Is Noam Chomsky Anti-American?

Historians/History


Following is a comment made by Mr. Webster in the course of an exchange on H-Diplo in early April. It was in response to a comment by Russil Wvong, who questioned Noam Chomsky's use of quotations.

While I am not a Chomskyan, I must confess that the notorious Professor Chomsky is among the contributors to an upcoming book I am editing on East Timor, and I feel compelled to say a word on this topic, even among people obviously more versed. Chomsky is of course not a diplomatic historian first and foremost, and this may account for some of the resentment that is heaped upon him. His concern in writing about U.S. foreign policy, I think, is less to advance a theory of American imperialism than it is to examine "the manufacture of consent" in democratic societies. Insofar as he has a theory on American foreign policy, it is not so very different than that of (say) William Appleman Williams and others in the "open door" school. Even as a polemicist, Chomsky must take a back seat to Williams. So [Russil] Wvong's web page caution -- "I'd say that Chomsky is not a reliable source of historical information. When reading Chomsky, you should be very careful to check his version of what happened against other sources" -- is worth underlining.

But when writing about East Timor, for instance, Chomsky is primarily interested in showing how the official "propaganda" line of successive U.S. governments was deployed. In the beginning, he suggests, the U.S. argued that Suharto's Indonesia was a force for good in Southeast Asia, a barrier to advancing Communism, and that the death toll in East Timor was exaggerated. As recently declassified records show, Ford and Kissinger gave explicit approval to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975 because of fears that the tiny country would become another Cuba in Southeast Asia, at a time shortly after the fall of Saigon. Carter and others agreed to continue supplying the arms that were used in Indonesia's war in East Timor, one which cost the lives of as many as one Timorese in three. All this was taking place at the same time as the genocide in Cambodia (Chomsky speaks of a "decade of genocide" beginning with the U.S. bombings in 1969 and continuing through the Khmer Rouge period, when most of the deaths took place).

Chomsky compares the media coverage of the two genocides and makes the case that one (Cambodia) was played up because it suited the interests of U.S. elites and the other (East Timor) was played down because it did not. In other words, there was "benign terror" which suited U.S. foreign policy interests and was ignored, and there was "constructive terror" which it suited U.S. interests to pay close attention to. Now, all this shows a lack of sensitivity to Cambodian victims, but Chomsky's main interest in clearly in exploring his "propaganda model."

Similarly today: the new line of U.S. government and elite sources is that the U.S. "looked away" or "failed to act" on East Timor until 1999. Chomsky's case, a fairly solid one, is that the U.S. government consistently gave active support to the Indonesian war in East Timor. His conclusions about U.S. foreign policy are secondary to his main conclusion that the public discourse on American policy is spun in such a way as to show American policy in the best light possible and enhance the popular conception that the United States acts out of international idealism.

And I think his popularity stems from this ability to provide what is on the face of it a plausible explanation of the gulf between rhetoric and actions. The direct challenge to dearly-held prevailing ideas explains to some extent why he is vilified in his own country by so many. ...

Chomsky is certainly more popular outside his country. His argument may discomfit non-Americans less, since they -- we -- are able to accommodate his views into an all-too-common condescending attitude towards Americans. (On the other hand, when Chomsky tried to criticize Canada on CBC radio, he was cut off.) I don't know that this, or anything he writes, makes him anti-American however. In fact there are few terms right now that are more abused and more in need of definition than "anti-American." Some of Chomsky's acolytes may have contracted "Ramsay Clark's disease," that strain of American exceptionalism that instead of seeing the United States as uniquely good sees it as uniquely evil. But Chomsky could just as easily say he is standing up for the best in America, the long tradition of dissent and the desire to re-make America as a country realizing its full democratic potential. Sometimes stridently, sometimes with errors in detail, he attempts to speak truth to power. What could be more in keeping with the ideals said to motivate American society?