Only now, on overall reflection, we can see
that there is much of the implausible in it.
Nikolai Gogol, The Nose
In the beginning, Noam Chomsky was a tortoise supporting my universe. The little I have learned about generative grammars resonated with my embryonic conviction that diversity is bound to possess a common core to make navigation through the phenomenal world unfrightening. Piaget’s little book, Le Structuralisme, had once established Chomsky’s reputation in the eyes of a high school student.
A sixties’ lefty with gray ponytail of a length only those could have seen who had the chance to watch old peasant women comb their hair in the morning, before covering the bun they gathered it into with their kerchief. A sixties’ lefty keeping company with another gray ponytail of the same first name, both teachers of the same discipline. They have lunch before retiring with the academic rank it had been their lot to reach. I listen for the first time to American left wing intellectuals exchanging ideas over lunch. Their grown children are my age; in a windowless office of a state university one of them, a West Coast programmer in Birkenstocks, tells me of Chomsky. He is among the few good things the institution of tenure produced. Tenure afforded Chomsky shelter, making it possible for him to become an unafraid speaker of truth. I buy at a garage sale one of Chomsky’s volumes, busy to eke out a career never read it, and endow its author with extra glow.
Already seeing the light at the end of my personal tunnel, I resumed asking the questions that I had shelved for some time, when Boston Mobilization was selling for $10 the privilege to witness Chomsky expose in a Cambridge church the first 100 days in office of the Bush Administration. He spoke about manufacturing consent, and about the hypocritical peace process in the Middle East, meticulously misrepresented by the media. I did not know the extent to which he has written and lectured on these subjects before, and was decidedly impressed by the detail of his documentation. I was impressed by Chomsky’s conceitedness too, its aftertaste enhanced by the aggressive fundraiser following his lecture. I recorded my impressions in an email to a colleague and left it at that.
His name came up again in a chance conversation with a colleague I respect, about a year ago. Chomsky accedes to the virtues of sound thinking, but rejects the hazy dialectics, I was told.
Mara, my daughter came during mid-winter break with Manufacturing Consent in her suitcase. It is not easy to grow up in a West Coast suburb and pick up more along the way than what the advertisements of a campaign or other in Teen magazine are willing to sell you as social consciousness, for a modest contribution; no easier than living with the awareness of one’s dismal performance as an absentee father, who could scarcely claim to have outperformed Teen magazine.
Shortly before Mara’s visit I had an exchange with the same colleague of dialectical memory about the impending war. I tried to articulate my skepticism of dusting off banners from the Viet Nam era, going through the same motions that had eminently failed us before; that, worse than ineffective, these protests obstruct our prospects to finding better means by lulling us instead into the cozy kinship with the Care-Bears. Such debates would run aground with a screech, leave me frustrated, and my counterpart with the uneasiness of a near miss with a weirdo. My friend’s earnestness made me realize this time, that something basic escapes me.
Here was Mara, college bound, for the first time beknownst to me, trying on the world one size bigger than the realm of personal wishes and wants, and an academic I respect, wielding dull and rusty weapons in an attempt to change it. With the Iraqi war in sight, Chomsky, and what he stands for in the eyes of many, was a focal point of sorts. I had to confront my impressions of a fleeting talk biased by the sleaze of his hosts. I had to confront my dislike, and articulate it, for neither in that lecture, nor in the few scores of pages I read from Manufacturing Consent from Mara’s suitcase, was there anything that I could object to. And yet…
Everything should be made
as simple as possible, but not simpler.
(attributed to Albert Einstein)
I set forth and dutifully read all the nearly six hundred pages, including foot and endnotes of the 1999 edition of Fateful Triangle, advertised on the back cover as a “seminal tome on Mideast politics, a classic in the fields of political science and Mideast affairs … this new, updated edition highlights the book’s lasting relevance”. Edward Said introduced it in his foreword as “perhaps the most ambitious book ever attempted on the conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians”.
Chomsky’s preface to the updated edition cuts to the chase, and it is not until the third chapter, that he states his assumptions. The chase” consists in a thoroughly documented chronological catalog of the atrocities committed by Israelis from before the declaration of the statehood in 1948 till the Lebanon War of 1982, with some updates ending in 1999; a number of quotes from Israeli politicians on the Palestinian question, illustrating their ruthlessness and cynicism; a plausible presentation of the thesis of Israeli rejectionism and the U.S. support of this policy; finally, convincing evidence to the effect that the U.S. media is willfully misrepresenting the facts in order to manipulate public opinion against the Palestinians, and to rally support of the unjust rejectionist policy of the U.S. – Israeli partnership. Within the confines of this essay I shall accept all of Chomsky’s factual claims set forth in the book. Now his assumptions:
Chapter 3. Rejectionism and Accommodation.
1. A Framework for Discussion.
What have been the attitudes and policies of the major participants in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and those concerned with it, during the period since 1967, when the U.S.-Israel relationship became established in something like its present form? To approach this question sensibly, we should begin by clarifying what we take to be the valid claims of those who regard the former Palestine as their home. Attitudes towards this question vary widely. I will simply state certain assumptions that I will adopt as a framework for discussion. The first of these is the principle that Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are human beings with human rights, equal rights; more specifically, they have essentially equal rights within the territory of former Palestine. Each group has a valid right to national self-determination in this territory. Furthermore, I will assume that the State of Israel within its pre-June 1967 borders had, and retains, whatever one regards as the valid rights of any state within the existing international system. One may formulate these principles in various ways, but let us take them to be clear enough to serve at least as a point of departure. [page 39]
These 190 words constitute the theoretical framework for the analysis of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Therefore, a closer look is in order.
On the grounds that “Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are human beings with human rights, equal rights”, they do not have, “essentially equal rights within the territory of former Palestine”. I doubt that the Hungarians would be welcomed back by their Udmurt cousins, although they will have spent only half as much time abroad, as the Jews. It is only on the grounds of the Biblical tradition, that the Jews have a claim to the land of Israel. Aside from this, they are intruders, who settled the land of the Palestinians against the desire and the will of the latter, aided by the political circumstances of the two World Wars to rally international support for the establishment of Israel in 1948.
Accordingly, the existence of the State of Israel within or without its pre-1967 borders is legitimate either on grounds other than abstract human rights, or is not legitimate at all.
The next notion introduced is that of the right to national self-determination. From the existence of the American, French, or German nations the existence of a Jewish and a Palestinian nation are inferred. The long and complicated process of nation formation is made to appear an instantaneous exercise of a self-explanatory right.
Chomsky’s assumption, “that the State of Israel within its pre-June 1967 borders had, and retains, whatever one regards as the valid rights of any state within the existing international system”, places a heavy burden on the UN resolution that authorized the creation of Israel. A conceivable subsequent resolution, mandating, let’s say, the expulsion of the Jews or of the Arabs, could then be as valid as the one it would replace. In which case, the ongoing conflict is but the reenactment, or a continuation, of the turmoil preceding the 1947 resolution.
The notions fudged into the quoted paragraph are (in order of appearance): (1) human beings with human rights, equal rights (2) equal rights within the territory of former Palestine. (3) valid right to national self-determination in this territory. (4) valid rights of any state within the existing international system. Chomsky makes the promise to “approach this question sensibly”. A careful reading reveals that his assumptions don’t add up to an “acceptable framework” for the analysis of the Israeli-Arab conflict, or even a sensible approach.
The promise Chomsky makes here and he does keep, is that this is “a point of departure”. There are more remarks scattered throughout the book, all worth paying attention to. A pedantic reader may have preferred them better organized, but the author of this “most ambitious book ever attempted” on the subject did not find it important.
On page 42, Chomsky discusses the international consensus regarding the necessity of a “two-state settlement”, apt to satisfy “the valid claims of the two major parties as well as is possible under existing conditions”. He then concludes by writing:
A simpler but quite accurate formulation would be that U.S.-Israeli rejectionism has consistently blocked the achievement of “a viable and equitable comprehensive settlement” [quoting Seth Tillman, The United States and the Middle East, pp. 276-277].
The settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict (consistently blocked by the U.S. – Israeli rejectionism) was deemed at the beginning of the paragraph “as good as possible under existing conditions” and became a “viable and equitable comprehensive settlement” by the end of it. The new wording is deemed “simpler and quite accurate” . Now is it one way, or the other? Or perhaps the distinction is academic. We need not wonder too long, for Chomsky soon comes to our help.
In the unlikely event that it [the two-state settlement] is realized, a major security problem will remain – namely, for the Palestinian state, confronted with one of the world’s major military powers and dependent of the most conservative elements of the Arab world for survival. [Pp.45-46]
Dependency on foreign aid comes second to the security threat posed by Israel. We will return to this in a moment.
Furthermore, Israel is now heavily dependent on the West Bank for water, a more significant commodity than oil in the Middle East. Its own water supplies are exploited to the maximum limit, and it is now estimated that about 1/3 of Israel’s water is from the West Bank. [Page 47]
Hence, a two-state settlement will necessarily be inequitable, or an equitable one will not be viable, depriving either Israel, or the Palestinians, or both, of “a more significant commodity than oil in the Middle East”.
Let us now return to the prospects of a Palestinian state “dependent of the most conservative elements of the Arab world for survival.” There is a wealth of truth stuffed into this brief statement. The natural resources of the West Bank and Gaza, even after having eliminated the burden by dismantling the Jewish settlements, are insufficient to support the Palestinian population. In other words, according to Chomsky the international consensus advocates, in the name of human rights and the rights of national self-determination, the creation of a state predicted by its champion to depend on handouts for survival. In addition to the internal situation of a Palestinian state of such design, hardly compatible with the notion of human dignity, the security problems Israel will face, with a neighboring populous and resentful country unable to support its citizens, are “not impressive” (see the full quote below).
One wonders what measure of support can one anticipate on the part of these “most conservative elements of the Arab world” that have a track record, according to Chomsky, to not have supported the nationalist efforts of the Palestinians:
Or it is argued against the Palestinians that the Arab states have not supported their nationalist efforts, a stand that contrasts so markedly with the loving attitude that Europeans have shown towards one another during the centuries of state-formation there. Other familiar arguments are at about the same moral and intellectual level. [page 45]
The attitude of the Arab world should not be criticized, on account that Europe was no better during the centuries of state-formation there. On the other hand:
Whatever merit the charge of hypocrisy may have, the fact is that brutal and inhuman practices that were tolerated when the plague of European civilization spread over much of the world no longer are. [p.167]
In keeping with Chomsky’s methodology, I could now move on, after a bilious remark about the moral and intellectual level of the argument. I shall deviate from his standard in order to belabor the obvious, saving the joy to pour my scorn for later. Let us summarize what we learned so far:
In the name of human rights and the right of national self-determination, the Palestinian Arabs are entitled to an independent state, which cannot survive without subsidies from the most conservative elements of the Arab world, who did not support the nationalist efforts of the Palestinians in the past. And while the Arab states are justified to model their loving attitude on European precedents, Israel should acknowledge that the brutal and inhuman European practices once tolerated, no longer are. Amen. The Jews should also revise their arbitrary need for a commodity more significant than oil. Conclusion:
Whatever security problems Israel would then face do not compare with those it has been in the process of creating for itself by its commitment to expansionism and confrontation, which guarantees endless turmoil and war, and sooner or later, probable destruction.
Though Israel’s security concerns – by now, in large part self-generated- are not to be dismissed, they do not provide an impressive basis for U.S.- Israeli rejectionism, even if we were to accept the familiar tacit assumption that the security of the Palestinians is of null import. [page 46]
For someone “capable of registering contradictions, distinctions and lapses which occur between [his staggeringly complete sources]”, this much could suffice. Those of us of lesser gifts are still not content to drop the case. We keep wondering, why would the Jews not seize on the opportunity offered by the international consensus and advocated by Noam Chomsky, and accept such a viable and equitable comprehensive settlement? Chapter 4 (Historical Backgrounds) concludes thus:
The conflict over Palestine has sometimes been depicted as one of “right against right”, an arguable – and in my view defensible- proposition, though naturally not one that the Palestinians are likely to accept as morally valid. It is not clear that there is much to be gained by pursuing the question. (p. 168.)
There is indeed little to be gained, if we wish to make our modest contribution toward the achievement of “a viable and equitable comprehensive settlement”. But perhaps, there is something to be gained, by pursuing this question, if we stubbornly want to understand the world we live in, instead of advocating attractive and unattainable remedies for its ailments. The result may well be unsatisfying. Perhaps, we will discover, that illustrious scholars are no more articulate than the politicians taking cheap shots at some axis of evil.
The right of the Jews to the land of Israel if there is such a right, cannot be found anywhere else, except in the Biblical tradition. The notion is fraught with difficulties. The Jewish ties to Israel come as a package deal, complete with the Jews’ controversial view of themselves, not shared even by all Jews. Nevertheless, they cannot be discarded in one bold move, without first disentangling the skein of Mosaic tradition.
The definition of the Jewish state criticized by Chomsky flows from the premise of Jewish identity. A national state defined as that of its citizens is attractive as the notions of human rights flaunted earlier. True, the United States of America is the state of its citizens; I don’t know to which other states it applies, but at least Germany and Hungary take a special interest in ethnic Germans and Hungarians living outside their respective borders. The Jewish identity was characterized by and often criticized for “clannishness” (see Erich Fromm and Yehoshafat Harkabi, to name only two Jewish critics from a broad spectrum). Contrasting the Jewish State with a hypothetical Sovereign State of Christian Whites as Chomsky does is an easy way to make look like a monstrosity something that is complex and problematic. The analogy is faulty on multiple accounts. First, there is no need to postulate a hypothetical idiosyncrasy, as long as existing countries offer grounds for empirical comparison (Hungary and Germany, at a minimum). Second, Christianity is a supranational religion by definition, while Judaism is national; third, because (to make things more confusing), the Jewish religion, while it does not proselytize, someone embracing it becomes a Jew, a Semite and an Israeli citizen (real or potential), irrespective of race. In other words, the racist and elitist basis of the Jewish state, stipulated by Chomsky, is in fact neither one nor the other. I wonder, whether the idea of a Sovereign State of Christian Whites stems from Chomsky’s slovenly haste to make a point, or from contempt for his readers.
Without taking sides one can see that whether it is “a right against right” situation or otherwise, Chomsky’s view is unsubstantiated. This is not to deny the human suffering inflicted upon the Arabs by the Israelis, and the fact that the Palestinians have killed, maimed or otherwise harmed a lesser number of Jews. Based on what Chomsky presents, no more than this can be said about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis with clarity: Israel’s existence is admitted as a bald fact, leaving the door open for Arab invectives about the Zionist conspiracy. The legitimacy of the Palestinians’ desire for a national state is stipulated on the ground of human rights, and Chomsky makes the case, against his own wish, that a two-state solution would not be viable.
In our secular mythology, whatever issue can be made to appear reducible to human rights, the solution seems obvious; it follows that only due to either or both parties being unaccommodating, that the conflict remains unsolved. My analysis of Chomsky’s “framework” does not do away with this assumption. While leaving untouched the lofty principles dear to many, we remark that Chomsky has failed to show how they bear on the principal aspects of the Israeli-Arab conflict. It is true that, while Chomsky’s framework has crumbled, I did not propose an alternative that could fulfill a basic need, namely, to view the problem in terms rendering it susceptible to an obvious and attainable solution, responsibility of which can be assigned. Conjuring human rights is convenient, because it follows that the Israelis should respect them, the U.N. should enforce them, and the U.S should not interfere with them. It does not appear important to understand why is that Israelis, the U.N. and the U.S. don’t do what they are supposed to, or how should we, the concerned citizens, go about enforcing these values, for it is quite satisfying to assign blame, speak the truth and expose the lies. This is part of the reason why Chomsky has been comfortable for thirty-six prolix and prolific years to go on in his self-appointed job of “the devil’s accountant” as he was charitably referred to. He went on clipping the news, while the media, the U.S. government and Israel were doing the work for him, manufacturing new lies to cover up new atrocities and more consent that he can then expose, regardless of whether or not exposure leads to change. The result is what Hegel referred to as “no more than a device for evading the real issue, a way of creating an impression of hard work and serious commitment to the problem, while actually sparing oneself both”.
The conclusion of a lucid reading of Chomsky is that the Arab-Israeli question is not susceptible to an obvious answer. It is not the purpose of this essay to further the inquiry, but a few pointers are apparent: the notions of the rights of the Jews to the land of Israel and of the Palestinians to live undisturbed in that land cannot be assumed as given, but must be considered in depth; ditto for the notions of nationhood, national self-determination and that of historical precedents in international affairs. These issues should be approached not by applying cherished and dear principles to the facts, but rather by means of historical, cultural and philosophical analysis. Perhaps the most difficult will be to explain in secular terms the Biblical tradition, its historical role and effectiveness. It is nowadays simply not a matter of debate, whether or not the thunderous voice of someone whose butt crack Michelangelo portrayed commanded a gang of ex-slaves from Egypt to settle the land of Israel. It will be challenging to account for this as a plausible basis for very real claims to a country. As the record shows, varnishing this unruly amalgam of history and fairy tale with the more enlightened concepts of cultural heritage and the like did not help to understand the power and effectiveness, much less the structure of what accounts for the survival of the Jewish people.
By realizing the irrelevance of the position expressed (I almost wrote articulated) by Chomsky, we gain nothing “positive”. Instead we are saddled with uncomfortable consequences: dear principles become un-operational; we must face up to the difficult task that lays ahead, and we can not see the light at the end of the tunnel. This awareness alone seems sufficient to make us embrace Chomsky’s noble righteousness.
According to Fateful Triangle, Israel’s rejectionism and the atrocities committed against the Palestinians are made possible by U.S. support; the role of the media consists in providing cover-up for outrageous facts and propaganda to put the remaining ones in a favorable light, and to rally support for Israel and its U.S. sponsors.
The fact of the U.S. support of Israel is established by Chomsky’s argument, if this was necessary in the first place; its legitimacy is merely contingent on that of Israeli rejectionism. Until one answers the latter, one can only maintain that, for whatever reason the U.S. government finds it advantageous for the nation whose interests it represents to support Israel, it is merely fulfilling its mandate by so doing. The point that survives from Chomsky’s argument is that Israel, with U.S. support, has inflicted more harm on the Palestinians than the Palestinians inflicted on Israelis. Since Chomsky has refused to undertake a similar “grisly calculation” on a previous occasion, and since my aim here is only to shed further light on the “lasting relevance” of this “seminal tome”, I consider myself exempt from this pursuit.
Whatever else might be said about the Middle East conflict, facts are facts and by not reporting them truthfully, the U.S. media is in dereliction of duty. Worse, the published news are heavily biased in Israel’s favor, the Palestinian atrocities are blown out of proportion compared to those Israel perpetrates; the commentaries are no better. One could not wish for more examples to this effect, purveyed by Chomsky in this book and in countless previous and subsequent writings. Chomsky wrote extensively on the art of manufacturing consent, its mechanics and what fuels the zeal of its executioners. The same happy family of corporations that derives incredible profits from the U.S. control of the Middle East also owns and controls the media, and is responsible for manipulating its content.
It is not in the scope of Fateful Triangle to discuss in detail just how the Arab-Israeli conflict ensures the U.S. control of the Middle East, and how this in turn translates into increased profits for select U.S. corporations. We can intuit the links well enough to accept Chomsky’s view.
The interests of misguided Jews and of greedy corporations standing to profit from the conflict can account for the tragic situation, but they can not account for its distorted media coverage. We must identify a third interest group to satisfy the following requirements: it must share Chomsky’s values regarding human rights, the right to national self-determination etc.; it must demand that these values be upheld in print, but not to see them guide the real business of international affairs. This interest group must be powerful enough to effectively pressure the corporations controlling the media into meeting their demands. We must look for an interest group with a real need for fictitious values. It sounds twisted, but short of postulating this, we would be forced to accept the implausible notion that powerful and efficient corporations, normally unwilling to undertake anything that will not result in increased profits could be pressured by lunatics in pursuit of a futile exercise.
Such an interest group can be found. George Kennan gives us a historic pointer:
And let us not forget the Kellog Pact: one of the strangest and most bizarre of the episodes of modern diplomacy. Here was an instance in which competing groups of well-meaning peace enthusiasts in our country succeeded needling two harried Foreign Ministers, M. Briand and Mr. Kellog, into an embarrassing involvement from which the latter could see no graceful exit except by pressing all the nations of the world into associating themselves with one of the most meaningless and futile of all international engagements. For months the two unhappy statesmen were obliged to duel publicly with each other to see who could appear most concerned for world peace without sacrificing anything real from the standpoint of national interest. [my emphasis] […] People were encouraged to place solemn hopes and expectations in the enterprise. Millions took it in dead serious. […] Yet the final solution could not, as might have been foreseen, have been more sterile. When World War II came along, twelve years later, even the memory of the Pact of Paris was lost in the general shuffle.
The well-meaning peace enthusiasts who wished to appear most concerned for world peace without sacrificing anything real are the group of peculiar interests postulated above. Just who is the constituency of this powerful interest group?
Dwight Macdonald, whom Chomsky holds in high regard, comes in our help. This is what he wrote in 1947:
Thus the actual production of American foodstuffs is enough to greatly increase the present starvation-levels rations of German people. The obstacles to such a decent and farsighted policy are of a commercial and psychological nature. No large number of Americans seem to give a damn whether the people of Germany – or of Europe and Asia for that matter – are starving or not. The fact that it has taken CARE over a year – despite a big newspaper advertising campaign – to dispose of a few million food parcels is one indication. Another is the fact that only 3,065,000 food parcels were mailed from the U.S.A. to people in Germany between June of last year and December 27; I hazard the guess that more than three million Americans have relatives now living in Germany, which would work out to one package per German-American in six months, assuming that no packages at all were sent by Americans without relatives in Germany! The farmers don’t give a damn: they forced the Government to give them a bonus last spring before they would deliver wheat for export, and even then they held back for higher prices. (In mid-December, 1946, wheat prices were higher than they have ever been, except in the Civil War and World War I.) The trade unions are indifferent: great suffering was caused in Europe by first the maritime strike and then the coal strike but, so far as the labor and liberal press reports at least, there was no consciousness of this among the strikers. The businessmen, and their Republican allies, have been the most callous and selfish of all: the chief reason for the low ration level in Germany is the abolition of the domestic price controls by the Truman administration under the pressure of businessmen and speculators. […]
We may conclude this survey with a report from Time of July 15, 1946, which epitomizes the profit-and-loss spirit in which the American public – business, labor, and politicians as well as farmers – approach the question of feeding the hungry.
A Time reporter interviewed a prosperous Kansas wheat farmer and asked him why he and his neighbors were refusing to sell their grain to the Government for export, despite the high market prices then prevailing. […] Said he: ‘I know there are people starving in Europe, and I’d like to help them. But this is a business. If I sell even half of $13,600 worth of wheat, I’ll get into a higher income bracket and my tax will go sky-high. […] I’ve got to stay in business.’”
Frank Anderson is a kindly-looking fellow, and he’d “like to help” the “people starving in Europe”. So are most of our farmers, businessmen, workers, and politicians kindly folk, and they would no doubt also “like to help”. But business is business.
The complex mechanisms of manufacturing consent are another means for the U.S. government to once again uphold the interests of its electorate. The consent is already given, the government is “pre-approved”. What one must manufacture is a reality that conforms to ideals without sacrificing anything real from the standpoint of national interest. The media successfully accomplishes this task.
I am no expert of Middle Eastern affairs, and Chomsky’s towering authority compelled me to take at face value all the facts that he presents. In so doing, I utterly failed to make sense of them. The suffering of the Palestinian people is a sad fact. There is hardly someone to disagree with Chomsky, that it should not be so. Aside from this commendable feeling, Fateful Triangle only adds to our confusion, and if this is indeed “the most ambitious book ever attempted on the conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians”, we are indeed, as George Steiner suspected, “in a very complex trap”.
The following is a fragment from an interview Chomsky gave in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It is representative for evolution of his thinking in recent years.
[Question-Miguel Mora for the Spanish daily El País] What do you suggest the citizens of the Western world could do to bring back peace?
[Chomsky’s response] That depends what these citizens want. If they want an escalating cycle of violence, in the familiar pattern, they should certainly call on the U.S. to fall into bin Laden’s “diabolical trap” and massacre innocent civilians. If they want to reduce the level of violence, they should use their influence to direct the great powers in a very different course, the one I outlined earlier, which, again, has ample precedents. That includes a willingness to examine what lies behind the atrocities. One often hears that we must not consider these matters, because that would be justification for terrorism, a position so foolish and destructive as scarcely to merit comment, but unfortunately common. But if we do not wish to contribute to escalating the cycle of violence, with targets among the rich and powerful as well, that is exactly what we must do, as in all other cases […].
The question was clear. Chomsky’s sermon starts with a spin, pretending that it asked something else: “That depends what these citizens want” and follows a three-step downward spiral: (1) “If they want an escalating cycle” (2) “If they want to reduce the level of violence” and finally, (3) “if we do not wish to contribute to escalating the cycle of violence”. The actual terms of the question are ignored: it assumed neither the desire to escalate nor to reduce violence, but to bring back peace. (In Chomsky’s view, there was no peace to begin with, so there is nothing to bring back; this could have been an easy way out, but the call of duty was louder.) Now let us see, what were the concerned citizens holding their breath to hear: “they should use their influence to direct the great powers” . What we need to do, if we wish to direct great powers, is to use our influence (all of it, I suppose). Whereto shall we direct them? “in a very different course, the one I outlined earlier”. Obviously different, for it is peace that we want. But I could not find any direction Chomsky has outlined earlier in this interview, or earlier in this book. He is responsible for eighty-odd previous book, and I did not read them all. If anyone can point me to the outline I missed of where should we direct the great powers by using our influence, please send me an e-mail.
Next, Chomsky invites the citizens of the Western world to show “a willingness to examine what lies behind the atrocities”. Had Chomsky followed his own advice, he would have spared me the trouble of analyzing Fateful Triangle, from which all I could gather was that behind the atrocities of the Jews there is the U.S., behind which there are profit-hungry corporations, which was not edifying. He must have realized the importance to examine what lies behind the atrocities some time between the revision of the seminal tome (January, 1999) and the date of this interview (September 20-22, 2001).
An important remark follows: the opposite view (that one should not examine what lies behind the atrocities), although common, does not merit comment because it is foolish and destructive. I beg to differ: it is precisely the foolishness and destructiveness of commonly held views that warrant our utmost attention and effort in fighting them. The more commonly foolish and destructive views are held, the more we should take them in earnest.
This is not an excerpt from a silly interview with a socialite on his way to a reception. The questions were e-mailed and so were the responses; they were then collected in a book and edited, presumably with input from the author, unless he was busy giving more interviews. The readers – members of the general population, sick of the manipulated media and patronizing journalism, thirsting honest, well informed opinion guided by a noble moral stance reflecting their interests and their aspirations.
Noam Chomsky’s 9-11 is not a seminal tome, but it is a best-seller.
Some of Chomsky’s critics have accused him of factual errors, even misrepresentations. To question his empirical foundations amounts, however, to granting him more plausibility than warranted. Chomsky’s principial foundations are deeply marred from the very beginning of his political career.
Chomsky’s first political essay entitled “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” appeared in the February 23, 1967 issue of The New York Review of Books. The question hits home for many of us. Not so the answer: “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies” Back in 1967, Chomsky too found it unsatisfying, and the essay ends on a note of hesitation, rather than indignantly, as his later writings will. George Steiner, then a Fellow at the New York University Schweitzer Program in the Humanities insisted in a letter published a month later:
The intellectual is responsible. What then shall he do?
I do not ask in order to make a debater's point. But in deep personal perplexity. Perhaps we are in a very complex trap. The present Administration and Congress do appear to represent the duly expressed views of a majority of our fellow-citizens. We are committed to the full rights and power of that expression. Not one Congressman has been elected on a true anti-war platform. We feel with anguish that we know better, that an elite of conscience and insight must be heard. But how, and in what politically active form? If we cannot act politically, or only very slightly, what then can we do personally, now, in our professional and private lives? How can we help subvert the ugly, inhumane coexistence of a brilliant intellectual and artistic culture with a simultaneous Vietnam policy which many of us find self-defeating and abhorrent?
Does your essay not stop almost at the point where it ought to begin?
Chomsky starts his response with equal candor: “I not only appreciate what you said, but also agree without essential reservations with the criticism that you voice. I do feel that the crucial question, unanswered in the article, is what the next paragraph should say.”
He missed the specifics of Steiner’s question, as he was later to miss, or ignore, the specifics of Miguel Mora’s. Chomsky never wrote that next paragraph, nor did he hesitate to add upward of ten thousand pages to the preamble. The achievement is spectacular. Recognizing the foundations as laid down in 1967 helps to understand the inevitable shoddiness of Chomsky’s political oeuvre. It is worth our while to read his entire response to Steiner’s letter.
Chomsky goes on recounting what he did, by way of response to the iniquities of Vietnam and rationalizing (by his own admission) what he did not, namely to resign, as Steiner suggested, from MIT. He will hasten to amply retract his closing chastisement on the next occasion:
Finally, I would like to reformulate a comment that I made in a letter to George Steiner that was printed in NYR, March 23rd, namely: “as to MIT, its involvement in the war effort is tragic and indefensible.” This statement is unfair, and needs clarification. As far as I know, MIT as an institution has no involvement in the war effort. Individuals at MIT, as elsewhere, have a direct involvement, and that is what I had in mind. I do think that such involvement on an individual basis is tragic and indefensible, because the war itself is tragic and indefensible. There are important further questions as to whether or to what extent participation in the coercive activities of governments is consistent with a dedication to the intellectual values that a university should preserve and defend. At the same time, there is a question to what extent, if at all, a university should set conditions on the individual activities of faculty members. These are not simple matters, but I think that they will sooner or later have to be faced.
Chomsky added this paragraph at the end of his response to three other comments on the article, in the April 20 issue of NYRB. A reading of the full document reveals that the quoted paragraph has been wisely tacked onto it, and bears no relevance to the points at issue. It was however an excellent forum to retract a dangerous remark that could have cost him dearly. It would be interesting to know whether the repentance was prophylactic, or encouraged by an administrative frown.
The “things” Chomsky has “tried”, admittedly “unsatisfying” were: “harassing congressmen, "lobbying" in Washington, lecturing at town forums, working with student groups in preparation of public protests, demonstrations, teach-ins, etc.” all honorable, safe and ineffective, duly commended by G.W. Bush. They were preempted by Steiner’s question, who knew, that “we cannot act politically, or only very slightly” and asked in clear distinction “what then can we do […] in our professional and private lives?” Chomsky could boast one remarkable measure: “The only respect in which I have personally gone any further is in refusal to pay half of my income tax last year, and again, this year.”
Let us conjecture the outcome of this act of civic courage. An ample profile in The New Yorker tells us that “Chomsky didn’t just speak against the war; for ten years, he refused to pay his taxes”. He is then quoted saying: “It was a big thing to make decisions that could land you in jail.” MacFarquhar then writes, without apparent connection that “at one point, when it looked as though he might spend several years in prison”, his wife decided to finish her PhD, so that she can support the family while Noam will be serving time. Fortunately, “Chomsky did not, in the end, have to leave his family to go to jail.” It is hard to imagine any reason why a distinguished professor at MIT would have to make provisions for his imminent incarceration. Protesters are summarily arrested. A more likely hypothesis is, that after ten years of tax refusal, the IRS had finally had it, and suggested Chomsky to pay up, or else. Ten years’ worth of back taxes, plus penalty and interests are a pretty penny. Did Chomsky prudently save up, in case his protest did not work out? It would have been a lucrative dissent, if it did (and as writing no doubt became).
Chomsky closed his response to Steiner thus: “I meant it quite sincerely in the article, when I referred to the page of history on which we find our proper place, those of us who stood by in silence and apathy as this catastrophe developed and who continue, today, to look away and to restrict our protest.”
During the subsequent 36 years Chomsky produced eighty-odd books and great many uncollected essays; he gave countless talks, in the U.S. and abroad, grew to be a “relentless revolutionary” and last January he retired with due honors as an MIT Institute Professor. But he did not answer George Steiner’s question.
To “speak the truth and expose the lies” while insufficient, is more than nothing, according to Chomsky, I suspect. Once again, we did well to take a closer look at his assumptions. As we have seen in Fateful Triangle, what Chomsky refers to as truth are indeed facts and they remain as impenetrable and disjointed after being spoken as they were before, unless made sense of; the lies he purports to expose are statements that do not correspond to the empirical data. Chomsky’s method is thus no different from waxing indignant over the ravings of a madman. We may call it a lie, that our crazy or malingering fellow declares himself Noam Chomsky, and we can resort to biography to prove that he is not. By exposing it, nothing is gained, though. But what is that we are to attain? This depends on who the person facing our lunatic, or liar, is.
To put it bluntly, the biologist, the physicist, the philosopher are intellectuals, the physician, the engineer and the politician are not. They often trade places, but one should not be fooled by the choreography. The physician treats ailments as best he can (and he pays no mind to Molière poking fun of him). It is the job of the biologist, not of the physician, to understand diseases and to evaluate drugs.
The physicist must not admit, even under pain of death, that the earth is supported by tortoises; but the surveyor is in his right to be Ptolemaic, if this serves him fine to draw a good map. How good a map? – the question asks itself. Good enough to build a house, to draw a bridge, no more. Bridges, houses are not forever, everyone knows. Nor are treatments or policies. They are not forever, and none are perfect. The politician must find a solution for a specific problem, clear and present. The intellectual’s job is to lurk about, ready to pry, to test its soundness. His conclusions will only come in handy next time around.
One could say that the responsibility of the intellectual is to explain the world, not to change it. The understatement is unavoidable and deceiving, so let us watch some of our colleagues at work.
When he critiques the Gotha Program, Marx is an intellectual at his best. His job is to safeguard the clarity of ideas and the rectitude of inferences. He must fight off attempts to recruit adherents to the cause with catchphrases and to muddle concepts for the sake of political gain, however noble the hoped for result may be. Marx does just that, and no one performed better the part. But when he sails off to envision the communist future he ceases altogether to be an intellectual. The passage in question is not only a blunder, but it had historical consequences of unfathomable proportions. It will be the job of a future historian to compute how many innocent bystanders were hit by a stray paragraph from a brief writing, not meant for publication, by a tired philosopher, marginalized émigré political activist. We had better watch what we say or write, and refrain from indulging in reckless prophecies lacking divine imprimatur.
A less gory example is Lynn White and his landmark paper, The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis. White is concerned about how we fouled up our nest as any tenant on this planet is, or should be. His mandate as an intellectual is to question seemingly obvious and popular remedies and he discharges his duties con brio:
The simplest solution to any suspect change is, of course, to stop it, or better yet, to revert to a romanticized past. […] The “wilderness area mentality” invariably advocates deep-freezing an ecology […] as it was before the first Kleenex was dropped. But neither atavism nor prettification will cope with the ecologic crisis of our time.
What shall we do? No one yet knows. Unless we think of fundamentals, our specific measures may produce new backlashes more serious than those they are supposed to remedy.”
He goes on, pointing to those fundamentals:
Science was traditionally aristocratic, speculative, intellectual in intent; technology was lower-class, empirical, action-oriented. The quite sudden fusion of these two, towards the middle of the 19th century, is surely related to the slightly prior and contemporary revolutions which, by reducing social barriers, tended to assert a functional unity of the brain and hand. Our ecologic crisis is the product of an emerging, entirely novel, democratic culture. The issue is whether a democratized world can survive its own implications. Presumably we cannot unless we rethink our axioms.
As a professional historian of technology and a Christian, he deploys the tools of his trade to show how Western production and lifestyle are tied to Judeo-Christian ideology. His conclusions are compelling. White’s analysis does not accomplish to stop the damage done to the environment, but this was not its task in the first place.
Lynn White then oversteps his mandate, and forgets what had prompted his analysis, namely, his doubt that one can halt a process by the exercise of will. His aim is not to pick up all the Kleenexes in Yellowstone, but something perhaps more ambitious, to reform the Christian mentality by enlisting Saint Francis. The latter part of his paper is a failure as much as the first part was a brilliant success, because he tackles two different tasks with the same set of tools, that of the intellectual. He could have capped his pen, ceasing to be an intellectual stricto sensu to take on a different role, of Al Gore. His responsibility would have changed then, and together with it the required method.
The Singer Solution to World Poverty is both more far-reaching in scope as it is more tentative in approach than the writings just discussed. Anyone inclined to read into Singer’s essay more than its author intended, would have to overlook the ironic caveat in the title. (Had he who caused the writing of mine have titled one of his The Chomsky Solution to the Ills of the World, much would have been forgiven.) In the event that the American middle-class, thanks to an essay in a Sunday magazine, would undergo a change of heart, and start spending its disposable income to relieve world poverty, not only the structure of the U.S. economy would undergo more profound changes than the all too serious readers were quick in pointing out in their letters to the Editor. It would presuppose a very different social fabric of the U.S. than the present one. A philosopher of Singer’s thoroughness was no doubt aware of this, his aim in this essay being merely to point out the inconsistency in our prevailing views on right and wrong, and that this is not an academic subtlety, but cuts deeply into the very flesh of our value system guiding us in our everyday lives. Singer too is switching positions, from moral philosopher to activist, and it is not obvious which one he holds more dear. The difference is that he does it with awareness, and controls the acrobatics better.
In commenting on Chomsky’s piece, Steiner asked his question ”in deep personal perplexity” , then returned to what he does best, putter on the brink of erudition. Humbly, he answered his own question. Chomsky however, continued what was useless to begin with, became confusing later, and disintegrates now into incoherent chatter.
Our three fellow intellectuals have shown what intellectuals ought to do: analyze; mercilessly, the arguments of those attempting to provide ideological justification for the status quo, and to an equal extent, of those who say they wish to change it (Marx). The roots of our problems, as Lynn White, of our environmental crisis, and as I hope to have suggested for the Middle East. Singer’s lesson concerned our ethical values, and by extension, our value system in general. If this “makes living a morally decent life extremely arduous, well, then that is the way things are. If we don’t do it, then we should at least know that we are failing to live a morally decent life”.
The provisos of Steiner’s question were missed on Chomsky, but they are important for us to remember. The U.S. Government, whether or not evil in its ways “represents the duly expressed views of a majority of our fellow-citizens”. Dwight Macdonald elaborated on this point earlier, and not only in the quoted article, but Chomsky systematically avoided to consider the issue, from which Steiner’s second stipulation follows: “we feel with anguish that we know better”. Anguish is unavoidable if we acknowledge that a healthy majority of our fellow citizens holds the opposite view. Neither anguish, nor the perception of a conflict between two opposite views are to be found in Chomsky’s writings, only shrill righteousness. Those who think otherwise are either villains or too stupid for him to waste his time. Third, Steiner seeks to “subvert” not the “abhorrent” Vietnam policy, but its coexistence with a “brilliant intellectual and artistic culture”. He also finds these policies to be self-defeating before being abhorrent. This is the only aspect somewhat addressed by Chomsky in the essay, but perhaps we should avoid this time the thicket of difficulties its discussion would entail.
There is no way around the fact, that those of us who find the U.S. policy impetuous and perilous, are in a minority; that even fewer are willing to do, or give up whatever it takes, to bring about a world of their dreams.
We must admit that “we are in a very complex trap”, in a “real fix”, as Chekhov said. As intellectuals, we also know that this is no news, and remember that our predecessors were often tempted by Apocalyptic feelings. We should resist them and recall Chekhov’s words:
Yes, I am intelligent enough at least to refuse to hide my malady from myself and lie to myself and cover up my emptiness with other people’s rags like the ideas of the sixties, etc. I won’t throw myself down the stairwell the way Garshin did, but neither will I flatter myself with thoughts of a better future. I am not responsible for my malady and I am not the one to treat it, because I can only assume that it has goals that are good, yet hidden from us and that there is a motive behind its being sent… There is a method to this madness.
As an intellectual, I must not “tolerate the deceptions that will be used to justify the next defense of freedom”. As an individual, it would be unforgivable for me to look the other way while people are being seduced by these deceptions, Chomsky’s atrocities of the mind. And if I can help the ills that there is something I can do about, I trust that they will affect the ones I seemingly can not.
The “very complex trap” to which Steiner alludes, is that while much lip service is being paid to ethical values, our real life is no different of that for which we so harshly judge our grandfathers; the manufactured consent that Chomsky is so fond of exposing is more like manufactured reality. And if this is so, and Dwight Macdonald bitter assessment was correct, Noam Chomsky’s lifelong meaninglessness is part of the scheme. The same need that generates fictitious media coverage, also generates fictitious concern for safely compartmentalized causes: animal liberation, environment, world poverty. And since this complicated screen is bound have imperfections, there is a dire need for fictitious dissent by proxy, which Noam Chomsky readily provides.
Post scriptum, April 2008. Mara is about to graduate from college without having read this, the twice-mentioned colleague has constructive retirement plans, we got used to the Iraq War, and Norman Chomsky has been interviewed by Ali G. But my main point had to do with the responsibility of intellectuals, not a really hot topic, then or now.
 South End Press, Cambridge, Massachussetts, 1999
 In earlier days I would have written “this curt paragraph”; word count is irresistible.
 This holds true for the population currently residing in Gaza and the West Bank, estimated to be at least 1,201,000 (UNRWA estimate, June 1995). The total estimated Palestinian population according to the same source was 6.6 million in 1995. (http://www.arts.mcgill.ca/MEPP/PRRN/proverview.html, accessed on April 16, 2003). At least part of this population is expected to want to return, or to actually return to Palestine.
 Centuries now successfully replaced by a number of well thought-out international resolutions. Or so they should be, had unreasonable elements not obstruct the endeavor.
 I wonder whether Chomsky’s dislike of George Kennan is because the latter is, in general, "an incredible villain", or only because he is articulate. Consider the following passage: “Where is the right and wrong in the Kashmir dispute? I am glad that it is not my task to seek it. And how about the conflict between the Israeli and the Arabs? The very establishment of the State of Israel, at which the Americans warmly connived, was – whether right or wrong – essentially an act of violence. Do you find this shocking? There is hardly a national state in this world community, including our own, whose ultimate origins did not lie in acts of violence. The source of every governmental claim to legitimacy will be found to rest in some situation created originally by the arbitrary exertion of armed might. There is hardly a constitution that does not trace its origin to some act which was formally one of insurrection or of usurpation. Let us recognize that the creation of higher political forms has normally been a process of erosion from despotism, and not the result of the workings of any social compact.” (Realities of American Foreign Policy, WW Norton, 1954, p. 37) Finding an alternative to violence may take more than conjuring lofty principles.
 Edward Said on Chomsky in the Preface to Fateful Triangle.
 “I am not much of a linguist” G.W. Bush was recorded to have confessed. Lame attempt to dissociate himself from Chomsky!
 Nothing exotic, actually. These disciplines and their methodologies are widely cultivated, although little applied outside of academic circles. Tiresome labor, which will result in a framework of the Middle East problem that cannot be squeezed into 190 words. But as Hilary Putnam put it, “every philosophy that can be said in a nutshell belongs in one.”
 Plausibility must be ascertained before legitimacy can be sought. The fact that the majority of the Jews are secular only compounds the problem. On the other hand, imagine having to deal with a nation of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
 No small miracle, considering that during the same three thousand years, more powerful and numerous peoples have vanished, often without even being displaced from their homelands. A sustained dedication and an international consensus compared to which that achieved in current affairs pales, was applied without success to the seemingly important task of doing away with this recalcitrant people. Much less effort had sufficed to melt all other peoples into the national and ethnical entities of today.
 But then, we had faced similar difficulties before. For the physician of the past it must have been hard to admit, all at once, that the untimely death of a fellow human is not brought about by the wrong mixture of the four humors, that pneumonia and lung cancer are not one and the same thing, and that he knows how to treat neither. Nevertheless, he had to accept all these uncomfortable truths, and only then became medicine empowered to find a cure for pneumonia. Note, that although cancer has not yet been defeated (it may never be), we can now do a great deal in many other ailments that would have appeared unrelated to the pioneers.
 Noam Chomsky. The responsibility of Intellectuals. An Exchange. Reply to Arthur Dorfman. NYRB, 1967
I wonder whether anyone has read all of Chomsky’s indictments, or at least all of them regarding the Middle East. In addition to presenting us with numerous grueling examples, he also presents them many times. His frequent and unapologetic repetitions are more instructive when meant to illustrate the depravity and cynicism of political leaders. A reason for these frequent repetitions may be Chomsky’s fondness to speak the truth and expose the lies –new lies are constantly being generated, but there seem to be few new truths to be spoken; moreover, Chomsky does not trust his readership and audience to remember them; indignation prevents him from considering their explicative value, hence simple repetition will do.
Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing consent : the political economy of the mass media /; with a new introduction by the authors. New York : Pantheon Books, 2002. 476 pages including introduction; in addition to several other books dedicated to this topic, chapters, shorter articles, and the genre Chomsky is the undisputed master of, book length interviews. An especially effective genre, enabling prodigious output of printed stuff.
The quote Chomsky repeats most often issues from a State Department analysis of 1945, describing Saudi Arabia as “…a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest prizes in world history”.
 If this was not the case, this unidentifed group would reject the embellished media coverage.
 George F. Kennan: Realities of American Foreign Policy. WW Norton & Company, Inc. New York, 1966. (The Stafford Little Lecture Series at Princeton University, March 1954), p. 21.
 When I thought to have finished this typescript, I wanted to check Chomsky’s reference to the author whose essays of 1945 inspired The Responsibility of Intellectuals. I opened the volume of the 1947 issues of Politics and read the very first article by Dwight Macdonald, titled We are responsible. It expresses my argument. Let therefore Chomsky’s favorite author speak for me. The incredible villain Kennan and Macdonald make good company.
 Including Moshe Dayan, quoted on page 481: “we have no solution, and you shall continue to live like dogs, and whoever prefers - may leave…”. Dayan is here as cynical as he is compassionate, but Chomsky has no time to waste on ambivalence.
 Which is why I am writing this essay.
 Noam Chomsky. 9-11. An Open Media Book. Seven Stories Press, New York. 2001. The fragment discussed appears on page 81.
 Most recently, Keith Windschuttle: The hypochrisy of Noam Chomsky. The New Criterion, May 2003, pp. 4-12.
 Brevity and expediency in matters of broad scope were to remain his personal marks.
 Eerie birthday present for Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin.
 “Mr. Bush pointed to the meeting on Tuesday in Ur, Iraq, of leaders from across Iraq as evidence of progress in bringing stability to the country. ‘They even had some protesters outside the meeting, a sure sign of freedom’, he said with a smile.” Richard W. Stevenson and Felicity Barringer. Bush Urging U.N. to Lift Sanctions Imposed on Iraq The New York Times, April 17, 2003. Bush’s smile, briefly on display at reuters.feedroom.com spoke volumes of the wight of this sort of freedom.
Larissa MacFarquhar: The Devil’s Accountant. The New Yorker, March 31, 2003. pp. 64-79.
 Lynn White, Jr. The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis. Science, Volume 155, Number 3767, 10 March, 1967, pp. 1203-1207. The brief ensuing exchange is also instructive: see Science, Volume 156, Number 3776, May 12, 1967, pp.737-738.
 Peter Singer. The Singer Solution to World Poverty. The New York Times Sunday Magazine, September 5, 1999. Reprinted in: Writings on an Ethical Life. HarperCollins Publisher, New York, 2000. pp. 118-124.
 I dare not picture an expanded version of the proposed solution for world peace, quoted above.
 Peter Singer, op.cit.
 Someone found my nitpicking tedious. A run of the mill impostor would not merit such painstaking effort, but Noam Chomsky is special. If it is open to debate, how many victims the bombing of the pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum makes Bill Clinton responsible for, so is the number of minds Chomsky has confused. No nitpicking were be too much, if it only succeeded to defuse his pernicious body of writing.
 Anton Chekhov to Alexei Suvorin, November 25, 1892. Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought. Selected Letters and Commentary. Selection, Introduction and Commentary by Simon Karlinsky. Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois, 1997.
 Thus spake Jeremiah, in closing The Responsibility of Intellectuals.
 Retracing Chomsky’s path, I ran across the August 1945 issue of Dwight Macdonald’s Politics. A photograph on the cover shows “General George S. Patton, Jr. talking to a Sunday School class in the Church of Our Savior, San Gabriel, California, on June 10 last. “You are the soldiers and the nurses of the next war” the general told the kids. “There will be another war. There always has been. Sunday school will make you good soldiers.”” The title of the caption reads: “Atrocities of the mind”. It applies to Chomsky’s political thinking and their social impact, and one could say less in their defense, than in General Patton’s.