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Blogs Coffee House

Noam Chomsky in the Crimea

3 March 2014

12:03 PM

3 March 2014

12:03 PM

Go to London or of any other Western capital and here is what you will not see. You will not see mass demonstrations against the Russian invasion of the Ukraine swaying down the same streets in which the liberal-left marched against the invasion of Iraq. You will not hear prominent left-wing voices emphasizing that Putin is attempting more than an invasion; that the Russian Federation – and what a benign word ‘federation’ is for a revived Tsarist autocracy – is the last of the European empires, and is seeking to expand its borders, as empires always do.

In short, the activist left will not tell its followers that we are witnessing imperialism: not ‘cultural imperialism’ or ‘neo-colonialism’ or any of those other catchall, thought-forbidding phrases, but the real thing.

Ukraine has not committed crimes against humanity, so there is no duty on foreign states to intervene to protect its citizens. It does not menace its neighbours or threaten the international order by seeking to obtain weapons of mass destruction. Moreover anyone with a sense of history knows that Putin is invading a region where the Russian empire in its Stalinist stage persecuted and deported native and Muslim Tartars.

Yet the same people who are the first to shout ‘Islamophobia’ and pledge their allegiance to endangered minorities stay silent. Just as they stay silent about the Syrian atrocities, although they would have been the first to march if the West had intervened after the Assad regime used chemical weapons.

Justifications for these hypocrisies are hard to find. Modern people admit to sexual behaviour their ancestors would have died rather than admit. But do not like to say that they are hypocrites, let alone explain their deceits. A few readers, however, have justified themselves by pointing to an argument by Noam Chomsky, in which he explained the double standards of his own career to his own satisfaction and the satisfaction of his easily pleased followers.

The Chomsky apologia is worth considering because it defends the rejection of universal values by millions of people in the rich world, many of whom will never have heard of Noam Chomsky, but feel as he does.

[Alt-Text]


Chomsky divided his defence of concentrating his criticism on the West and ignoring crimes against humanity by others in two.

First, he said that the United States was the main cause of terror in the world – ‘the larger component of international violence’. I guess he lost many readers as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Before you dismiss them and say that Chomsky and his kind are hysterics, however, you must be careful not to make the same mistake as they do.

Human rights are not a competition. Western crimes are not diminished just because it is easy to prove that the United States or the West does not provide ‘the larger component of international violence’. To say in the Cold War that the West’s support of dictatorships in Latin America or Africa was not as bad as the crimes of Stalin, Mao or the Ethiopian colonels was back-covering relativism then. It put Western crimes into context but was meant to excuse them. America today still supports dictatorships. Today, the fact that Western-backed Saudi Arabia is a better place to live than, say, communist, North Korea is an irrelevance both to Saudis and North Koreans. In one area of coercive policy, meanwhile, America is as oppressive as any dictatorship. Per hundred thousand of population, its prison population is greater than Russia’s and far greater than China’s. That there is so little commentary on (let alone condemnation of) mass incarceration on a staggering scale shows how easily westerners accept an intolerable status quo, just because it has been like that for as long as anyone can remember.

The way to avoid double standard is so clear I feel embarrassed pointing it out. You stick by your values and praise or criticise without fear or favour. Chomsky, however, goes on to endorse double-standards. He presents a casuistic defence of hypocrisy, which many find comfort in. Even if, he says, America were responsible for only two per cent of the violence in the world rather than “the majority of it”, he would still concentrate all his criticism on American crimes because as a US citizen he can do something about American policy, but nothing about the crimes of others:

‘The ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.’

I will pass over the self-serving notion that Chomsky, brave man that he is, has taken the hard road while his opponents have chosen the easy life. It is not courageous to protest in a Western country against the actions of a Western government when Western societies protect your rights to protest, and to speak and to write freely. Instead you should consider the isolationist view conveyed by that glib little phrase “the atrocities of someone else”, which slips from his lips like a sneer.

Although there is something to be said for the notion that protest, like charity, should begin at home, Chomsky’s argument turns into the left-wing equivalent of the right-wing belief that we should not give aid to the poor world. When you rule out concern for the victims of ‘the atrocities someone else’ you prohibit lobbying for Western states to take in the refugees of ‘the atrocities of someone else’. You rule out organising diplomatic pressure, and investigating ‘the atrocities of someone else,’ and prosecutions in the international criminal court, and sanctions. In short, Chomsky rules out the idea of solidarity.

When solidarity goes, all kinds of contortions become possible. The worst elements of the Western left opposed Saddam Hussein, and wept hot tears for his victims. But when Saddam stopped being America’s de facto ally his crimes became “the atrocities of someone else,’ which they dismissed with a shrug. If Western governments were supporting Assad as a bulwark against radical Islam, the left would be marching against Baathist crimes. Equally, if NATO had intervened after Assad had used chemical weapons the left would also be marching – but this time against a ‘western war’.

As events have turned out, the West has done nothing worth mentioning in the Levant, so the mass murder in Syria can be dumped in the file marked ‘the atrocities of someone else,’ and forgotten.

The lack of principle on display shows the breakdown of any coherent far left project. We have seen alliances between western leftists and radical Islamists, even though radical Islam is a vicious movement of the religious right. Now we are seeing left-wing defences of Putin, even though Putin wants to make Russia a bulwark of reactionary politics.

I use the word ‘alliances’ because the indifference to ‘the atrocities of someone else’ Chomsky recommends always slips from neutrality to endorsement . Chomsky himself covered up for the intellectuals who justified the Serb atrocities against Bosnia’s Muslims . This morning we see the British anti-war movement declaring in favour of war when Russian troops march. The Economist has just denounced Britain’s part-time pacifists from the moral high ground – and when the Economist can look down on you from that exalted height anyone from the left should know that they are in trouble . How, it asks, is it 

[The] job of an ‘anti-war’ movement is to attack its own passive government while parroting the arguments of a thuggish, illiberal power threatening its neighbour with invasion.

The only answer is the answer Chomsky provides: the relativist Western left is interested only in the West, and cannot even think about ‘the atrocities of someone else’.

The people of the Ukraine may not have much to be grateful for, but they should be glad that they do not have the support of the relativist left. Its principles are pliable. Its morality is parochial. For believers trapped in its ever-shifting ideology, it is not enough that a stranger is a victim of oppression; they must be the victim of the right sort of oppression. If they are the victims of the West, they have played their part well and are the Western left’s object of compassion. If their country should have the misfortune to be invaded by Russia rather than the United States, their sufferings become as remote and distant as – what else? – the 18th century.

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