Noam Chomsky: An Appreciation – posted 12/6/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor on 12/12/2014
This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 12/12/2014 under the title “Truth to Power”. Jon
For Americans of the 1960’s generation, I can think of no intellectual who has been as important or influential as Noam Chomsky. For nearly 50 years, Chomsky has written voluminously on a wide array of political topics. I think it is fair to say he is either loved or hated.
I wanted to write an appreciation of the man and his political work. Although he may be the most famous intellectual in the world, here in America he is not exactly a household name. Chomsky generally gets the silent treatment from American mass media. His books are ignored and he is rarely given any air time.
We do not banish our writers to Siberia. Even blacklisting which arguably has happened to Chomsky is not necessary. The volume of media creates a new, more benign form of intellectual banishment. Serious works are swallowed and disappeared in a flood of infotainment. Inattention can also lead to obscurity even for someone as globally famous as Chomsky.
In his wonderful essay, “A Writer’s Credo”, Edward Abbey wrote:”…the moral duty of the free writer is to begin his work at home: to be a critic of his own community, his own country, his own government, his own culture.” That is Noam Chomsky. He has challenged and educated many people to see America differently.
Even more impressive, Chomsky has been an unrelenting activist. For years during the Vietnam War, I can personally attest to the fact Chomsky was a fixture at anti-war demonstrations in Boston, since I was often there and watched his speeches. He has sided with oppressed people internationally. That is part of what sets Chomsky apart from the majority of intellectuals who Abbey has described as “passive non-resisters to things as they are”.
I find Chomsky’s political writing and advocacy in opposition to the Vietnam War has been his greatest achievement. Context matters and Chomsky started opposing the war at a time it was overwhelmingly supported. It is hard to recreate that more narrow-minded time. I am old enough to remember it.
There really was no Left in the United States. Political conformity reigned. Whether you were a Democrat or a Republican, the spectrum of acceptable opinion was not broad. The civil rights movement was waking up the country to racism but American foreign policy was not critically discussed. The nation still suffered a Joe McCarthy hangover.
Most commentators, whether liberal or conservative, went along with the Vietnam War. The domino theory held sway.
I mention this history because it reflects on Chomsky’s bravery. He, along with some others, broke from the pack. He vociferously critiqued conventional wisdom about the war at a time that was exceedingly rare. He articulated a coherent and sophisticated anti-war perspective. No one could consider this a career move as far as pecuniary gain was concerned.
For his role, Chomsky will always be a hero to me. I particularly would mention Chomsky’s books, “American Power and the New Mandarins” and also “At War With Asia”, a collection of essays he wrote many of which had previously appeared in the New York Review of Books. These works hit with the force of a lightning bolt. Chomsky demolished apologists, supporters and justifiers of the war.
At the time, proponents of the war started from the premise that the war-makers had good intentions. As the war unravelled in its awfulness, they then evolved to thinking the war was a too costly mistake. The war ended being seen as the least bad of all bad alternatives. It had to be fought to stop a communist takeover.
Chomsky showed the systemic reasons for the war, the economic and political reasons. He placed the war in historical perspective and argued it was a continuation of our history of racism that began in the war against the Native Americans. He was careful to place blame and responsibility on the war’s powerful architects. Early on he recognized that our foot soldiers were also victims of the war.
In his book “At War With Asia”. Chomsky made the case for a complete and unilateral immediate withdrawal of all American troops and materiel from Vietnam. I am not sure if that case was ever argued more passionately and persuasively.
From the perch of 2014, the power of Chomsky’s critique is even clearer. He correctly saw the Vietnam War was essentially a savage American assault on a largely helpless rural population. The volume of violence unleashed by the American war machine was off the charts. Much effort went into mystifying the American public in an effort to sell the war. That effort still continues.
Fortunately, we now have meticulously researched works like Nick Turse’s book “Kill Anything That Moves”, a book that looks back on the Vietnam War. Turse documents the staggering loss of life, especially civilian casualties. Turse argues that the My Lai massacre was no one-of-a-kind event. Rather it reflected war crimes that were widespread and attributable to American command policies.
I do believe history will vindicate Chomsky on Vietnam. While public awareness about that war is woeful, more people recognize the war was both immoral and fundamentally wrong. Maybe someday Americans will honor critical thinkers like Chomsky who did not delude themselves into believing propaganda and lies.
I think in a more rational world there would be a national Noam Chomsky Day to celebrate the importance of critical thinking. Being modest, I expect Chomsky would hate that idea. Still, I do not think it is a crazy idea. I like the idea of honoring our most courageous truth-tellers who have been motivated by a simple love of justice.
In writing this piece, it was not my intent to defend every position Chomsky has taken over the years. He can do that quite well himself, I expect. I do think it is sad that he does not get the recognition here that he receives in the rest of the world. That says something not so good about us.