The imperialism of Chomsky

As the specter of war has descended on Europe, the propagandists have come out in force. The far-left, whom I admire for many of their domestic positions, have been quick to blame everyone except those who are actually killing thousands of innocent civilians.

This critique of Chomsky’s position on Syria is equally relevant to Ukraine and well worth a read. While about Chomsky specifically, the criticisms are equally valid of the far left in general, such as Glen Greenwald or Michael Tracey.

Let’s take a look at some of the main points.

[Chomsky’s] scattered comments reveal that he views the Syrian struggle — as with every other struggle — solely through the frame of American imperialism. He is thus blind to the specificities of Syria’s politics, society, economy and history. What’s more, his perception of America’s role has developed from a provincial Americentrism to a sort of theology, where the U.S. occupies the place of God, albeit a malign one, the only mover and shaker.

The irony is that many of those who decry “yankee imperialism” can only view the world through the lens of domestic politics in the US. This is equally true of the Chomsky types and mainstream American politicians.

This war is either Trump or Biden’s fault. Nobody outside of the US has any meaningful agency.

The US domestic politics thing is an odd thing. For all the clamor of Trump being a Russian agent, Putin has invaded Ukraine twice while Biden has been in the White House. More likely than not, the US president was simply irrelevant to Putin. Or Trump as so genuinely unpredictable, that Putin feared escalation. I doubt we’ll ever know for sure, but I’d guess Putin simply didn’t care who the US president was.

Chomsky’s Americentric perspective tends systematically to minimize the crimes of states that are opposed to the U.S. In a recent interview published in DAWN in January 2022, he said: “You can hardly accuse Iran of illegal or criminal behavior by supporting the [United Nations’] recognized government” of Syria. Supporting a regime that Chomsky himself happens to describe as “monstrous” is not criminal or illegal, he insists. He finds nothing illegal about supporting a regime that denies its subjects any rights, and he thinks it would be illegal to punish that same regime for killing over 1,400 of its citizens with chemical weapons in a clear breach of international law. He said this to Independent Global News in September 2013.

The strange silence from Snowden and Assange continues. There’s no doubt that the US has done absolutely awful things. The American war machine is horrendous. Yet of the great powers — America, Russia and China, it’s hard to see the US as anything but the most benevolent, by far.

The war in Ukraine is one of the most white and black conflicts in recent memory. The Greenwald types simply can’t operate outside of the prism that the US isn’t the worst actor in the world.

It is not surprising that Syrians are not represented in his comments on Syria. Chomsky never refers to a Syrian, or quotes one, or even mentions a Westerner who supports the Syrian cause. His sources are the likes of Patrick Cockburn, who considers the regime a lesser evil, and possibly the late Robert Fisk, the British journalist who gave voice to sectarian killers like Jamil Hassan, the head of the notorious air force intelligence, and Suheil Hassan, the leader of the equally notorious Tiger Forces, but never to people critical of the chemical regime. All three share a “high politics” perspective centered on “recognized governments” — Russia, Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia — as well as jihadists and American imperialism.

This has been the most striking absence in most of the far left’s coverage of the war: zero Ukrainian voices. The fact that Ukrainians overwhelmingly don’t want to live under Russian rule and are openly choosing to join the West as part of their decolonization is simply impossible to comprehend.

That the majority of Ukrainians want to join NATO is irrelevant to them. America is evil, therefore Russia has to be right. Any Ukrainian that says otherwise is brainwashed, on Washington’s payroll or whatever.

I don’t think Greenwald or Tulsi Gabbard should be called traitors. I don’t think they should be “canceled”. Their opinions matter, and it’s always important to have a robust dissenting view in society.

On domestic matters, I mostly agree with their positions. They were right on Iraq and Afghanistan. There are valid points to be made about whether the US is being cautious enough to not come into a direct conflict with Russian, whether in Syria or Ukraine.

Nonetheless, Greenwald is an American imperialist in the mold of Chomsky. Both are willing to believe any old tinpot dictator over the Western alliance, even as millions of Ukrainians and Syrians face daily war crimes from Putin’s henchmen.

Diversity of opinions is essential, as is the right to be wrong. Chomsky’s idea of manufactured consent is central to how I view the media and politics. But that doesn’t mean I have to go all in on Chomsky-ism. Composite and complex views across a variety of positions are becoming more rare as the media wants to place us in homogeneous and polarized camps. I’m using this is as a reminder to be wary of joining any camp.