government and you may think that he’s just using the NATO threat as a tool to boost his popularity (which is certainly true to some extent), but from the “Western point of view”, these are the right things to keep in mind so that we don’t sleepwalk into another unnecessary war. Personally, I despise Putin and everything he stands for, but whether he goes or stays is not for me or Chomsky to decide.

        As for Russia not having a case regarding Crimea, I agree – it just plainly doesn’t. And Chomsky does too. Let me cite you Chomsky’s remarks from a different video: “The Russian takeover of Crimea is undoubtedly a criminal act, it violates the UN Charter, it violates specific treaties…”. Then he goes on to compare the annexation of Crimea to the US annexation of Guantanamo Bay, which is completely ignored by the Western media. He says that while Russia may have at least some case with regard to Crimea, the US simply does not with regard to Guantanamo and therefore it’s a staggering hypocrisy on part of the Western media to compose songs on the absolutely outrageous invasion of Crimea, while simultaneously acting like the annexation of southeastern Cuba never happened.

        “Just ask yourself if Chomsky would EVER say the same thing if it were the US pulling this kind of shit. There’s a point where it’s fine to point out hypocrisy, but it’s very easy to go from there to whataboutism.”

        Now you can point out that this only shows how he treats countries under US-influence differently than countries under Russian influence – yes he does and that is precisely the point. US actions in Latin American (or other) countries are his primary concern, because it is his country, his governemnt, his president carrying out those actions and therefore his responsibilty to focus on them and to try to stop them. So yes, Chomsky would probably never “say the same thing if it were the US pulling this kind of shit”, for the reasons just mentioned.

        As for whataboutism, I would differentiate between two kinds of it: The first kind of whataboutism is the classic definition as we usually come to understand it: Responding to criticism for your own action not by directly refuting the opponent’s argument, but instead by pointing out the opponent’s hypocrisy, as he has previously acted in the very same way. This kind of argument is repeatedly being used by the Kremlin and it has no moral value whatsoever, since it does nothing to disprove the fact that your side is acting “badly” and it can therefore be dismissed as a fallacy.

        The second kind of whataboutism is the one used by dissidents (Russian, American, Nigerian or Peruvian – you get the point), who use it to point out the extreme hypocrisy of their own government, when it criticizes other countries for not observing international law or violating human rights, while doing the exact same thing at home. You may disagree, but I think that this kind of argument has much more moral value, as it entails standing up to your own government and trying to improve things in your “sphere of influence”, if you like, which is the only sphere that you should be concerned with if you are interested in making the world a better place.

        I will end by saying that I actually agree that Chomsky should have probably used more nuance in some of his answers, but then again – the guy is 86 years old and it’s an interview where he didn’t really have the time to think his answers all the way through before he came up with them, so I’m inclined to give him a pass on that.

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        “Reminding us of the last time a superpower tried to increase its military presence basically on the border of another superpower in its “sphere of influence” and how that almost brought the world to an end is I think a rather pertinent remark.”

        No, this wasn’t relevant to what was happening in Ukraine, the question that Chomsky was asked.

        If the US had been doing something like this, how much would you be willing to bet that Chomsky would say something like, “Well let’s look at another example of a superpower doing this, say the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan?”

        And I’m sorry but continually pointing out that our media and our government treats different cases differently doesn’t actually say anything. Lots of people already know this- it’s not particularly hidden.

        “Then he goes on to compare the annexation of Crimea to the US annexation of Guantanamo Bay, which is completely ignored by the Western media.”

        Any particular reason why the Western media should be talking about this decades later, in 2014-2015? It’s not relevant. It would have been relevant if we were just talking about Russia continuing to lease their base in Sevastopol. If that were the issue then yes, we could say that the mere existence of a base, leased on foreign soil, isn’t terribly unique. But that’s not the case- what we have here is invasion and annexation of an entire peninsula, and the de facto deportation of people who disagreed. But Chomsky says “Russia has a case.”

        He can talk all he wants about how he opposes the authoritarian regime in Russia- but his techniques and words objectively support them. This is the problem with Chomsky, he likes to remain aloof from politics, long on complaints but short on solutions. Because when it comes to implementing solutions, you have to get in the game. You can’t keep your hands entirely clean. You don’t get to be the high-minded intellectual peddling sage-like advice. He criticizes Lenin and the Bolsheviks so much, but I doubt Makhno would have had much use for him either.

        “The second kind of whataboutism is the one used by dissidents (Russian, American, Nigerian or Peruvian – you get the point), who use it to point out the extreme hypocrisy of their own government, when it criticizes other countries for not observing international law or violating human rights, while doing the exact same thing at home. ”

        Excuse me but the US government does a much better job at home than the Russian government, which is precisely one of the reasons why it’s able to maintain this air of a moral high ground in the international arena. Dissidents need to accept this and stop rallying around dictatorships as an alternative. America’s “democracy” is highly flawed and it falls shorter and shorter of its lofty promises on a seemingly daily basis- but the solution to these problems doesn’t lie in deflecting criticism for authoritarian states.

        The problem is that a lot of leftists are afraid to be seen as being on the “side” of the US government, when in fact we’re not. Our sides just happen to coincide, largely for very different reasons. Moreover, the US government clearly wants to restore relations with Russia so the money train can start running again- ditto the EU. They’re at an impasse because Putin was running his country into the ground so fast he had to pull something spectacular to save his own ass- something which incidentally contradicts some EU interests(though not really US ones).

        Lastly, I’ll give him a pass for age, but I had maybe half-a-day’s notice to be in a short debate on Sky News and I was adequately informed about the topic.

        Maybe Democracy Now! should share some blame for asking him about a topic he wasn’t well versed in.

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