a journal of modern society & culture

2010: Vol.9, Issue 1



Chomsky’s Audience Problem: Is Anyone Listening?

by Matthew Abraham, DePaul University

The “audience question” within rhetoric and composition needs to be turned on it its head, re-examined in light of new and compelling evidence, and subjected to a new analysis—an analysis which might have far-reaching political implications for our very understandings of whether or not satisfying an audience’s psychological needs should necessarily be the foremost factor in crafting a message. The “audience question” refers to the recognition of the centrality of audience considerations for rhetoricians seeking to create symbolic inducement, while acknowledging that the whole concept of whom or what constitutes “the audience” is contested. Rhetoric, according to Aristotle’s famous definition, refers to locating the available means of persuasion in any given case. This popular definition suggests that information, even if is factual, should be withheld or presented differently if it possesses the capacity to offend or alienate the audience. Such a facile definition of rhetoric, then, suggest that persuasion is frequently used to evade responsibility, to avoid facing psychologically-difficult facts, to rationalize a course of behavior that is dangerous but ideologically-serviceable, and (in the case of foreign affairs) to avoid looking into the eyes of the faces of victims of imperial violence.

Within the field of rhetoric and composition, a great deal of research has been done on audience, audience reception, and the various ways in which writers conceptualize their audience(s). Mary Jo Reiff, in her “Rereading "Invoked" and "Addressed" Readers through a Social Lens: Toward a Recognition of Multiple Audiences” found that “Since the early 1980s, there has been a flood of critical commentary and research on audience. An on-line search of ERIC abstracts from 1982 to March 1995 yields 4,159 entries focusing on the keyword ‘audience,’ and the MLA Bibliography records 3,999 audience-related entries.” While a great deal of this critical commentary has taken up how audiences are created by writers, in the act of composing, very little of it has taken up a consideration of writers who deliberately avoid their audiences’ “needs” because they believe the overwhelming power of their address, its basis in fact and history, demonstrates the irrefutability of their message. In the wake of the re-declaration of the War on Terror in “response” to the events of 9/11, U.S. citizens have been forced to take stock of recent history and our countries use of massive violence, particularly as that has been directed at indigenous populations, as we attempt to understand our place in the world, as what some have called a “global hegemon,” at this particular historical moment.

What has Noam Chomsky’s examinations of the American intellectual guild structure, in his numerous books about American domestic and international policy, meant for our understandings of intellectual labor? Does his political work radically reconfigure conceptions of intellectual labor by increasing our awareness of how dissident thought is contained and tamed when it makes claims upon—and challenges—the state? As theory within the humanities drifts toward embracing increasingly complex thinking, what points of connections—if any—exist between these theoretical projects and Chomsky’s deeply unpopular observations about American intellectuals as outlined in his political corpus? These are important questions that explore the levels of dissidence that are sustainable in contemporary American life.

Many globalization and cosmopolitan theories seek, for example, to justify and celebrate U.S. neo-imperialism, while ostensibly touting tolerance, global cultures, and globalization. As Timothy Brennan and others have argued, it has to be more than a mere coincidence that, as theory comes to increasingly celebrate complexity and complex thinking, it has often worked hand-in-hand with the extension of American imperial dominance. That theory, as an intellectual project, would serve to make the simple “more complex” and the understandable “consonant with the realities of networked culture” should give us pause, particularly in the context of examining the effects of U.S. foreign policy in a region such as the Middle East. This “will to complexity” should be questioned as promoting an intellectual complicity in concealing projections of American military power beneath what should properly be categorized an apologetics for neoliberalism’s expansion, a refashioning of the very concept of intellectual responsibility tailored to avoid facing the harsh realities attending the expanse of the U.S. Empire.

Without placing the Real in quotation marks, Chomsky in his political work presents a truer and more accurate accounting of how and why events in the world play out in the ways they do than contemporary theoretical frameworks can. He does this without resorting to mystificatory devices such as “Empire,” “the grammar of the Multitude,” “biopower,” and “the political,” while also establishing a coherent theory of how power works that is capable of measuring competing interests and concerns. Those who dismiss Chomsky’s political work as “simpleminded” or “simplistic” refuse to come to terms with the actual coherence of the explanatory frameworks that he offers, along with the significant empirical evidence he adduces to support his conclusions.

Chomsky ‘s Challenge

In September of 2004, Noam Chomsky agreed to a re/interview with Pretext on his Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, which argues that United States’ quest for global supremacy poses a distinct threat to the survival of the human species. Pretext’s list-owner believed that Hegemony or Survival, while not the standard fare for Pretext, would provoke heated discussion among participants about issues ranging from intellectual responsibility within the context of crimes of state to the futility of the United States fighting Bush’s War on Terror. When the Pretext moderator agreed to have Chomsky and Finkelstein on the list for a few months back in 2004, and announced to the list’s subscribers that Chomsky and Finkelstein would be participating in an online interview, he received a storm of email about how irresponsible he was for providing a platform to these two critics of Israel and U.S. policy in the Middle East to disseminate their views. While Chomsky and Finkelstein are controversial figures, and frequently generate strong reactions in response to their political views, it is difficult to seriously label their work and critiques as “unscholarly” or “unworthy of debate.” With this fact in mind, the moderator agreed to go forward with the discussion.

Many of the messages the moderator received in response to his decision to bring Finkelstein and Chomsky onto the Pretext list were quite vitriolic, much of the heat generated in response to Chomsky and Finkelstein's long-time criticism of Israel’s human rights abuses of the Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. Perhaps it is only predictable that the moderator would be denounced as "irresponsible" by the theorists on the list for giving Chomsky and Finkelstein a forum to challenge the right to lie in service of crimes of state. That "responsibility" within the current intellectual culture requires barring dissident intellectuals from an electronic forum to discuss their work is really quite indicative of the kind of silliness that passes as "sober analysis" within the U.S. academy, particularly when these crimes of state are ongoing.

The mechanism informing this subtle conformity with the policies of the present administration cannot be explained simply as arising out of a fear of professional repercussion or an institutional surveillance that produces a strong tendency toward denouncing prominent dissidents as “un-American” or “anti-Israeli,” even though their analyses might be absolutely accurate. Instead, one must look at the rules of professional etiquette and taste that make Chomsky and Finkelstein appear as bizarre choices to include on this list in the first place, the pretexts that exist to exclude those perspectives that do not fit with conventional thinking, rules of conduct that are essentially drawn up in advance of any critical discussion’s proper beginning.

As a relative handmaiden of neoliberalism, globalization theory contains within it the constraints of a professional decorum that puts distance between supposedly critical intellectuals and the actual field of battle where people die and blood is shed, allowing for evasive maneuvers and changes of course that accommodate the movement of capital. Such accommodations are part and parcel of the modern intellectual priesthood’s role in advancing the aims of the nation-state. Although critical intellectuals abjure this kind of censorship, believing themselves to be radical and opposed to any and all apologies for unjust regimes that advance the interests of transnational corporations, the intense pressures that accompany the demands to comply with the dictates of concentrated power is overwhelming, producing the kinds of intellectual surveillance I described earlier.

The central role that axiology, the system of logic underpinning subjective value systems, legitimating the exclusion of some ways of knowing while embracing others, plays in justifying what can be thought and written about in academic scholarship cannot be underestimated or ignored. When central tenets of an axiological system are challenged, as dissenting scholarship often does, the system must remove the offending presence—even by illegitimate force if necessary, as several recent tenure battles have demonstrated. The productive ambiguity of cosmo theory’s language protects intellectuals from confronting their complicity in supporting crimes of state by providing them with safe havens such as “complexity,” “undecidability,” and “distributed networks.” Indeed, these “critical terms” have allowed for a sort of arcane mysticism to creep into academic theorizing, legitimizing the avoidance of direct confrontations with power as unnecessarily polemical, reactionary, and provocative.

What Are the Stakes?

In September of 2004, insurgent attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq were beginning to peak; American citizens were coming to understand the full gravity of Bush’s fateful decision to invade a relatively helpless country, while beginning to question the real motives for the invasion. Iraq’s descent into chaos, as a result of the U.S. invasion in March of 2003 and the seemingly interminable occupation, created an exigency for examining the politics propelling the Bush administration’s decision-making in the Middle East, opening up an opportunity to interrogate in this context previously forbidden topics pertaining to U.S. Middle East policy, Israel’s quest for regional supremacy, and the key role U.S. intellectuals and journalists play in shaping public perceptions about U.S. and Israeli militarism. Indeed, how could the Pretext list avoid these issues any longer, while the Middle East continued to be rocked by cataclysmic violence seemingly generated by illegal occupations, religious division, and territorial disputes? Any genuine commitment to intellectual responsibility seemed to recommend serious engagement with issues around the Middle East conflict.

Furthermore, it seemed to me that scholars of rhetoric and critical theory should want to engage the relevant issues with one another around how the Bush administration misled the country into invading Iraq and the key roles U.S. and Israeli policy have played in the region, creating reservoirs of resentment against the United States. While U.S. support for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank—and until recently Gaza—is frequently cited in the Arab world as the most proximate cause for widespread anger against the United States, one cannot lose sight of how effective U.S. counterinsurgency has been in breaking indigenous movements from Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Iraq since Israel’s defeat of Nasser in the Six-Day War. In addition, the circumstances surrounding the CIA’s toppling of Mossadeq in 1953, which led to the installation of the Shah of Iran, who became a regional gendarme for the U.S., remain relatively unknown. Indeed, the United States’ unwillingness to recognize the grievances of the indigenous populations throughout the region, and the resentment this has produced, remains unfathomable to much of the U.S. population. Increasing the public’s comprehension of the vital issues remains tantamount.

Unfortunately, this historical amnesia plagues the academic intelligentsia as well, since there appears to be a commitment to forgetting the facts of history when they are no longer convenient for the aims of American Empire. Examining the ways in which certain forms of intellectual labor are constructed and valued seems necessary to understanding how academics select the lines of inquiry they do in their scholarship. If there is an emphasis on reflecting on states of being (desire, affect, etc), rather that on states of affairs within the world (uses of power, intellectual deceit, etc.), how can a theory of intellectual activity be generated to help us understand intellectual production? That so many academic intellectuals avoid being designated as occupying a specific and identifiable political positions by invoking complex articulations, as these are supposedly staked out by the term “theory,” should lead one to question what political work takes place by avoiding the establishment of positions that are tied to political commitments. Indeed, to establish a strong political position is to be considered simplistic, lacking nuance, engaging in binary thinking, or advancing a politically motivated critique. These denunciations of position-taking are troubling because they sanction an easy-going complicity in obscuring operations of power, even when those operations are quite transparent, while avoiding the unpleasantness that often accompanies exposing intellectual mendacity. Evading substantive issues is characteristic of those who wish to avoid confronting the evidentiary burden Chomsky delivers when he analyzes the factors influencing U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Pretext of Avoidance

Generally speaking, while the Pretext list is devoted to examining writers of, and issues pertaining to, critical and rhetorical theory, it occasionally takes up more overtly political issues such as those covered in Hegemony or Survival. Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival, frames a decision that will eventually have be made by human beings—“Will it be hegemony or survival? You decide.” In other words, will the U.S.’s quest for global supremacy drive the human species to extinction, or will sober realism prevent this impending disaster?

The survival of the human species is by no means a sure thing since environmental destruction, terminal nuclear war, and the pursuit and ongoing depletion of vital resources such as oil and water could very well end human life on the planet. As the United States has made clear in documents such as The Project for the New American Century’s “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” and the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies’ “A Strategy for Securing the Realm,” it will dominate the world by force and will tolerate no competitors. What are the consequences of this commitment to hegemony for human survival? According to Chomsky, quests for hegemony are obviously interrelated with human survival; decisions about global domination are not irrational (profit motive, expanding global markets, etc.) with respect to the institutional frameworks within which they are made; however, they are extremely hazardous and irrational from the standpoint of human life. The increasing world tensions because of the continued prospect of nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and environmental collapse are certainly matters of concern. The U.S. is alone in the world in trying to move toward the militarization of space; these policies are in place to assure U.S. dominance over capital investment, an extreme threat to survival. Across the board, the decision to be a hegemon and, in turn, whether this poses a threat to the survival of the human species is something we must face if we want to have a future.

Chomsky fielded questions from Pretext subscribers, many of whom are leading theorists in English and related fields, for over one month. Although Chomsky has been recognized as one of the veritable geniuses of the twentieth century, a touchstone of the Left, subscribers had a very difficult time in interacting and communicating with him about his book and his many reflections about the state of intellectual culture and the distinct role U.S. intellectuals play—within the academy and middle-brow journalism—to justify U.S. military adventurism, all of which Chomsky has repeatedly described with contempt and derision. While Chomsky made frequent reference to “facts,” “the historical record,” and within the context of discussing contentious issues such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, “the uncontroversial claim” that Israel’s persecution of the Palestinians in the occupied territories far surpassed any potential claims of victimhood Jews could lay claim to against Palestinians, list participants—perhaps having grown up on a good dose of postmodern theory—sought to check Chomsky by informing him that truth, facts, and the historical record are socially constructed and that it is foolhardy to believe that one could act as if one were an observer on the world stage reporting events as they actually happened. Chomsky found himself confused by these objections to his use of phrases like “the uncontroversial record,” “facts,” and “well-documented atrocities,” wondering why participants sought to avoid serious discussion about substantive issues, while concocting tales about his “tone, hauteur, rage, and curt answers.”

Given Chomsky’s stature as a scientist in the field of linguistics, it was truly ironic that he found himself chided in this way. After all, the Chomskyian revolution in linguistics transformed the entire field, creating a new approach to understanding the underlying structure of human language. If Chomsky’s stature in linguistics can be viewed as impeccable and unquestionable, why would anyone assume he would be less conscientious and scrupulous in studying U.S. foreign policy? The answer to this question contains within it a cautionary tale about the particular hazards attending taking dissident political positions in the United States and the particular dangers associated with refusing to engage in the willful obfuscation of painful realities informing much contemporary theory.

Communicative Impasse

What many viewed as a misfit between Chomsky—the octogenarian who has transformed the field of linguistics and established a reputation as the most persistent critic of U.S. foreign policy—and the audience comprising the Pretext list, may in fact be a commentary on the state of theory in the humanities, i.e. an important moment reflecting how intellectual labor has been radically reconfigured within the academy since the late seventies and early eighties. The reasons for this reconfiguration warrant extended analysis.

When the Pretext discussion with Chomsky turned to specific aspects of the Israel-Palestine conflict, such as the circumstances leading up to the ’82 Lebanon War and Israel’s specific desire to subvert a PLO peace offensive, hostility mounted as various libidinal attachments around Jewish and Palestinian suffering became apparent. The anger that was displayed by some participants reveals the extent to which the humanities have been depoliticized when it comes to examining intellectual silence and evasion around key U.S. foreign policy issues. The implication was clear: rhetoricians should not be considering, or discussing, these types of issue. As experts have indicated in reference to Israel’s attack upon Southern Lebanon on June 6th, 1982, “Operation Peace for Galilee” is a misnomer; the operation should have been called “The Operation to Safeguard the Occupation of the West Bank,” as Israel sought to create a Christian-Maronite broker state in Lebanon, while breaking the any vestige of Palestinian nationalism by crushing the PLO. Within the context of the Pretext discussion, there was not even disagreement with Chomsky about the circumstances surrounding Israel’s ’82 invasion because no one seemed to be even remotely aware of what had occurred between June 6th and October of that year; although events within this time period—from the Israeli invasion to the Sabra-Shatila massacres—were all preludes to the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks on October 23rd, 1983.

Just as the specific circumstances surrounding the ’82 Israeli invasion of Lebanon became an object of debate on the Pretext list, all participation stopped. Not only did participation stop, it ground to a complete halt as the discussion could not be framed through any of the theoretical frameworks available to the participants, who were eager to condemn Chomsky for not recognizing the force of his unconscious “anti-Semitism” behind his criticisms of Israel’s ’82 invasion. If only Chomsky would read more Zizek, as one participant argued, he would understand the latent anti-Semitism behind his responses: Never mind that fact that Israel had long planned, sought to create a pretext for, and carried out the invasion. It was easier to talk about an all-pervasive anti-Semitism, unconscious forces, and what Zizek had written about “the figure of the Jew” in Welcome to the Desert of the Real.

The person who most objected to this discussion was formerly a part of the Israeli Defense Forces and believed he could intimidate list members into believing his recounting of Israel’s June ’82 invasion, i.e. that Israel launched the invasion in response to Palestinian attacks on Israel’s Northern border. These symbolic attacks, in response to Israeli shelling, were used as pretext for the Israeli invasion. As Chomsky calmly recited the facts, the former IDF officer had nowhere to hide, withdrawing from the discussion a few messages later, while demonstrating that he lacked the very knowledge about Israel’s invasion that he accused me of not possessing. Of even more interest is the fact that no one seemed to be aware of the circumstances surrounding Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, perhaps not realizing these events are pivotal to understanding much of what is happening at this moment in the Middle East. Indeed, Osama Bin Laden referenced Israel’s massive air strikes in Beirut in June ‘82 when explaining why Al-Qaeda selected Manhattan’s skyline for the September 11th, 2001attacks: Beirut’s skyline matches Manhattan’s quite closely. None of this registers within the reigning intellectual culture.

The promotion of U.S. foreign policy desperately relies upon “selling” a course of U.S. action to articulate audiences; however, this selling requires propaganda of an extraordinary sort—the propaganda has to invert reality and the facts, enabling a refashioning of the historical diplomatic record. When Sadat offered peace to the Israelis in 1971, guaranteeing security along the ’67 Green line, as well as a recognition of Israel’s “right to exist,” (a phrase often misunderstood in the West because a crucial portion is left out—“as a Jewish supremacist apartheid state”), Israel dismissed it and journalists did not report it. In 1979, however, Sadat was recast as a “man of peace” because he was led to accept a peace of the strong, that fashioned by Israel and the United States.

Analyzing the Impasse

So, what does it mean that a list of nearly two hundred theorists had nothing to say about these topics of serious concern? While one can only make limited conclusions based on this one discussion, some possibly disturbing inferences can be drawn. First, theory—or at least a certain brand of theory—seems to sustain an interest in claiming that history, since it is constructed, cannot be subject to a factual inventorying—historical facts can be dismissed as passé; perspectives and experiences, according to the dictates of postmodern theory, are all that is relevant. Since perspectives are multiple, and factual pronouncements about history are unitary and in turn dismiss other possible perspectives, requiring a foreclosure of possibility, it is unsurprising that Chomsky’s attempts to document “the historical record,” “the uncontroversial facts,” and “state apologetics” seem bizarre and somehow incorrect, although Chomsky in books such as his The Fateful Triangle: The United State, Israel, and the Palestinians demonstrates a commitment to rigorous analysis through in-depth empirical testing, revealing that he has scoured all available media and government sources before asserting that the U.S media—despite being accused of being hypercritical of Israeli military actions in the summer of 1982—was in fact highly protective of them. Indeed, it is the extensiveness of the documentation supporting his assertions about U.S. and Israeli policy in the Middle East within his political work that accounts for the bitter condemnations lodged against his deeply unpopular conclusions.

When Chomsky tells us that “the facts are readily available for those who care look” or that “anyone can read human right’s reports,” he seems to assume that we, and our colleagues, know where to look for these human rights reports or the alternative news source that would tell us that “The United States is the only country in history to be found guilty of international terrorism” (in this case against Nicaragua) or that “The United States invaded South Vietnam and supported terrible atrocities in East Timor.” This certainty about facts and history, when coupled with Chomsky’s rejection of postmodern theory, for example, reflects his deep belief in a no-nonsense approach to intellectual affairs: how many intellectuals and writers set out stating they do not wish to persuade anything of anyone; just to present the facts and to let listeners or readers decide for themselves what is true?

I don’t have any theory of rhetoric, but what I have in the back of my mind is that one should not try to persuade; rather, you should try to lay out the territory as best you can so that other people can use their own intellectual powers to work out for themselves what they think is right or wrong. For example, I try particularly in political writing, to make it extremely clear in advance exactly where I stand. In my view, the idea of neutral objectivity is largely fraudulent. It’s not that I take the realistic view with regard to fact, but the fact is that everyone approaches complex and controversial questions—especially those of human significance—with an ax to grind, and I like that ax to be apparent right up front so that people can compensate for it .But to the extent that I can monitor my own rhetorical activities, which is probably not a lot, I try to refrain from efforts to bring people to reach my conclusions.

Chomsky’s unwillingness to be persuasive and his reluctance to employ a style that might be more convincing is disarming and threatening at the same time. For one to be so invested in “the facts” and “truth” is contrary to academic conceptions of how reality is more complex than it seems, suggesting that the search for more complex explanations might in fact be convenient pretexts for avoiding the obvious. However, Chomsky’s political writings do allow for an inventorying and calculating of material interests, maintaining a consistency across time, and possessing a predicative capacity that is better than supposedly more complex theories. Apropos of this, consider the following reflection from Norman Finkelstein about Chomsky’s intellectual attributes: “Basically to free yourself from ideological controls and go where reasoning and the facts take you, which is easy to say but difficult to practice. Another interesting aspect of Professor Chomsky is that his writing rises above the jargon of the times. Books which were written in the 1960s read like they were written yesterday.” It is the continued relevance of Chomsky’s political work, its capacity to remain relevant despite the passage of time while other intellectual fashions fade into the background, suggesting that he is writing about politics in a way that helps average citizens to make sense of the world around them. Chomsky’s capacity to speak to a wide range of audiences demonstrates how one can be brilliant, antinomian, radical, accessible, analytically scrupulous, and internationally renowned as a scientist all at the same time. This example poses a major challenge to the modernist common sense of the academy, which often posits that academic specialization requires the production of hyper-specialized vocabularies that can only be understood within small circles of similarly situated specialists.

Confronting History

In the wake of the re-declaration of the War on Terror in “response” to the events of 9/11, U.S. citizens have been forced to take stock of recent history and our countries use of massive violence, particularly as it has been directed at indigenous populations, as we attempt to understand our place in the world, as what some have called a “global hegemon,” at this particular historical moment. While on the one hand President Bush mouths popular pieties that the United States is a freedom-loving and law-abiding country, the historical record demonstrates that sticking to the letter of the law has not been one of the country’s strong suits. In fact, with respect to the current situation in the Middle East and the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the flouting of international law and consensus has been at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy for the last fifty years.

The U.S.’s overwhelming monopoly over the instruments of violence and mass death, perhaps unsurprisingly, leads to the sweeping of these facts out of the way, vetoing them out of history, proving that the state and the educated classes can rise to the demands of the doctrinal system and its propaganda apparatus. No contradiction, no matter how stark or upsetting, can not be resolved or explained away when there are brilliant minds at work. How, then, one may ask, have U.S. citizens been able to avoid addressing their direct complicity in the U.S. government’s criminal behavior as this has manifested itself in the Bush administration’s continued criminal occupation of Iraq, which was of course preceded by an illegal invasion that was condemned by an international consensus? This state of affairs, in conjunction with the U.S. government’s continued support of Israel’s forty-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, continues to create strong resentment against the United States government.

The U.S. press has been effective in shielding the public from the images of destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan, the images that would move even the hardest heart to reflect upon the very foreign-policy plan—in service to a domestic lobby that seeks to control the resources of the entire region—sanctioning the effective murder of nearly a hundred thousand civilians, who cannot be considered terrorists or those who abetted either Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, two former U.S. clients. The profound criminality, of what Tariq Ali has frequently called, “the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq” has been easily been ignored by Western audiences because the United States invaded a defenseless and non-white nation, which possesses the second largest oil reserves in the world, in addition to being a geopolitical- strategic asset.

While the stated reasons for the invasion (Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the necessity of overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime, bringing democracy to the oppressed Iraqi people, etc.) have all been exhausted and proven to be quite ridiculous, U.S. citizens are left to ponder the real reasons for the invasion: the United States’ continued need to dominate the world’s petroleum reserves; its desire to build three major military bases in Iraq—along with three in Afghanistan—which will give the U.S. complete control—along with its Israeli “cop on the beat”—of the entire Middle East region; the United States’ desire to show the rest of the world the power of the U.S. military, registering how massive an assault the U.S. could wage against similar regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere. The message was clear: any challenge to U.S. military hegemony and U.S. dominance of world markets, will be met with an invasion. North Korea, smart enough to understand that arming itself with nuclear weapons would make the commissars in Washington think twice about invading, challenged the U.S. to make the first move; since North Korea wasn’t defenseless—one of the primary prerequisites of the Bush doctrine—it stood out as a worthy opponent and hence not a target of interest..

Turning to another relatively uncontroversial and well-documented instance of how the U.S.’s disregard for international law impacts world politics, consider the 1987 World Court ruling against the United States for international terrorism in Nicaragua. The judgment itself was dismissed with contempt by the commissars in Washington, with the jurisdiction of the court itself being ridiculed. Nicaragua, instead of dropping bombs on Boston, turned to the World Court for relief against the mining of its harbors, as well as the continued onslaught against its civilian population and democratically-elected government. The Reagan administration’s funding of the Contras, through weapon sales to Iran through Israel in direct contravention of the Boland Amendment, suggested that since the American taxpayer cannot be relied upon to understand the gravity of communist fighters only “three days driving distance from Harlingen, Texas,” or the significance of purported sales of MIG jets to El Salvador, covert operations have to be put in place to spare the paymasters the pain of confronting the inevitably “complex” aspects of foreign policy in Central America. Simpler minds, however, are able to deduce that what happened in Central America throughout the eighties conforms to the merest of truisms: state violence works, irrespective of laws, courts, and niceties that the United States expects other weaker countries to abide by. That the United States, as the only country ever to be found guilty of international terrorism, could twice declare a war on terror demonstrates just how elastic the doctrinal system can be when it comes to rising to the needs of the powerful. In this case, “the powerful” consist of transnational corporations, overwhelmingly U.S. dominated, that seek to control the world’s expanding economic markets in conjunction with U.S. military planners.

Naturally, there is a strong resistance to facing the U.S.’s external behavior, its continual flouting of the diplomatic record and international law, and the overall reliance on massive violence to ensure the flourishing of “democracy,” “free markets,” etc., rhetorical devices that are really calls to violence against weak Third World countries that might be ripe for expanding markets of U.S. corporations. Scholars who bring up the United States’ or its favorite client states’ numerous violations of international law, in exactly the language with which we would condemn a hated enemy, face a hysterical stream of abuse and vilification. Once we understand the bounds and demands of educated discourse all becomes clear. As Chomsky points out, “A person who has not internalized these conventions [“the team,” by definition, is the United States and “the mainstream” is the position occupied by “the team,” however much the world may be out of step] can scarcely be taken seriously; accordingly, such commentary, which abounds, does not even evoke an amused smile in cultivated circles.”

The inability of articulate audiences to comprehend Chomsky’s political writings results from their own corruption and indoctrination; average people completely understand Chomsky’s insights with respect to the operation of power whereas elites exhibit only blank looks of incomprehension.  If these writings were to gain some salience within the mainstream, they would pose a distinct threat to the doctrinal system, the reconstruction of American imperial history, and the academic guild structure, while also charting a path for young scholars who wish to escape the trap of commissar politics.

Screening out those who might try to rise to the challenge of the responsible intellectual that Chomsky sets out within his political writing has been an unarticulated imperative of elite, intellectual culture within academe, particularly since the 1960s. The imperial history Chomsky has been so persistent in documenting demonstrates how ideological serviceable this scholarship has been for the promotion of U.S. power, particularly in its avoidance in addressing the direct complicity of the intellectual classes in promoting a scholarly discourse that masquerades as being vigilant and antagonistic to collusive intellectuals, while serving a vital propaganda function for the economic philosophy of neoliberalism. In fact, Chomsky convincingly demonstrates that collusive intellectuals are crucial to sustaining the triumphs of the propaganda system, which places the merest truisms out of reach of the general population that often pays the heavy costs to the Pentagon system and high-tech industry.

Beyond his relentless documentation of “the facts,” the most fascinating, and at the same time, most troubling feature of Chomsky’s political writings is its seemingly repeated insistence that history, the history we read in schools and come to perhaps understand as “official,” has been written quite willfully and deceptively to serve the interests of U.S. power—particularly the relatively recent history of U.S. military intervention and overseas imperialism from the time of the Vietnam war to the present—as well as to protect ordinary citizens from the basic and well-established facts about the severe human cost paid by designated enemies, “unworthy victims,” who are not white and remain faceless to us, those who essentially occupy the role of paymasters. Managing this history, and silencing or marginalizing dissenting revisionist histories, requires constant ideological management—a task the propaganda system has been quite effective in serving. That this history has been subject to a careful reconstruction and that it must be protected from critical interrogation and inspection, has been repeatedly demonstrated by Chomsky over the years:

Not surprisingly, inquiry reveals a highly selective culling of facts and much outright lying. Some areas of the world are almost entirely blacked out, where disclosure of major abuses would disturb both pliable clients and the U.S. economic, military, and political interests that find this pliability advantageous. As we have described throughout the two volumes [The Political Economy of Human Rights], the first principle of the Free Press is the averting of eyes from benign or constructive terror, along with a general avoidance of invidious language and a sympathetic understanding for the difficult problems faced by the terrorizing elites backed by the United States.

The treatment his work has received suggests that if he were to gain a mainstream salience serious questions would be asked about how what Chomsky calls “articulate elites” control the state and maintain a monopoly of violence.

The simplicity and straightforwardness of Chomsky’s prose, his relentless marshalling of information, the devastating clarity, and the distinct moral sense guiding his critical writings have buoyed the spirits of non-intellectuals against the corruptions of an age. He continues to believe in fundamental human goodness, within an intellectual era that has seen the concept of post humanism attack the whole concept of “the human.” His refusal to accept the logic of neoliberalism, and the vast devastation it has wreaked upon the Third World, bespeaks a rhetoric of great refusal—the ruling order is based upon a history of bloodshed and violence, which if accurately documented, would radically alter basic understandings of how we measure history. Chomsky’s moving and continual passion for the oppressed (a virtue supposedly guiding much academic work, but rarely actually demonstrated) guides him through a relentless schedule of talking, writing, and corresponding with ordinary people who are far away from centers of concentrated power.

Chomsky’s political work has not been given the careful treatment it merits; instead, we are handed idée rescues about his “defense” of Faurisson’s findings (Werner Cohen), his “apologies for Pol Pot,” (Keith Windschuttle), his predilection for conspiracy theories, and that he is “a fanatical defender of the PLO,” (Elliot Abrams). One might very well predict, if she were a careful watcher of the doctrinal filters, that this very situation would obtain: Chomsky’s work does not meet the requirement of concision—a requirement that has crept into academic scholarship—in that he does not provide any of the usual guideposts that might constrain his thought within a particular economy of well recognized academic terms, tropes, figures, etc. (postmodernism, post humanism, social constructionism, etc.). That he has resisted the general tendency to write preening academic prose and has instead continually delivered up “just the facts,” bespeaks either a tremendous narcissism or a heroic effort that will stand the tests of verification and time. Chomsky’s political scholarship directly threatens the academic guild structure, forcing it to deal with its own complicity in the promotion of U.S. aims of state, and the studied ignorance of this work is not an accident or due to error. Instead, a whole effort has arisen to “contain Chomsky” and the effects of his work.

Condemnations of Chomsky seemingly never attempt to deal with the massive documentation he provides or the numerous invitations he has issued to his interlocutors to show him where he’s wrong or misguided. Inevitably, he’s called anti-American, anti-Israeli, anti Semitic, a Holocaust denier, a tireless enemy, the greatest mind of the twentieth century contaminated by radical politics, someone who took his political commitments too far, etc. He’s not postmodern enough, sophisticated enough, hip enough, etc. Bashing Chomsky, as Norman G. Finkelstein points out in a recent essay, has become ritualized among apostates seeking a grand exit from the political left:

A rite of passage for apostates peculiar to U.S. political culture is bashing Noam Chomsky. It's the political equivalent of a bar mitzvah, a ritual signaling that one has "grown up" - i.e., grown out of one's "childish" past.  It's hard to pick up an article or book by ex-radicals - Gitlin's Letters to a Young Activist, Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism… - that doesn't include a hysterical attack on him.  Behind this venom there's also a transparent psychological factor at play.  Chomsky mirrors their idealistic past as well as sordid present, an obstinate reminder that they once had principles but no longer do, that they sold out but he didn't.  Hating to be reminded, they keep trying to shatter the glass.  He's the demon from the past that, after recantation, no amount of incantation can exorcise.

This obligation to take a cheap shot at Chomsky before announcing that one has reached political maturity has, indeed, become a rite of passage, a departure from the realm of commitment into the realm of the comical, where arguments no longer really matter. As Finkelstein concludes:

Two altogether opposed political stances can each draw an audience's attention.  One is to be politically consistent, but nonetheless original in one's insights; the other, an inchoate form of apostasy, is to bank on the shock value of an occasional, wildly inconsistent outburst.  The former approach, which Chomsky exemplifies, requires hard work, whereas the latter is a lazy substitute for it.

Chomsky brings academics up against an uncomfortable conclusion: some academic scholarship actively contributes to a system of apologetics for state violence; and, if this scholarship were pursued with an iota of concern for objectivity rather than in subservience to the state, a great deal could be done to alleviate human suffering in the world. It is this recognition of the challenge contained within Chomsky’s political corpus that is particularly unpalatable to academics in the social sciences and the humanities.

Chomsky’s relentless pursuit of rescuing the historical record from the shear mendacity of the intellectual guild structure is dramatic, necessary, and naturally upsetting to those most invested in its preservation. Although he sought to engage those contributing to the Pretext discussion in some serious intellectual inquiry, he was frustrated by the complete lack of interest in examining the facts surrounding Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. Out of frustration, he wrote:

I’ve always been intrigued by intellectual history, as you know, and in particular by the way intellectuals protect themselves from finding out the truth about themselves—which, rather typically throughout history, is support and apologetics for the crimes of the power system they serve. In this field, the method seems to be to evade facts entirely, and to concoct tales about rage, hauteur, style, curt answers, etc. I don’t recall having seen one substantive comment, except for the efforts of the ex-Israeli who quickly withdrew when his claims were shown to be false. It’s also interesting that there seems to be no need to substantiate even the tales, irrelevant as they are, apart from serving as a useful device of self-protection.

That there could be no serious intellectual exchange with Chomsky on the Pretext list merits our reflection. One the one hand, Chomsky was accused of offering up truisms about intellectuals, things people know about how the intellectual world operates but did not feel required to articulate, while on the other hand being condemned for rejecting complex explanations about politics and serious world events. These complex explanations, as the examples I have examined indicate, provide untenable connections to reality, obfuscating the crimes of Holy States and protecting various dimensions of state worship among supposedly critical intellectuals from scrutiny. Chomsky’s insistence that political events and the atrocities that often arise within them can be documented precisely, and that body counts and dates do matter, has an unsettling effect upon those who have invested in the critical language of postmodernism and its related idioms.

By insisting on identifying guilty parties, and the corrupt intellectuals that often support them, Chomsky demands that we be honest about the practices that guide our conceptions of political responsibility, risking the ostracism that public exposures of inconvenient truths often bring with them. As he writes in the context of describing the immense destruction that was being visited upon Vietnam in For Reasons of State: “The cultural and institutional barriers that block the way to a more just and humane society are immense. There are, nevertheless, long-term tendencies that threaten the hegemony of coercive institutions and ideologies.” Sustaining and nurturing these long-term tendencies that threaten the hegemony of coercive institutions and ideologies is crucial to creating a culture committed to seriously dealing with the country’s imperial history.

Noam Chomksy’s political corpus forces a fundamental reassessment of how intellectual labor attains value and functions within the American academy and beyond, while also raising troubling questions about the irrelevance of so much contemporary academic inquiry and theorization, which has historically functioned to obfuscate and obscure the truth about the United States’ imperial behavior. A new conception of intellectual labor will have to confront Chomsky’s critiques of the intellectual class, noting the distinct tendency that intellectuals have in gravitating toward centers of concentrated power and engaging in a perverse form of state worship, while ignoring or suppressing uncomfortable truths about themselves.


See JAC, 16:3 (1996), pp. 407-24.

As Brennan writes: “The United States continues to invade other countries, but the invasion is not now supposed to be an invasion: rather, the nation extends its shadow, becomes the elsewhere, decenters itself. To what extent current theory helps the United States perform this function with relative impunity is a vital question, it seems to me,” (At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now, p. 6). Chomsky writes that: “In an age of science and technology, it is inevitable that their prestige will be employed as an ideological instrument—specifically that the social and behavioral sciences will in various ways be made to serve in defense of national policy or as a mask for special interest. It is not merely that intellectuals are strongly tempted, in a society that offers them prestige and affluence, to take what is now called a “pragmatic attitude” (in a perverse sense of “pragmatism” which is, sad to say, not without some historical justification, as shown in the Dewey-Bourne interchange during the First World War—see Introduction, pages 5-7), that is, an attitude that one must “accept,” not critically analyze or struggle to change, the existing distribution of power, domestic or international, and the political realities that flow from it, and must only for “slow measures of improvement” in a technological, piecemeal manner (American Power and the New Mandarins, 317). Also, see Gopal Balakrishnan’s edited collection Debating Empire (London: Verso, 2003).

In their Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Hardt and Negri write:

Our point of departure [in Empire] was the recognition that contemporary global order can no longer be understood adequately in terms of imperialism as it was practiced by the modern powers, based primarily on the sovereignty of the nation-state extended over foreign territory. Instead, a “network power,” a new form of sovereignty, is now emerging, and it includes as its primary elements, or nodes, the dominant nation-states along with supranational institutions, major capitalist corporations, and other powers (xii).

See Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism , (New York: W.W. Norton Co.), pp. 144-153.

See: HYPERLINK "http://condor.depaul.edu/~mabraha5/pretext1.pdf" http://condor.depaul.edu/~mabraha5/pretext1.pdf (September 13th, 2009). Replace the 1 in “pretext1” with 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 to access the whole reinterview with Chomsky and Finkelstein.

See Julien Benda’s The Treason of the Intellectuals (La Trahison Des Clercs), trans., Richard Altington, (New York: W. W. and Norton Company, 1928)and Masao Miyoshi’s “A Borderless World? From Colonialism to Transnationalism and the Decline of the Nation-State,” Critical Inquiry, 19:4 (Summer 1993), pp. 726-751.

See Joseph Massad’s “Policing the Academy” at HYPERLINK "http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2003/633/op2.htm" http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2003/633/op2.htm (June 4th, 2008).

In his review of Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians, entitled “The Permission to Narrate,” Edward Said writes:

[Chomsky’s] isolation from the actual arena of contest, his distance from power as a fiercely uncompromising intellectual, his ability to tell the dispassionate truth (while no longer able to write in previously hospitable places like the New York Review of Books) have made it possible for him to avoid the ideological traps and the dishonesty he perceives in Israeli and U.S. apologists. There is, of course, no state worship in Chomsky, nor is there any glossing over uncomfortable truths or indecent practices that exist within one's own camp. But are isolation, the concern for justice, the passion to record injustice, sufficient to ensure one's own freedom from ideology? When Chomsky claims to be dealing with facts, he does deal with more facts than his opponents. But where are facts if not embedded in history, and then reconstituted and recovered by human agents stirred by some perceived or desired or hoped for historical narrative whose future aim is to restore justice to the dispossessed? In other words, the reporters of fact, like Chomsky, as well as the concealers of fact, like the "supporters of Israel," are acting within history, according to codifiable norms of representation, in a context of competing ideological and intellectual values. When he states the facts as widely, as clearly, as completely as any person alive, Chomsky, is not merely performing a mechanical reporting chore, from some Archimedean point outside propaganda and cliché: he is doing something extremely sophisticated, underpinned by standards of argument, coherence, and proof that are not derived from the merely "factual." But the irony is that Chomsky does not reflect theoretically on what he does; he just does it. So, on the one hand, he leaves us to suppose that telling the truth is a simple matter while, on the other hand, he compiles masses of evidence showing that no one can really deal with the facts. How can we then suppose that one man can tell the truth? Does he believe that in writing this book he will lead others to tell the truth also? What makes it possible for us as human beings to state the facts, to manufacture new ones, or to ignore some and focus on others?

Answers to these questions must reside in a theory of perception, a theory of intellectual activity, and in an epistemological account of ideological structures as they pertain to specific problems as well as to concrete historical and geographical circumstances. None of these things is within the capacity of a solitary individual to produce, and none is possible without some sense of communal or collective commitment to assign them a more than personal validity. It is this commitment that national narratives authorize and represent, although Chomsky's understandable reluctance to hew to any national or state line prevents him from admitting it (The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969-1994, (New York: Vintage, 1995), 267-268, emphasis mine).

See: HYPERLINK "http://www.americanempireproject.com/bookpage.asp?ISBN=0805076883" http://www.americanempireproject.com/bookpage.asp?ISBN=0805076883 (March 23rd, 2008).

Consider the prominence of conceptions such as “empire,” “biopolitics,” “command centers” and “multitudes,” which in fact serve to glorify and mystify operations of power rather than to elucidate them. These large structures, which represent projections of power, becoming relatively meaningless in helping one to predict and discuss how power actually works in the world. I would wager that these structures in fact serve to confuse those seeking to learn about how power actually works.

In his Wars of Positions: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right (New York: Columbia U P, 2006), Timothy Brennan writes of “the post-turn,” when “political belonging was ejected from the idea of identity” and when many left intellectuals ran away from “any politics seeking to enter or make claims on the state” (X). On a related note, in his Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market, Bourdieu writes: “[Globalization] is a myth in the strong sense of the word, a powerful discourse, an idée force, an idea which has social force, which obtains belief. It is the main weapon in the battles against the gains of the welfare state” (34).

See Avner Yaniv’s Dilemmas of Security: Politics, Strategy, and the Israeli Experience in Lebanon., (Oxford: Oxford U P, 1987).

Welcome to the Desert of the Real. New York and London: Verso, 2006, pp. 126-134.

As Chomsky wrote in that context:

Here the question of “lack of knowledge” does arise. To review the familiar and well-documented facts, in mid-1981 a US-brokered truce was established on the Israel-Lebanon border (we can go into what happened before, but to the limited extent that it is relevant to the 1982 invasion, it simply reinforces what we learnt by looking at the period after the truce). For the next year, Israel carried out a series of murderous and destructive attacks against Lebanon, apparently trying to elicit some PLO response that could be used as a pretext for the planned invasion. There was none, apart from some very minor and symbolic retaliations to Israeli attack. Failing to construct the desired pretext of Palestinian incursions and attacks, Israel invaded anyway, pretending that this was a response to an assassination attempt against the Israeli Ambassador to London—though Israel knew at once that the attempt was carried out not by the PLO, but by Abu Nidal, who was at war with the PLO and had been condemned to death by them. The Israeli invasion began with the bombing of Sabra-Shatila Palestinians refugee camp, including its hospital, killing 200 people, according to the eyewitness testimony of the Us Mideast scholar Cheryl Rubenberg. Then came the invasion, killing perhaps another 20,000 (victims are rarely counted accurately by the powerful) and leaving vast destruction. The actual reasons were not concealed: the goal was to put an end to the PLO efforts at a negotiated settlement, which were becoming an embarrassment and to impose an Israeli client regime in Lebanon.

So yes, knowledge is useful, and lack of knowledge can indeed be a problem. ( HYPERLINK "http://www.pre-text.com/ptlist/reinvw.html" http://www.pre-text.com/ptlist/reinvw.html, emphasis mine, March 23rd, 2007).

Language, Politics, and Composition: A Conversation with Noam Chomsky." Journal of Advanced Composition 11 (1991), p. 6.

See Finkelstein’s interview with Y.M.D Fremes at: HYPERLINK "http://www.normanfinkelstein.com/article.php?pg=4&ar=17" http://www.normanfinkelstein.com/article.php?pg=4&ar=17 (May 26th, 2008).

In their Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Hardt and Negri write:

In the contradictory new global economic order that is emerging through international agreements, there are woven together both globalizing tendencies and resurgent nationalist elements, both liberal proposals and self-interested perversions of liberal ideals, both regional political solidarities and neocolonial operation of commercial and financial domination (171).

See Richard Faulk and Howard Friel’s The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports U.S. Foreign Policy, (New York and London: Verso, 2004).

World Orders, Old and New, p. 240.

After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology, (Cambridge: South End, 1979), p. 295.

See Cohn’s “Holocaust Denial” in the Anti-Chomsky Reader; Windschuttle’s “Unmasking Noam Chomsky” at HYPERLINK "http://www.cis.org.au/Policy/winter03/polwin03-6.pdf" http://www.cis.org.au/Policy/winter03/polwin03-6.pdf (June 4th, 2008); and Eliot Abram’s letter to the editor of the Index on Censorship at HYPERLINK "http://normanfinkelstein.files.wordpress.com/2007/04/abrams.pdf" http://normanfinkelstein.files.wordpress.com/2007/04/abrams.pdf (June 4th, 2008).

See: HYPERLINK "http://www.normanfinkelstein.com/article.php?pg=4&ar=6" http://www.normanfinkelstein.com/article.php?pg=4&ar=6 (March 19th, 2008).

See: HYPERLINK "http://www.normanfinkelstein.com/article.php?pg=4&ar=6" http://www.normanfinkelstein.com/article.php?pg=4&ar=6 (March 19th, 2008).

10/27/2004 email to the author

For Reasons of State, p. xli.