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Thoughts about Chomsky’s thoughts

Published by marco on

The article “Marx’s Old Mole is Right Beneath the Surface” by Noam Chomsky, David Barsamian (Boston Review) is one in a long series of interviews of Noam Chomsky by David Barsamian over the years. I found it kind of interesting as a jumping-off point for some thoughts of my own.

January 6th

Chomsky comes down very strong on characterizing the attack on the Capitol on January 6th as a coup.

“First of all, it was explicitly an attempt at a coup. They were trying to overthrow the elected government: that’s a coup. As for those who participated, one striking feature—look at the photographs—is that few young people were involved. That’s quite unusual; political events and demonstrations are mostly young people. Here it was middle-aged and older people, and they were all enthusiastic Trump supporters. He was egging them on.”

My first thought was “Ok Chomsky”. I feel like Chomsky’s really rabbit-holed on Trump, ascribing tremendous power to him. It was a terribly executed coup—or, in Chomsky’s words, an “attempt at a coup”. He’s taking the declaration of it being a coup at face value—some of the participants claimed it was one and pretty much all of the mainstream media took it on the strength of that claim.

I just don’t feel he’s giving this issue the same attention to detail that he usually does. Like, the old Chomsky would have whipped out the definition of a coup and alternative characterizations and maybe compared it to real coups. He would have wondered where the follow-through was. Instead, he looks at a few hundred addled heptagenarians and just takes their word for it that they were attempting a coup.

Sure, they were armed, but did they use their weapons? What was the plan? It had no chance. It was poorly planned; there was really no plan, not for “after” they’d won, was there? They did nothing. They embarrassed the nation that something like that could happen in the heart of it, but they all shuffled right back out a few hours later. No standoff, no shots fired, very little damage done. They were not resisted and got nowhere. It was childish.

Were there any people in power involved who could have made a coup happen? If yes, how did they fail so badly? The U.S. government was back up and running in a couple of hours. It was a singultus, not a coup.

Their vaguely stated aim had no anchor in reality, as far from a coup as a child’s drawing of a car is from the real thing. The drawing is barely recognizable as a car, but the child is convinced it can get in it and go somewhere. That doesn’t make it a car.

It was about as much of a coup as that band of fools who tried to “take over Venezuela” last year by landing a half-dozen armed idiots in a zodiac on the beach and “storming” Venezuela from there. They were swept up in hours and arrested. Some people trumpeted that that was a coup attempt as well, but are we really at a point that you can put an “elephant” label on a fluffy bunny rabbit and change reality?

“There were elements there from the more violent militias, such as the Proud Boys. It was a pretty violent affair. Five people were killed; it could have been much worse.”

It could have been, but it wasn’t. Four died of heart attacks. One shot fired, by police, which killed a protestor. A police officer on the scene died of a stroke the next day.

Yes, it could have been much worse, but not a single one of the protestors fired a shot from any of their many firearms. They walked in, they walked back out. They stayed between the velvet ropes, for God’s sake. As coups go, pretty unrecognizable. There were many, many demonstrations, protests, and riots last year—heartily lauded as righteous—that were much more violent than this one.

They physically broke down some doors to breach the Capitol, but the majority of the violence was symbolic. The nation’s pride was wounded and it was embarrassed on the world stage. At that point, they had to double down and pretend that it was a lot more dangerous than it was. Just America being a drama queen again. Anything for attention.

The Environment

Chomsky moves on to discuss how the Trump administration drastically increased short-term gain for fossil-fuel companies by trading medium- and long-term climate disaster.

“[Trump’s] major policy programs were to destroy the environment as quickly as possible, maximize the use of fossil fuels, and eliminate the regulatory apparatus that somewhat controls them, with the goal of increasing short-term profit for sectors of industry, fossil fuels, and others. This is the most malicious program in human history. It’s barely discussed; that’s not what Trump is criticized for. But whatever else he did pales into total insignificance compared with this. Another four years of it, and we might have been pretty near the finish line.

I don’t really understand where the evidence for this is. I know Trump and his crew were bad guys, but I really don’t see how they were orders of magnitude worse than anyone else. Trump continued Obama’s expansion, no? Obama and Biden oversaw the fracking boom as well as the biggest expansion of offshore drilling ever. I wasn’t aware that Trump had increased it so drastically as to be another order of magnitude.

And now? Will we do anything useful with the next four years under Biden? I suppose we’ll make some noises in that direction. I’m not convinced that anything will come of it. We haven’t changed any of the underpinnings of the American oligarchy, so how could something fundamentally different happen?

Why would the oligarchs start losing now, when they have control of everything? Because a near-octogenarian who’s always been in their pockets publicly said some vague things? Biden’s done this his whole career: said one thing and done another. He is the quintessential politician, in that regard. He’s the president America deserves, in a different way than Trump, but just as much.

Despite his claims, I don’t think that Biden will slow climate collapse in anything approaching a significant manner. The pandemic did, though. It weakened Exxon to the point that it was delisted from the S&P 500. That’s a good start.

I still see far too many articles about how the coming climate catastrophe is exaggerated, that the doomsaying is based on models and projections and that these might be wrong, that we might find a silver bullet. To be clear, I don’t think that Chomsky believes this. But he’s also sounding a lot more hopeful than the vague mutterings of Biden warrant given how much he’s shown himself to know about how deep of a hole we’re in, climatologically speaking.

The climate—just like the virus—doesn’t care. It doesn’t care. The temperature will rise and all of those who urged complacency and business as usual will probably not even see that they were wrong. They certainly won’t admit it. And they certainly won’t lose power or influence. They arrogance and inability to process information only makes them stronger, more likely to influence more people even more ignorant than they are.

It won’t matter anyway. Even an “I told you so” will ring hollow as we scamper from air-conditioned shelter to air-conditioned shelter, forgetting what life was once like. Nothing will matter anymore, other than getting food and water and finding shelter from the heat. We’ll be fighting our water wars and fighting off waves of climate refugees and perhaps even fighting some new pandemics because, sure, why not? Hell, let’s run out of antibiotics worth a damn too, while we’re at it.

Who needs to be outside when you’ve got the Internet on your phone?


Barsamian asks, “What would be a fair and just immigration policy?”

NC: The first goal of policy should be to eliminate the conditions from which people are fleeing. These people don’t want to be in the United States; they want to be at home. But home is unlivable—they’re forced to flee. We have a large share of responsibility for the fact that it’s unlivable.”

We’ve plundered their lands and supported right-wing coups whenever the profits of our corporations were threatened. Well, they’re not our corporations. Those corporations belong to themselves and they own our politicians, so they bribe the U.S. government to militarily defend their rights to plunder brown people all over the world. And these bozo politicians sell themselves for a pittance. They cause untold present and future destruction and woe for comparatively few dollars of short-term gain.

These companies get want they want dirt-cheap. It’s not even a question of whether they should do it or not. Would you pay a few million bucks to get billions of extra profits? Or would you let morality get in the way? If you tend toward morality, that explains why the world kicks you in the ass—because there isn’t anything this world likes rewarding more than being an unbearable asshole sociopath.

“The problem wasn’t the caravans. It was why it was happening. While the rest of the hemisphere condemned the coup, Obama and his secretary of state Hillary Clinton refused to formally designate it a military coup—because if they did, they would have had to stop military aid to the junta. When you impose a horror chamber, people flee.”

And why is the U.S. supporting a military junta? Because those fucking morons in Honduras elected a socialist government, that’s why. Didn’t they get the memo from the last several dozen foolish countries who tried something like that? Obama was no different than any other president: his job as American president is to fight communism and socialism. That’s what they say anyway. What they mean is that the U.S. uses its military power and political influence and wealth to rob the rest of the world, day after day after day.

Most countries are pirates. But some countries have raised plunder to an art form. Why buy something or build something yourself when you can just steal it? Hell, with enough marketing, you can even secure the moral high ground for yourself at the same time that you’re slaughtering millions in the name of a slightly higher profit margin for your friend’s companies.

It’s always the same story: embargo Cuba because they’re communist and in cahoots with the Soviet and now just because. Split up Korea to keep the Soviets from having it. Tell yourself and the world a fairy tale about how you’re doing it for democracy or defending free markets or some such bullshit when you’re really just looking to plunder their resources. People will go along with it.

They’ll look at a country like South Korea, which still hosts over 30,000 U.S. troops 70 years after their war of “emancipation” was over (never officially ended, I know) and think that this is a flourishing democracy. They are an occupied country. They are not allowed to make their own political decisions—not really.

Or how the U.S. destroyed Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia to teach the world an object lesson about creeping communism. Or their attack on the African Union countries, like Angola or Mozambique? Never heard of those proxy wars against the Soviet and Cuba? Or Iraq, or Libya, or Afghanistan. How many times can people ignore the lesson that’s right in front of their faces? Spoiler alert: at least one more time, every time. The U.S. can count on it.

It can count on the world believing its claim that it’s interested in defending Taiwanese sovereignty when it’s really just interested in stealing all of that chip-manufacturing from China. That’s all there is to it. And the rest of the world goes along with it because they also need chips for every fucking thing they make and they also have no chip-manufacturing capacity and they also don’t feel like paying for anything that they can steal instead.

Especially when it’s so fucking easy to convince entire countries full of people predisposed to believing any racist thing you say about the Chinese or the Russians or the Iranis. We make it so easy for them to be pirates. Because we need the shit they’re stealing too, don’t we?

What would the alternative be? Build up manufacturing capacity in Europe or the U.S.? Are you mad? It’s far too late for that now. No, we’ll have to cruise in with several navies—the U.S. has been there for years and now England’s on its way[1]—and try to steal it instead, probably provoking a hot war in the process.

But we also know that those dastardly Chinese and Russians have a no-first-strike policy for using nuclear weapons. Pussies. The U.S. has never made a promise like that. That’s why it’s spent the last decade building up an arsenal of suitcase nukes to replace the aging ICBMs.

The U.S. knows that the world knows that it’s the only one crazy enough to actually use nukes, so it blusters around, telling the world that it’s doing all of this for the world’s own good and for the good of democracy in the flavor-of-the-week (Taiwan), claiming the moral high ground in the fairy tales it tells itself while it brandishes its nukes at a world that wishes it would just go ahead and die already.

Teaching History

“The 1619 Project in the New York Times was another very interesting step forward. Of course, it’s being lambasted by professional historians: you got this detail wrong, you forgot to say that, and so on. It doesn’t matter. It was a very powerful recognition of what 400 years of vicious treatment has meant for African Americans and what legacy it leaves. That’s a real breakthrough. Couple of years before that, nothing like it. All of these are steps forward.”

I disagree strongly here. As I would have expected an earlier Chomsky to do as well. It was Chomsky who wrote that it’s exactly the little details that led to a completely different and largely fictitious “manufactured consent” arising from journalism. In his famous book of the same name, he argued the case for the wars in Southeast Asia and South America. He argued then that what things looked like on the surface differed wildly from what people ended up interpreting from the news, mostly based on framing.

I’m shocked that Chomsky is OK with the mendacious propaganda campaign of the 1619 project. He used to care about details and point out how details were essential to twisting a story. Now he kind of waves them away as distracting from the main point that the new way of looking at history is the right way.

The 1619 project claims that Benjamin Franklin is and always has been a racist and that’s OK, despite a complete lack of actual evidence, because the end justifies the means. If the evidence supports it, then wonderful. Let’s do that. But if the evidence denies it, then we’ll have to do that as well.

Maybe Chomsky’s just getting tired or maybe I misunderstood what he meant here, but it sounds dismissive of scholars whose hearts would be in the right place—they have no illusions about America’s roots in slavery—but who want to come up with a retelling of history that doesn’t distort the historical record for ideological aims.

I recently took some notes on a very lengthy examination of one of the foundational works of the 1619 project (Gerald Horne’s counter-revolution against 1776 by Fred Schleger (WSWS)) that spent time on the “details” that Chomsky is waving away (counter to earlier Chomsky) and found them to be sobering and quite convincing. I had to look and verify that it was the same Gerald Horne whom I’ve heard express himself so eloquently on several podcasts who’d written a book with such sloppy/mendacious scholarship.

And the 1619 project is not a flash in the pan. There’s a book and a children’s book based on the project. All on the up and up, with Nikole Hannah-Jones’s name emblazoned on the front as a winner of the the Pulitzer Prize from The New York Times Magazine. All is as it should be. These are highly trustworthy sources who’ve never been involved in rewriting history otherwise. Sure, let’s rebase the whole U.S. history curriculum on this.

There is surely a part of this project that is useful, but they acted as if there were two “sides” to it. When scholars in the area piped up with corrections of sometimes gross misreadings or deliberate misinterpretation, they didn’t retract or change anything. Why? Well, some of the errors were so bad that they would have gravely undermined the premise of the project itself. That premise was the reason they did the work in the first place. This is not science where you make a hypothesis and then ditch it if the evidence doesn’t support it. No, this is propaganda, where the tail wags the dog.

You can’t lie about details if you want to be the honest party. You can’t just make shit up to support what you think is the truth. How does that work? How am I to understand the difference between an actual lie and “steps toward” a proper goal, but supported by manipulation and untruth? If it takes untruth and fake facts to get there, then how can it be the truth? Do we just a priori assume that we already know the conclusion and then just cherry-pick evidence and fabricate information to support it? Is that considered OK when the cause is right? Again, I’m 100% sure that’s not what Chomsky means, but he’s expressing himself poorly, at the very least (which is atypical for him).

This is exactly the technique that was used against Trump that only ended up strengthening him, in the end. Because people saw that it was bullshit. There were a million legitimate ways to attack what he was doing, but they attacked him for bullshit reasons, undermining the entire enterprise.

Anyone and everyone thinks it’s OK to just sling mud at Trump as long as it sounds “truthy”. This undermines the effort to report on things that he’s actually done. Hell, Chomsky even complained about it earlier: that Trump’s policies against the environment were,

“[…] the most malicious program in human history. It’s barely discussed; that’s not what Trump is criticized for. ”

Yeah, it’s barely discussed because people are “discussing” untruths and non-issues that are wrong “in the details” but feel right. The jihad against Trump looked, on the surface, like it was a step in the right direction, but it was, in reality, ignoring the actual evil of his policies—because those were approved by all sides.

The 1619 project is the same: it is based on dishonesty, but because it flies the right banner, it’s supported even by the likes of Chomsky. In reality, it neatly skirts changing anything in the present day that would help anyone it purports to represent. It’s just another fairy tale that wastes a lot of energy in the wrong direction, leaving the oligarchy in place, the people powerless, and the workers in chains. It will entrench the race war amongst the poor and oppressed that has always been the weapon of the rich.

That’s why a place like the New York Times loves it. They are supporting their masters, whether they’re aware of what they’re doing or not. Hell, most of the people there are so young and dumb and indoctrinated that they not only don’t realize how well they’re being manipulated into supporting the status quo, they don’t even have the capacity for realizing something like that. They’re blinded by their own self-righteousness and narcissism and instinct for self-preservation.

There is no value to a truth that is manufactured. Maybe Chomsky is just getting tired—hell, I would be—or maybe he’s getting “woke” from living and working in—and never leaving—Cambridge, Massachusetts. Or maybe he just got one wrong. Or maybe I’m missing something.

On Socialism

A final, good word from Chomsky that doesn’t require a rant from me in response.

“Having a job is not something you look forward to. It’s something you may be forced into, but it’s an attack on your dignity as a human being, your rights as a free human being. Having a job means being forced to live under the orders of a master for most of your waking life. Nothing wonderful about that. Skilled workers in the late nineteenth century had a very lively working-class press. They expressed their hope that over time people wouldn’t succumb to this attack on their rights—that they wouldn’t accept as normal the idea that they have to be subject to a master.

That’s the message we should be focused on. That’s the aim we should have. The oligarchy knows it and does everything it can to distract us from the goal of changing this stupid way of running things. They know the people would have the power and they have to keep the people at each other’s throats to keep the sheep from looking up and seeing their true enemies….and turning on them.