Moral intransigeance: In defense of Noam Chomsky

Peter Beaumont reviews Noam Chomsky's 'Failed states' . In the review he accuses Chomsky of allowing 'bile and rhetoric to replace intellectual rigour'

His arguments ?

1. Chomsky is seeing the forest and not the trees.

''Chomsky chooses to deal with America's growing democratic deficit not by putting it under a microscope, but by reaching for hyperbole.''

2. Chomsky is not seeing America's good actions (which are things from the past).

''I could find no mention of the Marshall Plan, although there is enough about American crimes in Guatemala, to which he returns repeatedly. He can find enough to say about America's misdemeanours during the Cold War; but nothing about the genuine fear of the Soviet Union, one of the most brutally efficient human-rights-abusing states in history.''

3. Chomsky's position on Serbia's NATO bombardment.

''In setting about this task quite so selectively, he allies himself with some obnoxious characters. While Chomsky was righteously indignant over suggestions in a recent Guardian interview that he defended Srebrenica, he does portray a certain sympathy for Slobodan Milosevic. Kosovo, in his reading, began in 1999 with Nato bombers, not in 1998 with Serbian police actions that cleared villages, towns and valleys of their populations. (I know this, Mr Chomsky, because I saw them do it.)''

4. Chomsky is not seeing America's good intentions !

''Where I differ from him, however, is that I reject Chomsky's view that American misdeeds are printed through history like the lettering in a stick of rock. Instead, the conclusions I have drawn from more than a decade of reporting wars on the ground is that motivations are complex, messy and contradictory, that the best intentions can spawn the worst outcomes and, occasionally, vice versa.''

5. Chomsky is very influent among bloggers and therefore Beaumont wants to save bloggers from lies (or serve them his own lies).

''It is important to recognise this fact because the Chomskian analysis has become the defining dissident voice of the blogosphere and a certain kind of far-left academia. So a sense of its integrity is crucial. It is obsessively well-read, but rather famished in original research, except when it is counting how often the liberal media say this or that in their search for hidden, and sometimes not-so-hidden, bias. Crucially, it is not interested in debate, because balance is a ruse of the liberal media elites used to con the dumb masses. Chomsky is essential to save you, dear reader, from the lies we peddle.''

My arguments in defense of Chomsky:

1. Sometimes you need to see the big picture. If you stay at the lower level analysis you might not realise the consequences of American actions in the world. It is the same for climate change. Complexe phenomena need higher level analysis.

2. Concerning Serbia, it seems to me that mainstream western media and intellectuals have adopted a narrative and they are not accepting a challenge to this narrative. They are charging every intellectual who is not adopting their narrative of treason, complicity with Milosevic and awkwardness... Not long ago, Peter Handke have seen his play cancelled in France by the director of the Odeon theater because of his presence at Milosevic's funerals. Chomsky was attacked before by Emmma Brokes in the pages of the Guardian on his position on Serbia. Western media and intellectuals cannot support challenges to their official narrative on Serbia and the NATO bombardment because this narrative established 'humanitarian interventions' as a doctrine for wars against nonfriendly regimes and their civilian populations. Invalidating the NATO bombardment of Serbia will invalidate all other subsequent imperialistic wars done in the name of 'humanitarian intervention', 'freedom' and 'democracy', like the Iraq war. These narratives are becoming powerful motives and means for the West's imperialistic hubris.

The 'I was there and I have seen it all' is a weak argument. Descriptive analysis of political events miss the cultural and historical contexts most of the time and this is a problem with current western journalism: Insensitivity to other cultures and the will to apply a monolithic cultural standard to all civilisations and judge them by this standard.

3. Chomsky is misunderstood because he speaks from a moral point of view and there are no concessions, middle of the road position to be made when you speak from this position. It is erroneous to think that adopting a middle of the road position is somehow rational and conciliatory. This is moral relativism, a moral illness eating out present western thought. Moderation is not the middle of a line drawn between two extremes, it is a point outside this line (Aristotle).

4. Missing the point on America's good actions is not a fault on Chomsky's part. Because if you are judging an accuser of a horrible crime you are going to judge it for this crime no matter what he did otherwise. Missing the point on America's good intentions is another point: you don't judge people on their intentions, you judge them on their actions ! 'L'enfer est pavé de bonnes intentions' goes a french saying: 'The hell is full with good intentions'.

5. Chomsky speaks from the position of moral intransigeance and it seems that moral intransigeance is not a virtue anymore because our western society is becoming the champion of double standards and hypocrisy, applying on other cultures moral relativism and cultural absolutism, when it is suitable and profitable.

6. The US's imperialistic project is having its way easily because of the absence of vigourous dissent on the national and international levels due to the lack of rigourous moral standards and cultural empathy. Peter Beaumont, as every other mainstream western agent of the media or intellectual, lacks both cultural empathy and rigourous moral standards.


Wolfie said...

I've always liked Chomsky. Even though we are at opposite ends of the political spectrum I like to think that rigorous analysis should not be bound by your own biased desires, notwithstanding I think that his social observations have always been more impressive than his purely political. I will however concede that of late he has got a little sloppy but I put that down to advancing age combined with the simple fact that these days thinkers think within a lot more hostile political environment.

I too think that the accepted narrative of events in Serbia are woefully inadequate and simplistic but alas its the victors that write history.

As you say, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions".

P.S. I think I'm going to scream if I see the "moral relativism" canard again sometime soon, tired cliché that it is.

Dr Victorino de la Vega said...

Peter Beaumont you say?
The same Peter Beaumont who’s the Trotskyite “caviar left” foreign affairs editor of the Observer?
The man who describes the Israeli-sponsored Debka News Agency as a “credible source of information on Arab and Islamic issues”???

Sophia said...


Thanks, I think you gave me the correct translation to 'L'enfer est pavé de bonnes intentions'.

I don't always agree with Chomsky because when it comes to the right of return of Palestinians he adopts a pragmatic and not a moral point of view.
You write: ''I will however concede that of late he has got a little sloppy but I put that down to advancing age combined with the simple fact that these days thinkers think within a lot more hostile political environment.'' I think Chomsky has never been in such a great shape, the second part of your explanation is correct and I would add that part of the explanation is that he is more criticised now as his thinking is gaining in popularity and, as a consequence, he is getting more exposure from mainstream media who are unfamiliar with this kind of rigourous thinking.

Sophia said...


Is Beaumont a Trotskyite ? Now that explains all. I have never seen one of them who have not messed up in his thinking and in his political or intellectual carreer !

Elizabeth said...

I admit I have never actually read Chomsky. But I have known quite a number of leftists around here who think he's great. I am well acquainted with how these Chomsky fans think and I have significant disagreements with them. Mostly, I find that their world view is a self-defeating one in which they see themselves and everyone else (except some poorly defined elite) as in a state of complete powerlessness. In other words, there are two groups of people--the vast majority of the powerless and the tiny minority of an all-powerful elite personified by "U.S. Corporate interests." The role of political organization, pressure groups, mass movements, voting etc. is completely discounted. I find so-called activists who follow Chomsky mainly want to sit around and talk, or make token protests. The last thing in the world they want to do is to seize power themselves, through some type of political involvement, because it's so much easier to complain from a position of powerlessness. Is Chomsky really moral, or is he just angry and wallowing in a state of self-righteous and totally vicarious victimization?

There is one other point here: I find that many Jews subscribe to the Chomsky analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it lets them off the hook. In other words, the U.S. doesn't support Israel because a highly organized set of pressure groups have infiltrated U.S. politics, but because the U.S. controls Israel as a "client state" hence Israel is just a pawn and the U.S. is the big bad guy. Rather convenient, no?

Sophia said...

Hi Elizabeth,

I think Chomsky's followers attitudes should not be pinned on Chomsky himself. My opinion is that people like Chomsky would not like to have any followers (in the sense that people will make theirs his claims without understanding them clearly and without criticism.

As for his attitude towards Israel, Chomsky was clear and honest about it. You knpw by now that isarel was the dream of all leftists in this world for quite a while. However, Israel turned on leftism, secularism and social egalitarianism and Chomsky, in his critic of Israel should be labeled in my opinion as a someone who has pinned some hopes on this state t be later greatly disappointed.

As for the lobby, no matter where you find yourself on this question nobody has actually dism,issed the facts in the W and M paper. People differed on the interpretation. Joseph Massad and As'ad Abukhalil, for example, have adopted a position similar to that of Chomsky and Finkelstein. I don't think that Chomsky and Finkelstein were trying to absolve the lobby but they were trying to reestablish a balance in the interpretation. However, I am rallying Kathleen and Bill Christison in Counterpunch in their critic of Chomsky and Finkelstein about the lobby: If, indeed, the US and Israel's interests are so convergent, there would be no need for the lobby. And one can argue that the lobby is here to ensure that there will be only one interpretation of the US's interests by different US administrations.

Since March 29th 2006