Comments: /Politics/Chomsky.html : LUSENET : Economic History (and Related Observations) : One Thread

My Allergic Reaction to Noam Chomsky

-- Bradford DeLong (, May 04, 2000


Wow! Lots of piling on that seems (to me at least) to miss my main point.

I think there should be a debate about the Cold War--about whether American policy was destructive (I think in many cases yes, in more cases no) and was driven by an inordinate fear of Communism (I think in general yes).

But you can't have this debate if you pretend that Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong didn't exist--if you pretend that there never was a Great Purge or a Great Leap Forward, and that the really-existing-socialist regimes of Eastern Europe were benevolent stewards responsive to the will of the people.

They weren't. You can't tell the history of the Cold War without talking about the regimes on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

That's objectionable--and that's what I object to.

-- Bradford DeLong (, May 04, 2000.

Dear Mr DeLong

I refer to a page you have posted on your site, detailing your "allergic" reaction to Noam Chomsky and his book "What Uncle Sam Really Wants".

I feel compelled to advise you that your reaction to Chomsky and his methods is very revealing and instructive, although not in the way you obviously intended.

I read "My Allergic Reaction..." with great care, and it seems to me that you have missed the point of Chomsky's main thesis entirely. Furthermore, your reaction to his thesis is entirely predictable, according to models outlined by himself and central to his media analysis.

You are clearly set in your ways. You expect any and all accounts of the Cold War to be a litany of Soviet crimes and America's noble efforts to thwart the global threat. You might perhaps allow that U.S. planners made mistakes, due to naiveti or tactical error. Nevertheless, Soviet tyranny is central to your understanding of U.S. policy throughout the post war period. This is what you mean by the "context": a grim elucidation of the totalitarian regimes in the USSR and the Warsaw pact. Of course, no-one can deny the Stalinists their place in the list of tyrannies. But the "context" which concerns Chomsky and that which you find so disturbing is the grim elucidation of the totalitarian regimes sponsored by the US. (I can see your head shake in incomprehension.)

Had you read beyond page seventeen (I suspect that perhaps you did) you might have grasped the thrust of Chomsky's thesis; that US policy was informed by principles other than "containment" or "rollback", principles that required little or no modification when the Soviet empire collapsed, and that are easily demonstrated today by the actually existing facts.

You missed the point in the Seventies also. Chomsky was merely trying to decipher the tortured logic that rendered the ongoing atrocities in East Timor and elsewhere totally invisible to the pundits festooning themselves with moral outrage over the Khmer Rouge. In my opinion, he succeeded. I suspect your allergy will safely immunise you from any impulse to investigate for yourself the articles and books he, and others, published at the time.

I can see that your are comfortable with your world view, and that you dispensed with Chomsky quite to your satisfaction. Seventeen pages is all that was required! So be it. You are clearly an intelligent man. I'm sure you could furnish me with a myriad of facts to support the proposition that human rights, economic development, and democratisation truly are "the focus of a substantial chunk of U.S. post-war policy." Such facts reside for eternity in the handsome tomes that adorn your library. Such facts are extruded on demand by esteemed policy think tanks. Comforting indeed.

" is a strange-disposed time: But men may construe things after their fashion, Clean from the purposes of the things themselves." You may by now be wondering why I have bothered to harangue you at all. I guess I'm wondering that myself. Professor Chomsky needs no champion and it would be unfair to accuse you personally of complicity in the macabre travesties of "democracy" that the US loves so much in places like Columbia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Indonesia, Burma, Costa Rica, Bolivia, The Philippines etc. And yet...

What do you believe in, Mr DeLong? That "Free Markets" and liberal democracy go hand in hand? That American ideals and values have shaped the world into a better place? That (to quote Kissinger) "America is a beacon of liberty for all mankind"? Do any of these statements need qualification?

I would suggest that the leafy glades of Academe is not the place to test the veracity of these assumptions. Perhaps Haiti would be more suitable? Haiti, nurtured in the soft bosom of American benevolence for almost a century and, inexplicably, still a picture of total destitution. Maybe poor brown people in these hot places simply don't know what's good for them, and will continue to throw themselves in front of American-made bullets until it finally dawns on them that Washington loves them.

I'm confident you will never "lower the level of the discourse" by questioning the eternal verities of US benevolence. In the meantime, for most of the world, America has become truly the dark cloud that covers the earth. This is great for Monsanto, Wal-Mart, and McDonalds, even for S

-- Simon Kisby (, May 04, 2000.

Good analysis.. Chomsky's Attempts to utilize the very media he so often views, as the ruthless entity in foreign policyHe knows his readers well. Its a nice small book- loud with the crys to Do Something among the population. That the well-oiled machine is not so well oiled. A perfect defleecing of America that makes Dateline NBC and the godfather 60 minutes such popular edifices in American culture. As part of a overall in depth analysis of foreign policy and IR theory-Chomsky has his place-as a primer to thinking.Yet, as most academic schools will agree-why read Chomsky when you can go to the sources of realist views of policy. Why Chomsky when you can pick up Poltic samong nations? Why Chomsky when you can read Theories of Intentional Relations.Why Chomsky when you can read exerts out of Hobbes? Why cite Chomsky by economics when you can cite Nye or Gaddis or Paul Kennedy? Why, Because Chomsky attempts to placate to the general public- he waters it down and makes Woody from Cheers an 'expert' on foreign affairs. It is in essence the Idiots Guide to Foreign policy. But his books are not intended to explore to deeply-but rather quickly insight a feeling of passion..Thus why Choamsky goes one step further Why read-when you can watch a video. He knows his audience well. But he is not an orginal. He has repackaged age old concepts-in a glitzy fashion-so much so-that when he mutters about the media One wonders how well his wallet did from last months video rentals of his material.

Contributed by (

-- daniel callahan (, May 04, 2000.

"What I object to is the lack of background, to the lack of context. In telling the history of the Cold War as it really happened--even in ten pages--there has to be a place for Stalin, an inquiry into the character of the regimes that Stalin sponsored, and an assessment of Stalinist plans and expectations. But Chomsky ruthlessly suppresses half the story of the Cold War--the story of the other side of the Iron Curtain."

You must not have read "Deterring Democracy" (this book gives a good treatment of the Cold War's REAL context) nor "Washington and the Third World Connection." These works are a much, much more lengthy treatise than the intro-pop of "What Uncle Sam Really Wants." For that matter, Chomsky despised the Soviet regime but to quite a lesser extent considering that it was the US military that ringed the world with bases (395 US to 78 Soviet) and historically bombed and/or invaded far more many countries than did the Soviets. One reason I suspect for his lesser treatment of the communists is that they lacked the military mobility and direct global influence of the USA (considering its rhetoric about "freedom and democracy" which the Soviets never pretended).

Actually, one basic wisdom of NSC 68 called for a military industrial state. And that's pretty much what we endure today. There are billions upon billions to give the Pentagon so that it may pay $600,000 for a fax machine worth maybe $900 or pay $1,500 for a wrench worth a few dollars or give in to Reaganite deceit such as when that era saw the deliberate distortion of the Soviet "T-80" tank in order to channel more taxpayer funds to General Dynamics (to create the unneeded M-1 Abrams tank). Basically, Chomsky (among other alert peers of his) does a credible job identifying the process by which the Pentagon is a welfare funnel for high-tech industry and defense contractors. There was and is always money for the Pentagon to waste ($92 billion of it identified as waste during the early Reagan years by the Peter Grace Commission in 1982) but no money for schools, public housing, children's meals and the like.

The elites who actually governed policy or had influence turned out rhetoric for our consumption and then did something else quite entirely. The Nazi-collaborator Henry Ford once said there was "plenty of work" to be had for the "common man" though he was not inclined to hard work. A few weeks later, Ford discarded thousands of jobs. What matters most, as Chomsky espouses, it what the elites said to each other behind closed doors, not what they tell us in public.

I do not expect Noam Chomsky to perfectly explain everything about the world, but considering the denials and phobias from centrists and rightists as well as mainstream orthodoxy, he does a very credible job of exposing what is not meant for us to know. Compared to the evasionist, mealy-mouthed pundits like William Buckley, George Will, Thomas Friedman, Charles Krauthammer...........Noam Chomsky does a good job destroying their assumptions and distortions.

item: We might wonder why the Pentagon still commands close to $291 billion dollars a year while there is no Soviet Union. The US institutional need to define "enemies" is the underlying reason. The US has used military violence on Latin American nations and the Philippines long before there was ever a Soviet Union and the US military will still constantly maintain a WW III state well after it passed away; we may note the Chinese, North Koreans and Cubans have never invaded US soil while the converse did happen.

item: We might wonder why US orthodoxy assures us there is no collusion of interests at the highest levels. That Anaconda Copper and ITT actually persuaded and gave money to the Criminal Intelligence Agency to work on ousting Salvador Allende from Chile reveals otherwise.

item: The CIA really did assassinate or drive off democratically-elected leaders such as Mossadegh in Iran, Arbenz in Guatemala, and replace them with far worse, brutally-repressive police states just because these leaders had the temerity to lean towards their own people's concerns and not that of American oil cartels and fruit moguls. US global capitalism works much more efficiently with military fascists running Third World nations rich in resources than with populists and reformists who care about their people more. The Soviet domination theory was alway weak considering no Soviet Spetsnaz nor airborne division bases could ever be identified in Southeast Asia or the Americas.

item: People in Cuba, Russia, Poland, and such lived far better under repressive communism (with basic health care, education, food, guaranteed jobs) than do the people in capitalist outhouses for US economic exploitation like Guatemala, the Philippines, Thailand, El Salvador and the like (countries that use death squads and torturers that made contemporary post-Stalinist countries look gentle). Now that the people of Eastern Europe now are returned to their Third World status (as favored by Western policy craftsmen), they actually now favor the "old system". Long lines for bread under communism were far better than no bread under IMF-structured capitalism. Communist countries

No. The great sins of the communists were not their "dream of world-wide conquest" nor their "repression of human rights" that riled right-wing apologists and US policy makers, but rather they were anchored by a great power that shut out oil men, sugar daddies, investors, bankers and other exploitative ilk. US policy men never cared that Cubans suffered worse under Batista or Nicaraguans under the Somozas for they opened their countries to exploitative capitalist interests. Only when the Castros and Ortegas took power was when the USA pretented to care about "oppressed peoples" (who mostly actually preferred the communists to the right-wing butchers anyway).

Without the Noam Chomskys, the Michael Parentis, or Ed Hermans, ignorant people like me may never get to familiarize ourselves with reality and its many items.

-- worldlyman (, May 04, 2000.

I just wanted to say that perhaps "What Uncle Sam Really Wants" is not the best Chomsky text to base arguments for or against Chomsky's views. The book in question is simply a collection of excerpts from lectures, interviews, and books from Chomsky assembled into a book that was meant to give a taste of his work, not comprehensive understanding.

I usually give this book, along with others in that particular series ("The Common Good" being the most recent), to people whose interest I think would be piqued by it enough to delve further into his body of work. If one has an "allergic reaction" to it after only 17 pages and never picks up another book by Chomsky again because of this initial reaction, then that person is not being true to intellectual honesty. If we disregard everafter ideas that at first taste sour, then we simply become that much more narrow minded.

Bite into "Year 501: The Conquest Continues", "Necessary Illusions", "Manufacturing Consent", and "The Fateful Triangle" before you make up your mind to dismiss him entirely. These books will more than satisfy the need for well documented, scholarly work.

And try to push yourself past the first 17 pages...:)

-- Jim D. (, May 04, 2000.

Much of what I say below has been said by others on the comments page, but I wonder why you have not commented?


I am disappointed in your choice of Chomsky. This is hardly one of Chomsky's "books". It is more appropriately a small collection of essay/remarks. One must read more than a single book of Chomsky's (or yourself or anyone) to be able to interpret what is being said. I would also suggest this to someone who agreed with Chomsky, but has only read this one "book". Finally, not only do you judge Chomsky by one "book" but you quit after 17 pages! This is most distressing coming from a professor--do you believe it unnecessary to complete an author's book, essay, article *before* passing judgement?

Also implied by other commenters, Chomsky should be read with other "progressive" (for lack of a better term) authors in order to have a better understanding of alternative views of history. Or is history as simple as you explain it? Perhaps you have a suggestion of an author who has a different perspective of history than yourself that you feel is not so allergenic?

*All* the Founding Fathers spoke of the Native Indians as "savage beast", "dogs", etc; Lincoln would have accepted slavery if it would have kept the Union together; Malcom X spoke of Hitler as a "great man", but "a sick and demented man."--does this invalidate other things they have said? If I read something I do not like or believe to be wrong, do I stop reading? Or should I finish the sentence, stop and think, and then discuss?

-- Quentin Crain (, May 04, 2000.

It's possible that you are hung up on the Stalin thing because you define the cold war as a (partially reasonable) response by the U.S. to the dangerous moves by Stalin. Chomsky sees the cold war as a species of domestic propaganda necessary to rediscipline a population that had become organized in the 1930s and had to be conditioned to accept a pliant side roll in American politics while the "power elite" consolidated its hold on much of the world left in ruins by the war. These folks wanted to enjoy their new position without being bothered by demands for silly reforms from the lower orders. So, in order to enjoy this vast booty, the upper echelons would need a plausable foe to terrify the public in the latest in a long line of "red scares" aimed at the domestic population. The stick man Stalin became a convenient boogy-man with which to frighten the public. The fact that he was a tyrant ruling over a shattered empire almost erased from the face of the earth and barely able to extend his reach to the domains granted him by Roosevelt and Churchill, without hope of conceivably threatening the mighty U.S. needn't stand in the way of his usefulness as a propaganda device. Meanwhile the domestic agenda of discrediting the New Deal and purging the CIO and the militant industrial unions (labeled communists)could proceed. Stalin just isn't central to the cold war in this sense, just as the Kaiser wasn't central to the Red Scare of 1918.

-- Kevin Lindgren (, May 04, 2000.

Rightwing Americans seem to get their history from the vile Stephen E. Ambrose, who devotes much space in his 'history' of D-Day to the thesis that the British troops that day lacked the 'guts' of the Americans- but oddly, Ambrose manages to omit those pieces of data, eg casualty figures or the opinions of German officers, which would enable his readers to form their own opinions.

Chomsky would no doubt object to being bracketed with a Nixon apologist like Ambrose, but actually his historical technique is much the same.As far as I can see, this is DeLong's key objection to Chomsky. It is not that he holds views on the Cold War, which as DeLong himself says, many intelligent and admirable people also hold. It is rather that he outlines these views in works which purport to be historical but which carefully omit the strongest contrary evidence, the hardest counter-arguments, to the views Chomsky himself holds.So....minimal discussion of the Stalinist purges; no mention of the military imbalance between the Red Army of the 1940s and the purely European armed forces of the period;no discussion of whether the 'Peoples' Republics' of Eastern Europe might somehow have been rather more oppressive than, say, modern day Italy......and so on.

There is a key passage in George Orwell, in his finest essay, 'Looking back on the Spanish War', in which he comments that a British and German historian in the twenties, discussign WW1, would have had some profound differences but would have been prepared to each cite some of the same material, however much they would have disagreed with it. He contrasted this with the collapse in intellectual honesty in the Thirties and Forties, when many intellectuals would refuse to admit the existence of any facts which were inconvenient to their chosen ideological standpoint. The same with Chomsky. You can read the works of a Marxist historian like Edward Thompson and derive a rightwing argument from the evidence he has uncovered: Corelli Barnett did so in his Thatcherite polemic 'The Audit of War'. You can be a leftist, as I am, and find plenty of scholarly merit in the works of right wing historians:if you want to criticise the hysteria of right-wing European politicians before 1914, read Norman Stone's 'Europe Transformed', written by a thoroughly conservative author.

But what Chomsky is doing is not writing history: he is merely a schoolboy debating star citing any fact which may be grist to his mill and hiding all the difficult evidence well away from his impressionable audience.

And one last point: one of DeLong's most virulent critics informs us Stalin was a 'stick figure...a boogy-man (sic)'.Is that what you call a genocidal dictator responsible for the most extensive system of concentration camps in history, in command of the twentieth century's most successful army?

-- Dan Hardie (, May 04, 2000.

I initially came across your name while attempting to look for any, at least semi-intelligent, criticisms of Prof. Noam Chomsky. And as of yet I have found none. All I have been able to find are the usual infantile personal attacks,(He's just an old Marxist, left....blah,blah,blah) which does nothing to point out the weaknesses of his positions and which one can hear daily via Ted Barnes, William Buckley, John Maclaughlin, etc... all thanks to the "liberal" yet corporate-controlled media, or a scattering which have either read none or very little (perhaps 17 pages due to allergic reactions) of his writings. I would like to know if you're aware of anyone who may be able to, AFTER READING AT LEAST 15 OF HIS BOOKS, or listening to AT LEAST 60-100 HOURS OF LECTURES, a minimum I'd like to think for anyone to make an even entry-level assessment, let alone judgment, of his works, offer an argument backed with the amount of data Chomsky usually uses in presenting his arguments. I guess I can safely say that the only person I have seen, even remotely nearing what may be considered an "intellectual", who has made the mistake of challenging Chomsky was William Buckley Jr. in 1969 on 'Firing Line'. How embarassed Buckley must have been later when, or if, he had the nerve to review his own public sacrifice. I'm not sure if you're aware of just how many economists Chomsky actually cites when backing his positions. (And I don't think you can say they're in the least 'left-leaning', though it's probable that you will) I'll leave it there for now. Let me just add that I'm not an economist nor am I a political scientist. I'm just a guy who likes to read about these topics. I'd be more than happy to listen to anything NEW you have to say about Chomsky as well as accepting any recommended readings you might suggest. I'm currently reading the writings of James Tobin and Joseph Stiglitz. Thanks!

-- ?????? (, May 04, 2000.

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