Noam Chomsky, the Brain, is the ethical conscience of the United States and the greatest leftist thinker ever. One of his key insights has been to observe how easily intellectuals get sucked into the prevailing orbit of power surrounding the United States, lulling them into a state of cowardice when it comes to honestly critiquing the oftentimes hypocritical and brutal behaviour perpetrated by the erstwhile superpower. His geopolitical comparisons are original, cogent, honest and underscore the breadth of his thinking and knowledge. One of the most rewarding things about reading the octogenarian antinomian is his scientific use of language and the exigency that he writes with. I find it impossible to disagree with his diagnosis of the issues in the US.
Chomsky highlighted the United States’ refusal to sign up to the International Criminal Court, whilst expecting other countries to adhere to it, as evidence of their belief that there is one rule for them in a unipolar world and one for everyone else. Do as we say, not as we do. Moreover, he cited George W. Bush’s ludicrous 2002 Netherlands Invasion Act, which authorised the use of force to take back any American citizen (military or otherwise), if they were brought before the ICC in The Hague. This duplicity would exist only on a comical level if it did not have such grave consequences. How can the US expect any country to obey the ICC under such circumstances? Furthermore, the Netherlands Invasion Act was proof of the US’s intent to break International Law during the Iraq war.
The Brain has an inimitable ability to create hitherto unthought-of comparisons. He contrasted the US reaction to the Russian separatists in Ukraine’s downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 to the US’s destruction of Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988. Obama (rightfully) condemned the barbaric act in Ukraine. Rewind to Reagan’s earlier reaction, “I will not apologise for any American actions no matter the facts”. If we do it, it is acceptable. If they do it…
He also detailed the most obvious case of US hypocrisy, Israel’s despicable and barbaric treatment of the indigenous Palestinian peoples. He identified how the international consensus for a two-state solution was not enacted because the US continues to stop it. Chomsky detailed the numerous war crimes committed by the Israeli military such as when they deliberately attacked civilians and their destruction of a water treatment plant in Gaza. He poked fun at the United States’ depiction of itself as a bastion of upholding human rights whilst simultaneously supporting Israel’s systematic abuse of Palestinians on a daily basis. All of this is, one would think, blindingly obvious. Not so. You take a supposedly well respected intellectual like Sam Harris and listen to him opine on Israel and you realise how deep-rooted the double standard is in Western Culture. This leads back to his original point about the responsibility that intellectuals have, namely to tell the truth. Credit to Chomsky, who continues to work tirelessly, to tell the truth as he sees it.
In terms of international violence, the Brain denoted three general types of intentionality:
1) Murder with intent.
2) Accidental killing.
3) Murder with foreknowledge but without specific intent.
This is an important distinction and I find it very helpful when assessing the actions of Western countries. Daniel Kahneman’s revelatory 2011, “Thinking Fast And Slow” could almost add an extra cognitive bias for analysing Western foreign policy, “The Chomsky Bias” where countries must triple check any proposed military action to ensure that they are choosing the correct moral course of action. One would think this should already exist yet the record of the violence perpetrated by the West does not bear this out.
This is not to say that violence is never justified. Chomsky himself is on record as not being a pacifist. Personally speaking, I believe any military action must only be used in a defensive capacity to reduce the suffering or loss of life of other human beings. It could be argued that the US did not intervene militarily when it was morally necessary and justified. Think of the number of people killed in Mao’s China, Stalin’s USSR and, more recently, during the genocides in Rwanda and Syria. Tens of millions of lives were needlessly slaughtered. Sadly the US intervenes when it is illegal and unjustified. Vietnam, Chile and Iraq to name but a few examples. Logically, this proves that their rationale for getting involved is not humanitarian or democratic at all.
The Brain’s assessment of the current democratic situation in the US is that it has been hijacked by neo-liberal economics, rendering it unfit for purpose.He baulked at how some in the US view themselves as promoters of democracy around the world, easily refuting this self-assessment by specifying numerous examples of when the US installed and propped up many brutal dictatorships. He analysed how corporate lobbying has corrupted the internal US democracy, citing the disconnect between public opinion and policy in handling the number one issue facing the human species today, the destruction of our environment. He referred to how the majority of polling clearly showed how the general population wanted the American government to act to reduce the US’s carbon footprint and yet, despite this, the “institutional structures that block change (create) a big gap between opinion and policy”. Moreover, he wrote how the oil lobby stymied any responsible policies being enacted. This breakdown in trust between the electorate and the systems of governance could leave the democratic institutions vulnerable to a takeover. On a global level, the other superpowers in waiting are also undemocratic which makes repairing US democracy even more essential as Russia and China are worse options.
He quoted Thomas Carothers, “The US supports democracy when and only when it suits its economic interests”. As previously discussed, they do not promote democracy because it is the right thing to do, they do it when it matches their vested interests. I believe in the Democratic Peace Theory so, in a sense, any time the US helps or influences a country to transition to democracy, this can be seen to be a positive. However, it is impossible to ignore the plethora of examples where they overthrew democracies and installed violent autocracies. The Brain highlights the necessity, to be honest about the role of the US to ensure they become a force for good in the world. Hopefully, somebody in power is listening to him although granted there is no evidence that this is the case.
The Brain identified another truly preposterous incident when, after Turkey had refused to participate in the Iraq war after 95% of their population voted against it, Neo-Conservative Paul Wolfowitz demanded an apology from their fellow NATO ally for refusing to respect the will of their people.
With North Korea in the news, the Brain referenced how, in 1950, the US obliterated 75% of Pyongyang during a prolonged bombing campaign. Understandably, they fear another attack. When the US “put Iran on notice” in early 2017, it was an unnecessarily aggressive statement. The alleged reason for the threat was due to Iran destabilising the region. Yet, as the Brain pointed out, it is farcical that the US consider themselves a stabilising force after they invaded Iran’s neighbours Iraq, which lead to the deaths of approximately a million people and threw the region into complete chaos! The US being concerned about some Iranian militias filling the void in Syria and Iraq after their devastation of the Middle East is absurd. The Brain also pointed out how Iran spends less on their military than most of the other countries in the Middle East, making the US view of them as a destabilising threat even more ludicrous. He also mentioned numerous global surveys asking which country is the biggest global threat. Iran never scored highest.
The Brain unearthed always offers true linguistic insight. Why, for example, does the US name its weapons after Native Indians? The Apache helicopter. The Tomahawk missile. Why did they name the mission to kill Osama bin Laden as “Operation Geronimo”?
He wrote of how Israeli political and religious elite’s call Palestinians “grasshoppers”, “two-legged beasts” and “drugged roaches”. In both cases, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the two regimes are deeply racist and view other people as sub-human.
His diagnosis of the flaws in the United States system is accurate. What of his solution? It is key to realise that Chomsky is writing in an American context. In “Who Rules The World?”, he pointed out how the US has shifted further to the right in the last twenty years, describing the current Republican party as “completely off the spectrum”. He viewed Bill Clinton’s 1992 election as an important milestone in this trend when he “outflanked Bush from the right” during that election campaign. I am not a leftist as I do not believe that the economics stack up. Bequeathing the state more power is not a good thing. Yet, were I an American citizen, I would have to agree, they need to move significantly to the left.
In a European context, I am not sure Chomksy’s solution holds. His recent support of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK is revealing. This is a leader who has campaigned for the abolition of NATO and who believes that increased nationalisation of industry will work. Chomsky believes that he is the answer to the problem but I am not sure. He has some excellent policies but his economics will not work.
The Brain diagnosed that the two biggest issues facing the species are our continued destruction of the environment and a potential nuclear apocalypse. Any sane person would have to agree. Therefore, I am surprised that he never advocates for voting for any “Green” political parties. For example, why not vote Green in the UK election? If you truly believe that those are the most critical issues facing us, surely voting for a party that pushes for a safer, greener, cleaner, nuclear free world would be beneficial? Personally, that is how I would vote given the choice. Given that these are the Brain’s chief concerns, it seems surprising that he does advocate these as a solution. I emailed him to ask him why and he said he supported Labour because they had the biggest chance of success. Fair enough.
Consider too, the Brain’s previous support for Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. It does not appear that socialism was the answer there either. Again, I cannot disagree with his diagnosis. The prognosis, I am not so sure…
The Brain is a modern-day Plato. His political insights may well last as long as his linguistic ones. “Who Rules The World?” is not always chronological or logically put together as the essays hop back and forward with the same idea re-surfacing two or three times. A mere triviality. It is essential because it is a political analysis of the highest order, setting out out a structure for how we should think about violence in the world. Now if only some of the ruling elites in the US paid some more attention to his diagnosis of their issues.