Monday, October 13, 2008

Chomsky Repeats

Via Norm, Noam Chomsky has given an interview to Spiegel Online in which he says many of the things he has been saying in interviews and assorted writings since at least the early 1970s (I wonder how many times he has quoted Walter Lippman's 'bewildered herd' comment?). A typical passage of the interview:

SPIEGEL: So for you, Republicans and Democrats represent just slight variations of the same political platform?

Chomsky: Of course there are differences, but they are not fundamental. Nobody should have any illusions. The United States has essentially a one-party system and the ruling party is the business party.

SPIEGEL: You exaggerate. In almost all vital questions -- from the taxation of the rich to nuclear energy -- there are different positions. At least on the issues of war and peace, the parties differ considerably. The Republicans want to fight in Iraq until victory, even if that takes a 100 years, according to McCain. The Democrats demand a withdrawal plan.

Chomsky: Let us look at the “differences” more closely, and we recognize how limited and cynical they are. The hawks say, if we continue we can win. The doves say, it is costing us too much. But try to find an American politician who says frankly that this aggression is a crime: the issue is not whether we win or not, whether it is expensive or not. Remember the Russian invasion of Afghanistan? Did we have a debate whether the Russians can win the war or whether it is too expensive? This may have been the debate at the Kremlin, or in Pravda. But this is the kind of debate you would expect in a totalitarian society. If General Petraeus could achieve in Iraq what Putin achieved in Chechnya, he would be crowned king. The key question here is whether we apply the same standards to ourselves that we apply to others.
As if on cue to confirm Chomsky's oft-repeated assertion that the USA's political parties are nothing more than two wings of the business party, news comes of a candidate for the US Senate in South Carolina -- a Democrat -- who has seen fit to wish away the realities of climate science:
It really is the arrogance of man to think that we are having any effect. I’m an engineer. So I understand that we don’t have constant things in the physical world. We have a lot of fluctuations.

And when we see, looking back how we have had fluctuations in temperature over time. And when we see how when I was a child we were told whether it was global cooling. We’ve been told in recent years well there’s global warming.
Neat! "I'm an engineer ..." -- QED? Um, that would an emphatic no.

As to Chomsky, his caricature of the parties' differences over Iraq is, to say the least, incomplete and unhelpful. While I have not taken the time to read the issues of Pravda printed at the time, I suspect Chomsky is correct to doubt that its pages featured wide-ranging debates about the moral and legal legitimacy of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, let alone the moral and legal legitimacy of the Soviet state itself. Likewise, political disputes in the USA, certainly as carried out in the actual halls of power and in the pages of opinion-setting publications, rarely dig down to first principles. They are free to do so (and Chomsky acknowledges the reality of free speech in the interview), and once in while they do, but political discourse tends to ride along at a few layers above the foundational.

It does not follow that the differences that do enter the mainstream and determine, directly and indirectly, the outcomes of elections, are trivial. They are not. Even if we take Chomsky's caricature of the Iraq debate at face value, the fate of tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Iraqis turns on the outcome. Nor would any participant in the debates deny those stakes.

Would a debate conducted over more fundamental grounds, starting from axiom versus axiom, serve better? Perhaps so. But we have to wage political campaigns with the society we have, not the society we wish we had. Urgent questions await.


Aimee Brons said...

Have you heard of Andrew Bacevich? He is a prof at Boston University, and he has written a book called THE LIMITS OF POWER: THE END OF AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM. I caught an interview with him on Bill Moyers Journal. He echoes some of the points that Chomsky asserts in the interview you posted, but perhaps in a more detailed light. I haven’t read the book yet (I’m waiting for our public library to pick it up), but it sounds interesting. Here is a link:

Dale said...

Aimee, the name is not familiar, but it sounds worth a follow-up. Thanks!