Noam Chomsky: Still Not Crazy After All These Years

Noam Chomsky has taken a lot of criticism on the left in recent years for his advocacy of voting for the lesser evil during the 2016 presidential election. His rationale was that the Republican Party and its presidential candidate were just too much of a threat to human survival. Aside from this strategic voting choice, he has never had much use for party politics in the United States. Before and after the 2016 election, his view has always been that “the only thing that’s going to ever bring about any meaningful change is ongoing, dedicated, popular movements that don’t pay attention to the election cycle.”[1] His view in 2016 was that one should take practical action to stop the worst from happening—hold your nose and vote Democrat—but then get back to the work that needs to be done over the long term. I disagreed because I thought the time was ripe for the Green Party to gain 20% of the popular vote, which would have been a change that radically transformed the political landscape. For the millions of Americans who believe global warming is an existential threat, voting Green was the only logical choice, but these millions decided to vote for the high-dollar Democrats instead.

That task of working beyond the election cycle is stalled because the left has a nasty habit of eating its own instead of building the necessary grand coalition to create an alternative to neoliberal capitalism and liberal plutocratic democracy. Paul Street wrote recently:

“the [U.S.] left” is still far too scattered, excessively siloed, overdependent on corporate foundations, overly identity-politicized, excessively episodic, excessively metropolitan and bicoastal, excessively professional and middle-class, insufficiently radical, insufficiently working-class, insufficiently anti-capitalist and insufficiently distanced from the dismal, demobilizing, depressing and dollar-drenched Democratic Party. Noam Chomsky’s judgment five years ago remains all too accurate today: “There is no real left now in the United States… there are probably more people involved than in the 1960s, but they don’t coalesce into a movement that can really do things. We’re not supposed to say it, but the Communist Party was an organized and persistent element. It didn’t show up for a demonstration and then scatter so somebody else had to start something new. It was always there and it was there for the long haul. … That mentality is basically missing… And it was during the 1960s, too.”[2]

What Chomsky says here is actually illustrated by the way the left reacts to him. The bourgeois left thinks Chomsky is too radical to be taken seriously, while the far left thinks he is a gate-keeper whose anarcho-syndicalism has failed historically whenever it was confronted with reactionary forces. The anarchists’ failing lies in their refusal to accept that Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Castro produced the only viable, lasting military resistance to capitalism and fascism. Others oppose Chomsky for his skepticism about the “Kennedy as Camelot” narrative—Kennedy as the president who, if he had lived, would have saved the United States and the world from the catastrophes that have unfolded since the1960s. Finally, the left has criticized him for his apparent support for some sort of international agreement that prepares an exit for Syrian President Assad. This would appear to contradict his argument (see below) that we should obey the United Nations Charter as the law of the land.

These criticisms are all valid issues for debate, but I refuse to pile on, especially now that Chomsky is old and deserves to be honored for his lifetime of educating millions of people around the world, and especially for opening the eyes of Americans to the workings of their own propaganda system. In 1992, I went to a premier screening in Vancouver of Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, and I look back on that film and the people I met that evening as a turning point in my own intellectual self-defense training.  The film didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, but what I knew was confirmed by the person at the center of the film, the filmmakers and by everyone gathered in the cinema that night—one of whom was the only East Timorese who had successfully received refugee status in Canada.

If Chomsky is now suddenly viewed as too mainstream, that is a sign of success. If I am now being urged to reject him as a gate-keeper for the status quo, that’s too much of a purity test. I hesitate to be the one begging people to be realistic after having condemned the lesserevilism of mainstream voting habits, but I don’t see the point of wasting time in the far margins of politics, waiting stubbornly for 99.99% of the population to magically transform, awaken and see that the time is ripe for revolution. 

That won’t happen without the sort of sustained educational efforts that are exemplified by Noam Chomsky’s lifetime work. If some on the left like losing so much, they are welcome to carry on. If some want to call Chomsky a gatekeeper who educates but stops at calling for revolution, that’s fine. That’s something to debate. I prefer to think of him as having been not a gate-keeper but a gateway to higher awareness for millions of people. It’s up to the next generation to take it farther.

This month Chomsky showed he still has his talent for separating signal from noise, for getting straight to a simple point that almost everyone fails to see. In his speech at the Two Minutes to Midnight, Nuclear Abolition Conference (New York City, May 12, 2018) he pointed out how much safer the world would be (and would have been) if United States leaders simply obeyed the highest law of the land, as described in Article Six of the sacred and revered United States Constitution. If only Americans cared about Article Six as much as they care about the Second Amendment… An excerpt from the speech follows.

Noam Chomsky, The Fate of Humanity, May 12, 2018 (link to video)
From Noam Chomsky’s opening talk at the
Judson Memorial Church, New York City

...let’s keep to the nuclear threat. There will be little disagreement here, I’m sure, on the compelling need to eliminate, to rid the earth of the scourge of nuclear weapons, and others today will surely discuss the many ways to approach this goal, but I would therefore like to say a few words about a different topic—different though a clearly related one which I don’t think receives the attention that it deserves.

We might approach the topic that I have in mind by formulating a simple question that is worth some reflection: What would happen if political leaders decided to obey the supreme law of the land, just our own laws?—In particular, [what would happen if they decided] to obey the United Nations Charter treaty made by the United States, which, in the words of the Constitution Article Six, is thus part of the supreme law of the land? That supreme law of the land obligates us to resort to peaceful means in the event of international disputes and to refrain from the threat [my stress] threat or use of force in international affairs. That’s an obligation under the constitution, and you might ask yourself when that legal obligation was last observed by the president or any other high officials. We might know the answer to that, and we might also reflect on what that means.

Article Six of Constitution of the United States (excerpt):

… This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding…

Adherence to the supreme law of the land in the past would have spared us many tragedies as well as some very near super tragedies. One crucial case instantly comes to mind. It should not be forgotten that adherence to the supreme law of the land would have saved us from what Arthur Schlesinger rightly called “the most dangerous moment in history,” Schlesinger’s term for the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

The frightening story should be familiar. I won’t review it except to mention that Washington’s, or Kennedy’s, terrorist war against Cuba, which of course was a serious violation of the US Constitution, was a significant factor in inducing Khrushchev to undertake the reckless act of placing missiles in Cuba, as scholarship now fully recognizes. Daniel Ellsberg, who followed the events closely from a privileged position within the government at that time, now concludes that the terrorist war was probably the prime factor in Khrushchev’s decision.

The facts about that are not as well-known as they should be, but you should recall that Kennedy’s official plan for the terrorist war was formulated in National Security Memorandum 181, September 1962, and I’ll quote it. The plan was “to engineer an internal revolt in October that would be followed by US military intervention.” That was a month before the Missile Crisis, and in fact terror was being escalated at that point in preparation, and it was a very serious matter. The record reveals that quite clearly. More than enough was surely known to Russia and Cuba.

In brief, respect for the US Constitution would very likely have averted the most dangerous moment in history, and it was no small matter… that we escaped by a near miracle, and it’s much too little understood.

Legality aside, there are perhaps some other reasons, other questions that might be raised about a murderous and destructive terrorist war, or so one might assume, but mistakenly. There’s a review of released government documents on the terrorist war by Harvard Latin American scholar Jorge Dominguez, and he writes that only once in these nearly thousand pages of documentation did a US official raise something that resembled a faint moral objection to US government sponsored terrorism. A member of the National Security Council staff suggested that the terrorist raids are haphazard and kill innocents, which might mean bad press in friendly countries. That’s it: “Perhaps it’s not a good idea.” That’s it. In a thousand pages of documentation [only that one suggestion] that terrorist war is a crime.

…Incidentally, for those of you who have read the Ex-Comm transcripts, the detailed transcripts of the deliberations about the crisis, it [the illegality of the terror] is literally not mentioned once. It just doesn’t matter. It’s our right to conduct terrorist wars, which lead to virtual destruction, and there’s no need to even think about it.[3]

… Respect for elementary moral values as well as respect for law would have spared the world this close brush with terminal disaster [in 1962]. It’s not the first time. It’s not the last time up until the present moment, and the same guiding principles—that is, simply observing law—offer promising ways to deal with the crises that led to the Doomsday Clock announcement [in January, 2017]—a world security situation as dangerous as there has been since World War II. The latest setting of the Doomsday Clock is as close as it’s come to terminal disaster since 1953 when (also set at two minutes to midnight then) the United States and later the Soviet Union exploded thermonuclear weapons.


[3] Chomsky could have also mentioned here that there was nothing illegal about Cuba having invited the Soviet Union to place a nuclear weapon deterrent on Cuban soil. It might have been considered a reckless move, but there were no international treaties or laws banning this right to self defense which, in the 1960s, five nations and the NATO and Warsaw blocs had already claimed for themselves. The United States also had undeclared nuclear weapons stationed in Japan, Okinawa and South Korea at this time.

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