Thursday, 10 December 2009

A response to "Chomsky as Chavez's Clown"

Recently, the Venezuelan anarchist newspaper El Libertario published an article entitled "Chomsky as Chavez's Clown." According to the introduction to the English translation on the Anarchist Federation blog, the "article criticizes the weak and untenable posture the celebrated North American linguist and essayist holds in support of the current Venezuelan government." My question here is why, when people "rebut" Chomsky, do they rebut a strawman version of him manufactured purely for that purpose rather than the man himself?

The question raised by the article is this;
How can a man, apparently capable of reasoning, of critical analysis of what happens in the world, travel to Venezuela today to sing the praises of “XXI Century socialism” without noticing the military mentality of its inventor, Commander Chávez, nor the crass populism of his so-called Bolivarian Revolution? How can Chomsky commit the same error as some famous intellectuals of the past century, some praising Stalin and some, years later, revering Mao and his “Little Red Book”? They did so because they believed that in Russia and in China they were building the “true communism” and he does so now because he believes that in Venezuela “a new world, a different world” is being created. How can he forget that later all those intellectuals were forced to confess a “mea culpa” for their ideological blindness that prevented them from seeing what was behind the Stalinist and Maoist revolutionary discourse? That totalitarianism, responsible for the death of millions of people, inspired Castro to impose for fifty years a dictatorship in Cuba that Chávez devoutly imitates.
As so often, the question is easily answered with reference to Chomsky's own words. Below, taken directly from an interview published on, is Noam Chomsky's opinion on Chavez and Venezuela;
The important question, plainly, is what Venezuelans think about these matters. We have quite substantial evidence about this. One major source is the polls taken by Latinobarometro, the highly respected Chilean polling organization, which regularly monitors opinions in Latin America, in some depth. Their latest Latin America survey finds that Venezuela is tied for the lead with Uruguay in support for democracy and for the elected government, figures that have dramatically increased during the Chavez years. And that Venezuelans are well ahead of any other country in optimism about economic prospects. There is no shortage of bitter condemnations of Chavez in the media, but I did not see any of this reported.

My own feeling is that there is a mixture of quite promising forms of democratic participation, alongside of widespread corruption and authoritarian tendencies that are potentially dangerous. Civil liberties have been generally protected, even the harshest critics who are at all serious concede Some of the harshest criticism in the West concerns the government's refusal to renew the license of RCTV (which now broadcasts only on cable). I agreed that it was wrong. I also agreed with Western commentary that "it couldn't happen here." For very good reasons. It couldn't happen here because if there had been a military coup in the US that overthrew the government, disbanded Congress and the Supreme Court and every other democratic institution, and then was reversed by a popular uprising, and if CBS, say, had publicly supported the coup and grossly distorted what was happening so as to facilitate it, then CBS wouldn't have had its license revoked 5 years later. Rather, the owners and managers would have long ago been in prison or probably would have received the death sentence. It's fair to criticize violations of rights by an official enemy, but there should be some limits on hypocrisy.
What we read, then, is that Chomsky is critical of the "potentially dangerous" corruption and authoritarianism in the Chavez government. However, in this specific context, he is also critical of the "hypocrisy" apparent in otherwise "fair" criticisms of "an official enemy."

Does this mean that Chomsky is "reticent, because of self-interest or comfort, to denounce the dominating ways of these supposedly revolutionary demagogues?" No. As demonstrated above, this is not the case at all.

Does it mean that he believes "a kind of gradation must be made between injustices according to the degree of global danger posed by the targets of his criticism?" No. Chomsky's focus is America for the simple reason that "a hypocrite is a person who focuses on the other fellow's crimes and refuses to look at his own." For Chomsky, this is "elementary morality," as "we should pay attention to our own crimes and stop committing them."

What it does mean is that anarchists need to be wary of borrowing from the rhetorical devices employed by the corporate media and those servile to established power. The accusations rendered above resemble, in both their delivery and their depth, accusations by the American right that he "seemed to believe that tales of holocaust in Cambodia were ... propaganda."

As Chomsky said in response;
I would ask the listener whether he harbours any guilt for having supported Hitler and the Holocaust and insisting the Jews be sent to extermination camps. It has the same answer. Since it never happened, I obviously can't have any guilt for it. He's just repeating propaganda he heard. If you ask him, you'll discover that he never read one word I wrote. Try it. What I wrote was, and I don't have any apologies for it because it was accurate, I took the position that Pol Pot was a brutal monster, from the beginning was carrying out hideous atrocities, but the West, for propaganda purposes, was creating and inventing immense fabrications for its own political goals and not out of interest for the people of Cambodia. And my colleague and I with whom I wrote all this stuff simply ran through the list of fanatic lies that were being told and we took the most credible sources, which happened to be US intelligence, who knew more than anyone else. And we said US intelligence is probably accurate. In retrospect, that turns out to be correct, US intelligence was probably accurate. I think we were the only ones who quoted it. The fabrications were fabrications and should be eliminated. In fact, we also discussed, and I noticed nobody ever talks about this, we discussed fabrications against the US. For example a standard claim in the major works was that the US bombings had killed 600,000 people in 1973. We looked at the data and decided it was probably 200,000. So we said let's tell the truth about it. It's a crime, but it's not like anything you said. It's interesting that nobody ever objects to that. When we criticize fabrications about US crimes, that's fine, when we criticize and in fact expose much worse fabrications about some official enemy, that's horrible, it becomes apologetics. We should learn something about ourselves. If you're interested in the truth, which you ought to be, tell the truth about yourself and tell the truth about others. These fabrications had an obvious political purpose. Incidentally, we continually criticize the Khmer Rouge after the Vietnamese invasion. After the Vietnamese invasion, which finally threw them out thankfully, the US and Britain immediately turned to support Pol Pot. Well, we criticized that, too, we said, no, you shouldn't be supporting this monster. So yes, our position was consistent throughout. There's been a huge literature trying to show that there was something wrong in what we said. To my knowledge, nobody's even found a comma that's misplaced. And therefore what you have is immense gossip. My guess is that the person who just wrote this in has never seen anything we wrote, but has heard a lot of gossip about it.
Chomsky and the organisation Medialens faced similar accusations with regards to the Kosovo War. In response, they note that "apart from affirming that a massacre did take place, we have written virtually nothing about Srebrenica," which is "curious behaviour for writers arguing that "the genocide at Srebrenica was all a hoax."

Do anarchists also want to follow this model?

If we are to get anywhere, it is obvious that open and honest dialogue is needed on issues such as this. We cannot be shy of pointing out, for example, that visiting with Hugo Chavez as an honoured guest was a naive and foolish move on Chomsky's part. We should never be afraid of criticising even our "fellow travellers." But, if we are to offer a radical perspective, they must be honest criticisms, devoid of hypocrisy. Claiming that Chomsky holds to a "Manichean discretion" which "contributes to demobilize people and make even harder the task of those who do struggle against worldwide domination by Capital and the State" evidently does not fall into this category.