Friday, March 6, 2015

The Chomsky Method

If like me you were obsessed with Noam Chomsky at some point in your adolescence, then you probably outgrew him at some point since then -- but I'd wager you never fully transcended him either. You may have grown disenchanted with the Chomsky method as a whole, but there remain some shadows of its core questions in your mind, which periodically catch you up short. Such is the case with me. The most nagging -- and significant-- of all the questions successfully implanted by the Chomsky method (and it is something like the Ludovico technique, come to think of it) is that of the double standard in judging motives. When the adversaries of one's government abroad commit wrongs or invade countries, this question asks, perhaps you see in it only power politics. But when one's own state does the same thing, do you treat it in the same terms? Or do you immediately chalk it up to misguided benevolence on our part, excessive zeal for the good, well-meaning blundering? And if so, why? The obvious explanation, and this is the root of the self-doubt Chomsky rightfully wishes to implant, is that it is due to exactly the sort of ethno-nationalism to which all human societies have been depressingly prone throughout history. It's a question I find myself needing to answer once again; but first, I should define some terms. We'll begin with the Chomsky method.

The Chomsky method works as follows. You take an instance of horrific violence or atrocity that was committed recently by one of the United States' geopolitical nemeses. You state how terrible it is, and you quote a large number of Western politicians and establishment media outlets reiterating how terrible it is. The un-cautious reader, who has not been exposed to the technique before, feels thus far he is on safe and familiar ground. And it is at this very moment that there bursts into view the great Chomskyan middle finger that had been prepared for him from the start. The reader is reminded at this point of something just as bad that the United States government did at some point in the past half-century (dates are not especially important here). But you, un-cautious reader, didn't care about that incident! We didn't hear anything from you when that happened! Now aren't you ashamed of yourself? And this is typically where he leaves us. The middle finger writes, and having writ, moves on. 

The method is not a totally unhelpful exercise, but a few important things tend to be lost in it. For one, the method obscures the fact that Chomsky is generally not the only writer in the world to raise moral objections to Western foreign policy. It doubly obscures the fact that some of these objections even come from those establishment media outlets whom Chomsky has just selectively quoted to ensure they sound like one-dimensional shills of American hypocrisy. 

Most gallingly -- and most damagingly -- it leaves out of account the obvious third option, the one that stands somewhere between the shills and the Chomskys and which most of us on our best days try to occupy; that is, the option of trying sincerely to deplore both Western atrocities and non-Western ones. The Chomsky method seems to ignore the fact that just because someone is genuinely horrified by, say, the killing of people in France in a jihadi-motivated assassination, and wishes to express that horror, this does not mean she is callous toward people killed by American bombs or languishing in Guantanamo Bay or imprisoned on spurious charges by French law enforcement, etc. 

Among modern writers, only Glenn Greenwald seems to have perfectly replicated the Chomskyan technique under laboratory conditions, viz. his essay on the Charlie Hebdo killings. I remember thinking, after the reports of these killings and the further murders at the kosher supermarket the next day, that here if anywhere was something our intellectual class could join together in condemning. Even if we knew little at that early stage about the people who committed the attacks and what mental afflictions they suffered from, we would surely agree with one voice that the crime itself, and the ideology behind it, were utterly abhorrent -- and meanwhile that they merited the media attention and outrage they received. But I had underestimated the degree of slipperiness that the Chomsky method could obtain, at least in Greenwald's hands. It can seem most definitely not to agree with the sentiments expressed in this paragraph, without exactly contradicting them either.

But even if you finally chafe against the limitations of the Chomsky method, an early exposure to it remains salutary. It is a discipline of self-awareness and self-criticism that is the beginning of all moral honesty. Like any good method or discipline, one can make good use of it for a long time after one has shed or rethought some of the ideological presuppositions that first informed it.

In my case, the Chomsky method has ensured that anytime I opine in any way on American foreign policy, there is an inner Chomsky asking whether I have placed the emphasis of the criticism on the sins of my own society. He reminds me that it will always take greater moral courage to condemn these than the crimes of any other human collective. Usually, I am sad to say, I disappoint him. The trouble is that my inner Chomsky has to struggle to make his voice heard over the  inner Orwell and inner Koestler, who remind me, by contrast, that the point is simply to detest what deserves detesting, whether it happens in one's own society or not -- to hate prison camps and assassinations and propagandistic bombast whether one finds them here or in Putin's Russia or in the People's Republic of China. 

I don't always think, then, that my inner Chomsky is right; but I do feel his disappointment keenly.

The inner Chomsky, if he were to read my previous post on this blog, might agree that I lodge some valid criticisms against all sides. But I know precisely the thing about it that would leave him in dismay -- it's the fact that my analysis of American foreign policy, while critical of its effects on people, doesn't have much to say about power and its motivations. The inner Chomsky wants to know if I would write in the same way about other societies. Would I apply the same standard, say, to Putin?

It seems obvious to me, for instance, as to most people, that when Putin says he is annexing Crimea or supplying rebels in the Ukraine in order to protect Russian-speaking minorities and to restore historic national claims, that this is propagandistic twaddle, obscuring the motive of the power grab. The inner Chomsky agrees too, but he would only ever admit it in a roundabout way, as in making the following point. He says: Granting all of that is true, why should we not understand American policies in similarly cynical terms? Why should we not refer to them as power grabs? Is it because Americans are just plain different from other sorts of people? Because of our democratic culture? Our love of freedom? Our wholesome good nature?

The inner Chomsky thus goads me into recognizing such explanations for what they are: pabulum of the most finely-grained, oak-inlaid sort. Perhaps I should put that a bit more strongly. These explanations, viz. that America isn't motivated by power but rather by democratic generosity, that we are the "liberal empire," etc., take the same form as every other chauvinistic and supremacist ideology throughout history. They take the form of saying, in effect: "When we do it, it's different. We can be trusted with a type and degree of power we would not grant to others, because our culture and history has set us apart," and so on ad -- and allow me to accentuate this next word -- nauseum

One the other hand, explanations of foreign policy that try exclusively to find the finger prints of economic self-interest or some realpolitik motive in everything tend to run up against the problem that, if these explanations are valid, then people in power must be extraordinarily poor judges of what will benefit them in the long wrong. So many of our crimes and follies abroad seem ultimately to be self-destructive, even if they are primarily destructive of other peoples. Efforts to explain the Vietnam War by appeal to the natural resources of Southeast Asia, say, have been notoriously unilluminating. The Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan seems to have done that regime little good.

The other problem here is conceptual. The economic self-interest analysis wishes us to believe that people in power more or less understand themselves to be acting exclusively to their own benefit, others be damned. Yet I have never met a human being who was capable of thinking that thought, much less acting on it. We are a compulsively moral and moralizing species. It may even be true that in order for the human animal to form an intention of acting, it is necessary that the actions be explained in moral terms (however spurious), with morality here meaning, across all times and places, some basic idea that one should act for the good of others and not for oneself alone. I'm not sure it is possible to think the thought, "I am going to do this even though it will harm everyone else and only benefit me." There is a reason why even the people who do the worst things are such perennial spinners of tales and writers of manifestoes. 

Even if I am overstating the case, however, it is still certainly true that the more one becomes acquainted with human motivations, the greater one is impressed with two truths about them that seem at first to run in opposite directions. First: the number of real human beings -- as in, human beings who exist outside of the imaginings of conspiratorial worldviews-- who act purely out of their own subjectively-understood self-interest, is basically negligible. Second: the number of moral actions any of us engages in that has no element of power-seeking, personal vanity, and self-aggrandizement attached to it, is just as small.

The way, then, we seem to settle this on a daily basis is by recognizing that neither one of them actually matters! It is not really very important whether I subjectively understand myself to be doing good by you, if I could reasonably be expected to have known that in fact I was doing you harm. And if I behave kindly and compassionately to you for reasons not wholly untainted by a desire to fulfill a certain appealing image of myself, you probably wouldn't hold it against me -- within certain limits.

In one course I'm taking this semester, we are occupied at present with a typically unenlightening debate along these lines. This one is over whether or not white anti-slavery Quakers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were motivated to oppose the slave trade out of the pure goodness of their hearts, or because they subtly wished to legitimize a regime of wage labor from which they would benefit as industrialists. Team "legitimation" had to cope with the fact, unfortunately for them, that many Quakers who came to oppose the slave trade actually stood to lose financially from making that choice. This team quickly turns, then, from accusing such men of acting out of blatant material self-interest, to insisting that they were engaged in a more subtle (and even unconscious) effort at justifying their deeper values and way of life.  

I think most of us feel, in the presence of this uninspiring spectacle, that by the time we are talking about unconscious presuppositions in favor of the values that inform one's own lifestyle, we are talking about facts of human mentality so universal and unavoidable that they no longer cast any explanatory historical light on the deeds of eighteenth century Quakers. I suspect, secondarily, we feel that we are in danger of forgetting in all of this the fact that the slave trade was eventually abolished in the Atlantic through the efforts of these people, and this was a good enough thing that we don't especially care what cryptic admixture of Gramscian hegemony and will-to-power may have informed the outcome.

Conversely, then, what seems to be relevant when judging the actions of governments is not really their motivations anyways, or what distance these actions may carry them toward or away from power. If Putin is assassinating his opponents one by one (and there is good reason to think he is), if he is closing down alternative sources of information in Russia, if he wages atrocious wars against neighboring states, then it makes very little difference whether he subjectively experiences himself as a "disinterested" moral actor or not. (Let us pause here to remember the fact -- and I hope this will appease the inner Chomsky somewhat -- that Putin was already well engaged in his gangland-style activities back when he was officially our "partner in the War on Terror," etc. and the US government didn't seem so perturbed by them then. Bush even saw Putin's "soul" in his eyes, as you may recall from one touching moment.)

The same goes for the United States' indefinite detentions and bombing runs. Who cares if the Bush administration ordered people to be abducted and tortured in secret prisons because they wanted Iraqi oil or because they thought they were somehow "building democracy"? Does it make an iota of moral difference one way or the other? 

Much of the world's good has come from people who acted out of some degree of personal ambition. And a very great deal of the world's evil has proceeded from people who thought they were avenging righteousness, punishing evil, resurrecting humankind, so on and so forth. It's hard to explain the type of hatred that builds death camps or erects gulags on motives of finance. The inner Chomsky is right, to be sure, always to condemn the double standard, and the Chomsky method is right to seek ways of testing for it. But let the unitary standard we arrive at have something to do with what people actually do, rather than with their spurious or even lunatic reasons for doing it. 

And we find, using this standard, that the underlying claim of the inner Chomsky has been true all along, and remains true still: Our own society and our own government -- on our own watch -- does a lot of horrible things that we are far too quick to tolerate or ignore.

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